Saturday, August 30, 2008

Pogo Lil

14 Pogo Lil
October 20, 1979
Music: Stu Phillips
Writer: Richard Kelbaugh
Director: Bernard McEveety

Charles Napier returns from the BJ AND THE BEAR
season premiere as rival trucker Hammer, but is unfortunately not given anything to do by writer Richard Kelbaugh. The plot instead revolves around the title trucker, Lillian Pogovich, played with spunk by Anne Lockhart, the actress daughter of former LASSIE and LOST IN SPACE leading lady June Lockhart. Anne, previously seen on BJ executive producer Glen A. Larson's BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, is a motor-mouthed little fireball who saves BJ's bacon after her impromptu highway drag race against Hammer almost sends BJ (Greg Evigan) careening over a cliff. He returns the favor by helping her—twice—escape loan sharks played by EAST OF EDEN's Dick Davalos and Anthony James, who does a nice comic turn on the psychos he almost always played on television.

The rest of the rambling plot revolves around the Dixie Crisscross, a semitruck race in which BJ, Lil and Hammer are all competing for first prize. The episode went by very quickly, and even though little was accomplished, the amiable performances and Bernard McEveety's punchy direction made it feel like a good time. Kelbaugh also wrote the return of Pogo Lil, "Fire in the Hole," which came later in the second season.

Part of the semi race involves a spot in the track where the lanes cross over each other, forcing one of the two semis heading for that spot to swerve to avoid a crash. I don't know whether Davalos' casting is an in-joke or a coincidence, but more than a decade earlier, he starred in Jack Hill's stock car drama PIT STOP, which took place in the world of dangerous figure-8 racing.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Is There A Fork In McSame's Back?

Are you comfortable with the idea of Sarah Palin, the governor of a state that far surpasses its per capita in corrupt government officials (and it looks as though she's one herself), as our 45th President, now that 72-year-old Senator (I use that term loosely, as he rarely shows up to cast his vote) John McCain has named her as his VP running mate?

I didn't think you were.

It might be fun to see Biden rip her apart during the debates.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Attack Of The Crab Monsters

You are well forgiven for not remembering a TV series called THE NEW PEOPLE, as practically nobody has seen it since ABC cancelled it in 1970 after telecasting just 17 episodes. Since it was a 45-minute series, it has never been rerun, and it seems only the pilot exists in bootleg form. I wrote about it last year, but if you don't want to go back and quickly read that post, it was basically the same format as LOST, except it attempted to be about something.

In a nutshell, an airplane carrying American college students to Southeast Asia crashes on a remote Pacific island, killing all the adults. Luckily (?), the island was an abandoned American bomb testing site that contained a full-scale replica of a typical American town, including buildings, food, water and streets. It looked conveniently like a Hollywood backlot, which allowed producer Aaron Spelling to shoot inexpensively without going to Hawaii, as LOST did. On the island, the several dozen young survivors had to learn to create their own society without the mistrusted over-30s to watch over them.

An intriguing premise, alright, though it's possible the pilot's preachy script by Rod Serling and bitchy characters may have helped sink the series prematurely. I'd rather see a remake of this than LOST, as the concept remains as vital as ever. The series failed, but its short run spawned some tie-ins, including two Dell comic books and an original novel written by William Johnston using the pseudonym Alex Steele. Johnston wrote dozens of TV tie-ins based on series like GET SMART, THE FLYING NUN, THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY, THE BRADY BUNCH, THEN CAME BRONSON, ROOM 222, WELCOME BACK, KOTTER, F TROOP, BEWITCHED, THE MONKEES, IRONSIDE and many others. THEY CAME FROM THE SEA, the first and only novel based on THE NEW PEOPLE, is probably not typical of the TV show.

Basically a horror novel, THEY CAME FROM THE SEA, a Tempo Books original timed to the show's September 1969 premiere, is about spooky mutant crabs that invade the island. About the size of a catcher's mitt with a dozen claws, eyes at the end of stalks, and covered in black hair, these crabs move slowly, but surely come ashore in a pack of thousands, if not a million. They strike quickly with a tongue-like lash that causes swelling, intense pain, and almost instant death.

When one of the youths, racist football star Bull (played by Lee J. Lambert in the pilot), somehow survives a crab attack, he intimidates most of the others into becoming their king-like leader, threatening to sic the crabs on them in their sleep unless they do as he commands. Retreating into the hills to avoid the crabs, which are slowly moving towards the town, Bull rules from atop a rocky makeshift throne.

Meanwhile, the few who weren't bullied by Bull remain in town, including angry black Washington (David Moses), ex-Marine George (Peter Ratray), demure Barbara (Brenda Sykes), rich bitch Susan (Tiffany Bolling), and medical student Hanson, who didn't appear in the pilot, but may have been based on the doctor played by Richard Dreyfuss in the second episode. Hanson has to stay to attend to Robert Lee (Zooey Hall), a crab victim who managed to stay alive, but just barely, in a coma. With Bull ruling his roost above them on the hill and the crab monsters stalking them from the beach, the students left in town have a lot on their plates to accomplish if they want to stay alive.

One would think the show's creators would have a sympathetic view towards youth, but Serling's script for the pilot (which may have been altered, as the show aired with Serling's pen name in the credits) and Johnston's novel both produce characters that are disorganized, distrustful, violent and generally unlikable. Washington appears incapable of completing a sentence that doesn't contain a bitter remark about racism, and that most of the community would blindly follow the lunkheaded, stubborn, bigoted Bull into the hills seems far-fetched to me.

