1978

The Buddy Holly Story (1978, Steve Rash)

There are three different things going on throughout The Buddy Holly Story. Well, more than three but there are the three big different things. There’s Robert Gittler’s screenplay, which has one narrative gesture for most of the film. There’s Gary Busey’s lead performance, which is resolute in both its sincerity and its anti-inscrutability. And there’s Rash’s direction, which enables both the script and the performance, but also leverages them to manage the scale.

Rash has a very determined narrative distance with The Buddy Holly Story. It’s Buddy Holly’s story. It’s Busey’s story. If he’s not in a scene, he’s about to be. Even when it’s not his scene, it ends up being his scene, because it’s all about him. Well, his performance. But Busey doesn’t do exposition. The performance doesn’t suggest a propensity for it, the script doesn’t pursue it. The other members in the band are there for exposition. Lovable standing bassist Charles Martin Smith and big but not dumb drummer Don Stroud. Even Amy Johnston, as Busey’s hometown girlfriend, expounds so Busey doesn’t. So the script’s got its own distance to its protagonist.

Because what the film becomes–and stays for quite a while–is these three guys journey into and through stardom. But not the pluses of stardom and not even the minuses (they’re implied and off-screen). They’re moving through the practicalities of it all. They’re at an information disadvantage, going from Lubbock to New York City by way of Nashville. Their actions can influence the trajectory but those actions tend to be reactions. Bluntly, the film positions the band as underdogs, even though they’re objectively not.

American music in the fifties had an enumeration of creatively significant artists working independently, simultaneously, and in both active and passive conjunction. Lots of big things happened in music, including Buddy Holly and some of the other musical acts portrayed in the film. Rash and Gittler consciously keep the characters’ anticipation and trepidation separate from the audience’s. The film is very sad. But it’s not sentimental. It’s sad. It’s guardedly, but enthusiastically nostalgic.

But it’s also very softly lighted–by Stevan Larner–on these often empty sets. Joel Schiller’s production design is great but outside musical set pieces, a lot of the film is just the three guys in sparse interiors. Usually without natural light sources. If there were fluorescent lights all over the place in the fifties, The Buddy Holly Story would be mostly in fluorescent lighted rooms with Busey discovering how far his creative ambitions can go and how to get them there and Stroud and Smith trying to keep up.

There are also bigger scenes, but they’re near vignettes. Like when Busey and the boys go play the Apollo and the white manager (Dick O’Neill) is terrified of putting up the three white boys from Texas for his black customers. The micro-subplot where Busey and the boys tour with Sam Cooke (Paul Mooney). They’re these clumps of larger scale scenes with the band scenes–which do eventually involve other supporting cast members, but as background–handling the narrative progress.

Then in the mid-to-late second act the film spotlights Busey as he branches off from the musical journey plot line to romance Maria Richwine. And the spotlight stays on Busey even away from those scenes. The film doesn’t really change its narrative distance, just its focus… by fading out around Busey. But never isolating him.

It’s a neat trick. Rash and Gittler do a lot with a lot. They’re even able to get away with the obviously historical location footage from establishing shots later on. It’s almost a gradual trust issue. The film doesn’t exactly lull its audience, but it invites a comfortable relationship.

Because the film is a true story and it’s a tragedy and even if you’re going into it completely unaware as a viewer, the filmmakers are aware and they take on certain responsibilities. And everyone making Buddy Holly Story–Rash, Gittler, Busey, Stroud, Smith, and whoever else–are embracing those responsibilities. The film’s astoundingly self-confident from the first scene. It’s never showy but it never meanders either. It doesn’t wander. Rash is guiding that flow, with a variety of styles, and each one has to hit just the right tone.

Not always easy when there are budgetary restrictions. Some of those interiors are sparser than they ought to be.

When the Story gets to the end, the film does just the right thing. It’s not an entirely unexpected thing, it’s not a surprise, but it’s neither the most or least obvious. But then Rash and Gittler haven’t been worried about the audience’s expectations, they’ve been tracking Busey’s. So it’s sort of the inevitable right thing. And you want it to go on forever.

The acting’s all good or better. Busey’s phenomenal. Then there’s the lip-synching. There isn’t any. So that enthusiastic nostalgia without any betraying of the verisimilitude and whatnot. Because Rash and Gittler are taking it seriously.

So it’s like it should be a surprise The Buddy Holly Story is such a success, but it also couldn’t be anything but.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steve Rash; screenplay by Robert Gittler, based on a story by Alan Swyer and a book by John Goldrosen; director of photography, Stevan Larner; edited by David E. Blewitt; music by Joe Renzetti; production designer, Joel Schiller; produced by Fred Bauer; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Gary Busey (Buddy), Maria Richwine (Maria), Charles Martin Smith (Ray Bob), Don Stroud (Jesse), Conrad Janis (Ross Turner), William Jordan (Riley), Amy Johnston (Cindy Lou), Dick O’Neill (Sol Gittler), Neva Patterson (Mrs. Ella Holly), Arch Johnson (Mr. Lawrence Holly), Gloria Irizarry (Mrs. Santiago), and Paul Mooney (Sam Cooke).


What a Nightmare, Charlie Brown! (1978, Bill Melendez and Phil Roman)

What a Nightmare, Charlie Brown! is not about Charlie Brown (Liam Martin) having a nightmare. He does get told, eventually, about a nightmare, but he’s only in the special at the beginning and the end. He gets the bright idea to play “sled dog” with Snoopy and have Snoopy lead him around like they’re in the Arctic.

