Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Gramps (aka Relative Fear, 1995)

Network: NBC
Original Airdate: May 20th, 1995

Fans of made for television movies know that actors like John Ritter and Andy Griffith often went against type in carefully chosen one-off roles. With the exception of (maybe) Robert Reed and Elizabeth Montgomery, there aren’t too many others who did it better than Ritter or Griffith, both digging deep into dark dramas that sometimes bordered on horror, using telefilms as vehicles to exercise different acting muscles. I’m sure the casting director of Gramps did a little happy dance when they wrangled these two wonderful talents to star in the pitch black comedy that looks a bit like a gender-bending Lifetime domestic thriller.

Gramps, one of the more culty telefilms of the 1990s, does not disappoint either. Ritter is Clarke MacGruder, a likeable family man who contacts his estranged father, Jack (Andy Griffith) after his mother dies. Charming Jack shows up at the funeral and quickly moves into his long lost family’s good graces. But he’s not planning to leave anytime soon, and begins a series of manipulative, often violent, schemes to stay in the fold. Things quickly escalate to murder, and as the family finds itself ripping apart at the seams, Jack attempts one more deadly reunion.

The above pithy synopsis does not really do any justice to Jack’s dangerous (but oh so fun to watch) plan hatching. He is incredibly devious, and knows how to establish complex manipulation as well, exploiting a maybe-past affair Jack’s wife Betsy (Mary-Margaret Hume of Dawson’s Creek and the quintessentially eighties Charlie’s Angels ripoff Velvet) may have had with her co-worker to the hilt. He hires a hooker to pose as Betsy in a no-tell-motel kind of situation. This enthusiastic woman of the night “accidentally” leaves Betsy’s calendar behind, and drama ensues. Also, gramps gets a little action in that scene too!


He also bashes in knee caps, terrorizes little kids and makes no compunction when it comes to blowing away the grandfatherly competition. In short, I love him.

While Clarke is the guy dealing with all of the collateral damage, it’s his son Matthew (Casey Wurzbach) who is the apple of Jack’s eye. After years of life without his son or a family, Jack wants the little guy all for himself, plying him with candy, and even lying for him in an effort to win his grandson’s undying love. Unfortunately, when this movie ends we don’t get a glimpse of Matthew inheriting Jack’s mean streak. Sure that’s probably way too predictable, but you know, keep the dream alive.

Gramps knows exactly what it’s doing. From the opening sepia toned shot of a young father taking his kid fishing, screenwriter J.B. White and director Bradford May cleverly nod towards the more serene relationship between Andy and Opie, only to cut to a handsome but older Griffith torching a house! So, while Gramps takes a bit of time establishing the relationships between characters, that underlying theme of menace permeates each frame.

According to Ritter’s widow, Amy Yasbeck in her book With Love and Laughter, John Ritter, the film was shot in North and South Carolina, and Yasbeck wrote that she was impressed by the level of evil Griffith brought to the part. I kid you not - she actually wrote, “Evil Andy was riveting.” Yasbeck went on to say that Mr. and Mrs. Griffith loved John so much they named their pet dog after him, Mary-Margaret Ritter (presumably the Mary-Margaret is a loving nod towards Hume). Every holiday season the Ritters could count on a card from the Griffiths with their beloved family dog.

Casey Wurzbach also fell in love with John (as we all did, really) and recently ran a marathon in his honor with Yasbeck in an effort to raise money and give attention to the risks of aortic dissections. Visit Casey’s facebook page for more info.

I’ve written a little bit about both Griffith and Ritter’s post-comedy series work, and watching the two team up in Gramps the other night reminded me of what mammoth talents they both were. While this is really Griffith’s film, and it looks like he’s relishing every freakin’ second, Ritter is the anchor, or the domestic thriller straight man, and is also wonderful in a great little movie that deserves more attention.

Monday, December 29, 2014

At the Midnight Hour (1995)

Network: CBS 
Original Airdate: October 29, 1995 

Awhile back I wrote about some of the more interesting romance movie series of the eighties and nineties (you can read my two-part post here and here). At the time, I was only somewhat familiar with the Harlequin TVMs, mostly because I bought something called Change of Place from the series on a whim and thought it was thoroughly adorable. As I mentioned in my previous article, the Harlequin telefilms aired mostly on Sunday afternoons on stations affiliated with CBS, making it perfect for lazy day viewing. And true to form, a movie with the title At the Midnight Hour is exactly what you’d expect from something airing under the Harlequin moniker, and that’s definitely not a bad thing.