However, at 150 pages, THEY CAME FROM THE SEA seems perfectly paced as a TV episode, and Johnston manages a tad of suspense in a book he probably popped together in about a week. I bought it for $1 at a local used bookstore, and was surprised when the woman behind the counter asked me if I had ever seen the show. I told her I had a DVD of the pilot episode, and she replied that she had seen it during its initial run, but had never met anyone else who had. Small world.

Death Contract

After starting with #7 in the series, THE ICE GODDESS, I was able to go back to the beginning of Pyramid's paperback series about John Eagle, the Expeditor. Author Paul Edwards (whoever he may be) does a nice job telling the tale of Eagle's origin, which only takes up the first few chapters. The half-Scotch/half-English Eagle was raised by Apache after his parents' deaths. Growing into a strapping young man and trained the Apache way in the arts of tracking, trapping, and living off the land, Eagle answers an ad placed by mysterious billionaire Mr. Merlin, who, with the support of the U.S. President and the Secretary of Defense, is organizing a private force of Expeditors to fight injustice all over the globe. Eagle is the first, and completes two years of arduous Expeditor training by being parachuted into the wilderness, hundreds of miles from civilization, with three hired killers on his tail. If Eagle survives and destroys his hunters, he graduates. Since it would be a short book if Eagle died (and Edwards interestingly keeps the killings off-page), the brave young adventurer heads right into his first mission, which is to parachute into Mongolia and find a death ray that is zapping airplanes.

NEEDLES OF DEATH basically has the same plot as THE ICE GODDESS, which also finds Eagle trekking across rough country accompanied by a young native virgin. The scenes with Mr. Merlin, the elderly puppetmaster behind the Expeditors (of which Eagle is the only one, so far), are interesting, giving the series a faintly Bondish vibe. Eagle is outfitted with various gadgets, including a skin-tight chameleon suit and a dart pistol that produces instant death, though they aren't overly outlandish. Published in 1973, NEEDLES OF DEATH was packaged by Lyle Kenyon Engel, who was also responsible for the Chopper Cop books. Speculation is that Paul Edwards may be Robert Lory, Manning Lee Stokes or Paul Eiden.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Get Bolan

It seems surprising that it took Mack Bolan so long to get to Las Vegas, the Mob capital of the U.S. But he finally does in VEGAS VENDETTA, #9 in Pinnacle's long-running series of Executioner paperbacks. At this point, it's superfluous to describe author Don Pendleton's plots, as they're all fairly (to this point) similar. Once again, Bolan, on the run from both the cops and the Mafia, turns up in Vegas, where he adopts a disguise to infiltrate a Mob-owned business, rob it, and destroy it. In this case, it's—what else?—a casino called the Gold Duster.

Pendleton describes a couple of very exciting action pieces, in particular Bolan's one-man assault on a convoy that results in a lot of wiped-out gangsters and a healthy addition to the Executioner's war chest. The 1972 novel also prefigures THE ROCKFORD FILES a bit, in that Bolan puts on a simple disguise and runs an incredibly ballsy con on most of the Vegas organization. I don't know if real mobsters are as stupid as Pendleton's, but the way Bolan takes over the Gold Duster using brains, balls and pure bluster is quite an entertaining feat.

VEGAS VENDETTA also brings back some characters from previous Bolan books, such as policemen Carl Lyons and Hal Brognola and the Talifero brothers, ace Mob hitmen (I don't think we've seen the last of these guys), and introduces others that will return in future entries, notably standup comic Tommy Anders (who's supposed to be America's hottest comic sensation, but whose routine proves Pendleton is no comedy writer) and his backup showgirls, the Ranger Girls. This is a deliciously quick read that stands among the best Executioner novels.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Breathing, Eating, Growing, Hiding...Waiting

THE UNSEEN is a sleazy and strange horror film made in 1980 on a five-week schedule for about $1.2 million. Shot on location in and around Solvang, California, THE UNSEEN alternates between suspense and unintentional hilarity so frequently that the DVD should come with Dramamine enclosed.

Beautiful Barbara Bach stars as Jennifer, a TV reporter sent to Solvang, along with her sister Karen (the late Karen Lamm, who was the gorgeous wife of Beach Boy Dennis Wilson) and Vicki (Lois Young), to cover some sort of festival. Stranded without lodging, Jennifer makes the acquaintance of an eccentric but kindly little man named Ernest Keller (Sydney Lassick), who invites the trio to stay with him and his wife Virginia (Leila Goldoni) at their huge old house in the country. Movie fans know better than to enter a creepy old house owned by Sydney Lassick, since rarely in his career did he play anybody even close to a normal human being, but not being regular filmgoers, Barbara and her buddies carry their bags upstairs to their room at the Kellers. Before long, it becomes clear to Vicki, home alone to take a relaxing bath (Young provides some frontal nudity) while Jennifer and Karen shoot some video and have a fight with Jennifer's football-player boyfriend Tony (Douglas Barr, soon to join THE FALL GUY), that someone else besides the Kellers is in the house. And to director Danny Steinmann's credit, he/she/it does remain "unseen" for most of the picture.

Considering the stories from those who worked with him about what an unpleasant and troubled man Steinmann (who later directed SAVAGE STREETS and FRIDAY THE 13TH: A NEW BEGINNING) apparently was, it's surprising THE UNSEEN packs as much tension as it does. He's not at all an incompetent filmmaker, squeezing memorable performances from the actors playing the Keller family, while collaborating with cinematographer Roberto Quezada to shoot the stunning Miss Bach from the perfect angles every time, even while she's wallowing on the floor of a chicken coop. Many of his shots are ripe with anxiety, and the final half-hour or so, when Bach first comes face-to-face with the "unseen" antagonist dwelling in the Kellers' cellar, is a prime mixture of absurd violence and sleaze. Steinmann appears to realize this, deftly foreshadowing events and then tossing a neat twist into our expectations, so that we're always on edge. It's too bad that much of what happens is so damned funny though. It's difficult to believe that many of THE UNSEEN's most outrageous scenes were intended to be taken seriously, but with Michael J. Lewis' raucous score pounding away in such overblown, sincere fashion, I'm afraid we have no other choice.

