Change Your Image
Upload An Image
Crop And Save
House of Darkness (2016)
Not a good way to deal with the supernatural
I've generally avoided Lifetime's forays into ghost stories and haunted-house tales, but last night they were offering a "world premiere" of a film called "House of Darkness" and I thought I'd give it a chance. It was directed by Patrick DeLuca from a script by well, I don't know, because I missed the opening credits and IMDb.com's page on it doesn't yet list a writer, so I don't know either who to credit for the occasional felicitous touches in the script or blame for the sillinesses and outrageous devices, including an open-ended ending of a kind that about 20 or 30 years ago would have seemed innovative but now is annoyingly clichéd. It opens with a scene on Hallowe'en in 1957, in which two trick-or-treaters approach a house in a remote rural area of northern California, get invited in, the door closes and suddenly we hear them scream. Then the time moves up to July 2015, and the house is occupied by a young couple from San Francisco, Brian (Gunner Wright) and Kelly (Sara Fletcher). They already have a daughter, Sarah (Mykayla Sohn), but Kelly wants another child only Brian, a carpenter and cabinetmaker, is such a workaholic he's never home long enough for the two to have sex. Brian sells her on the idea of moving to the country by telling her they'll be more alone, there will be fewer urban-related distractions and therefore more time for the "adult nights" they need to complete the sex act and conceive already. Their marriage is already on the rocks they've been seeing a marriage therapist in San Francisco (a heavy-set avuncular African-American woman, reflecting Lifetime's tendency to cast Blacks in the roles of all-wise authority figures trying to deter the white characters from doing the stupid things they have to do for Lifetime movies to have plots at all) but they won't be able to keep seeing her once they move hundreds of miles away, so she tells them to keep video journals by talking to their computers at night and gives Brian a yellow squeeze-ball with a smiley-face on it to squeeze whenever he gets stressed. One of the big issues in their marriage is that Kelly works as a massage therapist, and Brian is ferociously jealous that she'll get hot-looking male customers, lose control completely and thereby have sex with them.
Director DeLuca gives us plenty of shots of Sarah with her eyes glaring at the camera and the other cast members, making us wonder if the unnamed writer(s) planned to pull the gimmick of having the whatsit that's haunting the house take possession of her and have her start knocking off the rest of the cast the scenes with Sarah and her cousin Mason had elements of "The Turn of the Screw" and the later scenes with Sarah alone, casting all those burning glares, call to mind "The Bad Seed" but at the end the gimmick turns out to be a pretty prosaic one. Through much of this movie I was counterpointing it with the old film I'd seen recently, Victor Halperin's "Supernatural" (1933), and thinking that "Supernatural" was an example of how to do a credible ghost story with a contemporary (for the time it was made) setting and "House of Darkness" was an example of how not to that's being a little harsher on "House of Darkness" than it deserves, since at least it's well acted (especially by the leads) and much of it well staged by director DeLuca though I could have done without the long time-lapse montages to get us from night to day where a classic-era director would have just cut from one to the other. I didn't actively dislike this movie but I didn't like it that much either!
Girl in the Box (2016)
Good telling of a compelling, tragic tale
The latest Lifetime "world premiere" movie, "Girl in the Box," was based on the horrific true story of Colleen Stan (Addison Timlin), which I'd read about previously in a true-crime paperback, who in 1977 was hitchhiking her way from Eugene, Oregon (where she lived in a difficult relationship with her mom and stepfather) to Westwood, California. She got as far as Red Bluff, where after turning down a couple of would-be pickups (one from a group of guys who were all too excited at seeing a young woman alone, and one from a couple who weren't going far enough for her to want to bother with), she got in a car with Cameron Hooker (Zane Holtz) and his wife Janice (Zelda Williams). Lifetime showed this and then a documentary about the same case in which Colleen Stan agreed to participate and revisit the scenes of her humiliation and seven-year ordeal: the home in which the Hookers lived and in which she was imprisoned in their basement and routinely suspended from a ceiling beam by her wrists and beaten by Cameron; later the trailer they moved into when Cameron's landlord started to get suspicious and told them that for insurance purposes he was going to have to enter their basement and inspect their furnace; and the truly horrific contraption Cameron built for her after that, since the mobile home didn't have a basement. Instead he built her a box, barely big enough to accommodate her, with an air pump to let in more-or-less fresh air and a bedpan for when she needed to use the bathroom, but not only was there no room to move in the box, it was kept bolted shut.
