Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Film Review: DR. COOK'S GARDEN (1971)

"Why the Hell isn't this on DVD yet?" -- Number 82   

DR. COOK'S GARDEN (1971 ABC-TV/Paramount) Starring Bing Crosby, Frank Converse, Blythe Danner, Barnard Hughes, Thomas Barber, Staats Cotsworth, Bethel Leslie, Abby Lewis.  Directed by Ted Post.

Der Bingle is a kindly G.P. in a Greenfield, arguably the most beloved person in this idyllic area.  How idyllic?  The town boats a very low crime rate and few unpleasant citizens.  Greenfield is about to host recent medical school graduate Converse, returning to visit high school sweetheart Danner and mentor Crosby.  The budding young doctor is pleasantly surprised by his home town's evolution into a paradise---and increasingly concerned about the number of abrupt, mysterious deaths occuring in heavenly Greenfield.

Originally airing as the ABC "Movie of the Week", DR. COOK'S GARDEN seems more relevant with the passage of time with the real world bringing us Doctors Kevorkian and Shipman and (even more recently) debate over the possibility of "death panels" in the decades since.  Art Wallace (SHE WAITS) adapted from a play by Ira Levin, whose STEPFORD WIVES also explored a seemingly perfect town with a sinister forces at work under the veneer.

As was often the case for this Golden Age of telefilms, brevity is a plus, with few moments wasted.  In what would turn out to be his acting swan song (and only TV Movie) Crosby gives one of his best performances in a decidedly atypical role.  Posthumous revelations about Crosby's personal life exposed the actor's dark side, but at the time DR. COOK'S GARDEN aired he was as easygoing and beloved by the general public as the titular character is to Greenfield's citizens. 

While the subject matter hasn't dated, the method of storytelling has, surprising for a film directed by the usually reliable Ted Post (GO TELL THE SPARTANS, THE BABY).  Post unfortunately provides two spoilers in the first four minutes, which kills most of the suspense before the opening credits. Granted, this was the pre-VCR and MTV early Seventies, but even taking that into account these scenes are particularly unsubtle and intrusive.  The former is Crosby's lone lapse into hamminess, but at least it's wordless and pretty brief.

Crosby's Dr. Cook is calm and rationalizing as his describes the thought he puts into his decisions, and admits that marking the "R" is always difficult for him.  His unfailing composure adds creepiness that helps make up for the missing uncertainty and almost raises this otherwise average tale into the must-see category.  Two decades before Alec Baldwin brazenly declared himself God in MALICE, Crosby let actions speak louder than his downright humble words possibly could, giving us a thriller more than interesting enough to watch despite its deficiencies. 

So....why isn't this on DVD yet?

DR. COOK'S GARDEN certainly left an impression, as many viewers still fondly recall it after all these years. Too bad it has fallen victim to a double whammy in regards to a potential release.  Made for TV movies from the early 1970's remain underrepresented on DVD, with TRIBES, MY SWEET CHARLIE and THAT CERTAIN SUMMER just a few from the top tier that are still missing.  Making things worse for the GARDEN is Paramount's consistently spotty history at getting its vintage titles on disc.

Why it should be on DVD:

Just a notch below the era's best telefilms, DR. COOK'S GARDEN is an absolute must for Bing Crosby's fans and boasts strong, STEPFORD-like production values.  It's been M.I.A. from cable for two full decades like much of the rest of its made for TV brethren (DUEL and BRIAN'S SONG seem to be the rare exceptions) and could really use a remastering and a rediscovery.

DR. COOK'S GARDEN is on YouTube, but in a mediocre (at best) print (as you can tell from the screen captures) with out of sync sound.  This is one venerable Movie of the Week that deserves better.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Missing No Longer: THE SLAMS (1973) and THE PACK (1977)

I should probably just re-name Missing No More and call it The Warner Archive post label at this point, since it seems like every time former Horn Section reviews bow on DVD, it's the good folks over at WA making it happen.  This month we highlight a couple of action packed curios from the Seventies.  One is a blaxploitation crime drama, the other a "man against nature" horror film.  Each drive-in fave is headlined by one of the sturdiest leading men of the Me decade.

