Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Death Of A Big Scorer

First, let me give Popular Library's Hardman series my highest recommendation.

In all honesty, Ralph Dennis' adventures of unlicensed P.I. Jim Hardman and his black sidekick Hump Evans don't really belong in the "men's adventure" genre. All twelve books are more like detective novels than slam-bang sleaze and action. Hardman has been compared to Spenser and Rockford, and I would go along with that.

However, because Popular Library packaged them as men's adventure, including numbering the titles and giving them violent painted covers, I'll cover them as such here. But whichever genre you like better, you should definitely seek out the Hardman books.

They were written by Atlanta-based author Ralph Dennis in the 1970s. Instead of getting into Dennis' bio, I'll send you to mystery writer Richard A. Moore's excellent article on him.

As for 1974's DOWN AMONG THE JOCKS, the fifth Hardman novel, well, it's pretty darn great. It begins with Hardman and Evans viewing an 8mm film Hump received anonymously in the mail. It features one of Hump's former NFL teammates, a real asshole named Ed Cross, in bed with two women. That same night, Cross is found beaten to death, and the prime suspects are Hump and four other guys who received the same film. The theory is that Cross sent the film to men whose girlfriends or daughters he had slept with as a "screw you." That's the kind of guy Ed Cross was.

With Atlanta cop Rex Martin targeting the 6-foot-7 Hump for murder, Hardman, a middle-aged, pudgy dude whose hobbies are limited to drinking and grilling meat, works with his friend to clear Evans' name and find the real killer. What's interesting about the novel and the seamy underground its characters are so comfortable in is that the reader is never entirely certain Hump is innocent. Even his best friend, Hardman, concedes it's possible he could have killed Cross.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Spacehunter: Adventures In The Forbidden Zone

Columbia Pictures shelled out about $12 million to shoot SPACEHUNTER: ADVENTURES IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE in 3-D, one of several genre pictures to dangle their toes in such gimmicky waters during the early 1980s.

Shooting special effects, stunts, and explosions is tricky, even before the added pressures of filming in 3-D (using a two-camera process). Perhaps director Jean LeFleur (ILSA, THE TIGRESS OF SIBERIA) just couldn‘t keep up. He was fired during production in Utah and replaced by Lamont Johnson (THE EXECUTION OF PRIVATE SLOVIK), an acclaimed television director who had earned accolades from Emmy voters and the Directors Guild of America, but had little experience with science fiction.

Ditto star Peter Strauss, the Emmy-winning star of THE JERICHO MILE who made a name for himself in TV miniseries like RICH MAN, POOR MAN and MASADA, but seemed miscast as a wisecracking action hero. If you’re curious about how it all turned out, not to worry. SPACEHUNTER provides 89 minutes of dumb fun, its script—cobbled together by six different scribes, including MEATBALLS’ Dan Goldberg and Len Blum—a bouncing-ball medley of laser battles, fleshy zombies shaped like the Pillsbury Doughboy, sexy Amazons, a sea dragon, hang-gliding mutants, futuristic motorcycles, sadistic deathtraps, and sand. Lots and lots of sand.

Wolff (Strauss), a space-jaunting mercenary one step ahead of bill collectors and a vengeful ex-wife, learns about a hefty reward being offered for the safe return of three sexy party girls who managed to escape an exploding spaceship unharmed and float to rest on a plague-riddled desert planet called Terra 11. Upon landing on the planet and exploring it behind the wheel of his super-spacejeep, Wolff and his foxy robot mechanic Chalmers (Andrea Marcovicci) quickly encounter the three sexpots, who are being cared for by a large band of space pirates floating across the desert on a sail-powered ship. Really.

An elaborate battle scene finds the girls snatched by mutants under the command of Overdog (Michael Ironside), the perverted cyborg czar of Terra 11 who kidnaps children and sucks their lifeforce into his body to keep him healthy. Not that he looks very healthy—the makeup effects by Tom Burman (THE BEAST WITHIN) make Overdog look like a cross between Nosferatu and Doctor Octopus.

The rest of the running time consists of Wolff bopping cross-country in his 4x4 Wolffmobile, encountering one obstacle after another on his journey into the Forbidden Zone to rescue the chicks and get the reward. For company, he picks up Niki (Molly Ringwald), a foulmouthed desert urchin who serves as his guide into the Zone, and Washington (Ernie Hudson, whom executive producer Ivan Reitman next used in GHOSTBUSTERS), an old rival driving a huge tank-like craft with a sharp blade attached to the front.

