Monday, July 31, 2006

Van Cleef Fights Kennedy?

Holy crap! Here's a KFA Monday bonus for you. It's a Canadian TV commercial for Midas starring Lee Van Cleef and George Kennedy. This must be from the late 1980's.

Foist Day of Vacation

And I'm actually getting some things done. The Hub doesn't need a column from me this week, so I don't have that responsibility as I take this week easy. Or as easy as possible, considering the hot and humid weather we're having in Champaign recently. It's 92 now, according to my Firefox toolbar, but it feels a lot hotter. I actually tried to do some cleaning today, but I started sweating like a madman early in the process and said to hell with it.

Today I packed up my Toshiba RD-XS32 DVD recorder and shipped it out for repair. After the post office, I went to Old Time Meat & Deli Shop to buy tasty meat products. If you're in the Champaign-Urbana area, Old Time is having some decent sales right now. I bought some lemon pepper marinated chicken breasts for $2.99/pound and ground chuck for $1.99/pound. I also got some peppercorn turkey and provolone for sandwiches while I was there, and my total bill was under $19.

I'm now rested up from Cheeseburger B-Fest in Oak Park, where he watched some total crap on a projector TV. I wouldn't mind having one myself if I had a bigger room and didn't mind shelling out $300 for a new bulb every couple of years. You can read Cheeseburger's account, including reviews, over at her blog. I supplied the movies, as well as some Hostess, a giant bag of popcorn and some burgers. Not that we needed extra food, as we had more than enough. We watched:

MARK OF THE GORILLA, one of Johnny Weissmuller's many Columbia programmers as Jungle Jim. It's a great way to start out. It's short, silly, with lots of stuff to make fun of. I think I was the only one who had ever seen a Weissmuller movie before. His acting skills took lots of shots from us.

FUTURE HUNTERS, a crazy-ass Philippines movie starring a young Robert Patrick (now starring on CBS' THE UNIT) as Poindexter Slade, who accompanies his girlfriend on a frantic adventure that includes exploding helicopters, 12-hour car chases, Amazons, midgets, time travel, Christian lore, bad continuity, unconvincing miniatures, a ridiculous kung fu battle, a "pit of death," and much more.

TRANCERS with Tim Thomerson as Jack Deth and a hot buck-toothed Helen Hunt in a sexy Santa outfit. It's an imaginative if low-budget SF/action movie that changed Thomerson's career path from second-banana comic roles to B-movie tough guys and villains.

BREAKIN' 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO from Cannon. The return of Ozone, Turbo and Special K, played by Lucinda Dickey, a great '80s crush. She also was in NINJA III: THE DOMINATION for Cannon the same year that BREAKIN' and BREAKIN' 2 came out (1984), but not much else besides. See her (in the green bikini top) strut her stuff vs. Lollipop in this hilarious "street rumble" that also features stars Shabba-Doo and Boogaloo Shrimp:

AIRPORT 1975 is stupid and ridiculous. We were hoping for pilot LD to call bullshit at the technical inaccuracies of the disaster film, but it turned out to be surprisingly realistic. Uh, except maybe for the part when a jet helicopter lowers Charlton Heston on a rope through the hole in the 747's cockpit.

ROBOT it a robot or a monster or a gorilla or an alien? Yeah, it's all four. If there are more Cheeseburger Fests, expect the 63-minute ROBOT MONSTER to be a regular staple.

NIGHT OF THE KICKFIGHTERS fought us, because we were pretty sleepy by this time. It has Adam West and kickfighters and a pretty hot villainess, but we were too tired to care, and we finally crashed around 4am.

At about 11am, after some sleep and muffins (and about a half-hour of AIRPORT), we put in THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS, which is only "GARGANTUA" for most of the running time. Besides the kickass giant monsters, many of us were enamored by Kumi Mizuno (who recently made it to the cover of VIDEO WATCHDOG), a very beautiful woman who starred in a lot of Japanese SF movies, including FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD, MATANGO and MONSTER ZERO.

And speaking of hot Asian women, we closed with SO CLOSE, Corey Yuen's stylish martial-arts flick that stars scrumptious Shu Qi and Vicky Zhao as sisters/computer geniuses/assassins and Karen Mok as the lesbian detective who pursues them. There are some stellar action scenes here, but it also works as drama with at least one scene of heartwrenching emotional power.

Chicken and I drove back from Oak Park after that, about a 3-hour drive, a bit less actually. After some resettling, checking email, turning on the AC, reading my mail, etc., I...ended the evening with one more crappy movie. TARANTULAS: THE DEADLY CARGO is actually pretty decent, a well-made and performed made-for-TV movie about Ecuadorian "banana spiders" that escape from a cargo plane that crashes near a sleepy little California town and kill several townspeople very quickly. The plot machinations seem ludicrous (particularly an astonishingly clumsy arsonist who figures into the climax), but I bought into it. Claude Akins is solid as the fire chief, and Pat Hingle plays the crusty country doctor.

