Bugsy Malone (1976)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: The gangsters are kids.

It’s the 1920’s and rival mobsters, who are all played by children, fight over control of a club that illegally sells liquor. Fat Sam ( John Cassisi) is the one who currently controls it, but Dandy Dan (Martin Lev) makes a play at a violent overthrow in which his men attack the club by using machine guns equipped with whipped cream that ‘splurge’ their victims. Bugsy Malone (Scott Baio) is a penniless boxing promoter caught in the middle. He tries to help aspiring singer Blousy (Florrie Dugger) get an audition at Sam’s club, but then becomes distracted by Sam’s alluring girlfriend Tallulah (Jodie Foster) who causes Sam’s ire by flirting with Bugsy.

This odd concoction was the product of Alan Parker in his feature film directorial debut who came up with the idea while driving his kids on a weekend trip to a countryside cottage. To keep his kids entertained he started telling them a story about some prohibition era gangsters based on old gangster movies he had seen as a child. It was at one point where one of the kids brought up the idea of having gangsters be children instead of adults.

The first 15 minutes or so are quite inventive and fun. I enjoyed the freeze-frames showing each victim splattered with whip cream and the pedaled powered automobiles, but after awhile it starts to repeat the same gags over and over becoming a one-dimensional, one-joke flick.

I kept wondering where the adults where and despite this being a fantasy what exactly where the ‘rules’. Is this a type of universe where there are no adults at all and the kids remain at that age forever and if so does that ultimately then make them the ‘adults’? For me it would’ve been better had the story been book-ended with some connection to the world as we know it. Perhaps with a Wizard of Oz type structure where the film starts out, maybe even in black-and-white, with adults in the parts of the gangsters and then one of them gets hit on the head or drinks something with a drug in it and has this weird dream involving kids suddenly taking over the roles previously played by the adults. Showing the differences at how kids approached things versus how the adults do would’ve been a funny contrast instead of keeping it at the kiddie-level the whole way through, which ultimately falls flat.

The performances of the young cast are quite energetic although I could’ve done without the musical numbers. Cassisi, who in real-life ended up serving jail time of his own for money laundering, steals it with his humorous send-up of a mob boss. Baio is quite good too especially with his over-the-top Brooklyn accent, but I felt Foster got shamefully underused. If anything her role should’ve been combined with Blousy’s to make one and cutting out Florrie Dugger, who now goes by the name of Florence Garland, completely. I didn’t have anything against her per say, but she didn’t have the onscreen spark that Foster did. She also apparently disliked Baio and the scene involving her hugging him required many retakes as she didn’t want to get near him and this lack of chemistry comes through onscreen.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: September 12, 1976

Runtime: 1 Hour 33 Minutes

Rated G

Director: Alan Parker

Studio: Paramount Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video

Sweetie (1989)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Sister is mentally ill.

Kay (Karen Colston) has begun a relationship with Louis (Tom Lycos) and things seem to be going smoothly as they move into a home together, but it quickly unravels when he sister Dawn ‘Sweetie’ (Genevieve Lemon) shows up with her boyfriend Bob (Michael Lake). Sweetie has been institutionalized in the past and her wild mood swings and erratic behavior quickly cause turmoil particularly with Kay. She asks her parents (Jon Darling, Dorothy Barry) for help, but her dad refuses to recognize Sweetie’s tragic current state and instead continually hearkens back to her childhood years when she was a cute kid with budding talent who would perform songs and dances to the family’s entertainment and delight.

This is a hard film to critique  as it starts off as a quirky comedy, but by the midpoint it becomes more dramatic and filled with a lot of uncomfortable even cringe worthy scenes as Sweetie’s mental decline becomes achingly apparent. Not only do you feel sad for her, but also for how it causes such a severe strain for the rest of her family, which accurately illustrates how mental illness isn’t just a one person issue as their behaviors will adversely affect those around them too.

The fact that the film’s tone switches halfway through, which would be considered a major no-no by Hollywood standards, is part of the reason why it works as it replicates real-life where sometimes you can have a touching, humorous moment only to suddenly get thrown into a troubling one.  This also shapes what life is like living with a mentally-ill individuals who may seem ‘okay’, but can turn erratic sometimes without warning and this ongoing tension vividly comes through for the viewer until they feel the same way as the characters.

