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Wonder Woman (1974)
Decent for a 1970s TV movie
When this first aired, I didn't like it. It wasn't the Wonder Woman I had seen in the comics. Not even close. A few more viewings over the years didn't change that opinion. But now, after a long break and forty years after its premiere, I can be a bit more objective and less hard-nosed. It really wasn't as bad as I used to think.
A lot of people preferred the Lynda Carter version, but seriously, aside from being somewhat more faithful to the comic, it wasn't that much better. That was just as campy, if not more. Nor was it completely faithful. The familiar twirling costume change was unique to that show, just a shortcut to avoid showing the character having to find a place to change or stash her clothes and costume. Early episodes didn't even have the "explosion," just a fade between wardrobe. And seriously, how many times can one watch Six Million Dollar Man-style leaps, which were also not from the comic? This Wonder Woman seemed to use her wits to get out of jams more than the better-known one did.
I did get a little bored with the constant parade of perils in this movie. Seems she was under attack every ten minutes. Just in time for a commercial break, of course. These Amazons were also annoying. Every time they spoke to each other, they were spouting stilted fortune cookie platitudes rather than sounding like actual dialog.
Ricardo Montalban as Abner Smith was probably the best part of the movie. Suave, classy, charismatic, charming and quite possibly the most honorable, least violent villain in TV history. Definitely not the clichéd murderous adversary trying to kill the hero by whatever means necessary. He never even lost his temper and yelled at his henchmen no matter how many times they disobeyed orders or failed. This was a proto-Roarke, a wise, imaginative, level-headed boss who was intelligent and anticipated almost every contingency. (The white suit didn't hurt, either, although even Mr. Roarke sometimes displayed a darker side not seen here.) And he never lost his composure even in the face of defeat and incarceration. He would have been splendid as her arch-enemy had this series been ordered, that rarest of animals, the likable villain that one could almost root for. Not to be confused with anti-heroes who were flawed but had good intentions. This was a selfish person who maintained his dignity, civility, principles and manners even toward his foes.
Wake Me When the War Is Over (1969)
Cute, but nothing fresh
As an early TV-movie, this rounded up a welter of stars from popular 1960s sitcoms that had just been cancelled. It's too bad the writers didn't give them anything new to do.
Leading the charge is Ken Berry as a good-hearted, dutiful but otherwise oblivious and bumbling American officer. A World War II clone of his Captain Parmenter from F-Troop. Eva Gabor is an aristocratic socialite again, so if you've seen Green Acres, you know what to expect. Werner Klemperer brings back Colonel Klink under a different name. And Jim Backus is the same blustery blowhard he was as Thurston Howell. This must have been very easy to write since all the writers had to do was imagine what the previous characters would have done. But that's to be expected since the two writers of this never had sitcom experience. They were gag writers for variety shows.
It has its charms as a piece of very lightweight fluff. Just don't go in expecting too much or you'll be disappointed.
Operation Petticoat (1977)
I was (and still am) a fan of the 1959 movie, so when this series was announced, I was looking forward to it. Alas, it was a major disappointment. This lacked everything that made the movie charming.
The cast just didn't have the spark that was necessary to carry the show. John Astin was excellent and unforgettable as the zany, completely off the wall Gomez Addams, but he was a very poor fit as the subdued skipper here. Meanwhile, Richard Gilliland never gave the impression of the member of high society that the original Lt. Holden was supposed to be. He was a schemer, but lacked even a bit of the slightly smarmy charisma that made the original Holden character believable. With all due respect to these actors, Cary Grant and Tony Curtis had not only very big shoes to fill, they played their characters perfectly, and if you can't emulate them, you might as well just give it up. The rest of the cast was also peculiarly bland. Only on occasion did a talented guest star bring some real comedic acting to the show, such as Sorrell Booke a couple of years before he became Boss Hogg on the Dukes of Hazzard.
