Friday, June 29, 2007

Friday The 13th Part 2

After FRIDAY THE 13TH became the surprise sleeper hit of 1980, Paramount became antsy for a quick sequel to rush into theaters less than a year later. Though F13's denouement seemingly left the story with nowhere to go, screenwriter Ron Kurz (EYES OF A STRANGER) and director Steve Miner (a long-time associate of Sean Cunningham, who directed the first film) crafted an exciting horror film as good as the trendsetting original. FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 was not as financially successful as the first movie (it opened in first place though), but it did well enough to lead to a third movie, which was lensed in 3D and released during the summer of 1982.

PART 2 is better directed and contains more and better shocks than Cunningham’s original. The gore is less (makeup effects whiz Tom Savini was replaced by Carl Fullerton, who likely went easy on the red stuff with an R rating in mind), but the murders are more interesting. Leading lady Amy Steel is sharp, sensitive, and sympathetic in the same mold as Adrienne King and a better actress. Kurz’s basic story may be more or less a retread of the first film, but the final half-hour really is a barnburner, a suspenseful, scary ride that holds suspense right down to its final shock.

PART 2 takes place, not at Camp Crystal Lake, but at the next summer camp down the road, where — gee whiz — more teenage counselors gather to prepare for the camp's grand opening and the arrival of this year's kids. Once again, the counselors are bumped off one by one in variously bloody ways — a machete to the face, throat slashing, really any sharp instrument will do. The killer is the deformed, psychotic, and presumably indestructible Jason Voorhees (credited to Warrington Gillette), who rips and tears his way through the cast out of revenge for his dead mother, whose head he keeps on the mantel inside his dilapidated shack.

The story and structure are simple, but effective. PART 2 offers a higher body count, more nudity than the original (thanks to the pneumatic Kirsten Baker, who gives Mickey Mouse new dimension), another terrific Harry Manfredini score, and Connecticut locations that mostly match the New Jersey camp where the first movie was shot. Miner does such a good job with the terror scenes that he earned the right to direct PART 3 as well.

Though Gillette contractually receives screen credit for portraying burlap-bagged Jason Voorhees (he didn’t get his trademark hockey mask until PART 3), the actor notoriously balked early in production at the extensive makeup and stuntwork involved with the role. Outside of the tense (off- and on-screen) climax, little of Gillette’s performance is in the film. Stuntman Steve Daskawisz does most of the heavy lifting as Jason, even becoming injured during a fight scene when Steel smacked his arm with the sharp side of a machete. Adrienne King briefly but memorably reprises her role from the original F13 in a lengthy pre-credits sequence, Betsy Palmer appears in archive footage, and Walt Gorney is back as Crazy Ralph.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Why Aren't People Watching?

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - CBS and ABC fell to their lowest ratings among the coveted adults 18-49 demographic in two decades last week, as reruns and summer alternatives drove viewers from their couches.

It's not really much of a mystery to me, though it is to the network executives. Here's a list of some of the sparkling, intelligent programming that is bringing the networks to their knees:


Some of those titles look like MAD parodies. I mean, really, are you kidding, ABC has a TV series about bingo? Who's watching this stuff? Well, nobody, actually. 3.4 million tuned in for NATIONAL BINGO NIGHT, all of them at least 75 years old, I presume. DEAL OR NO DEAL is actually a hit, even though I can't imagine a dumber, duller game show that requires less skill or intelligence. It makes WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE look like JEOPARDY.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Friday the 13th (1980)

FRIDAY THE 13TH, released theatrically on 1100 screens by Paramount Pictures on Friday, May 9, 1980, is one of the most financially successful and influential horror films ever made. It opened at #1 at the box office, just ahead of Universal’s new comedy, the disappointing THE NUDE BOMB, a movie version of GET SMART starring Don Adams as bumbling TV spy Maxwell Smart.

Although technically not the very first "body count" film (1964's Italian BLOOD AND BLACK LACE may have been the first), it was the first to reach a wide mainstream American audience via a major Hollywood studio. Director Sean S. Cunningham's ragged slasher has spawned ten sequels to date, as well as countless homages, ripoffs, remakes, and parodies. What's tricky about watching it today is trying to see it through 1980 eyes, when the storyline of teenage camp counselors being systematically sliced and diced, courtesy of Tom Savini's makeup expertise, must have seemed fresh and exciting.

The plot is fairly simple, drawing as it does from a variety of influences, including PSYCHO, BLACK CHRISTMAS and the Italian horror movies of Dario Argento and Mario Bava. Seven good-looking teens (presumably college-aged) hire on to serve as summer camp counselors at Camp Crystal Lake, nicknamed "Camp Blood" by the locals because of a pair of unsolved murders that occurred there more than twenty years before that have left the facility abandoned.

Haunted by the camp's grisly legend, as well as the drowning death of a young boy named Jason Voorhees that happened a year before the murders, the seven kids decide to spend the two weeks before the campers are due by drinking, getting high and having sex. You know what happens to teens who engage in that sort of activity in a remote area where a serial killer may be loose. But in 1980, you didn’t. What is cliché now was not so when FRIDAY THE 13TH and screenwriter Victor Miller (who went on to become an Emmy-winning writer on ALL MY CHILDREN) created it.

