A Deadly Game

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“An arrow escape.”

Winner of the “Most misleading DVD cover of the year” award, the gap between expectation and reality has rarely been wider. It starts off promisingly enough, with young woman Kayla (Fairaway), carrying a bow and running away from a man in a car. She’s rescued by a passing motorist, but they are run off the road by their pursuer. There’s then a flashback, to explain how these events came about. Which would be fine, except for the flashback lasting close to an hour and a quarter of thoroughly mind-numbing chit-chat, before anyone even picks up a bow in anger. It’s not exactly the Hunger Games wannabe the sleeve is trying to suggest.

One of the alternative names, Deadly Spa, is far more accurate, even though it’s a title more likely to raise a smirk than a rush of adrenaline-charged excitement. Kayla is at the spa in question – ‘The Source’ with her mother, Dawn (Pietz), having convinced Mom she needs a break. At first, the place seems beyond perfect: all meditation rooms, power food breakfasts, toxin-cleansing saunas, and of course, no cell-phones allowed. Though Kayla has a yearning for a cheeseburger, which she guiltily admits to sympathetic (and hunky!) spa employee, Brett (Werkheiser).

Like most things in Lifetime TV movies which seem too good to be true, this is too good to be true. In particular, spa owner David James (Whitworth) has more in common with David Koresh than his customers should expect. He takes a shine to Dawn, and successfully pulls the wool over her eyes. Kayla is nowhere near so easily convinced, not least because she has seen David’s more psychotic side. When her mother finally sees the light as well, the two try to escape, planning to divulge David’s dirty little secrets to the authorities. If you’re well-read on cult leaders like Jim Jones, you’ll know that, to David, it makes them a problem. The solution initially involves tying Kayla up in an attic and inflicting low-rent brain-washing techniques on her. It doesn’t take. This is my unsurprised face. 

Eventually – and, boy, do I mean “eventually” – this brings us back to where we came in. It takes so long, that I was beginning to feel I was the one held captive against my will, though unfortunately without any of that nice Stockholm syndrome kicking in. [And the sooner the PTSD kicks in and erases the whole movie from my memory, the better] First mom, and then the daughter, use their archery skills, miraculously picked up after little more than two arrows, to defend themselves. It’s just enough content – along with Mom’s miraculous and unannounced judoka talents, allowing her to flip one of David’s henchmen off a cliff – to allow this to qualify for the site. However, this review should be considered far more of a warning, than any kind of endorsement. I’m sure the place will be getting a one-star review on Yelp as well.

Dir: Marita Grabiak
Star: Amy Pietz, Tracey Fairaway, Johnny Whitworth, Devon Werkheiser
a.k.a. Zephyr Springs and Deadly Spa

Cocaine Godmother

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“A slice of Welsh rarebit”

As we mentioned in the 2018 preview, this has had a rather tortuous journey to the screen, with Zeta-Jones inked to the part of Griselda Blanco as long ago as October 2014. That theatrical film appears to have died on the vine, but the actress’s interest clearly did not. Last May, Lifetime gave the go-ahead to a TV movie version instead, telling the life story of a character who has already crossed this site before. Needless to say, there were howls of indignation from the usual quarters that the Welsh Zeta-Jones had been cast to play Blanco, though as she herself pointed out, she’d played Hispanic women before, such as in Zorro. It’s something which never bothers me: whether the performance works is always more important to me than the location of the performer’s birth.

In this case (and going by the Twitter reactions, many tend to agree), I’d say that Zeta-Jones certainly wasn’t the problem with the finished product. If considerably more attractive than the real Griselda, she is mostly very convincing, giving her portrayal the combination of driven intensity and potential for furious rage that Blanco possessed. The problem is more a script which simply fails to flow. Sure, the story touches most of the obvious moments in Griselda’s life, yet these appear completely unconnected to each other. The end result feels almost as if someone took a 70-episode telenovela and edited it down into a 90-minute TV movie. It’s more like Griselda Blanco’s Greatest Hits – and she was allegedly responsible for over 200 of those, hohoho.

