1983

What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown? (1983, Bill Melendez)

What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown? is exceedingly intense. It doesn’t start intense, though it does start a little different. There’s this gradual shot–with Judy Munsen’s lovely score accompanying–moving through all the toys in Charlie Brown’s house before it gets to his bookshelf. The books with visible spines are heady classic novels; but Charlie Brown (Brad Kesten) is getting down his picture album. He’s got to put in some snapshots from his trip to France–Learned is direct sequel, time-wise not tone-wise, to the theatrical Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown–and Sally comes over to ask what he’s doing. So he tells her about the events of his trip after the movie.

His recounting starts as comedy. It’s Charlie Brown, Linus (Jeremy Schoenberg), Peppermint Patty (Victoria Vargas), Marcie (Michael Dockery), and Snoopy and Woodstock. Snoopy is driving because when it’s a bunch of eight year-olds without adult supervision, it’s best to let the beagle drive. Even if he does get into multiple accidents throughout the special. After Snoopy wrecks the car and gets into a fight with a flock of ducks, the kids have to rent another one. Good thing Marcie speaks French (she’s the only one who does).

Up to this point, Learned is well-produced–great animation, excellent direction from Melendez, that Munsen music, and a strong script from Charles M. Schulz–but nothing particularly special. Then the kids camp out for the night and Linus realizes they’re on the cliffs overlooking Omaha Beach. He goes down to the beach and, through rotoscoping, “sees” the D-Day invasion. The rotoscoping colorizes the black and white footage with bold, bright colors, creating a wonderful tonal contrast between the Peanuts kids’ adventure and the history they’re encountering.

Once the other kids wake up, Linus tells them where they are and all about D-Day. They explore the area, culminating in a walk through the American cemetery, with an Eisenhower speech accompanying them. Learned got intense starting with Linus’s beach visions. The cemetery tour, which is visually magnificent, just ratchets it up even further.

There’s some more humor–really good physical gags–to calm things down. Then they get to Ypres, a World War I site, and Linus tells the other kids about it. The WWI sequence is much shorter–no rotoscoped footage–and initially seems like it won’t be as affecting as the D-Day sequences. Then Linus starts reciting John McCrae’s poem, *In Flanders Field*, with accompanying visuals, and it devastates. Munsen’s music plays a big part, effectiveness-wise.

Schulz wraps it up–before a gently comedic bookend–with some succinct profundity. It’s all very intense.

Great script, animation, direction, and music. Schoenberg is excellent with the lengthy expository monologues. The rest of the cast is good, they just don’t have the heavy lifting Schoenberg gets.

What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown? is spectacular.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

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

Starring Jeremy Schoenberg (Linus van Pelt), Brad Kesten (Charlie Brown), Victoria Vargas (Peppermint Patty), Michael Dockery (Marcie), and Stacy Heather Tolkin (Sally Brown).


It’s an Adventure, Charlie Brown (1983, Sam Jaimes, Phil Roman, and Bill Melendez)

Despite being an anthology of eight different stories, It’s an Adventure, Charlie Brown does not have many adventures. Well, not in the adventurous sense. They’re still good, they’re just not… adventures. The special runs forty-seven minutes, with the eight stories having differing lengths.

The first three stories are the most substantial. There are two Charlie Brown (Michael Catalano) stories and then a Peppermint Patty (Brent Hauer) and Marcie (Michael Dockery) one.

The stories all have titles, which nicely delineates them. The first is “Sack,” in which Charlie Brown becomes so obsessed with baseball he develops a rash on his head. The rash looks like baseball stitches. His solution is to wear a paper shopping bag over his head; his doctor’s solution is for him to get away from it all and go to camp. There he becomes incredibly popular… because he’s got a bag over his head.

It’s a good start to Adventure, with a nice performance from Catalano, and some great moments. Charles M. Schulz adapted all of the stories from the Peanuts comic strip, so the proverbial tires are in good shape throughout, regardless of story length. There’s also a wonderfully absurdist punchline to the whole thing.

The next story is “Caddies,” which has Peppermint Patty and Marcie working as caddies for a couple bickering golfers. Hauer and Dockery are both good, there are some strong jokes, and some rather nice animation. Again, not really an adventure, but a good bit. It too has a strong punchline, while the rest of the stories have far more unassuming ones.