While the screenplay isn’t high on logic (why does jaded man-of-action Wolff carry a bottle of shampoo in his pocket?), it does move incredibly quickly, creating a new menace for our heroes to fight every few minutes and keeping them in plenty of trouble until it’s time for them to battle Overdog. Johnson and his cast are aided by some remarkably imaginative sets designed by Jackson DeGovia (2004’s THE STEPFORD WIVES) and a rousing orchestral score by the great Elmer Bernstein (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN), whose heroic theme adds a morale boost to Wolff’s dusty journey.

Although clearly influenced by THE ROAD WARRIOR, the production design and art direction create a properly junky world for the action to take place in, one cluttered with rusty metal and weird shapes, such as Overdog’s lair, which includes a Maze of Death that looks like it came out of an overly sadistic Republic serial. The miniature and matte effects are pretty good, considering the budget, but are nowhere near as impressive as those of RETURN OF THE JEDI, which opened in the U.S. just five days after SPACEHUNTER in May of 1983.

The performances are as good as can be expected, considering the actors are competing with hang-gliders, rocket-launching Land Rovers, and sea monsters for attention. Strauss handles the sub-Han Solo heroics just fine, although, aside from a brief turn as PETER GUNN on television, he never again tackled an action-oriented role. Ironside is too slathered in prosthetics to do much more than leer and slobber, and I wonder how much further over the top he could have gone if not for SPACEHUNTER’s PG rating. Hudson is loyal and likable in the sidekick role, while Ringwald is properly annoying as a filthy tomboy in an uncomfortably inappropriate relationship with the much older Wolff. While there’s no overt indication of romantic interest, it seems unlikely that a loner like Wolff would get involved with a bratty teenage girl for paternal reasons, so…

Beeson Carroll (M*A*S*H), Harant Alianak, Cali Timmins, Aleisa Shirley, and Deborah Pratt also appear in this Canadian co-production, which was partially filmed on soundstages in Vancouver. SPACEHUNTER was not a big box-office hit (how could it have been, coming out as it did just before JEDI?), and Johnson never again worked on a big-screen project.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Hatchet Men

The best Dirty Harry novels were written by Ric Meyers, though all twelve were credited to the pseudonymous Dane Hartman. Meyers clearly was a fan of the films, which starred Clint Eastwood as a badass San Francisco cop, and movies in general. One way to spot a Meyers book is the number of film references tucked inside of it.

HATCHET MEN is a terrific action novel, jammed with imaginative and exciting chases, fights, shootouts, and other scenes of brutality. Most importantly, it remains true to the Dirty Harry character; you can easily picture Eastwood saying and doing everything Harry does in HATCHET MEN, which was not the case in every book.

Meyers also makes the interesting choice to bring back a minor character from the movies in a way to enrich Harry Callahan's backstory. You may remember Sunny, the comely Asian neighbor who invited herself up to Harry's apartment for some late-night fun in MAGNUM FORCE. In HATCHET MEN, which takes place nine years after MAGNUM FORCE, we learn Harry and Sunny are still neighbors and friends with benefits. She's probably the only woman Harry has opened up to since his wife was killed sometime before 1971.

Sunny, also known as Suni Michelle, is kidnapped by Chinese warriors who had earlier the same evening murdered the patrons of a backdoor gambling joint in Chinatown and then raped and strangled an employee of a Chinatown wax museum. Taking the case personally (what else is new?), Harry finds himself trapped between warring Japanese and Chinese gangs with Suni held hostage in the middle.

It's a good plot that mostly takes place in Chicago (for some reason, Warner Books preferred getting Harry out of San Francisco in his literary adventures). Meyers manages to get Harry into a lot of violent scrapes involving his .44 Magnum and occasional ingenuity. Old friends DiGiorgio (played by John Mitchum in MAGNUM FORCE) and Al Bressler (Harry Guardino in THE ENFORCER) make appearances too.

Recommended for action fans and Eastwood fans.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Android Becomes Man

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.

ANDROID (1982)
Running Time 1:20
Rated PG
Directed by Aaron Lipstadt
Stars Klaus Kinski, Don Opper, Brie Howard, Norbert Weisser, Crofton Hardester, Kendra Kirchner
First published August 18, 2006

1982 was perhaps the richest year for science fiction films in the history of cinema. Nearly every SF movie released that year has gone on to enjoy an enduring popularity among massive mainstream audiences and loyal cultists alike: E.T.: THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL, BLADE RUNNER, THE THING, TRON, STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN. Okay, so MEGAFORCE sucked (big time), but even a sleazy quickie like Roger Corman’s FORBIDDEN WORLD has plenty of fans.