Judging from the documentary (and my memories of the book) Stephen Kemp told the story relatively factually, though with some odd changes; he has a set of marvelously kinky scenes in which Janice gives birth to a daughter (one of her justifications for going along with Cameron's kidnapping of Colleen was his promise that if she did so, he'd have normal sex with her and thereby give her the child she'd long wanted) while Colleen hears the sounds of her labor from the box under the Hookers' waterbed, but in real life that was the Hookers' second child and their first had already been born and was eight months old and in the car when Colleen was kidnapped. The film also builds up tension over Colleen's demands to be allowed to go home and see her family, which in the movie happens shortly before she's released but in reality happened about four years into her captivity and the fact that she returned to Cameron after the visit became a key point in Cameron's defense when the police finally arrested him.
"Girl in the Box" is one of those stories that's so incredibly compelling even glitches in the telling can't sap it of its interest. The biggest area in which I give Stephen Kemp points is that he's able to make all three principals genuinely interesting characters rather than cardboard heroines or villains; Janice comes off as part-perpetrator, part-victim; Cameron shows off a real personal charm even though we hate him for his actions (one could see why a woman would fall in love with him and go along willingly with at least some of his demands, and the fact that he's a nice person on the surface and a villain only underneath makes him scarier than if he'd been played as a typical looney-tunes movie psycho); and Colleen comes off as a sympathetic victim but also an almost terminally naïve one. One of the cops who worked on the case called Cameron a "pure psychopath," which for once is technically accurate the general definition of a psychopath is someone who regards other people as simply objects he or she can use however he or she likes, without any account for their needs or feelings at all to the point where they can kill people and not feel a shred of guilt or remorse; they were just in the way and s/he got rid of them. The film's casting directors, Stephanie Gorin and Laura Durant, also deserve kudos for finding three people to play the principals who look strikingly like the real ones. "Girl in the Box" is a quite good film, occasionally oppressive in the fantasy sequences Kemp put in to emphasize Colleen's spirituality and its role in getting her through her ordeal (she never seems to have encountered what theologians call the "theodicy" problem i.e., why an all-knowing and all-loving God would have let that horrible thing happen to her in the first place) but mostly well directed, well written and beautifully acted.
It's better than the first, and Eric Roberts again makes it worth seeing
I put on Lifetime for last night's "world premiere" I don't know if Lifetime is going back to airing movies regularly on Mondays or was just doing this as a Labor Day special and then will go back to the sorry "original" shows they put on most of the week (including the "Little Women" exercises in modern high-tech dwarf-tossing) which was "Stalked by My Doctor: The Return," an unexpected sequel to a previous Lifetime movie, Stalked by My Doctor. I'd enjoyed "Stalked by My Doctor" despite the staleness and sometimes risibility of its plot (the writer and director of both films was Doug Campbell), mainly because of the tour de force performance by actor Eric Roberts in the male lead of the doctor, a super-surgeon from L.A. named Albert Beck, who in the first episode fell head over heels for the underage chiclet Sophie Green (Brianna Joy Chomer) whom he determined to marry, and when she said no to him he kidnapped her, tied her to the four posts of an old-fashioned bed in a classic S/M bondage position, and threatened her with dismemberment until she escaped, showed up at her own "memorial" service, and the cops came to the home where the doctor held her and he's fled. A final tag scene located him in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, though when "Stalked by My Doctor: The Return" opens he's relocated his Mexican abode from Cabo San Lucas to Acapulco, where he starts the movie by buying a drink for an American tourist named Rachel. It seems Rachel came down to Acapulco with a girlfriend, only she hooked up with a guy and left her alone for several days. Using the name "Victor Slauson" an alias he's established enough that he's been able to obtain a U.S. passport with that name he shows her smartphone photos of his Mexican mansion and his oceangoing yacht, which he says he's had trouble coming up with a name for until