Wednesday, April 16, 2014

USA World Premiere Movie Project: Writer's Block (1991)

This review has been posted in conjunction with the Daily Grindhouse's year long tribute to the USA World Premiere Movie.

Looking back at the original reviews for this 1991 USA thriller, I am amazed at how journalists felt that creating a serial killer character that everyone adores is patently bad writing. I guess someone should tell Dexter that no one likes him (or rather liked, as I hear the series ended with a lot of issues). I am also somewhat surprised by the general lack of good humor that should accompany any review about a movie where the protagonist is named Magenta Hart. C'mon people!

DOS in action
I should probably say this general antagonism is targeted at one writer who worked for the Associated Press. His negative review ended up in a gazillion papers and probably turned a few heads away from this admittedly flawed but interesting thriller. Morgan Fairchild is Magenta, a put upon novelist whose most popular creation is a series of novels that feature a nameless serial killer that is referred to as The Red Ribbon Killer. Magneta is a bitter divorcee who uses her pen to strike down her ex’s current fiancé, another blonde who the Red Ribbon Killer fixates on, killing her over and over again in this series of books. As cathartic as this would seem for Magenta, it has also unfortunately triggered a real life murderer who is now duplicating the crimes, and moving closer and closer towards our favorite button-nosed author.

Magenta writes: She was obviously drunk
Writer’s Block smacks of 1991. It’s dreamy, not completely coherent and offers up a female protagonist whose sexual repression sparks a series of calamitous events. If anyone can’t see the metaphors that are flying around the set, they must have truly hated television the 1990s. For instance, the author's name, Magenta Hart, is meant to symbolize the purple heart, or rather, the wounds of love! I mean... you all got that, right? Get with it Associated Press! (OK, I’ll stop here)

Magenta thinks: I wish I was obviously drunk
I normally associate Fairchild with her bitch-tastic performances from The Initiation of Sarah, Paper Dolls and her narcissistic turn as Mindy’s unwanted BFF Susan on Mork and Mindy. She is perhaps a little too good at playing bad, and I tend to forget she also played nicer and sometimes weaker characters (I’m looking at you, Seduction). Despite Magenta’s Jackie-Collins-heroine-like moniker, this character embodies nothing of those similarly named protagonists who are never shy of witty retorts, or lovers for that matter. Beautiful but beleaguered, Fairchild is good in the role of the pretty girl who has a hard time keeping the guy. She is assisted by the forever likeable Joe Regalbuto, who at the time was making a name for himself as Frank Fontaine on Murphy Brown (non-sequitur: I miss Jim Dial). She also has a mysterious lover named Andrew (Michael Praed from Dynasty) who is every inch the romantic hero Magneta needs… or is he? Suspense, people. Suspense.

While I enjoyed Writer’s Block, I will admit that the last 15 minutes got strange, even for me! And while I was fine with the surreal atmosphere, the rest of the film’s more realistic tone (well, realistic by early 90s sex thriller standards) offsets the twist. It’s a minor quibble though. I thought the moody lighting, noir-ish pacing and Fairchild’s perfect blonde hair were enough to keep me engaged. If I could go back in time and write a letter to the editor... OK, now I'm really going to let it go!

Spoiler-y VHS box art: 

Friday, April 11, 2014

What I'm Watching Now: Emergency!

Sometimes life makes it difficult to commit yourself to even just one film. When I was in the midst of school, even taking 74 minutes out for a Movie of the Week was a daunting task. However, being the bull headed retro TV lover I am, I scaled back and made a compromise. I decided to just fall into the arms of episodic television. Even though these shows ran longer than the modern fare, they were still only 50 minutes apiece. Yet, I continued to struggle. (Look world, I needed a brain break, but I wanted to dive into the retro hues of 70s small screen offerings, can you help a girl out?) And, it was here in the throes of desired escapism that I discovered Emergency!

