Circle of Two (1981)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Old man/young teen.

Ashley St. Clair (Richard Burton) is an aging painter of 60 who has lost his passion and hasn’t either sold, or attempted to do a painting in over 10 years. Sarah (Tatum O’Neal) is an unhappy 15-year-old who’s tired of dating guys her own age as she finds them to be immature and only interested in one thing…sex. She then meets Ashley, first after she sneaks into an adult theater to watch an X-rated movie and then later at a coffee shop. Despite the extreme differences in their ages they still connect through their mutual interest in art. Ashley even begins to paint again and the two share an enjoyable, but platonic friendship. However, once Sarah’s parents (Robin Gammell, Patricia Collins) find out about they put an immediate stop to it by locking her in her room and and in protest Sarah refuses to eat.

Based on the novel ‘A Lesson in Love’ by Marie-Terese Baird this film marks the final one to be directed by famed Greek director Jules Dassin and in many ways this may be the weakest one that he did. The whole way the relationship gets going is very rushed and forced. Bumping into the same person twice in one day, in the big city of Toronto, doesn’t seem likely and then having Sarah fall so head-over-heels for him to the point she starts spouting out the ‘L’ word quite quickly is dingy. A more plausible scenario would’ve had Ashley teaching an art class (he no longer paints, but still has to bring in an income somehow) of which Sarah attends and then through the course of several months a bond is slowly created.

The sex angle is a complete mess. Fortunately Ashley makes no moves on her, but Sarah does aggressively begin to come-on to him and at one point stands completely naked in front of him. In her autobiography ‘A Paper Life’ O’Neal expressed great discomfort in having to do this scene though I didn’t detect this, but maybe that’s just because she’s such a great actress, but either way the scene was completely unnecessary.  It’s also inconsistent with the character as she broke-up with her boyfriend Paul (Michael Wincott) because he was trying to pressure her into having sex and she was still a virgin, so if she didn’t want sex with a guy her own age why would she want it with one who was way older and is this era of pre-Viagra how could she even be sure he could do it? A better scenario would’ve had sex never coming into play and it was simply their other mutual interests that connected them and it was only outsiders, like Sarah’s parents, that presumed the worst when it really wasn’t occurring.

The one bright spot is the acting with both leads being superb. O’Neal proves that her strong and memorable performance in Paper Moon was no fluke and the only thing that keeps the film watchable. Burton is excellent as well. Although he usually has a strong presence here he wisely takes a step back playing someone who’s weak and tentative, which in many ways reflected his own career at the time where many felt he was washed-up and the years of alcohol abuse certainly did age him making him look even older than 60 when he really wasn’t, and thus a perfect fit for the part. The only issue here is that Tatum seems way too mature for 15 both physically and personality-wise and having her play someone who was 17 would’ve been more appropriate.

While the film remains marginally compelling the talky ending in which Burton goes on a long speech like a tenured professor lecturing to a college class practically ruins it. I was also frustrated that we never learn much about the old man, played by George Bourne Sr., an elderly gentleman who agrees to let Ashley paint his portrait for a fee, which in-turn revitalizes his career and I felt this character should’ve been in it more, or at least a few scenes showing what they talked about as his portrait was being done.

Tatum’s abstaining from all food plays-out poorly as well. For one thing she doesn’t change physically, so we’d never know she wasn’t eating if it weren’t mentioned. She then travels to New York and I was fully expecting her to pass-out in the middle of crowded Grand Central Station from a lack of nutrients, but apparently in-between time she had eaten something, but this should’ve been shown and the fact that it isn’t is a sign of shoddy film-making, which despite Dassin’s previous output, this whole movie ends up pretty much being.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: May 7, 1981

Runtime: 1 Hour 46 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Jules Dassin

Studio: World Northal

Available: DVD-R, Amazon Video

The Boys in Company C (1978)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Going through boot camp.

Tyrone (Stan Shaw), Billy Ray (Andrew Stevens), Alvin (James Canning), Vinnie (Michael Lembeck), and Dave (Craig Wasson) are five young men from varying backgrounds and wildly different temperaments who get drafted into the army in August of 1967. Their experiences in boot camp, which is harshly run by the demanding Sergent Loyce (R. Lee Ermey) and the equally stern Sergeant Aquilla (Santos Morales) prove challenging both physically and psychological, but the real test comes when they’re put out onto the battlefield and their personalities begin to disintegrate.

While the film acts like everything that goes on is based on fact and even includes specific dates for each event and at the end small bios of what occurred to the characters after they returned to civilian life it’s actually all fictional and based on a screenplay written by Rick Natkin in 1972 while attending a film class at Yale and then later expanded. It’s noted as being the first film in the 70’s to deal with the Vietnam War on the field of battle as well as the film debut of R. Lee Ermey playing a similar role to the more famous one that he did in Full Metal Jacket. Here though he’s thinner and while the things he says are certainly still aggressive it’s not in quite the over-the-top way as in the Stanley Kubrick film. In fact I sympathized with him here and the challenges he faced in trying to get the rag-tag group conditioned and how he supported the Tyrone character and the racism he had to deal with. Morales also plays the same type of drill sergeant and found it ironic that both men had some missing front teeth in the same areas of their mouths and wondered what the story was behind that.

