Tuesday, August 23, 2016

TV Spot Tuesday: Invasion of Privacy (1983)

Network: CBS
Original Airdate: January 12, 1983

Valerie Harper had worked consistently since the cancellation of Rhoda in 1978, but 1982 would prove to be a banner year for the amazing actress. Harper had three TV movies in production, each one airing on one of the Big Three networks in the 1982/83 season. Most TV movie fans probably remember the undeniably scary and ageless classic Don’t Go To Sleep (12/10/1982, ABC), but her other two TVMs, the pilot movie Farrell for the People (10/18/1982, NBC) and the telefilm An Invasion of Privacy are also both solid films. What stands out about Ferrell and Invasion is that in one film (Ferrell), Harper plays a compassionate district attorney tangling with a complex rape case, and in an ironic turn of TV movie events, Harper then plays a rape victim working through the same unsympathetic system in Invasion. The films aired approximately 3 months apart.

In Invasion, Harper is Kate Bianchi, a recently divorced mother who is attempting to reconnect with her freelance artist roots. She has relocated to a small town in Maine during the dead of winter to work on a textbook project. The locals run both hot and cold with Kate, but one man named Wilbur (J.C. Quinn) crosses the creepy vibe line a few times. On the hot side is Police Chief Carl Slater (Cliff DeYoung sporting an impressive moustache), a friendly but sometimes aggressive suitor who moves into Kate’s good graces quickly, sleeping with her on their first date. Kate is still struggling with the breakup of her marriage and puts her love affair on hold, but less than 24 hours after her first post-divorce romantic rendezvous, Wilbur rapes Kate in her own home (with her small daughter in the same house!). Kate seeks justice but is met with some apprehension as many of the townsfolk rally against Kate in support of lifelong resident Wilbur. Her previous tryst with Carl becomes a heated point of debate and Kate has to let go of personal discretion in order to find some form of punishment for Wilbur.

Invasion is undeniably good, anchored by a solid performance by Harper, and some beautiful photography by John Lindley (Demon Murder Case and Killer Party!). The first half of the film is played like a thriller with a strange sense of doom lurking around every frame. After the attack (which is mostly, and thankfully, left to the imagination of the audience), the film becomes a more straightforward procedural and falters a bit. However, it remains a compelling watch because of the way it examines how society puts the weight of the blame on the victim, and because Harper is just too damn good. Has she ever not been amazing in something?

Based on a novel titled Asking for It by noted classic cinema actress turned screenwriter and novelist, Joan Taylor, there were many changes made to the adaptation, which was penned by Elaine Muller (her only IMDb credit), including dropping a subplot involving Kate’s politician father who uses the assault as a way to garner votes in an upcoming election, while also playing down the town’s resentment towards Kate. This was probably a bit of misstep, since the antipathy is made mostly in reference, while the “educated” transplants get most of the screen time, playing down Kate’s immense struggles to bring a local to justice in a town that seeks to protect its own. In this way, the xenophobia feels almost reversed, which hampers some of the film’s impact.

And yes, while Harper is terrific as Kate, the other hiccup in Invasion is how the character reacts in the aftermath. Certainly written this way, it is a bit too detached. Indeed that plays a bit off the clinical nature of what happens to most rape victims who report their crime and then have to face exams and questioning, but there’s no journey towards Kate’s ability to pull it together. At the same time, her impassive delivery is almost inspiring. She confronts the attack with no sense of guilt or blame, and remains focused on justice.

Invasion features lots of great small screen faces, including Richard Masur as a popular transplant desperate for acceptance, Carol Kane as his wife, Jeff Daniels in a very early role as a district attorney, and a very, very young Sarah Michelle Gellar as Harper’s daughter. She’s so cute, it’s almost ridiculous. Oh, let’s face it, she's still adorable! Both Jerry Orbach and Tammy Grimes (Tammy Grimes, y'all!), took a hiatus from a Broadway production of 42nd Street to put in cameos. Everyone is great in their roles, and do their best to help pad out some of the sections of the book that were excised in this adaptation.