TARANTULAS was directed by Stuart Hagmann, a talented young man who seems to have vanished after this movie. He was in his early 20's when he directed a few TV episodes for Paramount shows MANNIX and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. His M:I's are extremely good, and Hagmann had a flare for sharp visuals on a budget. His debut feature, THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT, won some critical acclaim, but his career sputtered afterward with just a handful of remaining credits. I wonder whatever became of Hagmann?

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Kickin' Back

I don't know how much I'll be posting over the next several days. I'm taking a vacation from work, and although I'll be hanging out at home during most of it, I may not bother much with my computer. I'll be gone this weekend at Cheeseburger B-Fest in Oak Park. We'll be lounging around Cheeseburger's house watching crappy movies on her new projector TV and eating meat and Hostess products. The weekend after that is my annual trip to Wizard World Chicago, where I'll be sifting through rows of comic books and other nerdy stuff with my brother and many friends.

In between, I'll be spending money on something not as cool as crappy movies or comic books. I've got to send my Toshiba RD-XS32 DVD recorder in for repairing. I've been having lots of trouble getting it to burn discs for several weeks now. Toshiba sent me a firmware upgrade disc, hoping that would solve the problem, but it refused to load on my machine. I have had no problems loading discs, but for some reason it will not read one from Toshiba itself. They even sent a second disc, and that one also refused to load.

So it looks as though I have to mail it to Toshiba, who will either fix it or send me a replacement unit. For a mere $139.95. Shit. What's annoying is that it's $139.95, even though they don't know what's wrong with it or how to fix it. It might cost $12 to fix it, how do they know without even looking at it? Bastards. But I don't really have much choice. The bright side is that I saved the original box the DVD recorder came in, so it will be little trouble to pack it up snugly and mail it. Toshiba says they'll start repair within three days of their receiving it, and they'll ship it back to me free of charge. I'll still be without my unit for at least a couple of weeks, which is a drag. Also, I have several programs on the hard drive that I have been unable to burn to DVD-R, and there's no guarantee they'll still be there when I get it back. Let's wish for the best.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Rockford Files: Profit and Loss

Jim Rockford (James Garner) takes on The Man in the ROCKFORD FILES two-parter, “Profit and Loss”. More precisely, a massive $2 billion corporation called Fiscal Dynamics, Inc. The mystery begins when a man named Alec Morris (John Carter, also a regular on BARNABY JONES at the time) visits Rockford's trailer and asks the private eye to act as some sort of go-between. Two thugs break into the trailer, knock Jim out, and kidnap Morris. A day later, the district attorney arrests Jim for filing a false police report; Morris denies he was ever kidnapped or that he ever met Rockford.

To avoid a jail sentence, Rockford begins poking around Morris’ powerful employer—Fiscal Dynamics—and its volatile COO, Leon Fielder (Ned Beatty). While Rockford dodges hired thugs and threatened lawsuits, a spunky widow named Doris Parker (Sharon Spelman) hires him to prove Fielder and Fiscal Dynamics murdered her husband, a racecar driver who allegedly drove over a cliff accidentally.

Rockford, the ultimate underdog, really goes up against Goliath this time. Beatty only appears in a few scenes in the two-part episode, but his influence is felt behind every clue and every witness Rockford unearths. Garner and Beatty crackle together in their scenes, but the real standout is Albert Paulsen, a veteran character actor who played vaguely foreign heavies on nearly every action/adventure of the period (including several MISSION: IMPOSSIBLEs). Paulsen has only one scene, but it’s a doozy. Rockford is knocked unconscious (again), and awakens on the bare wooden floor of an empty house, surrounded by two faceless goons hidden in darkness and the erudite Paulsen before him on a folding chair. Calmly, quietly and oozing danger, Paulsen sits motionless and tells Rockford precisely what violence may befall him if he doesn’t give up the case and stay out of Fiscal Dynamics’ hair. It’s one of the best scenes in all six seasons of THE ROCKFORD FILES.

It's Stunts! It's Rock! It's Magic!

STUNT ROCK is one of the strangest, craziest and most fun movies I've seen in awhile. Only in the 1970's could a film like this exist. What's interesting is that Australian director Brian Trenchard-Smith, who went on to make the wild THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME ripoff TURKEY SHOOT and the hard-to-believe-it-really-exists LEPRECHAUN IN SPACE, went to the trouble to include a plot in STUNT ROCK, even though it really doesn't need one.

Daredevils and stuntmen were very popular during the late `70s and early `80s. On television, shows like THE DUKES OF HAZZARD, THE FALL GUY and THAT'S INCREDIBLE were supreme. Burt Reynolds had a huge hit playing a stuntman in HOOPER, which was directed by stunt veteran Hal Needham. And guys like Dar Robinson and Evel Knievel were folk heroes, constantly risking life and limb for the sake of doing something dangerous and crazy that no one had ever done before.

