Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Things I Really Like

Sarah Shahi in hi-def.

Finders Keepers

06 Finders Keepers
November 6, 1979 (2 hrs.)
November 13, 1979 (1 hr.)
Music: William Broughton and Stu Phillips
Story: Glen A. Larson, Sidney Ellis, Robert L. McCullough, Frank Lupo and John Peyser
Teleplay: Michael Sloan, Sidney Ellis, Robert L. McCullough and Frank Lupo
Director: Bruce Bilson

THE MISADVENTURES OF SHERIFF LOBO's magnum opus, "Finders Keepers" needed three hours, six writers, the city of Las Vegas and practically the whole cast of BJ AND THE BEAR to tell. Truthfully, the basic plot could have been told in a single segment, but the large cast of hammy character actors and director Bruce Bilson's brisk pacing keep the sprawling epic eminently watchable, no matter how absurd it becomes.

Anyone with a collection of TV Guides could probably clear them up, but Internet sources are muddled about "Finders Keepers"' original airdates. I'm pretty certain this is due to LOBO's syndication history. BJ AND THE BEAR and THE MISADVENTURES OF SHERIFF LOBO went into syndication briefly after their original NBC runs as THE BJ/LOBO HOUR, and the two series' combined 86 hours were rolled together. The first two hours of "Finders Keepers," as best I could tell from my reference library, aired on LOBO November 6, 1979, with the one-hour conclusion airing a week later. When LOBO and BJ went into reruns, the three hours were broken into three one-hour episodes, which were retitled "Run for the Money," with the middle segment "becoming" a BJ AND THE BEAR.

If anyone can correct this information, please feel free to do so in the comments. I don't know why Universal would have reshuffled the shows or retitled them to the point where LOBO star Claude Akins was called in to provide a "now presenting the conclusion of 'Run for the Money'" voiceover.

"Finders Keepers" is quite a reunion of BJ McKay foes. Sheriff Lobo (Akins), Deputy Perkins (Mills Watson) and Deputy Hawkins (Brian Kerwin) leave Orly for Vegas to attend a sheriff's convention, where they bump into Sheriff Masters (Richard Deacon), Sgt. Wiley (Slim Pickens) and The Fox (Conchata Ferrell), as well as Captain Cain (Ed Lauter) and Oscar Gorley (J.D. Cannon), last seen financing "Cain's Cruiser." Also in Vegas, coincidentally, is BJ McKay (Greg Evigan), who was hired by Gorley to deliver a truckload of police paraphernalia, including two canisters of nerve gas that are hijacked en route by a hottie on a hangglider.

Mastermind Paul Vane (James Olson) and his two sexy associates (Renne Jarrett, Jeannie Wilson) use the nerve gas to put to sleep an entire casino, including BJ and all of the cops. Of course, BJ is framed for the $1.5 million heist, but after he's bailed out of the joint by his good buddy Glen Campbell (!), he turns the city upside down to find the real thieves before all the conniving lawmen can find the money for themselves.

Benefiting from location shooting at the Dunes and at Lake Mead, "Finders Keepers" has just about all you want in a LOBO, including dopey slapstick, cars crashing and jumping things, Perkins acting like a dolt and plenty of sexy women (the stunning Deborah Shelton, later in BODY DOUBLE, plays an FBI agent). The bad guys are never truly threatening, and the good guys save the day. Even Perkins gets the girl at the end.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

First Newman, Then Santiago

Although the two men couldn't possibly fall further apart in show business circles, the recent deaths of Paul Newman and Cirio Santiago both are blows for film lovers. Newman's career, you already know about. One of the great movie stars. THE VERDICT. THE HUSTLER. HARPER. BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. ABSENCE OF MALICE. COOL HAND LUKE. THE TOWERING INFERNO. NOBODY'S FOOL (very underrated). Big films. Important films.

Cirio H. Santiago, on the other hand, whose death was reported by Tim Lucas this weekend, is a filmmaker Paul Newman likely never even heard of, despite the fact that he's one of the most prolific and successful director/producers in the history of Asian cinema.

Santiago, who died Friday at age 72, began making movies in his native Philippines in the 1950s, but didn't make an impact Stateside until the early 1970s. That's when he hooked up with New World Pictures' Roger Corman, who hired Santiago to produce and to direct action-packed melodramas in the Philippines that made tons of money in U.S. drive-ins and continue to be popular among exploitation-movie fans today. As a director, pictures like FLY ME! (about sexy stewardesses), COVER GIRL MODELS (about, ahem, sexy cover girl models), TNT JACKSON (starring the gorgeous Jeanne Bell, who will "put you in traction") and many others. He also line-produced several pictures for Corman that he didn't direct, such as Jack Hill's renowned women-in-prison epics, THE BIG BIRD CAGE and THE BIG DOLL HOUSE.

As exploitation films changed in the 1980s, so did Santiago, who managed to crank out several films per year, most of which became perennial favorites on home video. A Santiago film is pretty easy to spot when you see one. It generally runs about 72 minutes, makes no narrative sense, offers tons of crazy action scenes, usually features Filipino fan favorites Vic Diaz and/or Joe Avellana, and delivers in the violence and nudity departments. Once you've seen Lynda Wiesmeier strapped topless to the hood of a speeding car in WHEELS OF FIRE, you're unlikely to ever forget.

