Judge Kerry Birmingham was split on these Lifetime Original Movies, but then, what does he know? He's just an abusive, alcoholic con artist trying to raise his daughter and escape his mysterious past. But would he kill to do it? Inspired by actual events.
Seduction. Marriage. Death. Inheritance. Every social climber needs a plan.
Ah, is there any bit of trash filmmaking more immediately satisfying than the Lifetime Original Movie? The cable network for easily influenced women has been churning out original movies for decades at this point, typically following the basic formula of heroines triumphing over adversity, most often pitted against those evil, evil males, who are usually abusive, alcoholics, or both. More often than not, they're sub-soap opera tear-jerkers that exploit the paranoia of middle-class mothers (My teen daughter is being used for internet porn! My husband is cheating on me with the maid!) using apathetic actors and all the low-budget grandeur Canada has to offer. It's shallow, corny, and insulting. By "insulting" I of course mean "great." It's exactly these traits that make it perfect empty-calorie viewing, a weightless snack between viewings of movies with some actual redeeming value. And two thematically linked movies in one two-disc "double feature" package? Brilliant! Let's get on with it then, shall we?
Facts of the Case
In Widow on the Hill, Linda (Natasha Henstridge, lots of Species movies) is a nurse taking care of the dying wife of a wealthy New Englander, Hank (James Brolin, Traffic). When his wife abruptly passes away, Hank almost immediately takes up with Linda, their whirlwind May-December courtship ending in marriage. This doesn't sit too well with Hank's recovering-alcoholic daughter, Jenny (Jewel Staite, Serenity), who suspects Linda might have had something to do with her mother's premature death. Jenny believes that the scandalous, adulterous Linda may be after the family estate—and that her dad may be next on Linda's list.
Lies My Mother Told Me finds career criminal Laren (Joely Richardson, Nip/Tuck) on the run from the law after pulling one scam too many. Against her advisement, her young daughter, Haylei (Hayden Panettiere, Ice Princess), insists on being with her mom, and so begins ten years of fraud and living on the road. Laren and Haylei's fortunes seem to turn when Laren falls for wealthy attorney Lucas (Colm Feore, The Exorcism of Emily Rose), whom she promptly marries. All's not well in the marriage, however, and Laren's refusal to give up her duplicitous ways brings out a dark and dangerous side of Lucas. As her daughter watches helplessly, Laren attempts her biggest scam yet: Get rid of Lucas—permanently.
Both "inspired by actual events."
Stopping just short of admitting that all of their movies are exactly the same, Lifetime presents this double bill of spousal murder plots in one package. Make no mistake, they are basically the same movie, the only difference being varying degrees of guilt for the main characters and the specifics of the crimes within. Both feature unfaithful spouses, lawless women, and stupid men. They both have palatial estates with horses (purely to take advantage of Canadian locations?) and scenes with the lead in similar black lingerie (Natasha wins; sorry, Joely). Both films are even directed by TV movie veterans Peter Svatek and Christian Duguay, respectively. It's strange, then, that two movies so alike can vary so much in quality.
My (very prominent) geek side was rooting for Widow on the Hill. What can be finer than Sil vs. Kaylee, catfighting over the estate of that guy from Pensacola: Wings of Gold? There was no doubt that this film was going to be trash, but the hope is always that it's trash in an endearing sort of way. Instead, we get Henstridge vamping through her usual bad girl role, telling a TV news reporter the whole affair in an ill-conceived frame story. Ostensibly constructed as selective events from Linda's point of view, we instead see every sordid detail and damning encounter, every bit of barn sex with the ranch hands and every lemon-sucking pout from Jenny (and there are many). If one recovering alcoholic isn't enough for one Lifetime movie, Widow on the Hill gives us two: Hank doesn't touch the stuff anymore either. It's a moot issue anyway, as its only purpose in the story is to make Jenny's suspicions less credible and Hank more likeable. Hank is an affable guy, and as presented avoids the pitfall of being the Evil Male and instead goes straight for Stupid Male. His wife's body is barely cold before he's falling for Linda's ample and suspiciously enthusiastic charms, and the rest of the men in the movie are just as boneheaded. One ranch hand, after discovering his co-worker in flagrante dilecto with Linda in the barn, threatens to tell Hank, but he immediately gives in to Linda when she shows off her bra, apparently made of kryptonite. Linda comes off as an opportunistic whore (which, okay, she is), and Brolin, intended as a kind, redeemed father, is just creepy as a silver fox groping at Henstridge in a trailer. It's the kind of movie where the stupidity could have been stopped had any character paused to think for a moment. Linda's murder plot is conspicuously elementary, apparently complicated enough in its Moriarty-like tactics (such as "hiding the murder weapon in a cabinet") to baffle the local police, most likely led by Barney Fife. As the movie drags on, padding Linda's rise to wealth and prominence when we just want her to make with the killin' already, whatever hope the audience has for quality dross is lost in the suspect plotting and subpar acting (et tu, Kaylee?) The movie's not without its appeal: Linda and Jenny's catty two-step throughout is fun, and there's camp joy to be found in Jenny's perpetual glaring and scowling. Even so, interest fades long before James Brolin's body hits the floor.
