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1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
All recordings should be done this way from now on!, 7 June 2017

That's an exaggeration, but "The American Epic Sessions" documents a remarkable project undertaken by the "American Epic" series' producer-director-writer, Bernard MacMahon, and modern-day singer, songwriter and guitarist Jack White. It involved reconstructing a recording machine of the late 1920's, getting it in working order and hiring living musicians to record on the old equipment, with all the limitations inherent thereto. That meant not only no overdubs, no multi-tracking, no mixing but also no editing: the musicians would have to perform a single song in real time and keep to the three-minute limit of a 78 rpm master, dictated not only by the size of the master disc they were cutting on but also the length of the canvas ribbon connecting the ground weight to the recording lathe. That's right: though the machine depended on electrical current to run the amplifier and cutting head, they were not depending on electricity to power the turntable because in the 1920's electric service was still too variable to give the constant speed they needed to avoid minor but annoying fluctuations in the pitch of the recording, known today as "wow" and "flutter." So they went back to medieval technology and powered the turntable the way Galileo had with his clocks: a falling weight to provide the energy, a pendulum to regulate its fall, and a clockwork mechanism to propel the turntable via gravity. There was only one way in which I could tell they "cheated," and that was though they still referred to the master discs on which they recorded as "waxes," instead (judging from the visual evidence of the machine in operation in the show) they used lacquer masters instead of wax ones.

By using lacquer masters, pressing on vinyl instead of the noisier shellac-and-clay mix used to make 78's, and playing the vinyl 78's on modern equipment, the producers were able to showcase that old recorder at its very best; compared to modern recordings the sound is a bit congested and doesn't have a full frequency range, but it's also honest, noise-free and quite a bit better than even the best-sounding reissues of actual 1929 recordings. As for the performances themselves, the producers assembled quite an illustrious mix of modern-day artists (as well as one recently deceased one, Merle Haggard). Jack White kicked off the proceedings with a piece called "Matrimonial Indiscretions," lamenting that his current girlfriend is telling him to "keep your hands to yourself" unless he's willing to make his commitment permanent and exclusive; it was the subject of quite a number of blues "in the day" but White's use of multisyllabic words throughout the song marks it as new. Other highlights included Alabama Shakes doing "Killer Diller Blues," originally recorded by the great Memphis Minnie in 1946 (which means Minnie probably recorded her version on considerably more sophisticated equipment than Howard and band recorded theirs!); they tore into it with searing electric guitar riffs and a vocal delivery that did her, Minnie and the song justice. Los Lobos did a Mexican folk song called "El Cascabel" and sounded pretty much like they always do when they reach back to their roots and record Mexican folk material in Spanish.

Elton John came in to record a piece called "Two Drinks of Whiskey" under unusual circumstances; his long-time lyric writer, Bernie Taupin, gave him a sheet with the words printed out and John was obliged to work out a melody on the spot, then record it. (Jack White gave him support on guitar during the final performance.) One real surprise was Steve Martin and Edie Brickell doing a song called "The Cuckoo" which I'd heard before only as one of the bonus tracks added to Janis Joplin's first album with her band Big Brother and the Holding Company when her later label, Columbia, took over the master from Mainstream, the company that made it originally. Blues singer Bettye Lavette did "'Tain't Nobody's Business," not the professionally published one by Clarence Williams that Bessie Smith recorded in 1923 and Billie Holiday, Jimmy Witherspoon and many others later covered, but the version recorded in Memphis, Tennessee in 1928 by Frank Stokes which, though it was done five years later than Bessie's version, probably reflects an older, "folkier" version of the song. The Avett Brothers did a lovely version of the hymn "Just a Closer Walk with Thee" after they overcame the technical glitches that frequently afflicted the old recording processes. Ana Gabriel did a song that was one of the highlights of the American Epic documentary: "Mal Hombre," recorded by Lydia Mendoza for Victor's Bluebird subsidiary in 1928 and sounding for all the world like a Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht lament by a ruined woman tearing into the man who'd ruined her. Rhiannon Giddens' segment was disappointing, but things looked up a bit when Raphael Saddiq came up to do "Stealin', Stealin'," originally cut by the Memphis Jug Band in 1929s. For the finale Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard came out with two songs, a new one called "The Only Man Wilder Than Me" and an old one, "Old-Fashioned Love," which they identified as a Bob Wills cover. That's probably where both of them learned it, but it's actually a Black pop song, written by piano giant James P. Johnson (also the composer of the famous "Charleston") and "Shine" writer Cecil Mack in 1923. The new recordings created for "The American Epic Sessions" created pleasant and appealing music even though few, if any, actually touched greatness.

