Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Lee At War

Twenty years ago today, we lost a wonderful actor and one of the screen’s great badasses. Lee Marvin died August 29, 1987 in Tucson, Arizona of a heart attack. He was 63 years old, although years of late-night carousing and hard drinking, along with his naturally craggy features and gravelly voice, gave the impression of an older man. Marvin was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, a World War II veteran who served with the U.S. Marine Corps and a Purple Heart recipient who was wounded at Saipan.

Richard Harland Smith at Turner Classic Movies' Movie Morlocks blog is spearheading today's Lee Marvin Blog-A-Thon, and it's an honor to be asked to join him in celebrating one of our favorite actors. If you get some extra time today, check out Richard's salute to POCKET MONEY and PRIME CUT and follow the links there to many other Lee Marvin tributes all over the Internet.

Marvin began his acting career around 1950, and his combat experience, steely countenance and tough-guy charisma made him a natural for military roles. He bounced back and forth between film and television for more than a decade, playing a lot of gunfighters, soldiers, mobsters and assassins, almost always in supporting roles. In 1957, he landed the lead role of Lt. Frank Ballinger, a two-fisted Chicago police detective, in the NBC series M SQUAD. If M SQUAD is remembered at all today, it’s for its swinging jazz theme composed by Count Basie and its opening titles, which were hilariously parodied by Leslie Nielsen and the Jerry Zucker/Jim Abrahams/David Zucker triptych in the 1982 TV series POLICE SQUAD! Although M SQUAD ran three seasons and 117 half-hour episodes, it’s rarely seen anymore and is ripe for a DVD release.

After M SQUAD left the air in 1960, Marvin continued as a popular guest star in episodic television. One of his most memorable roles during this era dovetailed nicely with his stint in the Marines, portraying a hardassed demolition expert in “The Bridge at Chalons,” a 1963 episode of the smash ABC series COMBAT! that was chosen to open the show’s second season. Starring Rick Jason as Lt. Gil Hanley and Vic Morrow as Sgt. Chip Saunders, COMBAT! had made a name for itself during its inaugural year for its film-level production values and its bleak portrayal of war.

Written by Bob and Esther Mitchell (whose screenwriting credits run the gamut of shows from PERRY MASON to BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY) and directed by Ted Post (who eventually branched out into features, including Clint Eastwood’s HANG ‘EM HIGH and MAGNUM FORCE), “The Bridge at Chalons” stars Marvin as Sgt. Turk, who is assigned by the Army brass to blow up a bridge deemed vital to the Nazi cause. Saunders and his men are ordered to accompany Turk to Chalons and provide cover and assistance. For Turk, this simply won’t do, as his bitter attitude and cruel behavior towards Saunders and his men make it clear that Turk is a very hard man who must have suffered some deep loss during his time in combat. After most of the party is either killed or forced to return to base, Turk and Saunders are the only ones left to carry out the mission, which means that the two, who despise each other, will now be forced to rely on each other to survive.

According to author Jo Davidsmeyer, whose COMBAT!: A VIEWER’S COMPANION TO THE WWII SERIES is the likely authority on the television series (and was consulted during the production of Image Entertainment’s DVD box sets), Marvin was highly respected and quite popular on the set. Actor Conlan Carter, who played Doc, said, “He was a piece of work, boy. The fun part of him was not so much in the acting, though he was good and he did what he did well. But he was a hard drinker. After the shoot was over for the day, man, could he put them down. Tell the stories! And he had incredible recovery. He could drink to one, two, three o'clock in the morning and show up on the set the next day and look like he'd never been out." Tom Lowell (Billy) remembers how Marvin’s Marine career came in handy during shooting. "I always thought Lee Marvin was so cool. The way he came in and had his rifle slung that way. Remember the way he had his elbows looped through the strap. That was so cool. I tried to do that for every show after that and Dick (series regular Dick Peabody, who played Littlejohn) would look down at me and say, 'Don't even try it.' After Lee Marvin came on, everyone wanted a rubber band wrapped around their helmet." Director Post contributes an audio commentary track to the episode on Image’s DVD, and spends nearly the entire hour talking about Marvin and what a fine actor he was.

It’s certain that the late Morrow (who was killed making TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE in 1982) possessed a hearty respect for Marvin, as the two actors crackle during their scenes together, many of which were shot on location and at night, usually a luxury in episodic television. As superb as Marvin is in his only COMBAT! episode, it’s hardly surprising that he soon made the permanent leap to motion pictures, and it was his Best Actor Academy Award for 1965’s CAT BALLOU that allowed him to escape the grind of television forever. Almost.

