The Killing of Sister George (1968)

killing of sister george

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: TV character gets axed.

June Buckridge (Beryl Reid) is an aging actress playing the character of Sister George a scooter riding nun in a long running British TV soap opera. Her character no longer has the popularity that it once had and the producers have decided to kill her off by having her die in an ugly road crash with a truck. June is upset with this news as at her age parts are hard to come by and she takes her frustrations out on Childie (Susannah York) her much younger live-in lesbian lover, but she may lose her as well as one of the show’s producers Mercy (Coral Browne) has inklings to lure Childie away from June so she can have her all to herself.

After the immense box office success of The Dirty Dozen writer/director Robert Aldrich was given free rein to start up his own production company and he choose this as his first project. In many ways it is quite similar to his earlier and more well-known film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, but with sexual undertones. The film is based on the Frank Marcus play of the same name that ran for 205 performances and was nominated for the 1967 Tony Award. For its time this was considered quite controversial and groundbreaking especially the final scene that features a highly explicit sex scene between two women. It also is the first film to have a character utter the word ‘bullshit’ and one of the first to say the word ‘fuck’. Although the word itself gets drowned out by a car horn you can still clearly tell by reading Reid’s lips what she is saying.

The three female leads and their snarky exchanges with each other are the film’s chief asset especially Reid who recreates the same character that she played in the stage version that netted her a Tony. Her emotional, angry outbursts are entertaining and the scene where she forces Childie to eat and swallow the butt of her cigarette as ‘punishment’ is still quite edgy. Browne is equally good specifically during her provocative love scene with York, which was made all the more daring since she was 30 years older than York at the time.

The film’s overall staginess is a drawback. Many scenes are too talky and should’ve been trimmed while York and Reid’s Laurel and Hardy routine could’ve been cut out completely. Flashbacks showing how they first met would’ve helped and there needed to be an explanation to the weird child-like manner of York’s character, which quite possibly was based on an age-old gay stereotype. I also didn’t like the foreboding quality of the music that gets played just before Browne and York have their lesbian love scene, which seemed to suggest that something ‘creepy’ and ‘unnatural’ was about to take place and convinced me that despite the daring and ahead-of-its-time nature of the subject that the filmmakers themselves still had some very dated ideas about gays much like the majority of people from that era.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: December 12, 1968

Runtime: 2Hours 18Minutes

Rated X (Reissued as R)

Director: Robert Aldrich

Studio: Cinerama Releasing Corporation

Available: DVD

The Big Chill (1983)

big chill

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Friends from college reunite.

When one of their friends from their college days commits suicide the other seven get together for his funeral. Alex was living the unconventional, hippie lifestyle and with his much younger girlfriend Chloe (Meg Tilly) still connected to the ideals of his college days while his other friends had ‘sold out’ and taken on the more materialistic values of the ‘80’s. Alex’s death then represents the ultimate demise of their carefree, idealistic ‘60’s existence and how much they have changed since then, which they now must all learn to come to terms with.

This film has been closely compared with Return of the Secaucus Seven, which was reviewed last week. According to writer/director Lawrence Kasdan he never saw that film or even heard of it when he did this one. I actually preferred this over the John Sayles movie. For one thing it made a little more sense. Having old friends reunite for a funeral seemed more realistic than having them come together each year like in that one as most people once they enter into adult life have a tendency to move on making new relationships and not always have time for their old ones. There’s also no magical ‘cosmic bond’ holding this group together either. Many of them have evolved more than some of the others including William Hurt’s character who is still a recreational drug user while Kevin Kline’s has taken on more of the responsible adult role and this contrast comes to an interesting head at one point.

Tilly’s performance as a young flower child personified is great because it forces the others to see how they once were, but now can no longer relate to. Don Galloway plays the older husband of Karen (JoBeth Williams) while representing the ‘50’s generation and their contempt for the counter-culture. He has an interesting scene in which he expounds on what he feels was Alex’s ‘lack of focus and responsibility’ that clearly gets on the nerves of the others and I had wished the character had remained for the duration as it his presence was brimming for a great ultimate confrontation.

The entire thing was filmed on-location in Beaufort, South Carolina apparently because of Kasdan’s love for the film The Great Santini, which had also been done there. The deep south certainly seems like an odd setting as it doesn’t reflect the ‘60’s values or lifestyle at all, but it’s scenic nonetheless especially the scene where Hurt and Kline go jogging down a deserted main street of town that has an almost surreal quality.