New World Pictures, which made FORBIDDEN WORLD, also produced what may be the least-known of 1982’s stellar crop of SF favorites. ANDROID was filmed in twenty shooting days on a budget of just $500,000. It was not financially successful at the box office, undoubtedly because it lacks the exploitative elements with which Corman’s marketing team had grown adept at handling. Positive reviews and film festival playdates earned ANDROID a small cult audience, but serious SF fans, likely thinking it was another New World sex-and-gorefest like GALAXYOF TERROR, mostly stayed away from it.

ANDROID is a simple, yet not simplistic, story of surprising sensitivity and humanity. It mostly falls upon the capable shoulders of Don Opper, who co-wrote the screenplay and stars in it (uncredited) as Max 404, the titular droid who is shy, lacking in social skills, and deeply curious about Earth pop culture of the 20th century. Opper, whose previous job was hammering together flats as a carpenter on earlier New World movies, is perfect in his debut role, a graceful mixture of Charlie Chaplin and C-3PO who undergoes a tremendous upheaval in personality throughout the course of the film. Opper remains likable even as Max performs actions that appear morally repulsive to us.

It’s 2036, and Max is the lone assistant to Dr. Daniel (top-billed Klaus Kinski) on a space station far from Earth, a planet Max has never seen, but desperately wishes to visit. After five years of serving as cook, janitor, and butler to the only human he’s ever known, Max enthusiastically provides safe haven to three escaped convicts who hijacked a prison spaceship and guided the wounded vessel to Daniel’s landing bay for repairs. The mad doctor wants the intruders gone, until he notices that one of them is a woman, Maggie (Brie Howard).

Daniel is working to construct an android woman more advanced than Max, but needs to siphon the sexual energy from a human female to get his new ‘bot up and running. Meanwhile, the child-like Max, who has viewed primitive sexual instruction tapes in case he ever met a flesh-and-blood woman, falls in love with Maggie, and there are signs that perhaps she may be attracted to his innocent nature as well.

The other escapees—kindly Keller (Norbert Weisser) and bully Mendes (Crofton Hardester)—are important to ANDROID’s story too, but the Daniel/Maggie/Max triangle is its heart and soul. Daniel doesn’t love Maggie, of course; I doubt he’s capable of loving any human being. His sights rest solely on Cassandra (Kendra Kirchner), his beautiful blonde creation whose very existence endangers Max’s.

Director Aaron Lipstadt, who still works occasionally in episodic TV drama, amps up the third-act action and drama with infighting among the criminals and a tragedy that spurs Daniel to tinker with Max’s programming and transform the tender helper into a superhuman killing machine—a Terminator, if you will (James Cameron worked as a designer on ANDROID). Opper’s transition from wide-eyed virgin to soulless murderer flawlessly builds upon small pieces of business slyly revealed earlier that seemed superfluous. Lipstadt and Opper aren’t afraid to treat their audience with respect and not pound plot points into them. Granted, a couple of points could be clearer, but the witty dialogue by Opper and James Reigle and the good acting help the story eventually come together well enough. Even Kinski, whose eccentric tendencies on- and off-screen were always a threat to derail a production, is unusually understated.

With its meager budget, Android was no threat to derail the box office momentum of E.T. and STAR TREK II, even though its visual effects are imaginative and well-crafted and its set design colorful and functional. However, as wonderful as those films are, it isn’t an overstatement to place ANDROID in their company. Lipstadt’s film is intelligent, literate science fiction with a dash of justifiable violence and sex to keep the marketing folks happy.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Episode Guide: Nichols

“Where is your gun?”
“I don’t need one.”
“How do you arrest people?”
“Moral authority.”

James Garner has called this his favorite of all the films and television shows he’s done. Teamed with Frank Pierson, the Academy Award-nominated screenwriter of COOL HAND LUKE and CAT BALLOU, Garner produced NICHOLS under his Cherokee Productions banner. One of the most progressive westerns ever seen on TV, NICHOLS was set in 1917 and mixed automobiles, telephones, and motorcycles with the traditional horses and six-shooters.

If MAVERICK was the inspiration for THE ROCKFORD FILES, NICHOLS was the warmup. Garner is again a reluctant hero, an ex-soldier who quits the Army to get rich. Gold, silver, he doesn’t care, so long as it makes him rich. Tired of fighting, Nichols agrees to kiss a pig in the pilot in order to avoid a beating. NICHOLS’ non-violent, non-traditional, humorous take on westerns led to conflict between the filmmakers and NBC, which wanted the same ol’ same ol’.