Shot on Shelter Island in New York, director Mel Damski creates a quiet, sensitive and intriguing drama-bordering-on-thriller that was met with mostly positive reviews when it was originally released. The sad part is that the act of victim blaming is still all too relevant, even now, thirty years after the release of this worthwhile TV movie.

(Note: apologies for the blurry stills, it was the best I could get!)

Here is the TV promo spot for Invasion of Privacy:

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Nature's Fury Blogathon: Ants (aka It Happened at Lakewood Manor, 1977)

Network: ABC 
Original Airdate: December 2nd, 1977 

Before I start any review, I always conduct cursory research on my chosen film and hope for the best. Some of the most famous TV movies have little to no information, and sometimes the most obscure movies pull up all kinds of stuff (Dude, I can read all about Sorority Kill even if I can’t watch it). Associated Press was a fickle beast is all I will say about it. And then, I’m just Googling-along all innocent-like for info on Ants, and one of the first returns is SUZANNE SOMERS BREASTS ANTS! Well, that just about sums up what is arguably the most iconic scene in Ants (aka It Happened at Lakewood Manor). But let’s be honest, Ants ain’t exactly rife with “iconic” images; however, it is certainly well regarded, and well remembered by those who caught it when they were young enough to accept some of the more ludicrous moments. Upon a recent rewatch of Ants for this review, I found that the film is even more delightful than I remembered. Crazy and inconceivable for sure, but also a bit darker in tone than I was expecting and a little icky too.

The plot is as straightforward as they come: When a construction site accidentally unearths a swarm of poisonous ants during a dig, nearby Lakewood Manor is overrun by the little guys. Chaos ensues.

Well, OK, so there’s a lot of melodrama in there too. This is what we call character development, and some of it is clunky and awkward, especially anything with Ethel, played by the great Myrna Loy. Now, I’ve seen Myrna in a few TV movies and she’s generally a treat (Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate and The Elevator are two great examples), but it’s obvious that she was not into the material. However, the main stars Lynda Day George and Robert Foxworth make the most of what’s been given to them, and I actually felt invested in watching them crawl out of that hotel shaped anthill with all their lovely bits intact.

Most of the subplots are romance driven, which is always a plus for my starry-eyed inclinations. For example, Valerie (George) and Mike (Foxworth... or Foxy-worth as I have been known to call him), who make one of the most gorgeous made up couples ever, are interested in getting Valerie’s mom, Ethel to sell Lakewood Manor so they can move to San Francisco and live happily ever after... and send her mom packing to Florida. There’s also a pretty and hippie-ish drifter named Linda (Karen Lamm) who is tired of life on the road and hooks up with OMG gorgeous Richard (Barry Van Dyke), and love instantly blossoms. Heck, even the construction inspector (Anita Gillette) seems to have a bit of chemistry with the ant expert (Bruce French)!

And, if it isn’t about falling in love, it’s about the end of love, such as the story with Marjorie (Barbara Brownell) who is staying at the Manor with her son, Tommy (the forever adorable Moosie Drier) as she recovers from a divorce. And, of course no epic TV movie about insect invasions is complete without a little sinful love, and we get that with Miss Antsonbreasts herself, Gloria (Somers) and the evil Tony (Gerald Gordon) who is obviously lecherous and easily tagged as the guy who’s going to mess everything up. He does it in a spectacular fashion though, so all is forgiven. See, TV movies have never been about subtlety, which works in the favor of this compact, and economical little disaster/insect amok flick.

But, despite all of the romantic shenanigans, audiences really showed for the creepy-crawly treachery, and it is done very well. While I miss the Empire of the Ants ant-cam, there’s plenty of up close vermin shots, and lots of brave actors let those buggers crawl all over them (the above referenced Somers to name but one). And no one is safe from potential victimization. There’s a great scene with Tommy frantically jumping into a pool even though he can’t swim because he’s covered in coffee grounds… er, I mean... ants. Yikes.

