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A fish out of water on early '70s television, 11 July 2017

Bob and Carol Sanders are a pair of free-spirited 20-somethings, Ted and Alice Henderson are their repressed 30-something neighbors. Bob works for a TV network, Ted is a lawyer, and both of their wives are homemakers. The Sanders have a precocious young son and the Hendersons have a snarky tween daughter. Plots generally revolve around sexual frustrations and jealousies.

Loosely adapted from the hit 1969 film, the biggest problem with this show was that the material was a little too risqué for 1970s network TV (in context, this aired during the final season of "The Brady Bunch"). For example, in one episode, Alice reveals that she lost her virginity to another man prior to meeting Ted - but they had to dance all around the word "virgin." The other problem is that the characters were poorly defined. Bob and Carol were made out to be the hip, swinging couple, but you never really got a sense of that from their actions - the hippest, swingingest character was actually Alice, who was supposed to have been a wallflower.

Despite various problems with the writing, there were some genuinely funny moments, the cast was great and had appropriate chemistry. Robert Urich exuded charisma as Bob, and it was clear that he was destined for bigger and better things. Anita Gillette was absolutely charming as the flighty Alice, David Spielberg was pitch-perfect as tightly-wound lawyer Ted, and frequent guest-star Jodie Foster brought that patented brand of miniature adulthood that was present in all of her childhood roles. The weakest link was Anne Archer as Carol, though I don't think it was her performance, the problem was the lackluster writing of her character. Archer was never given much to do, and she revealed in an interview immediately after the show was canceled that she was relieved to be done with it.

Certainly not the worst offering of the '70s - and not the worst TV spin-off of a film either - but it's pretty clear why it didn't last long on the air. It's worth seeking out for fans of the cast (particularly Urich and Gillette), but fans of the movie would doubtlessly find it pretty appalling.

Dead Ring (2016)
A unique, surreal and engaging no-budget oddity, 10 July 2017

Following the tragic death of her entire family, Emily has developed survivor's guilt and agoraphobia. She rarely ventures out of her apartment and the only person she sees regularly is Ian, a 15 year old neighbor who has a lucrative business running errands for folks in the building. Determined to beat her fears, Emily finds an online ad for a radical doctor who helps agoraphobics. The doc's advice? Use art to create a doppleganger. And thus Em is born! Soon Emily and Ian begin building a strange friendship with Emily's creepy goth clone. But how is Em supposed to help Emily cope with her agoraphobia?...

Despite outward appearances this is NOT a horror movie. The only film that I can think of to compare it to is "Edward Scissorhands," and even that's a bit of a stretch. "Dead Ring" has many of the hallmarks of a student film, but that's certainly not a bad thing, if you don't mind the snail's pace, surreal plot and an occasionally stilted line reading.

Savanah McMahon gives a pretty solid performance as Emily, but she really shines brightly as Em (and I'm not merely referring to those freaky glowing contact lenses!). As a stranger in our world, Em has an appropriate sense of wonder and child-like innocence - and man, that makeup is awesome! As Ian, Nathan Olson is a bit green, but I wouldn't say his performance is bad - he hits the right notes more often than not, and he could become a good actor with a little more experience. The weakest link is Jacob Olson as Zak, a neighborhood bully who's made it his mission to torment Ian. Of course, it doesn't help matters that Zak's character only has a few brief appearances and adds virtually nothing to the story.

Craig McMahon deserves kudos for his writing (in this day and age, it's no easy feat to come up with a story that doesn't feel like a tired retread), and his direction is usually on the ball (overlooking the numerous roving skyline cutaways which seemed utterly pointless). The musical score (bafflingly credited to "Musicians all over the world") adds to the film's surrealism, though on occasion it overwhelms the dialogue. It's a shame that we don't have a DVD with audio commentary, because this is a movie that would greatly benefit from insight from the filmmakers.

