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Johnny LaRue's Crane Shot
Tuesday, August 30, 2005
I'm Not Gonna Box You. I'm Gonna Whup You.
Now Playing: SAW
Here's another reason why comics today suck. No company today would even attempt to publish a 72-page tabloid-sized comic with cardboard covers that pitted the Man of Steel against the most popular and most powerful fighter in the world.

SUPERMAN VS. MUHAMMAD ALI (technically ALL-NEW COLLECTORS' EDITION #C-56) is one of my favorite comics. It was written and drawn by Neal Adams, one of the industry's leaders and an artist whose impact on comics cannot be overestimated. From the time he began working on DC Comics covers in the mid-1960's, establishing an exciting new trend in "realism", comics were never the same. The work he did with writer Denny O'Neil on DC's GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW title, which brought relevance and a new level of maturity to a medium best known as kids stuff, remains some of the most important comics ever created.

By the late 1970's, Adams was no longer regularly employed by DC or Marvel, having started his own stable of artists and branched off into other media, such as film posters and stage productions. He began as an advertising artist and moved into comic strips like BEN CASEY before his comic-book career, so comic books were not the be-all and end-all for Adams.

Pitting Superman and Ali against each other sounds like a no-brainer, but it took Adams, O'Neil (who began writing the project, but dropped out partway through) and editor Julius Schwartz to make it happen. The premise is terrific: a group of aliens invade Earth and demand that our greatest fighting champion take on theirs with the planet's future as the prize. Neither Superman nor Muhammad Ali can decide which of them is the world's biggest champion, so the aliens beam them both to a planet that revolves around a red sun (which saps Superman's powers) to duke it out for the Earth title. Ali ends up kicking Supes' ass, but the Man of Steel gets his powers back and opens a couple of cans of whupass on the invading aliens.

Adams told COMIC BOOK ARTIST that SUPERMAN VS. MUHAMMAD ALI is the best story he ever did. It's certainly one of his most fun, taking two of our greatest heroes and teaming them up on an extraterrestrial adventure with no less than the entire Planet Earth as the stakes. The comic is also notable for its wraparound cover, which includes hundreds of familiar and not-so-familiar faces in the crowd watching the fight. Everyone from fellow DC staff to big names like John Wayne and Johnny Carson are on the cover. One problem that arose is that Adams drew the cover without clearing the rights to use the likenesses. It was a chore for DC's legal department to track down and receive permission from all those celebrities. Most of them were cool, but you'll notice a guy with a mustache sitting next to Ron Howard. That was originally Henry Winkler, but the Fonz refused to give permission, and the likeness was altered.

Posted by Marty at 10:32 PM CDT
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Monday, August 29, 2005
The Big Bust-Out
I don't know why it took the networks almost five years to rip off 24, but Fox finally did it with the new series PRISON BREAK, which debuted tonight with back-to-back episodes. I think the network might have another winner on its hands.

Like 24, PRISON BREAK is a serialized action series that derives its suspense from a ticking clock. Lincoln Burrows (JOHN DOE's Dominic Purcell) was accused, arrested and found guilty of shooting the brother of the Vice-President of the United States. He currently resides in a maximum-security federal penitentiary in Joliet, Illinois, where he's scheduled to be executed in 30 days. His brother Michael (Wentworth Miller) believes Lincoln to be innocent, and concocts an elaborate plan to rescue him. He sticks up a bank and ensures he'll be sent to the same Joliet facility. It turns out that Michael, a structural engineer, has had the prison's blueprints, along with several other cheats and hints, hidden inside an intricate tattoo that stretches all over his arms and torso.

Creator and writer Paul Scheuring (A MAN APART) opens up a number of subplots that may ensure the series as the season's most dense. A warden (Stacy Keach) who's building a wooden replica of the Taj Mahal as a 40th anniversary present for his wife, a mobster (Peter Stormare from FARGO) with connections, a rapist named T-Bag (Robert Knepper), an old con who may or may not be D.B. Cooper (Muse Watson) and a pissed off guard (Wade Williams) are already making trouble for Michael inside the prison. Outside, his attorney (Robin Tunney) is beginning to believe that Lincoln's incarceration may be the result of a government conspiracy spearheaded by a Secret Service agent (Paul Adelstein) and a mysterious woman in Montana.

Whew. That's a lot of characters and a lot of tantalizing plot threads dangling. If Scheuring and his writing staff can keep all their plates on the end of their sticks, it'll be a miracle, but what I've seen so far is enough to lure me back next week. Film director Brett Ratner (RUSH HOUR), also an executive producer, and Michael Watkins directed the first two episodes, and the battery of credited producers have credits on shows like BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, THE GUARDIAN and NYPD BLUE.

But it's the cast that makes this series so far. I believe that at least 75% of any successful TV series is casting, and Fox got it right with this talented bunch, led by Miller (UNDERWORLD), who I've never seen before, but is on a starmaking path as the determined, tough and wry guy on a mission. I thought Purcell was a solid lead on JOHN DOE, and Keach, Stormare, Adelstein and Tunney all have solid credentials. The show's premise is, of course, incredible, but if these actors can make the implausible seem plausible, that might be all the show needs to make it a winner.

Posted by Marty at 10:12 PM CDT
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Sunday, August 28, 2005
The Student Body Always Scores
Ended up spending yesterday with a friend who came to town to visit his dad in the hospital. He crashed at my place, so we stayed up late watching four (!) deliciously crappy movies. One of them was 1974's SUMMER SCHOOL TEACHERS, a New World release executive-produced by Roger Corman and produced by his wife Julie. The writer and director was Barbara Peeters. It was even more rare then than it is today to find woman directors in Hollywood, and virtually none of them were making exploitation films. Peeters and Stephanie Rothman, who briefly co-owned her own independent studio, Dimension Pictures, were about the only ones.

