Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Cheesy Made for TV Movies. Alternate Title: Our Favorite 90s Teen Stars Sell Out

Cheesy made-for-TV movies: are there any other kind? The whole idea behind a Movie of the Week is that it probably didn't pass muster to warrant a big-budget, big-screen premiere and thus was beamed straight to your television instead. Lucky for you, you get to watch it in the comfort of your own home rather than being ridiculed at the ticket counter.

As someone whose mother only tunes the TV to three channels (for the record: Lifetime, Hallmark, and Lifetime Movie Network), I am well-versed in the art of the made-for-TV movie. They're not hard to miss. You can usually identify them in the TV listings by title alone. I'll give you a hint: Article Adjective Noun/Verb: The ________ _________ Story. Popular variations of adages ("Too Little, Too Late" "For the Love of a Woman") made good titles, as did vague, overgeneralized cliches ("A Mother's Love" "A Daughter Scorned"). It wasn't exactly rocket science.

The 90s brought us some particularly cheesy TV movies featuring some of our favorite teen stars desperate to be taken seriously as actors. I'll give you a hint: a movie of the week isn't going to cut it. For the most part, viewers just couldn't get over the idea that Zach Morris raped DJ Tanner or that the pink Power Ranger was an anorexic gymnast. I'm still struggling with the idea that Rebecca from Life Goes On killed Donna Martin.

Here are just a few of the many, many made-for-TV movies starring out favorite teen sellouts:

No One Would Tell (Candace Cameron, Fred Savage)

Kevin Arnold, how could you? This one came as a real shock to me. In 1996's No One Would Tell, Fred Savage played high school BMOC Bobby Tennison. He begins dating the eager Stacy (Cameron) and wins her over with all sorts of romantic gestures. In Lifetime movie world, that's actually an ominous sign. Actually, if you're male and you're in a Lifetime movie, it's almost guaranteed you're going to have to rape, kill, or at least abuse somewhere. I think there's a clause in the actors' contract.

Predictably, Bobby grows more and more jealous, and his behavior eventually descends into abuse. Blinded by her love, Stacy refuses to leave, despite experience with her mother's abusive relationships. Bobby ends up slitting her throat and throwing her in the river, and Sally Jessy Raphael shows up as a judge to give us the requisite talking-to: "You have a responsibility to the people you care about. If you see them hurting or you see them in trouble, you step in and you TELL someone, so that this does not happen again." It's not the most subtle of messages, but at least it's a good one.

Fifteen and Pregnant (Kirsten Dunst)

Will they ever stop playing this movie? My guess is no, considering I've probably seen it around thirty times since it premiered in 1998. Kirsten Dunst stars as Tina, who is (you guessed it!) both fifteen and pregnant. Someone in their movie naming department really deserves a medal for this one.

This is pretty much the quintessential impregnated teenage girl movie, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. It has it's moments, though like all Lifetime movies it tends to be a bit melodramatic and overwrought. It's not a bad movie overall, though it pales in comparison to MTV's 16 and Pregnant. It's probably not quite as scripted as the MTV reality show.

Without Consent: Trapped and Deceived (Jennie Garth)

Jennie Garth did a lot of these made-for-TV movie projects over the years, but this one may have taken the take for theatrical dramatics. She starred as Laura, a wild teenager who gets into a drunk driving accident. Her parents send her to a psychiatric facility in lieu of disciplining her themselves. The asylum, it turns out, abuses and drugs its patients. The doctors try to hold her down with tranquilizers, but she escapes and tells her parents the sordid tale of her experience there. They don't believe her, she goes back, they do believe her, they try to get her out. It may be based on a true story, but it's an old and tired one.

A Friend to Die For (Kellie Martin, Tori Spelling)

Yeah, yeah, I know, in the 90s we were supposed to buy that Tori Spelling was the popular girl because she got a nose job and a dye job and her dad was Aaron Spelling, but I secretly always thought she was more convincing as a nerd on Saved by the Bell. Regardless, here she was in a 1994 Move of the Week playing The Most Popular Girl in School, bitchy cheerleader Stacy. Life Goes On's Kellie Martin stars as Angela, the Girl with Low Self Esteem for whom we should all feel sorry until she stabs someone.

