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Nashville 99 (1977)
A Cop Show With an Original Angle and Great Theme Song
"Nashville 99" was one of those mid-season replacements that didn't survive for very long, but I remember enjoying its brief time on the air. Claude Akins as the no-nonsense Nashville cop Lt. Stoney Huff (badge number 99), played well against Jerry Reed as partner Detective Trace Mayne, who provided comic (and musical) relief and would star just a month later in the classic "Smokey and the Bandit." Though the show took plenty of advantage of its Nashville setting with appearances by country music stars like Charley Pride, Mel Tillis, Chet Atkins and Tammy Wynette, it also showed other sides of Tennessee life, and made for an atypical cop show.
One episode that I still remember was the haunting drama "Joldy," featuring veteran character actor Pat Hingle. As Huff and Mayne hunt for two brothers on a crime spree, the brothers are in turn hampered by their delusional father (Hingle), who never recovered from the death of his youngest son Joldy and believes he's still alive.
Earle Hagen provided the score, including the catchy theme song sung by Reed. Hearing it again for the first time in over 30 years on You Tube of all places, it was just as I remembered it. I only wish I could find a recording of it somewhere.
The show only lasted for four episodes before heading off to television oblivion. It's unlikely that the show will ever find its way to DVD, and perhaps my memory of it is subjective, but I would be curious to view it today and see how it fares with the passage of time.
Columbo: Suitable for Framing (1971)
The Best Columbo Ending of All Time
Seeing Ross Martin duel with Columbo is a treat. Whereas his best-known character, Artemis Gordon from "The Wild Wild West," was laid-back and mischievous, his portrayal of art critic Dale Kingston embodies the worst traits of a professional critic: cold, calculating, and arrogant. He makes the perfect antagonist for the rumpled detective. Kingston appears to cover all his bases, manipulating everyone (but Columbo) for his own ends, whether through seduction, simpering, or browbeating. For awhile, he even stymies the great detective. But in the end, he is shocked to discover that Columbo has been one step ahead of him, besting the art critic with what has to be the most unexpected piece of evidence in a surprise ending! I never tire of watching this episode!
Rehearsal for Murder (1982)
This movie deserves to be on Broadway!
This has remained one of my favorite movies of all time. Written by Richard Levinson and William Link, the creators of "Columbo" and "Murder, She Wrote," the story takes place in an empty theater as playwright Alex Dennison stages an elaborate plan to reveal the truth behind his movie star fiancée's supposed suicide. Cast and crew from her first, and only stage play performance are gathered together a year after her death under the pretext of a reading of his new play. As the scenes are read, it becomes evident that Alex has an ulterior motive in inviting these people for this "rehearsal." When the group learns that Alex believes Monica was actually murdered, and that one of them is the prime suspect, it is only through various methods of duress that they reluctantly go along with his scheme. Very much like a stage play, each character is introduced, playing what seems to be a stock part: the ingénue yearning for stardom; the producer keeping his eye on the bottom line; the stage director trying to make a name for himself; the embittered ex-lover; the leading man with an eye for the ladies, and so on. At the center of the story, Robert Preston is perfect as the distinguished playwright who has suffered a tragic loss; determined to prove that the woman he loved was murdered. At times, you can't be certain that he hasn't simply gone over the edge in his grief.
Jeff Goldblum's face is the only one on the DVD cover, and although he was excellent playing the part of supporting actor Leo Gibbs, this movie truly is a shining example of ensemble performance, with great performances by William Daniels, Lawrence Pressman, Patrick Macnee, and Madolyn Smith. The only discordant note is Lynn Redgrave. Admittedly, playing a character that is only seen in flashbacks and manufactured scenes from a play, it is hard to get a sense of Monica Welles' true nature. Still, the movie was not so much about her, but rather about how others may have seen her from different perspectives, along with their possible motives.
There are many twists and turns, but the clues are there for anyone to see, especially in dialogue. The first and most notable one, is when Alex tells the group about his new play. "Unusual form, a mystery," Alex notes, "You take the audience by the hand, and you lead them... in the wrong direction. They trust you, and you betray them! All in the name of surprise." These words sum up the story perfectly and succinctly, and I'm glad I have the chance to give this movie a hearty recommendation.
Fascinating Character Study
Most of the critiques of this movie find this Columbo episode to be sorely lacking in comparison to other Columbo movies like "Murder By The Book" or "Suitable for Framing." But not every Columbo movie has to be a suspenseful battle of wits. To my observation, there are two types of Columbo plots: The Battle of Wits and The Character Study. The Battle of Wits, of course, is where Columbo takes on a wily, arrogant opponent who practically dares Columbo to catch him or her. The Character Study is an engaging examination of the person driven to commit murder.