I found the father though to be the most entertaining and interesting. One minute he’s scheming to get Sweetie out of the family car, so they can leave on a trip without her and then the next minute he’s driving back to pick-her-up, so they can be ‘one happy family’ again. While this may sound overly contradictory to some I felt it brought out  the inner turmoil many parents feel in dealing with their grown children where at times they can’t stand them, for whatever reason, but at other points can’t stand to be without them either.

Director Jane Campion, in her feature film directorial debut, adds in interesting touches like having the camera frame the characters off-center where instead of seeing them captured in the center of the screen they are shown in the right-hand corner, which helps accentuate the tone of the subject matter. There’s also an odd time-lapsed cutaways detailing a seedling tree pushing its way through the dirt and above ground, which wasn’t exactly necessary to the main plot, but kind of cool nonetheless.

Campion also wisely doesn’t insult the viewer’s intelligence with pat answers to a complex problem. Mental illness cannot be cured or even  always stabilized with medications, so leaving the viewer with a feel-good ending where everything works out and everybody is happy would be a cop-out and thankfully gets avoided here. Instead the we’re left pondering troubling questions, which stays with you long after it’s over and makes this a far better movie than most because of it.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: September 28, 1989

Runtime: 1 Hour 37 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Jane Campion

Studio: Filmpac Distribution

Available: DVD, Blu-ray (Criterion Collection), Amazon Video

Fools (1970)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Lost souls find love.

Matthew (Jason Robards) is sitting in a park one day trying to read a book when two children begin taunting a dog, which causes it to bark and impedes Matthew’s peace and quiet. He then warns the children that if they don’t behave the dog will rip their arms out, which angers the dog’s owner (Marc Hannibal) who then proceeds to punch Matthew in the face. Anais (Katharine Ross), who was also in the park, comes to Matthew’s aid and the two quickly begin a romance, but she neglects to tell him that she’s being followed by a private detective (Robert C. Ferro Jr.) whose been hired by her jealous husband (Scott Hylands) who’ll stop at nothing to win her back.

The film is a very odd mix of drama and late 60’s quirkiness that never gels and most of the time comes-off as disjointed and amateurish. The relationship happens too fast and lacks any type of distinction from the thousands of other cookie-cutter romances already out there. The folk-tinged songs sung by Kenny Rogers and The First Edition are too sappy and bog the pace down, which is too slow and ambling to being with.

The biggest issue though is the way scriptwriter Robert Rudelson throws in all sorts of characters and bits that have nothing to do with the main plot. This includes two FBI agents appearing out-of-nowhere who raid the couple’s home and then just as quickly disappear and are forgotten. There’s also a weird bit where the couple confronts a trio of hippies, one of whom is played by Jack Nance in his film debut, who are strung-out on acid and it gets quite violent and ugly. Another segment deals with a psychiatrist (Mako) fighting off an oversexed patient (Laura Ash) and these two do not interact with the two main characters at all, so why this even gets put into the film is confusing.

85 minutes into its runtime the film also suddenly adds in flashbacks and surreal moments including Ross seeing herself jump off a tall building. Surrealism in film can be great, but it needs to get introduced earlier and trickle all the way through instead of popping up near the end, which throws off the tone completely.

Spoiler Alert!

The ending in which Ross gets violently gunned down inside a Church during a babies baptism is jarring, misplaced and like everything else comes completely out-of-nowhere. To some degree you can credit the film for being ahead-of-its-time as it deals with a stalking/jealous husband, which was a topic that had not yet come into the mainstream conversation, but the bird’s-eye view of Ross’ bloody corpse lying on the sidewalk is much too disturbing for a film that had otherwise been quite playful and lighthearted. The reactions by the other people inside the church, one of whom is played by a young Suzanne Somers, is off-putting too as they just stand there in a calm silence instead of screaming and panicking like you’d expect them to.

End of Spoiler Alert!

Robards, who is typically a very good actor, channels too much of the non-conformist quality similar to the character that he played in A Thousand Clowns, which in that film was charming, but here it’s annoying mainly because it doesn’t make sense. In that film he was poor and bordering on being homeless, so his contempt for society made sense, but here he’s a famous horror movie star renting a swanky apartment that overlooks the San Francisco skyline making his anger seem out-of-place. There’s also a brief bit where he attempts to climb over a barbed wire fence, the film cuts away so we don’t get to seem him fully do it, but it looked like a painful if not impossible thing to do and something that shouldn’t be done by someone who wasn’t insane.