Santiago never let his lack of production budget to stand in his way. For 1987's FAST GUN (starring SAVAGE STREETS' Robert Dryer as the heavy), set designers and builders found a very short stretch of dirt road in some park in the Philippines, and erected very unconvincing plywood facades intended to represent Main Street. The windows are made from white cardboard, rather than glass. It's hilarious watching sheriff Rick Hill (DEATHSTALKER) defending this "town" from villains, but Santiago wasn't one for details, it seems. The town itself doesn't really matter, Cirio seems to be saying. It's all about the action and visceral excitement of good guys vs. bad guys and giving the audience what it wants.

For whatever Cirio Santiago's faults as a filmmaker, letting his fans down was not one of them. The fact that he directed four different films in which the sexy female protagonist engaged in a kung fu battle while nude is proof of that.

P.S. They are TNT JACKSON (Jeanne Bell), FIRECRACKER (the late Jillian Kesner), ANGELFIST (the late Cat Sassoon) and ANGEL OF DESTRUCTION (Maria Ford). I recommend them all (if you can find them). Fred Adelman has a salute to Santiago up on his Web site.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Urban Guerilla

Pinnacle, the paperback publisher who delivered the pulpy adventures of the Executioner, the Penetrator and many other gritty action heroes to drugstores all over the nation, also gave us the .357 Vigilante series in the mid-1980s. Reportedly intended as a parody of the typical Pinnacle hero, Ian Ludlow's first book reads more like a slicker prime-time-television Penetrator instead. "Ludlow"—in actuality, television writer/producer Lee Goldberg—was a student at UCLA when he got the gig writing these books, so he can be forgiven for whatever shortcomings they have. According to Goldberg's UCLA professor (and co-writer?), Lewis Perdue, who turned down Pinnacle's offer to write the series and offered it to his student instead, the novels were intended to be "over-the-top bad." I have a hard time believing anybody would intentionally write a bad novel, especially an aspiring twenty-year-old who's been given a huge break penning novels for a major publisher. I wonder if that's really a later-in-life excuse for subpar writing that embarrasses the successful writers today.

I don't think Goldberg/Ludlow has anything to be embarrassed about, and it's very possible he doesn't think so either. In fact, if you're familiar with Goldberg's TV work as a writer of middle-of-the-road crime dramas like SPENSER: FOR HIRE, HUNTER and DIAGNOSIS: MURDER, you may notice that the .357 Vigilante books are written in the same glossy, straight-ahead style, albeit with slightly ramped-up sex and violence that would probably not be too outrageous for today's prime-time audience. I don't use "middle-of-the-road" in a disparaging way above; matter of fact, I think television could use more shows like HUNTER in a time when solving mysteries has become a grim pursuit, rather than something fun (yes, I realize the concept that chasing murderers should be "fun" sounds kinda weird, but that's what murder mysteries are all about).

The "star" of MAKE THEM PAY, book #2 in the .357 Vigilante series, is Brett Macklin, whose origin (told in .357 VIGILANTE) is similar to that of Mack Bolan, the Executioner. Macklin's cop father was murdered by punks who set him on fire and tossed him under a bus (literally), which then exploded, taking out half a city block. Afflicted with Paul Kersey Syndrome, which means you should not hang out or fall in love with him at all costs, Macklin suffers more personal losses in the sequel, which pits "Mr. Jury" (I don't know why Pinnacle didn't call the series Mr. Jury) against child pornographers. Macklin's cop pal, Shaw, who is steadfastly opposed to vigilante justice, and the city's mayor recruit Macklin to clean up the perverts, who then kill their victims after filming them.

Adding to the moral dilemma over whether vigilantism is a good thing is Macklin's decision to seek some sort of due process on his targets before killing them. To this end, a fourth member is added to the "team"—a burned-out barrister who's now the host of a banal TV courtroom show—who looks over the "evidence" and gives Macklin the go-ahead to rub out the accused.

Goldberg doesn't really spend a lot of time debating the subject of vigilantism, but I think addressing the argument was a good idea. However, MAKE THEM PAY is more interested in blowing stuff up and shooting people, which is as it should be. At just 151 pages, the book is well paced and structured. I'd be surprised if Goldberg hasn't tried to pitch a Brett Macklin television series, though, judging from history, network executives seem to be not too fond of vigilantes taking the law into their own hands between shampoo commercials.

A special bonus with my copy of MAKE THEM PAY is the author's autograph. In February, I picked up the first (all?) three .357 Vigilante paperbacks in an eBay lot. I was pleasantly surprised to find an author's inscription on the title page, and an email response from Goldberg confirmed its legitimacy. Neither of us knows who Paul is though.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Remarkable Saga of Dave Hampton

I know I just A) wrote a sports-related post and B) linked to Joe Posnanski's blog recently. But. Joe's piece on former Atlanta Falcons running back Dave Hampton and his struggles to reach 1000 yards rushing in a single season is too good for you to miss.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


In 1974, baseball superstar Frank Robinson became the sport's first black manager when he was hired to helm the Cleveland Indians's 1975 season. Robinson was already on his way to the Hall of Fame, having compiled more than 550 home runs and 2900 hits for the Cincinnati Reds and the Baltimore Orioles, with quick stops with the Los Angeles Dodgers and the California Angels. "Robby" had been traded to Cleveland during the '74 season, where manager Ken Aspromonte had guided the Indians to a typically poor season. One day after the Tribe wrapped up its 77-84 season, owner Ted Bonda and general manager Phil Seghi announced Robinson would be the Indians' player-manager the following year.