While THE UNSEEN certainly offers its share of distasteful moments and uncomfortable horror, I found it to be quite a pleasant surprise. Its biggest fault is that its story and characters are too thin to sustain its hour-and-a-half length, causing the pacing to flag a bit right when we should be on the edges of our seats. However, I didn't mind very much, as the narrative is just crazy enough, as is Lassick's performance, to keep my eyes wide open and my jaw on the floor.

Code Red lavished two discs to THE UNSEEN’s DVD release, which is a surprising yet much appreciated nod to the popularity of the film within cult-movie circles. However, even with so much supplementary material, the DVD disappointingly fails to adequately tell the story behind what appears to have been a troubled, difficult and often frustrating production. Steinmann walked out or was fired during the post-production process when he disagreed with producer Anthony Unger over the editing process; those who worked with Steinmann on his FRIDAY THE 13TH confirm that the mercurial director could be terribly hard to work with. Despite off-mike prompting, Code Red’s Lee Christian obviously runs out of things to talk about with the commentary’s guests, Unger and co-star Furst, falling back on asking them questions about what so-and-so was like to work with on their previous films. And there’s nothing wrong with that per se, except there is so much more about THE UNSEEN left uncovered. For instance, the film’s marketing and 1981 distribution (by World Northal) is completely ignored, as is the name Michael L. Grace, whose name is all over Code Red’s packaging as the screenwriter of THE UNSEEN, but who remains uncredited on the print itself. Steinmann, under his pseudonym of Peter Foleg, receives sole screenwriting credit, as well as story credit with makeup artists Tom Burman and Stan Winston. Likewise, Kim Henkel (THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE) and Nancy Rifkin receive story credit on the DVD box, but none on the film. Their involvement with THE UNSEEN is briefly mentioned in the commentary, but not to the extent it should have been.

Several trailers, interviews with Furst, Barr, Burman and special makeup effects artist Craig Reardon (who says more about Burman’s falling out with Steinmann than Burman does), and backstage stills and makeup tests round out Code Red’s package. In all, it’s a decent package and far more than one could ever could expect for a fringe title like THE UNSEEN, which is certainly a bold picture that takes a lot of chances—a slow buildup, little gore, a potentially silly “monster”—that mostly pay off.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Don't Need A Credit Card To Ride This Train

Went to the White Sox game in Chicago Saturday, and on the drive back, I was cranking some Huey Lewis and the News in the CD player. Someone once wrote that Huey Lewis looked more like a friend of your dad's than a rock star, but his brand of blue-collar rock was very big indeed in the 1980s. I can't remember if it was mine or my brother's, but SPORTS was a cassette that followed me around almost everywhere for a couple of years there. Though some are better than others, I didn't think there was a weak song on the album.

The disc I listened to today is a greatest-hits compilation I made myself, which includes all of SPORTS (four Top Ten singles), the two hits from BACK TO THE FUTURE and several others, including the seriously underrated "Do You Believe in Love?" Also, "Pineapple Express," the kickass new song played over the closing crawl of the current hit comedy. If you haven't heard it yet, here's the band performing it live on JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE:

Huey Lewis and the News hasn't quite aged as well as I expected. For one thing, there's a lot of synth that pretty much pegs the music as a relic of the '80s. It's still fun to listen to, though, as the catchy rhythms and hooks remain bumshakingly addictive.

Friday, August 22, 2008

He Could Do Anything And Get Away With It

Judging from the first two of Signet's eight-book series, Marc Olden's Black Samurai novels are among the best of the 1970s men's adventure books. I really liked THE GOLDEN KILL, and the Black Samurai's 1974 origin story may be even better. Surprisingly for an origin tale, it doesn't get bogged down with a lot of boring details. Olden starts off in the middle of an action sequence, and then uses logical flashbacks to two earlier periods to fill in the Black Samurai's past.

The hero is Robert Sand, and it's pretty difficult to not picture actor Jim Kelly in the role, even if he hadn't gone on to star in the disappointing BLACK SAMURAI film by director Al Adamson. On leave in Saigon, American G.I. Sand was shot by street punks while attempting to protect an elderly Japanese man. After a long convalescence, Sand is invited by the man, a great martial arts teacher named Konuma, to study at his school, where he becomes the first black samurai warrior seven years later.

Konuma doesn't last long, however, in Olden's book, which opens with a nighttime raid on Konuma's school by mercenaries in the employ of Colonel Leo Tolstoy, which leaves Sand as the lone survivor. Escaping to the ranch of William Baron Clarke, a former U.S. president who had taken an interest in the young samurai while looking for ways to use his wealth and power to make American a better place, the Black Samurai learns that Clarke's daughter is the next target of Tolstoy, who has already kidnapped Konuma's granddaughter Toki and destroyed the old man's school to prevent any of the samurai from mounting a revenge mission. Unfortunately for him, Sand survived.