now, when after meeting her he's decided to call the boat "Rachel." Fortunately Rachel is smart enough to see through his B.S., asking if he really thinks he's going to get anywhere with such an obvious and old-fashioned pickup strategy like that, and she walks away from him without even taking the drink he bought for her. (Lucky her.) Then there's a scene showing Victor nè Albert doing what he usually does to get over being rejected he gets in his car and drives really fast but the next day he's on the beach and he meets the underage pigeon whom he's going to stalk for the rest of the movie: Amy Watkins (Claire Blackwelder), whom he meets on a beach in Acapulco when she's nearly drowned and he uses his skills to perform CPR and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on her and therefore save her life. Of course he's instantly smitten with her, but in a plot twist he no doubt picked up from reading Vladimir Nabokov's novel "Lolita" (at the end of the movie he's actually shown reading the book), he decides that the way to Amy Watkins' heart (or, more precisely, a somewhat lower part of her anatomy) is to marry her widowed mom Linda (Hillary Greer), who's been a psychological basket case since Amy's dad was killed falling off a ladder at their home eight years earlier. She's developed an intense fear of heights and hasn't been on a date with a guy since she lost her husband, and Dr. Slausen (as she knows him) sets his cap for her by having her stand on higher and higher surfaces first a footrest, then a chair, then a stepstool and finally what looks like the same ladder her husband had his fatal accident on in what Campbell, who likes to stop his movies dead in their tracks to show us how many classic films he's seen, copies (though with the genders reversed) from the scenes of Barbara Bel Geddes trying to get James Stewart out of his vertigo in "Vertigo." We also get a few abruptly cut in sequences that Campbell tantalizes us with before we realize that they're simply the central character's dreams, though one odd scene that isn't a dream of Dr. Slauson occurs earlier in the show, when he's just arrived in San Diego and he's trying to find Amy. His one clue is a T-shirt with the name "Hamilton" on it, indicating that she goes to Hamilton High School (there is no high school named "Hamilton" in San Diego, but who cares; it's only a movie), so he hangs out there and looks at the students going by until he sees her. Unfortunately, she's with her age-peer boyfriend Garth (Mark Grossman, a nice, appealing piece of young man-meat who shows a good-sized basket, especially in a brief scene in which we get to see him in grey sweat pants), and Garth (correctly) calls the not-so-good doctor a "pervert" and punches him out. Then, after Amy explains that he's the doctor who saved her life in Mexico, Garth apologizes but still doesn't like the not-so-good doc.
For all the weaknesses the far-fetched and almost risible plotting (though at least this one is a bit more believable than the first), the wretchedly cut-in dream sequences and the borrowings from earlier and better movies that seems like Doug Campbell tapping us on the shoulders and saying, "You see how many movies I've seen?" Stalked by My Doctor: The Return is actually quite good; Campbell's script, as silly as it gets sometimes, at least exploits director Campbell's talents for Gothic atmosphere and effective suspense editing, and as in the first film he gets an excellent performance out of Eric Roberts. He's neither too milquetoast nor too floridly villainous; instead he's presented as a character who's professionally competent and could easily inspire confidence in others, even while we're not shorted on the unscrupulous, villainous side that dominates his character.
Unusually good for Lifetime
The Lifetime "world premiere" movie last night was "Backstabbed," which proved to be surprisingly good. It begins on a hilltop overlooking a gorgeous and pristine valley, where a woman is standing and talking on a cell phone to the owner of the land. She's a real estate agent who's promising the old woman that she'll only consider offers for the land that will essentially preserve its rural character. Then another person whom we don't see except as an arm holding a baseball bat comes up behind her and cracks her over the head with it as if swinging for the home-run fences. After that the movie cuts abruptly to a real estate seminar being attended by Shelby Wilson (Brittany Underwood), at which they're featuring guest lecturer Paulette Bolton (Josie Davis, top-billed), who comes across as a better-looking Donald Trump in drag and decides that, unlike the other students in the class, Shelby has the "right stuff" and offers her an internship with her one-woman real estate firm.
