Tag Archives: Christopher Lee

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).


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THIS FILM IS ALSO DISCUSSED IN SUM UP | ELEANOR PARKER, PART 4: GUEST STAR.

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Captain America II: Death Too Soon (1979, Ivan Nagy)

Captain America II: Death Too Soon, although it actually doesn’t have an onscreen subtitle, could just as well be called Captain America II: The Show No One Wants to See. I don’t even mean the eventual show (Death Too Soon is the second, Reb Brown-fronted CBS pilot), I mean this pilot movie, which retains executive producer Allan Balter and a lot of the crew from the initial attempt. It’s a complete wreck.

First example: Len Birman. Awesome co-star of the previous pilot movie. Given nothing to do outside some exposition, which he handles admirably. Except perving on Connie Sellecca, who does not give a good performance as a trouble-shooting super-scientist. She doesn’t. But she does start an actual subplot with her boss, Birman, sniffing her hair. It’s weird. What’s weirder is it doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t exactly get dropped, there just isn’t anymore character development for the characters. At first, I thought it was star Reb Brown sniffing her hair, but he’s actually got an entirely separate love interest.

Brown, or Captain America, is in love with his painting. Writers Wilton Schiller and Patricia Payne can’t stop having people talk about Brown and his stupid painting. He paints portraits of old people, cats, women on horses. He just loves painting. And maybe he should, but Death Too Soon doesn’t develop Brown’s protagonist either. Instead, it runs him around in a dumb costume for desperate action sequences. There’s obviously some significant spending on this second attempt, but Balter doesn’t use it well. It’s too cheap on the character stuff, too focused on motorcycle stunts and awful fight scenes; Death Too Soon amps up the previous pilot’s “Wonder Wonder”-wannabe syndrome. Everything good in the previous pilot gets flushed for everything bad in it.

There’s one good segment in Death Too Soon. Otherwise, director Nagy alternates between atrocious and incompetent. He’s never even pedestrian. It’s a poorly directed pilot. Except one chase sequence where Captain America’s motorcycling on a dam. It doesn’t even end well. But it’s really well done before it goes bad. It’s incredibly out of place.

Christopher Lee and Stanley Kamel play the villains, along with Lana Wood (who’s awful). Lee and Kamel are fun together, with Lee turning in a mostly awesome performance. He doesn’t class it up though, he just excels in his own role. It’s kind of cool, actually. He protects his brand.

Okay supporting turn from Katherine Justice as Brown’s human love interest. John Waldron’s obnoxious as her kid though. And Ken Swofford’s awful as a government stooge.

Death Too Soon also has this really weird “pro-gadget, anti-science” thing going on, which should–combined with being a failed “‘Wonder Woman’ for boys” TV pilot, Lee, Brown’s desperately lighted blond hair, experimenting on babies, Birman’s perving, Justice’s too tight jeans–make it a lot of bad camp fun. But it doesn’t, instead it’s just awful. It’s a poorly produced television pilot. It fails.

Except the dam. And, at some point in the production, someone did come up with some all right ideas. Mostly involving Lee’s character. Nagy just couldn’t execute any of them.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Ivan Nagy; teleplay by Wilton Schiller and Patricia Payne, based on characters created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon; director of photography, Vincent A. Martinelli; edited by Michael S. Murphy; music by Mike Post and Pete Carpenter; executive producer, Allan Balter; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring Reb Brown (Captain America / Steve Rogers), Katherine Justice (Helen Moore), John Waldron (Peter Moore), Christopher Lee (Miguel), Stanley Kamel (Kramer), Connie Sellecca (Dr. Wendy Day), Len Birman (Dr. Simon Mills), Ken Swofford (Everett Bliss), Christopher Cary (Professor Ian Ilson), William Lucking (Stader) and Lana Wood (Yolanda).


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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012, Peter Jackson), the extended edition

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is really long. Director Jackson’s greatest achievement with the film has to be making that length work. He runs out of ideas for action sequences (worst is when he repeats one just a couple set pieces later), he doesn’t give his actors anything to do (he’s more concerned with showcasing the makeup jobs on most of them); in fact, he barely has any enthusiasm for anything in journey.

He starts to wake up when Hugo Weaving arrives, but Weaving isn’t particularly good. Cate Blanchett and Christopher Lee show up just after Weaving, which is good, as they’re both great (and they lessen the load on Ian McKellen, who’s otherwise got to maintain the film himself). Not enough can be said for McKellen, who isn’t just excellent in an underwritten role (they’re all underwritten), but he’s also the only regular cast member who Jackson trusts. While Martin Freeman’s supposed to be the protagonist, Jackson doesn’t trust him. He gets around to it by the end of the film (after a number of aimless, if decently paced, adventures for Freeman) for Freeman’s scene with Andy Serkis. Or Serkis’s CG stand-in, which isn’t just the best performance of a digital character (by far), it’s the best rendering of a digital character. The film cuts between Serkis’s painstakingly rendered character and the rest of the party’s adventures in a video game. The CG isn’t ever so much cheap as boring.

