Wednesday, January 31, 2007

What Is Communism?

This hilarious propaganda film was a semi-regular feature at B-Fest for awhile. I saw it twice within the first three years I attended B-Fest, but not since. The official word is that the print of WHAT IS COMMUNISM? has disappeared, but considering how livid it made the more politically conservative B-Festers whenever it was shown and appropriately mocked, my theory is that the print fell off the back of a truck someplace.

WHAT IS COMMUNISM? was made in the early-to-mid-1950s. The man you see in the still above is its host, Herbert A. Philbrick, who was famous then for his book I LED THREE LIVES. Philbrick was a salesman who was recruited by the FBI to infiltrate the Communist Party and report back to J. Edgar Hoover. After the FBI pulled him out in the late '40s so he could testify in a Smith Act trial (the verdicts of many of which were later deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court), Philbrick wrote a book about his experiences hunting Commies. The book was adapted as a syndicated television series with popular B-actor Richard Carlson (IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE) playing Philbrick.

In WHAT IS COMMUNISM?, Philbrick answers with the "three...six...nine words" you see above, and in just over ten minutes, explains his reasoning. What is really scary/funny about the film is that you could substitute the word "Republican" for "Communist," and the movie would be more accurate. For instance,
  • Lying. Well, we have recently lost over 3000 American lives in Iraq as a direct result of Republican lies.
  • Dirty. Communists are "dirty" because they slander prominent Americans. Sorta like how the Republican Party "swift boated" John Kerry in the last election.
  • Shrewd. Because the Commie Party gives their causes carefully selected names that people won't understand mean the complete opposite of what the group actually is. Like the Patriot Act.
  • Godless. Republicans claim to believe in God. They just don't act like they do.
  • Murderous. Such as sending soldiers to fight in Iraq, but not providing them with reliable weapons and body armor.
  • Determined. If you don't mean "determined to pass legislation designed to make life easier for the American people," that is.
  • International Criminal Conspiracy. Halliburton? FEMA? Illegal wiretaps?
Besides the sweaty paranoia and desperate rhetoric of Philbrick's narration, the really funny aspect of WHAT IS COMMUNISM? is the way in which he worships J. Edgar Hoover, implying that if Hoover says it, it must be true. As we now know, Hoover was perhaps the most dishonest figure in the history of U.S. law enforcement (not that John Mitchell and Alberto "American citizens do not have the right of habeas corpus" Gonzales aren't making a run for the [dis]honor).

See WHAT IS COMMUNISM? for yourself on DVD. It's part of TARGET YOU: COLD WAR EDUCATIONAL FILMS FROM THE GOLDEN AGE OF HOMELAND SECURITY, along with eight other Cold War pieces. Move it to the top of your Netflix queue, and while you're at it, click on THE EDUCATIONAL ARCHIVES, VOL. 5: PATRIOTISM. That one has an amazing 1945 short comparing democracy to a despotic government that looks a helluva lot like the current Bush administration (such as all industry being owned by a handful of companies and a press that simply parrots the official government stance), as well as the classic RED NIGHTMARE, a kneeslapper narrated by uptight DRAGNET creator Jack Webb, a film even funnier than WHAT IS COMMUNISM?

Monday, January 29, 2007

Back To B-Fest 2007

Last weekend marked my sixth consecutive B-Fest, a 24-hour marathon of “B-movies” held annually at Northwestern University’s Norris Center auditorium. As long as you’re able to get into the atmosphere of a couple hundred rowdy movie fans laughing, cheering and shouting jokes at the screen, B-Fest is a fun venue for crappy movie watching. The auditorium is more comfortable than you might expect—certainly more so than Foellinger Auditorium at the University of Illinois, which has perhaps the most painful seating I’ve ever experienced. McCormick Auditorium at Northwestern is carpeted and clean with a large stage, a good-sized screen and fine audio.

Chicken and I drove up to Evanston early Friday afternoon, where we met up with Tolemite, Grady, Stiner and Cheeseburger, making her first B-Fest appearance. Kevin, with whom I saw my first five B-Fests, had to bow out the day before, as did Liz, who came to last year’s B-Fest. Armed with plenty of Red Can, Hostess products, Frito’s, Lunchables, Fig Newtons and plenty of other snacks, I spread out and prepared for 24 straight hours of garbage movies.

This year’s selection was quite good, an admirable blend of genres and eras. A couple of sword-and-sorcery adventures, some giant monsters, a Chuck Norris actioner, a Philippines-set women’s prison potboiler and a wild gore film were among this year’s offerings. Unfortunately, I intermittently fell asleep during the early morning hours, which coincidentally was when all the movies I hadn’t seen before were running. Sad to say, I missed quite a bit of what I wanted to see and had to sit through a couple I wasn’t too fond of.

Kicking off the 2007 festival was 1962’s THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE, which you may have seen on MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. It’s a sleazy black-and-white thriller starring Jason Evers, a not-particularly-charming leading man who managed to eke out a healthy living on television for a couple of decades. If you watched any TV series about cops, detectives, lawyers or spies during the 1960s or 1970s, you undoubtedly saw Evers in a guest shot. In BRAIN, he plays Dr. Bill Cortner, a slimy mad scientist who rescues his fiancĂ©’s decapitated head from an auto accident and takes it to his remote lab, where he plops it in a pan and keeps it alive. She whines a lot about letting her die until she, unbeknownst to Bill and his crippled assistant Curt, realizes she can mentally control the mutant locked in the closet. Unfortunately, Swank’s 16mm print was missing BRAIN’s most notorious scene, a shocker where the mutant rips Curt’s arm off and the scientist stumbles about the lab, smearing blood all over the wall. The print also fell apart about a minute from the end, just as the mutant grabbed Evers and prepared to burn the whole damn building down. After going that far with the film, you’d like to see how it all wraps up, eh?

THE BEASTMASTER is another fun film to see with a rowdy but appreciative audience. It offers a lot of action and a good Lee Holdridge score, as well as Tanya Roberts’ bare breasts (remember the PLAYBOY layout she did when the movie came out in 1982?). Everyone has seen this—it was a TBS and TNT perennial for years—it stars Marc Singer (later on V) as Dar, whose village was slaughtered by a Jun horde. Teaming up with an eagle, a black tiger and two cute ferrets, Dar takes on the evil reign of brutal Maax (a hammy performance by Rip Torn). Dar’s ability to communicate with animals comes in handy, and director Don Coscarelli expertly handles the movie’s many action scenes with on-screen assistance from big John Amos (GOOD TIMES) and Roberts as sexy slave girl Kiri.

Last year we saw CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON in 3D. This year: its sequel, REVENGE OF THE CREATURE, starring John Agar and a brief appearance by Universal-International contract player Clint Eastwood, who plays with some lab rats, leading to a “I know what you’re thinking…did I put three rats in the cage or only two?” comment. The 16mm print was extremely washed out, but the red/blue 3D was surprisingly effective most of the time. REVENGE is a decent movie that at least shows a lot of the creature. The audience didn’t seem to be on hero Agar’s side, particularly in scenes where he “trains” the Gill-Man by repeatedly shocking him with a prod.

Mike Jittlov’s amazing THE WIZARD OF SPEED AND TIME short film always runs just before midnight, just after the raffle. So much swag is given away during the B-Fest raffle that you’re almost guaranteed a prize if you go often enough. In six years, I’ve won something three times: a sleeveless INTOLERABLE CRUELTY T-shirt, BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS on VHS, and this year THE SIMPSONS: SEASON 8 on DVD. I traded it to Chicken for his POINT BREAK Special Edition DVD. THE WIZARD OF SPEED AND TIME is always run normally, and then backwards and upside-down while most of the audience lies on their backs on the stage and stomps their feet to the beat. I have no idea why. Instead of explaining Jittlov’s delightful short, I’ll embed the 3-minute video here. I think you’ll get a kick out of it.

B-Fest’s midnight perennial is PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, which I admit I’m a little tired of by now. I’ve seen it a dozen times, including the last six B-Fests. It’s still fun to throw paper plates in the air whenever one of Ed Wood’s pie-plate flying saucers is on the screen though. But the “Bela”/”Not Bela” and “Day”/”Night” bantering is getting a little old. By the way, that monotonous scene with Lyle Talbot set in his office, which seems like ten dead minutes of expositional filler, has to be the dullest scene in motion picture history.