There is also a fantastic firetruck ladder stunt, which leads to an OK helicopter stunt that ends with a horde obnoxious stunt onlookers finding themselves in the line of fire. At this point, I was definitely rooting for the ants.

The ant expert gives us the lowdown on why the ants are out for blood: buried for years, these insects have sucked up all of the toxins we humans have tried to entomb and hide away within the earth. Yes, humans are pretty much to blame for everything, so I’ll buy it. But, then we are told these ants, which have already killed at least two people and injured a few more, aren’t aggressive if you are just real still. So, then we get a shot of three actors sitting motionless with little tubes (made out of 1970s wallpaper!) in their mouths so they can breathe. I remember when I first saw this as an adult and I wondered if it was really so hard to step on them and just leave? But, ludicrous is part and parcel for our little insect amok flicks, and I’ve learned to take my ant havoc with a grain of salt. Wait, doesn’t salt kill ants? Hmmm, maybe they could have done that?

In the confident hands of journeyman TV director Robert Scheerer (Changing Scene, Poor Devil and tons of episodic fare), and with a script by TV movie veteran Guerdon Trueblood (The Love War, Sole Survivor, and Ants' companion Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo), and thanks to the actors who wanted to be there (and also to Myrna for just showing up cuz I still love her so), Ants is a good reminder that even if a telefilm doesn’t get under your skin (ha!) television factory filmmaking was often much better than it should have been.

This review is part of Cinematic Catharsis's excellent Nature's Fury Blogathon! Check out more of the reviews here and here

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Hell Hath No Fury (1991)

Network: NBC
Original Airdate: March 4th, 1991

like Loretta Swit scorned! 

OK, OK, so, like, two of my favorite TV ladies teamed up for a domestic version of Single White Female and no one called me? I mean, I had call waiting, guys. You could have gotten through to me. Yes, I am late to the party, but so happy I made it here.

Lifetime did not invent television for women. In fact, many of the later entry small screen network films found success with women-centric programming. Yes, a lot of it walked into the damsel in distress territory, and it wasn’t always great, but it was, more often than not, good. And when you’re hanging out on a rainy Sunday afternoon, good can be really, really good.

Such is the case with the slick but flawed Hell Hath Not Fury, which brilliantly pits two of my favorite actress, Barbara Eden and Loretta Swit in a battle to the (almost) death. These two ladies bring something interesting to any project they are involved in, and the film is raised a notch just by giving them the majority of the celluloid.

Eden is Terri Ferguson. You know the type, Little Miss Upper Middle Class Perfect. She’s married to a well-known and respected businessman named Stanley (David Ackroyd), and is living the dream as a very well-dressed housewife. But Terri isn’t completely enthralled with her white picket fence life. She has a bit of an estranged relationship with her college aged daughter (Amanda Peterson), and she’s still feeling the empty nest syndrome big time. When Terri suggests that she could go to work for a good friend, her husband shuts her down almost instantly. Although they are quite in love, Stanley prefers a smoke and mirrors kind of life, and the way a devoted non-working wife looks to his friends and associates. So, life continues in a bit of a humdrum fabulous for the couple.

On the other side of the tracks is Connie (Swit). Already two bricks short of a full load, and in an abusive marriage, she becomes fixated on Stanley whenever she sees his local ads on television. He must seem like salvation to Connie because she shoots her husband dead and heads for Stanley’s house. As it turns out, Stanley and Connie had a very brief love affair in college, but he went off to find money and local fame, and she didn’t. Surprisingly, it also turns out that Stanley is not the man of her dreams either, because she shoots him dead too! Although it’s never fully made clear why the resentment runs so deep, Connie plots a kind of hazy, psychotic revenge against Terri, and cleverly makes her look like the guilty party behind Stanley’s untimely demise.