Like “Kite,” the last of the three longer stories. Charlie Brown finally cracks and attacks the Kite Eating Tree, resulting in a threatening letter from the EPA. Like any sensible eight year-old, upon receipt of the letter, he runs away. He doesn’t get too far before he finds himself coaching a bunch of younger kids’ baseball team. It’s a really sweet story, as Charlie Brown bonds with the kids, particularly little Milo (Jason Mendelson) who’s so young he can’t hold a bat.

Then there are two much shorter stories, one with Schroeder (Brad Schacter) and Lucy (Angela Lee Sloan) fighting as he tries to play his piano, the other with Sally (Cindi Reilly) having school problems. Both are visually simple, but the one with Schroeder and Lucy is so spared down the focus is all on the characters’ interaction. It’s rather effective thanks to Schacter and Lee Sloan’s performances.

The next two stories–”Butterfly” and “Blanket” are longer, but not as long as the opening three. And “Butterfly” is almost stellar, it just ends too soon. A butterfly lands on Peppermint Patty’s nose. After she falls asleep, Marcie takes the butterfly off and coaxes it to fly away. Only then Marcie tells Peppermint Patty the butterfly turned into an angel before flying away, convincing Patty she’s a practical prophet. She goes from telling the various Peanuts kids about the miracle before deciding to take her message to houses of worship. It’s good and funny and all, but for a moment it seems like Schulz is getting downright ambitious with Peppermint Patty’s (still very Peppermint Patty-like) evangelicalism.

“Blanket” has Lucy getting fed up with Linus’s blanket–to be fair, the blanket does attack her multiple times–and trying to dispose of it in various ways. Obviously these attempts cause Linus (Rocky Reilly) considerable consternation–and panic–as he tries to save the blanket. It’s a good story, with a lot of excellent animation (Adventure goes all out animation-wise); Reilly’s decent and Lee Sloan is good, even if she’s exceeding unlikable. Lucy gets cruel.

Then the Adventure ends with a short “Woodstock” and Snoopy bit. It’s adorable and, like most of the special, reserved and subtle.

While It’s an Adventure, Charlie Brown lacks in frenzied imagination, the good performances, good direction, good animation, and strong writing more than compensate. It’s never particularly exciting, it’s always assured and well-executed. The longer, ten or twelve minute stories are a rather good length for the segments. The anthology format works out well. It’s too bad the directors don’t get credit for their individual segments; it’d be interesting to know who did what.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Sam Jaimes, Phil Roman, and Bill Melendez; written by Charles M. Schulz; edited by Roger Donley and Chuck McCann; music by Ed Bogas and Desirée Goyette; produced by Melendez and Lee Mendelson; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring Michael Catalano (Charlie Brown), Angela Lee Sloan (Lucy van Pelt), Rocky Reilly (Linus van Pelt), Brent Hauer (Peppermint Patty), Michael Dockery (Marcie), Cindi Reilly (Sally Brown), Brad Schacter (Schroeder), Jenny Lewis (Ruby), Johnny Graves (Austin), and Jason Mendelson (Milo).


Is This Goodbye, Charlie Brown? (1983, Phil Roman)

Is This Goodbye, Charlie Brown? opens with this gag of Linus and Snoopy fighting over Linus’s blanket. It doesn’t relate to the special’s story and has a completely different tone–and an almost cruel Linus (Jeremy Schoenberg)–but it does echo later on a little. Goodbye is about Linus and Lucy (Angela Lee Sloan) moving away; Linus gives his blanket to Snoopy in an unexpected and tender scene. So the opening works. Even if Linus is a little too intense during it.

The first half of the special is the moving away story. Linus telling Charlie Brown (Brad Kesten), Lucy telling Schroeder (Kevin Brando). Sally, played by Stacy Heather Tolkin, spends the van Pelt siblings last few days in town in utter denial. Not just about them moving, but about Linus making a date to take her to the movies. While Charlie Brown is all over the place trying to cope with losing his best friend–including a trip to Lucy’s psychiatry booth (she’s sold the practice)–Sally’s sitting on the steps waiting for her date.

There’s a nice scene where Lucy and Linus have a farewell luncheon and make the mistake of hiring Joe Cool Catering. No belly laughs, but some rather nice smiles. Goodbye is all about the emotions resulting from the move, with Peppermint Patty (Victoria Vargas) deciding she’s got to help Charlie Brown recover. But it then becomes all about whether or not she’s actually got a crush on him, which is most of the second half of Goodbye.