What's surprising about FRIDAY THE 13TH all these years later is how tame Savini's gore effects seem. Whereas they were quite notorious in 1980, leading to controversy and protests, the FX were clearly cut somewhat to appease the MPAA and earn the film an R rating. Savini has done better work elsewhere, such as in the unrated MANIAC and DAWN OF THE DEAD, but those films were mostly seen only by horror buffs. Paramount's push and the R rating opened Savini's craft up to countless audiences who had probably never seen throats slit or bodies slashed with such graphic impunity, and the shocking death of one character who has his throat punctured by an arrow was probably quite a shocker to them.

Cunningham's secret weapon may be Harry Manfredini, the composer whose "ki-ki-ki-ki ma-ma-ma-ma" score has since been copied to death. Manfredini's music is very good and keeps one's nerves consistently jangled, even when not much is happening on screen. That much of F13's success is due to Manfredini's music is clear when you consider he became typecast as a "horror composer" and was invited back for nearly all the sequels (Fred Mollin did Part 8 and Graeme Revell scored FREDDY VS. JASON).

Filmed at a real camp near Blairstown, New Jersey, FRIDAY THE 13TH does what it sets out to do — kill many young people in relatively shocking fashion — and it does so reasonably well. The effective final shock was a staple of the period (see PHANTASM, CARRIE...). Of course, F13 is notable today as one of Kevin Bacon's first films (he had already been in ANIMAL HOUSE), although it's the perky Adrienne King (whose character isn’t a virgin or a goody-two-shoes) who is the star, one of horror’s most liked Final Girls. FRIDAY THE 13TH was a major hit — the 18th highest-grossing film of 1980 and still the most successful film of the series (when grosses are adjusted for inflation).

Monday, June 25, 2007

Kill Her, Mommy

Just an alert to you horror-movie fans that Final Girl is hosting a FRIDAY THE 13TH Blog-A-Thon on Friday, July 13. If you're a fan of slasher movies, you're certain to find a lot of interesting reading on Stacie's blog and many others on that day.

While I may not specifically take part in Final Girl's Blog-A-Thon, I think I'll do my own thing, which is to post reviews of all eleven FRIDAY THE 13TH movies, up to and including FREDDY VS. JASON (which I once wrote was the best Freddy-fights-Jason movie that could ever be made). I won't do them all July 13, but I'll post one every couple of days, hopefully climaxing with the FREDDY VS. JASON review that day. I plan to make other posts during that period too, so don't stop checking back just because Jason don't trip yer trigger.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

No Tears for Caesar

I bet this would be fascinating to see, but I wonder if it even exists anymore. In between starring roles on Broadway in THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG and A SHOT IN THE DARK, William Shatner returned to his native Canada to perform in a two-hour taped adaptation of JULIUS CAESAR for a prestigious CBC program called FESTIVAL. It aired December 18, 1960, and starred Shatner as Marc Antony, Fritz Weaver, Douglas Rain (later the voice of HAL 9000 in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY), Robin Gammell, Kate Reid and even a young John Vernon. It looks as though Weaver, who played Brutus, may have been the only American in the cast.

EDIT: Yep, it exists. And you can see various scenes on YouTube. Here's just one of them:

Thursday, June 21, 2007

He Was A Friend Of Mine

April 14, 2004 (USA)
Writer: Peter Lefcourt
Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Although it was a crime drama, KAREN SISCO was light in tone. Not a spoof or breezy like cop shows of the 1970s like STARSKY & HUTCH, but a series with quirky characters and humor that flowed naturally from them. It felt like a breath of fresh air in a network television landscape packed with grim shows like 24, LAW & ORDER and C.S.I., in which tightlipped characters solve crimes with barely a hint of a smile.

Of course, KAREN SISCO was a ratings bust, so perhaps audiences weren’t looking for fresh air in their detective shows. “He Was a Friend of Mine” is certainly the darkest segment of SISCO’s limited run, a bleak outing that takes its characters to a place we had never seen them before. Nor would we again, as “He Was a Friend of Mine” was the final episode ever telecast.

Mordecai Jones (Robert Deacon), a friend of the Siscos for many years, is found dead in a Miami warehouse. The investigating police, led by young detective Rollins (Dylan Bruno, now a regular on NUMB3RS) and Dave Campos (THE MOD SQUAD’s Clarence Williams III), an old colleague of Karen’s father Marshall (Robert Forster), close the case and determine it an accident when the autopsy shows that Mordecai died of a heroin overdose. As Mordecai’s best friend, Marshall knows he was clean and begins his own investigation, which leads to major head-butting with Campos, who warns Karen (Carla Gugino) to pull her obsessive dad off the case before it consumes him.

If this was the direction in which KAREN SISCO was headed before ABC cancelled it, then the series had by no means yet hit its peak. Although the offbeat tone of the show, which coincided with that of the motion picture OUT OF SIGHT, from which the Sisco character (played by Jennifer Lopez) was taken, was the right one creatively, stepping back from the formula occasionally, as writer Peter Lefcourt did here, opened new doors into the minds of the characters. For one thing, “He Was a Friend of Mine” is the first time we see open friction between the Siscos, who to this point had never been less than bosom buddies who joked and hugged. The Karen/Marshall relationship was one of television’s most interesting between a father and a daughter, and Lefcourt shows us their rarely seen dark side, exposing us to secrets from Marshall’s past that he’d never admitted to Karen.

Gugino shines in the episode, which kills time with a fluffy subplot that disguises Karen as a hooker to lure a drug dealer to confess (which does allow Gugino to act sexy, which she does exceedingly well), but this is Forster’s episode and he is the “mine” of the title. Never showy, Forster acts with calm determination even when Marshall’s emotions are at full tilt, as the ex-cop puts his very life on the line to preserve a friend’s memory. Is it out of a sense of justice or a sense of guilt, for reasons revealed in Lefcourt’s teleplay? Reading Forster’s tight face allows us to make our own decision.

