Punchline (1988)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: The perils of standup.

Lilah (Sally Field) is a New York housewife who enjoys making people laugh and takes a stab at stand-up, but finds the experience challenging and ends up paying someone $500 for jokes, but they don’t go over well. Then she meets Steven (Tom Hanks) a struggling med student who moonlights at the same comedy club that she does. Steven is genuinely funny, but so highly insecure that he ends up self-destructing at the most crucial times. He tries to help Lilah hone in her comedic skills while she gives him confidence.

The film, which is written and directed by David Seltzer, nicely analyzes the very unfunny side of the comedy business particularly its emphasis on how one must toil away at seedy clubs, hecklers, low pay, drunken audiences and a permeating sense of insecurity. Hanks abrasive character is spot-on and a good composite of those still stuck in the trenches and bitter about not yet being discovered. In fact I had wanted the surliness of his character to be played up even more as I had come into contact with struggling comedians during my time when I dabbled in improv and found a lot of them to be basket cases of insecurity and when not onstage were quite unpleasant to be around.

In fact it was because the Hanks character was so unlikable and even more so in some of the earlier versions that the script sat on the studio shelf for so long before it finally got the green light. To help compensate certain overreaching attempts were put in to soften his persona, which only ends up hurting the film’s authenticity. One scene has him inside a hospital doing one of his comedy acts for the patients and as he is leaving he suddenly shows this extreme concern for a sick child that he doesn’t even know and he immediately runs over to him, which seemed forced.

Another bit has him onstage and suffering from an extreme emotional breakdown when he sees his father sitting in the audience. Many people harbor demons from the past and frosty relationships with their parents, but they don’t have such over-the-top reactions especially when in front of an audience, which only helps to make this scene reek of hackneyed melodrama.

His friendship with Field, which I initially found cute as the two are complete opposites, gets ruined when a romantic angle unwisely gets thrown in. These two had very little in common, the Field character was married with three kids, ten years old than him and not particularly stunning, so I didn’t see the chemistry or reason for the sudden attraction on Hanks’ part. Having him gush all over her after only knowing her for a brief time is unrealistic. His personal struggles including the fact that he had been evicted from his apartment and had no money would be occupying his mind so much that a potential relationship wouldn’t even enter into it.

Fortunately the film recovers with a strong ending and Field is excellent, but I wished that we had seen more of a backstory to her character and were able to witness the very first time that she ever ventured out onto the stage. The supporting cast offers great performances as well including John Goodman as Field’s husband who initially isn’t supportive of her stand-up ambitions, but eventually warms up to it. Mark Rydell is solid as the club owner and Mac Robbins has a touching moment as an aging comedian who has seen it all before in a film that offers a revealing look at the comedy business.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: October 7, 1988

Runtime: 2Hours 2Minutes

Rated R

Director: David Seltzer

Studio: Columbia Pictures

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

Willy Milly (1986)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Girl turns into boy.

Milly (Pamela Adlon) is a teen who dreams of one day becoming a boy. One day she purchases a magical potion from a kid named Malcolm (Seth Green), which promises to make her wish come true as long as she takes it during the next solar eclipse, which she does. Now as a boy she changes her name to Willy, but finds mixed reactions from those around her. Her father (John Glover) likes the change, as he always wanted a son, but her mother (Patty Duke) doesn’t. He/she starts going to a different school, but finds that both genders have their equal share of problems.

Although the storyline may sound novel it really isn’t and this thing suffers from being just another generic ‘80s teen movie. The humor of having Milly suddenly waking up with a penis and the shocked reactions of her family and friends is not played-up enough while the myriad of issues that this sort of change would produce gets woefully underexplored. Instead it devolves into the typical teen dramas that we’ve seen done before and no need in seeing again.

The most annoying aspect deals with the proverbial bully storyline. I realize every school has got one, but it would be refreshing to have a high school movie that didn’t feel the need to always have to take this redundant route. This one, which gets played by an actor named Jeb Ellis-Brown, is particularly dull and what’s worse is that he looks scrawny and could be easily be beat-up by the kids he is supposedly intimidating.