Ross on the other-hand is appealing and quite beautiful in literally every shot she’s in, which is the only reason I’m giving this dopey production even two points, but she unfortunately is straddled with a script that appears to have no point to it and if it does it doesn’t convey it in any type of discernible way.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: December 23, 1970

Runtime: 1 Hour 33 Minutes

Rated GP

Director: Tom Gries

Studio: Cinerama Releasing Corporation

Available: None at this time.

Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Cops on the beat.

Murphy (Paul Newman) is a middle-aged cop working a beat in a tough Bronx neighborhood while partnered with Corelli (Ken Wahl) who is much younger. Murphy has become jaded to the corruption around him, but still feels a sense of purpose about coming forward when he witnesses a fellow cop killing an innocent bystander. Corelli, who also witnessed it, feels they should keep quiet about it, fearing the backlash they will inevitable get if they don’t, but Murphy quarrels with his conscious and considers risking his own safety and career in order to do the right thing.

While the film opened to mainly positive reviews and did quite well at the box office it was not without controversy as author Tom Walker, who had written the novel ‘Fort Apache’ which had a similar theme and storyline as this one, sued the production company claiming they had stolen many ideas from his book. However, the courts decided in the film’s favor arguing that the movie was filled with a lot of generalized stereotypes that is present in just about every cop film and therefore could not be signaled out as copyright infringement, which seemed more like a backhanded victory as it admits that a lot of what  you’ll see here is just one giant cliche.

From my perspective though I still enjoyed it especially the street scenes where the two protagonists find themselves dealing with petty crimes that makes up a lot of what real-life policemen have to deal with, as opposed to the sexy murder mysteries that cops in other police dramas get to investigate. The scene where Newman chases a suspect, but then runs out of breath and is unable to catch him nicely examines the exhausting physical nature of the job as well.

My biggest gripe has to do with a scene that comes right away, which involves a prostitute, wonderfully played by Pam Grier, who shoots and kills two unsuspecting cops sitting inside a squad car. The excuse is that these two were rookies and therefore not seasoned enough to catch the warning signs of what was going on, but I felt right away that something was off by the way the prostitute was fishing around her purse making me sense even before it happened that she was going for a gun and if I the viewer could’ve caught on to this then the two cops, whether they were new on the job or not, should’ve too.

Spoiler Alert!

I was disappointed that this storyline involving the psycho prostitute does not get fully played-out as she ends up getting killed in the middle of the film in a very random and uninteresting way, which ruins the anticipation/suspense of seeing her and Newman ultimately confront each other, which is what the viewer is primed into believing will happen.

The storyline dealing with the cop killing a defenseless man gets botched too as it occurs during the middle, but with no satisfying conclusion. We never get to see how Newman’s decision to come forward ultimately effected his life and safety.

I had problems with the sequence of events concerning Newman’s girlfriend, played by Rachel Ticotin, as well as we see her die from a lethal drug overdose, but this occurs before some gunmen take over the hospital where she worked as a nurse and held everyone hostage. It would’ve been far more suspenseful had the viewer at least thought that the girlfriend was one of the hostages instead of knowing upfront that she wasn’t, which ultimately makes this sequence less emotionally compelling.

End of Spoiler Alert!

Newman as usual gives a great performance and this marked the last role he played where his age was not a factor as his roles after this all dealt in some way with him becoming elderly. However with that said he still looks very much to be in his 50’s and he states at one point that he’s divorced with two daughters making me believe that they were most likely young adults, but instead we see a brief scene where he picks them up from school showing that they’re still young children, which given his very middle-aged appearance looked ridiculous.

Wahl is good as his young partner, but I felt his character should’ve been the one that was idealistic and wanted to go to the authorities while Newman, being older and more desensitized the one who tries to talk him out of it. Ed Asner, as the cantankerous new police chief gets wasted as does Pam Grier who’s real creepy and should’ve had both her character and motives explored much more.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: February 6, 1981

Runtime: 2 Hours 5 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Daniel Petrie

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD

Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Dog becomes a star.