Surprisingly, director Kathryn Bigelow has helmed neither a TV episode nor a feature film since making her only KAREN SISCO episode. The former wife of director James Cameron (TITANIC), Bigelow once had quite a big-screen career, specializing in action movies (virtually the only female director to do so) like POINT BREAK, BLUE STEEL and STRANGE DAYS. After the submarine thriller K-19, starring Harrison Ford, died at the box office in 2002, Bigelow found herself out of work, with “He Was a Friend of Mine” her only significant directing credit since.

After ten episodes, KAREN SISCO was history. It’s unlikely it will ever receive a DVD release, although the entire run has appeared on the Sleuth cable channel, which is dedicated to showing old crime dramas owned by Universal. The series may not have been successful, but it certainly didn’t hurt the careers of its stars. Gugino returned to network television two seasons later as the star of CBS’ science fiction thriller THRESHOLD, but it was cancelled after 13 episodes. She also memorably appeared in the smash hits SIN CITY and NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM and guest-starred in the acclaimed HBO sitcom ENTOURAGE. Forster has steadily bounced back and forth between guest shots on TV series (like HUFF and NUMB3RS) and supporting roles in motion pictures, both major (FIREWALL) and independent, including the upcoming horror movie RISE: BLOOD HUNTER, which also stars Carla Gugino. Hopefully, director Sebastian Gutierrez, who wrote the KAREN SISCO episode “Dog Day Sisco,” was smart enough to give them scenes together. It would be a shame to waste such magnificent chemistry.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

What The Hell Has Loni Anderson Done To Herself?

Good Sweet Mary of Wadsworth, is that a woman's face or a new addition to Mount Rushmore!? That capture is from one of the featurettes on the WKRP IN CINCINNATI: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON 3-disc DVD box set. In the featurettes and the audio commentaries, it's clear that Anderson is a very nice, literate woman, but I wish she had been aware enough to not subject herself to plastic surgery(ies?) that deformed her so badly that she barely looks like someone from Earth.

The quick good news/bad news on the discs. All 22 episodes are presented uncut and in pretty decent condition. Unfortunately, a lot of the distinctive source music cues have been replaced by generic stock cuts because of the cost involved in licensing them. Often, okay, one can live with the substitutions, but often you can't. For instance, the famous scene in which Les Nessman (Richard Sanders) prepares for his date with Jennifer (Anderson) by slapping on a toupee while Foreigner's "Hot Blooded" cranks on the soundtrack has been neutered by the replacement of some boring library cue, totally destroying the humor of the moment.

On the other hand, I do have bootleg discs of the entire WKRP series with the original music, but they are syndication versions, meaning they are missing 1-2 minutes from each episode. We'll probably never get a perfect WKRP IN CINCINNATI DVD release, which is a shame, considering it's one of the great TV sitcoms. It was not especially respected by its production company, MTM, or its network, CBS, which moved it to eleven different timeslots in the four seasons it was on the air (one of them was after the shortlived and little-watched THE TIM CONWAY SHOW, IIRC), but critics loved it, and so did audiences, when they could find it. I believe WKRP even hit #1 in the weekly Nielsens on occasion. When it went into syndication, it was at least as popular with audiences as its fellow MTM shows that received more respect, including THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Systems Are Go, Man, Go

In case you haven't seen OCEAN'S 13 yet, I thought you might be interested in seeing the original film from the '60s upon which it was based. Yep, MAUDLIN'S 11 starring Sammy Maudlin, Bobby Bittman, Bill Needle, William B. Williams and Skip Bittman. Here's the first few minutes, and you can search YouTube for the rest.

"That niece is nice."

"El Oh Eleven!"

I Scored In The 96 Percentile

I answered all nine questions correctly. What's your News IQ?

Be Good To Buffalo

BUFFALO BILL may well be the greatest television sitcom you never heard of. Although only 26 episodes were ever produced, the series was nominated for eleven Emmys, including two for Outstanding Comedy Series and three for its writing. The late NBC president Brandon Tartikoff claimed that canceling BUFFALO BILL during its second season was his biggest professional regret. The show was daring, unusual, bold and extremely funny. Except for a brief run on the A&E cable network during the late 1980s, BUFFALO BILL has never been regularly repeated, which is what makes Lionsgate’s three-disc collection of the entire series such a treat.

Best of all, BUFFALO BILL gave actor Dabney Coleman one of the juiciest roles of his career. Coleman had been drifting through Hollywood since the early 1960s, appearing in television guest roles, commercials, soap operas and the occasional bit part in a feature. His big break came in 1980, when he landed the part of Franklin Hart, the smarmy, sexist boss of Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin in the box-office hit 9 TO 5. Although he had played heavies in television, 9 TO 5 was the origin of what we now readily identify as Coleman’s persona: egotistical, paranoid, selfish, vapid, crude. Playing obnoxious soap-opera director Ron Carlisle in an even bigger hit, 1982’s TOOTSIE, allowed him to expand on that persona, which also served him well as sinister NORAD official McKittrick in another hit, WARGAMES. Appearances in other high-profile films like ON GOLDEN POND and MODERN PROBLEMS helped put Coleman, now 51 years old, at the apex of his career.