Tolstoy's plan is much larger than a mere snatch for ransom, leaving the Black Samurai, who swears to avenge his beloved mentor, as the only man alive who can protect America from the colonel's evil. Bristling with action and violence, BLACK SAMURAI pops with every page and, at just 168 pages, is easy to read in a single sitting. Sand is a very sympathetic character, and the relationship between Clarke and him is distinctly drawn. While the Black Samurai respects "the Baron," he isn't his sidekick or delivery boy. It's clear that Sand is his own man, while Clarke, despite his massive wealth, treats Sand as a complete equal.

Olden wrote eight Black Samurai novels within a two-year period that partially overlooked the Narc series that he penned, as Robert Hawkes, from 1973 to 1975. I liked the first Narc book too, even though it's more realistic than the Black Samurais. Olden, who was black, penned more than forty books before his death in 2003.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Disco Fever Comes To Orly

04 Disco Fever Comes to Orly
October 16, 1979
Music: William Broughton
Writer: Richard Landau
Director: Daniel Haller

Women's lib comes to Orly County in this episode written by Richard Landau, who began penning B-movie screenplays in the early 1940s and compiled credits such as VOODOO ISLAND, FRANKENSTEIN 1970 and THE GIRL IN BLACK STOCKINGS. Moving to television around 1960, Landau continued to have a prolific writing career, which also involved producing such series as THE RAT PATROL and THE WILD WILD WEST. One of his last regular TV jobs was as THE MISADVENTURES OF SHERIFF LOBO's story editor, which led to his cranking out this high-concept episode.

Dixie (Joyce Bulifant), an old flame of Lobo's who spent ten years in prison for a crime we never learn about, but for which Lobo (Claude Akins) arrested her, arrives in Orly with a scheme to blackmail the sheriff out of revenge. Vamping him into becoming a one-fourth partner in her new strip joint, Dixie neglects to tell her new associate that the club offers male strippers, which leads the Orly men, including the mayor (George Murdock), to call for Lobo to shut the place down. Afraid for his reputation, but too avaricious to turn away his share of the profits, Lobo half-asses an attempt to close Dixie down, only for the town's women to organize a strike that results in some severely undersexed husbands and boyfriends. In a good use of a character drastically underused to date, the leader of the local women's movement is Rose (Cydney Crampton), Lobo's sister and the battleaxe wife of deputy Perkins (Mills Watson).

Not exactly heady material here, "Disco Fever," which isn't really about disco, is an able attempt by Landau to take topical material and dumb it down for LOBO's audience. Obviously, the series isn't interested in tackling politics as it is in having Perkins fall down a lot, so don't look for any subtext buried within Landau's script. Haller, a former art director who began his directing career making horror flicks for AIP, handles the material just fine, although his action scenes seem a bit hamstrung by the limitations that go with shooting car chases on the Universal backlot. Bulifant, who usually played perky housewives, has fun as a conning sexpot, and Warren Berlinger is her partner.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

I Love MGM HD

MGM HD is quickly becoming my favorite cable channel. Imagine an entire channel of films belonging to the majestic MGM studio library, ranging from classic dramas to the most obscure exploitation, remastered in high definition, and aired in their original aspect ratios. I never thought I would get to see trash like ROBOT HOLOCAUST, for instance, in a beautiful HD format. Thanks to MGM HD, I was able to see 1986's UNMASKING THE IDOL, an adventure film I never even heard of before recording it.

Worth Keeter, who got his start making cheap regional thrillers at Earl Owensby’s Shelby, North Carolina studio (like WEREWOLF and CHAIN GANG), returns to the Tar Heel State to direct this surprisingly fun 007 spoof. Duncan Jax (Ian Hunter) is a British ninja (!) who gambles, romances exotic women, is proficient with weapons and electronic gadgetry, and works as a spy for a man named Star (C.J. Bibby). Better yet, Jax has a pet baboon named Boon that wears a ninja costume and also does kung fu on bad guys. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen this monkey leaping into the air and knocking dudes on their butts with karate kicks.

The title is a yawner (probably intended to fool people into thinking they were seeing a sequel to ROMANCING THE STONE), but Keeter is pretty good here about providing action and production values on a dime. Duncan’s mission is to invade Devil’s Crowd Island, the most highly protected fortress in the world (it isn’t), and rescue a cache of gold belonging to the Scarlet Leader, a masked red ninja who rules from a throne room surrounded by a piranha-filled pool.

I had trouble following the plot at times, although I don’t think Keeter and screenwriter Phil Behrens were too concerned about it (Jax learns the Scarlet Leader’s henchman, Goldtooth, is the man who killed his parents, but we’re never given the where, when, why and how, and Jax doesn’t seem to care about that anyway). A subplot involving a traitor within Duncan’s ranks is disposed with too quickly. Acting, characterization and dialogue are perfunctory at best, but everything is played with wry humor and at a decent pace.

I liked UNMASKING THE IDOL, and others must have too, because Keeter and cast returned a year later for the sequel (!), THE ORDER OF THE BLACK EAGLE. I never heard of either movie before IDOL popped up on the MGM HD cable channel, but Keeter’s Owensby films were rarely projected outside the South, and this may also have been the case with IDOL. Keeter eventually moved to television, helming many episodes of the various POWER RANGERS series.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Murder Is My Business

Well, I've finished Lancer's Soldato series, now that #3, STRANGLE HOLD!, is done. Writer Al Conroy sticks to the tried-and-true Soldato formula, which basically recycles the previous Soldato book. This time, Johnny Morini is in Florida, where fat old Don Nemo Paragluci summons two other dons, from Jacksonville and from Miami, with a plan to team up as a combine and take over all Syndicate business in the Sunshine State. Morini poses as Frank Lott, a Mob official from California, who's ostensibly there to monitor Nemo's operation. In reality, Morini, working on orders from wealthy Carmine Pannunzio and his Washington contact Riley, is to get in good with Nemo's family and then destroy the entire operation.

