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Brenda Starr (1976, Mel Stuart)

It’d be nice if there were anything good about Brenda Starr. Stuart’s direction is–at its best–mediocre. It’s always predictable, it’s sometimes bad. He has familiar patterns–over the shoulder, close-up, walking two shot. He repeats them, every time with a bad cut from James T. Heckert and Melvin Shapiro. Sometimes the sound doesn’t match, always when cutting to one of Stuart’s awkwardly framed one-shots of lead Jill St. John. They’re hard to explain–St. John doesn’t get close-ups the same way the other actors in the scene do, instead something like a medium shot with empty space around her. St. John doesn’t do anything with that space; she just delivers her poorly written dialogue like everyone else.

George Kirgo’s teleplay has St. John’s Brenda Starr a headstrong reporter who runs into dangerous situations then waits around for one of the guys to save her. One of the guys is cheesy TV news anchor Jed Allan. He’s in love with St. John–or at least a very intense lust–but she’s still waiting for her mysterious Basil to return. Basil’s not a character in the movie, rather the source comic strip. He gets a “cameo” here in a framed picture, but he’s a MacGuffin. Not sure why Kirgo thought Allan’s news anchor would be a better rescuer for St. John. Other than if her lost love returned, St. John might have to have some character stuff. She gets none. It’s a TV pilot where the title character has no character setup–other than she’s waiting for her mystery man but is willing to mock seduce for news scoops. The rest of the cast doesn’t really get any character depth either, but… if the thing’s called Brenda Starr, shouldn’t it be about her? Or at least, shouldn’t she be doing things?

Because St. John works entirely at the behest of editor Sorrell Booke. He’s apparently supposed to be a lovable boss, but Booke can barely get out Kirgo’s attempts at comic strip dialogue–he writes banter like it’s a middle school skit–and the rest of the time he’s just chastising St. John for not scooping Allan on a story. Except it’s immediately after St. John tries to give Booke a story, he refuses, then Allan scoops them. Maybe if St. John and Booke had an ounce of chemistry–or better dialogue or better direction or better production values–it might be better.

But it’s not. It’s bad.

St. John’s investigating odious rich guy Victor Buono. He’s sick and in L.A. getting treatment. Eventually, St. John’s investigation takes her to Brazil. There she meets cute rich Brazilian guy Joel Fabiani. He takes her out to dinner, where he gets further along than Allan, which is fine–Fabiani at least gives a likable performance. Not even St. John manages to be likable throughout. She’s never unlikable, but she also never gets any sympathy for her participation. She never rises above the material. Someone needs to rise about this material. Anyone.

No one does. In fact, some people get worse as it goes along.

The Brazil stuff looks like it was shot either in California or a sound stage. There’s this really bad action sequence on a river where at one point it looks like they’re in a stream not two feet deep. Production values aren’t good on Brenda Starr; Stuart doesn’t have any tricks up his sleeves to compensate either. It starts charmless, it ends charmless. In between there’s some bad acting, some mediocre acting, some bad lines, some oogling of St. John (the first act has most of it), and some lousy editing.

There’s even weak Lalo Schifrin music, which is maybe the saddest part. He’s hacking out a personality-free TV score.

The biggest compliment for Brenda Starr is Buono’s performance is nowhere near as bad as his first scene suggests it will be.

All together, sure, the script’s bad, but Stuart’s direction doesn’t get anything out of the actors, not even when they’re obviously better than the material. Maybe if Stuart were excited about the material? Like if he really embraced the crappy attempts at comic strip banter only on TV? But he doesn’t. He’s bored by it. Rightly so, sure, but he should be able to pretend.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Mel Stuart; teleplay by George Kirgo, based on a story by Kirgo and Ira Barmak and the comic strip by Dale Messick; director of photography, Ted Voigtlander; edited by James T. Heckert and Melvin Shapiro; music by Lalo Schifrin; produced by Bob Larson; aired by the American Broadcasting Company.

Starring Jill St. John (Brenda Starr), Jed Allan (Roger Randall), Sorrell Booke (A.J. Livwright), Victor Buono (Lance O’Toole), Joel Fabiani (Carlos Vegas), BarBara Luna (Luisa Santamaria), Marcia Strassman (Kentucky Smith), Arthur Roberts (Dax Leander), and Tabi Cooper (Hank O’Hare).


The Night Stalker (1972, John Llewellyn Moxey)

The Night Stalker moves with ruthless efficiency. It’s a TV movie, so it’s got a mandated short runtime–seventy-four minutes; Richard Matheson’s teleplay has a brisk pace, something director Moxey embraces. There’s rarely a dull moment in The Night Stalker. It’s always about waiting for the next bad thing to happen.

