Sunday, November 23, 2014

Destination Moonbase-Alpha

The two-part SPACE: 1999 episode “The Bringers of Wonder” was re-edited into DESTINATION MOONBASE-ALPHA, a “movie” that was sold into TV syndication after the series had been cancelled. One of five SPACE: 1999 compilation movies, this one also was released by CBS/Fox on videocassette in 1985. For some reason, ITC changed the show’s setting to 2100 and used footage from the pilot to cobble together a clumsy prologue that explains the premise and main characters. It also dumped Barry Gray’s funky theme in favor of generic action music composed by Manfred Mann’s Mike Vickers.

The 311 men and women who operate and live on Moonbase Alpha have been literally lost in space ever since a surface explosion blasted the Moon out of Earth’s orbit and sent it drifting into uncharted space. After several years of no contact with Earth, the crew is stunned when a spaceship carrying many of their loved ones inexplicably appears. Everyone is so thrilled to see their siblings and fianc├ęs that the question of how they could have appeared, particularly on a ship traveling faster than the speed of light—a physical impossibility—is glossed over.

Of course, the visitors aren’t human at all, but actually space monsters that resemble the Green Slime that have arrived to blow up the Moon’s nuclear waste dumps and kill the humans. Only the base commander, John Koenig (Martin Landau), can see the aliens’ true appearance, but because of a recent head injury he suffered, nobody believes him, and chief medical officer Helena Russell (Barbara Bain) places him in restrains.

Terence Feely’s purpose in writing the teleplay was likely to open up the lives of SPACE: 1999’s supporting cast and give the actors more to do by filling in their past lives. In this regard, it works, but there isn’t enough strong material to stretch to a two-parter (or a feature). Landau’s work is admirable, not only early on when Koenig flips out and acts crazy, but also in scenes opposite the monsters, where he has to make the audience believe they aren’t ridiculous. Producer Fred Freiberger appears to have had extra money to spend on the two-parter, but it must not have extended to the creature costumes, which look like slimy tents with one eye. They can glow like a firely though, which is fairly impressive and imaginative.

The climax, which takes place on the Moon’s surface and involves slow-motion fights and wirework, is directed very well by Tom Clegg (SWEENEY 2). ITC “produced” three more SPACE: 1999 movies for syndication and videotape (one was turned into an episode of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000). Another was made exclusively for Italy. SPACE: 1999 was cancelled in 1977 after two seasons.


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Black Oak Conspiracy

Jesse Vint, the earthy star of the 1974 drive-in classic MACON COUNTY LINE, served as producer, writer, and star of BLACK OAK CONSPIRACY, which will seem familiar to anyone versed in the ‘70s phenomenon of rural revenge movies.

In the vein of MOONSHINE COUNTY EXPRESS and FIGHTING MAD, BLACK OAK stars Vint as Jingo Johnson, a Hollywood stuntman who returns to his hometown after he receives word that his mother has fallen into ill health. Jingo comes home to find that the family farm is now in the hands of a large mining company owned by the father of his childhood rival (Robert F. Lyons), the same rich scumbag who’s now dating his ex-girlfriend Lucy (Karen Carlson). Turns out his mother’s illness is directly related to the farm’s mineral rights, forcing Jingo to turn to vigilante justice, since the local sheriff (Albert Salmi) may be involved.

The final theatrical film directed by Bob Kelljan, a solid action director whose above-average screen work includes the two COUNT YORGA movies, SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM, and the STARSKY & HUTCH episode that pitted the two cops against a vampire (?) played by John Saxon, BLACK OAK could have used more judicious editing and a few more action beats. Making Jingo a stuntman was a clever excuse to throw in an exploding car and a fire gag, but Vint’s screenplay is more of a suspense piece than a Burt Reynolds action romp.

Vint looks and feels right, and he has a seasoned supporting cast to back him up, but the film feels longer than 90 minutes. Either the material or the budget kept out another chase or two that could have made this one of the better Southern-fried action movies. It’s still worth a look, if only to be reminded of the kind of low-key action programmer that isn’t made often these days. Vint pulls the potato-in-the-tailpipe gag years before Eddie Murphy did, and there’s a surprisingly gory exploding head.

Produced independently by Vint and Tom and Gail Clark in the wake of MACON COUNTY LINE, BLACK OAK was picked up in 1977 for theatrical release by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. According to Vint, it played “all over the world.” It also aired on CBS, and considering the budget was just $300,000, BLACK OAK must have been a moneymaker for somebody.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Hot Cars


The only feature directed by Don McDougall, whose busy career in television spanned more than thirty years, HOT CARS was produced by Howard W. Koch and Aubrey Schenck, who churned out several effective little crime pictures for their independent Bel-Air Productions in the 1950s.

