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The Novack Murders (2015) (TV)
8 out of 12 people found the following review useful:
Another film that wasn't what it could have been, 1 February 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"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) (TV)
6 out of 19 people found the following review useful:
A modern-day race movie, 27 January 2015

"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 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!

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
A real weirdie, but not what it could have been, 18 December 2014

The film was "High School Possession," a real weirdie Lifetime originally aired on October 25 and ballyhooed as usual as a "world premiere," which turned out to be dementedly silly even though the trailer was quite a "cheat". It's basically the story of a typical angst-ridden youth rebel, Chloe Mitchell (played by Jennifer Stone, whose animate-kewpie doll appearance is actually quite good for the role), whose life has gone off the rails since her mom Bonnie (the still quite hot Iona Skye) divorced her dad. Over the course of the movie, written by Hans Wasserburger and directed by Peter Sullivan (both of them with their tongues no doubt firmly jammed against their cheeks at the sheer silliness of it all), Chloe goes through not only the usual signs of movie-teen alienation — she snaps at people, claims they're out to get her, does drugs and alcohol, self-mutilates, cuts class and listens to loud, obnoxious music (only the device on which your standard-issue alienated movie teen plays their loud, obnoxious music has changed, reflecting how youth's preferred music storage media have changed: in the old days it was an LP player, then a CD player, then a personal computer on which she's downloaded songs, and now it's an iPod-like player she's listening to through ear buds — no doubt the next time Lifetime addresses this theme she'll be blasting out music on her smartphone!) — and a few others of her own, including carrying out three-way conversations with herself (the old schtick of having her "good" and "evil" sides audibly arguing with her and each other over what she should do next) and seeing weird little special-effects projections flying past her. Her best friend, Lauren Brady (Janel Parrish), is an investigative reporter for their high-school paper and is also the girlfriend of its editor, Mase Adkins (Chris Brochu). She decides to join a campus Christian group, "The Chosen," ostensibly to research an article about them but really to find out if Chloe is demonically possessed and, with secular psychiatry apparently unable to help her (her mom, played by Kelly Hu with one of the worst hairdos ever draped across the scalp of a basically attractive woman, has taken her to three psychiatrists, none of them have been able to help solve her problems, and the last one freaks both mom and daughter out when he recommends placing her in a mental hospital), maybe what she really needs is an exorcism.

"High School Possession" is basically a drearily ordinary teen-alienation movie with a 15-minute gimmick action climax uneasily grafted on, competently but decently directed and competently but decently acted as well. The roles of Chloe and Lauren have a lot more potential meat on their bones than Jennifer Stone and Janet Parrish find (though at least Jennifer Stone seems to have done her own voice when she was supposed to be demonically possessed — she didn't rely on an old-time actress to dub them for her the way Linda Blair was dubbed by Mercedes McCambridge in "The Exorcist") — though it was nice to see some genuinely attractive young men among the actors playing high-school students, especially Chris Brochu as Mase and Spencer Neville as Brad, as well as the surprisingly sexy William McNamara as Reverend Young. There aren't any "daddy" figures in this movie — unless you count the priest and Chloe's soccer coach (Michael C. Mahon) — because both Chloe's and Lauren's actual fathers aren't in the picture; Chloe's mom is a divorcée and Lauren's is a widow. Overall it's a decently made movie that can't overcome the fundamental silliness of the concept, with competent thriller direction but almost no sense of the Gothic (and what's a possession story without a sense of the Gothic?).

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Masterpiece of the so-called "pre-Code" era!, 30 September 2014

The film was "Call Her Savage," a 1932 Fox Film (three years before the 20th Century merger) production that represented something of a comeback attempt for silent star Clara Bow, whose career had risen in the late 1920's with the Paramount production "It" only to fall with the rise of the talkies, Bow's own mental problems and a lot of sleazy rumors about her. According to her Wikipedia page Bow wasn't interested in a comeback — even though she was getting offers from MGM (who wanted her for "Red-Headed Woman," which instead became Jean Harlow's star-making film), RKO (who wanted her for "What Price Hollywood?", eventually filmed with Constance Bennett) and Howard Hughes as well as Fox. She was willing to make a couple more films because she and her husband, Western star Rex Bell, needed the money to maintain his ranch in Nevada, but she didn't want to be tied down to a long-term contract and she apparently picked Fox because they only wanted her for two movies, this one and "Hoop-La" from 1933. I was interested in "Call Her Savage," which TCM was showing as part of their Friday festivals of so-called "pre-Code" productions, partly as a late Clara Bow vehicle and partly because Vito Russo's book "The Celluloid Closet" said it was the first film in history to depict a Gay bar.

"Call Her Savage" had all the earmarks of an interesting but not particularly good movie — a faded star trying at once to live down a scandalous reputation while playing a "bad girl" role that capitalized on it; a story by a racy novelist, Tiffany Thayer, whose reputation was for writing as close to porn as could be got into mainstream print in 1932; and a studio that already had the reputation of being a place where careers went to die. Well, surprise! "Call Her Savage" turned out to be a masterpiece, one of the glittering gems of the "pre-Code" era alongside "Love Me Tonight," "I'm No Angel," "Safe in Hell," "Sensation Hunters," "Three Wise Girls," "Virtue" and several others, one which used the relative freedom of loose Production Code enforcement to create an artistically and emotionally intense world in which people's sexual drives are depicted as integral parts of their nature and characters fall in and out of love (or in and out of bed) with each other for reasons similar to those that obtain in the real world. John Francis Dillon, a director I've never thought much of (mainly because the most prestigious film I've seen of his before this one is "Sally," the 1929 filmization of Marilyn Miller's hit musical, done as dully and in the same stage-bound manner of most pre-Berkeley musicals), turns in a magnificent job here, using oblique angles and surprisingly noir-ish lighting; aided by the superb cinematographer Lee Garmes, he throws together a dazzling array of different visual "looks" to bring home the point of each scene. I suspect only his early death at age 49 in 1934 prevented Dillon, who'd worked himself up from Mack Sennett comedies to silent features, from remaining a major director well into the talkie era.