Following in the footsteps of New World hits like THE STUDENT TEACHERS and CANDY STRIPE NURSES came this interesting feminist tract disguised as a T&A film. Three Midwestern farmgirls move to Los Angeles to teach high school and maybe find love in the process. Blond Conklin T. (the wonderful Candice Rialson) teaches girls' P.E. and tries to organize an all-female football team, much to the consternation of male chauvinist athletic director Sam (badass Dick Miller, who later appeared with Rialson in HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD). Science teacher Denise (cute Rhonda Leigh Hopkins) falls for a teenage hood who gets kidnapped by a car theft gang, while Sally (Pat Anderson) teaches photography and poses for some sexy shots of her own.

Typically for these New World formula films, SUMMER SCHOOL TEACHERS fulfills the requirements of an exploitation movie with copious nudity and slapstick humor, but also contains serious subtext. SUMMER SCHOOL TEACHERS is deep down a feminist treatise on women's liberation and empowerment in which, yep, the girls get naked, but only on their own terms for their own pleasure. Conklin and Company are the smartest characters in the movie, and use both their brains and bodies to break down "the Man's" rule.

I'm not advocating SUMMER SCHOOL TEACHERS as any kind of classic, but it's much more ambitious than those who turn down their noses at drive-in flicks would be willing to admit.

Peeters' last film for Corman was 1980's HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP, which was apparently quite a personal setback for her. The story is that Corman hired a second director to go back and film gore and nude scenes against Peeters' wishes and inserted them into the film. It's actually a good movie, a throwback to '50s sci-fi, as Doug McClure, Ann Turkel and Vic Morrow battle an army of slimy amphibians that invade a small town and rape their women. The sleazier material, like one monster ripping apart a tent and having its way with a buxom nude girl, was never filmed by Peeters, but Corman felt it was necessary for audiences anticipating that type of film from New World. And he was probably right.

Posted by Marty at 10:35 AM CDT
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Friday, August 26, 2005
Who Ya Gonna Call?
Here's a silly change of pace. This is a list of the Top 100 pop songs in the U.S. the year I graduated from high school, 1984. There are a lot of bad songs on this list, yet who would argue that 2005 is a better year for pop?

1. When Doves Cry, Prince
2. What's Love Got To Do With It, Tina Turner
3. Say Say Say, Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson
4. Footloose, Kenny Loggins
5. Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now), Phil Collins
6. Jump, Van Halen
7. Hello, Lionel Richie
8. Owner Of A Lonely Heart, Yes
9. Ghostbusters, Ray Parker Jr.
10. Karma Chameleon, Culture Club
11. Missing You, John Waite
12. All Night Long (All Night), Lionel Richie
13. Let's Hear It For The Boy, Deniece Williams
14. Dancing In The Dark, Bruce Springsteen
15. Girls Just Want To Have Fun, Cyndi Lauper
16. The Reflex, Duran Duran
17. Time After Time, Cyndi Lauper
18. Jump (For My Love), Pointer Sisters
19. Talking In Your Sleep, Romantics
20. Self Control, Laura Branigan
21. Let's Go Crazy, Prince and The Revolution
22. Say It Isn't So, Daryl Hall and John Oates
23. Hold Me Now, Thompson Twins
24. Joanna, Kool and The Gang
25. I Just Called To Say I Love You, Stevie Wonder
26. Somebody's Watching Me, Rockwell
27. Break My Stride, Matthew Wilder
28. 99 Luftballons, Nena
29. I Can Dream About You, Dan Hartman
30. The Glamorous Life, Sheila E.
31. Oh Sherrie, Steve Perry
32. Stuck On You, Lionel Richie
33. I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues, Elton John
34. She Bop, Cyndi Lauper
35. Borderline, Madonna
36. Sunglasses At Night, Corey Hart
37. Eyes Without A Face, Billy Idol
38. Here Comes The Rain Again, Eurythmics
39. Uptown Girl, Billy Joel
40. Sister Christian, Night Ranger
41. Drive, Cars
42. Twist Of Fate, Olivia Newton-John
43. Union Of The Snake, Duran Duran
44. The Heart Of Rock 'N' Roll, Huey Lewis and The News
45. Hard Habit To Break, Chicago
46. The Warrior, Scandal
47. If Ever You're In My Arms Again, Peabo Bryson
48. Automatic, Pointer Sisters
49. Let The Music Play, Shannon
50. To All The Girls I've Loved Before, Julio Iglesias and Willie Nelson
51. Caribbean Queen, Billy Ocean
52. That's All, Genesis
53. Running With The Night, Lionel Richie
54. Sad Songs (Say So Much), Elton John
55. I Want A New Drug, Huey Lewis and The News
56. Islands In The Stream, Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton
57. Love Is A Battlefield, Pat Benatar
58. Infatuation, Rod Stewart
59. Almost Paradise, Mike Reno and Ann Wilson
60. Legs, ZZ Top
61. State Of Shock, Jacksons
62. Love Somebody, Rick Springfield
63. Miss Me Blind, Culture Club
64. If This Is It, Huey Lewis and The News
65. You Might Think, Cars
66. Lucky Star, Madonna
67. Cover Me, Bruce Springsteen
68. Cum On Feel The Noize, Quiet Riot
69. Breakdance, Irene Cara
70. Adult Education, Daryl Hall and John Oates
71. They Don't Know, Tracy Ullman
72. An Innocent Man, Billy Joel
73. Cruel Summer, Bananarama
74. Dance Hall Days, Wang Chung
75. Give It Up, K.C.
76. I'm So Excited, Pointer Sisters
77. I Still Can't Get Over Loving You, Ray Parker Jr.
78. Thriller, Michael Jackson
79. Holiday, Madonna
80. Breakin'... There's No Stopping Us, Ollie And Jerry
81. Nobody Told Me, John Lennon
82. Church Of The Poison Mind, Culture Club
83. Think Of Laura, Christopher Cross
84. Time Will Reveal, Debarge
85. Wrapped Around Your Finger, Police
86. Pink Houses, John Cougar Mellencamp
87. Round And Round, Ratt
88. Head Over Heels, Go-Go's
89. The Longest Time, Billy Joel
90. Tonight, Kool and The Gang
91. Got A Hold On Me, Christine McVie
92. Dancing In The Sheets, Shalamar
93. Undercover Of The Night, Rolling Stones
94. On The Dark Side, John Cafferty and The Beaver Brown Band
95. New Moon On Monday, Duran Duran
96. Major Tom (Coming Home), Peter Schilling
97. Magic, Cars
98. When You Close Your Eyes, Night Ranger
99. Rock Me Tonite, Billy Squier
100. Yah Mo B There, James Ingram and Michael McDonald

