…and justice for all. (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Lawyer fights the system.

Arthur (Al Pacino) is a defense attorney who becomes increasingly more frustrated and disillusioned with the court system. He’s fighting to get one of his clients, Jeff (Thomas Waites), out of jail as he’s been sitting behind bars for over a year simply because he was mistaken for somebody else while also being forced to defend Judge Fleming (John Forsythe), a man that he vehemently hates, from a rape allegation.

The script by the husband and wife team of Barry Levinson and Valerie Curtain is chockfull of great insights into the American legal system and how messed up and prone to corruption it can sometimes be. Defense lawyers have in the past been glamourized in TV-shows like ‘Perry Mason’, but here the viewer gets a more stark assessment of their profession as they watch them being forced to defend those that they know are actually guilty. Yet it also balances this by showing how public defenders can also be the lone voice to those who are truly innocent and have no one else to speak up for them.

The film has a weird comedy/drama mix that doesn’t work and ends up getting in the way. When I first saw this many decades back I liked the humorous undertones as it gave production a surreal, satirical edge, but upon second viewing I didn’t find it to be as amusing. The script makes good hard-hitting points and adding in the humor only diminishes this message and takes away from the seriousness of the subject matter.

The side-story dealing with the suicidal judge, played by Jack Warden, should’ve been excised. I’ll admit the images of him eating lunch while sitting out on a ledge of a tall building, or trying to kill himself with a rifle are memorable, but pointless and by coupling this judge character with Forsythe’s crooked one seems to imply that all judges are either bad or crazy, which isn’t fair.

The storyline dealing with Arthur visiting his senile grandfather, played by Lee Strasberg, should’ve been cut out as well as it has nothing to do with the main plot. It also brings up many unanswered questions like why is Arthur close to his grandfather and not to his own parents and why did his parents apparently ‘abandon’ him? This backstory never gets sufficiently addressed and seems like material for a whole different movie altogether.

Spoiler Alert!

The storyline involving Judge Fleming is the most intriguing and should’ve been made the film’s primary focus, but I was disappointed with the way the judge glibly admits to his crime, which takes away the mystery angle and I would’ve preferred the truth coming out in a more dramatic manner. The film also has a very old-fashioned take to his situation by saying that just because the character is involved with BDSM activities that somehow makes him ‘deviant’ and more prone to committing rape, which has been proven untrue as there are plenty of people who can enjoy kinky activities with consenting partners and still remain ethical.

End of Spoiler Alert!

Overall the film is worth catching and has many interesting moments including Pacino’s final speech that he gives to a packed courtroom, which is a gem. This also marks the film debuts of Christine Lahti and Jeffery Tambor as Pacino’s lawyer friend who slowly goes crazy.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: October 16, 1979

Runtime: 1Hour 59Minutes

Director: Norman Jewison

Rated R

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

Some Kind of Hero (1982)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Soldier returns from Vietnam.

Eddie (Richard Pryor), who spent years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, finally returns home, but finds that things have passed him by while he was gone. His wife (Lynne Moody) has fallen in love with another man and his mother (Olivia Cole) is in a nursing facility after having suffered a stroke. Because he was forced to sign a ‘confession’ to war crimes while under duress at the prison camp the army decides to withhold his veteran’s benefits and having no other source of income he decides to rob a bank, but things don’t go as planned.

The film, which is based on the book of the same name by James Kirkwood Jr., was meant to be a drama, but when Pryor signed on it was rewritten with comedy scenes added. Initially I thought Pryor wouldn’t be a good choice for the part as he is so well known as a funnyman, but it is actually his strong performance that helps carry the film through its rough spots.

The story starts out strong and despite having so many other movies that came out during that period that dealt with the same topic it is still quite gripping and revealing. The scenes dealing with Pryors’ incarceration and the harsh realities that he faces afterwards in civilian life all ring true and helps to make this an excellent movie for the first 45 minutes.

The film though starts to lose its footing with the introduction of Margot Kidder’s character. She plays a high-priced call girl who decides to go to bed with Pryor without charging him any money, but why? A sex worker isn’t going to make much of a living if she sleeps with guys for free and then getting into a relationship with him afterwards is even more farfetched. What’s so special about this guy that she falls in love with him compared to all the other men that she has already met through her line of work? Things get even dumber when Pryor insults her during an argument while visiting her apartment, but instead of throwing him out she leaves while saying she hopes he’ll ‘be gone’ when she gets back, but how can she trust he’ll not angrily tear up the place while she’s away? If it’s her apartment she should be in control and not the one who goes running.

