Today, I continue my look back at 2015 by posting my picks for the best of Lifetime! My nominees for the best Lifetime films and performances are listed below, with the winners starred and listed in bold! Congratulations to all the nominees and winners and thank you for making this one of the most entertaining years in my long history of watching Lifetime movies!
What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!
If you were suffering insomnia at around 2:30 this morning, you could have turned over to ActionMax and watched the 2005 film Born Killers.
Now, probably the first thing that you noticed about this film is that the director is named Morgan J. Freeman. That J is there for a reason. In no way is Morgan J. Freeman the director related to Morgan Freeman the actor. Instead, Morgan J. Freeman is a director who has done a few indie films and who will probably never live down the fact that he directed American Psycho II: All-American Girl. According to the imdb, Freeman is also an executive producer on Teen Mom.
In other words, Morgan J. Freeman has been involved with a lot of crap.
However, Born Killers is actually a fairly good film. It’s certainly far better than anything you would expect to see from the director of American Psycho II.
Born Killers tells the story of two brothers, John (Jake Muxworthy) and Michael (Gabriel Mann). John and Michael are both killers. They call other human beings “piggy banks” and they spend all of their time murdering innocent people and then robbing them. For the wild and unpredictable Michael, it’s fun. For the coolly calculating John, it’s strictly business. They’re both sociopaths but, as quickly becomes apparent, Michael is the only one who is having any fun.
Through flashbacks, we discover that Michael and John never really had a chance to be anything other than what they eventually became. From an early age, their father (Tom Sizemore, who is absolutely chilling) taught them how to kill and steal. After their father’s violent death, John and Michael go on their own killing spree.
And everything seems to be going well for them, until John ends up shooting Michael. Why did John kill him? Even though John is narrating the story, he doesn’t seem to be sure. He admits that his memory may be fooling him. He thinks that it might have something to do with a woman named Archer (Kelli Garner), who the brothers reluctantly murdered.
With his brother now dead, John tracks down his half-sister, Gertle (Lauren German). John hasn’t seen Gertle in years and, when he first approaches her, he pretends to be a Mormon missionary. Gertle responds by leading him into her house and, after they have sex, she tells him that she knows that he is her half-brother.
Though John was originally planning on murdering her, he instead finds himself falling in love with her and even feeling that maybe his love for her would redeem him for all of his past crimes. When she tries to warn him that she has issues of her own, John replies that he knows they are meant to be together. He begs her to take a chance on him.
But Gertle, as you’ve probably guessed, has secrets of her own…
At first, I wasn’t expecting much from Born Killers. And, for the first 30 minutes or so, it plays out like your typical serial killer road film. I kept watching because of the performances but I didn’t think much of the story. However, as soon as John tracks down his sister, the entire movie changes direction and it actually starts to catch you off guard. Suddenly, you’re no longer sure just what exactly is going to happen or how it’s going to end. During the final half of the film, Lauren German and Jake Muxworthy give such good and compelling performances that you forget about the shaky first half. Even if the film’s ending is a little bit too twisted for its own good, it’s still an interesting journey.
All in all, Born Killers is not at all bad for a low-budget serial killer film airing on Cinemax at two in the morning!
On Sunday night, I watched Part 2 of Lifetime’s The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe.
Why Was I Watching It?
I was watching it because I watchedPart One on Saturday and I absolutely loved it! I wanted to see how Part Two would deal with the second half of Marilyn’s life. Would it explore the mysteries that still surround her death? Would the Kennedys make an appearance? Who would come off worse — Joe DiMaggio or Arthur Miller?
What Was It About?
Part Two of The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe deals with her life after she became a star. We watch as the increasingly fragile Marilyn marries the physically abusive Joe DiMaggio (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and the mentally abusive Arthur Miller (Stephen Bogaert). (Seriously, neither Joe nor Arthur comes across positively in this film.) Marilyn continues to deal with her own fears that she’ll go crazy like her mother (Susan Sarandon). She has a brief moment of hope when she meets John F. Kennedy, though the film is deliberately vague about the details of their relationship. Ultimately, she ends up having a breakdown and is hospitalized against her will. By the end of the film, it seems like she’s found some hope for the future but then, we see her tossing and turning in bed and clumsily reaching for a bottle of pills…
Kelli Garner’s performance as Marilyn was just impressive here as it was during the first part of the film.