Estie Del Ruth (Madeline Kahn) is a struggling actress still waiting for her big break. While roaming the streets she comes upon a homeless dog (Augustus Von Schumacher) and befriends it. Grayson (Bruce Dern) is a hapless tour guide driving a bus filled with tourists past the homes of the famous Hollywood stars. He’d rather be directing movies and has some great ideas, but is constantly getting turned down. Then one day famous studio mogul J.J. Fromberg (Art Carney) witnesses the dog saving Estie from a lecherous producer (Aldo Ray) and is so impressed that he wants to cast the dog in its own movie. Grayson, seeing this as his chance to finally break into the movie business, pretends to be the dog’s owner and therefore allowed to be in charge of directing the dog’s film, but the dog will only take orders from from Estie forcing him to allow her to tag along, but only if he helps her get a movie contract.

The story was originally titled ‘A Bark was Born’ and written by Cy Howard in 1971 and was an account of the famous 1920’s real-life dog star known as Rin Tin Tin. He commissioned Arnold Schulman to write the script for him. Schulman, who was coming off a good run of films as screenwriter including penning the scripts for Goodbye Columbus and Funny Lady decided to add some satirical elements to the story before finally handing it off to studio head David Picker to produce. However, the owners of Rin Tin Tin sued Picker for producing a film about their dog without authorization causing Picker to remove the fictional elements from the script and turning it into a all-out farcical parody of old-time Hollywood instead.

The film’s biggest problem is that it doesn’t give the viewer a feeling that they’re being transported to a different era as the 1920’s are played-up as being too cartonish and silly to be believable. The characters are caricatures that have no emotional connection to the audience, so watching their ascent into Hollywood success is neither interesting nor compelling. The humor relies too much on throwaway bits that have no connection to the main plot and mostly fall flat while moments that do have comic potential, like the dog only taking orders from Kahn, do not get played-up enough.

Kahn is a poor choice for the lead and single-handily bogs the production down, which wasn’t too great to begin with. She is perfect as a supporting actress playing over-the-top, eccentric characters, but as a normal person trying to elicit sympathy she does poorly. Lily Tomlin was the original choice for the part, but she wanted the script rewritten in order for it to have a more serious edge, which wouldn’t have been a bad idea,  but director Michael Winner wanted to keep the thing silly and lightweight and didn’t agree.

Dern, who expressed in an interview decades later, that doing this film was his one true career regret, is actually quite good and its fun seeing him play in a more lighthearted role versus the darker ones that have made up so much of his onscreen presence. However, by the second half he pretty much gets written-out, which was a shame. Ron Leibman, as the cross-dressing silent film star Rudy Montague, has a few interesting moments, but he plays the part in too much of an intense manner making him seem more creepy than funny.

Art Carney is not funny at all as the big-time studio head and the part would’ve been better served had it been played by Phil Silvers, who gets stuck in a much smaller role that does not take advantage of his comic talents. The rest of the cast is made-up of walk-on bits by famous stars of the past. Most these cameos are not amusing or interesting making their presence much like the movie itself quite pointless.

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: May 29, 1976

Runtime: 1 Hour 32 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Michael Winner

Studio: Paramount Pictures

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

!Three Amigos! (1986)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Western stars travel south.

El Guapo (Alfonso Arau) and his gang terrorize a small village in 1916 Mexico by demanding that its residents pay him ‘protection money’ or risk getting pillaged. Carmen (Patrice Martinez), who is the daughter of one of the village elders, tries to come up with a plan to stop them and finds her solution after watching a silent film featuring The Three Amigos (Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, Martin Short) who  fight evil doers and injustice. Thinking they are real heroes she sends them a telegram inviting them to her town to fight El Guapo. The Amigos, who have just gotten fired, think it’s an invitation to do a show and in desperate need of money travel across the border unaware of the dangers that await.

While the concept is ripe for great comic potential the script almost immediately starts showing its cracks. Now, I was not around in 1916, but it seems to me that people would’ve still been sophisticated enough to know the difference between movie acting and the real thing and the fact that Carmen, who is well over 18, doesn’t makes her seem a bit too naive. The three amigos aren’t much better as they fail to know the meaning of such words as infamous, tequila, or even veranda. Comedies based on misunderstandings can be highly enjoyable, but it still depends on the characters being reasonably intelligent to make it work and the group here are just too dumb to be believed making the whole scenario weak and watered down from the get-go.

