Category Archives: 1981

Pennies from Heaven (1981, Herbert Ross)

Pennies from Heaven is about how being a woman—particularly in the 1930s—is awful because you exist entirely for male consumption. If not sexually, then as production. The film’s supposed to be about how life’s just unfair for dreamers, in this case lead Steve Martin, who’s just trying to make the American Dream work for him; what’s standing in his way is wife Jessica Harper not wanting to give him her father’s estate so he can open a record store. He’s a traveling sheet music salesman in Chicago; he covers the rural points west.

We know Martin’s a dreamer because he daydreams in musicals. All of a sudden the movie will switch over to a big musical number with Martin and other actors lip-synching to period recordings. The musical stuff is good. Ross’s direction emphasizes the production, which is… fine. But the actual production of the numbers is excellent. Great choreography, so on and so forth. Martin’s very good at the dancing.

The same cannot be said about his “aw shucks” performance. Though some of the problem is Dennis Potter’s script; no one speaks his dialogue well until the second half of the movie, when Christopher Walken shows up and Bernadette Peters starts her fallen woman arc. Until that point, it seems like Potter’s dialogue just isn’t catching. But then all of a sudden Peters makes it breathtaking and it’s clear the problem’s a combination of Martin, Ross, and Potter, not Peters or Harper.

The film’s well-aware it’s about how being a woman is lousy—Peters gets seduced and knocked up by married Martin, who then abandons her multiple times, and finally ends up hooking. Harper—who manages to be the character with the least agency in the film, which is something because Martin’s got almost nil—is the cold fish preacher’s daughter wife who won’t give Martin enough sex or the money to start his store. Even though Martin humiliates her and then some cops humiliate her later on, Harper’s never presented sympathetically. If only she gave him some sugar (or the money sooner), look what might’ve been avoided.

Because somehow when it comes time to address Martin’s exploitation and mental abuse and manipulation, the movie just skips it. He’s the hero, after all, the dreamer who can’t find his American Dream. Again, it’s a combination of script, acting, and directing. Pennies from Heaven is only going to work if Martin’s transcendent.

And he’s not. Worse, he’s markedly better during the musical numbers than the dramatic, which makes the dramatic feel like a strange stagy vanity project, but one where he’s unenthusiastic about it too.

Nothing is worse than unenthusiastic vanity projects. Yes, he’s got the enthusiasm for the musical numbers—which disappear during at least twenty minutes of the film; it gives Peters a chance for some great acting in a middling film, but it also all drags. Her character’s ostensibly obsessed with Martin but he’s clearly a doofus. Yes, she’s supposed to be all in because of some kind of animal magnetism but… Martin hasn’t got any. The film cheating Harper out of getting rid of him at some point is a disservice to the work she put into her performance.

Wondrous photography from Gordon Willis—maybe thirty percent of Ross’s shots are good and there are some way too stagy ones—but Willis makes them all work. The film’s gorgeous.

Great dancing from Peters, Walken, and Vernel Bagneris (who’s got the majorly thankless part of the forgotten man). But he’s also really vile man. The only guy who’s not criminally creepy in Pennies from Heaven is Francis X. McCarthy, who plays a kindly bartender.

The end seems like it’s going to flop, then seems like it’ll do the right thing, but then it turns out doing the right thing is the wrong thing for the film anyway. Because it just isn’t going to work out. It just can’t.

Shame to waste the truly spectacular Peters performance.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Herbert Ross; screenplay by Dennis Potter, based on his BBC television serial; director of photography, Gordon Willis; edited by Richard Marks; production designer, Philip Harrison; costume designer, Bob Mackie; produced by Nora Kaye and Herbert Ross; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Steve Martin (Arthur), Bernadette Peters (Eileen), Jessica Harper (Joan), Vernel Bagneris (The Accordion Man), John McMartin (Mr. Warner), John Karlen (The Detective), Jay Garner (The Banker), Robert Fitch (Al), Tommy Rall (Ed), Eliska Krupka (The Blind Girl), and Christopher Walken (Tom).


Body Heat (1981, Lawrence Kasdan)

Sumptuous is unfortunately not the right word to describe Body Heat. I wish it were because sumptuous just sounds hot, temperature-wise. And Body Heat is all about heat. It takes place in during a very hot Florida summer, its cast dripping with sweat, constantly in search of a cool breeze or a cool drink. Functioning air conditioning too.