The first scene from the first episode of Emergency!
It was the perfect match for me. Although a single story tends to string an episode together (usually via funny moments at Station 51), the paramedics often jumped from one isolated rescue to the next. This meant that I could easily watch 20 minutes, get the meat of the story, and then drift off to academic dreamland (you know, where your dream has mathematics symbols floating amongst terminology like “hegemony” and “patriarchy”). All I had to remember from each episode is that Dr. Brackett is one dreamy cat and Dix ain’t taking your flack. It was easy-peasy!

Pitter-patter goes my heart...
After a few shots of the series, I became a full fledged junkie, staying up just a little later every night so I could venture farther and farther into the episodes. Before I knew it, I was wishing I’d gone to school to be a paramedic because I was so intrigued by the number of well organized boxes Johnny and Roy kept on their truck. I was also intrigued by Johnny and Roy who were adorable and heroic to boot! It was meant to be!

I am ashamed to admit that I was woefully ignorant when it came to this series. I'm not sure why, but despite my love of small screen car accidents, general chaos and things that go boom, Emergency was not registered on my radar. But I've seriously made up for it in the last few months and have seen almost every episode (granted some were only in pieces, but I'm getting there). Recently, Me-TV aired the Emergency finale TVM, and I dug up a bit of trivia for a live tweet. I don’t want to force anyone to scroll through my feed, so here are the highlights of what I learned about the series:

Robert Fuller, who played Dr. Kelly Brackett said no one thought the series would be successful. In an interview he revealed, “Everyone expected us to fold after the first thirteen weeks. But we surprised ‘em!”

Brackett and Dix were an item in the pilot TVM. I think she feels the same about him as I do!
Did they ever! The show ran for seven seasons, and it never veered from its original formula. The chemistry between Johnny Gage (Randolph Mantooth) and Roy DeSoto (Kevin Tighe) was practically intoxicating and came from a very real place. The two actors remain the best of friends and Tighe was even best man at Mantooth’s wedding in the early 2000s. Do I hear, “Awwww?” I’m sure I do.

Emergency co-creator Robert A. Cinader got the idea for a series when he was working on another project and interviewing firemen who seemed to have a lot of medical knowledge. Although we take it for granted now, the job of being a paramedic was a very new vocation in the early 1970s. With Jack Webb behind the production, the series took on that Webb-flair (if you will) of bare-bones procedural fare, and sometimes felt downright life-like. Cinéma vérité - Webb style!

When Emergency first aired on NBC on January 15th, 1972, there were only six paramedic units in the United States. The filmmakers were extremely serious about their programming and filmed in co-operation with the LA Fire Department. Many stories featured throughout the run of the series were based on actual events. This somewhat realistic approach is considered a catalyst for many who would become paramedics.

The filmmakers also hired Jim Page, an LA County Battalion Chief as their technical editor for the show. Mike Stoker (who played Mike Stoker!) was a real life fireman and a long-standing actor on the series.

The Stoker, yo!
Mike Norell, who played Captain Hank Stanley, is an accomplished TV movie writer. He penned several teleplays, including one of my faves, Three on a Date. Oh my gawd, it's love.

He might be putting out that fire, but he's ignited a different one in my heart!
Gorgeous singer Julie London was the ex-Mrs. Webb, and obviously remained on good terms with him because he invited her and her current hubby, the affable bandleader Bobby Troup to round out the cast. In an interview, London, who travelled a lot, said she embraced the chance to work on a series, stating, “I have three children at home and wanted to be with them instead of being a long distance mother from some hotel in a distant city.” She later commented that Troup, who played Dr. Joe Early (the slowest doctor ever) came to work with her even on days he wasn’t scheduled for filming. More awwws.

He might move a little slow, but Dr. Early rules. It's true.
Exteriors of the firehouse were provided by LA County Fire Department Station 127 in Carson, CA. The station house has since been renamed the Robert A. Cinader Memorial Fire Station. Rampart General was Harbor General Hospital, which is now known as the Harbor UCLA Medical Center in Torrace, CA.

For all your hospital action needs, please visit Rampart General.
As you may have guessed, the series has left a long and wonderful legacy. In 1972 a California Senator named Alan Cranston wrote a letter to Jack Webb stating, “Emergency has dramatized the potential of the paramedic.”

