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Out of the Blue (1979)
An angel named Random is sent to watch over a woman who's had to take in her nieces and nephews after the death of their parents. Of course, the children quickly find out that Random has magical powers while the adults are clueless.
The sole reason that this series seems to be remembered is because it's assumed that it's yet another "Happy Days" spin-off (the lead character, Random, appeared on a "Happy Days" episode). Wrong. If this was a spin-off, then so was "That's My Mama." As a fan of both Dixie Carter and Eileen Heckart, I sought the series out... and was extremely disappointed with what I found.
While the premise has been done to death, it can STILL work if correctly executed. It didn't work here at all. The writing was bad, the effects were worse, the children were obnoxious, and all of the adults (except for Heckart) seemed completely miscast. Both Brogan and Carter seemed uncomfortable with their roles. Heckart made the most of the drivel she was given, and aside from her performance, the only redeeming thing about the show was an obnoxiously catchy theme song.
The Devil and Daniel Mouse (1978)
In exchange for fame as a rock star, Jan Mouse unknowingly signs a contract for her soul with Bealzabub.
Yes, the story's been done to death (another commenter mentioned the very similar "Phantom of the Paradise"), but this has to be one of the most charming versions. Rooted in the '70s, the animation is truly dazzling at times, the music (by The Lovin' Spoonful's John Sebastian) is diverse and infectious and the film itself is entertaining enough for both children and adults. Not too many '70s made-for-TV specials can boast all of that.
While Mrs. Daniel Mouse is the star, it's the Devil who steals the show, constantly morphing and contorting with ease as he subtly growls his dialog. One of the greatest villains to grace any screen, it's almost a shame that Beal didn't appear in a theatrical film where he had exposure to a wider audience.
It seems that "Daniel Mouse" is under-appreciated by fans of the much darker "Rock & Rule," the film that it inspired, but it appears on the 2-disc DVD set of "R&R" (where I first discovered it). Just a warning: the DVD version has been slightly trimmed, but it can be found in it's entirety for viewing online. While this is certainly more sugary and family-oriented than the later film, it's WAY above average fare for TV from that era... I'd certainly liken it to a good Disney production.
Free Spirit (1989)
My memory didn't lie
This series -- and particularly Corinne Bohrer -- left an indelible mark on my memory. For eons now, every time I've seen Bohrer on commercials (unfortunately that seems to be her career nowadays) or in films/TV, I smile and say, "Winnie." I've revisited other fondly remembered shows from my childhood and found that they were pretty awful, so I figured that this one surely must be too. So when I found most of the episodes for download on an Alyson Hannigan page, I was simultaneously excited and apprehensive about tainting my memory of the show. This is one of those cases where my memory didn't lie.
Bohrer is truly delightful as witch Winnie Goodwin, who (rather derivatively) finds herself living with the Harper family, where the kids know that she's a witch, but the widower Dad doesn't. Just as I'd remembered, she's essentially a witch version of Phoebe Buffay (Lisa Kudrow) from "Friends" -- Phoebe even seems to have ripped off Winnie's wardrobe. Franc Luz, who plays father T.J., seems to be a Bob Saget doppleganger, but he was still very good in the role (sadly he now works as a tour guide). All three of the children were charming in their roles (Hannigan was obviously destined for great things, but it's fun to see her in this very early performance).
From my perspective now, I figured that the show's shortcoming would be the writing, but was pleasantly surprised to discover that the writing's pretty solid. Yes, it has the obligatory '80s sappy sitcom moments, but the dialog was generally above average -- and the cast could make even the corniest of jokes fly with their fantastic delivery. Some of the story lines were a bit cliché, but not in a bad way...
I'm really not sure why this show vanished as quickly as it appeared. Another commenter said that it was up against "The Simpsons," but only two of the last episodes of this show aired up against the long-running hit. The show certainly hasn't aged as badly as others in the same genre, such as "Small Wonder," "Down to Earth" or "Out of This World" (not that I'm knocking those shows -- they just really show their age).