The arrogant murderers are usually played by actors like Jack Cassidy, Leonard Nimoy or Robert Culp, and we usually don't like them. We cheer when Columbo finally nabs them. However, the murderers portrayed in the Character Study plots are usually far more sympathetic, and are sometimes the last people you would suspect of homicide i.e. a charming, elderly mystery novelist, a meek wine connoiseur, a folksy gospel singer, etc.
Oliver Brandt would seem to fall into the first category. Belonging to a club for intellectuals, Brandt seems aloof, arrogant, and secure in his place in the community as a genius. But it's all a sham. His need to belong is what dooms him. His marriage to a beautiful, vivacious woman is fraught with peril as her constant spending has led to him committing acts of embezzlement and a murder to cover it up. And despite his membership to an elite club of intellectuals, he has no particular empathy for them. For all his apparent success, Oliver Brandt is a lonely man who's in over his head.
Brandt also relies too heavily on brainteasers and puzzles. While his murder plot dupes even his fellow intelligentsia, his nerve begins to fail him when he realizes that the rumpled and seemingly preoccupied detective is just as smart as he is. Theodore Bikel plays this character to perfection, showing the genius who enjoys creating and solving puzzles, and then peeling back the layers to show the tortured man within.
Another highlight of this movie is learning more about Columbo's background. "All my life I kept running into smart people," he says to Brandt in the final act, "I don't mean smart like you or the rest of the people in this house. You know what I mean." He means, of course, his struggle to succeed despite the prejudices he encountered based on his background. Though Columbo is a genius in his own right, he is constantly dismissed as unworthy. We discover that it's his work ethic that sees him through. And he learns to use people's tendency to underestimate him to his advantage.
It is perhaps, because of Columbo's outsider status, that Brandt warms to him as a kindred spirit. He replies to Columbo towards the end, "I was an imitation adult, because that's what was expected of me. Most people don't like smart people. Most children despise smart children. So, early on, I had to hide my so-called gift...painful, lonely years."
When Columbo finally does nab him, it comes as a relief. For me, this is one of the best Columbo episodes. Not because of the murder plot, or the way Columbo catches him, but because of how much we learn about the characters, and how we connect with them.
Spy Game (1997)
Thin on character and plot, but catchy theme song!
"Spy Game" seeks to emulate classic spy shows like "The Avengers," "The Man From U.N.C.L.E.," and "Get Smart." But these shows were far more simplistic in their depiction of espionage, far more black and white. We had not yet been exposed to the many shades of gray that more complex story lines presented in movies like "Three Days of the Condor," and "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold" or television shows like "The Equalizer" and "Reilly: Ace of Spies" where the enemy could just as easily be a trusted comrade as it could a foreign agent.
If a show is promoted as being campy action-adventure that's not meant to be taken seriously, then it should honor its limitations. I can accept fantastic plots of vengeful ex-spies turned assassins, human detonators, killer androids, deranged psychiatrists, and sexy spies with names like Honey Trapp. Just don't expect me to keep up when the show gets maudlin about the horrors of death and deceit in the espionage business. You'd never see John Steed needing therapy, or Napoleon Solo feeling remorse over an assignment gone wrong. That's because they weren't real spies, they were TV spies who were highly entertaining.
Also, some of the roles were miscast. Bruce McCarty's a fine actor, but his relative youth and guileless appearance made it difficult to accept him as Micah Simms, head of an independent spy organization with experience and contacts in the world of intelligence. Actors like Daniel Benzali (The Agency, Murder One), Paul Guilfoyle (CSI, Secret Agent Man), Miguel Sandoval (Murder One, Clear and Present Danger) or Tony Todd (Candyman movies, Babylon 5: A Call To Arms) would have been more credible in the role. Not to mention John DeLancie and Mitchell Ryan, both of whom had guest-starring roles on the show.
While I had no problem seeing Linden Ashby as war-weary ex-CIA agent Lorne Cash, Allison Smith's role as counterspy Max London seemed a bit of a stretch. Her fight scenes were less than convincing. It would have been more believable (and more comedic) to have her play a bureaucrat-turned-spy whose relative inexperience would contrast sharply with Cash's history in the field.
So what did I like about this show? The guest appearances of actors like Peter Lupus, Patrick Macnee, Dana Delany and John DeLancie were quite entertaining. And I love the theme song! It has such cool spy music. Come on, say what you will about the show, but you've got to admit that the theme song that was composed by Christophe Beck rates up there with I Spy, Man From U.N.C.L.E., and Mission Impossible.