Ever wanted to see John Ashley in three different shades of skimpy underwear? Look no further than SAVAGE SISTERS, a 1974 cross between blaxploitation and women-in-prison genres. Co-produced by Ashley and directed by Filipino action fave Eddie Romero, SAVAGE SISTERS is a strangely R-rated film, considering it comes close, but shows no nudity whatsoever—doubly odd since co-star Cheri Caffaro had no qualms about doing full-frontal sex scenes in her GINGER movies. The 35mm print looked very good, and contained enough action and silliness to keep everyone awake. It’s not available on DVD, and I’ve only seen it on a cropped but uncut cable TV print, so it was cool to see it on the big screen.

INVASION OF THE STAR CREATURES was the first film of the night that I had never seen, although I had waited 30 years to see it after reading about it in Jeff Rovin’s THE PICTORIAL HISTORY OF SCIENCE FICTION FILMS. It has a lousy reputation, a black-and-white sci-fi slapstick comedy starring unknowns Frankie Ray and Bob Ball, who rip off Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall. Written by frequent Roger Corman supporting player Jonathan Haze and witlessly directed by actor Bruno VeSota (who also appeared in the later B-Fest entry YOUNG REBELS), STAR CREATURES is the worst kind of film: an unfunny comedy. Ray and Ball are GIs who investigate a cave (Bronson Caverns, of course) and find two superhot space chicks named Puna and Tanga. No kidding. One of the worst B-Fest movies I’ve seen in six years. Luckily, I managed to sleep through more than half of it.

I also dozed through much of THE HYPNOTIC EYE, although what I saw looked pretty good. The teaser is quite a shocker—a woman sets her hair on fire (in a nicely rendered visual effect for the time). The climax is memorably violent, and the movie also features an odd gimmick where it tries to hypnotize the audience. I don’t think this one is on DVD, and is unlikely to pop up on TV anytime soon.

Holy crap, why oh why have I gone this long in life without ever seeing STREET TRASH? A wild and bloody horror movie shot in New York by only-time director Jim Muro (inventor of the Steadicam who now works as a cinematographer on big-budget Hollywood movies like OPEN RANGE), STREET TRASH was simultaneously the highlight and the biggest disappointment of B-Fest, disappointing only because I fell asleep just after a homeless guy put a sack over his head and walked through the window of a grocery store. I woke up for a minute to see slow-mo shots of a severed penis flying through the air, and woke up for good near the end to see an exploding hobo. Time to Netflix the Synapse DVD of this untamed masterpiece, which seems like a slightly more tasteful Troma movie. B-Fest's print came from the private collection of writer/producer Roy Frumkus, who wanted to present the film in person but was unable to. A letter from Frumkus was read to us, which claimed that the 35mm print was the first ever struck and that it was used to go to Cannes and other film markets in an effort to find distribution. I don't know what Synapse used for its DVD, but the Frumkus print looks wonderful with bright colors, little scratching and great sound.

On the other hand, the 35mm print of KRULL looked and sounded shoddy, and wasn't helped by the fact that the B-Fest committee spliced some reels together in the wrong order. B-Fest is always hampered by production delays and errors (the prints snap or malfunction all the time), but this was a first. KRULL is pretty bad and is a film I wouldn’t have minded sleeping through. Unfortunately, I was wide awake by this time. I own KRULL on DVD, but have watched it only once. It seems like it should work—a sword-and-sorcery fantasy about a young hero rescuing a beautiful red-headed princess from armored warriors with laser weapons—but it really doesn’t, despite a giant spider.

Speaking of, TARANTULA is all about its giant spider that rampages across the American Southwest. Scientist John Agar teams up with super-scrumptious Mara Corday to stop it. It’s not quite A-level ‘50s sci-fi, but a high B, directed competently by Jack Arnold. Clint Eastwood is also in this Universal-International picture, but is barely recognizable. This played at B-Fest a few years ago, so it wasn’t anything new.

Outside of perhaps STREET TRASH, the 1985 trash Cannon classic INVASION U.S.A. was by far the Fest’s favorite. It’s a lunkheaded and shamelessly jingoistic action movie starring Chuck Norris as a reluctant government agent who stops terrorist attacks on U.S. soil by driving around Florida and shooting the bad guys with his twin holstered Uzis. This is an incredibly stupid film, but Joseph Zito directs briskly, and Chuck is quite badass. See Chuck drive his pickup into a shopping mall. See Chuck tell Richard Lynch not once but twice, “It’s time to die.” Non-stop hilarity that the audience laughed and cheered all the way through. America…fuck yeah!

YOUNG REBELS was the title on this print of Roger Corman’s TEENAGE DOLL. It’s along the lines of Corman’s other youth-oriented dramas of the 1950’s, such as SORORITY GIRL, but I don’t think it stacks up that well. Come to think of it, SORORITY GIRL would have been great at B-Fest. YOUNG REBELS isn’t very memorable, although it does feature Corman regular Richard Devon and stars the lovely June Kenney.

THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN was a nice 35mm print, but not a good film. Rick Baker’s gooey makeup effects are fantastic, and the film certainly earned its R rating with lots of close-ups of the title character. Alex Rebar is an astronaut affected by sunspots who returns to Earth and starts melting away. This causes him to shamble around the countryside, ripping off heads and tossing them into the stream. It’s quite slowly paced and the body count is too low. Burr DeBenning has the lead role as Dr. Ted Nelson, who attempts to stop the melting man’s rampage by yelling, “I’m Dr. Ted Nelson!” a lot. His plan definitely doesn’t come together. This one has also been on MST3K, and is probably better seen there.

For the first time, B-Fest went digital to present KING KONG VS. GODZILLA on a non-permanent PC/projector system. The DVD, which I own, looked better, though a lot smaller, than I expected it to on the big screen. B-Fest used to traditionally end with a Japanese monster movie, but vanishing prints have made that difficult in recent years. Going to a DVD format is the best way to get these monster mashes back in the B-Fest lineup on a regular basis. I suspect that next year will probably see even more DVD presentations, which has both its pros and cons. Although I love seeing widescreen 35mm prints of rarities like STREET TRASH and SAVAGE SISTERS, having the flexibility to show DVDs will open up the potential film lineup to many films that are otherwise unavailable.

After 24 hours of crappy movies, our group headed to Leona’s for our traditional Italian dinner. I had a large bowl of penne with meatballs and chicken, along with soup, shrimp scampi and bread. I was bloated afterwards, but pleasantly so, and well-prepared for the 2-hour-plus drive with Chicken back to Champaign. Another successful B-Fest. Tolemite and I are already counting down the days until B-Fest 2008. You can read his account of this year's B-Fest on his blog, and Cheeseburger has her reviews posted over on her blog, so enjoy.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Some Things Are Better Left Unfound

I'll blog about B-Fest later in the week, but let me take this time to recommend a cool new horror movie. ABOMINABLE received quite a bit of positive buzz last spring when it played in a handful of theaters last spring. It ended up basically debuting on the Sci-Fi Channel last May, but it deserved much more. This would have been a fun movie to see in a packed theater. It's not a particularly original or clever film, but it's very well conceived and constructed, and it utilizes its low budget extremely well. If you ignored it on television, thinking it was akin to the Sci-Fi Channel’s never-ending display of stupid, cheap monster flicks, add it to your Netflix queue. The debut feature of director Ryan Schifrin, who recruited his father, legendary composer Lalo Schifrin (of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and DIRTY HARRY fame) to do the score, ABOMINABLE deftly combines REAR WINDOW with FRIDAY THE 13TH to form an old-fashioned creature feature with heavy dollops of gore, suspense and recognizable genre veterans.

