Lifetime Film Review: Escaping the NXIVM Cult (dir by Lisa Robinson)

I have to admit that cults have always fascinated me, largely because I can never really comprehend what would lead to someone joining one.

Seriously, how is it that otherwise intelligent people end up in a position where they not only become brainwashed but they also voluntarily give up their own individual personality, all so that they can belong to something that doesn’t make much sense.  Myself, I’ve always been fortunate in that not only am I very confident in my talents and my beliefs but I’ve also never felt the need to have a mentor or any other type of life guide.  Fortunately, I value my independence above all else.  I’m also lucky enough to have ADD so severe that there’s no way I could actually spend more than 5 minutes listening to a lecture designed to brainwash me.  I did go to one self-help seminar in college that seemed to be kind of a cultish but I was so bored that I left about halfway through.  (Add to that, I was also annoyed by how much everyone else seemed to be enjoying it.)  I’m immune to brainwashing, or at least I would like to think that I am.

Unfortunately, that’s not true for everyone.  We tend to think of a cult as being a group of weird people living in a compound but the truth of the matter is that there are cults all around us.  Basically, any organization that demands that its members sacrifice their own individual thoughts in order to “serve a greater cause” or please a certain being is a cult.  Go on Twitter right now and you’ll undoubtedly be able to find several different cults fighting with each other.  Cults appeal to people who, otherwise, feel empty.  They provide a home and a group of ready-made friends but, of course, they also demand complete obedience and punish any hint of individuality.  There’s no room for dissent.  You see that a lot today and it’s a shame.  People no longer think for themselves and instead, they believe whatever they’re told to believe.  People have lost their damn minds over the past few years, both figuratively and literally.  Sadly, it seems that once someone loses the ability to think for themselves, it’s gone forever.

I found myself thinking about this last night and this morning as I watched the latest “ripped from the headlines” Lifetime film, Escape From The NXIVM Cult: A Mother’s Fight To Save Her Daughter.  NXIVM, which was founded and controlled by Keith Raniere (played, in a wonderfully creepy performance, by Peter Facinelli), presented itself as being a “personal development company” but, as everyone now knows, all of the self-help seminars and corporate doublespeak was actually a cover for a pyramid scheme that also served as a recruiting tool to supply Raniere with sex slaves.  Among those who worked with Raniere was former Smallville actress, Allison Mack (played by Sara Fletcher in the film).

The film focuses on the true story of actress and minor royal Catherine Oxenberg (Andrea Roth), who spent a year helplessly watching as the NXIVM cult brainwashed her daughter, India (Jasper Polish).  The film shows how the cult (and, more specifically, Allison Mack) preyed on and manipulated India’s own insecurities and used them to take her away from her family and her friends.  In perhaps the film’s most disturbing scene, India returns home on her birthday and spends the majority of her own birthday party trying to recruit people to join NXIVM.  It’s disturbing because we all know someone like India, someone who has become so obsessed with politics or religion or fandom that they view every occasion as just being another recruiting opportunity.

The film follows Catherine as she uncovers the truth about NXIVM, which is that it’s essentially a large-scale criminal racket that, because it’s targeted the children of the rich and famous, has also become immune to prosecution.  When Keith is informed that Catherine has been publicly denouncing NXIVM and threatening to expose them, Keith smugly just says that they’ll sue her until she’s silent, just “like the others.”  All of the sordid details are presented here — from the branding of Keith’s and Allison’s initials on their slaves to NXIVM’s casual and infuriating misogyny to the way that Keith used blackmail to manipulate both his followers and those who he considered to be a threat.  But what makes the film ultimately memorable is not just the portrait of how NXIVM operated but also the film’s celebration of Catherine Oxenberg’s refusal to give up when it came to rescuing her daughter.

All in all, it’s a well-done movie and certainly one that has an important message.  Be vigilant and beware any organization that claims that the key to happiness is sacrificing your own individual spirit.

Film Review: Return To Campus (a.k.a. The World’s Greatest Kicker) (dir by Harold Cornsweet)

This little film from 1975 is a weird one.