THE PACK (1977) stars Joe Don Baker as a marine biologist (!) who learned from the equally rugged Forrest Tucker (THE CRAWLING EYE) how to look scholarly for these brainy (but still brawny) roles: wear glasses from time to time!  As I noted in the review it doesn't really work as horror because collies and dalmations ain't all that terrifying.  However, Robert Clouse (ENTER THE DRAGON) wrote and directed a film that is still well worthy of applause.

Who needs Dentastix?
Clouse's screenplay features effectively drawn characters, underappreciated actors (beginning with Baker, who did get several action leads in the wake of WALKING TALL) and above all a needed but not preachy reminder about responsible pet ownership.  While the Dalmation might not be a very scary breed, if you're familiar with its history as a pet, it is particulaly well-suited to that last message.  Unfortunately untold numbers of Dalmations suffered in the wake of 101 DALMATIONS, ending up abandoned by owners who, while well-meaning, weren't prepared for ownership of the high-energy spotted canines.

THE PACK is newly remastered by Warner Archive but available in the U.S. only per the link.  Myself, I prefer it to CUJO, its only real competition in the "killer dog" subgenre.  Unless you want to count the masked Afghans in 1959's THE KILLER SHREWS, that is.

THE SLAMS (1973), which was just reviewed here in early February, sends Jim Brown to prison.  In a case of "ask and ye shall receive", Warner Archive put it out a month later as one of four Jim Brown releases.

Since the review should still be fresh in your mind, there's not much to add.  Frank de Kova (as a mafia kingpin), Ted Cassidy (as his racist henchman) and Judy Pace (as...Hell, does it matter?  She's Judy Pace!) are Brown's co-stars in this combination prison/caper film.  All four Jim Brown films are newly remastered.

Brown drives a harder bargain than Sergeant O'Rourke....

Along with THE SLAMS, fans will certainly want to check out THE SPLIT (1968), one of the other new releases.  The cast....well, all I can say is "wow": Jack Klugman (the Big Q himself!), Diahann Carroll (SISTER, SISTER), Warren Oates (BARQUERO), Ernest Borgnine, Gene Hackman and James Whitmore.

More reviews and potential Archive findings to come!

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Film Review: THE BOSS' WIFE (1986)

"Why the Hell isn't this on DVD yet?" -- Number 81

THE BOSS' WIFE (1986 TriStar) Starring Daniel Stern, Martin Mull, Christopher Plummer, Arielle Dombasle, Fisher Stevens, Melanie Mayron, Lou Jacobi, Thalmus Rasulala.  Directed and Written by Ziggy Steinberg.

Stockbroker Stern aspires to have a baby with wife Mayron and to "get out of the bullpen" and into an analyst's position at work, but is failing at both tasks.  The first goal has been hindered by a low sperm count, and the second by a plunging outlook for a presentation Stern has been planning for weeks.  But with mentor Jacobi's help, Stern gains an audience with neurotic Plummer, the quintessential style over substance boss.  This puts Stern in direct competition with experienced, toadying, "flat-haired" Mull.  With Plummer unable to decide after a lunch meeting, he insists that both men bring their wives and join him for a Palm Springs company weekend---that night. 

It's a long-awaited opportunity, but Stern's problems are just beginning.  Mayron is working with eccentric photographer Stevens to meet a publishing deadline, and Stern receives advances from sultry Dombasle at the train station.  Once he boards, Stern learns that not only is Dombasle on the same trip, she's the Boss' Wife--and his own wife is on her way to the station with Stevens along for the ride.

The only feature to date directed by screenwriter Ziggy Steinberg, THE BOSS' WIFE is also his funniest film.  Faint praise considering the competition (ANOTHER YOU and PORKY'S REVENGE) but Steinberg assembles a terrific cast and provides several great jokes here amidst numerous predictable ones.  THE BOSS' WIFE also benefits from a solid helping of corporate satire in its opening third.