Paging the Gage Brigade... Paging the Gage Brigade...
Did you know that May 15th is Emergency Fest Day in Maryland? Well, it is.

Mantooth has a fan club who call themselves the Gage Brigade!

Malloy and Reed visit Dix at Rampart General.
Although Webb is most famous for his economical productions and deadpan delivery, he had a meta-moment on Emergency:

In the first episode titled The Wedsworth-Townsend Act, Officers Jim Reed (Kent McCord) and Pete Malloy (Martin Milner) from Adam-12 appear as a way to bridge the shows and perhaps attract curious Adam-12 fans. In this episode, the actors are clearly performing as their characters from the beloved series. And in an Adam-12 episode titled Lost and Found the Emergency crew repays the favor by appearing in an episode about a suicide hotline. However, in-between those two episodes, in the Emergency episode Hang Up, Johnny laments having to leave the station house right in the middle of an airing of Adam-12 for a rescue. It’s simply post-modern!

The guys of Station 47.
Also, Emergency’s legacy spread far and wide and into other non-Webb related shows:

The other day I watched a Quincy episode titled Cover Up, which originally aired on February 7th, 1980. In this episode, paramedics from Station 47 are called out to a bowling alley for a potential heart attack. They make their call to Rampart Emergency, but are told the patient seems OK so he can go to a smaller emergency room that is closer. Of course, with Quincy being a coroner and all, you can probably guess that this doesn’t end so well for the patient. Rampart would have been the obvious better choice!

All of that, just to say Emergency is streaming on Netflix and airing weekdays on Me-TV. It’s well worth checking out or rediscovering.


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Fantastic TV Book Project Needs YOU!

It is somewhat sad to realize that shows like CBS Schoolbreak and the ABC Afterschool Special - programs that seemed so mainstream with regards to their availability to a mass audience - have become items of cult interest, or simply dusty memories from our childhood. The kid-centric programming of yesteryear embraced the awkwardness, sadness, and sometimes triumph of growing up in a world that was constantly changing. Kier-la Janisse, author of the critically acclaimed House of Psychotic Women is hoping to bring back some of those memories in her new book Kid Power.

The book, the first in Janisse's new micro-press venture Spectacular Optical, will be filled with color images, essays and interviews, as she, and several other authors look back at how these programs shaped our lives. She will be launching the book in July at the prestigious Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal, Canada. Janisse put together a crowdfunding campaign to help her get the book out (btw, her intro video contains some truly amazing clips). Essentially, a $15 (CAD) donation gets you a copy of the book, so it's simply a pre-order. But there are other perks based on your donation amounts, and you should go and check it all out. And please visit Spectacular Optical's website and like their facebook page, and spread the word!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The USA World Premiere Movie Project: Ultimate Deception (1999)

 This review has been posted in conjunction with the Daily Grindhouse's year long tribute to the USA World Premiere Movie. 

Note: Who knew that a post about a USA Original flick would have a history, but this review was first written for my now defunct Lifetime Kills column, which originally appeared on Planet Fury (I miss you PF). I haven't really changed anything, so you will see some love for LMN throughout. Just a few weeks ago, I mentioned how Lifetime totally made the rep of some of the USA movies through their wise acquisitions, and here we are again! This is pure USA Original baby! Enjoy!  

One of my favorite things about the Lifetime Movie Network (and trust me, I love a lot of things about that channel!) is their True Movie Thursdays. Every week they show two movies based on real life events. They can be about anything although most of the films revolve around murder. I've always been fascinated by how filmmakers take these stories and condense them into two hour movies. Ultimate Deception, which originally aired on the USA Network on January 19th, 1999, is an almost a perfect example of how to do it right.
I've never been a huge Richard Grieco fan, but at the same time, I'll pretty much watch anything he's in. I'm not sure why. I think it's because he's kind of terrifies me in the same way Mickey Roarke does - oddly angled features with sinister eyes. Back in his Booker days, he was the be-all-end-all, but I was always slightly creeped out by him. In a film like this, that sleaze quality strongly factors in. And he works it! Grieco is Bobby Woodkin, a low rent con artist who pretends that he works for an ultra secret section of the military. Complete with his pristine white uniform, he appears in and out of Terry Cuff's (Yasmine Bleeth) life. Desperate to please her, he pulls so many capers it would make your head spin like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. Unfortunately, Terry doesn't want anything except a baby. Bobby (who'd gotten a vasectomy years before and not bothered to tell Terry) suggests adoption and tries unsuccessfully to steal a baby. Shortly afterwards, he returns to his hometown to find that his good friend just became a young grandfather.