It is a disturbing start, with the very young Blanco being pimped out by her mother in Medellin, only to pull a gun and shoot one of her customers dead after he refuses to pay. Damn. Thereafter, however, it bounces around rapidly, with little or no real time-frame. You get her killing husbands, inventing the motorcycle drive-by, the Dadeland Mall shootout, using attractive women to smuggle drugs in their lingerie and high-heels, etc. But all these fragments combine to provide little or no insight into her character, motives or personality (though I was somewhat impressed this did not soft-pedal Blanco’s bisexuality, unlike La Viuda Negra); I wanted to know what made her tick, and was sorely disappointed. You’d likely come away better informed simply by reading the Wikipedia article on her.

Perhaps it’s the kind of life which simply cannot be told adequately in such a brief time-span. I saw a number of comparisons to the Netflix series, Narcos, and do have to wonder if a 13-episode series might have been better suited to the material, rather than this breathless, and ultimately empty, gallop through Blanco’s life. There is still reported to be another take on the topic coming down the pipeline with Jennifer Lopez playing Blanco in an HBO movie. Like Zeta-Jones, Lopez had been linked to the role for a long time (since at least the death of the real Griselda in 2012), but little has been heard about that version since 2016. For now, this version will have to do.

Dir: Guillermo Navarro
Star: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Raúl Méndez, Juan Pablo Espinosa, Matteo Stefan

If Looks Could Kill

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“Keeps the pot boiling energetically enough.”

I’ve been a fan of The Asylum studio for a while. They’re famous – or infamous – mainly for two things. Originally, they churned out “mockbusters”, films that rode the advertising coat-tails of larger budget and more famous movies, using titles such as (I kid you not), Snakes on a Train. More recently, they are also creators of the cult Sharknado series for SyFy. However, The Asylum can and will, make more or less anything they think will turn a profit. Their quality of output does vary, shall we say. Yet I was entertained by this slice of Lifetime fluff ‘n’ nonsense more than expected, mostly due to effective performances from the two leads.

There’s Faith Gray (Estes), whose new job as a beat cop has re-united her with Detective Paul Wagner (Kosalka), for whom she has always had a “thing.” But at an incident in a local bar, he meets and ends up beginning a relationship with, Jessica Munroe (Spiro). She’s a drop-dead blonde with aspirations of becoming a movie star – not something easily accomplished in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Before you can say “We’ll be right back after these words from our sponsors,” she’s pregnant and married to Paul. Faith, however, thinks there’s something not quite right about Jessica, though her investigation could be considered more as jealousy-induced stalking. It’s certainly painted as such by its target.

The film never tries to hide the fact that Jessica is nutty as a fruitcake. As a result, its plotting is instead very much concerned just with getting the story from Point A to B, offering few surprises. I’m not exactly convinced by the “Based on a true story” claim here. And let’s not even start with the police procedures depictede: let’s just say, Stillwater PD could use some re-training, and move on. Yet the pleasures outweighed the deficiencies; in particular, as mentioned, watching the mousy Faith and psychotic glam-girl Jessica face off. The latter gets most of the cinematic highlights, vamping it up to great effect. Witness, for example, her hyper-ventilating in order to place a convincingly panicked phone call to her lover. Guess all Jessica’s acting classes finally paid off!

I admit, there’s something fun about watching a manipulative sociopath at work: there’s a reason Dangerous Liaisons is one of the all-time greats. Spiro isn’t quite at Glenn Close standards, yet both she and Estes give it their all, and elevate the material to enjoyable nonsense. Even if we didn’t quite get the hellacious cat-fight climax for which I was hoping, it’s always good to see a film where both protagonist and antagonist are women, and there’s no doubt all the effort went into Faith and Jessica, with the male characters barely registering. Paul, in particular, is so easily deceived you wonder how he ever became a detective. Yet, as pulpy nonsense goes, this hour and a half certainly went by quickly and painlessly enough.