FRANK: THE FIRST YEAR is a surprisingly candid account of Robinson's experiences that season. Although Jim Bouton's groundbreaking BALL FOUR was just six years earlier, books by baseball players still tended to focus on generalities and rarely entered the locker room, heeding to the old proverb that states, "What you see here stays here." Since Holt, Rinehart & Winston published FRANK in 1976, many similar books have followed, the best being Sparky Lyle's THE BRONX ZOO, which rivals BALL FOUR for honesty and humor. FRANK may be the first of its type to be written, however, by a manager (Dave Anderson is Robinson's co-writer), and as such, it comes from a different viewpoint, one authoritarian in nature.

While Robinson is often brutally honest in his assessment of players and umpires he dislikes, a failing of FRANK is that he's still too soft on the book's other "characters." It's understandable that he would be, considering that he still had to manage the same players next season. FRANK is also lacking in "Xs and Os." Considered one of the game's smartest tacticians, Robinson is reticent to reveal too much about his theories or strategy about the game, maybe in fear of giving his opponents a heads-up.

I don't wish too sound hard on the book, because it is fair entertainment. Pitcher Gaylord Perry and catcher Johnny Ellis earn Robinson's wrath for what Robinson deems attitude problems, and a fair number of umpires fall under Robby's disdainful eye. It's a book about a man who was better at baseball than almost everyone else who ever played, yet was now re-learning the game from a manager's viewpoint.

Like Bouton's 1969 Seattle Pilots, the 1975 Indians were a bad team, sometimes a brutal one, yet it also lacked the zany characters that made BALL FOUR so successful. Robinson can't be blamed for that, of course, but it does keep FRANK: THE FIRST YEAR from being as good as it could have been.

Robinson, who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1982, has remained in the game as a manager ever since helming the Indians to a 79-80 finish his first season. He later managed the San Francisco Giants, the Orioles and the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals, yet despite never finishing higher than second place, is still considered a fine manager (and probably justly so). He last managed the 2006 Nationals at the age of 70.

Monday, September 22, 2008

What Does It Take To Change The Essence Of A Man?

If you're even slightly interested in film, you're probably aware of the auteur theory, which posits that the director is the sole author of his work, regardless of the contributions of the writers, actors, crew, etc. Unless you're a regular reader of Ain't It Cool News, however, you may not be aware of the badass auteur theory, which is that, in action movies, it is the star, or the "badass," who is the film's true author, whether he be John Wayne, Clint Eastwood or the subject of the book I finished this weekend, Steven Seagal.

The book is SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL. The author is Vern, a tremendously funny and astute writer whose frequently gut-busting reviews of action movies can be found both at Ain't It Cool News and on his own site. Whoever the mysterious "outlaw film critic" is, Vern is one of the most clever film critics I've read, due to his ability to not only mock and admire a movie at the same time, but write about it in a way that's insightful and always hilarious. Vern is also one of the few film experts to take seriously Steven Seagal, who was once among America's bigger movie stars, but has slid precipitously into direct-to-DVD schlock as quickly as his weight and work ethic appear to have changed (for the worse).

It's clear from SEAGALOGY that Vern is an admirer of Seagal, which doesn't stand in the way of his calling a spade a spade if necessary, which it often is when discussing the actor's often woeful filmography. From Seagal's film debut, the terrific ABOVE THE LAW (1988), to the recent PISTOL WHIPPED (2008), Vern covers them all, describing their sometimes senseless plots in hilarious detail and making note of the common themes that run through all of Seagal's movies. Regardless of who wrote or directed the movies, they all contain elements that could have only been contributed by the badass, hence Vern's badass auteur theory.

If you don't give a damn about Steven Seagal, the book may not be for you, no matter how funny you think Vern is. However, I do, and it's hard to say why. Maybe it's because I vividly recall going with my friends in the dorm to see ABOVE THE LAW several times and knowing immediately that Seagal was going to be a major star. Or maybe it's the hilarity that ensued the night Seagal hosted SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE the same weekend OUT FOR JUSTICE was the box office champion and sang a bizarre rendition of "Kung Fu Fighting" before tossing Rob Schneider's annoying Copier Guy character out of a window. Or the amazement at how prolific he is, grinding out three or four DTVs per year and not even caring enough to perform his own action scenes or even dub his own voice; you truly haven't experienced Seagal until you've heard both him and his voice double, who sounds nothing like him, performing, not just in the same film, but sometimes consecutive lines, with Cajun accents.