Return to Campus aired on TCM last night.  I DVR’d it because, just judging from the title, I assumed that it was either going to be a raunchy comedy from Crown International Pictures or it was going to be some sort of ultra low-budget slasher that I could potentially review for October.  Instead, it turned out to be an odd little vanity project about a 55 year-old college football player.

Hal Norman (played by an actor named Earl Keyes, who basically looked like an old school driving instructor) is a semi-retired aviation engineer who is obsessed with football.  Back in 1939, he was a college football star but then World War II intervened and he ended up not only giving up his athletic career but dropping out of college as well.  He’s gone on to make a good life for himself but he’s still haunted by questions of what could have been.  Being at “odds and ends,” he decides to re-enroll at Ohio State.  Not only will he be finishing up his senior year but he’s also determined to try out for the football team!  Hal wants to kick field goals.

A 55 year-old kicking field goals!?  Impossible, you say?  Well, not if you’re willing to cheat.  Apparently, Hal has invited some sort of spring that, when he puts it into his shoe, allows him to kick a field goal from 80 yards away.  There’s four separate scenes in which Hal tells another character that there’s nothing in the rules books that says that he can’t use a special spring when he does his kicks.  Since I don’t know much about football, I’ll take his word on that but still, it all seems a little bit unethical.  I mean, think about it.  You’ve got actual athletes out there, risking injury and depending on their own carefully developed natural talents.  And then you’ve got some jackass having a midlife crisis overshadowing them because he’s found a loophole in the rules.  (I kept waiting for someone to point out that obvious, which is that the only reason the rules don’t mention the spring is because no one but Hal knows that it exists.)  It may not be illegal but it’s hard not to notice that Hal is very careful not to tell too many people about his magic spring.

(And really, it seems like if Hal was smart, he would patent his magic spring and make a fortune instead of using it to humiliate a bunch of college students.)

Anyway, the strange thing about Return to Campus is that very little actually happens in the movie.  Hal goes back to college.  Hal kicks a lot of field goals.  Hal starts dating his English professor.  Hal moves into the dorms and get a roommate named …. I kid you not …. Pighead.  (Even the dean of students calls him “Pighead.”)  You would think that, with a name like Pighead, he’d be some sort of wild party guy but instead, he’s just kind of dorky.  Pighead’s girlfriend, Joyce, gets angry at Hal and tries to steal his magic kicking shoes.  It leads to a extremely leisurely car chase, during which a pizza deliveryman nearly gets run over and loses all of his pizzas.  “Mamma Mia!” he shouts.  Everything plays out at a very leisurely pace.  You never have any doubt about whether everything’s going to work out in the end because it’s just that type of movie.

Return to Campus was filmed in the 70s but there’s not a hint of drugs or campus dissension to be found in the film.  Instead, it’s kind of like a kid’s film for old people.  Most of the dialogue probably would have seemed old-fashioned in the 50s.  For instance, when Hal is told that he has a meeting with a referee to discuss his kicking shoe, his girlfriend offers to go with him for support.  Hal tells her no because this is a discussion meant for men.  And his girlfriend — an English lit professor! — smiles and nods as if that’s the most sensible thing that she’s ever heard.

As I said, it’s a strange film and it was obviously very much an amateur production.  In fact, it was so weird that I actually did some research after I watched the movie and I discovered that Harold Cornsweet (who wrote, directed, and produced the film) was an actor who appeared in a few small roles before returning to his hometown of Cleveland and making this film.  He also actually was a kicker at Ohio State in 1939 so it seems probable that there’s a heavy element of wish-fulfillment in this film.  In fact, that’s one reason why I can’t be too critical of Return to Campus.  As inept as the film may be, it’s also an obvious labor of love.  According to the information that I found online, Cornsweet died just two years after this film was released so it’s actually kind of sweet that he got to film a love letter to both his college and his sport before he went.

Return to Campus is incredibly inept and it possibly made me even less interested in football than I was before I watched it but I can’t help myself.  I just have a soft spot for these amateur productions.

Lifetime Film Review: The Cheerleader Escort (dir by Alexandre Carriere)

I swear, how did I ever make it through college?