If you're looking for something completely out of the norm and don't mind a plodding pace, I'd highly recommend this little obscurity. It's not without its little problems, but it's certainly better than the endless crap reboots and neverending franchises that the major studios have been bombarding us with for the entire 21st century.

Kamillions (1990)
Why isn't this a huge cult classic?, 22 June 2017

On the night of his birthday party, scientist Nathan Wingate discovers another dimension through a contraption he's built in his basement. Unfortunately, just as the guests begin to arrive, the good doctor gets sucked into the other world and two shape-shifting bugs with magical powers enter ours. One is good-natured, the other's a sadistic prankster, and the Wingate family and their eccentric guests are unknowingly caught in the middle.

Every once in a while, I'll see some old movie and say, "WHY have I never heard of this before?!" That was certainly the case here. Don't get me wrong, on the surface it looks like "MST3K" material - the acting is generally bad, the FX are super-low-budget, the pacing is off, and some of the gags fall flat. But man, the characters have enough individuality that you wanna root for them, the FX are impressively inventive, and a lot of the stuff is genuinely funny (it was co-written and directed by a now-longtime alum of "The Simpsons"). It's intentionally campy but teeters on a tightrope where it's simultaneously creepy and it boasts a clever twist too (assuming you haven't read the film's tagline!?!).

If Scream Factory or some other distributor would unearth and complete the director's cut of this endearing obscurity, there's a huge audience out there which is waiting to discover it. Until then, it's worth seeking out online if you're into '80s movies with extra corn!

Nocturna (1979)
The Xanadu of vampire movies!, 3 June 2017

Nocturna, Dracula's granddaughter, falls in love with a disco guitarist and follows him to the Big Apple, where she takes up residence with Drac's ex. The Count and his lovelorn henchman soon follow to bring Nocturna home to Transylvania. I generally open with a bigger synopsis, but that's how light the film is on story. There are a few run-ins with other characters in various vignette-like sequences, but they don't have a whole lot to do with the plot. However, there's a WHOLE LOT of disco music and shots of Nocturna twirling!

Years ago, someone recommended Nocturna to me and my initial reaction was, "Why'd he think I'd like this? It's awful!" It wasn't until I revisited the movie on a whim that I realized how FASCINATINGLY awful it is. The dialogue is abysmal, the performances are almost universally bad (though the always-delightful Sy Richardson managed to transcend the material a bit), the animated FX are beyond cheesy, the disco sequences seem endless, and a bathing scene drags on past the point of titillation into tedium. However, there's something oddly lovable about this obscurity. Years later, it dawned on me that it's essentially a lower-budget vampire version of "Xanadu": Starcrossed lovers with zero chemistry, a related antagonist who's weak (literally, in this instance), tons of music, some tacky animation, and a few dialogue scenes to loosely tie things together.

I've chronicled the making of the film at length elsewhere (it's become a minor obsession), but allow me to briefly reiterate... This was a star vehicle for bellydancer Nai Bonet, who had appeared in a few films and TV shows in the decade+ preceding Nocturna (she actually wasn't bad in "Soul Hustler"), but her biggest accomplishment was becoming a socialite among the Studio 54 type of crowd. She conceived the idea for the movie, got director Harry Hurwitz to write the script, secured soundtrack music from disco divas Gloria Gaynor and Vicki Sue Robinson (in an odd twist, Robinson went on to star alongside Bonet in her next-and-final film venture, "Hoodlums"), threw a few measly bucks at typecast frequent-costars Yvonne DeCarlo and John Carradine, and got Compass International Pictures to produce and distribute the film. Critics universally panned the movie, audiences generally ignored it, and it only briefly blipped on big screens and video store shelves. Bonet made one final foray into film with a gangster disco-drama(!) she'd conceived and then she retired from acting for good.

If I could pick one largely-unknown film to get a lavish Blu-Ray release, this'd be the one. It's developed a small cult following over the years and it's a travesty that the only prints in circulation are taken from early 1980s VHS transfers. Despite its many, many horrendous flaws, there's something sort of magical about this little disasterpiece. So is anyone from Shout Factory or Scorpion Releasing reading this? Or MST3K/Rifftrax, even? (Brother Theodore could be the next Torgo!)