Really good performances from Kesten and Lee Sloan, but everyone’s solid. Charles M. Schulz handles the moving seriously, giving Tolkin and Brando some strong material as well. Vargas is probably the most uneven performance but she’s still good. Michael Dockery is fine as Marcie, who doesn’t get much to do but give Vargas a sounding board.

A rather nice score from Judy Munsen, good direction from Roman… Goodbye is a fine half hour. Schulz’s script is earnest and sincere and nicely realized by Roman and the animators.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

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

Starring Brad Kesten (Charlie Brown), Stacy Heather Tolkin (Sally Brown), Victoria Vargas (Peppermint Patty), Jeremy Schoenberg (Linus van Pelt), Angela Lee Sloan (Lucy van Pelt), Michael Dockery (Marcie), and Kevin Brando (Schroeder / Franklin).


V (1983, Kenneth Johnson)

About half of V is quite good. Unfortunately, V was a two-night mini-series and the first half is good part. The second half, not so much. The first half has human-like alien visitors arriving on Earth, in hopes of making a chemical compound to take back home to save their planet. Turns out they’re lying about pretty much everything and they’re actually bad aliens. It’s just they’ve taken over the planet by the time anyone notices. Traditional good guys like American presidents or the military are taken completely unawares and it’s up to the little people. Actually, specifically, it’s up to the scientists. Because the aliens hate scientists. Because they science things and find out the truth. It’s actually never explained.

Writer and director Johnson sets most of the action in Los Angeles. There are the doctors at a hospital and their supporting cast, then these families in one neighborhood. Everyone is interconnected. Richard Lawson is a doctor at the hospital, his dad (Jason Bernard) works at a chemical plant, that chemical plant is run by Hansford Rowe, who is married to Neva Patterson, whose son from a previous marriage is lead Marc Singer.

In the first half, Singer’s only the lead because he’s the cocky white guy. In the second half, he’s the lead because he’s the cocky white guy who does dangerous things and makes the hard decisions. Second lead technically is Faye Grant. She’s a med student who ends up running a resistance cell. She works with Lawson. Remember him? He started this particular interconnected character web.

Grant starts V kind of second-fiddle to Ron Hajak. They’re a couple, living together, she’s the med student, he’s the stockbroker. Yuppie love. Or, as my wife put it, Ken and Barbie in the Malibu Beach House. It’s only significant because eventually Hajak disappears. And it turns out without the Ken and Barbie bicker thing, there’s not much to Grant. Johnson gets her about halfway through the first episode without having anything just for her.

Second half, she’s the resistance leader.

Grant is not good. She’s sympathetic. But the performance isn’t good. The part isn’t well-written. Johnson has a problem with the female parts here. Though it’s cool how V passes Bechdel; Grant is unsure in her newfound command, sweet older woman Camila Ashland reassures her. Unfortunately, Ashland’s not good either. She’s sympathetic. And Blair Tefkin’s feckless teenage girl is a whole other problem.

Oh, and Joanna Kerns as Singer’s ex-wife. Her part’s crap.

Anyway. Those parts are problems. Penelope Windust’s part is better for half of V–she disappears in the second half because… well, because her husband–Michael Durrell–gets to have a huge character arc out of nowhere. Not a particularly good arc either, in terms of writing or plotting. It drags, actually; Johnson makes a movie with flying saucers and somehow makes more requests for disbelief suspension when the sci-fi visual part is done. Sure, it comes back for the grand finale, but it’s way too action-oriented. Johnson is not good at the action. He’s good at the gee whiz factor, which isn’t appropriate in V after twenty or thirty minutes and he knows it. So then there’s no more gee whiz.

The finale features a starfighter battle. But the starfighters are spacious minivan-type starfighters. Johnson tries for sci-fi action in the sequence and fails miserably. It’s also way too long a sequence. It’s okay compost shots of the starfighter minivans, but then there are these terrible one or two-shots of the starfighter pilots. It looks like they’re sitting at tables. There’s even a rear gun in the minivan. Because Johnson needs another Star Wars nod. Besides some production design stuff, there’s also a sequence where the aliens arrive and a high school band plays The Imperial March from Empire.

That arrival sequence? It’s at Patterson’s husband’s plant, which Singer is covering, and Tefkin is playing in the band. It’s so unfortunate the second half of V doesn’t bring the cast together better. Johnson spends a lot of time being pragmatic about how to transition between characters and how to build subplots. Even when the writing is thin (Tefkin) or the acting isn’t great, there’s always something going on.