Christine Conradt didn't write this, and she's sorely missed, 5 June 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I watched the evening's "feature," a Lifetime "premiere" movie called "The Perfect Soulmate" whose credits immediately warned me I was likely to be disappointed because both the producers (Pierre David and Tom Berry) and the directors (Curtis James Crawford and Anthony LeFresne) were frequent collaborators, including on previous "Perfect" projects, of Lifetime's greatest writer, Christine Conradt, but la Conradt herself was not involved this time. Instead the writer was someone named John Serge, and that was doubly disappointing: not only was Conradt not involved but a man was taking her place in scribing a tale about women's miseries and maltreatments both of men and each other. The "Perfect … " template as Conradt and others have been working it since Conradt sold her first Lifetime script, "The Perfect Nanny," in 2000, features an innocent heroine who thinks she's found the "perfect" husband/lover/co-worker/nanny/teacher/servant/in-law/whatever until horrible things happen to her and those around her and finally she realizes that "perfect" really means "psycho." "The Perfect Soulmate" suffers from the lack of the kind of dimension Conradt has brought to at least some of her villainesses; instead the title character, Lee Maxson (Cassandra Scerbo, who like most Lifetime villainesses is of medium height, dark-haired and affects a veneer of perkiness), is a pretty straightforward bad girl whose backstory is that she murdered her abusive father (we're never told whether dad merely beat her or sexually molested her as well), though the authorities ruled it suicide, and thought she'd be able to get out of the generic city where all this takes place to New York City to pursue a career in publishing. Instead she got trapped as the unwilling caregiver of her diabetic mother Marlene (Deborah Grover) and ended up in a lousy life in which she got to do nothing all day except work at a bookstore to make ends meet and go home to take care of mom — who asks her why she doesn't have a boyfriend and Lee fires right back that it's because caring for Marlene leaves her no time or energy to date. Lee takes care of Marlene when she goes into an attack and collapses on the kitchen floor near the refrigerator, and instead of getting mom something to eat Lee — in a scene suggesting that either she or John Serge has seen the 1941 film "The Little Foxes," in which Bette Davis dispatched her invalid husband by refusing to get him his heart medication — instead kicks her, walks out of the house and leaves her to die.

The "perfect soulmate" Lee thinks she's found is Sarah Miles (Alex Paxton-Beesley), unhappy wife of construction-company owner Daniel Miles (Jeff Teravainen) — the more directors Crawford and LeFresne show us of his unclad chest in his opening scene, the more we're sure that like virtually all attractive guys in Lifetime movies, he's going to turn out to be a no-good rotter, and indeed he does. He spends virtually all his evenings away from home on so-called "business meetings" which are, of course, actually trysts with other women. Sarah finally gets up the courage to see a divorce lawyer, a woman who says she'll hire private investigators to tail Daniel and catch him cheating, only Daniel makes the P.I.'s tailing him on the first night and tells Sarah that she's got two choices — either abandon the divorce, or pursue it but at the cost of never seeing her daughter again. Then Daniel leaves for one of his evening trysts — and who should be waiting for him but Lee, who has "met" Sarah online through her poetry blog. It seems that when Sarah met Daniel she was an aspiring poet who had already brought out one book of verse with a local independent publisher, Will Lawrence (Scott Gibson) and convinced a number of people in the literary world that she was the next Sylvia Plath, even though what we hear of her poetry makes it sound like her true métier would be writing for greeting-card companies.

"The Perfect Soulmate" is perhaps a bit too "perfect" in its plotting, its meticulous checking off of each Lifetime cliché, but what it really suffers from is the absence of Christine Conradt as writer. Surely she could have come up with a more complex and dramatically interesting villain — especially given the weird scene about an hour and a half in during which Sarah decides to come to Lee's place and make her dinner, drugging her dessert so she can put Lee under and search her house for the murder weapon. I was beginning to wonder if John Serge was planning a reversal in which Sarah would turn out to be involved with her husband's murder after all; she had hired Lee to do it with the promise of future payment from Daniel's estate and now wanted to eliminate her increasingly inconvenient co-conspirator. That underscores another problem with "The Perfect Soulmate": the leading characters are all pretty much unlikable. About the only person who comes off as sympathetic in this story is Jay (Asha Talbert), Lee's African-American co-worker at the bookstore, who at first thinks Lee and Sarah are Lesbian lovers and makes it clear she wants to see Lee get her ashes hauled, and whether it's by a man or a woman makes no difference to her!