At 222 pages, STRANGLE HOLD! doesn't feel at all padded. Even though a late-chapter art heist comes across as incongruous, it's paced and described with such tension that it plays more naturally than it should. Even though Morini, basically, is just a knockoff of the Butcher—another ex-Mafioso now dedicated to destroying the Syndicate—Conroy keeps the formula feeling fresh. And, yes, there is, as in #1 and #2, another setpiece involving Morini trudging through the wilderness with two gunsels on his tail.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Hammer Strikes

The Onion AV Club's latest Random Roles subject is the great Fred Williamson, who talks (a lot) about his two favorite subjects: kicking ass and himself.

The Target Is H

One of the best men's adventure paperback series of the 1970s began with THE TARGET IS H, which reveals the origin of the Penetrator. Most (all?) of the Penetrator books were written, separately, by Mark Roberts (the odd-numbered entries) and Chet Cunningham (the evens), and were published by Pinnacle, which had found gold with its influential Executioner series by Don Pendleton.

I prefer the Penetrator series to the Executioner because of its varied plots and slight SF angle that occasionally push it closer to spy fiction than crime drama. THE TARGET IS H, however, features a purely Pendletonian plot, as hero Mark Hardin targets the Los Angeles heroin trade led by Don Pietro Scarelli, who works for a mysterious British mobster known as Sir Lordship.

Hardin's first mission is motivated by revenge, as we learn through flashbacks how he came to be gunning for mobsters. He was an expert tracker and sharpshooter in Vietnam who nearly died while investigating the appearance of American medical supplies and weapons on the black market. The U.S. Army personnel involved with the crimes attacked and beat Hardin nearly to death. After his long recovery, Hardin received his honorary discharge, and came to Los Angeles, where the orphan had been reared in a number of foster homes before attending UCLA on a football scholarship.

Hardin, nicknamed the Penetrator in 'Nam, met a retired college professor, William Haskins, who invited the lonely nomad to live in his hidden desert bunker, a luxurious stronghold buried deep within an abandoned mine. There, Hardin trained his mind and his physical body, thanks to heavy mentoring by Haskins and an elderly Cheyenne Indian named David Red Eagle. He also fell in love with the professor's niece, Donna Morgan, who was shortly thereafter killed when the car she and Hardin were riding in was forced off the side of a mountain by mobsters, who, at that moment, forever earned the wrath of the Penetrator.

Just 156 pages long, THE TARGET IS H is a little choppy, as it doesn't really have enough room to tell Hardin's origin and settle into its adventure plot against the drug cartel. It is rapidly paced, of course, but one wonders why the origin story didn't receive the entire book. It's a good read, but the Penetrator series would get even better.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

And The American Way

2006's HOLLYWOODLAND purports to tell the tragic story of actor George Reeves, whose gunshot death in 1959 was ruled a suicide by Los Angeles County authorities. However, Reeves' death has been shrouded in mystery for nearly half a century, and, to this day, there are those who believe the actor's death was accidental or even murder.

Reeves, who began his film career in 1939 as one of the Tarleton twins in GONE WITH THE WIND, became a television legend, due to his starring role in the syndicated kids adventure series THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, which ran 104 episodes in the 1950s, and has not only been rerun in perpetuity since, but is also now available on DVD. During his SUPERMAN period, Reeves' companion was a slightly older woman named Toni Mannix, who was the wife of Eddie Mannix, the vice president of MGM. Toni's affair with Reeves was an open secret, though Mannix's alleged underworld connections give credence to theories that either he killed Reeves for dating his wife or that Toni did out of jealousy after George left her for a younger woman that he apparently planned to marry.

HOLLYWOODLAND, the feature debut of television director Allen Coulter (THE SOPRANOS), tells its story through the eyes and the prominent proboscis of private eye Louis Simo (Adrien Brody). At first, I thought the film was going to take the CITIZEN KANE path and use Simo as Welles did William Alland's reporter, interviewing those who knew Reeves and then flashing back to periods of the SUPERMAN star's life. It should have.

Unfortunately, Coulter spends too much time with Simo's domestic problems. I couldn't care less about Simo's son's depression over his TV hero's death, his fights with his ex-wife, or his alternate job taking pictures of a cuckolded husband's wife. None of this has anything to do with George Reeves or good drama, for that matter. Somehow, I get the impression that Coulter and his screenwriter believed they were making a film about a down-and-out detective and not one of Hollywood's most intriguing mysteries.
George Reeves is essayed by a miscast Ben Affleck, who admittedly gets Reeves' voice down, but neither looks like the star nor duplicates the charisma that made him a hero to millions of children. Better is Diane Lane as Toni Mannix, with Bob Hoskins as her husband. Production values are solid, considering the low budget, though the film does feature more than its fair share of historical inaccuracies (such as a mention of Esso stations, which didn't exist in L.A. during the '50s). Warner Brothers forbade Coulter to use clips from THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, forcing the director to re-create the opening titles using a soundalike score. Reportedly, Warners also forbade Focus Features and Miramax from using Superman's eminent "S" logo in HOLLYWOODLAND's marketing, though it does appear on Affleck's chest in the film.