And then the beginning of the second half brings in a bunch of stray threads. Only Johnson doesn’t want to do melodrama so he goes for surprise. Melodrama probably would’ve worked better.

The second half also throws in good guy alien Frank Ashmore and his sexy sidekick, Jenny Neumann.

Johnson has an intricate thoughtful script for the first half. He builds his subplots, he cultivates them. Second half, he either tears them up or ignores them. He doesn’t build anything new for half of V. He just stops. The second night is a premature victory lap.

And gives Durrell way too much to do.

The first half just has the better writing, both of events and characters. Leonardo Cimino lives in the same neighborhood as Durrell. Cimino’s grandson is a collaborator. There are a lot of collaborators. Johnson’s a realist. David Packer plays the grandson. He’s crushing on Tefkin, incidentally. Packer’s good, though he gets a lot better writing and direction than Tefkin.

So you watch the first half and it’s all these interesting characters and how they’re experiencing an alien invasion. The second-half is totally different. At least, except when–especially at the end–Johnson wants to do callbacks to the first half.

The biggest and most immediate callback is Michael Wright. He’s Lawson’s thieving baby brother. But then he gets a great monologue and Johnson directs the heck out of it. So is it a problematic callback?

Sure?

Wright’s fine. Singer’s fine. Jason Bernard, Cimino, Evan C. Kim, Rafael Campos. They’re all fine. Bonnie Bartlett gives the best performance, even with a small, thin role. Overall, adequate acting, lot of charm; the TV movie way.

With caveats–V is a successful TV miniseries. Johnson keeps it together for over three hours and over a hundred speaking roles.

He should’ve just done the first half. Written the women’s parts better too, but the second half is superfluous. The narrative ambition is gone. The special effects ambition is present, but distorted. Bad finish. Especially when people are reconnecting and the scenes are all weak.

Good special effects overall. Some great makeup effects. Johnson does do one great action sequence. It’s right at the beginning. Again, he had a lot more ambition at minute four versus minute 105.

V doesn’t have a good ending. Johnson doesn’t even try to find one. It’s infuriating.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kenneth Johnson; director of photography, John McPherson; edited by Paul Dixon, Alan C. Marks, Robert K. Richard, and Jack W. Schoengarth; music by Joseph Harnell; production designer, Charles R. Davis; produced by Chuck Bowman; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring Marc Singer (Mike Donovan), Faye Grant (Juliet Parrish), Jane Badler (Diana), Michael Durrell (Robert Maxwell), Michael Wright (Elias Taylor), David Packer (Daniel Bernstein), Leonardo Cimino (Abraham Bernstein), Evan C. Kim (Tony Wah Chong Leonetti), Jenny Sullivan (Kristine Walsh), Blair Tefkin (Robin Maxwell), Penelope Windust (Kathleen Maxwell), Richard Lawson (Dr. Ben Taylor), Peter Nelson (Brian), George Morfogen (Stanley Bernstein), Bonnie Bartlett (Lynn Bernstein), Frank Ashmore (Martin), Jason Bernard (Caleb Taylor), Rafael Campos (Sancho Gomez), Diane Cary (Harmony Moore), Robert Englund (Willie), Ron Hajak (Dennis Lowell), Joanna Kerns (Marjorie Donovan), Camila Ashland (Ruby Engels), Viveka Davis (Polly Maxwell), William Russ (Brad), Neva Patterson (Eleanor Dupres), Andrew Prine (Steven), Tommy Petersen (Josh Brooks), Jenny Neumann (Barbara), and Richard Herd (John).


Ragnarok (1983)

Ragnarok is a “video [comic] strip.” There’s no animation, though occasionally there are electric crackles, just panning, scanning, and zooming across illustrations while three voice actors perform multiple roles. There are sound effects–minimal ones, which sometimes works to great effect, sometimes doesn’t. There’s no credited director or editor. The illustrators get credit, as does writer Alan Moore. It’s a shame the editor doesn’t get that credit though, because they do a fantastic job. Even when Ragnarok hits the skids, the editing is good.

The video strip is split into three chapters, with the second one just a setup for the third. The first, however, is easily the most impressive. It’s this taut space Western with a prospector and his claim under attack from a gang of hooligans. Will Ragnarok–a peace-keeping regulator–get there in time to save the prospector? The voice acting on Ragnarok is never great, but it’s better in the first part, and the hooligans (and the prospector) are all awesome. Lots of personality both in the performance and in the script.