Lovely Patsy Kensit is Elizabeth, a recently widowed woman who finds employment as a nanny for the brilliant but aloof scientist Richard Keaton (Simon MacCorkindale). Richard is also recently widowed and had shipped his son Andrew (Keegan MacIntosh) off to live with his grandparents, who die in some kind of accident (geesh, can this get more maudlin?). So, Andrew is back on the gorgeous Keaton estate grounds but is almost as aloof as his father (and definitely brattier). He also thinks the ghost of his mother is stalking the nannies, scaring them off of the grounds and out of his life. In short, he’s got separation issues. Elizabeth seeks to be the one reliable thing in Andrew’s life, but things get hinky when it is slowly revealed that Andrew’s mother may have been murdered by someone who is very close to the Keaton family.

Midnight Hour is a Canadian lensed film, featuring British leads starring in a movie intended for an American audience. Très international, no? The most interesting cast member is the venerable Canadian-born character actress Kay Hawtrey, whom I know best as Mrs. Chalmers the Embalmer from Funeral Home. She is merely window dressing here, and doesn’t even really make for a decent red herring, but seeing her was a definite treat. The biggest issues I had with this telefilm are the obvious ending (you will be able to pick out the wife-killing culprit the second you lay eyes on them), as well as the way Elizabeth declares Richard as her greatest love. At the beginning of the film we see Elizabeth’s husband basically putting himself between her and a bullet, saving her life (while ending his). Then, after she and Richard do the naked pretzel in the beautiful library with the awesome fireplace, she proclaims that she really didn’t love her first husband that much! What? This man died for you! I was slightly incensed to say the least, but then I remembered it was a Harlequin movie and somehow managed to pull myself together.

I should add that despite a couple of badly written moments (you know, like that part where Elizabeth totally degrades her love for the guy who took a bullet for her… OK, OK, moving on…), this gothic but ultra light thriller has all of the right elements. There’s that large, dark library that is always lit by an inviting fire, there’s the proverbial slinking around darkened hallways, things that go bump in the night, metaphorical ghosts and a nice helping of romance that, surprisingly, never feels overdone. And surprise, surprise! Andrew is kind of adorable as the nerdy kid who just needs a little love (awwww!). As someone who has little tolerance for damaged kids in romance movies (take that as you will), I found I actually gave a damn what happened to him. Kensit is wonderful as usual and the reliable MacCorkindale is appropriately broad shouldered and sexy. While it’s no Rebecca or anything, At the Midnight Hour is definitely a treat for the forgiving hopeless romantic!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The USA World Premiere Movie Project: Red Wind (1991)

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

Although he didn’t really care for the neo-noir eroticism of the early 1990s, John Carmen of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote a short but interesting piece on how the small screen made for cable movies were taking more of a nod from the classic black and white genre than from their network counterparts. Coining this new breed of small screen films blue television, Carmen writes, “Blue television movies gravitate toward the unsavory side of the tracks, a characteristic of the 1940s film noir genre. It meant crime, deception, paranoia, corruption, cynicism, claustrophobia… [and] suppressed eroticism…. None was exactly calculated to win critical applause. The violence-against-women theme is inherently loathsome, the productions are Spartan, the acting is erratic and the scripts are weak… Still, you wonder. Much of the film noir was on the B-movie level originally, and only later gained an appreciative following.”

While Carmen would go on to call this movement a decline in standards, he aptly describes the scornful, melancholic nature of these films. He also wondered if these TVMs would become the thing of classics at a later point television history. Unfortunately, that has yet to be fully determined, but nostalgia certainly plays a large part in these relatively restrained sexual thrillers that, looking back, have captured a far more innocent time, before Cinemax was humorously dubbed Skinemax. The USA network practically ran away with these sexy sex flicks, and what stands out to me most about these telefilms is that despite some pretty obvious twists (I think there is only one USA Original thriller that I haven’t been able to ascertain the whodunit), there is also a charming earnestness that lifts the sleaze into a more inviting space. Red Wind is just such a film.

Lisa Hartman is Kris Morrow, a successful therapist who specializes in sexual problems. It’s made quite clear at the beginning that some of Kris’ understanding of her work comes from her own dark sexual past. And that past comes back to haunt her in the shape of a shrouded woman named Lila, an abused housewife who fantasizes about running her husband through a woodchipper (yikes!). Something about Lila disturbs Kris (for obvious reasons, which you will instantly recognize during their first session), but when Kris tries to cut off their professional relationship, Lila takes it as more of a breakup than a parting of the doctor/patient ways. Lila makes good on her murderous threats, putting someone through her beloved woodchipper, and then she tries to tie Kris into the crime as an accomplice. A sleazy private eye named Charlie (played with an extra dose of menace by Philip Casnoff), knows Kris is the key to finding Lila, and he also knows that Kris is wound up enough that she’s ready to return to her violent and harmful past, and the two begin an uneasy relationship as abuser and abused.