Read SEAGALOGY and then tell me you don't want to watch ON DEADLY GROUND again, one frame at a time.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Cain’s Son-In-Law

15 Cain's Son-In-Law
October 27, 1979
Music: Stu Phillips
Writer: Frank Lupo
Director: Charles Rondeau

The silliness threatens to overwhelm this uneven BJ AND THE BEAR episode, which does at least stem from a clever concept. BJ (Greg Evigan) rescues a sexy blonde, Carol (Audrey Landers), from a roadside scrape with an aggressive suitor. Taking a plot point from BJ's main inspiration, SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, Carol is escaping a fiancé she was pressured into marrying by her strict father, Captain Cain (Ed Lauter), the rigid Southern sheriff who has become one of BJ's arch-nemeses. After he catches BJ and his daughter swapping spit in a grimy motel room, Cain tosses the trucker into the hoosegow for a 30-year stretch busting rocks. The only way to gain the lawman's sympathy is by conspiring with Carol to convince her father that he and Carol plan to be married. By moving into Cain's house as his future son-in-law (and drinking his beer and blocking his driveway with the semi), BJ gets to needle Cain to get back on all the trouble the cop has called him, and Carol gets the satisfaction of having her fiancé, one of Cain's deputies, get jealous and fight for her hand.

Having BJ move into Cain's house (and call the stern right-winger "Pop") was a funny idea by writer Frank Lupo (THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO), although the humor leans too far towards slapstick near the end, when BJ and Carol's "wedding" is interrupted by a barroom brawl (that is at least nicely staged by director Charles Rondeau). In the series' effort to give the characters some continuity, Janet Louise Johnson, Angela Aames and Joshua Shelley return as BJ's trucking buddies. Lupo also wryly comments on BJ's adherence to tried-and-true television formula by having his hero wonder why he keeps getting involved in other people's problems. Hey, BJ, you wouldn't have much of a show if it was just about a truck driver hauling beer to rural roadhouses, would ya?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Three Dead Hookers

If you've seen any or all of the LETHAL WEAPON movies, you owe it to yourself to check out at least one of Pinnacle's men's adventure novels about detectives Razoni and Jackson. This wisecracking, rule-breaking black-and-white duo was quite obviously screenwriter Shane Black's influence, when he penned the first LETHAL WEAPON in the mid-1980s. Apparently, author Warren Murphy, who created Razoni and Jackson for the team's first book, CITY IN HEAT, thought so too. Probably with his lawyer's intervention, Murphy was signed to collaborate with Black on LETHAL WEAPON 2, but according to Murphy, the two had trouble working together and left the project after completing a first draft. Jeffrey Boam (INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE) eventually earned the screenplay nod with Murphy and Black receiving story credit.

DEAD END STREET is the first of the five Razoni & Jackson thrillers I've read, and it appears to be a cross between the Destroyer novels Murphy and Richard Sapir were already famous for and the black-comic cop novels of Joseph Wambaugh (THE NEW CENTURIONS). Black Tough Jackson is the big, strong by-the-book (usually) family man in the partnership, whereas white Italian Ed Razoni is flashy, obnoxious, and has few (no?) qualms with busting a few little laws to capture the bad guys breaking the big laws. As members of their own special squad, complete with ball-busting commander who yells at them a lot for pissing off the police brass, Razoni and Jackson are assigned to find out who is slitting the throats of blond hookers in a particularly grubby area of the city. While Jackson is staking out the pervy owner of a nearby porn bookstore, Razoni goes undercover as a sailor to, ahem, interrogate a sexy black hooker who may have pertinent information.

You know the buddy-cop formula by now, and the Razoni & Jackson series even precedes Warner Brothers' FREEBIE AND THE BEAN, the raucous James Caan/Alan Arkin cop comedy that stands as one of Hollywood's forefather to that type of film. Even though they're fast friends, Razoni and Jackson spend most of their time bickering with each other with no racial or ethnic lines off limits. Both spend more time with each other than with their own families, and are completely comfortable with the amount of violence that fills their everyday lives. DEAD END STREET is a freewheeling good read, and I'll try to track down the other book in the series.


Two of my favorite shows of the '70s are profiled in these classic ABC promos. First, Ernie Anderson describes Lee Majors and THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN. Then, it's Karl Malden and Michael Douglas in THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO.


I always thought DOOGIE HOWSER, M.D. was an absurd show, but I have since admired star Neil Patrick Harris' sense of humor about himself, particularly his self-deprecating turns as himself in the HAROLD AND KUMAR pictures. The Onion A.V. Club interviews the HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER co-star, and it's entertaining.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Mannix Is Back

The second season of MANNIX is coming to DVD early next year, and I have to say that I really love the cover art. CBS/Paramount has released some classy looking TV box sets, including the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE sets, which also look cool (although I wish they'd use the original logo). No word yet on supplements for Season 2, even though the first season set contained several decent extras, including star Mike Connors guesting on THE MIKE DOUGLAS SHOW!

Bullets, Broads, Blackmail & Bombs

Those of you who find interest in my periodic reviews of trashy '70s crime novels featuring series characters like the Death Merchant or the Executioner may enjoy this weekly column at Bookgasm. Every Wednesday, Bookgasm's writers jump in the Wayback Machine and pull some dusty, crappy old pulp out of the trash and review them. I have found some great reading material this way, and maybe you will too.