Of course, this being a Lifetime movie frequent Christine Conradt collaborator Doug Campbell directed and, while la Conradt didn't write the script for this one, the people who did, Bryan Dick (who's worked on the Whittendale University universe movies for producer Ken Sanders, who's listed as a producer here as well) and Raul Inglis, followed her formula so well they might have called it "The Perfect Realtor" Paulette Bolton isn't the shining real-estate star she's made herself out to be. Shelby Along the film's running time Shelby has to contend with gangsters after Paulette for money, unethical tricks Paulette wants her to pull to bid up the prices of properties, letches who want Paulette to pimp Shelby out to them before they'll invest in Paulette's deals, and a concerted attempt by Paulette to break up Shelby's marriage to her milquetoast husband Grant (Micah Alberti), figuring that with him out of the way that will make Shelby willing to whore herself to make deals. Oh, and is it really that much of a surprise that it turns out Paulette herself committed the murder we saw in the opening scene? "Backstabbed" is luridly melodramatic and some of the plot is awfully far-fetched, but within the limits of the overall Lifetime approach it's also a quite good thriller, with two well-etched and genuinely complex female leads. Though she sometimes comes a bit too close to "The Devil Wears Prada," Josie Davis is excellent as the psycho realtor, managing to thread the needle so she seems crazy but not so crazy that anyone seeing her would immediately summon the boys in the white coats, and the writers and director Campbell ably portray her psychopathology as just the American desire for "success" taken to evil and utterly unscrupulous extremes. And though she doesn't get as much support from the writers as Davis does, Brittany Underwood does a superb job limning Shelby's ethical conflicts and showing the financial temptation that leads her to follow Paulette until being pimped out to a not unattractive but still middle-aged guy becomes her final straw. "Backstabbed" isn't great cinema by any means, but it's the sort of reliable entertainment we come to Lifetime for, and done considerably better than the norm for this channel.
Deadly Daughters (2016)
One of Lifetime's best -- but the trailer gives the big twist away!
The Lifetime "world premiere" on Saturday, June 11 was "Killing Mommy," a.k.a. "Deadly Daughters," a surprisingly engaging thriller with a big twist about two-thirds of the way through, "presented" by Pierre David and Tom Berry (names that have previously been associated with a lot of Lifetime thrillers that have run the gamut from suspenseful to silly) and directed by Curtis James Crawford and Anthony Dufresne from a script by Trent Haaga. It's slow going at first mainly because there isn't anyone in it we actually like: it's about a mother and her two grown (25-year-old) twin daughters, though the twins don't look that much alike, at least partly because they're deliberately costumed differently to reflect their lifestyles. Mom is Eve Hanson (Claire Rankin), who's about to marry Winston Berlin (Rob Stewart), the guy she's been dating for four years since her previous husband Harlan (Jeff Teravainen) died in a bizarre accident: he was restoring a 1965 Mustang as a birthday present for one of his daughters when the jack that was holding the car up gave way and the car fell on him and crushed him.
The daughters are Juliana (Yvonne Zima), who wears her hair long and colors it auburn (mom is blonde) and is a wanna-be fashionista who's tearing through the family fortune left behind by her self-made father while ostensibly studying to be a fashion designer; and Deborah usually called "Deb" and also played by Yvonne Zima who has black hair that makes her look like she's auditioning to play Patti Smith in a biopic and generally wears a black leather jacket, a black T-shirt hailing the joys of LSD, and black jeans. She's also got a ring piercing on her lower lip. (Cinthia Burke and her associates in the makeup department deserve kudos for making the two Zimas look similar when they're supposed to and dramatically different when they're supposed to.) None of these women come off as sympathetic characters mom seems like a controlling bitch, Juliana a spoiled one and Deb someone who's going out of her way to rebel by drinking, picking up sleazy guys at a dive bar, and giving herself points for being "clean" because at least she isn't doing "hard drugs" anymore. Mom's boyfriend Winston doesn't come off any better; he's obviously a gold-digger who's just after Eve for her money, which he's already lost $100,000 of in a bad stock deal, which hasn't stopped him from pestering her for control over the rest of the fortune. Given the title, the main suspense early on is over which sister is going to kill mom, or try to, for her money Juliana, Deb or both of them in combination.
Though hamstrung by a plot that's all too predictable especially since what writer Haaga obviously intended as a big surprise was given away in the trailer Killing Mommy is great sleazy fun, not only because the actor playing Deke is the most genuinely handsome male in the film despite the stringy blond hair and scraggly beard he's outfitted with to make him look skuzzier (and the actor playing Winston is also genuinely handsome!) but because the characterizations are well drawn and genuinely complex even though our suspicion, based on hearing him talked about through the movie, that the late husband would be the only sympathetic character in the dramatis personae is borne out the one time we see him in a flashback.