The shittiest song on that list has to be "State of Shock", which was on a Jacksons album, but is really a "duet" between Michael Jackson and Mick Jagger. I doubt the two were ever within 1500 miles of each other. I'm a Jagger fan, but, holy crap, this song sucks. Come to think of it, so does that other Michael Jackson duet, "Say Say Say", which was on Paul McCartney's PIPES OF PEACE LP. At least it's catchy and amiable. The one thing I remember about Michael Jackson back then is getting in arguments with people who swore up and down that he wasn't gay. I don't think anybody today would be so certain of Michael's heterosexuality, but I remember seeing this guy romping with Paul in that "Say Say Say" video...remember when Paul plops a playful smoodge of shaving cream on Michael's face? Michael reacts in a manner that makes Jm J. Bullock look like Victor Mature on Viagra.

I was not really into contemporary pop music then, although I listened to a lot of it on WLRW, and I still have some of these original 45s that I bought at one of Market Place Mall's two record stores. I was mostly listening to "oldies"--Beatles, Beach Boys, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Stones. Also a lot of movie soundtracks; THE ROAD WARRIOR was a big favorite...STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, CAPRICORN ONE, STAR WARS, BLUE THUNDER. Yeah, I was real popular with the ladies.

I'd say there're probably 15-20 songs on that list that I don't even recognize. And that's after years of working as a radio disc jockey. Who the fuck are Ollie & Jerry?

Posted by Marty at 11:30 PM CDT
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Wednesday, August 24, 2005
This Tape Will Self-Destruct In Five Seconds

Why hasn't Paramount released any MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE episodes on DVD yet? Don't they like money?

If you only know MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE through the two Tom Cruise movies, you're probably asking, "Who gives a shit? MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE sucks." And it's true--the movies do suck, and they have nothing to do with MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. The first film at least borrowed Lalo Schifrin's famous theme and a few other gimmicks, but pretty much ignored everything that was unique and exciting about the television series. The exception is the bravura sequence in which Cruise dangles upside down in a top-secret computer lab to steal some data. Director Brian DePalma wisely played it without music or dialogue, and it's a wonderful piece of thriller filmmaking. It's too bad he didn't--or couldn't (he reportedly butted heads with his boss, producer Cruise, on several occasions)--do more of it. The sequel, directed by John Woo, is a piece of shit, one of the dullest craptaculars I've seen in a long time. And it has even less to do with the TV series than the first film.

No, if you haven't seen the TV show, you're missing one of the medium's great adventures.

M:I aired on CBS from 1966-1973, a healthy seven-season run. It originally starred Steven Hill as Dan Briggs, the head of the Impossible Missions Force, a government group that engaged in espionage of the highest priority. Their missions were so dangerous that they were warned before each one that if any of them were killed or captured, "the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions."

Hill was an intense, intelligent and extremely skilled stage actor who was a favorite of M:I creator Bruce Geller, though not of CBS. Hill also turned out to be troublesome and difficult, and was dumped after one season. You undoubtedly know him from his long association with LAW & ORDER, where he played curmudgeonly District Attorney Adam Schiff for more than a decade.

Geller replaced Hill with Peter Graves, a rugged, handsome, dependable leading man who had bounced around Hollywood for a decade and a half. Despite a memorable role in Billy Wilder's STALAG 17, he was probably best known as the star of several 1950's science fiction movies, including Roger Corman's memorable IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, Bert I. Gordon's schlocky BEGINNING OF THE END about giant cockroaches, and KILLERS FROM SPACE, directed by Billy's less-talented brother W. Lee Wilder.

Graves became M:I's most prominent icon, so much so that hardly anyone remembers anymore that Hill was ever on the show. He went on to do a memorable role in AIRPLANE and to host A&E's BIOGRAPHY, but it will be MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE leading his obituary when he one day passes on.

Graves played Jim Phelps, the IMF mastermind who thought up each episode's intricate mission. Also starring were Martin Landau, still a busy character actor who won an Oscar for playing Bela Lugosi in ED WOOD, as Rollin Hand, a magician and master of disguise; Landau's wife Barbara Bain, a University of Illinois graduate, as model Cinnamon Carter; Greg Morris as Barney, a brilliant electronics and explosives expert during an era when blacks were still rarely shown as intelligent; and Indianapolis' Peter Lupus as Willy, a strongman.