Adlon’s performance, who gets billed under the last name of Segall, is irritating and a major detriment. For one thing she looks a bit androgynous from the start and then when she does turn into a boy all she does his cut hair short and that’s it even though her voice stays high pitched and her mannerisms remain girly making it seem more like just another female with short hair. There are a few good moments with Glover as the father as he tries to ‘train’ her to be more like a ‘man’, but Duke is horribly wasted in a small and forgettable supporting part.

The material is dated and these days this same storyline could be used minus the magical potion and instead tackled as a storyline dealing with a transgender teen. I also had problems with the Eric Gurry character who plays a teen friend to Willy that is stricken to a wheel chair. Initially I thought it was great that they introduced a character who had a handicap, but then it gets treated as being nothing more than a psychosomatic condition, which demeans all those victims of spinal cord injuries who are permanently paralyzed and unable to walk ever even if they wanted to.

There’s a film called Just One of the Guys that came out around the same time as this one and had a similar theme, but in that one the teen character only pretended to be a guy and it was much funnier and more perceptive.

Alternate Title: Something Special

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: November 14, 1986

Runtime: 1Hour 23Minutes

Rated PG-13

Director: Paul Schneider

Studio: Concorde Pictures

Available: VHS

Blume in Love (1973)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Cheating husband seeks reconciliation.

Stephen Blume (George Segal) is a successful divorce lawyer who suddenly finds himself stuck in a break-up of his own when his wife (Susan Anspach) catches him cheating with his secretary and then leaves him. Now Blume becomes obsessed with winning her back and even starts up a friendship with her new live-in lover (Kris Kristofferson), but as his frustrations boil over he begins to react in violent ways when he can’t get what he wants.

Director Paul Mazursky delivers another insightful look at love and marriage and how the two aren’t always compatible. The narrative works in a fragmented style where clips of the different stages of the relationship are shown at various times and allows the viewer to see the many changes the two go through particularly with our protagonist whose internal flaws are ingloriously displayed for all to see. Normally this could prove a turn-off, but Segal manages to keep the character painfully human enough to be engaging most of the way even though he eventually overstays his welcome.

Mazursky gives the proceedings an artsy, cinema vertite flair especially with the way he captures St. Mark’s Square in Venice and by creating an offbeat romance that is filled with caustic humor. I also enjoyed the supporting cast including Marsha Mason as Blume’s new girlfriend who has a strong bit when she tearfully admits that she will ashamedly remain with Blume even after he acknowledges to her that he thinks only about his wife when the two make love.

Donald F. Muhich is fun as the psychiatrist. He was Mazursky’s real-life analyst and got paid back by being cast in four of his movies. His facial expressions and responses to his patients are so spot-on that it makes you feel like you’re attending an actual patient-doctor session.

Even Kristofferson does well in a part that takes advantage of his laid-back acting style though his character’s friendship with Blume gets overplayed. I felt even the most easy going of people would’ve drawn some boundaries and never have tolerated an ex-husband being around as much as he was. The scene where he finally does punch Blume, which should’ve come a lot sooner, gets totally botched because it has Kristofferson breaking down into a teary-eyed wail right afterwards for no apparent reason.

The film’s biggest flaw though is its manufactured happy ending that makes no sense. Blume was clearly too selfish and immature to have a healthy relationship with anyone and the fact that Anspach decides to accept him back even after he forcibly rapes her is absurd. Both characters were in need of some major psychological counseling and not each other. The fact that the film for the majority of its runtime plays like an anti-love story only to end up throwing in a clichéd wrap-up like all the other formulaic romances makes it a sell-out and a waste of time for the viewer looking for something intelligent and different only to find out that it really isn’t.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: June 17, 1973

Runtime: 1 Hour 55 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Paul Mazursky

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD, Amazon Video

Bright Lights, Big City (1988)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: He’s hooked on cocaine.

Jamie (Michael J. Fox) is a 24-year-old living in the big city and working as a fact checker for a national magazine. He spends his evenings hanging out at the clubs and taking cocaine while also reeling from the break-up to his wife (Phoebe Cates) and death of his mother (Dianne Weist). As his addiction worsens he loses his job and his entire life unravels in a matter of a week.