23 years after his appearance on COMBAT!, Marvin acted on television for the last time in THE DIRTY DOZEN: NEXT MISSION. One of his most popular films had been 1967’s THE DIRTY DOZEN, a raucous, violent, crowd-pleasing actioner set during World War II that cast Marvin as Reisman, a hard-nosed Army major in charge of training and leading twelve convicts on a suicide mission into German territory. Directed by Robert Aldrich and featuring an all-star cast including Telly Savalas, Ernest Borgnine, pro footballer Jim Brown, Richard Jaeckel, Charles Bronson, TV star Clint Walker, singer Trini Lopez, a young Donald Sutherland and John Cassevetes (who received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor), THE DIRTY DOZEN was a major box-office smash, and, in retrospect, it’s surprising it took MGM almost two decades to reprise it.

In NEXT MISSION, which is included as an extra on Warner Home Video’s 2-disc Special Edition DVD of THE DIRTY DOZEN, Marvin looks weary and quite a bit older. He also may be drunk in a couple of scenes. Working under the influence was not an uncommon practice for Marvin; one story claims that after he and actor Richard Burton introduced themselves to each other at a party, a fellow guest had to remind them that not only had the two already met, but they had starred together in a picture, 1974’s THE KLANSMAN!

As an aside, I debated writing about THE KLANSMAN, one of the most amazing, tasteless and depressing melodramas ever filmed, but I didn’t feel up to subjecting myself to this ugly film again so soon.

Like many sequels, NEXT MISSION is really a remake. Once again, Reisman recruits twelve hardened military prisoners, all sentenced to death or years of hard labor, to undertake a dangerous mission behind enemy lines. This time, they are to assassinate Dietrich (Wolf Kahler), a Nazi general, before he can assassinate Adolf Hitler. The Allies feel that Hitler’s erratic behavior is certain to clinch the war for them in just a few months, whereas if he is assassinated, his replacement will likely be able to rejuvenate the Nazi forces.

Although NBC also lured Borgnine and Jaeckel back to reprise their roles from the first movie, the rest of the cast is comprised of B-level TV actors without the stature of Bronson, Brown, George Kennedy et al.: CHIPS star Larry Wilcox (miscast as an eccentric Kansas cropduster), Sonny Landham (48 HRS.), Ken Wahl (not yet on WISEGUY), Gavan O’Herlihy (DEATH WISH III) and no one else you’ve heard of. Director Andrew V. McLaglen (THE WILD GEESE) shot Michael Kane’s teleplay in England with full awareness of where to place the pyrotechnics and stuntmen for maximum impact, but the familiar story (with exact scenes and dialogue pulled from Nunnally Johnson and Lukas Heller’s original screenplay), unfamiliar actors and an unenergetic Marvin make THE DIRTY DOZEN: NEXT MISSION an average shoot-‘em-up at best.

NBC aired NEXT MISSION on February 4, 1985. It was Marvin’s penultimate picture; he acted for the last time as the top-billed star of THE DELTA FORCE, Cannon Films and director/producer Menahem Golan’s jingoistic take on the 1970s disaster-film genre. Marvin has surprisingly little screen time, as Cannon contract player Chuck Norris handles the heavy action, while colorful character actors like George Kennedy, Bo Svenson, Robert Forster and Martin Balsam chew the scenery. An inauspicious swan song, perhaps, for one of cinema’s great badasses, but at least it featured Marvin the way we’d like to remember him: barking orders and kicking enemy ass.

Happy Birthday, Jack Kirby

Jack Kirby, the most influential artist in the history of comic books, would have been 90 years old today. He died in 1994, leaving behind an incredible legacy. Among the hundreds of characters that Kirby created or co-created: Captain America, the Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer, Boy Commandos, Hulk, the X-Men, Thor, Mister Miracle, Darkseid, Galactus, Dr. Doom, New Gods, Forever People, Kamandi. It is said that Kirby, often in collaboration with other comic book notables, such as Joe Simon (during the 1940's and '50s) and Stan Lee (at Marvel during the '60s), was involved in creating more than 400 characters, many of which remain active moneymakers for their companies more than fifty years later.

Why Are There So Many Gay Republicans?

And why do they despise gays so much?