Scenes where shot with Kevin Costner playing Alex, but then cut, which was a mistake as the character starts to attain too much of a mythical and elusive quality and seeing some moments with him even in flashback would’ve helped create an image of an actual person for the viewer. Some of the more existential conversations that the characters having during their group discussions are superb and right on-target and help to demystify the ‘60’s experience and those that lived it, which I found refreshing since other media forums for nostalgic reasons seemed to want to perpetuate it instead. In some ways it’s a shame that the characters and story has to be so closely tied to the Baby Boom generation as it stigmatizes it as a period piece when by-and-large the experiences they have going from the college stage to the adult one are quite universal.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: September 30, 1983

Runtime: 1Hour 45Minutes

Rated R

Director: Lawrence Kasdan

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video

The Driver’s Seat (1974)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Crazy lady goes traveling.

Lise (Elizabeth Taylor) is a middle-aged woman with seemingly no past who travels to Rome looking for someone to kill her. Her erratic behavior and weird motivations confuse those that she comes into contact with. She then meets Bill (Ian Bannen) a man who’s more interested in her sexually than anything else and he follows her around in a veiled attempt to get ‘lucky’ despite her repeated rebuffs.

The film is basically a mess that goes nowhere. It was based on a novel by Muriel Spark, who had written some high acclaimed stuff in her day including ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’, so I can only imagine that the book made more sense and only bits and pieces of it were taken to create this screenplay. In either case it was a highly strange career move for Miss Taylor who made a lot of weird movie choices in the 70’s, which helped to destroy her once megastar status and tainted her other stellar work.

Her performance by itself isn’t too bad and it’s the one thing that helps keep things watchable. The way that she can go from being passive and helpless to snippy and bitchy within seconds is kind of fun and on a purely camp level even enjoyable. The whole thing seems almost like an extension of the character that she played in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , which became her signature role during her later years.

Bannen lends good support as his leering Cheshire cat grin is a perfect counterpart to Taylor’s crazed glare and he effectively equals her nuttiness. I also loved his so-called macrobiotic diet in which he must attain one orgasm a day for it to work and if he misses one then he must make up for it by having two the next day, which ultimately gives him ‘indigestion’. Mona Washbourne a character actress noted for playing delightfully daffy old ladies is also on hand as one of the people Taylor befriends and their encounter inside the stall of a public bathroom is a gem.

Director Giuseppe Patroni Griffi manages to infuse some interesting visuals, which along with its fragmented narrative helps keep things cheaply alluring, but it eventually plays itself out and by the end becomes quite tiring and tedious. The biggest issue is that there never is any explanation for who this woman is or why she’s doing this, which makes whole thing quite empty and pointless.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: May 20, 1974

Runtime: 1Hour 42Minutes

Rated R

Director: Giuseppe Patroni Griffi

Studio: AVCO Embassy Pictures

Available: DVD-R, Amazon Instant Video

Paternity (1981)

paternity

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Bachelor wants a son.

Despite managing Madison Square Garden, having lots of money and good looks Buddy Evans (Burt Reynolds) is still single at 44. He is happy with his bachelorhood, but still longs for a having a son. He comes up with the idea of paying a woman to have his child while treating it solely as a business proposition without any romance or relationship attached to it, after interviewing several ‘candidates’ he finally settles on Maggie (Beverly D’Angelo) a waitress who can use the money to further her education. Things are expectedly awkward at first, but as the process continues Maggie finds herself falling in love with him and trying to turn it into a relationship despite his reluctance.

Reynolds is a dynamic star with an engaging onscreen presence particularly in comedies, but his appearance here hurts the picture more than it helps it. For one thing it doesn’t make sense why this great looking guy with tons of cash can’t find a woman. And just why is he so reluctant to get into a committed relationship? What about this character’s background makes him the way he is? It never gets explained, but would’ve helped give the film more depth had it been. A better concept would’ve been portraying the character as being a rich guy who is also short, fat, bald and lacking in the romantic graces, but woman still tolerate because of his money, which would’ve ultimately made this more realistic, edgier and funnier.

I really liked D’Angelo and considered this her best performance, but having her fall in love with the guy and turning this into just another formulaic, sterile romantic comedy was a ridiculous stupid idea and makes it almost excruciating to watch. The guy spends the whole time acting like he owns her by telling her what to eat and do while being outrageously ambivalent to her feelings or needs. Any woman that would fall in love with a guy that her treats that way should see a psychiatrist and get some self-respect.

Comedian David Steinberg makes his directorial debut here and I liked the way he begins the film by having pictures of baby’s faces lining the screen during the credits all to the sound of them cooing and crying. He also pays loving tribute to his adopted city of New York by having some fabulous shots of the skyline and some scenic moments in Central Park that accentuate the fall foliage. In fact it is for these two reasons only that I generously give this thing a measly 1-point.