On the advice of his physician, Preston Rogers (Matt McCoy, who has been dependably acting on television and in genre pictures since the '80s) returns to the mountain cabin where he was living when he and his wife were involved in a tragic mountain-climbing accident that killed her and left him permanently disabled from the waist down. Adding to his reluctance to go back to the empty home that carries sad memories is his nonchalantly neglectful staff-assigned caretaker, Otis (Christien Tinsley, the film’s special makeup effects artist making his acting debut). Otis temporarily leaves to pick up some groceries, leaving Preston with little to do but watch his neighbors: five sexy young women enjoying a bachelorette weekend. Depressed from the accident and numb from the meds prescribed by his doctor, Preston’s will to live is rejuvenated in a highly unusual manner when he witnesses what he believes to be a monster of some sort abduct one of the girls. Analogous to the fabled Sasquatch, this ain’t no HARRY AND THE HENDERSONS cuddly. Whatever it is, it’s mean, strong and awfully hungry, as it rips through most of the cast, leaving the wheelchair-bound Preston and blond Amanda (Haley Joel), one of the neighbors, to fend it off.

Little about ABOMINABLE is original or especially clever—Schifrin’s DVD commentary is a laundry list of his influences, including Romero, Spielberg, Raimi, Lucas and many other filmmakers—but it’s assembled quite well and relies on old-school makeup effects and good performances to earn its scares. McCoy, well cast in the James Stewart role, spends much of his screen time alone, staring out a window or typing on his computer keyboard. Despite the handicaps placed upon him as a result of his character’s incapacities, McCoy manages to express the right emotional beats and eventually teams up with Joel as an active, not a passive, hero. Adding delightful color to the proceedings is a roster of character actors instantly recognizable to fans of this type of film, including Dee Wallace Stone (THE HOWLING) and Rex Linn as a couple terrorized by the creature, Jeffrey Combs (RE-ANIMATOR) as a redneck store clerk, Paul Gleason (THE BREAKFAST CLUB) as a jerk sheriff, Phil Morris (whose father, Greg Morris, was a regular on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE) as a deputy, and Lance Henriksen, who worked one day, as a gung-ho hunter who faces the creature while armed with a shotgun.

Most of the film takes place on one location, but Schifrin keeps the camera moving and the setups looking natural. Thankfully, he refrains from gimmicky cinematography and Avid farts, allowing the woody atmosphere and creepy nighttime shooting to provide suspense. It also helps that his monster is a well-constructed man-in-a-suit Bigfoot that looks convincing even in close-ups. Seen only fleetingly in the early-going, the monster, created by Tinsley and played by 6’8” Mike Deak, is an impressive achievement even later in the picture, when Schifrin shows it from head-to-toe performing several chases and stunts. Its perpetually angry expression perhaps strains disbelief, although the monster’s physical resemblance to Jack Elam (!) seems too obvious to be coincidental.

Also of consequence is Lalo Schifrin’s fully orchestral score, which is rich and suspenseful and adds immeasurably to ABOMINABLE’s goosebump quotient. Why he isn’t working more often on studio features is one of Hollywood’s most unfortunate mysteries. The music certainly adds class to the occasionally exploitative goings-on, which includes some surprisingly grisly gore (particularly a shot of the monster biting a victim’s face off) and even a welcome shower scene performed by Tiffany Shepis. ABOMINABLE appears to be a monster movie made for horror fans with a fondness for the old-fashioned.

ABOMINABLE was Paul Gleason's last film. He died of lung cancer just after it opened in Los Angeles. I visited his grave when I was in Los Angeles in October and was touched to see that his headstone references both his acting and his baseball careers (he played minor league ball as a young man). His role in ABOMINABLE is a small one, but he embodies it quite well, a riff on his iconic BREAKFAST CLUB principal, which is the subject of a neat in-joke in Schifrin's movie.

Having a famous father certainly has its perks. Not only was Schifrin able to land some name actors and top-level production facilities, but he also got the great Drew Struzan to design ABOMINABLE's one-sheet, which you can see above (or click it to get a larger view). It's too bad few theaters got to display it.

Friday, January 26, 2007

B-Fest This Weekend

Don't expect any posts from me until at least Sunday night. Tomorrow I'm heading up to Northwestern University for my sixth consecutive B-Fest. There's a heckuva lineup this year, and considering I'll be sharing it with Toler, Chicken and other friends, it may turn out to be my best B-Fest yet.

"You people of Earth...are idiots!"

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

My Life At The Movies

Looking at the Academy Award nominations announced yesterday got me thinking about the way I watch movies now as opposed to the ways that I used to. For at least the second year in a row, I went to a movie theater fewer than ten times in 2006. I used to go to the movies all the time. Between 1983, when I got my driver’s license, and, say, 1994, when I stopped working at a movie theater, I saw at least one or two films a week and maybe more. That’s in addition to the videocassettes I rented and television broadcasts I watched.

I don’t remember ever not being interested in film. Actually, I have always had slightly more interest in television than film, and I used to read each week’s TV Guide and make mental notes of old movies and TV reruns that sounded cool. That was in the pre-cable days, when I only had three commercial TV stations to choose from. I would see listings for, for example, WGN-TV in Chicago, which aired old Bowery Boys movies and shows like LOST IN SPACE and SGT. BILKO, which we didn’t get in the Champaign/Decatur/Springfield TV market. I grew up on afternoon reruns of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (my all-time favorite show until I was about 8), THE BRADY BUNCH, THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, BATMAN, THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, but the grass is always greener, right? It wasn’t until I was in college that I experienced SPEED RACER for the first time and was able to see LOST IN SPACE on a regular basis on USA cable (it sucks, by the way).

But I digress. The first major influence on my love of movies was WCIA-TV, the CBS affiliate in Champaign, Illinois. Channel 3 aired THE EARLY SHOW every afternoon at 3:00 and THE LATE SHOW after the news on Friday and Saturday nights. It was here that I experienced so many wonderful (and wonderfully awful) films for the first time. And they made it easy by presenting them during Theme Weeks: Hitchcock Week, Abbott & Costello Week, Western Week, you name it. THE EARLY SHOW is where I saw the old Universal horrors like FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA, the Marx Brothers, the Clint Eastwood/Sergio Leone westerns (THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY was spread out over two consecutive days), Japanese sci-fi (from the GODZILLA monster mashes to THE MYSTERIANS), Martin & Lewis, Rock Hudson & Doris Day, Bogart and BATMAN (the 1966 feature), M and DIAL M FOR MURDER, BUSTING and CAPRICORN ONE (WCIA ran that one uncut on THE LATE SHOW), Elvis Presley and Fred Astaire…even the notorious PINOCCHIO FROM OUTER SPACE. Of course, they were all edited and panned-and-scanned, but who knew there was any other way

My high school years coincided with the emergence of home video and the arrival of cable television, which opened new windows to film history. I didn’t have to rely on Channel 3’s library of movies; I could now see hundreds more on WTBS, USA, HBO, Showtime, Cinemax. The second great influence was Michael Weldon’s groundbreaking book THE PSYCHOTRONIC ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FILM, which came out in 1983, my junior year of high school. It was an A-to-Z listing of amazing “psychotronic” movies with witty capsule reviews written in Weldon’s unique, appealing style. It was loaded with films I had already seen, but thousands more than I hadn’t and couldn’t dream that I ever would. It’s when I first learned that Sergio Leone wasn’t the only Italian making westerns, that there were tons of horror movies, spy movies, rock musicals, cop actioners that weren’t appearing on television and never ran in my local theaters. I actually wanted to see the amazing-sounding works of Al Adamson. Now that I’ve seen several Adamson movies, it’s hard to imagine a time when I thought they might be good, but that was partially due to Weldon’s descriptions. Even the films Weldon said were awful often sounded pretty cool.

WARGAMES was the first movie I drove myself to. My parents were very good about taking my brother and me to movies, although they always were PG (no PG-13 then) or G. The now-gone Lyric in Monticello and the now-gone Widescreen Drive-In in Urbana were favorite movie houses, where I saw just about every Disney film from BAMBI and DUMBO to GUS and THE APPLE DUMPLING GANG, as well as “adult” PG movies like PAPILLON and JAWS. MOONRAKER was my first James Bond film, which was exciting because I had seen tantalizing bits of them on ABC. Since the Bond films always carried “Parental Guidance Advised” warnings, I was a little afraid of them, like they might be scary or sexy or something, but the promos were always cool, and my folks always watched them. I loved MOONRAKER then, but, of course, that’s because I was 12, and MOONRAKER is aimed at a 12-year-old’s maturity level.