Each episode found the M:I gang perpetrating an outlandishly complex caper or con job on an unsuspecting mobster, killer or foreign dictator. In the early years, the series mainly concentrated on overseas espionage, and part of the fun was learning what made-up Communist country was the setting each week. The show never had Soviet or Red Chinese or Cuban villains; they were always from a spot on the globe entirely invented by MISSION's writers, with a language to match. It couldn't be English, but it had to be recognizable to American viewers, so you always saw signs that read "gaz" for gasoline or "verbaton" for Do Not Enter or something like that. The series eventually moved away from international missions to battling organized crime in America, which was probably cheaper, since the show shot everything in Southern California. MISSION had the run of the Paramount backlot, which had jungles, castles, cathedrals, prison camps...anyplace an international crime-fighting unit might need to go. It also gave the cast a chance to speak in silly accents. Hearing Peter Lupus speak English with a Czech accent is one of TV's great unsung pleasures.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE was, and remains, one of television's best-written shows. The plots were so intricate that they had to be virtually airtight to be believable. They were often outlandish and sometimes relied on a handy deux es machina, but the shows were so slick and polished that you could usually buy whatever craziness the writers dished out.

For example, in "The Photographer", the M:I gang had to retrieve a secret code being transmitted by an American fashion photographer and traitor (Anthony Zerbe) to his Commie bosses from his underground bomb shelter. To do so, Phelps concocted an audacious plan to convince Zerbe that nuclear missiles had bombed the U.S. and that World War III was underway. So the good guys substituted Zerbe's bullets for paintballs, faked their own deaths, fed him faked radio broadcasts, and even built a miniature 360-degree diorama and slipped it around his periscope, so when Zerbe peeked topside, all he saw was burned-out scenery.

In another episode, the M:I group kidnapped gangster William Shatner, gave him "temporary" plastic surgery to make him look 30 years younger, and built a ten-square-block replica of the neighborhood he lived in as a child. It was all to get him to lead them to a hiding place, and the plan was that, when he woke up, he'd be convinced the last 30 years were just a dream. Yeah, it's ridiculous, but you either go with the flow or you don't, and by the time that episode aired, M:I had already done about 150 of them, and viewers were willing to cut them some slack. The most complex episode, "The Mind of Stefan Miklos", was perhaps too complicated, even for the sophisticated MISSION audience. A recent article in the NEW YORK TIMES suggested that today's TV shows and audiences are smarter than they've ever been. Anyone who has ever watched both MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and FEAR FACTOR knows that's complete idiocy.

Landau and Bain left the series after a salary dispute and several Emmy nominations (Bain won three in a row). Their replacement was Leonard Nimoy, who, months earlier, had completed a three-year run as Mr. Spock on STAR TREK just a couple of stages over on the Paramount lot. Nimoy played nimble-fingered makeup expert Paris for a couple of years. Also popping up as regulars for a year or two were Lesley Ann Warren, Lynda Day George, Barbara Anderson and Sam Elliott, mustacheless as a doctor named Doug. The show also managed to attract nearly every major TV actor of the era as guest stars, including Robert Conrad, Pernell Roberts, William Shatner, Robert Reed, Joan Collins, Arthur Hill, Edward Asner, Darren McGavin, Martin Sheen and so many others. Hell, I know Monte Markham must have been on at least once.

It's amazing that M:I lasted as long as it did, even though the ratings were very high. It was a very expensive show to do, since so much of it was set outdoors and in different locations. There was only one permanent set--Phelps' apartment, where Jim laid out the mission each week. It was also heavily quoted, parodied and paid homage to everywhere from GET SMART to MAD magazine. The opening tape scenes, where Graves received his mission in spoken-word form each week, spawned such catchphrases as "Your mission, should you choose to accept it..." and "This recording will self-destruct in ten seconds." Even those who never saw M:I will likely recognize these lines.

In addition to its actors, the individual most closely identified with M:I must be Lalo Schifrin, the Argentine-born jazz composer who wrote the opening theme, one of TV's most memorable. Penned in a wonky 5/4 time signature, it was intended by Schifrin to be part of the pilot's underscore, but Geller loved it so much that he made it the series' theme. Again, even those who don't know where the music is from certainly recognize the piece when they hear it. It kicks off each episode with a feeling of urgency and excitement in a way that today's TV dramas, which typically flash dozens of names over scenes instead of using a title sequence.

The bad news is that Cruise is hard at work on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III, a sequel that absolutely nobody wants to see. Ask yourself this: have you ever heard anybody say, "Those MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movies really kick ass"?

The good news, potentially, is that Paramount will use the tie-in opportunity as a reason to release the M:I TV show on DVD. Chances are they'll skip the Graves-less first season and begin with Season Two. I can live with that, as long as I can start building a MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE DVD collection as soon as possible.

Posted by Marty at 11:27 PM CDT
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Monday, August 22, 2005
James Booth, R.I.P.
Now Playing: DEEP SPACE
Actor James Booth has passed away in Essex at age 77. Booth was an extremely distinguished British actor with roles on stage and in major films like ZULU and THE JAZZ SINGER. So distinguished, in fact, that it's difficult to imagine such a man also being a screenwriter of Michael Dudikoff movies, but he was. Two of Dudikoff's best films for Cannon, AVENGING FORCE and AMERICAN NINJA 2: THE CONFRONTATION, were penned by Booth, who also played Dudikoff's suspicious CIA contact in AVENGING FORCE and later appeared with him in AMERICAN NINJA 4: THE ANNIHILATION.

In Booth's honor, I watched another of his late-career films tonight. DEEP SPACE is an Earth-set ALIEN ripoff, shot in seven weeks on an alleged budget of $1.5 million by director Fred Olen Ray. Ray had just made THE TOMB for Trans World Entertainment, and eagerly jumped right back in bed with them for DEEP SPACE.