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: October 2, 1981

Runtime: 1Hour 34Minutes

Rated PG

Director: David Steinberg

Studio: Paramount

Available: VHS

Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980)

return of the secaucus 7

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: They like to talk.

Seven people who were friends during college reunite ten years after having been arrested while on their way to a demonstration of the Vietnam War. Mike and Katie (Bruce MacDonald, Maggie Renzi) are the hosts and live together while also both being school teachers. J.T. (Adam LeFevre) is a struggling musician looking to finally take a stab at the big time by moving to L.A. Irene (Jean Passanante) is a speech writer for a conservative politician who brings along her new boyfriend Chip (Gordon Clapp) while Maura (Karen Trott) has just broken up with her boyfriend Jeff (Mark Arnott) and starts a fling with J.T. only to have Jeff reappear and wanting to start the old relationship back up.

This film is noted as being the forerunner of the independent film movement. It was made on a budget of less than $60,000, but first time director John Sayles manages to camouflage it well. The variety of shots and camera angles never allow you to realize that the whole thing was done in one location, a ski lodge that he managed to rent out for the summer at a low rate. The dialogue has a great conversational quality and the characters are nicely textured and multi-dimensional making it seem like the camera is capturing an actual reunion. The acting, which was mainly done by performers who had never appeared in a film before is equally good with my favorite being Sayles himself who appears as the character Howie who has one really good scene where he warns his friend Mike to think ‘long and hard’ about getting married while his wife stands behind him looking none too happy hearing him say it.

The biggest problem is that not enough happens. There’s a lot of talking, but story wise it is almost plotless. The few action segments deals with the men playing a rough game of basketball and also a trip to a river bed where they go skinny dipping to the background music of yodeling, but these scenes tend to meander while adding little to the character development.

It’s nice seeing a movie that attacks gender stereotypes by having the woman being the one to change a flat tire as well as having all the nudity shown being that of the men and not the ladies. There are also a few touching moments where Irene is willing to give J.T. a significant amount of money to help him in his struggling career without expecting any payment back, but in the end it all goes nowhere. The characters are just too genteel, which fails to create any type of interesting drama. I was more intrigued with exploring what these people were like in college and how they had changed after entering the adult world, but the film barely touches on that, which to me made it boring and empty.

return of the secaucus 7 2

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: April 11, 1980

Runtime: 1Hour 43Minutes

Rated R

Director: John Sayles

Studio: Salsipuedes Productions

Available: VHS, DVD, Hulu

A Jolly Bad Fellow (1964)

jolly bad fellow 2

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: He poisons his enemies.

Professor Kerris Bowles-Ottery (Leo McKern) is a college professor working in the university’s science lab where he conducts experiments on mice. One day he accidently comes upon a poison that kills the mice, but only after sending them into a brief euphoric state, which he then decides to use on his enemies. Only a little bit of it is needed to work, so he is able to use all sorts of methods to get them to ingest it including putting it into their drinks, as well as the cigarettes they smoke, and even dabbing a bit of it on a tip of a pencil, which one of the character’s routinely likes to lick before he begins writing with it. Things go quite smoothly until his wife Clarinda (Maxine Audley) leaves him, which upsets him enough that he become careless and eventually culminates with ironic results.

The film’s chief asset is McKern’s presence whose acerbic delivery and facial expressions perfectly captures a stuffy, pompous curmudgeon in highly humorous fashion. He nails every scene that he is in, but his best moment comes at the very end when he hops into his car and begins driving at high speeds throughout the English countryside while giving off a loud, long maniacal laugh.

The plot is thick with satire, but doesn’t go far enough with it. Just when it seems to be catching its stride it bogs down with an affair that McKern has with a much young woman (Janet Munro) that didn’t make a lot of sense. I could see why he’d be into her, but no so much why she would have the hots for him although the fact that he does seem to truly love his wife even when he fools around on her and becomes upset when she decides to leave him was excellent irony.

The funniest element is when he poisons his enemies and rivals many of whom are as pompous and stuck-up as he is. Watching these refined, stuffy people suddenly act silly and child-like is quite amusing, but again the film stops short of packing the punch as these scenes should’ve been more extended, which is the one thing that makes this potentially hilarious film not half as funny as it could’ve been.

jolly bad fellow 1

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Alternate Title: They All Died Laughing

Released: March 15, 1964

Runtime: 1Hour 34Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Don Chaffey

Studio: British Lion Film Corporation

Available: DVD

Tropic of Cancer (1970)

tropic of cancer

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Writer living in Paris.