Like many made-for-TV movies, A Friend to Die For is based on a true story, and a juicy one at that. Angela is desperate to fit in and joins the Larks, a club to which many of her more popular classmates belong. Angela idolizes rich cheerleader Stacy, who couldn't want less to do with her. Angela vies for Stacy's attention and eventually gets her alone and confesses her admiration for her. Stacy is justifiably freaked out, and tells Angela she's going to tell everyone at school what a weirdo she is. What's a girl to do? Why, stab Stacy to death, of course. Oh, and blame a less popular goth girl. Eventually the truth comes out about Angela, but the whole thing serves as a sort of cautionary tale against cliques. Ignore a less popular girl and face uncertain homocide. Something like that.

A Burning Passion: The Margaret Mitchell Story (Shannen Doherty)

Biopic made-for-TV movies can be dangerous territory, particularly if the lead actor isn't quite capable of carrying the project. Such was the case of Shannen Doherty in her portrayal of Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell, who couldn't even be bothered to read the book (though she did see the movie!). The whole thing reeked of a cross-promotional ploy to promote Scarlett, CBS's miniseries based on the sequel to Gone With the Wind. Doherty's Southern accent was truly, truly awful, and her performance was rightfully ripped apart by critics. Frankly, Shannen, we just didn't give a damn.

She Cried No (Candace Cameron, Mark-Paul Gosselaar)

Candace Cameron just can't catch a break in these, can she? It seems she's always pitted up against some teen superstar as helpless victim. Why they always have to cast the most wholesome TV guys in these awful male antagonist roles is beyond me. I get it if they're looking for an image change, but I just don't know if abusive boyfriend of frat boy rapist is the direction they should be going.

Like all made-for-TV movies that deal with the theme of drinking in college, the message is that it's always, always bad, and you will inevitably end up getting yourself into terrible situations. Cameron plays Melissa, a sweer underage co-ed who has too much to drink at a fraternity party and is date raped by Scott (Gosselaar). Melissa eventually stands up for herself and takes action against Scott, which is great, but I can't let go of the idea that Zack Morris could be so cruel to DJ Tanner. It just doesn't add up.

Perfect Body (Amy Jo Johnson)

Amy Jo Johnson (the pink ranger and Felicity's friend) plays Andie, a rising gymnastics star who develops an eating disorder. She eventually turns to bulimia upon the suggestion of a friend and ends up passing out at competitions. It's all very The Best Little Girl in the World, but overall it's not bad for a cautionary tale. It highlights the pressure young girls (and particularly athletes) to be thin. Still, I just couldn't stop thinking of Johnson as the pink Ranger. You can take the girl out of the superhero outfit, but you can't take the superhero outfit out of the girl.

It seems the formula still holds true: if all else fails for a former teen star, they can always make a buck or two in a tearjerker Movie of the Week. Artistic integrity is always second place to a steady paycheck. Considering Tori Spelling received a whopping one hundred thou for her participation in A Friend to Die For, it's probably the actors who get the last laugh.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

90s Live Action Movies Based on Cartoons

Have you ever been watching a cartoon and thought to yourself, "Huh, I wonder what these comically misshapen characters would look like in real life"? If so, then this next bunch is for you. Apparently movie studios believed this to be a relatively common ponderance in the 90s and supplied us with many, many live action movie versions of our cartoon favorites.

In some cases, they probably could have left the cartoon-to-real-life translation to the safer confines of our imagination, but there were a few breakout hits in the bunch. These may not have been Oscar contenders, but they were a fun bunch of family-friendly films. That's the best part about marketing movies toward kids: they like anything. Really. I walked past a screening of Old Dogs last week and heard rampant child laughter. Clearly not a sign of superior judgment and discerning taste.

Whether they struck a chord with audiences or bombed big time, the live action take on a cartoon was a pretty widespread phenomenon. Some of the most-watched examples include:

George of the Jungle

That's some catchy theme song, huh? We could probably lure children into theaters on the merit of this song. Parents, on the other hand, may feel a little differently when their child belts out "GEORGE! GEORGE! GEORGE OF THE JUNGLE!" for the two hundred and fifty first time.

