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

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The USA World Premiere Movie Project: Lighning Field (aka Lightning Incident, 1991)

While I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the 1991 thriller The Lightning Field for its slow burn pace, gorgeous locales and somewhat intriguing story, it still comes across a tele-flick that was ripped off from several different sources. Certainly, many TVMs riff on popular themes and tropes, but this movie goes deep, taking inspiration from distinct mediums, including land art, and reworking a horrifying true life story that changes the victims to a South American cult who want to steal a baby! Not sure what all that means, but here we go…

Lightning Field, which aired on September 11th, 1991, is about a very pregnant artist named Margaret (Nancy McKeon looking really gorgeous… as usual) who finds most of her creative inspiration in her dreams. These imaginings are of people and places she’s never seen in real life, but her visions become quite a concern after she manifests a snake from her nightmare/hallucination into her own home! A dream therapist named Vivian (the lovely Tantoo Cardinal) guides Margaret through the discovery of long kept secrets about her past as she finds that she’s connected to a community of South Americans who think Margaret’s baby is the chosen child. Chosen for human sacrifice, of course! (I should note though that the ditzy way Margaret acts early on - climbing a dangerous ladder with a nine-month belly going on - made me wonder if “cult” is actually code for child services!)

As you may have guessed, a lot of crap hits the fan, from Margaret losing her husband on the day she gives birth (talk about an emotional day!) to having her baby kidnapped and taken to another country to watching her mom’s face ooze blood from every orifice (yuck), to realizing that she has cool psychic powers that can wield lightning!

That’s a whole lot to take in, but what is even more interesting than the throw-it-all-into-the-pot-storyline is how the film uses two very disparate but fairly well known American subjects as plot devices. The first is Walter De Maria’s stunning earth art work titled, ahem, Lightning Field. While the mimicking of this art piece is only shown briefly, anyone who has studied art history or just enjoys land sculptures will probably be feeling some kind of déjà vu! And it looks like the "inspiration" wasn’t lost on the art world either because the owners of De Maria's work, the DIA Foundation sued the film's production company, Wilshire Court Productions!

Margaret's Lightning Field

Walter De Maria's Lightning Field

Here's a great quote from an article about the suit:

"They argued that the earthwork in Lightning Field was not constructed by Walter De Maria, but Facts of Life alum Nancy McKeon. Also, De Maria's The Lightning Field has inspired generations of artists to examine the complex relationship between man and nature, while McKeon's Lightning Field inspired a cult of obsessed baby snatchers to kidnap her child and use it as a sacrificial offering. To no ones surprise, the owners of the earthwork, The DIA Art Foundation, were not impressed and moved to sue the production company for violation of copyright." (underlined emphasis mine!)

The testimony excerpt used for the above article is hysterical and I highly recommend you spend a few minutes with it. According to these selected court records the producer had already shopped around a script about a land artist named William Van Marta.

Oh my.

This might be why the title was later changed to The Lightning Incident! I have no idea how this case turned out, so if anyone has the deets, please let me know!

The second inspiration is a bit more vague and seems a lot less plagiaristic, but is still noticeable if you have studied African American history. The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment is one of more diabolical medical experimentations that I am familiar with, and I couldn’t help but think the South American cult member’s malaria treatment was a reworking of that harrowing true story. Watching Lightning Field with modern eyes is likely to generate some criticism about the blood hungry South Americans, but once their story is revealed, this becomes a tale about heartbreak, revenge, and the importance of legacies, moving the film beyond some of its misguided shortcomings. Not too far beyond, but enough to make it more fun than not.

And at the same time, Lightning Field also has a marginal lightning duel, some super cool 90s hair via Elpidia Carrillo, awesome adobe houses and some low brow Rosemary's Baby action. Despite an all over the map kind of feeling, McKeon and Tantoon are both likable and strong personas that carry this oddball and engaging thriller.