You see where this is going…

With a plan in action, Bobby takes the new mother out under the guise he's going to buy her and her baby a present and he kills her and absconds with her child. Terry is so overjoyed with having a new infant that she overlooks a lot of little things that Bobby is doing, like when she finds out he's only renting the house he said he bought for her (and he's not even paying the rent anymore!). Eventually Terry wises up and begins to uncover the dark secret of her baby.

Everything up until this point works so well. The story is laid out meticulously for the audience, who will have an uncomfortable time dealing with the facts of the murder. Yasmine Bleeth is great as Terry and although you see her broadly looking past some specific indicators that Bobby has done something horrible, she plays her strong enough that you believe it. And like I said, Grieco is great as her creepy husband who shows little remorse for killing a young mother. This well crafted thriller plugs along splendidly (I even got a little misty eyed) and then in the last 10 minutes, Deception breaks down what it has taken the rest of the film to build up. Terry goes back to her house for "revenge" and the showdown scene borders on hilarious. I don't understand why the filmmaker shifted gears from heartbreaking thriller to "mom on a rampage." But wonders never cease, do they? Luckily, there’s enough good thriller in Ultimate Deception to make it worthwhile.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Small Screen Goodness!

Although I've been watching a heap of TV movies, I haven't had the chance to sit down and write about any of them... Job hunting is a bitch! However, I have been keeping my TV radar (or perhaps it's antenna) on the scene and have a couple of neat things to share:

As many of you know, I do a live-tweet every Friday night with Me-TV's Made for TV Movie programming. Their schedule has been pretty boss, but it's going to get insanely cool this weekend when they air the pilot to the short-lived 1971 TV series Longstreet! If you are on East Coast time and have access to Me-TV, please join me on Twitter this April 4th, at 8 PM EST and let's spread the blind-insurance-investigator love! #Longstreet 4ever!

Oh yeah, and cuz I'm silly about TV movies, I am always looking for ways to make art out of small screen awesome. Here is something I did with a Longstreet still:

 I also did this to a Paper Dolls TV Guide ad:

And I made this out of a still from Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate:

And sometimes you just have to be The Best Little Girl in the World:

Also, again you may or may not know that I am a current member of the Movies About Girls podcast. One of the things I do for the podcast ... aside from not saying much but laughing a whole lot... is recording a segment called The Made for TV Mayhem Minute. It's 3 or 4 minutes of as much TV history or news I can squeeze into whatever topic I choose. I try to theme the segments with the movie we are watching, but in general it's a whole lot of random. I have done a lot of these segments and I'm in the process of uploading the transcripts onto the MAGpedia page. I've posted five so far and you can find them here. Also, in the next few weeks, I'll be updating the links on my sidebar so you can check out the entire show. It's lots and lots and lots of fun!

Podcasting Old School
The internet is both eternal and transitory, and I'm sad to say that many of the sites I used to write for have gone into the ether bye-bye. I have written a lot about TV movies as well as many other genres of film and instead of just letting my reviews/articles/interviews go, I will be repurposing my material both here and on a new blog, which I'm currently creating. I have to admit, my writing was (and sometimes still is) a bit clunky, but it's good to see where you were and where you are. I'm all self-reflective that way.

And finally, I'm working a great TV movie project that I'll be sharing info on shortly. Super excited about it!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Big Stars on the Small Screen Blogathon: Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate (1971)

This review was written in conjunction with How Sweet It Was' tribute to the Big Stars on the Small Screen!  Let's roll... 