Good, but not what it could have been, 29 May 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Lifetime's "Premiere" for Sunday, May 28, 2017 was something with the risible title "Sinister Minister" (just try to say that without at least chuckling!), though it was filmed under the less silly but also less clear-cut title "Brightside" — spelled on the film's page as one word even though the actual name of the town where it takes place is "Bright Side" — two words. The film begins with what's by far its best sequence, a hot sexual encounter between the titular sinister minister, known only by his initials "D. J." (Ryan Patrick Shanahan) and a woman he's having an adulterous affair with, though he's feeding her the usual malarkey about how God wouldn't be making it possible for them to love each other if God didn't think it was right. Then D. J. receives word that his wife is dead — she was found hanged in their garage and the officials rule her death a suicide — and a typical Lifetime title advances the time frame to "Three Years Later." Three years later D. J. is the minister in a small town called Bright Side, the woman we saw him adulterously having sex with in the prologue is his wife, but he's already set his sights on her replacement — or rather replacements, since he's attracted to both Patricia "Trish" Corbett (Nikki Howard) and her daughter Sienna (Angelica Briones). Trish got pregnant with Sienna when she was just 15, though she must have married Sienna's dad, since he's discussed in the movie and there's no indication he's a step-parent — but the two divorced a year earlier and Sienna started cutting up, misbehaving, doing worse at school and smoking marijuana after her dad and mom broke up.

Determined to keep her away from the big city and the kinds of trouble Sienna could get into there, Trish moves the two of them to Bright Side, where they check out D. J.'s church one Sunday morning. D. J. checks them out as well, much to Sienna's initial displeasure — "Mom, he's looking at my boobs!" she complains — and she makes it clear she's bored by the whole church thing and suspicious of D. J.'s intentions towards her mom as well as her. Mom, however, is enthralled by the church in general and D. J. in particular, and D. J. is so obviously drooling over both Trish and Sienna I half-expected him to announce to them, "I've decided to leave my church and become a Fundamentalist Mormon, so I can marry both of you." D. J. first sets his sights on Trish, offering her a job when her previous employer, the owner of the "Friendly Joe's" restaurant at which she was working as a waitress, fires her for taking calls on her cell phone at work. He's got a wife already, but a sinister car accident out in the boonies around Bright Side takes care of that little problem; he lives, she dies and the authorities call it an "accident." Then Sienna comes home a few days after D. J.'s last wife died in the "accident" and finds him and her mom necking on the couch, leaves in disgust and locks herself in her room to smoke pot. When D. J. tries to talk to her, she rather coldly informs him that his youth slang is about two decades out of date — presumably it was what was current when he was still roadie'ing for that mysterious big rock band — and Sienna is put out enough by her mom's actions with D. J. that when the two actually get married (with the ceremony officiated by the Black assistant minister in his church) Sienna is nowhere to be found, just as she bolted the funeral service for D. J.'s immediately previous wife.

This being a Lifetime movie, most of Bright Side's little police force buys that the death of the previous Mrs. D. J. was an accident, but not female detective Leslie Mann (Rachel G. Whittle); she's already suspicious that the minister has lost two wives in three years, and she gets even more suspicious when Trish's ex, John Wells (Jeff Marchelletta), turns up in Bright Side. Shortly after he arrives, he disappears and ostensibly takes Sienna with him — Trish finds her room empty and she's left behind a computer-printed letter saying she's left Bright Side to live in the city with her dad — but then a couple of hikers in the woods around Bright Side spot a body that turns out to be John's. "Sinister Minister" was supposedly based on a true story, the arrest and conviction of Rev. Arthur Schirmer in 2013 for the murder of his wife Betty Jean in 2008, followed by his plea of no contest to a charge that in 1999 he killed his first wife Jewel — and it was in connection with the real-life Schirmer case that headline writers apparently coined the phrase "the sinister minister." What's weak about "Sinister Minister" the movie is that the writer and José Montesinos, who directed effectively given what he had to work with, really didn't offer much insight into What Made D. J. Run — a passing remark he makes towards the end about having had an overprotective mother is as close as we get to an explanation for why he's the way he is — and it also doesn't help that the casting person, Scotty Mullen, came up with three women, including Rachel G. Whittle as the woman cop, who look pretty interchangeable. "Sinister Minister" is frustrating because with a little more care, especially in the writing department, it could have been considerably better than the common run of Lifetime movies (where was Christine Conradt that week when they needed her?); instead it's just another sporadically interesting film in which Ryan Patrick Shanahan's performance as D. J. is neither subtle and complex enough to be a genuinely convincing seducer/villain nor flaringly psycho enough to make the character scary.

