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3/10
":Formula Features" all too appropriate a studio name
24 June 2019
The most telling aspect of last night's Lifetime "premiere" movie, "I Almost Married a Serial Killer," was that the production company that made it for Lifetime distribution had the spookily appropriate name "Formula Features," since the film hewed incredibly closely to the usual Lifetime formulae. At first I had thought the film would be about a woman who was courted by a serial killer and fell in love with him and agreed to marry him with no idea of what he did outside their relationship - I was even thinking of jokes like, "I thought everything was wonderful until I saw what he put on our wedding registry and it was all guns, knives and poisons" - but instead of that set of Lifetime clichés it turned out to be the set of Lifetime clichés in which the heroine, Camille (Krista Allen), barely escapes the clutches of the serial killer in the opening act (for someone who's supposed to be experienced in murder he's certainly bad enough at it the woman has an unbelievably easy time escaping!). She testifies against him at his trial and the judge announces she's going to impose eight consecutive life sentences on him, once for each victim the police have been able to identify and charge him with, with no possibility of parole. Then she receives word from the FBI that he's escaped from prison - like the real escapees from New York's Clinton Correctional Facility Lifetime previously dramatized in the film "New York Prison Break," he did so by sexually seducing a female guard and getting her to help him - and until he's re-arrested the FBI is going to insist that Camille and her daughter go into witness protection and relocate from their original home in Philadelphia to a decidedly fictional community in California.

In the meantime the serial killer Camille almost married, Rafael DuPont (Jeremy John Wells), visits a plastic surgeon and has his appearance so dramatically reconstructed that when he emerges he's played by an entirely different actor - and I found myself so resentful of the "cheat" Formula Features' casting people pulled by casting two separate actors as DuPont pre-op and post-op it was hard for me to enjoy the rest of the movie after absorbing such a preposterous gimmick. What they needed was an actor with the extraordinary talent of Lon Chaney, Sr. in being able to concoct so many makeups for himself he could appear as two dramatically different-looking people in the same movie - but Chaney, Sr. died in 1930 and there haven't been that many actors who've developed that skill since. Another option would have been what writer-director Delmer Daves did in the 1947 Bogart-Bacall vehicle "Dark Passage": show all the scenes of DuPont pre-op from his point of view so we never got to see, except in an insert close-up of a still photo, what he looked like. There isn't anything really wrong with "I Almost Married a Serial Killer" but there isn't much right about it, either. As I said as I started this review, the most remarkable thing about it is that the producers called their studio "Formula Features," thereby making it obvious and proclaiming to the world that they were just going to exploit Lifetime's usual formulae, not try to do anything creative with them!
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5/10
Another Lifetime mess: good direction, problematic script
19 June 2019
The very title of "Deadly Assistant" is a "spoiler" that carefully undoes the suspense writers Blaine Chiappetta and Nicole Schubert carefully created in their script. It was ironic to be watching this right after a "60 Minutes" segment on "Game of Thrones," since Chiappetta and Schubert carefully depicted the struggle for control of a little yoga studio out in a California suburb with all the High Seriousness of the battle for the Iron Throne in the big eight-year series. The film opens in the middle of a yoga class being led by Lauren Birch (Kate Gilligan) - we're told the studio is being closed pending renovation and a big reopening but Lauren is still leading classes there, and she's recorded a number of motivational tapes (or downloads, or streams, or whatever) which her students use both in her studio and wherever else they may be. The plot kicks off when Lauren's sister Amanda (Jeannette Sousa) arrives in town after a big job in New York just finished and attempts to re-integrate into Lauren's family, which consists of her husband Ian (Philip Boyd), their son Charlie (Keenan Tracey) and the son's girlfriend Maya (Breanne Hill), who also works as Lauren's assistant at the local salon. Three years before Amanda visited Lauren and caught Ian kissing another woman; she reported to her sister that he was having an affair, Lauren didn't believe it, and the conflict between the two sisters over the issue never got resolved. Charlie, Ian's and Lauren's son, had a severe alcohol and drug problem, though he got into a "program" and has been clean and sober for three years. Chiappetta and Schubert throw us a big curveball in the opening since we expect from the usual iconography of Lifetime movies - and the title - that Lauren is going to be the central character and the plot will be about the deadliness of her assistant Maya, and how she stumbles onto the truth about her and what will happen when she does. Instead Lauren is killed in the second act when the studio has its grand reopening, she stammers through her big opening speech, then collapses and dies of a mysterious "heart attack."

One problem with this movie is that once Lauren exits, there goes the one character we actually like - though in an inspired touch the characters continue to listen to Lauren's motivational recordings, thereby giving her a weird ghost-like quality through which she continues to "haunt" the action even in a non-supernatural story. The writers clearly intended to maintain the suspense over which of the remaining principals in the family was trying to do in all the others, but the title Lifetime slapped on their work (replacing an almost-as-revealing working title, "The Protégé") makes it all too obvious to us. The film was directed by Daphne Zuniga, who has 79 credits on imdb as an actress (the one I can remember seeing is Mel Brooks' "Star Wars" spoof "Spaceballs," in which she played the Carrie Fisher role) but only two as director: this film and a documentary on the TED talks. Like a lot of other Lifetime directors, especially the female ones, Zuniga turns in an excellent job but is hamstrung by a script that is sometimes genuinely powerful (I particularly like the way Lauren's recorded voice haunts the other characters via her motivational tapes even after she's gone) and sometimes just silly.
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Madam Secretary: The Common Defense (2019)
Season 5, Episode 17
9/10
This Hollywood Fiction Is Better than Washington Fact
25 March 2019
The author of "Hollywood Fiction" above gets much of this show wrong. The correct terms for immigrants are not "legal" and "illegal," but "documented" and "undocumented." This reviewer is almost certainly a political supporter of the current U.S. President, whereas one of the reasons I watch "Madam Secretary" regularly (and, when it was still on, watched "Designated Survivor" as well) is to be reminded of a time when the U.S. was still being run by people with intelligence and common decency, whom I could respect even when I disagreed with them politically, who were obviously working for the common good and not just to aggrandize their own egos and enrich themselves and their friends. I'm a bit more sympathetic to opponents of vaccination than the writers of this show, but the main point about the immigration crisis as it's depicted here is that our leader's willful denial of climate change and reversal of his predecessor's inadequate but right-minded policies to deal with it is just speeding the total destruction of earth's environment as suitable for human life. The immigrants in this program are literally fleeing their homelands because rising sea levels are rendering their homelands non-existent. What, in the mind of the "Hollywood Fiction" author, are they supposed to do -- just drown?
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The Wrong Teacher (2018 TV Movie)
8/10
McElroy shines in better-than-average Lifetime thriller
5 March 2019
The latest Lifetime movie, "The Wrong Teacher," was billed as a "premiere" even though the date for it on imdb.com was 2018, not 2019, and it already had a review on imdb.com. Directed by David DeCoteau, working from a script by Robert Dean Klein, "The Wrong Teacher" might more accurately have been called "The Wrong Student," since it begins with the titular teacher visiting the City Lights Bookstore (which I found jarring since the only real bookstore I know of with that name is the legendary one in San Francisco, and the extreme long-shots DeCoteau gave to establish his city's geography were of an unending flatness, obviously not the terrain of famously hilly San Francisco!). Her name is Charlotte Hanson (Jessica Morris), and she's currently on the outs with her independent photographer boyfriend Scott (Jason-Shane Scott). She teaches English literature to seniors at Roosevelt High School and in her spare time she's trying to write a romance novel about a young widow in love with an older man, but she's blocked on it. So she goes to City Lights one night and there meets Chris Williams (Philip McElroy, a darkly handsome young man whose great looks and skillful acting should make him a future star).

She's impressed that someone that young is actually hanging around a physical bookstore instead of either not reading at all or ordering everything from amazon.com. She's also turned on by him, and they go out drinking at a bar called Blue (which seems to be the only bar in the entire city, though that's obviously because it was the only set the production company, Hybrid LLC, could afford to build) and then end up having sex in - of all places - her classroom at the high school. Then school starts the next day and Charlotte is shocked that her previous night's kinky paramour is also one of her new students. He assures her that he's just turned 18 and therefore at least she isn't in danger of being prosecuted for statutory rape, but even though she didn't know she was getting it on with one of her students when it happened, she's still liable to be fired and disgraced. Chris demands more from her, and when she makes it clear that she isn't going to have sex with him again he seeks his revenge.