Nichols became the town’s reluctant sheriff whose stance against violence extended to his refusal to carry a gun. The rest of the supporting cast included Ma Ketcham (Neva Patterson), who ran the town, and her dimwitted son (John Beck), called Ketcham; Mitch (Stuart Margolin in a dry run for his Emmy-winning turn as Angel on THE ROCKFORD FILES), Ketcham’s equally dim sidekick and Nichols’ deputy; and Ruth (Margot Kidder), the sexy young bartender at the town saloon who shared a flirtatious relationship with Nichols.

With the seventh episode, the title card was changed to read “James Garner as NICHOLS.” This has led some to write that the name of the series was altered from NICHOLS to JAMES GARNER AS NICHOLS, but I don’t know if I believe it. This was supposedly a desperate attempt at drawing viewers, as if the audience didn’t already know Garner was the star, his credit had to come three seconds earlier to lure them in.

Ratings were not good, but NICHOLS managed to last the entire season. Many episodes centered on a swindle or con in an effort to convince viewers NICHOLS was like MAVERICK. While never action-packed, the show started to introduce more gunplay and fights. NICHOLS’ worst enemy, unfortunately, was probably its whimsy. It’s hard to imagine any other westerns doing a show about the leading man taking care of a dog or betting on an amateur baseball game. In a cheeky move, Beck co-starred in two episodes as Orville, an exact double of Ketcham who teamed up with Nichols for adventure.

NICHOLS premiered on Thursdays opposite LONGSTREET (James Franciscus as a blind insurance investigator) and THE CBS THURSDAY NIGHT MOVIES. After a couple of months, NBC moved it to Tuesdays, where it was clobbered opposite CBS’ CANNON.

James Garner as Nichols
Margot Kidder as Ruth
Neva Patterson as Ma Ketcham
John Beck as Ketcham
Stuart Margolin as Mitch

Creator: Frank R. Pierson
Executive Producer: Meta Rosenberg
Producer: Frank R. Pierson
Assistant Producer: Michael Zinberg
Script Consultant: Robert Foster
Production Manager: Terry Nelson
Cinematographer: Lamar Boren
Music: Bernardo Segall
A Cherokee Production
In association with Warner Brothers Television

September 16, 1971
Writer: Frank R. Pierson
Director: Frank R. Pierson
Guest Stars: Paul Hampton, John Quade, John Harding, Wayne Heffley, Harry Hickox, Owen Bush

1917, Arizona. Nichols resigns his commission after eighteen years in the U.S. Army and returns to his family’s hometown of Nichols to get away from guns and violence and settle down. Unfortunately, the town is a lot different from when he left. The family ranch is in the hands of new owners. The town is run by the rich and ornery Ketcham family. And Nichols is forced to become the new sheriff to pay off a debt.

“The Siege”
September 23, 1971
Writer: Shimon Wincelberg
Director: Paul Bogart
Guest Cast: Ricardo Montalban, Armand Alzamora, Stefan Gierasch, Wayne Heffley, John Harding, Barbara Collentine, Anna Marie Majalca, James Reeves, Vernon Weddle, Chuey Franco, Toby Anderson

Colonel Alvarez (Ricardo Montalban), a notorious Mexican revolutionary called “El Aguila,” comes to Nichols to seek out its town doctor, Dr. Bernstein (Stefan Gierasch), to cure his toothache. Nichols works out a deal with Alvarez to keep his men out of trouble, but Ketcham and the other townspeople are getting restless.

“Indian Giver”
September 30, 1971
Writer: Theodore J. Flicker
Director: Frank R. Pierson
Guest Cast: Michael Tolan, James Greene, John Harding, Judd Pratt, Britt Leach, William Patterson, Eddie Quillan, Richard Bull

Flying Fox (Michael Tolan), an alcoholic Princeton-educated Apache, comes to Nichols to claim land given to his father by the federal government—the Ketchams’ ranch.

“Paper Badge”
October 7, 1971
Writer: William Wood
Director: Paul Bogart
Guest Cast: Joyce Van Patten, John Rubinstein, Ray Reinhardt, Tracy Bogart, James Lee Reeves, James Beach, John Evans, E.A. Sirianni, Dick Ryal

Nichols’ new deputy, a green criminology student named Fred Buckerman (John Rubinstein), runs afoul of both Ketchum and a celebrity passing through town, the glamorous actress Arletta McGreevey (Joyce Van Patten).