Nick Dunn (John Bromfield) is that rare breed—an honest used car dealer. So honest, in fact, that he gets fired from his job for steering a customer away from a lemon. Arthur Markel (Ralph Clanton), impressed with Dunn’s character, hires him to manage one of his lots. With better pay and better hours, it seems like a great job until Nick discovers his boss is operating a stolen car ring. Quitting is Nick’s first impulse, but with a wife and a very sick little boy at home, money is a necessity, so he hangs in.

At sixty minutes, HOT CARS packs quite a bit of story, and McDougall handles it in a clean, perfunctory manner. It benefits from shooting on location, including two actual lots in Culver City, California—Big John’s and Johnny O’Toole’s, which are no longer in business. The impressive finale has McDougall staging a brawl on the roller coaster at the Santa Monica pier that’s performed by the actors—no stuntmen.

Bromfield is a less-than-exciting leading man, but he’s capable of fulfilling the needs of Don Martin and Richard Landau’s script and is able to get the audience on Nick’s side. Dabbs Greer is very good as a nosy cop, but it’s (as usual) Joi Lansing who steals the picture with her seductive manner (who can blame Nick for getting lured in?) and stacked figure.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Owen Marshall, Counselor At Law, "Five Will Get You Six"

OWEN MARSHALL, COUNSELOR AT LAW
“Five Will Get You Six”
October 26, 1972
Starring Arthur Hill and Lee Majors
Also Starring Joan Darling
Guest-Starring William Shatner, Sam Jaffe, Sandra Smith, James Luisi, Christine Matchett, Russell Johnson, Nate Esformes, Richard X. Slattery, Eileen Baral, Bill Quinn, John Francis, Jim Drum
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Executive Producer: David Victor
Producer: Jon Epstein
Associate Producer: Joseph Monzio
Executive Story Consultant: Jerry McNeely
Creators: David Victor & Jerry McNeely
Writer: Shimon Wincelberg
Director: Harry Falk

OWEN MARSHALL, COUNSELOR AT LAW was a fairly successful one-hour drama set in Santa Barbara, California. Canadian actor Arthur Hill, a 1963 Tony winner for WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, was the star in his first regular series role. Hill’s mild-mannered looks and plain demeanor made him perfect for cuckolded husbands, officious CEOs, and authority figures, yet he was also able to occasionally play against his Everyman looks as white-collar villains and killers.

Hill was a middle-of-the-road leading man, which made him perfectly cast in the thoroughly middle-of-the-road OWEN MARSHALL. His client in “Five Will Get You Six” is none other than William Shatner, playing an equally mild-mannered architect named Gary Saugus. Gary is into a loan shark, the grandfatherly Henry Noel (Sam Jaffe), to the tune of $10,000 plus 20 percent compounded weekly.

He’s having trouble making his payments, and, under pressure from the district attorney (Russell Johnson) investigating Noel, commits perjury before a grand jury. Before Marshall and his assistant Jess Brandon (Lee Majors, in between THE MEN FROM SHILOH and THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN) can get the charge dropped, Gary ends up in the pokey on a more serious charge: the murder of Noel’s goon Tom Mundy (James Luisi).

This was Shimon Wincelberg’s only OWEN MARSHALL teleplay, and it’s pretty bland stuff. There’s little director Harry Falk could do to spice it up. Oh, the story is solid enough, I suppose, and it’s decently performed by a very good cast. But it doesn’t go as far as it could. “Five Will Get You Six” could have been a good opportunity to examine loan sharking. Why would someone agree to borrow money at such an absurd interest rate and risk injury or even death to keep up with the payments? Gary’s reason for borrowing from Noel is given a throwaway mention, and the episode bogs down into a courtroom scene in which Jess argues his client acted in self-defense.

She isn’t given much to do—at least not in the episode I saw, which was cut for syndication—but it’s interesting to see Sandra Smith as Shatner’s wife. Three years earlier, they played antagonists in STAR TREK’s final episode “Turnabout Intruder,” in which Smith’s character switched bodies with Captain Kirk’s, enabling her to “play” Kirk and Shatner to play a psychotic female Starfleet officer.