The screenplay is by Edwin J. Burke, who managed a tough assignment — bringing a Tiffany Thayer novel to the screen and making it both cinematically coherent and agreeable to the Hays Office, enforcement arm of the Production Code (and anyone who reads the American Film Institute Catalog entry on "Call Her Savage" will quickly be disabused of the notion that the 1930-34 era in American movie was truly "pre-Code"! Fox went through several drafts and several writers before Will Hays' enforcer, Col. Jason S. Joy, finally reluctantly gave his O.K.) — and came up with a script full of both wisecracks and surprisingly emotional situations to show Bow's emotional range as an actress. And Bow's emotional range as an actress is probably the biggest surprise about this movie; there are sequences in which she's the uncontrollable flibbertigibbet she'd been in her silent films, but also scenes, especially when her character is suffering, in which she is almost Garbo-esque in her non-acting, her refusal to "milk it," her somber, serious mien. After seeing a bunch of films both old ("Something for the Boys," "Doll Face") and new (the most recent "Godzilla") that fell far short of their potentials, it was refreshing to watch a movie like "Call Her Savage" where everyone concerned got it right and nailed every aspect of their story they were aiming for: Dillon's assured direction, Garmes' deep cinematography (the "down" parts of the story in which Nasa is suffering were obviously inspired by the "street" films about urban poverty that had been the rage in Germany in the 1920's, and Garmes copied the shadowy chiaroscuro look that in the 1930's would have been called "the German look" and nowadays is known as film noir), Burke's mordant script and, most important, the surprisingly nuanced and multidimensional acting of Bow combine to create one of the finest films of its era.

11 out of 11 people found the following review useful:
Unusually good, relatively nonviolent Lifetime chiller, 4 May 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Last night I watched the "world premiere" of a Lifetime TV-movie called, in the best tradition of Christine Conradt's titling strategies even though she didn't write this one, "A Daughter's Nightmare." It's one of those Lifetime productions (the company is credited as "Sepia Films," even though the movie is actually in color) that takes place in Washington state so the actual shoot can be just across the border in British Columbia, Canada (specifically the town of Kelowna), and it starts at the funeral where the heroine, Dana (Victoria Pratt), is burying her husband after he lost a long battle with lung cancer. The main attendees are Dana's daughter Ariel (a quite good Emily Osment) and the late husband's veterinarian brother Cameron (Richard Karn), though in the background we see a heavy-set man lurking around. When next we see him we learn that his name is Adam Smith (Paul Johansson, physically well cast in that he's not drop-dead gorgeous but he looks good enough to come off as a plausible romantic partner for Dana) and that he has a nice-looking but disturbed young son (stepson, actually, a point screenwriter Shelley Gillen is careful to make) named Ben (played by the quite hot Gregg Sulkin in a performance that avoids the twin traps of playing a psycho — the obvious wall-crawling one of Lawrence Tierney and the ridiculously boyish approach of Anthony Perkins in Psycho), whom Adam has taken to a therapist (Janet Anderson) and who resists being labeled as having a mental illness. Ben and Ariel attend the same college, and since Ariel makes it a point of going home to mom's place every weekend, Adam makes it a point of giving Ariel a ride so he can meet Dana, whom he intends to start dating.

Of course, being the male protagonist of what Maureen Dowd called a "pussies-in-peril" movie, his intentions are considerably darker than that, though Gillen and director/cinematographer Vic Sarin (whose name in the credits led me to joke, "Oh, no! It's directed by a poison gas!") take their time letting us know just what they are. They do make a point that Adam had wanted to become a doctor, only his grades weren't good enough for medical school so he became an ER nurse instead — which gives him a point of commonality with Ariel, who's studying to be a vet like her uncle — and it also gives him an entrée with Dana. He meets Dana at a grief group Ariel told him she was attending — when the sequence started and she introduced herself with a full name, and was told, "First names only, here," I joked, "My name is Dana and I'm an alco- — oops, wrong group." Though there are a few familiar Lifetime-style plot holes in Gillen's script, it's actually a quite chilling suspense tale, made more interesting by the absence of much in the way of outright violence (Adam isn't a thug, and it makes him a considerably more interesting villain), the ambiguity over Adam's motives and the nice reversal that that hot young man the young girl is dating isn't the crazy one in his family — his (step)dad is. It also helps in the verisimilitude department that Victoria Pratt and Emily Osment look enough like each other to be credible as mother and daughter (though, oddly, Paul Johansson and Gregg Sulkin also resemble each other enough that they'd be credible as father and son even though the script tells us they're not biologically related). A Mother's Nightmare is not a great movie, but it's a genuinely chilling thriller, several cuts above the Lifetime norm.

6 out of 13 people found the following review useful:
Surprisingly sympathetic villainess, 9 February 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"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.

Great personal story of cultism and disillusionment, 2 February 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

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.

6 out of 8 people found the following review useful:
I loved it!, 15 September 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

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 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) (TV)
6 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
Make this a series with Jennifer Finnigan's character as the lead!, 18 August 2013

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 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, 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.

2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
I'll say it too …, 29 June 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

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.

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