The original cartoon ran for just 17 episodes in the late 1960s, so it wasn't exactly a long-running classic. The series featured a Tarzan-like protagonist comically matched with a far-smarter female mate and ape friend. In 1997, a live action version with the same name premiered, starring Brendan Fraser and Leslie Mann. Wait, what? Leslie Mann played Ursula in George of the Jungle? Where have I been? Obviously as a child I just wasn't attuned to pertinent future comedic references.

Brendan Fraser had already proved his prowess for playing a dimwit with limited linguistic capabilities in cult classic Encino Man, which remains one of my favorites despite conclusive evidence it's one of the worst movies ever made. As George, Fraser frolicks with his lap-elephant Shep and toucan Tookie Tookie while avoiding the advances of mysteriously evil hunters. He falls in love with city girl Ursula, and, well, that's a story for another post. Let's just say it amused many of us as children, but it might not hold up the test of time to us as adult viewers with sensible opinions.

The Flintstones

The animated Flintstones series ran for six years in the 60s, but continued to entertain many generations of children in syndication. For children of the 90s, the characters also promoted our beloved Pebbles-brand sugar cereal and amazing frozen push pops, so they weren't exactly a tough sell. They fed us sugar, and we loved them.

The original show was clever and full of cutesy puns and funny modern takes on historically inaccurate prehistoric life. The 1994 live action film version was not quite as witty, though it was a box office success. Looking back, this project was packed full of actors I didn't recognize at the time but that now I can't believe agreed to be a part of this. At the time, I recognized Rick Moranis (Barney) as that guy from Honey I Shrunk the Kids and Rosie O'Donnell (Betty) from A League of Their Own, but it went much further than that. We had John Goodman, who was probably meant to play Fred Flintstone on physique alone. The Flinstones also had Halle Berry, Kyle Maclachlan (you know, Trey from SATC and Orson from Desperate Housewives), Elizabeth Taylor, Jay Leno, Seinfeld's Michael Richards, the B-52s, and that big bald guy from Nightcourt. How did I miss all this?


The character Casper the Friendly Ghost goes way back. Like back to the 1930s back. The animated version first appeared in the 40s and was followed by a TV series a decade later. Casper was very popular in its day, but it wasn't a totally known quantity for 90s kids when the live-action version came out in 1995. To be fair, Casper in his ghost form was not played by a human actor, but by special effects computer animation. Or as it may have been known in 1995, magic.

In the movie, a woman inherits a spooky old manor from a deceased relative, which unbeknownst to them is haunted by Casper, Stinkie, Fatso, and Stretch. Casper sees Kat (Christina Ricci) and her father (Bill Pullman) the dead person's therapist (?) on TV and falls in love with the young girl. Kat and her dad come to the house, antics ensue, yada yada yada, Casper turns into Devon Sawa. Jackpot! I've never been so jealous of anyone as I was when Christina Ricci got to dance with Devon Sawa in this movie. Then again, he turns back into a ghost after that, so she gets sort of a raw deal.

Inspector Gadget

Somehow when I look at the cartoon Inspector Gadget, I don't automatically make the jump to Matthew Broderick. Never once have I been kicking back watching the old Inspector Gadget show and thought to myself, "You know who they should really get to play this guy? Ferris Bueller." Apparently critics agreed with me for the most part, as the movie was something of a flop. I liked it, but mostly just because my old friend Harriet the Spy (now known to me as Michelle Tratchenberg) played Penny and the gay fake fiancee from My Best Friend's Wedding (Rupert Everett) played the villainous Mr. Claw. The movie was so-so, but it didn't have the lighthearted bumbling appeal of the animated series. Broderick just didn't have the chin for it.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Intro

S.O.B. | MySpace Video

The plot of the comic book and animated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is so incredibly complicated and insane, I can't even begin to explain it here (luckily, I've already explained it here, so just check that out for a refresher course if you're in need). In short, it features a group of adolescent mutant sewer-dwelling turtles with exceptional martial arts skills and a penchant for pizza. I don't know what these people were on when they came up with this idea, but I would have loved to be a fly on the wall at that meeting. Or, you know, just one of the meeting participants. That would probably be better and more realistically feasible than the fly route. If I had a Delorean going 88 mph, I mean. Otherwise that's just ridiculous.