Okay, the monster cats look cheap.

The party refers to thirteen dwarves. None of them make much impression, except the leader, played by Richard Armitage. His part’s poorly written and the script gives him a lot of bad dialogue and strange behavior–the best being in the film’s inert climax, accompanied by some real bad music by Howard Shore–but Armitage makes it work. He at least brings consequence to his performance. None of the other twelve dwarves bring anything–like I said, Jackson and photographer Andrew Lesnie are far more concerned with showcasing their makeup.

When he does get something to do, Freeman is likable, never exactly good. Jackson and his fellow screenwriters skip over character development, fully utilizing Hobbit’s position as an afterthought prequel to Lord of the Rings to get them out of first act responsibilities. Sadly, the exposition–and Journey has nothing but expository dialogue (except maybe between Blanchett and McKellen)–litters the rest of the film.

It could be a lot worse, though it should be a lot better (Jackson could’ve just done all CG for the amount of use he has for his human stars). And it is impressive how he manages to be boring overall but not from scene to scene.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Peter Jackson; written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Jackson and Guillermo Del Toro, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien; director of photography, Andrew Lesnie; edited by Jabez Olssen; music by Howard Shore; production designer, Dan Hennah; produced by Carolynne Cunningham, Zane Weiner, Walsh and Jackson; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Martin Freeman (Bilbo), Richard Armitage (Thorin), Ken Stott (Balin), Graham McTavish (Dwalin), William Kircher (Bifur), James Nesbitt (Bofur), Stephen Hunter (Bombur), Dean O’Gorman (Fili), Aidan Turner (Kili), John Callen (Oin), Peter Hambleton (Gloin), Jed Brophy (Nori), Mark Hadlow (Dori), Adam Brown (Ori), Ian Holm (Old Bilbo), Elijah Wood (Frodo), Hugo Weaving (Elrond), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), Christopher Lee (Saruman) and Andy Serkis (Gollum).


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The Wicker Man (1973, Robin Hardy), the final cut

The Wicker Man can never decide on a tone. Director Hardy and writer Anthony Shaffer are both interested in minutiae of the film’s fictional setting, but never the same minutiae at the same time. Hardy is more interested in how the people live, cut off from the mainland, while Shaffer is more interested in how it all concerns the mystery.

Only Hardy isn’t much interested in the mystery. He’s too busy giving a folk feeling to a decidedly not folky setting. Stylistically, it’s a wonderful disconnect–a bunch of islanders, living in the modern world, but with ancient religious beliefs, all different ages, all apparently co-existing peaceably. The mysteriousness of the island, however, proves a problem as it’s supposed to be this utterly controlled environment–private property owned by lord Christopher Lee–yet Shaffer’s characters aren’t a bunch of isolates, they’re “normal.” Or normal enough the audience should be disturbed by them.

However, the unevenness aside, The Wicker Man’s a fine picture. Hardy does a good job directing–he and editor Eric Boyd-Perkins cut a constantly foreboding (but not necessarily threatening) experience, with Edward Woodward a solid lead. Woodward’s mainland police officer is sympathetic without being likable. The film sends him to the island in search of a missing girl; Woodward (and the viewer) are left to imagine her awful fate.

It should be more exploitative than it comes across. Hardy doesn’t exactly hurry through anything, but he keeps a different, brisker pace during certain sequences.

However, once Lee shows up, he starts running circles around Woodward. Lee’s not just better, he has a far better part. There’s a lot more he can do with it, while Woodward’s pretty much stuck.

There’s some good support from Britt Ekland, who has a sense of humor about it. Lee has one too. It helps–especially since Diane Cilento and Ingrid Pitt, as blonde harpies meant to fill Woodward’s mind with impure thoughts, play it all way too seriously.

The Wicker Man has numerous significant rewards (like when Harry Waxman’s photography gets to shine), even if it stalls quite often on Shaffer’s various narrative shortcuts.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robin Hardy; written by Anthony Shaffer; director of photography, Harry Waxman; edited by Eric Boyd-Perkins; music by Paul Giovanni; produced by Peter Snell; released by British Lion Film Corporation.

Starring Edward Woodward (Sergeant Howie), Christopher Lee (Lord Summerisle), Diane Cilento (Miss Rose), Britt Ekland (Willow), Ingrid Pitt (Librarian), Irene Sunters (May Morrison) and Lindsay Kemp (Alder MacGreagor).


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