I presume that when comedy writers Jay Tarses and Tom Patchett created the role of “Buffalo” Bill Bittinger, the narcissistic host of a local Buffalo, New York TV talk show, they had Coleman in mind, as it’s unlikely anybody else in Hollywood at that time could have played it. Bittinger is Ron Carlisle times ten: a heel with nary a redeeming virtue. Although critics sometimes compared BUFFALO BILL to ALL IN THE FAMILY, it really wasn’t very accurate. Whereas Archie Bunker was a lovable bigot whom America embraced, despite his personality flaws, there was nothing to love about Bill Bittinger: a coward, a racist, a male chauvinist, a hustler, a manipulator and a lout who never treated anyone in his life—even his own daughter, whose looks he frequently chastised—with a modicum of respect. Unless he needed something from them, then he would clumsily pretend to butter them up. No television series had ever put such a cad front and center before, and the critics, if not necessarily the audiences, ate it up.

Tarses and Patchett backed up Coleman with one of the most outstanding supporting casts I’ve ever seen in a sitcom: Joanna Cassidy (BLADE RUNNER) as Jo Jo White, the show’s director and Bill’s on-again/off-again love interest; Max Wright (ALF), the secret weapon as far as I’m concerned, as station manager Karl Shub; John Fiedler (THE BOB NEWHART SHOW) as agreeable stage manager Woody, Bill’s usual whipping boy; young Geena Davis (memorable in TOOTSIE too) as Wendy, Bill’s sexy but naïve (but, importantly, not stupid) research assistant; Meshach Taylor (DESIGNING WOMEN) as Tony, the assistant director; and Charles Robinson (NIGHT COURT) as Newdell, the makeup man who was just about the only one at the station who refused to take Bill’s guff. Everyone in the cast had enormous success in television or in films, and it’s likely that the prestige of being on such a remarkable show, which producers and casting directors knew about, even if the general public didn’t, helped land them future jobs.

NBC did BUFFALO BILL hardly any favors, giving it an initial order of thirteen episodes, but burning them off during the summer, when fewer people are watching television (actually, NBC aired only twelve of them, holding one back for the second season). Who knows what kind of promotional push NBC gave it, but enough of the show’s peers were watching to nominate the show for five Emmy awards, even though only four or five episodes had even aired up to then.

It’s likely the Emmy attention is all that brought BUFFALO BILL back for a second year. You can imagine what trouble the network had in marketing the show, as common wisdom said you could never revolve a sitcom around such an unrepentant character like Bill Bittinger, who in the first season schemed to replace a recently dead colleague on 60 MINUTES, proposed to Jo Jo and then schemed to get out of it, and became a used car salesman (in a large blond wig) when his show was temporarily canceled.

In Season Two, which debuted three days before Christmas 1984 (so you know the network was still not behind the show), BUFFALO BILL got even more outrageous, kicking off with “Hit the Road, Newdell,” which featured Bill’s wildly racist nightmare of being chased by African natives and black drug dealers, and including “Jerry Lewis Week” (the show’s best episode, in which Bill and Karl fight over a stuffed bear while the station is overrun with Jerry Lewis impersonators, including one played by an uncredited Jim Carrey), “The Interview” (in which Bill learns how little his friends love him), “The Girl on the Jetty” (a showcase for the underrated Max Wright, who always brought more dimension to his jittery authority figure than most shows would allow), and the two-part “Jo Jo’s Problem,” in which Jo Jo chooses to have an abortion, knowing she could never raise a child with Bill, the father.

NBC, behind Tartikoff, was finally beginning to move out of last place in the ratings, mostly because of its extremely slate of comedies, which at this time included THE COSBY SHOW, CHEERS, NIGHT COURT, FAMILY TIES, THE FACTS OF LIFE and DIFF’RENT STROKES. For whatever reason and even though Tartikoff had wisely given the equally ratings-challenged CHEERS time to develop, there was less patience with BUFFALO BILL, which was canceled 14 episodes into its second season. Of course, it was much different from anything else on NBC. Besides the repellent leading man (played so brilliantly and without ego by Coleman), BUFFALO BILL was filmed using a single camera without a live audience, which is almost the norm today, but very rare then. Against Tarses’ and Patchett’s wishes, I’m sure, a laugh track was awkwardly inserted into the soundtrack, where it sounded quite out of place with no gaps in the dialogue to accommodate it. One can also imagine the arguments NBC presented to warm up the Buffalo Bill character, but Coleman never did. Even though you expect Bittinger to break down at the end of each episode and show that he’s really not a bad guy after all, Coleman never breaks character, which may have killed the show, but who wants to see a show about a sweet Bill Bittinger anyway?

Lionsgate’s DVD set offers no extras, but, thankfully, allows us to enjoy BUFFALO BILL for the great series it is. I wish more had been done to place the show in its perspective. Considering its rocky production history and its unique place among sitcoms, a documentary or audio commentary seems essential. But the important thing is the show, of course, and all 26 episodes are here. One caveat: although the episodes appear to be complete, “Hit the Road, Newdell” is missing the classic nightmare mentioned above, because it was scored with Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road, Jack”, and the rights holders refused to license the song to Lionsgate at any price. While it’s sad that such a seminal scene may be lost forever, it may be a small price to pay just to have BUFFALO BILL available on DVD.

For more on BUFFALO BILL, see this interesting piece in TIME, dated July 11, 1983.

Friday, June 15, 2007

See You On The Other Side

Let it be known that I'm a fan of actor Jeff Fahey (recently seen in GRINDHOUSE as both the BBQ shack proprietor in PLANET TERROR and the evil businessman in the MACHETE trailer) and his unsung '90s TV series THE MARSHAL. However, this story, related by actor Gary Jones (STARGATE SG-1) about his guest-starring role on THE MARSHAL and what a tool Fahey was on the set, is hilarious.