From the looks of it, Grant Page was the Australian equivalent of Dar Robinson, who held the record for the longest freefall into an airbag doing a helicopter stunt in HOOPER. Before Page became the stunt coordinator on MAD MAX, he went to Los Angeles to make STUNT ROCK, a viscerally exciting mixture of stunt footage and theatrical rock-and-roll. Page plays Grant Page, a stuntman from Down Under who goes to L.A. to work on the (fictional) TV series UNDERCOVER GIRL starring Dutch actress Monique van de Ven. While in California, he meets up with his cousin, a member of the rock band Sorcery.

Sorcery is similar to dozens of hard rock bands of the period, except for one thing: they performed magic on stage. Two of the band's members didn't play music at all; rather, in their guises as a wizened but good wizard and a demonic warlock, they performed highly theatrical magic tricks during the songs. Dangerous-looking ones too, judging from the amount of fire they used.

STUNT ROCK mostly bounces back and forth between Sorcery on stage and Page on his "stage", performing several different stunts, such as freefalls, fire gags and car crashes. And when he runs out of stunts, Trenchard-Smith turns to film clips from movies like GONE IN 60 SECONDS and MAD DOG MORGAN.

If you still doubt the massive awesomosity of STUNT ROCK, hold on to your chair and watch this kickass trailer:

Monday, July 24, 2006

Evil Andy

After eight seasons of THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, TV viewers of the 1970's were frequently shocked to see good ol' Sheriff Taylor playing a heavy. In SAVAGES, for instance, which you can now see on one of those cheapo DVDs you occasionally see at gas stations or drug stores, Griffith played a hunter who turned the tables on his young guide (Sam Bottoms) and hunted him across the barren desert.

But Evil Andy Griffith's most venal portrayal is most likely that of Farragut, the rich psychopath that leads a dangerous motorcycle trip into Baja California in the 1974 trash classic PRAY FOR THE WILDCATS. One of the most notorious made-for-TV movies of the '70s, PRAY FOR THE WILDCATS stars William Shatner (STAR TREK), Robert Reed (THE BRADY BUNCH) and Marjoe Gortner (BOBBIE JO AND THE OUTLAW) as advertising executives who suck up to an asshole client (that would be Evil Andy Griffith) by agreeing to accompany him on a motocross trip to Mexico. All three emasculated men are battling troubles at home; Shatner is shtupping Reed's wife (Angie Dickinson), while Gortner takes the news of girlfriend Janet Margolin's pregnancy without a smile on his face.

While their frustrated wives and girlfriends stew at home, the city boys set out across the barren sand, a grueling journey that becomes even more so when they discover that Andy is more than just a cruel businessman--he's also a horny, drunken psychopath whose tequila-drenched run-in with a couple of hippies turns ugly in a hurry. When the hot cockteasing blond hippie refuses to give it up to Andy--even for $100--he spikes the radiator of their groovy VW bus with a handy axe and leaves them in the desert to die.

If you've ever wondered what a drunk and lecherous Andy Griffith would look like while dancing and wearing Captain Kirk's command tunic, here you go:

Alternately hilarious and bizarre, PRAY FOR THE WILDCATS is unquestionably a must-see for Crappy Movie fans. One thing that fascinates me is the production's choice of wardrobe; the cast is dressed in motocross outfits that look remarkably like the velour shirts and black pants worn by the Enterprise crew on STAR TREK, and whenever you see Shatner on-screen in his trademark gold tunic, you can't help but wonder whether you've stumbled upon TREK's Lost 80th Episode, in which Captain Kirk finds himself transported in time and TV Land to an alternate universe where the Bradys live in Mayberry, RFD.

It's also fun to watch if you know about the actors' shared history. For instance, the same year that PRAY FOR THE WILDCATS was telecast, Shatner and Dickinson did a highly publicized nude sex scene for producer Roger Corman in BIG BAD MAMA. More than a decade earlier, Shatner guest-starred in a good episode of THE DEFENDERS, an acclaimed legal drama in which Reed was a co-star with E.G. Marshall. THE DEFENDERS was spun off from a two-part episode of STUDIO ONE called "The Defender," in which Shatner played the same part Reed had in the TV series. By the way, the defendant in that STUDIO ONE was played by a 27-year-old Steve McQueen. It's on DVD and is a very good drama.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Do You See This Hole In My Head?

I can't help it. I have a passionate desire to protect washed-up VHS tapes, much the way some people need to bring stray animals in off the street and care for them. Old VHS prerecords are getting difficult to find these days, and many of them are for movies that will very likely never receive a DVD release, much less one that cleans up the image and presents it in its original theatrical aspect ratio. I actually fear a day will come when something like THE FIRST POWER, a dumb cop/horror movie with Lou Diamond Phillips that I saw in a Carbondale theater when it came out, will be considered a "lost" film with no way ever to see it. The fact that hardly anybody cares about seeing THE FIRST POWER is completely beside the point.