That’s a question that I often find myself wondering while watching a Lifetime movie.  In the world of Lifetime, college is always prohibitively expensive and families — regardless of how big of a house in which they’re living — always struggle to pay their daughter’s tuition.  It seems like, whenever it’s time to head off to college, there’s always either a divorce or a sudden bankruptcy or some other financial calamity designed to destroy idealistic hopes and dreams.  Inevitably, the only way to pay for college is by descending into a sordid world of scandal, infidelity, and occasionally even murder.

That’s the situation in which Cassie Talbot (played by Alexandra Beaton) finds herself in The Cheerleader Escort.  Cassie’s just started at a good college and her best friend is even her dorm roommate!  Even better, she’s just made the school’s renowned cheerleader squad!  It all sounds perfect but there’s a problem.  Cassie has to figure out a way to pay for all of this.  Her parents are divorced and, while her father originally promised to help pay for college, he has since disappeared.  Her mother, Karen (Cynthia Preston), says that he might “be gambling again.”  Well, he’s just gambled away Cassie’s future because, after Karen’s injured in an auto accident, there’s no way that Cassie’s going to be able to afford tuition!


It turns out that there are wealthy men, most of whom are members of the college’s alumni association, who are more than willing to help the members of the cheerleading squad pay the bills.  As long as the cheerleaders agree to “spend some time” with them, they’ll donate all sorts of money.  In fact, that was one reason why Cassie was selected for the squad.  It was felt that the alumni would react well to her innocent personality and indeed, they do.  Soon, Cassie is spending all her time with the older and richer Terry Dunes (Damon Runyan).  That doesn’t leave much time for going to her classes but who goes to college just to sit in a boring classroom?

Anyway, it seems like a good arrangement until another member of the squad, Gabby (Joelle Farrow), informs Cassie that she’s pregnant and that the father is another wealthy member of the alumni association.  Gabby is super excited about having the baby.  The baby’s father is a bit less happy about the prospect.  In the real world, this would all probably lead to Dr. Phil doing a prime time special on “Sugar Daddy websites,” but this is a Lifetime movie so, of course, it all leads to murder and scandal.

And thank goodness for that!  I mean, seriously, you’re not watching this film because you’re expecting to see a serious examination of why college is so damn expensive or why so many students are graduating with a mountain of debt.  You’re watching this film for the drama and, on that front, The Cheerleader Escort delivers.  In the grand tradition of previous Lifetime films like Confessions of Go Go Girl and Babysitter’s Black Book, The Cheerleader Escort delivers all of the sordid melodrama that you could hope for.

Really, we don’t ask for a lot when it comes to a movie like this: a little sex, a little melodrama, a nice house, and big drama.  The Cheerleader Escort delivers all four.

Film Review: Replicas (dir by Jeffrey Nachmanoff)

Don’t even ask me to explain what’s going on in Replicas, a sci-fi film that was released way back in January to terrible reviews and non-existent box office.

Admittedly, this film has a plot and you can kind of follow it if you force yourself to.  And really, it’s not that unusual of a plot.  It’s another one of those things where a scientist is shocked to discover that his top secret research is actually being funded by the military and everyone in the audience is supposed to be like, “OH MY GOD!  NO!  NOT THE MILITARY!”  As you can probably guess from the title, the film is also about clones.  Have you ever noticed that bad sci-fi films always seem to involve cloning?

It’s not so much that the plot can’t be followed as that the film’s storyline just feels oddly underdeveloped.  Watching Replicas, you get the feeling that the filmmakers got bored with the plot and just decided to go ahead and make the movie, without thinking everything through.  As a result, the film touches on all of the ethical and philosophical issues that come along with cloning people but that’s all it does.  Instead of actually exploring any of those issues or trying to come up with an original spin on the story, Replicas just mechanically moves from one scene to another.

Keanu Reeves plays William Foster, a scientist who, along with his longtime friend and partner, Ed Whittle (Thomas Middleditch of Silicon Valley fame), has figured out a way to transfer a dead person’s mind into a robot’s body, hence bringing the person kind of back to life.  A big evil corporation has set up a lab in Puerto Rico for Foster and Whittle to do their research.  The problem is that every time that they put a dead soldier’s mind into an android body, the dead soldier gets pissed off and destroys the body.  Evil Mr. Jones (John Ortiz) demands that they figure out a way to keep the dead soldier from getting mad.  Somehow, it doesn’t occur to Foster or Whittle that Jones wants them to put the soldier’s mind in the android’s body so that the android can then be used as a weapon of war.