“Gulley vs. Hansen”
October 14, 1971
Teleplay: Shimon Wincelberg
Story: Frank R. Pierson
Director: Frank R. Pierson
Guest Cast: Robert Gist, Charles McGraw, Jack Garner, M. Emmet Walsh, Joe Brown, Joanie Larson, Ralph Montgomery, Jerry Harper

Nichols plays peacemaker and tries to prevent a fatal shootout between two old coots (Gist, McGraw) who have been feuding for the past twenty years.

“Deer Crossing”
October 21, 1971
Teleplay: Shimon Wincelberg
Story: Frank R. Pierson
Director: William Wiard
Guest Cast: Ray Danton, Gene Evans, William Bramley

Nichols comes between Ketcham and a renegade Apache (Ray Danton), both of whom are out to shoot a magnificent eight-point buck two weeks before hunting season.

“The Specialists”
October 28, 1971
Writer: George Kirgo
Director: Frank R. Pierson
Guest Cast: Ralph Waite, Don Keefer, Michael Baseleon, Henry Beckman, Robert F. Simon, Charles Dierkop, Poupee Bocar, Stefan Gierasch, John Harding, John Crawford, Ralph James

Nichols assembles a squad of his old Army buddies—all specialists—for a mission to steal $200,000 in stolen gold from an outlaw in Mexico.

“Peanuts and Cracker Jacks”
November 4, 1971
Writer: Bud Freeman
Director: Peter Tewksbury
Guest Cast: Med Flory, Alice Ghostley, Paul Hampton, Wayne Heffley, Richard Bull, M. Emmet Walsh, E.J. Andre, William Christopher, Buck Kartalian, Florence Lake, James Reeves, Don Newcombe, Art Passarella, Ken Endoso, E.D. Sirianni, Raphael Lopez, Moosie Drier, Sarah Fankboner

To raise money for the town, Nichols challenges an Army baseball team to an exhibition game. Of course, he’s got a wager going on the side, and to ensure victory, he brings in a ringer, a former pro named Rusty Sills (Med Flory).

“Ketcham Power”
November 11, 1971
Writer: Gene L. Coon
Director: Peter Tewksbury
Guest Cast: Alan Oppenheimer, Clifford David, M. Emmet Walsh, Don Pedro Colley, Hoke Howell, John Harding, Stefan Gierasch, E.J. Andre, James Lee Reeves, James Beach, William Patterson, Harry Harvey

After Mitch breaks his ankle, Ma installs her bullying, drunken lout son Ketcham as the temporary deputy at the same time a pair of dangerous con artists, Averill (Alan Oppenheimer) and Billings (Clifford David), hit Nichols.

“The One-Eyed Mule’s Time Has Come”
November 23, 1971
Writer: Jack Curtis
Director: Gerd Oswald
Guest Cast: Kristoffer Tabori, Roy Jenson, Walter Burke, Rayford Barnes, Jerry Summers, Lillian Bronson, Edith Leslie

James Garner is the only regular cast member to appear in this episode, which finds Nichols trapped in a cellar by an earthquake with a crippled young soldier (Kristoffer Tabori) and a mule that may be contagious.

“Away the Rolling River”
November 30, 1971
Writer: Ken Kolb and Juanita Bartlett
Director: Ivan Dixon
Guest Cast: Steve Forrest, Stefan Gierasch, John Day, Richard Yniguez, William Paterson

Nichols’ old Army buddy, Sam Jaeger (Steve Forrest), gets drummed out of the service and arrives in town to convince Nichols to rob a payroll train and run away to Nicaragua.

“Where Did Everybody Go?”
December 7, 1971
Writer: Buck Houghton
Director: Frank R. Pierson
Guest Cast: Nira Barab, Jesse Vint, Bill Vint, Alan Vint, Paul Hampton, Robert Gist, Richard Bull, John Harding, Robert Gibbons, Dana Derfus, James Lee Reeves, Bennie Dobbins

Free-spirited Mabel Zimmerman (Nira Barab) arrives in Nichols and drives the men crazy with her flirting. But her jealous boyfriend Bob Springer (Bill Vint) wants her back and sends his brother Charlie (Jesse Vint) to Nichols to fetch her. I believe this was the first episode produced after the pilot, but was held back until December for airing. Casting the real-life Vint brothers as siblings was an interesting idea.