"The Wrong Teacher" is actually a better-than-average Lifetime movie, skillfully directed by DeCoteau from an unusually complex and ambiguous script by Klein, and driven by an utterly haunting performance from Philip McElroy. Lifetime has churned out enough of these superficially charming psychos by now that the template for them has become well worn, but rarely has one caught both the surface appeal and the deep-seated psychopathology of one of these characters as well as McElroy has. I can only hope there are enough casting directors at major studios who watch Lifetime movies so they can give this quite compelling (as well as very hot-looking!) actor the opportunities he deserves.
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6/10
Buster Keaton?
17 February 2019
I hadn't expected much from this movie, but as I watched I realized I was seeing some very funny and cunningly designed slapstick sequences. Then I remembered that the silent comedy genius Buster Keaton was still alive when this film was made and had been working at American International, occasionally playing character parts and working out gag sequences for other actors. Though Keaton isn't in "Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine," the big comedy sequences, especially the final chase scene through San Francisco, have Keaton's touch all over them. I strongly suspect Keaton was deeply involved with this film's big physical comedy scenes, and it's his work that made this movie far more entertaining than the norm for AIP product in 1965 -- as does the presence of a real superstar, Diana Ross, lavishing her voice on that silly theme song as lead singer of the Supremes.
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Best Friend's Betrayal (2019 TV Movie)
6/10
I liked it, especially Vanessa Walsh
28 January 2019
I'm not sure what the other reviewers were thinking when they criticized the acting in this film. It's true that Jaime M. Callica basically let his ultra-hot bod do his acting for him, but the two women at the center of the story -- Mary Grill as Jess and especially Vanessa Walsh as her "bestie" Katie -- are excellent. The tale is familiar Lifetime stuff but it's done better than average this time, and the switcheroo in the middle is a legitimate surprise even though imdb.com's synopsis is itself a "spoiler" that gives it away.
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Love You To Death (2019 TV Movie)
9/10
Great film -- and not just by Lifetime standards
28 January 2019
"Love You to Death" is a profound and powerfully disturbing movie about the relationship between Esmé Stoller (Emily Skaggs) and her mom Camile (Marcia Gay Harden, a far more illustrious "name" than we're used to seeing on Lifetime). Esmé is in a wheelchair, she's bald (there's a fascinatingly cruel scene in which we see her mom shaving her head) and she's been told she has had bone cancer since she was 4. Writer Anthony Jaswinski and director Alex Kalymnikos tell this story from both mother's and daughter's point of view, and the result is a powerful, chilling fable about just how far certain people will go to feel "loved" and "needed." I'm rating it nine stars instead of 10 because the switch from Camile's to Esmé's point of view about a third of the way through is awkward and writer Jaswinski could have had an even deeper and more profound movie if he'd used the "Citizen Kane" narratage technique and told the Stollers' story from the various points of view of the people involved in it. But that doesn't take away from what he, Kalymnikos and their stars (not only Harden and Skaggs but Brennan Keel Cook as Esmé's boyfriend Scott) achieved with a film that's excellent by any standards and especially amazing coming from Lifetime.
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9/10
Everything "The Bodyguard" should have been and wasn't
27 November 2018
GREAT movie, one of the best recent films I've seen lately. The basic situation is reminiscent of "The Bodyguard" -- superstar singer falls in love with the man who saved her life (in this story it's from a suicide attempt) and the two have a touch-and-go relationship -- but this time it's done far, far better. The characters of Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Kaz (Nate Parker) have real depth and complexity, and writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood brilliantly counterpoints their troubled relationships with their parents. Both Noni's mom (MInnie Driver) and Kaz's dad (Danny Glover) have ambitions for them that aren't always what the kids themselves want, and their struggles to get out of their parental cocoons add weight and drama to what otherwise could have been either a sappy romantic comedy or a depressing melodrama. The ending is a bit weak, but otherwise "Beyond the Lights" is a wonderful film, sensitively written, effectively directed and vividly acted. (Who were the idiots at Sony who dumped this project because they didn't think Gugu Mbatha-Raw could play the female lead? She's wonderful!) I caught up with this on a clearance-sale DVD and didn't have much hope for it, but I'm glad I saw it and heartily recommend it to anyone.
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4/10
An insult to the memory of its namesake
25 November 2018
In 1933 Monogram made an excellent film called "Sensation Hunters," a beautiful proto-noir with vivid direction by Charles Vidor (13 years before he made a major noir, "Gilda") and an overall atmosphere of gloom and doom. Too bad that when they made this one all they took from the original "Sensation Hunters" was the title (and even that got changed later for TV purposes to "Club Paradise"). It's one of those movies in which the put-upon heroine has to choose between two boyfriends, one of whom is annoying and the other is crooked. The script reads like the writers were on cliché autopilot and the actors (except for Isabel Jewell, who's marvelous in her usual characterization as a hard-bitten woman of the world) seem to be saying their lines, hitting their marks and little more. The ending doesn't work because nothing we've seen in the film before seems to be leading up to it. The reviewers who compared it to Edgar G. Ulmer's magnificent "Detour" seem totally off base to me. The guy who said it would have been a good vehicle for Tyrone Power is closer in that Power actually DID make this movie -- or something close to it -- in 1939: it was called "Rose of Washington Square" and that wasn't a great movie but it was at least entertaining and had some depth missing from this one.
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6/10
Nice but annoyingly sexist
3 November 2018
"I've Always Loved You" is a 1946 production from Republic Pictures directed by Frank Borzage from a script by Borden Chase based on a magazine short story he'd published called "Concerto." In the mid-1940's, as World War II was winding down, Republic Pictures founder Herbert Yates, like other Hollywood studio owners, saw that the "B" picture was doomed and decided to push his company towards major-studio status by hiring important talents behind the camera: Ben Hecht for "Voice in the Wind," Orson Welles for "Macbeth" and Borzage under a long-term contract under which Yates would bankroll him in the sorts of big, romantic tear-jerkers that had been Borzage's specialty since his star-making film, "Seventh Heaven," in 1927. Oddly, the first film Borzage wanted to make at Republic was a John Wayne Western called Dakota, but Yates took that film away from both Borzage and Wayne and sent the script down his "B" Western assembly line instead. Borzage ended up hooking up with writer Chase, who came up with a tale that served as an excuse for Borzage to put a lot of great classical music on the screen, most of it played by pianist Artur Rubinstein (there are a few bits by a Republic studio orchestra as well), as well as staging the familiar romantic situations for which Borzage was famous.

The film opens in Philadelphia, where the world-renowned pianist and conductor Leopold Goronoff (Philip Dorn, an actor Warner Bros. had signed and tried to build into a sort of bionic combination of Paul Lukas and Claude Rains) is holding open auditions for a one-year scholarship for piano students. Goronoff's old friend Frederick Hassman (Felix Bressart), himself a formerly great concert pianist until he married an American woman and settled down in the farm town from which she had come, retiring from music and ultimately ruining his hands with farm work, shows up at the audition with his daughter Myra (Catherine McLeod). For all the money Herbert Yates threw at this movie, including paying for three-strip Technicolor and getting "name" talents behind the camera, he didn't go for star actors in the cast, and I got the impression Borzage had cast McLeod less for any acting ability than that she was a good enough pianist herself she could synchronize on screen with Rubinstein's playing and we could actually see her fingers striking piano keys instead of those awful shots with the body of the piano interposed between the camera and her hands. Goronoff thinks Myra is so good a pianist he offers to take her under his wing and let her move in with him - though since this is a 1946 movie, he does not insist that she become his mistress as part of the deal the way Lowell Sherman did with Madge Evans in a similar situation in the 1932 film "The Greeks Had a Word for Them," a.k.a. "Three Broadway Girls." Indeed, Myra's virtue is in no danger because she's protected not only by the Production Code but the formidable chaperoning of Goronoff's mother, played by Maria Ouspenskaya, billed with the honorific "Madame" in front of her name and easily taking the acting honors in this film. She makes a concert debut but the experience is so traumatic that she goes back to daddy's farm and accepts the marriage proposal of George Sampter (William Carter, a rather gangly but still nice-looking man whom we first get to see wearing jeans below the waist and nothing above it), and a couple of jump-cuts later Myra and George have a 17-year-old daughter who has dreams of piano stardom herself.

