Saturday, July 19, 2014

Strike Force

Lane Slate (THE CAR) created STRIKE FORCE, a violent cop show about a special team of special cops that was only assigned to the most special cases, the sicker, the better. Slate thought up a real sicko for the 90-minute pilot, which aired on ABC in 1981: a nut who is using an axe to decapitate his victims. He strikes only on Tuesdays, and his six victims so far seem to be random choices, so it’s up to the Los Angeles Police Department’s Strike Force to find the connection and prevent number seven.

Slate’s teleplay leavens the grim storyline with humor and banter-filled dialogue (much of it of the racial, ethnic, and homophobic variety) among the cops, which are well-cast by executive producer Aaron Spelling and supervising producer E. Duke Vincent. Robert Stack (THE UNTOUCHABLES) is solid and stalwart, of course, Frank Murphy, recently divorced and the leader of solid family man Dorian Harewood (ROOTS: THE NEXT GENERATION), wiseguy Richard Romanus (THE SOPRANOS), rookie Michael Goodwin (THE DEAD POOL), and Trisha Noble (THE PRIVATE EYES), whose impressive bust is emphasized as often as possible by director Richard Lang.

By the way, Lang (HARRY O) does a very good job behind the camera, kicking off the pilot with an impressive pre-credits sequence showing the Strike Force blasting a pair of holdup men in sparkling slow motion. The television series was often criticized for its violent content (I loved it, of course), and Lang demonstrates right off the bat what kind of series STRIKE FORCE is going to be. The source of the serial axe killings is revealed in a chilling scene excellently performed by two guest actors that almost jumps genres from crime drama to horror.

A well-done pilot, but STRIKE FORCE had little chance of survival. ABC scheduled it against DALLAS, which was the highest-rated show in all of prime-time that season, and STRIKE FORCE was cancelled after twenty episodes. Dominic Frontiere composed the pulse-pounding theme.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Tarzan's Greatest Adventure


The first Tarzan adventure aimed at adults since Johnny Weissmuller’s earliest days under the loincloth is also the best Tarzan film ever made. And it still would be even if it didn’t contain the novelty of Sean Connery in a pre-007 role as a nasty henchman. Director John Guillermin (THE TOWERING INFERNO) and producer Sy Weintraub took the company to eastern Africa, where Guillermin helmed one exciting action sequence after another, particularly a spectacularly brutal battle between Tarzan and the main heavy on a rock cliff.

Weintraub took over the film rights to Tarzan in 1958 and made some major changes to the character. The King of the Jungle now spoke like royalty, using proper English. No more “Me Tarzan” stuff. Jane and Boy were jettisoned, and Cheta appears only for a moment. Weintraub did keep Gordon Scott, who had already played Tarzan four times. The former lifeguard certainly looked the part, was believable in the action scenes, and acquitted himself nicely in the acting department. Of course, not much acting was needed, because the screenplay by Guillermin and Berne Giler (from a story by Les Crutchfield) moves like a jet from one suspense piece to the next.

Weintraub didn’t dispense with all the Tarzan tropes. Scott fights another rubber croc, and mismatched stock footage of animals and obvious rear projection mar the realism that Guillermin worked hard to maintain. Tarzan’s opponents are four diamond thieves who open the film disguised in blackface to infiltrate a native village and steal dynamite, killing two men in the process. All four—plus a sexy moll played by Sophia Loren-lookalike Scilla Gabel (you could slice potatoes on her cheekbones—are interesting foes given full personalities by the writers and actors.

Slade (Anthony Quayle), an old foe of Tarzan’s, is the leader. He’s the only member of the group who knows where the diamond mine is hidden. His gang includes, in addition to Gabel, expert gem cutter Kreiger (Niall MacGinnis, whose performance suggests Kreiger’s Nazi background), boat pilot Dino (Al Mulock, the first face seen in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY), and fun-loving O’Bannion, played cheerfully over-the-top by Connery. Tarzan chases the gang through a jungle stocked with pythons and tarantulas and quicksand, accompanied by smart, sexy, sharp-tongued pilot Angie, played by the gorgeous Sara Shane (MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION), formerly an MGM contract player under her birth name of Elaine Sterling.

TARZAN’S GREATEST ADVENTURE was the first of the series to be released by Paramount after years at MGM and RKO. Paramount released it on a twin-bill with Jerry Lewis’ DON’T GIVE UP THE SHIP, indicating the studio didn’t realize what a terrific film it had. Scott returned for one more Tarzan film, his sixth: TARZAN THE MAGNIFICENT.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Harper Valley P.T.A.

