Saturday, January 31, 2009

Orders to Kill!

Jonathan Trask's THE CAMP (Belmont Tower, 1977) is a patently absurd slice of post-Watergate paranoia that seems to have vanished off the cultural radar minutes after it arrived. A Google search turns up almost no information on the book or its author, who may of course have been a house name. I love the cover, however, which looks like it came from a '60s sweat mag. Maybe it did, as those companies tended to recycle art when possible. The illustration depicts an act of violence that actually occurs in THE CAMP, so maybe it was commissioned for the paperback.

Told in first person, THE CAMP is about Phil Gordon, a conservative, beer-drinking, skirt-chasing, joint-toking Vietnam vet who muckrakes as an investigative reporter for a NEWSWEEKesque weekly called TOMORROW. He enjoys taking down corrupt politicians and businessmen and is as handy with a Walther as he is with a Smith Corona.

On vacation in Maine, he visits a Native American friend, Jimmy Jacks, who tells Phil about a mysterious Army camp hidden deep in the woods where ghastly sounds emanate at night. Although the camp is surrounded by two waves of barbed wire so no one can get close enough to see anything, the moaning of what sounds like men being tortured carries past the fences. Jimmy's three sons sneaked into the forest to investigate, but none ever returned.

Phil and Jimmy pay a late-night visit to Camp Butler and discover the torn, ravaged bodies of tortured hippies tied to posts. Smelling a scoop, Phil arranges to go undercover as a recruit at Camp Butler, which he learns is operated under the radar by right-wing military extremists who are training American soldiers for an eventual government takeover, which includes a possible assassination of the U.S. President.

Trask didn't take long to pound out these 155 pages, and the plot and action don't fill out as well as they should. Gordon doesn't even face much opposition in his attempt to topple the Camp Butler bigwigs, which makes one wonder how they plan to conquer Washington if they can't even stop one out-of-shape ex-Green Beret.

A silly late-chapter twist and a pessimistic coda that indicates Trask/Gordon actually experienced THE CAMP and is hiding his facts in the form of a novel are consistent with the gloomy endings common to the 1970s. I had a good time in the hour or two it took to rip through Trask's blunt stylings, though I feel like the only man alive to have survived THE CAMP.

EDIT 2/28/2012: Big thanks to Joe Kenney at Glorious Trash for noting in the comments section that author Jonathan Trask is actually a combination of Leonard Levinson and Peter McCurtin!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

My Bloody Valentine (2009)

Lionsgate’s remake of the 1981 Canadian slasher MY BLOODY VALENTINE stays surprisingly loyal to the original screenplay by John Beaird (who also did an uncredited polish on HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME), but with the added attraction of 3D in its initial theatrical release. Director Patrick Lussier, who learned how to make horror films from Wes Craven, for whom he edited the SCREAM pictures, has fun with the Real D 3D process, jamming shotguns, pickaxes, bullets, bloody hands, and anything else he can think of right in our faces. As an homage to the notorious stalk-and-slash pictures that were ubiquitous in the 1980s, Lussier’s film—from a screenplay by Todd Farmer (JASON X) and Zane Smith—works very well, delivering nifty gore murders, a genuine mystery that’s fun to figure out, and the most gloriously gratuitous nude scene Hollywood has served moviegoers in a long time.

Ten years after miner Harry Warden went nuts and was apparently killed by Sheriff Burke (genre favorite Tom Atkins from THE FOG and HALLOWEEN III) after he murdered a couple of dozen partying teenagers inside the Hanniger family mine, scion Tom Hanniger (Jensen Ackles of The CW’s SUPERNATURAL) returns to Harmony, Pennsylvania. Tom left Harmony immediately after the now-notorious killings, and only returns now, after his father’s death, to sell the mine, which may put most of the town out of work. His former girlfriend Sarah (Jaime King, SIN CITY) is now married to his rival, Axel Palmer (FINAL DESTINATION’s Kerr Smith), who replaced the retiring Burke as county sheriff.

Also making a comeback, coincidental with Tom’s return to Harmony, is apparently Harry Warden, whose body was never found after he was presumed dead in a mine cave-in during his killing spree. Dressed ominously in a full miner’s uniform and mask, wielding a heavy pickaxe, Warden rampages again, beginning with an eye-raising attack on Irene (Betsy Rue)—she, Tom, Axel, and Sarah were the lone survivors of Harry’s previous murders—Axel’s old girlfriend, now turning tricks with truckers at the local motel. Rue plays the entire scene fully nude, which should win her some sort of Good Sport award from horror fans.

A jealous Axel, though an unfaithful husband, wants to pin the new murders on Tom, whose plan to sell the mine to a conglomerate has earned him the enmity of nearly everyone in Harmony, except his late father’s business partner Ben Foley (the welcome Kevin Tighe, ROAD HOUSE). Farmer and Smith craft the story as a mystery—is Harry Warden really back after a decade, or is someone in Harmony posing as him? Almost everyone in the cast is a passable red herring at some point, and the script doesn’t always follow the accepted rules of horror storytelling, leading to a final twist that doesn’t completely work, though it was a surprise to me.

I doubt MY BLOODY VALENTINE plays as effectively in 2D, but it’s worth seeking out in 3D on the big screen. Lussier directs with glee, splashing your Real D glasses with grue as often as he can. Veterans Atkins and Tighe, who have plenty of screen time, provide the movie with necessary sand to balance the younger leads, who aren’t bad, but are never convincing as adults. While I’m trying to avoid a comparison of the two versions of MY BLOODY VALENTINE, this remake is much less effective at creating the believable blue-collar environment that was so crucial to director George Mihalka’s original. That one also had an authentic Canadian setting, which added appealing local color that the Pennsylvania-lensed remake doesn’t have—Lussier’s film could have been made anywhere.

Horror fans have been generally disappointed in Hollywood’s recent crop of slasher remakes—PROM NIGHT, WHEN A STRANGER CALLS, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (sic), HALLOWEEN PART PI, ad nauseum—but I think Lionsgate got this one right. It has respect for the original MY BLOODY VALENTINE—to the point of re-creating some of its more famous moments—while giving the material enough of a contemporary spin to make it its own animal. It’s no horror classic, and I imagine, in 25 years, fans will probably still be watching the Mihalka film, instead of this one (particularly since Lionsgate has now released the 1981 film in its uncut glory, something of a Holy Grail of slasher aficionados). It’s still a worthwhile thrill ride, at least in its 3D cut. Check your brain at the door, of course. And try to stay in your seat when Harry Warden swings his sharp pickaxe at your face.

The Boom Boom Lady

The Boom Boom Lady
December 11, 1979
Music: Jimmie Haskell
Writer: Stephen Miller
Director: Daniel Haller

Cantankerous old Maude Nickerson (special guest star Jeanette Nolan) is blowing up buildings in Orly County. It's revenge to get back at the crooked district attorney (Ben Cooper) and the developer (the impossibly thick-haired Richard X. Slattery) who had her declared incompetent to get their hands on her land. While Sheriff Lobo (Claude Akins) and Deputy Birdie (Brian Kerwin) try to break down beautiful Millie Rogers (soap actress Ana Alicia, who went on to a long run on FALCON CREST), the supervisor at the old folks' home protecting her, Deputy Perkins (Mills Watson) goes undercover to recover the detonator that set off a bomb at the courthouse. That's because Perkins mistook the detonator for a transistor radio and accidentally set the bomb off, leaving his fingerprints on it in the process.

The presence of the gorgeous Miss Alicia, Nolan's sprightly performance, and some nice stuntwork involving a Jeep and a helicopter make this MISADVENTURES OF SHERIFF LOBO episode worthwhile. It's interested how some balsa wood, a burst of dust, and a sound effect can make you believe you've seen an explosion. Writer Miller was one of four story editors credited on this episode, which leaves me wondering whether LOBO was getting desperate for usable scripts.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Cooled By Refrigeration

As a follow-up to my review one year ago of 42ND STREET FOREVER, VOLUME 3: EXPLOITATION EXPLOSION, I tackle the latest trailer compilation from Synapse Films, which has the inevitable title 42ND STREET FOREVER, VOLUME 4: COOLED BY REFRIGERATION. Like the earlier DVD, this one opens with the strange Restricted clip featuring the cute kittens that was featured in GRINDHOUSE, before kicking off a string of 48 trailers previewing (mainly) exploitation movies of the 1970s.