"I've Always Loved You" is a beautiful film when the characters are shown actually making music, but it's annoyingly sexist when they aren't; not only does Goronoff make a couple of blatantly anti-woman speeches to the effect that music is a man's world and women don't belong in it (ironic since at the time the film was made one of the world's top classical pianists was not only a woman but had the same first name as this film's heroine and a similar last name, too: Dame Myra Hess), but the whole story is framed as a contrast between Myra's pursuit of a musical career and her desire for a "normal" life as a wife and mother. Quite a few 1930's and 1940's movies set up that dichotomy for women seeking careers in singing, playing or dancing, and one of the few that didn't resolve its plot in that sexist fashion was a quite remarkable film from Republic's first decade as a studio, "Follow Your Heart," in which former Metropolitan Opera soprano Marion Talley played a woman who's encouraged at the end to "follow your heart" and go for the big operatic career rather than marry the small-town boyfriend and give up her dreams of stardom. Mostly, though, we got endings like the sexist cop-out of the otherwise magnificent film "Maytime" (1937), the best of the eight Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy movies, in which the aging diva Marcia Mornay (MacDonald) tells the young aspiring opera singer that the career isn't worth the heartbreak it entails and she should stay home and marry her boring boyfriend instead. In "The Red Shoes" (1948) the dilemma literally tears the central character, aspiring ballerina Moira Shearer, apart: torn between the choreographer who says she has to renounce love for her career and the composer who wants to write for her and also to marry her, she runs away after her performance and gets killed when she falls off a trestle into the path of an oncoming train: another annoying sexist cop-out ending to what's otherwise a great film. "I've Always Loved You" is hardly in the league of "Maytime" or "The Red Shoes" as a movie, but it shares with them this annoying streak of sexism that makes it a trial to sit through.
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Madam Secretary: The Chaos Game (2018)
Season 5, Episode 2
6/10
Reason for the German flag pin
16 October 2018
The Polish diplomat was wearing a German flag pin to show his white-supremacist sympathies with Germany's Nazi past. The script explained that racist Poles couldn't use actual Nazi symbols because those have been banned in Poland since the end of World War II, so they used proxy symbols like Confederate flags from the U.S. Civil War to express their racist ideology. "Madam Secretary" is one of the best, most literate shows on TV, and at least part of its appeal is as a nostalgic reminder that once the U.S. was governed by people who lived in the real world instead of the narcissistic egomaniac freak, obsessed by mythical conspiracies, in the White House now.
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A Mother's Greatest Fear (2018 TV Movie)
6/10
Nice variations on Lifetime's typical formula
11 October 2018
Last night's Lifetime "premiere" movie was called "A Mother's Greatest Fear," which revolves around the Goulds: mom Alice (Katrina Begin, top-billed); dad Brent (Joey Lawrence), who's a business partner with Alice in a land-development company as well as being her husband; and their daughter Maddy (Lily Delamere), who's getting restive under her mother's relentless overprotectiveness. Alice was formerly a police officer whose specialty was negotiating in hostage situations, and she worked with a partner, a detective named Steve Roberts (David Chokachi) who had the hots for her, though their relationship vibrated with mutual sexual attraction but stopped short of actual consummation. Their careers got derailed when they were assigned to go after a young man named Nick (Ian Niles), who had kidnapped his girlfriend Lily (Samm Wiechec) and was threatening to kill her with a knife at her throat if she didn't leave home and run away with him. Alice tried to bring Nick down with a gun, but her shot went wild and wounded Lily instead of Nick, whereupon Nick stabbed Lily fatally - and Alice blamed herself for Lily's death, quit the police force and joined her husband's business as his partner. This experience has made Alice fanatically overprotective towards her daughter Maddy, who in the opening scene asks for permission to attend a party with her high-school classmates (she's a senior but her mom is still driving her to school every morning, a fact for which her fellow students rib her), and mom gives her a flat-out no. Maddy sneaks out and goes to the party anyway, putting cushions in her bed so when mom looks in she'll think Maddy is still asleep. Maddy steals a pair of silver-flecked designer shoes of her mom's and walks to the party but leaves when the other kids there start passing around a bottle of wine and drinking from it. Alas, she's followed on her way walking home by a stranger in a mysterious SUV, who parks in such a way as to block Maddy's passage and knocks her out with an anesthetic, then throws her into the back of the car and drives off with her. The kidnapper then takes Maddy to what looks like a boiler room and ties her to a pipe, gagging her so she can't scream for help, and when Maddy asks what ransom he wants, the kidnapper responds by flashing a note reading, "Do not call the police." Mom decides that since she and her friend Steve - who's now working as a security guard after he quit the force over the Lily incident - used to be cops, they can solve Maddy's kidnapping themselves without having to report the crime officially.

The film cuts between rather dull scenes between Maddy and her abductor - who's dressed all in black, with a hood and a plastic mask that makes looks like Darth Vader's - and more interesting sequences of Alice and Steve investigating the crime. There's also a third plot strain that emerges around Alice's husband Brent, who in dealings he's carefully concealed from Alice has formed a partnership to develop a New York condo building with a mysterious man named Tony, who keeps calling Alice to complain that Brent is dodging meetings with him during his latest business trip to New York. Of course, in just about every Lifetime movie in which a married man takes a lot of out-of-town "business trips," "business trip" is code for "affair," and Brent's adulterous inamorata is right here at home: she's Victoria (Tandi Tugwell), Alice's office assistant. Alice and Steve learn from an old friend of his, a woman who works with the FBI, that Brent was under investigation for money laundering and quite a lot of illicit cash has been flowing through the business, recorded in secret online books Brent didn't let Alice see. Tony, his mystery partner in the New York condo development, is a mobster whom Brent took money from because he was too much in debt on his other projects to get capital from legitimate sources. Alice and Steve conclude that Maddy's kidnapping has something to do with Brent's mob ties and Tony is involved, but the kidnapper turns out to be someone with a more personal motive.

Katrina Begin looks too good for the role of Alice: young, sexy, clad in tight tops and even tighter jeans, she doesn't for one minute look old enough to have a daughter who's a senior in high school. Indeed, she and Lily Delamere look more like sisters than like mother and daughter. (Oddly, her hair designer gives Begin a considerably uglier hairdo in the tag scene than she has in the rest of the movie.) Also, neither of the two men in Alice's life is particularly attractive - Joey Lawrence as Brent shaves his head and has a moustache (virtually all his scenes show him in close-up so we don't get much of an idea what the rest of his body is like), while David Chokachi as Steve is tall, blond and has a great bod but is a bit too craggy-faced (and visibly old) to be man-meat dreamboat material. And Tandi Tugwell is so much less attractive than Katrina Begin - dark-haired and with an oddly lined face - one wonders why Brent is trading down by having an affair with her instead of staying with that hot, sexy wife of his! Nonetheless, "A Mother's Greatest Fear" is a better-than-average Lifetime movie - at least the characters are personable and there isn't a super-villain whose powers defy credibility - and it stuck closely enough to the Lifetime formula to "deliver the goods" while still offering a few neat variations on it.
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A Mother's Greatest Fear (2018 TV Movie)
6/10
O.K. Lifetime fare
7 October 2018
Last night's Lifetime "premiere" movie was called "A Mother's Greatest Fear," which revolves around the Goulds: mom Alice (Katrina Begin, top-billed); dad Brent (Joey Lawrence), who's a business partner with Alice in a land-development company as well as being her husband; and their daughter Maddy (Lily Delamere), who's getting restive under her mother's relentless overprotectiveness. Alice was formerly a police officer whose specialty was negotiating in hostage situations, and she worked with a partner, a detective named Steve Roberts (David Chokachi) who had the hots for her, though their relationship vibrated with mutual sexual attraction but stopped short of actual consummation. Their careers got derailed when they were assigned to go after a young man named Nick (Ian Niles), who had kidnapped his girlfriend Lily (Samm Wiechec) and was threatening to kill her with a knife at her throat if she didn't leave home and run away with him. Alice tried to bring Nick down with a gun, but her shot went wild and wounded Lily instead of Nick, whereupon Nick stabbed Lily fatally - and Alice blamed herself for Lily's death, quit the police force and joined her husband's business as his partner. This experience has made Alice fanatically overprotective towards her daughter Maddy, who in the opening scene asks for permission to attend a party with her high-school classmates (she's a senior but her mom is still driving her to school every morning, a fact for which her fellow students rib her), and mom gives her a flat-out no. Maddy sneaks out and goes to the party anyway, putting cushions in her bed so when mom looks in she'll think Maddy is still asleep. Maddy steals a pair of silver-flecked designer shoes of her mom's and walks to the party but leaves when the other kids there start passing around a bottle of wine and drinking from it. Alas, she's followed on her way walking home by a stranger in a mysterious SUV, who parks in such a way as to block Maddy's passage and knocks her out with an anesthetic, then throws her into the back of the car and drives off with her. The kidnapper then takes Maddy to what looks like a boiler room and ties her to a pipe, gagging her so she can't scream for help, and when Maddy asks what ransom he wants, the kidnapper responds by flashing a note reading, "Do not call the police." Mom decides that since she and her friend Steve - who's now working as a security guard after he quit the force over the Lily incident - used to be cops, they can solve Maddy's kidnapping themselves without having to report the crime officially.

