Wednesday, November 30, 2011

They Call Him Hawk

If HAWK is remembered today, it's as the first television series to star Burt Reynolds in the leading role. Although Reynolds had been a regular on RIVERBOAT and GUNSMOKE, he did so as the sidekick to leading men Darren McGavin and James Arness, respectively. In 1966, series creator Allan Sloane (later an Emmy winner for writing TO ALL MY FRIENDS ON SHORE) cast Burt as John Hawk, a tough New York City cop with a twist: he was also a full-blooded Iroquois.

Making Hawk further unique were his status as an investigator for the District Attorney's office, rather than a member of the NYPD, and his preferred hours of work, which were after dark. This required a lot of night shooting, which probably played hell with HAWK's production budget, but certainly gave the series a distinctive atmosphere.

HAWK ran just 17 episodes in the fall of 1966, but that was long enough for Belmont to release one tie-in paperback, which was penned by Richard Hardwick. HAWK appears to be an original story by Hardwick, and has Hawk and his partner Dan Carter (played by Wayne Grice in the series) investigating the apparent murder of a wealthy playboy in a car explosion.

I say "apparent," because the intended victim, Jason Bellamy, is still alive, having agreed to lend his car to a friend, who was actually killed. Bellamy is the leader of a small group of committed revolutionaries preparing to overthrow the dictatorial regime of San Sebastian in Central America, which obviously leaves many possible suspects.

Hawk's ancestry is, of course, a subject for conversation among characters in the book, as it was in the series. On television in 1966, Indians were rarely shown doing anything more dignified than wearing war paint and battling lantern-jawed cowboys. Casting the handsome Reynolds, who really did have Native American blood, as not only a good guy, but a leader of men, was very progressive (and note how television has regressed in this regard in the 45 years since HAWK was telecast).

Hardwick crafts a solid if unspectacular mystery and captures Reynolds' voice well. I like the book's painted cover, which goes uncredited.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold

Warner Brothers’ sequel to the smash CLEOPATRA JONES took advantage of its heroine’s status as a special government agent and sent Cleo globetrotting to the Far East. William Tennant, who produced the first movie, also scripted this tongue-in-cheek adventure that pits its six-foot-two antagonist against the deadly Dragon Lady (a game Stella Stevens), a master swordfighter who operates a gaudy casino in Macao. Chuck Bail, who did stunt work on CLEOPATRA JONES, was promoted to direct the sequel after helming Warners’ blaxploitation hit BLACK SAMSON.

To take advantage of the then-hot martial arts craze, Warners and Tennant brought in Run Run Shaw to co-finance and co-produce the picture, making CLEOPATRA JONES AND THE CASINO OF GOLD an unusual and highly entertaining mixture of kung fu, blaxploitation, and James Bond-style espionage. Tamara Dobson’s wardrobe and exotic makeup as Cleopatra Jones are even more outrageous, keeping in the tradition of sequels being bigger and more expensive, and director Bail’s experience controlling wild stunts is well suited for the film’s eye-catching mayhem.

Tennant wisely brought back the crowdpleasing Johnson brothers, played by Caro Kenyatta and Albert Popwell, and made them government agents investigating the heroin trade in Hong Kong. While undercover making a score with a Chinese dealer named Chen, the brothers are kidnapped by the Dragon Lady and taken back to her plush casino to enjoy themselves with her concubines until she can confirm their identities.

Arriving in Hong Kong to find her friends, Cleo demonstrates a disdain for authority by refusing to pay any attention to her contact Stanley (Norman Fell) and his penchant for writing reports and going by the book. While looking for Chen, Cleo hooks up with Mi Ling (Ni Tien, billed as Tanny in her first English-language production), a cheerful Chinese agent who helps her fight her way through the Hong Kong underground.

The problem with a bigger sequel is that Dobson tends to get lost within it. Probably due to the Shaw Brothers’ participation, Ni and the Chinese actors playing the rest of Mi Ling’s squad handle as much of the fighting as Dobson does. CASINO OF GOLD is a less personal adventure than Cleo’s drug-busting in the Los Angeles ghetto, as seen in CLEOPATRA JONES.

Yet, the sequel is still highly entertaining, packed with action and comic-book luridness, typified by the Dragon Lady’s sword-surrounded arena deathtrap. It sure is fun to watch the actors and lots of Chinese stuntmen busting up Johnson Tsao’s ornate casino set in the finale. Dominic Frontiere (FREEBIE AND THE BEAN) composed a score reminiscent of Lalo Schifrin’s work on ENTER THE DRAGON.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Cleopatra Jones

There has never been a film heroine quite like Cleopatra Jones. Standing six feet two inches in height, decked out in an exotic wardrobe and makeup more akin to a Parisian runway than a streetwise crimefighter, and embodied with confidence by sleek model Tamara Dobson, Cleopatra Jones was one of the most important female characters of the 1970s blaxploitation movement.

Brilliant, brave, and proudly black, Cleo zips around Los Angeles in a sweet customized Corvette Stingray that boldly advertises her job as a drug agent for the U.S. government. Her target is an L.A. queenpin named Mommy (Shelley Winters), who is way pissed about Cleo bombing her $30 million poppy field in Turkey. To get back at Cleo, Mommy engineers a series of ambushes that the agent deflects with her typically classy aplomb, as well as a police raid of a ghetto drug rehabilitation center run by Cleo’s man Reuben (Bernie Casey).

Jack Starrett (THE GRAVY TRAIN), an underrated director of action melodramas, handles the script’s more tender moments, such as a kissing scene told in dissolves, as skillfully as he stages the chases and shootouts. A car chase through the L.A. River is edited by Allan Jacobs (BLACULA) with some wit. The screenplay by actor Max Julian (THE MACK) and sitcom scribe Sheldon Keller is packed with comic-book flair that perfectly handled by Starrett and his flamboyant cast.