Dir: James Cullen Bressack
Star: Stefanie Estes, Summer Spiro, Tomek Kosalka, Brian Shoop

Two Wrongs

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“…don’t make the ending right.”

twowrongsThe first half of this is actually well-written, asking some difficult moral questions that left me intrigued, and wondering how they would be resolved. The answer, unfortunately, is by an escalating series of plot twists, culminating in one of the more ridiculous climaxes I’ve ever seen. I could go on to say, “even in a Lifetime TVM”, but that would be unkind, since I’ve seen both good and bad examples from there over the past year. Though as an aside, I note Netflix being increasingly quiet about the ties of films to Lifetime, which is interesting; but given the severe inaccuracy of their synopsis (No, the heroine does not get “sucked into a dangerous underworld”), that’s more likely a Netflix issue.

Sarah (Zinser) is a single mom, devoted to her daughter, who also works as a nurse. It’s clear from the get-go that someone is stalking her, and eventually the daughter is abducted on her way home from school. Sarah is called by the kidnapper, but his demands are not anything like you’d expected. For it turns out, one of Sarah’s patients is trying to escape his own past, where he was accused of kidnapping a young girl himself, who allegedly died while in the trunk of his car. Acquitted on a technicality, he moved away, but the father of his victim – whose mother also suffered a complete psychological breakdown as a result – has tracked the perp down, and is now intent on using Sarah as a vehicle for his revenge.  How far will she go, in order to save her own daughter?

Like I said: it’s a difficult moral question, not least in the early going, when the film maintains a nice sense of ambiguity as to whether or not the target of her second-hand wrath is guilty. If so, then the entire situation becomes a cascading series of wrongness, potentially culminating in the death of at least one other innocent. While a fascinatingly dark scenario, it’s not exactly Lifetime fodder, and things start to go off the rails when Sarah’s mother [from whom she clearly gets her style of “helicopter parenting”] shows up, extracting a confession that removes any ambiguity. He’s guilty as charged, m’lud – and probably guilty of a lot of other things, too. Hanging’s too good for him. From then on, the script staggers from one ill-conceived mis-step to the next, through everyone going on a road-trip and an amazingly coincidental meeting at a gas-station, to an ending that literally drips everywhere. There is, apparently, no loose end which can’t be tied up by someone drowning randomly and floating off downstream, resolving all those tricky moral dilemmas. Though Zinser is solid enough as a mom prepared to do anything to get her daughter back, she could have been Meryl Streep here, and still wouldn’t be capable of papering over the glaring flaws in the later portion of the script.

Dir: Tristan Dubois
Star: Gillian Zinser, Ryan Blakely, Aidan Devine

Miss Diamond

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“More like, Miss Cubic Zirconia”

diamond1There’s an exhibition showcasing the first diamonds ever mined in Germany, dug up by the company belonging to Buhler (Kier). Keeping thing safe is the responsibility of security expert Tim (Kretschmann), who doesn’t realize that renowned jewel thief Lana (Speichert) has her eyes on the jewels. So they’re both in for a nasty surprise, because after Lana is caught by Tim in the process of stealing them, it turns out the diamonds are completely fake. Buhler gives her an ultimatum: Lana must find the real diamonds, or she’ll be handed over to the police, and to ensure she doesn’t just run off, tasks Tim with keeping an eye on her. It soon becomes clear, though, that there is more to the mystery than there appears initially, and someone is very keen to stop them from getting to the truth.

This is flat and uninspired in almost every way, beginning with the complete lack of chemistry between Speichert and Kretschmann, though in their defense, the dubbing isn’t exactly helping them. [Or the beloved Udo Kier, who seems to be sleep-walking through his role] However, that can’t explain away the story, which is about as far from sparkling like diamonds as possible, even if you allow for the ludicrous central concept. Diamonds. In Germany.  It features villains who resolutely refuse to behave with even a modicum of common sense. For example, if ever I become an evil overlord, capture my enemies, and need to dispose of them, I will kill them on the spot, not tie them up underground, with the intention of letting them be run over by a slow-moving tunneling machine.

Which brings me to the topic of the action showcased here, and unfortunately, most of it ranges from the physically impossible to the cringe-inducing. The former is showcased during that escape from the tunneling machine, where Lana somehow dangles from a chain with one foot, while simultaneously pulling the 180-lb plus Tim up off the ground. The latter sees Lana doing front flips as she is simply trotting across a roof. Who does she think she is, Catwoman? This soundtrack also appears to be composed by somebody who has listened to too many James Bond films, which simply reminds the viewer of the gulf between this and any 007 movie of the same era.

