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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

'The Blue Lightning:' You Call That an Opal

The DVD release of the "The Blue Lightning" is the first title in the catalog of Shout Factory subsidiary Timeless Media that is being reviewed in this space. Timeless offers great vintage films and movies, such as "The Loretta Young Show", that are less mainstream than a typical Shout title. These titles also include "The Virgnian" and other '60s westerns.

"Lightning" is a delightfully cheesy 1986 TV movie in which "I Spy'" and "The Greatest American Hero's" Robert Culp plays a brutal IRA soldier with an amusingly inconsistent Irish accent who has moved to the Australian outback to create a criminal empire. Despite having an underground lair and a team of thugs, Culp's Lester McInally would end up crying for his Ma even at the mention of James Bond's name.

The titular Blue Lightning is a world-class opal that McInally sells a world-class billionaire but literally fails to deliver the goods on being paid. This prompts said billionaire to recruit tough guy for hire Harry Wingate to retrieve either the gem or the money.

One of the best lines of the film comes within a few minutes of Wingate arriving in Australia. He quickly kills a poisonous reptile that is in his hotel room courtesy of McInally. Wingate then tosses the reptile on the floor outside his room and tells a hotel employee that the plumber forgot his snake.

Wingate and his predictably inevitable love interest then repeatedly fight off a pair of McInnally's thugs who are charged with preventing Wingate from reaching McInally. The action includes an in-air gun fight that is reminiscent of the hilarious '60s cartoon series "Dick Dastardly and Muttley" and a collision between a large cattle truck and an obstacle on the highway that reminds one of the Road Runner cartoons.

Wingate's initial confrontation with McInally sets the scene for the middle of the film in which Wingate bonds with the aborigines who ultimately join his campaign for traditional reasons that relate to honor.

The final battle royale is a fitting end to the film.

The fact that this tale is not particularly original and the acting is not award (or sponge cake) worthy does not mean that it is not entertaining. It is 90-minutes of good escapism with nice desert scenery. Further, the cliches only add to the enjoyment of the film.

Anyone with questions about the film or "Muttley" is encouraged to email me.

Friday, February 8, 2013

'Quincy, M.E.:' Crusader Coroner

The six-disc 22-episode set of "Quincy, M.E.'s" 1979-1980 Season Five is the latest example of Shout Factory's great track record regarding adopting classic shows after another studio stopped releasing them. Although Shout is not releasing this set until March 19, 2013, it is well worth the wait.

This release comes a few months after star Jack Klugman's Christmas Eve 2012 death. The fact that "Quincy," rather than Klugman's arguably more popular show "The Odd Couple," is featured on Klugman's page indicates a great deal about that exceptional series that was still going strong after five seasons.

The credit for the exceptional quality of "Quincy" extends beyond Klugman's contributions. Donald P. Bellisario, who is perhaps best known for creating the even more successful "Magnum, P.I.," and "The Hardy Boys" TV series creator Glen A. Larson also helped bring "Quincy" to life.

Although losing any prospect of hoisting a domestic beer at a bar and grill with Klugman is sad, I am fortunate to have a six degrees of separation style connection with this truly talented actor and mensch. 

A good friend's grandfather was Klugman's cousin. That grandfather was born with the name Klugman and changed it to King to further his own successful show business career.

A recent news story about Klugman provided insight regarding how he successfully portrayed the down-to-earth and intelligent characters Oscar Madison in "The Odd Couple" and "Dr. Quincy," whose undisclosed first name garnered as much interest as that of Seinfeld's Kramer roughly 15 years later.

The story was that Klugman appeared for his "Odd Couple" audition wearing sloppy clothes. On being told that that was one reason that he was cast as the slovenly Madison, the already successful Klugman reportedly responded that he had worn his nicest clothes and thought that he looked his best.

"Quincy" was an early procedural that was Klugman's version of "Matlock" or "Murder, She Wrote" in that it was his semi-retirement mystery series. However, comparing Klugman's series to the other two is like comparing the military sitcoms "The Phil Silvers Show" and "M*A*S*H" to "Major Dad."

The titular character was a highly skilled coroner who was often called in on tough or VIP cases. Regardless of the catalyst, the autopsy results typically indicated some form of societal evil that Quincy was bulldog determined to rectify.

The season opener demonstrated the series' concept well. This plot about a plant growth stimulant that was turning marijuana lethal was essentially an "Afterschool Special," complete with Quincy addressing a high school assembly.

Despite the hookey elements, the story was good and had important messages that included the challenge of regulating advertisements of marijuana-related items. 

Another equally timely episode had Quincy battling a rich and powerful hospital owner who provided literally criminally negligent care and turned away even critical cases if the patient lacked medical insurance. 

A third episode about incest was less "After School Special" than the marijuana one. That one included both below-the-surface reasons for that icky practice and the message that father-daughter sex was not limited to lower income households.