Too often are audiences in America’s heartland given short shrift by Hollywood filmmakers, who forget that not everybody lives in Los Angeles and New York. Perhaps that’s why it took a Midwesterner—a Cincinnati-based theater owner and booking agent named Phil Borack—to produce one of the most successful independent comedies of the 1970s by appealing directly to moviegoers in the middle of the country.

Filmed in tiny Lebanon, Ohio, which boasted a population of just under 10,000 at the time, HARPER VALLEY P.T.A. is a lowbrow (to say the least) comedy based on Jeannie C. Riley’s Grammy-winning country-western single of 1968. Successful to the tune of number-one on almost every BILLBOARD chart it was eligible for, Riley’s hit (penned by Tom T. Hall) tells the story of Stella Johnson, a sexy woman derided by the hypocrites on the Harper Valley P.T.A. for wearing her dresses way too high and having too much fun for their liking. “Story songs” were popular at the time, and while “Harper Valley P.T.A.” has enough plot for a three-minute single, can it be stretched to a ninety-minute movie?

The answer is no, at least not in the hands of screenwriting team George Edwards and Barry Schneider, whose previous credit was the horror film RUBY, and television directors Ralph Senensky (STAR TREK) and Richard C. Bennett (THE GIRL FROM U.N.C.L.E.). But don’t think just because HARPER VALLEY P.T.A. is a bad movie that it didn’t hit the right chord with a lot of people. And I mean a lot.

Released to theaters independently by small distributor April Fool Productions, HARPER VALLEY P.T.A. cost about a million bucks to make and grossed $25 million. Then, when it premiered on NBC in February 1980, it was the number-one show on television. Number. One. Ratings were so high and NBC’s schedule so dismal at the time that it was a no-brainer for network president Fred Silverman to turn HARPER VALLEY P.T.A. into a weekly series. And that was a hit too, at least for a time.

Barbara Eden (I DREAM OF JEANNIE), perfect casting as a woman whose most notorious trait is wearing miniskirts, stars in a rare feature turn as the song’s heroine, Stella Johnson, and the mother of Dee (AUDREY ROSE's Susan Swift). Eden’s Ohio accent is askew, but otherwise she’s fine as the town harlot whose worst crime seems to be singing and drinking beer (Hudepohl, naturally) with her best pal Alice (Nanette Fabray) during the day.

The recipient of a nasty letter from the local PTA threatening Dee’s expulsion if Mama doesn’t tone down her act, Stella tells all the members off at the monthly meeting, exposing all their peccadilloes, such as one’s alcoholism and another’s gambling problems. Not enough revenge for their rude behavior, Stella goes after each member in episodic fashion, pulling humiliating pranks on them, which at least gives us the John Fiedler nude scene we’ve always been waiting for.

Another gag, which involves smashing a trio of pink-painted elephants through the bedroom walls of town drunk Pat Paulsen (THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR), got original director Senensky, who thought it was too dangerous, canned and replaced by the nondescript Bennett. The one PTA member to avoid Stella’s scorn is Will Newton, considered the town’s most eligible bachelor even though he’s played by Ronny Cox and not, I dunno, Lyle Waggoner.

Considering the film’s success in theaters and in prime time, it’s interesting to wonder how big the single-camera sitcom version of HARPER VALLEY P.T.A. could have been. It was initially planned as a one-hour comedy produced by THE DUKES OF HAZZARD’s Cy Chermak and would presumably have followed along that show’s lines (though likely without the car chases). A Writer’s Guild strike and pre-production tinkering eventually transformed it into a half-hour sitcom (with laugh track) produced by GILLIGAN’S ISLAND’s Sherwood Schwartz.

When the series finally debuted in January 1981—not quite a year after the film’s blockbuster airing—it also became a rare hit for NBC. But a second-season title change to HARPER VALLEY, a new character played by THE MISADVENTURES OF SHERIFF LOBO’s Mills Watson, and likely the end of a fad drove the series to cancellation after thirty episodes.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Asteroid Vs Earth

Like father, like son. The director of ASTEROID VS. EARTH, another ridiculous disaster movie from The Asylum, is Christopher Ray (billed here as Christopher Douglas-Olen Ray), whose father Fred Olen Ray began directing schlocky horror, action, and science fiction movies in the 1980s and amassed over one hundred film credits.