Pryor’s character is confusing too. He becomes extremely nervous about robbing a bank to the point that he pees in his pants, but you would presume being a veteran and having seen the horrors of war he would find bank robbing to be not as tough. He also manages while bartering with some hardened gangsters to find the tenacity to turn them down when they give him a lowball monetary offer on some bank bonds that he has stolen, but how does he find the ability to be brazen in that situation, which many people would find equally intimidating, but not the other?

Also, Olivia Cole looks too young to be playing his stroke-victim mother and in fact was Pryor’s exact same age. I was expecting to see an old, withered woman with gray hair, but instead we get shown a black-haired woman looking around 40. Certainly there had to have been an older African American actresses available that would’ve been more age appropriate, so why not cast them?

Spoiler Alert!

What really kills it though is the ending where Pryor steals a briefcase full of bonds and uses that to get a large sum of money. Tacking-on such a fanciful-like ending where he is able to pull off a robbery that had long odds of succeeding minimizes all of the real world issues that came before it. Having a film start off by exploring realistic issues only to write-it-all-off with a ‘feel-good’ ending discredits the subject matter by taking a complex problem and then ‘solving it’ with a very unrealistic solution.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: April 2, 1982

Runtime: 1Hour 37Minutes

Rated R

Director: Michael Pressman

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

The Deep (1977)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Couple finds sunken treasure.

David (Nick Nolte) and Gail (Jacqueline Bisset) are a couple scuba diving off the Bermuda coast when they come upon a shipwreck and some artifacts left from it. They meet with treasure hunter Romer (Robert Shaw) who tells them it is a part of a Spanish treasure and works with them to try to unearth the rest of it. Problems arise when a shipwreck from World War II, the Goliath that had carried a cargo of medicinal morphine rests right next to it. To get at the Spanish shipwreck they must also go through the Goliath. Cloche (Louis Gossett Jr.), a local drug kingpin, wants to get his hands on the morphine, which could be worth a tidy sum of money and he tries to scare away Romer and the couple from continuing their diving activities, so Romer makes a deal with Cloche, but it backfires and turns the expedition into an intriguing game of underwater double-cross.

The film is based on the novel of the same name by Peter Benchley, who because of the success of his first novel Jaws, was given an almost immediate green light to turn this book into a movie. The inspiration for the story was based on the real-life shipwreck of the Constellation, which occurred off the coast of Bermuda in 1942. Great effort was put into the underwater footage, which lasted for 153 days and consisted of 8,895 dives.

Unfortunately despite the title and underwater storyline the film lacks depth where it counts, which is with the characters. The movie starts out immediately with the couple scuba diving and finding the treasure before we have any idea who these people are or why they are even there and no suitable backstory is ever given, which makes them come off as bland people lacking any real distinction and that you care little about. Character development is still an integral part of moviemaking and the main ingredient that gets the viewer hooked into a story and yet this film completely lacks it.

I’ll give credit to both Nolte and Bisset for doing their own diving and Nolte looks great with his bleach blonde hair almost like he’s a surfer dude, but his presence really wasn’t needed. Bisset, despite the extreme limitations of the weak script, still gives a far better performance and I felt she could’ve easily carried the film without him and I’m not just saying that because she looks great in her skimpy underwater gear, which was purportedly the whole reason why this film did well at the box office. Sure she’s beautiful, but she’s also quite talented.

Shaw should’ve added an extra boost in support, but he doesn’t. Normally his strong personality literally eats up the screen in any movie that he is in, but he’s stifled by the benign characterization and unable to rise above it. In retrospect he should’ve never have accepted the part until he had actually read the script, but because he was offered $625,000 plus a percentage of the profits, he took the role before the script was even written and hence the whole problem.

Gossett is weak as the bad guy and is not seen enough to create any genuine feeling of menace. The segment where he and his cronies try to ‘terrorize’ Bisset by performing some very clichéd type of black magic voodoo on her is almost laughable. The only actor that is actually good here is Eli Wallach and it is a testament to his superior thespian abilities that even though he was straddled with a pointless, bit role he was still able to own every scene that he is in anyways.