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Squeezin' That Watch Ain't Gonna Stop Time

In anticipation of the upcoming remake starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, Encore Westerns is running the original 3:10 TO YUMA, released in black-and-white in 1957. Although the cable network isn't airing a letterboxed version, the film's emphasis on intimate performances still manages to come through nicely on the small screen. Director Delmer Daves (JUBAL) goes for suspense, rather than gun-blazing action, in this well-acted Columbia western.

Poor rancher Dan Evans (Van Heflin) accepts $200 for a dirty job nobody else—not even the town marshal—wants: transporting captured outlaw Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) to board the 3:10 train from Contention City to Yuma, while evading Wade’s loyal gang’s attempt to sprint their boss. It's not an original plot--in fact, it sounds a lot like HIGH NOON--but it comes from an Elmore Leonard novel and is an excellent framework for the actors to hang their craft on.

While Daves does stage a few action sequences, YUMA is a character-based battle of wits between Ford’s cunning, charismatic bad guy, whose powers of seduction work on men just as well as with women, and Heflin’s honest but financially struggling family man, who takes the job to put food on the table. Both actors are marvelous, but the slight edge goes to Ford, who plays nicely against type with a tight smile, a forked tongue and a quiet steadiness that wears down the nervous Heflin more precisely than hysterics would. Wade is a killer, but he’s no psycho, which makes him more dangerous.

George Duning’s memorable score teams with Frankie Laine’s theme song and appropriately dry Arizona locations to set the stage for one of the most important westerns of the 1950s, despite its clunky climax. Also in the cast are Felicia Farr, Richard Jaeckel, Robert Emhardt, Henry Jones, Richard Devon and Ford Rainey. Despite its reputation as an excellent film, I don't think it's above remaking, particularly with Crowe and Bale in the leads (in the Ford and Heflin roles, respectively) and director James Mangold behind the camera. Mangold's second feature, 1997's COP LAND, has much in common with 3:10 TO YUMA, in particular the leading man's dedication to right versus wrong and his brave fight to stand up to corruption against incredible odds. I doubt that it's a coincidence that COP LAND's lead, played well by Sylvester Stallone and created by screenwriter Mangold, is named Fred Heflin.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Still Waiting For The World Crime League

One of the coolest closing crawls ever. THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU paid homage to THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI, which was neat, but I like the BANZAI bit better because the Banzai March kicks so much ass.

I do like the Bowie tune too. I also think BANZAI is a better film than ZISSOU, although I like both. Really, ZISSOU is the only Wes Anderson movie I really like, to date.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Every Racket's Strength

It's dark. The camera slowly dollies in on an apartment building, as an upstairs light turns off. Pan down to see a man exit onto the street. A nervous man carrying a suitcase. As he walks down the sidewalk, he hears loud footsteps behind him. Two men. Clop clop clop clop. The man is afraid. He begins to panic and runs down an alley. But he's trapped. It's a dead end. Clop clop clop clop. The eerie-sounding footsteps grow louder as the men inside the shoes get closer. The man looks into the camera with a terrified look on his face. Cut to a fist jabbing directly into the lens, as an animated glass cracking fills the screen. A fast dissolve to the two men working over the first man. One holding him from behind, the other smashing him in the face over and over until he finally collapses, unconscious, to the alley floor against a garbage can. A music sting and the title--LOAN SHARK--fills the screen.

Admittedly, this 1952 crime drama never lives up to its stylish and definitely attention-grabbing prologue, but it's still an interesting little picture. Screen legend George Raft (SCARFACE) toplines as Joe Gargan, a tough but decent guy just out from serving nearly three years in prison for beating a guy up in a fight. Temporarily shacked up in his "kid sister's" house (Raft is thirty years older--and looks it--than the actress playing his sister), he is offered a job at the tire plant where his brother-in-law Ed (Bill Phipps) works, but turns it down when the boss asks him to investigate a loan sharking conspiracy that's draining the employees of their paychecks. Joe changes his mind, however, when Ed is murdered after attempting to gather evidence against the loan sharks. Undercover, Joe ingratiates himself with the leader, Phillips (John Hoyt), and is invited to join the organization as a collector, where he works from inside to discover the identity of both Phillips' boss and the tire plant employee who killed Ed.

