1980

Fist of Fear, Touch of Death (1980, Matthew Mallinson)

Either there’s a good story behind Fist of Fear, Touch of Death’s production or it’s exactly what it seems to be, some producers got ahold of the rights to an old Chinese movie, 1957’s The Thunderstorm, starring a teenage Bruce Lee in a non-martial arts role (in fact, it’s incest melodrama), and couldn’t figure out how to make any money off distributing it as is. So in what’s both the most creative thing screenwriter Ron Harvey does for the entire film and the most staggeringly awful (arguably), the old footage becomes a “biography” of Bruce Lee. Starring Bruce Lee. Dubbed by someone terrible. It tells the story of a “karate crazy” teenage Lee bringing shame and ruin to his family because of that enthusiasm, which has its roots in Bruce’s pride in his great-grandfather… the Chinese samurai.

Because the producers also had the rights to a wuxia movie, which had already been released in the United States as Invincible Super Chan, but the more accurate English title is apparently Forced to Fight. Who knows where Harvey got the story for the dubbing in it—maybe it’s the original story, doesn’t matter. It’s really boring. And there’s a lot of footage from it. And it seems rather poorly made. Fist of Fear, Touch of Death is a martial arts cash-in without a single bit of good martial arts. There’s a moment when it seems like—if director Mallinson weren’t so shockingly inept his roles of director and co-editor—it might be good. Martial artist Bill Louie, dressed up as “Kato #2” in a grim and gritty homage to Lee’s “Green Hornet” character, who patrols New York City in a limousine, saving random woman from being gang-raped in public places in broad daylight by twenty assailants. During that lengthy, terribly paced, terribly edited fight sequences—where the background action of victim Annette Bronson trying to get her purse away from one of the bad guys is more interesting than the fighting—in that scene, there’s a moment where it’s obvious Louie’d be fun to watch in a better production.

This sequence comes towards the end of the film, after all the Bruce Lee flashbacks. They start talking about his fame and didn’t want to show any of his actual movies in case someone would sue them so instead they do the averted rape. It’s the second averted rape on the sidewalks of New York City in the middle of the day; the first one has another martial artist, Ron Van Clief, saving a random woman. The difference between Louie and Van Clief? The “saved” woman has to sleep with Van Clief to thank him, which is… not unexpected for a production of Touch of Death’s caliber.

The movie’s got this framing sequence with Adolph Caesar as a reporter named Adolph Caesar, who’s covering the 1980 World Professional Karate Organization’s world welterweight title fight at Madison Square Garden—not the main hall and I’m not confirming it’s the Hulu Theater because I already spent seven minutes figuring out the name of the organization—but all he wants to talk about is Bruce Lee. It opens with him talking to promoter Aaron Banks, real-life promoter who’s running the WPKO, so when—late in the film—there’s a fake conversation between Banks and Bruce Lee, where Lee profusely lauds Banks as the most important figure in martial arts history, you’ve got to imagine the filmmakers threw it in to get access to Banks’s event.

Banks also says Lee died from the “Touch of Death.” Or “Vibrating Palm.” It’s a secret martial arts move where you touch someone and then three weeks later they die. I think the movie says Lee died the year before, so 1979, but it was actually 1973 but whatever.

Fred Williamson shows up as Fred Williamson, his introduction being him waking up late because the hotel thinks he’s Harry Belafonte and gives him the wrong wakeup call but Fred’s still got time to bed his lady. The sixth time.

You’ve got to wonder if Williamson knew what he was in for.

When the movie finally gets to the fight… it’s terribly edited kickboxing bout. The guy who wins seems like he’s getting his ass kicked for most of the fight because of how Mallinson edits the reused footage of the fight. Though I supposed it’s possible its original footage of the fight, which is terrifying because it’s so poorly directed, especially for a televised fight.

There’s no reason to watch Fist of Fear, Touch of Death unless you’re a Bruceploitation completest or want to be amazed at how Caesar’s voice is so good you believe the nonsense he’s spewing. There’s some nice stock footage of late seventies New York City too. And the opening titles music is… the CBS/FOX Home Video music from the eighties and nineties.

But, yeah, either all the deals it took to get this movie made are either real interesting or real sad.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Matthew Mallinson; screenplay by Ron Harvey, based on a story by Harvey and Matthew Mallinson; director of photography, John Hazard; edited by Jeffrey D. Brown and Mallinson; music by Keith Mansfield; produced by Terry Levene; released by Aquarius Releasing.