Things don’t work out for Charlie Brown, leading to him leading Snoopy around and Snoopy cracking the whip. It’s hilarious. And justified, given Charlie Brown is basically telling Snoopy he wants to treat him cruelly.

After all the exertion, Snoopy’s tuckered out and makes himself a large pizza dinner in a sublimely animated sequence. Whether or not the accompanying song–sung by Larry Finlayson, written by composer Ed Bogas–is cringey or perfect changes moment to moment. It’s painfully obvious and way too on the nose, but the sequence is so good–Snoopy so funny–the mood just right, maybe it’s perfect.

Anyway, Snoopy apparently added some rarebit to his pizza–or maybe his raw egg creams did it–and, after going to sleep on the dog house, he starts having a nightmare. What if he woke up in the Arctic and had to pull a sled in a pack of wild dogs.

There’s the sled driver, but he’s an adult so he talks in Wah Wah; so there’s no dialogue in Snoopy’s nightmare. He doesn’t communicate with the other dogs in any civilized manner because they’re wild and savage. They won’t let him eat, they won’t let him drink water, they won’t even snuggle with him when it gets cold. How is Snoopy going to survive….

The Charlie Brown chastising Snoopy for not being rugged enough at the beginning is fine–Martin’s performance isn’t great–but Charles M. Schulz’s dialogue isn’t particularly inspired either. The sight gags are good, but they’re amid the exposition and setup. When Nightmare gets to the Arctic, however, Schulz’s pacing excels. Snoopy’s arc is awesome. Funny, scary, sad, thrilling.

And the Nightmare goes on for a while. Multiple sled dog days. Snoopy keeps getting more sympathetic as it goes, even though he’s presumably safe throughout.

Then the finish is funny and sweet and has the same possibly bad, possibly great song accompaniment.

Roman and Melendez’s direction is good, nice editing from Roger Donley and Chuck McCann, fine animation. Bogas’s score isn’t amazing, but it has its moments; it also has that song, which is endearing but maybe not in the right way. But maybe in the right way.

Nightmare is inventive and spontaneous. Good stuff.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Bill Melendez and Phil Roman; written by Charles M. Schulz; music by Ed Bogas; edited by Roger Donley and Chuck McCann; produced by Melendez; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring Liam Martin (Charlie Brown).


The Cheap Detective (1978, Robert Moore)

It was until after The Cheap Detective was over I realized there’s never anything about Peter Falk’s fee. It’s not clear whether he’s cheap or not. It’s never addressed. It’s one of the many things Neil Simon’s screenplay never gets around to addressing, like if the third act is all a scheme or if it’s all coincidental. It doesn’t much matter–by the third act, The Cheap Detective is so overflowing with characters (there are twenty-three actors listed in the opening titles), and the movie’s less than ninety minutes, it’d be impossible to fit in a good scheme reveal. Not to say the ending is satisfactory. It’s still lazy. It’s just easy to understand why Simon didn’t try for anything ambitious. The movie’s just too crowded.

The Cheap Detective is a mix of The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, set in San Francisco, but still with Nazis after French resistance fighters. The difference is the Nazis are from the Cincinnati chapter and the French resistance fighters just want to open a bistro in Oakland. Cheap Detective has a lot of cheap, deadpan jokes, which only go over thanks to the cast.

Because even though the film’s too small–it’s mostly interiors and the same ones, over and over (budget, presumably)–and Simon doesn’t do much with the script besides the amalgamation of Bogart movies played for laughs, the cast is almost always exceptional. And, when they aren’t, it’s usually because the jokes bad.

Falk is the Bogart caricature. More on Falk in a bit, I need to get through the supporting cast. First, the characters cribbed from Falcon and Casablanca. Falcon: Madeline Kahn is Mary Astor, Marsha Mason is Gladys George (partner’s widow), Dom DeLuise is Peter Lorre, John Houseman is Sydney Greenstreet, Paul Williams is Elisha Cook Jr., and Stockard Channing is de facto Lee Patrick (the secretary). Casablanca: Louise Fletcher is Ingrid Bergman, Fernando Lamas is Paul Henreid, Scatman Crothers is Dooley Wilson, Nicol Williamson is the Nazi commander. Ann-Margret and Sid Caesar are kind of riffs on Big Sleep characters but barely. Then James Coco is around–in the Casablanca stuff–as the club owner, since Falk is the detective not Rick. And Eileen Brennan, in the film’s fourth biggest part, is a sultry night club performer who falls for Falk. Or does she.

Simon’s script adapts scenes from both Falcon and Casablanca, somewhat successfully merging the two. It’s silly, smile-provoking, but effective. Kahn is fantastic, DeLuise is fantastic, Mason is fantastic. Brennan’s good with a thin part folded in on itself, Lamas is good, Ann-Margret is fun, John Houseman does a fine impression (it’s interesting to contrast him with DeLuise or Williams, who aren’t aping the source performances as much). Channing is good. She’s got almost nothing to do. Ditto Williamson. Crothers is basically a cameo. In some ways, so is Coco. Fletcher is the least successful, partially because of the part, partially because she still functions like Ilsa in Casablanca only without any chemistry with Falk.

And now it’s time for some Falk discussion, which–sadly–doesn’t rhyme with frank as much as I’d like.

Falk moves through Cheap Detective amiably, humorously, but always as support for his more outlandish costars. He’s not the straight man; he’s a little befuddled (or is he) and he’s always subdued. He’s a great costar. He’s not a great lead. Anyone putting in any effort dominates their scenes with him (so, basically, not Houseman and not Fletcher, though for different reasons).

