Sunday, August 24, 2014

#popFan (TLH Productions/Lifetime, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched what turned out to be a quite good Lifetime TV-movie, the “world premiere” of something called #popFan — the Twitter-style hashtag at the beginning and the capital letter in the middle of an otherwise blended-together lower-case word are in the official title on the Lifetime Web site, though lists it as the more normal “PopFan” — still one word with a capital letter in the middle, in that horrible style of nomenclature bequeathed to us by computer software writers in the 1980’s, but at least beginning with a capital letter and not a hashtag. Oddly, despite all the to-do about hashtags — not only does the film’s official title begin with one, but so do all the credits: “#directed by Vanessa Parise,” “#written by Dean Orion,” etc. — though the film alludes to social media in general there isn’t a specific reference to Twitter in its plot. I guess the filmmakers just thought putting hastags all over the title and credits would make it look cool. Anyway, #popFan is basically Stephen King’s story Misery with the genders reversed; instead of a male romance writer held hostage by a crazed female fan, it’s a female pop singer and aspiring actress held hostage by a crazed male fan.

When we first see Ava Pierce (Chelsea Kane) — the page gives “Maclaine” as the last name of her character but it was probably changed in the later stages of writing, too late for to get the information before the film was released — she’s at a release party for her new CD and the hot, sexy video she’s shot for it in which she does a strip tease and practically rapes the camera. Her manager, Damon (Danny Wattley), has an offer for her to make a serious film with a major director (carefully unnamed) but she wouldn’t be the star and she would only have four scenes, so she’s less than thrilled. Her boyfriend, investment banker Curtis Flemming (Ben Hollingsworth), is offended by the fact that she’s having the biggest hit of her career by selling herself as a sex object, and Ava (she’s referred to throughout the film almost entirely by her first name, and so are her real-life colleagues “Taylor” and “Miley”) gets back at him by picking out one of the guys at the party, practically going down on him in front of everybody, then doing a deep kiss with a Black woman (breaking both racial and gender taboos), inviting the white guy she’d just nearly raped to join them for a three-way — and suddenly noticing, after Curtis threw a hissy-fit, that at least five people have been photographing the whole thing with the video cameras on their smartphones, waiting and practically drooling at the prospect of posting the scenes to YouTube. Ava, disgusted with herself over the whole scene, decides to take some time off from her career as a hot pop star and drive up from New York City to New England, hide out in one of the picturesque local inns, and write some new songs. Only along the way she has to get gas — there are some nice little gags put in by #writer Orion to the effect that she’s so unused to driving herself she doesn’t know which side of her car the gas cap is on or how to get it open — and the gas-station attendant (a job that in the 1930’s was a symbol of honest proletarianism and the beginnings of a successful strive at least to the middle class, if not to the very top, but now reads very differently given that all a modern-day gas-station attendant has to do is take your money and hit the button that turns on the self-serve pump) is a young man named Xavier (Nolan Gerard Funk) who warns her that a “nor’easter” is coming up — and being the naïve child of privilege she is, she needs to have it explained that that means a terrible storm.

Xavier insists on pronouncing the “x” in his name — it comes out sounding like “ex-avier” — which leads Ava to nickname him “X-Man” (and, much to his credit as an actor, Nolan Gerard Funk also pronounces the “t” in “often”!) — and at first he seems like the nicest guy you could imagine, especially after Ava loses control of her car in the storm, the car is wrecked, she’s knocked unconscious and when she comes to she’s in Xavier’s bed. Of course, appearances are deceiving; Xavier has the soft-spoken solicitousness of Norman Bates in Psycho but any hardened movie-watcher knows he’s probably hiding a black heart, or at least a crazy head, inside. He also claims to have served as a U.S. Marine in Afghanistan, but when Ava gets suspicious and drugs his pasta to put him out for a while so she can go searching into the secret room of the lighthouse, she finds a whole wall plastered with pictures of herself — into some of which Xavier has inserted himself, presumably via Photoshop — and also a desk drawer containing a file marked “MILITARY” whose contents are a series of letters he’s received back from his attempts to enlist, all of which have declared him unfit for service, presumably due to his mental issues. Ava tries to escape in Xavier’s truck but he catches her — I was thinking #writer Orion was going to pull the old gag that she can’t drive a stick-shift, but instead he did the gag that she can’t get it started because she hasn’t pulled out the choke, never before having driven (or probably even seen) a car that had one — and when next we see her she’s in his bed but he’s got her tied up, suspended above the ceiling by rope in a classic bondage pose. Not that Xavier wants to rape her — oh, no, Lifetime was probably worried what sort of rating this would get from the TV board (just as Ava’s descent into crazed diva-dom carefully does not include drug use, unlike #Orion’s obvious real-life prototypes for her character) — he wants her to reproduce the sexy video for her mega-hit song in his living room with him filming it on his cell phone.