The film opens with lead Darren McGavin alone, “narrating” from micro-cassette recorder playback while either transcribing or copyediting. He’s alone, a resigned look on his face, as he lays out the ground situation. McGavin’s a reporter in Las Vegas who used to be a big city newspaperman. His editor, Simon Oakland, can’t stand him and resents the paper’s (unseen) owner liking him. McGavin’s just been called back from vacation, though it’s almost impossible to imagine what he’s like when he’s not reporting. Matheson and Moxey are able to keep Night Stalker lean by not going too much into McGavin’s back story right off. It comes out later, in pieces, but the exposition is for McGavin’s story.

Someone is killing women, draining them of their blood through wounds on the neck. Every couple days, a new victim, all evidence pointing to someone who thinks he’s a vampire. The cops don’t want to hear it. Night Stalker’s pacing is a little weird because, even though the cops have all the same evidence as McGavin, their interpretation of it is left out. Like I said, it’s lean.

It also lets Night Stalker keep most of the cops are bad guys. Claude Akins’s strong-arming sheriff and Kent Smith’s slimey D.A. spend more time hounding McGavin than trying to solve their cases, going so far as to ignore coroner’s reports and common sense. Ralph Meeker’s the local FBI agent who likes McGavin and keeps him involved (though, actually, it’s McGavin who brings the story to Meeker initially).

McGavin’s got a lady friend, Carol Lynley, who works at a casino (just like all the victims). Night Stalker takes a while to establish the extent of their relationship; she gets introduced in the first act as one of McGavin’s sources. He’s got a handful, including Elisha Cook Jr. in a nice little cameo, but Lynley and Meeker are big ones. Eventually, Lynley gets to be the one who reveals some of McGavin’s back story. He’s been run out of every major city (and major city newspaper) because he’s just too intrepid for his own good. It provides some context, even if the film doesn’t exactly need it.

Because The Night Stalker has McGavin and it doesn’t need much else. Matheson doesn’t give McGavin a lot of speeches–he’s got a lot of dialogue, because he’s always doing his job–but he’s not a crusading journalist. He’s just trying to get the story (and a big enough one to get out of Las Vegas), but his ego’s always in check. The most impressive scenes, at least in terms of Moxey’s direction, are the action ones where McGavin is a bystander. He’s always active–dutifully taking pictures–while madness ensues around him.

There are two big action scenes in Night Stalker. Moxey leverages the film’s mundane realism against the fantastical action to outstanding result. When it’s a smaller action sequence, Moxey’s fine but it’s just a TV movie; the big action sequences, however, they’re beautifully choreographed madness. With McGavin taking it all in, not taking cover, but standing a step or two back from it all.

McGavin’s performance is phenomenal. Even when it is one of those duller moments–eventually McGavin takes to driving the Strip, waiting for the police scanner, waiting for the something in the story to break–and McGavin gives those filler moments weight. No small feat given Bob Cobert’s too jazzy for its own good music.

Technically, The Night Stalker can’t keep up with McGavin’s performance or Matheson’s writing. Michel Hugo’s photography is fine for the newspaper procedural and rather competent for the night exteriors, but he can’t make the finale work. Not the day-for-night, which he really should be able to accomplish, but then not the horror-suspense aspects either. The last deficiencies seem more like director Moxey’s problem–even when Night Stalker’s perfectly well-directed, it’s perfectly well-directed for a TV movie. Moxey’s ambitions are in check.

Akins and Smith are great foils. Oakland less so just because he’s not as much a part of it. He’s underwritten to make room. Meeker’s real good. Lynley’s solid, then gets better as the film progresses and she gets exposition responsibilities. The best performances in Night Stalker are the ones with a detached sadness. Matheson bakes the depressing reality of Las Vegas–so the location exteriors matter–into the film. Long hours, late nights, low pay, conditional happiness. It’s one hell of a downer.

McGavin is right at home in it, whether he wants to be there or not, whether anyone else wants him there or not. He wears a straw pork pie hat, a pinstrip suit, and an exhausted expression, but he’s full of energy. The Night Stalker succeeds thanks to the script and the competent filmmaking, but it excels because it’s McGavin in the lead. He’s so good. It’s like Matheson wrote the thing for McGavin’s cadence and his resigned exasperation.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Llewellyn Moxey; teleplay by Richard Matheson, based on a story by Jeffrey Grant Rice; director of photography, Michel Hugo; edited by Desmond Marquette; music by Bob Cobert; produced by Dan Curtis; aired by the American Broadcasting Company.

Starring Darren McGavin (Carl Kolchak), Carol Lynley (Gail Foster), Simon Oakland (Vincenzo), Ralph Meeker (Bernie Jenks), Claude Akins (Sheriff Butcher), Charles McGraw (Chief Masterson), Kent Smith (D.A. Paine), Elisha Cook Jr. (Mickey Crawford), Stanley Adams (Fred Hurley), Larry Linville (Dr. Makurji), Jordan Rhodes (Dr. O’Brien), and Barry Atwater (Janos Skorzeny).