Going to WARGAMES with my brother and our friend Brian was exciting. Not only was it my first time driving in “the big city” (Champaign), but we were also going to the Co-Ed Theater near the University of Illinois, which was always packed with pedestrians and traffic. Not like driving to the mall! And, of course, the early-to-mid-1980s were an amazing time to fall in love with what I affectionately today call “crappy movies.” WARGAMES and BLUE THUNDER came out the same summer, both directed by John Badham. The STAR TREK movies were coming out every two years, the STAR WARS movies were out and in re-release, as were the Indiana Jones series. There were new 007 adventures regularly. Chuck Norris and Michael Dudikoff…hell, Cannon always had something new playing. I saw every Norris, Dudikoff and Charles Bronson movie of the ‘80s, I think. We saw AMERICAN NINJA at the huge historic Virginia Theater in Champaign. I also saw every Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood film that I could; when SUDDEN IMPACT played at the Virginia, the audience went crazy with every kill. The Virginia also ran the new breed of 3-D movie: JAWS 3-D, SPACEHUNTER, METALSTORM. Also, the historic Orpheum began running classic double- and triple-features that turned over twice a week, enabling me to see—on the big screen—all of the Connery/Lazenby/Moore Bond films (to that point), THE GREAT ESCAPE/BULLITT, A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS/THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY, REAL LIFE/MODERN ROMANCE, REAR WINDOW/THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH and, perhaps best of all, a marathon of all five PLANET OF THE APES movies.

I never let the 15- to 20-mile drive to a theater stop me from seeing as much as I could. And when I eventually went away to college, it was nice because I now lived in the same town as the theaters. Carbondale then had several movie houses, including one in the mall (where I saw films as diverse as PLATOON and SCORPION!) and the Saluki, which ran second-run movies for $1.00; EDDIE MURPHY: RAW and ALIEN NATION I saw there. I remember seeing HEARTBURN the night my new roommate died. I remember seeing HAMBURGER HILL on an awful date. I saw ABOVE THE LAW three times during Finals Week, because all the guys in the dorm wanted to get away and see some incredible ass-kicking. I took people to see ROAD HOUSE several times, because I couldn’t believe how great it was and wanted to share it (they all agreed with me). I saw QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER the day I got fired from a job. I recall sitting in empty rooms watching movies that nobody else that I know of has seen, such as SHORT TIME and KEATON’S COP. I’d like to meet one other person besides my friend Todd Woodman who can claim to have seen KEATON’S COP in a theater.

Eventually, I came back to Champaign, where, between radio jobs, I worked at a multiplex as an usher and projectionist. I was living at home and working only 30 hours a week, but it was a fun place to work. Unlike other multiplexes, the Savoy 10 (it became the Savoy 14 during my two years there and is now the Savoy 16) was run by a manager who actually cared about the movies, cared about the audience and presenting them a quality product. Projectionists were trained. There were no ads blaring in the auditorium—just orchestral scores—and we projectionists had the thrill of opening the big curtain covering the screen while lowering the lights.

I also got to see a ton of movies for free, which means that I spent much time wallowing in muck like AMOS & ANDREW, SPLITTING HEIRS, LIFE WITH MIKEY…who remembers these? The early ‘90s were the swan song of low-budget exploitation in theaters, and I managed to catch EXCESSIVE FORCE (which played one show a night for one week) and Cannon’s next-to-last theatrical release, AMERICAN CYBORG: STEEL WARRIOR.

After leaving the theater for good in 1994, I still saw lots of films, but it has never been the same. In 1996, Weldon finally published his long-awaited sequel, THE PSYCHOTRONIC VIDEO GUIDE, which contained even more juicy descriptions of crazy movies I thought I’d never see. Of course, with the advent of DVD and the Internet, more films are available for home viewing than ever before. Also, I’ve had the privilege and joy to hook up with new friends online, mainly through the Mobius Home Video Forum message board, of which I have been a moderator for the better part of a decade. Through these friends and acquaintances, I’ve learned more and discovered more and have enjoyed the opportunity to trade movies and discussions about those movies. So even though my days of hitting the local movie house on a biweekly or even weekly basis are long behind me, the movie-watching atmosphere is richer than ever. Sure, I’ll make the effort to see LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE eventually, when I can Netflix it. But until then, I’ve got a stack of Tony Anthony westerns on DVD to dig into.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Let Him Play! Let Him Play!

WTF? Kelly Leak is nominated for an Academy Award! After getting passed over for DOLLMAN and THE BAD NEWS BEARS IN BREAKING TRAINING, this is certainly long overdue.

Will Peter O'Toole's actual British accent win out over Leo DiCaprio's laughably phony one?

Speaking of laughably phony, remember that opening shot of the ship in POSEIDON? Well, it earned the movie a Visual Effects nomination.

It took five people to "write" BORAT?

Monday, January 22, 2007

Did You Know...

...that this year's Super Bowl will be the first to feature two black head coaches? Because I haven't seen or heard that mentioned anywhere by the media. At all.

I hope your sarcasm alert went off.

24 continued tonight. HOLY CRAP THE DICKHEAD PUPPETMASTER THAT CONTROLLED EVIL PRESIDENT LOGAN IN DAY 5 IS JACK BAUER'S BROTHER! This season is going to be juicy. I didn't get around to either PRISON BREAK or STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP, because Chicken, Grady and I put in THE STRANGER AND THE GUNFIGHTER. I've posted about it before on the old blog as Watch Her Back (Side).

It's an Italian western teaming up American cowboy star Lee Van Cleef (FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE) and Chinese martial artist Lo Lieh (FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH) in an oddball story about a treasure map tattooed on the asses of four hookers. With an evil preacher and a strong Indian on their asses, Lee and Lieh traverse the Old West, tracking down each lady (none of whom puts up much of a fight when they come around asking to see her bum) and following the clue to the next ass. Van Cleef drinks and fires some shots, Lo chops plenty of socky, and director Antonio Margheriti throws in an occasional cheek for extra thrills.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Who's Kung Fu Is Best

If you liked the often-astonishing ONG-BAK out of Thailand a couple of years ago, you may well also be entertained by 2005's THE PROTECTOR, which reunites Tony Jaa and Prachya Pinkaew, the star and director, respectively, of ONG-BAK.

And like ONG-BAK, this equally bone-crushing action movie features the obscure martial art of Muay Thai, which looks quite brutal and seems to mostly entail smashing knees and elbows into your opponent’s face and then smashing through a sheet of glass. THE PROTECTOR has barely any story, just a series of increasingly athletic and violent setpieces with Jaa taking on dozens of angry bad guys.

The slim plot has Jaa traveling from Thailand to Sydney in pursuit of his pet elephant (!), which has been stolen by an Asian gangster working for a whipcracking transsexual (!) in a catsuit. Jaa uses no wires, doubles or special effects in his fight scenes, resulting in some dangerous-looking and highly impressive battles. Pinkaew’s most amazing feat is a continuous four-minute shot that spotlights Jaa climbing to the top of a round palace, beating up what seems like a hundred baddies along the way. In this scene (and others), THE PROTECTOR more closely resembles a videogame than a movie. Put some tits and a pair of shorts on Jaa, and I might as well have been playing TOMB RAIDER on my PC.

The Weinstein Company bought the movie under its original title, TOM YUM GOONG, cut it to 83 minutes, hired The RZA to compose a new score, added a “Quentin Tarantino Presents” title card (he had nothing to do with the movie), and released it in U.S. theaters a year after it played successfully all over Asia. It didn't do all that well theatrically in this country, but it was made for so little money that it unquestionably was profitable. In fact, just its Asian box office alone likely made the film an immense profit.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Kumar's A Killah

Kal Penn is everywhere this week. He played a terrorist on the 4-hour 2-night season premiere of 24. On Monday night, he got shot by a CTU agent. On Tuesday night, he played a rapist/murderer and got shot by Ice-T.

Who does this guy think he is? Monte Markham?

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Then I Go And Spoil It All

What was the #1 pop song in the United States the day you were born?

I hope there's no significance attached to the answer. Because my #1 single is:

"Somethin' Stupid" by Frank and Nancy Sinatra! It was Ol' Blue Eyes' first gold single, and was the first time that a father/daughter duet went all the way to #1. It stayed at #1 for four consecutive weeks before The Supremes knocked it off with "The Happening" (not one of that Motown group's best songs).