The film’s only interesting moment, which apparently took 1,080 hours to shoot, is when a pack of grey sharks converge for an eating frenzy and get tangled up in the air hoses of the crew, but even this becomes unintentionally funny because every time one of the sharks move an air hose the crew is forced to suddenly jump up in the water making them look quite literally like a puppet on a string.

The script desperately needed some added element as the concept is too basic and one-dimensional.  Watching one dull group of people trying to get at a treasure while another equally dull group of people try to stop them does not make for a riveting cinematic experience.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: June 17, 1977

Runtime: 2Hours 4Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Peter Yates

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

Hero at Large (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Actor becomes a hero.

Steven Nichols (John Ritter) is a struggling actor who is hired to wear the Captain Avenger outfit in public in order to help promote the movie, which he himself is not in, that is soon to be released. While picking up a snack late one night at a convenience store he inadvertently witnesses a hold-up and decides to put on his Captain Avenger disguise to ward off the crooks and the trick works and makes him an overnight sensation. Walter (Bert Convy) who works for the mayor (Leonard Harris) decides to hire Steven to play Captain Avenger fighting off more crooks in different scenarios, but this ends up causing Steven serious conflicts with Jolene (Anne Archer) the pretty lady who lives across the hall from him and who he has just started up a relationship.

I really like John Ritter, but his appeal here gets put to the extreme test and it isn’t enough to save what is otherwise a very flat film. This was supposed to be the movie that jettisoned his career to the big screen, but instead it quarantined him back to TV-star status and he was never able to recover. By the 90’s he got a few more leading movie roles, but they were in crude, low-brow stuff like Stay Tuned and Problem Child, which were never going to win the Academy Award, but even they were better than this bland thing.

The script by A. J. Carothers, who mainly wrote for Disney and TV-sitcoms, doesn’t go far enough with its premise and misses too many prime opportunities to be funny. The most disappointing is the film’s pivotal moment where Ritter tries to stop a hold-up, but you would think someone who has never fought off criminals before would be clumsy in his first attempt, which should’ve invited in some slapstick comedy, but it never comes. You would also think hardened street crooks would laugh at Steven in his super hero getup and probably turn around and beat the shit out of him especially since he carried no weapons instead of running away from him in fright. Yet this potentially big moment gets played out like a throwaway scene that lasts for less than a minute and is quickly forgotten.

The emphasis instead gets focused on Steven’s generic romance with Jolene, who after knowing him for only a little while lets him move into her apartment where he platonically sleeps on the sofa even as she continues to see her boyfriend, which seems like quite a stretch. Her constant smiling at Steven’s ongoing ineptness makes her seem more like a parent bemused at her child’s wide-eyed naivety than as an equal love partner.

What is worse is the film’s attempts at satire, which are too obvious and it beats home its simplistic, feel good message like it’s being told to a group of eight-year-olds. The super hero costume that he wears is unimaginatively designed and barely masks Steven’s identity, which makes the subplot dealing with how almost no one is able to figure out who this super hero guy is as quite ridiculous.

Spoiler Alert!

The dumbest part though is the ending, which gets played up to a nauseatingly melodramatic degree and has Steven, wearing his Captain Avenger outfit, running into a burning building just as all the other firefighters are told to evacuate it and then somehow able to save a child unscathed even as the building falls in on him, which all helps cements this woefully uninspired flick as an excellent candidate for a bad movie night.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: February 8, 1980

Runtime: 1Hour 38Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Martin Davidson

Studio: United Artists

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Jaws 2 (1978)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Another shark terrorizes Amity.

Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) fears that another shark is stalking the beaches of Amity when two divers disappear and then later a water skier and her speedboat driver are also killed. When Body goes to Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) with his concerns the mayor and the rest of the council dismiss it and eventually fire Brody from his position when he continues to argue. His concerns are worsened when he finds that his two sons (Mark Gruner, Marc Gilpin) and their teen friends have snuck off onto a sailboat right were the shark attacks have been occurring.