Hammer, Slammer, & Slade (1990, Mark Schultz)

Hammer, Slammer, & Slade is a television pilot spin-off of a movie (I’m Gonna Git You Sucka). It has the same writer as the movie–Keenan Ivory Wayans–and much of the movie’s cast. The three “leads” all return from the movie–Bernie Casey is Slade, Jim Brown is Slammer, and Isaac Hayes is Hammer. Slade, Slammer, & Hammer does sound terrible, but it’s the more accurate order as far as plot importance goes for the characters.

And then there’s Eriq La Salle. He’s playing the Wayans part from the movie, but a rookie cop for TV instead of the film’s war hero. Frankly, he’s in it too much. La Salle’s got two modes–passive and even more passive. He can’t figure out the part and director Schultz is no help. Hammer, Slammer, & Slade is often hilarious. But it’s never because of Schultz. His direction is an unmitigated disaster.

Harsh adjective, but there’s no reason this pilot shouldn’t have been magic. Except it’s not magic. And it’s not even Schultz’s fault; he’s just not the right guy to do this thing. Because this thing is a spoof of an eighties cop procedural, seventies blaxploitation pictures, with three–ahem, “older”– genre superstar leads, and an often deft script from Wayans. But Wayans’s jokes aren’t paced right for the forty-seven minute pilot–right, Hammer, Slammer, & Slade is a pilot for an hour-long action comedy show. Back when it was shopped around in 1990–spoiler–it didn’t sell. Because it wasn’t time yet.

It also doesn’t help the film stock–that standard eighties drama film stock–used on the pilot doesn’t fit the content at all. Especially not with Schultz’s bad composition of set pieces. He’s never good, but he gets noticeably worse on the set pieces. Because he can’t direct the comedy.

The first act is La Salle’s cop mentor (also blaxploitation star Ron O’Neal) getting framed and La Salle going to Casey for help. It’s a great time for the character focus to pass off because La Salle’s too tedious. The show’s called Hammer, Slammer, & Slade, not the The Guy From the Movie Didn’t Come Back. It’s about Casey, Brown, and Hayes.

The getting the band back together takes way too long. It eventually pays off. But it takes too long.

Another timing issue is how long the talking scenes go on. Sure, all the actors get some cool posturing, but then it just keeps going. So either Wayans wrote terrible scene transitions or someone told the actors to just ad lib and hope for a quotable gem. During the second act, it gets annoying. The pilot has these illustrated transitions for commercial breaks–which are awesome–but when a scene is bad, you just sit and hope for it to go to illustration instead of it not stopping. It’s the same series of boring shots from Schultz and bad cuts from Stan Allen.

The editing is real bad, partially because Schultz clearly can’t get consistent deliveries from the actors. Just in conversation.

So it’s kind of rough going for a while. The soft misogyny jokes (from the good guys) don’t help–and it’s one of La Salle’s few scenes after the first act, so it makes him even more grating. And the way Wayans frames Hayes initially as a punchline for being hen-pecked (a fantastic Ja’net DuBois in a poorly written part) is tiresome.

There’s been at least one good laugh, but some failed ones too.

Then the team comes together in action scenes and there’s actual energy. Casey, Brown, and Hayes are all willing to do more work than the script or direction requires. They’ve been getting nerf balls or worse–Schultz has no idea how to direct Brown or Brown’s lines–but then the requirements of the medium take over and the pilot has to throw fastballs or whatever. And the actors are ready.

Even La Salle. He breaks character for a couple lines when he actually seems like he’s acting. Sure, he seems like he’s an angry Peter Benton but it’s something.

Poor Steve James does the most work in the unfortunately written part of Black man obsessed with karate. He never gets good material, though the script does at least recognize he’s the only one in shape. The out of shape, aging jokes are good. Not even Schultz can mess up the direction enough in those scenes. The actors seem cautious about it at first, then commit as things go on.

Hammer, Slammer, & Slade ought to be awesome. It’s not. It still should’ve been a series. With a lower budget–being shot on video and looking like a sitcom would’ve helped–and anyone else directing.

Still, as is, the cool factor outweighs the significant problems.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Mark Schultz; written by Keenen Ivory Wayans; director of photography, Charles Mills; edited by Stan Allen; music by Stanley Clarke; production designer, Maxine Shepard; produced by Tony Bishop; aired by the American Broadcasting Company.

Starring Bernie Casey (John Slade), Eriq La Salle (Jack Spade), Jim Brown (Slammer), Isaac Hayes (Hammer), Steve James (Kung Fu Joe), Ron Dean (Sgt. Hill), Mark Rolston (Little Mr. Big), Martin Lawrence (Willie), Bentley Kyle Evans (Lenny), Ja’net DuBois (Joanne Wilson), Almayvonne (Coreatha), and Ron O’Neal (Ray Samuels).