Magnificent must-see movie
I just saw "ToY" Saturday, June 4 at FilmOut, the Queer film festival in San Diego, and it was magnificent, wiping my cinematic palate clean from the aftertaste of the opening movie the night before, "Kiss Me, Kill Me." The odd typography of the title was the deliberate choice of its director and co-writer, Patrick Chapman, who was an artist before he got into filmmaking and so far has made only two feature-length movies. In a question-and-answer session right after the showing that featured Chapman, co-writer Alissa Kokkins and one of the film's two female leads, Briana Evigan, Chapman said that the basic idea of the title was to say it was a story about two people who "toy" with each other. Maybe that was the original concept, but as he, his writers and his cast developed the project it became something much deeper and richer than that. The promo line for the film is, "Love does not heal the broken," and indeed that could serve as a summary of the film since the central characters are two people, both deeply wounded by the stressors of life, who come together, briefly make each other more or less happy, but then are pulled apart by their own unhealable traumas. The film begins with Chloe Davis (Briana Evigan), a 20-something artist from a well-to-do family; her mom died some time ago and her father Steven (Daniel Hugh Kelly) is fighting a losing battle with her to get her into rehab did I mention she has a drug problem? She's a movie artist, isn't she? and to pressure her to sign away her rights to the money from the family foundation set up in memory of her dead mother. When she isn't escaping rehab and snorting coke, Chloe is working on an elaborate project documenting the lives of women who make their livings with their bodies mostly prostitutes but also models as well (and one of the women she hires as a model gets angry when she realizes Chloe doesn't think modeling and prostitution are all that different). Chloe photographs these people both for still pictures and for video; the stills are often nude or semi-nude and almost clinical in their apparent detachment, but the movies are filmed through smoky or scratched glass that blurs many of the features of the people in them as Chloe asks them about their lives. Most of the prostitutes she interviews are women, but at least one is a male-presenting man and one is obviously Transgender. The central intrigue of the film begins when Chloe meets hard-edged forty-something Kat Fuller (Kerry Norton), who comes into the interview so hostile she won't even give Chloe her name ("Why do you want to know?" she says), but eventually she opens up while keeping her hard edge. Chloe and Kat drift into a physical relationship and seem on some level to be right for each other despite the fact that the principal thing they have in common is sheer neediness.
ToY is a marvelous movie, powerfully directed and written, vividly acted by the principals as well as a fairly large supporting cast (many of whom we only see in the interview scenes Chloe shoots with them); Briana Evigan, who aside from her short hair bears a striking resemblance to Janis Joplin (and judging from her work here she would be an excellent choice to play Janis if she either has a singing voice or they can find her a good double), really inhabits the part of Chloe, and she and Kerry Norton play brilliantly off each other: the airheaded artist whose well-off family has (mostly) bought her way out of trouble, and the over-the-hill sex worker twice her age who's had to survive as honestly as possible in a hard and mean world. I found myself wondering if there had been a real-life model to Chloe's character there was: the real-life 1970's photographer Francesca Woodman and both Chapman and Evigan said they studied Woodman's life as a way of making Chloe a more realistic character. I also couldn't help but draw a parallel between ToY and the recent film Room, which I had also just seen and found incredibly deep and moving (and, by coincidence, they're not only both stories about female survival under incredible odds, both star actresses who go by the name "Brie"!). The stories aren't all that similar but the intensity and compassion with which they are told are, and so is their common theme of how women are exploited sexually by men and the desperation, survival skills and self-hatred they develop to deal with the way they're used.
You May Now Kill the Bride (2016)
O.K. but mediocre and all too typical of Lifetime
The title "You May Now Kill the Bride" makes me think that the film's writer, Blaine Chiappetta (is that a man, woman or chia pet?), was probably hanging out with some friends and they were brainstorming what would be the silliest parody of a Lifetime movie title they could come up with. I had assumed it would be the hoary old Lifetime trope of a woman who seems to have met her dream man, only to discover once they actually tie the knot that he's a serial killer who's made it his habit to woo, marry and then off women. Instead it was the hoary old Lifetime trope of the nice young couple who seem to be altar-bound without any untoward complications when untoward complications arrive big-time in the person of a stranger who on the surface is just nice, perky and trying to be helpful, but who holds a deep, dark secret underneath. The man is Mark Pressler (Rocky Myers), not exactly a drop-dead gorgeous sex god but considerably more attractive than the tall, lanky, sandy-haired types who usually get cast as Lifetime leading men. His fiancée is Nicole Cavanaugh (Ashley Newbrough), a blonde who's way too trusting of the perky little woman who comes in, establishes herself as their house guest, takes over more and more of the job of planning their wedding, and ultimately reveals herself to have a hidden agenda. She is Audrey (Tammin Sursok), who's introduced as Mark's stepsister even though it's not clear whether they're any biological relation to each other at all apparently she arrived with Mark's stepmother and was the offspring of a previous relationship of hers before she married Mark's dad. Apparently this film was shot under the working title "The Stepsister," though writer Chiappetta and director Kohl Glass (he sounds like something you'd buy at Home Depot) followed the formula of Christine Conradt's "Perfect" movies they might as well have called it "The Perfect Sister-in-Law." Trusting couple taken in by crazy bitch? Check. Heroine's best friend who checks out the background of the seemingly "perfect" crazy and gets assaulted for her pains? Check again.