So it is that I purchased 60 old used VHS prerecords last week at $1 apiece. I need 60 more tapes cluttering my house like I need the proverbial noggin opening, but I could not resist. I drove past a local Family Video and noted a sign that said "VHS Tapes $1". I've been to this store many times and rented a lot of great old forgotten movies for 50 cents each over the years. So I stopped in, bought 20 tapes, and then drove clear across two cities to the Urbana store and bought 40 more.

I tried to stick to things that were not currently or will most likely never be on DVD (although you never can tell). Almost all of them were action movies with a few horror and SF titles sneaking in. Bo Svenson, Michael Dudikoff, Peter Fonda, Henry Silva, Peter Graves, Robert Culp, Anthony Eisley, Betsy Russell, William Shatner, Jan-Michael Vincent, Adam West and Jeff Fahey are just a few of the familiar genre stars I picked up.

So far, I've had time only to watch RETURN FIRE: JUNGLE WOLF II, which stars the very bad Ron Marchini and the inherently ridiculous Adam West. Despite the "II", RETURN FIRE is actually the third movie to star Marchini as CIA operative Steve Parrish. You're forgiven for not remembering the first two movies--I don't either. Marchini was a martial artist who starred in the wretched DEATH MACHINES, but he strangely doesn't do any kung fu in RETURN FIRE, letting bigass guns do his handiwork. I highly doubt RETURN FIRE will ever be on a DVD, unless it's by one of those fly-by-night companies that transfers old VHS prints to a cheap disc. It isn't a good movie, but it's okay viewing for late at night with some High Life-swilling friends over. It runs 95 minutes, and more than half of it is various action sequences--chases, gunfights, explosions. One stunt sequence showing Marchini running past a lot of fiery explosions looks dangerous. The script and acting are terrible, but I can't say the movie bored me. It's certainly worth a buck, for whatever praise that's worth.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Look, Up In The Sky!: The Amazing Story Of Superman

Made primarily as a marketing tool to support the recent big-screen release of SUPERMAN RETURNS, the new 110-minute documentary LOOK, UP IN THE SKY!: THE AMAZING STORY OF SUPERMAN is an entertaining if not terribly deep look at one of the world's most enduring fictional heroes. I didn't learn very much that I didn't already know, but it was fun seeing all the clips and covers of Supermen past.

Just to get one big gripe out of the way, director Kevin Burns seems to believe that Superman comic books grow on trees. Outside of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, hardly any of the editors, writers or artists who made the Superman comic books and strips rate a mention. Names like Curt Swan, Murphy Anderson, Al Plastino, Wayne Boring and even Neal Adams are completely ignored, even when (beautifully recolored) panels and covers they drew are splashed across the screen. Writers Elliott S! Maggin (who offhandedly mentions the name of Cary Bates) and Denny O'Neil do brief on-camera bits, but none of their material relates to their specific work on the character. The documentary makes it look almost as though Superman only exists on television, radio and movies, and comic books are just part of the merchandising.

Also, after an initial overview of how Shuster and Siegel came up with Superman, the creators are completely ignored. There's nothing at all about their post-Superman lives, their careers in and outside of comics, and--especially--the shameful manner in which DC Comics and Warner Communications screwed the duo for decades. Obviously, this documentary wouldn't exist if not for Siegel and Shuster, but it also wouldn't if not for the talented people who toiled over the comics and kept the character going for the past 70 years. The movie also doesn't mention that Superman comics routinely sold nearly a million copies per month on a regular basis during the so-called Silver Age.

Narrated (blandly) by Kevin Spacey, who oddly refers to himself in the third person when mentioning his role in SUPERMAN RETURNS, LOOK, UP IN THE SKY! is a colorful and well-paced look at the character over the decades. Burns recruited a wide variety of talking heads to discuss Superman and his impact on society and their lives. Some of them are fans--Mark Hamill, Gene Simmons, LOST IN SPACE's Bill Mumy. Many of them are directly involved with the Superman legend, such as actors Noel Neill, Jack Larson and Dean Cain and comic book professionals Mike Carlin, Art Thibert and Paul Levitz. The vast reach of interview subjects and perspectives leads to some entertaining segments, and each is punctuated by plenty of cool film clips from the Fleischer cartoons, the Columbia serials (starring Kirk Alyn as Superman), the George Reeves TV series, LOIS & CLARK with Cain and Teri Hatcher...even the syndicated SUPERBOY series rates a mention.

The '50s series THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN (with Reeves, Larson and Neill) and the four motion pictures starring Christopher Reeve receive the lion's share of coverage, although much room is reserved near the end for the less-interesting SMALLVILLE series and SUPERMAN RETURNS. What I really loved were the tantalizing behind-the-scenes footage that I don't recall ever seeing before. While some of the SUPERMAN screen tests appeared on the DVD (with name actresses like Stockard Channing and Anne Archer testing for Lois Lane), a lot of this stuff I haven't seen. For instance, Jeff Corey (who played the heavy in SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE-MEN) acting in a test for the Reeve movie as Lex Luthor.