It could be argued that an episode in which Quincy helped determine the identity of a D.B. Cooper style hijacker and the cause of that person's death simply by examining a skeleton that was found hanging in a tree by a parachute inspired the creators of the current procedural "Bones." An Anthrax outbreak was another current element of that episode.

No list of noteworthy episodes from the season would be complete without one that involved the death of a disgraced televangelist  from a fatal combination of alcohol and prescription drugs. Quincy's inability to determine whether the death was accidental or suicide prompted calling in consultants to perform a psychological autopsy to determine the televangelist's mental state at the time of his death.

Watching the consultants perform the psychological exam was fascinating, and the true circumstances regarding the cause of death included above-average twists.

The bottom line is that the series, including its fifth season, has enough appropriately toned drama, humor, and social commentary to make "Quincy" worth owning.

Anyone with questions or comments regarding "Quincy" is encouraged to email me.

Monday, February 4, 2013

'A Star Is Born' Blu-ray: The Sublime Miss S Rocks Out

Star Is Born, A (1976) (BD Book) Blu-ray
Evaluating the audio and video quality of the Blu-ray edition, which is being released on February 5, 2013,  of the 1976 Barbara Streisand/Kris Kristofferson remake of  "A Star is Born" is easy. The sound is very crisp and the picture is incredibly clear.

Further, Warner Brothers includes great photos and background information in the bound booklet in which the Blu-ray is encased. The Streisand narrated special feature on the wonderfully dated '70s fashions from the film is also great fun.

The bottom line is that "Star" is a classic and that fans of the '70s and/or Streisand will enjoy it if only for the music and the groovy fashions. The film is additionally notable for the Oscar-winning soft rock uber-hit "Evergreen" that Streisand and legendary song-writer Paul Williams co-wrote and that Streisand flawlessly performs.

Evaluating the film itself is tougher and requires treading very lightly on Faberge eggshells. The quasi Ike and Tina Turner plot of an aging self-destructive rocker experiencing a vicious cycle (this is hilarious to anyone familiar with "Star") who falls in love with an unknown and then launchs said unknown into stardom as he dramatically sabotages his own career makes for good cinema. 

Additionally, the 1954 Judy Garland/James Mason version of "Star" is a very tough act to follow. This one belongs on any list of top 100 films.

Streisand's effort to make this great story relevant in a time that classic '70s rock, easy listening hits, and disco were converging was a challenging undertaking. Additionally, any effort to modernize a classic tale is always risky.

It is equally important to remember that Streisand is incredibly talented. Her film roles show that she can handle screwball comedy as deftly as drama. 

Those roles, and her recordings, further demonstrate that no can belt out show tunes or sing ballads any better. "Star" simply was one of Streisand's efforts that slightly lowered her world-class batting average. However, even a not spectacular Streisand film is pretty darn good.

Streisand's ironic effort to modernize the "Star" story is a victim of her trying to control every aspect of the production. A simpler way of stating this is that one theory of cinema is that someone who tries to do more than one or two things in a production ends up not doing any of them particularly well.

Streisand stars, produces, writes music, and provides her personal clothing for "Star." (It is unknown if Streisand also cooks for the cast and crew and builds sets.) She even essentially states in her commentary for the special feature on the film's fashions that its good to be king in reference to her behind-the-scenes roles allowing her to control her fellow actors.

At the incredible risk of incurring the wrath of Streisand fans everywhere, this effort to make the film all about Barbara has a negative impact.This is unintentionally reflected in having the initials of Streisand's character Esther Hoffman Howard spell EHH.

It seems that miscasting hard-living country singer Kristofferson as both hard-living and hard-rocking John Norman Hoffman was designed to avoid diverting focus from Streisand. On my making that observation, my friend who watched the film with me commented that Greg Allman  of the Allman Brothers would have been a good choice.

Further, Kristofferson is one of Streisand's few leading men with whom she lacked chemistry. They are both strong performers but did not convey the love, the passion, and the frustration that their characters experienced.

Streisand went further by robbing Kristofferson of any truly strong moments. This extended to Kristofferson's final scene, which should have been all about Kris.

Streisand's biggest (and most amusing) mistake was trying to perform rock and disco music. Her wearing the androgynous slacks and blouses that the Woody Allen character Annie Hall made fashionable (and that Ellen DeGeneres rocks today) while getting down with her bad self did not play particularly well. 

I really tried to be kind but could not resist commenting "Mrs. Kotter rocks out" (You Millennials can Google it.) on seeing the mid-30s lanky Streisand strut her stuff and frantically bob her head decked out in an Annie Hall outfit. 

As stated above, "Star" was not a total car wreck (which is also hilarious to anyone familiar with the film.) It simply was a case of  Streisand initially experimenting in an area that did not play to her strengths, taking a role that was better suited for a younger actress, and compounding things by playing too large a role backstage.

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