Even though Falk’s The Cheap Detective, he’s barely the lead and definitely not the protagonist, not with Simon’s third act shenanigans. Those shenanigans are particularly disappointing because the film’s never better than at the end of the second act, when it seems like it might add up to something.

I suppose it does add up to something, but not anything ambitious or even enthusiastic.

Nice music from Patrick Williams. Decent photography from John A. Alonzo, though there’s only so much he can do given the obviously limited shooting locations. Sidney Levin and Michael A. Stevenson’s editing is a mess. They can’t cut to or from close-ups; some of the problem appears to be Robert Moore’s composition. Cheap Detective is Panavision and almost charming for it, but Moore runs out of shots fast and keeps using the same three-shot over and over again. The shots become predictable. And if you’re familiar with the source material, the scenes become predictable. Cheap Detective gets by thanks to the cast and their enthusiasm more than anything the filmmakers contribute.

The film seems like a better idea than it turns out to be in execution, but there’s still some excellent material throughout. And Kahn, Mason, DeLuise, and Brennan are all great.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Moore; written by Neil Simon; director of photography, John A. Alonzo; edited by Sidney Levin and Michael A. Stevenson; music by Patrick Williams; production designer, Robert Luthardt; produced by Ray Stark; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Peter Falk (Lou Peckinpaugh), Madeline Kahn (Mrs. Montenegro), Marsha Mason (Georgia Merkle), Eileen Brennan (Betty DeBoop), Louise Fletcher (Marlene DuChard), Fernando Lamas (Paul DuChard), Ann-Margret (Jezebel Dezire), Stockard Channing (Bess), Dom DeLuise (Pepe Damascus), James Coco (Marcel), Nicol Williamson (Colonel Schlissel), Scatman Crothers (Tinker), Paul Williams (Boy), John Houseman (Jasper Blubber), Vic Tayback (Lt. DiMaggio), and Sid Caesar (Ezra Dezire).


Tooth Brushing (1978, Bill Melendez)

It’s incredible Tooth Brushing only runs five minutes. The cartoon (an educational short produced for the American Dental Association) starts innocuously enough. Charlie Brown gets out of the dentist, heads home to try out his new brush and other dentist goodies–he’s also got fresh instructions from the dentist.

He runs into Snoopy, then he runs into Linus. And decides he’s going to instruct Linus… and Snoopy instead of brushing his own teeth. It’s fine, because Linus has his toothbrush handy and Snoopy has Lucy’s toothbrush. The Snoopy using Lucy’s toothbrush sequence, as Charlie Brown and Linus get more and more mortified, is where Tooth Brushing nails it. It’s gross (though, really, does Snoopy have more plaque than Linus) and it seems like it can’t be topped.

Then Lucy gets home and shows the boys the real way to brush your teeth.

Great animation, great performance from Michelle Muller as Lucy (and decent ones from Arrin Skelley and Daniel Anderson as Charlie Brown and Linus, respectively) and some perfect comic timing make Tooth Brushing so funny you forget it’s supposed to be educational and not just a great bit. Roger Donley and Chuck McCann’s editing and Jeff Hall’s perfect animation (he holds the horrified expressions just right) are outstanding.

Brushing’s hilarious.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Bill Melendez; written by Charles M. Schulz; animated by Jeff Hall; edited by Roger Donley and Chuck McCann; music by Vince Guaraldi; production designer, Evert Brown; produced by Melendez and Lee Mendelson; released by the American Dental Association.

Starring Arrin Skelley (Charlie Brown), Daniel Anderson (Linus), and Michelle Muller (Lucy).


Autumn Sonata (1978, Ingmar Bergman)

Somewhat recently I read an observation along the following lines–Ingmar Bergman created great roles for actresses by giving them absolutely awful emotions to essay. Whoever said it (I’ve tried, without success to properly credit her) said it a lot better. But at around the hour mark of Autumn Sonata, I couldn’t think of much else. The film just over ninety minutes. An hour into it, everything is forecast.

The film opens with village pastor Halvar Björk introducing his wife, Liv Ullmann. He loves her, a lot, but doesn’t really know how to express it in a way she can process it. She’s writing a letter to her mother, happily inviting her for a visit. The village is rural, their house is tranquil, the colors are soft, warm browns and reds (Autumn).

When mother–Ingrid Bergman–arrives, she and Ullmann have a nice reuniting. It’s been over seven years. Bergman hasn’t been good about staying in touch. She’s managed to miss Ullmann is taking care of her sister (Lena Nyman) now. Nyman is disabled; partially paralyzed and with limited speech. It’s an unidentified (by the dialogue) illness and, the film later reveals, a degenerative one.

Bergman isn’t happy to see Nyman, which is the first hint maybe Bergman isn’t such a great mother. Or person.

There are some more character revelations in the first third–Ullmann and Björk had a son who died, tragically, as a toddler. Bergman apparently never even met her grandson. She’s a famous concert pianist. She was busy.

She wakes that first night from a terrible dream–which is a fantastically done nightmare sequence (easily the best bit of editing in the film)–and goes downstairs to shake it off. Ullmann comes to check on her. That checking on her soon turns into daughter telling mother exactly what she thinks of her.

Their conversation, with occasional flashbacks, takes most of the rest of the film. It’s that night, the two women in the same room. Ullmann hating Bergman, Bergman either begging forgiveness or making excuses.

At that one hour mark I mentioned earlier, as Ullmann’s revealing the laundry list of Bergman’s bad parenting, that observation came to mind and I couldn’t shake it. But not only is Bergman–Ingmar–giving his two stars all this awful emotion to play, it’s not even particularly good awful emotion. It’s affecting and seeing Ullmann stare thin daggers at a collapsing Bergman–Ingrid–is powerful, but… dead toddler? Nyman’s illness? Ullmann being surprised she and mom aren’t having a good visit even though the only reason Ullmann invited her, deep down (but not even particularly deep down), is to rend her? It’s all pretty slight.

