Category Archives: 1981

Madame X (1981, Robert Ellis Miller)

Madame X never has good pacing. The movie starts with Tuesday Weld on trial, in old age makeup. She refuses to identify herself, hence the title, and won’t even assist her lawyer, Martina Deignan, in her own defense. Weld’s completely passive in the scene. Robert Hooks’s prosecuting attorney closing arguments dominate the scene, setting a problematic tone for the next hundred or so minutes.

Weld is the “star” of Madame X, and while she’s the subject of the movie, writer Edward Anhalt and director Miller never let her be its protagonist. Not for long anyway; not in the second half, when it matters. Instead, the supporting cast runs the movie. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. What’s worse is how good Weld is during most of the latter type. After a too long setup, Madame X turns into a series of vignettes with different guest stars. Weld doesn’t get much to do in these scenes, except be a little bit more of a fallen woman. Without material or even the movie’s attention, she’s great. While the script might not trying to build a character, Weld’s working on it.

And then in the narratively defective third act, when Anhalt’s script does give Weld some agency again, Madame X backtracks some of the work she’s done and gives her a shallow melodramatic finish. Madame X never wants to be anything but affecting melodrama; it’s one tragedy after another. And it’s not about them not adding up into anything, it’s about that anything not getting the time it needs.

The script has a real problem emphasizing the right character. Ellis’s direction doesn’t help. Some of the problems might just be the nature of TV movies, like defense attorney Deignan not getting enough time. When it seems like she might get some development, the third act surprise takes it away from her. That third act surprise disappoints too. There’s just no time for it–Madame X needed at least another ten minutes, maybe twenty.

So, while Weld’s the lead and she’s good at the beginning, problematic in the middle, great in the second half, persevering at the finish, Madame X is about the supporting cast. Weld might be in the foreground, but all the focus is on the background. Sometimes literally. Woody Omens’s photography is competent and effective; the content’s sometimes a mess but Omens shoots it fine. Madame X travels the world, but was probably all shot around L.A.; Omens hides it as well as he can.

Anyway. The supporting cast. Best is Jeremy Brett. He’s second-billed, which initially suggests he’s going to have a substantial presence. He doesn’t. But he’s great when he’s in the film. Then maybe Len Cariou. But the script fails him. So maybe Eleanor Parker. Script fails her too, but in different ways than Cariou. Parker’s one-note in her scenes with Weld. She’s a good mean matriarch but in her scenes with other people, she’s got a lot more texture. It’s the script. Anhalt’s script does no one any favors during dramatic sequences. Well, maybe Brett.

Then there’s Jerry Stiller. He’s not good, but he’s fine.

Granville Van Dusen is too slight. Even when he tries, he’s too slight. The script’s not good to him either. Robin Strand, billed like he’s going to have a real part, has a couple scenes. He’s not good. He’s likable, sort of, but he’s not good. The script even goes out of its way to make him sort of likable, which it rarely does for anyone.

Until the third act, Madame X seems like it’s going to be able to coast on Weld’s performance. It gets long once Weld gets demoted in agency–it’s long at the start because Van Dusen’s so boring and the script won’t get moving–but it gets real long once Weld stops leading it. Her performance develops to the point Madame X’s questionable attempts at soap opera melodrama don’t matter as much as what Weld’s going to do with them. Will it add up?

No. It won’t.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Ellis Miller; teleplay by Edward Anhalt, based on the play by Alexandre Bisson and the screenplay by Jean Holloway; director of photography, Woody Omens; edited by Skip Lusk; music by Angela Morley; produced by Paula Levenback and Wendy Riche; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring Tuesday Weld (Holly Richardson), Granville Van Dusen (Clay Richardson), Eleanor Parker (Katherine Richardson), Len Cariou (John Abbott), Jeremy Brett (Dr. Terrence Keith), Robin Strand (Willy Dwyer), Jerry Stiller (Burt Orland), Martina Deignan (Elizabeth Reeves), and Robert Hooks (Dist. Atty. Roerich).


RELATED

Advertisements

Scanners (1981, David Cronenberg)

About a half hour into Scanners, the film starts to run out of its initial steam. Director Cronenberg (who also scripted) opens the film with some dynamic set pieces–lead Stephen Lack mind frying a mean woman, Lack on the run from goons, Patrick McGoohan chaining Lack down and torturing him (apparently), and Michael Ironside blowing up some guy’s head with his mind. Scanners is a lot right off. Oh, and then a car chase action sequence after the head explosion. Again, it’s a lot.