Most of Fred’s films aren’t very good, but at their best, they exhibited a zippy pace, a sense of humor and fun, and game cast members that read like a Who’s Who of out-of-work Turner Classic Movie actors. Suffice to say, ASTEROID VS. EARTH by Fred Olen Ray’s son exhibits none of these traits.

The screenplay by Adam Lipsius is certainly fiction, but there’s very little science in it. The plot revolves around a plan to explode nuclear weapons in certain spots under the Pacific Ocean that will cause massive earthquakes and move Earth out of its orbit and the path of a massive asteroid.

This brilliant plan is the brainchild of a bratty college kid (Charles Byun) who orders around an Army general played by Robert Davi (LICENSE TO KILL). I’m sure Davi felt silly enough with Steven Seagal’s swept-back toupee taped to his head, but to be standing in full dress uniform asking advice from a condescending kid about how to stop a rampaging asteroid...well, the check cleared, right?

As usual with these low-budget thrillers, the reach of the visual effects department far exceeds its grasp. The amateurish CGI in no way sells the film’s outlandish premise. Neither do the stars, which include WAYNE’S WORLD sexpot Tia Carerre as a deep-sea geophysicist and BAYWATCH’S Jason Brooks as the executive officer of a nuclear submarine sent to blast the tectonic plates.

Even the makeup is bad in this movie. The Fuller’s earth slapped on the crewmen’s faces makes them look like they were too lazy to shave, not dirty and sweaty.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Never Take Sweets From A Stranger

Hammer Films, best known for producing low-brow comedies, action movies, and (of course) horror films, made a rare foray into mature drama with this adaptation of Roger Garis’ play THE PONY TRAP.

Titled NEVER TAKE SWEETS FROM A STRANGER in the United Kingdom and given a more appropriately American retitling by Columbia Pictures, Cyril Frankel’s film, written for the screen by John Hunter (THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER), is a startling, engrossing, intelligent thriller about a monster more horrendous than any other Hammer brought to the screen.

The subject of NEVER TAKE CANDY FROM A STRANGER, as can be surmised from its title, is child molestation. It’s important to note that nobody was making films about pedophilia in 1959, but Hammer sure did, despite James Carreras’ assertion that his company didn’t make “message films.”

Peter Carter (Patrick Allen) and his family move to a small Canadian town where he has been hired as the new principal at the local school. Their lives are almost immediately turned upside down after Peter and Sally’s (Gwen Watford) nine-year-old daughter Jean (Janina Faye) mentions that she and her friend Lucille (Estelle Brody) visited the elderly Clarence Olderberry (Felix Aylmer), who asked the girls to strip naked and dance for him in exchange for candy.

Jean’s parents report the crime to the authorities and are shocked that police captain Hammond (Budd Knapp) suggests they drop the case. The rest of the town rises up against the Carters as well. Not because Jean’s accusations are false—everyone is well aware of the elder Olderberry’s perversions—but because the Olderberrys are rich and powerful and hold the town in its sway, no one is willing to risk the family’s wrath by joining the Carters’ cause.

Part suspense, part courtroom drama, and part social commentary, NEVER TAKE CANDY FROM A STRANGER benefits mightily from Frankel’s sensitive direction, sharp camerawork by future director Freddie Francis (his first job for Hammer), and fine acting by a low-wattage cast, notably sweet little Faye (totally believable), MacDonald Parke as a sympathetic judge, and particularly Aylmer’s silent, creepy turn as a pathetic monster. It doesn’t hold back clear through from the evocative opening titles playing over a shot of a child’s swing right to the gut-punch of an ending. And even though the subject matter could easily have been exploited, Frankel tells a tasteful tale that must have astonished the few people who saw it in 1960. No one left the arthouse with a smile on his or her face.

Being a Hammer production, Black Park turns up as a woodsy location. Casting less-than-familiar faces makes the small-town characters more believable, though Allen (and his wonderfully redolent voice) did become something of a Hammer star (THE DEVIL RIDES OUT). The film wasn’t a hit on either side of the Atlantic, but collected good reviews except from those critics predisposed to dislike Hammer no matter what.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Wrestling Women Vs. The Aztec Mummy

Thank Mexico for one of cinema's great titles: WRESTLING WOMEN VS. THE AZTEC MUMMY. The movie does have wrestling women and it does have an Aztec mummy.

