Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Kelly's Heroes

It’s ragged and overlong, but adventure movies rarely come more entertaining than KELLY’S HEROES.

Clint Eastwood reunited with his WHERE EAGLES DARE director Brian G. Hutton to star in this action-packed World War II romp that’s a little bit M*A*S*H (which came out a couple of months earlier) and a little bit THE DIRTY DOZEN. Nearly two-and-a-half hours long, Hutton’s caper flick, written by Troy Kennedy Martin (THE ITALIAN JOB), offers an engaging cast of character actors, spectacular scenery shot in Yugoslavia, breezy pacing, and a terrific sense of humor.

Clint is Kelly, a former lieutenant and now private who learns about $16 million in Nazi gold stashed away in a French bank behind enemy lines. With three unchaperoned days looming while the C.O. takes his newly confiscated yacht to Paris, Kelly assembles a squad of misfits and plans the heist. Most of them are played by reliable “hey, that guy” character actors with bigger roles taken by Telly Savalas (fantastic and funny as gruff platoon leader Big Joe), Donald Sutherland (also in M*A*S*H) as anachronistic hippie Oddball, and standup comic Don Rickles as wisecracking scrounger Crapgame.

The irreverence sometimes falls flat—an awkward sequence of Sutherland’s Sherman tanks wiping out a village of German soldiers while blasting Hank Williams Jr. comes to mind—but Hutton generally creates a nice balance of humor and action. And what setpieces—real airplanes, real Jeeps, real explosions, and hundreds of real extras create a real sense of scale. The big heist is engineered by Hutton and second unit director Andrew Marton (BEN-HUR) like a Swiss watch, and the battle sequence that opens the picture would serve as the climax to most war pictures.

Carroll O’Connor hams it up while testing out some Archie Bunker mannerisms with Gavin MacLeod (THE LOVE BOAT), Stuart Margolin (THE ROCKFORD FILES), Jeff Morris (THE BLUES BROTHERS), George Savalas (KOJAK), Harry Dean Stanton (REPO MAN), Dick Davalos (EAST OF EDEN), Hal Buckley, Perry Lopez (CHINATOWN), Dick Balduzzi, Len Lesser (SEINFELD), and Tom Troupe adding support. Lalo Schifrin composed the score (which spoofs Morricone at one point to play off of Eastwood’s recent fame in Leone westerns), though he might like to forget the flowers-in-your-hair theme “Burning Bridges” he penned with Mike Curb.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Bold Ones: The New Doctors, "In Dreams They Run"

THE BOLD ONES: THE NEW DOCTORS
“In Dreams They Run”
December 13, 1970
Starring E.G. Marshall, David Hartman, John Saxon
Guest-Starring Joanne Linville, Arch Johnson, Lincoln Kilpatrick, Ella Edwards, Jason Karpf, Robbie MacDonald, Del Moore, Anne Whitfield, Kathleen Freeman, Eve Brent, Cecile Ozorio, Alyscia Maxwell, Christine Nelson
Theme: Dave Grusin
Executive Producer: Cy Chermak
Producer: Joel Rogosin
Associate Producer: Jay Benson
Creators: Richard Landau, Paul Mason, and Steven Bochco
Teleplay: Don Tait and Sandy Stern
Story: Don Tait
Director: Jerry Lewis

THE BOLD ONES was something of a bold innovation in network television when it debuted on NBC in 1969. It was actually three separate drama series that rotated in the same timeslot: THE NEW DOCTORS, THE LAWYERS, and THE PROTECTORS, all broadcast under the umbrella title of THE BOLD ONES. The Universal production was successful with viewers (though THE PROTECTORS lasted just one season and was replaced by the brilliant THE SENATOR, the most critically acclaimed of all the BOLD ONES shows), and spawned imitations, such as FOUR-IN-ONE, THE MEN, and most famously THE NBC SUNDAY MYSTERY MOVIE.

THE NEW DOCTORS was the only BOLD ONES series to last all four seasons; in fact, it was the only BOLD ONES series in its fourth season. It starred E.G. Marshall (THE DEFENDERS) as Dr. David Craig, the owner and administrator of the state-of-the-art David Craig Institute of New Medicine located in Southern California. Co-starring with Marshall were lanky David Hartman, who was coming off one season on THE VIRGINIAN, as Dr. Paul Hunter and busy film and television actor John Saxon in his first and only regular series role as Dr. Ted Stuart, Craig’s chief surgeon.