The B.R.A.T. Patrol (1986, Mollie Miller)

The B.R.A.T. Patrol is about a group of kids on an airforce base who discover one of the MPs is selling military hardware to literal junk yard arms dealers. None of the adults believe them because it’s a “Wonderful World of Disney” movie and there are rules. There are limits and there are rules. B.R.A.T. Patrol frequently bumps into the limits–if director Miller just had wider establishing shots, the movie would have some scale. But it plays well with the rules. Miller and writers Chris “Yes, the ‘X-Files’” Carter and Michael Patrick Goodman never lose track of the main kids, even when some of them get crap duty.

Nia Long gets the most crap duty, but then she gets to be part of the awesome chase sequence at the end. She gets to ride the dirt bikes. She doesn’t get to do anything cool on the dirt bikes, but then neither does Jason Presson, who kind of has the biggest role. He’s the kid who doesn’t just want to go along with what lead kid Sean Astin says. Sean Astin–and his stunt bike rider–are the only ones who get to do cool things during the dirt bike sequence.

There’s probably a lot to unpack in “Wonderful World of Disney” episodes. Let’s just say Astin is the William Shatner of the bunch, only Miller doesn’t direct a performance out of him and so his deliveries are all flat. He’s an Eddie Haskall type, from the era of rehabilitating the trope. He should be funny, but he’s not. He’s not even mean in his callousness. He’s just got a role to play.

At least Presson tries a little. His part’s terribly written–B.R.A.T. Patrol has adults but no parents and Presson gets the subplot about being afraid of punishment. Fail to stop an arms deal? Get stabbed? Presson’s parents might ground him. Without the parents, there’s nothing to back up the fear. And Miller doesn’t even try to help with it. She’s got a hands off approach with the actors, which does work to her favor. Since the teleplay has so little for the other three kids–Long, Dylan Kussman, and Dustin Berkovitz–seeing the kids mug without trying to mug passes the time. It gives them some personality, even if the script doesn’t.

Astin doesn’t have any personality. He’s just supposed to be obnoxious, but adorable obnoxious. Versus Joe Wright as the leader of the base’s Young Marines. He’s just supposed to be obnoxious without being adorable. Watching Astin and Wright bicker is one of the movie’s most frequent irritations. Once it’s established the Young Marines aren’t actual threats, the interactions are increasingly tedious. Wright and Billy Jayne are trying to stop Astin and company from winning a “Youth Service Award,” which Astin and company don’t seem to know anything about.

They’re stopping the arms dealers for the right reasons, not to get any awards.

Tim Thomerson is the MP who secretly thinks Astin and the gang are all right. Brian Keith is the base commander who’s flummoxed by children’s behavior. Keith’s fine. Thomerson’s almost better; the first act implies he might get an actual part, but he doesn’t.

And Stephen Lee is good at as the dirty MP. You believe he wants to harm Astin, making him an actual threat. Same goes for junk yard arms dealer John Quade. B.R.A.T. Patrol’s thriller thread is pretty darn effective.

Good photography from Fred J. Koenekamp, even if Miller needs to open up the establishing shots more. It’s a Disney TV movie, it only has to look so good but Koenekamp is far above the bare minimum. Fine editing from Barbara Palmer Dixon and Glenn Farr. The editing gets good for the last third, even if the script dawdles.

The B.R.A.T. Patrol is sort of racing with itself. Can the movie end before Astin hits critical mass and becomes too obnoxious. No. But it does acknowledge Astin’s too obnoxious. That acknowledgement is something.

Wait, can’t forget the production design. Ray Storey’s production design is outstanding. Since Miller’s establishing shots are so problematic, the locations never get established. But the way Storey’s able to match the actual air base exteriors with the plot set pieces? Outstanding.

But, yeah, B.R.A.T. Patrol is fine. Enough.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Mollie Miller; written by Chris Carter and Michael Patrick Goodman; “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” created by Walt Disney; director of photography, Fred J. Koenekamp; edited by Barbara Palmer Dixon and Glenn Farr; music by Jonathan Tunick; production designer, Ray Storey; produced by Mark H. Ovitz; aired by the American Broadcasting Company.

Starring Sean Astin (Leonard), Jason Presson (McGeorge), Nia Long (Darla), Dylan Kussman (Bug), Dustin Berkovitz (Squeak), Joe Wright (Newmeyer), Billy Jayne (Whittle), Tim Thomerson (Maj. Hackett), Stephen Lee (Phillips), John Quade (Knife), and Brian Keith (Gen. Newmeyer).