“The Marrying Fool”
December 28, 1971
Writer: Ben Masselink
Director: Gerald Mayer
Guest Cast: Tom Skerritt, Gerald S. O’Loughlin, Susan Tyrell, John Harding, Barbara Collentine, Joe Billings, Joe Brown

Ruth returns from a vacation with a surprise for Nichols: a fiancĂ© (Tom Skerritt). But—whoops—he’s already married, and his wife’s father (Gerald S. O’Loughlin) is out for blood.

“Eddie Joe”
January 4, 1972
Teleplay: Frank R. Pierson and William Wood
Story: Robert Van Scoyk
Director: John Badham
Guest Cast: Paul Winfield, Warren Vanders, Eric Laneuville, James Daris, Lou Frizzell, Scatman Crothers, Jester Hairston, Napoleon Whiting, James Beach, John J. Fox, Howard Dayton, Sam Javis

Nichols protects the new chef (Paul Winfield) at Ruth’s cafĂ©, an escaped convict on the run from an old prison enemy (Warren Vanders) and a federal marshal (James Daris).

January 11, 1972
Writer: Juanita Bartlett
Director: Ivan Dixon
Guest Cast: Strother Martin, Barry Cahill, Marc Lawrence, Edward Faulkner, Barbara Collentine, Luis Delgado, Dick Ryal

In one of the series’ most MAVERICK-y episodes, Nichols, his uncle Zachariah (Strother Martin), and two ex-cons attempt to swindle one another out of a missing $32,000.

“The Unholy Alliance”
January 18, 1972
Writer: Ben Masselink
Director: John Badham
Guest Cast: Noam Pitlik, Jennifer Gan, Liam Dunn, Orwin Harvey, Chuck Hicks, William Christopher, Ted Gehring, Regis J. Cordic

$475,000 is sitting in the Nichols town bank after robbers led by Jack (Noam Pitlik) cause a landslide and delay the train carrying the money. They mistake Nichols for a safecracker named Fingers (Liam Dunn) and force him to break into the bank vault.

“Slight of Hand”
February 1, 1972
Story: Frank Telford
Teleplay: Juanita Bartlett and Frank Telford
Director: Ivan Dixon
Guest Cast: Bo Hopkins, Dabbs Greer, Jonathan Lippe, Luis Delgado, William Christopher, Barbara Collentine, Frederick Downs, Duncan McLeod, Harvey Johnson, Chester Grimes, Steve Chambers

The town of Nichols gets gold fever when country boy Kansas (Bo Hopkins) arrives with a gold mine for sale. Little do the townspeople know they’re being swindled by father-and-son loan sharks (Dabbs Greer, Jonathan Lippe).

“Wings of an Angel”
February 8, 1972
Writer: Robert Foster and Buck Houghton
Director: Ivan Dixon
Guest Cast: John Crawford, Val Avery, John Harding, Richard Bull, Jack Garner, M. Emmet Walsh, Chuck Hicks, Richard Stahl

In a clever piece of casting, series regular John Beck guests as Orv, a barnstorming pilot who crashes on his way to a world record in Santa Monica. Nichols convinces him to use his biplane to help capture a mass murderer named the Dutchman (Chuck Hicks).

“About Jesse James”
February 15, 1972
Writer: James L. Henderson & Sam Roeca
Director: William Wiard
Guest Cast: Jack Elam, Charles McGraw, Fran Ryan, Vincent Van Patten, Dort Clark, Rance Howard, Dennis Robertson, Paul Brinegar, Charles Knapp, Frank Bonner, John Rayner, Barry O’Hara, John Bunzel

An old woman (Fran Ryan) who escaped from an asylum tips Nichols that Jesse James is still alive and using the name Hopkins. Lured by the $123,000 in reward money still on the books for James’ capture, Nichols, with the unwelcome help of a con man named Baxter (Jack Elam), tracks down Hopkins (Charles McGraw) while disguised as a priest.

“Fight of the Century”
February 22, 1972
Story: Gilbert Ralston
Teleplay: Marion Hargrove and Gilbert Ralston
Director: William Wiard
Guest Cast: Ray Young, H.B. Haggerty, Ed Flanders

A fast-talking promoter (“Special Guest” Ed Flanders) convinces Nichols to put up a dim-but-sweet local boy (Ray Young) against his barnstorming heavyweight (H.B. Haggerty).

“Man’s Best Enemy”
February 29, 1972
Writer: Bud Freeman
Director: Tony Leader
Guest Cast: Lou Wagner, Kelly Thordsen, Iler Rasmussen, M. Emmet Walsh, James Lee Reeves, John Harding, Richard Bull, Nora Marlowe, Olan Soule, Barbara Collentine, James Beach, Kay E. Kuter

Nichols tries to take care of Mitch’s ornery dog, while also guarding a dangerous escape artist and accused murderer (Lou Wagner).