Friday, November 07, 2014

48 Hrs.

Eddie Murphy, amazing just 21 years old when production began on 48 HRS., shines in one of the most outstanding film debuts in the history of cinema. He and the seasoned Nick Nolte (NORTH DALLAS FORTY) are definitely co-leads in this influential buddy-action-comedy, but Ric Waite’s camera unquestionably loves Eddie to death. Nolte is no slouch — in fact, his work in 48 HRS. has been unfairly overlooked — but Murphy...well.

Murphy had fewer than two full seasons of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE under his belt when he was cast by director Walter Hill (THE WARRIORS) to play black con artist Reggie Hammond in a rollicking, profane, exciting, and darkly funny screenplay credited to Hill, Roger Spottiswoode (who next directed Nolte in UNDER FIRE), Larry Gross (STREETS OF FIRE), and Steven E. de Souza (DIE HARD). It’s a terrific role that fits Murphy so well that it’s impossible to imagine any other comedian of 1982 playing it.

Take, for instance, The Scene. If anyone sitting in a theater watching 48 HRS. were still, up to that point, unsure about Murphy’s ability to hold the screen, all doubts disappeared when Murphy as Hammond wanders into a redneck bar filled with crackers and bigots and takes complete control in a dazzling display of bravado and fast thinking. By the time Murphy John-Wayne-walks out of the bar after verbally demolishing everyone in it, a star has been born.

48 HRS. is a comedy, but it’s primarily an action movie about cops chasing bad guys in San Francisco. The combination of brutal violence and big laughs was unusual in 1982, but the critical and commercial success of 48 HRS. led to many imitators, including the LETHAL WEAPON series and Murphy’s BEVERLY HILLS COP, which was an even bigger smash than 48 HRS.

Nolte plays Jack Cates, a typical-for-the-movies burned-out cop on the trail of a couple of killers named Ganz (James Remar) and Billy Bear (Sonny Landham, graduating to the mainstream from the porn world). It’s personal for Cates, because one of their victims, a fellow detective (Jonathan Banks), was killed with his .44. His best chance is to spring Ganz’s old running buddy, Hammond, from prison and let Reggie lead him to the killers.

Why Cates thinks this would work is beyond me, but his plan leads to a pretty terrific crime drama packed with rich characters, taut Hill action sequences, biting dialogue, and ribald humor. The plot doesn’t make complete since, and the concept of two men stuck together who bicker and fight but learn to like each other wasn’t fresh even in 1982. But it’s often the singers, not the song, and with Hill’s unique macho directing style perfectly tuned to Murphy’s and Nolte’s wavelengths, 48 HRS. plays like a true original.

Monday, November 03, 2014

U.S. Seals II: The Ultimate Force

U.S. SEALS II: THE ULTIMATE FORCE is nothing less than one of the best direct-to-video action movies ever made. In fact, its energy and spectacular fight sequences are thrilling enough to rank U.S. SEALS II among the best action films of the 21st century so far, period.

Yeah, I know.

Released in 2001 by Nu Image/Millennium as a sequel to a film it has nothing to do with, U.S. SEALS II is as close to an authentic Hong Kong action movie as any American production has ever gotten (with the exception of the unbelievably great buddy action/comedy DRIVE). Although its title and DVD box indicate a straight-forward macho military-style shoot-'em-up, director Issac Florentine (now a big name in DTV features for his collaborations with action star Scott Adkins) and writer Michael D. Weiss (OCTOPUS) have concocted a preposterous thriller with enough high-octane awesomeness to line a decade of Jerry Bruckheimer schlockfests.

Former Navy SEAL Frank Ratliffe (Damian Chapa) kidnaps sexy nuclear physicist Dr. Jane Burrows (Kate Connor) and stashes her on a private island, which used to be a Soviet military base until a chemical accident left the island saturated in methane gas. Because of the gas, no guns can be fired there, due to the possibility of explosion (just go with it, man).

Surrounded by his army of kung-fu experts, including foxy Brit Sophia (Sophia Crawford, Sarah Michelle Geller's former BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER stunt double), Ratliffe demands a billion-dollar ransom to prevent him from firing a pair of nuclear warheads smack dab into Washington, D.C. To stop Ratliffe's mad plot, Army major Donner (ROAD HOUSE heavy Marshall Teague) recruits the megalomaniac's former best pal, Casey Sheppard (Michael Worth), who left the SEALs after Frank raped and murdered their sensei's daughter. With less than 48 hours to Ratliffe's deadline, Casey recruits a ragtag team of martial-arts experts, including Donner, who's armed with a paintball gun that fires acid missiles, and Kimiko (Karen Kim), Casey's ex-lover and the twin sister of the woman Frank murdered in Okinawa.