How about you?

Monday, January 15, 2007

Willful Suspension Of Disbelief

While watching 24 last night, I started thinking about "willful suspension of disbelief," and how important it is to have one to enjoy the way-out plotting of that show. Every time I read or listen to somebody criticizing 24 for having plotholes, I think about how sad it is that everything needs to be so easily explained for that person to enjoy the show. Of course much of what happens on the show is ridiculous--that's the point. And, really, is the loose plotting of 24 really that much more outrageous than other contemporary shows? Do you honestly believe GREY'S ANATOMY and the CSI shows don't have silly plotholes? And those shows are supposed to be "believable." How many articles have you read about how CSI's approach to forensics echoes real-life crimesolving. That's studio b.s. For some reason, audiences accept when the LAW & ORDER lab techs are able to zoom in on and instantly focus a grainy convenience-store security tape to identify a killer's face, but it's supposedly unbelievable when CTU satellites instantly pinpoint Jack Bauer's location. In the 24 universe, it's not, and as long as 24 stays true to its internal logic, I have no qualms with its plotting. Unless Kim Bauer is chased by a cougar, is kidnapped by Johnny Drama, escapes, is almost raped, and becomes a hostage in a convenience store holdup, all within about three hours. That's too far, even for me.

I recently saw some real dandy stories on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. No one seems to have had any problem swallowing them when they were telecast in the early 1970s, but I wonder if today's too-cool-for-school viewers would let themselves be swept away by them. In "Kitara," the Impossible Missions Force infiltrates a West African country where apartheid reigns. A racist white colonel named Kohler (big, bald Lawrence Dobkin) captures a revolutionary (FOXY BROWN's Robert DoQui) and stores him in the prison sweatbox until he reveals where his group has hidden a stolen cache of government gold to use in their rebellion. The IMF's mission is to rescue DoQui and take Kohler out of power. They do this by...turning Kohler black! Using a drug and a special light bulb concealed in the colonel's bathroom, the IMF temporarily darkens the pigmentation of Kohler's skin. Jim Phelps (Peter Graves) and Doug (Sam Elliott, who was a series regular for 13 episodes), disguised as fellow officers, and Paris (Leonard Nimoy) in the guise of an old antique dealer convince the orphaned Kohler that he was born of black parents and has been passing as white all his life. Mann Rubin's plot works because the cast plays it absolutely straight--no winks to the camera as if to say, "Yeah, it's stupid, but go along with it"--and because the makeup is very good. Dobkin doesn't look like a white actor in blackface. He looks like a black man, and his performance is quite good too.

Even more outrageous is "Encore," which is probably the wildest plot MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE ever told. William Shatner and Michael Baseleon are gangsters in their 60s whom law enforcement has been unable to make a case against. So Phelps and the IMF decide to gather evidence in a murder the two men committed in 1937. Unfortunately, they don't know where the victim is buried. Phelps' plan: to knock out Shatner and convince him that he's still in 1937. Doug uses paraffin surgery to temporarily de-age Shatner 35 years; he even takes away his limp. The IMF redecorates a movie backlot to look like New York City in the '30s, right down to details like postmarked letters, buttermilk bottles and newsreels at the bijou. They force Shatner and an agent disguised as the younger Baseleon to recommit the murder, and when Shatner attempts to hide the corpse, IMFers Barney (Greg Morris) and Willy (Peter Lupus) find the skeletal corpse in the real hiding place in Manhattan. The amount of research, organization and funds that went into this crazy caper doesn't really seem to match the importance of arresting these two guys, but it is entertaining. Again, it works because of the performances. Shatner has a very tough role. It ain't easy making us believe that his character believes something so unbelievable has happened to him. But he does.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Our Girl

Anna Chlumsky was a guest star on LAW & ORDER Friday night. You might remember her as the little girl from the MY GIRL movies in 1991 and 1992. By the time she was 15 years old or so, she had pretty much vanished from film and television. In fact, the last time I saw her or even remembered she existed was when she did a guest-starring role on CUPID in 1998. On L&O, she played the nanny to an Angelina Jolie-type actress (played by FLASHDANCEr Jennifer Beals) who becomes a suspect when her boss' husband is shot in the street. Chlumsky's performance was not all that good. She was way over-the-top; in fact, it was very much like an inexperienced former child actress who has been performing on the stage. But it was nice to see her again.

24 premiered tonight and kicked huge amounts of ass, as usual. Just when you think Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) has exhausted all possible means of wasting somebody, he bites someone in the neck and spits out the guy's throat. That is badass. More on the 4-hour 24 season premiere after the second part tomorrow night.

Moving to the subject of bad TV, I watched the hilariously awful THRILL the other night, which NBC aired as a TV-movie in 1996. It stars Antonio Sabato Jr. as a widowed heating/air conditioning technician who also owns a stake in a California amusement park. And that's not the most implausible aspect of the film. The park is run by his sister, played by HUNTER's Stepfanie Kramer, who is normally quite a fox, but for some reason is stuck with a too-short pixie hairdo that does her no favors.

A psycho is sabotaging the park's rides and making threatening phone calls to Kramer, who wants to keep the scandal quiet, because she's trying to sell the park and doesn't want any negative publicity that might quash the sale. So she's basically Murray Hamilton, but not a villain. It took me exactly 19.5 minutes to guess the bad guy's identity, but you're smarter than I and may be able to do it faster. No cliche is left unturned. When THRILL establishes Sabato as a single father with a cute daughter, you know she's kidnap fodder, and when the teleplay beats us over the head in reminding us every ten minutes that he has a fear of heights and hates--hates, mind you--the park's rollercoaster, called Thrill, well, it's not a big leap to assume that Sabato is eventually gonna be on the damn thing while either disarming a bomb or punching someone in the face. Or both. THRILL, which for some reason is on DVD (and I bought it several months ago for $3.99 at a Hollywood Video), is watchable, but only for fans of bad movies. And maybe Stepfanie Kramer.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Shoot And Score

Before a full afternoon and evening of watching the NFL playoff games, a few of us had a good time up at the Gordyville flea market, where we marched up and down the lengthy dirt aisles, soaking in the ambiance of NASCAR trucker caps, lighters that also contain a compass and a flashlight, CB radios and other electronics from 1975, dusty paperback books and other awesome assorted junk. As usual, I ended up spending more money than everyone else, thanks to the two dealers who were selling old VHS prerecords and bootleg DVD-Rs for 50 cents and $5.00 respectively.

Here's my haul from today:
  • SCHOOLGIRL KILLER, a 1968 Italian mystery/horror film that I wouldn't have bought if I had known Dark Sky was putting it out on a 2.35:1 DVD this spring.
  • NO HOLDS BARRED with Hulk Hogan. "Zeeuuuuuuuuuuuuussssssssssssssssss!"
  • PLAYMATES, which is not as kinky as it sounds. It's actually a '70s made-for-TV movie with Alan Alda, Doug McClure, Connie Stevens and Barbara Feldon. I have no idea how funny it is, but it's probably never going to be on DVD, so I'm glad I salvaged it.
  • BLOODFIST VI: GROUND ZERO: I've seen it and really don't need it, but you never know when I might want to revisit Don "The Dragon" Wilson fighting sexy Cat Sassoon in a cheap Roger Corman-produced DIE HARD ripoff set in a nuclear missile silo.
  • THE KING OF THE KICKBOXERS with Billy Blanks and veteran character actors Don Stroud and Richard Jaeckel
  • REBEL ROUSERS: For some reason, I've never seen this '60s biker flick with Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern and Cameron Mitchell. It has to be great.
  • RETROACTIVE, which is by the director (Louis Morneau) and star (Jim Belushi) of MADE MEN, an action movie I really like a lot
  • RENT-A-COP: Notoriously bad action film with Burt Reynolds as a badass Chicago cop and Liza Minnelli (!) as a hooker. I'm the only person who will admit seeing this in a theater, but I don't remember a damn thing about it.
  • THE TAKING OF BEVERLY HILLS, which reportedly has a shitload of stunts and explosions in it
  • LADY DRAGON 2 with Cynthia Rothrock
  • BULLETPROOF, a ridiculous action movie with an awesome cast: Gary Busey, Henry Silva, L.Q. Jones and Thalmus Rasulala
  • FORCE: FIVE: I already had a dub of this fun martial-arts movie, but this copy should be a bit better.
  • THE LONERS: I don't know much about this biker flick, but it was directed by Sutton Roley, an excellent TV director who only made a couple of features
  • STUDENT BODIES, a silly horror-movie spoof that I got only so I could burn a copy for a friend at work who really likes it
  • BOBBIE JO AND THE OUTLAW: I've always wanted to see this action picture starring Marjoe Gortner and directed by Mark Lester, if only to see the scrumptious Lynda Carter topless, a lifelong dream.
  • WARLORDS OF ATLANTIS: Doug McClure fights a giant octopus! Twice! I saw this at B-Fest one year, but slept intermittently through it. I saw all the giant-octopus fighting though.
  • TURKISH STAR WARS, which is not really the name of the movie. But it is a Turkish ripoff of STAR WARS. Unfortunately, it's in Turkish with no English subtitles. However, I did a chapter search, and every chapter except one landed on an action scene with no dialogue and lots of kung fu, so maybe it doesn't matter. Hopefully, it's as entertaining as the Turkish 3 DEV ADAM, which pits Captain America and Santo against an evil Spider-Man!
If any of you have any reviews, comments or suggestions about which of these films I should made a priority to watch, please let me know in the comment section.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