Moore closes the first chapter with some musing about the universe, man’s place in it, and even a prospector’s song. It’s kind of awesome, which makes what follows all the more disappointing.

The common denominator for trouble is the lack of banter. It’s where Moore shows the most personality with dialogue. The second chapter, which has Ragnarok investigating a distress call and finding a super-intelligent Tyrannosaurus Rex from another dimension bent on conquering the universe, has very little banter. It has some–Ragnarok mouthing off to his computer interface, which has a heavily pixelated female appearance and the moniker Voice–but the well-spoken, psychically-powered, megalomaniac T. Rex hasn’t got any chemistry with Ragnarok. They’re both playing the straight sentient and Moore writes Ragnarok as something of a buzz kill anyway. When he’s got good company, he’s fine; without it, he’s dull.

And that dullness fully eclipses all in the third chapter–except the editing, of course–as the T. Rex finds its way to Ragnarok’s home base and wrecks havoc. Moore introduces a new supporting cast of terrible characters, from an overbearing, questionably talented commanding officer called “Mother”–it’s not clear if she’s actually mother to all the regulators (the bad guy in the first chapter was called “Father”, maybe a further adventure would’ve introduced cloning backstory)–to a dimwitted female sidekick for Ragnarok. The T. Rex appropriately calls her “Simple Jane,” so Moore was intentionally playing her as a dope? Not a good sign.

There’s a lot of lame fight “scenes,” without much detail in the illustrations, and the showdown between the T. Rex and Ragnarok leaves a lot to be desired. Much like the third chapter itself.

Still, it’s competently executed and the voice cast does work at it. It’s just a shame Ragnarok never lives up to the potential of the first chapter’s writing or does justice to whoever did the rather solid editing on the video strip.

1/4

CREDITS

Character origination by Bryan Talbot; written by Alan Moore; illustrated by Mike Collins, Mark Falmer, Raz Khan, Ham Khan, Don Wazejewski, and Dave Williams; released by Nutland Video Ltd.

Voices by David Tate, Jon Glover, and Norma Ronald.


The Wind in the Willows (1983, Mark Hall and Chris Taylor)

The Wind in the Willows has an undeniable charm about it. Directors Hall and Taylor send the first act of the film focusing on lovely details. Wind is stop motion, with a lot of intricate “set” decoration. And they do occasionally utilize their control over performers and location to get some excellent shots. Unfortunately, none of that ingenuity carries over to dealing with the characters and their storylines.

Some of the problem is Rosemary Anne Sisson’s teleplay. Sisson meanders from event to event. Most events involve Toad (voiced by David Jason), which is great. Toad’s ostensibly a lot of fun. Only most of his interactions with other characters are long shots in profile. Hall and Taylor are perfectly comfortable revealing the stop motion models’ lack of, well, fur, in close-ups, but they never bother to shoot anything from an angle. While some may be constraints of the sets, it’s not all.

Wind in the Willows is the story of four friends and there’s zero character relationship between any of them. Sisson’s script rushes the introduction of “leads” Mole (Richard Pearson) and Rat (Ian Carmichael) in a hurry to get to Jason. And Jason doesn’t really start paying off for a while. Eventually, Jason–and his musical numbers–hold Willows afloat, but not at the start. Sisson, Hall, and Taylor still need to get Pearson and Carmichael established.

They never really do. Sisson’s script is purely functional. All the sublime charm about riverfront life for adorable anthropomorphized British animals is from the stop motion. Outside the songs, nothing in the writing brings any of the charm. It’s sometimes so craven it does the exact opposite. As a result, Pearson and Carmichael aren’t the leads, they aren’t even friends. They don’t have enough time together.

And Michael Hordern, as wise old Badger, is a three dimensional pothole. Hordern’s characterization lacks warmth, Sisson’s writing lacks thought, and the character design is awkward. Badger doesn’t fit anywhere in Willows, not outside, not inside. Not even when he’s inside of his own house.

The Wind in the Willows coasts most of the way (and almost entirely downhill), it gets tedious when it should be exciting, it smacks of missed opportunity, but it does get through all right. Hall and Taylor end up having no idea what to do with the various constraints, though they do seem to understand Jason’s Toad songs are the best part.

