Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Glenn Ford Is Gone

I just learned that Glenn Ford has passed away. One of the all-time great movie stars was 90 years old, and had been in ill health for many years.

Do yourself a favor. Read the obituary I linked to above and Netflix some of Ford's movies or keep an eye out for the inevitable Turner Classic Movies marathon/tribute coming up in a few days. You won't be sorry.
  • THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, which brought rock and roll to the big screen for the first time, Bill Haley & the Comets' "Rock Around the Clock" blasting from the speakers for a story about punk students getting violent with their teachers.
  • RANSOM, a great suspense story that was later remade with Mel Gibson (BLACKBOARD JUNGLE was unofficially remade as CLASS OF 1984), and CRY TERROR, another good suspenser
  • EXPERIMENT IN TERROR, a Blake Edwards thriller shot moodily in San Francisco
  • JUBAL and 3:10 TO YUMA, a pair of psychologically complex westerns
  • THE BIG HEAT, an amazing noir directed by Fritz Lang
  • TERROR ON A TRAIN, a taut British-made B-pic about a bomb expert trying to prevent a cargo train from exploding
  • SUPERMAN, in which, God, Ford was so touching as Clark Kent's farmer. Ford plays his death scene so sensitively that its pall rests over the entire film, fittingly.
The TV buff within me must mention CADE'S COUNTY, a crime drama shot in New Mexico that lasted one season and starred Ford as the sheriff of a desert county. It had a cool theme by Henry Mancini, and Ford brought a lot of weight to the show's simple mystery plots. Ford made his television acting debut in 1970 as the star of THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE BELL, an absorbing mystery in which the secret society that he joined as a college student turns on him in his adult life, ruining his career and his reputation. For the rest of the 1970s, Ford could often be found in televison movies and series giving solid performances. He certainly didn't consider television to be a step down from features, at least not according to the performances he gave.

And the trash fan that I am, I would be remiss if I didn't mention two of Glenn Ford's strangest films:
  • THE VISITOR, a bizarre Italian horror movie starring Lance Henriksen, Joanne Nail (SWITCHBLADE SISTERS), John Huston, Mel Ferrer, Shelley Winters, Sam Peckinpah (!) and Franco Nero as Jesus Christ! Ford shows up briefly as a police detective and really busts his ass trying to sell this OMEN ripoff's ludicrous story. He has a spectacular death scene too.
  • HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME is one of my favorite slasher movies, due to its quick pacing, slick production values (it was directed by Hollywood vet J. Lee Thompson), outrageous plot twists, and frequent gore scenes. Ford is very good as a friendly psychiatrist of the leading lady, a confused college student played by good-girl Melissa Sue Anderson from LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE. Word is that Ford was not particularly pleasant on the set, not surprising when he discovered he was in a bloody slasher movie. Pro that he was, his dissatisfaction didn't affect his performance.
Glenn Ford will definitely be missed.

Hicky Burr

I watched the first six episodes of THE BILL COSBY SHOW tonight. No, not THE COSBY SHOW or COSBY or THE NEW BILL COSBY SHOW or THE COSBY MYSTERIES or even COS (which are all actual titles of TV series starring Bill Cosby).

THE BILL COSBY SHOW debuted on NBC about one year after Cos' first hit show, I SPY, left the airwaves. It was Cosby's first sitcom, and he starred as Chet Kincaid, a P.E. teacher and basketball coach at an inner-city Los Angeles high school. Shout Factory has just released the first season on DVD, which is the first time that hardly anybody has seen it in decades. THE BILL COSBY SHOW ran only two seasons, and has barely been rerun on television at least since the 1980s, when it aired on the little-seen CBN cable network.

Disc 1 came from Netflix today, and the "Play All" option sucked me in to watching all six shows on it straight through. THE BILL COSBY SHOW is an interesting little series and would never get on the air today. One way in which it was ahead of its time is the absence of a laugh track. Cosby claims that was a constant source of disagreement between him and NBC--a disagreement that eventually led to the series' premature cancellation. It's relatively common to see sitcoms without laugh tracks today (THE OFFICE, MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE, ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, ENTOURAGE...), but I doubt if any were doing it fulltime in 1969, when THE BILL COSBY SHOW debuted (it ran until May 1971).

What really differentiates the show from today's sitcoms is that there are no jokes. Or few jokes. The setup/punchline format of today's shows (the punchline almost always being either an insult or a sexual reference) make THE BILL COSBY SHOW seem either fresh or quaint, I'm not sure which. All of the comedy comes out of the characters, and it's a gentle comedy with no insults or coarseness. Much of it comes from Cosby's nightclub routines, and the constant hamming and funny faces and voices often blurs the line between comic and character.

In the pilot episode, surprisingly directed by action veteran Harvey Hart (I don't recall Hart ever doing sitcom work), Kincaid is out for a Saturday jog and passes a corner telephone booth (remember those?). The phone rings and he answers. It's a woman asking to speak to her husband, Calvin (Vic Tayback!), who works at the garage across the street. Could Chet please call him to the phone? Kincaid's exasperated efforts at doing favors for strangers slowly build until he eventually finds himself sitting in a police interrogation room, accused of a robbery.

Other shows find Chet fighting school bureaucracy to order a tiny needle valve so he can pump up basketballs (the great Jay Sandrich directed this one) and Chet reluctantly dealing with an unexpected houseguest, an 8-year-old girl who refuses to speak. In another, Chet is asked to fill in for a sick algebra teacher, but unfortunately is not up on his math skills. These are all very simple story ideas, sort of if a bunch of writers came up with one-line concepts and threw them into a hat. A major problem with today's sitcoms is that the plots are often needlessly complicated (they're trying to ripoff SEINFELD). All Bill Cosby needed was a simple concept, and he was off. There are admittedly few heavy bellylaughs in THE BILL COSBY SHOW, but the chuckle-per-minute ratio is pretty high.

Also interesting is the number of minority actors seen on the show, not just out front, but as extras and bit players. Many of the students seen in the classrooms and hallways are Asian and black, and race seems never to be a major topic. Cosby was the first black actor to ever star in a dramatic TV series (I SPY premiered in 1965), and he was the first black actor to star in a sitcom since AMOS & ANDY was pushed off the air in the early 1950s. He did his pioneering by not calling attention to his race. Cosby-as-Kincaid wore dashikis and counseled poor black children, but he did so quietly with great humor and grace.

THE BILL COSBY SHOW, judging from just six of its 52 episodes, is not a great comedy nor is it among its star's greatest accomplishments. But it's warm, entertaining and fun. Which, for all its quality, is more than one can say about ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT.

Plus, THE BILL COSBY SHOW has a kickass theme composed by Quincy Jones and scat-sung (in purposely silly, rambling lyrics) by Cosby. "Whooo Lawwwwd!"

Monday, August 28, 2006

I'm Tellin' Ya It Was A Murder And I'm Gonna Prove It

You'll have to take 5 or 6 minutes out of your day to watch this video, but I think it's well worth it, at least if you're old enough to remember QUINCY, M.E. No, not MAGNUM, P.I. or C.P.O. SHARKEY, but QUINCY, M.E.