See you on the other side.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Tales Of A Test Screening

I’ve been meaning to write about this for several months, but I thought it might be better if I held off until the film in question came out, so that I could partially avoid the spoiler issue. Be aware that I’m going to be mentioning the new Judd Apatow comedy KNOCKED UP, so if you haven’t seen it yet, know that I’ll be revealing some spoilers (if there can be said to be spoilers in a Hollywood romantic comedy).

Last October when I visited Los Angeles, I attended my first test screening. I think you may find the process as interesting and as odd as I did. I invite anyone who has also attended test screenings to post his or her experience below.

My friend Chris and I were wandering through the Studio City farmer’s market (where Ed Begley, Jr. has a booth selling his environmentally friendly cleaner, Begley’s Best!) on a Sunday morning when a young man called to us and asked if we were interested in a free test screening later that week. He handed us a flyer that mentioned next Thursday’s date and a multiplex in Sherman Oaks. The film was KNOCKED UP starring Katherine Heigl and Paul Rudd. I think it may have had a one- or two-sentence synopsis on it too, because I recall thinking that Rudd must be the romantic lead who knocks up Heigl. He asked if either of us worked for a studio. Chris does, but lied and said we didn’t. The guy asked us to RSVP on Thursday if we wanted to go.

On Thursday afternoon, I called the number on the flyer. Whoever answered was very much into security. She asked my name and the name of whoever would accompany me, as well as our addresses. She asked me to tell her the name of the number written on the upper righthand corner of the flyer, which I did. She asked if we worked for a studio, and I said no. Finally, she told me to show up at least 45 minutes before showtime, so we’d have a good chance of getting a seat (they invite more people than the auditorium actually holds).

Chris and I got to the Sherman Oaks theater well ahead of time and noticed a good-sized line, but not so long that we couldn’t get in. After about ten minutes, a young woman with a clipboard came up to us and asked how old we were. I didn’t see her do this with anyone else, but as I looked around, it was clear that pretty much everyone there was in their 20s or younger. I said I was 39 and Chris was 31 (or whatever). She then moved us to the head of the line, I guess to make sure the old dudes got in to help balance the results.

Despite all the security when I made the call, nobody ever asked us for ID or what our names were. I guess there was no need to RSVP; we could have just walked off the street and nobody would have known. All they did was make sure we didn’t have any cameras or recording devices. They even wanded us when we entered the theater.

Chris and I had decent seats in the stadium seating section. We saw Apatow with Garry Shandling and Loudon Wainwright III, so we figured they were in the movie (we were half right).

I haven’t seen KNOCKED UP since October, so I don’t know how much of what we saw is still in the movie. One thing that surprised me is that it isn’t any shorter. I didn’t check my watch at the beginning, but the cut we saw was about 2 hours and 20 minutes. There were a lot of scenes where Chris and I said, “that’ll be cut out,” not necessarily because it wasn’t funny, but it didn’t have anything to do with the rest of the film. One scene in particular where a bouncer bitches out Heigl and Leslie Mann was hilarious, but I couldn’t see how the studio would allow it to stay in. Plus, the movie felt too long. The middle really dragged, particularly a pointless section set in Las Vegas, which I would have snipped for being unfunny as well as non-essential.

Still, I thought it was a funny movie that would be hilarious at 100 minutes. After the movie was over, some women (why are these test audience monitors always women?) handed everybody a sheet of paper and one of those little miniature golf course pencils. This sheet had several test questions on it, some of them essay-type. I’m paraphrasing, but they would ask us to rate 1-10 how much we liked each individual cast member. They asked us to name three scenes we liked and three we didn’t like. They asked us how we would describe the movie to our friends (I said something like “THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN MEETS LEGALLY BLONDE”) and if we would recommend it.

Then, one of the women approached Chris and I and asked if we would stay to be part of the focus group. Again, probably because we were the oldest guys there. Of course, we did, and this is where the real craziness set in. Keep in mind that Apatow and others associated with the film are in the top row of the seats watching and listening (I found out later in a NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE piece that Apatow recorded the audience during the film to time where the laughs were). The woman running this focus group was a real piece of work. Maybe she deals with a lot of morons in her line of work, but she talked to the twenty of us in the group like a kindergarten teacher. She was incredibly condescending, and I actually felt embarrassed to be thought of as a five-year-old.

She asked more in-depth questions about the actors and their characters and motivations. Did we think the film was too long, just right or not long enough (incredibly, a couple people said it was too short—I guess those were the idiots)? Someone mentioned Paul Rudd, and she got all excited and slowly—again, like she was talking to five-year-olds—asked, “Okay, now does everybody know who she’s talking about?” I didn’t say very much unless spoken directly to, partially because I was trying to take everything in and partially because—and I hate to say this—I felt intellectually superior to everybody except Chris (and I think he felt the same way). Some of these people, I had the feeling, had never seen a movie before.

I can see the argument that “well, these are the people who will be paying to see the movie, so why not give them what they want,” but I just can’t believe that, after spending $70 million and a year making the film, after it has been written, shot and edited by talented people entrusted with that much dough, that filmmakers would allow normal schleprocks like me to decide for them what their art should be about. Some of these people in the focus group have no business even watching movies, much less deciding whether scenes should be added or dropped or judging whether somebody is a good actor or director.