The rest of Bookgasm isn't bad either, so check the main link every day.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Rose Vs. Jeter

Who's the better baseball player: Pete Rose or Derek Jeter? Sounds clear-cut (only one of those guys has more than 4000 base hits). But according to the great sportswriter Joe Posnanski (and I believe him), it's a closer race than you might expect.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Holes And Slots

THE RIFLEMAN and BRANDED star Chuck Connors played the title role in the completely fucked-up THE MAD BOMBER the same year this commercial for Sunbeam electric shavers aired on television:

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Mob Comes To Orly

05 The Mob Comes to Orly
October 23, 1979
Music: William Broughton
Teleplay: Glen A. Larson and Michael Sloan
Story: Chris Lucky
Director: Mel Ferber

Getting Raymond Burr to guest-star on THE MISADVENTURES OF SHERIFF LOBO had to have been a real coup for executive producers Glen A. Larson and Michael Sloan. One of the few men to ever star in two long-running dramatic series (PERRY MASON and IRONSIDE), Burr rarely did episodic guest shots, and it's perplexing to consider why he would make an exception for LOBO. Perhaps he knew it would be a good time. The role certainly wasn't particularly taxing, and I'm sure he was paid well to stand around the Universal lot for three days and take part in the silliness.

A consortium of mobsters, led by Bates (Joey Forman), congregates in Orly to plan the murder of their leader, the Godfather (Burr), so they can move in on his territory. The Godfather somehow learns of their secret meeting, and heads to Orly himself to confront the mutineers. Meanwhile, Lobo (Claude Akins) believes the gangsters are legitimate businessmen in town to purchase land, so he and Perkins (Mills Watson) scheme to trick them into purchasing some worthless swampland outside of town.

Outside of Burr, this relatively action-free episode is prominent only as a drinking game, in which you tip one back every time Perkins falls down. You'll be well oiled by the time the third act commences. Watson and his stunt double were very busy getting punched or falling off things in this show. Busy stuntman/actor Bob Minor (SWITCHBLADE SISTERS) has a neat bit where Perkins peels out and speeds away in his police car, while Minor, as a mechanic, is still under it.

Carl Ballantine (MCHALE'S NAVY) shows up as a hitman, but is unfortunately given too little to do. Jim Antonio and John Kerry (not the politician) also play gangsters, and blond Karen Carlson (THE STUDENT NURSES) is an undercover agent. Director Mel Ferber's credits range from DIFF'RENT STROKES to HALLMARK HALL OF FAME—a broad range that nevertheless failed to distinguish him as a director. Writer Chris Lucky, who contributed THE MOB's story, went on to do a BJ AND THE BEAR and a FALL GUY for Larson.

Bustin' Makes Me Feel Good

You too, right? Yes, this is an absolutely stupid song, and Ray Parker Jr. gives Don "No Soul" Simpson a run for his money, but it's very difficult not to sing/dance along to it. Can you name the '80s stars making cameos in the "Ghostbusters" video from 1984?

Did anyone recognize Jeffrey Tambor in 1984?? How did he sneak in there? Or was he just hip ahead of his time?

Oh, and if you, like I was, are curious about identifying the hottie in the lingerie, thank you, Interweb tubes.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Television writer Ken Levine (CHEERS) gave a nice shout-out this week to one of my favorite unsung movies of the 1980s. ABSENCE OF MALICE, which stars Paul Newman and Sally Field and was justly nominated for three Oscars, is a terrific drama about a legitimate businessman (Newman) who is libeled in print by an unscrupulous prosecutor (Bob Balaban, who else?) trying to build a murder case. With stories of an irresponsible press becoming more and more prevalent, even reaching as high as CBS News and the New York Times, which actually apologized in print for its inept coverage of the war in Iraq, ABSENCE OF MALICE's central themes of truth and responsibility in reporting the news are as relevant as ever.

Michael Gallagher is an honest businessman who is implicated by newspaper reporter Megan Carter (Field) in the disappearance of a labor boss. Megan isn't really incompetent, just naïve, since she has been suckered into printing the story by an unscrupulous government investigator (Balaban) whose inquiry into the case has run into a standstill. Gallagher's uncle and late father were gangsters, so Balaban hopes the story's notoriety will shake a few clues loose, Gallagher's livelihood and reputation be damned. The Oscar-nominated screenplay by Kurt Luedtke, a former reporter himself, really cuts loose when Gallagher begins his own sting operation with the direct purpose of teaching lessons in responsible behavior to those with virtually unchecked power to hurt innocents in their pursuit of their own goals.