Only four cast members return from the first one which includes the aforementioned Scheider and Hamilton as well as Lorraine Gary as Brody’s wife and Fritzi Jane Courtney as one of the council members. For me the biggest surprise was the return of Hamilton’s character as most likely he would’ve been voted out after making such egregious error in the first film and leaving the beaches open to further shark attacks after being told not to. I was also surprised that anyone would still want to come to the beach to swim anyways as the stigma of the area would most likely be quite strong.

Director John D. Hancock and his wife Dorothy Tristan who were first hired to direct the sequel had a much better, more believable plot idea. In their script Amity had become a ghost town and the economy in ruins. Mayor Vaughn and developer Len Peterson (Joseph Mascolo) build a resort on the island hoping to boost the tourism, but they use mob money to do it, which is why they end up resisting Brody’s dire warnings. Unfortunately the studio felt this concept was ‘too dark’ so Hancock and his wife were fired and replaced with a script by Howard Sackler and Carl Gottlieb that is basically just a bland rehashing of the storyline from the first one.

The first film was beautifully paced with each scene adding to the tension, but here there are a lot of lulls and the shark, which wasn’t seen much in the first one, doesn’t get shown enough here. The majority of time I kept feeling frustrated waiting for another shark attack to occur as any time the story is on land the film dies.

A good sequel should also always up-the-ante and having the plot built around just one shark doing all of the attacking just like in the first film doesn’t help to take the tension to the next level. Having a group of sharks attack at the same time would’ve helped add more shock appeal as people would now be battling sharks from multiple fronts and making the chances for survival all that more precarious.

Although it’s great seeing Keith Gordon and Donna Wilkes in their film debuts the rest of the teen cast is unlikable and the type of smart ass kids you wouldn’t mind seeing get eaten. There are also too damn many of them and the film would’ve been better served had it stuck to just Brody’s two sons on the boat and none of the others.

The way the shark ultimately dies is cool, but everything else falls flat. If you’ve seen the first one then there’s no reason to watch the sequel as it adds nothing to the theme and if you haven’t seen the first one then please skip this installment altogether and grab that one as it is far superior.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: June 16, 1978

Runtime: 1Hour 57Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Jeannot Szwarc

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

Jaws (1975)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 10 out of 10

4-Word Review: Shark in the water.

A young woman (Susan Backlinie) goes out for a swim late one night only to have her severed hand wash up on shore the next day, which causes the Amity Police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) to fear that her death may have been caused by a shark. Amity mayor Larry Vaughan (Murray Hamilton) doesn’t want his town to risk losing business, so he has his coroner deny that a shark was responsible and hence the beach remains open, but then more attacks occur. Eventually an eccentric shark hunter named Quint (Robert Shaw), Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) from the Oceanographic Institute and Brody head out on a small fishing vessel called Orca to locate the shark and then kill it, but they find the underwater beast to be far bigger and more cunning than they had ever imagined.

With its exceptional ability to slowly build tension and keep the viewer riveted from the first frame to the last easily makes this the quintessential thriller. John Williams’s legendary score adds to the murky ambience and in many ways is more memorable than the shark itself. Director Steven Spielberg wisely adds a secondary layer to the narrative by creating colorful and distinctive characters, most notably Quint, who gives the proceedings a flavorful nuance and makes the conversations and interactions that occur between the three inside the boat more interesting than what happens in the water.

The most amazing thing though is how little the shark is actually seen and in fact you don’t even get a glimpse of him until about an hour in. Part of this was due to the difficulty of getting the mechanical creation to perform properly in salt water, but in the end this became a blessing in disguise as it’s the mystery and allusion to its large size that makes it so riveting. The viewer feels as helpless and confused as the men on the boat, which makes the climactic sequence when the shark suddenly does jump onto the boat all that more impactful.

Spoiler Alert!

The film though does deviate heavily from the Peter Benchley source novel and a legitimate argument can be made as to which one presents the story better. In the book the tone is darker and the characters less likable. For me this makes it more intriguing from a psychological bent as it conveys the idea that humans are like the shark that they hunt as they both selfishly devour everything around them. Spielberg though didn’t care for this interpretation so the novel’s darker subtext gets erased, but it still made me intrigued, as much of a classic as this movie is, to see a reboot where the narrative stayed more faithful.

