Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The USA World Premiere Movie Project: Running Against Time (1990)

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

It didn’t take too long after the assassination of John F. Kennedy Jr. for television to jump in the ring. Aside from the myriad of news stories and profiles on that fateful day, the made for TV movie joined in with The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald (1977), which takes a look at what may have happened had Oswald lived and faced his day in court. In the 1980s, America was looking at the 20th and 25th anniversary of JFK’s death and a number of specials were released. On the fictional side, one of the most interesting productions was a 1985 Twilight Zone segment titled Profile in Silver, which shows what may have happened if Kennedy had survived. A few years later, the USA Network took that grain of an idea and turned into a full length TVM called Running Against Time.

Robert Hays is David Rhodes, a college professor and historian who is interested in how time and history repeats itself. He is also obsessed with his brother, who died in Vietnam, and many of David’s studies/obsessions are about how the world may have been different if JFK had lived and pulled the troops out of the war (assuming of course, that he was intending to). Mostly, David is stuck in the past and although he has a gorgeous, smart and caring girlfriend (Catherin Hicks as Laura), he can’t seem to move past the loss of his sibling. Laura is also a topnotch reporter and she’s just landed an interview with a Nobel prizing winning scientist named Dr. Hendryk Koopman (Sam Wannamaker). Dr. Koopman is working on time travel and has secured funding for a major project. Of course, as you can guess, the kindly Dr. and professor’s paths cross and before you know it, David is on his way back to 1963 to stop the Kennedy assassination.

Wut the what? Yup, David believes that he can save his brother and thousands of other lives and he convinces Dr. Coopman to let him be the first human time travel experiment. Unfortunately, the whole thing gets started on the wrong foot and while David is successful in meeting up with Oswald during the fateful moment, he is not quick enough to stop the assassination, and is also pegged as Kennedy’s killer! Oops. This changes history, of course, and now Laura must go back to fix things, but it gets all kinds of messy once again and we start to see that history refuses to not repeat itself, even before it’s history.

Running Against Time is an extremely economical production, with fine actors, but silly SPFX and a bare bones recreation of Kennedy’s assassination. Aside from the three leads, the other factor working for the TVM is that it’s an interesting concept played out as earnestly as possible. Like, Profile in Silver, the protagonist has an emotional tie to history (although the character in The Twilight Zone is a few hundred years removed from the relative in question). David’s deals with a loss that was, tragically, not all that uncommon, so it’s easy to feel for him, despite the numerous bad decisions he makes. Further, Laura loves David and that connection brings her story some resonance. Although we keep watching a sort of whirlpool of mistakes, Running manages to never slip too far into the sentimental, and always manages to pull out something smart before it gets too silly.

That is until the ending. My biggest quibble with the fantastical tele-film is how it concludes. No spoilers here, but I thought it gave in to the saccharine it was trying to hold at bay. I should probably also note that I’m no time travel expert, and the science in Running looks clunky. I mean, even by 1990 small screen standards. So, if you are a sci-fi nut and a stickler for proper terminology, etc, this movie might be annoying (but then again, how would I know?). However, there is this really cool plot device that shows how time travellers can communicate through the personals! Who cares if science can’t back that up? It’s neat!

Based on the novel A Time to Remember by Stanley Shapiro (who also wrote the teleplay), Running premiered on the USA Network on November 21st, 1990. While it didn’t garner a huge amount of press, it did get mostly positive reviews. USA aired two encores on November 25th and December 1st. And, like so many other USA movies, it’s available on VHS.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

TV Spot Tuesday: Then Came Bronson (1969)

Like the character Jim Bronson, Then Came Bronson's creator, Denne Bart Petitclerc was a newspaperman, and someone who enjoyed observing people. And also like the enigmatic Bronson, Petitclerc was a bit of nomad (although he had a full family in tow), and dropped journalism to work in film. Bronson became Petitclerc’s way of expressing how youthful late 60s America was in a desperate search for itself, and for many the character spoke to young people in ways no other series had (one commenter on IMDb said that the show symbolized what it was like to be free).

