Category Archives: 1976

Mikey and Nicky (1976, Elaine May)

The first hour of Mikey and Nicky is trying to decide if you’re going to like either of them. Because they don’t deserve sympathy, it’s just whether you’re going to like them. It’s possible to be sympathetic to Peter Falk (Mikey) while still liking John Cassavettes (Nicky). The movie runs two hours, there’s maybe fifteen minutes where you can do both those things simultaneously. And there’s time for being sympathetic to Falk, liking Cassavettes. Feeling guilty about both emotions. Mikey and Nicky doesn’t manipulate the audience–it’s very deliberate about how it sets things up, but the one twist comes really early on, with some exquisite foreshadowing from director May, both in the film and her script. And the actors too. There’s always a lot going on in the film for the two leads. The whole movie–not the plot–hinges on how their relationship develops (in a crisis) over the two hours.

See, they’re both in the mob. Though more like work for the mob. It’s not too important. When the mobsters do show up–Sanford Meisner and William Hickey–it’s one of May’s almost straight gags. The film’s full of them, especially in the first act when Falk is trying to get Cassavettes to get out of town and Cassavettes won’t leave his hotel room because he’s been locked up in there for a few days and nuts. As the film goes on–it takes place over like nine hours–the characters get tireder and tireder, more and more stressed. Sometimes it’s with new characters who come in–once Mikey and Nicky starts introducing the women in the men’s lives, it doesn’t stop. They’re completely absent for the first almost half and then the rest of the movie is basically all about how these astonishingly broken and awful men abuse the women in their lives. It doesn’t become the a plot–which is about Falk trying to get Cassavettes out of town before out-of-town and unpleasant hit man Ned Beatty can get him. Of course, they don’t know how close Beatty is getting or even his identity. Cassavettes goes in and out of paranoia for the first forty minutes or so. The way the character development drives the subplots is phenomenal. Mikey and Nicky has some unstable elements–but May’s gently savage about character shifts and plot developments are always wondrous. Like, Cassavettes goes from being this potential scumbag at the beginning to this possibly likable one to a piece of crap as an aside, while family man Falk calling home is the initial scene focus. And the movie’s just got done with the big reveal. Everything else is fallout for the audience, but not the characters, which is just another layer for the audience. It’s breathtakingly.

Most of the movie is about whether or not Cassavettes is going to get killed; you can easily spend a third of it not caring, but also a third of it where you hope he does because he really deserves it. The film takes these vague caricature roles–background thugs–and fleshes them out in miserable detail. The film’s always aware of the crime genre and it respects it, but tries not to interact with it. It’s not against genre, it’s just not genre. At all. It’s comedy. Really, really, really dark comedy.

There are some smiles and maybe even a laugh at the beginning when it’s Falk and Cassavettes kind of being silly. You’re not sympathetic to Cassavettes, somewhat inherently, so you can laugh at him freaking out. But once the film introduces the women… well, you’re rooting for him to be in terror. Because about halfway through the film, Cassavettes takes Falk up to Carol Grace’s apartment. To have some drinks, be mean to her, but also for sex. Grace and the other two main supporting actresses have the hardest parts in the film. They’ve got to create a character where the stars–in performance, direction, script–don’t let them have any oxygen. It’s really unpleasant, because May doesn’t show them any sympathy. The film’s narrative distance to the toxic masculinity it showcases never wavers.

Joyce Van Patten plays Cassavettes’s wife and she ought to have the best performance in the film but there are all these visual flubs during her big scene. John Carter and Sheldon Kahn’s editing averages to be, well, pretty average but when they’ve got to deal with mismatched footage–from apparently two drastically different takes on the scene–it’s not good. They don’t get away with it and somehow they emphasize the mismatch, which is a bummer for the scene given how great Van Patten’s been until things get shaky. It still works for the film, because the film’s not about Van Patten at all. Except in how she’s a victim, just like Grace, just like Rose Arrick as Falk’s wife. See, Arrick shows up early when Falk’s calling home to check in. She’s established. And getting the reveal on her life towards the end is another of the film’s gut punches.

Gorgeous photography from… wait for it… Bernie Abramson, Lucien Ballard, Jack Cooperman, Jerry File, and Victor J. Kemper. The styles never clash–five photographers is a shock–and the film always looks right for what it needs to do at a given time. According to IMDb, Ballard did the last sequence and he does great work (he gets to bring in the daylight).