What’s even more aggravating is that the film cheats on its own rules. Steve Martin scolds the bandits for using real bullets, as at that point he was still under the impression that they were fellow actors, but then the amigos’ guns end up having real bullets too even though if they were really just actors they should’ve been stage props with blanks. They turn out to be great shots too, able to shoot the bad guys even from long distance making them seem like actual gunfighters and not actors at all. There’s also a scene where Martin gets shot in the arm and while this might not be fatal it could still cause severe pain and infection, but there’s no scene showing it getting removed and bandaged up and  he continues to move it like it wasn’t even injured.

While it was interesting seeing Chase getting laughs for being a doofus as opposed to his snarky quips I still felt the three characters were too transparent. Not only is there very little contrast between their personalities, but there personal lives are never shown. These were supposedly big stars who should’ve had a big fan base, agents, friends, or wives/girlfriends, so the idea that they had ‘nothing to go back to’ and thus decided to remain in Mexico didn’t really make sense. Even with the argument that they had recently gotten fired from their jobs they should’ve had enough fame and connections in L.A. to find other gigs without immediately being so hard-up.

There’s a scene too where the three are shown sleeping together in a small bed, which seemed to intimate that they were gay. This never gets confirmed, but the film might’ve been more interesting had they been.

The moment where the three sing ‘My Little Buttercup’ inside a rough Mexican bar filled with bandits is the high point, but everything else is downhill. Instead for forcing these dimwitted actors to face the harsh realities of true western life outside of their Hollywood safe place it deviates into ill-advised surreal fantasy that contradicts the whole premise. The worst moment is when they sing a song in front of an incredibly fake looking sunset backdrop that features talking animals, which is so stupid that it destroys everything else that comes either before or after it.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: December 10, 1986

Runtime: 1 Hour 43 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: John Landis

Studio: Orion Pictures

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

Heartland (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Life on the frontier.

In 1910 a widow named Elinore (Conchata Ferrell) and her 7-year-old daughter Jerrine (Megan Folsom) travel to Wyoming where she gets a job as a housekeeper to rancher named Clyde (Rip Torn). The two slowly fall-in-love, eventually marry, and have a baby of their own. Unfortunately the harsh winter and remote locale takes its toll causing tragedy to both their small family and to the ranch itself.

The story is based on the letters written by Elinore Pruitt Stewart to her former employer as she described her adventures working on a ranch as a homesteader to Henry Clyde Stewart during the years of 1910 to 1914. The film stays very faithful in tone and content to the period and some of the most fascinating moments are simply observing the different chores that they had to do back then and what now comes off as very archaic.  Shooting the film on-location in the Rocky Mountain region, substituting Montana for Wyoming, and capturing all four seasons helps add to the authenticity.

Farrell’s strong personality gives life to her character and reveals the inner strength required to endure and survive the hardships of frontier life and it’s amazing how closely she resembled the real Elinore Stewart as evidenced by an old photograph of her taken in 1913. Torn is also quite good, but his thick Scandinavian accent makes it difficult to understand everything he says. I also really enjoyed Folsom as the young girl, who doesn’t have much dialogue, but more than makes up for it with her expressive face. Lilia Skala is also good as Mrs. Landuer a headstrong elderly neighbor who goes by the nickname of Grandma.

While the soundtrack matches the period flavor I felt there was too much of it and would’ve enjoyed more silence as that is pretty much all you would’ve heard anyways on the frontier during that time. I would’ve also liked more of a backstory to Elinore, specifically showing why she was widowed, in real-life her husband died in a railroad accident before their daughter Jerrine was even born, and yet it would’ve helped the viewer understand Elinore better had this been dramatized, or at least touched on.

The ending is also too abrupt. It brings up all the challenges in maintaining the ranch, but no conclusion as to whether they were able to withstand them all or not. Several story threads get left hanging even though in real-life Elinore lived 19 years past when this story took place and Clyde lived for another 35 years, so having some denouncement at the end explaining where they ultimately ended up past what we see here was in my opinion very much needed and the fact that it doesn’t occur makes the film seem like only half-a-movie.