NBC, along with the other two networks, were quickly becoming aware of a new demographic. The audience to attract came between the ages of 10 – 31, and the networks were trying out a variety of shows, including The Mod Squad and The New People in the hopes they could create hip programming that spoke to a generation in the middle of a war, the hippie movement and other late 60s issues that were particularly youth orientated.

And, not only was this type of with-it prime time scheduling something new, the TV movie pilot was also a fairly novel phenomena (1966’s Fame is the Name of the Game was the first pilot TVM, spawning The Name of the Game in 1968) and, indeed, tele-films in general were still a fairly revolutionary device. Bronson, which originally aired on March 24th, 1969, was unique in other ways too - it was quiet and almost plot-less, featuring a handsome Michael Parks as Bronson, a man ripped apart by his friend's suicide (Martin Sheen in an early role). Bronson realizes that living in a 9-to-5-monkey-suit-world is not for him, and he hits the road with the mysterious young woman who refuses to give her name (Bonnie Bedelia in an intriguing early role). Starting in San Francisco, there are lots of overhead shots of winding roads and roaring oceans. The couple was at home sleeping in the wild and although Bronson had a general destination (New Orleans), the trip seemed to be about getting lost in nowhere and enjoying the ride. At points the TVM even takes on a documentary vibe.

Then Came Bronson was hard to categorize in a pithy synopsis, but critics and audiences loved it, as it marked a departure from the regular programming. To give it a bite-sized promotion, some called it Route 66 for a new generation. Parks, who was already a well-established character actor, also provided some music for the series as well (he was a recording artist, and also did a bit of singing in the 1977 TVM Escape from Bogen County).

Because the pilot TVM was so well received, NBC dug deep into their pockets with high hopes for the series. They ran an encore performance of the pilot on August 2nd, to remind audiences what they fell in love with earlier that year. Producer Robert Justman (who had previously worked on the more overtly symbol-ridden Star Trek) said that despite the gorgeous camera work, the goal of the series did not have much to do with technical prowess, and commented that it didn’t matter if the sound was off or something didn’t work out. Bronson was about life, and that’s what they were trying to capture. Unfortunately, Bronson could not sustain its audience and was cancelled after one season. Ironically, part of the problem was that the audience they wanted to attract were actually living outdoors, some much like Bronson, and not watching much television. It was considered a disaster for NBC because of the expense of the gorgeous cinematography and on-location shoots. But many still recall the series fondly, and the pilot movie has aged amazingly well (I have yet to see the series). It's definitely worth a watch or re-watch.

NBC put together this stunning promo for the TVM:

Monday, May 26, 2014

Mandan vs Mantooth on The Love Boat! A Summer of MeTV Blogathon Teaser

It's that time of the year again, folks. The kids are out of school, your smoothie recipe guide gets pulled out of the drawer, and MeTV fine tunes their incredible schedule to bring you lots of classic television joy!

Last year I wrote about Columbo and Rhoda and this year I'm taking on The Love Boat and Happy Days. There are several blogs participating, via the Classic TV Blog Association. Check out the schedule here. My posts will appear on June 3rd (Love Boat) and 5th (Happy Days), so please tune in.

I actually wanted to make the following my Love Boat post, but decided to use it for a teaser. As you know, the show was all about the guest stars, and something I totally adored about this series was some of the casting match-ups. May I present the Love Boat episode Second Chance/Don't Push Me/Like Father Like Son (Season 2, episode 17, OAD 1/271979), featuring two of my favorite dudes...

...duking it out over this lovely blonde:

It is indeed an intriguing, albeit melodramatic love (boat) triangle. Who will be the victor in this Man(dan) vs. Man(tooth) fight-to-the-death-match?

Things start off pleasantly enough, but before you know it, this is going to turn into a full fledged battle of wits and will, where only one will walk away with love and romance. 

