Wednesday, April 30, 2014

USA World Premiere Movie Project: Rubdown (1993)

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

According to Entertainment Weekly’s archives, Rubdown, which originally aired on September 15th, 1993, was “surprisingly absorbing, mostly due to its sassy dialogue.” However, I think EW might have been the lone supporter of this USA Original, which Variety called “superficially steamy,” featuring “somnambulistic performances [that] lack any relevance” (and that’s just one of the negative reviews I read). But just you hush, Variety and your lackeys, because EW was so ahead of your game. Rubdown is indeed an unexpected treat, with lots of fun, if predictable, twists and turns.

The gorgeous Jack Coleman is Marion Pooley (!), an ex-pro baseball player who has fallen on hard times. After a horrible accident that caused him to step down from his game, he makes ends meet as a masseur at a high fashion gym. But it doesn’t really help him with his gambling debts, which are getting worse and worse. One of his clients, Harry Orwitz (William Devane) confesses to Marion that he’s looking to get out of his marriage to a gold-digging wife, but their pre-nup only allows him a financially beneficial divorce if she files first or is caught in an affair. Harry knows Marion needs the dough, and hey, he’s easy on the eyes too, so he offers the ex-ball player $30,000 to sleep with his gorgeous blonde wife. But wait, Marion is already sleeping with Mrs. Orwitz! Whoops! Marion and Jordy Orwitz (Catherine Oxenberg) devise a plot to foil’s Harry original plot, but it gets all re-foiled when Harry ends up dead, Jordy goes missing and all suspicion falls on Marion! But wait, there’s more! Marion runs across the real Jordana Orwitz (Michelle Phillips), and of course, more foiling (and some steaminess) ensue!

That’s an ambitious scenario, even by early 90s erotic thriller standards. Rubdown does have a few plot pitfalls, and although I could see the ending coming from across the room, I found the film to be a charming entry into the sexy genre, which all too often lacked in the charm department. It’s aided by a slick production, with gorgeous shots of the San Diego beach and other glamorous locals. But most importantly (and perhaps most unexpectedly), it is indeed the crisp noir-ish dialogue and Pooley’s strangely moving backstory that made Rubdown a film I couldn’t stop watching.

Of course, this movie is about almost-titilation simply due the more restrained nature of basic cable, and I’m sure that disappointed some viewers (aka Variety… just admit it guys). But both Oxenberg and Phillips are appropriately voluptuous and mysterious, with Oxenberg suiting the femme fatale role rather nicely in her first scenes, and Michelle picking up her cue for the second half of the film.

Here is an example of how to be a femme fatale, and how not to do it, Rubdown-style: 

But wait, there’s even more! Alan Thicke plays a maybe-bad guy attorney and his henchman is Kane Hodder, who was already famous in horror circles for playing Jason Vorhees in three Friday the 13th movies (Jason Goes to Hell was released just one month prior to Rubdown’s airing). Random trivia: Screenwriter Clyde Hays played Paul in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter! This was Hayes first produced script, and it shows a lot of promise. Director Stuart Cooper got his start in the 1970s, but really hit his stride in the early 90s, making several films for the USA Network. Thank you Stuart!

Rubdown is on VHS! Yay!

Friday, April 25, 2014

Battles: The Murder That Wouldn't Die (1980)

Network: NBC
Original Air Date: March 9th, 1980

What the wut?

Those were the words swimming through my head as I watched the pilot TVM Battles: The Murder That Wouldn’t Die. After an energetic opening credits montage, Battles settles into a convoluted mystery surrounding an almost 40 year old rape case that left one of the accused dead and a lot of unanswered questions. William Battles (William Conrad, looking positively slender in comparison to his Cannon years) is an ex-Los Angeles detective who has moved to Hawaii to help out his ailing brother Allan (Edward Binns). Battles has taken a post as head of security at Hawaii State University and gets in some overtime as one of the university’s football team coaches (!). Unfortunately, he’s in town for a whole day before his brother is killed in a suspicious car accident. It would seem Allan reopened the 1940s rape case and got just a tad too close to the culprit. Now it’s up to brother Battles to follow in his sibling’s footsteps and solve the crime.

What’s most surprising about this synopsis is that I was able to write it out coherently. Battles is one slapdash, choppy little movie with some misplaced energy and a whole lot of confusion. The cast is great, the locations are gorgeous, and there is definitely a gold nugget of a story somewhere inside this 90-minute mess, but none of it comes together in any real way. Apparently, NBC felt something similar because although six more episodes of Battles were written, they never got the green light.

While Conrad is the star, a rag-tag group associated with the university supports him. There is Allan’s daughter Shelby (Robin Mattson), who just knows her dad was murdered (although she cheers up a little too quickly after the fact), and there’s her feathery headed boyfriend Deacon (Lane Caudell), whose creepy aggression disappears by his second scene, and there’s Tuli (Tommy Aguilar), an island native and a con man (and totally adorable), and finally there is Dean Mary Phillips (Marj Dusay), a woman with a murky but intriguing past relationship to Battles. The idea for the series was that this group would get involved with the police on seemingly unsolvable cases. However, they show a general lack of taste in their crime-fighting skills, as noted by their recreation of the events that lead to the original rape! Sheesh.

The pilot’s roster of guest stars is fantastic, if misused. Jonathan Hillerman, Jose Ferrer, Mike Kellin and the great Don Porter (aka Gidget’s dad and all around cool actor) make the most of the material, but are only offered one or two moments to look suspicious, and aren’t given a whole heck of a lot else to do otherwise. Produced and co-written by the legendary Glen A. Larson, Battles appeared in the midst of a storm of Larson productions, including another unsold pilot titled Nightside with Doug McClure. But around those two misfires, Larson was also working behind the scenes on The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo, B.J. and the Bear and the critically derided Galactica 1980 (btw, I kind of liked 1980… screw it!). Also, Larson was the co-creator of Magnum P.I., which also debuted in 1980. Busy man. Perhaps in all this chaos, no one was paying proper attention to Battles, because what is lost is mostly in the details, and a sharper eye may have been able to fix some of the problems.

One a positive note (and maybe it’s the Library-Science-graduate-student-to-be in me), I thought the plotline that followed the destruction of archival materials was pretty dang fascinating. Battles used old newspapers to track the original crime (and actually solve it), but found that most of the documentation had either been destroyed in an earlier fire at the newspaper’s headquarters or were recently ruined via a torching of the microfiche records at the college (how could they?!?). To put the pieces together, Battles and crew track the information through old-fashioned footwork, the somewhat guarded spoken history as told by those at the club the night of the rape, and through locating a man so obsessed with the crime that he kept every single newspaper that covered the story. It was research done old-school style, and what can I say, I enjoyed watching the process.

The flashback footage from the 1940s was shot in black and white and clips of the Andrew Sisters performing Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy were inserted into the scene (these scene were lifted from the 1941 film Buck Privates). Turns out, March of 1980 was a big month for the Andrews Sisters because they were also featured in the PBS documentary G.I. Jive, which aired on the 15th. Battles, which ran under NBC’s The Big Event, went directly up against the TV movie premiere of the remake of Amber Waves, starring Dennis Weaver and Kurt Russell. Waves got most of the press and it would seem Battles faded quietly into the background and without much fuss. Conrad came back with a short-lived Nero Wolfe series before landing on his chubby feet with the extremely popular Jake and the Fatman. So, it’s all good, even if Battles is unfortunately not so great.

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.