Winters chews not just the scenery but the soundstage catwalks too in an attempt to compete with Dobson’s shapely frame and outrageous clothes. Bedecked in a red wig and bellowing dialogue using her outdoor voice even indoors, Winters is a surprise as a dope-smuggling lesbian so soon after her Oscar-nominated turn in THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. Paul Koslo (who worked with Starrett in THE LOSERS), John Alderman, and Joe Tornatore play Mommy’s comic sidekicks.

A fun mixture of humor and action, CLEOPATRA JONES was a major hit, paving the way for CLEOPATRA JONES AND THE CASINO OF GOLD two years later. Also with the gorgeous Brenda Sykes, Antonio Fargas, Esther Rolle (GOOD TIMES), Dan Frazer (KOJAK), Bill McKinney (as a redneck, natch), Lee Weaver, Michael Warren (HILL STREET BLUES), Hedley Mattingly, SOUL TRAIN host Don Cornelius, and Albert Popwell and Caro Kenyatta, hilarious as karate-kicking brothers.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Death In Lisbon

I don't know why it took me three years to read another Cabot Cain novel when I liked the first one so much. I don't have the second book in the series, so I jumped ahead to the third, ASSAULT ON LOVELESS, published by Avon in 1969.

I wrote a little bit about author Alan Caillou when he died in 2006. He must have been an interesting guy. Born in England, Caillou was a spy during World War II. He was also a policeman and a great white hunter before becoming a novelist in 1955. Not long after that, he began writing for movies and television, particularly THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., acting, and performing voiceovers (I believe he dubbed Fred MacMurray's voice as Steve Douglas' Scottish cousin on MY THREE SONS). He played Inspector Lestrade in THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES on television, wrote one of THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN's pilot films, penned the immortal KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS and THE LOSERS, and adapted one of his Cabot Cain novels, ATTACK ON AGATHON, for the big screen.

Caillou's real-life experiences in the military and law enforcement deeply color his Cabot Cain novels, including ASSAULT ON LOVELESS. Cain is a bit too good to be true, standing 6-foot-7 and possessing incredible knowledge of almost any subject. An independent agent, Cain is called in by Interpol's Colonel Fenrick, an old friend, to chase a madman named Loveless, who possesses a deadly toxin and threatens to destroy the world with it. Or at least as much of it he can reach with the four ounces of toxin he has (which would still be a lot).

Of course, a woman is involved--in this case, Fenrick's niece Astrid--which leads to some nice banter between Cain and the older man. LOVELESS and the other Cain novels don't really fall into the men's action genre, since they're colorful espionage adventures similar to the Sam Durell books written by Edward Aarons and Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm series. Caillou's series isn't as well known, but it delivers pretty close to the same excitement and is worth picking up online or in a used bookstore.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Tom Selleck Vs. Exploding Robot Spiders

In RUNAWAY's not-so-distant future, many families use domestic robots to handle their common household chores. Occasionally, one of those robots goes awry. When it does, its owners call the Runaway Squad, a special branch of the police department that handles out-of-control robots.

Usually, these robots are harmless and can be easily handled by flipping a switch. So it’s unusual when officer Jack Ramsay (Tom Selleck, starring in MAGNUM, P.I. at the time) and his new partner Karen Thompson (supercute Cynthia Rhodes) arrive at a house where the family’s domestic robot has stabbed the wife to death and is holding a baby hostage with a .357 Magnum.

More robots are turning murderous, and Ramsay discovers they’ve been modified with a special chip developed by a nut named Luther (KISS’ Gene Simmons in his acting debut). Luther covers his tracks by bumping off his associates with exploding robot spiders and explosive bullets that can turn corners.

For a best-selling author, Crichton does not write a good screenplay. RUNAWAY is full of really dumb plotholes, and its futuristic premise doesn’t stand up very well. For instance, it isn’t explained very well why the police force would be responsible for handling malfunctioning household appliances. And if the robots screw up so much that a special police unit has to be created to deal with them, why would anybody want to own one?

Crichton is much better staging action sequences, which are put together with some pop. A freeway chase between Selleck in a car with a robot driver, a bunch of tiny explosive drones on wheels, and Rhodes driving another car and zapping the drones with a trunk laser is just dopey enough to be awesome.

Crichton and cinematographer John Alonzo (CHINATOWN) move the camera a lot to jazz up the pace, and Selleck takes his role just seriously enough to sell the far-fetched plot. An underrated performer (Thomas Magnum is one of television’s great dramatic characters), Selleck handles the drama and action chores like a pro, even when stalking a two-foot-tall corn detasseler that looks about as dangerous as a Roomba.

The huggable Rhodes (DIRTY DANCING), who soon after left acting to raise a family with pop singer Richard Marx, and a pre-CHEERS Alley gamely allow themselves to be rescued a few times. Bailey (POLICE ACADEMY) and Shaw (TNT JACKSON) are stuck in cop-cliché roles, but acquit themselves professionally. Simmons as the sneering heavy (“The templates, Ramsay!”) delivers the film’s most delicious performance, rightfully figuring going way over the top was appropriate for a villain controlling an army of robot spiders.

Tri-Star’s Christmas 1984 release was not a success, opening behind the debuting DUNE, STARMAN, and THE COTTON CLUB at the weekend box office. It grossed even less than Selleck’s earlier action films HIGH ROAD TO CHINA and LASSITER, but his next, the frothy comedy THREE MEN AND A BABY, was a bonafide smash.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Ben Murphy Rides With Death

When THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN became an instant ratings success for ABC in 1974, all three major television networks followed suit in attempts to do similar superhero-type programs. One such example is GEMINI MAN, which aired only five times on NBC in the fall of 1976 before it was cancelled. Eleven episodes were shot, and all were later aired in syndication and on the Sci-Fi Channel in the 1990s.