The film cuts between rather dull scenes between Maddy and her abductor - who's dressed all in black, with a hood and a plastic mask that makes looks like Darth Vader's - and more interesting sequences of Alice and Steve investigating the crime. There's also a third plot strain that emerges around Alice's husband Brent, who in dealings he's carefully concealed from Alice has formed a partnership to develop a New York condo building with a mysterious man named Tony, who keeps calling Alice to complain that Brent is dodging meetings with him during his latest business trip to New York. Of course, in just about every Lifetime movie in which a married man takes a lot of out-of-town "business trips," "business trip" is code for "affair," and Brent's adulterous inamorata is right here at home: she's Victoria (Tandi Tugwell), Alice's office assistant. Alice and Steve learn from an old friend of his, a woman who works with the FBI, that Brent was under investigation for money laundering and quite a lot of illicit cash has been flowing through the business, recorded in secret online books Brent didn't let Alice see. Tony, his mystery partner in the New York condo development, is a mobster whom Brent took money from because he was too much in debt on his other projects to get capital from legitimate sources. Alice and Steve conclude that Maddy's kidnapping has something to do with Brent's mob ties and Tony is involved, but the kidnapper turns out to be someone with a more personal motive.

Katrina Begin looks too good for the role of Alice: young, sexy, clad in tight tops and even tighter jeans, she doesn't for one minute look old enough to have a daughter who's a senior in high school. Indeed, she and Lily Delamere look more like sisters than like mother and daughter. (Oddly, her hair designer gives Begin a considerably uglier hairdo in the tag scene than she has in the rest of the movie.) Also, neither of the two men in Alice's life is particularly attractive - Joey Lawrence as Brent shaves his head and has a moustache (virtually all his scenes show him in close-up so we don't get much of an idea what the rest of his body is like), while David Chokachi as Steve is tall, blond and has a great bod but is a bit too craggy-faced (and visibly old) to be man-meat dreamboat material. And Tandi Tugwell is so much less attractive than Katrina Begin - dark-haired and with an oddly lined face - one wonders why Brent is trading down by having an affair with her instead of staying with that hot, sexy wife of his! Nonetheless, "A Mother's Greatest Fear" is a better-than-average Lifetime movie - at least the characters are personable and there isn't a super-villain whose powers defy credibility - and it stuck closely enough to the Lifetime formula to "deliver the goods" while still offering a few neat variations on it.
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8/10
Vincent Price is great even though a bit miscast
3 August 2018
"The Last Man on Earth" is the first of at least three film versions of Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend," a 1954 post-apocalyptic science fiction novel in which the entire human race is hit by an unstoppable plague which first kills its victims and then, if their bodies aren't burned first, turns them into vampire-like creatures. The movie rights were bought by Hammer Studios in 1957 and they attempted to make a version with Fritz Lang as director (now that would have been an impressive coup!) and one of a number of fine British actors (Stanley Baker, Paul Massie, Laurence Harvey and Kieron Moore) in the leading role of Robert Neville - called Robert Morgan in this version - the sole survivor of the plague who's carrying on a one-man war against the vampires. But Hammer placed the film in turnaround and their original U.S. distributor, Robert Lippert, picked it up and decided to make the movie as a U.S.-Italian co-production, filming it in Italy with two directors, Sidney Salkow and Ubaldo Ragona. He also hired Matheson to write the script, but then put so many other writers on it - including William Leicester, Furio Monetti and director Ragona - that Matheson had his name taken off the film and replaced by the pseudonym "Logan Swanson." To play Robert Morgan, Lippert hired Vincent Price, and though Matheson thought he was miscast (and Price's presence is a bit problematical if only because in 1963, when this film was made, he was far more identified with old-style Gothic horror than science fiction), Price responded to the rare challenge of a script that not only made sense but gave him a rich, multidimensional characterization in a serious story he didn't have to camp up to make entertaining.

During his long reign as King of Horror Price mostly got silly scripts and got through them basically by winking at the audience, as if to say, "I don't take this crap seriously, and there's no reason why you should, either" -but occasionally he got a good script that gave him some real cinematic meat and allowed him to show off what a fine, rangy actor he could be: this film, Roger Corman's "Masque of the Red Death," Michael Reeves' "The Conqueror Worm" a.k.a. "Witchfinder General." I still regret that the finest performance Vincent Price ever gave is totally lost - his one-man show as Oscar Wilde, "Diversions and Delights," which fortunately enough I was able to see on stage in San Francisco in 1977 but, to the best of my knowledge, was never recorded or filmed. (It was also one of the few times Price got to play an actual historical person; others included his role as Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith in the 1940 biopic "Brigham Young" and the real-life "witchfinder general" Matthew Hopkins in "The Conqueror Worm.")

Despite the multiple writers and directors - usually a bad sign for any movie - "The Last Man on Earth"is an excellent movie, with Price burning up the screen and avoiding most of his horror-schtick trademarks (though there are a couple of sequences when we hear Price's famous extended laugh, and they seem a bit out of place) in a movie that is effectively staged and edited by the directors. The plot features Price as a vampire hunter who uses the same armamentarium Van Helsing used against Dracula in the story that basically wrote the rules for the classic Gothic vampire genre - the vampires are repelled by mirrors (because they cast no reflection in them) and garlic, and they can be killed by driving wooden stakes through their hearts. He goes about doing this during daylight because the vampires are only active at night, and at night he has to barricade himself inside his home because a gang of vampires regularly attempt to break in and kill him each night. (The sequences of Price erecting the barricades inside his home to ward off the vampires are strongly reminiscent of "Night of the Living Dead," made four years later, and "Night of the Living Dead" director George Romero conceded that this film had influenced him.) Regardless of how it compares to the other versions of this story, including "The Omega Man" with Charlton Heston and "I Am Legend" with Will Smith, on its own merits "The Last Man on Earth," despite its relatively crude production values and the problems with Vincent Price as a "type," is an excellent film that gave Price an acting challenge to which he rose magnificently. And the story's premise is so haunting and powerful it's no wonder so many filmmakers have returned to it since!
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3/10
Early Robert Towne project shows off his gift for pretentiousness
3 August 2018
"Last Woman on Earth" was produced and directed by Roger Corman for American International Pictures in association with his own company, Filmgroup (one word, though an Allied Artists TV reissue spelled it as "Film Group"), and was based on a script by Robert Towne - who was also in it, more on that later. Towne went on to a distinguished career as a writer and a less distinguished one as a director - his best known credit was probably the screenplay for "Chinatown" (though Towne was disgusted when director Roman Polanski changed his ending), and he's one of the many talents both in front of and behind the camera who went from a Corman apprenticeship to a major career. "Last Woman on Earth" was apparently a project Corman threw together because he was already organizing a location trip to Puerto Rico to shoot "Creature from the Haunted Sea" and he wanted to get the most bang for his buck while there by making a second film - the way he would allow Francis Ford Coppola to shoot his first film, "Dementia 13," with the same cast and crew as his own production "The Young Racers;" and why he would squeeze two days' extra work out of Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson by finishing the 1963 version of "The Raven" early so he could make another film with them, The Terror.

It helped that Towne's plot features only three on-screen (live) human characters: New York financier Harold Gern (Anthony Carbone), his wife Evelyn (Betsy Jones Moreland) and his tax attorney Martin Joyce. The performance of the actor playing Joyce is credited to "Edward Wain," but that was actually a pseudonym for ... Robert Towne. It seems that he hadn't yet finished the film by the time Corman and his crew were set to leave for Puerto Rico, so Corman had to bring him along so he could finish the script on the spot. Rather than pay for two people to come to Puerto Rico, Corman decided to save plane fare and living expenses for one by drafting Towne to play the part himself. Like Blake Edwards in Frank Wisbar's 1940's "B" "Strangler of the Swamp," Towne's performance proves that his real talent lay in writing, not acting. It also is an early indication of the flaw that would sink a lot of Towne's later major productions: a gift for pseudo-profundity which led him to write things that pretend to intellectual sophistication but really don't achieve it. One suspects that Corman told Towne, "Write me an Ingmar Bergman script - only make sure I can slap an exploitation title on it so I can sell it to the drive-ins." What Towne came up with was a profoundly uninteresting romantic triangle between Harold, Evelyn and Martin that turns into a post-apocalyptic movie when, vacationing on Puerto Rico while Harold's latest IRS investigation gets sorted out, Harold takes Evelyn and Martin deep-sea diving with SCUBA gear - and while they're underwater a sudden interruption in Earth's oxygen supply takes place, just long enough to wipe out all other humans and land-based animal life.