What's Your Function?

What have I been listening to on iTunes while I've been writing?

  • "Black Enough"--Melba Moore
  • "Conjunction Junction"--Schoolhouse Rock
  • "Look at Me (You Did It)"--Ron Dante
  • "Just Another Night"--Mick Jagger
  • "Black Dog"--Led Zeppelin
  • "The Toys Are Alive"--Richard Band from DEMONIC TOYS
  • "The Hamburger Hop"--The Archies
  • "Conto Alla Rovescia"--Angelo Lavagnino from WAR BETWEEN THE PLANETS
  • "Burke's Law"--Gene Barry!
  • "Where Would I Be?"--The Hardy Boys
  • HUNTER theme--Mike Post
  • "For Pete's Sake"--The Monkees
  • "Dirty Harry"--Lalo Schifrin
  • "Morning After/The Inland Sea/Land Ho/Strange Visitor"--John Williams from LOST IN SPACE
  • "School's Out"--Alice Cooper
  • "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes"--Crosby, Stills & Nash
  • MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA Main Title--Akira Ifukube
  • "All I Wanna Do"--Sheryl Crow
  • "Nine Times Blue"--Michael Nesmith
  • "I'll Cry Tomorrow"--Alex North
  • "Batman Theme"--Link Wray & the Raymen
  • "Sword to Sword"--Jerry Fielding from BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA
  • "Lust for Life"--Iggy Pop
  • "The Man from U.N.C.L.E."--Hugo Montenegro
  • "Hallelujah"--Jeff Buckley
  • Theme from THE ALASKANS
  • "Zebra Three"--Lalo Schifrin from STARSKY & HUTCH
  • "They Don't Know"--Tracey Ullman
  • "Heartbreak Hotel"--Elvis Presley
  • "Hippie Lady"--The Yummies
  • "Johnny, Are You Queer?"--Josie Cotton
  • "He Stopped Loving Her Today"--George Jones

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Ow My Balls!

You've probably heard something about IDIOCRACY, the recipient of one of Hollywood's most notorious dump jobs in recent years. Actually, it wouldn't be much of a surprise if you hadn't heard anything about IDIOCRACY, which is exactly what 20th Century Fox wants.

IDIOCRACY was co-written, co-produced and directed by Mike Judge, the cult comic filmmaker whose credits include the TV hits BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD and KING OF THE HILL, as well as the sleeper film OFFICE SPACE, which also was the result of abysmal handling by Fox during its original theatrical release, but has since become an essential comedy classic on home video. IDIOCRACY wrapped in 2005 and sat on a shelf at Fox for more than a year while the studio tinkered with it, re-edited it, attempted to figure out how to market it, and finally slipped it into about 100 theaters last fall without benefit of advertising, critics screenings or even a trailer, for Christ's sake. It never played in many major markets and became something of a cause celebre for filmgoers looking for something clever and intelligent after a multiplex summer filled with junk.

Fox slipped IDIOCRACY out this week on a DVD that's barely a rung above bare-bones. The only extras are a handful of deleted scenes. If any film this year could benefit from a director's commentary track, it would certainly be IDIOCRACY. But considering Fox has never even allowed Judge to cut a yak track for the heralded OFFICE SPACE, it isn't likely to allow the filmmaker to rant on their dime about their mismanagement of his latest work.

The thing is, IDIOCRACY is barely worth the angst. It's a good comedy, but not a great one, which takes a clever concept and milks it as much as Judge can for 84 minutes. It's difficult to judge (no pun intended) the movie as is, considering the obvious tinkering by Fox executives. Narration by an anonymous off-screen voice (always a sign of a troubled production), failure to develop any of its characters beyond the most superficial traits, and a barely-there climax show signs of the studio's discontent. With Luke Wilson and SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE's Maya Rudolph as the only stars, one can see where Fox may have had to be creative in selling IDIOCRACY to the masses. But perhaps the problem lies with the film's subject matter, in which Judge in no small words declares his discontent with the same people to whom Fox is selling.

Wilson stars as Joe Bauers, a perfectly average U.S. Army soldier who is chosen as a guinea pig for an experiment. He and a prostitute named Rita (Rudolph) are to be frozen in suspended animation for one year. However, something goes wrong, and the two are awakened 500 years later in 2505, where Bauers discovers a totally dumbed-down America hooked on reality television, fast food and non-stop advertising (even the government-issued clothing is packed with ads). An IQ test reveals Bauers as the world's smartest human being, and he is appointed Secretary of the Interior by the U.S. President (a former professional wrestler) to solve the problems of a nation that thinks water is only for filling the toilet with and where people who speak in actual sentences are "fags".

I don't think IDIOCRACY is any kind of lost classic, but it is about something, which is more than you can say about 95% of the comedies you've seen in the last ten years. I really liked recent comedies like THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN and ANCHORMAN (to name just a couple), but they certainly weren't about anything except making people laugh. And there's nothing wrong with that, but when Mike Judge comes along with a little film designed to make audiences laugh and think at the same time, it should be celebrated, not ignored, despite Fox's best attempts.

And who the hell knew Maya Rudolph had such a bangin' bod?

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Buddy Boy

Great news. One of my all-time favorite shows is coming to DVD on April 3. THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO will also, I believe, be the first Quinn Martin-produced TV series to receive a DVD release. Oscar winner Karl Malden and future Oscar winner Michael Douglas, mostly known back in 1972 as Kirk Douglas' son who had appeared in a couple of small films, were perfectly cast in this solid crime drama, which was filmed on location. I grew up watching STREETS in late-night reruns when WCIA-TV aired it weeknights following the late news. The series has almost always run in syndication since it left ABC in 1977 after a five-season run, but it will be great to see it uncut and looking sharp on DVD.

The bad news is that we aren't getting the full first season. It's THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO, SEASON 1, VOLUME 1, meaning the box includes only the full-length pilot episode and the first 13 regular hour episodes. The pilot is a very good mystery guest-starring Robert Wagner, Kim Darby and Tom Bosley and features a particularly suspenseful climax that director Walter Grauman milks as much for horror as for crime drama. Among the episodes included are "45 Minutes From Home," a particularly tight suspenser guest-starring William Windom, Stephen Oliver (of Russ Meyer's MOTOR PSYCHO) and knockout Jo Ann Harris (RAPE SQUAD), who was just about the sexiest woman on TV during the 1970s; "The Takers," with guest star Harold Gould turning in terrific work as a meek middle-aged salesman; "The Bullet" with Carl Betz (THE DONNA REED SHOW) as a blackmailed college prof; and "Hall of Mirrors" with David Soul (STARSKY & HUTCH) as a hotshot young cop.

THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO was one of the best television crime dramas in a decade filled with them and for several reasons. Quinn Martin Productions was one of Hollywood's classiest, willing to spare extra time and expense to punch up scripts, spend more time shooting on location, and hire talented name guest actors. The series had enough chases, gun battles and squealing tires to keep action fans happy. Patrick Williams' blasting jazzy theme song never failed to get each episode off to a rousing start. But, most of all, it was the performances of and the chemistry between its stars that gave the show its humanity and warmth and made the characters people you rooted for and wanted to spend time with. Despite their age difference, Malden as cool-headed veteran detective Mike Stone and Douglas as the brash younger Steve Keller were completely in synch right from the pilot, and you can see Malden's gentle tutelage of his less experienced co-star echo the giving father/son relationship between their fictional counterparts. Though Douglas was somewhat stiff and tentative in the early episodes, he was never less than believable on-screen, particularly in the action sequences and in his banter with Malden.

THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO was a very good cop show, and it will be very nice to have them on DVD.

Monday, January 08, 2007

K-9 Cop Smashes City's Toughest Mob!

From the "Why The Hell Does Turner Classic Movies Never Air This One?" Department. It looks completely ridiculous, but I'd burn this one to DVD-R in a second if TCM would ever run it. It was released by United Artists in 1961, so I presume it must be in TCM's library. The casting of top-billed star James Brown must have been a no-brainer for UA, considering Brown was best-known for starring opposite one of Hollywood's most famous canines for several years on the long-running TV series THE ADVENTURES OF RIN TIN TIN. So when it came time to cast POLICE DOG STORY, someone must have said, "Well, hell, what's the RIN TIN TIN guy up to these days?"

Director Edward L. Cahn and writer Orville H. Hampton worked together on an amazing 19 pictures from 1958 to 1962. That's right--19 films in 4 years. Cahn actually directed a startling 35 movies during that span, which is an astonishing figure no matter how bad several of them turned out. With titles like INVISIBLE INVADERS, RIOT IN JUVENILE PRISON, THREE CAME TO KILL and THE FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE, you know Cahn and Hampton weren't trying to win any Oscars. They were just trying to get film in the can and their paychecks to the bank.

Many of their 19 films together are actually very watchable low-budget potboilers, such as HONG KONG CONFIDENTIAL, a fine example of a crisp, lean programmer with a professional, if not big-name, cast (like Gene Barry and Allison Hayes) and sturdy construction. Obviously made quickly and efficiently--despite the setting, there's no location shooting, and everything appears to have been filmed in one take (Barry even blows a line at one point)--HONG KONG CONFIDENTIAL doesn't wear out its welcome, especially at 69 minutes. I was lucky enough to tape this B-pic the one time TCM aired it--during a month-long Cahn tribute, if you can believe it.

Barry (TV's BAT MASTERSON at the time) plays American undercover agent Casey Reed, whose cover is as a singer in a Hong Kong nightclub called Frisco Joe's. His assignment is to rescue Abdul, the Crown Prince of Themen, a country of great strategic importance to both the Americans and the Soviets. The Communists have kidnapped Abdul to force his father, the King, to sign a treaty ensuring them missile base rights to the country. Teaming up with British Intelligence agent John Blanchard (Michael Pate, who doesn't use an English accent), Casey infiltrates the Macao gold-smuggling operation of slinky Elena Martine (Hayes), who may or may not be involved with the young prince's abduction, but, with time running out, she's Reed's only shot. Keep your eyes peeled for it--and other Cahn/Hampton collaborations--on future TCM schedules.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Major Dad Gets Medieval On Bikers

Who woulda thought someone, even a repressed middle-aged war vet, could do so much damage to the human body with a shovel? DEADWOOD fans might want to seek out 1994's MOTORCYCLE GANG, in which a typically tight-lipped 1950s family man played by Gerald McRaney (currently nailing acclaim as George Hearst on the HBO western series) sheds his uptight skin when the safety of his family is at stake.

MOTORCYCLE GANG is one of a series of B-movie remakes the Showtime cable network produced under the REBEL HIGHWAY umbrella title. All were based on movies released in the '50s by American International Pictures, Hollywood's leading producer of action, science fiction, horror, fantasy, musical and other low-budget genre fodder of the era. Like many of the REBEL HIGHWAY movies, MOTORCYCLE GANG was made by a name director, John Milius (of RED DAWN and CONAN THE BARBARIAN fame), and took little more than its title from the earlier AIP film. It does preserve the 1950s setting of the original, however, even though the timeline seems a bit off as events unwind in the film.

Milius spends the first half of his 83-minute film setting up his characters, which are little more than cliches of Ike-era Caucasians. Cal Morris (McRaney), a veteran of World War II who keeps his emotions tightly coiled within, is driving crosscountry through the desert to California along with his sexually confused wife Jean (Milius' wife Elan Oberon), who's having an affair with the next-door neighbor, and their virginal teenage daughter Leeann (Carla Gugino), who wears a photo of fab Fabian pinned to the sweater stretched tightly over her womanly bosom. Cal's increased emotional reticence over the years of their marriage has caused Jean to seek acceptance with another man, and she reacts to the flattery of a pair of beatnik photographers complimenting her beauty with a combination of embarrassment and exhilaration. Leeann, meanwhile, is a good girl, but just becoming aware of her burgeoning sexuality and more than a little curious about it. She's naive, but not foolish, and is open enough about sex to tell her father about the honeymooning couple she heard through the thin motel walls the night before.

J. Edgar Hoover's dream family is shattered when it's attacked by a foursome of motorcycle toughs led by toothy Jake Busey. The object of a manhunt involving Texas police and a Texas Ranger (Marshall Teague) interested in "frontier justice," Busey and his boys attack the Morris' Ford and kidnap Leeann, taking her across the border to Mexico where the gang deals in pills and heroin.

Leeann seems strangely at ease with her abduction, although maybe it was the way of '50s women not to argue, even with greasy-haired kidnappers. This section of the film, which also depicts Cal's dubious decision to handle the situation himself, rather than seek the help of law enforcement, feels incomplete. Cal, up to his point, has appeared to be a by-the-book guy, and we're given no indication that the police are incapable or uninterested in taking his complaint seriously. Meanwhile, Leeann barely struggles with her captor and even goes along with his initial attempt at seduction, at least until it turns violent.

What Milius doesn't prepare us for is the satisfyingly violent and surprisingly bloody climax to the story, where McRaney, who has done his best to keep his violent war experiences from his family, sharpens up his camping shovel and invades the bikers' country hideout, armed for gory vengeance. It's a royal ass-shiving that earns the film's R rating and a whole mess o' drive-in satisfaction the makers of the original MOTORCYCLE GANG (directed by B-movie stalwart Edward L. Cahn) could barely have imagined.


Sorry I've been slow to post recently. I haven't been feeling well. I had a root canal on Wednesday morning, and, as a result, I have been suffering from an intense toothache. I went to Walgreens with a prescription Thursday morning for antibiotics and pain medication, but I don't think it worked at all. They told me that it might take 24--48 hours for the medicine to kick in, and they were right. Thursday and Friday I stayed home from work. I couldn't read or write, I could barely stare at the TV, it just hurt to much to concentrate on anything. I slept only an hour or so at a time. The pain also made me feel nauseous, so I couldn't eat very much (I was only eating soup and soft cheese cubes anyway), and I had a bad headache on Friday too, maybe due to stress.

I was a little better Saturday, although I still felt a little discomfort and had to again be sure not to chew anything on that side. Cheeseburger and Shark Hunter came down for food and drinks and crappy movies, so I ended up having lunch at Dos Reales, supper at Famous Dave's and lunch today at Courier Cafe. Plus, we laughed at some junk movies, like the notorious 1982 box-office flop MEGAFORCE ("Remember, the good guys always win. Even in the '80s."), the gory Italian CONAN ripoff CONQUEST and the direct-to-video SHARK ATTACK II, since we almost always have to watch a killer-shark movie.

I feel better today, except now I have some type of itchy rash on my hands and feet. I wonder if it might be a result of the medication, maybe an allergy or something. Well, it's better than that toothache, which felt like somebody was squeezing my tooth with a pair of pliers.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

5 Songs In 1 Hour?

Betcha didn't know David Soul was a singer.