  • THE SYNDICATE: A DEATH IN THE FAMILY—I wish Synapse had gotten Volume 4 off to a more explosive start, because this 1969 Italian crime movie looks quite dull. Barbara Bouchet is in it, but is sadly not nude in the trailer. The movie does co-star RHODA’s David Groh, which was the only thing notable about this trailer.
  • COMBAT COPS—“A hard way to live, an easy way to die!” Hard to believe this sleazy crime drama got a PG rating in the U.S. Also known as PANIC CITY, THE ZEBRA KILLER, and THE GET MAN (I’ve seen it as PANIC CITY on an X-rated U.K. print), COMBAT COPS stars Austin Stoker (ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13) as black cop Frank Savage (I love badass movie cops with badass movie cop names) chasing a white serial killer who wears blackface and an Afro wig when he attacks. William Girdler directed. This is the first of many incredible drive-in pictures on this disc that is sadly, sadly unavailable on DVD in the U.S. or perhaps anywhere else.
  • IT CAME WITHOUT WARNING—And here’s another. PREDATOR ripped off this all-star Greydon Clark schlockfest with Jack Palance (“Aliennnnnnnnnnn!”), Martin Landau, Ralph Meeker, Larry Storch, and David Caruso. Strangely, the trailer doesn’t make a big deal out of its name cast. I guess you could argue that Palance and Landau weren’t names then, but it doesn’t seem like Clark would have cast them if they didn’t have some box office clout.
  • NO BLADE OF GRASS—The fine action star and cult director Cornel Wilde made this British end-of-the-world tale that also isn’t on DVD, but has shown letterboxed on Turner Classic Movies. MGM’s trailer makes it look like an action movie. I believe Brad Crandall voices this trailer.
  • YOR, THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE—Columbia is losing a lot of money by not releasing this truly berserk sci-fi movie on DVD. With cavemen, a pterodactyl hang-glider, flooding, laser beams, flaming spears, spaceships, and Corinne Clery in a leather bikini, I could watch this trailer forever and not grow tired of it.
  • SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES—I’ve seen this trailer for the Fanfare Corporation’s warlock movie many times. It promises “a totally new kind of movie experience,” but I’m not a fan of SIMON. The trailer sells star Andrew Prine (who is good) like he might be worth something.
  • THE PSYCHIC—“Every ten or fifteen years, a film is produced that is so overwhelming, so forceful in its impact that it becomes deeply embedded in the mind and changes for all time those who see it. We think THE PSYCHIC is such a film.” I doubt it. Beautiful Jennifer O’Neill is the psychic who sees her own murder.
  • SCHIZOID—Surprisingly, no shout-out to the cast is forthcoming for this slash-and-stalk pic with nudity that stars Klaus Kinski, Mariana Hill, Craig Wasson, Donna Wilkes, and Christopher Lloyd, who was on TAXI.
  • TENDER FLESH—Nude Meg Foster is “eighteen, and life is just beginning.” Laurence Harvey’s last film was originally released as WELCOME TO ARROW BEACH. This effective trailer with splashes of blood doesn’t seem to have attracted an audience under any title. I think Harvey, who directed too, was dead by the time this came out. “Makes the killings in SNUFF look like amateur night.”
  • DIE, SISTER, DIE!—I never heard of this Cinema Shares chiller, which looks like a combo of the “old dark house” and “family with a terrible secret” genres. TV vets Jack Ging, Antoinette Bower, Kent Smith, and Edith Atwater star.
  • SILENT SCREAM—The name stars, which include Cameron Mitchell, Barbara Steele, and Yvonne DeCarlo, are never seen nor mentioned in American Cinema’s decent trailer for a slasher film I don’t really like.
  • NEW YEAR’S EVIL—I’ve seen this trailer a million times. TV’s Pinky Tuscadero is a rock singer stalked on New Year’s Eve by a killer wearing a Stan Laurel mask! From Cannon.
  • LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH--Acclaimed Paramount shocker gets a creepy trailer. Zohra Lampert sees a ghost or something at a New England country home. This one actually is on DVD and is apparently quite good.
  • MORTUARY—Excellent teaser trailer with Michael Berryman as a gravedigger who gets pulled into one of his holes by a zombie has nothing at all to do with the movie. Berryman isn’t even in it.
  • HUMONGOUS—Six people stranded on island are hunted by a monster in this Canadian flick. Looks cool, but I’ve never heard anything good about it. The trailer editors love that boat explosion. Star Janet Julian was also in CHOKE CANYON and played Nancy Drew on TV as Janet Louise Johnson.
  • THE WEREWOLF VS. THE VAMPIRE WOMAN—“Warning! Due to the terrifying nature of this film, we strongly urge those of you with faint hards or week stomachs NOT to see this picture.” Paul Naschy stars in this Gothic Spanish horror with gorgeous women.
  • EMBRYO—Very short teaser says nothing, not even who’s in it.
  • THE BOOGEYMAN—Ulli Lommel’s cheap horror movie used to play on HBO constantly, though I never saw it. Looks like it cribs from AMITYVILLE HORROR. Lommel still makes crummy horror flicks. From the Jerry Gross Organization.
  • THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK—“A True Story.” Riiiight. Charles B. Pierce capitalizes on the Bigfoot craze with this mockumentary that’s surprisingly rated G.
  • THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN—Pierce takes a possessory credit on this very creepy serial killer flick set in 1946 with “Academy Award winner Ben Johnson” and Andrew Prine. Poor Dawn Wells is ignored. Another “True Story” from American International Pictures. May have influenced FRIDAY THE 13TH, PART 2.
  • GREYEAGLE—Wha? Charles B. Pierce again? Alex Cord seems miscast as a Native American in a trailer that compares Indians to Roman gladiators and Vikings as great warriors. Also with “Academy Award winner Ben Johnson,” Jack Elam, Iron Eyes Cody, Paul Fix, and Lana Wood in a nod to THE SEARCHERS.
  • SHADOW OF THE HAWK—See Jan-Michael Vincent fight a bear and a wolf! But not at the same time. Also with Marilyn Hassett (“star of THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN”) and Chief Dan George.
  • RITUALS—Inappropriate music desperately pushes this unsettling DELIVERANCE riff as a scary campfire tale. Please, please somebody put this out on DVD. It has never received an uncut home video release in the U.S.
  • AMERICATHON—Never seen this terrible-looking comedy with musical numbers. John Ritter is the President of a bankrupt U.S.A. Also with Harvey Korman, Fred Willard, Peter Reigert, Nancy Morgan (Ritter’s wife), Zane Buzby, Richard Schaal, Meat Loaf, Elvis Costello, and Chief Dan George again. Eddy Money (sic) provides some of the songs.
  • CAN I DO IT…’TIL I NEED GLASSES?—Very long trailer for a very lame comedy with old sex jokes. Must be from the original release, because it was later re-released with a trailer selling it as a star vehicle for Robin Williams, who had about five minutes screen time in footage later reinstated to capitalize on his MORK & MINDY fame.
  • DIE LAUGHING—I can’t believe Robby Benson was ever a star, but here he is as a writer, producer, songwriter, and star of an action/comedy/ego trip that casts him as a rock and roll-singing cabbie. Oddly, the female love interest looks exactly like him.
  • IN GOD WE TRUST—Marty Feldman talks to God, and tells him about cast of his new movie. Lots of stunts and slapstick in a trailer that may well be funnier than the film.
  • UNDERCOVERS HERO—Peter Sellers plays six roles, all of them unfunny, including an insulting Japanese stereotype, in this British sex comedy.
  • THE JEZEBELS—Ron Gans voices this classic trailer, which was later re-released as the better known SWITCHBLADE SISTERS. Meet Maggie, Lace, Bunny, and Patch—also called the Smiling Cobra!
  • BREAKING POINT—PORKY’S’ Bob Clark directed this Canadian vigilante movie riding the coattails of star Bo Svenson’s hit turn in PART 2 WALKING TALL. Again, Bo is a regular guy pushed too far. A couple of cool stunts, including a burning man and a house pushed down a hill, in this 20th Century Fox production with Robert Culp and John Colicos.
  • FIGHTING MAD—This one also should be on DVD. It’s Peter Fonda in a Roger Corman production of a 20th Century Fox film about a vigilante going against mean strip miners that kill his brother, Scott Glenn. Ernie Anderson does the voiceover very well.
  • MOVING VIOLATION—Another very good Corman/Fox actioner not on DVD. Stephen McHattie and Kay Lenz (love her) are young people who witness a murder committed by corrupt sheriff Lonny Chapman and go on the run. Lots of cars blow up among the chases and stunts.
  • BONNIE’S KIDS—Again, needs to be on DVD. Star Tiffany Bolling’s recent PLAYBOY layout is touted, and co-star Robin Mattson is show nude, as Ron Gans’ narration mentions she’s playing a 15-year-old. Also with Alex Rocco (off THE GODFATHER) and Tim Brown (off the gridiron). “Thank God she only had two.”
  • PART 2 WALKING TALL—Opens with a statement and a photo of the recently dead Buford Pusser, played here by Bo Svenson. Claims 70 million people (!) saw WALKING TALL. “A True Story.”
  • THE KLANSMAN—Amazingly sleazy, trashy film. Trailer shows the hilarious Richard Burton/Cameron Mitchell kung fu battle. “O.J. Simpson is Garth, matching the Klan bullet by bullet!”
  • THE MONKEY HUSTLE—Fun lighthearted blaxploitation with a good leading man role for Yaphet Kotto.
  • THE SOLDIER—Awesome slo-mo kills and lots of violence, including a memorable ski lift explosion, in James Glickenhaus’ lamebrained fun thriller. “You don’t assign him, you unleash him!”
  • BLACKOUT—“The story of New York’s longest night.” Siege movie stars Jim Mitchum, Robert Carradine, Belinda J. Montgomery, June Allyson, Jean-Pierre Aumont, and Ray Milland.
  • SHOUT AT THE DEVIL—“A monumental motion picture experience.” AIP compares it to KING SOLOMON’S MINES, SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO, and THE AFRICAN QUEEN! “Academy Award winner Lee Marvin”, Roger Moore, and Barbara Parkins star in “the greatest African adventure ever filmed.” VO by Ernie Anderson.
  • MARCH OR DIE—This one really pours on the hyperbole, mentioning GUNGA DIN, ZULU,and LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. Gene Hackman, Terence Hill, Max von Sydow, Ian Holm, and Catherine Deneuve star in Columbia’s Foreign Legion epic.
  • THE LOVES AND TIMES OF SCARAMOUCHE—Michael Sarrazin has to be miscast in this Enzo G. Castellari comic adventure with lots of people falling down and getting hit in the head.
  • HOG WILD—Canadian biker spoof with SCTV’s Tony Rosato and a blond Michael Biehn.
  • THE HARD HEADS—Never heard of this Southern comedy and no idea what it’s about, but it has many crashing cars and cycles, as well as an amazing biplane stunt that has to have been a real accident caught on film.
  • THE CHICKEN CHRONICLES—Steve Guttenberg got his start in this AMERICAN GRAFFITI ripoff with Phil Silvers.
  • BEST FRIENDS—“They’re hip, high, and happy. Are you like one of them?” Richard Hatch, before joining THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO, and his friends drive around, party, have sex, and sometimes fight Indians.
  • OUR WINNING SEASON—Scott Jacoby is a teen track runner in this AIP movie that doesn’t look very exploitative.
  • COACH—Cathy Lee Crosby is a boys high school basketball coach in a PG Crown International movie that doesn’t look like an exploitation movie, though she falls for player Michael Biehn.
  • GOLDENGIRL—“Introduces” Susan Anton, even though she had already starred in a couple of TV series. The trailer wisely shows off her stunning figure, as she plays a genetically enhanced track star competing in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. With James Coburn as her agent, Leslie Caron, Curt Jurgens, and Robert Culp.