Starring Adolph Caesar (Adolph Caesar), Aaron Banks (Aaron Banks), Fred Williamson (Fred Williamson), Ron Van Clief (Ron Van Clief), Bill Louie (Bill Louie), Teruyuki Higa (Teruyuki Higa), Richard Barathy (Richard Barathy), Louis Neglia (Louis Neglia), John Flood (John Flood), Gail Turner (rape victim), Annette Bronson (rape victim #2), and Hollywood Browde (Fred Williamson’s girlfriend).


Stryker’s War (1980, Josh Becker)

Stryker’s War runs just over forty-five minutes. The first fifteen to twenty minutes are all about how twenty-two year-old lead Bruce Campbell can both do anything and make everything feel legit. The film opens in Vietnam (as shot in East Michigan) with Campbell taking his squad out on a mission after being promoted to lieutenant. It shouldn’t work at all. But it does, because Campbell. When Campbell gets wounded and shipped back home where he lives in a remote cabin trying to drink himself to death, it also works. Director Becker has a nice style with the actors, so when Campbell’s bantering with the kindly grocery store owner—played by Campbell’s dad, Charlie—it maintains a certain bit of seriousness, but also a lot of appreciation for the scene being able to work. War never does victory laps, but it’s full of confidence in itself (knowingly thanks to Campbell).

Turns out the kindly grocery store owner—who delivers microwave dinners and liquor to Campbell—has a pretty granddaughter who just might give Campbell the will to live. When she shows up–played by Cheryl Guttridge—the short leans heavy on the absurd; it’s love at first sight, complete with accompanying, sweeping melodramatic music and longing gazes from the lovebirds. She’ll be back the next day with more food for Campbell, giving him an excuse to shave and get dressed up.

Concurrent to Campbell’s burgeoning romance are radio reports of Manson Family-style killings in the Detroit area. They’ll be important in a bit, but first the short’s got to introduce Campbell’s Marine buddies—Scott Spiegel, David M. Goodman, and Don Campbell. None of them are good, occasionally they’re kind of bad, but Becker directs their scenes so well it doesn’t matter. That extended suspension of disbelief he’s set up with the romance carries over to the Marines being on a weekend pass from Japan to… East Michigan. They’re looking for something to do so they decide to visit Campbell in his remote cabin. They find him waiting for Guttridge, who hasn’t shown up, so like any red-blooded American males they get really drunk at nine in the morning and go outside to shoot things.

That night, when Campbell’s dog goes missing and they go out looking for him, they discover the Manson-esque cult is in the nearby woods and they’ve got Guttridge.

Sam Raimi plays the cult leader.

The last fifteen or so minutes of War is Campbell and his pals taking on the cult in the woods, set to familiar music borrowed from other films. There’s some great Bernard Herrmann in there for Campbell and Raimi—the film pairs off the good guys and the bad guys—and I wish I could recall the main chase theme for the rest of them. There’s a lot of running through the woods, some great action gore money shots, and an excellent pace.

War doesn’t aim too high—it’s ever conscious of its limitations—but it’s a great showcase for Campbell and a decent one for Becker. Becker seems like he’d rather get more stylized with the direction but doesn’t have the opportunity, but every once in a while there’s an excellent, complex shot.

It’s very impressive. Especially whoever cut all the music together; the editing’s quite good, but the music editing is outstanding.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Josh Becker; produced by Bruce Campbell and Becker.

Starring Bruce Campbell (Stryker), Scott Spiegel (Marine #1), David M. Goodman (Marine #2), Don Campbell (Marine #3), Cheryl Guttridge (Sally), Charlie Campbell (Otis), and Sam Raimi (Head Crazy).


The Big Red One (1980, Samuel Fuller)

The Big Red One is a fairly even split between action and conversation. The film tracks a single squad as they start fighting in North Africa, follow the war into the Mediterranean, participate in D-Day, then go east. The film skips to each event. There’s usually some epilogue to the event, something like character development or character revelation, then it’s on to the next event, starting with the time and place in the war. Squad member Robert Carradine narrates the film, which includes bridging the gaps between the events. He’ll occasionally have something to say about his fellow squad members, something to further reveal their character, but he doesn’t have much opinion of that new reveal. Even if it’s something bad. Even though the film’s about these five men, it’s not about their relationship. We’re not invited. Carradine fills in some details, very occasionally contextualizes, but there’s something going on in One away from the viewer. Director Fuller is telling the audience a story, which is somehow different from telling a story. How he’s telling the story is very important.