Even cooler are the few seconds of outtakes--in color--from SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE-MEN. Just running the silent footage by itself would have made for a terrific Easter egg.

I also liked some of the more obscure treats, such as the clips from the failed SUPERPUP pilot (in which midgets wearing dog costumes played the roles) and the probably-never-seen-anywhere-since SUPERMAN musical production that aired in ABC's late-night schedule in 1975. David Wilson (who?) played Superman and Lesley Ann Warren 0f MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE was Lois. It looks truly awful, but I'd love to see the whole thing.

The best part about LOOK, UP IN THE SKY! is that it reinforces just how good both George Reeves and Christopher Reeve were. Though they each approached their roles differently, both were quite remarkable and most likely are as responsible for Superman's immense popularity to this day as almost any comic-book figure outside of Siegel and Shuster. It's obvious from watching this documentary that their indelible performances will endure long after the phrase "Brandon who?" has vanished from our vocabulary.

Book 'Em

Sorry, folks, but I've just been too busy to post the last couple of days. In fact, it's already past my bedtime, but I thought I owed y'all something. So I present what is quite likely the most exciting opening titles in television history. It's not just Morton Stevens' classic theme, which is terrific, but also the imagery and the way it's all cut to the music. HAWAII FIVE-0 was, I believe, the first network TV series to film exclusively in Hawaii, and these titles reflect the mystery and exotica of our 50th state. Noted director Reza S. Badiyi (Jennifer Jason Leigh's stepfather) created this title sequence, which was so terrific that it never really changed, outside of rotating cast members, in 12 seasons, although the theme would usually get a new arrangement every year.

Gotta love that dramatic swooping shot on Jack Lord.

Has any other TV theme been covered as many times as HAWAII FIVE-0? I think I have about a dozen different versions on iTunes.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Bad Day At Black Rock

BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK from 1955 is a great thriller and a powerful social statement. It loses a lot of its impact on television, not only because the striking desert photography is severely compromised in a pan-and-scan print, but also because so many scenes involve several men positioned in the frame. A threatening or a conspiratorial conversation involving five or six men becomes much less so when you can only see two of them.

Much of the film's power comes from the mystery behind the arrival in the small desert town of Black Rock of John Macreedy (Spencer Tracy), a one-armed man seeking directions to a remote location called Adobe Flat. It's a very small town where everyone really does know everyone else, and that means everyone knows the deadly secret that's buried there. Shame, hatred and guilt shade most of the townspeople from vicious bullies Coley (Ernest Borgnine) and Hector (Lee Marvin) to washed-up sheriff Tim (Dean Jagger) to weak hotel manager Pete (John Ericson) to weary doctor Velie (Walter Brennan). The train hasn't stopped in Black Rock in four years, and now this mysteriously low-key man with a long fuse is asking questions in a small town where everyone is afraid of the answers.

Obviously, the cast, which also offers up beautiful Anne Francis as Pete's protective sister, is a major draw, and one of BAD DAY's highlights is a quietly confrontational chat between Macreedy and Reno Smith, the town boss portrayed by Robert Ryan. Tracy, the very picture of quiet righteousness, was nominated for an Academy Award, as were director John Sturges (who went on to make more action classics like THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and THE GREAT ESCAPE) and screenwriter Millard Kaufman, who addresses a sore subject that rarely, if ever, had been examined in a Hollywood film.

To discuss more of the script would be to reveal clues to a mystery that should be discovered on your own. Suffice to say that BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK works quite well as a conventional thriller. Admire the careful buildup of hostility in the scene in which Borgnine tries to goad Tracy into a fight, as well as the crisp editing and the character revelation that finishes the scene. BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK runs 81 minutes and has not one wasted scene, one wasted line of dialogue. It's a rich and suspenseful picture with an outstanding cast, breathtaking Nevada scenery, properly sparse production design and a sharp Andre Previn score.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

What Have I Been Watching Lately?