What Did Not Work?
Sadly, Part Two just wasn’t as good as Part One. To a large extent, Part One worked because of the emphasis on Marilyn’s relationships with her mom (Susan Sarandon) and her adopted aunt Grace (Emily Watson). In Part Two, those relationships were overshadowed by Marilyn’s unhappy marriages to DiMaggio and Miller. As a result, the film lost some of its focus and it often seemed to be meandering from one unhappy scene to another until Marilyn’s final night.
Also, I was disappointed that the film was so vague in its approach to Marilyn’s relationship with the Kennedys. Listen, everyone knows that Marilyn had an affair with both Jack and Bobby Kennedy. The film tried to create some ambiguity about this point, never actually showing either Kennedy brother on screen and instead, just having Marilyn talk about them. Rather unfairly, this created the impression that both affairs could have been another one of Marilyn’s delusions. Quite frankly, Marilyn Monroe deserves better than that.
“Oh My God! Just like me!” Moments
Just as with Part One, there were several. Kelli Garner humanized her iconic role to such an extent that I think everyone watching could relate to her. I’ll just say that I’ve known my DiMaggios and my Millers and leave it at that.
Fame does not equal happiness.
In the end, Part Two was not as good as Part One but, overall, The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe was worth the 4 hours it took to watch it. It did a great job of recreating the Hollywood of the past and Kelli Garner gave a great performance. Since this is Lifetime that we’re talking about, I imagine both parts will be rerun frequently. If you missed them the first time, don’t make the same mistake twice!
Earlier tonight, I watched Part One of the latest Lifetime original movie, The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe.
Why Was I Watching It?
Lifetime has been advertising The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe for about two months now. From the first commercial, I knew that this was something that I was going to have to watch. After all, a movie about a famous and tragic actress on the always melodramatic Lifetime network? How could I not watch?
What Was It About?
It’s right there in the title. The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe tells the story of how poor country girl Norma Jean Baker became the iconic Marilyn Monroe. The first part of this two-part film dealt with Marilyn’s early years. We watched as Marilyn (played by Kelli Garner) made her way out to Hollywood and appeared in her first few films, all the while dealing with her mentally unstable mother, Grace (Susan Sarandon). Part One ended with Marilyn on the verge of becoming the world’s biggest star. It was a happy ending for Marilyn but not so much for the audience because we know what’s going to happen to her during Part II.
The first part of The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe was everything that you could possibly want from a Lifetime movie. The costumes, the production design, the cinematography — it was all properly opulent and wonderful to look at.
Even more importantly, Part One was anchored by three wonderful performances from three great actresses. Susan Sarandon was heartbreaking and poignant as Marilyn’s unstable mother. Emily Watson brought a quiet strength to the role of Marilyn’s surrogate mother, Grace. And finally, there’s Kelli Garner in the title role. After years of doing good work in small roles (Bully, Lars and The Real Girl), The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe finally gives Kelli Garner a chance to show what she’s capable of doing as an actress. In part one, Garner gave a performance that both humanized an icon while also suggesting the legend that she would eventually become.
What Did Not Work?
The film’s framing device, in which Marilyn told her story to a psychologist played by Jack Noseworthy, occasionally felt a bit awkward. Otherwise, as far as the first half of The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe was concerned, it all worked.
“Oh my God! Just like me!” Moments
Obviously, I don’t want to sit here and compare myself to Marilyn Monroe. I’ll leave that for others to do. However, I do have to say that there were quite a few “Oh my God! Just like me!” moments in the first part of The Secret Life Of Marilyn Monroe. That was one reason why the film worked so well — it took an iconic figure and humanized her to the extent that anyone viewing could relate to her.
There were many moments that I related to during part one, particularly when it came to Marilyn’s emotional vulnerability and her desire to be seen as something more than just another pretty face. In fact, there were more than a few times that I had to look away from the screen because, often, Marilyn’s pain was my pain.