QUINCY starred Jack Klugman as a Los Angeles County coroner who somehow managed to embroil himself in a different murder every week. Most episodes were pretty much the same:
  • A corpse rolls into the morgue
  • The cops/doctors/politicians believe it to be either an accident or natural causes
  • Quincy suspects a murder, even though there's little/no evidence to support his hunch
  • Quincy gets yelled at by cops/hospital administrators to let it lie
  • Quincy shouts. A lot.
  • Quincy defies orders and secretly investigates the possible crime.
  • Quincy's boss bitches about how much money his extracurricular activities are costing the county
  • Quincy gets his sidekick Sam (Robert Ito) to work late/lie about Quincy's activities
  • Quincy is right. Quincy is always right
QUINCY was an extremely popular show for NBC, running seven or eight years, something like that. The format changed slightly along the way. When it premiered in 1976, it was a straight mystery; in fact, it was one of the rotating wheels on THE NBC SUNDAY MYSTERY MOVIE along with COLUMBO, MCCLOUD and MCMILLAN AND WIFE. However, as star Klugman took more creative control, he started firing a shitload of writers and producers until he could find collaborators who were interested in more relevant programming. While there was still an occasional murder for Quincy to solve, the series turned into an "issue of the week," as Quincy got into cases involving child abuse, drugs, venereal disease, etc. And, still, Quincy was always right. He even fought ninjas once!

After all that, you're probably expecting to see a Klugman clip. Instead, it's QUINCY: CARTOON CORONER, one of my favorite SCTV sketches in which Quincy (Joe Flaherty) investigates the death of Sylvester the Cat, who comes into the morgue all smashed like a pancake. Dave Thomas plays Quincy's officious boss, and Tony Rosato is Sam. What really makes this sketch kill is Flaherty's amazing performance as Klugman/Quincy. He really nails the psychosis of Klugman's bellowing (and highly charismatic) performances.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Not Much Of An Adventure

It's easy to see why POSEIDON was a summer dud. I can stay home and watch the original POSEIDON ADVENTURE on a DVD that looks and sounds just as good, but has a better story, better actors and better special effects. Who gives a rip about Josh Lucas, Emmy Rossum, Mia Maestro and castoffs from THE REAL WORLD? Warners really fell down on the job when it came to casting this thing. Yes, Kurt Russell and Richard Dreyfuss (and Andre Braugher) are terrific actors, but part of the "fun" of a movie like this is watching stars navigate the obstacles and try to keep from drowning. Who cares if Johnny Drama (as Johnny Drama) gets smushed while trying to save his gin?! Russell and Dreyfuss aren't enough. Of course, who are today's equivalents of Ernest Borgnine and Roddy McDowall?

You probably know the story already. It's New Year's Eve on the S.S. Poseidon, and a "rogue wave" pulls its head out of the screenwriter's ass just long enough to tip the boat upside-down. Captain Braugher tries to hold things together, but a small group of survivors attempts to navigate their way to the propeller tubes. Among them are professional gambler Lucas, former New York City mayor Russell, gay Dreyfuss, Russell's daughter (Rossum) and her fiance, a single mom (Jacinda Barrett) and a little kid, Johnny Drama (Johnny Drama), a Latina stowaway (Maestro) and her hookup (Freddy Rodriguez). Some make it, some don't. You probably won't care who.

Wolfgang Petersen may be a better director than Ronald Neame, but he doesn't do a better job of telling a story than Neame did in THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. For instance, why was everyone going to the top/botton of the ship? What did they expect to find? The question comes up in ADVENTURE, and Gene Hackman tells them: hope. No one asks in POSEIDON; they simply head to the top because the screenplay tells them too. Of course, if Josh Lucas had known all along there was going to be a large raft waiting that was just big enough to hold all the survivors, it would make sense. I mean, what kind of deus ex machina was that?

One scene that should have worked is the one in which Dreyfuss sacrifices another man's life to save his own. On paper, it may have been written as a powerful moment--what could be more emotional than a regular Joe "killing" another man in a desperate act of self-preservation? However, the setup is awkward (why would the guy tell Dreyfuss to go first?), the scene happens too quickly, and it occurs too early in the movie, so we don't know either character well enough yet to have sympathy for them.

I can't say I was disappointed by POSEIDON, because I wasn't expecting much (certainly not nine minutes of closing credits), but it really is an unexciting waste of time. It doesn't even have a Christmas tree! What the fuck, Wolfgang?!

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

I Love It When A Plan Comes Together

No time for a regular posting tonight, but I'll have to write about SNAKES ON A PLANE eventually. I saw it on Saturday night, and we had a terrific time. New Line did a decent job marketing this thing, but it was never really going to be a hit. It opened at about $15 million, which is about the best that could be expected from an R-rated horror movie that isn't a sequel. Regardless of the film's box office, it's a genuinely good B-movie, well-paced, funny and fun. Director David R. Ellis, a former stuntman, is 3-for-3 as a director, and I recommend you check out his earlier films FINAL DESTINATION 2 and CELLULAR.

Here's a bizarre clip for you of a drunken George Peppard rambling on a segment of NBC's PASSWORD PLUS. I believe this is from 1979--long before THE A-TEAM gave Peppard a career resurgence. Allen Ludden, the host, does a pretty good job maintaining a semblance of dignity and deserves some credit for ad-libbing something that sounds normal after George's ranting. You can see Peppard sipping from a plastic cup that probably doesn't have water in it (as an aside, how strange is it to see someone smoking on a game show!).



By the way, the female celebrity is Elaine Joyce, who was pretty and smart and appeared on a lot of daytime game shows, as well as prime time series (she even did a MAGNUM, P.I., Chicken). She was married to Bobby Van, who also was on a lot of game shows and even hosted a few of them. Van died of a brain tumor in 1980, but she continued her career and even co-starred in a one-season sitcom titled MR. MERLIN. Years after Van's death, Joyce married Neil Simon.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Nothing

That was Dubya's answer to the question, "What did Iraq have to do with...the attacks on the World Trade Center?"

It was one thing to read the transcript of this guy's press conference today, but to actually watch it is painful and embarrassing for America. He looks desperate and whiny and unintelligent. And this is the "war president" that we're supposed to follow into battle?

Bush says Iraq and Saddam Hussein not only had nothing to do with 9/11, but nobody in his administration ever suggested that they did, which will come as news to Dick Cheney, Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell, Karl Rove and Bush's own speechwriters, who have been saying just the opposite for years. If what he said today is indeed true, then why did we send troops to Iraq and why have we stopped looking for Osama bin Laden?

Bush also said today that "we're not leaving (Iraq) so long as I'm the President." So he is, in fact, admitting that he can't win the war in the next 2+ years.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Pubescence

You probably wouldn't be surprised to learn that this is reportedly the best-selling issue of NATIONAL LAMPOON ever. I have no idea who the model is, but she helped LAMPOON sell more than 1 million copies of the October 1974 issue. That would mean it outsold the infamous "We'll Kill This Dog" cover, which would be quite an accomplishment.

No telling how much it would cost to own today, but I'd like to read it. It has Doug Kenney's famous "Nancy Drew and the Case of the Missing Heiress" parody, as well as a 4-page "VD Comics" drawn by the great Neal Adams. Other contributors include P.J. O'Rourke, Chris Miller, Ralph Reese, Henry Beard and Gahan Wilson.

I didn't read much LAMPOON back in the day; I was just too young, although I did tear through many a MAD in my day. I remember seeing them around at the homes of friends who had older brothers, and thinking they were "dirty." Hey, what did I know. I have been able to see several LAMPOONs over the years, and during the pre-ANIMAL HOUSE years, there was some great stuff in them. I haven't read nearly as much as I would like. Maybe that's something I can shop for at next year's Wizard World show.

February 2003's issue of COMIC BOOK ARTIST was completely dedicated to NATIONAL LAMPOON. It's a terrific read, chock full of interviews with nearly every living being significant to the magazine's early success, and I recommend it to anyone curious about one of America's greatest humor mags.