Bad Twin (2016)
Could well have been called "The Bad Seeds", 21 May 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"The Bad Twin" (neither nor Lifetime's own publicity had the definite article in the title, but it's there in the opening title credit) stars Haylie Duff as Dr. Kim Burgess, a psychiatrist who hosts a local radio show in which she gives advice to various callers with "issues." One day during her broadcast she gets a call from a woman who claims she's just a fake and doesn't know anything at all about how people really tick, and screams about how Dr. Burgess can represent herself as an expert on "families" when her own is wildly dysfunctional. Kim gives her call screener a nod and the screener hangs up on the woman in mid-call, but the woman later confronts her outside the studio where she's signing a few copies of her books for fans and turns out to be her sister Cassandra "Cassie" Murphy (Jacy King). Cassie is the mother of 15-year-old twin daughters Olivia and Quinn, both played quite effectively by Grace Van Dien, who turns in an accomplished performance in which she's able to communicate by slight differences in intonation and posture which girl is which. (The effects work that allows both Van Diens to appear on the screen together is also quite good, though there are a number of shots in which one twin has her back to the camera and it's obviously a stand-in or a double.) Cassie has just been put in a mental hospital for her attack on Kim, and rather than let her nieces go into foster care Kim agrees to take them in even though she doesn't know the first thing about parenting. Kim has a boyfriend, Kevin (Scott Bailey), who's cute and so young-looking he seems more like her son than her partner, but he's a pretty milquetoast character. At first the twins carry on a war of intimidation against their aunt, including stealing valuables from her home and burying them in her backyard, but then in a video call with their mom in the institution mom gives them written instructions so the hospital staff can't see what she's communicating with her daughters. She instructs them to find Kim's will — which, when they do, it turns out leaves her entire fortune to a charity instead of the sisters or their mom — and then, when they get a face-to-face visit, she plays Scrabble with them and spells out the words "ADOPTION" and "BE NEEDY." This gives the girls the message that they're supposed to go all out to get Kim to adopt them legally — and Olivia, who's clearly the "alpha" of the two, seeks out not only to get Kim to adopt them but to knock off anyone who might stand in the way of that plan.

"The Bad Twin" is a good movie but it didn't seem as interesting as it would have if it hadn't been preceded on Lifetime's schedule by the superior "Secrets of My Stepdaughter," and I think the main problem with it is there's no real suspense. Unlike in "Secrets of My Stepdaughter" — or the obvious model for this sort of story, "The Bad Seed," which writer Alix Reeves was so blatantly ripping off she might have well have called it "The Bad Seeds" — we know from the beginning the twins, Olivia in particular, are up to no good. And as well as Grace Van Dien acquits herself as the twins, it's all too obvious she's modeling her performance on Patty McCormick's in "The Bad Seed" — which pretty much has set the template for how to play a child psycho. "The Bad Twin" is decently done and offers a few of the frissons director John Murkowski and writer Reeves were clearly after, but it's not that good and it doesn't offer the sinister progression of its models in which we first took the psycho girl(s) at face value and only later realized they were psycho.

1 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Unusually good suspense thriller from Lifetime, 21 May 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Secrets of My Stepdaughter" was originally shot under the title "A Murderer Upstairs," which sounds more chilling but was probably rejected because it gave too much of the plot away. The central characters are mom Cindy Kent (Josie Davis), her husband Greg (Cameron Bancroft) — a trial attorney whose job takes him out of town a lot — and their kids Rachel (Tierra Skovbye) and Addy (Ali Skovbye). The identical last names of the actresses playing the sisters at least shows why they look so credible as blood relatives — they really are! — though in Conor Allyn's screenplay (effectively and unobtrusively directed by Jem Garrard) they're only half-sisters. Addy, the younger of the two girls, is the biological offspring of Greg and Cindy, but Rachel is Greg's daughter by a previous wife named Martha whom we don't meet until towards the end of the film. Martha suddenly abandoned Rachel just three months before the film begins, and Greg and Cindy took her in and tried to break through to her. Rachel got a job at a fashion store alongside her best friend Leslie (Madelyn Grace), only in the opening scene Rachel is discovered tied to a chair in the store and Leslie is next to her, bludgeoned to death with the store's cash register.

Rachel's story is that two robbers, both wearing ski masks and gloves, burst into the store, attacked both her and Leslie, killed Leslie and left Rachel for dead — and she's got strangulation marks on her neck to support the story. The cops uncover a young (cute, blond) man named Aaron Barker (Jared Ager-Foster) who several months earlier was stalking Leslie to the point where Leslie and her mom got out a restraining order against him, and he was in the store that night, but Aaron insists that when the murder occurred he was at home with his mother. That's not much of an alibi, as police lieutenant Brian Smith (a big middle-aged white guy played by Garry Chalk) says; he becomes convinced early on that Aaron killed Leslie and utterly refuses to listen to any other possibilities. (Stop me if you've heard this before.) His associate, detective Pam Cherfils (Lucia Walters) —oddly her last name means "dear son" and, though younger than these characters usually are in Lifetime movies, she's the all-wise African-American who's going to come into the story and save the white characters from their stupidity and naïveté —isn't so sure. She begins to suspect Rachel actually murdered her friend, and as the film goes on and Rachel's behavior gets more squirrelly and bizarre, Cindy does too (as do we). Secrets of My Stepdaughter may not sound like much in synopsis, but it's actually a quite effective suspense thriller, powered by Jem Garrard's effective direction and a nicely honed performance by Tiera Skovbye as Rachel, who in the best tradition of Lifetime's psychos is quite matter-of-fact about her actions and convinces us that she simply doesn't see anything wrong with them.