  • LIGHT BLAST (1985) is an amazingly ridiculous, hilarious and action-packed Italian action picture. You could usually count on director Enzo Castellari to deliver cheap, well-crafted nonsense that goes out on a storytelling limb and dares you to take it seriously. Filmed in San Francisco, LIGHT BLAST casts CHIPS star Erik Estrada as a tough cop who is introduced stripped to his briefs to defuse a hostage situation. Erik gets the case when rejected scientist Ennio Girolami (THE NEW BARBARIANS) creates a death ray and uses it to melt the skin from his victims (like in the climax of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK). There is a ton of action, including wild slo-mo shootouts, explosions, car chases, squibs, you name it. Near the end, Estrada steals Albert Arciero’s racecar and jumps practically every hill in Frisco in pursuit of Girolami’s machine. As usual, Castellari mixes live stuntwork with unconvincing miniatures to add to the film’s bizarre tone. Estrada is actually fairly charismatic and seems to fit well within the director’s world.
  • U.S. TV star Anthony Eisley (HAWAIIAN EYE) went to Rome to headline 1966's LIGHTNING BOLT, a spaghetti spy movie set in Florida. Obviously inspired by the Bond films, particularly GOLDFINGER and DR. NO, it’s cheap and clumsy, but not unentertaining once the action picks up in the second half. American agent Harry Sennett (Eisley) goes to Cape Kennedy to discover who is sabotaging NASA’s moon rockets. The answer is Rehte, a mad beermeister who plans to rule the world from his underwater city by putting a laser on the moon and pointing it at major Earth cities. There’s something mildly delightful about Sennett’s non-confrontational approach to escaping his captors--he just pulls out a checkbook and offers to buy them off with taxpayers’ money! If you’ve seen a Bond film, you know where this movie is going--the escapes, fights, gorgeous women, slight sci-fi trappings and an exploding hideout. Margheriti needed more time and more money to make this anything like a Bond film, but it kinda works.
  • 1974's THE KLANSMAN is one of those rare movies that makes you utter "What the hell?" under your breath over and over. Samuel Fuller was the original writer and director of this notoriously tasteless racial melodrama, but was dumped by the studio in favor of ex-Bond director Terence Young (DR. NO). As with Paramount’s later MANDINGO, THE KLANSMAN was based on a novel and features big Hollywood stars humiliating themselves in an overwrought, uncomfortable stew of crude sex, violence and epithets. The biggest offender is Richard Burton, who appears to be drunk and pasty in most of his scenes, playing Breck Stancill, a rich liberal landowner who allows blacks to squat on his Alabama mountain rent-free. His friend and occasional rival, Sheriff “Big Track” Bascomb (Lee Marvin), advises Breck not to encourage an upcoming town-square demonstration encouraging blacks to vote. Atoka County is a boiling hotbed of racial tension: the Ku Klux Klan, including Bascomb’s deputy “Butt Cut” Cates (Cameron Mitchell), castrates a black man accused of raping a white woman (Linda Evans); Bascomb covers up Cates’ rape of black virgin Loretta (hot Lola Falana); and a vengeful O.J. Simpson sneaks around town shooting the white men responsible for his friend’s murder. O.J. is even seen hiding in the back of a Bronco waving a gun and then getting away with murder at the end--just like real life! You might need a shower when it’s all over; Marvin smearing the blood of Falana’s busted hymen across Mitchell’s face is one of THE KLANSMAN’s grimier moments, whereas the stolid Burton’s uncoordinated karate fight with Mitchell is perhaps the most hilarious. An amazing film. Fans of THE BIG LEBOWSKI will love David "Jeffrey Lebowski" Huddleston as the racist mayor.
  • I don’t know if MAD FOXES, a tasteless 1981 Spanish/Swiss co-production, is the work of a creative madman or an inept moron. It’s basically a rape/revenge exploitation picture with gore and softcore sex, but the crazy dubbing and wild plot make me wonder whether it’s really an intentional comedy. Hal, trying to get his drunk 18-year-old virgin girlfriend home to have sex with her, is beaten by Nazi-loving bikers who rape his girl. Pissed as hell, Hal recruits some kickboxers to invade the funeral the bikers are throwing for a fallen comrade at an amphitheater. They beat up the bikers and castrate their leader. Later, after Hal shags another chick at his pad, he picks up a sexy hitchhiker and takes her to his parents’ country home. While he’s out shagging her, the bikers show up and slaughter his family and the servants. This WTF movie is like watching Wimbledon. So, yeah, you guessed it, it’s Hal’s turn for revenge in the gruesome finale. Horribly filmed and dubbed with oddball scenes like a naked drunken biker doing karate kicks outdoors and a long, pointless skinny-dip, MAD FOXES is absurd and takes a lot of patience to watch. I can see how bad-movie lovers could have quite a laugh at it, but it’s too grimy for my tastes. Believe it or not, Krokus did some tunes for it.
  • Poorly acted and possessed by some of New York’s stiffest actors, 1986's BREEDERS is a sleazy sci-fi gem. A slimy space monster (in a rubber suit with boots!) is raping and impregnating Manhattan virgins. After a short incubation period, they strip off all their clothes and walk into an abandoned tunnel below the Empire State Building, where all the women climb into an alien hot tub filled with what I can only assume is extraterrestrial semen. An ineffectual detective and a wooden-Indian female doctor are the only humans who know what’s going on. This movie is amazing, and by "amazing," I mean "sleazy and stupid." My favorite scene is one where the virgin bikini model does some coke and then exercises in the nude for a couple of minutes for no apparent reason. I'm guessing there are very few virgin cokehead supermodels in Manhattan. I also like when the virgin nurse comes home after a hard day at work, pulls a gigantic pot of something (I mean huge) out of the fridge, puts it on the stove, turns it on (but there's no fire on the burner), and then takes all her clothes off while standing in the kitchen. Rampant female nudity and rubber bladder makeup effects abound.
  • Russ Jones, the first editor of Warren Publishing’s landmark CREEPY black-and-white comic magazine, wrote stories for GALLERY OF HORRORS, a cheesy 1967 anthology feature. It was made extremely cheaply with sets and performances that resemble a student film--a junior-high-school student film. You can see the Warren and EC influence in the Gothic settings and twist endings, but the movie is so dull and incompetent that no one will be either shocked or surprised. John Carradine introduces all five segments with long-winded introductions that were written merely to stretch the running time to feature length. Many of the actors appear in more than one story, but the big names--Carradine and Lon Chaney--star in just one each. Chaney is miscast as a scientist who tampers with Dr. Frankenstein’s old experiments and brings a convicted murderer back to life. Carradine stars in the opener, “The Witch’s Clock,” about newlyweds who move into a castle and discover a cursed grandfather clock. Production values are next to nil, and Hewitt directs by putting the camera on a tripod and letting it roll for four or five minutes.
  • MERCENARY FOR JUSTICE is the third direct-to-video action movie Steven Seagal has released this year. And it's still only July! It opens with a violent, action-filled prologue modeled after SAVING PRIVATE RYAN or BLACK HAWK DOWN, but is so confusing and poorly shot that we’re left trying to figure out what happened long after the sequence is over. Big Steve is a big-shot merc who is forced to help a slick-talking Eurotrash villain bust a gunrunner out of an African prison. It’s really a plot to rob a bank using Seagal as a decoy, which really pisses him off. Lots of flashy camera work, desaturated cinematography and thumping techno try to disguise the fact that there isn’t much here. On the bright side, Seagal, known for not putting much effort into his DTV features, is actually on the set and providing his own voice most of the time, although an ill-matching stunt double does much of the heavy action.