The Charmings got their groove back
The transition from Caitlin O'Heaney to Carol Huston as Snow White Charming between seasons was particularly difficult for regular viewers. O'Heaney played the role to campy perfection, while Huston played it pretty straight. While the previous two episodes of the series weren't bad (there wasn't a BAD episode in the entire run), they lacked the punch that had made the first season so hilarious.
But in this episode, the cast seemed to slip back into the groove that was reminiscent of the first season -- and Huston really began to make the role of Snow her own. The writing was sharp, the cast was all in top form, and "Addams Family" veteran John Astin was brilliantly cast in a large guest role (it's a shame the show didn't last long enough for him to return). On the flip-side, some of the special effects were truly terrible (they often tried to pull sight gags that were beyond their budget), but it still worked within the context of this broad farce.
All-in-all, one of the best episodes of season 2.
The Naked Truth (1995)
A textbook example of why shows shouldn't be "retooled"
1995 was an incredible year for sitcoms... unfortunately, very few of the astronomical number of sitcoms made it past their freshman season. Among the few survivors were "The Naked Truth" and "The Jeff Foxworthy Show," both of which went though incredibly awkward transitions from ABC to NBC.
When this series premiered, it was radically different from the rest. Delving into the uncharted territory of "tabloid journalism," Tea Leoni starred as Nora Wilde, a Pulitzer-nominated photographer who, after losing her funds in a nasty divorce, reluctantly wound up working at The Comet, a "National Enquirer"-like tabloid newspaper. Celebrity cameos and inside-jokes abounded, and Leoni was heralded as the "new Lucille Ball" (a moniker that suited her zany antics). Among celeb cameos were Anna Nicole Smith (Nora was sent out to steal her urine for pregnancy testing), Tom Hanks (who got to be oddly perverse), Rip Taylor (in one of his funniest roles ever) and Michael York as Nora's ex, Leland.
The Comet was run by ruthless Camilla Dane (the irrepressible Holland Taylor) and owned by Sir Rudolph Halley (charasmatic Tim Curry, who made several guest appearances). Other photographers included Nicky Columbus, a handsome love-interest for Nora; T.J., a black dude who seemed blind since he was always clad in dark shades; and the aptly-named "Stupid Dave" Bippenwhacker, a developmentally challenged paparazzi member. Regularly seen were Mr. Donner, the owner of Nora's building (it should be noted that she originally lived in the same set that was used for "One Day at a Time" and the final seasons of "Gimme a Break") and her former step-daughter, Chloe -- who doubled as her best friend, since they were similar in age.
ABC rather abruptly pulled the plug on the series, but NBC gave it a new lease on life. Nearly a year after ABC aired the unofficial "season finale," "The Naked Truth" returned to the air on NBC. Gone were both Mr. Donner and Chloe, and added to the cast was Les Polanski (George Wendt), a meat-mogul who bought The Comet from Sir Rudolph Halley. While the series quickly slipped back into a groove (thanks in no small part to frequent guest-shots by Mary Tyler Moore and George Segal as Nora's parents, who eventually bought the apartment across the hall from Nora's), the outrageous antics from the season on ABC were significantly toned down as they molded it into the standard "girl-in-the-big-city-working-for-a-paper" niche that most of the other NBC sitcoms were into at the time. Dave was no longer "Stupid Dave," he was Dave Fontaine, who was slightly smarter than he'd been the previous season. Camilla and Les had a brief but torrid affair and the season eventually ended on a high note. As "The Naked Truth" finished its abridged second season, George Segal struck gold on "Just Shoot Me," another NBC girl-in-the-city-working-for-a-magazine series.