LOAN SHARK is hardly credible--the police are completely unaware of Joe's investigation, which is completely run by the tire plant boss, the most generous ever. Meanwhile, Raft is clearly, at almost sixty, too old for the role, yet his professionalism and the fine cast recruited by journeyman director Seymour Friedman make the story feel somewhat real. Busy TV guest star Paul Stewart plays Phillips' #1 gunsel--a role he would portray in a zillion television episodes--and future "Professor" Russell Johnson has a decent part as the killer. LOAN SHARK runs only 74 minutes, so there isn't time for it to grow old, and location shooting at a real Goodyear plant adds verisimilitude. In fact, the scenes showing how tires are (were) made are some of the coolest in the movie!

Monday, August 20, 2007

Hell-Reapers At the Heart of Paradise

I did read a kickass comic the other night. In addition to a regular-sized color DOC SAVAGE comic book, during the 1970s, Marvel also put out a magazine-sized black-and-white DOC SAVAGE book. Both lasted only a few issues, but there were some pretty good stories in them, particularly the 76-page b&w book, which was able to facilitate longer stories with more adventure and depth. Strangely, even though I have a few of them and I have known a few people who read them, I have never read a Doc Savage paperback. Only some of the Marvel comic stories. Obviously, this is a situation I need to rectify in the near future.

DOC SAVAGE #2, published in 1975, the same year the world's only Doc Savage film, DOC SAVAGE: THE MAN OF BRONZE, was released, is great fun. In the feature-length adventure "Hell-Reapers At the Heart of Paradise," written by the imaginative Doug Moench and drawn by the talented Tony DeZuniga, Doc and his five assistants look into a case in which survivors of an Arctic shipwreck five years earlier are being kidnapped by a crazed Viking! Their chase leads them to a mysterious underground world inhabited by scary-looking though friendly lizard-men who guard a 500-year-old sunken treasure. All of Doc's assistants receive a brief moment in the spotlight, but it's the Man of Bronze who saves the day with his amazing gadgets, razor-sharp mind, and, of course, his two fists. It's really a fun story, and I'm looking forward to reading issues #3, 4 and 7.

Following the story is a lengthy interview with Ron Ely, the handsome and athletic actor well-known for portraying Tarzan in the fine 1960s TV series, who was then starring in the big-screen DOC SAVAGE film. The movie, sadly, is not very good, but Ely doesn't seem to know it, and gets excited at the prospect of a whole run of Doc Savage movies. It's a nice interview in which Ely comes off as surprisingly thoughtful for an actor known for action roles.

My Kitchen Smells Like Sauerkraut

Sorry I haven't posted very much lately. I've been taking something of an unplanned rest, and one that probably won't last much longer. I just haven't spent as much time in front of a computer lately. For that matter, I also haven't watched a lot of movies lately, so I haven't had much to write about on that front.

Also, Hooker is looking for a model murderer.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Why Do Commies Hate Tents So Much?

This is one of the excellent features we watched during last night's Crappy Movie Night. NO RETREAT NO SURRENDER II has nothing to do with NO RETREAT NO SURRENDER. It's actually a fast-moving, silly action movie directed by Corey Yuen, who went on to bigger things like THE TRANSPORTER and the awesome SO CLOSE. NRNS II hardly ever stops moving. Though it's cheap and stiffly acted, the action sequences are surprisingly lively for a movie titled NO RETREAT NO SURRENDER II. Star Loren Avedon is a poor actor, but looks like a decent fighter (same goes for Cynthia Rothrock), and he made an even better low-budget martial-arts movie called THE KING OF THE KICKBOXERS (my VHS copy of which went to crap, though I'm supposed to be getting a replacement).

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Is There A Mechanic In The House?

How big was MIAMI VICE? So big that Pepsi not only ripped it off for a series of TV spots, but it even lured Don Johnson to appear in them (Michael J. Fox did some BACK TO THE FUTURE-inspired spots around this time too). But that's not Philip Michael Thomas by Don's side. No, it's ex-Eagles frontman Glenn Frey, who got the gig only because his "Smuggler's Blues" became the inspiration for a MIAMI VICE episode in which he made his acting debut.

I love the guy who shows off his threads to Don, as if to say, "Look, man, I am so cool because I'm dressed exactly like you." What a maroon.

Nobody remembers that Frey went on to star in his own series, SOUTH OF SUNSET, for CBS. Nobody remembers it because it was canceled after just one episode aired on October 27, 1993. Frey played a Beverly Hills private eye, and there wasn't really that much wrong with it, but its ratings were awful (although, by today's standards, it would be a modest hit), even though CBS promoed the shit out of it during the baseball postseason.