Some of the book’s subplots got too involved particularly the one dealing with the mayor’s connections to the criminal underworld, so I’m glad that one got toned down.  However I felt the one though dealing with Hooper’s affair with Brody’s wife (Lorraine Gary) should’ve been left in as it would’ve added extra tensions between the two while on the boat while also seeing how people can learn to work together even when they hate each other.

In the book Hooper dies when the shark attacks the cage that he is in while in the movie he is able to escape and somehow hide from the shark. This though seemed unrealistic as sharks have special sensing organs known as electroreceptors that allow them to detect the electromagnetic field emitted from a moving animal or at close range even the heartbeat of an immobile one, which means the shark most likely would’ve figured out where Hooper was hiding and gotten him.

In the book the shark dies from its many wounds just as it gets a few feet from Brody while in the movie it’s killed when the scuba tank that it has in its mouth explodes when hit by a bullet, but a 2003 episode of Mythbusters proves that in reality this wouldn’t have happened. My main beef though is that by having the shark literally blow-up into little pieces it denies the viewer the chance at seeing what the beast looked like as a whole. Supposedly this was one giant of a shark, so viewing it strung up at the end would’ve been a cool thing to have seen.

End of Spoiler Alert!

Despite these many differences the film still works splendidly and I don’t mean to imply that it doesn’t, but I would still suggest reading the book afterwards as it gives the story and characters an added dimension.

My Rating: 10 out of 10

Released: June 20, 1975

Runtime: 2Hours 4Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Steven Spielberg

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

A New Life (1988)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Life after a divorce.

Steve (Alan Alda) is shocked to learn that his wife of 26 years Jackie (Ann-Margret) wants a divorce, which forces him back into the dating scene that proves awkward. He eventually meets Kay (Veronica Hamel) and the two hit-it-off while Jackie gets into a relationship with a young artist named Doc (John Shea). Kay and Steve get married, but Jackie tires of her relationship and decides she’d be better off single.

Despite sporting an afro and beard it’s still the same Alda making the same bland type of movie with this one being more vanilla than his first two directorial efforts. At least with The Four Seasons and Sweet Liberty there was a mildly amusing spin to it, but here it’s sterile to a mind numbing degree and filled with nothing but generic characters going through basic life events almost like an inoffensive TV-movie on steroids.

Cutting back-and-forth between Alda’s budding new relationship and then Ann-Margret’s doesn’t work. At least with Alda there was a character arch as he goes from being a curmudgeon to sensitive modern day male, while Ann-Margret starts out cold and then just stays that way. As an actress she seems to have a hard time showing any genuine emotion while her attempts to convey inner angst come off looking quite affected. I realize she’s had a long, solid career, but her presence here is just plain blah and her square jaw features makes her look more and more like a female impersonator the older she gets. I also never believed that these two people were ever really married as they lack chemistry and their strained ‘spats’ become as trite as the material

The most annoying thing though is the scene where Alda grabs his chest while playing tennis and complains about severe pains so he’s rushed to the hospital, which is where he meets Kay. However, the lab tests reveal nothing wrong with him and the whole event gets written off as being ‘no big deal’ and never mentioned again, which is absurd.  People don’t collapse to the ground crying out in pain over ‘nothing’ as there had to have been some cause for it, so what was it? Having a movie blithely skip over this and treat it like some meaningless anomaly simply as an excuse so his character could begin a romance with Kay is truly weak writing and makes this threadbare film even more shallow.

Hal Linden is fun as Alda’s glib, womanizing friend and he should’ve been in the movie more since he’s the only thing that gives it a modicum of life while scrapping the side-story dealing with Ann-Margret. Focusing solely on these two middle-aged bachelors trying to make a go of it in the trendy, single’s scene had potential. At least it would’ve been better than the overly pat thing we get here that fails to stand out in any way.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: March 25, 1988

Runtime: 1Hour 44Minutes

Rated PG-13

Director: Alan Alda

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out 10

4-Word Review: He fails at monogamy.

Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a successful surgeon living in Prague during the 1960’s who has a way with the ladies. He enjoys his robust sex life, but then falls for the awkward and plain Tereza (Juliette Binoche) and the two get married even as Tomas continues to see other women on the side. Tereza becomes upset by this and threatens to leave him only for the two to get swept up into the events of the Prague Spring where Soviet tanks invade their country. They escape to Switzerland but Tereza is unhappy there as well and moves back to Czechoslovakia with Tomas later following. Although their living conditions under communist rule are harsh they still find that their mutual love keeps them happy anyways.