And then it’s time for the first exposition dump. McGoohan is trying to find “good” Scanners, who are telepaths, like Lack. Ironside is trying to find bad ones. Both want them as biological weapons, McGoohan just wants to sell them to humans. Ironside wants to subjugate the humans. Not all that information comes out at the first info dump, mostly just McGoohan bickering with security chief Lawrence Dane. Dane doesn’t trust McGoohan, but Cronenberg wants the viewer to side against Dane. It’s a confusing turn of events at the end, just because McGoohan’s not a sympathetic character and Dane seems square but level-headed.

Then Lack comes in and goes on a secret mission around Canada as a double agent to join Ironside’s group. Previous to this point in his life story, Lack’s character had been homeless. Now he’s a well-dressed Canadian, kind of a maple syrup James Bond. Only he’s not particularly good at the secret agent stuff. Eventually he meets a girl Scanner–Jennifer O’Neill–who he actually treats terribly and roughly, which is a little disconcerting at times because apparently Lack is supposed to be sympathetic and likable. He’s not, of course, because his performance has all the life of a once damp towel. Same for O’Neill. Same for McGoohan. Dane gives the film’s best performance almost by default.

Well, except for Ironside. I mean, Cronenberg front loads the film with action. He saves some effects work for the grand finale, but there’s no action to it. There’s exposition, there’s pointless contrivance. Cronenberg keeps throwing out big revelations to try to get some emotional connection to the characters, but they’re impervious–Ironside should be intellectually sympathetic but Cronenberg can’t swing it. He really does rely on Lack instead and Lack crumbles, time and again.

But until the late second act, Ironside’s a perfectly good thuggish villain. Sure, he’s also a millionaire war profiteer but it’s Canada, it’s just how Canadian millionaire war profiteering Scanners who operate out of desolate office parks operate.

Nice photography from Mark Irwin, some occasionally strong editing from Ronald Sanders. Once O’Neill and Lack have teamed up in their chemistry-free quest for… it’s unclear. Cronenberg has at least two jumbo red herrings in the script just to keep things moving, which might work at ninety minutes but at over a hundred it’s a slog.

Howard Shore’s music is competent, occasionally Hitchcockian, but most often too much. Cronenberg never really gets a sense of the locations in the film and Shore’s music defaults to filling in mood. But it’s not good at filling in mood.

Really, until O’Neill shows up and becomes Lack’s Eva Marie Saint, Scanners can almost get through. Cronenberg’s got Dane, he’s got Ironside. Sure, Lack’s vacant but maybe he’s supposed to be vacant in that poorly acted way. The strange part about the film is how the first act’s well-plotted. Shame the rest of it is either aimless or misguided.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by David Cronenberg; director of photography, Mark Irwin; edited by Ronald Sanders; music by Howard Shore; produced by Claude Hèroux; released by AVCO Embassy Pictures.

Starring Stephen Lack (Cameron Vale), Patrick McGoohan (Dr. Paul Ruth), Jennifer O’Neill (Kim Obrist), Michael Ironside (Darryl Revok), Lawrence Dane (Braedon Keller), and Robert A. Silverman (Benjamin Pierce).


Print

THIS POST IS PART OF THE O CANADA BLOGATHON HOSTED BY RUTH OF SILVER SCREENINGS and KRISTINA OF SPEAKEASY


RELATED

The Great Muppet Caper (1981, Jim Henson)

The Great Muppet Caper is rather easy to describe. It’s joyous spectacle. The film has four screenwriters and not a lot of story. Instead, it’s got some fabulous musical numbers. Director Henson really goes for old Hollywood musical, complete with Miss Piggy doing an aquatic number. It also has a bunch of great one-liners and visual gags. The finale isn’t some masterful heist sequence, it’s the Muppets being really funny in their environment and to one another. It’s delightful. Henson is primarily concerned with creating delight. Not entertaining. Being entertaining, being diverting, these two things are very different from creating delight.

Muppet Caper is also technically excellent–Oswald Morris’s photography, Ralph Kemplen’s editing. Henson directs the film in a matter-of-fact, expository nature, then turns it around and makes the viewing of the film engage with the acknowledgement of that exposition. Down to Diana Rigg explaining to Miss Piggy her dialogue is expository. It’s got to be Henson’s way of making the film appeal to both children and adults. Maybe more to adults and their children than the reverse. The human actors relish their roles–and how awesome is it the film pairs John Cleese and Joan Sanderson as the doddering English couple–and their enthusiasm carries over regardless of if a kid is going to fully appreciate it.