When the show returned for season three, gone was the majority of the cast. Camilla moved to editor The National Inquisitor and dragged Nora and Dave along with her. Now Dave was no longer "stupid" at all -- he was brilliant, in fact (I had a real hard time buying that transition). George Segal and Mary Tyler Moore were never mentioned again (though Dave did eventually move into their apartment, where Nora revealed that the former tenants were murdered -- "and you can thank me for that too"). New to the cast were Tom Verica as her new love-interest, Jake Sullivan; Amy Hill (who I ADORE but is certain death when it comes to series) as belligerent Suji; the illegitimate son of Bing Crosby, Bradley (Chris Elliot); and fastidious fact-checker Harris (Jim Rash). Unfortunately, the celebrity cameos completely deteriorated by this point, the writing was sub-par and the show was stuck on Monday nights with other soon-to-be canceled series "Suddenly Susan," "Caroline in the City" and (the hilarious) "Fired Up." As the third season progressed, Dave was eventually altogether written out of the show; then-unknown Sarah Silverman made an unfunny guest-appearance as an Alyssa-Milano-like former child star; and the possibility of a love-connection between Jake and Nora was quickly put to rest when Jake began having a secret affair with Camilla (though NBC aired the episodes totally out of order, creating confusion for viewers). As another commenter noted, the third season was "ugly." NBC pulled the plug for good long before the season had finished, and many of the episodes remained unaired until USA ran the series briefly during their USA.M. comedy block.
Ironically, the *tabloids* cited Leoni for the demise of the series -- they said that she'd become increasingly unruly since getting together with David Duchovney (whom she soon married -- and who provided one of the funniest jokes in the second-season finale). I can't blame her personally but instead I blame the constant retooling of the initial gem-of-a-show, coupled with increasingly bad writing. The final episodes of season three were among the best (for whatever that's worth) but NBC didn't even bother to air them.
Overwhelmingly fantastic first season, but as another commenter put it, in order of seasons, it went "the good, the bad and the ugly."
Hobbs End (2002)
Horribly-marketed, well-crafted psychological thriller
A woman in an isolated farm house takes in a man under the assumption he's her new handyman.
Before I say anything else, I should say that "Hobb's End" feels like it could have originated as a stage-play (it could have been successful on the stage)... or '70s movie-of-the-week. To say that it's slow and talky is an understatement.
This film seems to have gotten a horrible rap, mainly due to the fact that it was marketed to the wrong sort of audience. Not that there's a huge audience for this sort of movie. The packaging depicts a man with a bloody chainsaw (no chainsaw is even used in the film) and the description on the back blatantly gives away the twist. The body count is low, the gore is barely seen and the film crawls along from start to finish. Not exactly the slasher film that the box leads you to believe it is. And to boot, the audience is enticed early on with a tale of a "curse" that really has nothing to do with the plot.
The film fits into more of a "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf"-type psychological-drama category, but there are many factors (revealed late into the film, but disclosed on the box) that push it into the horror genre. The story unfolds at a slow pace with lots of twists and distractions, and a good chunk of the dialogue has a payoff of some sort or another.
Taking into consideration what sort of film it REALLY is, it's quite good. Catarina Conti gives a fine performance as the heroine. At times she comes off sort of wooden, though it's because of the character and not her performance. Brennan Elliot gives a very layered performance as a psychopath that's really quite intriguing if you're up to going with it. The production values are modest at best ('70s TV-movie really does come to mind) but it's well-filmed with some beautiful snowy scenery. Perennial soundtrack band Wild Colonials provide the songs in the film, beginning with an infectiously goofy ditty called "Quarrel-Tet" that plays over the opening titles (a song that it's hard to shake from my head once its in there).
The film is not for most tastes, but it's a good risk for lovers of plays or those up to taking a chance on a film that's more talk than action.
Fantastic visuals but lacks a coherent story
Tomaselli obviously has a flair for creating eye candy. Although a few of the effects in this film are hokey and ultra-low-budget (the model plane, the scissors), the majority of the visuals are fantastic reminiscent of many Euro-shockers and the first "Evil Dead." However, what the film lacks is a coherent story. I'm not a moviegoer who needs everything spelled out "Black Christmas," for example, was creepy because we barely see the killer, let alone find out his motivation. "Donnie Darko" remains an enigma even to the writer/director. "Burnt Offerings" leaves you to decide exactly what happened in the house. But at least the aforementioned have some sense of logic.