Newman and Melinda Dillon (the mom from CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and A CHRISTMAS STORY) as Gallagher's fragile friend were also nominated for Academy Awards, but Field actually has the trickiest role. Megan is not a very good reporter, nor is she particularly likable, although Field does a wonderful job of keeping the audience on her side. We want to like her, of course, because she's the cute, plucky Sally Field, and the manner in which she is led astray by men who want to use her position to advance their own agendas lends some sympathy. The actor-friendly director Sydney Pollack delivers plenty of big moments for the talented supporting cast, especially Wilford Brimley, who wanders in during the final reel to snatch the scenery. Newman's quiet intensity and intelligence make it appear as though he's barely acting, but the intricacies of the increasingly complex plot likely wouldn't have worked in Pollack's subdued dramatic context without him. And Brimley, along with Alec Baldwin in GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, wins the All-Time Great Performance With Just One Scene In A Major Film Award.

Filmed in Miami, ABSENCE OF MALICE was a hit for Columbia and is an excellent companion to Newman's 1982 film THE VERDICT, for which he also was nominated for (and deserved to win) a Best Actor Oscar. In fact, I believe that rarely has a single movie star acted in back-to-back films with performances as great as Newman is here and in THE VERDICT, which is one of my all-time favorite films. Watch ABSENCE OF MALICE at Netflix stat.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Alaska: 1st In Taking Your Money

The state of Alaska has higher taxes, spends more money, and receives more pork than any other in the U.S. And some conservatives think its governor would be a good choice as Vice President. After eight years of outlandish debt-crushing spending by the Bush administration, isn't it time for a fiscally conservative government? You know, one led by a Democrat? Michael Kinsley has more on Sarah Palin's absurd spending habits.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The Iceman

This is going to be a relatively short review for two reasons. First, this 1972 entry in Pinnacle's Butcher series was not particularly memorable. And second, I read this over my vacation, but I was out of town for awhile and then too lazy when I got home to write about it. Therefore... However, I guess that should tell you what you need to know about BLOOD DEBT.

The Butcher is assigned by his boss at White Hat to find out the identity of The King of Spades, who is using guided missiles to destroy small American towns, and put him out of business. Bucher's quest leads him from Paris to Morocco, where he meets a dimwitted television actress named Twitty Andovin, who turns out to have an unconvincing connection to the criminal plot. I have liked the other Butcher novels I've read, but this one drags and definitely lacks the pulpy thrills of the earlier COME WATCH HIM DIE.

Friday, September 05, 2008

I Quit. Panasonic Wins.

I quit. They win. The bastards outlasted me. After nearly nine months of arguing, pleading, asking politely, even occasional begging, I have given up my battle with Panasonic. I sent my DVD recorder off to the home office in New Jersey six weeks ago, hopeful of success. But, no.

Here's the official word from Panasonic:

"Our product engineer has determined the customer's Panasonic DVD Recorder works as it should. We advised Mr. McKee that the media he is using may be a factor with recording."

This is also what the engineer told me over the phone, which is unbelievable. It's not Panasonic's fault that its recorder doesn't work, it's the DVD-Rs'?? The recorder has failed to burn Verbatims, Taiyo Yudens, Sonys and Maxells. So am I supposed to waste money buying as many different brands as possible until I find one that works? That is absurd, folks.

I seriously doubt Panasonic put much time into this machine. The engineer claimed (after I asked him to about five times) he burned ten straight discs with it, and the only ones that didn't work were Sony discs. I asked him about the failed DVD-Rs that I sent him, and he confirmed that they were unplayable, but couldn't tell me why they failed. I asked him to explain how the machine could possibly record well in New Jersey, but not in Illinois. He couldn't. I asked him (again) if he cleaned the spindle like I asked. He said no.

The kicker is when I asked him (again) if he switched out the DVD drive, since it is as obvious as the sun is bright that the drive is the problem. Not only did he say he didn't, but he added that, "I could do that, but then that could add new problems." Meaning, in effect, there is no way to ever fix any Panasonic DVD recorder, because every DVD drive they have is defective in some way. What he said to me was, basically, "I know what is happening with the machine now, but with a different DVD drive, there is no way to predict what could go wrong with it."

I knew then what I should have known weeks ago: that Panasonic had no intention of helping me or dealing with the problem. Since I know perfectly well it doesn't take six weeks to examine my DVD recorder, I suspect it sat on a shelf for at least five weeks, off and on, then after burning a few discs with it (which may or may not have been successful), they decided to Hell with it. The Better Business Bureau has already informed me there's nothing more it can do, as it has no legal authority. I expected more from Karen Childs at Panasonic, who sounded sympathetic to my plight, but ultimately did absolutely nothing to improve my situation.

All I can do is advise you not to waste money with Panasonic products. Not only am I out the $439 I originally paid for the DVD recorder, but also the extra $120 or so I shelled out for the extended warranty, since Panasonic has no intention of honoring that warranty. To write a letter to me and to the BBB saying "the customer's Panasonic DVD Recorder works as it should" is an insult, and I invite any of you to stop by my house anytime to burn DVD-Rs with it, as I know some of you must be thinking I don't know what I'm talking about.

I would advise you not to buy a Panasonic DVD recorder anyway, because they no longer come with hard drives. Without a hard drive, a DVD recorder is nearly useless. It means you can't edit commercials out of television programs you want to keep. You can't format your own chapter stops. You can't (except with some extra work) edit leader and glitches and FBI warnings out of old VHS tapes you're transferring any. Panasonic told me that there is no demand for DVD recorders with hard drives, which is why they no longer make them, but in the same conversation, they told me that they sold completely out of my model. Obviously, that makes no sense. My theory is that Panasonic (and other companies) caved to demands by TiVo, the TV networks, etc., who didn't like the competition.