(Um, yeah, I watched it.)

I Am Your Density

BACK TO THE FUTURE is that Hollywood rarity: a summer blockbuster with heart. Also wit, charm, character-based humor, and genuine suspense. I've revisited it several times, but the DVD is the first time I've seen it (or the sequels) in their original aspect ratio since I saw them all theatrically. I doubt BACK TO THE FUTURE will ever get old. Its performances and humor are timeless, and its relative paucity of visual effects (writer/producer Bob Gale and writer/director Robert Zemeckis estimate there are only about 35 FX shots in the whole film) means you can't really peg it as an '80s movie that way. The filmmakers seem to have taken great care not to make the movie look trendy, and even though it's set in 1985, it looks as though it could have been made yesterday. Alan Silvestri's tremendous score avoids synth cliches, and even the Huey Lewis songs seem chosen for their bar-band timelessness.

Not to sound prudish, but only a few minor items keep BACK TO THE FUTURE from being a perfect movie. I think there's too much swearing in the movie (though a couple of vulgarities work well as punchlines: "Yes, absolutely, Goddammit, George, swear."). I also think the attempted rape is much too dark for this lighthearted PG fantasy. I understand it takes a seriously heavy event to make George McFly (Crispin Glover) snap, but I think the rape scene is too heavy. And, finally, I would jettison the whole "Johnny B. Goode" scene. Zemeckis almost did this anyway, since it's the only scene in the movie that doesn't advance the plot or provide characterization. I would have dissolved from the crane shot that ends high on George and Lorraine (Lea Thompson) after their kiss into Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) leaving the stage and encountering Lorraine, where she asks him if it's okay that George takes her home. Zemeckis left it in, because preview audiences didn't mind it. And I don't hate it--I think it just eats up running time right when we've wrapped up the George/Lorraine storyline and need to get back to the town square for Marty's return home.

Just the opposite of BACK TO THE FUTURE, it seems, is BACK TO THE FUTURE PART II, which is a well-crafted action/adventure without the sweetness and wit of the original. Gale's amusingly complex screenplay appears to be a gag in and of itself, as various Martys, Doc Browns (all Christopher Lloyd), Biffs, etc. bounce around three different time periods chasing a McGuffin that creates an alternative future where Marty is a loser and Biff (Thomas F. Wilson) a billionaire. Though I guess it's a comedy, there really aren't very many laughs in the picture, as they have been sacrificed for action setpieces and ILM visual effects. The performances, the careful screenwriting and Silvestri's score are strong enough to make the movie watchable, but I think it's easily the least successful creatively of the trilogy. I remember seeing this theatrically and getting excited over its ending, which is the first time I saw a film close with a trailer for its own sequel, even before the closing credits! The 007 movies always promised that "James Bond would return in...", but BACK TO THE FUTURE PART II proved it with actual coming attractions for the Summer 1990 release (only a six-month wait!) of BACK TO THE FUTURE PART III.

PART III is more like it, moving from the hyperkinetic future world of flying cars and neon-laced skyscrapers to the sun and sand of the Old West. 1885, to be exact, where Marty takes the time-traveling DeLorean to save Doc Brown from certain death. Gale and Zemeckis are faithful to both the western and science fiction genres, and I really appreciate the use of so many wonderful old character actors: Matt Clark, Harry Carey Jr., Dub Taylor, Pat Buttram, Richard Dysart, Bill McKinney. And while the concept of a flying train (!) sounds absurd, it plays the central part in BACK TO THE FUTURE PART III's memorable finale. Mary Steenburgen, who also appeared in the wonderful romantic SF adventure TIME AFTER TIME, is well-suited to play Doc Brown's romantic interest here. Gale and Zemeckis are careful to follow through on story points and imagery carefully laid out in earlier films, adding some depth to all three movies. Honestly, even though Zemeckis has gone on to a major A-list directing career and an Academy Award, I don't think any of his films since BACK TO THE FUTURE PART III are as good as it is.

I'll be away from the computer for a few days. See ya next week.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Suppose, Danno, Just Suppose

Season 2 of HAWAII FIVE-0, the greatest cop show of all time, hit DVD last week. The New York Times ran a commendable piece on the series that proves the author "gets" it.