Fuller centers the film around the sergeant, played by Lee Marvin. He’s not just the center of the movie, he’s the hero of Carradine’s narration, which is more important; Carradine’s not the hero of his own narration. It’s not his story he’s telling, it’s Marvin’s, even though Marvin’s an intentional mystery. And not a mystery Fuller’s inviting the audience to solve. Or even attempt to solve. Marvin’s the hero. He’s the older, gruff sergeant with a heart of gold. A World War I vet too (the film opens in a flashback to it; good de-aging makeup). But Marvin’s never a stereotype. Neither are Carradine, Mark Hamill, Bobby Di Cicco, or Kelly Ward. Because Fuller doesn’t even give them that much character in the script. All the personality to the characters comes from the actors, which is an exceptionally odd choice for Fuller to make. And a completely successful one. That open space where Fuller could’ve written character—remember the movie’s half conversation, so these guys are always talking, sometimes about themselves, but nothing about anything to do with themselves. Hamill’s an artist. We find out nothing about it, he’s just drawing all the time. Carradine’s a writer, we find out a bunch about it… but he’s never actually writing. Di Cicco and Ward imply these complicated characters in their deliveries of one-liners. It’s a very strange, very good way to… get out of doing the character work but not let it go to caricature.

Fuller does something similar with Marvin, but gives him more backstory and experience because he’s older and has more experience and backstory. But Fuller’s still relying on Marvin for all the action reactions and processing of the events he’s experiencing.

Because in many ways, the four younger guys—they’re all privates—the four privates, they’re interchangeable. During the action scenes, anyway. When one of them does something significant, sure, then they’re different—usually Fuller forecasts the character’s taking center stage—but some of the point is how everyone in the squad except Marvin is interchangeable. Fuller sets the leads apart from the other four squad members (you usually only know one other squad member at a time, the other two or three are screen filler), but not in any way to make them exemplars. They’re just the guys who hang around Marvin the most and have some unrevealed history together. It’s none of our business, they’re just our protagonists.

And, incredibly, Fuller gets away with it. Di Cicco’s charming enough, Carradine’s funny enough, Ward’s surprisingly alpha enough, Hamill’s sufficiently sad enough. See, Hamill’s the movie’s second-is lead. It’s really Carradine but the movie pretends it’s Hamill because Ukelay Ywalkerskay. And Hamill gets a fairly intense arc all to himself and Fuller makes him do it all on his face. The film charts Hamill’s abilities at emoting improving until they’re finally successful enough they cover the absence of exposition on Hamill’s subplot. Fuller avoids it, then leaves it up to Hamill to make it all right to avoid it.

It’s so well-directed. Fuller’s so thoughtful about it all. He rarely lets the film go off on tangents and usually they’re only because he’s interested in something separate from the main cast, their concerns, their needs. Fuller occasionally checks in with German sergeant Siegfried Rauch, who’s basically evil Lee Marvin. He’s got similar experiences; not just the last war, but also taking on these wet-behind-the-ears new recruits; he’s just really evil. Fuller likes using Rauch to distract from what he’s not doing with the main cast, like developing their characters. Rauch isn’t like the other main characters; Rauch never gets to mug his way through a scene. He doesn’t get free rein to do whatever on his character between his lines. He’s different.

Because, you know, he’s the Nazi.

Good photography from Adam Greenberg, great editing from Morton Tubor, very strong, very often disquieting score from Dana Kaproff. It’s a somewhat traditional war movie score, but Kaproff takes it in different directions, which help to reveal (presumably accurately) more about the lead characters.

Performances—Marvin’s great, Carradine’s great, Hamill’s good, Di Cicco and Ward are great. Marvin’s really great. He gets some great material and makes it even better.

The Big Red One is superb.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Samuel Fuller; director of photography, Adam Greenberg; edited by Morton Tubor; music by Dana Kaproff; produced by Gene Corman; released by United Artists.

Starring Lee Marvin (The Sergeant), Mark Hamill (Griff), Robert Carradine (Zab), Bobby Di Cicco (Vinci), Kelly Ward (Johnson), Joseph Clark (Shep), Ken Campbell (Lemchek), Doug Werner (Switolski), Perry Lang (Kaiser), Howard Delman (Smitty), and Siegfried Rauch (The German Sergeant).



Gregory’s Girl (1980, Bill Forsyth)

At no point in Gregory’s Girl does writer and director Forsyth wait for the audience. He’s not hurried, he’s not hostile, he’s just not repeating himself. Ever. The result is a whimsical but grounded film, not exploring much more than its characters could handle and often trying to make space to find some everyday magic. Forsyth doesn’t establish the limits of this magic until he goes rather far with it, which sort of retroactively makes earlier scenes more in the same category. The film doesn’t have a jumpy narrative pace but it does have a speedy one. The pace is key to the film’s particular charm and second only in importance to leading man John Gordon Sinclair.