So remember, if you get a chance to see "Spy Game," don't miss the opening credits; the theme song is not to be missed.
Shell Game (1987)
An inventive, charming twist on an old gimmick
There really oughtta be a cable channel for short-lived television series. I'm sure that everyone has at least one or two favorite shows that failed to garner the ratings. Let's unite!
We have seen many male-female detective duos over the years. Some were happily married (<i>The Thin Man, Hart To Hart, McMillan and Wife</i>), others were at odds with each other while sexual tension simmered in the air (<i>Moonlighting, Remington Steele, Dempsey and Makepeace</i>). We've also seen the "con man gone straight" plot device in "Tenspeed and Brown Shoe" (1980), "Switch" (1975), and "Remington Steele" (1982).
Although there are justifiable comparisons to "Remington Steele" (1982) such as the main character being a con man who adopts another identity, (not to mention that James Reed was a regular on the show for its first season) this show had several additional twists. The couple in question, Riley and Dinah, had already been married, and divorced after a con game went horribly wrong, going their separate ways.
After another failed con sets a drug kingpin on her heels, Dinah bumps into her ex by accident in Santa Ana, California, and discovers to her dismay that her old partner-in-crime has gone straight! Under the alias of John Reid, he now works as a television producer for a consumer advocate show called "Solutions."
Adopting the alias of reporter Jennie Jerome, she prevails upon her ex-husband to help her lay low from the drug lord. In return, Jennie Jerome works with John Reid to help people in trouble, using their skills in flim-flam and confidence games to expose the crooks and find justice for the common man. Of course, Jennie's ulterior motive is to tempt Reid away from his relationship with "Solutions" co-host Natalie Thayer (future CSI star Marg Helgenberger) and back into her arms. The irony is that Jennie finds herself enjoying the straight-and-narrow. For the most part, anyway.
Another twist to the show is that none of the supporting characters know of Jennie and John's history together, although Natalie occasionally suspects something going between the two of them. We can't even be sure of the main characters' real names! They adopt aliases using names from pop culture: "John Reid" was the true identity of the Lone Ranger and "Jennie Jerome" was the maiden name of Winston Churchill's mother. However, an appearance by Jennie's con-man father (played with roguish charm by Gene Barry) suggests that she had been named "Pocket"...for her talent in lifting wallets.
In the years since this show, no other production that I've seen has made use of the stars' comic timing. James Reed and Margot Kidder had wonderful chemistry, and their careers as con-artists turned consumer reporters made for inventive television as I watched them change identities as easily as I might change clothes. I wish that it had been given a longer run, because it was fun to watch. Even now, I look at my old tapes of the show with affection and fondness. If you ever get a chance to check out this show, get some popcorn and watch it in tandem with other shows of its genre like "Remington Steele" and "Tenspeed and Brown Shoe." It'll be a great way to spend a lazy afternoon.
Due South: Pilot (1994)
A Pilot Movie That's As Fresh And Original As The Series...
Many pilot movies of hit television series are essentially rough drafts, where the kinks will be worked out in the course of producing the series over the first season. Or the second season. This pilot for the television series, "Due South" is one of those rare jewels that gets it right coming out of the gate. The movie effectively combined humor and drama to create a wonderful premise.
Driven to solve the murder of his father who was a legend in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Constable Benton Fraser teams up with Chicago cop Ray Vecchio to find those responsible. Set against the backdrops of the Canadian wilderness and the urban landscape of Chicago, these two major locations serve to highlight the differences between the two main characters.
The character of Constable Benton Fraser could have been easily played only for laughs as the stereotypical Canadian Mountie; stalwart and unyielding in his pursuit of those who break the law. But I was drawn in by Paul Gross' subtle performance of a man who strives to do what is right, even at the cost of all he holds dear. At home in the stark wilderness of the Canadian frontier, Fraser is a fish out of water in the harsh urban landscape of Chicago. Though at first he seems naïve and inflexible, Fraser's powers of observation, his perception of human nature and his sense of justice generally see him through to the end.
With Ray Vecchio, the writing and acting once again effectively transform what could have been another one-dimensional television cop into something more. David Marciano's performance as wily Chicago Police Detective Ray Vecchio serves as an effective counterbalance to Constable Fraser's upright nature. Like Fraser, Ray Vecchio is not what he seems at first glance. A slick dresser with a glib manner, Ray is a cop who is not above bending the law to see justice done. While put off at times by Fraser's manner and methods, Ray shares with the Mountie the same sense of duty and responsibility, and comes to respect Fraser both as a fellow cop and as a friend.