Rip Torn plays author Henry Miller living in Paris during the 1930’s and struggling to find work, shelter and money. He spends his time shoplifting items from food stands while also having sexual conquests with prostitutes and even the wives of his friends.

The film is based on Miller’s landmark novel that was published in France in 1934, but banned in the US until 1961 and even then went through several obscenity  lawsuits, which were finally all dropped in 1964 when the US Supreme Court deemed the book to have artistic merit. The novel, which is considered highly influential and won wide critical acclaim, has an odd mixture of stream-of-consciousness elements as well as autobiographical ones that works well in book form due to Miller’s first person narrative, but fails on the big screen. It was never meant to be made into a movie and director Joseph Strick’s ambitious attempt to make it into one, who just three years earlier tried to do the same thing with James Joyce’s equally unfilmable novel Ulysses seems futile and ridiculous.

The production looks cheap and lacks any type of atmosphere or visual flair. The setting is supposed to be the late 20’s, but it hardly seems like it. The acting is weak particularly by the supporting actresses playing the prostitutes who almost come off like people pulled off the street with no acting training of any kind.

The film’s most notorious claim to fame like with the book was its explicit sexual content that by today’s standards seems quite tepid. There are some nude scenes here and there including seeing actress Ellen Burstyn fully naked from the front, but it adds little. The best stuff is Torn’s voice over-narration describing his character’s sexual fantasies much of which was lifted directly from the novel. This was the first film to ever use the word ‘cunt’ and it gets said frequently. In fact it’s the character’s sexual conversations and the caustic way women get described in them that are the most amusing thing about the movie.

A few other funny moments include Miller having sex with a prostitute while she is also taking care of her sick mother and who would sometimes leave the bed to look in on her and although Miller initially pays the woman for her ‘services’ he eventually steals it back when she is away during one of her trips to her mother’s room. Miller’s roommate Carl (David Baur) has a great scene where he writes love letters to a woman he wants to have sex with and the two finally meet only to have the actual encounter not live up to the fantasy.

This was filmed at the same time as Quiet Days in Clichy, which was also based on the same novel. Both films were made in Paris and Henry Miller would routinely sit-in on the productions, which were done not far from the other. However, despite an admiral attempt the movie comes off as flat and boring and the viewer would be far better off skipping this and reading the source material instead as the only time it ever gels is when it uses text taken directly from the book.

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My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: February 27, 1970

Runtime: 1Hour 27Minutes

Rated X (Reissued as NC-17)

Director: Joseph Strick

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube

Vagabond (1985)

vagabond 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: She has no home.

Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire) is a young woman of about 20 who wanders the South French countryside in the dead of winter searching for food and money. She camps out in a small tent wherever there is space including at one point even a cemetery. She is offered a few odd jobs here and there, but she never lasts long in them and resents being ‘bossed around’. She makes a few acquaintances along the way and even a couple of male lovers, but like with her jobs she doesn’t get settled with anyone for too long.

The best aspect of this critically acclaimed French film that is directed by the legendary Agnes Varda is that it avoids the political correctness. Most films especially Hollywood ones tend to portray the poor and homeless as humble and contrite, but the main character here is anything but. She is arrogant and aloof to those around here even the ones that offer her help. She acts strangely entitled in even in the direst of situations and in many ways almost oblivious to how truly desperate she is. Varda creates a richly textured character that while not likable and sometimes even confounding still manages to be always fascinating.

The narrative works in vignette style starting with some farmhands finding her dead, frozen body in a field and then progressing backwards showing the last few weeks of her life and the people that she met. To some degree this is interesting as it reveals how others see her some of whom are even jealous of her ‘freedom’ and ‘independence’ while also exploring how everyone can make a lasting impression on others even if they seem insignificant and the encounter brief. However, the segments where these characters speak directly to the camera comes off as jarring, clumsy and heavy-handed and it would’ve been nice had these same reactions been worked into the story in more of a subtle and sophisticated way.

My biggest issue with the film and in many ways it’s most disappointing aspect is that we learn nothing of this woman’s background. What exactly brought her to do this? Was it by choice or circumstances? Where’s her family and what about her upbringing? None of this is shown or talked about making this character study not only frustrating, but incomplete.

The character also gets sexually assaulted at one point, which to a degree brings added realism, but she is shown not to suffer any post-traumatic stress from the incident, which was not believable. Also, having the film begin with her death hurts the tension and it would’ve been more compelling had we not known her ultimate fate until the very end.