One small bright spot is that I was able to attempt burning discs in the slower Silent Mode before I shipped my unit off to New Jersey, and it seemed to work okay, although the sample size was small. This is, as I mentioned in an earlier post, something I discovered on an online forum recently, and not a suggested offered in any of my several dozen chats with allegedly trained employees at Panasonic's customer service center, repair center or executive office. So perhaps my machine doesn't have to be shipped off to the junk heap. Yet.

25 Years Ago

It's a copy of this amusing post at Glenn Kenny's Some Came Running, but I thought it might be fun to look at what was big at the box office 25 years ago this week. Can you guess what the #1 movie was that Labor Day weekend?

  1. MR. MOM    
  12. CUJO
  14. ZELIG

I have seen 12 of the top 15, although I only saw MR. MOM, RETURN OF THE JEDI, WARGAMES, STRANGE BREW and METALSTORM at the theater (I have yet to see ZELIG, CUJO and STAYING ALIVE). I had just received my driver's license the previous April and went to a lot of movies in Champaign-Urbana, but it was not so easy to get into R-rated movies in those days, or at least it wasn't for me. The others I caught on cable or on home video.

What's interesting about the chart that would never happen today is how long some of these films played. I saw WARGAMES in June right after it came out, and here it is, back in the Top 10 in September. It had been out 14 weeks by that time. RETURN OF THE JEDI had been out 15 weeks and FLASHDANCE a whopping 21.

You'll also notice, particularly when you move farther down the list below the top 15, how much more varied the selection was in those days. The five new films debuting that week were MORTUARY, NIGHTMARES, DEATHSTALKER, STRYKER and TURKEY SHOOT. All were low-budget exploitation movies that would never see the inside of a theater today. In fact, there is no such thing as a theatrically released low-budget exploitation movie anymore, and I really believe we're worse off for it. Believe it or not, even though it never rose higher than 12th, DEATHSTALKER (a hilarious sword-and-sorcery flick I oughta review here) stayed in regular release for at least 14 weeks!

Oh, and METALSTORM? It was in 3D. I saw it at the historic Virginia Theater in Champaign, which, sadly, rarely shows movies anymore, save for Roger Ebert's annual film festival and occasional other special events.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Man No One Knows, Yet Is Known By Everyone

It is generally accepted by comic book fans that, during the 1970s, the ever-experimenting Marvel was way ahead of more conservative rival DC Comics, as far as their superhero books go. I would tend to agree, even though I was (and still am, really) a bigger fan of DC heroes at the time. However, when it comes to the lesser-heralded western, war and mystery series, there is no doubt that DC held the edge.

To help prove my point is SHOWCASE PRESENTS THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER, which reprints the first 38 stories of the Unknown Soldier that appeared in STAR SPANGLED WAR STORIES 151–188. His identity has never been revealed, but the Unknown Soldier's story began in the Philippines, where he was sharing a foxhole with his older brother Harry. Harry was killed when a grenade exploded close by, and while his brother's life was spared, his face was mangled beyond recognition and repair. Choosing to continue to fight for democracy as a tribute to the late Harry, the young man, wrapped in bandages like Claude Rains, took the name "Unknown Soldier" and trained extensively in makeup, weaponry, hand-to-hand combat and linguistics.

Much like Rollin Hand on the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE TV series (to which the feature is clearly indebted), the Unknown Soldier was able to infiltrate Nazi strongholds and Japanese submarines by wearing disguises (usually rubber masks that would often tear off his face during heavy combat) and changing his voice. Joe Kubert was the original editor, writer and artist on the Unknown Soldier feature when it began in the June-July 1970 issue of STAR SPANGLED WAR STORIES #151, sharing the book with Enemy Ace.

Kubert stuck with the feature until #174, when he turned it over to writer Frank Robbins and artist Jack Sparling. Under the auspices of the great editor Archie Goodwin, the Unknown Soldier improved somewhat. While Kubert's stories were good, in general, they didn't read radically different than DC's other war stories. War comics by nature can be repetitious, and one feels that Kubert, who was also writing and drawing many other war stories for DC every month, could have been recycling old ideas by taking out names and replacing them with "Unknown Soldier." This is not a knock on Kubert, who is quite likely the greatest artist of war comic books who ever lived.

Robbins and Sparling did a terrific job playing up the adventure and espionage aspects of the Unknown Soldier, which are what made the character stand out from, say, Sgt. Rock. However, the character didn't really reach its full potential until #183, when writer David Michelinie and artist Gerry Talaoc took over under editor Joe Orlando.

"8,000 to One" gets the new direction off to a bold start, as the Unknown Soldier's true face is revealed for the first time on a masterfully horrific Talaoc splash page. Michelinie added depth to the character, filling the Unknown Soldier with angst over his raw deal in life and the futility of war. The violence and gore factor increased too. In "8,000 to One" (from #183), the Unknown Soldier is forced to kill an innocent woman to protect his cover and save the lives of 8000 Jewish prisoners. In "A Death in the Chapel" (STAR SPANGLED WAR STORIES #187), Nazis disguised as G.I.s mow over several children with a Jeep in order to lure the priest of a politically neutral village over to their side.