Lovably corny... but dated, 6 March 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

For those of us old enough to remember, "West Coast" Julie Brown had an MTV series, and she's kind of gone down in cult movie history with her bizarro 1980s sci-fi-musical-comedy opus "Earth Girls Are Easy" (which she co-wrote and co-starred in alongside Geena Davis, Jeff Goldblum, Jim Carrey and Damon Wayans). Hermain schtick is the '80s valley girl, and in this pilot, she was playing herself as a variation of that character. This time she hosted a talk show at CBS, but everything is going wrong - her boyfriend dumped her in a humiliating way, Elizabeth Taylor was set to guest on the show but dropped out due to an accident, and a would-be encounter with Michael Jackson left her with a stowaway chimp. Brown also sings an excerpt of her cult hit "I Like 'em Big and Stupid."

In an era of stuff like "Murphy Brown" and "Designing Women," I can't see this having sustained much time on the air if it had been picked up as a weekly series. Julie was likable and it was cute and fluffy... but there's an inherent problem in Brown's material that it's often too timely, so some of the jokes don't make sense out of context later (Brown's Fox series "The Edge" suffered from a worse case of that). At Fox this might've stood a chance for a season, but not on CBS.

The pilot's surfaced and You Tube and it's worth a look for fans of Ms. Brown and costar Larry Poindexter, but it's hardly earth-shattering material.

A funny casualty of the '88 writer's strike, 1 March 2017

Hard-working stockbroker Brian and lawyer Kate felt like they'd missed out on teenage son Ross's childhood, so when baby daughter Emily came along, they decided to stay home and open a daycare center. This transition was especially hard on slacker Ross, who'd become accustomed to having the house to himself. Working at the Harper Preschool was sweet college-student Kristin, the object of Ross's unwanted affections, who was majoring in psychology and minoring in weaving. And a constant fixture in their home was self-centered Eileen, Kate's best friend and Brian's former coworker, who eventually bought the house next door. A group of kids regularly appeared in the daycare center, but the only standouts were brainiac Molly and rascally Justin, both of whom were quick with the one-liners. Also frequently seen were Ross's buddies Stiv (formerly known as Steve), dimwitted Bob, dorky J.D. and pretentious Allison, whom Ross dated late in the series.

Created by Gary David Goldberg and future political comedy writer Andy Borowitz and featuring a lot of the same crew from "Family Ties," the show initially had a similar vibe in it's first run as a midseason replacement. Then a writer's strike stretched through the summer, which delayed the fall season and turned viewers away from network TV in droves. When the show finally returned for season 2, the cast really began to mesh and the tone got lighter (more akin to "Growing Pains"), with the hilarious "Brady Bunch" episode that's mentioned in every other review, fantasy sequences and other zaniness. Personally, I liked the second season better and was sad that there weren't more. After the show's cancellation, Lifetime aired reruns for a while and they popped up on TV Land around the turn of the century.

Aside from the bizarre "Brady Bunch" connection, the other most memorable component of this series was Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who shined brightly as the total narcissist that hated children. Most of the laugh-out-loud funny jokes were spewed from her lips. It' also interesting to see then-novice, now-old-pro Courtney Thorne Smith learning the ropes of sitcoms. She was a little flat in the beginning but had improved by leaps and bounds by the end of the series. I could go on about each of the actors, but suffice it to say that they were each great in their own rite.

Paramount's not good about releasing their shows on DVD, but I hope they'll license it to Shout Factory or some other distributor someday. This was a funny, lovable little show and it's sad that it's kind of been forgotten.