The secondary characters are as engaging and interesting as the main characters, from the gruff fellow RCMP officer Gerard, to Vecchio's raucous family, to the enigmatic Inuit hunter who knows more than he's telling. Even Benton Fraser's father Robert Fraser, whose actual screen time may be all of two minutes is compelling. Though his murder is what starts the ball rolling, we have not seen the last of this character.
The writing is fresh and witty, poking fun at American and Canadian sensibilities, while scratching the surface of the national stereotypes to reveal the humanity underneath. The music, particularly Jay Semko's haunting score, gives the movie a distinctive sound which marks it as a cut above the rest.
This was a movie and series that could not be easily categorized, which may have led to CBS giving it such short shrift. But it obviously resonated with many viewers, as it was their campaigning that forced CBS to bring the show back for a second season, and later a third season in syndication. While I lament that "Due South" is no more, I celebrate the fact that it was made in the first place, and that we had it for as long as we did.
Head of State (2003)
Great as a skit on "The Chris Rock Show," not so great as a film...
My wife and I saw `Head of State' and we both kind of shrugged after the movie was over. Some are willing to dismiss any doubts they may have and chalk the movie up as mindless entertainment that's good for a few laughs. But it should have been more than that. Having seen Chris Rock's standup routines, I have come to expect biting social commentary that is delivered with perfect comic timing. First, I would laugh uproariously, then think about the message behind it.
Having experienced that with his standup, I expected his directorial debut to have the same kind of punch. However, the film didn't seem to know what it wanted to be; slapstick farce, political satire or a love story. If it's a farce, then the characters aren't supposed to have depth, and everything is supposed to be played for laughs. If it's political satire, the story and characters should have more depth, even as they're being satirized for the sake of political and social commentary. The love story didn't seem to belong at all in the film, and I kept wondering during the romantic scenes when we were going to get back to the real story. However, I did find the gold-digging ex-girlfriend to be a hilarious running gag, and Robin Givens did a great job with the material.
The film had an amateurish feel to it, lacking polish and focus. It played like a skit on "The Chris Rock Show," which can be very funny, but only for ten minutes. Too many disparate elements were thrown in, making it uneven. There were funny bits throughout the movie, particularly when Chris Rock made speeches, because he got a chance to do his standup material. There were also just as many unfunny or awkward moments. Watching Chris Rock and Bernie Mac slug each other in greeting was funny the first time. Having them get in a brawl later in the film as they have an intense discussion was disturbing. Mays Gilliam even advocates violence as a solution to dealing with certain controversial issues.
Too many of the characters were broad and one-dimensional, making it hard to care about them one way or the other. Most of the black characters were embarrassing, with very few redeeming traits. Presumably there are more black politicians in Washington than Lynn Whitfield's character Debra Lassiter. Wouldn't it have been interesting to show how Washington politics changed some of them? Only Lynn Whitfield and Bernie Mac seemed to rise above the material. One critic suggested that the film would have been more interesting if Bernie Mac had been the one to run for President. They may have been right.
The Music Man (2003)
Good movie, hard sell
Well, I've read a lot of comments on this remake of Meredith Wilson's musical. My feeling is that no matter how good this movie may be, people would <i>still</i> find fault with it because it's not the "original," keeping in mind that the actual original would have been the 1957 stage version. Besides Preston, the only actor that I can find who made the transition from stage to screen was Pert Kelton as the Widow Paroo. Oh, how I wish I could have seen Robert Preston on Broadway. But I wasn't born yet.
The 1962 film version has had forty years to amass an audience of die-hard fans. Most of us probably don't make it to New York to see original Broadway productions, or even local dinner theater shows, so the movie version is most likely the only thing that a lot of people will see, whether it's at the local Cineplex, or on video/DVD. I've been fortunate enough to see a local dinner theater production of <i>The Music Man</i>. Like everyone else here, I made comparisons between the actor portraying Harold Hill and Robert Preston, and of course the local actor came up short. How could he <i>not</i>? I mean, after all, I've seen Preston's interpretation <i>countless</i> times thanks to my VCR. But after a while, I stopped making comparing and just had <i>fun</i> watching another interpretation of a great musical. Sure, Robert Preston remains the quintessential Harold Hill for me, but I can keep an open mind and watch someone else in the role. Besides, I can always watch the '62 version if I'm hankering for Preston, if ya don't mind my saying so...