Worst of all, this was a below average sitcom even for that era. Bad jokes aside, there was usually a haphazard buildup through each episode followed by an unimaginative deus ex machina solution then a very abrupt ending with no coda or epilogue. Compared with the top-rated sitcoms at the time - shows like Happy Days and Three's Company - the very best episodes of this were less memorable and far less enjoyable than the very worst of those shows. Looking at the writing credits, it's obvious why. The two men responsible for most of the scripts had no comedy writing credits. They wrote westerns and adventures. Their closest connection was that they came up with the story premise for the original movie, but they didn't write that screenplay. It wasn't a bad idea to make a series from the movie. It's just that this effort was completely lackluster. It's no wonder the show sank beneath the waves, rightfully forgotten even by most of those few who watched it.
The Norliss Tapes (1973)
The faux Night Stalker
Finally saw this after almost 40 years. I didn't catch it on its original network broadcast. I have to agree with other reviews that say it's an inferior version of Kolchak: The Night Stalker.
They have much in common, but so many differences in the ways that count. Darren McGavin was a much better actor in a much better written role, delivering that snappy, sardonic voice-over narration and funny quips, all with the infectious energy that Kolchak always showed and the quirkiness that tied it all together. Kolchak was very much interested in his stories, while Norliss seemed like he was rather reluctant and bored. There was no depth to David Norliss and the proceedings just slogged on monotonously. McGavin's acting made Kolchak's episodes worth watching even when the scripts were bad, not to mention his great supporting characters, both recurring and guests. Norliss was essentially a lone wolf. What was most amazing of all is that Kolchak continued to entertain by slaying monsters (literally) and police officials (figuratively) alike despite McGavin's disdain for the scripts and his bitterness over having been cheated of his promised role as series executive producer. That's the mark of a true professional and a great actor. Thinnes wasn't given much to work with here. He seemed like he was almost sleepwalking through the movie. And unlike Kolchak, Norliss barely interacted with other characters, let alone spar verbally with them.
Worse, the blue-skinned zombie was every bit as bad as Kolchak's often embarrassing monsters. But without McGavin to distract from the situation, there was no disguising the silliness. Other similarities include Robert Cobert's creepy sul ponticello tremolando on the violin, so familiar from Kolchak episodes and opening titles, and the disbelieving sheriff.
All in all, I'll stick with my DVD set of the Kolchak series. When the Norliss pilot ended, I really didn't care what had caused his mysterious disappearance and wouldn't have watched had the show been picked up by a network. It was only marginally better than the Night Stalker remake of 2005.
The Out of Towners (1970)
Oh, my Gooood...
I guess I'll never get Neil Simon. I know he's received a lot of awards and accolades, but almost none of his works do anything for me, with the notable exception of "The Lonely Guy," but that screenplay was based on Bruce Jay Friedman's material, not Simon's own. Some become great, but only after they've been reshaped by others, like the classic "Odd Couple" series starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman.
This movie is average Simon. Yes, I know it's supposed to be a comedy about how a night in New York becomes hell for a married couple. But the problem is there is absolutely nothing likable about this couple. George is a blowhard who's always taking down names and threatening to sue when he doesn't get his way. The hotel gave away his room because he didn't show up or call before 10 p.m. as the terms of his reservation stated? He'll sue! An airline rep tells him that they can't send his luggage because JFK Airport is still fogged in? He'll sue! What do you want, George, that they charter a plane and parachute your bags to you? But if George is obnoxious, his wife Gwen is like fingernails on chalkboard. I could die happy if I never hear "Oh, my Goooood" in her nasal whine again. She is so dumb that you wonder why George or any man would stay with her. She gives away his wallet and watch for absolutely no reason. If I was from Ohio, I'd be offended at how stupid these characters make Ohioans look. I think this would be a fine, funny comedy if it was about bad things happening to good people, but it's actually a film about bad things happening to stupid people mostly through their own fault. The vast majority of their problems are caused by George's pigheadedness, from refusing to eat on the plane to refusing to get out of the police car.
But this seems to be Simon's habit. His characters usually have no redeeming value. Lemmon & Matthau's "odd couple" in his movie wasn't likable. It took the aforementioned Randall and Klugman (plus good writers) to massage Felix and Oscar into people we could like and cheer on despite their foibles. (Which Simon managed to undo with his eminently forgettable Odd Couple II.) They could still be annoying at times, but you wouldn't find it inconceivable that they would have friends. On the other hand, I'd pay good money to get away from Gwen and George and was happy at the end when they decided to stay in Ohio. The only good thing about this movie is being able to see NYC as it was in 1969.
Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993)
A real shame
Bruce Lee was an amazing athlete and martial artist, with a story to match. It's just too bad Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story decided that wasn't worth telling. Instead, there are lots of fight scenes in improbable places with trumped-up foes, not to mention some stupid "curse of the dragon" that the real Bruce would never have believed in. In spots, this movie is almost as campy as the old Batman series was.
A few documentaries have taken honest looks at the Lee phenomenon and managed to remain interesting throughout by showing us a determined, disciplined man who made his own success. In this movie, they had the entirety of Lee's life to use and decided to make up whole sections out of thin air just to spice things up. It puts itself not much above the sensationalistic Hong Kong films that made Bruce look nearly superhuman and the victim of some vast Triad conspiracy when the real man was just as fascinating. What a waste. I know conflict is emphasized in most screen writing classes, but instead of fight after fight as shown in this movie, how about showing some of the famous friends and students Bruce taught? And avoid the idiotic scenes like Bruce supposedly shattering 300+ pound ice blocks into chips with a single punch. If I wanted to see impossible feats like that, I'd go watch a Superman movie.
Bruce's fighting philosophy was to eschew flashy techniques in favor of effective ones. Fighting wasn't for show, but to win. Only on film would he do things like backflips, somersaults, superhigh jumping kicks and animalistic kiai. Show us the man who trained long and hard, and studied and thought about not just fighting, but philosophy and health. Bruce's success was as much a product of his mind as of his body.
We're now nearing 20 years after this movie's release and the 40th anniversary of Lee's death, with his legend and popularity only slightly diminished. To this day, Bruce remains the paragon of martial arts in the eyes of many, the man to whom all others are compared. I have a dream that someone will do a true biopic. His true story deserves better than to be ignored and hidden. I'd like to see a real drama rather than melodrama, with characters that have depth rather than the cartoonish ones in this film. There have been too many lies and myths told about Bruce over the years and this movie shamefully introduced more. "All these years later, people still wonder about the way he died. I prefer to remember the way he lived." Too bad this movie didn't show that way.
The Return of Captain Nemo (1978)
Bad Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea redux
Two years after Irwin Allen did some of his best work with his Time Travelers TV movie, he did some of his worst with this summer replacement series. I remember rather liking this back then. Revisiting it via the recently released Amazing Captain Nemo DVD, it's nothing like what I thought I remembered. It was much less fun and exciting. I think I'll stick with my memories. Thanks to the Towering Inferno and the Poseidon Adventure, Allen earned the sobriquet, "Master of Disaster." With this, that was certainly accurate. It was definitely a disaster.
The plot made no sense at all. At one point, Nemo tells Tom to set his hand weapon to stun because "We are not murderers." Never mind that a stunned scuba diver would probably drown, probably a less pleasant death. Only minutes later, they utterly destroy the villain's submarine, so presumably everyone onboard is killed. The Atlanteans appear to be able to breathe water, but Nemo insists that they take his mini-sub to escape. Amazing Captain Nemo, edited down to two hours from several episodes, was even worse. The editing was completely haphazard, jumping from scene to scene at times and being hard to follow.
This cast was utterly forgettable. Jose Ferrer chews the scenery but does little else, once flinging his cape backwards as if he were auditioning for Phantom of the Opera. Tom Hallick, who had previously appeared on Allen's Time Travelers, was okay, but the character was about as two-dimensional as they come, like all of the other characters. Lynda Day George stood around as decoration but didn't actually do anything to help the crew.
A superior undersea effort came a year earlier, with the Man from Atlantis TV movie. That also featured a former Batman guest villain, namely Victor Buono (King Tut) while this had Burgess Meredith (the Penguin). That movie also featured mind control devices. Was Allen cribbing again? Like most Irwin Allen works, there was no character development here. Nemo is stuffy and good. Cunningham is crabby and evil. The Navy pair are loyal. Nobody grows or changes at all through the series.
Allen stole from everything this time. It's no accident that the corridor on Professor Cunningham's sub resembles the one from the beginning of Star Wars. Even the music during that fight shamelessly apes John Williams' iconic score, but without the master's touch. Allen reused (twice!) a shot of two mines colliding and exploding, taken from his 1961 Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea movie.