GEMINI MAN should have been better, considering the talented men who brought it to the screen. It was created for television by Leslie Stevens, who created the magnificent OUTER LIMITS of the early 1960s; Harve Bennett, who produced THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN and, later, the early STAR TREK movies; and a young Steven Bochco, who went on to create NYPD BLUE, L.A. LAW, and HILL STREET BLUES, among other classic dramas. Bochco and Bennett had just produced THE INVISIBLE MAN, a shortlived series for NBC in 1975 that was undoubtedly the inspiration for GEMINI MAN.

THE INVISIBLE MAN (starring MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. David McCallum) was cancelled in January 1976 after 13 weeks. In March of that year, NBC telecast GEMINI MAN, a 90-minute pilot that starred Ben Murphy (ALIAS SMITH AND JONES) as Sam Casey, an agent for a government thinktank called Intersect.

On an underwater mission, Casey is caught in an explosion and rendered invisible through mysterious radiation. A pretty doctor (played by Katherine Crawford) creates a super wristwatch that makes him visible again, but only when it is attached to his wrist. By pressing a button on the watch, Sam can make himself invisible again, but only for up to fifteen minutes during a 24-hour period. Under the watchful eye of gruff, middle-aged boss Leonard Driscoll (William Sylvester), Sam uses his invisibility powers to undertake secret missions for Intersect.

Frankly, THE INVISIBLE MAN had the exact same premise, and I wouldn’t be surprised if unused scripts for INVISIBLE MAN turned up as GEMINI MAN episodes, especially considering both were produced by Universal Television for NBC.

I have a weird attraction to stupid-looking robots, and GEMINI MAN delivers big time in its episode, “Minotaur,” one of the few episodes that were actually seen on NBC. Ross Martin (THE WILD WILD WEST) guest-stars as Carl Victor, a mad scientist and vengeful ex-employee of Intersect who builds a killer robot and demands $500 million from the U.S. Secretary of Defense or else he’ll use the robot, named “Minotaur,” to zap a skyscraper with its built-in laser and level it.

To prove he’s not kidding, Victor lures Sam to an abandoned warehouse and uses Minotaur to blow it up. Following Victor’s daughter (BLUE SUNSHINE’s Deborah Winters) to his secret laboratory, which appears to be located at Los Angeles’ Department of Water and Power (one of L.A.’s most ubiquitous low-budget film locations), Sam spends the episode dodging Minotaur’s laser blasts and sensor probes.

“Minotaur”’s story was co-written by Robert Bloch, a noted horror author whose book PSYCHO inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1960 motion picture. Staff producers Frank Telford (THE VIRGINIAN) and Robert F. O’Neill (QUINCY, M.E.) wrote the teleplay, and Alan J. Levi, who later replaced director Richard A. Colla during filming of the BATTLESTAR GALACTICA pilot for Universal, helmed the episode, which closely resembles a segment of THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN in terms of story, structure, look, and tone.

“Minotaur” is—let’s be honest—not really all that great, but it does have a clunky-looking robot that talks and shoots lasers. So what’s not to love?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

By Any Other Name

Note: this post is one of a series of STAR TREK episode reviews originally written for the newsgroup. For more information, please read this post.

Episode 51 of 80
February 23, 1968
Teleplay: D.C. Fontana and Jerome Bixby
Story: Jerome Bixby
Director: Marc Daniels

This routine third-season episode was—sort of—the first STAR TREK episode I remember seeing. In fact, I saw “By Any Other Name” before I saw the episode. What?

Well, when I was a kid, I had a toy movie camera—maybe a Fisher-Price toy or Viewmaster? You put a cartridge into the camera (the handle, I think), turned the crank, peered into the eyepiece, and you saw a movie. The STAR TREK cartridge ran maybe two or three minutes and was silent. It was this episode. I remember a shot of Captain Kirk rounding a corner in the Enterprise hallways and discovering little cubes lining the floor, Scotty standing over the self-destruct button, the Enterprise passing through the barrier, and a scene on the planet’s surface.

I wish I still had that toy, whatever it was.

In the episode, two members of the Kelvan Empire—human-looking Rojan (Warren Stevens) and Kelinda (Barbara Bouchet)—take over the Enterprise using devices on their belts that turns non-essential crewmembers into small solid cubes that can be easily crushed if Captain Kirk (William Shatner) gets out of line. Of course, Kirk manages to lower Kelinda’s defenses by teaching her the joy of making out, which makes Rojan jealous enough to fight Kirk (who, of course, kicks his ass). One of the most politically incorrect TREK episodes finds our Starfleet heroes resorting to getting the enemy drunk and seducing innocent young women to save their skins.

Very similar to a later episode, “Wink of an Eye,” in its execution and plot device of getting rid of the Enterprise’s background crew to cut production costs, “By Any Other Name” isn’t great and is mainly memorable because of Barbara Bouchet’s guest turn. Then 24 years old, the German-born starlet spent the 1970s acting in a wide range of European crime and horror flicks, including BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA, THE MEAN MACHINE, CRY OF A PROSTITUTE, HOUSE OF A THOUSAND PLEASURES, and THE PARIS SEX MURDERS. She usually appeared nude in them, which no doubt made an impact at the box office. Whether or not she could act was usually irrelevant. In “By Any Other Name,” director Marc Daniels often films her from the rear to show off both her daring costume and her derriere.

Warren Stevens also had quite a few genre credits. He was, of course, a crewman in the classic FORBIDDEN PLANET and guested on LAND OF THE GIANTS, THE TIME TUNNEL, and nearly every other drama of the 1960s.