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Rockford Files: Calidonia--It's Worth A Fortune!

This is one of my favorite ROCKFORD FILES episodes. It’s another con episode, sort of, that leads to a very clever ending. Like many ROCKFORD scripts, this could easily have been a MAVERICK episode just by changing the name “Jim Rockford” to “Bret Maverick”. Star James Garner receives quite a boost from this week’s guest stars: the beautiful Shelley Fabares, a former child star (THE DONNA REED SHOW) and pop singer (“Johnny Angel” hit #1) who continued acting well into the 1990’s as a regular on COACH and voicing Superman’s mother in cartoons, and Richard Schaal, often cast in comic roles, but successful here as a swindler and loser.

Jolene (Fabares) hires Rockford to help her recover a cache of valuable stamps that was stolen by her husband and hidden in the small town of Caledonia, California just before he was arrested four years earlier. Her dying husband gave her only half of the directions, however, and the other half to his partner, Len (Schaal). A few doublecrosses and a pair of ex-cons in on the secret stand between the treasure and the dollar signs in Rockford’s eyes. A couple of nice car stunts make up the action in an episode that doesn’t really need it, as Juanita Bartlett’s teleplay keeps you on your toes for the full hour, right down to the “gotcha” final act.

Fans of exploitation movies will definitely recognize the great Sid Haig, on a rare respite from visiting womens’ prisons in the Philippines, as one of the hoods terrorizing Len, but you’ll have to look fast to catch a glimpse of a young Robert Ginty as a photographer. Ginty became a sleaze-movie star after playing the lead in James Glickenhaus’ grisly THE EXTERMINATOR in 1980.

A major factor in THE ROCKFORD FILES’ popularity was its quirky supporting cast, but outside of a handful of scenes featuring Noah Beery as Rockford’s dad and brief appearances by Joe Santos (as Detective Becker), Gretchen Corbett (as lawyer Beth) and Stuart Margolin (playing a very different Angel in the pilot), Garner was really carrying the ball on his own--a tough gig in a one-hour drama. Garner and producer Stephen J. Cannell always planned for the series to have a strong supporting cast, but NBC paid for Garner and wanted Garner. So, to appease the network and give the audience time to know and like Rockford, Garner was very “heavy” in the first several episodes. Margolin, at least, was still involved as director of this episode. He does a good job too, except for one handheld shot that feels out of place.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Do Those Dishes!