TRAVELER--An ABC Midseason Replacement


This mixture of SUPERNATURAL, PRISON BREAK and THE FUGITIVE (has any TV series been ripped off as many times as THE FUGITIVE?) gets off to a promising start, but I wonder whether there ultimately will be anything in this series we haven't seen before. David Nutter, the new King Of The Pilots now that Robert Butler seems to be retired, directed this fast-moving pilot episode about three recent college graduates--lawyer Jay (Matthew Bomer, FLIGHTPLAN), rich kid Tyler (Logan Marshall Green, 24) and mysterious Will Traveler (Aaron Stanford, X-MEN 3)--leaving Yale for a two-month cross-country road trip before beginning their new professional lives. They begin with a night out in New York City, and before hitting the road the next morning, Will proposes a prank: that Jay and Tyler race from the top of the Guggenheim to the street below on rollerblades. Video cameras capture the two friends whizzing through the crowded museum while security guards chase them and a fire alarm sends the patrons to the street. When the two friends reach the corner, Will calls Jay on his cell phone. He says, "I'm sorry I had to do this," just before a bomb blast levels the museum. Instant suspects on terrorism charges, Jay and Tyler dodge cops and FBI agents all over the city, while wondering what else they don't know about their best friend Will Traveler.

Setting aside the fact that racing through the Guggenheim is an idiotic thing for guys in their mid-20s to be doing, which hardly helps make the leads likable, TRAVELER is an intriguing concept, if only because we're left in the dark as to why the explosion happened and how Jay and Tyler came to be inadvertently involved. Unfortunately, do we really need another serialized action show about shadowy conspiracies, unanswered questions, sinister law enforcement agencies and rich white men holding the puppet strings from their dimly lit mansions?

One way the show could work is if it was more like THE FUGITIVE, where every episode did not hinge upon the overall show concept and could occasionally function like an anthology where the two leads could interact with guest stars and get involved with their problems ROUTE 66-style. Retro perhaps, but at least it wouldn't tire out the premise and leave the writers scrambling for ideas every week the way PRISON BREAK did last season, where the show started spinning its wheels waiting for Show 22's big escape.

I doubt Nutter will be directing many more episodes, so we'll have to see if the series can stay fresh. I'm game to give TRAVELER a couple more chances though.

P.S. Titling the series after its villain seems an odd choice. Now TRAVELERS would make sense, as its leads are also "travelling" across the country, or were before they got into a fine mess.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Chicken's Man-Crush

Will Chicken still think Mark Harmon is a badass after he sees this amazing clip of Harmon singing?



Wow.

That's from an ABC series called 240-ROBERT that I thought kicked major ass when it was on back in the early 1980's. It basically was a ripoff of CHIPS; both were produced by Rick Rosner. Harmon and John Bennett Perry (father of FRIENDS' Matthew Perry) were basically cops/rescue workers who drove around in a cool truck, while Joanna Cassidy provided air support in a helicopter. It was a straightforward action series, like CHIPS, and you can imagine how a scene like the one above must have given the audience a major case of whiplash due to the pacing coming to a complete halt. I don't know if Harmon really believed he was a good singer or not, but since he's still acting 25 years later and not singing, I suppose somebody let him know.

Friday, August 18, 2006

I Can't Believe This Isn't On DVD Yet

This is the SPIDER-MAN I grew up with. Many comics fans have fond memories of the 1960s cartoon series with the groovy theme song, and today's audiences have Sam Raimi's big-budget films, but for those of us who grew up in the 1970's, this was the only Spider-Man we had, outside of Marvel's comics, of course.

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN was one of the most fucked-up shows, scheduling-wise, in TV history. We never knew when the damn thing was going to be on. The pilot aired in the spring of 1977 as a 90-minute movie, but then it took 51 weeks for CBS to air the series. It ran for five weeks, then was yanked off the air for four months. It began its "second" season in the fall of 1978, but ran only twice before CBS yanked it again, dribbling out five more episodes over the next nine months. I don't know what the ratings were like, but if no one was watching, it comes as no surprise, considering nobody could possibly know when it would air next.

Even then, I knew it wasn't very good. Peter Parker was too old--at least in his mid-20s--and there were no supervillains in costumes for him to fight, just run-of-the-mill robbers and kidnappers and spies (THE FLASH, a much better series, had the same problem). There was no Aunt May or Mary Jane. The only character from the comic books to appear on the series was J. Jonah Jameson...who was a nice (but gruff) guy who didn't hate Spider-Man at all! Star Nicholas Hammond was a child actor who played one of the Von Trapp children in THE SOUND OF MUSIC. He did quite a bit of TV during the '70s, but eventually moved to Australia, where he continues to be an extremely busy performer that doesn't show up often in American productions.

At any rate, watch the opening title sequence to THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, and you'll get a good idea of how awful it was. Even the theme by the normally dependable Stu Phillips is pretty cheesy.

There were only about a dozen episodes, and I'm amazed that it hasn't yet shown up on DVD to coincide with the release of the new SPIDER-MAN movies starring Tobey Maguire. I think just about all of the SPIDER-MAN cartoons are out...hell, even THE ELECTRIC COMPANY is on DVD now. Plus, CBS' other superhero shows from the same time period--THE INCREDIBLE HULK and WONDER WOMAN--are on DVD. So where is THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN?

ADDENDUM: I believe I was originally mistaken, and this is actually the second title sequence created for the series' second season. The appearance of Ellen Bry, who was not originally on the show, leads me to that conclusion. In that case, the laughable theme was actually composed by Dana Kaproff. I don't want Stu to carry the blame for a crime he didn't commit!

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Wrong Is Right

An easily distracted United States President, who isn't trusted by the people, starts a war in the Middle East because a terrorist may or may not have weapons of mass destruction. Politicians caution the soldiers to make sure not to blow up the oil wells there. Gasoline skyrockets to more than $3.00 per gallon at U.S. pumps. America's image in the eyes of the world as a trusted ally goes down the toilet. Suicide bombers strike New York City. Life today as we know it, right?
In 1982, this was considered science fiction. Satire. Black comedy. Richard Brooks, the liberal filmmaker behind BLACKBOARD JUNGLE and ELMER GANTRY, wrote, produced, and directed WRONG IS RIGHT, a thematically ambitious political satire for Columbia Pictures that died at the box office. And with good reason--it isn't very good.
Based on a novel (that I haven't read), WRONG IS RIGHT is jumbled storytelling, a confusing mishmash of deceit, doublecrossing, and American politics as usual. It has a deep anti-American tone. No film studio would have the guts to bankroll this film today, and it's a shock that Columbia did then. It's obvious that the studio had little faith in it, however. It looks cheap and couldn't have cost very much to make. Fred Koenekamp (THE TOWERING INFERNO) was a very fine cinematographer, but WRONG IS RIGHT looks flat like a TV show. The special effects are dismal, although, to be fair, some of it is probably intended that way.
Sean Connery stars as Patrick Hale, a super-badass television news reporter who becomes embroiled in an arms deal between an Arab king (Ron Moody) and a Muslim terrorist (Henry Silva) obviously based on Muammar Gaddafi. U.S. President Lockwood (George Grizzard) orders the king's assassination, and news of his involvement turn public opinion deeply against him and for the opposite party's candidate, Mallory (Leslie Nielsen). Meanwhile, Silva buys two atom bombs from a German arms dealer (Hardy Kruger) and threatens to blow up New York City unless Lockwood resigns and is tried on television for murder. We learn near the end that the bombs are dangling from a flagpole atop one of the Twin Towers, which makes for some shudder-inducing imagery.
John Saxon plays a shady CIA agent. Robert Conrad is a crazed general named Wombat. Rosalind Cash is the black Vice President. Katharine Ross plays a spy. Dean Stockwell is the President's Chief of Staff. Robert Webber is Connery's boss who loves the violence as long as it keeps the Nielsens high. G.D. Spradlin is the CIA chief. Jennifer Jason Leigh has a small role unconnected to Brooks' main story. It's a helluva cast, and if WRONG IS RIGHT is worth watching at all, it's to see these folks work. Some scenes have Connery, Saxon, Grizzard, Conrad, Cash, Spradlin, and Stockwell acting together.
Ultimately, though, WRONG IS RIGHT really isn't worth seeing, no matter how (sadly) prescient it is. As much as it speaks out against politics, it lampoons television and its predilection for disguising entertainment as news, "if it bleeds, it leads." NETWORK already covered this territory (and better), and Connery's wildly unconvincing newsman (who sits in on top-secret military strategy conferences) doesn't ring enough of truth to work as satire.
Some of WRONG IS RIGHT is eerie, though. Almost as if the late Brooks had ridden a time machine 25 years in the future before directing it.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Bruno Kirby Passed Away