Booth's role is a small one, and was probably performed in a single day. As sinister government scientist Forsythe, he's responsible for a spaceship containing a slimy monster and its two eggs that crashes near Los Angeles. The toothy Charles Napier plays a typically unorthodox movie detective assigned by by-the-book boss Bo Svenson (Buford Pusser in the WALKING TALL sequels) to investigate the bloody murders of a pair of teenagers. Napier and partner Ron Glass (BARNEY MILLER) encounter interference from the U.S. government, while Napier simultaneously receives mysterious phone calls from psychic Julie Newmar (Catwoman!) and quality sack time with sexy policewoman Ann Turkel (HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP). The killings are being perpetrated by a trio of slimy monsters with tentacles and big teeth that were developed by the Defense Department to use against our enemies, but are now on the loose in Los Angeles

None of this is very original, but it's all done with good humor. Ray tosses in enough tongue-in-cheek action (Napier serenades his date by playing bagpipes!), gore and recognizable character actors like Anthony Eisley (JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF TIME) and Michael Forest (BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE) to make DEEP SPACE an OK time-passer. The screenplay by Ray and T.L. Lankford could have used a few new twists; Newmar's role seems to have only been added because the writers couldn't figure out any other way to wrap up the plot.

It's cool to see Napier play the lead for once. He tosses off some one-liners ("I'm gonna kick some monster ass!"), gets all gored up while whaling his opponent with a chainsaw, and even gets to make out with Ann Turkel.

Posted by Marty at 11:20 PM CDT
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Sunday, August 21, 2005
Unknown Subject
Now Playing: UNSUB
It's almost a cliche to say that something was "ahead of its time", but I think it's actually true of UNSUB, an NBC crime drama that aired only eight times before its quick cancellation in the spring of 1989. The best way to describe UNSUB quickly is that it was C.S.I. meets MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE with more humor. If this show had debuted a couple of seasons ago, it would fit it nicely with the networks' steady stream of plot-oriented cop shows that focus on bloody crime scenes and up-to-date technology over characterization.

Stephen J. Cannell was the executive producer of UNSUB, which is a bit of a surprise, considering it's not very much like a typical Cannell series. His biggest hits, like THE A-TEAM, THE ROCKFORD FILES and THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO, were nearly as much comedy as drama and relied on a talented light cast to yuk its way through fluffy plots. UNSUB was quite different, a dark police procedural about a special branch of the Justice Department that jetted all over the United States investigating serial killings. Michael Mann's film MANHUNTER was clearly a major inspiration for the series. I think MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE may have been too, since a typical episode opens with the characters, each of whom a specialist in some arcane crime-fighting procedure, sitting around the table being briefed by their boss before traveling cross-country to start the case.

David Soul, who spent much of the 1980's on NBC starring in CASABLANCA, THE YELLOW ROSE and IN THE LINE OF DUTY: THE F.B.I. MURDERS, starred as John Westley Grayson, "Westy" to his friends. Like C.S.I.'s William Petersen, Soul was an experienced actor (best known as one-half of STARSKY & HUTCH) with enough gravitas to believably head up an elite crimefighting unit. Other cast members included Kent McCord, another longtime TV star from ADAM-12, as a forensics expert who was a whiz with a microscope; the great character actor M. Emmet Walsh as the crusty, old-school ex-cop; Joe Maruzzo as the profiler; Jennifer Hetrick as the psychologist; and Richard Kind, later a familiar face from SPIN CITY.

Like C.S.I., which premiered over a decade later, UNSUB focused on bizarre killers with deep psychological problems. But unlike the more recent program, UNSUB stuck to just one case per episode and did a better job of letting its actors breathe, finding a scene or two occasionally to allow them to develop their characters, unlike the all-work caricatures in Petersen's troop.

Their best episode was a two-parter titled "And the Dead Shall Rise to Condemn Thee", which found the UNSUB cast investigating the disappearance of two young black women who were last seen in the company of a charismatic black preacher, played by the late Jason Bernard, one of those actors you immediately recognize from dozens of films and TV shows. Soul's Westy, the son of a fire-and-brimstone preacher, had to confront his own rough childhood and religious guilt in his quest to prove Bernard's guilt in two murders.

An earlier episode, "Clean Slate", guest-starred a young Kevin Spacey in a dual role: an obsessive-complusive bomber and his twin brother, dying of cancer. An accidental bonus for C.S.I. fans is a guest shot in the first episode by Paul Guilfoyle, who plays Captain Brass on the CBS series, as a mother-dominated killer.

Since only eight episodes appear to have been filmed, UNSUB was never syndicated and is unlikely to be released on DVD. I believe Cannell owns the rights to UNSUB, so the ball is in his court. I suppose if there's an audience for DVD box sets of THE COMMISH and SILK STALKINGS, there might be one for UNSUB, the original Crime Scene Investigators.

Posted by Marty at 10:19 PM CDT
Updated: Monday, August 22, 2005 7:58 AM CDT
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Friday, August 19, 2005
Watch Out For Snakes
DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY was one of 20th Century Fox’s biggest moneymakers of 1974. Peter Fonda, already a counterculture icon from the biker films THE WILD ANGELS and EASY RIDER, starred as a rebellious holdup man racing an army of cops to the border in his souped-up ‘69 Dodge Charger, burning rubber and breaking laws all the way. Deftly directed by John Hough, who went on to make two successful WITCH MOUNTAIN films for Disney, “DIRTY CRAZY” (as Fonda calls it in his interview on the Anchor Bay DVD) was an unpretentious, gear-crunching car-chase movie that cleaned up in drive-in theaters all across the country.