Just how chintzy was the budget? The filming model of the villain's submarine was recognizably built using major parts from a model kit of the Space: 1999 Eagle, which you could buy from any hobby store at the time for less than $10. Maybe that's why they called it the Raven. I can't imagine any other reason why someone would name an undersea vehicle after an aerial creature. To mask the poor effects, every "underwater" shot was filled with swirling particles and silt. There were "robots" in cheap rubber masks and spray-painted wetsuits. The mask on Tor muffled the actor's voice and they never bothered to even dub it, even though it would have been easy since there were no lip movements to match. Not that hearing him more clearly would have been a blessing. His lines were monotonous, ridiculous ones like, "Aliens live! Aliens must be destroyed!" If you must watch one of Irwin Allen's undersea works, I strongly suggest going with his Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea series instead. That was ten times better than this. Or better yet, get the 1961 Voyage theatrical movie with Walter Pidgeon and Barbara Eden.
A spirit of Christmas past
Somewhere between the sugary sweet fantasies of Rankin-Bass and the more cynical (yet enjoyable in their own right) offerings like "Scrooged" lies this little TV movie. It makes few efforts at being cool, instead aiming for pre-teen innocence, or maybe just the innocence adults think they had at that age. In any event, whether by design, by accident or even by the idealizing effects of misty childhood memory, this movie has won a place in the hearts of many kids and kids at heart who watched it in the 1980s.
It has all the usual ingredients for a decent Christmas movie. Family strife, imminent peril but no real violence, little people as elves, singing, colorful toy clutter, and some fairly imaginative Christmas-themed props. But it takes itself fairly seriously and doesn't devolve into complete goofiness like "Elf."
This was one of the early movies showing a "high tech" Santa, far presaging "The Santa Clause" or "Santa vs. the Snowman." Of course, by modern standards, the effects are primitive, but remember that this is a kid's movie, and kids are not nearly as picky as adults are. Which is a good thing. Take it for the story and don't whine that it's not a Disney/Pixar visual extravaganza. It could have been a lot worse, being a TV movie, and you have to give them points for doing quite a bit of exterior filming on location in Alaska rather than some fakey soundstage. The interiors of North Pole City were small, limited by the budget, but there was a bit of homey coziness in there.
If there is one real weakness in the movie, it's the acting. Many were fine, including Jaclyn Smith, Art Carney, June Lockhart, Paul Williams (alas, at 5'2", too tall to look convincing as an elf, especially when around all the real dwarfs playing elves) and veteran character actor Mason Adams. On the other hand, R.J. Williams was not a good child actor, being roughly in the same league as the "Full House" era Olsen twins. He overacted during most of his scenes, and the emotion just never seemed genuine. In the other direction was Paul Le Mat as his father. Every line, facial tic and gesture seems to come out of an acting class technique. It doesn't feel like anything comes from his heart. With flat delivery of his lines and an unexpressive face, he was terrible and as unconvincing as his young co-star. A second problem is that Santa was very passive in this. He never really does anything to try to save North Pole City other than convincing Claudia and the kids. Later on, in desperation, he says that he'll have to take matters into his own hands and convince Michael himself, but nothing comes of this.
All in all, it's a worthwhile treat for the family, although it may bore some adults who didn't grow up with it.
Legal Eagles (1986)
I will always remember this film as one of my favorites of the summer of '86. In a warm summer in NYC, this light confection was refreshing as a cooling thunderstorm. Then again, there wasn't much competition that summer. Aliens and Stand by Me were other standouts, along with a couple of other enjoyable but not top-rate films, like Big Trouble in Little China. But to a native and fan of NYC, this movie is like taking a whirlwind tour of the city, which is always welcome. Ivan Reitman, still in pretty good form at the time, took advantage of some the great atmosphere of NYC, from the Brooklyn waterfront to 57th Street to Foley Square.