Network: ABC
Original Air Date: November 9th, 1971

Last year, when I wrote about The Screaming Woman,  I mentioned Walter Pidgeon’s observations on the older actor in Hollywood during the golden age of the TV movie (that’s the 1970s for you whippersnappers). According to Pidgeon, actors of a certain age found great difficulties finding good parts in the movies. Television beckoned these theatrical stalwarts and many found a new home on the small screen. Unfortunately, some of these actors were unhappy with the content they were saddled with. Granted, The Screaming Woman isn’t the greatest film ever made, but it’s good and the classic stars are wonderful in their parts, de Havilland in particular. For actors then (and now) it boils down to finding those special moments with which to shine. The actresses in Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate practically fell into a goldmine because the smart script affords them so many wonderful opportunities to strut their stuff.

Based on the novel by Doris Miles Disney, Spindle is the tale of four older women who spend their days drinking, gossiping and sometimes, just to keep things exciting, they pull an outlandish prank or two. This time, the ladies are creating the perfect young woman (a tall, willowy blonde they've named Rebecca Mead), and turning in her questionnaire to a local computer dating company. The hope is that they will receive a few amusing letters from potential suitors, which they do. Unfortunately, they also lure a psychopath who accidentally mistakes another woman for the fictional one and kills her in a fit of sexually frustrated rage.


Shot in 12 days (!), this brisk ABC Movie of the Week is absolutely charming, thanks to the four female leads: Helen Hayes, Mildred Natwick, Myrna Loy and Sylvia Sidney. All four women were best known as theatrical actresses before they embraced the small screen, finding a new audience in kids like me who loved seeing them in episodic fare and made for TV movies. The women gel together beautifully in a TVM I always considered a precursor to The Golden Girls. Well, if they had less sex and drank a whole lot more (Blanche the lush would have been tremendous fun)!

In an interview to promote the movie, Loy spoke about how much fun the actresses had making Spindle. She said, “There was a lot of laughter on set. Helen Hayes, Mildred Natwick and Sylvia Sidney joined me in having a ball...” In a different interview, Hayes said she was dying to work with Natwick. “I’m Milly’s most ardent admirer," Hayes proclaimed. "That woman made me laugh more than anyone in the theater, anyone since Bea Lillie. Did you see Barefoot in the Park? Did you ever see anyone so funny?” The actresses affection for each other is apparent, and it’s a joy to watch.

While Hayes’ Sophie T. is the star of the show, each lovely lady in this quartet is handed a bevvy of fabulous material. The one-liners are fast and furious, and surprisingly (and in a good way), somewhat restrained. What could easily have seemed like raunchy ladies drowning in blue material is balanced by recognizing that their generation did not have the same open dialogue. There is still talk about what Rebecca Mead is willing to do on a first date, but all of the TVM's jokes are handed down with an air of dignity. Well as dignified as you can be sipping one too many Old-Fashioneds!

I haven’t read the source material by Miles Disney, but John D.F. Black’s adaption is clever, and, at times, laugh-out-loud funny. Some of the best bits of comedy come courtesy of the beleaguered Detective Hallum, played by John Beradino (aka Dr. Steve Hardy on General Hospital!). He has absolutely no idea what to do with these ladies, and they often leave him dumbfounded. Vince Edwards is downright menacing in his portrayal of the psychotically lovelorn Malcolm Watson. Most of what we know about him is delivered through an inner monologue that follows him along his travels. His “little voice” gets crazier as the film progresses, but as off the charts as he gets, he is still not prepared for these four ladies!

Economically directed by the fabulous (and apparently ornery) Ted Post, Spindle landed in the top 20 for the week. Hayes was nominated for an Emmy for her rambunctious portrayal of Sophie T. (Glenda Jackson won that year for her role in the PBS production of the mini-series Elizabeth R.). And, the film is sometimes credited for inspiring the short-lived series The Snoop Sisters, which reunited Hayes and Natwick as eccentric mystery-writing-sisters who find themselves solving real crimes (Hayes said that although The Snoop Sisters was produced after Spindle, they received scripts for that series first). It’s like Murder, She Wrote x 2 and with fur coats. Win.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The USA World Premiere Movie Project: Our Mother's Murder (1997)

This review was written in conjunction with The Daily Grindhouse's year-long tribute to the USA World Premiere Movie.