Alexander the Great (1963, Phil Karlson)

Had Alexander the Great gone to series instead of just being a passed over pilot and footnote in many recognizable actors filmographies, it seems likely the series would’ve had William Shatner’s Alexander continue his conquest of the Persian Empire. The pilot is this strange mix of occasional action, Greek generals arguing, and battle footage from Italian epics. The Utah location shooting is great, but director Karlson’s bad at the direction. John Cassavetes, Joseph Cotten, and Simon Oakland play the arguing generals. They can argue. But Robert Pirosh and William Robert Yates’s teleplay is lacking.

And there’s nothing to be done about integrating that battle footage. If Alexander the Great is going to be talking heads, which Karlson definitely directs better than the action, the action is going to have to be spectacular. And it’s not. There’s some tension with it in the original footage, but the reused stuff? The pilot doesn’t get any mileage out of it.

Cassavetes is pretty cool as this disagreeable young general. By cool, I mean he’s good at the yelling. His character yells. Cotten’s character counsels. Cotten’s good at the counseling. But the pilot doesn’t really know what to do with Shatner. It’s called Alexander the Great and everyone’s a lot more comfortable dealing with Cassavetes’s hurt feelings. Shatner’s appealing and he manages to get through the overdone dialogue, but he’s got no character.

He’s got a love interest–Ziva Rodann–and a sidekick–Adam West–but Pirosh and Yates don’t give either any attention in the script. Rodann’s biggest scene is with Cotten and West is part of the set decoration. Though he gets enough closeups to suggest he’d played a bigger part in the series.

It’s a long fifty minutes. The recycled battle footage and some red herrings drag it out too. It’s kind of too bad, for Alexander, but good for the rest of us it didn’t get picked up.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Phil Karlson; teleplay by Robert Pirosh and William Robert Yates, based on a story by Pirosh; director of photography, Lester Shorr; music by Leonard Rosenman; produced by Albert McCleery; aired by the American Broadcasting Company.

Starring William Shatner (Alexander), Joseph Cotten (Antigonus), John Cassavetes (Karonos), Adam West (Cleander), Simon Oakland (Attalos), Ziva Rodann (Ada), John Doucette (Kleitos), Robert Fortier (Aristander), Peter Hansen (Tauron), and Cliff Osmond (Memnon).


Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring (1971, Joseph Sargent)

Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring opens with a montage sequence. Sally Field is hitchhiking cross country (supposedly, it’s all California) while audio of her calling home to her parents–after running away to become a hippie–and letting them know she’s all right. The exact amount of time she’s away, where she went, how she left, never gets addressed in the film; probably for the better. But that opening–followed by Field sneaking back into her house and her family going about their morning routine before finding her peacefully asleep in her bedroom–does frame Field as the subject of the film.

Turns out it’s a red herring. Director Sargent, writer Bruce Feldman, and Field have a far more ambitious plan. Sargent, thanks to his actors, Feldman, and particularly editor Pembroke J. Herring, sets about deconstructing the nuclear family. There are frequent short flashbacks–presented as Field’s memories–revealing the family’s history and how it affects Field and little sister Lane Bradbury. Dad Jackie Cooper’s loving as long as no one bothers him and everyone listens to him. Mom Eleanor Parker is underwhelmed too, but she and Cooper have separate beds and he makes good money, so with frequent alcohol, she’s coping. Bradbury, it turns out, is on a similar path as Field took, though with drugs, which apparently wasn’t Field’s problem.

Feldman writes long scenes, which Sargent initially brackets with these uncomfortable panning shots. Maybe is a TV movie and it takes Sargent about fifteen minutes (of its seventy-and-change run time) to get comfortable having to pan to do establishing shots. By comfortable, I mean he stops trying to force wide establishing shots.

Anyway. The long scenes, as the family drama starts to play out, soon reveal just how much Field has changed. The movie’s not about her, the movie’s about this messed up family she’s rejoining. And Field’s performance just gets better and better throughout, as she understands more and more, no longer the teenager, not an adult in her parents’ understanding but certainly from her (and the viewer’s) perspective. Especially once the film gets to her parents’ party with their horrifically shallow friends.

At the same time, Field’s hippie boyfriend (David Carradine in an affable performance) is stealing various work vehicles to get back to her. Most of his character development happens in those flashback scenes, which doesn’t seem like it’s enough but turns out to be just right. Sargent really knows what he’s doing with the pacing of character development. Not just with Field (though, obviously, most with her), but also with Carradine and Bradbury.

Parker and Cooper get established first, which seems like an odd choice given how the emphasis flips, but it too works out. It’s their lives being deconstructed after all. Field and Bradbury are just the victims of their failures.

Cooper’s great, Parker’s great. Nobody’s as great as Field, who asserts herself into the protagonist role without any direct help from Feldman’s teleplay, albeit enabled by Sargent’s spot-on direction. And Sargent and editor Herring establish this choppy, confrontational rhythm to Maybe. Sure, some of the hippie stuff comes off a little washed out thanks to TV and general squareness–and the Linda Ronstadt songs are forced over the action–but Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring works out pretty darn well.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Joseph Sargent; teleplay by Bruce Feldman; director of photography, Russell Metty; edited by Pembroke J. Herring; music by Earl Robinson; aired by the American Broadcasting Company.