In one of his few comedies, Plummer swipes the show as the clueless train-obsessed Boss who is even more of a worker's nightmare than OFFICE SPACE's Bill Lumbergh.  He egocentrically places his logo everywhere, ignores competence and facts (which "just confuse him," Jacobi advises) and intimidates everyone around him without ever raising his voice.  The one time he does shout (about missing lunch condiments) is arguably the film's funniest moment. 

Mull is also perfectly cast as the smarmy ass-kisser who's been waiting for years for the position he's competing for.  Stevens, fresh off of his turn as Indian Ben Jahrvi in SHORT CIRCUIT, plays Mayron's Hispanic client Carlos and gets the bulk of the choice lines, stealing virtually every scene that Plummer doesn't.

SO FINE (1981) came to mind more than once while I was watching THE BOSS' WIFE.  Both are attempts to raunch up the classic screwball sex farce for the 1980's.  Each featured an unsatisfied and exotic trophy wife coming on to a milquetoast hero in a shockingly blunt way, with said hero facing competition from the company asskisser, trying to gain favor with a pedantic superior, and facing great danger if he's caught with the wife.  Unfortunately, Steinberg lacks Andrew Bergman's attention to detail and adeptness at maximizing the comic possibilities.

Stevens' aggressively rude artist offers a key example.  His project is a photobook called "Faces of Anger", for which he approaches strangers, intentionally angers them, and snaps their reaction.  One of the film's best sight gags involves the collage of subjects on his wall.  He never stops working, even when Stern and Mayron are the only others in the room.  Steinberg is wise enough to put Stevens on the train to Palm Springs, but foolish enough to have Stevens leave his camera back at the station.  Not only do we miss out on the opportunity for more "Faces of Anger" on the trip, but it also undermines the character--how could such a dedicated craftsperson abandon his pet project and pending due date for the whole weekend?

Dombasle shows off her rousing physical assets frequently.  In her best scene she wordlessly (and very literally) leaves an impression during Stern's dinner with an incredibly unsuspecting Plummer, but unlike SO FINE's Mariangela Melato she isn't given a sympathetic side or much verbal wit in Steinberg's screenplay.  As a result we have more unrealized potential with multi-talented Dombasle (well known as a model and singer overseas) wasted as one-dimensional eye candy.

THE BOSS' WIFE was mostly ignored when it was dumped into a handful of theatres in November of 1986.  While the uneven film isn't quite what it could have been, it is still worth watching for a few stimulating setpieces and the very funny performances from Plummer and Stevens. 

So...why isn't this on DVD yet?

While THE BOSS' WIFE is still lacking a formal DVD release, it is available as a download only at iTunes and Amazon.  Curiously, the download isn't compatible with HDTV, but the film has turned up recently in HD on Sony Movie Channel.

Why it should be on DVD:

Plummer.  Stevens.  Mull.  Dombasle's nudity.  Maybe not in that order.  Your mileage may vary, but at 83 minutes, THE BOSS' WIFE won't ruin your day if you don't find that many chuckles.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Film Review: DREAMER (1979)

"Why the Hell isn't THIS on DVD yet?" -- Number 80

DREAMER (1979 20th Century Fox) Starring Tim Matheson, Jack Warden, Susan Blakely, Barbara Stuart, Richard B. Shull, Chris Schenkel, Nelson Burton Jr., Azizi Johari, Mews Small, Julian Byrd, Matt Clark, Dick Weber.  Directed by Noel Nosseck.

Matheson is a bowling whiz in his small midwestern town who dreams of winning that one big tournament and joining the PBA.   Former pro Warden co-owns the bowling alley Matheson works at, mentoring and living vicariously through the young talent, while the Dreamer's lady Blakely grows frustrated "competing with bowling".  There are choices to make all around when Matheson has the goal in sight at the tour's Chicago stop, with just one problem--legendary Hall of Famer Weber is the opponent standing in his way.