Red Wind is a stylish movie that, with modern eyes, has a lot of issues. Kris constantly blames herself for the abuse she receives from both Lila and Charlie, and she makes a lot of bad moves throughout the film. One quick call to the police on a few different occasions would probably wrap up most of the story. But the film also has some undeniably engrossing moments, clever dialog (the “breakup” scene between Lila and Kris is hilariously peppered with “It’s not you, it’s me” type lines), and Lisa Hartman is also so damn sincere in the role as the confused therapist that it’s hard not to root for her despite some non-PhD-smart choices. It is also a curious effort, walking with a completely straight face into some truly sleazeball territory while keeping the whole affair TV-PG.

Shot in Miami, Florida, and originally airing on May 15th, 1991, character actor Tom Noonan (Manhunter!) wrote this flawed but watchable thriller, his first produced full-length script. He captured many of the same elements seen in the early nineties direct-to-video market movies, such as Night Eyes 2-4, and probably any other Shannon Tweed movie you saw back then. And indeed, director Alan Metzger worked through the decade on tele-thrillers that were mostly in the same vein. Together, these filmmakers created a TVM that has all of the quirks of those DTV movies I love, but it also has a strong does of that cynicism that Carmen wrote about. Definitely worth a viewing, but not as good as the more whimsical and smarter USA flick Rubdown.

 VHS trailer for Red Wind: 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Must See Streaming TV Movie of the Week: A Very Brady Christmas (1988)

As an antidote to the tumultuous sixties, the original Brady Bunch series planted itself deeply into the roots of the fifties suburban dream as seen on shows like The Donna Reed Show and Leave it to Beaver. At the time it was never popular enough to enter into the top ten Nielsen ratings, but persevered for five wonderful seasons without ever stepping one foot outside of Pleasantville, USA and it became a foundation for kids, like myself, who saw this perfect family as a way to escape the tumult that followed us into the eighties and beyond. Like Star Trek, and the Monkees, The Brady Bunch took on a life of its own and became a phenomenon that still packs a sentimental punch today. Losing Ann B. Davis earlier this year only served to re-remind us that all that sap and romanticism was still there, and we still love it.

A Very Brady Christmas is one of the few holiday movies I make time for every year, and with the Bradys especially fresh on my mind because of Ann, it seemed like the perfect TV movie to review this season. Critically speaking, this Christmas TVM was a bit of a bust, but it was also ratings gold, ranking at number 2 in the Nielsens for the week. Also, for fans, it reignited our love for the makeshift family of eight (and Alice!), and knowing their audience, the reunion movie maintains much of the softness of the original series… with just a touch of an edge, testing the waters for the short-lived new Brady series which aired in 1990, proving that you can’t keep a good sitcom down (a sitcom turned soapy drama, not so much).

A Very Brady Christmas begins with Mike and Carol living alone in the same house, but made perfectly 80s, including two exercise bikes and a rowing machine in the den that the kids used to run amok in. So, it’s different, but still as comfortable as that warm blanket I snuggle up with when I watch this movie. Each spouse is planning a Christmas vacation for the other, but realize that the holidays are best when the whole family can get together, and the reunion is underway! The first to return is Alice, who was recently dumped by Sam the Butcher (this is probably the one part of the movie I take any real issue with… I mean it’s a Brady movie and I’m forgiving, but breaking Alice’s heart is so not cool). Alice moves back in and insists on putting her maid outfit on despite the fact that she no longer works for the family (a characteristic that would disturb me if it were any other show). Then, we find out what’s happened to all the kids. Here is your checklist:

  • Marsha, still gorgeous, is now a housewife and mother (kind of a disappointment considering she seemed like she was doing really well in the fashion industry when she met Wally in The Brady Brides). 
  • Greg is now a doctor and is married to the New Gidget! Pretty cool.
  • Jan is still working as an architect, and is still married to stuffed-shirt Phillip, who I love more than life itself! But now that he’s gone from associate professor to a full time academic things have become strained between the two. 
  • Peter is a business guy who is also in a relationship with his female boss. I believe his swinging lifestyle will come into play in The Bradys (time to revisit that show!). 
  • Cindy is about to finish college and looks an awful lot like Jennifer Runyon (according to IMDb, Susan Olsen couldn’t make the reunion because she was getting married). 
  • Finally, Bobby is experiencing life in the fast lane…literally. He’s now a racecar driver, but has yet to tell his parents (I remember in The Bradys he marries Martha Quinn and suffers some serious injuries in a racecar crash… the drama). 