Needless to say, the suits at Fox were eager to find another drive-in flick for Fonda, preferably one that could stick him behind the wheel of a moving vehicle. Along came writers Wes Bishop and Lee Frost, who had made names from themselves during the 1960’s as makers of “roughies”--basically softcore sex films with violent overtones--but had since moved towards more mainstream exploitation fare, most notably THE THING WITH TWO HEADS, a ridiculous melding of mad-scientist and car-crash genres that starred Oscar-winning actor Ray Milland (THE LOST WEEKEND) as a wealthy, terminally ill bigot whose head is transplanted onto the shoulder of a black convict played by former L.A. Ram Rosey Grier. Their script, RACE WITH THE DEVIL, was a similarly structured mixture of horror and action, and Fox lured Fonda to the film by hiring as his co-star the great character actor Warren Oates. Fonda and Oates were good friends, having worked together on Fonda’s directorial debut, 1971’s THE HIRED HAND.

Fonda and Oates play Roger and Frank, a couple of motocross racers traveling across Texas in a huge motor home, accompanied by their wives, Kelly (Lara Parker) and Alice (Loretta Swit, then starring on M*A*S*H). Their bucolic vacation is interrupted during its first night, when the two men witness a Satanic ritual occurring near their campsite. They’re shocked to see a masked man, surrounded by chanting acolytes, sacrifice a nude woman, and are forced to go on the run when the devil worshippers discover their presence.

This leads to the film’s first of several suspenseful scenes, as the panicky campers get their RV stuck in a mudhole trying to escape and struggle to dig their way clear as crazed men in white robes chase after them on foot. The vacationers head straight to the local sheriff (R.G. Armstrong), who pooh-poohs the notion of Satan worshippers in his community, even when confronted with the bloody scene of the crime. And no wonder, since it appears that the sheriff--and nearly everyone else the travelers meet along their dusty route--is one of them.

RACE WITH THE DEVIL was directed by Jack Starrett, a solid action director perhaps better known as a character actor who specialized in tough guys (his most prominent role is that of the cruel deputy Galt who brutalizes Sylvester Stallone in FIRST BLOOD). Starrett was a late-in-the-game replacement for Lee Frost, when Fox became disenchanted by the original director’s first two weeks of footage. Starrett’s CLEOPATRA JONES and SLAUGHTER were major blaxploitation hits, and his brilliant crime drama THE GRAVY TRAIN, from a screenplay co-written by Terrence Malick (THE THIN RED LINE), remains sadly unavailable on home video in any format.

Starrett’s approach to RACE WITH THE DEVIL is a disquieting one, interjecting post-Watergate paranoia into a slam-bang action movie loaded with fantastic stunts. Texture is added by the cool dichotomy between the victims, couched in a 35-foot RV armed with the latest creature comforts, and their pursuers, primitive zealots able to scare the bejeezus out of them through their faceless omnipresence.

Adding to the suspense are Fonda’s and Oates’ Everymen portrayals. We know Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds could have kicked those Satan worshippers back to San Antone with their eyes closed, but using “regular guys” like Fonda and Oates puts the audience into their shoes and brings the horror closer to home. It also helps that Starrett shoots the action without the use of process shots or trick photography, which makes the danger look more realistic; Fonda even battles a real rattlesnake at one point!

Like DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY, RACE WITH THE DEVIL is often remembered today for its similarly downbeat ending, which isn’t the most logical way to go, but is unquestionably vivid. It was also a huge hit, cementing Fonda’s status as one of the most dependable B-level leading men of the 1970’s.

Posted by Marty at 5:59 PM CDT
Updated: Friday, August 19, 2005 5:59 PM CDT
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Monday, August 15, 2005
Take Me In, Tender Woman
Make sure you pick up this week's issue of The Hub to read my piece on RACE WITH THE DEVIL. It was apparently trimmed a bit to squeeze into the space, but I'll run the unexpurgated version right here next week.

Speaking of Peter Fonda, what kind of B-movie star would he be without at least one killer-snake movie on his resume? 1982's SPASMS is a looney-tunes Canadian horror movie with Toronto very unconvincingly standing in for San Diego (!) and Oliver Reed equally unconvincingly standing in for a good actor. How much of this comes from the source material, a novel called DEATH BITE, I don't know, but the story concerns big game hunter Reed's obsession with bagging a giant serpent god from Hell that he encountered on a trip to New Guinea seven years earlier that crippled him and killed his brother. He now maintains a psychic link with the snake that psychiatrist Fonda claims is caused by a virus that was spread in the snake's venom. Reed has the snake captured and shipped to California, where it escapes, killing a nude woman taking a shower (of course) and many more people, including legendary Canuck character actor Al Waxman as Crowley, hired by a local snake worshipping cult to snatch the serpent and deliver it to their "church"

To call Reed's performance "unrestrained" is an understatement, and I ain't buying Fonda's shrink credentials either. Dick Smith provides some bubbling bladder effects, but the snake itself is wonderfully phony-looking. It appears director William Fruet ran out of either time or money to shoot the climax, which barely registers and is over before you know it. Kerrie Keane, fresh off THE INCUBUS, and Angus MacInnes from STRANGE BREW are also in it. Tangerine Dream performs the closing theme. SPASMS garnered a bit of notoriety during its original U.S. release, thanks to the juicy stills of Waxman's lumpy demise that surfaced in FANGORIA. It's not really a very good movie, and, in fact, it isn't even the best killer-snake movie Oliver Reed made in 1982. Make sure you seek out Blue Underground's nice DVD of VENOM, in which Reed plays the chauffeur of a London family who masterminds the kidnapping of their young son and finds his gang trapped inside their house along with a vicious black mamba. Now that's high concept, folks.

Posted by Marty at 11:09 PM CDT
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Sunday, August 14, 2005
Brain And Brain, What Is Brain?

