Tag Archives: P.J. Soles

Private Benjamin (1980, Howard Zieff)

Quite a bit works in Private Benjamin, which makes all the creaky parts stick out more. Even though the film runs 109 minutes, a lot seems cut out. Characters just fade away, especially as the film rushes in the second half. But even lead Goldie Hawn just ends up staring in various montages–happy and sad ones–with her character development (the whole point of the movie) on pause.

Hawn’s nearly excellent–she would be with a better than director than Zieff–but still quite good as Benjamin. The first act sets Hawn up as a sympathetic, blissfully unaware Jewish-American princess caricature… though Nancy Meyers, Charles Shyers, and Harvey Miller’s script doesn’t really want to do too much commentary on that aspect. There’s one direct joke slash plot twist later, but the film’s initially just doing it to show Hawn’s screwed up life. Her father (Sam Wanamaker) is an indifferent, dismissive jerk. Mother Barbara Barrie is supportive, but in a limited way. Hawn’s love life is unfulfilling and gross. It’s depressing, not funny.

So when tragedy and contrivance land Hawn in the army, Benjamin all of a sudden finds lightness. Because as recruiting officer Harry Dean Stanton (in a gentle Harry Dean performance) puts it, it’s not like the ladies get the become killing machines in this man’s army. So it’s all sort of fun. Hawn slapsticking it through boot camp, for example. It has a number of solid laughs. It also builds up the supporting cast. There’s Eileen Brennan as Hawn’s commanding officer and nemesis. It should be a great role for Brennan. Instead, it’s a weak, often inexplicable one. The film goes out of its way to avoid giving Brennan her own material after a couple significant setups. It’s a waste of a performance.

Hawn has a pretty solid set of sidekicks in Mary Kay Place, Toni Kalem, Damita Jo Freeman, and Alston Ahern. P.J. Soles should be a sub-nemesis, instead she’s a pointless supporting player and it makes Soles grating. Hal Williams is fun as the drill sergeant.

In the second act, when Benjamin starts to be about Hawn’s character forcibly developing herself, the film hits its stride. Zieff either gets he shouldn’t dwell on it or he just doesn’t get it; his hands off approach leads to some of Hawn’s best acting in the film.

The second act also has Robert Webber as this wacky colonel with dumb nicknames (based off his own name) for everything. It’s silly and great, because Webber is straight-facing it all. Though the film ends up wasting him too.

Because eventually Hawn meets Armand Assante. And Assante is a rich, French gynecologist who speaks perfect English. He’s also Jewish. As an object of Hawn’s desire, Assante’s great. As her love interest, well, even with numerous montages, he wears out his welcome. He’s got a desperately thin part and ends up being the segue into the film rushing to bring back all its worst parts. And none of the good ones. It even scoffs at the idea of bringing back the good ones.

There’s also the weak music from Bill Conti. He plays up the military aspect, which is completely against what Sheldon Kahn’s editing is doing. The lack of rhythm drags down a lot of scenes. It’s like no one knows what anyone else wants to do with the picture.

Private Benjamin is solid situation comedy–sadly all Zieff can direct–with whiffs at greater ambitions. And Hawn’s a great lead.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Howard Zieff; produced and written by Nancy Meyers, Charles Shyer, and Harvey Miller; director of photography, David M. Walsh; edited by Sheldon Kahn; music by Bill Conti; production designers, Robert F. Boyle and Jeffrey Howard; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Goldie Hawn (Pvt. Benjamin), Armand Assante (Henri Alan Tremont), Eileen Brennan (Capt. Lewis), Barbara Barrie (Harriet Benjamin), Sam Wanamaker (Teddy Benjamin), Robert Webber (Col. Thornbush), Hal Williams (Sgt. Ross), Toni Kalem (Pvt. Gianelli), Mary Kay Place (Pvt. Glass), Damita Jo Freeman (Pvt. Moe), Alston Ahern (Pvt. Soyer), P.J. Soles (Pvt. Winter), Harry Dean Stanton (1st Sgt. Ballard), Craig T. Nelson (Capt. Woodbridge), and Albert Brooks (Yale Goodman).


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Halloween (1978, John Carpenter), the television version

The television version of Halloween has an interesting story–the original film ran so short, when the network wanted to run it on TV, there wasn’t enough film after they cut out the violence. Carpenter was producing Halloween II at the time so he came back and filmed some more scenes to pad it out.

Most of these scenes are with Donald Pleasence, which seriously throws the film off-balance. Besides the opening, Pleasence disappears for long stretches while Carpenter establishes Jamie Lee Curtis, Nancy Kyes and P.J. Soles. With so much more Pleasence at the beginning of the picture, one notices his absence more. He ought to be around, given his lengthy presence at the beginning.

The added scenes are also done with the sequel in mind, which means the film no longer makes sense if one has seen the second one and how the new scenes fit. However, during the final sequence everything happens at such an insistent pace it’s hard to dwell on the plot holes.

I’ve seen the television version a couple times and it always seemed like a lesser work, even though it does give Kyes (Halloween‘s unsung comedic star) another scene. This time’s no different.

This viewing must be my seventh or eighth of Halloween and I just now noticed the Psycho reference at the open and how Dean Cundey’s subjective camerawork does everything for the film’s mood.