Though the best cameo might be Peter Falk just because he’s got an impossible monologue to deliver and he sells it perfectly.

The Great Muppet Caper is about singing and dancing and making people happy. And Charles Grodin having the hots for Miss Piggy. Sure, you need to be a little familiar with Charles Grodin to fully appreciate having him have the hots for Miss Piggy, but only to fully appreciate it. Muppet Caper only gently relies on its pop culture references. The Muppet Performers are so exceptionally good at what they do, at creating these wonderful felt creatures, the artistry is always there. Henson knows how to make this film; his confidence is stunning from the start.

Because it’s a delight from the start. The delight even gets it through some of the rougher songs–Joe Raposo does have a few great numbers, but the rest are mostly mediocre. Muppet Caper is awesome. Of course it’s awesome. It’s called The Great Muppet Caper and it’s directed by Jim Henson. What else would it be.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jim Henson; written by Tom Patchett, Jay Tarses, Jerry Juhl and Jack Rose; director of photography, Oswald Morris; edited by Ralph Kemplen; music by Joe Raposo; production designer, Harry Lange; produced by Frank Oz and David Lazer; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Jerry Nelson and Dave Goelz as the Muppets and Caroll Spinney (Oscar The Grouch).

Starring Charles Grodin (Nicky Holiday), Diana Rigg (Lady Holiday), Jack Warden (Mike Tarkanian), Erica Creer (Marla), Kate Howard (Carla), Della Finch (Darla), John Cleese (Neville), Joan Sanderson (Dorcas), Robert Morley (A Gentleman), Peter Ustinov (A Lorry Driver) and Peter Falk (A Tramp).


RELATED

Halloween II (1981, Rick Rosenthal)

Halloween II is not always a crappy sequel set in a closed setting without any sympathetic characters. It is a crappy sequel set in a closed setting without any sympathetic characters. But it wasn’t always.

Even though it gets off to a rocky start–the recap of the first movie is too abbreviated for unfamiliar viewers and superfluous for familiar ones, not to mention director Rosenthal clearly unable to reign in Donald Pleasence’s enthusiasm for histrionics–the first twenty-five minutes has potential.

There’s a lot to blame Rosenthal for with Halloween II. His inability to direct actors or even to compose shots of actors is a big one. He doesn’t have a sense for it; he additionally wastes Dean Cundey’s cinematography skills for the majority of the film, which is one of the film’s greater sins. But there are a handful of decent moments in Halloween II and even a couple good ones. And lots of bad ones with just too many problematic pieces, but not mishandled entirely.

But Rosenthal’s not entirely responsible. Writers and producers John Carpenter and Debra Hill, instead of embracing a bigger budget studio sequel to their indie horror sensation (hyperbolic enough?)–they try to undermine it at every step. That first half hour has potential because you can see Hill and Carpenter thinking about things, thinking about the implications of the first film. In the second two-thirds (at ninety minutes and change, the film almost perfectly splits into three sections), after creating a goofy subplot to give Jamie Lee Curtis something to do besides play unconscious, they stop. They’ve moved into their new story, that crappy one in the closed setting without sympathetic characters. Halloween II is shockingly inept at its characterization.

As such, it’s hard for the supporting cast to give good performances. Gloria Gifford is fantastic. Lance Guest isn’t. Hunter von Leer is simultaneously terrible, miscast and likable. Some of Leo Rossi’s performance is similar. And Pleasence is a complete ham. He’s got maybe one decent moment. Rosenthal just can’t direct him at all.

Carpenter and Alan Howarth’s score is too loud, too thoughtless. The same can be said for the editing.

It’s a bad film but has enough qualities to prove it shouldn’t have been.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Rick Rosenthal; written and produced by John Carpenter and Debra Hill; director of photography, Dean Cundey; edited by Mark Goldblatt and Skip Schoolnik; music by Carpenter and Alan Howarth; production designer, J. Michael Riva; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Jamie Lee Curtis (Laurie Strode), Donald Pleasence (Dr. Sam Loomis), Charles Cyphers (Sheriff Leigh Brackett), Jeffrey Kramer (Graham), Lance Guest (Jimmy Lloyd), Pamela Susan Shoop (Karen Bailey), Hunter von Leer (Deputy Gary Hunt), Leo Rossi (Budd), Gloria Gifford (Mrs. Alves), Tawny Moyer (Nurse Jill Franco), Ana Alicia (Janet Marshall), Ford Rainey (Dr. Frederick Mixter), Cliff Emmich (Mr. Garrett) and Nancy Stephens (Marion Chambers).


RELATED