TMNT was a runaway hit, so a live action film seemed the logical next step. The first film premiered in 1990 to mixed reviews, but moviegoers ate it up. It's pretty violent for a kid's movie, but it does stay pretty true to the comics and cartoon so it satiated most of its young fan base. The first may be lacking sequel's amazing Vanilla Ice song "Ninja Rap", but overall it wasn't too shabby.

Dennis the Menace

Dennis the Menace has been an immensely popular comic and cartoon character since the 50s, with numerous remakes in subsequent years. Dennis was a well-meaning all-American boy with a habit of getting himself into all sorts of adorable messes. The iconic John Hughes did the 1993 film version, and in many ways it all too closely resembled another of his hits, Home Alone. I mean, how many times can we watch a little blond kid tie up a bad guy? It's not exactly the kind of material you can use again and again. Walter Mattheau and Christopher Lloyd were pretty entertaining as Mr. Wilson and Switchblade Sam respectively, so we'll call it a wash.

Turning an cartoon into a live-action film is something of a gamble. Just because something is popular in one form doesn't necessarily mean it will translate well to a different media. In most of these cases, though, crowds went crazy for the films despite their being panned by critics.

Their aura of feel-good nostalgia may have been enough to hold our attention, even if more impartial critics classified them as glorified dreck. Sometimes the fantasy is better than the reality, though, so I'll gladly abandon my cynicism and revel in the fun of these movies. They may not be masterpieces, but they had a power over us all the same.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Birdcage

America's occasionally lazy film industry has a dirty little secret. It's called the French film industry. Throughout the 80s and 90s in particular, American filmmakers seemingly mined the French cinema for well-received gems and hastily brought these movies stateside in American reproductions. It works in some cases better than others, but usually the strength of a Hollywood budget and blissfully ignorant American audiences pulls through and delivers a hit.

Anyway, 1978's Les Cage aux Foilles--the French movie upon which The Birdcage was based--was itself based on an eponymous play, so it's a bit of a strangled route to copycat-ism. Following the release of the French movie was an American musical, so it's safe to say the well-tread plot of The Birdcage was fair game by the time the American movie version came out in 1996. It was practically a cornerstone of the public domain.

In the big picture, the actual plot of the movie is practically superfluous. The movie hinges on the strength of the hilarious performances, a credit to the great casting choices for the 1996 film. From the principals to the bit parts, it's no wonder the ensemble was awarded a Screen Actors' guild award for outstanding cast performance. It's totally and unself-consciously campy and over the top, but it's hard to imagine it any other way. I mean, what kind of drag queen is subdued and demure? They'd just be a drag commoner.

The movie, in all its incarnations, treads on delicate territory. In making a comedy that lampoons gay and drag culture, how can you still allow it some dignity and respect? It seems almost like an oxymoron (kind of like "subdued drag queen"). It's a careful balance between making the characters too cartoony or too spoon-gaggingly sentimental. On one hand, you want the audience to like them, but on the other, they need to make them laugh. Preferably with them rather than at them, but for the sake of comedy at times, either will do.

Luckily this movie pokes just as much fun at the straight man, but which I not only mean the heterosexual man but the FOX News-watching, Rush Limbaugh-consuming comedic foils who play a major role in setting up the plot. It's okay to laugh at people if you laugh at both sides. It says, see how both the campy drag-show director and right-wing politician can be ridiculous? And we say, Ah, yes. So we do.

The movie opens on gay cabaret owner Armand Goldman (Robin Williams) and his partner Albert (Nathan Lane). Albert is the club's star drag queen, performing as the diva-like Starina in the musical revues. Albert is something of a drama queen, and the littlest things put him to pieces. The two live with their flamboyant but domestically clueless houseboy Agador Spartacus (a brilliant Hank Azaria), who helps ease Albert's nerves with Pirin pills, which are really nothing more than aspirins with the "as" scratched off.