I like the shimmering visuals used to create the freeze effect. Unfortunately, Daniels doesn't always realize that the only way to convincingly portray humans frozen in motion is to always keep the camera moving, which helps disguise the actors’ tiny movements (nobody can stay absolutely still for a period of time). And what was so important to McCoy at the moment he was frozen? He had just heard that the Enterprise was to be invaded, and he suddenly turns to Spock as if to relate a great point. I would think a fight with Spock would be the last thing on his mind.

The references to past events in “Where No Man Has Gone Before” and “A Taste of Armageddon” were nice touches and unusual ones for episodic drama at the time. This was probably the idea of co-writer D.C. Fontana, who had been with the series from the beginning and would have been aware of the characters' history. The story was originated by Jerome Bixby, who scripted the 1958 sci-fi classic IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE, which is a direct antecedent of ALIEN. Watch it and you'll see.

Another nice but almost unnoticeable touch was Shatner as Kirk way in the background distracting one of the Kelvans, while Spock and Scott were up to their tricks in the engine room. It may have been a double for Shatner, but it sure looks like our Bill.

How come the Enterprise passed through the barrier this time without any of the crew members acquiring glowing eyes and turning into gods? Not a high enough ESP rating? (Again, the nod to “Where No Man Has Gone Before”)

There's an odd shot of Spock while he's playing chess with Rojan where he's speaking, but his lips aren't moving. Often, lines will be looped later and hidden in a long shot or over the shoulder, but this is a flat-out full-screen closeup. It's very strange. Surely, the editors had footage they could have cut away to.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

How Fast Do You Like It?

From time to time, I plan to use this space to repurpose film reviews I wrote for several local independent newspapers during the previous decade:

THE OCTOPUS: 1999-2000
THE PAPER: 2003-2004
THE HUB: 2005-2006

During my tenure as a professional (re: paid) film critic, I wrote about both new releases and cult classics. The date provided below is the date the newspaper issue containing the review hit the streets.

This review has been slightly edited from the original published piece.

1 ½ Stars
Rated PG-13
Running Time 1:40
First published June 13, 2003

A more apt title for 2 FAST 2 FURIOUS, Universal’s boisterous sequel to its surprise 2001 hit THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS, would be 2 STUPID 2 BORING. In a surprise move, director John Singleton and his screenwriters have jettisoned everything that was interesting and exciting about the original picture, and replaced them with…well, nothing really. It seems as though it would take less effort to make a good movie about car chases than the soulless noisemaker Singleton has assembled, but perhaps he believes in doing things the hard way.

TFATF was no work of art. But it understood its B-picture pedigree, and cruised to success on the heels of Vin Diesel’s starmaking presence and a pair of well-crafted chase scenes. Diesel’s not around for the sequel, and neither are the exciting chase scenes. Don’t get me wrong—this movie has plenty of sequences that resemble car chases, but Singleton’s are about as adrenaline-pumping as a game of Pole Position. There are basic directorial rules that need to be followed when shooting a car chase, and Singleton ignores all of them. Establish the physical setting, shoot lots of medium and wide shots so we can see the cars in relationship to one another, film real cars driving at actual speeds to lend the action a much-needed verisimilitude—I swear, this movie has more shots of hands shifting gears than metal smashing into metal.

The plot is reminiscent of the Good Ol’ Boy movies of the 1970s, where a hotshot driver would haul moonshine over Georgia back roads with a corrupt sheriff in pursuit. This time, ex-cop Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker, reprising his role from the first movie) and his childhood pal Roman Pearce (model Tyrese) are recruited by a U.S. Customs agent (a welcome James Remar) to go undercover as drivers for drug kingpin Carter Verone (the waxen Cole Hauser). Their contact is a voluptuous agent named Monica Clemente (Eva Mendes), who is undercover—and presumably under the covers—as Verone’s aide-de-camp. After all the tests of will, macho posturing, bickering, and doublecrosses, the plot boils down to the boys’ unlikely assignment to pick up some drug money and drive as fast as they can in very flashy foreign sports cars to a delivery point on the waterfront. Personally, I would do what they used to do in the Good Ol’ Boy movies, which was to drive the speed limit so as not to attract undue attention from the police, but then the screenwriters would have to work harder to create a believable chase scene.

The plot is extremely stupid and the young performers are either stiff or unconvincing, but you could argue that no one is paying seven bucks for that anyway. Then what are we paying for? The action? Disregarding the fact that drag racing—two cars traveling really fast in a straight line—is less exciting to watch than a tractor pull, Singleton’s botching of the chases removes all reasons to watch this movie. The movie’s big car jumps don’t even appear to be “real,” but rather digital effects. If the filmmakers can’t be bothered to use real cars to generate real suspense, then why should you bother to pay real money to see this movie?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Caribbean Caper

The Penetrator takes on Bahamian pirates in his 16th Pinnacle adventure, DEEPSEA SHOOTOUT, written by Chet Cunningham and published in 1976.

Mark Hardin, posing as a journalist named Phil Burritt, goes to Nassau to investigate a series of high-sea robberies committed by four black (literally) pirates who rob wealthy tourists and then either sink or steal their boats. The leader of the pirates, Kama, is not just a beautiful woman who controls her men through the use of her tight bod, but also a voodoo priestess!

While the Penetrator searches for the pirates and tries to stay a step ahead of a dirty Nassau cop, he also teams up with archeologist Jamison Hutch and his girlfriend Beth Anne to find a Spanish galleon that sunk in the Caribbean in 1641 carrying an alleged treasure worth millions.

DEEPSEA SHOOTOUT has way more plot than it needed, and Cunningham has trouble juggling them equally. He seems to lose interest in the piracy story--which appeared to be the main throughline when the book opened--and junks it relatively quickly to introduce a new main villain in the final chapters, an obese treasure hunter named Brigantine.