It really seems like a silly way to make creative decisions. With a comedy, sure, I can understand recording the laughter and seeing what jokes play and what don’t or gauging whether to edit an extra beat here or there. Oddly, it may all have been moot. For what I have heard, a lot of what was in that test screening version is still in the film. The Las Vegas stuff is there. The bouncer scene is in. I’m most amazed to learn that a closeup of a vagina, which drew loud but uncomfortable laughter and groans, is still in the movie; I figured either the studio would want to avoid any controversy or the MPAA would make them cut it. The NYT MAGAZINE piece I referenced above indicated that there may have been some reshoots or alternate takes used in the final cut, so I’m curious to see KNOCKED UP again and see if I notice. One thing that I specifically spoke against to the focus group is that the Seth Rogan character has one line in a doctor’s office that is so mean, so cruel, so awful, that his character becomes completely unsympathetic for the rest of the movie. That after the film has tried hard to make him a compatible father, he blows it with that one line, turning him into a complete asshole. At the time, I thought Apatow would probably soften that scene, but I wonder.

One thing for sure: it was fun to see this movie months before everyone else and to follow the rumors and buzz that preceded its release, knowing that it was going to be good. The fact that it’s a box office hit is no surprise to me, although I did have misgivings about its length and negative word-of-mouth that “it’s funny, but way too long.”

Anyone else with a test screening story to share? Was my experience pretty common or atypical?

Hooker Knows It's Cocaine

I spent many Saturday evenings during the 1980s watching T.J. HOOKER. It wasn't a good show then, and it isn't a good show now, but it is frequently a funny show and certainly well-packed with action. You have to love that most episodes either had Heather Locklear wearing a bikini or going undercover as a stripper or a prostitute. There was publicity at the time that William Shatner did his own stunts, but judging from the opening titles, that would make him just about the greatest stuntman in Hollywood. Really, if you were doing a parody of a TV cop show opening title sequence, it would look a lot like T.J. HOOKER's actual titles.

I still think Heather knocking that guy on his ass with that wimpy baton toss is one of the funniest things I've ever seen.

EDIT: Thanks to Jim for reminding me that this version of the credits (from Season 2, I think) doesn't include the amazing Heather baton toss. So here is the titles from Season 3, which does. As well as Heather in a bikini. And showing off how bad a dancer she is. Accompanied by a shitty "synthy" version of Mark Snow's theme.

Something else that was funny about this show. You could always predict whether you were going to see a car chase or a foot chase by whomever was driving the squad car. If Zmed was driving, then you knew Shatner was going to jump out and chase somebody (and probably end up diving on the guy's car hood). If Shatner was behind the wheel, then you knew there was going to be a car chase. And then a scene were Shatner's boss chewed him out for destroying property and endangering lives, and Shatner came back with, "Who are you to put a price on getting scumbags off the streets?" or something similar.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Casey And The Clown

Yeah, I really don't know what's going on here, but it's one of the most unusual comic book covers I've ever seen. Also one of the creepiest, despite (or maybe because of) the blotchy photography and the odd perspective. Namely, what the hell is Casey looking at that's more interesting than a clown pointing a gun at him?

Marvel Comics released four issues of CASEY, CRIME PHOTOGRAPHER, of which this is #2, cover-dated October 1949. The cover story was "The Sinister Carnival" (I'll say), and it was drawn by the barely remembered Vernon Henkel, who worked on a couple dozen Marvel titles during the early 1950s. It's possible Stan Lee wrote the story, but no one seems to know for sure.

CASEY, CRIME PHOTOGRAPHER was based on a then-popular radio series about "Flashgun" Casey, a newsman with a nose for finding trouble. Later, after the Marvel comic was cancelled, CASEY moved to television with notable leading man Darren McGavin (best known as KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER) playing the role, but CBS quickly canceled the series. And, according to McGavin, deservedly so. I wonder if he got to fight any evil clowns?

By the way, that is not McGavin playing Casey on the cover, and I doubt it's Staats Cotsworth, who starred in the radio series.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

There Can Be Only...II?

At least three different versions of 1991's HIGHLANDER II: THE QUICKENING exist. I suspect that all of them suck, though this review is based on the original U.S. theatrical version, which also was released on videocassette. It’s practically a lost film today, as the VHS tape is out of print, and it’s unlikely to receive a DVD release (though you never know). The current DVD is of director Russell Mulcahy's "Director's Cut."

I saw HIGHLANDER II at Country Fair Theaters (or perhaps it was Wehrenberg by 1991), and it was terrible. Sixteen years later, this ridiculous sequel remains stupefyingly bad, starting from a senseless premise and following it through to its anticlimactic end. Most shocking, it completely contradicts much of what was previously established in the first film, where Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) defeated the last of his people in combat to become the last Highlander (“There can be only one,” remember?) and lose his immortality. HIGHLANDER II strangely posits that there are more Highlanders after all, and they come, not from medieval Scotland, but outer space! The planet Zeist, to be exact, where MacLeod and his mentor Ramirez (a slumming Sean Connery) are revealed as rebels whose attack against evil leader Katana (Michael Ironside) failed. Instead of executing them, the two are transported to Earth where they will never die. Somehow, this is considered to be a great punishment. When only one of them remains, he can choose either to return to Zeist or stay on Earth and grow old. MacLeod vows to return to Zeist, though he never does.