Keith Hopwood and Malcolm Rowe’s music, however, is way too much. It tries so hard to be tranquil and just ends up being intrusive.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Mark Hall and Chris Taylor; teleplay by Rosemary Anne Sisson, based on the novel by Kenneth Grahame; edited by John McManus; music by Keith Hopwood and Malcolm Rowe; produced by Brian Cosgrove and Hall; aired by Independent Television.

Starring Richard Pearson (Mole), Ian Carmichael (Rat), David Jason (Toad), Michael Hordern (Badger), Una Stubbs (Jailer’s Daughter), and Beryl Reid (The Magistrate).


The Meaning of Life (1983, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones)

Terry Jones’s The Meaning of Life is a seven-part rumination on The Meaning of Life. At least the title cards for each part suggest its a seven-part rumination on the Meaning of Life. Not to spoil anything, but if the film does get around to addressing said meaning… well, it acknowledges you don’t need to be a philosopher with an S in your name to figure certain things out.

Instead, The Meaning of Life is some very controlled lunacy from the Monty Python troupe. Terrys Jones and Gilliam direct (Jones the feature, Gilliam a prologuing short), everyone writes, everyone actings (though barely Gilliam). There aren’t many standouts in the cast. Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, and sort of Jones do the best. But no one’s got a great part. Eric Idle’s problem is he just has bad parts, time and again. Except one waiter bit and it’s just a scene. And he does headline a nice musical number. His acting roles are always competently done… they’re just slight.

John Cleese has an entirely different, though at first seemingly opposite, problem. Cleese has all these big parts–(British) public school teacher, British empire officer, extremely American waiter–and none of them are great. Even when Cleese is good, the parts are thin. As the films progress, things even out–Cleese’s performance and the parts get to an equal thinness.

Some of it could be Jones’s direction. He’s far more interested in the filmmaking of Meaning of Life than the humor of it. There’s a lot of special effects, there’s a lot of narrative devices in moving from sketch-to-sketch, moving around in sketches. He loves the theatricality of the film, dropping a big musical number in, but he’s not particularly invested in the sketches themselves. Sometimes the writing is just poorly timed, sometimes the punchline isn’t enough. Director Jones, cinematographer Peter Hannan, and editor Julian Doyle do some rather cool stuff in Meaning of Life; one minute it feels like a British crime cheapie, then French New Wave, then Bergman. Jones throws a lot of spaghetti on the wall and most of it sticks.

Except not really when it comes to the “narrative.” The sketches aren’t good enough for the MacGuffin not to function. It’s a bumpy almost too hours. It moves well, but it’s really bumpy. Right after a gross-out sequence Jones highlights as an effective, if icky segue into the third act, it becomes obvious Life’s never smoothing out. It’s not all building up to a grand finale. In fact, Jones cuts away from the grand finale, which might actually be the better move.

That Gilliam-directed prologue is a weird bit of early eighties yuppie bashing and old British men wearing Road Warrior outfits. It’s dramatically inert and the joke isn’t funny enough, but it’s a beautifully executed piece of work. Great Roger Pratt photography on it.

Anyway.

Meaning of Life has enough laughs to leave a positive impression; Jones’s decision not to get ambitious with the material seems to be a correct one. It’s a shame Idle and Cleese–who should be standouts–aren’t.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones; written by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Gilliam, Eric Idle, Jones, and Michael Palin; directors of photography, Roger Pratt and Peter Hannan; edited by Julian Doyle; music by John Du Prez; production designer, Harry Lange; produced by John Goldstone; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Graham Chapman (Tony Bennett), John Cleese (Death), Terry Gilliam (Howard Katzenberg), Eric Idle (Angela), Terry Jones (Mrs. Brown), and Michael Palin (Lady Presenter).


Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983, Jack Clayton)

Nothing connects with Something Wicked This Way Comes, though Jonathan Pryce’s performance is probably the closest thing to a complete success. Jason Robards is often quite good, but he’s both protagonist and subject of the film, which neither director Clayton nor writer Ray Bradbury (adapting his own novel) really seem to know how to transition between. Ostensibly, the leads of the film are young teens Vidal Peterson and Shawn Carson, who find their small town threatened by Pryce’s demonic carnival owner. But they’re just in distress; it’s up to Robards to save them.

Along the way–Something Wicked runs a long ninety-some minutes–strange things happen to the other townsfolk, at least the ones the film has time to introduce in the talky first act. Clayton’s direction is never scary enough, Stephen H. Burum’s photography is never atmospheric enough, and Argyle Nelson Jr. and Barry Mark Gordon’s editing is always problematic. Something Wicked’s target audience is teen boys but the script is about a fifty-something man coming to terms with waiting too long to have a child. If Clayton just went for creepy, it might have all worked out better.