Starring Sally Field (Dennie), Lane Bradbury (Susie), Eleanor Parker (Claire), Jackie Cooper (Ed), and David Carradine (Flack).


Once Upon a Spy (1980, Ivan Nagy)

Once Upon a Spy is a strange result. I mean, it’s a TV movie (pilot) for a spy series, complete with a kind of great James Bond-lite seventies music from John Cacavas, Christopher Lee in a electronic wheelchair with a rocket launcher, spy mistress Eleanor Parker working out of a secret headquarters in the Magic Mountain amusement park… oh, and leads Ted Danson and Mary Louise Weller bicker adorably. And Welsh writer Jimmy Sangster makes American Parker say “bloody” a lot because he doesn’t care what Americans sound like.

I’m getting ahead of myself because there are two things to examine and the rest of it all makes sense.

First, Sangster’s script. It’s boring–I can’t imagine not changing the channel from Once Upon a Spy on a relatively temperate Monday night in February 1980. There’s no chemistry between the characters. Sangster can’t even try to figure out how to force it into the script. There’s some attempt to address sexism–though Danson’s dorky computer guy (who all the ladies love–literally, two attempt to grope him) doesn’t know anything, he ignores everything Weller’s super spy tells him. Because, as it turns out, Danson’s the one evil mastermind Lee is really after. Danson beat him for the “Einstein Award for Smart People” once and Lee has never forgotten it.

Really.

But if there were chemistry–if Lee and Danson facing off actually did anything, if Danson had an iota of charm outside the strange experience of seeing him so completely without the thing his career’s based on, if Weller’s finale outfit didn’t go through three changes (from cleavage to no cleavage but leather cords wrapped around her legs to a version where it’s no longer a jumpsuit), if Nagy actually had any concept of how to pull of a spy movie based on charm–well, if any of those things, Once Upon a Spy might be somewhat successful.

Instead, Danson comes off like a wooden plank. Despite a little bit of a belly, he’s clearly a physical guy. He’d need to be to have the endurance for all the women falling over him. He doesn’t play computer nerd well, he doesn’t banter with Weller well, he doesn’t banter with Lee well, he doesn’t banter with Parker well. Maybe there are three big problems with Spy–Sangster, Nagy, and Danson. Maybe it’s not just Nagy’s lack of direction to his actors or Sangster’s lame writing, maybe it’s Danson himself. But with the direction and writing being so problematic, it’s impossible to know.

It’s concerning ABC let this one get made with such a dearth of chemistry between its leads. Even if it was in 1979… because there’s nothing there and it wastes Weller’s time. And she’s pretty good, all things considered. Once Sangster’s got her established as overcoming polite sexism to become a super spy, he’s got nothing else for her to do except babysit Danson. Her relationship with Parker is cold because Sangster writes Parker’s character so badly. Maybe if the character were exaggeratedly British, but instead it’s just Parker in a conference room all to herself with nothing to chew on. Nagy’s got no idea what to do with actors.

After Weller, the best performance is probably Lee. If only because he’s a mad scientist who has created a shrinking ray and has to pretend Ted Danson is a worthy intellectual nemesis. Then Parker, who has nothing to do, but does it with professionalism and dignity and as much style as she can get away with given the lame script and direction.

Once Upon a Spy is disappointing. It just needed to be cute and fun. Still, it’s competent as far as most television movies go and Weller’s likable. And that music’s all right.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Ivan Nagy; teleplay by Jimmy Sangster, based on a story by Lemuel Pitkin and Sangster; director of photography, Dennis Dalzell; edited by Bob Fish and William Neel; music by John Cacavas; production designer, Duane Alt; produced by Jay Daniel; aired by the American Broadcasting Network.

Starring Ted Danson (Jack Chenault), Mary Louise Weller (Tannehill), Eleanor Parker (The Lady), Leonard Stone (Dr. Webster), and Christopher Lee (Marcus Valorium).


The Ewok Adventure (1984, John Korty)

There’s a strange effectiveness to The Ewok Adventure during Burl Ives’s narration. With his voice, with the lameness of the script, Ewok Adventure feels like a storybook come to life. Much of the movie is exquisitely produced, whether Peter Bernstein’s score, director Korty’s lovely photography or John Nutt’s editing, there’s a definite precision to the film. And some fabulous effects sequences.

But most of the film isn’t Ives narrating the quaint lives of Ewoks and their madcap, gentle misadventures. Most of the film features annoying kid Eric Walker, who learns important lessons from the Ewoks. Not metaphorical lessons, but really obvious ones. Ewok Adventure is obnoxiously didactic. It’s a very strange mix of quest picture–with some of it even feeling like a Western–and children’s film. Then the end rolls around and it’s something else entirely. Still adventure, I suppose, but a lot more annoying.