Deadly Sorority (2017) (TV)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
It's not the sorority that's deadly, 15 May 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

On May 6 Lifetime presented the "premiere" of something called "Deadly Sorority," an intriguing tale of skullduggery and murder centered around the student body and faculty at — no, not Whittendale this time, but Barclay University. It begins with Samantha Blake (Greer Grammar, Kelsey Grammar's daughter) and Kristina Roberts (Emilija Baranac), best friends from high school, attending Barclay together — only their friendship ends almost as soon as they reach Barclay because Kristina has her heart set on pledging the school's most exclusive sorority, Delta Nu, while Samantha shows up at the sorority house but its principal student leader, Jubilee Swan (Chloe Babcock), takes an instant dislike to Samantha because she's not from a rich family and she shows up with a sarcastic attitude that indicates how little Samantha thinks of sorority culture and all the snobbery and bullying that goes along with it. So Samantha suffers the loss of her best friend when Jubilee orders Kristina not to have anything to do with Samantha any more on pain of expulsion from Delta Nu. Kristina starts dating the Big Man on Campus, Paul Riveria (Ross Linton), whose huge, hunky, athletic body is matched only by his male ego and total disinterest in tying himself down to just one girl — only within weeks Kristina has broken up with Paul, telling him she's landed someone better. We only find out later who the "someone better" is.

Meanwhile, writer Rolfe Kanefsky and director Shawn Tolleson actually show us some of the "education" in higher education for a change — all too many college movies make universities look like elaborate summer camps — including a media class taught by Amy Thomas (Moira Kelly), who for some reason we don't at first understand takes a dislike to Kristina almost instantly; and an English class taught by Justin Miller (Steve Bacic), who is actually married to Amy but doesn't let that stop him from seducing and having brief affairs with just about every female student at Barclay who will hold still for him. The film begins with the mysterious disappearance of Tanya Brown (Rachelle Gillis) towards the end of the previous semester; Tanya was a Delta Nu member and also one of Miller's previous student girlfriends. Then Lifetime flashes one of their usual "time" titles — "Four Months Later" (a bit of a surprise since I had assumed that we would flash back rather than forward) — and we see Samantha and Kristina arrive at Barclay together, Kristina get accepted by Delta Nu while Samantha gets blackballed, and then a few weeks later Kristina is mysteriously killed in a car crash. The police at first write it off as an accident but later become convinced that Kristina was murdered — and they're convinced Samantha did it out of jealousy over losing her friendship to Jubilee Swan and the Delta Nu crowd. I've commented on at least two previous movies with "sorority" in their titles — "Sorority House," a 1939 RKO "B" written by Dalton Trumbo and directed by John Farrow (Mia's dad), which didn't include out-and-out murder but had some nice little bits of social comment about the snobbery and cliquishness at the heart of the sorority system; and "Sorority Murder," a previous Lifetime production that if anything painted an even grimmer portrait of the sorority system than this one did — indeed, "Deadly Sorority" is something of a misnomer as a title because the peril Samantha is in has very little to do with the sorority as an institution.

1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Disappointment from Christine Conradt, 24 April 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

On Sunday, April 23 Lifetime ran two "Premiere" movies — unusually given that Saturday is night they usually reserve for these sorts of shows — including one called "The Psycho She Met Online" which, despite its formula title, I had hopes for because Christine Conradt was the screenwriter and her frequent collaborator, Curtis James Crawford, was the director. Alas, this time around Conradt put all too little flesh on the bones of her (and Lifetime's) usual formula. This time the heroine is Karen Hexley (Chelsea Hobbs), an emergency medical technician (EMT) in Philadelphia who makes national headlines when the man whose life she saves after he's involved in a car accident is her husband Andrew (Matthew Lawrence, who for some reason wears his hair long in a "do" that makes him look like Caitlyn Jenner immediately before her final transition), even though she hadn't known when she went out on the call that the victim would indeed be he. The titular psycho she's going to meet online is Miranda Breyers (Charity Shea — inevitably I find myself wondering if she has sisters named Faith and Hope), who answers Karen's ad to rent out her spare room on "Vacay 'n' Stay," a fictitious Web site obviously patterned on Airbnb — yes, it's Lifetime's latest attempt to keep up with the times and plug their familiar formulae into the world of smartphones and apps. Having already given us a rapist who meets his victims by being an Uber driver, now they have a psycho locating her victim via Airbnb (or something very much like it).