Before the gloves come off, each man stakes his claim. Mandan throws the first punch - however innocent - with his charm and his interest in the young lady's art (something Mantooth neglected to pay attention to).
But Mantooth swiftly fights back, sharing a laugh with his love interest in front of her cabin door.
Alas, Crosby politely declines any offers or opportunities for romance with either Mandan or Mantooth, and the score remains 0-0.
After a good (if somewhat frustrated) night's sleep, the challengers move to their respective corners, with Mantooth anticipating an early morning strike. Mandan's subtle play works and Crosby agrees to spend the day with him, although Mantooth had just invited her to his cabin.
If looks could kill. 
Sorry Mantooth, it's Mandan 1 - Mantooth 0.
Our challengers reconvene for Round 3: 
Mandan is still using his charm tactics, trying to lower Mantooth's defenses...
But I think we can see that the gloves are off. 
Mantooth hits below the belt, reminding Mandan that he's almost twice Crosby's age. 
Yes, Mantooth is not showing a good sporting attitude, and quickly apologizes. But some wounds don't heal as quickly as others. 
Still it was a bit of smackdown and the score is now Mandan 1 - Mantooth 1.
Although it looked like Mandan was forfeiting the match, the unwitting referee (i.e. Crosby) has ultimately decided that this is Mandan's game (and obviously her decision), much to chagrin of increasingly agitated Mantooth. 
Now we're looking at Mandan 2 - Mantooth 1.
And just when it looks like everything has been decided, the match goes into extra rounds...
And it looks like it's going to turn into a real round of fisticuffs...
Mandan quickly sizes up the competition...
... and comes in for the kill...
It's a stunning knockout...
Holy cow!
High drama on the high seas.
Mandan, may be the physical agitator, but he's a much better sport than Mantooth and offers to forfeit one more time.
But Mantooth knows it's futile to keep up the fight...
And takes a dive... 
(and let's face it, I think there will be more beautiful woman in his future)
Once again,  all is right with the world...
And if you don't believe me, you can double check with Gopher.
MeTV is currently airing Love Boat six days a week (you can check out their schedule here). I really do hope you'll come aboard... we're expecting you!

And if that's not enough, why don't you check out my post on the Deacon Dark episode here.

Also, Kindertrauma put together this incredible list of horror stars who took at cruise on The Love Boat

Don't forget to check out next week's MeTV Blogathon!

Friday, May 23, 2014

The 1985 - 86 TV Movie Season

Arguably, the classic era of the fantastical made for TV movie genre was all but gone by 1985. The archetypal models of monsters and damsels in distress had made way for more serious fare. That’s not to say 1970s TVMs weren’t topical, just the opposite in fact, but dramas and romance soon took over the slots that used to be filled by tawdry-esque telefilms with titles like Drive Hard, Drive Fast, The Woman Hunter and Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo in favor of the far more serious Victims for Victims, Two Kinds of Love and the terrifying-in-a-different-way miniseries The Day After. These films were a precursor to the true crime and disease-of-the-week movies that became more and more prominent on free TV in the late 80s and 90s. However, perhaps it is presumptuous to claim that the golden age had ended, when it may have simply meant that tastes were changing, because audiences were still turning their dials in droves. Ed Bark of the Dallas Morning News wrote about the most popular TVMs of the 1985/86 season in April of 1986. Taking the Nielsen ratings for the season, he compiled the top 10 list of the highest rated shows and then compared them to his personal favorites.

Surprise (but not really): Turns out there was lots of great stuff happening that season.

According to Bark (and Nielsen), reunion movies were big properties, as Return to Mayberry and Perry Mason Returns topped the charts for the season. Indeed, Mayberry (NBC, OAD 4/16/1986) harkened back to the 1970s TV-movies-as-an-event feeling, scoring 33.0 share, capturing 28.3 millions homes, and ranking as the then-7th highest rated TV movie airing ever.

But that was just one of two highly rated reunions, with Perry Mason Returns (NBC, 12/1/1985) landing in the #2 spot for the season, scoring a 27.2 share, with a viewership of something like 23 million households! The success of Returns encouraged Raymond Burr to continue on with a series of Perry Mason movies, and a total of 26 tele-films were produced between 1985 – 1993 (the last one airing shortly after Burr’s passing). You can pre-order a double disc of Returns with The Case of the Notorious Nun here (due out on June 10th), or you can order Volume One of the Perry Mason Collection here.