The filmmaking slows to a halt too. During the day, there are those beautiful colors from cinematographer Sven Nykvist in the perfectly designed house (Anna Asp’s production design). Night time? It’s nowhere near as effective. And, even though the colors are great and then there’s the interesting way Bergman (Ingmar) and Nykvist do flashbacks–long shots with muted color so Bergman (Ingrid) always gets to play mom, Ullmann usually gets to play herself, Nyman gets to play herself–for some reason lots of the (albeit occasional) camera movements are jerky and distracting. The camera moves for emphasis on Ullmann or Bergman and instead of informing their performance, it jerks and draws attention away from the performance. You’re wondering how they messed up a simple pan and tilt, when there’s clearly so much professional competence (and excellence) on display.

Like when Bergman has her scene listening to Ullmann play the piano. It’s beautiful. Truly magical acting from Bergman; it’s silent, she’s just watching, reacting to Ullmann playing, her thoughts across her face. A very complicated affection. The two argue for forty-five minutes at least and there’s never anything approaching that complication again in Sonata. Though once Ullmann starts in on Bergman, even when Bergman gets a monologue–the film’s a sequence of them–it’s nowhere near as good as anything she has earlier. Once Ullmann goes into simple hatred mode too… her character becomes a whole lot less interesting. Meanwhile Björk is occasionally around, usually silent. The way Bergman (Ingmar) used Björk as a fourth-wall breaking narrator was cool and all, but utterly pointless as the film progresses. It’s a misdirect to position Ullmann from a particularly angle.

The finale is particularly lackluster, both narratively and visually. Bergman (Ingmar) and Nykvist can’t do a simple composition shot. Ullmann gets a bunch of contrary penultimate character development, which would’ve been a lot better if it had come at the beginning, but then the finale resets it all back to the start anyway.

Somehow, Autumn Sonata–maybe due to the somewhat obvious production constraints–manages to be too misanthropic to be manipulative. It’s exceptionally disappointing, since–until it becomes obvious Bergman (Ingmar) doesn’t have the emotional fodder for Ullmann and Bergman (Ingrid)’s erstwhile showdown, it seems like Sonata is going to be fantastic. The acting is good, the filmmaking is exquisite (save the pans and tilts)… it’s got all the right pieces.

It just doesn’t have the story for it. It’s a shame, given how good Bergman (Ingrid) and Ullmann are when the material’s there.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman; director of photography, Sven Nykvist; edited by Sylvia Ingemarsson; production designer, Anna Asp; released by Svensk Filmindustri.

Starring Liv Ullmann (Eva), Ingrid Bergman (Charlotte), Halvar Björk (Viktor), and Lena Nyman (Helena).


Superman (1978, Richard Donner), the extended cut

The extended version of Superman runs three hours and eight minutes, approximately forty-five minutes longer than the theatrical version (Richard Donner’s director’s cut only runs eight minutes longer than the theatrical). The extended version opens with a disclaimer: the producers prepared this version of the film for television broadcasts (three hours plus means two nights). The director was not involved.

Neither, one must assume, was original editor Stuart Baird because I’m not sure anyone could stand to see their work so butchered. Superman’s already had one somewhat inglorious revision–the director’s cut–and this extended version takes it one step further. Scenes will now drag on and on as actors try one more line. The subtly of the cuts, which enhance the performances, is either gone or severely hampered. The John Williams music is rearranged to fit the lengthened scenes and sequences, with no attention paid to how the music fits the scenes.

Worse, padding the film out changes the emphases. Margot Kidder is far less relevant (Christopher Reeve’s Superman as well) because most of the added footage is Gene Hackman and company. In addition to introducing Lex Luthor (Hackman) as a piano-playing crooner, the extended edition has all sorts of physical humor and lame jokes for Hackman’s sidekicks, Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine. Perrine gets a little more character–in fact, she’s the only actor who benefits from the extended material–while Beatty gets a lot less. The constant jokes make his presence drag, especially since he and Hackman aren’t funny with the physical humor.

The extended edition does explain a few things, like why Larry Hagman isn’t with the missile on Hackman and company’s second attempt at it. And Chief Tug Smith gets a whole subplot. In the other versions of Superman, he gets maybe a line or two in an interview with Kidder.

And there’s more at the beginning on Krypton. With everyone except Brando and Susannah York–though, wow, you forget how amazing they are together in their one scene. So good.

Actually, the extended version starts just fine. Terence Stamp’s microexpressions are preserved as well as Baird’s exquisite cuts between them. Then there’s a little more dialogue, here and there, with Brando and the other council members. The scene starts to drag and instead of the drag being corrected, it just gets worse. All the added lines are superfluous (as the two successful versions of the film attest).

Then the flying guard out to bust Brando for using too much power shows up. It’s a pointless addition–I assume it got cut because they couldn’t get the special effects to work or just decided it was a waste of time. But the producers want to waste some time with this cut. Well, executive producers. Original producer Pierre Spengler apparently didn’t have anything to do with bloating the film out. Ilya and Alexander Salkind, however, wanted to get it to those two nights for television.

Most of the added material–after the three major additions (Krypton, Hackman and company, Smith and the Native Americans)–is surplus dialogue. Lines no one would’ve kept. Including the actors. Besides Hackman seeming lost in the slapstick, Glenn Ford’s got a real awkward added line and can’t get any traction out of it. Though the extended scenes of the Daily Planet are interesting. They’re still too long.