I'm sorry to hear this news. I hadn't heard that he was ill, and I just saw him doing a guest shot on ENTOURAGE about a month ago. He played a dyspeptic movie producer who goes batshit when his prized Shrek doll is stolen from his mansion.

Bruno Kirby was a heck of a good actor probably best known for playing supporting roles in some very good comedies: CITY SLICKERS, WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, GOOD MORNING VIETNAM, TIN MEN. He starred as Vincent Bugliosi in the TV remake of HELTER SKELTER two years ago.

The New York Times says Kirby was 57 years old and died of leukemia. I'm pretty sure that his father, Bruce Kirby, who also is a very good character actor adept at both comedy and drama, is still alive. I know he was doing some WEST WING episodes a few years ago.

Bruno Kirby is probably best recognized by his very distinctive raspy voice. I really liked him as Albert Brooks' frustrated foil in the underrated MODERN ROMANCE. In fact, Kirby doesn't even appear in his best scene, which focuses on Brooks freaking out over a broken relationship and calling his friend Kirby at work (they're film editors cutting a schlocky sci-fi movie starring George Kennedy!) while on 'ludes. And if you go back far enough, you may recall that he was a semi-regular playing a high-school student on the good show ROOM 222 in the '70s.

Even A God Needs Help

ALEXANDER THE GREAT is something like the Holy Grail of unsold television pilots. Filmed in Utah in 1964, this one-hour show starred a pre-STAR TREK William Shatner as the boy king of Greece and a pre-BATMAN Adam West as Cleander, his sidekick. Both were relatively well-known TV actors at the time, but neither had yet become major stars. In fact, if this show had gone to series, who knows whether they ever would have. Maybe luck really is everything in Hollywood.

Besides Shatner and West, ALEXANDER THE GREAT is awash in top-of-the-line talent. The cast also includes John Cassevetes, Joseph Cotten, Simon Oakland, John Doucette, Ziva Rodann and Cliff Osmond. Phil Karlson (KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL) directed a teleplay by Robert Pirosh (HELL IS FOR HEROES). Selig J. Seligman (COMBAT) was the producer, and Leonard Rosenman (BARRY LYNDON) provided a marvelously epic-sounding score.

Looking back, how the heck did this series fail? There never has been a successful network drama series set in this time period, but indications are that ALEXANDER THE GREAT would probably have played out like a western anyway. Handsome men on horseback riding across the desert, but using swords instead of six-guns. ABC commissioned it, but didn't air it until 1968, when the network and producers at MGM were looking for material to fit in with OFF TO SEE THE WIZARD, a prime-time anthology series aimed at children. ALEXANDER THE GREAT is an adult show, but I suppose ABC thought it was a history lesson or something. Of course, by then, Shatner and West were both big TV stars, and it's likely the ratings for the telecast were pretty good.

I enjoyed ALEXANDER THE GREAT, despite my short attention span for pieces set this far in the past. Karlson provides lots of action--wrestling and swordfighting and a big battle scene (although some of this may be stock footage). Shatner is perfectly cast in the lead. He looks great and is believable as a leader of men. It's obvious that much of what he used in the role carried over to his performance as Captain Kirk on STAR TREK. Cassevetes and Cotten also deliver top-notch work, although neither would have been regulars on the prospective series.

I'm no historian, but I suspect ALEXANDER THE GREAT wouldn't hold up under much scrutiny. Certainly the language and dialects were different. However, this pilot is a real find. You'll find many reviewers who snub it off, merely because of the shallow perception that Shatner and West are "bad" actors or because it stars macho guys running around in very short skirts. The script is not very complicated and its mystery subplot will take you about 40 seconds to figure out. It ain't SPARTACUS, but it's still an interesting show and one of mild historical significance, even if only for the talented filmmakers involved.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Special Guest Rollin Hand

It was great to see Martin Landau guest-starring on ENTOURAGE this week, which was just about the only part of the episode that was worthwhile (besides, of course, Kevin Dillon's consistently hilarious Johnny Drama). Landau is such a great actor, and it's always great to see him, no matter what. From the giggling gay villain he played in NORTH BY NORTHWEST and the expert disguise artist Rollin Hand on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE to his stunning work more recently in CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS and ED WOOD (for which he finally won an Oscar), Landau has put some great art on the screen, big and small.

Here he played Bob Ryan, an elderly Hollywood warhorse who produced a ton of great films back in the day, but is pretty much forgotten by the young Turks running the town today. He and Kevin Connolly as Eric carried the ball this week, as the lonely old guy--with some sinister assistance from Ari (Jeremy Piven)--basically kidnapped E and took him back to his mansion to regale the young man with stories from the past. With the way the show ended, it looks as though we haven't seen the last of Landau either.

Marty still insists on wearing that ridiculous hairpiece, I'm sorry to say, although it at least is consistent with the character he was playing.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Bikers Vs. Commies

THE LOSERS is a film that couldn't miss, quite frankly, as it boasts one of the greatest concepts in exploitation-film history. The U.S. Army recruits an American biker gang to break into a Red Chinese camp in Cambodia and rescue a kidnapped CIA agent. It's basically THE DIRTY DOZEN MEETS MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE with profanity, nudity and gore. It's a great idea, and it would take a pretty lame filmmaker to screw it up (actually, Cirio Santiago remade it as 'NAM ANGELS in 1989, but I haven't seen it since then, and I have no memory of it).

Jack Starrett, the director of THE LOSERS, is not a lame filmmaker, and, in fact, he was quite good, particularly with films that had a lot of action. Made in 1969 and released in 1970, THE LOSERS is one of the extremely few films made about the Vietnam War during the Vietnam War. Offhand, I can think of THE LOSERS and THE GREEN BERETS, which is just about the only pro-Vietnam War film that ever has been made. THE LOSERS is definitely not pro-war. Starrett was quite an anti-establishment personality, and many of the film's stars were well-known for performing in biker movies and other stick-it-to-The-Man drive-in flicks.

The great William Smith stars as Link, looking totally badass with his cutoff sleeves, bare chest and long earring. He and his Devil's Advocates are recruited because he and two other bikers in the gang had served in Vietnam a few years earlier. Adam Roarke (DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY) is Duke, and Paul Koslo (MR. MAJESTYK) is Limpy. Dirty Denny (the mysterious Houston Savage) and Speed (Gene Cornelius) are the other bikers, all ostensibly under the command of Captain Jackson, played by Bernie Hamilton, who went on to play the harassed boss of Starsky and Hutch on the hit TV series.

Screenwriter Alan Caillou had a long career acting and writing films and television shows, but he also made quite a living as the author of quickie paperback thrillers featuring two-fisted adventurers like Cabot Cain. Therefore, it's no surprise that he was able to concoct such a squirrely concept for a film. Of course it's absurd, but the game cast and Starrett's solid direction makes it work. It has long been a favorite in cult-movie circles, and picked up many new fans when Quentin Tarantino used a clip of it on a television set in PULP FICTION.