As long as Cunningham keeps the action coming, DEEPSEA SHOOTOUT is just fine. The story is jumbled, but at least the characters are interesting, and the many water-based fight scenes are entertaining. The climax takes place in a weird underground cave and packs a good punch.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Better Men

X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, Fox’s fourth X-Men movie, is a good international adventure masquerading as a superhero movie. It’s also overstuffed with plot (a ridiculous six screenwriters are credited) and anonymous characters.

The studio saved money by hiring little-known young performers and skilled character actors, but not having recognizable faces means it can be difficult to keep track of the interchangeable youngsters and their powers. While Michael Fassbender (HUNGER) and James McAvoy (ATONEMENT) are very fine actors, they lack the star charisma a large-scale action picture like FIRST CLASS needs. It could also have used a more mature director than Matthew Vaughn (KICK-ASS), who sets the film in 1962, but has little to no idea what life in 1962 was like. Sorry, you six (!) writers, but teens weren’t saying “groovy” or “whatever” in 1962.

Judging from what’s here, however, Vaughn demonstrates a technical proficiency that would make him a reasonable candidate to direct a James Bond movie. FIRST CLASS leaps easily from one continent to another, though most of it was filmed in England (and Pinewood Studios), and imagines an unusual men-on-a-mission scenario in which a team of talented but raw soldiers take on a megalomaniac on the verge of starting World War III.

Kevin Bacon is excellent as a Nazi named Sebastian Shaw (nee Kurt Schmidt), who assembles a squad of evil mutants to engineer the Cuban Missile Crisis and start World War III. Opposing Shaw are best friends Erik Lehnsherr (Fassbender) and Charles Xavier (McAvoy), mutants themselves who recruit their own mutants and train them to harness their powers for the forces of good. For Erik, the mission is a personal one to get back at Shaw for murdering his mother in a concentration camp.

Like earlier X-MEN outings, FIRST CLASS bears down heavily on themes of tolerance and comfort within one’s skin, even if it’s blue or made of fur. Jennifer Lawrence, an Oscar nominee for WINTER’S BONE, gives the best performance among the younger actors. January Jones (MAD MEN), who took her role as ice queen Emma Frost as an excuse to appear immobile, is by far the worst, though Vaughn tries to make up for it by clothing her in as little material as possible.

Sets, costumes, and John Dykstra’s visual effects are first-rate—a sure sign that Vaughn knows the value of a budget. The film’s highlight is its beach-set finale, an ambitious action sequence with submarines, missiles, jet planes, and a surprisingly rich dramatic climax for a comic book movie.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

If Looks Could Kill, They Wouldn't Need To Kick

ANGELFIST is a terrible movie, but an entertaining one. It’s the kind of movie where the director tries to fake the Philippines for Los Angeles and pretend a rusty old beater without hubcaps is an LAPD black-and-white. The star is not just a terrible actress, but also an oddly grotesque one with masculine features, sofa-pillow lips, and a botched boob job. The plentiful fights and chases can barely be described as choreographed. Yes, ANGELFIST is cheap and crude, but never boring and usually hilarious.

In director Cirio Santiago and executive producer Roger Corman’s remake of their own TNT JACKSON and FIRECRACKER—right down to replicating those film’s topless kung fu fights—exotic cover girl Cat Sassoon stars as Katana Lang, a tough L.A. detective who goes to Manila to investigate the murder of her sister Kristie (Sibel Birzak). Not only was Kristie an undercover FBI agent who snapped photos of an American politician being murdered, she was also a kickboxer competing in a big tournament! Unreasonably (but correctly) assuming that Kristie’s death is connected to the all-female tournament, Kat manages to take her sister’s place, as well as make out with creepy gambler Alcatraz (Michael Shaner), who somehow lures Kat to his threadbare bachelor pad.

Santiago, who shot his films as cheaply as possible, doesn’t even bother to shoot coverage of some scenes, forcing the editors to use optical zooms to cobble together blurry close-ups for a dialogue scene. The chases and fights come at a steady pace, and the violence is occasionally alleviated by hilariously gratuitous nude scenes. Would you believe three different shower scenes, two of them featuring statuesque Melissa Moore slowly washing her breasts without even using soap. Moore plays the kickboxing FBI agent sister’s kickboxing FBI agent partner, of course.

Santiago regular Ken Metcalfe, who wrote TNT JACKSON and FIRECRACKER, but was screwed out of a credit on ANGELFIST, plays a U.S. ambassador, and Philippine-film Henry Strzalkowski and Joseph Zucchero also appear. Stephen Cohn gets music credit, but cues by Concorde/New Horizons honcho Mike Elliot and John Gonzalez are noted in the closing crawl. Sassoon also appeared in two of Don “The Dragon” Wilson’s BLOODFIST movies for Corman. She died of drug-related heart failure on New Year’s Day 2002 at the age of 33.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

You Will Actually See A Man Turned Inside-Out!

Just two years after AIP released THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU starring Burt Lancaster, Italian filmmaker Sergio Martino (SLAVE OF THE CANNIBAL GOD) made ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN, which was a loose and uncredited adaptation of the same H.G. Wells novel. What Americans saw was a whole lot different than Martino intended after Roger Corman bought the U.S. rights, changed its title, recut the heck out of it, and created one of cinema’s most outrageously false advertising campaigns to try to make it a commercial hit.

But first, ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN. A prison ship sinks in the Caribbean in 1891. A handful of convicts and Claude (Claudio Cassinelli), the ship’s doctor, wash up on an uncharted volcanic island overrun by slimy man-sized amphibians that kill off most of the survivors. Claude and two others make it through the jungle to the home of Edmund Rackham (Richard Johnson), who lives with Professor Ernest Marvin (Joseph Cotten), Marvin’s daughter Amanda (Barbara Bach), voodoo priestess Shakira (Beryl Cunningham), and several servants.