They come to life but keep breathing through their diving masks until they realize that whatever happened to the air that annihilated the rest of humanity is over and they can once again breathe safely - and the rest of the plot deals with Harold's attempts to lord it over the other two and insist that Evelyn doesn't have sex with Martin even though she's been clearly restive in her trophy-wife status and genuinely attracted to him. The main problem with this film is that the three people are relentlessly uninteresting and we really don't like any of them. It's possible Corman could have improved this film greatly if he'd been willing to pay salary, expenses and travel for an actual actor to play Martin, and it's pretty clear whom that should have been: the young Jack Nicholson, who was under contract to Corman at the time and could have brought an explosive romantic and sexual intensity to the character that clearly eluded the writer playing him. "Last Woman on Earth" is yet another bad film in which one senses a good film struggling inside it to get out.
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Cheerleader Nightmare (2018 TV Movie)
8/10
A Lifetime diamond in the rough
3 August 2018
Warning: Spoilers
I watched a Lifetime "premiere" movie that was actually surprisingly good. It was released under the title "Cheerleader Nightmare" but imdb lists it as "Teen Drone Stalker" and gives "Cheerleader Killer" as an alternate title, and it's so new that though imdb lists a director (Danny J. Boyle, not to be confused with the Danny Boyle who made "Trainspotting" and "Slumdog Millionaire") they don't credit any writers and they list the cast members but don't identify them with their roles. The leading characters are Sophie White (Taylor Murphy), a high-school girl with long blonde hair and a disinterest in participating in the Cleveland High School cheerleading squad even though her mom Paula (Melissa Ponzio) is the school's cheerleading coach. (One of the interesting things about this movie is that it makes being a cheerleader seem like almost as hard work as being a football player; the teams exercise similarly.) Instead she's pursuing photography, and her mom is saying that's fine but she really needs an avocation that will teach her how to participate in a team rather than something she can do on her own. About the only acquaintances she's made in her high school are her boyfriend, football team captain Tyler (Johnny Visotcky, who's tall, rail-thin and has an oddly angular face reminiscent of the young John Carradine; he's O.K.-looking but really isn't physically credible as a football player); and Mikey (Jeremy Shada), her partner in the school's AV lab where they have access to a red helicopter-like drone that can take photos of people around the campus and essentially spy on them. The moment we see Jeremy Shada, with his boyishly cute appearance, we immediately conclude that he'd be a far better match for Sophie than Tyler - especially since we also see Leah, head of the school's cheerleading squad, making a play for Tyler with lines like, "The head cheerleader is supposed to go out with the captain of the football team - it's like a law of nature!" We also learn that Tyler's father is in prison for armed robbery and that he himself has a couple of minor infractions on his record, but he's trying to put all that behind him and help the school win football games so he can get a scholarship and go to college.

Things heat up when Leah mysteriously disappears after a wild party; later her body is found in the woods surrounding the community (the name of the school may be "Cleveland High" but the locale is a typical affluent suburban bedroom community, not a major city, and the long shots representing the houses are some of the most preposterously obvious model work ever passed off in a movie - as if the director had his 12-year-old son build them out of balsa wood) and the film basically becomes a whodunit. Sophie insists that Tyler couldn't have done it because ... well, even though he has a police record and he's the son of a criminal, she's in love with him and she trusts him. Instead, against the opposition of her mother who thinks that this will put her at risk, Sophie teams up with Mikey to investigate the crime herself (interestingly, no official police officers are ever seen in the film, though we hear a siren indicating their presence at the end). "Cheerleader Nightmare" is actually one of Lifetime's best recent movies; not only does director Boyle have a flair for suspense but the writers, whoever they are, have created genuinely interesting and conflicted characters who act, for good or ill, from recognizable human motives. They've also created a credible whodunit whose ending is logical and believable. It's a quite chilling movie and one that keeps the viewer's interest, and it's also quite ably acted - especially by Taylor Murphy and Johnny Visotcky. "Cheerleader Nightmare" is a quite capable piece of work and one of those diamonds in the rough that keep people like me watching Lifetime movies! It's also an interesting exploration of just how much modern technology has made everyone's - especially everyone who's a teenager in a relatively affluent community, and therefore comfortable with and having full access to the technology - life an open book; you can't have a clandestine affair anymore with all the security cameras and that darned drone (which practically becomes its own character in the film) spying on you all the time.
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Four Star Playhouse: Face of Danger (1955)
Season 4, Episode 2
4/10
Disappointing episode of a usually good show
3 August 2018
Warning: Spoilers
Last Thursday night I ran a couple of 1950's TV episodes I'd just downloaded from archive.org when I did a search under "Danger," hoping there would be some episodes from that surprisingly compelling early-1950's CBS-TV anthology series. There weren't any, but I downloaded everything that came up with "Danger" in its title, including the 1937 Universal/Crime Club movie "Danger on the Air" and some quirky TV shows. One was from the last season of the generally quite interesting series "Four Star Playhouse," an anthology show from the early 1950's in which the titular four stars - Charles Boyer, David Niven, Dick Powell and Ida Lupino - took turns as the featured player in each episode. I had seen previous episodes in this series and had generally been impressed, but not this time: this one, "Face of Danger," was a rather routine Western tale that begins in the 1950's present with Ida Lupino, heavily made up to make her look 100 years old, gets pushed into the action in a wheelchair and flashes back to her past as a newly arrived Western settler from Illinois 70 years earlier. Triggered by a photo in an old book brought to her by reporter Johnson (William Schallert, stuck up as usual), she goes into a memory of her days out West when the rivals for her affections were bland, boring good-guy rancher Will Foster (Dick Foran, who must have been tired of these sorts of parts by then) and hot, sexy, exciting outlaw and murderer Laramie Cole (Paul Picerni). She sneaks out on Will for trysts with Laramie, while in the meantime Will joins a posse hunting for the outlaw, and eventually on the night Emma is about to run off with Laramie and he's supposed to signal by whistling to her, Will hears the whistle, goes out and blows Laramie away. I was hoping for a denouement in which it would turn out that Laramie had got Emma pregnant and therefore all her super-respectable third-generation relatives were, unbeknownst to them all these years, really descended from the outlaw rather than the respectable guy Emma had married after Laramie's death, but this was 1955 TV and the Standards and Practices people (i.e., the network censors) probably wouldn't have let them go there. Also, given that we've recently been trolling in the interesting three-DVD boxed set of James Dean's surviving live-TV appearances, it wasn't all that surprising that I couldn't help but wonder what this show could have been with Dean as Laramie Cole instead of Picerni, who's tall, dark and good-looking in a studly way but really seemed just to be letting his good looks do his acting for him.
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Elementary: Breathe (2018)
Season 6, Episode 13
8/10
Good and surprisingly socially conscious for this show
3 August 2018
Warning: Spoilers
I watched the latest episode of "Elementary," "Breathe," in which Leland Frisk (Brian Donahue), who's supposedly a corporate relocation specialist - a man who helps corporate executives move when their companies assign them to a different city - but is really a serial killer, is found dead from cyanide-laced wine in his office. Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) and Dr. Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) find that the elaborate files on various individuals in Frisk's office, which at first they think are material he's using to blackmail them à la the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Holmes story "The Case of Charles Augustus Milverton," are actually records of the people who've hired him to commit murder and he keeps the files in case any of them decides to report him to the police. The primary suspect in Frisk's murder is Cal Medina (Joaquim de Almeida - he's Portuguese, as the "m" instead of an "n" at the end of his first name gives away; ironically, given the role he plays here, both his parents were pharmacists!), who runs one of those scavenger drug companies that buys crucially important "orphan" drugs (so called because the diseases they treat are incredibly rare) and jacks up the prices on them. He did that in 2014 with a drug essential for the survival of people with cystic fibrosis, raising the price to $1,000 per pill, and the cops believe that Medina hired Frisk to kill a rival researcher who had developed another drug to treat cystic fibrosis that would provide competition. While all this is going on Goodman's script, effectively directed by Christine Moore, contains a subplot about Dr. Watson's ongoing desire to adopt a baby, and the screwups of her attorney Gary (Paul Anthony Stewart) that have cost her the opportunity by blowing her appointments to house visits and the like. Holmes starts taking an interest in Watson's adoption and even starts child-proofing the house and putting away some of his kinkier exhibits and home decorations. This was a good "Elementary" and a nice use of elements from the original Holmes canon to spice up a thoroughly contemporary story that also drew on a major modern-day political issue - the ability of nasty capitalists to jack up drug prices simply because the patent system says they can - one would more readily expect from a show produced by Dick Wolf than one from Robert Doherty!
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Girl in the Bunker (2018 TV Movie)
8/10
Great for a Lifetime movie
6 June 2018
Warning: Spoilers
Two nights ago I watched a Lifetime movie that's one of the best things I've ever seen on that network: "Girl in the Bunker," written and directed by Stephen Kemp and telling the true story of Elizabeth Shoaf (Julia Lalonde), who at age 14 in the rural community of Lugoff, South Carolina (never heard of it? Neither had I) was kidnapped and held for 10 days in an underground bunker on private property. Her abductor, Vinson Filyaw (Henry Thomas), called himself "Benson" after the family that owned the property he was squatting on, lived in a trailer under which was a secret door connecting him to the bunker he'd dug, and lured Lizzie (her nickname, though only her parents and her brother called her that - a clue that became important in the story) into his clutches by posing as a police officer who had arrested her younger brother on marijuana charges. The promos for this movie made it seem like a titillating exploitation piece on the order of previous Lifetime excursions into stories (sometimes derived from real ones) of women being kidnapped and held as sex slaves for months or even years, including "Cleveland Abduction" and Kemp's previous "Girl in the Box", etc. - but as it turned out this was considerably better than their norm. Part of the superiority is that Elizabeth Shoaf (played in the film by Julia Lalonde) was only held for 10 days - though the word "only" seems like being thankful for infinitesimally small mercies - and that, though just 14, she had the presence of mind to fight back against her attacker through strategy and guile instead of openly resisting him.