Also impressive is John Strauss’s score. Even when it’s excessive, it always fits. May’s got a great looking and sounding picture, just one with never great cuts.

Of the actors, Cassavettes is better more often, but Falk’s got some amazing scenes. Falk’s best scenes are better than any of Cassavettes’s scenes. Beatty’s fine as the hit man. It’s like an extended cameo. May plays Beatty more for laughs, but mean ones. There’s a lot of meanness to Mikey and Nicky.

So the film gets to the third act with a whole bunch of baggage, with the baggage getting heavier later on as the film transitioned from the sort of black comedy “adventure” or quest to the reflective visits to the three destroyed women. And May delivers on the finish perfectly. It’s so good. Even though the editors screw it up a little.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and by Elaine May; directors of photography, Bernie Abramson, Lucien Ballard, Jack Cooperman, Victor J. Kemper, and Jerry File; edited by John Carter and Sheldon Kahn; music by John Strauss; production designer, Paul Sylbert; produced by Michael Hausman; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Peter Falk (Mikey), John Cassavetes (Nicky), Ned Beatty (Kinney), Rose Arrick (Annie), Carol Grace (Nellie), William Hickey (Sid Fine), Sanford Meisner (Dave Resnick), Joyce Van Patten (Jan), and M. Emmet Walsh (Bus Driver).


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It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown (1976, Phil Roman)

It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown opens with Charlie Brown (Dylan Beach) and Linus (Liam Martin) making vaguely sexist cracks about Linus’s mother’s ability to ride her bicycle. Just as you’re thinking writer Charles M. Schulz is taking it a little far, he cuts to baby Rerun (Vinny Dow) on the back of the bike who gives his take on he and Mom’s day and it’s a perfect pivot. It changes the tone and trajectory of the scene, while also introducing the idea of visual constraints.

Arbor Day has a lot of great visuals–there’s a trip to the library, the whole ball field thing (I’ll explain in a minute)–but director Roman keeps them background to some degree. He and the animators concentrate on the foreground movement and action. It’s strong direction from Roman, even while sometimes the animation is a little too static on figures or expressions. Overall, the animation’s quite good, just sometimes a tad too functional; if the detail is a little off, the pragmatic animation only aggravates it.

But these weaker moments are few and only annoying because they screw up otherwise excellent scenes. There’s quite a bit of Sally (Gail Davis) flirting with Linus and one time the animation on Sally’s eyes throws the scene askew. Davis is excellent, Martin is good, so the scene should be one of the stronger dialogue-based ones in Arbor, but it hangs. Because of the animation detail.

Arbor Day has good dialogue-based bits and good physical comedy bits. Snoopy and Woodstock get the majority of the physical comedy ones. While the special is about Arbor Day–with Sally doing a report on it, so built-in exposition–it’s more about the first ball game of the season and how the Peanuts kids’ take on Arbor Day affect it.

And the ball game is great. The pragmatic animation plays well with the sports action, which is awesome. Arbor Day just gets better as it goes along. I mean, sure, the Arbor Day stuff is just affixed to a baseball game story but whatever.

The game’s against Peppermint Patty (Stuart Brotman, who’s great). Schulz likes his pairs in Arbor Day. Sally and Linus, Peppermint Patty and Charlie Brown, Woodstock and Snoopy. Lucy (Sarah Beach) feels like a special guest star more than a regular cast member. And the gentle affections between Peppermint Patty and Charlie Brown really play well. Arbor Day has a good arc for Charlie Brown and Dylan Beach does a fine job on the performance.

Arbor Day doesn’t have an inspired or ambitious narrative, it’s instead this expert execution of a twenty-five minute “Peanuts” special. Schulz and Roman have it down here. The characterizations are great, the performances are good, the Snoopy stuff is good, the game is good, the finale is great. Nice score from Vince Guaraldi. It’s just an ideal Charlie Brown special.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

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

Starring Dylan Beach (Charlie Brown), Stuart Brotman (Peppermint Patty), Gail Davis (Sally Brown), Liam Martin (Linus van Pelt), Vinny Dow (Rerun van Pelt), and Sarah Beach (Lucy van Pelt).