The film opens with lead William Hurt watching a building burn in the distance. Lots of arson for insurance money going on in the small city. Hurt’s a lawyer, the type who defends arsonists and general fraudsters. He’s not good at his job, but he’s charming, good-looking, and likable enough. He’s maybe too objectively stupid to be particularly sympathetic, but the liability and charm goes a long way. Despite his questionable lawyering, he’s a local ladies man, regaling pals Ted Danson and J.A. Preston with his exploits. Danson’s the county prosecutor who regularly beats Hurt in court but there are no hard feelings, they’re good friends. Preston’s the town’s single detective; he looks on Hurt a little more paternally than fraternally, which gives the relationship some texture. Hurt’s relationships with Danson and Preston, which never have enough drama to even be C plots, are one of writer and director Kasdan’s great accomplishments in the film. There’s a history between the men, a warm one (not a Heat pun), and as it gets more and more strained, it’s affecting to watch. Hurt’s friends see the best in him, even when he doesn’t.

For texture Danson gets a whole Fred Astaire wannabe thing, dancing in and out of rooms, or just while he’s walking along. It’s a fun character trait.

Again, Kasdan’s got all sorts of wonderful details. Plus Danson—not a short man—is great at the dancing.

Things start getting complicated when Hurt sets his sights on married woman Kathleen Turner. She’s an ideal conquest—her husband’s out of town during the week—and she’s able to keep up with Hurt’s innuendo banter. Kasdan does a phenomenal job with the innuendo banter; you wish there was more of it but Hurt’s able to seduce her pretty quickly so things go quickly from banter to lovey-dovey talk. Hurt’s rather receptive to the lovey-dovey when it comes from Turner. The film establishes in the first scene he’s not from his regular paramours, but they’re also not stinking rich and have actual jobs; as long as its a week night, Turner and Hurt are able to just have sex marathons, breaking only when physically exhausted in her luxurious house.

Sumptuous is the right word to describe the house.

And things carry on pretty well, even after the film introduces Turner’s husband (an appropriately nebulously creepy Richard Crenna); Hurt and Turner even survive getting busted by her best friend (Kim Zimmer) and niece (Carola McGuinness). But then Hurt runs into Turner and Crenna at a restaurant, leading to an incredibly awkward dinner, and then they start talking about how much nicer life would be if Crenna weren’t around anymore. After all, Hurt knows plenty of lowlife criminals (Mickey Rourke, who’s awesome in a small part) and he’s tapped into the law and order side thanks to Danson and Preston.

Can Hurt and Turner go from a passionate affair to something more dangerous? Well, maybe the more appropriate phrasing is can they successfully go from their passionate affair to something more dangerous.

The film’s got a fantastic lead performance from Hurt, who’s so charming, good-looking, and likable it isn’t even initially obvious he might not be the sharpest knife in the drawer. And Turner’s always playing him for some reason, it’s just not clear what. Body Heat has no illusions about its leads’ affair. John Barry’s booming, sweeping, jazzy-ish score is never romantic. Tragic, sure. But never romantic. Even if Turner is capable of it, there’s never a sign Hurt could be.

She’s hot, sure, but rich and hot is twice as good.

Then there’s the lush Richard H. Kline photography—the film looks sharp but muggy, like through a heat haze—and Kasdan’s spectacular direction. Kasdan goes all out with composition, both for static shots and the swooping crane shots. All of them cut together sublimely, courtesy Carol Littleton. Body Heat is a technical marvel.

Then there’s the script. Outside the lovey-dovey talk, where Turner turns the tables (no pun) on Hurt, it’s all sharp, deliberate. Kasdan does a great job directing the actors. Big parts, small parts, everyone in Body Heat gives an outstanding performance. The way Hurt delivers the dialogue is something special. The filmmaking elevates Heat from its thriller and suspense tropes already—but Hurt’s performance (along with Turner’s, though in a different way) make it a singular picture.

It’s pulp but it’s not. It’s too humid to be pulp. The pulp gets waterlogged. Body Heat is exceptional.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan; director of photography, Richard H. Kline; edited by Carol Littleton; music by John Barry; production designer, Bill Kenney; produced by Fred T. Gallo; released by Warner Bros.

Starring William Hurt (Ned Racine), Kathleen Turner (Matty Walker), Ted Danson (Peter Lowenstein), J.A. Preston (Oscar Grace), Lanna Saunders (Roz Kraft), Carola McGuinness (Heather Kraft), Mickey Rourke (Teddy Lewis), Kim Zimmer (Mary Ann), Jane Hallaren (Stella), and Richard Crenna (Edmund Walker).


It’s Magic, Charlie Brown (1981, Phil Roman)

It’s Magic, Charlie Brown is the dramatically inert tale of Charlie Brown (Michael Mandy) turning invisible. It takes a while for him to turn invisible, with the first half or so of the special spent on a magic show. Magic opens with Charlie Brown demanding Snoopy go to the library to better himself. Because Charlie Brown is a bit of a jerk?