I have no problem with the film's structure, but it has been criticized by some contemporary critics for taking too long to get to the good stuff. And it's true that the major action setpiece doesn't come until about an hour and ten minutes into the picture. The last 25 minutes or so is full of dynamite action--explosions, crashes, motorcycle stunts, bloody squibs--but the first two acts consist mainly of establishing the characters of the bikers. There are some fight sequences and shooting and topless women during these scenes, but with a budget of only $275,000, Starrett obviously had to save the best stuff for his climax.

That said, I don't think the film suffers much. Starrett's pacing is fine, and I think it does the audience some good to get to know the characters before they go into battle. You have to care whether they live or die, and that's what the first part of the film is all about. These bikers are very anti-Establishment and appear on the surface to care about nothing but themselves, but after we get to see them interacting with each other and the Vietnamese people (Starrett actually shot THE LOSERS in the Philippines), we understand that they are indeed three-dimensional humans.

The climax, though, is THE LOSERS' bread and butter, and most of the footage from the trailer was culled from it. It involves the bikers, armed with specially armored (and armed) trick motorcycles, busting into the camp, riding around shooting and blowing up bad guys. Gary McLarty and Paul Nuckles are the ace stuntmen responsible for the more outrageous stunts, and Roger George's explosions are some of the best I've seen in a low-budget movie.

As with many '70s movies, THE LOSERS ends on a cynical note, but one that the movie has earned. Its unusual premise and top drive-in cast make it must-see viewing. It's also prime remake material. Can't you see a contemporary biker gang going into Iraq or Afghanistan to raise a little hell and say "fuck you" to Cheney and Rummy?

A New Type Of Hell

WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS is one of the all-time great exploitation-movie titles. How can you not be intrigued by it? Unfortunately, in this case, like CHAIN GANG WOMEN (in which there are no chain gang women), it's also a major cheat. It takes about 75 minutes for the werewolves to really appear in this 79-minute movie. Only one of them rides a motorcycle for a short, dimly lit chase sequence.

Michel Levesque, an art director by trade, made his directorial debut with WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS when the distributors made it known that they were looking for either a biker movie (which were still popular then) or a horror movie. Levesque and co-writer David Kaufman decided to combine the two genres and deliver the world's first (and only, as far as I know) werewolf biker flick.

Stephen Oliver, later the "big, dumb turd Dugan" in THE VAN, stars as Adam, leader of the Devil's Advocates biker gang that runs across a weird monastery in the desert populated by Satan-worshipping monks. The monks offer the bikers drugged bread and wine, and after they pass out, the monks lure "hip-mo-tized" biker chick Helen (Donna Anderson) indoors for a groovy ceremony involving weird chanting (led by former Second City actor Severn Darden as "One"), cat-sacrificing and--best of all--Helen dancing naked with a snake. Give Anderson the Good Sport reward for performing such a goofball scene in front of fifty male actors, extras and crew members.

The bikers wake up, beat up the monks, and escape with Helen, but some of the bikers have been, er, transformed. Mysterious deaths begin to rock the gang, and it isn't until the end that they discover what's been going on--Helen and Adam are rip-snorting werewolves in pretty decent makeup that resembles the Lon Chaney Jr. wolf man.

Give Levesque and Kaufman credit for trying something new with the well-worn biker genre. Almost all biker movies look, sound and feel exactly the same, and only occasionally would filmmakers introduce an interesting twist to an entry. THE BLACK SIX cast then-current NFL stars as bikers, while HELL'S ANGELS '69 cast Sonny Barger and other actual Hell's Angels in a melodrama that mixes biker cliches with a caper plot.

WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS is not particularly good, but it offers some nice cinematography, decent acting, enjoyable music, and the fleeting novelty of a flaming werewolf riding a motorcycle through the desert at night. Levesque directed only one other feature, which I wish someone would release on an extras-laded DVD the way Dark Sky has with WEREWOLVES. Levesque's next movie was SWEET SUGAR, which is a terrific women-in-prison picture filmed in Costa Rica. Stacked Phyllis Davis (also in the great TERMINAL ISLAND with Tom Selleck) is Sugar, a smartass hooker busted on a marijuana charge who forgoes prison for a two-year sentence in a Costa Rican sugar cane plantation. There she not only runs afoul of brutal guard Burgos (Cliff Osmond), but also the psychotic warden, Doctor John (Angus Duncan), a perverted physician who performs medical experiments on the prisoners.

Besides the Costa Rican locations, SUGAR isn't much different from other women-in-prison potboilers of the period. It's perhaps more cartoony, especially concerning the Dr. John character, who sits on a throne (!) sipping brandy while watching a woman in a bamboo cage dangle above a roaring fire, hooks female prisoners up to a machine (which resembles an ordinary car battery charger) that measures their sex drive, and punishes misbehavers with an army of horny kittens! Of course, Sugar eventually leads the climactic revolt against prison authorities in a blizzard of bullets and explosions. SWEET SUGAR moves fast, has some erotic nude scenes (Davis was one of the sexiest B-actresses of the era), and incorporates a nice score by WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS composer Don Gere.

It's great to have WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS on DVD now, but SWEET SUGAR is a better movie.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

A Certain Gross Charm

Lindsay Wagner guest-stars in the ROCKFORD FILES episode “Aura Lee, Farewell,” just two months before making television history by playing Jaime Sommers for the first time in “The Bionic Woman,” a two-part episode of THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN. Wagner played the girlfriend of Six Million Dollar Man Steve Austin (Lee Majors), who was critically injured in a skydiving accident, but was saved when she was given bionic limbs similar to those of Austin. She played Jaime again in “The Return of the Bionic Woman,” and was rewarded with the lead role in the spinoff series, titled imaginatively enough THE BIONIC WOMAN, in 1976. She became the first star of a science fiction/fantasy/horror series to win an Emmy Award for Best Actress in a Drama.

In this ROCKFORD FILES segment, Wagner reprises her role in the pilot of Sara Butler, who hires Jim Rockford (James Garner) to investigate the death of her friend Aura Lee Benton (Melissa Greene). The cops call it an accidental heroin overdose, but Sara believes she was murdered. Rockford’s nose leads him to Senator Evan Murdock (Robert Webber), who picked up a hitchhiking Aura Lee and spent the night with her at a motel before he was involved in an auto accident in which a wino was killed. Murdock was clearly not at fault, but might the mere hint of scandal mar his re-election chances?

She has only a small role, but Greene is a real find, a beautiful and ethereal spirit who holds your attention during the few minutes she’s on-screen. You’re genuinely sorry to hear of her death, and root for Jim to find her killer. Amusing in a guest bit is Bill Mumy, the former child star of LOST IN SPACE, who plays a rotten artist who trades Rockford information for cash. Oddly, Mumy also guest-starred in the other episode Lindsay Wagner was in, the pilot, but he played her brother in that one.

Friday, August 11, 2006

One Last Candice Post

A fan of the late '70s cult movie star Candice Rialson has recently uploaded the trailer to CHATTERBOX to YouTube. CHATTERBOX was the last film in which the 27-year-old actress starred. As effervescent and appealing as she is in CHATTERBOX, it's easy to see why she apparently gave up on the Hollywood scene shortly thereafter. Once you've played a woman who goes on tour with a singing vagina, where do you go from there?

Not to make CHATTERBOX out to be anything more than it is, but it's actually nowhere near as smutty as you would guess. To paraphrase Jack Hill's comment on his own THE SWINGING CHEERLEADERS, if Walt Disney had made a movie about a singing vagina, it would have been CHATTERBOX.