Of course, one key element of the formula is that the heroine has to have a best friend who cottons onto the game the psycho is really playing even as she poses as nice 'n' perky to win the heroine's trust — though in this story that role is split between two people. One is Aubrey Hunt (Alexis Maitland), Karen's sorority "sister" from college — with whom she's sustained a strong relationship since she was (at least as far as she knows) an only child and never had a real biological sister — and the other is her other "Vacay 'n' Stay" tenant, a charming old British nature photographer named Evander Swanson (Robert Welch) whom Miranda ambushes and kills because he's getting too nosy about her and her background and she's worried he will find her out. Exactly what there is to find out about her remains a mystery: when we first meet Miranda she's in Portland, Oregon, living with a creepy layabout boyfriend who bears a striking resemblance to the late Kurt Cobain, only without the scraggly beard, and when he tries to keep her from leaving she kicks him in the balls until he falls down, then kicks him again with the stiletto heel of one of her shoes (which, it's later established, she stole from a store and did a three-month jail sentence for shoplifting) and walks out. Her departure for Philadelphia, where the main part of the story takes place, is explained by her seeing a story about Karen Hexley saving her husband's life on the Internet, and at first we (or at least I) think she recognized Andrew as a former boyfriend and wanted revenge on the woman who took him away from her. When Miranda shows up in Philadelphia and "randomly" answers Karen's Vacay 'n' Stay ad, she's as sweet as can be at first but also awesomely possessive about Karen, to the point of bugging her bedroom with a video camera (one wonders if she's interested in eavesdropping while Karen and Andrew are having sex, but as it turns out that's about the last of her concerns) and going into a jealous hissy-fit when she sees how closely bonded Karen and her sorority sister Aubrey are. Miranda — who tells Karen she's working as a personal trainer but is actually a stripper — also sets out to seduce Andrew's brother Tyler (Yani Gellman), apparently as a means of bonding ever closer to Karen's family, since she's already told Karen that she's her half-sister — Karen's mom had an affair with Miranda's dad while still married to Karen's dad.

Christine Conradt's usual trademark as a Lifetime writer is moral ambiguity — she likes to make her villains complex characters so we feel for them even as we root for the rather simple-minded heroines (or, more rarely, heroes) they're attempting to entrap — but on this script she offered us way too little on What Made Miranda Run and mostly ran the Lifetime cliché machine on autopilot. Either that or she was rewritten: this was actually filmed under the title The Guest She Met Online and changed to the more florid and obvious title The Psycho She Met Online, and while no other writer is credited it's possible someone rewrote Conradt's script, not enough to qualify for credit but enough to make the film itself, as well as its title, more blatantly black-and-white in its morality. The acting is O.K. — no one really stands out, and Chelsea Hobbs is such a blah screen presence it's hard to root for her (especially since Conradt makes her a whiz at her job — though one would think that in the final scene, once her own life was no longer in danger she'd make a bee-line to her wounded husband and treat him, and she doesn't — but a dolt in virtually everything else), while Charity Shea delivers a good but by-the-numbers performance as the titular psycho: she's engagingly evil but we've seen this sort of acting in a million other Lifetime movies. And the men are simply along for the ride, though Yani Gellman has some nice moments when he realizes the woman he's just taken home and screwed is his sister-in-law and he's revolted because it feels incestuous even though they're not biological kin.

3 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Lifetime at its best, 24 April 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

On April 23 Lifetime showed a movie they'd been heavily hyping for weeks: "New York Prison Break: The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell," based on a real-life New York prison escape from the Clinton Correctional Facility in June 2015. The escape, in which two convicts with the unfortunate names David Sweat (Joe Anderson) and Richard Matt (Myk Watford) broke out and had help doing so from two prison employees, Joyce Mitchell (Penelope Ann Miller) and Gene Palmer — and were at large for three weeks before Matt was shot down while threatening police with a shotgun and Sweat was taken alive two days later — made national news. Indeed, I can remember thinking when the story broke, "Someday this will be made into a Lifetime movie" — and now here it is. It's also quite well done, written and directed by Stephen Tolkin — who's done reality-based Lifetime movies before, including "The Craigslist Killer" and "Cleveland Abduction," and also has some feature-film credits — and vividly acted by the three principals as well as by Daniel Roebuck as Joyce's husband Lyle, a hapless guy with a penchant for boring her with conversational rambles. He's still turned on by her but she couldn't be less interested in him.