Although masterfully directed by Philip Kaufman I still found the characters to be poorly etched. Tomas’ ability to get beautiful women to literally throw themselves at him never gets properly explained. Yes he is good-looking, but there are a lot of handsome guys who aren’t able to get women to shed their clothes for them at seemingly the snap-of-the-finger. Some clear social skill or persuasive ability had to be shown and clarified to make the women’s behavior more understandable, but this never effectively gets addressed. The scene where Tereza gets ‘overpowered’ by Tomas’ aura when all he is doing is sitting at a table in a café reading a book, but it’s enough to get her to run up to him and tell him she’s available is a big stretch and makes this supposedly profound movie look like it was built on a very superficial foundation.

There’s also the question as to why Tomas would want to marry Tereza to begin with. This is a guy who can literally get any beautiful woman he wants so why settle for the dowdy/shy Tereza? What is it about her, or about his inner mind that would want to make him commit to her and not the others?

His relationship with Sabina (Lena Olin), who is his independent- minded off-again-on-again lover is far more believable and kind of made me wonder why Tereza even needed to be in the mix at all. As much as I liked Sabina I did find the storyline dealing with her budding relationship with Franz (Derek de Lint) to be rather unengaging. However the friendship that blossoms between her and Tereza as well as the underlying lesbian subtext is interesting and yet the film introduces this in a very long, drawn-out segment inside Sabina’s apartment only to then drop it without ever exploring it to its satisfying and full conclusion.

On the technical side it’s a splendid production. I particularly liked the imagery of the tanks rolling into the city and how Tomas and Tereza’s presence gets cropped into actual footage of the real-life event and how seamlessly it goes between black-and-white and color. Sven Nykvist’s cinematography is a marvel. Initially I felt his talents were wasted as the camera only captures the bleak colorless surroundings of old-town Prague, but then when the couple returns to the city after their brief foray in Switzerland the decay and grayness becomes even more pronounced and helps convey visually the depressing feeling of the communist oppression.

The film, which is based on the novel of the same name by Milan Kundera, has an interesting message, but it failed to give me as a viewer any type emotional impact. I was never able to understand what made these characters tick. This might’ve gotten better addressed in the novel, which I didn’t read, but gets lost in translation here and ends up hurting the provocative imagery that to some degree gets a bit over-the-top anyways. This could also help explain why despite being on the set as an ‘advisor’ Kundera expressed displeasure with the film version and refused to help promote it.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: February 5, 1988

Runtime: 2Hours 53Minutes

Rated R

Director: Philip Kaufman

Studio: Orion Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Kid Blue (1973)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Bandit tries changing careers.

Bickford Wanner (Dennis Hopper) suddenly realizes that being a train robber is no longer worth the hassle, so he decides to go straight by moving into the town of Dime Box where he does a variety of menial labor jobs that he finds to be thankless. When his former girlfriend Janet (Janice Rule) shows up he gets a hankering to go back to his bandit days when he was nicknamed Kid Blue and acquired a legendary status throughout Texas.

There were a lot of revisionist westerns during the early 70’s and most of them made an impact, but this one got lost in shuffle. Personally I was impressed with the first 30 minutes where the small town residents are portrayed as being prickly, cold people whose personalities reflected the harsh, dry, desolate landscape that surrounded them. The way Bickford gets treated as an ‘outsider’ simply because he wasn’t originally born there is exactly the way anyone would’ve felt in the same situation and thus it creates an accurate and vivid setting environment.

The counter-culture movement of the late 60’s gets puts it into a western motif giving the viewer a firsthand feel how oppressive the establishment (in this case the town’s citizens) were and what a lonely, frustrating experience it is to somehow try to fit into a system that doesn’t want you to begin with. Having this theme captured outside of the modern trappings makes the message stronger and when Bickford finally does lose his cool you relate to his rage and enjoy seeing him lash out.

Unfortunately it loses focus by the second act as director James Frawley can’t seem to decide whether he wants to turn this into a comedy or gritty drama. Both Ralph Waite and Ben Johnson make for good antagonists, but there’s never a satisfying one-on-one moment where Hopper stands up to either of them in any cinematic way even though you sit through the whole thing hoping that at some point he will.