While Terri struggles to prove her innocence, the thinly veiled deceit that Stanley left behind begins to expose itself. He was up to his neck in hock, and Terri suddenly finds herself pushed out of her beautiful home, and desperate for money. Going to work for above referenced friend (who, by the way, is played by Kim Zimmer, y'all! And her husband is played by Richard Kline!!! OMG!), Terri clings to that silver lining. Until Connie slithers into Terri’s life, acting as a friend, but in truth, slowly begins picking off Terri’s very short list of buddies (when I say slowly, I mean only one person, but still… she’s devious and stuff).

Based on the novel Smithereens by B.W. Battin, Hell Hath No Fury is well paced, and certainly well acted. Both actresses are great and dedicated to making the most of the material. Not that the screenplay is bad, but it’s hard to understand the motivations that push Connie to that very edge at that moment. It’s perhaps a bit too haphazard in its desire to get the ball rolling, and the TVM could have used a little more backstory.

Overall, it’s a treat to see Eden and Swit in their respective roles. Swit is especially sinister as the remorseless Connie. Still, this movie is about Terri working her way back from what seems like a hopeless situation, and I can’t think of a better person to take on that task then Eden. Hell Hath No Fury ran against Earth Angel, which featured a little more star power and is also more fondly remembered. That’s too bad because while domestic terror TVMs seem like a dime a dozen, there is a reason we keep coming back to them.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The TV Sidekick Blogathon: A Love Letter to Bosley on Charlie's Angels

Once upon a time there were three little girls who went to Police Academy…” 

… and a number cruncher named Bosley.

Scratchy voiced David Doyle came up in a family of lawyers, and even attended law school, but found acting was a lot more fun. In 1960 he made his debut on Broadway in a musical titled Beg, Borrow, or Steal, which just happened to coincide with his earliest television appearances (IMDb lists his first credit in 1959 as “Desk Clerk”). He certainly paid his dues, working his way up the ranks, appearing regularly on The Patty Duke Show, and Bridget Loves Bernie among others. And while he was a common small screen face, he didn’t become a household name until an offer to play the (originally) grumpy bookkeeping assistant to a never-seen Charlie on a landmark seventies action series came to his door. Charlie’s Angels would be unvaryingly lambasted by snooty critics, but loved by adoring fans like myself, who found Doyle’s John Bosley (referred to mostly as Bosley or “Boz”) a perfect companion to the lovely trio of detectives who solved mostly glamorous crimes on a weekly basis.

This is what I do. Answer the phone, while trying not to get knocked over by Angel hair.
Let’s be honest, the Angels, five in all, were uniformly perfect, and it may have seemed a given that Bosley would possess some form of lascivious middle-aged chauvinism, or come across as someone who was resentful of the power positions of his female co-workers. But in Doyle's confident shoes, Bosley was a lovable pragmatic assistant and friend. While many viewers saw him as a father figure to the women, Doyle thought he was more like the good-natured and goofy Uncle who might be a bit spinster-ish with the books, but whose ultimate desire was to see the Angels succeed.

Buddies 4 life!
With all this love for Bosley in the air, I dove into my research by flipping through the normally reliable Prime-Time Life by Aaron Spelling and scanned the chapter all about the Angels for Doyle anecdotes. But wait. Did my eyes just deceive me? Was there really no mention of the fabulous actor who portrayed Bosley and the role he played in making the series so great?

Curses Bosley! You’ve been foiled yet again!

Don't worry Boz, the fans love you!
But you know what? Isn’t that par for Bosley’s course? Doyle faced an uphill battle with the series, initially playing Bosley as a curmudgeon number cruncher in the pilot movie (alongside David Ogden Steirs who disappeared by the time the series began). Doyle did indeed have the unglamorous task of making his pencil pushing “secretary” character into someone likeable, and also someone who didn’t mind hanging around the background while his three female co-stars took the spotlight and better on-set stylists.