Sinclair is disarming, sincere, and awkward. His closest confidante, the film goes on to reveal (after the first “act”), is little sister Allison Forster. Sinclair’s home situation, which does get covered at the beginning, appears to be one of ships passing the night. The film introduces his father (Dave Anderson) and mentions his mother, but they’re not part of Sinclair’s regular day and the film is all about the regular days of its cast. When Forster comes in, she helps explain why Sinclair’s so awkward. It’s not just because he grew five inches over the last year to tower over everyone else at school, teachers included, but because instead of having teenage boys as his primary social influence, it’s soulful ten year-old Forster. She’s already got a beau of her own, in what might be the film’s most mature onscreen relationship; the tweens understand dating, the teenage girls understand dating, the teenage boys not so much.

Forsyth gets a lot of quiet humor out of Forster’s beau, Denis Criman. He’s a similarly soulful ten year-old. He and Sinclair have a great scene together.

Albeit one where Forsyth’s limited composition techniques gets in the way—Forsyth relies way too heavily on close-ups, which could be a budgetary thing, but it’d be nice to have a two shot for some of the banter; the two shots do eventually come in, at the end of the film for the… action-packed (at least from Sinclair’s perspective) finale. Their arrival isn’t just welcome, it’s noticeable. Gregory’s Girl never amps up the pace or drama. Forsyth never changes the gentle, lyrical, detached narrative distance.

Including when Forster comes in—sorry, there’s something else to talk about with that sequence. Forsyth juxtaposes soulful Forster, with her wise-beyond-her-years (or just appropriately pre-hormonal) understanding of coupling, with already graduated Douglas Sannachan coming back to visit his pals. While Sannachan is explaining the sexual conquests being a window cleaner allows, Forster is hanging back, waiting to give Sinclair better advice. Forsyth constantly plays with the idea of mutual exclusivities in the film. Boarish bullshitter versus sweet and sincere, for instance.

But then there’s also the whole football thing.

Soccer football.

In addition to all the boys getting interest in the girls—though the film doesn’t discount the possibility they could be interested in boys (Gregory’s Girl, which doesn’t have homophobia or bullying, is a decidedly un-American teen movie)—they’re interested in footy. One of the main plot lines involves football coach Jake D’Arcy demoting former star striker Sinclair (he grew, it’s not his fault, he’s got too much height now to walk properly) to goalie and getting a new striker. Turns out the best striker in the school is a girl, Dee Hepburn. Sinclair immediately falls for Hepburn, watching how she can control the ball, while D’Arcy goes on this “girls can’t play boys sports but wait she’s better” arc. Only it’s a really quiet arc. Meanwhile Hepburn’s got to fight the preconceived notions. For the first two “acts” (quotation marks because it’s pointless to think about the film epically), Forsyth splits the narrative between Sinclair, D’Arcy, and Hepburn. Once the football ends—once Sinclair outgrows it—he’s ready for romance.

Even if he doesn’t understand it.

The only other subplot to last until the finish is Robert Buchanan and Graham Thompson’s. They’re comic relief; the boys even more inept at the romance than Sinclair. They’re a lot of fun. Thompson’s the silent one, Buchanan’s the motormouth. Their subplot is mostly aside from Sinclair’s main one, but the threads intersect early on to lay the groundwork for a pay-off in the finale. It’s another of the lovely, deliberate moves in Forsyth’s script. If only he liked two shots more.

Nice photography from Michael Coulter, fun smooth jazz score from Colin Tully. John How’s cuts are always a little too rushed, especially with the lack of coverage, but maybe the lack of coverage is why the cuts are a little too rushed.

Forsyth’s got some big moves he saves for the end (might be nice if they’d been foreshadowed) and they’re more than worth the wait. Gregory’s Girl is a delightful peculiarity.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and Directed by Bill Forsyth; director of photography, Michael Coulter; edited by John Gow; music by Colin Tully; produced by Davina Belling and Clive Parsons; released by ITC.

Starring John Gordon Sinclair (Gregory), Allison Forster (Madeline), Dee Hepburn (Dorothy), Jake D’Arcy (Phil Menzies), Clare Grogan (Susan), Billy Greenlees (Steve), Robert Buchanan (Andy), Denis Criman (Richard), Graham Thompson (Charlie), Douglas Sannachan (Billy), and Chic Murray (Headmaster).



