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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).


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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).


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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).


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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).


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