Talaoc was relatively new to DC, being one of several talented Filipino artists brought to DC in the early '70s by publisher Carmine Infantino and artist Tony DeZuniga (best known for co-creating the durable Jonah Hex for WEIRD WESTERN TALES). Michelinie was also a relatively inexperienced writer who had worked on DC's mystery books and SWAMP THING. He went over to Marvel to write THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and many very good IRON MAN stories, including "Demon in a Bottle," which brought Tony Stark's alcoholism to the forefront.

Unfortunately, only five Michelinie/Talaoc stories are included in SHOWCASE PRESENTS THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER. As terrific as this 500-pages-plus trade paperback is, I'm more excited about a Volume 2.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

East Bound And Down

That is a kickass picture. Sorry to say that the great musician Jerry Reed died yesterday at age 71. Reed had two very successful careers, the first as a first-rate session musician, songwriter and singer who was good enough to cross over from the country to the pop charts with the hit singles "When You're Hot, You're Hot" ("90 days, Jerry!") and the swampy "Amos Moses". You may also remember "She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft)" and my favorite, "East Bound and Down," from SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT.

Which brings to mind Reed's second career: as an actor. His friend Burt Reynolds brought Jerry to Hollywood to co-star in W.W. AND THE DIXIE DANCEKINGS, from which he graduated to bigger roles in GATOR (as an effectively gruesome heavy) and SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT as Snowman, the happy-go-lucky trucker who hauled cases of Coors from Texarkana to Atlanta. "East Bound and Down," a great song, came from SMOKEY, which featured a score by Bill Justus. Apart from Burt, Reed was also quite good in THE SURVIVORS and in a small role opposite Gene Hackman in BAT 21. On television, Reed played a cop in the shortlived NASHVILLE 99 and himself in the summer replacement variety hour THE JERRY REED WHEN YOU'RE HOT YOU'RE HOT HOUR (talk about networks jumping on a trend).

Known for a tremendous sense of humor that definitely came through the screen in his best-known film roles and in stage and TV performances, Reed will definitely be missed.

See director Jack Hill's MySpace page for a recent photo of actress Roberta Collins, who also passed away recently. Like Candice Rialson (amazingly, the two never worked together), Collins was a beautiful and talented blonde actress who appeared mainly in exploitation movies of the 1970s. Probably best known for acting in Hill's trendsetting THE BIG DOLL HOUSE (in which she uttered the classic line, "Get it up, or I'll cut it off."), Collins brought a brassy comic touch to several grimy drive-in classics, such as THE UNHOLY ROLLERS, THE AROUSERS (directed by L.A. CONFIDENTIAL's Curtis Hanson), EATEN ALIVE, CAGED HEAT and particularly DEATH RACE 2000, in which, as Matilda the Hun, she competed in a deadly cross-country road race against Sylvester Stallone, David Carradine and Mary Woronov.

Rialson never knew how revered she was among a certain subset of film fans. Hopefully, Collins, who remained in touch with Hill at least, did. No one besides Hill and the pseudonymous but respected blogger Arbogast appears to be reporting her death for the time being. The films she was in may have been small, but her contribution to them, as well as their impact on their fans, was anything but.

P.S. Jeremy Richey looks at three of Roberta Collins' films at his blog: the fine THE AROUSERS, the wacky THE DEADLY AND THE BEAUTIFUL and the made-for-television TERROR ON THE BEACH. I have copies of all three films, and while all are worth watching, Collins is only memorable in THE AROUSERS, in which she plays a prostitute who role-plays for Tab Hunter's serial killer with mommy issues.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Billion-Dollar Brain

Midwesterner Gary Brander, better known as a horror author (THE HOWLING), penned three men's adventure novels for Zebra in the mid-1970s about a character known as the Big Brain. Colin Garrett, the world's smartest man, occasionally takes a job with a secret government organization, Agency Zero, investigating strange crimes.

Book #2, THE BEELZEBUB BUSINESS, finds Garrett being reluctantly recruited again by Jefferson Judd to investigate a Washington, D.C. bigwig named Alec Danneman, a Presidential adviser under the hypnotic control of a Satan worshipper who runs a cult in the rear of the exclusive Beelzebub Club, which caters to the Beltway's most influential people. It isn't noir at all, but the Big Brain is more of a private detective than a spy, although Brandner introduces slight supernatural overtones to the story.

THE BEELZEBUB BUSINESS is an extremely brisk read and not an unentertaining one. Brandner's prose is strictly business, describing only what the reader needs to know and not a syllable more. The downside is that, for being such a genius, Garrett doesn't really seem like one. Not that he's a dolt, but he isn't any more spectacular a deductive mind than most other literary investigators, and he's even able to handle himself in a fight or gun battle when he needs to. Good stuff, though. AGENCY ZERO, Brandner's third and final Big Brain book, is next, if I ever find a reasonably priced copy.