There’s also some scenes that may make certain viewers uncomfortable. Many of them deal with animals getting killed including a wild pig that gets shot at point blank range and then skinned and gutted. Since this was apart of the frontier life back then I didn’t have a real problem with it, but others might. The most disturbing scene though deals with a cow trying to give birth and requires both Torn and Farrell sticking their hands inside the cow’s vagina at the same time in order to turn the calf around, so that its head will come out first. They then tie a rope around the calf’s head and yank him out in extremely explicit fashion. While some may consider this the miracle of birth others may not be able to stomach it, but overall it does help to heighten the realism either way.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: September 22, 1979

Runtime: 1 Hour 36 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Richard Pearce

Studio: Filmhaus

Available: DVD, Amazon Video

Taps (1981)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Cadets take over academy.

At the conclusion of another school year at Bunker Hill Military Academy, General Harlan Bache (George C. Scott) announces, to his shocked cadets during the commencement proceedings, that their school has been sold to real estate developers and will be closed in 1 year. Then that evening tragedy strikes forcing the board of trustees to close the school immediately. The students lead by Brian Moreland (Timothy Hutton) who had just been promoted to Cadet Major decide to take matters into their own hands by taking over the school with force and refusing to leave it unless guarantees are made to keep it open.

The film is based on the novel ‘Father Sky’ by Devery Freeman and the first half has excellent potential. The drama is intense and on-target and brings up a myriad of interesting conundrums dealing with the thin line between loyalty versus rebellion and how at different times both can be good and bad. It also deftly examines how bad things can come from the best of intentions.

Unfortunately all the action takes place in the first hour leaving the second half woefully undernourished with nothing happening. Everyone stands around expounding until all the tension that had been so nicely built-up at the beginning gets sapped away leaving boredom in its wake. The film also tries too hard to make its point becoming overwrought and preachy in the process. The dialogue between the characters loses its conversational quality and instead starts to sound like mini speeches.

The acting by the soon-to-be-stars is good and includes Sean Penn in his film debut as well as Tom Cruise in a breakout role that originally he rejected because he was only hired to be a background character, but his presence during rehearsals so impressed director Harold Becker that he decided to give him a bigger part and he  leaves a lasting impression particularly at the very end. Hutton, who was just coming off his Academy Award winning work from Ordinary People is effective too despite his thin frame and the scene he has where he discusses the situation with the cadets’ distressed parents are his best moment.

Scott on the other hand comes off as old and tired, granted that was the type of character he was playing, but it still isn’t a showy role for an otherwise famous actor and in fact he only appears in the film’s first act. The scene dealing with him trying to break up a ruckus between a group of students and cadets is poorly edited. One shot has his gun being taken out of its holster by another student only to magically reappear in Scott’s hands in a later shot, which comes off looking like a jump cut.

From a simply logical perspective it becomes abundantly evident right from the beginning that these kids have gotten in way over their heads with no endgame and nothing is worse than seating through a plodding plot that you know won’t end well.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: December 9, 1981

Runtime: 2 Hours 6 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Harold Becker

Studio: 20th Century Fox

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

Godspell (1973)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Jesus is a hippie.

A group of modern day young adults dissatisfied with their mundane lives decide to follow the calling of John the Baptist (David Haskell) to learn the teachings of Jesus (Victor Garber). They spend their days roaming the vacant streets of New York City while doing song and dances that are inspired by the Gospel of St. Matthew.

This film is based on the hit Broadway play that in turn was the brainchild of John-Micheal Tebelak. Tebelak was a student at Carnegie Mellon University in 1970 when he attended an Easter Vigil at St. Paul’s Cathedral only to end up getting frisked for drugs by the police simply because his clothing attire resembled that of a hippie. He became incensed that the modern day Christian was out-of-touch with the younger generation and became compelled to bridge-the-gap by going home and writing this play, which lead to him getting offers to produce and direct it, first at experimental off-Broadway theaters and then finally Broadway itself.

While this film’s intentions may be noble, it doesn’t completely succeed although its ability to take advantage of the New York City locations is a chief asset. Many prominent sites of the city get used including the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, the Brooklyn Bridge, and even a breath-taking dance sequence on top of the still being built World Trade Center. The film also manages to somehow, outside of the very beginning and very end, clear out all the other people from the city making the Big Apple seem like a giant ghost town, which in a way gives off a good surreal vibe, but it also would’ve been interesting seeing this troupe dealing with the everyday person and the reactions that would come from that.