The first half-hour is excellent as it gets the vibe of city life as well as the ‘80s subculture just right. The club scenes has an authentic feel and the stresses and politics at his job all ring true and this is a far better portrait of corporate life in the 80’s for the upwardly mobile than The Secret of My Succe$s, which Fox did just previous to this one.

The film also contains a few outlandish moments including a surreal one where Jaimie dreams of speaking to a fetus that is still inside a mother’s womb that is worth checking-out just for its amazing special effects. A later scene, where Fox and his friend Kiefer Sutherland release a ferret inside his former boss’ office, gets too wildly silly and should’ve been excised.

Fox is good in a difficult role and I liked the idea of this all-American young actor taking on a more edgy part. His youthful, clean-cut looks contrasted against the jaded backdrop of the nightlife helps make the shock effect even more profound as his personality slowly disintegrates. However, the scene where he tries to ‘reconcile’ with his ex-wife while she is on the runway modeling fashion clothes and in front of hundreds of people makes his character look ridiculous and irrational.

Cates is cute, but I didn’t like her short hair and she speaks only a few words during the whole thing although the part where she gets plaster smeared over her face and is only able to breathe through straws stuck in her noise is interesting. Swoosie Kurtz though as Jaimie’s loyal co-worker behaves in much too idealized fashion to be believable. If a woman invites a man over to her apartment for dinner it’s most likely because she has a romantic interest in him and will not be so selflessly gracious to want to sit around and listen to him go on-and-on about the break-up with his wife that he is still emotionally attached to, nor want to offer him money that she knows she’ll never get back.

Wiest as Jaimie’s mother is miscast as she looks too young to be his parent and in reality was only 13 years older than Fox. Having her character want to hear about her son’s sexual conquests with other females and even seemingly getting off on it as she listens to it is just plain odd and not like any mother I’ve ever seen. Her dying sequence comes off as contrived and something that was thrown in to get the audience to be sympathetic to its main character, but it proves pointless. A person doesn’t need the loss of a parent to become hooked on drugs as being around people that do it is enough of a motivator and the film would’ve been stronger and less glossy had it taken this approach and avoided the soap opera side-trips.

The shallow ending offers no insights except to say that ‘drugs are bad’. The drama gets so protracted that by the time our protagonist does have his meltdown, which is while attending a chic party, it feels more like a relief because it signals that the thing is finally coming to an end in a story that is too unfocused to be convincing.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: April 1, 1988

Runtime: 1Hour 47Minutes

Rated R

Director: James Bridges

Studio: United Artists

Available: DVD

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: They all did it.

The time is December, 1935 and world-renown detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) boards the Orient Express as an unexpected guest who’s able to find a spare compartment due to his friendship with the train’s owner (Martin Balsam). During the night one of the other passengers (Richard Widmark) is found dead and it is up to Poirot to solve the crime while the train remains stalled by a large snow bank.

This production is considered by many to be the best film version of any of Agatha Christie’s novel-to-screen attempts and in fact the author herself said as much when she attended a showing of the movie on the night of its premiere. Director Sidney Lumet’s ingenious touch is on-target the whole way as he creates a nice blend of kitsch and camp until the over-the-top costumes, playfully sharp dialogue, and glossy camerawork become more of the fun than the mystery itself.

In fact it’s Lumet’s ability to capitalize on the little things and control every minute detail that makes it so captivating even on repeat viewings. Their ability to turn an abandoned warehouse into a bustling train station is just one example. I also enjoyed the moment when the train leaves the station that gets done to the sound of a waltz composed specifically for the film by Richard Rodney Bennett. Originally they were going to have train sounds edited in and had hired a sound engineer who had spent his whole life recording these noises for specifically this purpose only to get the disappointment of his life when he was told that they had decided to go with the music alone, which crushed him so much that his eyes welled up with tears and he never returned.

Finney’s performance is outstanding. He was not someone you’d have in mind initially for this type of part, but through his brilliant acting and effective make-up he disappears into the role and immerses the viewer in the presence of this highly eccentric character and his unusual habits including the way he puts both his hair and moustache into a hair net before going to bed and reads a newspaper while wearing gloves.