Korty isn’t good with the kids. He’s not much better with the parents, but with Walker and Aubree Miller, Korty just doesn’t care. There are so many bad deliveries, so many scenes obviously not working… Ewok Adventure has “it’s good enough for kids” stamped all over it.

But the special effects are phenomenal. It’s rather good looking for a TV movie, even if it does feature a stupid giant at the end. It also features a “giggle” fairy, which is an amazingly manipulative scene–it’s just Miller and Walker laughing. Along with Warwick Davis’s Ewok sidekick, of course, but it’s like someone told the filmmakers kids respond well to scenes of kids laughing.

And the Ewok performers are all good.

The big action finale with the giant is awful though. It hurts the picture. It’s technically fine, but it really doesn’t work. There’s not room for giant monsters. Maybe if the effects on it were better, but it’s just a giant.

So with a better finish, a lot less of Walker and a little bit less of Miller (and a lot more Ives narration), Ewok Adventure might be something. The production values are outstanding and Korty does do well with the costumed performers.

It’s just way too tedious to wait for Walker to get through his scenes. He’s bad, his character’s obnoxious and he’s inexplicably the star of the Adventure.

1/4

CREDITS

Photographed and directed by John Korty; teleplay by Bob Carrau, based on a story by George Lucas; edited by John Nutt; music by Peter Bernstein; production designer, Joe Johnston; produced by Thomas G. Smith; aired by the American Broadcasting Company.

Starring Eric Walker (Mace), Aubree Miller (Cindel), Warwick Davis (Wicket), Daniel Frishman (Deej), Kevin Thompson (Chukha-Trok), Fionnula Flanagan (Catarine) and Guy Boyd (Jeremitt); narrated by Burl Ives.


The New, Original Wonder Woman (1975, Leonard Horn)

There are a number of things to talk about with The New, Original Wonder Woman. It’s a TV pilot movie. It’s a self-contained narrative about Wonder Woman, amiably but not quite enthusiastically played by Lynda Carter, coming to the United States in the middle of World War II. It’s this weird, campy, ill-advised serious “silly Nazis” played by comedic actors. It’s many things.

It’s also a painfully manipulative bit of condescension. After setting Carter up as the strongest lead possible, it turns out she’s willing to degrade herself as Lyle Waggoner’s secretary while incognito. It’s creepy. The way Stanley Ralph Ross writes it is creepy. It’s the last scene of the movie, which I don’t consider spoiling because Wonder Woman went to series. I myself was a “Wonder Woman” fan as a toddler. I’m trying to keep myself measured–going back to the show thirty-three years later, I was letting the promise of nostalgia carry a lot.

But no. I can’t. Some of New, Original is fine. But it’s all so disjointed, nothing can be good because it seems like other elements are moving in complete independence. I’m not sure if it’s Ross’s teleplay or if it’s just director Horn having a profound misunderstanding of what he’s doing, but cutting from Carter’s lame story to the silly Nazis? If it were intentional, there’d be a flow. Instead, Horn directs Stella Stevens poorly whenever she’s with John Randolph and Waggoner, but well whenever she’s with Red Buttons.

Oh, right, forgot. The thing about New, Original is it should be a camp classic. It has Cloris Leachman as Wonder Woman’s mom. Except Leachman’s terrible in the part. It’s a poorly written part and Horn’s direction of the Paradise Island sequence is the worst in the movie, but Leachman’s still terrible. It doesn’t work.

Meanwhile, Kenneth Mars and Henry Gibson play silly Nazis. Gibson loves the U.S.A. and sends messages by Mars’s carrier pigeons. The actors aren’t exactly having a blast, but they’re enjoying not letting themselves laugh at the material. They’re whole levels above not appearing miserable. Because Horn’s direction of those scenes isn’t good either. Mars, Gibson and Eric Braeden go for stuff and they get no support. It’s a shame. It’s almost this awesome short film about the conflicted bromance between Mars and Gibson. Or is Gibson just a heartless traitor?

But it’s not. Because Horn.

So most of Wonder Woman’s problems are because of Horn’s inept direction. It’s his inability to find the quality in his material. Red Buttons as a silly Nazi spy. Come on. It’s awesome. It has to be awesome or you can’t do it. And Horn doesn’t care. New, Original feels like someone knew what to do but no one listened enough to them.

And Carter’s okay. She has a good enough time–she’s enthusiastic about playing Wonder Woman and she’s very positive about it. But Waggoner gets too much emphasis, in the script, in the direction. Horn does some bad action sequences–Carroll Sax’s editing is awful–but Carter’s clearly the hero in them. You’re clearly supposed to watch it and think she’s kicking ass. Then Waggoner comes along and calls Lynda Carter in glasses dumpy. With poor John Randolph along to ask him to clarify the jokes for younger audiences. And Carter’s playing along so it can be “wink wink” but it’s more like “puke puke.”