As we can see, everyone is still so Brady, but enduring their own dramas. Of course, once the family gets together, fuggedaboudit! Saccharine induced awesomeness commences!

Robert Reed, who had a fairly public love/hate relationship with the series really enjoyed the reunion and stated in an interview, “I haven’t had this much fun in ages. We really are like a family, as corny as that sounds.”

I guess corny is the keyword here, but if you reserve any tenderness for the Bradys, this movie hits all the right goofy beats. Admittedly, I always get slightly verklempt when the family belts out O Come All Ye Faithful while standing vigilant around the collapsed building Mr. Brady is trapped inside. There, I said it.

A definite holiday classic, A Very Brady Christmas is streaming on Hulu!

Interested in more small screen holiday classics? Read these reviews:

An American Christmas Carol
Petticoat Junction: A Cannonball Christmas
The Gathering (a guest review by Joanna Wilson from Christmas TV History)
Bernard and the Genie
A Mouse, A Mystery and Me
Terror on the 40th Floor

Happy Holidays!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Christmas Presents from MeTV!

Check it: MeTV released their new winter schedule recently, and the new additions are amazing... potentially bordering on the greatest thing that has ever happened!

Starting January 1st, expect more good times on one of my favorite stations (copied from their press release):

Quincy, M.E., weekdays from 11:00am- 12:00pm ET/PT, stars Jack Klugman as the strong-willed L.A. County medical examiner Dr. Quincy, who along with his expert forensics team uses the combination of fact and reasoning to solve suspicious deaths that usually suggest murder.

Carol Burnett and Friends, weeknights from 11:00- 11:30pm ET/PT, takes comedy to an entirely new level with a ground-breaking television show featuring skits by Carol Burnett and her comedy troupe of Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner and Tim Conway.

The MeTV Mystery Movie, weeknights from 12:30- 2:30am ET/PT, pays homage to The NBC Mystery Movie, featuring many of the same series broadcast by NBC in the mid-seventies including but not limited to McCloud, Columbo, McMillan & Wife, and Banacek.

Um, what the wut? I'm so excited about this! Some of you may remember that I held live tweet parties for MeTV's Friday Night Made for TV Movie, and just loved the programming. It looks like they intend to air a lot of the NBC Mystery Wheel (no complaints), but I expect some surprise treats to pop up now and again. I'll also be doing a couple of live tweets through the season as well. It's super late at night for me, but worth an extra cup of coffee! 

And you might also know that I've written quite a lot about Quincy in the past. You can read my posts here, here and here.

Also from the press release:

Some of MeTV’s current shows find new homes and a few fan favorites return to the schedule. The Mary Tyler Moore Show can now be seen weekday mornings from 8:30- 9:00am ET/PT.  The Love Boat returns to port weekday mornings from 9:00- 10:00am ET/PT.  Adventures of Superman lands on weekday afternoons from 4:00- 5:00pm ET/PT.  The Mod Squad joins the Sunday Catch Me If You Can line-up from 5:00- 6:00pm ET/PT. (You can check out their entire schedule here)

I think I'll need to take a semester off from school!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A USA World Premiere Movie Project Twofer: Save the Drama for your Crazy Mama!

I can’t believe that it’s been almost a year since The Daily Grindhouse started their amazing retrospective on the USA World Premiere telefilm. I have been honored and, frankly, pretty ecstatic to have been a part of this nostalgic road trip back to one of the last bastions of the traditional made for television film. I learned a lot of things, including these wonderful genre films were often more hit than miss. I also learned that Lifetime has basically stolen much of USA’s glory, through their acquisition of many of their titles. And frankly, that's making me an annoying person. I’m the girl at the party who, whenever she hears someone say, “It’s such a Lifetime movie,” has to school the innocent partygoer who thought they were bonding with me over a strange love of small screen features. OK, it hasn’t quite gotten that far, but I anticipate the glazed looks of would-be friends and maybe less party invites.

It happens.