The song and dance numbers are well choreographed, but there ends up being too many of them. The story lacks a plot and to a degree comes off as nonsensical. I realize they’re singing about parables from the Bible, but the viewer isn’t paying attention to that and instead focused on the colorful locales and comical antics of the hammy performers and it’s quite doubtful that a non-believer would suddenly get ‘inspired’ by anything that goes on here. Young children will most likely by confused and even frightened by it while teens and young adults, which was the target audience, will by today’s standards roll-their-eyes and consider it a relic of a bygone, drug-trippy era.

The cast shows a lot of energy and many of them were from the original stage version, but ultimately there’s no distinction between them. While most musicals have at least some dialogue and drama between the songs this one has none. It’s just two hours of non-stop singing and unless you’re deeply into the message this won’t really gel well with most viewers. The clothing styles, which at the time may have been ‘hip’, now look silly including having Jesus with an afro and walking around in over-sized shoes, which to me resembled a clown.

This might’ve worked better on stage where the intimate setting would allow one to feed off the vibe of the other audience members, but as a film it’s off-putting and the dazzling visual direction cannot overcome its other shortcomings.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: March 21, 1973

Runtime: 1 Hour 43 Minutes

Rated G

Director: David Greene

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video

Cookie (1989)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Daughter becomes getaway driver.

Dino (Peter Falk), a longtime racketeer, gets released from prison after a 13-year sentence. He meets up with his long time crony Carmine (Michael V. Gazz0) only to learn that Carmine sold off his share of the business, but now refuses to give him his entitled proceeds. Dino then plots an elaborate revenge and uses his estranged daughter Cookie (Emily Lloyd) to help him. At first the two don’t get along,but eventually forge a friendship when she proves to be quite resourceful as a getaway driver.

This movie proved to be the start of Lloyd’s career downfall. She burst onto the scene with her acclaimed performance in Wish You Were Here, which had all the critics fawning over her including Roger Ebert who called her performance “one of the great debut roles of a young actress”. With her new found fame she moved to New York at the age of 17 and immediately got the starring role in this film, which unfortunately proved to be her undoing as she showed erratic behavior on the set due to a condition that was later diagnosed as being attention deficit disorder. At one point during filming her irritated co-star Falk slapped her because she repeatedly flubbed of her lines, which caused her to then reportedly slap him.  It was behind-the-scenes stories like these that made studios reluctant to hire her and costing her to miss out on a lot of big roles.

While I’ll commend her ability to put on a very effective Brooklyn accent where you can’t even hear a hint of her native British one I still felt overall her performance here is quite weak and one of the main reasons that the film fails. Her facial expressions are too one-note and she shows an aloof detachment in all of her scenes almost like she really doesn’t want to be there. It’s evident onscreen that she and Falk didn’t care for each other making the bonding that their two characters have come-off as forced and insincere. I didn’t know why her character was even needed, I presume it was done to attract the all-important teen demographic, but she’s not funny and there’s long stretches where she doesn’t even appear. Her attire looks too much like the clothing style worn by Molly Ringwald during the 80’s and while that may have been the fashion it’s still good to have a character come up with a clothing style that is unique to them, so she doesn’t end up looking like just a leftover cast member from a John Hughes’ movie.

The supporting cast are what make this movie funny and had the story centered around them it could’ve been special. Gazzo is great as the mob boss who is intimidating one minute and then frightened and contrite the next. Dianne Weist, is quite funny too, particularly her extended crying bouts, as Falk’s mistress and Brenda Vaccaro steals a few scenes as his dog groomer wife. You can also spot Joy Behar in a brief bit as well as Jerry Lewis although his part is quite colorless and I’m surprised he even took it.

The script by Nora Ephron and Alice Arden relies too much on Mafia cliches while failing to add a unique or interesting spin to it. There’s also too many scenes, three of them to be exact, involving the explosion of a limo. One time is okay, but it saps away the surprise/shock value when it keeps happening and much like the movie itself fizzles out with a whimper.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: August 23, 1989

Runtime: 1 Hour 33 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Susan Seidelman

Studio: Warner Brothers

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