Raging Bull (1980, Martin Scorsese)

Most of Raging Bull is about boxer Jake La Motta’s quest for the middleweight championship belt and takes place in the forties. The film opens with La Motta (Robert De Niro) in the sixties–out-of-shape, nose disfigured from the boxing; it’s a brief introduction then a fast cut to De Niro in shape and boxing in the early forties. The opening titles establish the film’s black and white photography, but those titles are over an ethereal shot of De Niro in the ring. That shot doesn’t hint at the vibrant contrast director Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Chapman use in the regular action. The image is sharp, the blood and sweat glistening on the fighters, who box in the ring surrounded by darkness. Nothing is important–visually-except the fight. Thelma Schoonmaker’s glorious editing gets its start with that transition from the sixties to the forties, then there’s the fight itself. There’s the fight editing style, then there’s going to be the dramatic style. The latter is far more measured. There are still precise and sharp cuts, but the drama is more about listening. The fights are about doing. Or about what’s happening, because even though De Niro’s in almost every scene of the movie, it’s not until the third act the audience gets any insight into what he’s doing.

Because for most of the film there’s Joe Pesci, as De Niro’s younger brother and manager. Pesci hangs out with connected guy but not full mobster Frank Vincent, who wants De Niro to box for the mob. De Niro doesn’t want to box for the mob, so he’s having trouble getting his shot. Even though he wins his fights, even though he can take an infinite level of beating–his style is letting the other guy expend all his energy (usually through a good pummelling on De Niro’s face) then getting in a bunch of points and maybe a knockdown at the very end–De Niro’s not getting title shots, which ostensibly pisses him off.

He takes out that anger on wife Lori Anne Flax, who waits on him hand and foot, which he repays by bringing neighborhood teenage beauty Cathy Moriarty home for a roll in the hay while Flax is out shopping. Moriarty’s fifteen and has Pesci and Vincent and a bunch of other guys after her. But she goes for De Niro. Presumably they wait until she’s eighteen to get married (though who knows because New York state still lets fourteen year-olds get married with approval). The breakup from Flax is offscreen and only implied–there’s a montage sequence of most of the forties, De Niro winning fight after fight, home movie footage (in color) of his domestic bliss with Moriarty and Pesci, then with Theresa Saldana coming in as Pesci’s wife. By the time the action slows down again, both couples have kids and have moved into the ’burbs. Or at least into houses.

It’s been six years of trying to get a shot at the title and De Niro finally agrees to let mobster Nicholas Colasanto’s help him. At the same time, he’s become convinced Moriarty is cheating on him, possibly with Vincent (who De Niro’s always despised because he’s a tool).

Scorsese and screenwriters Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin present the situations and characters (slash people–there’s one moment when the actual La Motta’s pictures get used in the film, which ought to draw undue attention to the film being a dramatization but instead just makes it work even better) objectively, but they leave out a lot. De Niro’s frustrated with first wife Flax at the beginning because–as he complains to Pesci–he can’t beat her any more than he already does and she still doesn’t treat him as he wants. Same goes for Moriarty; there’s implied physical abuse (it’s an open secret) but Bull is holding off on showing it. Moriarty’s not likable, but she’s sympathetic. She’s been socialized into a terrible situation, she’s been psychologically abused, then physically. Then again, the film doesn’t give her enough to do away from De Niro to even be reduced to a victim role. Raging Bull is full of objects for De Niro to break (or try to break).

It’s also not like Pesci is sympathetic or likable. The film goes out of its way to characterize almost everyone–except De Niro–as racist. Everyone, including De Niro, is violently homophobic. The younger men–not Colasanto or Mario Gallo (as one of De Niro’s ring men)–are all strutting to prove something and covering for their various deficiencies. Something De Niro sees and resents them for.

When he finally does get the championship, instead of fulfilling a dream, it just gives De Niro more time to be abusive and jealous. Bull isn’t interested in the boxing. It’s interested in the fights for their visual and symbolic possibilities, but there aren’t any training montages. It’s guaranteed De Niro’s not going down. He can’t. Even after he’s beaten into hamburger, he can’t go down. It’s a mix of stubbornness, stupidity, and cruelty. A lot of the film–as far as the boxing goes–is about his rivalry with Sugar Ray Robinson (Johnny Barnes). They keep having matches. Barnes doesn’t even get a line. He’s great, because he gets to watch and see De Niro, and the audience gets to see his reaction, but Bull’s not about the boxing.

Even though the boxing sequences are brilliantly executed.

Phenomenal acting from the three leads. When De Niro finally does drive everyone away–for their own safety, basically–and breaks down, he does so alone and in old age makeup (though La Motta would’ve barely been forty) and with a bunch of extra weight on. He doesn’t make the loathsome sympathetic–Bull isn’t a redemption story at all–but he does humanize it, which is probably worse.

Pesci’s great. He’s got these listening scenes, where he’s waiting to react to De Niro and it’s all about the thoughts going through his head. That patient dramatic editing from Schoonmaker makes it happen. Moriarty’s great. After they’re married with children, Bull becomes a hostage situation. De Niro is constantly threatening Moriarty, Pesci, and the audience with unknowable violence. Because even if he doesn’t see the potential, everyone else does. It’s captivating and horrifying.