(Also, if you want to use androids as soldiers, why not just do some sort of remote control thing like they do with drones?  Seriously, I don’t think Jones has thought his evil scheme through.  The less complicated the better.)

Anyway, Foster and his wife, Mona (Alice Eve), and his three children decides to spend the weekend camping and things don’t go well.  In fact, they go so badly that Foster ends up crashing the SUV and his entire family ends up dead.  Not to worry though!  Foster’s a scientist and he knows how to create clones.  So, he’ll just clone his family.  Of course, to do that, he’ll have to pretend that they’re all still alive and, because he only has room for three clones, he’ll have to pretend like his fourth child never existed.

Does Foster succeed?  Well, the movie is called Replicas.  What’s weird is that it’s obvious that Foster’s going to succeed but the movie still spends an entire hour with Foster and Whittle trying to figure out how to bring the clones to life.  I understand the movie wanted to at least pretend like there was a chance that Foster might not be able to do it but, again, the movie is called Replicas.

Anyway, Foster does eventually resurrect his family but then he discovers that Jones is actually a bad guy and soon, Foster and the Replicas are fleeing for their lives.  It really doesn’t add up too much because the film doesn’t bother to really explore any of the issues that it brings up.  Potentially big moments — like Foster deleting his youngest daughter’s existence — happen but are never really explored.  You keep waiting for some sort of twist — like the clones turning on their creator or Foster discovering that he’s a clone himself — and it never happens.  Instead, the film turns into a rather standard if not very exciting sci-fi action film.

To give credit where credit is due, Keanu Reeves does appear to be taking the film seriously and he has a few scenes that suggest that the film would have been improved if it had played up the idea of Foster being a mad scientist.  The rest of the cast seems to be either bored or miscast but Reeves does try to bring some heart to the film.  Otherwise, Replicas is pretty forgettable.

LifetimeFilm Review: The Sweetheart (a.k.a. Dating A Sociopath) (dir by Max McGuire)

Is this Canadian film from 2018 called The Sweetheart or Dating a Sociopath?

It depends on where you first saw it.

When it was on Netflix, it was called The Sweetheart.  However, when the film recently aired on Lifetime, the title had been changed to Dating A Sociopath.  We all know how much Lifetime loves to change titles and, in this case, I think they made the right move.  Dating A Sociopath just has a certain punch to it that The Sweetheart lacks.  The Sweetheart makes it sound like this is a film about one of those old women who always has 60 year-old candy sitting in a glass jar.  Whereas Dating A Sociopath tells you pretty much everything that you need to know about the film.

The sociopath of the title is Brian (John Cor), who is a personal trainer who apparently has a nice side gig going where he seduces wealthy women, spends all of their money, and murders them.  John Cor does a pretty good job of playing Brian, turning up the charm even while he’s doing some of the worst things imaginable.  As played by Cor, you can understand just how exactly Brian has managed to be such a successful con artist.  There’s also a great scene in which a jewelry store employee attempts to blackmail Brian and Brian responds not with the expected violence but instead by precisely explaining everything that he will do to the employee if he doesn’t keep quiet.  In this scene, Brian is both charismatic and dangerous and scary as Hell.

Brian’s latest target is Samantha (Jessalyn Gilsig), who is currently separated from her well-meaning but alcoholic husband.  Samantha thinks that Brian is the best but her oldest daughter, Jane (Hannah Vandenbygaart), is immediately suspicious of him  Of course, Jane has problems of her own to deal with.  Thanks to her father’s lack of sobriety and basic driving skills, Jane has a broken leg and is forced to spend most of the movie hopping around on either crutches or using a cane.  Making things even worse for Jane is the fact that Brian keeps messing with her medication, the better to keep Jane in constant pain and to also fool everyone into thinking that she’s become a pill-popping drug addict.

And I have to say that, as someone who has broken her ankle on multiple occasions and who knows just how Hellish the healing process can be without painkillers, nothing made me dislike Brian more than those scenes where he would sneak into Jane’s room and switch out her medication while she was sleeping.  I mean, if I didn’t already know it from the title, those scenes would be all the proof that I needed to know that Brian was a sociopath.  At the same time, those scenes also firmly put me on Jane’s side.  By the time Jane finally stood up for herself and started her own investigation into Brian’s past, I was ready to jump and cheer.