Here's a test to make sure I can embed video clips on Blogger. If you have a spare 38 seconds, click below to see a trailer for BLACK BELT JONES, one of the craziest, most ridiculous blaxploitation movies of the 1970s. It stars Jim Kelly and his Afro as "Black Belt" Jones, a total badass trying to prevent the Mob from taking his friend's karate studio away. The wild soundtrack is by Dennis Coffey ("Scorpio") and Luchi DeJesus, and director Robert Clouse, who worked with Kelly in the great ENTER THE DRAGON, stages one of the finest kung fu battles in a car wash I have ever seen. For some foolish reason, Warner Brothers has yet to release BLACK BELT JONES on DVD, even though I'm convinced it would move some discs. Thankfully, I have a copy on DVD-R, so I can see some Jim Kelly ass-whippings whenever I feel like it.

Do I Have To Do This All Over Again? (To Quote The Monkees)

Welcome to Johnny LaRue's Crane Shot 2.0. I'm your host, Marty McKee. I presume most of you reading this post have followed me from the old Crane Shot over at Tripod, but if not, let me take this opportunity to say thank you for reading this far. If you're just discovering this blog, follow this link to catch up on the last 19 months or so of my life, which mainly consists of watching terrible movies and old TV shows. I don't really discuss too much of a personal nature here; I'm just not wired that way.

In case you're curious about the name of the blog, I'm reprinting below an early posting from the old Tripod site that kinda sets the stage.

So. Johnny LaRue's Crane Shot. When I was a kid, as many teenage boys are, especially one who are funny (hey, I wasn't voted Farmer City-Mansfield's Class of `84 Class Clown for nothin'...), I was very interested in comedy. I used to watch Carson's monologue and opening desk bit, and try to repeat the jokes at school the next day. Carnac and Art Fern were my favorite Carson bits. Of course, I watched all the great sitcoms of the period--THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, TAXI, WKRP IN CINCINNATI, M*A*S*H. There were still some good variety shows on the air that regularly featured greats like Carol Burnett and Tim Conway and Dick Van Dyke. Dean Martin roasts. SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE was at its creative peak during its first five years and has never recovered. And there was SCTV NETWORK 90 (soon retitled just SCTV).

I think most people who watched SCTV in the early '80s considered it their own personal secret. SCTV actually began on Canadian television in the late '70s, but was brought to NBC in 1981 to air after THE TONIGHT SHOW on Friday nights in a 90-minute format. The cast was brilliant, so much so that all are still active in showbiz today (at least as much as they want to be): Joe Flaherty, John Candy, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Catherine O'Hara, Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis (Martin Short joined later in the season). At age 14 and 15, I don't recall any of my friends staying up to watch SCTV; I felt as though I was the only one I knew who was special enough to "get" it. SCTV was eventually discovered by the mass media (who eventually put them in LIFE and ROLLING STONE), but at the beginning, nobody knew about the show (and its ratings were never very big, as only a dedicated cult audience was watching).

One of many brilliant bits of that first season began in an early sketch called "Polynesiantown". It was a parody of CHINATOWN, and starred Candy's character Johnny LaRue as a bar owner. SCTV was a collection of TV, movie and commercial parodies, but it also featured regular characters who appeared in wraparound segments. LaRue was a wannabe matinee idol, a playboy failed-movie-star who was reduced to making TV-movies for the SCTV network, and "Polynesiantown" was one he wrote, directed, produced and starred in. Featuring a wild plot involving poisoned ribs and musical numbers by Dr. John, "Polynesiantown" is among Season One's crown jewels. But it's what happened later that led to its legacy as much as the sketch itself.

Candy, who also conceived the sketch, ended it with a complicated crane shot that took hours to film and left the cast and crew freezing at 3:00am on an Edmonton night. It also ran the episode over-budget, forcing an angry missive from NBC. So SCTV weaved the real-life incident into their show, with station owner Guy Caballero (Flaherty) chewing out LaRue on the next episode for going over budget and firing him. A blubbering sycophantic LaRue finally convinced Guy for another shot, which turned out to be "Street Beef", which allowed Johnny only one camera and one microphone. Johnny begged for a crane, but Guy refused to relent.

This series of gags ran through much of the first season, finally climaxing in the Christmas show, which found LaRue outside alone on Christmas Eve doing "Street Beef" all alone without even a cameraman. Drunk, freezing (it really was damn cold during that snowy Edmonton night shoot) and depressed, LaRue delivered an amazingly funny and poignant monologue directly into the lens (Candy really was a helluvan actor). At the end of it, he had a epiphany of sorts, and discovered that Santa Claus had gifted him with his very own crane, complete with red ribbon, reducing LaRue to tears.

SCTV fans remember LaRue and his crane shot with much fondness, and it's a reference that has crept into many realms of pop culture. Michael Moore thanked "Johnny LaRue" for his crane shot in the closing credits of his film CANADIAN BACON (with Candy). Jim Wynorski in his audio commentary on CHOPPING MALL and cast and crew members of FREAKS & GEEKS gush about the joke on their DVDs. Since I have recently rediscovered the genius of SCTV on Shout! Factory's recent DVD releases, I hereby dedicate this post to the cast, writers and crew of that show. And now you know the origin of Johnny LaRue's crane shot.