In addition, 42ND STREET FOREVER, VOLUME 4 offers a handful of short TV spots: BLACKOUT (Ernie Anderson), JACKSON COUNTY JAIL (Ernie Anderson), SUPERCHICK, THUNDER AND LIGHTNING, and THE JUNKMAN.

As before, the big extra is the still crowded but still informative commentary track by cult movie experts Edwin Samuelson, Chris Poggiali, and Michael Gingold. I disclose that Chris and I are friendly acquaintances (with a terrific blog), and that I have written for Edwin’s AV Maniacs Web site (Synapse head Don May Jr. is also a regular at Mobius Home Video Forum, where I moderate several message boards). I didn’t learn a lot that I didn’t already know, but the commentary track is a great primer for those new to this type of movie. In general, they’ve done their research and seem like good guys to talk movies with. I’m sure it can be difficult to say everything you’d like about a movie in the space of its 2-minute trailer, but this talk flows quite well. They do a better job of splitting up the talk among them, though I still believe three guys in the booth is one too many.

Synapse’s choice of trailers in Volume 4 is its weakest yet. Many of them would never have played to enthusiastic drive-in audiences, and many of them are downright boring. Perhaps Synapse used up the best material on earlier volumes?

Because You Love Bert

Monday, January 26, 2009

Dope, Death, Dike & Drum

Eve Drum, the Lady from L.U.S.T. (League of Underground Spies and Terrorists), was the star of a long-running series of softcore spy novels created to capitalize on the James Bond phenomenon of the 1960s. It has been called a spoof, but based on the one Drum novel I have, it isn't. It's meant to be fun and played tongue-in-cheek, but so are the Bonds.

First published by Midwood-Tower in 1967, the Lady from L.U.S.T. books were retitled and re-released many times over the next decade to the point where putting together a complete chronology is somewhat difficult, though I believe 23 books were written. This Web site does a pretty good job of sorting out the various printings and covers, though anyone putting together a full Lady from L.U.S.T. collection may be disappointed in the books' quality, judging from the one I read.

Eve Drum, codenamed Oh Oh Sex, works for L.U.S.T., which is akin to the CIA and the State Department in battling evil around the world. In THE LADY KILLER, which was one of seven New Lady from L.U.S.T. novels published by Belmont Tower in 1975, Eve is assigned to investigate the vicious murders of two of a team of scientists developing Terathon, a miracle drug that cures heroin addiction. While Eve's boss, David Anderjanian, assigns bodyguards to the remaining two Terathon doctors, the 38-24-35 blonde superspy pokes around, asking questions, rescuing a 17-year-old hooker, and having tons of sex with her boss, her boyfriend, even a random muscleman.

As a sex novel, THE LADY KILLER is anti-erotic, as a mystery, it's uninvolving, and as an action/adventure, it's a real snoozer. The denouement plays like the climax of a HONEY WEST episode, and is over in a couple of pages. Actually, take away the sex, and the whole book reads like a typical '70s TV show and padded with inane conversations to reach 160 pages. Author Gray's twist involving the female assassin's identity is somewhat interesting, but, again, would not have been out of place in a MANNIX plot.

The most fascinating aspect of the Lady from L.U.S.T. series is its author, Rod Gray, which was a common pen name of Gardner F. Fox, one of the most prolific and successful comic book writers of all time. Fox's work at DC Comics includes virtually every important series and character in the company's illustrious line, including JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA, THE FLASH, MYSTERY IN SPACE, Justice Society of America in ALL-STAR COMICS, BATMAN and many others. However, after several decades of sterling work at DC and other companies, the former pulp sci-fi writer was either forced out of the company or left over a disagreement involving health benefits, depending on which account you read. There does appear to be a consensus that Fox was unable or unwilling to adapt to the new style of comic books being produced in the late 1960s, and editor-in-chief Roy Thomas' attempt to hire Fox to write some Marvel titles in the early '70s led to lackluster comics.