In other words, awkwardly added scenes or not, Halloween‘s always got more to offer.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by John Carpenter; written by Carpenter and Debra Hill; director of photography, Dean Cundey; edited by Tommy Lee Wallace and Charles Bornstein; music by Carpenter; production designer, Wallace; produced by Hill; released by Compass International Pictures.

Starring Donald Pleasence (Dr. Sam Loomis), Jamie Lee Curtis (Laurie Strode), Nancy Kyes (Annie Brackett), P.J. Soles (Lynda van der Klok), Charles Cyphers (Sheriff Leigh Brackett), Kyle Richards (Lindsey Wallace), Brian Andrews (Tommy Doyle), John Michael Graham (Bob Simms), Nancy Stephens (Marion Chambers), Arthur Malet (Graveyard Keeper), Mickey Yablans (Richie), Brent Le Page (Lonnie Elamb), Adam Hollander (Keith), Robert Phalen (Dr. Terence Wynn), Tony Moran (Michael Myers, age 23), Will Sandin (Michael Myers, age 6), Sandy Johnson (Judith Margaret Myers), David Kyle (Judith’s Boyfriend), Peter Griffith (Morgan Strode) and Nick Castle (The Shape).


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Halloween (1978, John Carpenter)

Halloween is a technical masterpiece. It’s absolutely spectacular to watch. Carpenter’s composition is fantastic, but Dean Cundey’s cinematography and the editing–from Tommy Lee Wallace and Charles Bornstein–creates this uneasy, surreal experience. The way Carpenter uses the wind in the film is probably my favorite, since he establishes it early on and keeps it going until the very end. It’s transfixing.

There are some great performances–Jamie Lee Curtis’s character arc is spectacular, Nancy Kyes is excellent. Donald Pleasence is solid and the film’s too good for P.J. Soles and (surprisingly) Charles Cyphers to damage it. Soles is just annoying, but Cyphers just can’t deliver his lines with the gravity Pleasence can–most of their scenes are together–and Cyphers comes off poorly because of it.

If it seems like I’m listing all the positives about Halloween, I am.

I first watched Halloween when I was eleven or twelve and wasn’t at all impressed (first, I was eleven or twelve and, second, I was watching a pan and scan VHS). In fact, I liked the second one more at the time (strangely, the same thing happened–around that time–with Jaws). A few years later, after I’d started to discover Carpenter’s other work, I went back to Halloween and came to appreciate it much like I did on this viewing. It’s a technical marvel.

But it’s got a weak plot.

The script’s strong–Debra Hill writes the female characters extremely well–watching Curtis at the end, it’s hard to think of any Hollywood film with such a strong female character until Aliens. Carpenter shoots every scene perfectly, but there’s something off.

Halloween, intended as a one-time picture, became the first horror franchise. Watching the film, even if one knows Carpenter didn’t intend it, he enabled that franchise. As the film progresses–it’s a perfectly paced ninety minutes–it becomes clearer and clearer the strongest point is Curtis and her reactions. Had the film centered on her experience, never making the bogeyman real until the end, it would have been a far superior film. It would have run only forty-two minutes, but it would be amazing.

The problem is how Carpenter shoots it. He relies entirely on his score to create fear in the viewer and it doesn’t work. The score’s effective and the theme’s good, but it doesn’t compliment the foreboding scenes. These scenes, with Carpenter shooting them matter-of-factly, are somewhat too well-made to be scary. They’re too visually beautiful. Carpenter lets his talent for composition get in the way of the story’s need to creep out the viewer.

He never even gets around to the weight of the film’s content. When characters die on screen, Carpenter doesn’t pause to give the viewer time to reflect. It’s an intentional move, but it’s a wrong one. The lack of emotional connection at that moment removes the viewer from the film and makes the artifice of the experience apparent.

Every time I start Halloween, just before it starts, I think it’s going to be better than I remember it. Every time, it’s about the same. For all the film’s successes, there’s a misguided creative impulse in the mix as well–and those successes can’t overpower it.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Carpenter; written by Carpenter and Debra Hill; director of photography, Dean Cundey; edited by Tommy Lee Wallace and Charles Bornstein; music by Carpenter; production designer, Wallace; produced by Hill; released by Compass International Pictures.

Starring Donald Pleasence (Dr. Sam Loomis), Jamie Lee Curtis (Laurie Strode), Nancy Kyes (Annie Brackett), P.J. Soles (Lynda van der Klok), Charles Cyphers (Sheriff Leigh Brackett), Kyle Richards (Lindsey Wallace), Brian Andrews (Tommy Doyle), John Michael Graham (Bob Simms), Nancy Stephens (Marion Chambers), Arthur Malet (Graveyard Keeper), Mickey Yablans (Richie), Brent Le Page (Lonnie Elamb), Adam Hollander (Keith), Robert Phalen (Dr. Terence Wynn), Tony Moran (Michael Myers, age 23), Will Sandin (Michael Myers, age 6), Sandy Johnson (Judith Margaret Myers), David Kyle (Judith’s Boyfriend), Peter Griffith (Morgan Strode) and Nick Castle (The Shape).


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THIS FILM IS ALSO DISCUSSED IN SUM UP | JOHN CARPENTER, PART 1: THE WONDER YEARS.