“In Dreams They Run,” the fifth of eight episodes aired during THE NEW DOCTORS’ second season, is significant because it was directed by Jerry Lewis. It was only the second time Lewis had directed a television episode and the first one in which he didn’t appear (Lewis guest-starred in and directed a 1965 BEN CASEY). It comes as no surprise the plot of “In Dreams They Run” involves muscular dystrophy, a disease Lewis had been passionate about since the 1950s (the first national telethon was in 1966).

As you might expect, Lewis pours on the schmaltz in certain scenes, particularly one in which two boys with MS agree to be friends with each other after sharing the physical feats they can no longer do. The boy, Davey Sorenson (Jason Karpf, presumably a real victim of MS), is the son of blue-collar parents played by Arch Johnson and Joanne Linville, who are having trouble coming to grips with their son’s disease. A parallel plot finds Gil Dodds (Lincoln Kilpatrick), a golf pro friend of Stuart’s, afflicted with a muscular ailment that could keep him from competing in the Masters.

Written by veteran television writer Don Tait (THE VIRGINIAN) and neophyte Sandy Stern (IRONSIDE) with some sensitivity, the episode concentrates on its guest stars with Saxon, Hartman, and Marshall as supporting actors in their own show. Which is as it should be, since the drama is about how Dodds’ and Davey’s bodies are failing them, not how it affects their doctors. Lewis does a masterful job coaxing strong performances from everyone, even the young, inexperienced ones.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Samson And The 7 Miracles Of The World

Maciste fights Mongols in 13th century China, although he’s called Samson in the cut released by American International Pictures in the United States as SAMSON AND THE 7 MIRACLES OF THE WORLD.

How could a distinctly Roman character suddenly appear in China? Because producers Luigi Carpentieri and Ermanno Donati had just made MARCO POLO (starring Rory Calhoun) and figured it would be financially prudent to recycle the sets, costumes, extras, and Japanese-born leading lady Yoko Tani for another picture, and, hey, Gordon Scott was already in town finishing up what would be known in the U.S. as GOLIATH AND THE VAMPIRES. European actors play most of the main Asian characters, but in for a penny, in for a pound, sayeth the viewer.

We first see Samson jogging along and discovering a teenage boy trapped in a tiger pit. After killing the Mongols who put the boy there (he shakes the tree they’re hiding in) and a (stuffed, glassy-eyed) tiger, Samson brings the boy (Chu Lai Chit), actually Prince Tai Sung, back to a monastery that also acts as a base of operations for the rebels fighting against Great Khan Garak (Leonardo Severini) and his moll Liu Tai (Helene Chanel). Samson agrees to help the rebels by teaching them to fight. And, yes, obviously a beautiful princess (Tani) is involved.

Scott acquitted himself as an actor fairly well in his six Tarzan adventures, and he’s pretty good as Samson too. His voice is dubbed by someone else (New York’s Titra Studios dubbed many of AIP’s Italian pickups), but he looks good in his costume of red shorts and sandals, and he handles the action and stunts perfectly. Samson gets to do some cool feats, including stopping a chariot pulled by six powerful horses and causing an earthquake to escape from an underground tomb. Riccardo Freda (THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK) directs with precision with Mario Bava (BLACK SUNDAY) chipping in with photography and special effects.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Star Trek Into Darkness

J.J. Abrams’ 2009 version of STAR TREK, featuring hot young actors in the iconic roles previously essayed by William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, etc., quickly became the highest-grossing TREK movie of all time, even with box office adjusted for inflation (believe it or not, the maligned STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE is second on the list). So of course Paramount commissioned a sequel and rehired the main cast, Abrams, and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, along with Damon Lindelof, who worked with Abrams on LOST.

STAR TREK 2009, a brash shoot-’em-up that barely resembled STAR TREK (it’s no surprise Disney tabbed Abrams to direct its first STAR WARS movie), managed to be a fun space opera, due mostly to its dedicated cast and a reverence for its ancestor. STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, on the other hand, is neither fun nor operatic, and kicks the original series right in the teeth by bringing back one of its most famous villains without understanding what it is about him that makes him such a beloved figure in TREK lore.