Rackham, who has an unreciprocated hankering for the sexy Amanda, claims the monstrous fishmen are descendents of the legendary underwater city of Atlantis, which is located directly below the island. Claude discovers that Marvin is a geneticist who is surgically altering humans against their will and turning them into amphibious creatures that the unscrupulous Rackham can use to swim to Atlantis and loot the city of its treasure.

Outside of Cassinelli’s stiff performance, ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN is quite entertaining. Widescreen photography and score provide the pulpy story with sumptuous production values, and Johnson (ZOMBIE) is enjoyably diabolical. Bach just has to be beautiful, and Cotton does even less, yet both bring much to the table just being themselves. The creatures’ rubber suits may not fool anyone, but they are imaginatively conceived, and Martino’s underwater footage of them intercut with the Atlantis miniatures is impressive. The climax has a lot of action and derring-do.

That’s the film everyone outside the United States saw. Roger Corman bought FISHMEN for domestic release, but must have been turned off by its lack of gore. He hired director Miller Drake (SMOKEY BITES THE DUST) and cinematographer Gary Graver (GRAND THEFT AUTO) to take some actors to Bronson Caverns in Los Angeles one night and shoot a new twelve-minute prologue. Mel Ferrer and Cameron Mitchell play treasure hunters who arrive on Rackham’s island and are graphically murdered by monsters designed by Chris Walas (THE FLY) that don’t much resemble Martino’s creatures. Joe Dante, director of THE HOWLING, may have edited this footage using a pseudonym. Sandy Berman either composed the score for the prologue or cut in music from other Corman productions. Either way, the prologue is pretty dumb and has nothing to do with the film that follows, either narratively or stylistically. Gale Anne Hurd (THE TERMINATOR) is credited as the Maui Location Manager, but Drake never went anywhere near Hawaii.

Because slasher films were big in 1981, Corman changed the title from ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN to SOMETHING WAITS IN THE DARK. It played a couple of small engagements and bombed big time. Still hoping to make a small profit (the indefatigable Corman was loath to ever give up on a film), Corman asked his advertising director, Jim Wynorski, who went on to write and direct several pictures for Corman, to create a new campaign for it.

Wynorski changed the title again, this time to SCREAMERS, and filmed new footage of makeup artist Rob Bottin (THE THING) dressed in a monster costume and chasing a gorgeous model in black lingerie around the futuristic sets used for GALAXY OF TERROR. All of this went into the trailer—and just the trailer—along with a grossly misleading ad campaign that promised, “You will actually see a man turned inside-out!” Which, of course, was untrue.

New World released 26 prints of SCREAMERS at 88 minutes, cut down from FISHMEN’s 94. It did terrific business its first weekend, but incited anger in audiences who demanded to see a man turned inside-out. Realizing that he was going to have to live up to the lurid marketing, which he hadn’t seen before it went out, Corman assigned editor Clark Henderson (GALAXY OF TERROR) to piece together about a minute and a half of Wynorski’s trailer footage and insert it into SCREAMERS as a dream sequence. Instead of editing the new scene into the negative, New World recalled all 26 prints and spliced it by hand into each of them. Consequently, when Embassy released SCREAMERS on VHS, it used Corman’s original negative, and the fake “inside-out” scene hasn’t been seen outside of those 26 theatrical prints, which may or may not exist anymore.

Executioner In Paris

CONTINENTAL CONTRACT is notable for taking Mack Bolan international for the first time. It's entirely accidental, however. Pinned down by an army of Mafia hoods at Dulles Airport, the Executioner's only escape is to grab the first airliner out, which happens to be to Paris.

Through a wild coincidence, Bolan happens to be seated next to an almost exact double! He's Gil Martin, a movie star. Mack uses his resemblance to Martin to slip through a waiting Mafia gauntlet in Paris, but has to come to the actor's rescue when Gil is kidnapped and tortured by those same hoods.

While in Paris, Bolan decides to take out a few baddies, which lures New York gangster Tony Lavagni to Paris to collect the $100,000 bounty on the Executioner. Hoping for some inside intel, Lavagni brings along Harlem numbers runner Wilson Brown, who served alongside Bolan in Vietnam and has a working knowledge of Mack's killing methods.

Not only does Bolan get Gil Martin messed up, but his interference into a whorehouse causes the Mob to kidnap its girls with plans to sell them into slavery in Africa. The Executioner's plan: to kill one mobster every hour until the women are safely returned.

It seems like this 1971 Pinnacle novel has a lot going on, and I guess it does. It's still not one of Don Pendleton's best efforts. I noted that Bolan bumbles a few times, which is uncharacteristic of him, as is his mistake in letting Lavagni live at one point just so the killer can come at him again near the end.

Pendleton also creates a French starlet for Bolan to woo, Cici, who is annoying because zee Peendletone writes 'er dialogue een reedeeculous French accent, how 'u say?

CONTINENTAL CONTRACT is still entertaining, just not one of Pendleton's best. Mack Bolan, as we know, made his way to London before returning to New York.

Monday, November 07, 2011

She'll Put You In Traction

Shout Factory's most recent Roger Corman's Cult Classics DVD set is its first Lethal Ladies Collection. Corman's New World Studios was a bit ahead of its time when it came to featuring butt-kicking women in leading roles. Very rarely did you see female action heroes on the big screen during the 1970s except for Asian martial arts films (often featuring Sue Shiomi or Angela Mao) and Roger Corman productions.

Most of the Corman films play quite contradictory, in that, yes, their women were frequently empowered and had the last laugh against their opponents, but not after they had been abused and/or unclothed first. Corman may have been a feminist (and I think his unequaled-in-Hollywood record of hiring women directors, editors, screenwriters, etc. proves he was), but he was also a capitalist, and he knew it was important for ticket sales to film his leading ladies in the nude at the same time (sometimes literally the same time) they were kicking men's asses.