Reeves, I don't think, comes across well in HOLLYWOODLAND. Setting aside his long-term relationship with a married woman, he is portrayed by Affleck as charming (as best Affleck can, I suppose), but also shallow, desperate and ashamed of his Superman fame. I think the worst tragedy surrounding Reeves' death, at least if HOLLYWOODLAND can be believed, is that he was either never aware or never proud of the joy that he brought to so many people. THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, while cheaply produced from overly puerile scripts, remains a joy to watch more than fifty years later, and that's mainly due to the twinkling charm of George Reeves, whose Superman was stern but fair with criminals and a friend to those in need. It is a tremendous shame that he was unable to enjoy bringing so much pleasure to so many, young and old.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Panasonic Still Dragging Their Heels

I swear, I think Panasonic is just trying to outlast me, believing that, at any moment, I will crack and collapse into a mewling mess. After sending an email on Sunday and leaving a phone message on Monday, I got a call back from Karen at Panasonic yesterday. She had nothing to say: "still running tests blah blah may have to send to Japan blah blah unable to provide you with a temporary unit blah blah." I asked her what, specifically, the Panasonic engineers in New Jersey have been doing with my broken DVD recorder. She didn't know, but she got one of the them on the line for a 3-way conversation.

A brief interjection. As I was asked, I sent Panasonic a letter the last time I sent my DVD recorder in, explaining exactly what the problem was. A day or so before I sent it, I learned on an online forum that, if I switched the dubbing mode from High-Speed Dubbing to Silent Mode, the machine may function better. I tried it, and it did with the few discs that I burned. Inadvertently, I left the machine on Silent Mode when I sent it in, but I told Karen over the phone that it should be tested in High-Speed mode. I also wrote in the letter that I believe the DVD drive may be the problem, as discs have never burned consistently using it, and that the spindle may need to be cleaned (I also picked up this tip on a forum, but I can't do it myself without voiding the warranty).

So. I get on the horn with the engineer. He tells me about all the discs they've been burning and they've "been unable to duplicate the problem you're having." Like I never heard that before.

"Did you burn in High-Speed mode?"
"No."
"Did you clean the spindle?"
"No."
"Did you replace the DVD drive?"
"No."

So, basically, the last four weeks have been a total waste of time. He wanted to "try copying under the same conditions" as me. This makes no sense. He's supposed to be fixing the DVD recorder. It's very possible that he could have cleaned the spindle the first friggin' day he had it, the machine would then have been working perfectly, and he could have sent it back. Same with the DVD drive. And why is he burning discs in Silent Mode, when all the trouble I've been having has been with High-Speed Mode???

As an aside, the only reason I tried Silent Mode or considered the spindle is from learning about this from amateurs online. In the 50 or so phone calls I have had with various Panasonic personnel, including customer service representatives whose only job is to, you know, serve the customers, no one has ever, ever provided me with any advice as to how to fix the problem, beyond "send the machine in for repair." This is incompetence of the highest level.

So, I still wait. The engineer said he'll do more tests, and then he asked my permission to send my DVD recorder to Japan for more tests. I can't imagine what magical tests the Japanese can perform that they're keeping secret from their New Jersey compatriots. Meanwhile, my DVD recorder has not functioned properly for the last eight months. And counting.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Triple Triple

It has been more than a year since I attended a triple-header at the multiplex, but I wanted to be sure to catch a few of these on the big screen while I still could. Good timing too, because the X-FILES sequel is down to just two showings per night, just two weeks into its theatrical release. After seeing trailers for garbage like MADAGASCAR 2, THE SPIRIT and BEVERLY HILLS CHIHUAHUA, which might be the worst film ever shit out, I understand why I don't go to the multiplex more often.
I liked 1999's THE MUMMY, missed THE MUMMY RETURNS, and wish I had missed the second MUMMY sequel, THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR. It's a poorly directed, lazily scripted period adventure that is so badly cast, I spent most of the running time figuring how a 30-year-old man could have a 45-year-old wife and a 20-year-old son. I realize Brendan Fraser and Maria Bello (a good actress replacing Rachel Weisz who is hamstrung by both her newly dark locks and her wobbly British accent) are only a year apart, but they don't look or act it, and Luke Ford as their son looks and acts like Fraser's brother. The plot finds the O'Connells in China, where they fight an evil 2000-year-old Chinese despot (Jet Li) who has to get to Shangri-La and bathe in a pool of immortality in order to break the curse placed upon him by a witch (Michelle Yeoh) and summon his undead army to rule the world. Watching the mummy/zombies do battle at the climax reminded me of how much fun--and how much better the visual effects were--it was when ARMY OF DARKNESS did it fifteen years ago. Director Rob Cohen shoots too many closeups, and his shaky-cam action sequences are rendered incomprehensible, so much so that it might as well have been Seth Rogen performing martial arts as Jet Li. Li is rendered using CGI for most of the film, leaving only Yeoh coming through this bloated film with any elegance and dignity.
Speaking of Rogen, the lumpen KNOCKED UP star co-wrote and plays the co-lead in PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, an expertly produced throwback to the raucous action/comedies of the 1980s, such as MIDNIGHT RUN and BEVERLY HILLS COP. The old formula still works, as pot-loving process server Dale Denton (Rogen) and his space-case dealer Saul Silver (James Franco, reunited with his old "freak" buddy from FREAKS AND GEEKS) find themselves on the run from murderous drug dealers after Dale witnesses one of them (the great Gary Cole) and a corrupt policewoman (Rosie Perez...where has she been?) killing a business rival. Equally successful as a wild buddy comedy and as a crackerjack action flick, PINEAPPLE EXPRESS is the first venture into mainstream filmmaking by David Gordon Green, whose independent dramas UNDERTOW and GEORGE WASHINGTON made big stirs with critics. Seeing what Green has done with a $25 million budget, the idea of monsters like THE MUMMY 3 spending $140 million to create utter crap is enough to induce nausea. Adding to the film's '80s vibe: a jaunty new closing song by Huey Lewis and the News!
Also made on a small budget ($30 million), THE X-FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE has been criticized for being little more than an expanded TV episode, but considering that the Fox show was responsible more than any other for bringing feature-level production values to weekly television, I don't think it's valid criticism. It is, however, true. Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) are recruited by the FBI to investigate the case of a missing agent. A defrocked pedophile priest (Billy Connolly) claims to have psychic visions of the victim, which leads to the discovery of various body parts buried beneath snowy West Virginia. While Mulder tries to keep the faith in Connolly's wavering abilities, Scully questions her faith (again) in God while treating a young boy with a terminal illness. Although lacking in spectacle (it has only one real action sequence), THE X-FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE holds interest through its creepy atmosphere and the strong relationship between Mulder and Scully, who have graduated over the years from professional partners to personal ones. Both Duchovny and Anderson are extremely good together. Chris Carter, who created the TV series, makes his feature directing debut with a script he penned with Frank Spotnitz, another X-FILES veteran.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Cain’s Cruiser