Especially since Scorsese doesn’t do anything to emphasize it. He maintains that same objective narrative distance. It’s just the reality of the situation. His direction is spectacular, loud but quiet–there’s lots of symbolism but it never breaks the film’s reality (helps they’re Catholics for the imagery, for example)–and so deliberate, so patient.

Bull’s astoundingly great.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Martin Scorsese; screenplay by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin, based on the book by Jake LaMotta, Joseph Carter, and Peter Savage; director of photography, Michael Chapman; edited by Thelma Schoonmaker; produced by Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Robert De Niro (Jake La Motta), Cathy Moriarty (Vickie La Motta), Joe Pesci (Joey), Frank Vincent (Salvy), Theresa Saldana (Lenore), Mario Gallo (Mario), Lori Anne Flax (Irma), and Nicholas Colasanto (Tommy Como).


Life Is a Circus, Charlie Brown (1980, Phil Roman)

Life is a Circus, Charlie Brown is about Snoopy joining the circus. Somewhat unintentionally. The circus comes to town, Snoopy investigates the racket, and eyes a fetching poodle. She’s in an act; her trainer grabs Snoopy and drafts him into it. After Snoopy proves funny (versus capable), the trainer decides to keep him. Meanwhile, Charlie Brown (Michael Mandy) goes from confused–at Snoopy’s participation–to worried–after the circus leaves town, with Snoopy.

Once the trainer (voiced by Casey Carlson) discovers Snoopy’s motivation–impressing the poodle–it turns out he’s a more than capable circus performer. But as the act gets more and more successful, the trainer requires more and more from Snoopy. Will there be a breaking point?

Back at home, Charlie Brown sits and stands around talking to Linus (Rocky Reilly) about how Snoopy will or won’t come home. Including a rather tedious monologue–mostly because of Mandy’s performance–about how he got the dog in the first place.

The animation’s good, the backgrounds are precious, but Circus is exceptionally flat. Mandy and Reilly’s dialogue interludes are strained. Not just because of the voice acting either. They’re filler, with lengthy pauses in conversation to kill runtime. At one point it seems like Lucy (Kristen Fullerton) is going to have a decent gag, but then she just doesn’t. Writer Charles M. Schulz doesn’t have any gags for Circus. Plus, Fullerton’s performance is just as unimpressive as everyone else’s so the not gag plays even worse.

The circus-y music from Ed Bogas and Judy Munsen doesn’t help. It’s loud and grating.

Circus isn’t really a missed opportunity–Schulz’s script is disinterested from the start–but it’s still rather lacking. The production values (save the voice acting) get it some goodwill, which it burns through. The finale is particularly unimpressive.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

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

Starring Michael Mandy (Charlie Brown), Rocky Reilly (Linus van Pelt), Casey Carlson (Polly), and Kristen Fullerton (Lucy van Pelt).


She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown (1980, Phil Roman)

She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown is all about Peppermint Patty (Patricia Patts). Charlie Brown (Arrin Skelley) has a couple appearances, but it’s just for the brand. Skate is all Peppermint Patty, Snoopy, Marcie (Casey Carlson), and Woodstock. Patty’s training for an ice skating competition. Snoopy’s her coach–and an accomplished skater himself–while Marcie and Woodstock offer various kinds of support. Sometimes rather consequentially.

What’s so striking about Skate, right off, is the ice skating. The attention to the animation, the way Roman directs the sequences, it’s a showcase for Peppermint Patty’s ice skating. And her eventual competitors. Roman and his animators excel at showing the accomplishments in the skating. Patty’s got a bunch of great, fast expressions as she goes through her routines. It’s lovely.

The story is fairly sparse. Patty has to wake Snoopy up to get him to coach, they get into a fight with some boy hockey players (it’s a weird, but rather successful scene), not much else. Not until Patty gets Marcie to make her the skating outfit, but she doesn’t give her any warning. They do it the day of the competition (or at least immediately preceding it in the present action) so it’s build-up to the finale, not a subplot.

Carlson’s hilarious as Marcie in Skate. She gets the best jokes. Snoopy gets a few visual gags–the first one is subtle and hilarious so it’d be hard to beat–while writer Charles M. Schulz gets the heftier material to Carlson in the dialogue. Though Marcie doesn’t get to have anything at the end. Snoopy’s gets a really good bit during the finale, as does Woodstock. And Patty’s skating. Marcie’s just with the mostly non-speaking Peanuts kids cheering Patty on. Skelley (and Charlie Brown) actually get the lines there, which are at best mediocre expository remarks. It’s kind of weird. More of that Charlie Brown branding.