Quirky, surreal and completely out of the norm, 9 February 2017

Mona (Fairuza Balk) is a young artist who lives with her pregnant cousin (Debi Mazar), works at a pet store (run by Téa Leoni) and she's recently realized that sweet boyfriend Jeff (Noah Taylor) feels more like a brother than a lover. The lines between reality and fantasy begin to blur when Mona encounters a sexy stranger (Patrick Dempsey) who may be the devil himself - and her lust for this man directly results in Jeff's death. So what's worse than accidentally murdering your boyfriend? Being the only one who can see his ghost.

I can't help but wonder what all of the people who wrote bad reviews expected to see. This is one of those movies like "My Boyfriend's Back" or a John Waters opus where the characters don't function in a normal semblance of reality - they're all one-note and their actions/reactions are often absurd. And on top of that, it's low-budget fantasy, so some of the FX (as well as Debi Mazar's wig) are somewhat lacking... but that sorta adds to the fun.

The story juts along at its own pace and in its own direction, and I can't say that I ever anticipated what was coming next - though the ending was a little cliché (not that I could think of a more suitable one). Balk is likable as always as the leading lady and Taylor is charming as her dead weight. Dempsey was well-cast but he only appears in a few scenes and doesn't utter a single syllable. And renowned scene-stealer Jeffrey Jones also deserves mention for his supporting role as a minister. Unfortunately, Leoni plays it pretty broad and Mazar was uncharacteristically restrained (actually it feels like they should've switched parts).

"Life in the Fast Lane" was cute, it held my interest throughout and made me chuckle quite a few times. I couldn't really ask for more from such a dopey little comedy... except for maybe a better title ("There's No Fish Food in Heaven" wasn't much better, but at least it made sense for the film).

A mishmash of styles and ideas, 9 January 2017

A young boy is stranded alone on an exotic planet with an egg-shaped walkie-talkie that he uses to communicate with a space crew.

Knowing René Laloux's "Fantastic Planet" and reading all the dazzling reviews here, I was stoked to see another animated masterpiece but I found myself horrendously disappointed. The first half of the movie is REALLY slow, cutting back and forth between the boy and the space crew. If that'd been the whole of the story, it might've still been awesome... but in the middle, the boy is forgotten for a while as the story is convoluted by evil angels and time travel. It's like there were two or three separate short stories that they tried to jam together into one movie - and then they threw in some anthropomorphized creatures, a pair of random musical numbers and a paradoxical twist just to hammer in the fact that this is a mishmash of disparate ideas.

The styles in the animation are almost as schizophrenic as the story. Most of the characters have the look of MTV's "Aeon Flux," one seems distinctly inspired by "Yellow Submarine," the boy looks like a Rankin/Bass creation, the spaceships look like Nelvana animated them and the animals are Disneyfied. It's all well done and pretty to look at, but the styles don't entirely coalesce.

There are certainly worse ways to spend 85 minutes, but I find the current 7.1 IMDb user rating absolutely baffling. A 5 is being generous.

Sweet but not sugary, 9 January 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Boxer Nick (Don Gordon, "Bullitt") sets off on a trek across California to find a man who owes him money, and along the way he happens upon a young Felicity (Carol Anne Seflinger, "Wonderbug"), who attaches herself to him like a barnacle. Although initially disenchanted with her, Nick is instinctively protective of the girl and genuinely comes to care for her.

I understand why this film's completely obscure - there's a whole lot of nothing going on in the story, which plods along at a snail's pace. However, there's some pithy dialogue, wonderful performances, beautiful locales and an underlying grit that's unusual for a film from 1965 - Felicity's father's a raging alcoholic, Nick's sister ran off with a heroin addict, and the duo crosses paths with a predatory gay guy and a promiscuous waitress. In another film, these elements could seem wildly exploitative, but they're generally handled with dignity here, preventing the movie from devolving into trashiness or the stereotypical sort of Disney fare that it could have been. In other words, it's sweet without being overly sugary.