After the surplus dialogue, the Salkinds threw in a lot of establishing shots. Lots of second unit. Lots of unfinished special effects–like during the way too long destruction of Krypton. Or special effects director Donner wisely cut just because they didn’t look any good even when finished. There’s some great helicopter footage of New York City though. Sorry, Metropolis. And, actually, Smallville too. It just doesn’t do anything.

Except add time. As scenes play long, even unpadded scenes start to drag–the mono soundtrack with the rearranged score doesn’t help–and subplots stop developing. Kidder disappears for way too long. Reeve gets some added material, which starts the character in a mildly new direction, but then there’s nothing else. The extended material is dead weight. Even when it’s good for character development, like with Perrine. And, to a lesser extent, Marc McClure.

Superman: The Movie: The Extended Cut is a swell curiosity, but nothing more. Maybe it really should be seen in two parts. Except, of course, it’s not like the Salkinds tried to do anything to make it feel like a two-part story either. Because their additive editing is disastrous and an ignoble diss to the film, its cast, and its crew. Not to mention the screenwriters, who clearly wrote some rather wordy, rather unnecessary lines.

However, if you’re a Fawlty Towers fan… Bruce Boa (from “Waldorf Salad”) does show up for a second and gets very angry. There’s also more John Ratzenberger, if you’re an avid Cliff fan.

Anyway. Editing is important. So is not purposely bloating out a film. The extra forty-five minutes are kryptonite to Superman.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Donner; screenplay by Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman and Robert Benton, story by Puzo, from characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; creative consultant, Tom Mankiewicz; director of photography, Geoffrey Unsworth; edited by Stuart Baird and Michael Ellis; music by John Williams; production designer, John Barry; produced by Alexander Salkind and Pierre Spengler; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Marlon Brando (Jor-El), Gene Hackman (Lex Luthor), Christopher Reeve (Superman/Clark Kent), Ned Beatty (Otis), Jackie Cooper (Perry White), Glenn Ford (Pa Kent), Trevor Howard (First Elder), Margot Kidder (Lois Lane), Jack O’Halloran (Non), Valerie Perrine (Eve Teschmacher), Maria Schell (Vond-ah), Terence Stamp (General Zod), Phyllis Thaxter (Ma Kent), Susannah York (Lara), Jeff East (Young Clark Kent), Marc McClure (Jimmy Olsen), Sarah Douglas (Ursa) and Harry Andrews (Second Elder).


The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978, Steve Binder)

The Star Wars Holiday Special elicits a lot of sympathy. Not for the goings on, but for the cast. The easiest cast members to pity are Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, and Harrison Ford. Not only are they stuck in this contractually obligated ninety-some minute nightmare of terrible television, director Binder doesn’t even know how to shoot their cameos. For some reason, particularly with Fisher and Hamill, Binder shoots them from a low angle. Hamill and Fisher are lucky enough to just have regular cameos (Ford’s stuck with an extended one); only neither of them should be shot from low angle. High or eye-level, sure, but never low. Maybe it was a way to keep the actors (reasonably) happy and not to really involve them in the Special. More on Binder’s incompetencies in a bit (or not, there’s a lot to get through when it comes to incompetency and the Holiday Special).

But the most disrespected cast member is Peter Mayhew. The whole thing is about getting Chewbacca (Mayhew) back to his family for Life Day, the Wookie holiday where they either sit around the home with these luminescent balls or take the luminescent balls to the Tree of Life while enrobed. Again, Binder’s not a good director and Jerry Bixman and Vince Humphrey are worse editors, so it’s unclear if the eventual Life Day celebration at the Tree of Life is an actual event or just the Chewbacca family’s shared vision. The planet is under Imperial control, after all, and it seems unlikely the Empire would let the Wookies congregate.

Anyway, Mayhew doesn’t get anything to do. Ford’s trying to get him home for Life Day, so he’s second-fiddle to Ford for those scenes–which are an atrocious mix of Star Wars stock footage and close-up inserts–Holiday Special filmed before Empire so it’s not like the actors were already in character. And when Mayhew does get home, the Special (thankfully) is almost over. The disaster is almost complete. But it does mean Mayhew doesn’t get any time with his family and their Life Day celebration ends up hijacked by more cameos, terrible video editing effects, and, well, Fisher singing a bad song.

Because most of Holiday Special is about Mayhew’s family waiting for his arrival as they prepare for Life Day. Mickey Morton plays his wife, Paul Gale’s his dad, Patty Maloney’s his son. In some ways, it’s better they didn’t have Morton and Mayhew make out Wookie style, but not narratively. The Special already has Harvey Korman doing alien drag, fully committed, so why not just go for it. Mayhew and Morton’s eventual hug has nowhere near the emotional weight Holiday Special–not to mention a Life Day celebration–needs.

Until Mayhew (and Ford) show up at home for the celebration, it’s a rough day for the family. The Imperials are bothering them. Although Mayhew is galavanting around the galaxy, he’s still on the Empire’s census and they want to know why he’s not at home. That–way too long–scene has Jack Rader as the mean Imperial officer overseeing the search. Rader’s awful. And not in a way you can feel any sympathy for him. His subordinate Michael Potter is also awful, but at least Potter gets to Jefferson Starship and chill thanks to trader Art Carney.