Is it just me, or is that gorgeous sweater trying to upstage Bosley?
And there is very little to Bosley, actually. He talks to Charlie, takes phones calls from the Angels, sometimes puts on a costume and/or accent to help his co-workers out, and then often finds himself the butt of the joke during the end call where Charlie wraps the whole affair up. Doyle could have easily leered at the lovely actresses, picked up his check and spent his days snorting coke in Bel Air (I’m just sayin’ for the sake of argument), but he chose to bring intelligence, humor and depth to the character. Also, he simply loved acting, and loved working with his co-stars. He once commented that working alongside three beautiful women or acting with three cigar smoking males was all the same to him, because it was the job that mattered and he saw his castmates as equals who wanted to work just as much as he did. I don’t mean to quote Aretha or anything, but R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

These are my partners, see?
Although he’d get a few love interests (who were usually bad guys in cashmere), and a couple of Bosley-centric episodes, Doyle was fully aware of his place in the series, stating in an interview “I don’t know a show that has three equal leads. So it gets harder and harder to add a further element of equality – me.” And while he publicly wished Bosley was a little more together, I grew up seeing him as quite the hero, probably in part because he readily set aside his ego to let the ladies shine. I also realize that despite that lack of spotlight, I still saw him as less of an assistant, and more a full-fledged partner. I mean, he even had his own silhouette!

You've arrived, Bosley!
What’s so interesting about ol’ Boz is that, while many critics derided the series for it’s jiggly charms and fluffy demeanor, it sometimes served as a space for some interesting gender bending storylines, where Bosley played the “girl” who needed rescuing. Angels in Waiting (OAD 3/21/79) is a prime example of this, featuring Doyle in the first of only a few Bosley-centric episodes, where he is a lovelorn, frustrated “secretary” who attempts to have a little adventure of his own. Of course, he’s fallen for the wrong lady, and inevitably has to be saved by the Angels. Switch the roles, and it would look like an episode of any other detective show, but in this bubblegum wrapper of a series, we’ve just predicted The Heat! Wut? I know. Cool, right?

Adventures always involve gunplay, you know...
And further to Boz's charms, despite being mostly a flashback episode, in the very last Charlie's Angels, Let Our Angel Live (OAD 6/24/1981), Bosley got to show off some insanely amazing chops after Kelly is shot by a suspect. I can't even put into words how much he goes into a tour de force of badassery, so I'll just do it in pictures:

But despite all that male feminism and working for the love acting, David Doyle was the best simply because made me smile. It’s not that the Angels weren’t funny (although they really weren’t, let’s be honest) but Doyle had terrific comic timing, and was never afraid to be the silly odd man out. After Kate Jackson left and the ratings began to dip, one forward thinking television columnist suggested that Bosley was the Angel’s Fonzie, and that his role should be expanded to exploit his character to its fullest potential. Bosley in a bikini with a holster? I’m in.

This is how I will always remember David Doyle, and with love.
This post is part of the TV Sidekick Blogathon, which is hosted by the fine folks over at the Classic Film and TV Cafe. Check out the rest of the amazing entries by clicking here.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

A Town Has Turned to Dust (1998)

Network: Sci-Fi Channel
Original Airdate: June 27th, 1998

Before the SyFy Channel (then Sci-Fi) produced A Town Has Turned to Dust in 1998, the original story and its many adaptations already had a long, and varied history. Originally conceived as a stage play about racial injustice, and inspired by the horrifying death of Emmett Till, Rod Serling wrote Noon on Doomsday, intending to showcase the power behind defying and inverting mob mentality to create a proper justice system. Although it was met with a bit of controversy, a recording of that play was produced by the United States Steel Hour and aired on April 25, 1956. This version was directed by Daniel Petrie and featured both Jack Warden and Lois Smith (I loves me some Lois!).

It was then restructured into a story about the lynching of a Mexican boy and how this act haunted the townspeople who did nothing to prevent it. This version, titled A Town Has Turned to Dust was produced as part of the Playhouse 90 series, and originally aired on June 19th, 1958. It also featured some fine people working on and off camera, including renowned director John Frankenheimer, and actors such as Rod Steiger, William Shatner and James Gregory, among others.