Hopper looks the part of a young man even though he was already 36 at the time, but the character’s motivations are confusing. This was a man who at one point was supposedly a successful train robber, so why does he put up with all the crap and not go back to his old ways sooner? He tolerates their abuse for far longer than any normal person would and for seemingly no reason. Having the character suffer from a physical ailment that wouldn’t allow him to return to his bandit lifestyle would’ve helped make his situation more understandable.

The ending in which Bickford robs the factory and the whole town gives him chase has strong, colorful potential, but the film doesn’t go far enough with it. It also introduces too much of a bouncy musical score that gives the action a lighthearted/slapstick quality that undermines the realism. The third act should’ve focused entirely on the chase while nixing an ill-advised story thread dealing with a love triangle that adds nothing and seemingly put in solely to pad the undernourished plot. Even though the setting is supposed to be Texas it was actually filmed in Mexico.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: September 29, 1973

Runtime: 1Hour 40Minutes

Rated PG

Director: James Frawley

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD-R, Amazon Video

Her Alibi (1989)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Novelist falls for suspect.

Phil Blackwood (Tom Selleck) is the author of a successful series of mystery novels, but now finds himself dealing with writer’s block and unable come up with a plot for his next book. Then he meets the beautiful Nina (Paulina Porizkova) a Romanian woman charged with murder. With the help of his publisher Sam (William Daniels) they concoct an alibi that allows her to be released from jail on bond. She then moves in with him in his large home where Phil feeds off her presence to come up with his next story idea while also keeping an eye on her to make sure she won’t try to kill him when he is not looking.

Although Paulina got nominated for a Golden Razzie award for worst actress of 1989 (eventually losing out to Heather Locklear) I still came away feeling she was the best thing about this otherwise threadbare film. The former swimsuit model’s face is of course appealing and her accent is sexy, but what I liked even better is that she does not behave like most American beauties and instead is quite feisty, self-sufficient and opinionated. In many ways she upstages her more famous co-star by a mile and easily the one thing that helps propel this limp movie along.

Selleck has his charm, but he is not convincing at all as an author who should be nerdier and resemble a book worm.  The character appears to have had a very successful writing career already as evidenced by all the book covers of his novels that gets shown during the film’s opening credits, which is the coolest part of the movie. His large home makes it seem that he could retire in luxury and thus the storyline involving his writer’s block adds no urgency.

The film’s lighthearted tone makes it clear that Paulina is not a dangerous killer and that she’ll somehow be found innocent in the end making the scenes showing Selleck’s paranoia about her seem silly and adds no true tension or multi-dimension.

The romantic angle is equally botched as there is too much of an age difference between the two (20 years) making Selleck seem almost like a father figure. It’s also hard to understand why this beautiful young woman would fall for such a clueless idiot who comes off as a benign bumbling dope that she can easily manipulate. What’s worse is that she throws herself at him an hour into the runtime, so there’s no longer any question of romantic intent making the final 30 minutes virtually pointless.

Lots of slapstick scenes get thrown in that has nothing to do with the main story and simply there to pad the runtime. The dumbest of these occurs near the end where Selleck and friends think that they’ve eaten a dinner that was poisoned. In a misguided attempt to flush the poison out, Patrick Wayne, who plays Selleck’s brother, drinks Drano which is quite obviously dangerous. He spits it out, but that wouldn’t stop his mouth from burning, blisters from forming, or flesh from peeling away from his mouth, which doesn’t occur, but normally would’ve. Film characters drinking Drano had already been done before in the movie Magnum Force and it inspired real-life criminals to force their victims to drink it in the infamous Hi-Fi murders that happened in Ogden, Utah in 1974, so for that reason alone it should never be shown in another movie again and for such a superficial production like this to just randomly putting it in and acting like it’s ‘funny’ is utterly irresponsible.

The film starts out engagingly enough, but loses the air in its tire long before it’s over. Even the normally reliable William Daniels gets wasted. He is quite adept at playing pompous authority types, like in the TV-show ‘St. Elsewhere’, but not as a passive schmuck like here.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: February 3, 1989

Runtime: 1Hour 34Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Bruce Beresford

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD (Warner Archive), Amazon Video, YouTube