Lightning Field is on VHS (as Lightning Incident)! 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The USA World Premiere Movie Project: Death Benefit (1996)

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

I was five minutes into the USA Original telefilm Death Benefit before I realized that I was eerily familiar with its story. The very same year that this strangely serene and excellent true crime TVM aired on basic cable, NBC released Justice for Annie: A Moment of Truth Movie (Annie aired about three months before, in January). And thanks to a gazillion re-airings on Lifetime, I feel like parts of that movie have been tattooed onto my brain… OK, extreme, I know. But I do recall that Annie told the story from the mother’s point of view, whereas Death Benefit is lifted directly from the source, a lawyer named David Heilbroner who wrote a book about this case (in Annie, I believe the lawyer was morphed in to a detective). Heilbroner was an attorney who was helping a woman who had recently lost her daughter. There was some hiccup that prevented her from recouping the funeral costs through her insurance, and this leads to the grisly realization that her daughter has been murdered in an outrageous scam concocted by a sociopathic woman who may have killed before.

A beardless Peter Horton stars in Death Benefit as Steven Keeney, a corporate lawyer who has lost his way from social justice as he navigates his "perfect" upscale lifestyle in a large city in the South. Whether or not he becomes interested in the investigation simply because of the challenge or because he is truly looking for justice is not quite clear and doesn’t really matter, because this case helps him come to the understanding that sometimes its OK to be a small fish in a big pond.

Keeney’s arch nemesis comes in the form of a woman named Virginia McGinnis, played with the proper amount of terrifying confidence by the great Carrie Snodgress. While this movie is clearly about Keeney, Snondgress is wonderful, memorable and steals each scene she’s in. In an interview to promote the movie, the actress spoke about playing a real life killer: “She had a deep-seated illness which, by and large, she covered up with a rigid self-control. She had so much control, in fact, that she was able to manipulate those around her, either through conviviality, intimidation or outright fear.”

It’s the kind role that I can see drawing in actresses. If memory serves, Susan Ruttan’s take on her in Annie was also well done and appropriately creepy. But, what makes Death Benefit work, and what makes it (in my opinion) a better film than Annie is the approach. With nary a hint of sensationalism, Death Benefit takes an intriguing procedural route, where a good portion of the film features Horton cutting through red tape via the phone or office visits. Yet, despite its lack of action, and even though Keeney has no real connection to his client’s daughter, the victim’s death travels through the film like a ghost, reminding you that even though Keeney’s original call to action might have come from guilt, there is someone there that will make sure this young woman is not forgotten.

What makes this even more fascinating is that we hardly know anything about her character. We don’t know exactly why she ends up with this couple (although it is eluded to that she was dating their son), and we don’t even really see her except through photographs and then through the haunting finale, where her death is recreated via brief flashbacks interspersed with an incredible trial on a sea cliff… OK, so there’s a little sensationalism, but just a touch.

However, as this is told from the point of view of the lawyer who wrote the book, it’s hard to tell if he was made more heroic by his own pen. And the mother definitely takes a back seat, which makes me think that somewhere between Death Benefit and Annie is the true-true story of what happened to that young woman. Still, Death Benefit rises above its network counterpart thanks to its under the radar performances, a beautifully somber score by Brian Adler (his first film credit), and the pacing. Well worth a visit if you like true crime adaptations.

Death Benefit aired on March 13th, 1996 and enjoyed promoted encore airings on March 17th and 24th. And it’s on VHS!

Friday, October 31, 2014

Scream, Pretty Peggy: The Art

I was hoping to have time for a proper review of Scream, Pretty Peggy, which originally aired on November 24th, 1973 as an ABC Movie of the Week. I recently re-watched it and loved it just as much as when I first saw it as a kid. I wrote a woefully negative review of it for another site and have come to regret every word (I was going through that weird sarcastic phase that strikes many who think they have to make fun of what they love... but I grew up and grew out of that crap!). I still want to give this film its proper due, and will, but for now let's celebrate Halloween with a classic of the genre.

Jeffrey Elliot's (Ted Bessell) gruesome and haunting sculptures were created by Don Chandler, and the set the tone for this small but undeniably eerie telefilm. But it's not just his look inside a madman's mind that makes Peggy such a visual treat. Most of the whackadoodle artwork that fills Jeffery's house is crazy in the most wonderful of ways. I tried to get the best stills for your Halloween pleasure! Enjoy and have a great day filled with candy and small screen scares!