1979

Captain America (1979, Rod Holcomb)

Captain America is almost loveably dumb. It’s never good, it doesn’t even have a good performance–at least, any good performances have caveats attached–but it’s so painfully obvious it ought to be lovable. It even has a lovable oaf of a lead–Reb Brown–who just happens to be really smart. Brown’s ability to recite all his dumb expository dialogue is one of the most lovable things about him. He’s trying. You appreciate him trying to hard.

But that trying–and Len Birman’s strangely strong but not performance as his mentor–occasionally gets Captain America the passes it so desperately needs. After some decent (for an action TV show pilot aimed at eight year old boys) character development, it turns into a pedestrian action show. The girls get kidnapped, the boys have to rescue them. There’s no more inventiveness in Don Ingalls’s script. He’s gotten to the action and he’s done.

Oddly, Captain America does have inventive moments before its second half. There’s this weird bit about Steve Forrest’s villain–a California oil man who wants to play Goldfinger–being scared of disappointing his mad scientist (James Ingersoll) who’s making a neutron bomb. Captain America acknowledges itself a bit. Even when director Holcomb goes on and on with the helicopters and motorcycles. It’s an acknowledged excess.

The problem is there’s nothing else. Holcomb has no other tricks up his sleeve. Once Brown suits up as Captain America, it becomes a strange “Wonder Woman” knock-off. Brown’s barely allowed a presence, which is dumb because Captain America letting Brown have such a presence is the only thing to make it engaging. Watching Captain America is about watching Brown stay above water. You root for him. You root for him to pull-off maybe Vietnam vet (definitely ex-Marine), vaguely genius, motocross enthusiast, California square hippie guy thing. With some kind of folksy accent. And he does.

It just isn’t enough. The third act is an incredible letdown. Holcomb’s got no sense of action pacing and the supporting cast wrap-up (setting up for a series order) flops. The cast–Brown, Birman, Forrest–deserved better.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Rod Holcomb; teleplay by Don Ingalls, based on a story by Ingalls and Chester Krumholz and characters created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon; director of photography, Ronald W. Browne; edited by Michael S. Murphy; music by Mike Post and Pete Carpenter; executive producer, Allan Balter; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring Reb Brown (Steve Rogers), Len Birman (Dr. Simon Mills), Heather Menzies-Urich (Dr. Wendy Day), Robin Mattson (Tina Haden), Dan Barton (Jeff Haden), Joseph Ruskin (Rudy), Lance DeGault (Harley), James Ingersoll (Lester) and Steve Forrest (Lou Blackett).


Life of Brian (1979, Terry Jones)

Life of Brian operates most significantly on two levels. The first level is the intellectual one, where the audience is invited to anticipate if and how the film will juxtapose Graham Chapman (he’s the Brian whose life the film concerns) against Jesus. Brian is the kid down the block who just never impressed quite so much.

How Life of Brian negotiates Jewish humor is a different level entirely and not one I’m knowledgable enough about to discuss.

So there are those two levels, but then there’s the third salient level of interaction for Brian. The one with the dumb jokes. The easy gags. Monty Python knows how to pace those jokes out, where to place them not as the final punchline (though occasionally penultimate) but to propel the scenes. Even though Brian is slow, it’s frantically moving at all times. Julian Doyle’s editing is a big deal. This pace, the gorgeous location shooting, the Monty Python guys playing multiple roles each–Doyle has to do everything just right. He never lets the film be in on the joke. He carries through the film’s visual agreements.

Because Brian is a filmed on location Bible epic. The production values are amazing. Director Jones manages to be enthusiastic about the sets but never showy. Peter Biziou’s photography is phenomenal. Brian’s a technical marvel.

It’s also hilarious. The script, the performances, just great. I’m a John Cleese fan so I’m always hoping he’ll give the best performance of a Python, but he doesn’t in Brian. Chapman’s awesome in the lead. He’s not exactly a calm in the center of the comedic storm, he’s just blissfully unaware. Chapman sells that bliss.

Jones–as an actor–is great. Michael Palin’s got a good bit as Pilate. But my favorite is Eric Idle. He gets a lot of the dumb jokes and he makes them work.