"You May Now Kill the Bride" is an O.K. Lifetime movie; despite its risible title (which I found at least two other entries for on IMDb.com, though one is an episode of a TV series), it's decently made. The direction is acceptable and sometimes more than that Glass has a flair for suspense editing even though little in Chiappetta's script requires it the writing is O.K. given the strictness of the formula, and the ending actually has a certain degree of power even though the beginning that supposedly foreshadowed it makes no sense. The first scene shows Audrey having bound a woman in a wedding dress and slowly torturing her, though since it isn't followed by a title reading either x amount of time earlier or y amount of time later, we don't know whether that's a tag scene showing what Audrey is going to do to Nicole at the end, a prologue indicating that she did this to one of Mark's earlier girlfriends, or just a fantasy on her part. "You May Now Kill the Bride" is just mediocre; not good enough to transcend its origins in the Lifetime/MarVista Entertainment formula (as Conradt's directorial debut, "The Bride He Bought Online," did) and not silly enough to be watchable as camp, either, though it came close a few times. It's also decently acted, though Tammin Sursok's performance would probably have impressed me more if I hadn't seen altogether too many of these superficially nice but really twitchy psychopath roles in previous Lifetime movies
Kiss Me, Kill Me (2015)
Disappointing Queer-themed thriller
Last night's opening film for the San Diego FilmOut LGBT Film Festival was a film gris my somewhat snotty term for a movie that attempts to be film noir but falls short called "Kiss Me, Kill Me," a great title that deserves a much better movie than this. It was directed by Casper Andreas, an attractive, youngish man who's so far had seven films shown at the festival in San Diego (more than any other director) and will have an eighth, Flatbush Luck, as the festival's closer on Sunday. "Kiss Me, Kill Me" is not only a great film title but a potentially great film idea: Gay "reality TV" producer Stephen (Gale Harold) is hosting a party at which a lot of people, virtually all of them Queer in one way or another (one annoying thing about this movie is that, like a lot of the 1930's "race films" which seemed to take place in a hermetically sealed world in which all the people were African-American, this is one of those movies in which everyone seems to be Gay or Lesbian), are drinking too much, drugging too much and cruising each other without regard for their nominal marital or relational statuses. Stephen announces that his ex-lover Craigery (Matthew Ludwinski), an aspiring actor (but then this is a movie set in modern-day Los Angeles and West Hollywood, so just about everyone in the dramatis personae is an aspiring actor) is going to be the host of his next show. This pisses off Stephen's current partner, Dusty (Van Hansis, top-billed apparently he's on the current cast of the soap opera "As the World Turns" and he has enough of a following his name was applauded when it came up on the opening credits, but I'd never heard of him or anyone else in Andreas's cast), not only because Dusty was hoping for the job himself but also because he immediately suspects that it means Stephen and Craigery aren't as "ex" as advertised. Stephen offers Dusty an engagement ring and Dusty takes it, but then their argument flares up again and Stephen ends up leaving his own party and heading to the Pink Dot, which is a sort of part-convenience store and part-all-night deli that offers 24-hour deliveries (this sounds like the sort of business that might flourish in West Hollywood). Dusty follows him there and confronts him, and just then a man in a clown mask whom we've previously seen lurking outside the place bursts in holding a gun and demanding that the clerk (the actor is an appealing Latino who oddly isn't listed on IMDb.com's cast list for the film, though a lot of people with more peripheral parts aren't listed) hand over all the store's money. Gunshots are heard but it's unclear what happens after that a deliberate ambiguity on the part of Andreas and his screenwriter, David Michael Barrett because Dusty blacks out and whatever went on is locked in his subconscious. When he comes to he's in Cedars of Lebanon Hospital recovering from a minor gunshot wound in his right arm; but he's shocked to learn that Stephen was killed (as was the clerk, who in this whole universe of spoiled rich brats and wanna-bes is one of the few characters in this movie I could actually imagine liking if I met their real-life equivalent, so it's a real pity that he exits so soon) and he's suspected of using the robbery as a cover to shoot his man because he was doing him wrong (you remember).