Fox, using the Rod Gray pseudonym and others, wrote many novels in the Lady from L.U.S.T. and Cherry Delight series, as well as dozens of other adventure novels. Counting his comic book work, Fox may be one of the most prolific American authors who ever lived. That said, I don't know whether THE LADY KILLER is one of Fox's books. It certainly isn't among the writer's best work, whoever he is.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Age Of Believing

I know I'm a little late in writing about this, but keep your eyes on Turner Classic Movies' schedule for its next showing of the documentary THE AGE OF BELIEVING: THE DISNEY LIVE-ACTION FILMS, which will certainly be of interest to moviegoers of a certain age. As you can imagine from its title, the documentary by Peter Fitzgerald attempts to pack too much information into its running time. I've seen DVD supplements that ran as long, but managed to focus its attention on just one film.

I was amazed to realize how many of the films chronicled here I had seen as a kid, even though most of them were made before I was even born. Not only did Disney have a penchant for theatrically re-releasing (though his Buena Vista company) his films every eight or nine years, but most of them also aired on his television show, which had many titles and formats over the three decades it was on, but was called THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF DISNEY on Sunday nights on NBC when I was growing up.

Many of the surviving filmmakers and actors are interviewed, notably Dick Van Dyke (MARY POPPINS), Tommy Kirk (THE SHAGGY DOG), Dean Jones (THE LOVE BUG), Kevin Corcoran (OLD YELLER), and Kurt Russell (THE COMPUTER WORE TENNIS SHOES). Notably absent are Annette Funicello, who probably was the most important star Disney ever had under contract--she suffers from MS and was likely unable to be interviewed--and Fess Parker, whose portrayal of Davy Crockett sparked a merchandising phenomenon unmatched until STAR WARS came along twenty years later.

Told mainly through well-chosen film clips interspersed with talking heads and Angela Lansbury's narration, THE AGE OF BELIEVING probably will strike a chord among those who grew up watching Disney films, back when the Disney label on a film meant something. What it meant was wholesome and, yes, sometimes hokey entertainment, except we didn't know it was hokey when we were nine years old.

THE AGE OF BELIEVING isn't perfect, however, and is even disappointing in some areas. For one thing, almost everything produced after Uncle Walt's death in 1966 is ignored. The 1970s in particular get just a handful of minutes, including a brief bit of Jodie Foster from FREAKY FRIDAY and a surprisingly uninvolving story by Tim Conway about his APPLE DUMPLING GANG costar Don Knotts. While the documentary and interviewee Kurt Russell admits that Disney had tough times during the 1970s, refusing or being unable to adapt to the swiftly changing social mores in America, the film doesn't go into any details. While the '70s were not a great period for Disney films, it would have been nice to have seen clips of GUS (which I saw about a million times, it seems) or NO DEPOSIT, NO RETURN, or even an acknowledgment that the Disney studio remained busy during the decade.

The documentary's most egregious omission is 1979's THE BLACK HOLE, which is totally ignored. One of Disney's most important live-action films was both its most expensive (at the time) and riskiest, and it was also the studio's first PG-rated production. TRON, which this documentary would have you believe was Disney's final live-action film, is the last one mentioned and just barely.

Despite its problems, check out THE AGE OF BELIEVING on Turner Classic Movies if you get a chance, and recapture some of those fond memories you have of sitting in a darkened theater and being entertained. Chances are excellent that one of the movies showcased here was the first one you ever saw.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Time Served

Is it a women-in-prison movie, or is it a strip-club movie? Thank you, director Glen Pitre, for proving that it's possible to combine both lurid genres into one hilariously stupid and sleazy direct-to-video flick. 1999's TIME SERVED is a preposterous slice of trashy dumb fun that takes the basic WIP premise of a sweet, innocent young woman sentenced to a lifetime of torture and degradation for a crime she didn't commit, and updates for the 21st century by adding a trendy subplot involving strip clubs.  And if you're wondering how a film could possibly mix strippers and convicts, then you obviously haven't seen enough of these WIPs.

Sarah McKinney (38-year-old Catherine Oxenberg, a long way from DYNASTY) faces serious jail time after her young son blows away his abusive stepfather with a gun he found upstairs.  Even though the case is an obvious example of self-defense, Sarah claims that she killed her husband and is handed a ridiculously stiff jail term by Judge Engstrom (James Handy), a psychopath who retires to his chambers, fondles his gun, and rambles on to himself about how all women are whores. 

On to prison, where Sarah is forced to strip and is assigned to a hot lesbian cellmate, Rosie (Lourdes Colon), who propositions her right out of the gate. The roomie bears no grudge when Sarah refuses her, and even offers Sarah a chance to become part of the cool crowd, a way to escape the hazing, brutality, and cruel working conditions part of everyday prison life.  Y'see, Rosie is part of the prison's unique work release program, a project spearheaded by the corrupt warden (Oscar-winner Louise Fletcher!) and a slimeball named Mr. D (the great trash-film performer Bo Hopkins). 

Violating all levels of common sense and the law, the sexier prisoners are allowed out at night to dance at Mr. D's swanky strip joint.  Sarah resists at first, not wanting to stoop to that level (somehow she finds scrubbing floors more dignified), but for some reason, it's enormously important to everyone else that Sarah works at the club, and they go to great extremes to put pressure on her.  Eventually, she caves in, and an ever-grateful audience is glad that she does, since Sarah, for all her primness, turns out to be a surprisingly gifted stripper, almost as though she had been practicing for a film role...

The story grows even sillier, if you can believe it, as Sarah's incompetent attorney, Patrick (Jeff Fahey), begins to feel a tad guilty about being such a poor lawyer, and, after a few visits with Sarah's vegetable son (remember him?), takes measures to overturn his client's conviction.  His methods include sneaking into Mr. D's to watch her dance and hacking into government files to investigate Mr. D's finances.  I doubt you'll be surprised to learn that Judge Engstrom's ugly head rears up later in the story.  Or that the exterior of the strip club appears to be nothing more than a wooden façade awkwardly placed randomly in the middle of a parking lot.  Or that most of the prisoners possess perfect surgically enhanced breasts and a shocking affinity for exotic dancing.

Oxenberg is a pretty good sport, showing up on the set every day knowing she was going to have to do something shamelessly embarrassing for a film hardly worth the effort.  Hopkins is having a pretty good time, camping it up with a silly accent, while Fahey, who plays dim bulbs pretty well (perhaps THE LAWNMOWER MAN was good preparation), spices up his work with the knowledge that he's in a stupid film that nonetheless paid him his going rate.  MAGNUM, P.I. sidekick Larry Manetti also pops up in this entertaining trashfest filmed around Chicago.  If you know someone who claims, "Gee, they just don't make 'em the way they used to," just show this to him or her. TIME SERVED is tasteless, absurd, and filled with gratuitous nudity and a complete lack of logic—just like WIPs in the old days.

Dardo Arigato

My homes Richard Harland Smith, one of the Movie Morlocks of Turner Classic Movies, has graciously awarded me a Premio Dardo Award for, as he put it, "excellence in blogging and offered in recognition of cultural, ethical, literary and personal values transmitted in the form of creative and original writing."  I won't claim to deserve the honor, but I humbly accept and with much pleasure pass it along to five other deserving bloggers. I looked at the large number of film-related blogs I read every day and chose just five to honor here. Believe me, I wish I could have picked more than five. Let me also say that I purposely did not choose a blog that has already been bestowed with a Premio Dardo, out of a sense of spreading the wealth and hopefully opening your daily Web surfing to new stops.

All recipients of this peer-driven award are required to first acknowledge those who bestowed the honor upon them, and, in turn, name five other writers to whom they would like to pass the prize.  Congratulations to all. In no particular order…

Hal Horn's The Horn Section
Hal doesn't blog very often, but when he does, I always have to stop and read his often lengthy posts in their entirety. Besides his admirable devotion to F TROOP, Hal's usual subjects are his long-running "Why The Hell Isn't This On DVD Yet?" series—which has included, and rightfully so, films as far-ranging in quality and availability as Hal Ashby's black comedy THE LANDLORD, a 1950 Republic B-western called CALIFORNIA PASSAGE, and his latest, the made-for-TV women-in-prison movie NIGHTMARE IN BADHAM COUNTY—and the 1970s crime drama QUINCY, M.E., for which Hal breaks down the show's most unintentionally hilarious episodes (can't wait for the snake episode, Hal).