One thing the Lifetime, er, USA Original is famous for is the crazy mother trope. She can be different kinds of crazy - Like, clinically crazy, or maybe she’s just annoying or overbearing, but she tries to rule the roost and will stop at nothing to get what she wants, which is usually to create a patchwork of the idealized family unit. It's like The Stepfather if he was a woman. Who knows what this is saying… it certainly boils these female characters down to maternally deranged she beasts. But, as much as I should be offended by this gendered stereotype, these characters tend to be the most fun person in the film!

There are also variations on this insane matronly figure, and check it out, I’ve covered a few of them here in my USA posts:
  • Crazy adopted mother? It’s here too, read my review of Tainted Blood

That’s a lot of crazy! And now there’s even more! I spun two USA movies this week, Baby Monitor: Sound of Fear (OAD 1/27/1998) and Hush Little Baby (OAD 1/6/1994). Baby Monitor has the distinct honor of carrying one of the greatest TVM titles of all time. I’d heard about this movie some time ago when it was casually brought up at my work. I thought to myself, “Wow, a baby monitor that projects sounds of fear? I’m in!” I guess I was thinking of something along the lines of Insidious… you know, where there was some actual fear. Little did I know. The movie isn’t even really about the horrible mother, she is just the catalyst for the stupider-than-usual situation that the always reliable Jason Beghe finds himself in.

Beghe is Matt, a successful jeweler in a loveless marriage. He is having an affair with his obnoxious son’s babysitter, Ann (Josie Bissett), while his wife Carol (played with a lot of cold hearted snakiness by Barbara Tyson) acts like a nasty person. Like  his three piece suits, Matt actually wears his adultery well, and seems very much in love with Ann, so when she tells him she’s pregnant, he decides to leave his wife. Unfortunately, Carol overhears most of the conversation while eavesdropping. Let the scheming begin…

Carol, the incarnate of evil, concocts some scam with a hitman duo who knock off the wrong babysitter and kidnap the wrong kid. Luckily, the baby monitor (yes, it is a plot point) lets Bisset in on the horrible goings on in a nearby apartment and she spends the rest of the movie… not doing much.

Baby Monitor is a remake of a German TV movie from 1995 called Babyfon - Mörder im Kinderzimmer, and it should be much better than it is, but it lacks any real tension and is frustrating because essentially everyone is stupid. And I don't mean the I-got-a-C-in-Calculus-I-feel-stupid kind of dumb. I mean Darwin Award stupid.

The part that burned me the most though was that Carol, who is never painted in any kind of positive light, is so one-dimensional. Like, I get it. She’s not nice, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s OK to have an affair. And she might be a bitch, but how many women hire professional criminals to “kidnap” their kid? And how the heck is that going to save her marriage? Aargh! I wanted so much more from you Baby Monitor!

Hush Little Baby has a better sense of humor about itself and it also has Diane Ladd playing the Mother From Hell stereotype with just enough over the top glee to keep her interesting but not infuriating. Like Carol, she’s not going to win any mother of the year awards, but who cares, because she makes for decent escapist fodder for ninety minutes.

Ladd is Edie, a thoughtless, self-serving woman who had her kid taken away from her at a young age. But after years of searching, she’s relocated the little tyke who is now a full grown woman named Susan (Wendel Meldrum) with a family of her own. But Ladd wants a piece of the familial action, and even more disturbingly, she wants a piece of Meldrum’s husband!

While Ladd is an attractive woman, the “seduction” scenes are incredibly well done, and appropriately uncomfortable. Edie looks like a 5 dollar hooker who might give you change afterwards!

Of the two Baby films being reviewed, Hush is far more spirited, and features Ladd smoking with teens, poisoning her nemesis, and offing the babysitter. It’s got a reasonable body count, and some energy. It’s what you might call win-win.

Oh, and did I mention that Geraint Wyn Davies from Forever Night plays the husband? Be still my heart!

But like most of these types of films, Susan has to play stupid through most of the movie, even though Edie’s duplicity is fairly transparent at times. Still, as mentioned before, Ladd is a powerhouse of an actress, and while this is no award winning feature, you can tell that Ladd threw herself into the insanity, and she looks like she’s having a blast.

What both Baby Monitor and Hush Little Baby share is slick production values. At this stage in the world of the cable TVM, telefilms were stepping up to the plate, and the TVMs look crisp and vibrant. Baby Monitor in particular is gorgeous to look at, even if it’s also painful.

So, what have we learned? USA likes insane female characters (I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on why), and baby monitors are kind of boring. Knowledge is power.

And Hush Little Baby is streaming on Amazon Instant Video for free with a Prime account, and is on DVD too! Baby Monitor: Sound of Fear is on VHS