Especially considering all the special effects until the finale are weak. The finale’s special effects are fantastic. They’re not on screen long enough–that editing is always problematic, like I said–but they’re fantastic.

Also unimpressive is James Horner’s score, which occasionally makes the film seem longer, even though it’s not bad. It just doesn’t work. Nothing in Something Wicked works. Except the aforementioned Jonathan Pryce.

The main supporting cast–Mary Grace Canfield, Richard Davalos, Jake Dengel, James Stacy–don’t help things. They’re too obviously contrived, too obviously pragmatic (except Canfield, all of them have shops in a row so it’s easy to introduce them all to both Peterson and Robards). Bradbury’s script treats everyone as a caricature, except maybe Peterson and Robards. Peterson’s performance isn’t good enough–he’s annoying–and Robards gets some lame material. Poor Diane Ladd has nothing to do, except go from being a tragic abandoned wife to a succubus, entertaining men while son Carson sleeps unawares upstairs.

Pam Grier shows up as one of Pryce’s minions and makes an impression thanks to some solid costumes and terrible special effects, but her few lines aren’t memorable. Same goes for Ellen Geer’s character, mother to Peterson, wife to Robards. Something Wicked’s characters ought to have some interesting backstory, but they just don’t. It doesn’t help whenever Bradbury tries to bring it up, he just goes with blocks of expository dialogue.

The film suffered studio tinkering, but it’s hard to imagine they broke things too much. Something Wicked’s pieces simply don’t add up to anything. It’s a shame, because the production values are great and there’s excellent potential for Robards’s performance. And Pryce’s good, regardless.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jack Clayton; screenplay by Ray Bradbury, based on his novel; director of photography, Stephen H. Burum; edited by Argyle Nelson Jr. and Barry Mark Gordon; music by James Horner; production designer, Richard Macdonald; produced by Peter Douglas; released by Buena Vista Distribution Company.

Starring Vidal Peterson (Will Halloway), Shawn Carson (Jim Nightshade), Jason Robards (Charles Halloway), Jonathan Pryce (Mr. Dark), Ellen Geer (Mrs. Halloway), Diane Ladd (Mrs. Nightshade), Royal Dano (Tom Fury), Mary Grace Canfield (Miss Foley), Richard Davalos (Mr. Crosetti), Jake Dengel (Mr. Tetley), James Stacy (Ed) and Pam Grier (The Dust Witch).


Sleepaway Camp (1983, Robert Hiltzik)

Sleepaway Camp has two things going for it on a consistent basis–Benjamin Davis’s cinematography (it’s not flashy, but it’s exceptionally competent) and the special effects. There aren’t a lot of gore shots in Camp, but director Hiltzik makes sure they count. He can’t do the suspense sequences, which is a bit of a problem, but I’m not sure where to start with all the film’s problems.

Some of it is a perfectly fine dumb camp movie. It’s mean in that “jocks versus the norms” eighties way, but there’s a cool counselor (Paul DeAngelo–who shockingly doesn’t turn out to be a prick) and Hiltzik is definitely trying with the camp stuff. The scenes with the counselors explaining how an activity works and whatever? Hiltzik worked on those scenes.

Or he just hired photogenic camp counselors.

But it’s not just some dumb movie about Jonathan Tiersten’s bringing his shy cousin (Felissa Rose) to his favorite summer camp, where she romances his best friend, Christopher Collet, and feuds with his ex-girlfriend, Karen Fields. No, it’s not got a serial killer on the loose. At first, the serial killer after some of the downright evil and then just stupidly bad people in the camp. Eventually, however, the killer starts targeting even the innocent and what’s going to happen. Will sleazy camp owner Mike Kellin pin it on Tiersten, or is something else going on?

It’s not a good mystery–there isn’t one–so Hiltzik slaps a twist ending on it. That twist ending has certain very uncomfortable foreshadowing throughout the film and it’s clear, even though Hiltzik wanted to write about a bunch of kids at a summer camp being in danger, he never had any sympathy for any of the characters. Otherwise, maybe the script would’ve been better.

But there’s nothing to be done about his direction. Or Edward Bilous’s score.

