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.

Hallmark Review: Signed, Sealed, Delivered: From The Heart (2016, dir. Lynne Stopkewich)


When I made that ordering of the best Valentine’s Day movies from Hallmark this year on my post for Appetite For Love, I was not aware the new Signed, Sealed, Delivered movie was also going to be part of their Valentine’s Day lineup. To put it bluntly, screw the other five, and watch this. I hope more Hallmark fans are tuning into their Movies & Mysteries Channel movies because the Signed, Sealed, Delivered films are the best ones Hallmark airs. Nothing else really compares. That said, this one needed some trimming. The main plot and a little furthering of the relationship between Norman (Geoff Gustafson) and Rita (Crystal Lowe) was all we really needed. The rest of the plots feel extraneous and just add more to follow without much payoff.

Interestingly, this is the first of the Signed, Sealed, Delivered movies to not be helmed by Kevin Fair. This time around they brought in October Kiss director Lynne Stopkewich. She has had an interesting career so far to say the least. She does a fine job here. I have no complaints about the directing.

Often we get the title card of a Hallmark movie almost immediately, but not this time. A fair amount of setup occurs before that happens.


The movie begins back in 1835 with a woman making a Valentine for someone in America. We will eventually be told who the Valentine was meant for, which is kind of neat, but not really. It winds up in Norman’s hands, and it does serve a purpose for a scene with him near the end, but he didn’t need the letter for his lines to work just as well. This is a part that really could have been trimmed in my opinion. The movie already had enough plots going that it didn’t need this one thrown in as well.


Then matching on the action of the 1835 handmade Valentine, we jump to present day and see Oliver (Eric Mabius) making his own Valentine for Shane (Kristin Booth). He then hands it off to be mailed to her instead of just giving it to her…for reasons? This is another part that could have been snipped. The letter will take the entire film to end up in Shane’s hands. It ends up in a box she doesn’t know has anything but Valentine decorations in it.

Now you’d think that title card might pop up now, but nope.


The dead letter comes in, and Oliver instantly takes it to run off to a restaurant.


We now go back 15 years to find a kid mailing that letter before asking a police officer where he needs to go to turn himself in.

Now we get the title card and title track of the series. It took awhile. I was wondering if it would ever show up. By the way, that 15 years earlier thing is the main plot of the film. Unlike previous Signed, Sealed, Delivered movies, this one does act more like a procedural rather than having the letter lead to a major revelation about the characters that moves them forward for the next film. I liked that. I’ve always wanted the tracking down the letter to truly be the center of attention instead of say Oliver discovering the truth about his father. There is a little bit of a blast from the past, literally, but it’s minor compared to previous installments.

Another plot is that Rita will get called in to be Miss Special Delivery because the people above her were disqualified in some manner. This goes nowhere really. It goes viral that Rita and Norman are an item and for no real reason she denies it during a press conference. Of course she ends up coming around in the end. I’m really not sure of any good reason for this plot to happen. Maybe a little reinforcement of their relationship since she certainly hurt Norman in the process. She must have been a little uncertain on her end. Otherwise, it just leads to some lines about how people share things today. Blah, blah, blah. People have been doing that sort of thing for a long time. Even as far back as the 1930’s, if not earlier. I’ve read stupid old newspaper stories telling us someone is leaving to go on vacation. I wouldn’t say this should have been snipped, but they could have found a better way to forward the Norman and Rita thing. Oh, and this happens to Norman at one point in the film.


It’s the funniest part of the movie, and since I don’t intend to do this movie blow by blow, I had to stick it somewhere. After picking up two baby doll arms in a dumpster, Norman says, “You wake up in the morning, and you never really know how your day is going to end.”


Here is the literal blast from the past. Back when Oliver was Cliff Clavin, he was going to pick up the mail from the mailbox where the kid dropped off the now dead letter. He decided to wait a little bit before he was supposed to pick up the letters because of a police officer who would be in the area that he liked. Since he waited a little bit, an actual clown showed up, and after a little accident with helium…KABOOM! Since Oliver really does take things seriously USPS wise, he never really forgave himself. As a result, he really wants to get this letter that was involved in the accident to its intended recipient.

You got all that? We have an 1835 Valentine that winds up in Norman’s hands that we don’t know who it’s for at first. We have Oliver’s Valentine for Shane going everywhere but her hands. We have the policewoman that Oliver likes. Oh yeah, that actually is a really tiny little plot in this too. We also have Rita and Norman needed to mend fences after she denies publicly that she is seeing him. Then finally, we have the main plot of the movie. All of these plots are affairs of the heart, which ties into the title, and the main plot, but it was a bit much.