Kemp maintains the suspense by cutting back and forth between Elizabeth's ordeal and the increasing anxiety of her parents, Don (Stephen Park) and Madeline (Moira Kelly), and her brother Bobby (Dimitri Komocsi), and their frantic efforts to search for her and to keep the doofuses on the local police force interested in continuing the search. One of the towering ironies of this story is that in this relatively tight-knit rural community the hiding place where Vinson is keeping Elizabeth is just a short distance from her home, and through much of the search Vinson can hear the police patrolling the property - including flying helicopters over it - and can lord it over Elizabeth how the authorities keep missing them. Though I still think Emma Donoghue's novel "Room" and the film made from it (with Donoghue writing the script and Lenny Abrahamson directing) are the best works made about this situation - at least partly because Donoghue was writing fiction and thereby wasn't trapped by the events of the actual story - "Girl in the Bunker" is quite a good movie, very far above the Lifetime norm and with a writer/director skilled enough at both jobs he keeps Elizabeth's peril front and center in the story without exploiting it for the obvious titillation.

"Girl in the Bunker" has some faults, and one of the most annoying ones is how similar the leading male characters look: Henry Thomas, Stephen Park (playing Elizabeth's dad) and Jeff Clarke (as one of the police officers involved in the search) are all the same "type" - thin, sandy-haired, attractive without being drop-dead gorgeous or genuinely sexy - that when Clarke appeared as one of the cops at first I thought he was Vinson and Elizabeth had been kidnapped by a genuine police officer who was also playing these sadistic sex games on the side, and involving himself in the investigation to steer his colleagues away from where she really was. Also, Lifetime's decision to show the film in a so-called "special edition" in which, during the commercial breaks, we got brief interview segments from the real Elizabeth, Don and Madeline Shoaf which affirmed the basic accuracy of the story but also let us know that, as usual, the filmmakers had cast the roles with considerably more attractive people than their real-life prototypes. Nonetheless, "Girl in the Bunker" is a well-done thriller and makes me hopeful Stephen Kemp can break free of the TV-movie ghetto and make some theatrical features - he's no Alfred Hitchcock but he's a damned sight better than a lot of the wanna-be Hitchcocks out there, some of whom have got to make theatrical features with "A"-list stars.
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Framed by My Fiancé (2017 TV Movie)
4/10
Another Lifetime movie whose writers didn't know when to stop
6 May 2018
I stayed in last night and watched a rerun of a Lifetime movie from November 24, 2017 called "Framed by My Fiancé" - a name which reinforces my feeling that Lifetime is running out of inspiration and having a harder time finding sorts of relationships that can turn ugly and generate their typical plot lines. Directed by Fred Olen Ray (a name I've encountered on previous Lifetime productions) from a script by Stephen Lyons based on an "original" story (quotes definitely merited!) by Suju Abraham and David DeCrane (most of these people are old Lifetime hands but the production company is credited as "DeInstitutionalized," one word with a capital letter in the middle à la a computer program, which suggests what had happened to the writers just before they came up with this script), "Framed by My Fiancé" begins with a sequence that promises, if not a great movie, at least a better-than-usual one. Attorney Daniel Hackett (Jason-Shane Scott) is about to be appointed to a state judgeship in a move that could clear his way to run for governor of New York (this is set in Buffalo, which makes me wish Charles had been there with me, if only to clue me in on how much Buffalo has changed since he spent a good chunk of his childhood there) but is warned by Harold Barnes (Gerald Webb, an African-American but one of Barack Obama's color and bald, so you really have to look hard to realize he's Black) that the appointment would be canceled if he got involved in a scandal.

Then he goes out for a nighttime drive with his live-in girlfriend, nurse Jenny Fisher (Katrina Bowden, top-billed), and the two are involved in an accident when Daniel, who's driving, gets distracted and slams into a black SUV that had stalled on the road, killing one of the people inside, a politically well-connected contractor named Joseph Langford. We'd also been given a scene establishing that Joseph and his wife May (Valynn Turkovich) are expecting their first child - and May had a miscarriage the year before (like so many other Lifetime women before her!) and is scared that she won't be able to carry this baby to full term either. (One wonders if the writing committee intended the names "Joseph" and "May" to evoke comparison with the Biblical Joseph and Mary, who according to Christian myth had big-time help from The Man Upstairs in having their baby.) May's pregnancy survives the accident but not by much, and after she loses this child too she swears revenge against Jenny for having killed not only her husband but her last chance to be a mother. Jenny finds herself in a Kafka-esque situation in which her boss fires her from her nursing job and her best friend, Rosa Harris (Kara Buckley), is threatened with eviction herself for having taken Jenny in following her moving out of Daniel's place following the accident. While she was still unconscious, Daniel had concocted a plot to blame her for the accident, moving her from the passenger's to the driver's seat and planting her fingerprints on the steering wheel so he could say that she had been driving and therefore he wasn't to blame for the fatal crash. When she comes to, Daniel is hovering over her, pleading to go along with his "one little lie" and back up his story that she was driving, saying that she'll probably get just a slap on the wrist since she has no criminal record and she's "clean" as far as the legal system goes. (The phrase "one little lie" appears so often in the dialogue I wondered if "One Little Lie" had been the working title of the film - and indeed it would have been a better name for it than "Framed by My Fiancé" - but the imdb.com page on it lists no other title.)