Grady and I watched CHATTERBOX one evening, and I think he may still be a little stunned by it. I have an original 1-sheet hanging on my living room wall.

Candice's Directors Speak

VIDEO WATCHDOG editor Tim Lucas invited Joe Dante (SMALL SOLDIERS) and Allan Arkush (ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL) to share their memories of the late Candice Rialson. Dante and Arkush made their directorial debuts with HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD. Please click the link to Tim's invaluable Video WatchBlog to read what they had to say.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The Wonderful Candice Rialson Is Gone

Wow. While I hate to talk about another death so soon, I’m afraid this is news I cannot ignore. Candice Rialson, one of the most beautiful and most talented B-movie queens of the 1970’s, has passed away. The Code Red DVD company discovered the news when they tracked down her phone number to ask if she would be interested in participating in the supplements for their upcoming PETS DVD. Her husband informed them that she had passed away March 31—four months ago—at the age of 54. As far as anyone can tell, her passing was not reported anywhere in the media. Code Red followed up with a death certificate search, and found one filed under her married name.

It’s sad, of course, that she is no longer with us, but even sadder if she died not knowing about her fans and how important she was to many film buffs. Although she occasionally popped up in a major feature (her turn as a college student who flirts with Clint Eastwood in THE EIGER SANCTION being one of them), Candice spent her film career primarily on the drive-in circuit, starring in thrillers and comedies that entertained millions of people. In something I once wrote, I compared her favorably to Cameron Diaz, but she was a better actress than the CHARLIE’S ANGELS star. Rialson was an extremely likable and pleasantly sexy actress who had the game, but perhaps not the breaks, to go on to “bigger and better” things.

I have seen most, but not all, of the films in which Rialson played a major role. Many of them are quite good for what they are. I have no idea how she felt about her film career, but she certainly had nothing to be ashamed of.

PETS (1974) is not among her best. The stage origins of Raphael Nussbaum’s talky production in misogyny and sleaze are apparent from its blatant three-act structure. As a showcase for Candice Rialson, however, PETS sort of works. She has a lot of screen time and finds plenty of excuses to whip off her top and engage in steamy softcore sex. She's a very sexy screen presence, and even if director Nussbaum has difficulty keeping his stories on track, at least he's wise enough to show off Rialson to great advantage. As exploitation cinema, PETS is a mess, despite the copious nudity. The lurid ad campaign, including a trailer built around images of a nearly nude Rialson being whipped and crawling on all fours, doesn't accurately reflect the real tone of the film, which is a pretentious affair featuring too much steak--more like ground beef--and not enough sizzle. Rialson received a special "Introducing" credit, even though she appeared in four other films released the same year.

CANDY STRIPE NURSES (1974) is a formulaic entry in New World Pictures' unofficial "3 Girls" series, in which a trio of beautiful young professional women falls in love and gets involved in trendy social issues of the day. In this one, our heroines are high school girls who volunteer as "candy stripers" at a local hospital. 21-year-old Rialson is top-billed as Sandy, who sleeps with doctors who do her homework for her and masquerades as a sex therapist so she can hook up with an impotent English rock star. Unquestionably one of the most politically incorrect pictures you're likely to see, CANDY STRIPE NURSES may raise some eyebrows in its treatment of underage sex and school violence, but it's all played amiably (if not especially smoothly) by its stars (including Maria Rojo and current soap star Robin Mattson), all three of whom pop their tops on-camera. Roger Corman was the executive producer, while his wife Julie served as producer.

Roger also executive-produced SUMMER SCHOOL TEACHERS (1975), which is very similar to CANDY STRIPE NURSES (as the title indicates). This interesting feminist tract disguised as a T&A film is about three Midwestern farm girls who move to Los Angeles to teach high school and maybe find love in the process. Blond Conklin T. (Rialson) teaches girls' P.E. and tries to organize an all-female football team, much to the consternation of male chauvinist athletic director Sam (Dick Miller). Typically for these New World formula films, SUMMER SCHOOL TEACHERS fulfills the requirements of an exploitation movie with copious nudity and slapstick humor, but also contains serious subtext. As written and directed by Barbara Peeters (HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP) and produced by Julie Corman, SUMMER SCHOOL TEACHERS is deep down a feminist treatise on women's liberation and empowerment in which, yep, the girls get naked, but only on their own terms for their own pleasure. Conklin and Company are the smartest characters in the movie, and use both their brains and bodies to break down "the Man's" rule. I'm not advocating SUMMER SCHOOL TEACHERS as any kind of classic, but it's much more ambitious than those who turn down their noses at drive-in flicks would be willing to admit.

Any film that opens with a shot of Rialson standing topless in front of a mirror is A-OK in my book. Squeezing into a teeny bikini, Rialson's character in 1974’s MAMA’S DIRTY GIRLS heads out to the pool to taunt a fat, middle-aged man who pours drinks from his swanky plywood-decorated bar. Teasing him to the limit, the man finally tries to rape her, only to be caught by her mother (Gloria Grahame). The man is Mama's husband of one year, and in exchange for not reporting his attack to the police, he writes a full confession of his misdeed and expresses regret. This is later used as evidence of his suicide after Grahame, Rialson and oldest daughter Sondra Currie slash his wrists in the shower. It seems Mama, with her gorgeous teenage daughters in tow, subsists on wealthy men, marrying them and then committing murder for their inheritances. Oscar winner Grahame (THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL) has never been a particular favorite of mine, but she brings the right touch of grifter charm and maternal instinct to her role and has good chemistry with the women playing her daughters. Rialson's fans will enjoy her work here, since she appears in a variety of skimpy outfits while flipping her lustrous blonde hair. Gulp.

HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD (1976) is the best picture Rialson ever starred in. It was co-directed by Allan Arkush and Joe Dante, editors of New World trailers who convinced boss Roger Corman they could direct a feature in ten days for $50,000. It’s a very funny and fast-paced comedy that uses stock footage from Corman pictures like DEATH RACE 2000 and THE BIG DOLL HOUSE while simultaneously spoofing them. Rialson stars as Candy Hope, a beautiful wannabe actress just in from Indiana trying to make it big in Hollywood by appearing in low-budget features for Miracle Pictures ("If it's a good movie, it's a Miracle."). A psycho who's systematically killing off Miracle's stars makes her task even more difficult. The plot is less important than the agreeable performances and the anarchic style of the film. Rialson is funny, sweet and sexy, although some scenes appear to hit a little too close to home. Her best moment is probably the scene in which she attends the premiere of her first movie at a sleazy drive-in and gets drunk while bemoaning her fate to appear in such crappy pictures. No doubt Candice drew from her own personal experience for that scene. If you’ve never seen Candice Rialson perform, HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD is the one movie to watch.

CHATTERBOX (1977) is one of the strangest sex comedies you’re likely to see. Rialson stars as a sweet hairdresser who is astonished, as anyone would be, to discover one night while making love with her boyfriend that her vagina talks. That's right. It talks. It sings too. Quite well, in fact. She becomes the world's #1 singing sensation, cutting a hit record, performing on television, even appearing on the cover of TIME. CHATTERBOX's most surprising asset is its lack of sleaze. Although one would be tempted to believe a sex comedy about a singing vulva would be a little reckless with the smut, the humor is about on the level of an early '70s TV sitcom. Much of the film's likeability is due to its leading lady. As silly as CHATTERBOX is, it’s a good indication of what a fine comedienne she was. Rialson appears in every scene, and is completely up to the task of carrying such a nutty concept on her Santa Monica-born shoulders. She appears topless a lot, but what’s interesting is the matter-of-fact manner in which she shed for them--her casual attitude towards the nudity helps to deflect any feelings of exploitation. She brings a great vulnerability and "good sport" factor to her role, which lends it much needed weight among the farfetched story in which it resides.