The other top rated films ran the gamut of drama, from deadly serious fare to the more soapy melodrama, and were as follows (in order of their Nielsen ranking):

Intimate Strangers (CBS, 1/1/1986): Terri Garr plays an American nurse who spends nine years as a POW in Vietnam. When she returns home, she finds her husband has moved on to a new life without her. Co-starring Stacy Keach and Cathy Lee Crosby, director Robert Ellis Miller is known for giving Keach his big break in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

Nobody’s Child (CBS, 4/6/1986): Lee Grant is known as the cocksure, gorgeous redhead who wowed audiences with her strong characters. She is also an extremely talented director who took on some really interesting issues in her behind-the-camera-work. She directed this harrowing true tale of a woman misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, who spends two decades in mental institutions. Marlo Thomas starred and won an Emmy for her performance. Grant also won a DGA award for her unflinching portrayal of a system gone wrong. Nobody's Child is on DVD

Rockabye (CBS, 1/12/1986): The adorable Valerie Bertinelli plays a panic-stricken mother who must rescue her kidnapped child from a black market ring. Holy cats, this sounds awesome! Critics were lukewarm on Rockabye, but audiences came in droves and many still fondly recall this small screen melodrama.

Amos: (CBS, 9/29/1985): Kirk Douglas plays an ex-baseball hero who endures several atrocities when he’s forced to move into an old-age home. And, what Louise Fletcher did for mental institutions, the great Elizabeth Montgomery does for assisted living! Yikes! Nominated for Golden Globes and Emmys, Kirk Douglas was so moved by the all-too-ignored subject of neglect, he became an advocate for the elderly, even speaking before a Congressional committee! Go Kirk!

Mafia Princess (NBC, 1/19/1986): Susan Lucci puts in an early prime time appearance in this fact based account of the daughter of a famous Mafioso. Tony Curtis plays the ruthless father, and his character ages forty years throughout the film. Many critics felt this was Curtis’ best role in years and Lucci was perfectly cast. The real life daughter can be spotted in the communion scene.

Blood and Orchids (CBS, 2/23 and 2/24/1986): When I wrote about Battles: The Murder that Wouldn’t Die, I knew it was loosely based on a true story, but had no idea someone constructed an entire mini-series on the infamous rape case. Running at 240 minutes - over two nights - the cast is fantastic, featuring a young Madeline Stowe, Jane Alexander and a Kris Kristoferson, among many others. And interestingly enough, Jose Ferrer appeared in both Blood and Orchids and Battles, Who knew? Blood and Orchids is on DVD.

Stone Pillow (CBS, 10/5/1985): Lucille Ball garnered a lot of press for this popular TVM by putting in a dramatic turn as a New York City bag lady who teaches a young Daphne Zuniga about life on the streets. Ball really threw herself into the part, losing 23 pounds during filming and she also suffered from dehydration because the film shot in the summer months, and Ball had to wear several layers of clothing. Rose Leiman Goldemberg, who had won acclaim for her screenplay The Burning Bed, wrote the script. The Stone Pillow is on DVD.

An Early Frost (NBC, 11/11/1985): Sometimes the small screen gets there first. An Early Frost was the first major film to deal with the AIDS virus, portraying the anguish of an All American Family who must endure losing their son to the horrible disease. This tele-film was the talk of the town at the Emmy Awards, garnering 14 nominations. Sylvia Sidney won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of the understanding grandmother. An Early Frost is a milestone film that has stood the test of time (and it's on DVD).

Bark noted that only two theatrical airings broke the top 10 in the Nielsens: Mr. Mom and 48 Hours. And, if you’re interested, the cult classic Diner ranked as the lowest rated theatrical movie airing of the season (boo). The lack of strong big screen representation in the ratings showcases our desire to see original programming on our TVs. And, apparently, there was a lot to choose from. Aside from the films mentioned above, Bark was partial to the following (listed in order order Bark listed them):

Love is Never Silent (NBC, 12/9/1985): A tear-jerking Hallmark Hall of Fame flick, Silent is about a young woman during the Depression who must learn to let go of her deaf parents and find her own way in the world. Mare Winningham played the daughter, and Bare loved her performance. The co-executive producer Julianna Fjeld and three of the actors were deaf and many non-hearing extras were featured throughout the film. Mare Winningham was nominated for an Emmy. Silent is on DVD.