But it’s just before Patty’s final skate so as long as it comes off, it’ll all work. And it does come off. Everything works just right–Ed Bogas and Judy Munsen’s music (and the Puccini aria), Roger Donley and Chuck McCann’s editing–the animating, Roman’s direction, Schulz’s plotting. She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown is outstanding; it’s meticulous and assured. Even when a moment shouldn’t work, it does thanks to the animation coming through or Carlson or Patts or just how fast Schulz moves things along.

And then there’s this perfect little end tag too.

Skate’s great.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

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

Starring Patricia Patts (Peppermint Patty), Casey Carlson (Marcie), and Arrin Skelley (Charlie Brown).


Dressed to Kill (1980, Brian De Palma)

Dressed to Kill has oodles of style. It doesn’t have a lot else going for it–a lot of the acting, sure, but the acting never pays off for anyone–but it does have style. Director De Palma and cinematographer Ralf D. Bode create an ethereal New York for the action to play out in.

The film opens with sexually dissatisfied housewife Angie Dickinson fantasizing about, well, something more satisfying. De Palma’s got Pino Donaggio music and Donaggio music can get away with a lot but even it can make a smutty shower scene play. The film then introduces Keith Gordon as Dickinson’s technology nerd teenage son before bringing in top-billed Michael Caine. He’s Dickinson’s therapist. She goes to therapy before she goes to the museum to pick up a man.

After picking up the man, which isn’t a good pickup sequence at all, but is a fantastically executed bit of filmmaking. Dickinson’s walking around the museum, everything’s silent, and it’s just great. Bode, De Palma, editor Gerald B. Greenberg, it’s awesome.

When she wakes up at the man’s apartment, Dickinson finds herself involved in a bloody homicide. Nancy Allen comes into the film at this point to also witness the murder, setting off Allen’s story line. The killer is after her, it turns out, eventually leading to her teaming up with Gordon.

Caine’s in it because he’s pretty sure the killer is another one of his patients, though he doesn’t want to give that information to cop Dennis Franz. Franz, meanwhile, is trying to get Allen to help on the case. She’s a sex worker and he’s sort of blackmailing her? Franz is a creep. When De Palma tries to do a denouement redemption of Franz, it’s one of Dressed’s worst moments. De Palma’s script is occasionally jaw-dropping in its pure stupidity, but the redemption of Franz is something else. Especially given it comes through the big “explanation” scene (out of Psycho, natch, with that museum pickup being out of Vertigo) where De Palma manages to be–at least what appears to be–unintentionally transphobic.

One of Dressed’s big plot twists–it’s got at least two, maybe three depending on how you want to count the minor ones (because then there are plenty of minor “twists”)–involves a transsexual person. Dressed to Kill is exploitation. It’s gorgeous, it’s got sometimes A list stars, but it’s exploitation. Yet when De Palma brings in gender dysphoria, it doesn’t seem like he’s using it as a punchline. Because he butchers what he’s doing with it, bringing in multiple personalities and whatnot. The script is really, really stupid. It’s hard to explain how unintentionally stupid Dressed to Kill can get.

And not when De Palma’s intending it either. He has quite a few split screen shots in the film, which works in maybe two cases, but never with Dickinson. Dickinson has the split screen shots to remember something sexual or somehow related to sex. Given how little material De Palma actually gives Dickinson to work with in the script, her performance is incredibly impressive.

But De Palma doesn’t direct the actors poorly. He often directs them quite well. Everyone gets good direction. Even Dennis Franz. It’s just Franz is one step too far. Dressed to Kill’s fairytale New York City clashes with Franz’s lounge lizard detective.

Allen’s decent throughout, occasionally downright excellent. Dickinson’s good. The script does her no favors and neither does Greenberg’s editing (everything else he can edit, but not Dickinson’s reaction and pensive close-ups), but she’s good. Caine’s fine. De Palma doesn’t really give him a lot to do. He meanders through the film.

Gordon’s good. He’s really likable. The likable part is more important. Once he and Allen are hanging out, there’s this strange lack of sexual energy, like only the adults in De Palma movies get to be sex-crazed. And they’re mostly all sex-crazed and De Palma wants to talk about it. A De Palma scripted interchange between a sex worker and a therapist is simultaneously cringe-inducing and mesmerizing.

Dressed to Kill is, overall, cringe-inducing and mesmerizing. It looks beautiful. It sounds beautiful. It’s just vapid. Sometime in the second act, it seems like it might get a little less vapid.