The 1970's was something of a Golden Age for the sports movie.  In that decade's latter half, most tended to fall into one of two categories.  The makers either embraced profanity and other R-rated content a la THE BAD NEWS BEARS (FAST BREAK and SLAP SHOT come to mind) or went the safer, more innocuous, straightforward "feel good" route of BREAKING AWAY and ROCKY.  Since ROCKY's Bill Conti does the soundtrack and the film is rated PG (no "tempations of the road" for this bowler) it's easy to see Nosseck is taking the latter route with DREAMER.

Somewhat distinguished by virtue of being one of the few theatrical films to center on the PBA (are there any others besides KINGPIN?), DREAMER offers few new wrinkles otherwise.  The conflicts are too minor (Matheson vs. the PBA establishment, Blakely vs. Warden for Matheson's time) in the script by Larry Bischof and James Proctor.  In addition, they leave a 7-10 split with Warden's arc, which is manipulative, cliched as Hell and removes the most intriguing character from the action too soon.  Maybe they thought Matheson's thumb injury just wasn't enough to convince us that bowling is tough, strenuous exercise, I dunno.

As one might guess from that and other plot twists, DREAMER follows the sports film template without surprises, other than Blakely's girlfriend not being the "wet blanket" type when it comes to bowling.  On the contrary, she works at the same alley and would love to accompany Matheson to the tournaments, but "the guys" think she affects his focus negatively.  Well, either that or she's just bad luck.  The romantic pairing doesn't really click like it should; Matheson comes across as indifferent to her, and the pair being "brought together" by a tragedy seems as artificial as the demise itself.

Several interesting minor roles (Clark's "Spider", Small's waitress) leave you wanting more.  One of those intriguing characters livens DREAMER up halfway through, as June 1975 Playmate of the Month Azizi Johari (THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE) shows up at the alley as a pool hustler, looking stunning and offering an intriguing bet to would-be womanizer Clark, who has trouble keeping his jaw off the ground.  So did I:

I have this sudden urge to "rack 'em up"....
Johari is barely onscreen for five minutes, but you can't take your eyes off her.  Too brief, but it's the most memorable scene.  It's too bad that Nosseck keeps cutting away from the pool room.  To answer Roger Ebert's question from his review: Small updates us on the match in the next scene, and it's safe to say Clark kept losing.  After all, if he'd won, he'd be way too busy to be bothering Blakely about two hours later.

Also sticking in your head afterward ("Reach for the top/I won't stop/Gonna shoot my shot...") is Pablo Cruise's theme song, though not in nearly as good a way.  It's good to see Matheson in what would turn out to be a rare lead (after his ANIMAL HOUSE success) but, with Warden given little to do, this is one of the few films he can't help, though he could certainly spice things up if he had the R-rating to work with.  Hard to fault a sports film for being predictable, and that isn't what sinks DREAMER: blandness is.  Still worth a gander for its cast and a subject that is rarely explored cinematically.  Just don't expect to learn much more about bowling than Warden's advice: "You gotta beat the pins, not the man."

So....why isn't this on DVD yet?

Contrary to the Wikipedia entry on the film, DREAMER did have a limited but unsuccessful theatrical run in the Spring of 1979.  But only passably written and directed at best, and only scratching the surface of the sport's nuances, DREAMER failed to satisfy aficionados, casual bowlers or sports movie fans in its short stint.

Why it should be on DVD:

Bland as DREAMER is, PBA fans might appreciate, since there are very few non-comedies exploring the sport.  Fans of the two leads might like this as well, but otherwise, the rare appearance by Azizi Johari (who only made four features, all between 1976 and 1981) is the main reason to tune in.

Reason enough, actually.

DREAMER airs occasionally on Fox Movie Channel.  If you'd like to check it out for yourself, it's scheduled next for May 21st at 11:25 A.M.