Between Two Women (ABC, 3/10/1986): Colleen Dewhurst and Farrah Fawcett go toe to toe as mother and daughter-in-law in what certainly has to be Must See TV! However, passion and anger subsides as Fawcett finds herself becoming a caretaker to the once domineering matriarch who has suffered a stroke. Geesh! A real pick me up! But talk about two powerhouse actresses joining forces to create a thoughtful and tearful TVM. Two Women is available on VHS.

Mrs. Delafield Wants to Marry (CBS, 3/30/1986): Director George Schaeffer quickly moved from The Stone Pillow to helm this sweet romance about a widow who remarries outside of her religion. Katherine Hepburn lights up the screen, and seriously, who wouldn’t want to marry the handsome Harold Gould? Hepburn and Gould were nominated for Emmys, and this movie is on DVD!

The Execution of Raymond Graham: (ABC, 11/17/1985): Under the moniker ABC Theater, the once-ballsy network put together a live telecast about the last hours of a man on death row. Jeff Fahey plays the condemned man, and both he and director Donald Petrie spent one on one time with convicts facing death sentences. The producers wanted this film to incite a conversation and placed the audience in a very uncomfortable situation. Execution is available on DVD and is also streaming on Amazon Instant Video.

Honestly, I thought Endor sounded goofy, but this guy is super cute! S.O.L.D.
Ewoks: The Battle for Endor (ABC, 11/24/1985): (!) Despite airing the sequel to The Ewok Adventure during Family Viewing Hour, this TVM was still presented with a parental advisory. But that certainly didn’t keep Star Wars nuts - young and old alike - from checking out the newest Ewok offering. While some fans felt alienated by the Ewoks movies, most still fondly recall the cute little creature who help a young girl fight for her planet! Endor won an Emmy for special effects and also for Outstanding Children’s Program.

Alice in Wonderland (CBS, 12/9 – 12/10/1985): (!!) An all-star cast leads this popular adaptation, which was produced by disaster-master Irwin Allen. This version is highly revered because of its tireless efforts to remain true to the original Lewis Carroll story. And, check it, Red Buttons plays the White Rabbit. Must see TV, perhaps? This 1985 mini-series is available on DVD.

Doubletake (11/24 and 11/26/1985); Adapted from William Bayer’s popular novel Switch, Doubletake features the great Richard Crenna as a cop in search of a sadistic killer who murders a prostitute and conservative school teacher, decapitates them, and then switches their heads. Zoinks! That’s pretty dark stuff, but critics called John Gay’s adaptation “literate and well-written.” Crenna had just won an Emmy for this portrayal of the assaulted police officer in the groundbreaking TVM The Rape of Richard Beck, and saw this new role as “challenging” because of its running length, and he expressed concerns with how to keep the audience engaged over two nights. He must have made a good impression, because Crenna and his character from Doubletake, Richard Janek would show up again in six more TVMs!

The Last Days of Frank and Jessie James (NBC, 2/17/1986): Wow, the great Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson play Frank and Jessie James in this Nashville lensed Western. The story revolves around the outlaw brothers spending their last years as law-abiding citizens. Despite the box office failings of an attempted Western Revival in the mid-80s (Silverado, Pale Rider), the small screen attempted to keep the idea afloat with several TVMs, and Last Days was followed by a remake of Stagecoach and part 3 of the popular Gambler series.

While I admittedly haven’t seen as many movies from this season as I’d like, here are a few of my picks for the 1985 - 86 season (in order of original airdate):

Out of the Darkness (CBS, 10/12/1985): Originally titled Zigo’s Choice, Darkness chronicles the life of the detective who brought down the Son of Sam after his harrowing 13th month assault on the city of New York. Martin Sheen is Zigo, and while there is a focus on the procedural aspect of the film, it is really Zigo’s personal life, his desire to catch the killer and Sheen’s incredible performance that have made Darkness one of my favorite TVMs from this era. Darkness is on VHS.