I love you, Hank Azaria. Especially since you admitted that accent is inspired by your Sephardic Jewish Grandmother

Armand's son Val returns from college with a major surprise: he is planning on getting married. At only 20, it would seem this would be the whole surprise, but Val's choice of mate throws even more of a wrench into the mix: his fiancee Barbara (Calista Flockhart) is the daughter of a prominent conservative senator who co-chairs the Coalition for the Moral Order. If that's not a great movie set-up, I don't know what is.

Barbara's parents are also less than thrilled with the news of their young daughter's impending nuptials, but are quickly swept into scandal when her senator father Kevin Keeley's (Gene Hackman) Coalition for Moral Order cohort is found dead in the bed of an underage black prostitute. This, you can imagine, was not exactly the image of moral order they were going for. "Your money's on the dresser, chocolate" aren't exactly the famous last words they might have hoped for. Kevin's wife Louis (Dianne Wiest) thinks a grand society wedding might be just the thing to put the whole debacle behind them and restore Senator Keeley's wholesome family image.

What the Keeleys may not have bargained for, though, was their daughter's marrying into an unconventional gay Jewish family residing in homosexual hotspot South Beach, which Barbara helpfully describes as "about two minutes from Fisher Island, where Jeb Bush lives". She also manages to slip in that Armand is a cultural attache to Greece, his mate a housewife, and that their last name is the more goyishly-neutral "Coleman". Quite a pickle, indeed.

Val pushes his father to play it straight, but the ever-hysterical Albert makes this a seeming impossibility. They consider having Albert play the role of a visiting uncle, but based on the clip below, his straight man act leaves just a little something to be desired:

The couple scraps their current interior design niche, trading their Florida-friendly pastels and leaf murals for more subtle giant crucifixes. Armand employs Val's real mother, whom Val has never met, to play the role of his wife at their little dinner party charade, but Albert's whining combined with horrible traffic foil the plan. Unaware of the traffic, the gang launches into an Albert-free dinner party complete with a shoe-wearing Agador Spartacus:

Val's mother Katherine still absent, Albert appears in an eerily Margaret Thatcher-esque full drag get-up, playing the role of doting WASPy housewife, much to the horror of all those in on it. Senator Keeley, however, is quite taken with who he believes to be Mrs. Coleman. When Katherine shows up, though, the jig is up, and Albert reveals himself as a man through the art of de-wigging. At this point Senator Keeley launches into some wigging of his own, lamenting the couple's Judaism as much as their same-sex partnership.

Determined to storm out of there, the Keeleys face a setback when they realize the dirty politics-hungry paparazzi has followed them to Armand and Albert's house. After a few touching moments of heartfelt apologies from the kids about launching this insane plot, Albert hatches a brilliant plan to get the Keeleys out of there without being discovered. The whole crew gets dolled up in drag makeup, wigs, and wardrobe and perform in the "Goldman Girls" number "We are Family". It might sound a little hokey, but it's pretty hilarious.

The movie is jam-packed with zingers and hilarious one-liners that you are pretty much contractually obligated to quote after watching. If you're not quoting inane lines like "You know what they say, where there's sand" and "Are you afraid of my Guuuatamalanness?" at least twenty times after a viewing, you're watching it wrong.

The whole thing pretty much makes you want to do an eclectic celebration of the dance. To do Fosse, Fosse, Fosse! Followed by Martha Graham, Martha Graham! With a little Twyla, Twyla, Twyla! Or maybe a little Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd. And a little Madonna, Madonna! But you keep it all inside. Albert and Armond, though, they'll draw it out of you, and before you know it you'll be wanting to join the gang onstage for a little "We are Fa-mi-ly" action whether or not you've seen a drag act a day in your life.*

*By the way, if you have no idea what I'm talking about in this closing paragraph, I recommend you go watch the movie, stat. At least watch the above trailer. It'll do you good.

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