I’m so angry with this movie, I can barely write about it. So this will be short. STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS (whatever that means) is an abomination beginning with the absurd opening sequence (the Enterprise flies underwater?) to the embarrassing aping of STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN’s emotional climax and the remarkable news that Dr. McCoy has created a cure for death that earned him an unwanted five-year mission into outer space. The plot makes zero sense, insults both its iconic characters (why did the writers turn Uhura into a nagging girlfriend?) and the loyal audience, and presents no new ideas in, literally, a universe full of them.

In spite of the awful script and inept direction (Abrams lens-flares the shit out of this movie), the cast mostly comes off looking good. If I learned Karl Urban, who plays McCoy, was the illegitimate son of DeForest Kelley, I’d believe it. Quinto’s Spock is grossly out of character, but the actor maintains some dignity. Pine is let down by a script that rehashes James Kirk’s character arc from STAR TREK. Benedict Cumberbatch is front and center in one of the film’s worst moments — when he reveals his name is Khan — which Abrams holds for a beat as if it’s Moses delivering the Commandments, just to cut to Kirk not giving a shit because he doesn’t know who Khan is. Sure, we do, but Abrams is messing with the sanctity of the narrative just to get a rise out the audience (to whom the revelation is no big shakes anyway).

The plot basically has Kirk trying to avenge the murder of his mentor, Christopher Pike (Greenwood, again turning in good work as the character), by chasing Khan to the Klingon homeworld (why is Khan there? Who knows?) and discovering a plot by renegade right-wing Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) to start an interplanetary war because...ah, because J.J. Abrams, that’s why. It’s the only explanation that makes any sense.

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS has no big ideas, no hope, no originality, and no joy. It does have nice sets and colorful costumes. It has good actors who have squeezed into their characters quite snugly (though I wish Simon Pegg’s Scotty were less of a buffoon). It also signifies no future for this franchise, not so long as Abrams, Orci, Kurtzman, and Lindelof are involved.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Chris Pine (STAR TREK’s new Captain Kirk) follows Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and Ben Affleck as the fourth actor to play Tom Clancy’s right-wing book hero Jack Ryan on the big screen. Paramount had little faith in it, burying it with a January release that opened in fourth place at the box office. Perhaps the studio thought the plot was too complicated (it may explain why they placed a “New York City” caption over an establishing shot of the Statue of Liberty) or maybe it questioned the size of Pine’s or Ryan’s fanbase.

As far as his friends, bosses, colleagues, and girlfriend Cathy (Keira Knightly) know, young Jack Ryan, a Ph.D. in Economics who was wounded while serving as a U.S. Marine in Afghanistan, works a steady but dull analyst job on Wall Street. As only his handler Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) knows, Ryan is also working for the CIA, keeping an eye on financial transactions around the world that could indicate terrorist activity.

One red flag is Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh), a Russian broker who Ryan believes may be planning to sink the U.S. dollar in anticipation of a terrorist attack on American soil. Frankly, the whats and the whys of the story by Adam Cozad and David Koepp (SPIDER-MAN) went over my head, and I didn’t really care. I did care about some of the dumber moments, such as the response by Cathy, whom Knightly plays as needy and a little crazy, to Ryan’s admission of his CIA job.

Pine is good, convincing as an intellect, a nervous amateur thrust into an extraordinary situation, and an athletic man of action. Even better is Costner, whose natural charisma has aged into gravitas that has allowed him to settle into mentor roles. England substitutes nicely for everywhere from Moscow to Michigan, and the direction by Branagh (THOR) is as solid as his performance as the baddie, even if Russian bad guys were played out as action-movie foes long ago. On that note, JACK RYAN’s action beats and setpieces are by the book, right down to Cathy’s inevitable kidnapping — hardly a spoiler for a movie like this.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Tightrope


Clint Eastwood gives Dirty Harry a kinky twist in TIGHTROPE, an underrated psychological thriller that forced critics to reevaluate his acting skills. While Eastwood was no stranger to films with unusual sexual relationships (see PLAY MISTY FOR ME or THE BEGUILED, for instance), TIGHTROPE places his Wes Block into some of New Orleans’ seediest settings — not as an outsider investigating a case, but as an active participant in the S&M trade.

Although TIGHTROPE, written by Richard Tuggle (ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ), who also directed (or maybe “directed” — I’ll get to that) the film, probably seemed risky to Warner Brothers, as long as Clint was playing a cop, his fans didn’t care. TIGHTROPE opened at number one at the box office in August 1984 and stayed there for four weeks. Except for SUDDEN IMPACT and ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN, it was Eastwood’s biggest hit of the 1980s.