Despite its rather clinical title, "New York Prison Break" works on just about every level, from the intrinsic interest of the story to the highly atmospheric direction Tolkin gives it, to the Hitchcockian game he plays throughout where he shows so much detail of how Sweat and Matt are literally digging their way out of the prison we end up rooting for them to succeed even though Tolkin tried to forestall that sort of moral reversal by beginning his film with a graphic depiction of the crime Sweat and Matt committed. Most prison-escape movies hedge their bets by making the prisoners sympathetic and the jailers the bad guys — either they're Nazis running a concentration camp or the authorities on Devil's Island or some such place lording it over unjustly convicted victims — but in this one the bad guys are bad guys, and yet through Tolkin's writing and direction and the appropriately edgy acting of Anderson and Watford they come off as just the sort of irresistible studs that might turn on a woman like Joyce Mitchell full of unfulfilled longings and desires. Penelope Ann Miller's performance as Joyce is also excellent, particularly when she switches from bored housewife and career woman to acting like a giddy teenager in the first throes of romantic passion when she gets notes from Sweat and contemplates a future with him on the outside — a dream of hers he, of course, has no intention of fulfilling!

"New York Prison Break" is obviously an exploitation film aimed at taking advantage of the publicity surrounding the real event, and yet it's also a finely honed piece of drama — not a great film by any means, but a solidly appealing one that manages to offer quality entertainment and is particularly good at dramatizing the frustration that leads Joyce Mitchell to her fatal infatuation with Sweat and Matt. Where Tolkin scores best is in the clashes between the three main characters — Mitchell the mature woman (it's established that she's already a grandmother) who's acting like a giddy teenager; Matt the confident seducer who's able to get what he wants with his gifts as an artist (he paints quite a few pictures, including ones of Mitchell and other prison staffers which he trades for favors) and a lover; and Sweat the callous but hunky brute who's willing to exploit not only Joyce but Matt as well.In one of the film's most chilling scene, after the two have broken out together, Sweat dumps Matt and tells him that now that his plans have changed and they're fleeing to Canada instead of Mexico, he won't need Matt because the only reason he included Matt was that Matt spoke Spanish and he doesn't have to have a Spanish-speaker on board if he's going to Canada instead. "New York Prison Break" is the sort of quirky delight that keeps us unlikely Lifetime buffs watching this often exploitative (particularly in their "reality" series, less so in their movies) but also often oddly compelling network.

2 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Crowding virtually all Lifetime's clichés into one script, 18 April 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I put on the TV April 15 for the second "Premiere" movie on Lifetime, something originally called "Secrets and Sins" but aired under the much duller title "Secrets of Suburbia." One would think it's really not that novel an observation that people in suburbia often have affairs with people other than the ones they're married to, but Damián Romay, who both wrote and directed this (and therefore, as I like to say about bad movies in which the director and writer were the same person, he has no one to blame but himself), seems to act like he's just discovered it. The page on the film fails to identify one of the four leading actresses (there's only one significant male part) — the young, attractive Black woman who plays Monica, the divorce attorney who as the film begins has just successfully represented Scarlet (Tara Conner) in her divorce from a man named Troy. The film begins at a party where Scarlet is celebrating her divorce and thanking the friends who made it possible and supported her through it at their regular Thursday night get-togethers at which they absent themselves from any menfolk in their lives, get drunk on wine, play card games and gossip, gossip, gossip.

It's also established that the action takes place in a college town and all the principal characters — Monica, Scarlet, Kim (Linn Bjornland), Gloria (Brianna Brown, top-billed) and her husband Phil (Joe Williamson) — attended the college, which is called St. Francis. However, while Scarlet, Gloria and Kim all came from families with money, Monica and Phil were scholarship students and, as George Orwell described his life in a British prep school in his grim essay "Such, Such Were the Days," the students with money looked down heavily on the students without it, bullied them and called them "charity cases." That didn't stop Gloria from agreeing to marry Phil when he proposed after Scarlet dumped him, but she's kept him on a strict allowance and has set up the $10 million she inherited from her father in a tightly controlled trust fund he isn't allowed to touch because it's being saved for their kids (they have a son named Bradley, played by Brody Behr, and a daughter who's sort of in the background, and they pack the kids away to summer camp at the start of the plot so writer Romáy doesn't have to slot them into the later action).