The star studded supporting players are perfectly cast for their parts too. Anthony Perkins nicely plays-up his nervous man routine while Wendy Hiller is enjoyable as the caustic aging Princess who wears a constant frown because her doctor advised her that smiling ‘was not good for her health’. Widmark has an amusing conversation with Poirot particularly with his inability to correctly pronounce the detective’s last name and Ingrid Bergman shines in a small bit as a poor, but devoutly religious woman, which was enough to net her the Oscar for best supporting actress.

Spoiler Alert!

The murder scene in which all the passengers file into Widmark’s cabin and systematically take turns stabbing him is, like with everything else, astutely captured particularly with the way it’s shot by using only a blue tinged light as its sole light source. Lumet craftily uses a two-camera set-up here in which one camera captures the characters and the other focuses on Lauren Bacall’s character’s reactions to it as she stands at the doorway as a lookout. Bacall was never known as an actress to show much vulnerable emotion, but here, at least through her facial expressions, she does quite well. However, this segment also reveals a fatal flaw as Poriot’s cabin was right next to Widmarks’s and earlier in the film he was able to hear the conversations going on in the cabin next him almost perfectly, but then as each participant takes turns stabbing Widmark they say something out loud and yet for whatever reason Poirot never hears this, which makes you wonder why.

End of Spoiler Alert!

The script, by Paul Dehn, gets talky but is saved by its amusing verbal exchanges and Lumet’s use of different lenses to capture it, so I didn’t find it a problem in a movie that deserves its classic status both a mystery and cinematic achievement. The remake directed by Kenneth Branagh is set to be released in November.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: November 24, 1974

Runtime: 2 Hours 8 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Sidney Lumet

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Blu-ray (Region B/2, A/1)

Permanent Record (1988)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Coping with friend’s suicide.

David Sinclair (Alan Boyce) is a popular high school student who seems well on his way to a successful and happy life, but then unexpectedly he commits suicide by jumping off a cliff. Now his friends ponder about why they didn’t notice the signs and the news hits his best friend Chris (Keanu Reeves) particularly hard.

There were many movies dealing with the teen suicide issue that came out during the ‘80s and I remember watching one, a TV-movie called ‘Silence of the Heart’ starring Chad Lowe, in a social studies class at school. This film takes a slightly different approach from those in that it doesn’t concentrate on the motives of the victim, but instead analyzes how their actions affect the people that knew him.

It’s interesting to a degree, but the film glosses over too much and takes too long to get going. Quite a bit of time is spent watching David mopping around looking despondent and stressed, which is frustrating because the film doesn’t clue you in as to why he is feeling this way, so eventually his scenes start to have a redundant feel to them. It also gets annoying because if it is obvious to the viewer that David is struggling with inner turmoil, then why can’t his friends, who supposedly know him best, not pick up on these same signs as well?

The most irritating thing about the movie though is the presence of Reeves. Most of the teen characters in the film are believable, but Reeves unfortunately comes off too much like a caricature of his more famous airhead role in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Instead of being a young adult in-the-making like the others Reeves’ character is more the stereotypically grungy, metal head, stoner still stuck in juvenile purgatory and possessing every annoying teen cliché out there. Having him go from being a vapid adolescent to an introspective one was too much of a dramatic arch and I almost wished that his character had been the one that jumped since Boyce was the better actor. The scene involving the actual jump gets badly botched too and it’s Reeves’ presence that ruins it as he follows Boyce to the cliff unaware of what he is going to do and then overacts when he does, which makes what should be the film’s saddest moment unintentionally funny instead.

The ending is quite powerful, but everything else is sterile. Some intriguing issues are certainly brought up, but then never fully addressed. This is particularly true in regards to David’s family who seem to adjust from the shock much more quickly than any of his friends when in reality I would think they would be the ones to take it the hardest and should’ve been the focal point of the film while Reeves could’ve been pushed to the very back and seen only briefly.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: April 22, 1988

Runtime: 1Hour 31Minutes

Rated PG-13

Director: Marisa Silver

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Author! Author! (1982)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Playwright has family issues.