The cast was generally quite good. Redford played his role with breezy aplomb, looking appropriately lawyerly. Some say Debra Winger hated her experience with the film, but if she did, then she's a better actress than she's given credit for, because she showed outstanding chemistry in her scenes with Redford. Daryl Hannah, as usual, was a weak actress. Not to mention not particularly pretty. "Extremely attractive?" "Sensational body?" "Hypnotic eyes?" How about none of the above? Terence Stamp and Brian Dennehy turned in adequate, if workmanlike, performances.
Some rather big plot holes, albeit forgivable for the sake of drama. For instance, it's hard to believe that a major gallery with tens of millions of dollars worth of irreplaceable art inside would have neither a fire suppression system nor even smoke detectors. To even cover those works in such a building would have required exorbitant insurance premiums. Still, the script was rather good, with sometimes witty banter, unlike the crude, forgettable lines in Top Gun, penned by the same writers. Unlike that flick, these weren't cardboard characters, but that's expected since that was targeted for the testosterone crowd. This, like their script for the Secret of My Success a year later, was for a different demographic.
The 2003 DVD was, not surprisingly, a disappointment. Universal makes terrible DVDs and was working on getting a similarly bad reputation with HD DVD before that format surrendered in the HD format war. There's a massive amount of grain and noise in most scenes, although not so much artifacting as the 2000 DVD. There are precious few extras, only one rushed 10-minute "making of" featurette and the theatrical trailer. No TV teaser, which was what got me interested. No Rod Stewart music video with its courtroom setting, clips from the movie and appearance by Roscoe Lee Browne. No outtakes, brief portions of which were used in the end credits. No alternate ending, even though it was seen on broadcast TV, so we know it exists.
All in all, a fun reminder of the 80s and of NYC in the 80s.
Austin James is no Columbo
I remember being intrigued by this series before its premiere back in 1988. I also remember I quickly lost interest after a few episodes, although I couldn't remember why until now. Seeing this again, I can understand why I did. The show is rather like "Monk," with its eccentric, supposedly brilliant, antisocial, iconoclastic, grumpy lead character minus the OCD quirks, but still with the spunky female personal assistant and with worse writing. Austin James always sees tiny details that we the audience could not. To make it seem more intelligent, the writers peppered the scripts with scientific trivia and pseudo-scientific babble. The latter was especially embarrassing considering Isaac Asimov was listed as co-creator and scientific adviser. A supercomputer that can make neon signs explode and rupture gas lines at specific places? That has continuous speech recognition and natural language processing -- a goal that still eludes computer scientists today -- but not the much simpler speech synthesis? That can turn the dial on a cheap radio or an old TV set as if they came with motors installed on the knobs? It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that most of the "science" in this show was nonsense.
Subsequent episodes were little better. The "smartest man in the world" keeps saying "nukular" and "nukulotides." He does burnouts when he has to get somewhere fast, instead of knowing that less smoking rubber means more traction and a faster start if you're not in a Top Fuel dragster. You can target a virus at a specific human by inserting that human's DNA into it??? Good grief. Some of the situations are painfully obvious and clichéd, like the hoary "videotape was substituted for live video but Austin noticed items on the tape didn't match." That was old when Mission: Impossible used to do it twenty years previous. Episodes mixed these shopworn plot devices with supposed scientific concepts but each time proved that the writers knew barely more than the names of those concepts. It was as if Asimov had no hand in the show after co-creating it.
The show seemed to rely mostly on the charisma of former "Hardy Boys" star Parker Stevenson, but that couldn't compensate for the contrived scripts. It wasn't even as good as an average Columbo episode from the original NBC run. Sometimes, information in the climax would just come out of the blue, rather than foreshadowed for the audience. The concept had promise, but was undercut by mediocre writing. But I guess scientific geniuses generally don't become television writers. What a waste. It could have been science fiction of the hardest kind, but instead turned out to be science fantasy folded into run of the mill murder mysteries.
If you want to see what TV mystery and suspense writers can really do with the science fiction genre if they really put their minds to it, watch "Earth II," the 1971 pilot movie from the writers/producers of "Mission: Impossible," or "Prototype," the 1983 TV movie from Michael Levinson & William Link, who created and wrote the classic "Columbo" and later "Murder, She Wrote." (Although inexplicably, Link served as executive story consultant for this series. I guess they took his advice only sparingly.)