The Midnight Hour (ABC, 11/1/1985): Yeah, you know about this one. A genuine cult fave among the tweens and teens of the mid-1980s, Midnight Hour is ghoulish fun. The story, which revolves around a small town curse come to fruition offered B movie chills for the TV14 crowd. The production designer from Michael Jackson’s Thriller is behind this film as well, giving the whole setting an MTV vibe. Pop Horror? Indeed.

 Bridge Across Time (aka Terror at London Bridge, NBC, 11/25/1985): I love this completely outrageous film because it’s played with such earnestness. Read my reviews of Bridge here and here. Bridge is on DVD and is streaming on Amazon and Hulu.

Sins (CBS, 2/2 – 2/4/1986): Holy cats, the glamour. Oh, the glamour! Sins was an epic three night mini-series about a down-on-her-luck young woman who works her way to the top of the fabulous world of fashion magazine publication. She uses her new-found power to exact revenge on the man who destroyed her family during her childhood. Sins was based on the novel by Judith Gould and crafted specifically for Collins, who produced the film along with her then-husband. She lurks around the frames in a number of gorgeous costumes, some of which were designed by Valentino. Collins is backed by a fantastic cast, including Lauren Hutton, Gene Kelly and Catherine Mary Stewart, among many others. Collins also starred in another mini-series titled Monte Carlo, which aired in November of 86 (and also featured Lauren Hutton). It was considered a fiasco, but I loved that one too. Sorry, I’m a sucker for the glam, baby! Sins is on DVD!

Betrayed by Innocence (CBS, 3/1/1986): Betrayed is a love story gone wrong, horribly wrong. Barry Bostwick plays a filmmaker who is having severe problems with his marriage. A gorgeous young woman comes into his life, and he initiates a passionate affair. The big problem is that Bostwick has no idea how young this lady actually is. Like, jailbait young (in fact, the VHS release was titled Jailbait: Betrayed By Innocence)! And her dad is a hard-nosed cop played by Paul Sorvino. This is total soap, and it’s wonderful. Click on title for full review. Betrayed is on DVD.

Dallas: The Early Years (of course!) (CBS, 3/23/1986): This was an epic, 3-hour movie that gave Dallas fans the backstory behind the Digger Barnes and Jock Ewing's feud. Narrated by Larry Hagman, this sweeping drama begins in the Depression era and moves into the 1950s. And wow, who knew Jock was that hot (Dale Midkiff plays him in this TVM)?!? The Dallas TV movies are available on DVD in a collection!

Beverly Hills Madam (NBC, 4/6/1986): OK, so this isn’t Chekhov or anything, but 80s glamour is glamour like no other, and Madam is drowning in all of its pastel glory! I’m not sure television got any more superficial than this, but let’s be honest, who doesn’t love a good escapist TVM? Plus, the clothes and hair… I’m drooling here. Madam is currently streaming on Amazon Instant Video and Netflix.

The Deliberate Stranger (NBC 5/4 and 5/6/1986): Based on Richard Larsen’s book Bundy: The Deliberate Stranger, this four hour mini-series charts the life and crimes of the eerily charismatic Ted Bundy, who was on Death Row and expected to be executed the same week this aired (he survived that week but was eventually executed in 1989). Mark Harmon was disturbingly good in the role, and twisted all that good-guy charm into something far darker than many audiences may have believed Harmon was capable of. This film is sad and disturbing, because it is real. Sometimes true crime films are best when they are made for TV, allowing for some sort of restraint on the violence, which, if nothing else, protects some of the victim’s dignity. This was a huge hit, and rightly so. Even now, with Bundy just a dot in our rearview mirror, we still wonder how and why such a creature ever existed. Stranger is on DVD.

I think we can see that my tastes differ a bit from this writer and the public in general, but hey you gotta go where the heart takes you! That said, I adore Return to Mayberry, and find it to be one of the warmest reunion movies to ever air. It looks like the episodic 1985 – 86 season also had a lot to offer. Check out this list TV Guide compiled on the hottest guys of the small screen.