Greg Conley's Your Video Store Shelf
Greg is one of the very few film bloggers who heavily covers the sadly neglected realm of direct-to-video movies, which is a genre that deserves more coverage than it receives from the mainstream media—which is, basically, none, outside of an occasional paragraph in ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY. It makes no sense that major publications and radio and TV outlets regularly dedicate precious page space or airtime to reviewing the junkiest theatrical fare, and ignore direct-to-video fare, even the extremely good films, 100%. Greg is not the only blogger interested in filmmakers like Philip Roth and Jim Wynorski, but he's the only one in my Google Reader subscriptions. In addition to reviewing DTV obscurities, such as output from PM Entertainment, Phoenician, and The Asylum, Greg also has compiled an archive of podcasts with schlock-film makers.

Neil Sarver's The Bleeding Tree
Neil is a writer, a filmmaker, and a Facebook friend whose blog tackles a wide variety of subjects, most of which I also find interesting. Among them: crappy movies, crappy paperbacks, rock music, and female nudity. I hope I'm somewhat to blame for his latest excursion into reading junky Don Pendleton novels, and he may have been the only blogger to punctuate his obituary of Ricardo Montalban with a still from CONQUEST FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES.

Larry Aydlette'sWelcome to L.A.
Larry can be kinda difficult to track down. I have been following his various blogs for a long time now, which hasn't been easy, as he used to switch from blog to blog at the spur of a moment, leaving neither notice nor archives in his wake. If you wanted to read him, you had to do it right away, because you never knew how long he'd be around. Thankfully, Welcome To L.A., which celebrates Hollywood young and old, seems to be sticking.

Stacie Ponder's Final Girl
Like Neil and Larry, Stacie is a Facebook friend and a girl after my own heart—a girl who loves trashy horror movies. Her snarky, playful writing style is always a joy to experience, particularly when she's hilariously explaining her unusual infatuations with junk like GRIZZLY, which was part of her Animals Run Amok series. Did I mention she's also a comic book artist and consistently creates awesome Facebook status updates?


Adam Ross' DVD Panache
Idaho native Adam likely would have made the top five, if not for a sad technicality (that I guess I created, since RHS didn't pass along any rules). Adam recently took a break from DVD Panache to pursue a career opportunity. Hopefully, it's a great career move that will allow him to both prosper and return to regular blogging, because his voice needs to be heard. And I'm not just saying that because he chose me to be one of his Friday Screen Test candidates.

Blood Sons Of Allah

After his way-out adventure 20,000 leagues beneath the sea in THE ZEMLYA EXPEDITION, the Death Merchant's next adventure, set in North Africa, seems almost staid in comparison. NIGHTMARE IN ALGERIA certainly has less story and may be the most thinly plotted Death Merchant book I've yet read. #18 in the long-running Pinnacle series, Joseph Rosenberger's 1976 novel finds Richard Camellion undercover in Algeria with Palestinian terrorists calling themselves the Blood Sons of Allah. His cover is blown in the first chapter, however, by the unexpected arrival of Irina Golbov, a KGB agent of Camellion's acquaintance.

After some very graphic bloodshed, the Death Merchant escapes, but his assignment remains: to prevent the Sons of Allah and black American traitors called the Black Avengers from succeeding in their plot to assassinate Gerald Ford, Henry Kissinger and Anwar Sadat. However, they don't really get very far, and as per usual for the series, at least half of the book's 180 pages are dedicated to describing various methods of destroying the human body. Frankly, it becomes monotonous after awhile, very much like a Michael Bay movie where one is just pounded over and over with action and violence without style or motivation. Rosenberger has no interest in story or pacing, just killing. The Death Merchant books are sexless and the definition of "in your face," yet they do serve as perfect mindless fodder for reading on the train or at the beach, though Rosenberger's racist, xenophobic, atheist and vaguely anti-Semitic attitudes may be a turnoff for you.

Oh, and Rosenberger also reveals the real truth behind the JFK assassination, as it is told to the Death Merchant by a reliable source. Now you really have to read NIGHTMARE IN ALGERIA.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Bloodfist II

Don "The Dragon" Wilson returned to the BLOODFIST franchise almost exactly one year after the original film for the imaginatively titled BLOODFIST II. Believe it or not, the sequel received an even larger release, hitting 92 screens in the fall of 1990. Even though this type of independently financed action movie was much more often seen on cable television and videocassette, Concorde managed to squeeze this one into theaters, so studio head Roger Corman must have seen potential in the series' premise or its star.

Two years after the accidental death of an opponent spurred him to retire from professional fighting, undefeated light heavyweight kickboxing champion Jake Raye (Wilson) receives a phone call from his good friend and former trainer Vinnie (Maurice Smith), who's in trouble and needs Jake to fly to Manila to help him out of a jam.

Jake is just off the plane when he is lured by beautiful Mariella (Rina Reyes) to an abandoned warehouse, where he is waylaid and abducted to Paradise, a private island owned by megalomaniac Su (Joe Mari Avellana). Su has arranged a modern-day, but just as corrupt, version of ancient Roman gladiator battles. He has kidnapped professional fighters—boxing, karate, kickboxing and other martial-arts champions—from all over the world to compete in his games for the enjoyment of his wealthy friends. Jake and his companions are to be pitted against Su's private army, which have been artificially enhanced with a new super-steroid developed by German mad scientist Dieter (Robert Marius).

Readers of BLACKBELT and THE DEADLY HANDS OF KUNG FU magazines should get a real (ahem) kick out of BLOODFIST II, which offers a lot of fighting. A lot of fighting. I doubt more than five or six minutes ever pass without Wilson or one of his friends getting into a battle with somebody, usually using their bare hands and feet, but sometimes grabbing a handy knife, staff, spear or sword. Since much of the cast, including "The Dragon" (Wilson's homage to Bruce Lee extends to scripter Catherine Cyran's swiping of ENTER THE DRAGON's storyline), are actual martial-arts champions, the frequent fight scenes have an air of authenticity about them that help ground the comic-book plot in some sort of reality.

Not that you should take BLOODFIST II seriously, especially with Marius' diabolically campy performance screaming for attention, but for 84 minutes of straight-on martial-arts action, it fits the bill quite well. Cyran didn't seem especially proud of it or her other screenplays for Concorde when she was interviewed in the documentary SOME NUDITY REQUIRED. Director Andy Blumenthal, who handles the brisk pace and Wilson's thesping limitations rather well, doesn't seem to have directed another film, though he did return to his "day job" as a film editor. The oddest thing about this movie is that director Wes Craven and character actor Stephen Tobolowsky are created as "advisors."

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Random Comic Book Splash Page #10

Even if you've never heard of the classic 1951 science fiction film THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (though you're probably not reading this blog if you haven't), you may have been aware of last year's remake starring Keanu Reeves. You may well know that both versions were inspired by "Farewell to the Master," a 1940 short story by Harry Bates. It's quite likely, however, that you missed the most faithful retelling of the story in WORLDS UNKNOWN, Marvel's excellent shortlived comic book series adapting famous science fiction stories.

Roy Thomas, the book's editor, wrote "Farewell to the Master!," taking a few liberties that Bates apparently was down with. Ross Andru and Wayne Howard did a nice job with the art. From WORLDS UNKNOWN #3, September 1973.

Trek On 40 Acres

My apologies to whomever first posted this neat image. I found it sometime ago, put it on my desktop, and then forgot where it came from. I have seen very few color behind-the-scenes stills from STAR TREK, so this caught my eye. It's Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner, DeForest Kelley, and Grace Lee Whitney between takes shooting "Miri" on the 40 Acres backlot.