About the only person in Holiday Special, at least of the featured cast, who doesn’t seem to recognize it’s an unmitigated disaster, is Carney. He’s got his shirt open to his navel, he’s maybe got the hots for Morton, and Carney’s all in. He’s never good or anywhere near it, but he doesn’t get any sympathy for the bad. Bea Arthur, who shows up as a Tatooine bar proprietress (Holiday Special shows the Star Wars cantina alien costumes need good cinematography not to look idiotic–John B. Field’s lighting is abysmal), she’s never any good, but she gets a lot of sympathy. Not so for Carney. He’s never unlikable, but he’s not pitiable.

I guess it makes him the most sincere performance in the whole thing.

Except Korman, who plays three different characters, all outside the regular action. His four-armed alien cooking show host is the best–and the only time Special is any good. The second, where Korman’s doing an instructional video on a gadget–whenever Special needs to kill time, someone watches something, usually supplied by Carney; anything not for young Maloney is inconveniently erotic. For his Life Day present, old man Wookie Gale gets a personalized holo-video of Diahann Carroll being way too suggestive for a televised kids’ holiday special before going into terrible song, which Gale enjoys in the basest sense.

In the living room, with his daughter-in-law and grandson over in the adjoining kitchen. Though Maloney might be upstairs. Carney spends a lot of time trying to keep Morton warmed up.

Then, later, Carney sits Imperial doofus Potter down in front of a Jefferson Starship hologram and Potter’s just as turned on by their performance of “Light the Sky on Fire” (a terrible song the band actually released). That holographic device Potter’s watching was meant for Morton too. There’s a lot to unpack with how the Special treats Morton. Hamill tells Morton to give him a smile, Carney’s always going in for a kiss. Why doesn’t Mayhew appreciate Morton more; must be too busy thinking of galactic galavanting.

Before the dreadful Special is over, there’s a cartoon introducing Boba Fett (voice actor Don Francks didn’t return to the part in Empire), with some odd animation choices. Though the abnormally long-faced and squinty-eyed Han Solo (voiced, of course, by Ford), is something of an amusing standout. It’s not good or interesting, but it’s bad in an amusing way, which is often the most The Star Wars Holiday Special can achieve.

I suppose the whole thing could be worse–and I realize I didn’t get back to Binder’s inept direction but, really, I can’t. I don’t want to think about what could make the Holiday Special worse. It’s terrible enough as produced.

Props to Korman, though, for managing to do a solid sketch and a half in this catastrophe of brand exploitation.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Steve Binder; teleplay by Pat Proft, Leonard Ripps, Bruce Vilanch, Rod Warren, and Mitzie Welch, based on characters created by George Lucas; director of photography, John B. Field; edited by Jerry Bixman and Vince Humphrey; music by Ian Fraser; produced by Joe Layton, Jeff Starsh, Ken Welch, and Mitzie Welch; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring Mickey Morton (Malla), Patty Maloney (Lumpy), Art Carney (Saun Dann), Paul Gale (Itchy), Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia Organa), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Bea Arthur (Ackmena), James Earl Jones (Darth Vader), Don Francks (Boba Fett), Diahann Carroll (Mermeia Holographic Wow), Jack Rader (Imperial Officer), and Harvey Korman (Krelman / Chef Gormaanda / Amorphian Instructor).


Spider-Man Strikes Back (1978, Ron Satlof)

Spider-Man Strikes Back is the international theatrical release of a two-part “Amazing Spider-Man” episode. It’s unclear if any significant changes were made (or insignificant ones). Though I really hope the frequent sequences without much sound are the result of editing and not composer Stu Phillips dropping the ball. Phillips does a Morricone-lite version of his “Spider-Man” theme at one point in Strikes Back (when Spidey’s in an Old West backlot). It earns Phillips some cred.

In fact, the strangest thing about Strikes Back is how comfortable it gets making fun of itself so quick. In the second half (i.e. second episode), Spider-Man Nicholas Hammond, boss Robert F. Simon, and intreprid tabloid reporter and pretty face JoAnna Cameron head to L.A. There’s a long, goofy car chase, with some solid jokes at Simon’s expense, not to mention an international arms dealer who also manages Country Western singers. It’s strange, almost like teleplay writer Robert Janes couldn’t figure out what to do with Spider-Man in L.A.

The Old West backlot fight is in the second half too. Just before Simon shows up in a dune buggy-looking thing. He had to get in on the chase scene too. It’s silly. It amuses.

The first half has Cameron going to New York (from Miami) to get an interview with Spider-Man, which brings her to Simon and Hammond. Hammond’s got his “Spider-Man Revealed” subplot (he’s just been on photographed for the evening news) and then his “my professor is bringing plutonium onto the campus” subplot. They eventually intersect.

Strikes Back has some very “TV” programs, like series regular Chip Fields getting an introduction before guest star Cameron even though it’s a throwaway for Fields. She’s Simon’s suffering assistant and Parker’s confidant. Fields just gets the “hip, urban but demure, Black lady” role. Hammond’s always calming her down from going off on Simon. It’s not a great part, but Fields is still awesome. She can handle the clunky exposition a lot better than anyone else.

Hammond takes a while to get comfortable; he’s got a big “Woe is Spider-Man” monologue–apparently when I’m discussing the “Amazing Spider-Man” TV show, I’ve got to use a lot of quotation marks for descriptive statements–and he doesn’t do great, but he’s earnest enough to become likable. He just can’t do exposition. And writer Janes loves exposition.

Cameron’s always likable, sometimes good. Her part’s way too thin. She also gets the “professional woman” (did it again) subplot only to be in a bikini for the finale. Sure, it’s because international arms dealer Robert Alda is a big creep, but it’s a bad excuse. Cameron is reduced to damsel for the third act, then down to flirtation for the finale. It’s a bad arc.