Ultimately, though, the biggest “OMG! Just like me!” moment came at the start of the film when Marilyn spent over an hour trying on different outfits before greeting the psychologist waiting in the next room. I’m just as obsessive, especially when it comes to picking the right clothes for a doctor’s appointment.
(Seriously, I once spent an entire day putting together the perfect outfit for seeing the allergist.)
Fame can’t buy happiness but it can come awfully close. (Of course, I have a feeling that lesson will be invalidated once I watch the second part of The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe.)
“The way of the future.” — Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) in The Aviator (2004)
As I recently rewatched the 2004 best picture nominee, The Aviator, I realized that, in the film’s scheme of things, Ava Gardner was far more important than Katharine Hepburn. (Or, perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that Kate Beckinsale’s Ava Gardner was far more important than Cate Blanchett’s Katharine Hepburn.)
Over the course of the film, both Hepburn and Gardner are involved with billionaire-turned aviator-turned film director Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio). Throughout the film, Katherine is portrayed as being flighty, pretentious, and overdramatic. There’s a lot of dark humor to the scene where Katherine breaks up with Howard, largely because Katharine is incapable of not acting as if she’s making a film. Her every word is so carefully rehearsed that you have to agree when Howard says that she’s incapable of not giving a performance. Ava, on the other hand, is always direct. She has a sense of humor. She has no trouble telling Howard off. Whereas Katharine put on airs of being an incurable romantic, Ava tells Howard flat out that she doesn’t love him and is only using him to forward her career.
But, while Katharine Hepburn gets more screen time, it’s Ava Gardner who actually saves Howard’s business. Towards the end of the film, after Howard has had a nervous breakdown and has locked himself in a hotel room, it’s Ava who suddenly shows up, cleans him, and dresses him. She’s the one who gives Howard the strength to leave his room and to face down the corrupt senator (Alan Alda) who is investigating his business.
Of course, Howard Hughes is best known for once being the world’s richest recluse. In the 1960s, Howard locked himself away in a hotel room in Las Vegas and spent the next decade laying naked in bed and watching television. The Aviator doesn’t deal with this period of Howard’s life but it’s full of scenes where we catch glimpses of Howard’s future. Throughout the film, we watch as Howard obsessively washes his hands. We watch as he gives precise instructions on how even the simplest of tasks are to be accomplished. We watch as he grows increasingly paranoid about the germ-filled outside world. The film suggests that Howard’s obsessive compulsive disorder both served to make him a great engineer and a great filmmaker while, at the same time, ultimately destroying him.
The Aviator was the second film that DiCaprio made with Scorsese. And, as bad as DiCaprio may have been in Gangs of New York, he’s absolutely brilliant in The Aviator. As a character, Howard Hughes has so many quirks and tics that it would have been easy for DiCaprio to go overboard. Instead, he gives a surprisingly subtle performance. And, even more importantly as far as I’m concerned, he actually sounds authentically Texan when he speaks.
In many ways, much of The Aviator reminds me of Gangs of New York. Both films are gorgeously produced period epics that try to cover a lot of material. Both films are absolute cat nip for history nerds like me. But, whereas Gangs of New York leaves one feeling vaguely dissatisfied, The Aviator actually improves with subsequent viewings. Whereas the action in Gangs had no center, The Aviator revolves around Howard and the actor playing him.
While the Aviator starts off with Howard making movies and romancing Katharine Hepburn, it’s at its best when Howard appears before a committee chaired by Sen. Owen Brewster (Alan Alda) and passionately defends both himself as an engineer and a businessman and the right of innovators everywhere to freely pursue their passion. The film suggests that Brewster was bribed by Howard’s main business rival, Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin, in unapologetic villain mode), and it’s hard not to applaud when Howard stands up for himself.
Speaking of which, it’s odd, so soon after reviewing Alan Alda in The Seduction of Joe Tynan, to see Alda playing a far less ethical politician in The Aviator. That said, Alda’s corrupt performance in The Aviator is a hundred times better than his cutesy work in Joe Tynan. If anything, Alda gives a performance here that will remind everyone of why they don’t care much for their congressman.