Ivan (Al Pacino) is a playwright struggling to get his next creation ‘English with Tears’ financed and produced. While he has managed to attain the necessary funding he still has a second act that everyone feels ‘needs work’, but before he can tackle that his wife Gloria (Tuesday Weld) leaves him for another man (Frederic Kimball). Now he must contend with raising the five kids alone with four of them being hers from a previous relationship.

The screenplay was written by Israel Horovitz and loosely based on his own experiences as a single parent. Horovitz has written many plays, over 70 of them, several have been considered at least in their day as groundbreaking, so this thing seems incredibly contrived by comparison. The scenes dealing with Ivan’s struggles in regards to his play and the politics that ensue in order to get it made are the most interesting aspects of the movie and the story should’ve solely focused on this angle while the home-life stuff proves sterile and better suited for a sitcom.

The kids seem too connected to the adult world around them. Children can certainly be astute at times, but they still dwell in their own little bubbles and this film shows no awareness of that and instead has them saying lines that more likely would’ve been uttered by an adult. Benjamin H. Carlin has a few cute moments as the young Geraldo, but Ari Meyers, who would later go on to star in the TV-show ‘Kate and Allie’ gives the best performance when she breaks down into tears as she describes the hardships of being booted around from one household to the next.

It’s nice seeing Pacino doing light comedy, which is a real change of pace for him, but he’s too intense and does not play off of Weld, who is more emotionally restrained, well at all. The scene where he tries to physically drag her into a taxi cab isn’t funny, but scary instead and most likely would’ve had those who were standing around witnessing it trying to intervene, or calling the cops.

Dyan Cannon is not effective as the kooky actress who stars in his play and then later moves in with him. Had her character’s eccentricities been played up more she might’ve at least been amusing, but the script doesn’t go far enough with this and having her call him up out-of-the-blue and ask to go to bed with him seemed too outrageously forward. There was some dramatic potential when, after she moves in with him and his kids, she is then asked to move out when Weld’s character comes back into the picture. This could’ve opened the door to a lot of dramatic fireworks and given the film a real lift, but instead she just leaves quietly and is essentially forgotten, which then begs the question why even bother introducing her character at all?

The scenes where Ivan frets about his play and the audience reactions to it are the best parts of the film because it shows the inner anxieties of just about any playwright or screenwriter out there, which is why this should’ve been the central point of the movie as it is the only thing that helps the story stand out. By comparison the family life stuff is generic and filled with too much manufactured cutesiness. It also wastes the talents of Alan King who is mildly amusing, at least at the beginning, as the play’s producer as well as the legendary comedy team of Bob Elliot and Ray Goulding who play the part of the play’s financiers.

The film’s title song ‘Coming Home to You’, which plays over the opening credits as well as the closing ones is so overly sugary that it is enough to make you want to turn the movie off before it’s even begun. It got nominated for a Razzie award for worst original song and it should’ve won as there could not be anything that would be worse, but what is even more amusing is that no one gets credited for singing it, which should’ve been a signal to director Arthur Hiller not to feature it in the film because if the song’s own singer is embarrassed by it then who else would like it.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: June 18, 1982

Runtime: 1Hour 50Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Arthur Hiller

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD

Foxes (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Growing up too fast.

Four teenagers living in the San Fernando Valley face life in the fast lane. Madge (Marilyn Kagan) is the nerd who’s having a fling with a 30-year-old man (Randy Quaid). Deidre (Kandice Stroh) shifts from boyfriend to boyfriend while Annie (Cherrie Currie) is tormented by an abusive father and runs away from home only to get caught up in the drug scene. Jeanie (Jodie Foster) is the mature one of the bunch who tries to keep them from getting into too much trouble as well as getting them out of a jam when needed, but she has struggles of her own particularly dealing with her mother (Sally Kellerman) who brings home men who are virtual strangers to spend the night with and seems as lost and confused as Jeanie’s teen friends.

This marked Adrian Lyne’s feature film debut and from a purely cinematic perspective it’s intriguing. I liked the cinema vertite feel and in many ways this is an early forerunner to Larry Clarke’s groundbreaking Kids that came out 15 years later as the camera follows the teens around on their excursions without having any connected storyline nor does it try to make any moral judgement on what occurs. Instead it plays more like docudrama showing how things are without overdoing the shock value, but what I liked best was the fact that it portrays the adults as being just as screwed up and in certain ways even more lost while society at large is captured as being equally jaded to the point that the teens are simply reflecting the behaviors of the environment around them.