There’s excellent supporting performances from everyone, with Sue Jones-Davies (as Judas’s sister and Chapman’s love interest) standing out. Spike Milligan’s hilarious too.

So, Life of Brian. It’s great. I wish I’d seen it sooner. And now I need to go because I’m trying to come up with a painful pun to exit on.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Terry Jones; starring and written by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Jones and Michael Palin; director of photography, Peter Biziou; edited by Julian Doyle; music by Geoffrey Burgon; production designer, Gilliam; produced by John Goldstone; released by Orion Pictures.

Also starring Kenneth Colley (Jesus), Sue Jones-Davies (Judith), Terence Bayler (Gregory), Carol Cleveland (Mrs. Gregory) and Spike Milligan (Spike).


Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979, Robert Wise), the director’s edition

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is one of those imperfect films. No matter how many versions, there’s no way to fix one thing without breaking another–or it might just be broken all together. For example, I don’t know if I’d ever realized how focused director Wise is–during the first hour–on William Shatner’s slightly dangerous desire to get back on the Enterprise.

While it continues to pop up occasionally throughout, it eventually goes away. Wise and screenwriter Harold Livingston apparently just couldn’t figure out how to make Shatner sensibly irrational in his actions. So, instead of Shatner’s obsession angle, the picture becomes a muted romance between Stephen Collins and Persis Khambatta. It had room for both things–poor Leonard Nimoy isn’t so lucky. His subplot gets jettisoned particularly forcefully in Wise’s director’s cut.

The film still has a lot going for it. The acting from Shatner is outstanding (the way he sells looking at the Enterprise is peerless), DeForest Kelley is great, James Doohan doesn’t have enough to do but he does it wonderfully.

Wise takes a long, long time with the film. Douglas Trumbull’s special effects work is awesome and the film might feature Jerry Goldsmith’s finest score. The long special effects sequences, set to Goldsmith’s music, are transfixing. Not sure what else they’re meant to accomplish but it’s enough.

Wise has a number of good shots, but he’s better with actors than the action.

Even with a heavy front, Motion Picture needs a much longer finish.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Wise; screenplay by Harold Livingston, based on a story by Alan Dean Foster and on the television show created by Gene Roddenberry; director of photography, Richard H. Kline; edited by Todd C. Ramsay; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, Harold Michelson; produced by Roddenberry and David C. Fein; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring William Shatner (Admiral James T. Kirk), Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock), DeForest Kelley (Dr. Leonard McCoy), James Doohan (Cmdr. Montgomery Scott), George Takei (Lt. Cmdr. Hikaru Sulu), Majel Barrett (Dr. Christine Chapel), Walter Koenig (Lt. Pavel Chekov), Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Cmdr. Uhura), Persis Khambatta (Lt. Ilia), Stephen Collins (Cmdr. Willard Decker), Grace Lee Whitney (CPO Janice Rand), Mark Lenard (Klingon Captain), Billy Van Zandt (Alien Boy), Roger Aaron Brown (Epsilon Technician), Gary Faga (Airlock Technician) and David Gautreaux (Cmdr. Branch).


The Black Hole (1979, Gary Nelson)

The Black Hole is a weird–and bad–movie. American science fiction usually avoids religion, at least literalizing religion, but Black Hole embraces it. Maybe I shouldn’t spoil it. But it’s from Disney too. It’s a Disney movie with Heaven and Hell.

When the film cuts to Maximilian Schell during these sequences, the film feels like a Fellini knockoff. But it’s not. It’s Disney.

There are even terribly designed cute Disney robots flying around and talking in the voices of Roddy McDowell and Slim Pickens. McDowell’s not unbearable but the idea of a robot being built to sound like a Western sidekick? It’s idiotic, like most of the film. No one but Schell can endure the dialogue. It’s incredibly bad–all expository for the first half, then the rest of the movie’s a chase and the dialogue’s all declarative.

The declarative is a lot better than the exposition. Robert Forster and Yvette Mimieux can handle the latter. They’re both awful during the first half. Joseph Bottoms, Anthony Perkins and Ernest Borgnine are all terrible throughout; Bottoms being the worst. He never manages a single good delivery.

What makes the film watchable is the special effects. As dumb as the cute robots look, the effects flying them around are fantastic. The miniatures are amazing. The post-production effects–the space ship engines and so on–are awful, but the miniatures are great.