In 1999, the ozone layer has been depleted, and MacLeod and his friend Alan Heyman (Allan Rich) create the December Installation: a shield that completely covers the Earth and protects it from solar radiation that has killed millions of people. Unfortunately, it also shuts out sunlight, clouds, rain and the stars. By 2024, the world is dark and gloomy, though The Shield Corporation, which owns the shield, is highly profitable under the watchful corporate eye of CFO Blake (John C. McGinley, now on SCRUBS).

Meanwhile, Katana, 500 years after MacLeod’s exile, for some reason decides to send two idiot assassins to Earth to take out his old enemy, who’s aged into an elderly man and would seem to pose no threat to anyone, much less somebody on a distant planet. By the way, it isn’t established why Katana remains alive five centuries later. If the inhabitants of Zeist are immortal, why would sentencing MacLeod and Ramirez to a life of immortality be such a harsh punishment? MacLeod kills the assassins (in what is probably the movie’s best action scene), regains his youth (which occurred when the killers arrived from Zeist), and teams up with environmental terrorist Louise (SIDEWAYS costar Virginia Madsen) to defeat Katana (who has also come to Earth) and break up the Shield Corporation.

Filmed on the cheap in Argentina (though Connery allegedly made over $3 million for less than two weeks work), HIGHLANDER II occasionally showcases some very large sets, though often dark, bare ones influenced by BATMAN or maybe BLADE RUNNER. MacLeod’s fight with the flying assassins appears to have been shot indoors or perhaps a backlot, and even though it doesn’t look anything like New York City, it does give the setpiece an otherworldly feel. The clumsy editing produces several glaring continuity errors, such as the Zeist-born Katana knowing all about THE WIZARD OF OZ (!) and both Katana and MacLeod changing swords and clothes during their final battle. The occasional comic lines fall flat, as do the awful power ballads sprinkled throughout. Only Connery delivers a decent performance, and he’s barely trying. Lambert is wooden, Ironside is ridiculously broad, and Madsen barely resonates (barely has a character, really), though screenwriter Peter Bellwood deserves his share of blame.

HIGHLANDER II was reportedly butchered by the financiers before its U.S. release, which director Mulcahy disowned. The cut released in Europe was slightly different, and a more recent “Director’s Cut” substantially so, removing all references to Zeist and adding nearly twenty minutes of previously unseen footage. It's very likely that those of you who have seen this movie are unaware that the Zeist subplot ever existed, since there doesn't appear to be any way to see it today. Hopefully, you're curious to! HIGHLANDER II is one of the dumbest sequels ever made, though it isn’t at all boring. On the contrary, it’s an often fascinating example of inept moviemaking, and it does contain much to laugh at, including some woeful visual effects. Even Stewart Copeland’s score is bad.

Somehow, this movie didn’t bring the HIGHLANDER franchise to a screaming halt. Two more films followed (as well as a third so-far-unreleased sequel), as well as two television series, comic books, action figures and much more. HIGHLANDER remains alive and well more than twenty years after the first film. If HIGHLANDER II couldn’t kill it, then the franchise may prove to be as immortal as its characters.

Communism Is Here

The amazing WHAT IS COMMUNISM? short film that I posted about in January is now available on YouTube in two parts: here and here. Enjoy.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

No One's Girl

April 7, 2004 (USA)
Teleplay: John Landgraf
Story: John Landgraf & Jeffrey Fenner
Director: David Carson

John Landgraf, the president of Jersey Films, the production company that made KAREN SISCO, demonstrated he was more than an executive producer in name only when he co-wrote the story (with Jeffrey Fenner) and penned the teleplay to “No One’s Girl,” an lightly plotted but sweet episode of KAREN SISCO. Robert Davi (LICENCE TO KILL) plays Denton, a vicious pimp and drug dealer who murders the man who ratted him out to the U.S. Marshals office. Unfortunately for him, someone sees the murder: an 11-year-old homeless girl named Josie (Jennette McCurdy).

Marshal Karen Sisco (Carla Gugino) discovers Josie while investigating the murder scene and takes the little girl home, realizing she’s a witness to the crime. On her own since the death of her grandmother, Josie distrusts Karen and refuses to talk about the murder. Though Karen’s father Marshall (Robert Forster) manages to warm Josie up a bit, using the same techniques that worked on tough little Karen at the same age, it isn’t until Karen springs Josie’s father, bank robber Harry Boyle (D.B. Sweeney), from prison that the girl really starts to come around.

Davi’s role is actually smaller than you would think judging from the teaser, as “No One’s Girl” really isn’t about murder at all. The Denton storyline and another involving Boyle’s partners’ kidnapping of Josie in exchange for the bank loot exist to satisfy crime drama fans, but the episode is really about Josie and Harry and their attempt at loving each other, even though they’re complete strangers. Forster, who has daughters in real life, shines in his scenes with Gugino and McCurdy, rolling with excessive charm and contributing to a final shot that says more about his character than would most soliloquies. Gugino carries the episode well, playing a couple of moments for comedy and building chemistry with GREY’S ANATOMY’s Kate Walsh, who returns as Marley Novak, the lesbian detective Karen met in “Nobody’s Perfect.”

Director David Carson, probably best known for his work on STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION and its spinoff feature STAR TREK: GENERATIONS, may have been responsible for hiring guest actor Sweeney, who starred in the short-lived cult series STRANGE LUCK, for which Carson helmed some episodes. Likewise, writer Landgraf, whose only script this is, was the president of NBC and the husband of actress Ally Walker when PROFILER, a series that starred both Walker and Robert Davi, was part of that network’s Saturday-night “thrillogy”. In Hollywood, who you know is almost as handy as what you know.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

From Hell's Heart, I Stab At Thee

Where were you 25 years ago this week? Perhaps you were lining up around the block to see STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, which opened nationwide in 1621 theaters on June 4, 1982. It was the #1 film at the box office, making more money than ROCKY III and POLTERGEIST, which also opened June 4, and it was the #6 money-making movie of the year, behind E.T., TOOTSIE, AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN, ROCKY III and PORKY'S and just ahead of 48 HRS., POLTERGEIST, THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS and ANNIE. Obviously, 1982 was an excellent year for movies, and STAR TREK II's quality is such that it is not out of place among the Top Ten.