Some people have bashed Broderick for his interpretation of Prof. Hill, citing his youth, subtle performance, singing ability, etc. Here are some things to keep in mind: At the time the movie was made, Robert Preston was only <u>four years older</u> than Matthew Broderick is now. Preston's vocal range was limited, so the songs were written with that in mind. He spoke a <i>lot</i> throughout his songs.
Although Preston originated the role of Professor Harold Hill on Broadway, Hollywood did not want him for the part in the film version, citing that he was too <i>old</i> to play opposite Shirley Jones. It was only after numerous other actors turned down the part, that Preston was allowed to reprise his performance.
Typically, actors on stage pump up their performances, in order to reach everyone in the theater, including people in the back row. Conversely, actors in film and television have to dial it down, because their audiences can easily see and hear what the actors are doing, and subtle is the key to a more believable performance as opposed to an "over the top" style.
Whereas Preston chose to reprise his fast-talking, mischief-making style from the stage, Broderick's con-man is more smooth, easy, and under the radar. Interestingly enough, Preston's version of Prof. Hill always came off as a conniving crook from the first time I laid eyes on him. There is no doubt that he has charisma and appeal but I wonder why anyone would buy <i>anything</i> from him. Broderick's Harold Hill, on the other hand, looks completely innocent and unassuming, which would make him perfect for selling someone swampland as viable real estate. And come on, would any of you <i>really</i> have accepted Broderick more readily if he chose the bombast and snappy patter? Or would you have just said "Preston wannabe?"
There was a lot I liked about the remake. I liked seeing more of the stage version make it to the screen. I liked the nontraditional casting for the citizens of River City (I know, it's highly unlikely that people of color would be interacting with caucasians in Iowa in 1912, but The Music Man was always an <b>idealized</b> version of life in a midwestern town) and for me, Kristin Chenoweth was 50 percent of the reason I wanted to watch this movie. In my opinion, she made a wonderful Marian Paroo.
I've always liked Debra Monk so it was fun to see her here as the Widow Paroo. My only criticism of Cameron Monaghan is that he didn't spit as much as Ronny Howard when he lisped through his lines (and maybe that's not a bad thing because I can't get Daffy Duck out of my mind as I write this) and he is so much the spitting image (pun intended) of Johnnie Whitaker, that I was expecting his surname to <i>be</i> Whitaker until I saw otherwise.
So who did I miss from the original? Well, I did miss Buddy Hackett as Marcellus Washburn, and although the school board members turned barbershop quartet were okay, I did miss the Buffalo Bills. But the guy I really missed was Harry Hickox. Who's Harry Hickox, you might ask? Why, none other than that traveling anvil salesman Charlie Cowell! Now <i>that</i> was a role that called for someone loud, bombastic, and over the top. Unfortunately, Patrick McKenna playing the vengeful fellow salesman just didn't do it for me (I wish he would have dropped his anvil case just once).
All in all, I'd say that this was a fine remake. I hope that it will attract the notice of younger audiences, so they can see that musicals aren't "lame." And maybe it'll get them interested in the film that was made over 40 years ago, starring Robert Preston and Shirley Jones.
But they'll probably prefer the Matthew Broderick version.
The Equalizer (1985)
Robert McCall was the ultimate chess player!
"The Equalizer" was an action-adventure TV series unlike any that I had ever seen before. It effectively mixed espionage, crime drama, and the private eye genres into a wonderful film noir package. Robert McCall (played to perfection by Edward Woodward) was no Mike Hammer, nor was he meant to be. He relied more on brains than brawn and his plans worked like a game of chess. Whether he attended an embassy affair or was running down a lead on a guns dealer in the South Bronx, McCall seemed right at home.
Disenchanted with his cloak-and-dagger life in the CIA, and perhaps seeking some redemption for some of his darker exploits in the name of God and Country, he broke away from "the Company," and offered his services to people in trouble.
McCall's strength was his abilities as a strategist and tactician. Although he was quite able in shootouts and fisticuffs, he tended to leave the rough stuff to other operatives who sometimes took time off from their day jobs (usually in the CIA) to work for McCall. One of his most trusted colleagues was his comrade-in-arms Mickey Kostmeyer (played by Keith Szarabajka), a Company man who seemed willing to dive into any dangerous situation for the thrill.
Although McCall resigned from the CIA, he continued to maintain contact with his friend and former boss, a man known only as Control (played by Robert Lansing). There is a history of camraderie between Control and McCall, but Control's job tends to get in the way of that friendship. When one of Control's operations involved lying to McCall, and McCall confronted him, Control's only response was, "It's what I do for a living, Robert."
All in all, a wonderful show with high production values. I'm only sorry it lasted four seasons.