The big thing that happens at Scarlet's divorce party is that her ex, Troy, shows up with a gun, threatens her and her three best friends, then shoots himself in front of her guests — but that is pretty much forgotten through the rest of the film. Instead, we get periodic flashbacks to the party as we learn what else is going on between the four women and Phil. We're led to believe that Phil's and Gloria's marriage is rocky but we don't realize how rocky it is until we see Phil use a hypodermic to extract a toxic fluid from a blue plastic bottle (it's antifreeze, we later learn) and inject it through the cork into the wine bottle Gloria is going to take to the next get-together. My husband Charles came home one-third of the way through "Secrets of Suburbia" and told me when it was over that what he'd seen made no sense — and I assured him that it didn't make any more sense to me even though I'd seen the film all the way through.

It seemed through much of the running time as if Romáy had been attempting to crowd all the Lifetime clichés he could think of into one script, and about the only even remotely creative thing he did was in his casting of Joe Williamson as Phil. Instead of the drop-dead gorgeous type that usually portrays a Lifetime male villain, he cast a stocky guy of medium height and tousled hair, reasonably nice-looking but hardly irresistibly attractive, the sort of actor that generally gets cast on Lifetime as the understanding husband who helps his wife fend off the maleficent attractions of the hot-looking stalker or psycho who's after her for nefarious reasons. Other than that, and some bizarre touches like the quartet of four cellos that entertains at Scarlet's party and the use of the fast theme of Rossini's "The Barber of Seville" overture as running gags — it's established that Gloria herself was an amateur cellist and was good enough to pursue it professionally but gave it up when she married Phil (and there's a nice scene that shows her frantically playing her cello when she returns home after killing Kim and waits for the police to show up and interrogate her), "Secrets of Suburbia" is just a typical Lifetime movie, and not an especially good one at that: other Lifetime writers and directors, notably Christine Conradt, have got considerably more out of these familiar situations than Romay did.

Next Door (2017/I)
2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
O.K. thriller with an unsurprising "surprise" ending, 9 April 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Lifetime's last "premiere" on April 8 was "A Neighbor's Deception," also known as "Next Door," and this time it was a triumph of direction (Devon Downs and Kenny Gage have a co-director credit but, judging from their pages, it's Downs who was probably the lead director — the only other film that credits them both is called "Cynthia" and on that one Downs is listed as director and Gage as producer) over script and overall production. The film begins with a long Gothic-horror scene in which a woman is being stalked in a house by an unseen assailant; she hides under the bed while her would-be killer is circling around the bedroom waiting for her to emerge, and when the assailant leaves the room she makes a break for it — only to be caught at the foot of the stairs, and … Then the film cuts to the good-guy protagonists, young couple Michael (Adam Mayfield) and Chloe (Ashley Bell, top-billed) Anderson, who are just moving into a new house and encounter their next-door neighbors, Gerald (Tom Amandes) and Cheryl (Isabella Hoffman) Dixon. Michael is an incredibly busy attorney, which means he works a lot of late nights — much to his wife's understandable displeasure — and for once he's played by an actor who's stocky and dark-haired, and while not drop-dead gorgeous is quite a bit sexier than the tall, lanky, sandy-haired and rather blank-looking guys who are Lifetime's usual "type" as the good-guy husbands.

Apparently the two have been on the rocks as a couple since they were unable, after years of trying, to have children, and the last failure (we assume she had a miscarriage, though writer Adam Rockoff doesn't specify that) propelled her into a nervous breakdown from which she's only starting to recover — I guess moving out of the city and into the suburbs was supposed to ease her emotionally and help her recover. Gerald turns out to be a retired psychotherapist who mostly does research now but still likes to see patients privately in his home; he offers to treat Chloe but we suspect, based on the way we see him looking at her when both couples have dinner together, that he's really after her sexually. Of course Chloe gets suspicious of him and starts investigating his past, especially after she gets a series of anonymous phone calls while she's out jogging in the country (she jogs at all hours of the day and night and we start to wonder if she has any social life or ever does anything away from home other than jogging). The stranger who keeps calling her turns out to be James Rooker (Ben Whalen), whose wife Caroline (Marissa Labog) was a patient of Gerald's years before until he seduced her and she, too, mysteriously disappeared; James is convinced Gerald killed his wife and wants Chloe to prove it. Gerald had told Chloe he did both his undergraduate and graduate work at Middlesex University, but she finds out he never finished there: he was a graduate student and a teaching assistant when he seduced one of his pupils, who mysteriously disappeared just before the college hearing at which she was supposed to testify against him. "A Neighbor's Deception" isn't much of a movie, and the big "surprise" reveal at the end isn't that much of a surprise (especially with Michael's Psycho reference to clue us in), though Tom Amandes (about the only actor here I've heard of before) delivers a finely honed performance as Gerald — but it's saved by Downs' and Gage's atmospheric neo-Gothic direction and the overall sense of menace they're able to create even with a pretty bland, by-the-numbers thriller script.

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