For some reason, 1979's STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, which also opened at #1 and eventually earned more at the box office than even STAR TREK II, was considered a flop, so Paramount undertook the sequel with trepidations, slicing the budget by over half, changing the costume design, and ensuring the story was packed with action and a villain the audience could identify with. Drawing from the 1967 TV episode "Space Seed," STAR TREK II brought back actor Ricardo Montalban as megalomaniac Khan Noonian Singh, who escaped from the prison planet to which he had been exiled and began his mad pursuit of revenge against the man who had sentenced him: Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner).

Considering I don't think Paramount has ever produced a good trailer for a STAR TREK movie, STAR TREK II mainly earned its financial plaudits through excellent word-of-mouth, plenty of writeups in the sci-fi magazines of the era (such as STARLOG), and the enormous publicity generated by pre-release rumors that fan favorite Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) would die in the film. Spock's demise was on the lips of every SF fan during the summer of 1982, and though the rumors were proven true, there was little doubt that the stage was set for Spock's resurrection in STAR TREK III.

Here's the theatrical trailer for STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, which I believe to be one of the greatest science fiction films ever made, jammed with action and suspense, an excellent score by James Horner, well-mounted visual effect setpieces, and terrific performances by Shatner and Montalban, whom I still believe deserved Oscar consideration. Strangely, though the inferior STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE was nominated for three Academy Awards, STAR TREK II earned none.

Also worth noting is that William Shatner had two films in the Top Ten this week in 1982. While STAR TREK II sat on top of the charts, VISITING HOURS, a Canadian-produced slasher movie with an ace cast including Lee Grant, Linda Purl and Michael Ironside, was the #6 movie at the box office.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Dog Day Sisco

March 31, 2004 (USA)
Writer: Sebastian Gutierrez
Director: Rick Wallace

Only eight episodes into production, and already a bottle show? A “bottle show” is an episode designed specifically to save money by scaling way back on the number of sets, locations and guest actors. These usually involve the main characters being stuck someplace—locked in a vault or trapped in a snowbound cabin—allowing the director to shoot more setups per day using the same basic set. Bottle shows normally appear near the end of a series’ production cycle after a few episodes have been allowed to run over budget and the cast and crew are tired and need an “easy” show as a breather. Perhaps the studio, after early KAREN SISCO episodes failed to rank high in the Nielsen ratings, urged the producers to cut costs in an effort to improve its ROI (Return On Investment).

“Dog Day Sisco” is, obviously, patterned after the 1973 film DOG DAY AFTERNOON, and reunites star Carla Gugino with her co-star (Gil Bellows) and her writer/director (Sebastian Gutierrez) on the 1998 crime drama JUDAS KISS. Karen Sisco (Gugino) and her father Marshall (Robert Forster) stop off at their bank on the way to breakfast, just a few minutes before it’s hit by armed robbers. Wearing ski masks and naming themselves after Looney Tunes characters, the crooks appear to the Siscos to be frightened amateurs, which could make them more dangerous, not less. Hiding her badge behind a trash can in order to hide her identity as a United States marshal, Karen does her best to keep the robbers’ emotions on an even keel and prevent any bloodshed. Outside the bank, the lives of the hostages are in the hands of FBI negotiator Donnie Pepper (Bellows), a reckless and stubborn agent in whose abilities Karen and her boss Amos Andrews (Bill Duke) have little faith.

If you’ve ever seen a TV cop show, you’ve basically seen this episode, as the hero-taken-hostage scenario is a genre standard. What sets “Dog Day Sisco” apart from other is its leading performances by Gugino and Forster, who have the most screen time together in any episode to date. The Karen/Marshall relationship is one of television’s most intriguing daughter/father dynamics in that they’re good friends as well as relatives. Even when they aren’t speaking, the deep bond the characters have for each other is clear to the audience. Not only does “Dog Day Sisco” put Gugino and Forster together for the entire hour, but it also gets Duke out from behind his desk and at the crime scene, where his impatience with the cocky Donnie Pepper makes from some sparkling repartee.

Though Gutierrez got the nod to pen the teleplay as a freelancer, he didn’t direct it. Handling the helming chores was Rick Wallace, an Emmy winner who began as a producer and director on Steven Bochco productions like HILL STREET BLUES and L.A. LAW and continues to be very busy working on MEN IN TREES, THE CLOSER and COMMANDER IN CHIEF. Marley Shelton, most recently in GRINDHOUSE, plays the lone female member of the bank heist gang, and red-haired Glenn Morshower (Special Service agent Pierce on 24, a fan favorite character) does his terse authority figure thing as the chief of the Miami-Dade police force.

Hardly anyone has seen “Dog Day Sisco,” because it never aired on ABC. KAREN SISCO was cancelled after only seven episodes, but ten were already in the can. “Dog Day Sisco” and the other two remaining episodes made their debut on the USA cable network, more than four months after the series’ final ABC broadcast. All ten episodes have also aired on the Sleuth cable channel.