I have an interest in old studio backlots, and it's a shame so few of them are left. 40 Acres in Culver City was the home of THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, GOMER PYLE, BATMAN, STAR TREK, HOGAN'S HEROES, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and many other great shows. In fact, it's kinda fun to see Mayberry show up in other shows; in STAR TREK's "City on the Edge of Forever," Shatner and guest Joan Collins stroll right past Floyd's Barber Shop!

This site has plenty of cool photos of the 40 Acres lot, as used in your favorite TV shows and movies (yep, Tara was there too).

Monday, January 19, 2009

Chick Habit

At less than 2 1/2 minutes, this GRINDHOUSE fan edit I found on YouTube would have been a much more effective trailer for the 2007 film than the trailers the Weinsteins created. Definitely not safe for work, this is basically a music video for April March's incredible "Chick Habit," which can be found on the GRINDHOUSE soundtrack, using clips from the 2007 movie. Enjoy.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


As a follow-up to my highly anticipated and acclaimed (ahem) reviews of the FRIDAY THE 13TH series some time ago, it's time to present, over the next several days, a look at Roger Corman's BLOODFIST series. You've seen them lining the shelves at your local video store for years. You've flipped across them on cable TV late at night. But you've never watched them. Should you? Let's see.

You have to hand it to Roger Corman, whose Concorde/New Horizons studio financed and distributed the BLOODFIST movies. First off, BLOODFIST…great title. Secondly, almost all of the nine films in the BLOODFIST series have nothing to do with one another. Shot and perhaps released in some areas under an unrelated title, Corman and his marketing people knew the value of a franchise and packaged a series of direct-to-video action movies with no continuing characters or storylines as BLOODFIST sequels. I have no doubt this approach was successful for Concorde, but the key to it was a professional kickboxer-turned-actor named Don "The Dragon" Wilson, who starred in the first eight BLOODFISTs.

You may recognize Wilson from his brief role as John Cusack's kickboxing instructor in SAY ANYTHING…, but the cult-movie lover within you is likely familiar with him as a minor action star ubiquitous in DTV movies throughout the 1990s. BLOODFIST, which Concorde released on 54 screens in the fall of 1989, was his debut as a leading man, after his brief parts in SAY ANYTHING… and BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY.

Don plays Jake Raye, a Los Angeles gym owner who travels to Manila to claim his half-brother Michael's corpse. Jake's only clue is a swath of red polyester found clutched in Michael's hand, cloth torn from his killer's robe. It belongs to a member of the Red Fist, a secret society of kickboxers who fight underground for the amusement of wealthy gamblers. The only way for Jake to get inside the Red Fist to identify the murderer is to compete in the ultimate round robin--a series of championship matches in which only one man, the eventual winner, will be left standing.

Writer Robert King, who went on to create the critically acclaimed TV drama THE GOOD WIFE with his wife Michelle, isn't much on creating believable human relationships or crisp dialogue, but is that really what a movie titled BLOODFIST needs? He and director Terence H. Winkless (THE NEST) know how to space the fight scenes, so that no more than, oh, seven or eight minutes ever go by without somebody punching, gouging or kicking somebody else. So it's a good thing Winkless, whom I interviewed here, cast his movie with an eye towards realism. Wilson and his co-stars Billy Blanks, Kris Aguilar and Rob Kaman all are the Real Deal. In fact, the opening credits list their trophies along with their names.

Wilson, one of kickboxing's greatest champions, is a competent, if not particularly interesting, leading man. Like Chuck Norris, he has an unimpressive speaking voice and is usually overwhelmed in any scene in which he has to express an emotion, but he comes across as a very likable guy. He seems a bit slight for an action star, but his real-life accomplishments obviously speak otherwise, and he handles himself well in the many fight scenes (although he is doubled for stunts like jumping off of buildings).

Friday, January 16, 2009

Hmmm...I Do Need A Job

Perhaps I should investigate this...

His Hatred Was Like Black Acid

I'm surprised it also took me this long to get around to Sam Durell. This long-running series of adventure novels by author Edward S. Aarons doesn't really belong to the '70s genre of men's action novels, but I'm including it anyway. The Durell books are much more akin to Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm adventures (which I also plan to re-read someday) than to the Executioner or the Death Merchant. They're also a series I'm familiar with, having read a handful of Durell books before I started delving into the men's adventure genre last year.

I won't write much about Aarons or the history of Sam Durell, since my Mobius cohort Doug Bassett has already done so much better than I could have. Just briefly, Aarons wrote 42 globetrotting Durell novels between 1955 and 1976. After he died, his estate contracted with author Lawrence Hall to punch out six more Durell books under the name Will B. Aarons, which was the name of Edward's brother. The books are written almost totally from Durell's point of view. Though not in first person, Aarons never cuts away (that I recall) to see what other characters are up to. The reader follows the plot right alongside Durell.

Durell is a tough American espionage agent, codenamed Cajun because of his Louisiana upbringing. Although he has a girlfriend in at least the first two novels, Dierdre, Sam's job prevents him from becoming tied down to friends, family or lovers. After serving in the OSS during World War II, Sam ended up in the CIA, where he traveled all over the world battling evil. I liken the Durell adventures to the Matt Helms because of their relatively realistic approach to spying. No laser battles or world-domination plots or kinky villains or cloning machines. Violence causes pain and pain hurts.

The second Durell book is ASSIGNMENT TREASON, published in April 1956 by Gold Medal, and it's very good. The action never leaves the Washington, D.C. area, but Durell's mission is a tough, demanding one that takes a lot out of him emotionally, as well as physically. Only his boss, Dickinson McFee of K Section, knows that Durell is undercover. Even Dierdre is stunned to learn that Durell is a traitor stealing government secrets and turning them over to the Soviets, specifically a list of covert U.S. agents. The real American traitors ambush Durell to take the list from him, but it disappears in the struggle with neither party getting its hands on it. From there, the search is on, which leads Durell to the true enemy, a right-wing ex-senator who plans to start an atomic war he is sure will destroy America's enemies, even if it does claim many millions of Americans as acceptable collateral damage.

Cool and crisp at 160 pages, TREASON is a terrific adventure with a strong hero and plenty of cracking action scenes. Aarons doesn't flinch at presenting violence, though the really rough stuff occurs off-page. One female character is permanently scarred as a result of torture, but Aarons never describes exactly what the heavies did to her face, leaving it up to us to imagine the ugliness. Though the book is definitely a product of the 1950s Cold War era, its characterizations and story—about right-wing extremist forces pushing the U.S. into an unnecessary war out of their psychotic sense of patriotism—rings true five decades later.

The Edward S. Aarons Sam Durell books are great stuff.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Helluva Week

Sorry I haven't been here the last few days, but it's been a heckuva week, starting with the fact that I lost my job yesterday. And today I hear that Ricardo Montalban and Patrick McGoohan have died on the same day. I wish I was in the mood to write more, because both of these actors were terrific and quite important to me.

I have followed Patrick McGoohan since first seeing THE PRISONER reruns on our PBS station while I was in junior high school. A fascinating series, made even more so by McGoohan's clipped acting style. Like William Shatner and Robert Culp, he was a television actor whose unique manner of speech made even the most routine dialogue something to pay close attention to.

Fortunately, lots of quality McGoohan is available on DVD, such as THE PRISONER and his other two terrific British TV series, DANGER MAN and SECRET AGENT. The episodes of COLUMBO that he directed and/or guest-starred in are essential and among the best American TV mysteries ever. Also, he was the sinister warden in Clint Eastwood's ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ, a scientist in SCANNERS, and the villain in SILVER STREAK. It was a real kick to see him in recent blockbusters BRAVEHEART, THE PHANTOM, and A TIME TO KILL.

Montalban is best known for FANTASY ISLAND, of course, but to me, he's Khan Noonian Singh, the archenemy of Captain James T. Kirk in the 1967 STAR TREK episode "Space Seed" and STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN. I will always believe he and Shatner gave Oscar-worthy performances in the film, and it's Montalban's operatic Khan, more than anything else, even the death of Spock, that has made it not only the greatest TREK film of them all, but one of cinema's best science fiction films, period.