These two are the main plot. That’s Ryan (Nick Purcha) and Maddie (Mackenzie Cardwell) 15 years earlier. They meet because they are both on the debate team. She isn’t very charismatic, but is good with research. He is the opposite. He’s charismatic, but usually doesn’t have that much substance to back what he is saying. Their plot is the best part of the movie. It leads to tragedy, which is why he turned himself into the police at the beginning of the film. A little spoiler: he killed somebody. It will also jump the 15 year gap when the letter finds it’s way to the two of them when they are adults.

I know I normally take you through the whole film, but not this time. I haven’t felt well lately. Also, that would have me trying to juggle all these plot lines or try to tell each one separately. This isn’t a Godfrey Ho movie where telling the plot lines separate makes the film more coherent. This is like the first two Godfather films where you lose something by rearranging events into chronological order. There is a reason these plots are woven together the way they are.

Like I said at the start, forget the other Hallmark Valentine’s Day movies this year, and watch this one instead.

Hallmark Review: Signed, Sealed, Delivered: The Impossible Dream (2015, dir. Kevin Fair)


As always with the Signed, Sealed, Delivered movies, if you can, you should go back and start with the Christmas one, then work your way forward to this one. However, if that’s not possible, then you should at least see the one right before this entitled Truth Be Told. I say that because while the series very much builds on each and every episode, this and Truth Be Told are a two part episode. Not in the way you would see a two part episode of say Star Trek: The Next Generation, but more like a crossover between two different shows. Except it’s the same show. By that I mean Truth Be Told can be watched and viewed as a whole, but there is an unresolved element that is then picked up and finished by this film.

The episode opens in Afghanistan where we see Lieutenant Randilynn Amidon (Tammy Gillis) from Truth Be Told is alive. She is trying to help a woman who is in labor. After Amidon is told that she doesn’t have much time left, we see a letter go out. Cue the titular music!

Now we see The Postables going in to meet with a congressional committee. They’re there because they want to plead their case that a rescue mission be sent in to save Lieutenant Randilynn Amidon. She was thought to be missing or to have even gone over to the enemy side in Afghanistan. Of course the committee wants to hear why, so Oliver O’Toole (Eric Mabius) takes us back to tell the story.


Turns out they came to Washington for, I kid you not, the Miss Special Delivery pageant that Rita Haywith (Crystal Lowe) is going to be in. As much as that is the lamest excuse for them to end up in Washington, it does serve a purpose beyond just putting them there for the main plot.


While they are in Washington they also go to visit Shane McInerney’s (Kristin Booth) childhood home, but it’s no longer there. Meanwhile, Rita checks in at the pageant while Shane, Oliver, and Norman (Geoff Gustafson) run into Amidon’s daughter and who I assume is Amidon’s grandfather. They probably said it at some point in this or Truth Be Told, but I missed it. However, the grandfather is played by William B. Davis so it’s probably Amidon’s grandfather given his age. They find out they are trying to get someone in Washington to listen to them about Randilynn. And I have to say, it’s kind of humorous to see this scene because of the character William B. Davis is probably most famous to people for playing. That being the mysterious Smoking Man from The X-Files. It’s funny to see him having trouble getting someone in the government to listen to him.


This is when the blast from the past shows up, and you know what? One of my wishes was fulfilled with this entry in the series. He’s not there to take up the majority of the film giving us backstory on one of the main characters. Nope. He’s an ex of Shane’s who works in the government. She called him thinking that he might be able to help in getting someone to listen to Amidon’s family. And that he does because he has the letter that we saw go out at the beginning of the film.


They can’t take the letter with them, but luckily Rita got a quick look at it and has a very good memory so she is able to recall details about it.

What follows is largely the other wish I had about future episodes of Signed, Sealed, Delivered. The rest is mainly them working to decipher the letter and explain to the committee what that means, and where they need to go in order to rescue her in Afghanistan. So, yay for me, and I hope future episodes do this sort of thing more.

There are only two other things I think are worth mentioning.