1975's TNT JACKSON is an obvious attempt to rip off AIP’s Pam Grier movies like COFFY and FOXY BROWN. This abysmal blaxploitation number shot in Manila stars gorgeous PLAYBOY model Jeanne Bell as Diana “TNT” Jackson (“A one-mama massacre squad!”), a Harlem ex-con who goes to Hong Kong to find her missing brother. Hell, she’s just off the plane when she’s attacked by a bunch o’ dudes waving knives.

Of course, she kicks their asses (in one of the most inept kung fu battles ever filmed) just in time to bump into Elaine (SUMMER SCHOOL TEACHERS’ Pat Anderson), the sexy moll of mobster Sid (Ken Metcalfe, also the stunt coordinator and co-writer with character actor Dick Miller). TNT goes undercover as a prostitute to discover her new man, drug dealer Charlie (Stan Shaw, later in RUNAWAY), is the guy who murdered her brother. Time to team up with a wacky brothel owner (Chiquito) to wipe out Charlie, Sid, and Sid’s entire organization!

Sloppily directed by the prolific Cirio H. Santiago (VAMPIRE HOOKERS), TNT JACKSON is not very good, but often wildly hilarious. Its most notorious scene finds Bell in a wild karate fight clad only in black panties (or sometimes white, thanks to a glaring continuity error). Executive producer Corman loved the topless karate so much, he recycled it in FIRECRACKER (we'll get to this), ANGELFIST (with silicone-enhanced Cat Sassoon), and ANGEL OF DESTRUCTION (Maria Ford).

Bell (THE MUTHERS) is beautiful, but is neither a fighter nor an actress, reciting her dialogue with all the fervor of someone ordering a McRib in the drive-thru lane at McDonalds. Cinematography, editing, and music (swiped from other Corman flicks) are subpar. Even though barely five minutes go by without a kung fu battle breaking out, the action scenes are less than believable.

But you know what? Sometimes, terrible kung fu is just as entertaining as awesome kung fu. TNT JACKSON is a bad movie, but it’s short at 71 minutes and not dull. Jeanne Bell is nice to look at, the guy doubling her is funny to look at, and the over-the-top kill of the final villain will leave you with a hearty guffaw.

FIRECRACKER, released in 1981, is easily the best and most entertaining film in the set. Corman asked director Cirio Santiago to remake TNT JACKSON in Manila with blond Jillian Kesner (RAW FORCE) stepping in for Jeanne Bell. After Santiago was through, Corman decided it needed more gore and nudity, so he hired Allan Holzman (FORBIDDEN WORLD) to direct two new nude scenes in Los Angeles. One of them, a redo of Bell’s infamous topless kung fu fight in TNT JACKSON, is easily the best part of FIRECRACKER.

Suzanne Carter (Kesner) flies to Manila to investigate the disappearance of her journalist sister and learns local mobster Erik (Ken Metcalfe again) may be responsible. Suzanne becomes romantically involved with Chuck (Darby Hinton of HI-RIDERS fame), Erik’s right-hand man, who recruits fighters to perform in his boss’ “arena of death!”

Unsurprisingly, Suzanne will eventually find herself battling for her life there by picture’s end, but not before her classic topless fight, which begins when she’s jumped on the street after dark by two men who systematically strip her to her panties between karate kicks and chops.

Like TNT JACKSON, the uncredited music score is pilfered from other Corman productions, most notably (and obviously) Mark Lindsay’s driving synth from SHOGUN ASSASSIN. The arena of death is the same location used by Cannon for the climax of ENTER THE NINJA, and I would bet the lumber yard where Kesner’s topless fight takes place was shot on the Venice lumber yard where Corman built his New World studios.

Of course, the film is completely derivative, but it’s at least as watchable as TNT JACKSON. It has the same plot and an equally hilarious gore ending, but Kesner is a more talented star than Jeanne Bell, and FIRECRACKER is too short (77 minutes) and action-packed to be boring.

Even compared to the sloppy TNT JACKSON and FIRECRACKER, 1977's TOO HOT TO HANDLE is a real bore and not worth your time. Blond star Cheri Caffaro had built a small following based on three tawdry action pictures in which she starred as a promiscuous spy named Ginger. Directed by Don Schain (Caffaro’s husband) and produced by Ralph Desiderio, the so-called “Ginger Trilogy”—GINGER, THE ABDUCTORS, and GIRLS ARE FOR LOVING—were lurid, clumsy adventures that pushed the limits in terms of on-screen nudity and sex without crossing over into hardcore territory. Caffaro was supposedly 26 when GINGER came out in 1971, but looked ten years older, and her well-worn sexual demeanor came across as more grimy than erotic.

Backed by New World, Schain and Desiderio brought Caffaro to the Philippines for this turgid action movie that would turn out to be the actress’ swan song. She plays a seductive contract killer named Samantha Fox, but, for all intents and purposes, she’s basically doing Ginger again. The violence is remarkably tame for a Corman release, though Schain does stage a slow-motion cockfight, during which Samantha fantasizes about being naked!

After suffocating a kinky businessman (“special guest star” John van Dreelan) in his torture room during S&M, Samantha receives a new assignment. At van Dreelan’s funeral, Miss Chow (Grace Lee) offers Samantha $150,000 to bump off three gangsters living in Manila. Researching her marks allows her to exercise her skills as a mistress of disguise, which include making herself up in brownface to portray a Filipino maid!

Caffaro designed her own wardrobe for TOO HOT TO HANDLE, and her clothes are as ridiculous as the logy fight scenes, which look as though Schain filmed the half-speed walkthroughs. Considering the screenplay was written by Jan Michael Sherman and Don Buday, who also penned the campy KISS MEETS THE PHANTOM OF THE PARK, it’s no surprise how dumb it is, though some care is taken to flesh out the relationship between Sanchez (Vic Diaz) and Domingo (Aharon Ipale), the two Manila cops investigating the murders.