Dating A Sociopath is a pretty entertaining Lifetime film, even if it wasn’t originally made for Lifetime.  John Cor and Hannah Vandenbygaart are both well-cast in the two most important roles and if nothing else, the film will encourage anyone to think twice before dating a sociopath.  Even a charming one.

Cleaning Out the DVR #24: Crime Does Not Pay!

cracked rear viewer

We’re way overdue for a Cleaning Out the DVR post – haven’t done one since back in April! – so let’s jump right in with 4 capsule reviews of 4 classic crime films:

SINNERS’ HOLIDAY (Warner Brothers 1930; D: John Adolfi) – Early talkie interesting as the screen debut of James Cagney , mixed up in “the booze racket”, who shoots bootlegger Warren Hymer, and who’s penny arcade owner maw Lucille LaVerne covers up by pinning the murder on daughter Evalyn Knapp’s ex-con boyfriend Grant Withers. Some pretty racy Pre-Code elements include Joan Blondell as Cagney’s “gutter floozie” main squeeze. Film’s 60 minute running time makes it speed by, aided by some fluid for the era camerawork. Fun Fact: Cagney and Blondell appeared in the original Broadway play “Penny Arcade”; when superstar entertainer Al Jolson bought the rights, he insisted Jimmy and Joan be cast in the film version, and…

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Lifetime Film Review: Undercover Cheerleader (dir by Danny J. Boyle)

Autumn (Kayla Wallace) has just transferred to a new high school and she has a decision to make.  At her old school, Autumn was the star of the dance team but it turns out that this new school doesn’t have a dance program.  Instead, it appears that Autumn is going to have to settle for either becoming a cheerleader or working on the school paper.

It’s a difficult decision and it was one to which I could automatically relate.  When I was in high school, I was constantly told that I should follow in my sister’s footsteps and try out for cheerleader.  I was also told that, with my big vocabulary and love of gratuitous sarcasm, I would be a natural for the school paper.  Myself, I didn’t want to be a cheerleader because I wanted to establish my own identity as opposed to just following in my sister’s footsteps.  At the same time, I didn’t want to join the paper because, as much as I love to write, I hate being edited.  I ultimately decided to do neither.  However, Autumn apparently has a bit more initiative than I did at that age because she decides to do both!

That’s right.  Autumn is going to try out for the squad and then she’s going to write anonymous articles about her experience for the newspaper!  She’s going to be an …. UNDERCOVER CHEERLEADER!

Autumn makes the squad and, not surprisingly, she discovers that there’s a lot to write about.  For instance, it turns out that that high school’s cheerleading coach is kind of a fascist who forces the cheerleaders to eat laxatives and who takes an immediate and irrational dislike to the only black girl on the squad.  The coach is also obsessed with controlling every aspect of her cheerleaders’s lives and it’s obvious that she’s less concerned with their well-being than she is with winning another championship.  She even forces one cheerleader to seriously injure herself for no apparent reason.

When Autumn’s first article comes out, the entire school is like, “Ewwwww!  Laxatives!?”  Everyone on the squad is trying to figure out who wrote the article.  Why they didn’t automatically suspect Autumn, who they already know is friends with the paper’s editor, I’m not sure.  While the article does get the coach in trouble, it also leads to a cheerleader power struggle and ultimately a murder.  This is a Lifetime movie, after all.

A lot happens in Undercover Cheerleader.  In fact, you could probably argue that too much happens in the movie.  It takes forever to get to that murder, which is unusual for a Lifetime film.  But no matter!  Undercover Cheerleader is a well-acted film and one that even has a few unexpected moments of wit.  Autumn is an interesting character because, even as she writing articles about how much it sucks to be a cheerleader, she’s also discovering that she likes the other members of the squad.  Kayla Wallace does a great job of capturing Autumn’s conflicted emotions about her assignment and she’s well-matched by Maddie Phillips and Ryan Grantham, who play two cynical student journalists.

If you’re a fan of Lifetime films, you should enjoy Undercover Cheerleader.