The pageant serves a purpose beyond just giving them an excuse to be in Washington. While this movie doesn’t have someone show up to give us a character backstory dump, the pageant and what happens with it does move the Rita and Norman love story forward. Also, we see Oliver inherit the money from his father that we found out about in Truth Be Told and he uses it to buy McInerney’s old lot to build a house for retired postal workers. The first acquisition he plans to use the money for in order to do good things.


The second thing is that while I’m sure that shot and all the shots in Afghanistan are in California or Canada, they don’t screw it up. They often shoot at night or with dust in the air. They shoot in areas that aren’t obviously not where they claim to be. And most importantly, they don’t linger on anything long enough for you to call BS. Sadly, this is not a usual thing for Hallmark, so kudos to the production crew of this particular one.

I recommend it, but at least see Truth Be Told first. However, you won’t be lost with the short mention about Oliver’s wife and I think you can pick up Rita and Norman’s story anywhere a long the line without any issue.

Val’s Movie Roundup #2: Hallmark Edition

Signed, Sealed, Delivered: From Paris With Love

Signed, Sealed, Delivered: From Paris With Love (2015) – Despite what people say elsewhere online, you can’t come into this film without having seen any of the other Signed, Sealed, Delivered TV Movies/Episodes. I know this because I tried and it doesn’t work. The movie is about four people (conveniently picked so we know that they should pair off) who get dead letters and track down who should have received them. Sounds like it should be a procedural, but it’s not. This series seems to set up a tiny little bit of a plot, then spends the whole time having the characters develop through conversation. The reason this film will lose people who are brand new is because it reaches all the way back through everything to the first episode of the show to bring Oliver’s (Eric Mabius) wife into his life again. The wife is played by Poppy Montgomery in a role far better than in Tammy and the T-Rex. Yeah, I’m going to work that movie into as many reviews as possible. There are also flashbacks. You really need to come to this as the culmination of all the previous stuff. As a result, my experience with this film was not good. It felt inert. Kind of like passing away slowly, but painlessly. I know that sounds brutal, but I can’t think of a better way to describe it.

Signed, Sealed, Delivered for Christmas

Signed, Sealed, Delivered for Christmas (2014) – This Signed, Sealed, Delivered is a different beast. It’s still the same characters and once again a dead letter has shown up. This time it’s a letter for God. You’d think it’s for Santa considering Christmas is in the title, but this is less a Christmas movie as it is a Christian movie. Unlike From Paris With Love, you can come into this without knowing anything. That’s a real plus! Again, it’s not about plot, but character development. And subtle slow development at that. I wonder how long Hallmark is planning to keep this show going. It can feel like being teased at times. Like near the end when Norman (Geoff Gustafson) reaches up to gently touch Rita’s (Crystal Lowe) face. You know she should just grab him in her arms, but it never happens. Instead, he walks away while she is lit up like a Christmas tree. If you have to choose between the two TV Movie episodes of this show to start with, then please start with this one. You’ll have a far better time, and most likely will enjoy From Paris With Love much more than I did.

Surprised By Love

Surprised By Love (2015) – When the cake gets destroyed, just make a new one from Twinkies! There’s nothing really to be surprised about here. You have a driven girl with the wrong guy. You have one of those guys who achieved some sort of nirvana by wandering from place to place. He’s kind of like the magic negro or magic eccentric type character that turns around other people’s lives simply by coming in contact with them. And finally, you have her boyfriend who is stuffy and clearly doesn’t belong with her. Our heroine runs into the magic man who is selling driftwood. Yeah, and his car runs on vegetable oil. I’m not making that up. What happens is that her boyfriend thinks it will be really clever if she brings home the magic man, whom she knows from high school, to be an embarrassment so he looks wonderful. Guess what happens? At least the grandpa who pretends to have dementia so he doesn’t have to talk to anybody is kind of funny. This one’s harmless.


Nearlyweds (2013) – Yeah, that’s easily the best scene in the movie. A phone call comes in with a job offer and while the person is leaving a message, the dog pees on the phone and it shorts out. But let me back up. This movie is about three girlfriends who all got married around the same time by the same guy. Problem though, he dies before he can sign the paperwork. That means, technically, legally, they’re not actually married. Typical, but could be humorous. Except it’s not. One of the big problems is that the husbands don’t find out about this until 48 minutes into the movie. At that point there are 39 minutes left. I don’t know why it takes so long. Everything prior seems like filler, then the secret is out, and still next to nothing happens. I know it’s Hallmark and a TV Movie in general, but they really should have done more with this. It’s not a concept that’s necessarily doomed from the start. Too bad.