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My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: December 4, 1985

Runtime: 1Hour 45Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Agnes Varda

Studio: MK2 Diffusion

Available: DVD (Criterion Collection)

The Holy Mountain (1973)

holy mountain 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: They search for immortality.

In what seems like a sort-of sequel to Jodorowsky’s cult hit El Topo this film deals with the same type of Christ-like figure and religious metaphor’s. The story centers on a man known as The Thief (Horacio Salinas) who meets up with an alchemist (Alexander Jodorowsky) who introduces him to seven people representing the planets of the solar system as well as the sins of greed, lust and power. The group is instructed to leave their worldly possessions behind as well as their individual identities so that they can become one while they trek up the treacherous terrain of the Holy Mountain where they hope to acquire immortality.

In a lot of ways this film is superior to El Topo simply because it has a bigger budget and more slickly handled. The background sets are dazzling and at some points even amazing. On a purely visual level this film borders on being brilliant and could be enjoyed simply on that note alone. I also really enjoyed the humor and satire. The war manufacturer that makes psychedelic ammunitions to appease the younger generation is great as is the naked woman implanting a giant phallic object into a robotic machine in order to allow it to obtain an orgasm and given birth to a baby robot.

Jodorowsky’s excessive use of shock elements is here as well and for some it becomes the main point of watching it. Within the first 30 minutes alone you’ll see two beautiful women being stripped naked and having their heads shaved. An old man taking his glass eye out and placing it in the hands of a young girl and a young boy being castrated and then putting his testicles into a glass jar, which he places on a shelf lined with other glass jars filled with other testicles. Later on there’s even a scene showing a cow mating with another and a shot of a naked elderly man breast feeding another man. By the end it all starts to get rather mind numbing, but on a purely exploitative level it’s kind of fun because it’s something that most likely could never be filmed today and thus cementing why 70’s cinema is so special and in many ways much more interesting and outrageous than the stuff coming out today.

In the end though it comes off like overkill with a message that gets lost amidst all of the shock elements. It also seems quite contradictory as supposedly this is a spiritual film, but with so much sex and gore it becomes more like a pornographic one and for the most part that’s what many viewers will take from it, which ultimately makes this heavy-handed, experimental production a failed effort.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: November 29, 1973

Runtime: 1Hour 55Minutes

Rated R

Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Studio: ABKCO

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video

Megaforce (1982)

megaforce 2

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: This is really embarrassing.

The fictional country of Sardun is being threatened by their neighbor Gamibia and mercenary General Duke Gurerra (Henry Silva). This prompts two Sardun representatives (Edward Mulhare, Persis Khambatta) to travel to the desert and request help from a secret group of soldiers who have advanced vehicles and weapons that can help stop the Gamibian aggression. The group calls themselves Megaforce and is led by the charismatic Ace Hunter (Barry Bostwick) who at one time was friends with Gurerra and the two play an intricate game of cat-and-mouse as they both try to deploy an attack strategy that will stop the other.

One of the biggest problems with the film is that it was directed by Hal Needham a former stuntman who had some modest success directing such southern fried action flicks as Smokey and the Bandit and Hooper, but clearly has no clue how to do a comic book-styled action flick such as this. The film teeters between being campy and comical to innovative and slick, but ends up failing on both ends. The main problem is that Nedham (who also appears unbilled as a technician) lacks any true artistic vision while showing no appreciation or understanding of the comic book genre or its readers and creates an empty-headed, unimaginative premise with wooden characters and dialogue surrounded by a lot of action and effects, which he thinks will be enough to save it, but really isn’t.

The eclectic cast is interesting. Khambatta a beauty queen from India who is probably best known for playing the bald Ilia in Star Trek: The Motion Picture is on hand as the love interest to Bostwick. Michael Beck who was just 3 years removed from his star making turn in the cult hit The Warriors plays a southern bred member of the Megaforce team. Silva, who’s played many memorable villains in his day camps it up as best he can with the limited material and Bostwick, who nowadays looks very old and elderly, sashays his way in some incredibly skintight uniforms and looking almost like a male model.  

The only reason I’m giving this embarrassment 3 points instead of the 0 that it really deserves is because it does fall into the ‘so bad its good category’ that almost makes it worth catching. The best of the worst is Needham’s use of matting a character over a blue screen to make it look like they are flying in the air. He does this twice once when Khambatta and Bostwick go parachuting out of a plane and then at the climactic finish when Bostwick uses his motorbike to fly up to a plane. In both instances the effects are so hilariously awful and obvious that it becomes memorable and worth the price of the rental.

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My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: June 25, 1982

Runtime: 1Hour 39Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Hal Needham

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray (Region A)