Those are some films in which Candice made major contributions. She also appeared in such titles as STUNTS and MOONSHINE COUNTY EXPRESS (both good movies) in supporting parts playing alluring eye candy. In bigger Hollywood movies, she was generally cast as “Girl” or “Student”, which is a damned shame considering how much she had to offer. Hollywood is, of course, filled with beautiful blondes who want to become movie stars. Candice Rialson was a movie star. Perhaps not the kind of star she wanted to be, but she made some good films and she was beloved by her fans. I hope she knew that.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Patrick Allen R.I.P.


I just learned of the death of British actor Patrick Allen at age 79. He guest-starred in a lot of the great English adventure and sci-fi series of the day, including THE AVENGERS, U.F.O., THE SAINT and THRILLER, as well as dozens of films, including THE WILD GEESE, THE SEA WOLVES and Hitchcock's DIAL M FOR MURDER. He was perfectly at home playing tough guys, not just because of his handsome, craggy looks, but also his rich voice. Man, what a voice this guy had. It was so deep and strong that Allen probably made more dough over the years as a dubbing and voiceover artist than as a working actor.

In fact, I recognize Allen primarily from two films...and he only appears in one of them. He stars opposite his wife Sarah Lawson in ISLAND OF THE BURNING DOOMED, a silly but cool Planet Films science fiction movie from 1967 that has also been seen as ISLAND OF THE BURNING DAMNED and, more commonly, NIGHT OF THE BIG HEAT. He and Lawson are innkeepers on a small British island that finds itself in the middle of a brutal heat wave in the dead of winter. Peter Cushing has a supporting role, and Christopher Lee plays a brusque scientist who discovers the cause of the insane heat: invading aliens disguised as rocks. Allen has a sweaty affair with comely guest Jane Merrow amid the melodramatics.

An even better film is Hammer's THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, which is one of the best films that venerable British studio ever made. Christopher Lee has said it's his favorite of all the Hammer productions he acted in. However, Allen doesn't act in the film. He dubbed all the dialogue spoken by the young male lead, Leon Greene. It's a great horror picture, and Allen's vocal performance adds much to the drama. He also narrated the trailer and many others of the era.

Back

Good to see y'all again and nice to be back. The weekend was exhausting, but great fun. After spending the night at Cornfed's crib in LeRoy Thursday night, he, Bub, Jimmy the Buddha, Scatchy and I got off to an early start for Rosemont and the Wizard World Chicago 2006 convention Friday morning. I'm happy to say that, during the entire weekend, we had no major squabbles, obstacles, slip-ups, mishaps or disasters. Besides Tolemite (who joined us late Friday night, Saturday and Saturday evening) getting us temporarily lost on the interstate quagmire on the way to dinner Saturday night, the only snafu was me checking myself into the wrong hotel. We usually stay at the Hyatt that is connected through walkways to the convention center, so when I made my hotel reservation back in April, I did a quick Google search for "Hyatt Rosemont," and--ta da--got the Hyatt Rosemont hotel on River Road, which is where the convention center is. Well, I was surprised when we all checked in to our rooms that we were actually at the Hyatt Regency O'Hare. The Hyatt Rosemont is about a mile down the road. Why there are two Hyatts so close to one another, I can't say, so while those guys got into their rooms, I had to take the shuttle down the street. Not a major problem, although it was a bit of hassle to take taxis back and forth and to not hang out with the guys as long in the evenings. On the whole, though, it was a grand time. We spent three days surrounded by comic books, poor lighting, fat dudes in skintight costumes, overpriced food, body odor and hot chicks.

The Story Of The Weekend involves Lou Ferrigno, the one and only Incredible Hulk, who has been to more of these Wizard World shows than I have. It's not even a thrill to see the guy anymore, I've seen him there so many times. We were standing near the restrooms on Friday, when we saw big Lou shamble into the growler. He was only in there maybe a minute before he exited and headed past a long table to get back to his post. On this table were a stack of plastic takeout food containers, some plastic utensils and other miscellaneous objects. While we watched, Lou walked by the table, stopped, and walked over to it. He picked up one of the plastic knives, held it up to look at it for a few seconds, then turned and threw it onto the floor and walked away. Bub and I laughed our asses off. He said, "What the fuck, the Hulk just littered!" And I was all, "Why did he pick that knife up in the first place?" It was one of the strangest celebrity encounters we've ever had, although Bub's odd conversation last year with Sam Jones (FLASH GORDON) is damn funny too.

NBC might have a promising fall season. Tonight I watched pilots of two of their most heralded new shows: STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP and KIDNAPPED. STUDIO 60 is run by executive producers Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme, the brilliant writer/director team who worked together on SPORTS NIGHT and THE WEST WING, which are just about as good as episodic television gets. With that pedigree, it's a cinch STUDIO 60 was something to look forward to, and that's not even mentioning its impressive cast.

STUDIO 60 is about life backstage at a late-night TV comedy series not dissimilar to SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. In the opener, the show's creator, Wes Mendell (played wonderfully by guest star Judd Hirsch, moonlighting from NUMB3RS for a couple of days), has an on-air meltdown where he barges onto the set during a live telecast and delivers a NETWORK-style condemnation of the soggy depths to which television quality has plummeted (and, yes, Chayefsky is referenced later in the show). Mendell is, of course, fired, and new network president Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet), on her first night at the job, immediately replaces him with comedy writers Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford) and Matt Albee (Matthew Perry), regarded as former TV wunderkinds who are obviously meant to be Schlamme and Sorkin. Not only are they rapidly recruited to save the series, but also, it's implied, to save television.

STUDIO 60 is exactly what WEST WING would have been if it had been set at a TV network. It has the same terrific cast, gliding camerawork, intelligent characters behaving intelligently...hell, the titles even use the same font. And since WEST WING, before Sorkin's personal problems led to his dismissal, was the finest network drama of its time, there's all the reason in the world to give STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP some of your TV-viewing time. Also in the cast are Sarah Paulson (very good in DOWN WITH LOVE) and DL Hughley as cast members of the show-within-the-show (which I think is called FRIDAY NIGHT IN HOLLYWOOD), Timothy Busfield as the director and Steven Weber (the weak link) as the network chairman. Edward Asner showed up in the pilot as the owner of the conglomerate that owns the fictional network, NBS (for National Broadcasting System).

I'm surprised it took the networks five years to rip off 24, but that's what NBC has done with KIDNAPPED, which is about a child kidnapping that will take 22 episodes to solve. Set and shot in New York, it stars Jeremy Sisto as Knapp, a former FBI agent who works independently to rescue kidnap victims for a non-negotiable fee due only if he brings his objective home alive. Knapp has no interest in capturing the kidnappers or retrieving ransom money, only in the safe return of the victim. Sisto, formerly on SIX FEET UNDER (which I've never seen), appears to be a solid dramatic lead. He has the gravitas of an older man (he's 31) and looks believable whether he's shooting three bad guys or handling dramatic dialogue with his colleague Turner (Carmen Ejogo).

KIDNAPPED also brings out some big guns to fill out its cast list. Timothy Hutton and the always-good Dana Delany play the wealthy parents of the kidnapped 15-year-old boy. Delroy Lindo plays a not-yet-ready-to-retire FBI agent who will undoubtedly come to odds with Knapp, who's basically his competition. The cool Mykelti Williamson appeared in the pilot as the boy's bodyguard, and although he disappears from the action fairly early, the implication is that his character will play some role in the investigation. The pilot asks more questions than it answers, but we learn that the mastermind (Doug Hutchison, who was the creepy killer Tooms on THE X-FILES) murders his accomplices, presumably to ensure they can never squeal to the cops.