14 Cain's Cruiser
October 13, 1979
Music: Stu Phillips
Writer: Robert L. McCullough
Director: Christian I. Nyby II

With Sheriff Lobo out of the picture and on his own NBC series, BJ AND THE BEAR producers scrambled for a new archenemy to tangle with their truck-driving hero. Among the challengers for Lobo's crown was Sheriff John Sebastian Cain, a hardass by-the-book right-winger played by Ed Lauter, who battled Burt Reynolds as the nail-chomping prison guard in THE LONGEST YARD. While Cain was not corrupt per se, such as Lobo and Deputy Wiley, his obsession with following the letter of the law right down the line outweighed tenets like justice and basic morality.

His irrational hatred for B.J. McKay (Greg Evigan) is already evident as "Cain's Cruiser" opens. McKay's adventures during his first season have given him a reputation as a dastardly rogue with no respect for the law; sounds like Cain has been reading the Southern sheriffs newsletter. In his zeal to capture the trucker responsible for smuggling illegal aliens through his county, Cain has been blocking all highways and making life miserable for truckers whose jobs rely on getting to their destinations on time.

Enter entrepreneur Gorley (MCCLOUD's J.D. Cannon) and his chief engineer Samantha (Erin Gray), who has just developed a million-dollar automobile equipped with the most modern scientific crime-busting gadgetry (was executive producer Glen A. Larson already looking ahead to KNIGHT RIDER?). Cain takes it for a test run, and soon he's running the trucking industry out of business with citations for underinflated tires and overweight cargos, despite the fact that Gorley's car still has a few bugs in the system.

Erin Gray, one of the most popular TV leading ladies of the 1970s and '80s, was already appearing on NBC's hit BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY, which had just aired two nights before "Cain's Cruiser." Director Nyby, well aware of Gray's popularity with young men, goes to an extravagant length to put Gray into a bikini in this episode, for which he earns our eternal thanks.

Three Weeks And Counting

Panasonic's home office has not been in possession of my defective DVD recorder for three weeks. I haven't received any contact with them since July 27. Maybe they're hoping I've forgotten.

Here's the text of an email I sent to my contact this morning:

Hello, Karen,

It has now been exactly three weeks since you've had my DVD recorder. I'm trying to be patient, but it's difficult to believe it would take your engineers 21 days to determine whether or not my machine works, when a half-hour of attempting to burn discs would do. I have asked the Better Business Bureau to keep my complaint open in the meantime.

Thank you,
Marty

Friday, August 08, 2008

Panhandle Pussycats Come To Orly

03 Panhandle Pussycats Come to Orly
October 2, 1979
Music: William Broughton
Writer: Harvey Bullock
Director: Charles Rondeau

Not that THE MISADVENTURES OF SHERIFF LOBO was ever a master of subtlety, but casting ex-L.A. Rams quarterback Roman Gabriel and THE LONGEST YARD co-star Ed Lauter in a story about a football game between rival sheriff's departments isn't exactly imaginative. Veteran sitcom writer Harvey Bullock, whose credits range from THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW to THE JETSONS, served as LOBO's executive script consultant and also penned this slapstick episode that pits Sheriff Lobo's (Claude Akins) deputies against those of neighboring county sheriff John Sebastian Cain (Lauter).

Of course, Lobo has no interest in letting the "best man" win. After stocking his roster with the biggest, meanest roughhousers in Orly County, he announces that the world-famous Texas Cowgirls cheerleading squad will perform at halftime, ensuring the gate receipts intended for the local children's hospital will go through the roof. He also lays down a huge bet, so that he can snare big winnings, while looking look a hero for organizing a charity event.

Meanwhile, con artist Slick Willie (Harold Gould, who had starred as a conman on the shortlived THE FEATHER AND FATHER GANG), whose pursuit by both sheriffs had caused the football challenge, plans to rob the Orly Stadium box office, while every cop in two counties is on the playing field. Why he doesn't leap at the opportunity to rob someplace else far away from every cop in two counties, we'll never know.

Bullock's plot-heavy script is handled cleanly enough by journeyman director Charles Rondeau, who keeps the pace from flagging and doesn't hesitate to have Deputy Perkins (Mills Watson) fall down every three minutes for a cheap laugh (it's a good thing Watson is okay at the Lou Costello shtick). Faded silver screen star Gloria DeHaven guests as a stripper with a heart of gold. A couple of weeks later, Lauter would again play Captain Cain on BJ AND THE BEAR, which needed a new arch-enemy for its trucker hero (Greg Evigan) after Akins' defection to his own series.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Ernie Anderson...Back From The Dead?