It's a shame that "Kiss Me, Kill Me" isn't stronger as a piece of storytelling because the technical aspects of the film are superb. Cinematographer Rainer Lipski goes a bit too far towards the overall brown tonalities that seem to be the default setting for just about all movie photography today, but he gets some striking compositions and hits the right balance between making his film look atmospheric and falling into too many gimmick shots. This is especially praiseworthy because virtually all the film was shot on real locations the budget was about $260,000, half of it was raised through Kickstarter and it's not the sort of film where they could afford studio time or built sets and Lipski insisted on shooting virtually all the night scenes at night instead of going for day-for-night effects which would have been easier and cheaper but less effective visually. And composer Jonathan Dinerstein wisely avoided trying to come up with the full orchestral sound of a classic 1940's-era noir score; instead he went for a jazz sound that effectively used the Miles Davis-ish trumpet of Ben Burget as a lead instrument. (Given that this is a Gay movie c. 2015 I should probably be even more grateful to Dinerstein for not drowning the score in boring and overloud "electronic dance music"!) The technical aspects of "Kiss Me, Kill Me" were done so well it's all the more infuriating that the script, direction and at least some of the actors let the side down. One of my favorite lines for a film that falls as far short of its potential is "a bad movie with a good movie in it struggling to get out," and had Andreas and Barrett cooled it on the reversals, gone more for plot continuity and dramatic sense, given their leads more depth and avoided the occasional camp asides that took the edge of what was clearly supposed to be a serious thriller, they could have had a much better film and a chance of breaking out of the Gay film-festival ghetto and achieving a mainstream release.
Surprisingly good Kafka-esque thriller
"Marriage of Lies," last Saturday's Lifetime "world premiere," turned out to be a surprisingly good suspense thriller, helped by the fact that it contains no openly violent scenes until the very end, one that puts its heroine into a Kafka-like peril that's frightening but plausible and keeps us identifying with her throughout. The heroine is Rachel Wilson (April Bowlby), who seems to be living a nice life in a small town with her husband Tye (Brody Hutzler) and their daughter Ella (Faith Graham). Then Tye suddenly disappears one morning and Rachel spends the next two days rather desultorily looking for him, including stopping by the high school where he's a teacher and athletic coach and trying to get information out of the students in his classes, including one young woman who definitely has a crush on him. Two days after he disappears, Rachel reports him to the police as missing, and the investigation spirals out of control as the police Detective Roper (Zachary Garred) in particular (he's the partner of Gus, played by Corin Nemec, an older, more Clint Eastwood-esque cop who's more skeptical of the obvious conclusion that Rachel did something to her husband) decide that Tye must have met with foul play and Rachel must be the guilty party. The people in this small town who, like those in virtually all movie small towns, make it a point of getting into each other's business and gossiping about each other decide Rachel is guilty even before the cops do, though one has to wonder throughout this whole movie, "Guilty of what?" (Apparently "Presumed Guilty" was the film's working title, and it might have been a better one for it.) There's no trace of what happened to Tye, no hint that he's either living or dead certainly there's no body, and no one has any idea what might have happened to the body if Rachel (or someone else) murdered him. Rachel finds herself beset by her next-door neighbor from hell, town gossip DeeDee (Marcia Ann Burrs), as well as a freelance videographer who (like most of these "types" in movies) wears a Walter Winchell-style hat and seems to be modeling himself after the great gossip columnist of old, and whose schtick is to ambush Rachel and shove his camera in her face, demanding that she tell "the truth" about whatever is going on when she has no idea of what is going on. Rachel's only confidante is her long-time friend Jessica (Virginia Williams), who works at the local bar and who eagerly joins in the search for Tye, alive or dead. Once she realizes that the cops suspect her of either knocking off her husband or arranging her disappearance, Rachel hires an attorney, Dylan (Ryan Bittle, an unusually hunky actor for a Lifetime good guy), with whom she has an off-balance relationship because she's not convinced he thinks she's innocent and he tells her that doesn't matter; his job is to represent her interests whether she did anything criminal or not. "Marriage of Lies" isn't a great movie it doesn't even reach the quality level of some of the Lifetime social-comment movies like "For the Life of a Child" or "Restless Virgins" but on its own terms it's well made and well worth watching. Brian D. Young's script is coherent, relatively plausible and refreshingly unmelodramatic. Danny J. Boyle's direction is finely honed and refreshingly gimmick-free, and the acting, particularly April Bowlby's all-important performance as Rachel, is solidly professional and genuinely moving throughout.