The principle story here is about a boy who's dragged to Hell by his dead mother as she attempts to escape. Or so they say. However, nothing that happens within the film justifies that plot line and it all completely lacks logic. If Tomaselli had ended the film in the traditional Hollywood "it was all a dream" way, perhaps I could forgive the film for lacking sense. As is, it feels like an overlong student film.
The acting is horrendous all around, with the exception of the boy who plays Bobby. The old lady (who can't act, but I've seen in a slew of films) is annoying and, unfortunately, has the dominant part. The few male actors all sound like they're reading off cue cards, and then there's the nuns but if you can't say something nice .
The DVD ends with an "excerpt from the original short film" on which this movie was based. I don't understand why it's not the complete film (the provided scene is exceptional) nor is there a commentary or any other extras. Enigmatic films such as this ALWAYS benefit from commentaries.
Those seeking something out of the norm might enjoy this, as well as stoner horror buffs. All others, avoid it.
3 Women (1977)
Beautiful and surreal, but plot less, pretentious and ultimately pointless
I have to say up front, if you don't like artsy films, run! A decade and multiple viewings after my first exposure to "3 Women," I remain ambivalent in my feelings for it.
To provide true spoilers would be nearly impossible, since there is no discernible plot to this film merely themes. Introverted Spacek (fresh from "Carrie" and tackling a somewhat similar role) befriends outgoing Duvall, who no one really likes. The third of the three women is artist Rule, who has little screen time or purpose to her presence.
The entire film feels like a dream (or a nightmare, depending upon your tolerance for it) and ends with the most ambiguous final scene ever, leading one to wonder if perhaps it was the dream of one of the three characters (or perhaps it's the ending itself that was the dream). There's plenty of pointless dialogue and situations, and weirdness abounds. The performances are excellent, the visuals stunning and the score is appropriately inscrutable. If only there were any sense to be made from it.
After 27 years, it finally received the lavish video release that it deserves, complete with a stunning widescreen transfer and an audio commentary by director Robert Altman (though the commentary fails to shed much light on the enigma that is "3 Women"). Like all Criterion discs, the price tag conjures up images of rape (I don't get why Criterion discs are 5 times the price of their studio-released counterparts), but it's well worth it for those willing to take the risk.
Tourist Trap (1979)
A curio with some great moments
A group of 20-somethings find themselves stranded in the middle of nowhere, take refuge in Chuck Connors' museum, and discover that the mannequins are surprisingly lifelike.
Okay, so there's not much story and you never care for the characters. What makes "Tourist Trap" a memorable film are some truly striking visuals, some genuine scares, a lot of senselessness that's never explained and Pino Donoggio's clockwork musical score. To give too much away is to ruin this one for anyone who hasn't seen it.
Fans of unusual horror films, take notice of this one; others, enter at your own risk... and anyone who's ever been at all creeped out by a department store mannequin, beware!
At Home with the Webbers (1993)
Uneven fun Jennifer Tilly was never better!
Pre-dating the whole reality TV craze, "The Webbers" is about "an average American family" who agree to have their daily life broadcast on TV. Dad's a psychiatrist lacking patients; mom's a sad and horny housewife; son's isolated himself from the world after the death of his beloved girlfriend; and daughter's an aspiring sculptor obsessed with male nudes.
The film is hit-and-miss from start to finish, but when it hits the mark, it's a bullseye. Fans of Jeffrey Tambor in "Arrested Development" would probably get a kick out of his warped character here; fans of David Arquette would probably enjoy his sensitive portrayal. Jennifer Tilly, however, devours the scenery at every opportunity, in a portrayal that's hilarious and far more three-dimensional than the standard airhead bimbo that she always gets stuck playing (she even gets to sing a fun little song here!) she's still an airhead and a bimbo, but it's a really juicy role. Robbie Benson also gives a memorably campy performance as a lecherous TV exec who tries to pit members of the family against each other to sustain high ratings.
It's a shame that this one went straight to video where it remains unnoticed all these years later. It's uneven, but has some fantastic moments, and it's a worthwhile time waster for fans of the cast, as well as those who are annoyed by reality TV.