Probably the most surprising aspect is the part dealing with Madge, who is still in high school, having an ongoing relationship with a 30-year-old man, which the film treats as being no big deal. It’s not completely clear if Madge is 17 or 18, but many of today’s viewers will find the casual way the film approaches this topic, which includes an eventual wedding between the two that is happily attended by her friends, as being  ‘creepy’ and most likely a taboo storyline for any film made today.

The irony is that Madge ends up causing the most destruction in the relationship as Quaid’s character unwisely goes away on a business trip and allows her complete use of his place where she then decides to hold a party that gets expectedly out-of-control. It even includes a graphic fight breaking out that is portrayed quite brutally including having a girl hit and knocked down by another guy. This scene also features Laura Dern, in her first credited film role and wearing braces and glasses, as an awkward teen that crashes the place.

The casting of Foster and Scott Baio as her guy friend is interesting as the two had starred in quirky gangster comedy Bugsy Malone just 4 years earlier and the scene where the two have an ongoing conversation while walking around in a large, open junkyard is one of the best parts of the movie. Baio is initially fun as this geeky teen with limited social skills, but later on becomes this mini-hero with on a skateboard that gets too cute and Hollywood-like. Foster on the other hand is solid and it’s interesting seeing her playing a more emotionally vulnerable character and even at one point breaking down and crying.

The film manages to have a few interesting scenes here and there, but it takes too long to build any momentum and it’s never as compelling as it would like to be. There are also a few too many moments where it defaults to the contrived clichés, which hurts its efforts at gritty realism.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: February 29, 1980

Runtime: 1Hour 46Minutes

Rated R

Director: Adrian Lyne

Studio: United Artists

Available: DVD, Blu-ray

The Driver (1978)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: A professional getaway driver.

Ryan O’Neal plays a man who makes a living as a getaway driver for crooks leaving the scene of a crime. His driving skills are superior and in the criminal underworld his services are in high demand. Bruce Dern plays a police detective obsessed with catching this elusive driver. He makes a deal with a couple of bad guys (Joseph Walsh, Rudy Ramos) to hire this driver for their next robbery and then set him up for a police trap. The Driver is initially reluctant to work with the two, but eventually joins them only to ultimately look for help from a beautiful French woman known as the Player (Isabelle Adjani) to get him out of his jam.

I’ve never been much of an O’Neal fan, but here his lack of acting depth makes the movie more intriguing. The part was originally intended for Steve McQueen who would’ve given the role the stereotypically gritty treatment, but O’Neal has more of a boyish male model demeanor which makes you question whether he is tough enough, or brazen enough to handle the driving demands, so seeing him flourish when you’re not quite expecting it gives the character an interesting edge. I also liked the fact that at times even he conveys nervous facial expressions as he takes the vehicle through dangerous turns, which helps show even the ‘cool guys’ are human.

Dern easily steals the picture as he continues to find entertaining ways to give unique and memorable touches to all the characters that he plays. The dialogue that his character utters conforms yet again to his patented delivery. For instance he accuses his partner (Matt Clark) of possibly being a ‘fruitter’. In the past men of the gay persuasion were sometimes called ‘fruits’, but never a ‘fruitter’ which is a word he totally makes-up and would be considered inane and silly if said by anyone else, but when said with Dern’s patented delivery it makes the character seem even more unhinged and threatening instead. In fact Dern’s conversations with Clark are some of the movie’s best moments.

Although Adjani’s screen time is limited and I still enjoyed her presence and the fact that she doesn’t show any of the typical female vulnerability, but instead seems more stoic than any of the men makes her stand out from other female characters of that era. It’s also fun seeing her facial expression turned to an almost catatonic state during the film’s high octane final chase sequence.  Ronee Blakely doesn’t fare quite as well as she says her lines in too much of a monotone fashion though the ironic way that her character meets her demise does deserves a few points.