Dull so-called "thriller"
On Sunday, May 15, after "I Didn't Kill My Sister" a good movie with a dumb title Lifetime ran "Trust No One," also an Odyssey Media production and also a film that began with a different name ("Corrupt"), but a far inferior production, a dull story about the attempts of Pittsburgh district attorney Frank Murphy (hot African-American actor Andrew Moodie) to get the goods on a Mafia-connected money launderer named Vargano (Douglas Kidd). It's not actually specified by screenwriters Curtis James Crawford (who also directed) and Cathy and Wendy McKernan that he's part of the Mafia, but he has an Italian-sounding name, he's played by a swarthy actor who looks like Leonardo Di Caprio's big brother, and he's escaped prosecution by means of a large, muscular, mostly bald sandy-haired hit man, Taylor (Layton Morrison), who manages through almost supernatural powers to identify and knock off any potential witness against Vargano before the D.A. can actually get that person to court to testify against him. The leading character of the movie is actually Kate MacIntyre (Nicole de Boer), a forensic accountant who when she isn't teaching at a local college (there's a scene of her giving a lecture to her students in which she explains mark-to-market accounting) works under the D.A. trying to get the goods on Vargano by looking through all his accounting records to see if she can find anomalies that would indicate he's using his "legitimate" businesses as a front for money laundering. Vargano, meanwhile, is behaving more like a James Bond villain than a classical movie Mafioso; virtually the only times we actually see him are when he's lounging on his yacht with two anonymous bimbos in tow to service some of his other needs. (The fact that he seems to be able to do this year-round in Pittsburgh, of all places, itself requires a certain suspension of disbelief.)
Murphy manages to get Kate to leave her job as a professor and join his task force even though the last time she worked for him she nearly got killed and the witness she had developed was killed. At first they work out of Murphy's own offices until a Black hit man (Dennis LaFond), a confederate of Taylor's, disguises himself as a janitor and sets a bomb in the storage room holding the files Murphy and his staff have assembled about Vargano and his questionable and, they hope, provably illegal business activities. Kate, the obviously intended victim, is uninjured because she went out to replenish the group's coffee supply as they worked into the night, but her assistant Vivian (Allison Brennan) is injured and ends up in the hospital. So Murphy orders his crew to leave the office and move into a safe house where they can be protected from Vargano's thugs, and one of the three police officers assigned to Kate's detail, Carl (Jon MacLaren), bails out on the ground that he's too concerned about his family to want to work a job that might get himself killed. The two cops that end up with Kate in the safe house are hunky young Detective Daniel Leaton (Scott Gibson) and older, stouter, taller and more avuncular, but still attractive, Greg Nealand (Peter Michael Dillon), who worms out of Kate the information that she's single and then declares his love for her. As the film progresses (in the manner of a disease), Murphy becomes aware that there is a "mole" in his operation who's leaking Vargano and his organization all the information about his investigation, including the identities of his potential witnesses (so Vargano can have Taylor and his Black confederate kill them) and the businesses he owns that Murphy and Kate are looking at and we become aware that one of the two cops hiding out with Kate in the safe house, where they've set a burglar alarm so she literally can't leave, is the mole.
"Trust No One" isn't a bad movie; it's just dull, and while Vargano and Taylor are convincing figures of menace (enough to make me wish the writers had emphasized the bad guys more and the comparatively boring good guys less), overall it's simply not a very interesting movie. It's full of sporadic twitches of action that seem to be there merely because it occurred to Crawford and the McKernans that white-collar crime is boring to watch, and the efforts to catch white-collar criminals are also boring there are way too many scenes of Kate and others poring over manila folders containing spreadsheets and other financial documents, and like all movies about white-collar crime this requires endless explanations about just what all those numbers mean and why what the bad guys are doing is illegal. There are a few atmospheric shots of Pittsburgh by night in fact Crawford likes to take his cameras overhead and give views of the city's night lights just as a relief from the boredom of his and the McKernans' plot and an overall sense that Trust No One might actually have been a better movie with more compelling direction and writing, and more of a focus on the villains than the heroes.