Meanwhile, Ava’s entourage, including Curtis, Damon and Ava’s mom Tracy (Kehli O’Byrne, who frankly looks like her older sister than her mother), is worried about her — they have one clue in that Ava found her cell phone in Xavier’s back room, used it to make a call, said she was being held in a New England lighthouse and would call right back with the exact location, only her battery died — and, determined not to involve the police for fear of starting a scandal that would damage Ava’s career, Curtis and Damon go out to find her themselves. First they have the predictable wild-goose chase among all New England’s old lighthouses, and then when they find the one Xavier, who even though the military didn’t let him still got really good with guns (and of course in a country basically governed by the National Rifle Association had no problem getting plenty of them!), drills three precisely aimed bullets into Damon’s chest, killing him instantly. He gets a shot at Curtis but Curtis is protected because he’s hiding behind a rock. Now, what does Curtis do? Does he do the obvious thing and, while he’s still covered by the rock, take out his cell phone and call the police? A director like Alfred Hitchcock would probably have cut to a shot of his cell phone on the dashboard or floor of his car — rubbing in the irony that he forgot to bring it when he would most need it — but #Parise and her #writer can’t be bothered with that. Instead they have Curtis shot in the leg, non-fatally but with no access to pain medication (Xavier flushed the rest of his supply after Ava drugged him with some of it) and held by a crazy guy who in the film’s weirdest scene brings out a power saw and threatens Curtis with a D.I.Y. amputation, then tells Ava that Curtis has just shown himself unworthy of her by peeing in his pants at the prospect. Eventually Xavier enlists Ava’s help in getting rid of Damon’s body (ya remember Damon?), including sending her to get boulders so he can weight it down so it will sink into the sea, and Ava clubs him with it, knocking him unconscious long enough for her and Curtis to regain control of the situation and drive off together at the end once Curtis, still without intervention of the authorities, has finally taken Xavier out.

Despite the typical thriller-plot contrivances and holes, and the lack of a sense that Ava has learned much from her horrible experience, #popFan (shot under the working title Lighthouse until someone at the #production company, TLH Productions, realized that that wouldn’t tell audiences much about what the story was) is actually a quite engaging movie, suspensefully #directed by #Parise, decently #written by #Orion (even if he could have worked on some of the sillier devices and made the story make at least a bit more sense), and surprisingly well #acted. Chelsea Kane is just right as Ava, making us feel for the character as she starts out flirting with the dark side without any real knowledge of what the dark side is — knowledge that the main story will impart to her — and the two men are not only quite hot (it’s a joy to see Nolan Gerard Funk shirtless and, if anything, Ben Hollingsworth is even sexier — odd to see a Lifetime movie in which the good guy is more exciting physically than the bad guy!) but good actors, with Funk in particular managing the nice-guy-turned-psycho act almost as well as its originator, Anthony Perkins (and he doesn’t have Norman Bates’ excuse that his mother made him do it — even though I couldn’t help but think that when Ava started rummaging around in his forbidden room, she was going to find Xavier’s stuffed mom hidden in the fruit cellar). I’d like to see either of these guys again — and I’d like to see Chelsea Kane again, too; though she’s quite a bit slimmer than the original she’s hot enough and has the right kind of cooing sexuality I wouldn’t mind seeing her in a Marilyn Monroe biopic.