Instead she finds herself arrested for manslaughter by police detective Logan (Alan Pietruazewski, a rather nondescript milquetoast-looking actor of the "type" Lifetime usually casts as the long-suffering husband) and facing a 20-year prison term because of the political connections of the victim, his wife and Daniel. "Framed by My Fiancé" is yet another Lifetime movie that could have been quite good if the writers had only known when to stop - had they focused on Jenny's Kafka-esque inability to get out of the situation Daniel had pulled all the political strings available to him to get her into, with the implied class critique that some victims are more "equal" than others and you can get into a lot more trouble for killing a 1-percenter than someone farther down the economic food chain, they could have had a fine, entertaining and moving film. Instead the plot takes several melodramatic turns and the film becomes a virtual encyclopedia of almost everything that can go wrong with a Lifetime movie, including the villain showing a combination of almost supernatural power and willful stupidity. Though this isn't by far the worst film I've seen on Lifetime either, it is a rather disappointing one given that it had the potential to be considerably better than it is.
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Madam Secretary: Thin Ice (2018)
Season 4, Episode 19
1/10
Wretched propaganda for nuclear power
30 April 2018
Warning: Spoilers
I watched a "Madam Secretary" episode that really rubbed me the wrong way politically; not only did it feed current Cold War II anxieties by portraying Russia as THE ENEMY, its writers, Moira Kirkland and Alexander Maggio, turned the script into a full-blooded defense of nuclear power as the only way to overcome global warming. The script has the characters spouting the usual propaganda of the nuclear industry - that today's light-water reactors are safe, that the amount of spent fuel they generate is no bigger than the size of a football field (then why is there so much waste that the industry is still trying to figure out a safe way to get rid of massive amounts of it?), and that nuclear power doesn't involve burning hydrocarbons and therefore has no carbon impact. (It's true that nuclear power itself doesn't release greenhouse gases, but the entire nuclear fuel cycle is a huge consumer of energy and much of it is fossil fuel-based.) The assumption seems to be that a modern economy will never be able to power itself purely on solar, wind and hydro, and therefore some large-scale power source will be needed in the future - and barring a technological miracle (and the Kirkland-Maggio script drips with scorn over anyone who believes the salvation is going to come from anything other than nukes), nuclear power is the only way to keep the modern advanced world supplied with the energy it needs. I couldn't disagree more: I think nuclear energy is one of two technologies so evil, so totally destructive of human life and the biosphere itself, it should never be used for anything. (Genetic modification is the other.) That makes me one of the Luddites Maggio and Kirkland go out of their way to ridicule, I know. Other than the pro-nuke propaganda, this is a wild tale in which a conference of nations bordering the Arctic is sabotaged when a bomb is planted by an ostensibly non-violent environmentalist protest group - and it turns out that those pesky Russians spent over a year infiltrating agents provocateurs into the group so they could plant a bomb at the conference, thereby disrupting it and occupying the Northwest Passage themselves while denying access to it to anyone else. The U.S. finally defeats the pesky Russkies but only by inviting the Chinese into the Arctic summit, whereupon the Chinese supply an ice-breaking ship the U.S. Navy lacks so the U.S. can confront the Russians in the Passage and get them to leave. Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni) is upset with her son Jason (Evan Roe) and his girlfriend Piper (Salena Qureshi) because they talked her into taking them along to the Arctic summit in Canada - only they were using it as an excuse to sneak into a hotel room and have sex. Instead of being grateful that their trick prevented Jason from being in range when the bomb blew up, both McCord and her husband Henry (Tim Daly) are mad at him. Also in the dramatis personae is aspiring Air Force pilot Andrew Hill (Sam Underwood), son of national security advisor Ellen Hill (Johanna Day), who's decided he's a conscientious objector and can't kill - only instead of being forthright about it, he tries to get himself kicked out of the Air Force Academy by deliberately submitting a plagiarized school paper, knowing that Henry, his teacher, will spot it and have him expelled. In the end, the Arctic conference goes on as scheduled, and when the oil and gas company that was originally going to sponsor it pulls out because Elizabeth McCord won't permit it to do a display promoting natural gas (earth to Maggio and Kirkland: natural gas may still be a fossil fuel but it's a lot safer and less environmentally destructive than nuclear!!!!!), she talks Bella Rossi (Colby Minifie), the head of the nonviolent environmental group that staged the protest the Russian agents hijacked to commit terrorism, not only to sponsor the conference but to drop her previous opposition to nuclear power despite her fear that her donors wouldn't like it. Personally I would NEVER support a so-called "environmental" organization that endorsed nukes!
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Faith Under Fire (2018 TV Movie)
10/10
Extraordinary
28 January 2018
Warning: Spoilers
I watched last night's "premiere" of one of the most extraordinary original movies Lifetime has ever given us: "Faith Under Fire: The Antoinette Tuff Story." Directed by Vondie Curtis-Hall (a Black man rather than the Black woman I'd previously assumed he was) who's worked mostly as an actor - he was on episodes of both "Law and Order" and the spinoff "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit" - and whose main directorial credit before this was a Lifetime biopic of Toni Braxton called "Toni Braxton: Un-Break My Heart," "Faith Under Fire" actually stars the real Toni Braxton as Antoinette Tuff, who on August 20, 2013 was working as a bookkeeper at the McNair Learning Academy in Decatur, Georgia when she was asked to cover the front desk during lunch because the usual school receptionist had called in sick or something. While she was there a young man named Michael Brandon Hill (Trevor Morgan) sneaked onto the school campus with an AK-47 assault rifle and held Tuff at gunpoint, telling her that he was going to kill everyone in the school and she must do exactly as he said or she'd be victim number one. Tuff showed a remarkable degree of courage and foresight and also an instinct that her own history of troubles, would somehow make it through Hill's consciousness and persuade him to give himself up before he actually hurt anybody. "Faith Under Fire" is an excellent film in all respects, vividly and straightforwardly directed by Vondie Curtis-Hall and containing two brilliant tour de force performances by Toni Braxton and Trevor Harris. Braxton plays her role with a quiet mixture of implacability and strength reminiscent of Whoopi Goldberg in "The Color Purple," and Harris avoids the usual clichés of actors playing psychopaths (the snarling of Lawrence Tierney in "Dillinger", "Born to Kill" and "The Hoodlum" and the nice-guy exterior of Anthony Perkins in Psycho) and manages to convince us that his mental state is really that jumbled that he can't do anything right, including perpetrating a mass shooting. "Faith Under Fire: The Antoinette Huff Story" is one of Lifetime's most astonishingly good productions, vividly dramatic, genuinely suspenseful and ending most movingly with the phone call then-President Barack Obama placed to the real Antoinette Huff to congratulate her for her heroism - and the gentle, soothing tones of our last President stand in vivid contrast to our current one and make one wonder how Trump would handle a similar situation if one occurred on his watch: probably make some pro forma acknowledgment of the courage of the person he was talking to and then, as he always does, steer the conversation entirely towards himself.
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A Tale of Two Coreys (2018 TV Movie)
Unexpectedly relevant for "the moment"
7 January 2018
Last night I watched the Lifetime movie "A Tale of Two Coreys," yet another tiresome story of promising Hollywood careers derailed by drug use. The promising Hollywood careers that got derailed were those of young actors Corey Feldman and Corey Haim, who met while appearing in the film "The Lost Boys," became bosom buddies and were frequently bracketed in teen-idol magazines as "The Two Coreys." The Lifetime movie about then was directed by Steven Huffaker from a script by an even larger writing committee than usual: the story is credited to Feldman himself along with Tejal Desai, Jeffrey Schenck. Peter Sullivan and Henry Wassenburger, and Schenck, Sullivan, Wassenburger and Jessica Dube are credited with the screenplay (and on screen the writers' names are linked with ampersands rather than the word "and," meaning that they all worked on the script together instead of taking it over relay-style one from the other). It's narrated in flashbacks by both Feldman, who's still alive and sat for an interview that was taped and aired after the movie; and Haim, who died from pneumonia in 2010 after a lifelong struggle with drug abuse. The producers and casting directors Dean E. Frank and Donald Paul Penrick double-cast the parts of Feldman and Haim, with Elijah Marcano and Justin Ellings playing Feldman and Haim (in that order) as teenagers and Scott Bosely and Casey Leach playing them as adults. Elijah Marcano is a hauntingly beautiful young man who doesn't look either like the real Corey Feldman in his teens - quite frankly, his ethereal baby face and long brown hair would have made him better casting for a biopic of David Cassidy than of Corey Feldman - and he also doesn't look like he'd grow up to be the nice-bodied but rather hatchet-faced Scott Bosely. Justin Ellings doesn't look like he'll grow up to look like his adult counterpart, Casey Leach, though for my money Leach was by far the sexiest of the four: tall, blond, muscular, butch and also quite strikingly reminiscent of the surviving film of the older Corey Haim.

For the most part "A Tale of Two Coreys" is a pretty-standard issue "Behnd the Music" story of a promising young talent (in this case, two promising young talents) wrecking their careers by partying, clubbing, sex, drinking and, most destructively, drugging. But there are two distinguishing characteristics that set it apart from most addiction narratives. One is how vividly it demonstrates that child actors are really commodities, controlled both by their bosses and their parents; in one chilling scene, Feldman comes home after three classmates bullied and badly beat him when he bragged to them about landing a major movie role - and his mom sees the bruises on his face and, rather than say anything supportive, chews him out for having got into a fight that bruised his highly valuable face and risked him getting replaced in that big role. Both Feldman and Haim came from broken homes; Feldman's parents divorced before he started his career and Haim's broke up while he was just taking off as a young actor - and Feldman's dad was an aspiring rock musician and his son's manager until Feldman abruptly fired him after realizing his dad was just taking his money and pushing him off into quick-buck projects that would bring in short-term income but be bad for his long-term career. The breaking point came when Feldman's good friend Michael Jackson told him it was stupid for Feldman to appear on the quiz show "The Hollywood Squares" because "that's something you do at the end of your career," but dad remained firm that Feldman do that show and not even Michael Jackson himself, dressed in the costume he wore on the cover of Bad and played by Brandon Howard (who looks "blacker" than the real Jackson did at that point but gets the famously whispery speaking voice down pat), can talk Feldman père out of pushing his son onto a humiliating gig.