The Aviator was nominated for best picture but it lost to the far more low-key Million Dollar Baby. Scorsese would have to wait until the release of The Departedfor one of his films to finally win best picture.
The kids of the Harry Potter film franchise have all gone their separate ways. Some have moved on to taking smaller roles. Others have begun to take on roles that tries to rehabilitate their image from just being a Harry Potter actor. Emma Watson has had some success in redoing her post-Potter image. Yet, it’s the “Chosen One” himself who looks to really be going with as many left-field film role choices since the end of the franchise.
Daniel Radcliffe has been taking some interesting risks with his post-Potter career. Even before the franchise was over he had begun working on redoing his image. Whether it was doing the stage play Equus or taking on a horror film role with the gothic horror The Woman in Black, Radcliffe seems more than willing to leave his Potter days behind him.
The first trailer from the film adaptation of the Joe Hill penned dark fantasy Horns has now arrived. We see brief glimpses of Radcliffe in the title role with the proverbial horns that becomes the center of the film’s plotline.
Time will tell if Horns will be another notch in making Daniel Radcliffe less the Potter-kid and ore the talented actor he’s turning out to be.
Horns will be making it’s presence know this Halloween 2014.
Bullying has been in the news a lot lately. The fact that some people are bullies is hardly a new development, it’s just that now people are actually paying attention to the possible consequences of cruelty. Tragically, it appears it takes people killing themselves for the rest of the world to consider that “Hey, maybe concentrated, socially accepted sadism isn’t a harmless thing.” With so many people finally admitting what they had to have known was true all along, now seems like a good time to reconsider Larry Clark’s controversial and much-maligned 2001 film, Bully.
I can still remember the night, five years ago, that I first saw Bully. I was at a party with a group of friends. Nine of us ended up in a random bedroom, drinking, smoking, and going through all the closets and dressers. I might add, we found some very interesting things while searching. Anyway, someone eventually turned on the TV and there was Bully, playing on one of the movie stations. Since we knew Bully was supposed to be a very explicit, very controversial movie, we left the TV playing and hung out in a stranger’s bedroom for two more hours. There was, obviously, a lot going on in that room and I have to admit that I only paid attention to bits and pieces of the movie. But what I saw stuck with me enough that the next chance I got, I bought the movie on DVD so I could actually devote my full attention to it. In the years since, Bully is not a film that I revisit frequently because, to be honest, it’s the type of movie that makes you take a shower after watching it. It’s also an unusually powerful and disturbing film that sticks with you for a long time after it ends. It’s not a film that I would recommend anyone watch a hundred times. But it’s definitely worth viewing at least once (or maybe even four times if you’re like me).
The bully of the title is 20 year-old Bobby Kent (played by Nick Stahl). Bobby’s “best friend” is passive, blank-faced Marty Puccio (Brad Renfro). Despite being physically stronger, Marty allows himself to be totally dominated by Bobby. Marty accepts Bobby’s constant insults and physical abuse with the meek acceptance of a battered spouse. Bobby, who is on the verge of starting college and presumably making a life for himself that high school dropout Marty could never dream of, even forces Marty to moonlight as a male stripper and to take part in making cheap, gay-themed porn videos. (Bobby insists that he’s not gay himself and, like most guys in denial, goes out of his way to act as much like an insensitive asshole as possible as if to scream to the world, “I’m straight!” despite all the evidence to the contrary.)
As the film begins, Ali (Bijou Philips) and her friend Lisa Marie Connelly (Rachel Miner) step into sandwich shop where both Bobby and Marty work. (Bobby, of course, is the boss.) Apparently, they are appropriately impressed by the sight of Bobby slamming Marty’s head against a refrigerator because soon, all four of them are going out on a double date. While Ali’s content to just give Bobby a blow job, the far more insecure Lisa decides that Marty is the love of her life and starts a relationship with him that the ever-passive Marty simple accepts. However, what Lisa has failed to take into account, is that Marty is already in a relationship and Bobby isn’t ready to just let go. Bobby expresses this by walking in on Marty and Lisa while they’re having sex, beating Marty up, and then (unlike everything else in this movie, this is never explicitly shown) raping Lisa. After this, Lisa discovers that she’s pregnant but she doesn’t know if the baby’s father is the man she claims to love or the man who raped her.