John Barry’s score is half okay, half awful… which is a better percentage than the rest of the picture.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Gary Nelson; screenplay by Jeb Rosebrook and Gerry Day, based on a story by Rosebrook, Bob Barbash and Richard H. Landau; director of photography, Frank V. Phillips; edited by G. Gregg McLaughlin; music by John Barry; production designer, Peter Ellenshaw; produced by Ron Miller; released by Buena Vista Distribution Company.

Starring Maximilian Schell (Dr. Hans Reinhardt), Anthony Perkins (Dr. Alex Durant), Robert Forster (Captain Dan Holland), Joseph Bottoms (Lieutenant Charles Pizer), Yvette Mimieux (Dr. Kate McCrae), Ernest Borgnine (Harry Booth), Roddy McDowall (V.I.N.CENT.), Tom McLoughlin (Captain S.T.A.R.) and Slim Pickens (B.O.B.).


Snapshot (1979, Simon Wincer)

Snapshot is one half middling coming of age melodrama and one half not scary thriller. The picture opens with a burnt-out building and a corpse, then goes back to explain. Director Wincer isn’t playful with the flashback–the opening is only there so the viewer is suspicious throughout the entire film.

The coming of age aspect dominates the first half of the film (once it’s in flashback). Nineteen year-old hairdresser Sigrid Thornton, who’s got an evil mother, a psychothic, vaguely perverted ex-boyfriend and a creep of a little sister, runs off from her “safe” life to become a model. Her friend (and hairdressing client) Chantal Contouri gets her the job. There’s never an explanation as to how Contouri and Thornton met, which isn’t exactly necessary unless one wants to make Thornton into a real character. And Wincer and his screenwriters aren’t interested in doing that work. Thornton’s only sympathetic because she’s got a terrible family and psychos following her.

Just when the character drama part is at least getting mildly interesting (not good, mind, just more compelling than it had been), the thriller part takes over and Snapshot goes even further into the dumps.

Wincer can’t compose scary shots, but his composition and sensibilities are actually pretty good. The music, from Brian May, is awful.

Thornton’s mediocre at best, Contouri’s a little better. Robert Bruning’s atrocious as Contouri’s husband, but Hugh Keays-Byrne’s a lot of fun as a photographer.

Snapshot‘s fairly abysmal, not scary and boring.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Simon Wincer; written by Chris de Roche and Everett de Roche; director of photography, Vincent Monton; edited by Philip Reid; music by Brian May; production designer, Jon Dowding; produced by Antony I. Ginnane; released by Filmways Australasian.

Starring Sigrid Thornton (Angela), Chantal Contouri (Madeline), Hugh Keays-Byrne (Linsey), Denise Drysdale (Lily), Vincent Gil (Daryl), Jon Sidney (Mr. Pluckett), Jacqui Gordon (Becky), Julia Blake (Mrs. Bailey) and Robert Bruning (Elmer).


Breaking Away (1979, Peter Yates)

For a “traditional” underdog story, Breaking Away is exceeding complex. It opens with Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern and Jackie Earle Haley; neither Steve Tesich’s script nor Yates’s direction emphasizes any over another. Actually, Quaid’s loudmouth gets the most emphasis.

Then the film introduces Barbara Barrie and Paul Dooley as Christopher’s parents and it becomes clear Away will be focused around him. Besides Christopher, only Haley gets any time away from the group (though the group occasionally appears independent of Christopher). I haven’t gotten to how Tesich introduces both major challenges in the film well into its second act.

Meanwhile, there’s Yates’s direction, which is focused on the friendship but also the quietness of the town they live in. Cynthia Scheider’s editing and the sound design are major stars in the picture, especially once the bicycle racing gets more important.

But wait, I forgot to mention Dooley and Barrie have a story independent of Christopher. They orbit him and his friends’s arc, occasionally popping in, but Away is more like seven stories in one. Yates and Tesich show glimpses of the secondary ones; if they’d given them all emphasis, it’d probably run seven hours.

All the acting is outstanding, though Stern has the least to do of the primaries. Quaid and Haley have the hardest jobs; Haley’s the better of the two, but both excel. Christopher’s fantastic.