Montalban did so much else besides Khan and Mr. Roarke, obviously. Please see his 1940s crime dramas MYSTERY STREET and BORDER INCIDENT, extremely rare opportunities for a Latin leading man to star in a Hollywood film during that era. Also on DVD is his HAWAII FIVE-0 episode in which he played a Japanese man. Not one of his finest moments, though how could it have been? Still interesting, if for no other reason than to marvel at the guy's guts.

I will miss both of these men.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Fly A Wild Horse

20 Fly a Wild Horse
December 8, 1979
Music: Stu Phillips
Writer: Richard Kelbaugh
Director: Christian I. Nyby II

Add BJ AND THE BEAR to the long list of television shows to film at Vasquez Rocks. The historic Southern California rock formation plays host to the attention-getting opening sequence, which includes a wild horse stampede and BJ running his semi into a ditch. BJ's current gig is hauling fencing supplies for wealthy rancher Angus Wainsley (special guest star Jock Mahoney). After getting conked on the head in a bar fight by crooked deputy Tero (Cliff Emmich), BJ is taken to the home of Native American Sixkiller (George DelToyo) and his sister Zena (Ruth Britt). Sixkiller is the man who accidentally ran BJ off the road during the teaser, while rescuing wild mustangs from Wainsley, who's illegally slaughtering them for money.

Director Christian I. Nyby II neglects to hide the shadow of the camera truck during the climactic car chase—also set in Vasquez Rocks—but other than that, "Fly a Wild Horse" is a pretty solid episode. Dependable Hank Brandt and the great comic character actor Burton Gilliam play Wainsley's henchmen. Mahoney was one of TV's great western stars, playing both the Range Rider and Yancy Derringer in popular '50s series. The former stuntman and stepfather to Sally Field (he was married to her mother Margaret Field) later returned as a different character in two 2-part BJ AND THE BEAR episodes.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Black Dragon Revenge

Neal Adams, who was drawing some really neat covers for Marvel's DEADLY HANDS OF KUNG FU black-and-white comic magazine at the time, was the artist of this one-sheet for THE DEATH OF BRUCE LEE. Love the artwork, though showing Lee lying in his coffin (doubtlessly not Adams' decision) is of questionable taste. I don't know if it was a direct sequel to it, but THE DEATH OF BRUCE LEE is obviously trying to cash in on the success of BLACK DRAGON, which featured Ron Van Clief in a supporting role.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Cold Fury

The last time we saw the Lone Wolf in BAY PROWLER, he had just blown up a freighter in San Francisco, killing dozens and absconding with $500,000 in uncut heroin in a very sturdy valise. Berkley's #3 of the series, BOSTON AVENGER, picks up almost immediately after with Burt Wulff arriving in Beantown and getting robbed of the drugs during a 3:00 AM Mob holdup at a tollbooth. Wulff has almost co-starring status, as a Harvard professor named Philip Sands gets plenty of page time after the hoods who swiped the valise doublecross their boss, hood Lou Cicchini, and take it to Sands, a smalltime dealer, to fence. Writer Barry Malzberg (as Mike Barry) is very good at making the reader believe how difficult it is to sell a half million worth of skag—it's too big and too hot for any dealer to touch, according to BOSTON AVENGER.

I think just about every Lone Wolf novel I've read so far has featured a car chase, which is difficult to portray without the sound of screaming tires and visuals of skidding and rolling, but Malzberg has a talent for it. Wulff, an ex-cop obsessed with bringing down the Mafia after his fiancé died of an overdose in NIGHT RAIDER, has used up nine lives and more in his adventures so far. Here, he makes an unholy alliance with Cicchini, who also wants the drugs as far away from him as possible, and convinces Wulff to find Sands and take the valise out of town. BOSTON AVENGER is occasionally overwritten, such as a concluding chapter focusing on Sands' estranged younger wife Karen, but certainly violent and satisfying.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Here's Johnny

Watching THE TONIGHT SHOW's New Year's Eve episode of 1976 is a fascinating look into a time capsule. Well, just the idea of there being a TONIGHT SHOW on New Year's Eve, instead of the special programming networks air now.

After a monologue with Jimmy Carter jokes (yet to be inaugurated) and a bit with Ed McMahon interviewing Carson as the 1977 New Year's baby (as usual with a Carson routine, the worse reception the jokes received from the audience, the funnier he was), Johnny brought out his first guest: Robert Blake. Drunk.

Blake, at the time a huge TV star on BARETTA, had become something of a personality, not just because of his series, but because of his mercurial personality. He was loved by some audiences for the way he would come on THE TONIGHT SHOW and ream out his bosses publicly. None of that in this episode, but it's very weird to hear Blake talk about the "blood works" that fly when he and his then-wife Sondra would get into fights.

The clock struck midnight during one of Blake's segments (the show, of course, taped during the afternoon), and Doc Severinsen and the NBC Orchestra played "Auld Lang Syne."

Second guest: Lola Falana. Like Blake, a tragic figure later in life, but for a different reason. During the late 1980s, this beautiful, talented singer and performer was stricken with multiple sclerosis that forced her out of show business at an early age. Like with Blake's appearance, seeing the vibrant Falana energize the TONIGHT SHOW audience with two songs invites a certain melancholy that nobody in 1976 could have predicted.

After Lola, James Hampton, a very likable character actor, mostly in comedies. He was the ill-fated Caretaker in THE LONGEST YARD and played a supporting role on F TROOP. Probably a very interesting man, certainly an entertaining storyteller, and absolutely a personality you will never see on a late-night talk show again. With Leno, Letterman, Conan, et al. doing 60-minute shows packed with comedy bits and room for only short segments with big stars, the idea of someone actually talking and being entertaining is a thing of the past.

Nor will you ever see someone like Frank Haines, Johnny's final guest. Not a star, but a Southerner with an unusual talent. It's basically a parlor trick, where he repeats anything you say at virtually the same time you say it. Sort of like stereo with a short in your headphones. Even if you speak very rapidly or in a foreign language, Haines will repeat you right on top of you. And, really, he got some of the biggest laughs of the night, as Doc tried to stump him with an Italian member of his band, and Blake and Falana threatened to knock him silly.

What a fun show and a warm reminder of when television was different and in many ways much better. Of course, NBC was also airing stuff like PINK LADY AND JEFF and SUPERTRAIN around this time, so TV wasn't always better then!

As an extra, the show I watched had its original network promos for NBC series like MCMILLAN (the "sequel" to MCMILLAN AND WIFE after "wife" Susan St. James left the series), BAA BAA BLACK SHEEP, and QUINCY and the big upcoming movie event RAID ON ENTEBBE with Peter Finch and Charles Bronson.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Heart + Pencil = Ouch

The Stop Button today takes a look at MIDNIGHT RUN, a truly great action/comedy that remains as funny today as it did then. If you liked last year's PINEAPPLE EXPRESS (like I did), you should really love MIDNIGHT RUN.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Fried Egg Sandwich On Rye Toast

One day, some studio will figure out there's money to be made by releasing Movies of the Week on DVD. Some of the finest suspense, mystery and horror ever seen on television were the compact melodramas that dotted the ABC schedule during the 1970s. NBC and CBS also made TV-movies, but ABC perfected the art of the 74-minute thriller with high-concept stories and recognizable stars.

DYING ROOM ONLY, which was ABC's Movie of the Week September 18, 1973, is a fine example of what television could do with a handful of terrific actors, a little bit of money and a great idea. A normal married couple drives across the Arizona desert on their way home from a vacation. They stop off for a bite to eat at a dinky roadside café. The wife, Jean (Cloris Leachman, then on THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW), goes into the ladies’ room to freshen up. When she exits a minute later, her husband Bob (Dabney Coleman) is gone.

Richard Matheson based this suspenseful mystery on his 1953 short story. Director Phillip Leacock (BAFFLED) tells the simple but clever tale economically using a paucity of sets that accentuates Leachman’s paranoia. Performances are excellent all around, including "special guest star" Ross Martin (THE WILD WILD WEST) and Ned Beatty (just off DELIVERANCE) as the suspicious café proprietors and Dana Elcar as the sympathetic sheriff who believes Bob simply ran out on his excitable wife. The movie’s only weakness is the lack of a strong payoff; I appreciate the way Matheson and Leacock dangle clues to let us piece together the mystery ourselves, but too much is left unclear at the final fade.