“Spock’s Brain” is simultaneously one of the greatest and one of the worst STAR TREK episodes. Penned by a very good writer, Gene L. Coon (who sought to hide his participation behind his nom de plume of “Lee Cronin”) and directed by the dependable Marc Daniels, who made more STAR TREKs than any other director besides Joseph Pevney, “Spock’s Brain” was chosen by NBC to lead off the series’ third season--a season that nearly didn’t happen. The network had actually cancelled STAR TREK after its second year because of low ratings, but a massive letter-writing campaign and vocal fan outcry lured NBC into bringing the show back. The downside is that NBC only renewed TREK with a drastically slashed budget and in a killer 9:00pm timeslot on Friday nights, a time when few of TREK’s young, upscale audience would be home to watch (the days before VCRs and TiVOs).

STAR TREK’s budget was low enough, as those who like to mock its visual effects have noticed, but it seems as though the show’s writing budget took a major hit. Scripts no longer came from the likes of celebrated science fiction authors like Harlan Ellison and Theodore Sturgeon, and stronger directors like Pevney and Joseph Sargent who were able to rein in the performances of a cast prone to hamminess gave way to hacks like David Alexander and Herb Wallerstein, whose episodes were mostly wretched.

Their shows were not bad in a good way either, although there is fun to be had in watching Shatner play an insane woman inside Captain Kirk’s body in “Turnabout Intruder”. “Spock’s Brain”, on the other hand, is one of the most entertaining hours of STAR TREK you will ever see. Its ridiculous premise, silly dialogue, wonky science and blatant plotholes aside, the episode also gives us appearances by the entire cast, a couple of fight scenes, beautiful scantily-clad women, some funny-looking props, and one of the show’s patented indoor/outdoor sets. In other words, the best and the worst TREK has to offer.

The U.S.S. Enterprise is cruising along through space at warp speed, just minding its own business, when another spacecraft pops up on the bridge’s viewscreen. While engineer Scott (James Doohan) is marveling at its advanced technology, a hot chick in knee-high boots appears out of nowhere on the bridge. A couple of security guys rush to help out, but the purple-clad hottie pushes a few buttons on her wrist remote, and knocks out everyone on the ship. For some reason, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) collapses head first in his captain’s chair with his buttocks thrust towards the audience.

When everyone awakens (and, by the way, Kirk is always the first to come to), an urgent plea from Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) brings Kirk to Sickbay, where he discovers the prone body of his Vulcan first officer, Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy).

Kirk: “Is he dead?”
McCoy: “He’s worse than dead.”
Kirk: “Come on, Bones, what’s the mystery?!”
McCoy: “His brain is gone.”

That’s right--somehow the space hottie has managed to steal Spock’s brain (a great drinking game would be to chug every time someone utters the phrase “Spock’s brain”) without even shaving his head. His “incredible Vulcan physique” remains alive on life-support, but only for 24 hours, which gives Kirk less than a day to find Spock’s brain and put it back inside his head. During the entire scene, Scotty, who for some reason followed Kirk to Sickbay from the bridge, stands around saying and doing absolutely nothing. Maybe Doohan was getting paid by the scene and called Marc Daniels for a favor, I don’t know. At any rate, it’s funny to watch Kelley and Shatner having this serious conversation about Spock’s brain while Doohan stands around with a shocked look on his face like he’d like to say something, but has nothing to contribute. Kirk leaves the meeting by demanding that McCoy and Scotty get Spock ready to travel, although he doesn’t know where to.

The Enterprise crew finds an unusual ion trail and deduces that it must have been left behind by the spaceship that apparently carried the purple-wearing space hottie in go-go boots. Sulu follows it at Warp 6. Also, STAR TREK’s special effects crew discovered the art of rear-projection technology this season. It used to be that whatever was shown on the main bridge viewscreen was matted in later over a blue screen, so no actor could stand in front of it. With rear-projection, they could, so Shatner wanders back and forth in front of it several times, just to show off the new effect. It does give the director a new camera angle to exploit, which was necessary after two seasons of shooting scenes on that tiny bridge set.

Eventually, the gang tracks the ion trail to one of three inhabited planets in the Sigma Draconis system. Using what information they have about each, none of them has a civilization capable of space travel. Kirk makes a guess, and a landing party beams down to a cold planet surface. The party consists of Kirk, Scotty, Ensign Chekov (Walter Koenig) and a couple of red-shirt security guards. Believe it or not, both red-shirts survive the episode. No drinking will be done on their behalf. The whole party ends up skirmishing with a bunch of cavemen who throw foam rocks at them. Kirk phasers them (on stun), and questions one of them, who doesn’t know what a woman is, but tells them about The Others--”givers of pain and delight.” Chekov finds a nearby cave stocked with food and an electric eye beam--aha, a trap!

Before they trip the trap to tangle with The Others, Kirk orders Dr. McCoy to beam down from the Enterprise with a surprise guest: Zombie Spock! That’s right--it’s a completely brainless, emotionless Spock, wearing bizarre metal headgear that I guess was designed by the geniuses that are Bones and Scotty and is operated by the ten-button remote control in McCoy’s hand. So it’s a radio-controlled Zombie Spock. Now available from Team Losi as a ready-to-run.

A few clicks of the remote, and Zombie Spock enters the cave, along with Kirk, Scotty and McCoy (Chekov and the red-shirts stay outside, warming themselves by a phaser-heated rock). The trap turns the whole cave into an elevator, which plummets, according to the apparent speed and length of their trip, several thousand feet underground. The door opens to reveal another space hottie in boots. She isn’t wearing purple, though, and phaser-happy Kirk stuns her into submission. Questioning her is useless--she doesn’t know jackshit about anything. Not just about Spock’s brain, but anything, not even the meaning of the word “him.” She only knows the crew is “not Morg or Eymorg.” Heck, I knew that much.