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Futureworld (1976, Richard T. Heffron)

Futureworld ends with a ten minute chase sequence. It feels like thirty. The movie runs 107 boring minutes and I really did think thirty of them were spent on Peter Fonda and Blythe Danner battling evil robots. And not even Danner. Fonda. Just Peter Fonda running around giant underground maintenance rooms.

Fonda and Danner play reporters on special assignment to cover the revamped Delos resort. A few years earlier–in Westworld–all the humanoid robots went crazy and killed guests. Fonda wrote the expose on it. Danner is the TV newswoman who used to work for Fonda and he fired for not being newsy enough. He calls her “Socks.” The film is one long diss to Danner. It gets worse as it goes along; the “Socks” thing takes a while to get introduced and then the script uses it every sixteenth word.

Neither Fonda nor Danner appeared in the first film. The only returning actor is Yul Brynner, who appears more in footage from Westworld than he does in Futureworld footage. Behind the camera, composer Fred Karlin and cinematographer Gene Polito (sharing credit this time with Howard Schwartz) both return. Karlin’s score is godawful. Polito and Schwartz’s photography is adequate. It’s not their fault the movie’s a bore.

Mayo Simon and George Schenck don’t have much of a story. Fonda suspects something is wrong at the reopened resort, Danner doesn’t. Company man Arthur Hill assures them everything is fine. But mad scientist John P. Ryan is actually doing bad things. It’s unclear for a while what the bad things are, but they’re bad in the montage sequences so they must be bad. There are a lot of montage sequences in the first half of Futureworld. It’s scene, montage, scene, montage. It seems budgetary–get to the exposition sequences as fast as possible, skipping any action sequences.

It helps Futureworld (the resort) only shows up in the first third of the movie. It’s a cheesy futuristic bar with holographic chess a year before it got to a galaxy far far away. It’s silly, but not fun. Because Futureworld isn’t any fun. Director Heffron plays it all straight, something Fonda can’t do and Danner seems unclear about.

Fonda is not good. It’s not entirely his fault, his character spends the beginning of the second act devolved into an even more patronizing jackass (to Danner) than before. The situation changes when Stuart Margolin shows up. He knows the dirt on the robots (or something). It’s a terribly paced, poorly written sequence. But Margolin’s at least likable.

Danner’s kind of sympathetic. Not her character, because she doesn’t have on, but Danner. You feel for her being in this movie. Towards the end, you sort of assume Fonda agreed to do it stoned but why did Danner agree. She should’ve fired her agent. Especially since the movie ought to be a relative no-brainer.

Killer future robots instead of killer Western robots.

But there isn’t much robot action in Futureworld; though the script fixates on the possibilities of robot sex in the first act. It’s not really a thing afterwards, even when there’s robot sex. That robot sex features one of the only two robots in the second half of the movie (of consequence).

The script does a lot to increase its efficiency (like taking place entirely underground–or on obvious sets–in the second half). With a better script, better production, better director, better actor (no script was going to make Fonda’s performance better, he’s a miscasting epitome), Futureworld might be able to work.

Instead, it’s a dull attempt at cheap “intellectual sci-fi.” It’s long, goofy, and never professional enough to take seriously. It’s strange Westworld creator Michael Crichton gets zero credit on the film, but reasonable. Who’d want their name on it?

Though, heavy John P. Ryan as a subdued bad guy scientist is at least interesting to watch. The material’s all bad, but Ryan’s a strange enough casting choice seeing how he essays it… it’s mildly diverting. As opposed to Hill, who eventually gets some Danner-esque sympathy. Not as much, but some.

Futureworld’s bad.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Richard T. Heffron; screenplay by Mayo Simon and George Schenck, based on characters created by Michael Crichton; directors of photography, Howard Schwartz and Gene Polito; edited by James Mitchell; music by Fred Karlin; produced by James T. Aubrey and Paul N. Lazarus III; released by American International Pictures.

Starring Peter Fonda (Chuck Browning), Blythe Danner (Tracy Ballard), Arthur Hill (Duffy), John P. Ryan (Dr. Schneider), Stuart Margolin (Harry), Jim Antonio (Ron Thurlow),and Yul Brynner (The Gunslinger).