The chases are exciting particularly the opening one, which is done at night and the one done inside a car garage in which O’Neal intentionally destroys the car that he is driving in an attempt to teach the two other occupants that he is with a lesson. The cat-and-mouse scenario inside an abandoned warehouse that makes up the bulk of the film’s final chase is slick as well, but I felt there needed to be at least one more chase added as the film gets talky in-between and away from the action, which is what people that come to these type of films genres expect especially with the title that it has.

Writer/director Walter Hill shows a keen eye for detail and manages to capture everything, even an abandoned parking garage with a stylish allure. The script is smart and sophisticated with the character’s expressing themselves by using only the most minimum of words possible. The plot has a unique quality, but still manages to stay believable and why this thing failed at the box office and was chastised by the critics at the time is hard to understand, but it’s gained a strong cult following since and deserves more attention for being years ahead-of-its-time.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: July 28, 1978

Runtime: 1Hour 31Minutes

Rated R

Director: Walter Hill

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD, Blu-ray (Region B/2)

Amateur Night at the Dixie Bar and Grill (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Five minutes of fame.

A bar on the outskirts of a nameless small town becomes the social setting for a group of everyday people who flock to it one night in hopes of winning an amateur act contest. Every one of the contestants is fighting some inner demon or insecurity and critiqued by a judge (Henry Gibson) that is being bribed by different parties to choose their candidate over the others. There’s also a dangerous serial killer lurking about known as the Disco Killer, who has shot up several other venues in the area and may be eyeing the Dixie bar as his next target.

This TV-movie, which was written and directed by Joel Schumacher, seems way too similar to Robert Altman’s Nashville to be considered original. Clearly that film was this movie’s inspiration and this one does not go far enough with the concept and would’ve been better had its runtime been extended and the characters more fleshed out. Certain actors, such as Don Johnson and Candy Clark, are underused and there’s not enough of an understanding of the town that the bar was in. Some shots of rundown buildings in an isolated area would’ve helped give the viewer a better feel for how bored these people were and why they would be motivated to go on stage and essentially make fools of themselves just for the lofty chance at somehow escaping their otherwise hopeless existence with a small shot at fame.

What I did like is that the entire story takes place in one setting. The only time the camera ventures outside of the cramped place is when it goes into its parking lot for brief periods, but otherwise this bar is the center of the universe for these characters, which for many small town people, especially before the advent of the internet, is what bars such as these represented.

The stage acts themselves were a bit disappointing and could’ve been played-up more as I was expecting something a little more along the lines of stuff seen on the old Gong Show or stupid human tricks from David Letterman. The scene where a big fight breaks out in a dressing room that is far more exciting than anything occurring on stage does allow for some irony and the part where actor Rick Hurst attempts to crack open a coconut by using nothing more than his bare teeth is engaging, but more acts in this vein was needed.

Having Tanya Tucker appear as this shy woman who lacks confidence despite possessing the talent and walks off the stage in humiliation at the start only to redeem herself later, is too manufactured. I much preferred Pat Ast as this homely, overweight woman who unexpectedly wows everyone with some rousing showstopping numbers that should’ve made her the winner instead. I also felt that the so-called prize, which was simply the privilege to appear on stage at that same bar for two straight weeks, was too skimpy. People have bigger dreams than that even in a dusty small town and want more of a reward like  a trip to Hollywood, New York or a contract with an agent in order for them to be excited enough to go through what they do.

There is also no payoff to the Disco Killer storyline. He gets discussed quite a bit and there are even TV news reports about him, but then he never appears, which feels like a letdown. I’m not saying there needed to be a bloody sequence where a killer shoots people dead, but maybe a scenario where the contestants, who are quite competitive with one another otherwise, manage to come together enough to subdue the bad guy, or some other lighthearted element that would’ve at least brought a conclusion to the subplot instead of just letting it hang.

Sheree North as an embittered alcoholic easily steals it and has some of the best lines. There is also a long tracking shot in which the camera starts out at the back of the bar and then slowly weaves its way up onto the stage that is great too. The film certainly has its share of moments and as a TV-Movie it’s impressive, but lacks finesse for the big screen.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: January 8, 1979

Runtime: 1Hour 36Minutes

Director: Joel Schumacher

Studio: Universal

Available: None at this time.