The second half–the L.A. half–with Hammond and company trying to find Alda and his stolen nuclear bomb falls apart once it runs through novelties. There’s a big special effects finish with Spider-Man skydiving and it’s such a bad composite a laugh track wouldn’t have been inappropriate. Director Satlof is never good but he does appear to care. That care is gone for the action-packed finale.

Steven Anderson, Anna Bloom, and Randy Bowell have a first half subplot–they’re Hammond’s classmates who build the bomb to prove plutonium doesn’t belong on college campuses; they’re all fine. They too do better with exposition than Hammond.

There’s some bad cutting from David Newhouse and Erwin Dumbrille, but it’s hard to imagine it’s their fault. Strikes Back has some big stunts and they’re not ambitiously presented. More enthusiasm in the big stunts might’ve helped things, actually.

Thanks to competent television production, Strikes Back doesn’t entirely strike out. Hammond gets to be likable enough to carry the show (and movie). Simon’s a fun windbag. Cameron’s a good guest star. Alda’s not a great villain, but Strikes Back is so committed to his silly character–with his henchmen, who offer him frequent, unsolicited council (democratic Mr. Bigging)–he doesn’t drag it down too much. It’s hard to imagine anyone else could be better. Just like it’s hard to imagine Strikes Back could be any better. But it could be a lot worse.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Ron Satlof; teleplay by Robert Janes, based on characters created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko; “The Amazing Spider-Man” created by Alvin Boretz; director of photography, Jack Whitman; edited by David Newhouse and Erwin Dumbrille; music by Stu Phillips; produced by Satlof and Janes; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring Nicholas Hammond (Spider-Man / Peter Parker), JoAnna Cameron (Gale Hoffman), Robert Alda (Mr. White), Robert F. Simon (J. Jonah Jameson), Chip Fields (Rita Conway), Michael Pataki (Captain Barbera), Randy Powell (Craig), Anne Bloom (Carla), Steven Anderson (Ted), Simon Scott (Dr. Baylor), Sidney Clute (Inspector DeCarlo), and Lawrence P. Casey (Angel).


FM (1978, John A. Alonzo)

After a somewhat linear, pratical first act, FM begins to meander through a series of vingettes. Occasionally these end in a fade to black, usually when there’s supposed to be some deep meaning to the scene, but occasionally just when it’s time to move an interminate period into the future. A day or two. Or a week. It’s never really clear, which is fine, since there’s not much internal reality to the film.

FM is about the highest rated radio station in Los Angeles. Only, they’re not highest rated because they’re a bunch of corporate squares, they’re highest rated because they’re a bunch of Hollywoodized hippies. Station manager and morning disc jockey Michael Brandon never gets to work on time, if the opening titles are to be believed, when he’s driving from home to work in approximately six minutes. In L.A. traffic. Brandon’s got long, shaggish hair and a beard and sometimes wears a cowboy hat. He doesn’t believe in commercials, he believes in the music.

Then there’s Martin Mull. He’s the sweet talker lothario DJ who has way too high an opinion of himself. He actually gets one of the film’s better story arcs, culiminating in the most creative direction director Alonzo does in the entire film. Cleavon Little is the other sweet talker lothario DJ who has just the right opinion of himself. He doesn’t get anything to do in the movie, except make the station seem hip for having a black guy. Eileen Brennan is the third of the successful DJs. She’s tired with the life. She has the worst story arc; of all the underutilized actors in the film, Brennan is most underutilized. Ezra Sacks’s script doesn’t have much in the way of character depth–calling the parts caricatures is a tad complementary–so it’s up to the actor and Alonzo to make the most of the performances.

Mull can kind of get away with it, but Brennan has less to do than Jay Fenichel, who’s the tech guy who wants to be DJ.

There’s also Alex Karras, who’s sort of around to give a sense of linearity, as well as giving Brandon some character development. Not enough because Sacks doesn’t do anything with Karras. And, frankly, when Karras takes a back seat to Cassie Yates, who at least is active and supposedly has a on-again-off-again with Brandon (though they have zero chemistry), it’s a fine enough change. Yates isn’t annoying in the little transition scenes between Sacks’s attempts at vingettes. Karras, however, does get annoying.

Tom Tarpey is okay as the company stooge who should be a foil for Brandon, except he disappears for too long somewhere in the second act. The second act is also when FM drops in a three song set from Linda Rondstadt, which Alonzo doesn’t direct any better than the rest of the film so it’s not even compelling.

Oh, and James Keach’s pothead Army lieutenant is an exceptional fail in everywhere–Keach’s performance, Sacks’s writing, Alonzo’s direction.

When the film finally does get to the third act, which basically just resolves stuff introduced in the first ten minutes… well, FM goes from being a genial disappointment to a complete waste of time. It doesn’t help Alonzo is wholly unqualified for everything the film needs him to do. And whoever thought Panavision was a good idea was very wrong. Alonzo can never find anything to fill the side of a frame in his one shots. He also can’t direct group shots, which is a problem since much of the film is the cast standing or sitting around the radio station.

Lawrence G. Paull’s production design isn’t bad though, even if the station is unbelievable as a successful radio station, Hollywood hippies or not. And David Myers’s photography is passable. It’s not his fault Alonzo doesn’t know how to compose a shot.

FM doesn’t run much over a 100 minutes, yet it begins to drag once it’s clear it’s not really going anywhere with the cast. Mull’s comic relief. Brennan’s around to give it respectably. Yates is supposed to give it spunk, Little color, Brandon heartthrob. As it does start to finish up, the film manages to drain all its enthusiasm. It can’t end fast enough; it’s already burned through the tepid goodwill it’s created and is just wasting everyone’s time.