It doesn’t. But it still moves pretty well. There’s an unfortunate false ending, coming after some of the biggest third act problems, but the quality of the filmmaking–and Allen’s performance–gets it through. And brings up the film a bit.

A bit is a lot for Dressed to Kill.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Brian De Palma; director of photography, Ralf D. Bode; edited by Gerald B. Greenberg; music by Pino Donaggio; produced by George Litto; released by Filmways Pictures.

Starring Michael Caine (Doctor Robert Elliott), Angie Dickinson (Kate Miller), Nancy Allen (Liz Blake), Keith Gordon (Peter Miller), Dennis Franz (Detective Marino), and David Margulies (Dr. Levy).


Private Benjamin (1980, Howard Zieff)

Quite a bit works in Private Benjamin, which makes all the creaky parts stick out more. Even though the film runs 109 minutes, a lot seems cut out. Characters just fade away, especially as the film rushes in the second half. But even lead Goldie Hawn just ends up staring in various montages–happy and sad ones–with her character development (the whole point of the movie) on pause.

Hawn’s nearly excellent–she would be with a better than director than Zieff–but still quite good as Benjamin. The first act sets Hawn up as a sympathetic, blissfully unaware Jewish-American princess caricature… though Nancy Meyers, Charles Shyers, and Harvey Miller’s script doesn’t really want to do too much commentary on that aspect. There’s one direct joke slash plot twist later, but the film’s initially just doing it to show Hawn’s screwed up life. Her father (Sam Wanamaker) is an indifferent, dismissive jerk. Mother Barbara Barrie is supportive, but in a limited way. Hawn’s love life is unfulfilling and gross. It’s depressing, not funny.

So when tragedy and contrivance land Hawn in the army, Benjamin all of a sudden finds lightness. Because as recruiting officer Harry Dean Stanton (in a gentle Harry Dean performance) puts it, it’s not like the ladies get the become killing machines in this man’s army. So it’s all sort of fun. Hawn slapsticking it through boot camp, for example. It has a number of solid laughs. It also builds up the supporting cast. There’s Eileen Brennan as Hawn’s commanding officer and nemesis. It should be a great role for Brennan. Instead, it’s a weak, often inexplicable one. The film goes out of its way to avoid giving Brennan her own material after a couple significant setups. It’s a waste of a performance.

Hawn has a pretty solid set of sidekicks in Mary Kay Place, Toni Kalem, Damita Jo Freeman, and Alston Ahern. P.J. Soles should be a sub-nemesis, instead she’s a pointless supporting player and it makes Soles grating. Hal Williams is fun as the drill sergeant.

In the second act, when Benjamin starts to be about Hawn’s character forcibly developing herself, the film hits its stride. Zieff either gets he shouldn’t dwell on it or he just doesn’t get it; his hands off approach leads to some of Hawn’s best acting in the film.

The second act also has Robert Webber as this wacky colonel with dumb nicknames (based off his own name) for everything. It’s silly and great, because Webber is straight-facing it all. Though the film ends up wasting him too.

Because eventually Hawn meets Armand Assante. And Assante is a rich, French gynecologist who speaks perfect English. He’s also Jewish. As an object of Hawn’s desire, Assante’s great. As her love interest, well, even with numerous montages, he wears out his welcome. He’s got a desperately thin part and ends up being the segue into the film rushing to bring back all its worst parts. And none of the good ones. It even scoffs at the idea of bringing back the good ones.

There’s also the weak music from Bill Conti. He plays up the military aspect, which is completely against what Sheldon Kahn’s editing is doing. The lack of rhythm drags down a lot of scenes. It’s like no one knows what anyone else wants to do with the picture.

Private Benjamin is solid situation comedy–sadly all Zieff can direct–with whiffs at greater ambitions. And Hawn’s a great lead.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Howard Zieff; produced and written by Nancy Meyers, Charles Shyer, and Harvey Miller; director of photography, David M. Walsh; edited by Sheldon Kahn; music by Bill Conti; production designers, Robert F. Boyle and Jeffrey Howard; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Goldie Hawn (Pvt. Benjamin), Armand Assante (Henri Alan Tremont), Eileen Brennan (Capt. Lewis), Barbara Barrie (Harriet Benjamin), Sam Wanamaker (Teddy Benjamin), Robert Webber (Col. Thornbush), Hal Williams (Sgt. Ross), Toni Kalem (Pvt. Gianelli), Mary Kay Place (Pvt. Glass), Damita Jo Freeman (Pvt. Moe), Alston Ahern (Pvt. Soyer), P.J. Soles (Pvt. Winter), Harry Dean Stanton (1st Sgt. Ballard), Craig T. Nelson (Capt. Woodbridge), and Albert Brooks (Yale Goodman).


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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