Considerably better is Lies My Mother Told Me, which does Widow's clueless hornball Hank one better by trotting out the abusive, alcoholic Lucas. Straight from Evil Male school, Lucas starts off nice at first but quickly leers his way into terrorizing his wife and stepdaughter, which of course makes him a target for Laren, whom he's threatened to turn in to the authorities for her previously unrevealed larcenous past. Laren doesn't quite pull off her murder plot without a hitch (and only crosses the line from fraud to murder after gaining a heavily implied lesbian lover; have fun, feminist film theorists). Lucas, played with zeal by seasoned character actor Feore, is the epitome of the Lifetime Original Movie Man: abusive, reckless, and demanding, all hiding under a calm shell of respectability. In short, Lucas is the boogeyman every Lifetime movie wishes to evoke from its target audience: Be careful, ladies! These seemingly nice men are out there! (Presumably pretty obvious at this point, but I guess a good point is worth repeating). Feore alone puts this movie over the top, but Richardson and Panettiere, as mother-daughter Laren and Haylei (not my poor typing, their characters' actual names), put in finer performances than Widow's Henstridge and Staite, as step- mother and -daughter. Panettiere, narrating from the moral high ground, is all dewy-eyed regret and tragedy, ready to burst into tears at the drop of a hat. Richardson, likewise, is better than the part deserves, playing Laren's mercurial identity switches well and hamming up the cons with all deliberate cheese. Like Feore, their performances are good but not too good; the perfect ratio for actors in Lifetime movies. Factor in some ham-fisted symbolism in the form of a homemade bracelet, a murder plot written like Blood Simple but without the talent, and the good-to-bad ratio is perfect, exactly the kind of middle of the road filmmaking I expect from the network that keeps the likes of Lindsay Wagner and Meredith Baxter-Birney employed. Even the ending is more satisfying than Widow's tacked-on on-screen update. Now that's some endearing trash.
Both of these films were made in 2005, so sound quality is fine, as is the picture, with both films presented in fullscreen, as broadcast. There's little of value in the promo fluff making-of featurettes, though it is a credit to the professionalism of the actors that they talk about their films as if they were approaching each of them with the gravity of a Chekhov play instead of just cashing a check. The deleted scenes are nice but inessential, and the trailers advertise other Lifetime releases.
These "double feature" Lifetime releases are a good idea, and Warner Bros. should keep it up. (Might I suggest releasing Selling Innocence with Cyber Seduction: His Secret Life?) Afficionados of bad film shouldn't hesitate to pick these up. These days, the only thing separating a Lifetime movie from a theatrical release is a few drafts of the script and the casting. Replace Charlize Theron with Valerie Bertinelli and North Country could have been on Lifetime. There but for the grace of studio executives go we. Bad movies happen all the time, and it's nice to see this particular brand of pap available to us in convenient bundles.
Luckily for these women, I'm more lenient than the judges in these movies: not guilty. Watch that kryptonite bra, Henstridge.
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Scales of Justice, Lies My Mother Told Me
Perp Profile, Lies My Mother Told Me
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Lies My Mother Told Me
• "A Look at Lies My Mother Told Me with the Cast and Crew" Featurette
Scales of Justice, Widow On The Hill
Perp Profile, Widow On The Hill
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Widow On The Hill
• "A Look at Widow on the Hill with the Cast and Crew" Featurette
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