Dooley and Barrie are wonderful.

Hart Bochner’s good. Robyn Douglass’s amazing in a subtly intricate role.

It’s an outstanding film all around.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Peter Yates; written by Steve Tesich; director of photography, Matthew F. Leonetti; edited by Cynthia Scheider; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Dennis Christopher (Dave Stoller), Dennis Quaid (Mike), Daniel Stern (Cyril), Jackie Earle Haley (Moocher), Barbara Barrie (Evelyn Stoller), Paul Dooley (Ray Stoller), Robyn Douglass (Katherine), Hart Bochner (Rod), Amy Wright (Nancy) and John Ashton (Mike’s Brother).


Mad Max (1979, George Miller)

While the low budget undoubtedly plays a hand in it, Mad Max is the epitome of narrative efficiency. It should have a big concept–a slightly post-apocalyptic future (but people still vacation and get ice cream and the beaches are nice) where the big cities are (probably) gone and the rural highways are run by gangs, the cops just another one of them–but it doesn’t. The script from James McCausland and director Miller spends no time on exposition… ever.

Instead, Max opens with a pursuit, quickly introduces the good guys, and moves on. McCausland and Miller’s narrative structure is very plain. Good guys Mel Gibson and Steve Bisley go after bad guys, things happen, then more things happen. The beauty of Max, besides David Eggby’s photography and Cliff Hayes and Tony Paterson’s astounding editing, is in the scenes. Even when they’re poorly acted (the main villain, Hugh Keays-Byrne, is laughably bad), Miller’s basing them on Western scene templates and they’re extremely engaging.

But the film’s not entirely Western–Brian May’s score is half Bernard Herrmann Hitchcock homage (to fit Miller’s similar style of certain scenes) and half sublime.

Playing the titular character, Gibson doesn’t even become the protagonist until over halfway through (Bisley’s closer to it in the first half). For a fast and cheap action picture, Miller’s telling a distressing, human story.

Nice supporting work from Joanne Samuel and Geoff Parry helps.

Max is sometimes excessive–not to mention homophobic–but never slow; it’s masterful work.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Miller; screenplay by James McCausland and Miller, based on a story by Byron Kennedy and Miller; director of photography, David Eggby; edited by Cliff Hayes and Tony Paterson; music by Brian May; produced by Kennedy; released by Roadshow Entertainment.

Starring Mel Gibson (Max Rockatansky), Joanne Samuel (Jessie Rockatansky), Hugh Keays-Byrne (Toecutter), Steve Bisley (Jim Goose), Tim Burns (Johnny the Boy), Geoff Parry (Bubba Zanetti), Roger Ward (Fifi Macaffee), David Bracks (Mudguts), Bertrand Cadart (Clunk), Sheila Florance (May Swaisey) and Vincent Gil (The Nightrider).


Manhattan (1979, Woody Allen)

Every shot in Manhattan, whether of the cityscape, the interiors or the actors, is so carefully and beautifully composed, it’s not surprising Allen lets the cast go a little loose. Gordon Willis’s black and white photography is luminous, giving the city an otherworldly, dreamlike feel. That feeling, thanks to Allen’s composition, carries over to some of the interior scenes too. There are these occasional observations of regular human activity, but with the composition and lighting, they appear singular.

Allen also holds a lot of shots—usually of himself. Manhattan’s really his film as an actor. It starts out having room for Michael Murphy and Diane Keaton, but as the film progresses, Allen’s character takes over. His unlikely character proves to be the best protagonist, partially because Murphy and Keaton don’t give particularly good performances. Well, particularly is a little too complimentary. Murphy’s weak (and I love him, so it’s too bad) and Keaton’s mediocre. The same goes for Mariel Hemingway, who’s just a little too blasé—Allen gets away with a lot thanks to the composition and Willis’s photography, but it only covers so much.

The rest of the supporting cast is excellent—Meryl Streep is hilarious, Anne Byrne Hoffman is good. It’s too bad they’re both in the film so little.

George Gershwin arrangements are the film’s score and it usually works to great effect. Sometimes the booming music and the lush photography overwhelm, making Manhattan transcend.