One thing is made clear from the very beginning: none of this is to be taken even the least bit seriously. In fact, much of the dialogue sounds like it was penned for a NAKED GUN movie, as it's spoken so earnestly by a mostly unknown cast of straight faces. Florentine punctuates not just the action scenes, but also almost every little movement, with a "whoosh" sound effect, right down to a turn of the head or a roll of the eyes. The gimmick of an island surrounded by methane, as ludicrous as it sounds, is perfect for this comic-book universe and nicely justifies some of the most exciting martial-arts battles ever filmed outside of Asia. The fights were choreographed by Andy Cheng (who also portrays one of Chapa's goons), a veteran of Jackie Chan's stunt team, as super-balletic dances of death--swords, knives, chains, machetes, and old-fashioned hands and feet all become deadly weapons under Cheng's tutelage.

Florentine appears influenced by Italian westerns as much as he is kung-fu flicks, and indeed U.S. SEALS II's themes of loyalty and male friendship lie in that same tradition. But in a movie where the villain can fire a nuclear missile by pressing a button on a remote control (the air inside the silo was unaffected by the methane explosion, we're told) or a nuclear scientist can be a sexy 25-year-old Army officer in a bun and miniskirt, it's doubtful you'll be looking for any subtext.

And that's okay when the movie is as much cheeky fun as U.S. SEALS II. It's a shame to see an action movie this clever and skillfully made go ignored. Hell, there aren't any more video stores, so you can't even go rent it. The violence provides a high body count, but it's never meanspirited, and there's something to be said for the climax, which offs its main heavy with an over-the-top gore effect more likely to draw admiring laughs than uneasy grimaces. Seriously, it's one of the greatest movie deaths ever.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

U.S. Seals

U.S. SEALS, released straight to video by Nu Image in 1999, is usually overshadowed by its more spectacular sequel (we'll get to that later this week), but it's good enough not to be ignored.

Nu Image's military-oriented action movies of the late 20th and early 21st centuries are throwbacks to the 1980s, filled with tough, taciturn white males with big guns who blast their way into foreign countries, slaughtering hundreds of soldiers, mercenaries, and terrorists in the name of freedom. And, as popcorn movies, they invariably work. U.S. SEALS is a nice companion to Nu Image's OPERATION DELTA FORCE series, each filled with (mostly) no-name actors, surprisingly rich production values (courtesy of the favorable exchange rate in Bulgaria, where these were filmed), and lots of gunfire, explosions, and stunts.

A gung-ho squad of SEALS slips into an abandoned oil rig near Bulgaria, where modern-day pirates are hoarding their stolen cache of merchandise. Many baddies are killed in the firefight (and just one of the seriously outnumbered SEALS; wouldn't you know it would be the team's only black member), but one is the brother of the pirate mastermind, Rusty Blaise (J. Kenneth Campbell). He retaliates by blowing up the wife of the SEAL leader, Mike Bradley (Jim Fitzpatrick). After telling his traumatized son that his mother is "with Grandma Bradley now," Mike assembles the squad and, with the apparent blessing of his boss, Admiral Patterson (Burnell Tucker), journeys to Albania to kill the guy who killed his wife in retaliation for his killing the guy's brother. Got that?

As a 90-minute timewaster that makes lots of noise, you could do a lot worse than U.S. SEALS. The sharp cinematography, sound, and editing are a lot better than usual for a film produced this inexpensively, and the Bulgarian stunt crew is adept at staging mindless action scenes in which much stuff blows up for no reason. David Sparling's screenplay is brain-dead, no question about it, and if you're the type who gets distracted counting the number of bullets in each actor's clip or wondering how five guys with automatic pistols can wipe out an entire army of machine-gun-wielding commandos, U.S. SEALS may give you a heart attack.

But if you like a quick clip and solid performances in your direct-to-video fare, you might want to try this one out. Fitzpatrick is a handsome, suitably macho lead (with a slight resemblance to THE SENTINEL star Richard Burgi) who plays well against Campbell's hammy theatrics. Producer Mark Roper went on to direct a few Nu Image titles, whereas director Yossi Wein started out as a cinematographer before becoming a regular helmer for the company. Producer Danny Lerner, who also directed some Nu Image actioners back in the day, penned the stories for this and all five OPERATION DELTA FORCE flicks.