Whether saving a drowning boy, defusing a bomb with nail clippers or offering himself as a prison hostage, he’s a model of steadfast decency. He’s white but not white bread, at ease in the ethnic stir-fry of Honolulu. And there’s no emergency his bare-bones agency — four men, a secretary and a car — can’t resolve in just under an hour.

And when he gets his man — Book ’im, Danno! — you can hear America exhaling. Their sons and their daughters were beyond their command, Vietnam was a mess, but at least Hawaii had McGarrett.

The Menace Of Fu Antos

I had never read any Piers Anthony, but I knew that he was a popular science fiction writer, so I assumed he must also be a good one. Judging from AMAZON SLAUGHTER, the fifth in a series about "Jason Striker, Master of Martial Arts," a 1976 novel co-written by Anthony's judo instructor, Roberto Fuentes, I can tell you that he is not.

A good drinking game would be to chug whenever you read an unmotivated exclamation point. The dunderheaded plot finds Striker in Brazil, where he uncomfortably allies with the sinister ninja Fu Antos against the sadistic Fernando Mirabel, who seeks vengeance against Jason for a bout they had in the U.S. that left Mirabel with a sore knee. I'm not certain what all the plot was supposed to be about, as it jumps from one lurid episode to the next. I don't think the authors knew either, because the book just stops before it's complete. Striker and Fu Antos never share a scene, and by the time Striker is wandering around Rio de Janeiro competing in sumo tournaments for quick cash, you'll have already tired out your head from shaking it. What seems to be building to a major kung fu battle between Striker and Fu Antos just fizzles out as the climax occurs between sentences! Anthony and Fuentes dwell on torture scenes, including the graphic flaying of a ninja that opens the book.

AMAZON SLAUGHTER is pretty rotten, and I don't think I'll be investigating the rest of the Jason Striker series.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

A Clean Escape

The opening episode of MASTERS OF SCIENCE FICTION, "A Clean Escape," was certainly something of a throwback. This two-hander stars middle-aged Oscar nominees Judy Davis and Sam Waterston, was written by Sam Egan (an Emmy nominee for QUINCY, M.E.), and directed by Mark Rydell (an Oscar nominee for ON GOLDEN POND). I can imagine ABC execs tearing their hair out trying to figure out how to sell this show to the precious 18-to-34s, not understanding that art has no boundaries and doesn't need shaky-cam effects, a hip-hop score, and sexy young performers to touch them. Not that it matters, 'cause there ain't no 18-to-34s home watching ABC on Saturday night anyway. Neither was I, for that matter.

It's hard to believe ABC has room on its schedule for FAT MARCH (WTF?) and not for MASTERS OF SCIENCE FICTION, the premiere of which was a smart, somewhat predictable, intelligently directed and performed post-apocalypse drama. After seeing Waterston on LAW & ORDER for so long, I'd almost forgotten what a great actor he is, and he and Davis were perfectly cast in this tale of a psychiatrist (Davis) trying to break through to a man (Waterston) who can't remember anything beyond forty minutes ago. Outside of some crummy CGI effects and a bland score (par for the TV course), "A Clean Escape" is an absorbing story well-told by veterans who know their craft. Click here to see a clip.

Next week, the great Terry O'Quinn (LOST) and Elizabeth Rohm (coincidentally, also from LAW & ORDER) star in "The Awakening," written and directed by Michael Petroni (THE DANGEROUS LIVES OF ALTAR BOYS).

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Too Good For ABC?

Not that it would be too difficult to outclass the network that gives us ACCORDING TO JIM and NATIONAL BINGO NIGHT.

Keep in mind that MASTERS OF SCIENCE FICTION, a six-episode anthology series that has been sitting on ABC's shelf for more than a year, is finally debuting tonight. Saturday. At 9pm Central. Can you think of a better way to kill a show? Oh, and ABC is airing only four of the six shows produced. Hopefully, all will eventually show up on DVD, but I wouldn't bet even $5 on it. Here's an example of what's coming up over the next four Saturdays:

First up on Saturday is "A Clean Escape," with a teleplay by Sam Egan and direction from Rydell. Oh, and by the way, it just so happens that it stars Judy Davis and Sam Waterston (Oscar nominees both) in the futuristic John Kessel tale about a dying doctor (Davis) who goes to great lengths to uncover why a patient of hers (Waterston) can't remember the past 25 years of his life. It's smart and twisty and intense and superbly performed, with Rydell's directorial work lifting the piece to a whole other level. The second, "The Awakening" (with Michael Petroni both scripting and directing from a Fast short story, airing August 11) features Terry O'Quinn ("Lost") and Elisabeth Rohm in a superb hour that blends wartime drama with paranormal undertones to great unsettling effect.