Neither did we, although he did cut at least two albums, and one of the cuts from PLAYING TO AN AUDIENCE OF ONE, "Don't Give Up On Us," actually made it all the way to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.

This 1977 network special is typical of the variety hours that dotted the TV airwaves back then. Almost anyone who was the star of a popular comedy or drama series (such as Soul and Paul Michael Glaser's STARSKY & HUTCH) received either his or her own variety special, a made-for-TV gig during series hiatus or both. Today's equivalent would be Anthony LaPaglia or Eva Longoria headlining a one-hour musical/comedy special with guests Kevin James, Jewel and David Krumholtz. Tell me you wouldn't like to see that. Not that Soul was any kind of musical wunderkind, but today's Hollywood doesn't spawn the kind of all-around talent and healthy egos that would allow a straight actor to appear on television in song-and-dance numbers or in comedy sketches. Whether this is a good or a bad thing, I'm not quite sure, but TV seemed less predictable back in the days when you could switch it on and see Mike Connors and Mitzi Gaynor doing a dance number in formal wear.

Donna Summer and England Dan (Seals) and John Ford Coley were likely draws, particularly Summer, whose "Love to Love You, Baby" was an enormous pop hit. Lynne Marta, on the other hand, was an actress and sometime-singer who sang backup on Soul's albums and also was his girlfriend at the time. I'm not certain how well-known Ron Moody was to American audiences. He played Fagin in the 1968 Best Picture Oscar winner, OLIVER, and had recently guest-starred on a STARSKY & HUTCH episode.

One thing is for certain. The network must not have been very pleased with the Soul show, because it buried it opposite the Emmy Awards, as you can see.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Lee Times Three

What's so great about watching terrible movies, you may ask? Because you never know when something totally unbelievable, something completely unlike anything you've ever seen before is going to come down the pike. With typical contemporary Hollywood fare, even if it's something good, it's probably not going to be anything too far off the beaten path. Which is not something you can say about THE CLONES OF BRUCE LEE. This ridiculous 1977 martial arts movie out of Hong Kong was produced by the legendary Dick Randall, an expatriate American who made a lot of movie assembling schlocky movies for international audiences.

I’m not certain whether fans of trashy movies have benefited more over the years from Bruce Lee’s untimely death than if he had lived a normal lifespan. Sure, we would have been treated to more of the wonderfully athletic and charismatic movie star, but we also would have missed out on all those dozens of ridiculous, cheap ripoffs that exploited Lee’s death. Would you rather have had more movies like ENTER THE DRAGON or giddy crapola like THE CLONES OF BRUCE LEE?

In this film made just a couple of years after his real-life death, Bruce Lee (played by a double) suffers a heart attack and is rushed to a Thailand hospital, where he dies on the operating table. Immediately, a British secret agent and a professor take a syringeful of Lee’s blood and take it back to a laboratory where they create three Lee clones, which are imaginatively named Bruce Lee #1, Bruce Lee #2 and Bruce Lee #3. Bolo Yeung, who knew the real Lee and acted in ENTER THE DRAGON, plays the martial arts expert who must train the three new Lees how to fight (you would think a Bruce Lee clone would have Bruce Lee’s fighting skills, but oh well…). Needless to say, the three “clones” look nothing like each other, much less Bruce Lee.

I suspect THE CLONES OF BRUCE LEE may actually be two different films spliced together, since the clones split up for separate missions. #1 goes undercover as a movie star (!) to investigate gold smuggling at a studio, while #2 and #3 battle a scientist with the ability to destroy plant life. The latter storyline is the most entertaining, as the Lees wander along a beach filled with full-frontal nude babes rubbing lotions on their breasts and then fight a bunch of human robots—actually Chinese stuntmen wearing only bronze paint and tighty whiteys—who can only be killed by eating grass!

Eventually, all three Lees get back together to fight their creator, the professor, who makes them fight each other to the death. As crazy as the storyline is, the fight scenes (and there are a lot of them) are not particularly original or exciting. Perhaps they would look better in their original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, as the current home video prints are tightly cropped and miss most of the action. CLONES is still a lively and often hilarious film, but not exactly top-flight “Brucesploitation”. That doesn’t mean you should steer clear of it, however.

Monday, January 01, 2007

I Go To Pieces

I'm a big fan of opening title sequences of television series; so much so that I recently made a 2-hour compilation DVD of them (and, yes, I understand this does not make me cool). It's always fun to see one (and the show that goes with it) for the first time, and here's the excellent titles to JIGSAW JOHN.

I've never seen JIGSAW JOHN and am not likely to, but I'd like to see it. Running only 14 episodes as an NBC midseason replacement in 1976, the cop show starred the wonderful late character actor Jack Warden as "Jigsaw John" St. John, a Los Angeles police detective who received his nickname because of his great skill at piecing together clues and solving crimes. Alan Feinstein played John's partner, and Pippa Scott was his love interest. As with most cop shows of the 1970s, every JIGSAW JOHN episode offered at least one recognizable guest star (Pernell Roberts, Robert Reed, Michael Ansara, Luke Askew, Tim Matheson and many more).

JIGSAW JOHN didn't last long, but if the producers put as much effort into creating scripts as they did with this imaginative title sequence, the series may have been pretty good. I believe the driving JIGSAW JOHN theme was composed by Pete Rugolo (THE FUGITIVE).


463. That's the number of movies I watched in 2006. I ran slightly ahead of last year’s pace, but way behind 2004, when I saw an astounding 588! It’s still more than I expected to watch, considering all the television series on DVD I’ve been digging through this year, including MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, COLUMBO, THE BILL COSBY SHOW, HARRY O, THE ROCKFORD FILES, THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, THE WHITE SHADOW, THE ADVENTURES OF BRISCO COUNTY JR., THE WILD WILD WEST and much more. And that’s not even counting all the TV DVD sets I’ve barely even cracked, including TWILIGHT ZONE, ARK II, THE BIG VALLEY, CHEYENNE, T.J. HOOKER, BOOMTOWN, KOJAK, L.A. HEAT, LOVE THAT BOB, THE PRISONER...oh brother.

Of the 463 movies I saw, I watched 274 of them for the first time. Here are my rules. As far as the count goes, only feature films count, no matter whether I saw them in a theater, DVD, VHS or on TV.

• TV shows don't count, unless they were presented in a format resembling a feature film (for instance, the two pilot episodes of HARRY O, which aired as full-length made-for-TV movies)
• Made-for-TV movies count
• Documentaries count
• I didn't count short subjects or feature-length making-of documentaries included as DVD extras (for instance, all of the incredible extras on the new James Bond Ultimate Collection DVD sets)
• Movie serials count as one long feature
• Multiple viewings each count as a separate movie (for instance, I watched LETHAL HUNTER three times, so I marked it down as three "different" movies)

These are my rules. Your mileage may vary.

Just for fun, a few stats:
First film of 2006: SKY HIGH
Last film of 2006: SKELETON COAST

From the 1930's: 1 (KING KONG)
1940's: 7 (including 3 Charlie Chans and 3 starring Johnny Weissmuller)
1950's: 24
1960's: 48
1970's: 115
1980's: 158
1990's: 52
2000-2005: 25
2006: 26

I continued my trend of barely attending movies in theaters. Outside of January’s B-Fest, I went to the theater only nine times this year, which is the same amount as 2005. I am not willing to visit a theater to endure 20 (or more if you get there early) minutes of ads, high prices, obnoxious crowds, poor theater conditions, bad sound, shoddy projection and uncomfortable seating, when I can Netflix the same movie a few months later. Or even buy the damn thing for nearly the same price it would cost to buy a ticket and some concessions. On Christmas night, we went to a late showing of CASINO ROYALE, and there were six or seven jackasses sitting a few rows ahead of us, laughing, talking and taking calls on their cell phones. Forget it.

Most in one month:
July: 62
Least in one month:
October: 20 (for the 3rd year in a row; I wonder why?)

Some of the films I saw more than once:

The most films in any one 24-hour period:
13, when I attended Northwestern University's annual B-Fest January 27-28

Same title, but different movies:

Shitty Steven Seagal movies:

Shitty Chuck Norris movies:

2006 Releases:

My Top Ten of 2006

How many movies did you watch this year?