Category Archives: 1978

Autumn Sonata (1978, Ingmar Bergman)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2/4★★

CREDITS

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

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



THIS POST IS PART OF THE 4TH WONDERFUL INGRID BERGMAN BLOGATHON HOSTED BY VIRGINIE OF THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF CINEMA.


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Superman (1978, Richard Donner), the extended cut

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

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

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


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The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978, Steve Binder)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

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

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


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Spider-Man Strikes Back (1978, Ron Satlof)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1/4

CREDITS

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

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


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