The pilot was directed by Emmy-winner Michael Dinner (THE WONDER YEARS) and written by its executive producer, Jason Smilovic. Since Smilovic's previous televison experience was as showrunner and writer of KAREN SISCO, the deliciously clever crime series starring Carla Gugino as a sassy and saucy U.S. marshal, I have high hopes for KIDNAPPED's success.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Yippee-Ki-Yay

LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD is the title of the fourth DIE HARD movie, which Fox will release June 29, 2007. Len Wiseman, whose only directorial credits are for the stupid UNDERWORLD vampires-fight-werewolves-with-guns movies, will helm it. Bruce Willis is the only actor cast so far, but Fox says no actors from the three previous DIE HARD movies will be involved.

I have already listed three reasons to be very wary of what will undoubtedly be a terrible movie. LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD? WTF??

I'll be out of town until late Sunday night. Go watch some crappy movies and post about them in the Comments section. Yeah, Panno, for watching U.S. SEALS II!

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

You Think I Have A God Complex?

You’ve got to be on your toes to keep up with MALICE, a slick early-‘90s thriller that was sumptuously shot by Gordon Willis (THE GODFATHER) and intelligently directed by Harold Becker (SEA OF LOVE). I saw it in its initial release, where it benefited from a marvelously evasive trailer that indicated the movie was about one thing, when it’s really about something else. The trailer (which is not, sadly, on MGM’s DVD) made MALICE appear as though it were about a serial rapist stalking college coeds and the college professor (Bill Pullman) accused of the crimes. And, in fact, that is part of the movie, but as a subplot. Considering the way that storyline plays out, I believe it exists solely to fool people in the trailer.

I wish I could say more about MALICE, but it really is a movie that you have to experience cold. Bill Pullman is Andy Safian, the assistant dean of a small Eastern university, and Nicole Kidman is his sweet wife Tracy. They live together in a three-story Victorian house that they plan to fix up. A chance encounter reunites Andy with Jed Hill (Alec Baldwin), the BMOC of the high school they both attended. Jed is a brilliant surgeon just hired at the local hospital. He’s charming, handsome, smart and funny. Andy seems to worship the guy, just as he perhaps did in high school, where they ran in separate circles, and invites Jed to move in to the third floor of his and Tracy’s house.

Okay, that’s it, I won’t say anything more about the plot. It’s masterfully crafted by Aaron Sorkin and Scott Frank, to this day two of Hollywood’s most respected screenwriters. You know the brilliant Sorkin from A FEW GOOD MEN, SPORTS NIGHT and THE WEST WING (when it was the best drama on network television), and Frank’s resume includes GET SHORTY and the terrific OUT OF SIGHT. Although you may likely pick a nit or two long after you’ve ejected the DVD from your player, while MALICE plays, it’s efficiently manipulative, pulling your attention one direction and then trapping it with a bait-and-switch. Like most Hollywood thrillers, it runs out of gas in the third act, but I still admire the filmmakers’ effrontery.

Becker also calls upon some interesting supporting actors to act as red herrings: Peter Gallagher (currently on THE O.C.), Josef Sommer (the President in X-MEN 3), delectable Debrah Farentino, Tobin Bell (the creepy-looking killer from SAW). Anne Bancroft and George C. Scott perform cameos, and there’s even a bit by 19-year-old Gwyneth Paltrow, who was known mainly as Blythe Danner’s daughter at that stage of her career.

MALICE is one of Alec Baldwin’s best performances. He is at his best, period, when playing either oily bad guys or comedic roles. I think he lost his way in the 1990s after the success of THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, which caused him to play square-jawed hero-types in disappointments like THE SHADOW, THE GETAWAY and HEAVEN’S PRISONERS. Among a brilliant cast of character actors, he steals GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS from Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Ed Harris and others with a monologue (written by David Mamet) that plays like an actor’s dream. MALICE provides him with a similar show-stopper, a legal deposition where Hill is forced to defend himself against a malpractice charge:

“I have an M.D. from Harvard. I am board-certified in cardiothoracic medicine and trauma surgery. I have been awarded citations from seven different medical boards in New England, and I am never, ever sick at sea. So I ask you, when someone goes into that chapel and they fall on their knees and they pray to God that their wife doesn't miscarry or that their daughter doesn't bleed to death or that their mother doesn't suffer acute neural trauma from post-operative shock, who do you think they're praying to? Now, go ahead and read your Bible, Dennis, and you go to your church, and, with any luck, you might win the annual raffle, but, if you're looking for God, he was in Operating Room number two on November 17, and he doesn't like to be second-guessed. You ask me if I have a God complex. Let me tell you something. I am God.”

If you've seen MALICE and would like to discuss it, please feel free to do so in the Comments section, which I'll officially designate as a MALICE Spoiler Zone.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Ninja Scott Glenn

I'm not certain why it took me so long to watch THE CHALLENGE, other than that I don't recall it ever being readily available to me. It's not on DVD yet, for some reason; it must be just about the only major John Frankenheimer movie left un-DVDed. Before I cancelled my Showtime channels (because they kept airing the same forty movies over and over), I recorded a cropped print of THE CHALLENGE on DVD-R. Showtime often shows LBXed movies, but only if the aspect ratio 1.85:1 or less. Anything wider, like THE CHALLENGE at 2.35:1, it doesn't. And THE CHALLENGE, with all of its Japanese location photography and its action sequences, needs to be seen in its full glory.

Inspired by a thread over at Mobius Home Video Forum about Frankenheimer's GRAND PRIX (now on DVD) that turned into a discussion of our favorite Frankenheimer films, I popped THE CHALLENGE into the Cyberhome this afternoon. Frankenheimer is one of the best directors of thrillers Hollywood has ever known. THE CHALLENGE is a decent enough picture, but it doesn't rank near his best like SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, FRENCH CONNECTION II (probably the best film ever with a "II" in its title) and BLACK SUNDAY.

John Sayles, who was then writing (very good) schlock pictures like ALLIGATOR and PIRANHA, co-scripted this thriller that could have used less chatting and more slicing. THE CHALLENGE really would have been better if those involved had taken it less seriously. I mean, the plot is absurd: Scott Glenn (SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) plays a skinny American boxer who is hired to transport an antique sword to Kyoto. It’s one of a matched set that has been the object of a blood feud between brothers Toru (Toshiro Mifune!) and Hideo (Atsuo Nakamura) for almost forty years. Each sibling has one sword, wants the other, and is willing to kill each other to get it. Glenn finds himself in the middle as a martial arts student in Toru’s temple. After just a few days, he’s suddenly a badass American ninja able to wipe out most of Hideo’s private army.

Jerry Goldsmith’s awesome score really holds this movie together, as do Mifune’s registered performance and the Japanese locations. There are some terrific action sequences too, particularly the climax in which Glenn and Mifune storm the brother's gigantic office building and wipe out his force using machine guns and bigass swords. At the time of THE CHALLENGE's 1982 release, there was a bit of a flap concerning its gore, and this movie sees not one but two skull-slicings. It doesn't look like much by today's gore standards, nor does it look any worse than what Tom Savini and others were doing in slasher movies of the period. But Toshiro Mifune wasn't in those pictures. Frankenheimer cut a shorter version for television called SWORD OF THE NINJA that eliminates the gore and nudity, which must be no fun to watch at all.

If you've ever wondered what it would be like to see Ninja Scott Glenn staple some dude's forehead, THE CHALLENGE is for you.