Originally set up at Avco Embassy as HIT WOMAN, Schain’s final film as a director (five of his six movies starred Caffaro) went into production in January 1976 and was released by New World to (deservedly) little box office over a year later. Although his wife retired from acting, Schain remained in the industry as a producer, his biggest hits being the lucrative HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL franchise of the late 2000s.

More interesting than TOO HOT TO HANDLE is Cheri Caffaro's audio commentary. It should be considered something of a coup for Shout Factory, since Caffaro more or less dropped out of sight after the 1970s and doesn't seem to have been interviewed since. She seems like a nice lady and talks about TOO HOT TO HANDLE and her other films with good humor. It doesn't go into as much detail as I would have liked, but it's still an important artifact for trash-film historians.

Caffaro also donated some stills for use in the DVD's Stills Gallery. Shout Factory rounds out the two-disc set with a handful of trailers. Unfortunately, both DVDs contain the same trailers, among them FIRECRACKER, THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, and JACKSON COUNTY JAIL.

Skip TOO HOT TO HANDLE, but for a good price, the Lethal Ladies Collection is worth picking up for FIRECRACKER and TNT JACKSON. Neither is particularly good, but they're great, brisk fun.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Twin Trouble

After many years as a radio actor and narrator (he played Marshal Matt Dillon on the GUNSMOKE radio series), occasional TV guest star, prolific television producer and director, and heavy in westerns and adventure films (a terrific exception is his turn as a good-guy sheriff opposite Anthony Quinn in THE WAY BACK), William Conrad became an unlikely leading man when he took the role of private eye Frank Cannon in 1971.

At age 51, Conrad dominated CBS' CANNON, both physically (he was under six feet tall and weighed around 300 pounds) and by force of his powerful screen presence (as the series' only regular cast member, he was in almost every scene). For 121 episodes, Cannon chased, shot, and bullied kidnappers, crooks, and killers across the CBS landscape, and Conrad handled the physical aspects of the role with surprising aplomb.

CANNON's five-season run inspired three tie-in paperbacks, the first of which, MURDER BY GEMINI, was published by Lancer in 1971. I'm guessing author Richard Gallagher had never seen the series, which premiered in the fall of that year. Not only is Cannon out of character at times, but Gallagher also saddles him with a young sidekick, which Cannon never had on the series (most likely against CBS' desires).

At least Gallagher gets the assistant out of the way early and gets to the plot, which draws Cannon away from Los Angeles to bucolic Custer County, Wyoming. A young woman, Veronica Gleason, watches her older husband Robert, a conservationist, gunned down in the desert by a poacher with a rifle. Being a small county where everybody knows everybody else, it wouldn't seem much of a problem for Veronica to identify the killer. Except for the fact that he's one of two identical twins: James or John Cape.

Nobody in Custer, even the locals who have known the Cape brothers all their lives, have ever had any luck differentiating the two, which puts crusty sheriff Cyrus Bateman in a real bind. If neither Cape admits to being the killer, there's no way to try one of them without a heavy dose of reasonable doubt attaching itself to the trial. And that's when ace detective Frank Cannon is summoned.

As a 160-page mystery, MURDER BY GEMINI has a clever premise, but Gallagher isn't sure what to do with it. The novel is padded by conversations between Cannon and Bateman that have little to do with the case at hand, but don't offer much in terms of characterization either. Really, the novel has little to say about Cannon and what makes him tick. Perhaps Gallagher believed fans of the TV show already knew everything they needed to.

The book is missing the intellectualism and the culinary expertise of Conrad's Cannon, but adds a couple of decent chases in their stead. MURDER BY GEMINI isn't heady reading, but there are worse ways to kill three hours on the couch.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

The Dirtiest Girls in Town

The Dirtiest Girls In Town
December 30, 1980
Music: Stu Phillips
Writer: Glen A. Larson
Director: Corey Allen

When THE MISADVENTURES OF SHERIFF LOBO began its second season in December 1980 (the fall season was pushed back because of a Writers Guild strike), it had a new title, a new setting, a new theme song, new producers, and a new premise. Now dubbed simply LOBO, the series’ new direction was set in the season premiere, “The Dirtiest Girls in Town.”

The governor of Georgia (whose voice is dubbed by William Schallert) has the brilliant idea that the crime rate in Atlanta is so high because the police department is too sophisticated and organized. He creates a special task force to fight crime in Atlanta and appoints Sheriff Elroy P. Lobo (Claude Akins) to run it with deputies Birdie Hawkins (Brian Kerwin) and Perkins (Mills Watson). Lobo encounters immediate resistance from his new boss, hard-nosed Chief of Detectives Carson (Nicolas Coster), and Carson’s assistant, Hildy Jones (Nell Carter).

What better way to confound their new co-workers’ prejudice than to break a big case? And that’s how Lobo, Birdie, and Perkins end up at a sleazy nightclub featuring underage prostitutes and mud wrestlers. “Special guest star” Richard Anderson (THE BIONIC WOMAN) is nicely sleazy as Crandall, who owns the club and strongarms the girls into stealing their clients’ credit cards. Amy Botwinick and Tara Buckman (CANNONBALL RUN) plays Peaches and Brandy, two of Carson’s undercover officers posing as wrestlers.

Surprisingly, Lobo has no ulterior motive in solving the case—not a reward or a scam anywhere. The episode is also surprisingly non-judgmental about the fact that one of the teenage club girls, Lori (Philece Sampler), is a single mom. Sparks fly between Hildy and Lobo over the lack of black officers on the Orly police force. Despite these unusual touches, the episode is a good start to LOBO’s new direction.

Some credit should go to new supervising producer Jo Swerling Jr. (THE ROCKFORD FILES) and new producers Bill Dial (WKRP IN CINCINNATI) and Frank Lupo (GALACTICA 1980) for making a smooth transition between two relatively disparate series concepts.