At this point, Zombie Spock begins to talk. Well, not really, but Scotty has somehow managed to pull in Spock’s voice over his communicator. Yep, somehow the disembodied brain is able to figure the communicator’s radio frequency and speak in Spock’s normal voice. Just go with it. Spock doesn’t know where the hell he is or why he’s there, so the boys trample on, just to run into…her. The space hottie who stole Spock’s brain! And she’s got a couple of big dudes in bad costumes with her. She quickly grabs her wrist remote again and sends the landing party, except Zombie Spock, to their knees. Kirk is, as always, the last to succumb and will be the first to wake up. Star’s privilege.

They awaken in a big conference room, somehow balanced on stools and wearing large belts with round buckles around their waists. An interrogation scene commences, with Kirk getting more and more pissed off, demanding to know where Spock’s brain is, and the space hottie, who appears to be the leader of the underground society, shaking her head in a cute but frustrating way, her simple mind unable to grasp the concept of Spock, his brain or anything else, for that matter. We finally learn that her name is Kara. She’s played by actress Marj Dusay, a very busy television actress then and now who acts today in daytime soaps.

Kara’s blathering finally elicits something Kirk can use, her reference to “the Controller”. Shatner’s acting is great here, as he tries to fool Kara into believing suddenly, after all his hard talk about Spock’s brain, that they have come to meet the Controller. Kara calls bullshit and knocks them out again. I guess the belts are used to knock them out using Kara’s wrist remote, but since she was able to knock out 430 Enterprise crewmen who were not wearing belts, I have no idea why the belts are necessary.

Kirk, McCoy and Scott wake up (Kirk first, of course) to discover the women gone and their phasers and communicators guarded by those two big dudes. They kick their guards’ asses…well, actually Kirk does. The manly captain handles one, while Bones and Scotty tag-team the other. Even though they are trained Federation soldiers, they aren’t enough to handle one brainless dude, so when Kirk finishes off his man, using his patented Flying Leg Kick and Two-Fisted Blow to the Back of the Neck techniques copied by kids everywhere, he handles theirs too.

Off they go, RC Zombie Spock clicking along beside them, to find Spock’s brain, which is apparently being used to, um, control everything. Scotty somehow zeros in on the brain, and they follow the readings to a room containing the Controller. Somehow, Kara is already in there and hits the zapper button on her wrist remote. The three men tumble to the ground again. This is hilarious, since it’s obvious that Shatner demanded to be the last to fall, but Doohan is still struggling to stay up behind him, and you just know the two actors were whispering to each other while the cameras were rolling during the scene:

Shatner: “Fall down, Doohan, I’m the star here.”
Doohan: “Screw you, Shatner, I’m tired of your bullshit.”

Finally, Doohan gets tired of dragging the scene out and falls to the ground, while Kirk grabs the Zombie Spock control, hits one of the unmarked buttons, and commands Zombie Spock to walk over to Kara and press a button on her control (she has only three buttons!), causing their belts to pop off. Only three buttons, and one of them exclusively removes the belts. Okay.

Here’s where they figure out that they’re basically in the boiler room and Spock’s brain is operating all the electricity, water, life-support, etc. Kara pleads with them not to take the Controller, because then her people will all die. Kirk is all, screw that, how do I get Spock outta there? She points towards a large, glass, bubble-headed old-fashioned hair dryer and calls it The Teacher. Put on the Teacher and you’ll learn all you need to about stealing brains and stuff. Kirk makes her put it on, and, presto, she’s smart now. Smart enough to yank a phaser out of her skirt. How it got there and why, we don’t know. I don’t think even Gene Coon knew. All I know is that she’s got a phaser--set to kill--aimed right at Kirk’s gut, which is about three inches away. Scotty, standing three inches to the side and a master of battlefield tactics, lets out an overly melodramatic moan, distracting Kara and allowing Kirk to grab the phaser. McCoy puts the Teacher on, figuring it will give him the medical knowledge necessary to put a brain back inside a Vulcan head without marring the hair on it. “Of course…a child could do it,” a slightly maddened-looking McCoy mutters.

Now McCoy is furiously operating on Zombie Spock, whose head is sticking through a hole in a partition. Why a surgical table and instruments are readily available in the boiler room, I don’t know. McCoy is operating like a madman, fast, precise, until…

Scotty: “Captain Kirk, he’s…forgetting!”

The Teacher starts to wear off, and McCoy starts freaking out. “All the ganglia, nerves, a million of them…what am I supposed to do?” Captain Kirk knows. He orders Bones to reconnect Spock’s vocal cords. Spock, I guess, already knows advanced brain surgery, so while he’s lying on the table with his head split wide open, he starts telling McCoy what to do. Put that there, attach that there, mmm, yeah, that’s perfect, thanks. That this is not the stupidest part of the episode says a hell of a lot about “Spock’s Brain”.

Spock sits up, hair unmussed, and starts babbling nonsense about the technical aspects of running the ladies’ room plumbing with his brain and all else that has occurred. The brilliant freeze-frame parody endings on POLICE SQUAD will pop into your head, as Kirk, McCoy and Scotty laugh at Spock’s clueless utterings, and Shatner ad-libs an out-of-character gag by grabbing the remote control from Kelley and dramatically cranking it in a humorous effort to shut Spock up. Meanwhile, Kara and Her Space Hotties are left without a Controller to heat and operate their elaborate underground society (that we see only three or four members of), so now they have to move to the surface and freeze their asses off with the illiterate cavemen up there. Thanks a lot, Kirk, you jagoff.

Many good episodes were to come in STAR TREK’s third (and final) season, but few as entertaining as “Spock’s Brain”.

Posted by Marty at 1:00 PM CDT
Updated: Sunday, August 14, 2005 1:04 PM CDT
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