A couple of marginal saving graces do exist, just not in the central performances, main story-line or cinematic direction. I was kinda amused – perhaps unintentionally – by how crap Tim is. He’s the one that’s always getting knocked out, captured, falling out out boats and generally put in peril, from which Lana has to save him. Some of the vehicle stunt-work is not too bad either. But overall, what you appear to have here is little more than a underwhelming TV pilot, certainly bad enough not to make it to series.

Dir: Michael Karen
Star: Sandra Speichert, Thomas Kretschmann, Udo Kier, Michael Mendl
a.k.a. Die Diebin

The Avenger

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“It’s a cover-up!”

Teetering on the edge of qualifying as false information, this TVM was originally released under the more relevant, yet great deal less salacious (and, let’s be honest, less appealing) title of A Nanny’s Revenge, along with a greatly subdued sleeve. Marketing works, people: for put it this way, I’d never have watched it in that presentation. I can’t feel utterly cheated, even if what I got is closer to a low-rent version of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle than the tempting treat promised by the cover. 

Gina Wright (O’Keefe) has a really bad day – though likely not as bad as her parents. For her father dies in a building-site accident, and her mother in a car crash as she rushes to hospital. The site owner, mogul Parker Randall (Pratt, channeling Alec Baldwin), seeks to cover up the shoddy Chinese materials responsible, and fakes a toxicology report to show that Gina’s dad was drunk. A bit of a white knight – we first meet her quitting her job as a teacher, in support of an unjustly fired colleage – Gina won’t stand for that. So she hatches a plan to expose Parker’s wrongdoing, and to that end, worms her way into a job as nanny to his son, by befriending his wife, Brynn (Pratt). Little does she know, however, that her  employer’s predatory instincts are not limited to the business world, and he’s making plans for a hostile takeover, if you know what I mean, and I think you do.

There was a moment towards the end of this, where for one glorious second I thought Gina, Brynn and Parker’s spurned mistress were going to team up in order to take revenge on the man they all have good reason to hate, in a Murder on the Orient Express kinda way. I’m filing that one away in my box of script ideas for potential future use, since the movie here failed to take advantage of it. That’s inexplicable, since what it instead delivers is more or less entirely predictable, and if generally competent and not badly-acted, rarely gets beyond the obvious. For instance, we know Gina is impulsive. Because someone explicitly tells us she is. Oh, and she wears a nose-ring (although does not sport the neon highlights shown on the cover), which in the world of TV movies, is one step above being a crack whore.

There’s an entirely unnecessary subplot involving a colleague of her Dad, who is trying to take Parker to court – he meets the end necessary to the plot, in order to show how ruthless a villain Gina is facing. Indeed, by the end, you’ll likely find yourself with a long laundry-list of ways in which this could have been improved, or come closer to the movie promised by the sleeve. More violence. More nudity – well, make that any nudity. Boost the subtext about big business being bad into a whole class-war thing. Make Parker look slightly more like Donald Trump. Instead, you’ll get this vanilla pudding: filling enough, just not what many people would call tasty.

Dir: Curtis Crawford
Star: Jodi Lyn O’Keefe, Michael Woods, Victoria Pratt, Cynthia Preston
a.k.a. A Nanny’s Revenge

Nightmare Nurse

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“Nurse shark.”

nightmarenurseThis Lifetime TV movie is the story of Brooke (Butler) and Lance (Good). The happy young couple get into an accident returning from celebrating her promotion at the restaurant where she works. The pedestrian they hit is killed, while Lance breaks his leg, and is confined to bed while he recuperates. To assist with that task, since Brooke has to work, they hire Chloe (Hartley). She initially appears perfect for the job, helping out with the household chores as well as her nursing work. However, it’s not long before strange little incidents suggest that not all is well in Chloeland. We see her life with an abusive boyfriend, and she develops an attachment for Lance well beyond the normal bounds of professional concern. Might this, possibly, be something to do with the accident?