It wasn’t planned, I swear. When I was choosing what USA movies I’d like to review this month, Murder on Shadow Mountain and Our Mother’s Murder simply looked like good choices (I must be drawn to the word "murder" and I’m not quite sure what that says about me!). If you read my review of Shadow you know it ended up being a bit of a disappointment. Luckily, I was already familiar with Our Mother’s Murder, which is one of the few TV movies I loved so much that I stood next to the VCR while copying it, so I could cut out the commercials. Dedication, people. Dedication. It’s not an easy movie to watch, because of the harrowing content and because it’s so damn heart wrenching. And, frankly, it’s perfect.

Like Shadow, Our Mother’s Murder (aka Daughters) is also based on a true story. Unlike Shadow, it’s utterly fantastic (OK, I’ll stop beating up Shadow now). This TVM tells the tragic tale of of Anne Scripps, a beautiful heiress who was brutally murdered by the hands of her abusive husband. The story is told through her daughter Alex (Holly Marie Combs in an excellent performance), who is desperate but powerless to keep her mother safe.

The film, which originally aired on July 16th, 1997, charts the whirlwind romance of Anne (Roxanne Hart, also excellent in the role) and her much younger lover, Scott Douglas (James Wilder, again, amazing performance). The couple was married ten months after they met, and afterwards, Scott begins to reveal a far darker side. It quickly escalates to physical abuse and even attempted murder, but is, as so often is the case, only looked at as a domestic disturbance. Anne, who was brought up in a very conservative lifestyle and is already embarrassed by her first divorce, and has a child with Scott (and because she's terrified), finds herself very reluctant to divorce him. At one point, she even agrees to a temporary reconciliation in the hopes that he won’t run off with their little girl. Scott goes from remorseful to violent in much the same way car chases in action films go from zero to sixty. His moods are sometimes unexpected and always terrifying. Anne’s grown up daughters, Alex and her sister Annie (Sarah Chalke… again… fantastic) watch helplessly as the danger escalates. The film’s title gives the ending away, so for much of the film it is simply an excruciating waiting game as we watch this disgusting man build up to murder.

Told without a hint of sensationalism, Our Mother’s Murder is almost too good. The film elegantly captures the idyllic life of two beautiful young teenagers with privileged backgrounds. Their innocent romances with boys and their strong bond with their mother belies the horrors that are about to happen. Our Mother’s Murder is about how abuse affects everyone, and each girl responds differently. Alex becomes a protective adult figure for her own naïve mother, and Annie finds herself drinking too much and getting involved with her own set of abusive boyfriends. They are relatable and their plight is moving.

Wilder’s performance is grotesque, horrifying and pathetic. In short, perfectly played. Scott is hateful but complex, and he’s not just a cardboard cutout bad guy. Wilder takes Scott to several different levels, and yet, we’ll never understand why he is the way he is. Anne is unfortunately the perfect victim because she is too ashamed to walk away. In one telling scene, Scott practically drags Anne out of a party and to their car. And while one couple follows them, they do nothing to stop what is an obviously dangerous situation. Anne's friend says, “She waved me off. She is probably embarrassed.” Just a few moments later, Scott tries to push her out of a moving car.

Truth be told, I can barely watch the entire film, I find it so real and heartbreaking. At the same time this is a film I feel everyone should see. It's not just a TV movie I love, it's an important story that is beautifully played and all to relevant. And unfortunately, the story doesn't end here. If you want to know more about Anne and what  happened to her children, start with the wikipedia page. Utterly tragic.

Now that I'm depressed, let's change gears. I can hardly believe that Bill L. Norton, who also helmed Gargoyles, directed Our Mothers Murder. Not because I don’t totally adore both films, because I do, but wow. That’s versatility! And trust me, after this tragic film, Gargoyles makes a nice pick-me-up companion. Hey, it's how I roll...