If you're a fan of any of the actors, it's worth tracking down for their performances, though most of them have limited screen time and Sally Kellerman doesn't appear at all (honestly, I don't recall even hearing the song that she's credited for singing). It's certainly not the greatest movie ever made, but it feels like it was a labor of love for the small cast and crew.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Condescendingly self-aware, 21 October 2016

First things first, I was among the few who was genuinely excited about this remake. I thoroughly enjoyed 2015's "Rocky Horror Show Live" (check You Tube) and the various other musical TV productions of recent years. However, my enthusiasm gradually transformed into disgust for what I was witnessing. When I was in junior high and high school, I was ridiculed for my obsessive love of Rocky Horror. Then in 1991, Fox debuted the movie for Halloween and the next day, the very same kids who'd made fun of me were Time Warping in the school hallway. It was weird, and I later realized that was THE moment when RHPS began to mutate from a subversive cult thing to a mainstream classic. Watching this glossy travesty, I found myself overwhelmed by that same uneasy feeling I had a quarter-century ago after Fox first aired the film.

It took me a while to figure out the problem with the 2016 version. The cast and crew bestowed it with the same respect that audiences have shown the film in theaters for decades: They've treated it like it's schlock to be made fun of. There were certainly campy winks and nods in the original, but when it came time for the characters to emote, you believed Tim Curry could abruptly snap and violently murder someone or Susan Sarandon was having spontaneous orgasms. Those nuances are mostly absent in the performances here, and it's so self-aware and Disney-fied that it's kind of insulting. It's one thing for the audience to mock the screen, but most of the actors are mocking the characters that they themselves are portraying, which just doesn't work.

The dishonor of worst performance goes to Ben Vereen, who was woefully miscast as Dr. Scott. Placing the black Vereen in the role of uncle to white Adam Lambert's Eddie was a questionable decision to begin with, but Vereen mugs his way through his scenes, acting as if he's starring in some insipid kiddie comedy. It's downright bizarre. Runner-up in the worst performer category goes to Laverne Cox, who gives an admittedly exuberant but ultimately hollow performance as the mad scientist. Cox offered none of the underlying menace that Curry displayed in the role (Tim Curry could kill you, but Laverne Cox only seems capable of a whopping bitchslap) and she played it like she was the singular star in a glitzy drag show, mimicking Curry's syllables and vocal inflections with an annoying, fluctuating British/Southern Belle accent. The good Franks (Anthony Head, for example) fully inhabited the character and injected it with their own stamp, which Cox did not.

Perhaps the worst aspect of this production (overlooking the fact that the dancers aren't doing the steps being audibly described in the titular Time Warp) is how they've systematically whitewashed the rampant sexuality which was so pivotal to the flimsy plot. Today sexual deviancy is socially acceptable, other network TV offerings frequently devolve into scenes that would have once been considered X-rated -- and the Fox network aired the original film numerous times throughout the 1990s with minimal trims, so there's really no excuse. Casting Cox as a woman (regardless of the fact that she used to be a dude) completely undermines the story of the wholesome Leave it to Beaver couple being torn apart by a kinky sex freak. It was the gay community which embraced the movie back in the '70s, we have at least one openly gay and one transgendered star, and yet virtually all traces of homosexuality (as well as incest) were eliminated. It's oddly incongruous and completely destroys the narrative.

That's not to say that everything's bad. Adam Lambert and Ivy Levan are stand-outs as Eddie and the Usherette. Annaleigh Ashford gave a radically different interpretation of Columbia which works well, given the character's story arc. Similarly, Reeve Carney made Riff-Raff his own. Victoria Justice has an awesome singing voice. Tim Curry lends an appropriate air of dignity, and although he was physically unable to do all the things that his part required (such as turning the pages of a book), they came up with an inventive workaround. Nice to see him again, even in poor health. Unfortunately, the cons FAR outweigh the pros in this production.

Generally speaking, the remake that no one wanted (dating back to the days when MTV was going to do it) has lived up to all of the hateful hype. It brings nothing new to the table, it's like a pallid carbon-copy on tissue paper. Your best bet's to stick with the original, see the 2015 version or catch a live show instead.

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