Manhattan’s an impressive film, though it can’t completely overcome the acting problems.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Woody Allen; written by Allen and Marshall Brickman; director of photography, Gordon Willis; edited by Susan E. Morse; production designer, Mel Bourne; produced by Charles H. Joffe and Jack Rollins; released by United Artists.

Starring Woody Allen (Isaac), Diane Keaton (Mary), Michael Murphy (Yale), Mariel Hemingway (Tracy), Meryl Streep (Jill), Anne Byrne Hoffman (Emily), Michael O’Donoghue (Dennis), Wallace Shawn (Jeremiah) and Karen Ludwig (Connie).


The Muppet Movie (1979, James Frawley)

The Muppet Movie takes it upon itself to be all things… well, two things. It has to be appealing to kids and adults. The film is split roughly in half between the audiences, with the adults having more to appreciate in the star cameos–some cute, some hilarious (Steve Martin in short shorts)–and terrible puns and the kids have the songs.

To keep the kids amused during the more “adult” parts, there are the Muppets. The level of puppetry on display here is staggering, particularly once one realizes only a couple of the Muppets have moving eyes. The others just give the impression of moving, lifelike eyes through head tilts and reaction motion. Jim Henson and the Muppet performers show a masterful understanding of how the slightest motion implies real animation.

But the adults also have to be kept amused during the song sequences, which is a little harder, even though the Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher songs are great. There’s occasional humor, but there’s also amazing filmmaking. Director Frawley does a great job, as does Isidore Mankofsky’s photography and Christopher Greenbury’s editing. The Muppet Movie‘s beautifully made… and they know it.

The script frequently breaks the fourth wall, including references to how great some of the previous shots came out. The only bad shot is during Dom DeLuise’s cameo, like his close-ups had to be reshot.

The film’s idealistic and infectious. If you can believe the Muppets are real… you can believe in the film’s positive, inspiring message.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by James Frawley; written by Jack Burns and Jerry Juhl; director of photography, Isidore Mankofsky; edited by Christopher Greenbury; music by Paul Williams; production designer, Joel Schiller; produced by Jim Henson; released by Associated Film Distribution.

Starring Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt and Dave Goelz as the Muppets and Caroll Spinney (Big Bird).

Starring Charles Durning (Doc Hopper), Austin Pendleton (Max), Dom DeLuise (Bernie the Agent), Mel Brooks (Professor Max Krassman), Orson Welles (Lew Lord), Carol Kane (Myth) and Steve Martin (an insolent waiter).


Alien (1979, Ridley Scott)

Can you even watch Alien if you have epilepsy?

After about a hundred minutes of elegant direction, Scott relies on this strobe effect for the remainder of the film’s running time. Yes, it makes a disquieting effect, but it gets old in a few minutes and he uses it for at least fifteen. And, strobe effect or not, it does not disguise the strange inadequacy of the climatic threat resolution shot. The special effects—after two hours of great ones—are all of a sudden pedestrian. It’s like Scott gave up.

Luckily, Jerry Goldsmith saves the day with a lift from Howard Hanson and all is reasonably well.

The first hour of Alien is very different from the second. It’s a group film, with Scott not really concentrating on any one actor more than another (except Veronica Cartwright, who’s clearly at the back of the line). In fact, traditionally speaking, the filmmaking implies John Hurt is going to be the lead from his introduction. But the background activity—what the cast members who aren’t the focus of scenes are doing—is what makes the film so striking. Whether it’s “real” or not, Alien’s supporting cast gives the impression of being deep characters. It’s something of an illusion, but it doesn’t much matter. The unsuccessful finish saves them.

While Sigourney Weaver is really strong, Yaphet Kotto and Ian Holm might be stronger. She’s best with the other actors. And Tom Skerritt can’t be discounted.

Alien’s mostly masterful, which counts for something.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Ridley Scott; screenplay by Dan O’Bannon, based on a story by O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett; director of photography, Derek Vanlint; edited by Terry Rawlings and Peter Weatherley; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, Michael Seymour; produced by Gordon Carroll, David Giler and Walter Hill; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Tom Skerritt (Dallas), Sigourney Weaver (Ripley), Veronica Cartwright (Lambert), Harry Dean Stanton (Brett), John Hurt (Kane), Ian Holm (Ash) and Yaphet Kotto (Parker).


Scroll to Top