Anne Heche and Malcolm McDowell co-star in the third episode, "Jerry Was a Man," airing August 18 and adapted by writer-director Tolkin from the Heinlein tale. The Harlan Ellison contribution -- boasting the acting talents of a couple of greats named John Hurt and Brian Dennehy -- closes out a provocative, rich, lavishly produced, sharply performed quartet that ABC has seen fit to disdainfully conceal rather than proudly celebrate. But let them trim so much as a minute from the end of "Dancing With the Stars" and we'd never hear the end of it as the audience rose up in spastic rage.

Sounds impressive, doesn't it? Too impressive for the WIFE SWAP network, it appears.

The Bowery Boys Meet The Monsters

The only Bowery Boys movie with the phrase “Bowery Boys” in the title. 1954's THE BOWERY BOYS MEET THE MONSTERS is a funny little cheapie that’s great fun to pull out around Halloween. Director Edward Bernds and writer Elwood Ullman worked frequently with the Three Stooges, and MEET THE MONSTERS feels like it’s recycling old bits from the Stooges’ reels and Abbott & Costello (even the title is an homage to Bud and Lou’s Universal series of comic horror films). Of course, energetic old pros Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall can spin almost any material into laughs.

Usually the Boys’ supernatural opponents turn out to be fake, but MEET THE MONSTERS actually has a Hyde-like monsters, a man-eating plant, and a sexy female vampire to go along with a gorilla, a Lurch-like butler with a meat cleaver, an awesomely clunky robot named Gorog, and a pair of mad scientists as part of an eccentric family probably based on Charles Addams’ cartoons.

Mad doctor Anton (Lloyd Corrigan) wants to transplant Sach’s (Hall) head onto a gorilla (which echoes the plot of MASTER MINDS). Brother Derek (John Dehner) wants to plop Slip’s (Leo Gorcey) noggin onto Gorog to give it the ability to think (though it’s probably smarter with wires and tubes). Butch (Benny Bartlett) and Chuck (David Gorcey) are little more than extras that hang around Louie (Bernard Gorcey) and watch Slip and Sach have all the fun.

The Bowery Boys (and their earlier incarnation, the East Side Kids) spent a lot of time fumbling around haunted houses (GHOST CHASERS, SPOOK CHASERS, SPOOK BUSTERS, GHOSTS ON THE LOOSE…), and MEET THE MONSTERS is one of their better genre outings. Bernds keeps the story and jokes bouncing along quickly, backed by a gag-filled script by Bernds and Ullman. The 34th Bowery Boys flick runs just 65 minutes and was probably shot in five days, maybe six. I love this robot.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Bill Forsythe Is Badass

Twice in the same week, I see William Forsythe playing L.A. private eyes on two different TV series: SHARK and ENTOURAGE. I like to think he was the same character on both.

Black Is White, Up Is Down, Newt Is Making Sense

"Republican political doctrine has been a failure," Gingrich said. "Look at New Orleans. How can you say that was a success? Look at Baghdad ... We've been in charge for six years and I don't think you can look around and say that was a great success.

And more in this short Salon piece.

It looks as though Gingrich has discovered what most of us already know, but the Republican candidates for President in 2008 don't. It may not go over well with the Stepford Students, but it will (and has been, if you believe the polls) with America, blue states and red. I think the war in Iraq, health care and the environment are going to be the three biggest issues on the minds of U.S. voters in the next election, now that the Democratic-led Congress has started cleaning up corruption in Washington and working to diminish poverty.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

What I've Been Reading

Lately, I've been reading some incredibly fucked-up books. I recently purchased several lots of old paperbacks, many of them pulp novels or men's adventure novels of the '60s, '70s and '80s. They were obviously meant to be quickly read and disposed of, and while they may be of little literary merit, I can't say that they don't provide a good time.