Snoopy gets a magic book and, mere moments later, is putting on his first show. He goes through a series of tricks, culminating in turning Charlie Brown invisible. The tricks are… eh. Charles M. Schulz’s script doesn’t have any decent laughs in it, but Snoopy dealing with a heckling kid is all right and the Peppermint Patty-related scene could be a lot worse. Everything in Magic is drawn out. Director Roman will just let a moment hang, with nothing going except the annoying Ed Bogas and Judy Munsen music. Even when things aren’t dragging, they’re not engaging. Snoopy’s got to learn how to make Charlie Brown visible again, leading to a scene in his doghouse lair where he’s learning alchemy. It could be a funny scene. Probably. It’s not though. No one’s invested enough in Magic to make it play well.

Maybe if the gags weren’t so tepid. Snoopy and Woodstock giggling together before the opening titles is the most charming the special ever gets and there’s not even a gag to it. They’re just giggling. They appear to be having a good time; no one else in Magic ever does.

The second half–after Charlie Brown scares sister Sally (Cindi Reilly)–is mostly Lucy motivating Snoopy to make Charlie Brown visible again. Sydney Penny plays Lucy. She’s got a lot of dialogue in the last third. She’s not good.

Magic is way too long and way too light. There are some neat animation ideas–Charlie Brown, invisible, in the rain–but also some rather wanting animation sequences. During the period where Charlie Brown’s invisible and the shots are just panning over backgrounds, it feels like they just didn’t want to be troubled with animating a full special.

Plus that exceptionally grating music just gets worse as Magic goes along.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

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

Starring Michael Mandy (Charlie Brown), Sydney Penny (Lucy van Pelt), Cindi Reilly (Sally Brown), Casey Carlson & Shannon Cohn (Marcie), Rocky Reilly (Linus van Pelt), and Brent Hauer (Peppermint Patty).


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Someday You’ll Find Her, Charlie Brown (1981, Phil Roman)

Someday You’ll Find Her, Charlie Brown is the cringe-inducing tale of Charlie Brown (Grant Wehr) and Linus (Rocky Reilly) stalking a girl Charlie Brown saw at a football game on TV. She was in a “honey shot,” which is already makes things cringe-y because these are eight year-old kids. Regardless of whether or not Charlie Brown ought to be scoping out strange girls on television, why is the cameraman doing it?

With Snoopy and Woodstock in tow, Linus and Charlie Brown go to the football stadium to look for clues. Charlie Brown’s too scared to talk to the ticket sellers, so he sends in Linus. Meanwhile–in one of the special’s few amusing moments–Snoopy and Woodstock get into trouble in the weight-lifting room. The ticket sellers don’t have the information so they send the boys to the downtown ticket office, where season ticket holder information is kept.

And because it’s a cartoon for kids, the downtown ticket office is more than happy to provide Linus (because Charlie Brown is too scared to talk to them) with the girl’s address. So then they go see the girl–ditching Snoopy and Woodstock–and it’s the wrong girl. She’s “comically” grotesque, not beautiful; why would Charlie Brown like her. He’s a pig at eight, after all.

So then they call their next suspect, who has a grating phone voice so Linus tells Charlie Brown he doesn’t want to meet her. But then they go anyway.

The quest continues, with the boys ending out at a farm–where Snoopy and Woodstock are also coincidentally headed (they’re not there to assist, just roaming). Snoopy gets into it with a cat, which is… almost amusing, but Someday has gotten so icky at this point it’d be hard for anything in it to amuse.

The finale skips the valuable life lesson Charlie Brown could’ve learned–not having Linus talk to everyone for him–and instead concentrates on his sad situation. It’s a really downbeat, perfunctory ending. If there were a morale, Someday might not be so bad. But there’s not. It’s just over. Thankfully.

Wehr’s exceptionally unlikable as Charlie Brown. He’s not active enough to be a creep, but he’s a little turd. Reilly’s performance is probably worse. He’s just nowhere near as unlikable. Bad writing from Charles M. Schulz throughout (so bad I was surprised to see he’d written Someday; the opening titles only credit him with creating “Peanuts,” not writing the special as well–which is his usual credit).

Unbearable music from Ed Bogas and Judy Munsen. Exceptionally lazy animation.

Someday is a weird waste of time, probably of interest only to people considering how popular children’s entertainment of the eighties contributed to male entitlement and toxic masculinity.

Nice backgrounds maybe? And, even poorly animated, Snoopy and Woodstock are funny. Or would be if their gags weren’t in this icky cartoon.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

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

Starring Grant Wehr (Charlie Brown), Rocky Reilly (Linus van Pelt), Nicole Eggert (Loretta), Melissa Strawmyer (Teenager), and Jennifer Gaffin (Mary Jo).


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