Then (are you following this?), Serling adapted his story yet again for a Twilight Zone episode titled Dust, which explores how the opportunistic prey on the desperate. This episode aired January 6th, 1961. (For more on Dust, check out Tom Elliot's amazing Twilight Zone podcast. Details with links can be found at the end of this review.)

Jump ahead some three decades later to a completely (well almost) unrelated event. In the early 1990s, the Sci-Fi Channel (I hate writing SyFy... whoops! There I go!) began producing original films, the first of which was titled Homewrecker (OAD: December 17, 1992), which debuted in their Planetary Premiere slot. The incredible Fred Walton (When a Stranger Calls) directed this telefilm about a computer who falls in love with its programmer, and features Robby Benson as the aforementioned hottie coding nerd, and Kate Jackson as the voice of the computer! Not that this film fared so well critically, but, following in the footsteps of the USA Original, it is a reminder of the early days of cable and how they took a page out of the book of old school network programming.

So, with all of that in mind, sashay up to 1998 when Sci-Fi gave yet another nod to golden age TV and re-adapted A Town Has Turned to Dust, restructuring it yet again as a post-apocalyptic tale about a beaten down town divided by the indigenous peoples and the settlers seeking mob justice (and, ultimately, the price they pay for such an act).

Whew! That’s a lot of history for what is a fairly by the numbers, but arguably watchable, made for television movie that essentially came and went. Director Rob Nilsson was a bit of a indie film scene renegade, pioneering the video to film transfer, which would help revolutionize the digital filmmaking of today. I remember Nilsson’s Heat and Sunlight (1987), which was completely improvised, and shot in black and white. And while, quite honestly, I wasn’t all that taken with the film, it would seem Nilsson was an incredibly interesting choice to direct Town. At this point, he had never worked in television (and as far as I know, had not worked in the sci-fi genre either), and was an indie filmmaker who thought outside the box. What better way to re-introduce Serling’s work than with another outsider who had a better understanding of film as art than most workmanlike TV movie directors (not a slate against my TVM guys, just to be clear).

However, maybe that was the issue. TV movies have to accomplish big ideas with very little time or money. For his part, Nilsson assembled a great cast, which includes Ron Perlman, Judy Collins (!), and Stephen Lang, but while it seems fairly faithful to Serling’s story at least in terms of themes (in fact, Serling gets sole writing credit), it just doesn’t click the way it should. Subsequently, Town was met with mediocre reviews, both People magazine and Entertainment Weekly were less than impressed with the final product, with People aptly synopsizing Town as a “disappointing trip back to the future.”

So, what went wrong? It’s hard to pinpoint. Town is not necessarily a bad film, but it’s not very good either. It lacks pacing, and doesn’t have the emotional oomph it should, especially considering the rich subject matter and source material. Part of the problem stems from its futuristic setting, because even with all that neat red dust and dystopian imagery, the story feels completely dated. There is an awkward mix of apocalyptic towns dubbed “New Angeles” and that old school approach to the themes of race and class.

What it does have going for it though is genuine performances from all involved. Lang is particularly good, even if the character isn’t all that memorable, and Perlman is appropriately sleazy. It’s really too bad that things didn’t work out for Town because although it is playing with traditional beats, it unfortunately presents what seems to be a timeless tale of marginalization and the sad state of mob mentality. Perhaps Town is due for another retelling, but instead of trying to update the story with spiffy modern visuals, it should concentrate on its original inspiration and reflect on whether or not the world has changed much since Till’s death. Now, that would be a chilling tale.


This review was inspired by Tom Elliot's excellent Twilight Zone podcast. In the latest episode Tom takes an in-depth look at Dust, which is yet another adaptation of Town. You can download the episode via the site or through iTunes. (Also check out Tom's other podcast The Strange and Deadly Show while you're at it, cuz it's, like, the best thing ever!)