Oh, who am I trying to kid. This is a Lifetime TV movie. Of course it has something to do with the accident, although the precise details are vague until the final 20 minutes. Which are actually when the film raised itself beyond the painfully humdrum, not least because of the return of Traci Lords. She plays “good” nurse Barbara, in what initially appears to be a glorified cameo, yet ends up an extremely pivotal role. Lords wipes the floor with the rest of the cast, and it’s a shame she is almost absent from the first hour. [It has to be said, knowledge of her past adds to the frisson here; she wouldn’t exactly be person most women would want caring for their boyfriends!] The final battle, as Brooke defends her territory like a lioness, is certainly the most fun this has to offer.

Unfortunately, you have to get through an awful lot of Very Obvious to reach that point. Naturally, it’s another sensitive and sympathetic portrayal of mental illness and the stigma faced by those who suffer fro… Oh, again – who am I trying to kid? Chloe is as batty as a fruitcake, whose direction appears to be the result of viewing Fatal Attraction. Except, Hartley isn’t exactly Glenn Close, no matter how wide she opens her eyes and stares really hard. She’d have been better off watching Nurse 3D, and taking lessons in scenery-chewing from Paz de la Huerta. Butler and Good are serviceable enough as the perfect couple with impeccable teeth. Though I’m surprised Lance remains faithful, given the Lifetime tendency for all men to be unreliable in the loyalty department.

It just about stays on the acceptable side of entertainment, until the final reel. However, the main thing you’ll take from that is how much more entertaining it all might have been, if the makers had Lords play Chloe instead.

Dir: Craig Moss
Star: Sarah Butler, Steven Good, Lyndsay Hartley, Traci Lords

Forget and Forgive

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“Largely forgettable.”

forgetAmnesia as a plot device is something which almost inevitably triggers heavy eye-rolling in me, because the results nearly all involve the subject regaining their memory in the precise way required by the plot. It’s so incredibly contrived. About the only films to have used amnesia that I like, are Memento, which was utterly consistent in its depiction, and The Long Kiss Goodnight, which was not about the effects of losing your memory, but much more about what happens when it comes back. This Canadian TVM will not become the third in the series, squandering some potentially interesting ideas.

Anna Walker (Röhm) is the subject of a vicious interrogation and beating, then nearly drowns. She wakes up in the hospital with no memory of her life or her family, and is surprised to discover she is actually a vice detective, with a husband, Tate (Napier) and extremely bratty teenage daughter, Emily (Douglas). Turns out her new personality is also radically different from the old one; a good deal stricter, as Emily finds to her distaste. That’s true at work as well; turns out that Anna was not entirely a straight arrow as a cop, as she discovers after finding a box in her closet containing a cellphone and a lease agreement to an apartment where, in turn, she finds large wads of cash. Her partner (Runyan) seems to be equally crooked Is this tied to the incident which caused her amnesia?

Röhm herself is okay, and the opening sequence is surprisingly brutal, given the medium and origins. However, the rest of the cast range from the thoroughly bland (Runyan) to the immensely irritating (Douglas), though in the latter’s case at least, this seems deliberate. This would be forgivable if the script managed to live up to the toughness with which it begins. In other hands, the general scenario might have made for an interesting study: how a sudden, externally triggered change in someone’s character affects them and those around them.

However, the film instead chooses to wander off in a number of far less successful directions. Turns out there’s a young prostitute that Anna was protecting, and whose existence poses a threat to those at the top of the vice food-chain. Throw in a pointless subplot involving her relationship with her estranged father – because, this is a Lifetime TVM, after all – plus some meaningless flashbacks of her wandering in the woods, wearing her police uniform, and you’ll probably find your interest waning well before the climax. It’s likely too much for all save the most undemanding of viewers to forgive, and everyone else will have no problems at all forgetting this one.

Dir: Tristan Dubois
Star: Elisabeth Röhm, Tygh Runyan, Neil Napier, Vivien Endicott Douglas

The Wrong Car

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“The first Uber paranoia film?”

wrongcarI was kinda amused by the concept here, which tells the story of law student Trudy (Savre), who is drugged and raped after getting into what she thinks is a “NetCar” – a thinly-disguised Uber – vehicle, only to find it driven by a predator who waits near venues for vulnerable (read, “drunk”) young women, who are expecting the Uber… sorry, the “NetCar” they ordered to show up. The police are, as typical in this kind of TV movie, powerless to help, and it’s up to Savre and her roommate, Gretchen (Raisa) to track down the perpetrator. To that end, Trudy becomes a NetCar driver herself, seeking to stop the rapist before any more women fall victim to him. Her new career puts Trudy in the way of further danger, after a pair of gangbangers get into her car, yet also brings her potential romance in the cute, well-off shape of investment advisers Donovan (Davis).