Thanks to Rich for pointing this out to me. One of ABC's promos for its upcoming cop show, LIFE ON MARS, about a 2008 cop who is transported backward in time to 1973, is produced in the ABC style for that period. Including the old ABC logo, the use of Earle Hagen's MOD SQUAD theme, and a kickass voiceover that sounds incredibly like the network's late announcer, Ernie Anderson.

It doesn't look like ABC allows embedding of its clips, but head over to the official LIFE ON MARS site, and click on the video marked "The Mean Streets of NYC."

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Kotter Vs. Pappy

One of the greatest moments in television history is a pissed-off Robert Conrad (BAA BAA BLACK SHEEP) getting his ass reamed by actor Gabriel Kaplan (WELCOME BACK, KOTTER) in a 100-yard dash in the very first BATTLE OF THE NETWORK STARS in 1976. I have heard that his fellow performers and competitors thought Conrad was a real jackass, and this clip does nothing to dispel that notion. The thing that I guess you have to admire about Conrad is that he's completely nonplussed about being humiliated.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Between The Law And The Mafia

I've just about finished Lancer's Soldato! series, albeit way out of order. I started with #4, then went to #5, the concluding book in the series, then jumped all the way back to #1, the origin story, so to speak, and now I have finished #2, which took me about a day. 1972's DEATH GRIP! adds to Johnny Morini's origin story, aiming the concept in the direction it would take all the way to the end.

The opener, SOLDATO!, found Johnny Morini battling back against his former Mafia cohorts, who tracked him down in Witness Protection two years after he testified against his ex-don in court. Now with a pregnant wife and a quiet life running a general store in a sleepy Arizona town, Morini was forced to return to New York to ferret out violent justice. In Lancer Books' DEATH GRIP! (gotta love them exclamation marks), author Al Conroy introduces a new lifelong mission for Morini, after first discarding the wife and child via divorce and miscarriage. Wealthy Carmine Pannunzio, who despises the Mafia, recruits former government agent Riley to enlist Morini as a one-man hit squad against the Mob, sending the tough guy to Pennsylvania to work a little YOJIMBO between rival gangs.

The big centerpiece will seem very familiar to SOLDATO! readers, as Conroy once again sends Morini out into the mountains to be stalked by two deadly assassins with superior weaponry. While DEATH GRIP! provides plenty of action, Morini is often a passive member, since his plan is to make both gangs he has infiltrated bump each other off, while he makes off with a fortune in stolen gems. He does get to show off his action chops throughout, however, including one sweaty hand-to-hand matchup with a knife-wielding mobster who recognizes Morini from the old days.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Skip Caray Will Be Missed

One of my all-time favorite baseball announcers, Skip Caray, passed away today at age 68. The son of Baseball Hall of Fame announcer Harry Caray and the son of current Atlanta Braves play-by-play man Chip Caray, Skip began working Braves games in 1976. When our house first received cable in 1983, I became a fan of watching Braves telecasts on Superstation WTBS, the Ted Turner-owned network that carried all Braves home and away games. Despite the presence of perennial All-Star Dale Murphy, the Braves were an awful team during most of the '80s (do names like Bruce Benedict, Rafael Ramirez, Rick Camp and Brad Komminsk ring a bell?), but they were always fun to watch because of the experts in the announcing booth: Ernie Johnson, Pete Van Wieren and, of course, Skip, who was likely the funniest sports announcer in television outside of Gary McCord. His style was the opposite of his father's. He didn't often say a lot in the TV booth, understanding the way few announcers do that television is a visual medium, and his job was just to fill in the blanks.

Caray had been suffering from ill health for quite awhile now, including kidney and heart ailments, and had only been broadcasting Braves home games. He died peacefully in bed. He will be missed.

Paradise Damned

The Cabot Cain books are not really related to the men's adventure paperbacks of the 1970s, such as the Executioner, Penetrator, Black Samurai, Butcher series and so on. They're actually more akin to the espionage novels of Donald Hamilton or Edward S. Aarons. Six Cabot Cain adventures were published by Avon between 1969 and 1975, all with titles beginning with "ASSAULT ON…"

The first Cain book is ASSAULT ON KOLCHAK, and, no, it doesn't involve a nosy reporter stumbling onto zombies, ghosts and vampires. Cain is a 6'7" agent of sorts, though he appears to be working independently and not as part of a government agency. KOLCHAK sends him to Brazil to track down a Communist who, decades earlier, had routed the estate of a noble family, raped the wife, and made off with precious jewels. The family now wants revenge against Kolchak, the father of the family's daughter (neither she nor Kolchak knows this), and, through Scotland Yard cop Fenrek, asks Cain to enact it for them. Kolchak is suspected to be hiding in Fuerte Quemado, a city hidden deep in the jungle near the Brazil/Bolivia border that is inhabited solely by Nazi war criminals, Communist dictators and other tawdry sorts who needed a safe place to hide with their ill-gotten riches.

It's a very exciting book, and I'm glad to meet up again with Cabot Cain, whose adventures I had read many years ago. He's a fun character to follow—very erudite and cultured, but more down-to-earth than, say, 007. The book's sex and violence fit the storyline without coming off as gratuitous.

I'll write more about author Alan Caillou at a later date, but I will say that he was quite a Renaissance man, whose exciting life ranged from working as a British spy during World War II to writing exploitation movies like the amazing bikers-in-Vietnam flick THE LOSERS to acting as a silly character called The Head in the shamefully shortlived Seventies sitcom QUARK.