Decent moments from Tiersten, Collet, sort of Kellin, definitely Paul DeAngelo and maybe a handful of others. Rose’s part is awful. It’s hard to gauge the performance. Desiree Gould turns in a performance out of a Saturday Night Live dinner theatre sketch. Not the best way to start a picture.

Sleepaway Camp, partially thanks to Hiltzik’s misunderstanding of MacGuffins and general weirdness about sex, is nowhere near as endearing as it should be.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Robert Hiltzik; director of photography, Benjamin Davis; edited by Ron Kalish and Sharyn L. Ross; music by Edward Bilous; production designer, William Bilowit; produced by Jerry Silva and Michele Tatosian; released by United Film Distribution Company.

Starring Jonathan Tiersten (Ricky), Felissa Rose (Angela), Christopher Collet (Paul), Karen Fields (Judy), Mike Kellin (Mel), Katherine Kamhi (Meg), Paul DeAngelo (Ronnie) and Desiree Gould (Aunt Martha).


The Hunger (1983, Tony Scott)

A lot of The Hunger is so exquisitely directed by Scott, it almost seems like there’s nothing the narrative could do to mess it up. His Panavision composition is precise, fixated on the small detail, whether it’s David Bowie’s stubble or Catherine Deneuve’s sunglasses. These details become larger than life, filling the frame, but Scott and photographer Stephen Goldblatt want their actual size to be far more important, always haunting the viewer. The Hunger’s filmmaking is all about precision, whether it’s the direction, the photographer or Pamela Power’s thoughtfully hectic editing. It’s a shame the same can’t be said for Ivan Davis and Michael Thomas’s script, which eventually undoes most of the filmmaking.

The Hunger is a very tight story. David Bowie is a vampire. He is getting sick. Catherine Deneuve is his master. There’s no description of the vampire logic in The Hunger, which is initially charming and then grating. It gets grating about the time it’s clear Scott’s style can’t carry the film, somewhere around the second half. Anyway, Deneuve finds out about aging scientist–she’s a scientist who specializes in aging, she’s not aging herself–aging scientist Susan Sarandon. Bowie tries to go to Sarandon for help. After some complications and revelations, Sarandon herself is afflicted.

The simple problem with The Hunger is the script. The more complex problem with it is how little Scott cares about the script. David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve manage a classical tragic elegance. Sarandon brings this modern elegance. Scott loves the dark elegance of it, he doesn’t care about the story. The film rushes through any of its “science” scenes, which come across as so ludicrous Bram Stoker wouldn’t have used them in 1897. But when Scott’s got to show the science–regardless of how stupid Davis and Thomas explain that science–Scott is able to make it look good. He stumbles occasionally in the third act, which is way too rushed both in terms of present action and runtime, but Scott’s even able to visualize the dumb ending pretty well. It’s just too bad he can’t save it. Once Sarandon stops being the protagonist of the film and its subject, The Hunger slips and doesn’t recover. It handled changing protagonists from Bowie to Sarandon, but when it tries to hand off to Deneuve, the third act rush is too close and it’s a big fumble.

Lots of mixed metaphors and so on in there but The Hunger’s a little hard to rip on. It deserves it–the bad finish just makes the previous missteps more obvious, especially in the case of Cliff De Young. He’s Sarandon’s fellow aging scientist and also her boyfriend. He gets nothing to do, not even in the scenes where the other scientists have something to do, and then he gets a couple big moments. Scott doesn’t direct either of those scenes well. It feels like a different picture.

Good music from Danny Jaeger and Michel Rubini. Some great special effects. Good performances from Bowie and Sarandon. Deneuve’s fine until the script passes the buck on her as a protagonist (and, subsequently, even as a character). Effective supporting turn from Beth Ehlers. Dan Hedaya is out of place as a grizzled cop. Dan Hedaya should never be out of place as a grizzled cop.

It’s a beautifully made film. Shame about that script.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Tony Scott; screenplay by Ivan Davis and Michael Thomas, based on the novel by Whitley Strieber; director of photography, Stephen Goldblatt; edited by Pamela Power; music by Denny Jaeger and Michel Rubini; production designer, Brian Morris; produced by Richard Shepherd; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Susan Sarandon (Sarah), David Bowie (John), Catherine Deneuve (Miriam), Beth Ehlers (Alice), Cliff De Young (Tom), Rufus Collins (Charlie), Suzanne Bertish (Phyllis) and Dan Hedaya (Lieutenant Allegrezza).


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