One such example is JOYRIDE with Stephen Crye. I don't know what the title is supposed to mean--there's no joy and precious little riding--but it's clear that Crye studied '80s slasher movies very closely. Published exclusively in paperback by Pinnacle in 1983, JOYRIDE is a formulaic thriller that could easily have been adapted as a quickie motion picture. A group of teenagers drive into a dark cemetery for a night of pot-smoking, junk-food-eating and lovemaking. Unfortunately for them, the cemetery is inhabited by "Cleats," the deformed caretaker who mistakes one of the girls for his unrequited high-school crush and starts killing off all her friends. Crye creates some imaginative deaths; he sets one on fire, chops another into little pieces, hangs a girl from a tree, chops off the fat kid's head and places it in the Mary statue (seen on the cover).

It all takes place in one night, except for occasional flashbacks to Cleats' life as a senior, the teasing he suffered from his classmates, and the tragic accident that destroyed his face and mind. Crye does a fairly good job turning Cleats into a sympathetic character, though it's to his credit that we never do root for him in his pursuit of gore. JOYRIDE also has a satisfyingly abrupt finale that probably wouldn't play well in a movie, but works fine here.

An author I've been exploring lately is John Whitlatch, about whom little seems to be known. I should say that I imagine many of the authors I've been reading lately are using pseudonyms; I doubt many serious writers would want to take credit for these quickies.

The three Whitlatch novels I've read so far pretty much have the same plot and leading man, even though the characters and settings are (slightly) different. In GANNON'S VENDETTA, Gannon is a macho middle-aged man who wants revenge against the bikers who broke into his house and raped and murdered his wife. A slick lawyer gets them off, and Gannon pursues them into Mexico, where, in the central setpiece, he is kidnapped and stranded alone in the desert with no food or water. In TANNER'S LEMMING, Tanner is a macho middle-aged married man who goes to work for a senator, but is accused of assassinating him, so he--yeah--goes after the guy who really did it.

FRANK T.'S PLAN is slightly different in that Frank T. Dodge is unmarried. His daughter's killer got off scot-free, so he teams up with an Indian to, uh, yeah, pursue the young man and the bigwigs he worked for. All of these books are set in the Southwestern desert and are notable for being anti-woman, anti-black and anti-hippie (really, anti-youth, since all young people are lazy no-nothing hippies with long, greasy hair). They are also extremely thinly plotted, stretching out to well over 200 pages with lots of whiskey-drinking.

TNT, however, is perhaps the craziest book I have ever read. It's apparently the first in a series penned by Doug Masters, and I would love to see it made into a movie, though I don't think you could do it faithfully as anything less than an NC-17. TNT is Tony Nelson Twin (is Masters a Larry Hagman fan?), a journalist who is caught in a nuclear bomb blast and receives superpowers as a result (or is he a Stan Lee fan?). Despite incredible physical and psychological injuries that should have killed him, Twin recuperates with extremely heightened senses--he can see in the dark, for instance, and hear sounds from far away. He also is able to maintain an almost-permanent erection.

In exchange for the financing of a cure for his daughter's retardation, Twin takes a job from a sinister (and gay) government operative known as Arnold Benedict. I mention his homosexuality only because his sexual tastes--and those of his two "married" gay assassins--are shown to be abhorrently abnormal. Like the Whitlatch novels, gays and women are not portrayed in a flattering manner.

Twin's job is to infiltrate the underground hideout of a scientist named Michelangelo Piran who can create petroleum from water and kill him. Unfortunately, Piran is guarded by the world's most elaborate deathtrap--seven full stages far beyond anyone's most perverse nightmares. Not only is Twin forced to traverse--completely nude--across a scorpion pit, a greenhouse filled with poisonous plants, an acid bath, a red-hot burning tunnel, a ladder made of razor blades, a bath of warm rotting flesh, and a pitch-black room filled with ninjas (!), but he is ultimately forced into the most bizarre game of checkers ever created.

Six games on an giant board filled with colored lights. On the other side are forty nude women, all either violently psychotic or mentally retarded, each in a separate cage. Whenever Twin loses a game or is forced to crown Piran (who is playing electronically from a hidden location), one cage opens, and Twin has only a few minutes to bring her to orgasm or else he dies. Twin loses every game against the genius Piran, but since he manages to successfully screw all of the women into normalcy, he is allowed to live and face his opponent.

I understand that Masters' other TNT novels also revolved around wild, imaginative deathtraps, but it's hard to imagine they could be as trashy as this book. I should say that I'm pretty sure this one is supposed to be a parody, not only because of its ridiculous plot, but also because some of Benedict's flowery monologues and story expositions are absurdly long and detailed, so much so that he and Twin are able to fly halfway around the world during one of them. Looks like it's time to eBay some others.