So Block is investigating a series of strangulation murders where the victims are beautiful prostitutes. The twist is that the victims are not exactly unknown to Block, who frequently uses their services after his two young daughters are in snug and asleep in their beds. Worse for Wes is that the killer seems to be aware of his penchant for kinky sex in the French Quarter and targeting the hookers Block has been with. Occasionally, Tuggle drops hints that Block may even be the killer, but it’s a weak red herring.

Speaking of Tuggle, he’s more or less a director in name only on TIGHTROPE. Eastwood, who was also a producer of the film, grew disenchanted with the rookie director after the first day. He liked Tuggle and liked Tuggle’s script, so he worked out an agreement where Tuggle would be on the set and call “Action,” but Clint was calling the shots. TIGHTROPE is a police procedural — not an action picture like the Dirty Harrys — but the murder plot, as suspenseful as it is, is secondary to the character study of a cop trying to compartmentalize his family, his job, and his sexual peccadilloes and seeing the lines blur.

Eastwood is terrific, particularly in scenes with Genevieve Bujold (COMA), also very good as an assertive, intelligent rape counselor who Block gets involved with. Having grown comfortable with anonymous kinky sex with strangers, Block seems flummoxed at entering a relationship with a well-rounded, strong woman. Rebecca Perle (SAVAGE STREETS), Jamie Rose (LADE BLUE), Randi Brooks, Margaret Howell, and Regina Richardson play victims. The killer is Marco St. John (TREME), a New Orleans native still active in films and television thirty years after TIGHTROPE played to packed houses.


Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Savage Streets

Linda Blair, then 25 and at the height of her career in drive-in movies, is Brenda, a high school delinquent who smokes, curses, shows her principal (John Vernon, who is hilarious in a small role) disrespect, and gets into a fight with a bitchy cheerleader. She’s really a good kid, even though she’s the leader of a girl gang called the Satins, and she dotes on her deafmute younger sister Heather (Linnea Quigley, who’s actually a year older than Blair).

Also roaming the high school are the Scars, a quartet of dope-dealing thugs led by Jake (Robert Dryer, possibly a replacement for THE WARRIORS’ Michael Beck), who wears a razor blade as an earring. To retaliate for the Satins’ stealing their convertible as a prank, the Scars rape Heather and leave her lying in a coma on the locker room floor. As if the assault itself wasn’t brutal enough, director Danny Steinmann (FRIDAY THE 13TH: A NEW BEGINNING) stacks the deck higher by shooting it as graphically as he can and still pull an R rating and directing Quigley to play the character as the world’s sweetest, most innocent young girl.

Steinmann’s feature-film career is short — just four, including the horror movie THE UNSEEN and the hardcore HIGH RISE — but all his movies are interesting. One reason is his dedication in pushing the subject matter as far as he could; his FRIDAY THE 13TH features the series’ highest body count and most graphic sexual content. His movies are also consistent in the amount of backstrage drama surrounding them. Steinmann took his name off THE UNSEEN, and SAVAGE STREETS suffered starts and stops in production, including the replacement of original director Tom DeSimone (HELL NIGHT). Producer John Strong fired Steinmann during post-production of SAVAGE STREETS and handled the film’s scoring and reshoots himself.

Although their film is a sleazier, rougher, lower budgeted clone of DEATH WISH, Steinmann and co-writer Norman Yonemoto (Strong apparently did a lot of rewriting on the set) aim high, fleshing out the warm relationship between Brenda and Heather, giving one of the Scars a guilt complex, and showing Brenda sympathetically in scenes with her mother and with her English teacher. So when the violence ramps up and Brenda takes her revenge (armed with a crossbow and a fetching skintight leather outfit), our sympathies are clearly with her.

Vernon (DIRTY HARRY) nearly steals the picture as a foul-mouthed and perpetually angry principal (“You’re a tough little bitch, aren’t ya? I like that.”), but it’s Dryer’s repulsive, convincing psycho and Blair’s tough-talking girl of action who are SAVAGE STREETS’ yin and yang. The bloody, fiery climax involving them is a sure crowdpleaser and offers some of the film’s crudest and most quotable dialogue. Debra Blee (THE BEACH GIRLS) plays one of the Satins (who disappears during the film after Blee had to leave during a production delay), and Rebecca Perle, who played a sympathetic hooker opposite Clint Eastwood in TIGHTROPE, engages Blair in some entertaining catfights.