Friday, January 02, 2009

88 Minutes Wasted

Unfortunately, I saw 88 MINUTES two days too late to make my Worst of 2008 list. It would have made the cut handily too.

After almost three years sitting on Tri-Star’s shelf and several overseas DVD releases, this absurd thriller finally unspooled in U.S. theaters in the spring of 2008. For sure, this Nu Image production would have gone directly to DVD had Al Pacino’s name not been attached to it. His performance is so rotten and his physical appearance so laughable that one can’t even argue in this case that Pacino’s presence adds class to the production. The worst criticism I can make of 88 MINUTES is that it isn’t even silly enough to be laughable. It’s sloppy, stupid, cheap, and ridiculous, but it’s never funny, intentionally or not.

Pacino is Dr. Jack Gramm, apparently the world’s sexiest forensic psychiatrist. In spite of the fact that he has an orange perma-tan, a towering bouffant constructed of plugs, and leathery 65-year-old skin, every hot chick in Seattle wants to make the beast with two backs with him. We first see Gramm awakening after a wild night with a young contortionist. Later, after a mysterious killer has made several death threats to him over the telephone, informing him of the precise time of his murder, his red-headed teaching assistant Kim (Alicia Witt) gets frisky with him. Is she the predator? Or is it Jack’s lesbian assistant Shelley (JUDGING AMY's Amy Brenneman)? Or the icy college dean (Deborah Kara Unger), who flirts with him? Hell, Gary Scott Thompson’s (FAST AND THE FURIOUS) screenplay is popping with red herrings, even a psycho ex-husband with the unlikely name of Guy LeForge (Stephen Moyer) comes around Gramm’s flat, pistol in hand.

Nine years after a clumsy prologue shows us two Asian-American twin sisters being tortured to death, Jon David Forster (Neal McDonough) faces lethal injection at midnight. The morning of his execution, Gramm, whose testimony was essential in earning Forster’s guilty verdict, receives a cell phone call telling him he has 88 minutes to live. Five minutes later, another call—83 minutes. And so on. And so on. I swear, half the movie is Pacino squawking on a cell phone. He breaks two of them.

Unlike any other—ahem—forensic psychiatrist/FBI consultant who ever lived, Pacino carries a Walther, pays a guy $100 to drive his taxi around the city, busts into apartments like Sonny Crockett, and generally runs around the city like a chicken with its head cut off, trying to find out who has him marked for death. That a series of copycat killings with evidence left behind that points to Gramm as the perpetrator doesn’t help, though only an imbecile like the FBI agent played by William Forsythe (OUT FOR JUSTICE) would believe it.

An embarrassing turn for nearly everyone involved, 88 MINUTES couldn’t possibly have been the best script on Pacino’s desk at the time, yet it’s the one he chose to do. He’s in every scene and has lots of them to himself (back to those cell phones), so maybe that was the lure. A bigger mystery is what the 21 (!) credited producers did to earn their credit on this movie. Pacino and director Jon Avnet teamed up with Robert DeNiro to make 2008’s RIGHTEOUS KILL. It's probably just as bad, but I can't wait to see it anyway.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

The Senator Votes Absentee

08 The Senator Votes Absentee
December 4, 1979
Music: Stu Phillips
Writer: Robert Wolterstorff & Paul M. Belous
Director: William P. D'Angelo

Body, body, who's got the body? Senator Calvin Flowers (Bill Mims) returns to Orly to await that night's national election results. He dies in the hotel Jacuzzi, but his chief of staff Jack Wiley (James B. Sikking) and his widow Evelyn (Lara Parker) plot to keep it a secret until the next day. That way, the governor can appoint Evelyn to serve out the senator's term. When Sheriff Lobo (Claude Akins) discovers the ruse, Wiley tries to get the ornery lawman to play along. A pledge to contribute $3000 to Lobo's re-election campaign is tempting, but Wiley's general sliminess, coupled with the corpse's habit of disappearing, riles the sheriff's suspicions.

Director William P. D'Angelo was THE MISADVENTURES OF SHERIFF LOBO's supervising producer. He had performed similar duties on shows like BATMAN and LOVE, AMERICAN STYLE, but little experience as a director. He fits in fine on a series with—let's face it—not a lot of visual panache. His pacing isn't exactly snappy enough for a plot populated with people nearly missing one another in hotel hallways, drawing room comedy-style. Writers Robert Wolterstorff and Paul M. Belous were working on THE JEFFERSONS and LOBO simultaneously; both became Emmy nominees as producers on QUANTUM LEAP. "The Senator Votes Absentee" is not LOBO at its best, nor its worst. Its biggest crime is wasting the lovely Parker, who has barely anything to do. Sikking, soon to co-star on HILL STREET BLUES, can say he saw the best and the worst of NBC.


297. That's the number of movies I watched in 2008. That’s an astounding 179 fewer than I saw last year, and my lowest total since I began keeping track in 2003. My all-time record is 588 in 2004, which I hope I never equal. The number also doesn’t include all the television series on DVD I’ve been digging through this year, including SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, GET SMART, MANNIX, and others.

One reason for the low total this year is the petering-out of weekly Crappy Movie Nights, where friends would gather at my place for crappy double features. It’s happened only once since June, I’m sad to say, but I hope to revive that long-standing tradition in 2009. Also, I bought a house last year, and some time that I would normally spend watching movies, I was doing something responsible instead.

Of the 297 movies I saw, I watched 203 of them for the first time. Here are my rules. As far as the count goes, only feature films count, no matter whether I saw them in a theater, DVD, VHS, or on TV.

• TV shows don't count, unless they were presented in a format resembling a feature film (for instance, the two pilot episodes of HARRY O, which aired as full-length made-for-TV movies)
• Made-for-TV movies count
• Documentaries count
• I didn't count short subjects or feature-length making-of documentaries included as DVD extras (for instance, the 25 YEARS OF HALLOWEEN DVD)
• Movie serials count as one long feature
• Multiple viewings each count as a separate movie

These are my rules. Your mileage may vary.

DVD: 190
HDTV (my new favorite channel is MGM HD): 42
Theater: 26
TV: 20
Blu-ray: 15

First film of 2007: BEYOND THE DOORS (Larry Buchanan’s ridiculous biopic of Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix)
Last film of 2008: RETROACTIVE

1940's: 8 (same total as last year)
1950's: 8
1960's: 21
1970's: 72
1980's: 73
1990's: 26
2000-2007: 45

Even though I stopped going to theaters regularly a few years ago, I still managed to see 42 2008 releases, mostly on cable or on DVD. Outside of January’s annual B-Fest at Northwestern University, I saw a theatrical film only 12 times this year, one of which was MY NAME IS BRUCE at the Avon in Decatur, where star/director Bruce Campbell performed an entertaining Q&A afterward.

Most in one month:
January: 42
Least in one month:
July and October: 13

Films I saw more than once:

The most films in any one 24-hour period:
14, when I attended Northwestern University's annual B-Fest January 18–19

Numbers in the title:
F/X 2

Direct-to-Video Releases You Haven’t Heard Of, But You Should See:
THE AMATEURS (played 2 weeks on 4 screens)
WIND CHILL (played 1 week at 42 theaters…in April—nice work, Sony)
CLOUD 9 (Burt Reynolds coaches a beach volleyball team of strippers)
POPULATION/436 (reminiscent of TWILIGHT ZONE)

Dolph Lundgren movies:

Steven Seagal movies:

Steven Seagal movies that sucked:

They Exist, and I Watched Them:

Most Delightful Surprise:
SUPERMAN REDEEMED, a fan re-edit of SUPERMAN III and SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE that’s not only better than they, but also much better than SUPERMAN RETURNS

2008 Releases:

I live in Illinois, so the best films won’t get here for awhile. I saw THERE WILL BE BLOOD, for instance, in February—too late to qualify for my 2007 Top Ten.

My Top Ten of 2008:

My Bottom Five of 2008:

How many movies did you watch this year?