So, as a pilot, I might hate watch “Wonder Woman” the series, but probably not. I hope the show was better. As a pilot movie, Horn manages to fumble a willing cast, an only occasionally odious teleplay and production values somewhere above a Roger Corman production. He should have done much better.

It really is kind of worth it at least once for the performances of Mars, Gibson, Braeden, Buttons and Stevens.

Oh, and there’s casual racism against the Japanese. It’s not even seventies TV casual racism, it’s seventies TV going overboard because it’s pretending to be forties propaganda blatant racism. It’s unpleasant. It’s not frequent, but it does stick out. Wonder Woman kind of does drown a bunch of Japanese sailors while saving Mars’s dippy butt. Mars is great and all, but come on. If Wonder Woman is going to crash a German plane into a Japanese submarine, she’s got to kill them all. Obviously, no one working on the pilot thought about it, which is the more disturbing part about it.

And New, Original isn’t like an homage to a forties propaganda movie. It should be, actually, just because of how well Mars and Gibson can keep straight faces. It’s just Horn being awful.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Leonard Horn; teleplay by Stanley Ralph Ross, based on characters created by William M. Marston; director of photography, Dennis Dalzell; edited by Carroll Sax; music by Charles Fox; produced by Douglas S. Cramer; aired by the American Broadcasting System.

Starring Lynda Carter (Wonder Woman), Lyle Waggoner (Major Steve Trevor), John Randolph (General Phil Blankenship), Red Buttons (Ashley Norman), Stella Stevens (Marcia), Eric Braeden (Captain Drangel), Severn Darden (Bad Guy), Fannie Flagg (Amazon Doctor), Henry Gibson (Nikolas), Kenneth Mars (Colonel Von Blasko) and Cloris Leachman (Queen Hippolyta).


Wonder Woman (1974, Vincent McEveety)

Wonder Woman doesn’t work out, but it should. And lead Cathy Lee Crosby is so serious about her performance and the role, even when it’s underwritten, it’s hard not to be sympathetic. John D.F. Black’s simultaneously awful and inventive teleplay recasts Wonder Woman as a spy, only one who works as a secretary. Her boss knows she’s a superpowered James Bond, but he lets her be his secretary. Possibly because he’s incompetent, but affable, which also describes Kaz Garas’s performance in the role.

When Wonder Woman has Crosby globe-trotting in pursuit of criminal mastermind Ricardo Montalban and his gang of moronic but successfully evil henchmen, it’s at its best. Crosby gets a lot to do. Director McEveety is more than competent when it comes to directing a television movie–he does have exceptional problems during the action sequences–and there’s just something kind of cool about the first part of the movie. Crosby’s just doing James Bond and outsmarting the bad guys. Once Black has to come up with a bunch of intrigue and then McEveety has to try to direct it, that point is when Wonder Woman starts slipping.

It’s also when Crosby shows up in the questionable Wonder Woman costume. It seems functional–she has gadgets and so on–but it’s really silly. They probably should’ve just skipped it.

Crosby gives a strong performance. In the action-packed finale, which usually has Montalban affably aping for the camera, it takes the promise of Crosby showing up and having something to do to keep any interest going. Wonder Woman doesn’t have the budget for Black’s plot ambitions and McEveety doesn’t even try. Instead, he does get some good moments out of Montalban. Campy, sure, but still good. And there’s something appealing about Andrew Prine’s scheming sidekick. He and Crosby have great banter; he goes for double entendres and so forth and she shuts him down every time. Their timing is perfect. It’s like someone else wrote it, since the way Black writes for Crosby and Garas’s scenes is terrible.

There’s a lot of goofiness to it as well. Not to mention the awful handling of the Paradise Island stuff (and a really bad turn from Charlene Holt in an important role). Gene Ruggiero’s editing is weak, Artie Butler’s music is weak (except when it’s Crosby’s soulful introspective moments, then it’s weak but amusing). Wonder Woman barely gets by, but it does. Crosby’s so game for it, her enthusiasm pulls it through.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Vincent McEveety; teleplay by John D.F. Black, based on characters created by William M. Marston; director of photography, Joseph F. Biroc; edited by Gene Ruggiero; music by Artie Butler; produced by John G. Stephens; aired by the American Broadcasting System.

Starring Cathy Lee Crosby (Wonder Woman), Kaz Garas (Steve Trevor), Andrew Prine (George Calvin), Ricardo Montalban (Abner Smith), Anitra Ford (Ahnjayla), Richard X. Slattery (Colonel Henkins) and Charlene Holt (Hippolyte).


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