The other unusual part of this film - and one which makes it particularly relevant in the so-called "moment" in which America in general and Hollywood in particular are becoming more aware of, and more sensitive to, charges of sexual harassment and the heads of once-powerful people are rolling as they get ousted from their jobs and positions of power following revelations of their records of sexual misconduct over the years - is the allegation that both Feldman and Haim were raped early in their careers, before they were over the age of consent, by the people who were supposedly on the sets of their films to chaperone and protect them. Indeed, though the story is only obliquely hinted at in the movie itself, Feldman is more explicit about it in his post-film intervie2, saying that both straight and Gay pedophilia is the real dark secret of Hollywood. Though he's still too scared of the man who raped him to mention his name - he says the man is still a power player in the industry and could literally have him killed, which is why, he told his interviewer, he has at least one bodyguard (and usually more than one) on duty all the time, including at home when he sleeps - he describes himself as "a man on a mission" to expose the rampant pedophilia in Hollywood and drive its perpetrators from power. Given that memoirs of classic Hollywood have exposed such legendary names from the past as David O. Selznick, Arthur Freed and John Huston as pedophiles, I can readily believe everything Feldman is saying. Both the film and Feldman's post-film interview make clear that not only is the "casting couch" alive and well, but young men are as likely to be the victims of it as young women
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Nanny Seduction (2017 TV Movie)
5/10
Lifetime pattern movie redeemed by child actor's performance
6 August 2017
Warning: Spoilers
I recently watched an oddball Lifetime movie called "Nanny Seduction," in which virtually the only novelty or suspense value was attempting to guess which set of Lifetime clichés writer Marcy Holland would tap to resolve her next plot point. The film was directed by Emily Moss Wilson (Lifetime, to their credit, has given a lot of opportunities to women directors, and sometimes, as with Christine Conradt and Vanessa Parise, they've shown real talent that deserves a shot at major theatrical features; alas, Emily Moss Wilson is hardly in their league) and stars Wes Brown and Austin Highsmith (a woman named "Austin"?) as Ben and Kara Turling, who six months before the film began took on the formidable challenge of adopting an eight-year-old girl, Riley (Lauren Goluzzi in what's far and away the best acting job in the film!), even though she's relentlessly antisocial and virtually catatonic. The reason they've done this is that Kara herself grew up in foster homes and never got over the sheer trauma of being moved around so much and never being able to settle down in one home environment, with one set of parents, that could make her feel like she belonged. She's determined to make sure no one else has to go through that, so she singles out Riley and gives her a home. There's a scene between her and Ben in which she says she's forgiven him for the "mistake" he made a year ago — and if you've seen more than two Lifetime movies in your life you're instantly aware that the "mistake" he made was an affair. The plot kicks off when the live-in nanny the Turlings have been using, a grandmotherly Latina, announces that she's leaving because her daughter has just borne her a grandchild of her own, and so Kara has to hire a replacement.

We see her interviewing three people, two women and a man, and she ultimately hires the blonde woman even though her references were shakier than those of the black-haired woman — only the would-be nanny burns the sandwich she was frying for Riley, Riley refuses to eat it, but we see the nanny carefully turn off the stove burner — only a mysterious stranger sneaks into the house (apparently neither the Turlings nor anyone they've let into the house has ever heard of door locks, since intruders seem to breeze in and out of there all movie without so much as a by-your-leave) and turns the burner back on, starting a kitchen fire it looks like the nanny started by her negligence. So Kara lets her go and instead hires the dark-haired candidate, Alyssa (Valerie Azlynn), who turns out to have an agenda. Through much of the movie we're given a red herring — Riley's birth mother, Vanessa Shaw (Erin Cahill), who like Alyssa has also been stalking the Turlings, though not because she's after Ben (I had thought it might turn out that Ben was actually Riley's birth father, but screenwriter Holland fortunately didn't take us there) but because she simply wants to see Riley: she lost custody because her chronic alcoholism was leading her to neglect Riley, but now that she's clean, sober and working, she wants, if not full custody, at least some involvement in Riley's life. At least Holland didn't pull the trick of a sinister open-ended "surprise" ending like the writers of "The Wrong Neighbor," Jeffrey Schenck, Peter Sullivan and Robert Dean Klein, did, but "Nanny Seduction" is still pretty much a to-the-pattern Lifetime piece with little (aside from Lauren Gobuzzi's amazing performance as Riley — it's one of those shows in which you admire the child actor while at the same time wondering what long-term traumas are going to be caused by whatever director Wilson had to pull to get it from her) to distinguish or recommend it.
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Story of a Girl (2017 TV Movie)
9/10
Sedgwick's directorial triumph
24 July 2017
Warning: Spoilers
"Story of a Girl," premiered July 23 on Lifetime, was not only better than the usual run of their movies but better than the previews for it had made it look. The credits, at least, made this look like a prestige production: the director and co-producer was actress Kyra Sedgwick, her husband Kevin Bacon and their daughter Sosie Bacon were both in the cast (albeit not in the leads), and the story was based on a highly regarded young-adult novel by Sara Zarr published in 2007 which was a finalist for that year's National Book Award and made the 2008 American Library Association's list of Best Books for Young Adults. The promos for the film made much of its most salacious detail: three years before the main part of the film takes place, its central character, Deanna Lambert (played by Ryann Shane through most of the movie but Bailey Skodje in the flashbacks), then just 13 years old, had sex with her boyfriend Tommy Weber (Tyler Johnston, just the right sort of decent-looking but not drop-dead gorgeous young guy Sedgwick and her casting directors, Ann Goulder in the U.S. and Jackie Lind in Canada, should have picked). Tommy filmed them with his smartphone and the clip ultimately ended up on the Internet and "went viral," instantly giving Deanna the image as a "slut" — indeed, quite a few online social-media posts about her denounce her whole family as "trash" — and also getting her father Ray (Jon Tenney) relentlessly angry at her. She's not the only member of her family who got into trouble over sex: her older brother Darren (Iain Belcher) got his girlfriend Stacy (Sosie Bacon) pregnant, and as a result both had to forsake their dreams of going to college and stay in the small beach town whose location is unspecified but which is portrayed throughout the movie as a place where dreams (and dreamers) go to die.

Darren and Stacy are currently living in the Lamberts' basement and raising their baby, April, and Ray Lambert is crabbing almost constantly about their presence as well as the likelihood that her daughter, with her presumably "loose" sexual morals, may also end up "with child." In some ways Ray is the most unsympathetic character in the film, essentially Archie Bunker without the charm. As for the mother, Debbie (Caroline Cave), she's pretty much just along for the ride; her attempted "solution" to the domestic disputes swirling around her is to corral her errant kids around the breakfast table and make them deliberately "homey" specials like French toast and oatmeal. Things heat up (in more ways than one) for Deanna when she decides she wants a job, and she goes to the various coffeehouses and food places around town. At one she's told by the counter boy, who's barely older than she is, that she looks familiar, and she snipes back, "Maybe it's my online sex video." "You're going to have to work on your interviewing skills," says her Black friend Lee (Naika Toussaint), whose boyfriend Jason (Andrew Herr) is Deanna's favorite (but platonic) soulmate and sounding board. Eventually Deanna lands a job with Craven Pizza, whose owner Michael (Kevin Bacon) is first shown lying out on a couple of chairs inside his establishment — it's closed at the moment so he figures he can behave any way he likes, including smoking inside — with no shirt or shoes on. At first we figure he's going to hit on our heroine, but eventually he turns out to be the most decent man in the movie and the one male from whom Deanna's virtue is in no threat, mainly because he's Gay. Deanna's real sex-related problem at work is Tommy Weber, who by luck (or Sara Zarr's authorial fiat) also works at Craven Pizza (which got its name from Michael's love of recent horror films in general and Wes Craven's work in particular ), and he's too good a cook for Michael to risk losing him, so Deanna puts up with the cold war around Tommy (who makes it clear he'd like to screw her again) and also the snide sexual comments of the male patrons who congregate at Craven Pizza for beer pitchers and pizza (in that order of importance).

"Story of a Girl," written by Laurie Collyer and Emily Bickford Lansbury from Zarr's novel and quite effectively directed by Sedgwick ¬— who has the usual actor-director's gift for getting understated performances from her cast (one shudders to think what one of the usual Lifetime hacks would have done with this story and how much scenery the actors would have been allowed to ingest) and also has a quite sensitive camera eye — is not only a more psychologically and emotionally complex story than the Lifetime norm, it's given a quiet, dignified, mostly unsentimental presentation. At one point Deanna tells Lee that she will have a chance to break out of the town, go to college and make something of her life, while Deanna, her brother and his girlfriend, and Lee's own boyfriend Jason are just going to be trapped there for the rest of their lives. Later Michael makes his own sad confession, saying that decades earlier he had gone to Stanford but dropped out during his sophomore year because "I just didn't like doing homework," and after that he was married to two different women, both of whom he loved non-sexually but ultimately left because he knew the whole time he was Gay. "Story of a Girl" is probably the best thing I've seen on Lifetime since "Speak" (also based on an acclaimed young-adult novel and also about an alienated teenage girl whose life was ruined by a sexually predatory male, and which starred Kristen Stewart before she did the "Twilight" movies and was so good it made me want to see the "Twilight" cycle), and I certainly hope the Bacons will get to make a few more films like this.
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