(One thing that surprised me, that night I first watched Bully out of the corner of my eye while me and my friends searched through a stranger’s lingerie, was just how little sympathy most of my friends had for Lisa. While I wasn’t surprised that the majority of guys in the room seemed to feel that Lisa was somehow to blame for disrupting all that precious male bonding, it was the reaction of some of the other girls that truly caught my off guard. While none of them went as far as to say that Lisa deserved to be raped by Bobby, quite a few of them took the attitude that she either brought it on herself or she was lying. Unlike the boys, these girls also felt the need to make several snide remarks about Rachel Miner’s physical appearance. At the time, their attitude really bothered me and I have to admit that I wasn’t as close to any of them afterward.)
(Of course, we Lisa Maries have to stick together…)
Despite having raped his girlfriend, Bobby still considers himself to be Marty’s best friend and Marty — again like an addicted spouse — proves himself to be incapable to simply cut off all ties with Bobby even as the abuse gets worse and Bobby grows increasingly unstable. In one of the film’s more controversial scenes, Bobby and Ali are about to have sex when Bobby decides that the only thing the scene is missing is a gay porn video playing in the background. Ali finds the idea to be disgusting and insinuates that Bobby must be gay. Bobby responds by raping Ali.
Finally, Lisa tells Marty and Ali that they have little choice but to murder Bobby. While this starts out as a somewhat innocent suggestion of the “I wish he was dead,” kind, Lisa soon begins to insist that Bobby must die. Ali recruits her friend Heather (Kelli Garner) and an ex-boyfriend named Donny (a truly scary Michael Pitt) into the conspiracy. (Heather and Donny both agree that Bobby must die though neither one has ever met him.) Lisa, meanwhile, brings in her cousin, video-game geek Derek. Finally, and most fatefully, they decide to get some pointers from the neighborhood hitman (Leo Fitzpatrick).
That’s right. The neighborhood hitman. He’s actually a pretty familiar figure in the suburbs. He’s the 17 year-old white boy who tries to stare out at the world with hateful eyes. He brags to you about how he’s a member of a gang. He tries to rap and speaks in dialogue lifted from Grand Theft Auto. In short, he’s the guy that everyone laughs at whenever he’s not around. His lies should be obvious to anyone with a brain which is exactly why Lisa, Marty, and Ali all assume that he’s an actual hitman. The Hitman agrees to direct their murder and help them kill a person who (like almost everyone else now involved in the conspiracy) he has never actually met.
It all climaxes in one of the most disturbingly graphic and harrowing murder scenes I’ve ever seen, one that manages to snap the audience back into reality after the (needed) comic relief of Fitzpatrick’s absurd wannabe gangster. As he’s repeatedly attacked by this group of made up of bumbling strangers and his “best” friend, Bobby proves himself to be not quite as powerful a figure as everyone had assumed. Instead, he’s revealed as a pathetic, frightened teenager who begs Marty to forgive him (for “whatever I did”) even as Marty savagely stabs him to death.
Unlike the standard rape-revenge flick (and have no doubt, that’s what Bully essentially is), the film’s climatic act of violence doesn’t provide any sort of satisfaction or wish-fulfillment empowerment. Instead, it just sets up the chain of events that leads to the film’s inevitable and disturbing conclusion.
When it first came out, Bully was controversial because of its explicit sex and violence. As a director, Clark employs his customary documentary approach while, at the same time, allowing his camera to frequently linger over the frequently naked bodies of his cast. More than one reviewer has referred to Clark as “a dirty old man” while reviewing this film. (More on that in a minute.) What those critics often seem to fail to notice is that, as explicit as the movie is, some of the most powerful and disturbing elements (like Bobby’s repressed homosexuality) are never explicitly stated.