“Wonder Fizz Flies Again”
March 7, 1972
Writer: Robert Foster
Director: Frank R. Pierson
Guest Cast: Allyn Ann McLerie, Val Avery, Ramon Bieri, Jay Varela, Priscilla Garcia, Rayford Barnes, Chuey Franco, Douglas Dirkson, Henry Allin

Series regular John Beck reprises his double role as biplane pilot Orv from “Wings of an Angel.” He and Nichols team up for a mission across the Mexican border to rescue the kidnapped daughter of an Army captain (“Special Guest” Ramon Bieri).

“All in the Family”
March 14, 1972
Story: Frank R. Pierson
Teleplay: Juanita Bartlett
Director: Jeremy Paul Kagan
Guest Cast: Anthony Zerbe, Marge Redmond, John Quade, John Harding, Russ McCubbin, Luis Delgado, Ray Pourchot, Chester Grimes, Buck Kartalian

In the series finale, Nichols is shockingly murdered by mean drunk Quinn (Anthony Zerbe). Even more of a shock is the arrival of his tougher, more serious twin brother, Jim Nichols (played by James Garner, natch), who vows not to leave town until he brings in the killer.

May 16, 1972
Writer: Juanita Bartlett
Director: Robert Butler
Guest Cast: Alice Ghostley, Gale Dixon, Karl Lukas, Eve Bruce, Maria Gahva, Sandy Brown Wyeth, James Lee Reeves, William Christopher, Barbara Collentine, Buck Kartalian, Gregg Palmer, Herman Poppe, Larry Gelman, John Taylor, Richard Wright

James Garner plays the original Nichols character in an episode that NBC preempted in November 1971 and later aired during summer repeats. To earn quick cash for another investment scheme, Nichols takes over the local brothel owned by Bertha (Alice Ghostley) while her daughter (Gale Dixon) is in town.

Here's the NICHOLS pilot, which should play in its entirety as a YouTube playlist:

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Random Comic Book Splash Page: Adventure Comics #152

"The Amazing Jungle of Robot Menace" has to be one of my favorite titles of all time. The story is basically a riff on "The Most Dangerous Game," except with robots. A big game hunter is so bored with shooting panthers and tigers and lions that he has created a sort of fantasy camp where robots dressed like Indians or musketeers pop up unexpectedly and shoot at you. Sounds like a blast. Green Arrow and Speedy chase robbers onto the estate and encounter robots of themselves! And, yes, Green Arrow does use his vaulted boxing glove arrow on one of the crooks.

This splash page from Adventure Comics #152 was drawn by George Papp, the co-creator of Green Arrow--still a major character in the DC Comics universe seventy years later! Both Papp and writer France Herron (sometimes credited as Ed Herron) had stories published in DC mags until 1968, the year Papp and many other old-school creators were pushed out of the company due to DC's youth movement. Herron died in 1966, but some of his TOMAHAWK and TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED stories were published posthumously.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Idiots With Guns Make Me Nervous

I suppose it’s fitting that Charles Bronson’s final theatrical feature has the words “DEATH” and “WISH” in its title, though it would have been sweeter for him to have gone out with the thoughtful supporting role he played for director Sean Penn in THE INDIAN RUNNER.

Well into his seventies by the time DEATH WISH V: THE FACE OF DEATH went before the cameras in 1993, Bronson had some help carrying the sequel from the fine actor Michael Parks (FROM DUSK TILL DAWN), who deliciously plays the antagonist. Writer/director Allan A. Goldstein, a replacement for DRUM and BIG BAD MAMA director Steve Carver when production moved to Toronto, ramps up the tension by making the kills more creative. Why just shoot the bad guys when you can blow them up with an exploding soccer ball, suffocate them in Saran Wrap, or knock them into an acid pit?

Once again, it doesn’t pay to be Bronson’s love interest in a DEATH WISH movie. Paul Kersey (Bronson), again trying to leave his vigilante past behind him, has to go back to work when his fashion designer girlfriend, played by Lesley-Anne Down (THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY), is brutalized by goons working for her ex-husband, Irish mobster Tommy O’Shea (Parks). Boom! Here come the dynamite soccer balls and poisoned cannolis. Bronson seems to be working harder than usual the fifth time around in an attempt to bring genuine drama to a DEATH WISH sequel. Kersey kills fewer people than in earlier movies. In fact, he doesn’t even get started until half the film has gone by.