Buxom lady wrestlers Loretta Venus (Lorena Velazquez) and Golden Ruby (Elizabeth Campbell) are back in this direct sequel to DOCTOR OF DOOM. It even recycles stock footage from DOCTOR OF DOOM, resulting in obvious continuity errors involving Velazquez’s changing hairstyles.

Also returning are Armando Silvestre and Chucho Salinas as Loretta’s and Ruby’s cop boyfriends. All four become embroiled in a deadly plot masterminded by an Oriental villain known as the Black Dragon (Mexican actor Ramon Bugarini), who’s leaving a trail of corpses in his pursuit of three pieces of a codex that legend says points toward a hidden Aztec treasure buried in the ruins. Guarding the treasure is a mummy that can transform into a vampire bat! Disappointingly, director Rene Cardona gives the mummy-bat less play than an amazing idea like that deserves.

Cardona and American distributor K. Gordon Murray’s trademark lunacy carries over from DOCTOR OF DOOM in its dialogue and fight scenes, but a wrestling match that goes on for what feels like forever and a mid-section flashback consisting of footage from an unrelated (bigger-budgeted) movie sink AZTEC MUMMY before it ever reaches its anticipated climax, which turns out to be not much of a battle at all. In other words, if you come to this movie looking for wrestling women to fight an Aztec mummy, you’re gonna be disappointed.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Favorite Son

Steve Sohmer, a former motion picture and television executive with Columbia and NBC, respectively, adapted his own excellent novel FAVORITE SON for a six-hour miniseries (approximately 250 minutes plus commercials) that aired on NBC (natch) at the end of October 1988. It earned an impressive Nielsen rating and was later cut down to just under two hours for an unwatchable videocassette release titled TARGET: FAVORITE SON that loses literally more than half its original footage.

Sohmer’s sprawling teleplay is extremely faithful to the book, even using dialogue pulled straight from the pages. The plot revolves around Terry Fallon (L.A. LAW’s Harry Hamlin), a handsome, charismatic first-term U.S. Senator from Texas, who is shot and wounded on live television during an assassination attempt on Octavio Martinez, the leader of the Contras in Nicaragua. A week away from the national convention (the party is unmentioned in the book and the film), President Sam Baker (James Whitmore) is sagging in the polls and is being pushed by party leaders to dump Vice President Dan Eastman (Mitchell Ryan) from the ticket and select Fallon, the country’s new golden boy, as his running mate.

Curiously, FBI head O’Brien (Kenneth McMillan) assigns only two men to investigate the Martinez murder: crusty, cynical, three-months-from-retirement Nick Mancuso (Robert Loggia) and his rookie partner David Ross (Lance Guest). Obviously, somebody somewhere doesn’t want the case solved—a reality the self-loathing Mancuso understands from the start—but the idealistic Ross is dedicated to it. That Martinez was injected with the AIDS virus while undergoing a physical at Walter Reed two days before his death is knowledge President Baker’s two most powerful allies, Chief of Staff Lou Brenner (John Mahoney) and CIA Director William Reiker (Ronny Cox), want to keep under wraps, but the unpredictable Mancuso (whose first name was Joe in the book) threatens to thwart their plans.

At the center of every subplot is Sally Crain (CROCODILE DUNDEE’s Linda Kozlowski, so perfectly cast I wouldn’t be surprised if Sohmer wrote the character for her), formerly a journalism student, a Peace Corps volunteer in Central America, and now Fallon’s press aide and the Frankenstein who created him. She’s also his lover, despite the existence of Fallon’s invalid wife locked away in a Cleveland convent. It’s a tough role, due to the many faces Sally wears, and Kozlowski shines in what is undoubtedly the best part she ever had.

Sex, violence, betrayal, intrigue, power—the backbone of a salaciously entertaining political thriller is here. That it originally aired days before the 1988 Presidential election, which saw Dan Quayle vault into the Vice Presidency, adds some pop to the story (four years later, Quayle was almost pushed out of office before the 1992 convention, just as Dan Eastman is here).

Director Jeff Bleckner juggles the many storylines and speaking parts with great professionalism. Performances are strong with character parts perfectly tailored for the veteran actors who inhabit them. Loggia is outstanding in the miniseries’ sharpest arc. He’s such a scene-stealer that he was spun off into his own weekly series, MANCUSO, FBI, which earned him an Emmy nomination (Bleckner and FAVORITE SON cinematographer Bradford May directed episodes).