FM doesn’t even end up deserving a turn your dial joke.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John A. Alonzo; written by Ezra Sacks; director of photography, David Myers; edited by William C. Carruth and Jeff Gourson; music by Steely Dan; production designer, Lawrence G. Paull; produced by Rand Holston; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Michael Brandon (Jeff Dugan), Martin Mull (Eric Swan), Cassie Yates (Laura Coe), Eileen Brennan (Mother), Tom Tarpey (Regis Lamar), Cleavon Little (Prince), Jay Fenichel (Bobby Douglas), Roberta Wallach (Shari Smith), Janet Brandt (Alice), Alex Karras (Doc Holiday), and James Keach (Lt. Reach).


The Bastard (1978, Lee H. Katzin)

Somewhere in the second half of The Bastard, the mini-series starts to wear you down and you just give in. The first half is set in 1772 Europe, first in France, then in England. Andrew Stevens is a French boy with a secret. His mom might just be Patricia Neal, inn keeper, but Stevens is actually heir to a great British title. He’s just a bastard for now. Soon, he’ll be a duke.

In other words, the first half of The Bastard is a bunch of weak accents (for the most part) and Southern California standing in for the French countryside, British estates, French estates, the British countryside, and London itself. Oddly, The Bastard isn’t a grandly budget mini-series. It’s got nice sets and some creative location shooting, but it’s far from opulent. Director Katzin probably wouldn’t know what to do with the extra money anyway.

It feels, especially in the first half, very much like a TV show you don’t really want to watch. Until about an hour into the movie, Stevens is just around to whine, get seduced, seduce, patronize, and get henpecked by Neal. Neal doesn’t even try a French accent. Stevens goes for it and fails, but for a second he gets some credit for the enthusiasm. Then the accent starts to slip and the credit goes away.

When they get to England, they meet Eleanor Parker and Mark Neely. Parker does a British accent, Neely doesn’t, which is good because Neely’s bad enough without a weak accent. Parker’s a nice cameo; Bastard has some good small parts. But if you’re around too long, The Bastard gets you. The script eventually gets Neal, who’s got a weak character in the first place, but Katzin’s direction, Guerdon Trueblood’s teleplay… Neal never gets a good moment.

Anyway. They go to London, they meet Donald Pleasence (who’s cute) and Tom Bosley. Bosley’s all in as Benjamin Franklin, down to the air baths–his enthusiasm, no one else’s, can defeat The Bastard. Shame he’s only got four scenes in three hours. Then they go to the colonies for the second half.

Oh, right, Stevens sleeps with Olivia Hussey too. She’s his half-brother’s fiancée who likes French boys. Stevens is supposed to be seventeen or eighteen at the start of The Bastard. He was twenty-three. He looks about twenty-eight with the tan. His young lothario thing is a weird script addition given it looks like a soap opera whenever Katzin does a seduction scene. Except maybe the first one.

Second half has William Shatner as Paul Revere. And it features a William Shatner enthusiastic horse backing riding sequence. It’s kind of awesome. Shatner’s not bad either. He’s extremely likable, which gets him over some of the bumps in the script. And he’s also not in it too much.

Ditto Buddy Ebsen as Stevens’s American mentor. Or Noah Beery Jr. Even Peter Bonerz leaves a good impression.

Strangely, William Daniels is a complete flop and he’s got a lot fewer scenes than anyone else.

The second half also brings Kim Cattrall as an actual love interest for Stevens. She doesn’t get seduced until they’ve had something like five scenes together, while the previous conquests fell at one and two, respectively. Cattrall’s kind of likable. She’s not good so much as she’s trying harder than anyone else. There are so many historical figures, the script is entirely caricature, Katzin’s not interested in the performances, seeing someone occasionally try. It helps.

But then The Bastard gets Cattrall too.

Stevens gets okay for a while, when it’s all the American Revolution flashcards. He doesn’t get good, but he gets okay. And then the script throws him a real curveball and the development–in Stevens’s performance, him, the script, probably not Katzin, come on–drags him under. It also drags The Bastard under, which is appropriate, since Stevens is the Bastard.

You know, Johnny Carson’s right. Sometimes, you do just like being able to say bastard.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Lee H. Katzin; teleplay by Guerdon Trueblood, based on the novel by John Jakes; director of photography, Michel Hugo; edited by Michael Murphy and Robert F. Shugrue; music by John Addison; produced by Joe Byrne; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring Andrew Stevens (Phillipe Charboneau), Kim Cattrall (Anne Ware), Patricia Neal (Marie Charboneau), Olivia Hussey (Alicia), Buddy Ebsen (Benjamin Edes), Donald Pleasence (Solomon Sholto), William Shatner (Paul Revere), Harry Morgan (Capt. Caleb), Eleanor Parker (Lady Amberly), Mark Neely (Roger Amberly), John de Lancie (Lt. Stark), Ike Eisenmann (Gil, The Marquis de LaFayette), Peter Bonerz (Girard), James Gregory (Will Campbell), Carole Tru Foster (Daisy O’Brien), Charles Haid (George Lumden), Noah Beery Jr. (Dan O’Brien), Herbert Jefferson Jr. (Lucas), Barry Sullivan (Abraham Ware), Lorne Greene (Bishop Francis), Cameron Mitchell (Capt. Plummer), William Daniels (Samuel Adams), Keenan Wynn (Johnny Malcolm), Russell Johnson (Col. James Barrett), and Tom Bosley (Benjamin Franklin).


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