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Brenda Starr (1976, Mel Stuart)

It’d be nice if there were anything good about Brenda Starr. Stuart’s direction is–at its best–mediocre. It’s always predictable, it’s sometimes bad. He has familiar patterns–over the shoulder, close-up, walking two shot. He repeats them, every time with a bad cut from James T. Heckert and Melvin Shapiro. Sometimes the sound doesn’t match, always when cutting to one of Stuart’s awkwardly framed one-shots of lead Jill St. John. They’re hard to explain–St. John doesn’t get close-ups the same way the other actors in the scene do, instead something like a medium shot with empty space around her. St. John doesn’t do anything with that space; she just delivers her poorly written dialogue like everyone else.

George Kirgo’s teleplay has St. John’s Brenda Starr a headstrong reporter who runs into dangerous situations then waits around for one of the guys to save her. One of the guys is cheesy TV news anchor Jed Allan. He’s in love with St. John–or at least a very intense lust–but she’s still waiting for her mysterious Basil to return. Basil’s not a character in the movie, rather the source comic strip. He gets a “cameo” here in a framed picture, but he’s a MacGuffin. Not sure why Kirgo thought Allan’s news anchor would be a better rescuer for St. John. Other than if her lost love returned, St. John might have to have some character stuff. She gets none. It’s a TV pilot where the title character has no character setup–other than she’s waiting for her mystery man but is willing to mock seduce for news scoops. The rest of the cast doesn’t really get any character depth either, but… if the thing’s called Brenda Starr, shouldn’t it be about her? Or at least, shouldn’t she be doing things?

Because St. John works entirely at the behest of editor Sorrell Booke. He’s apparently supposed to be a lovable boss, but Booke can barely get out Kirgo’s attempts at comic strip dialogue–he writes banter like it’s a middle school skit–and the rest of the time he’s just chastising St. John for not scooping Allan on a story. Except it’s immediately after St. John tries to give Booke a story, he refuses, then Allan scoops them. Maybe if St. John and Booke had an ounce of chemistry–or better dialogue or better direction or better production values–it might be better.

But it’s not. It’s bad.

St. John’s investigating odious rich guy Victor Buono. He’s sick and in L.A. getting treatment. Eventually, St. John’s investigation takes her to Brazil. There she meets cute rich Brazilian guy Joel Fabiani. He takes her out to dinner, where he gets further along than Allan, which is fine–Fabiani at least gives a likable performance. Not even St. John manages to be likable throughout. She’s never unlikable, but she also never gets any sympathy for her participation. She never rises above the material. Someone needs to rise about this material. Anyone.

No one does. In fact, some people get worse as it goes along.

The Brazil stuff looks like it was shot either in California or a sound stage. There’s this really bad action sequence on a river where at one point it looks like they’re in a stream not two feet deep. Production values aren’t good on Brenda Starr; Stuart doesn’t have any tricks up his sleeves to compensate either. It starts charmless, it ends charmless. In between there’s some bad acting, some mediocre acting, some bad lines, some oogling of St. John (the first act has most of it), and some lousy editing.

There’s even weak Lalo Schifrin music, which is maybe the saddest part. He’s hacking out a personality-free TV score.

The biggest compliment for Brenda Starr is Buono’s performance is nowhere near as bad as his first scene suggests it will be.

All together, sure, the script’s bad, but Stuart’s direction doesn’t get anything out of the actors, not even when they’re obviously better than the material. Maybe if Stuart were excited about the material? Like if he really embraced the crappy attempts at comic strip banter only on TV? But he doesn’t. He’s bored by it. Rightly so, sure, but he should be able to pretend.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Mel Stuart; teleplay by George Kirgo, based on a story by Kirgo and Ira Barmak and the comic strip by Dale Messick; director of photography, Ted Voigtlander; edited by James T. Heckert and Melvin Shapiro; music by Lalo Schifrin; produced by Bob Larson; aired by the American Broadcasting Company.

Starring Jill St. John (Brenda Starr), Jed Allan (Roger Randall), Sorrell Booke (A.J. Livwright), Victor Buono (Lance O’Toole), Joel Fabiani (Carlos Vegas), BarBara Luna (Luisa Santamaria), Marcia Strassman (Kentucky Smith), Arthur Roberts (Dax Leander), and Tabi Cooper (Hank O’Hare).


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