My amusement was partly due to family history, as Chris was (for a couple of months) an Uber driver for some extra money. Turned out not to be worth her effort for the return – but nor was her life as a driver anywhere near as exciting as Trudy’s. Chris was never hijacked by anyone, to go pick up one of their friends who’d been shot, for instance. Nor did she meet any cute, well-off investment advisers. Not that she told me, anyway. For this is a neo-Luddite scare story, about the dangers of a technological innovation, which carefully ignores things like, for example, the fact that anyone who calls an Uber car can then see exactly where it is on the app – so would surely know, even if utterly drunk, it was not pulled up in front of them. But why let that get in the way of a made-for-Lifetime slab of misandry?

For, make no mistake, that’s what it is: there is literally not a man in the film who is what I would call a decent human being, being a selection of sexists and creepers, when not actually rapey. After a couple of movies from Lifetime that have actually been solid (Big Driver and Deliverance Creek), this was definitely a step back into the cliches for which their previous output was somewhat notorious. That said, as a pulpy pot-boiler of entertainment, it’s competently created, with Savre a credible enough heroine who has a nice arc after her assault, going through the various stages of reaction on her way to deciding Something Must Be Done. It’s not too hard to see where this is going to end up, and the script in general offers few, if any, surprises – one, to be precise. Yet I can’t deny a certain gratification is provided by the final resolution, though I’d probably still have preferred justice involving a more “bullet to genitals” approach. Probably not very Lifetime-friendly that, though…

Dir: John Stimpson
Star: Danielle Savre, Jackson Davis, Francia Raisa, Christina Elmore
a.k.a. Black Car

Home Invasion

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“Not-so sweet home.”

homeinvasionNicole Johnson (Sheridan) comes home with her daughter to find a robbery in progress, but is a well-armed home-owner and ends up blowing away one of the intruders. The other, Ray (Howell), bails with their getaway driver, Jade (Duff), who was also the dead perp’s girlfriend. She vows to take vengeance on Nicole and her family, in a variety of forms, from posing as a swimming teacher, to poisoning the customers at Nicole’s restaurant, then setting the place on fire and framing her for arson. Plus, of course, she’s a believer in the old Biblical law of an eye for an eye – or, in this case, a boyfriend for a boyfriend, Jade fixing to inject her nemesis’s other half with that old “undetectable poison”, potassium chloride. I have probably just got myself on a government watch-list by Googling that. Should have done it on my boss’s computer. Oh, well….

So, before they come to take me away, this is a competent if hardly memorable TV movie, which is hampered significantly by the limitations of that medium. While the concept isn’t bad, the inability to go full-bore into it with the necessary energy and – let’s be honest – luridness, leaves the end result as bland as a bowl of rice-pudding. Duff isn’t bad, with a feral intelligence that’s somewhat endearing – frankly, I was largely rooting for her to get the revenge she craves – and Howell is good value as ever. Though Ray spends half the film hiding out in a shack after the aborted robbery, which makes for a bizarre time-frame, since it appears everything else unfolds over the period of several weeks or even months. I’m not actually sure what purpose his character particularly serves; however, watching Howell play a middle-aged gangsta in a bandana is bizarrely fascinating for some reason.

I was hoping it would all build to some kind of extended brawl through the house, with the lioness defending her cub against a predatory newcomer. It’s not much of a spoiler to say I was almost entirely disappointed, though Jade’s final moments have a poignancy that is surprisingly effective, and quite at odds with the low-key banality that preceded them. For almost everything else found here, is the very definition of workmanlike: largely non-threatening drama, technically solid enough, yet possessing all the bite of a geriatric chihuahua, and delivering about as much threat.

Dir: Doug Campbell
Star: Haylie Duff, Lisa Sheridan, Jason Brooks, C. Thomas Howell