Bronson also receives quality support from Saul Rubinek (AGENCY) as a district attorney whose experience working with Kersey brings him to feel as helpless working within the system as Kersey does. DEATH WISH V suffers from cheap production values, but Goldstein and Bronson’s efforts to tone down the wild action sequences in favor of human drama shouldn’t be ignored. It’s an unexceptional movie that has still been underrated a bit.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Thank God For The Model Trains

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.

3 ½ Stars
Rated PG-13
Running Time 1:29
First published May 15, 2003

It’s always fun to see great actors clicking on all cylinders. And that’s really what’s at the root of A MIGHTY WIND, the latest “mock documentary” (the director claims in interviews to hate the term “mockumentary”, so I’ll refrain from using it in deference to him) by Christopher Guest, who previously skewered small-town theater in the very funny WAITING FOR GUFFMAN and dog shows in BEST IN SHOW.

Guest’s target this time is the folk music scene of the 1960s, a period in which performers like Peter, Paul & Mary, Joan Baez, The New Christy Minstrels, and The Kingston Trio were pounding the BILLBOARD charts and appearing on network television shows like HOOTENANNY with great regularity. It was also a period of great political and social upheaval in the United States, a climate that was enormously important to the development of the folk scene, but which has been ignored by Guest and his co-writer/star Eugene Levy. Whether this decision by the filmmakers was dictated by today’s conservative political tenor, I don’t know, but any portrayal of ‘60s folk music without any reference to Vietnam doesn’t feel right.

Or perhaps I’m taking things too seriously. Guest certainly doesn’t. His setting is a memorial concert for Irving Steinbloom, a legendary folk impresario who handled most of the 1960s biggest groups. His son Jonathan—a nervous, stage-presence-challenged sourpuss played by Bob Balaban—decides to organize a reunion of his dad’s bands to headline AN ODE TO IRVING, a concert to be performed at New York City’s Town Hall and broadcast live on public television.

Those groups include The Folksmen, a trio of genial middle-aged faux-hipsters that also serves as an unofficial Spinal Tap reunion, in that they are portrayed by Guest, Harry Shearer, and Michael McKean; The New Main Street Singers, a “neuftet” of sweater-vested squares that includes only one original member (Paul Dooley); and Mitch & Mickey, a once-romantically-involved duo who made a huge splash when they kissed on a national television show during their hit, “A Kiss At the End of the Rainbow.” Levy and Catherine O’Hara, who have been performing together since their Second City days in Canada during the early 1970s, portray Mitch and Mickey in WIND’s best performances, which will surely stand among the great comedic achievements of the year.

And that’s what I mean about watching actors at work when they have characters with meat to them and they truly “get” what their roles are about. The often-thin line between comedy and tragedy has rarely been tightroped with as much bravado as in the scenes involving Levy and O’Hara. O’Hara’s Mickey left the music scene completely after the duo’s personal and professional breakup, eventually landing in the suburbs, married to a catheter salesman. For Levy’s Mitch, the split was more emotional, following two unsuccessful solo albums with a stay in a mental hospital. Essayed by Levy (who also strummed a guitar in his very first film, the Canadian horror movie CANNIBAL GIRLS) in a gray wig, landing-strip beard, and constantly bemused expression, Mitch is a ‘60s casualty whose misfortunes, absurd though they may be, make him more human than WIND’s other characters combined. O’Hara’s deft “straight man” helps Mitch & Mickey emerge as a colorful, dramatic couple, almost independent of the subtle skewings elsewhere in Guest’s film. The rest of the cast is in equally fine form, even with less defined characters to play. Fred Willard receives the biggest laughs as a gleefully obnoxious and insincere former sitcom star who has taken over management of the New Main Street Singers, while Ed Begley Jr. scores as a Swedish Jew in charge of the telecast.

As wonderful as the acting is, A MIGHTY WIND would never have worked without strict attention paid to the period detail, mainly in the form of (fake) old album covers and film clips and especially the music. Like they did in SPINAL TAP, Guest, McKean, and Shearer have painstakingly recreated the sound and vibe of ‘60s folk music, while adding an almost imperceptible mockery to it. It’s always fun when good performers have to pretend to be bad ones, and the amount of detail that went into shaping these songs is admirable. So admirable that, despite the silliness of the lyrics they’re singing, you might be surprised to find yourself sitting in teary suspense as Levy and O’Hara perform their climactic number.