After seeing this movie a few more times, the thing that gets me is that — in the end — the film’s nominal villains — Bobby and Lisa — are also the only two compelling characters in the entire movie. While all the other characters are essentially passive, Bobby and Lisa are the only ones actually capable of instigating any type of action. As such, they become — almost by default — the heroes of the movie. On repeat viewings, it’s apparent that Bobby and Lisa are really two sides of the same coin. The film’s title could refer to either one of them. They are both insecure, unhappy with who they are, and both of them seem to find a personal redemption by dominating Marty. One of the great ironies of the film is that Bobby and Lisa are essentially fighting a war for the soul of a guy who is eventually revealed to be empty inside. For his part, Marty simply shifts his “forbidden” relationship with Bobby over to Lisa, a relationship that is just as exploitive and destructive as his friendship with Bobby but which is also more socially acceptable because it’s so heterosexual in nature that he’s even knocked up his girlfriend. When Marty finally does kill Bobby, he’s not only killing a bully but he’s attempting to kill of his own doubts about his sexual identity. It’s his way of letting the world know that he’s a “real” man. As for the other characters — Ali, Donny, Heather, and even the swaggering hitman — they are all defined by their utter shallowness. While its clear that none of them are murderous on their own, it also becomes clear that none of them have enough of an individual identity to resist the Bobbys and Lisas of the world.
Despite playing shallow characters, nobody in the cast gives a shallow performance. Down to the smallest role, the actors are all believable in their roles. Whether it’s Michael Pitt’s blank-faced aggression or Leo Fitzpatrick’s comedic swagger, all of the actors inhabit these characters and give performances that are disturbingly authentic. The late Brad Renfro gave one of his best performances as Marty, just hinting at the anger boiling below the abused surface. However, the film belongs to Miner and Stahl. Stahl displays a sordid charm that makes his character likable if never sympathetic while Miner manages to do something even more difficult. She makes Lisa into a character who is sympathetic yet never quite likable. When Bully first came out, critics spent so much time fixating on the fact that Miner’s frequently naked on the film that they forgot to mention that she also proves herself to be an excellent actress.
As I stated, Bully is not a universally beloved film. Most of the reviews out there are negative with a few of the more self-righteous critics accusing the film of being “pornographic” as if the whole thing was filled with close-up money shots of Brad Renfro ejaculating on Rachel Miner’s ass. Strangely enough, you can find hundreds of critics complaining that Clark filmed full frontal nudity but next to none complaining that Clark filmed a brutal and realistic murder scene.
The two most frequent criticisms of Bully are that 1) it plays fast and loose with the true story that it’s based on and 2) that the film is exploitive.
Both criticisms are valid but the first one is the only one that would really bother me. I have to admit that I don’t really know much about the real life murder of Bobby Kent. I just know the version presented in this movie and in the Jim Schultze book that the movie was based on. Of course, everyone arrested and convicted for Kent’s murder has been quick to claim that the movie makes them look more guilty than they actually are. That’s to be expected. However, the main difference between the film and the reality — for me — was that, in reality, victim Bobby Kent did not look a thing like Nick Stahl. Whereas Stahl is clearly no physical match for any of the characters in the film (and hence, it’s easier to feel sorry for him when everyone attacks him at once), pictures of the real-life Bobby Kent reveal an intimidating, muscular, young man who few people would probably ever chose to mess with. Stahl’s Bobby is a bully because everyone else in the film is too passive to stand up to him. The real Bobby could probably get away with being a bully because he literally looked like he could rip another man’s arm off.
The other criticism is that this movie — with its combination of tits and blood — is essentially just an “exploitation” film. Well, it is. But as I’ve explained elsewhere, just because a film is exploitive, that doesn’t mean that it’s not a good movie. Art and exploitation, more often than not, are clandestine lovers and not bitter enemies. Yes, all of the characters — male and female — do spend a good deal of time showing off their bodies but then again, what else would these otherwise empty characters do? Their surface appearance is really all they have. Yes, the camera does linger over all the exposed flesh but then again, so do most people. If anything, critics attempted to punish Clark for openly acknowledging that majority of his audience is waiting to either see Bijou Phillips’ twat or Nick Stahl’s dick. Yes, Bully is exploitation but it’s exploitation in the best grindhouse tradition. It’s a film that’s honest specifically because it is so sordid and exploitive.
When all is said and done, Bully is the epitome of a movie that is too sordid to ever be corrupted.