Shot in the Philippines where its similar type of topography to Vietnam lends an authentic look and the viewer is given a vivid feeling for what wartime life was like where things could be calm and peaceful one moment and then bombs going off the next. While I’ve had my issues with Wasson, Stevens, and Lembeck in some of their other films where I considered their acting to be weak here their performances are solid and the transitions their characters go through during the course of the movie are compelling though without question Shaw is the standout.

While the first half shows the realities of war the second part becomes mired in the darkly comical absurdities. This was clearly inspired by the era where such films as M*A*S*H took the Korean conflict and turned it into a surreal comedy, but mixing the grittiness with moments of levity cheapens the reality. Scott Hylands’ character is particularly off-putting. He plays a captain who makes one insane blunder after another until he becomes more of a caricature. I’m sure it’s quite possible for high-ranking officials to make the occasional misjudgment, but this guy becomes clownish to the top degree making it almost farcical in the process. The climactic soccer game has the same issue where the soldiers can get out of fighting on the front line if they just agree to lose the game, but this scenario never actually occurred to any veteran I’ve ever known and it’s jarring to go from action on the battlefield to kicking a ball around like a war movie that suddenly turns into a sport’s one.

It’s still well enough directed to keep it engaging and there are some strong even profound moments despite the severe shifts in tone, but it would’ve been better had it maintained the realism from the beginning and not thrown-in stuff that would’ve been better suited for satire.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: February 8, 1978

Runtime: 2 Hours 5 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Sidney J. Furie

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video

Protocol (1984)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 0 out of 10

4-Word Review: Goldie goes to Washington.

Sunny Davis (Goldie Hawn) works as a cocktail waitress at a Washington D.C. bar, who one evening while driving home from work, she notices a crowd of media people surrounding an event where foreign dignitaries are leaving a dinner gala, which piques her curiosity enough to pull over and get out to see it in person. Once she’s in the crowd she rubs against another man and feels what she thinks is a gun and she accuses him of such, which gets the man to take the gun out and point it at the visiting Emir (Richard Romanus) from the country of El Othar. When Sunny sees this she tackles the would-be assassin and becomes an instant American hero in the process. Overnight she becomes the top of every news story. Politicians in Washington begin to believe she’d be an asset and offer her a position within the protocol department in government. She readily accepts as it pays more than her old waitress job, but it comes with a catch. The US wants to establish a military base on the country run by the Emir whose life Sunny saved, but in order to achieve this deal they offer Sunny to become another one of the Emir’s wives without her knowledge.

This was the second attempt at political satire for screenwriter Buck Henry who did First Family 4 years earlier, which I thought was bad enough, but this thing manages to be even worse. The majority of the problem is that politics and government can be very messy and if one is going to analyze the topic in any type of realistic way then it needs to get messy and dirty as well and yet this movie glosses over all of the negative aspects and tries to make American politics uplifting and inspiring, which might’ve worked in the 30’s and 40’s, but in this more cynical age it comes-off as corny and ill-conceived.

The political and media landscape has changed so drastically that most viewers living today will find the humor to be completely unrelatable. Politics today, for better or worse, has become highly divisive, so having a benign President that everyone supports such as here seems almost like a fairy tale. The satirical jabs at the news media will also prove hollow as we no longer live in a world where the mainstream press as all the clout and instead now takes a backseat to social media and thus making the majority of the jokes here quite dated. The way it portrays Muslims will also be considered problematic and even back then while it was being filmed it was protested by the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee over what they felt was a disrespectful approach to Islam.

Goldie is certainly likable, but her character is blah and poorly defined. Outside of living with two gay guys there’s nothing unique about her and the viewer gets no sense of what makes her tick. A good example of this is when she gets offered the position she isn’t even sure what the word protocol means and has to look it up in a dictionary and yet after she gets the job she quickly becomes an expert on all the protocol by-laws. This was apparently because she read-up on all the literature she was given, but this isn’t shown making her newfound sudden expertise come-off as weird and hard to explain. The fish-out-of-water concept really needed to be played-up more. There are a few comically awkward moments, but in order to make it consistently funny it needed to continue through the whole movie.

The fact that she becomes so famous over preventing the assassination of the leader of a foreign (fictional) nation that most people probably couldn’t find on a map didn’t make sense. If she had saved a popular President’s life then I could see everybody getting excited about it, but doing it for a foreign dignitary might be enough for a ‘feel-good’ story, but that would most likely be it. Also, there’s no concept of the 15-minutes of fame here. Even if she did become an overnight sensation it would only have lasted until the next news cycle when another media hero would replace her and yet this movie has her remaining popular for months and even years later.

What really killed it for me though was the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-like ending, which I found to be utterly nauseating. For political satire, if you can even call this that, it fails on all levels. Being There on the other-hand is an example of how to do it right, which this thing unfortunately doesn’t even come close to.

My Rating: 0 out of 10

Released: December 21, 1984

Runtime: 1 Hour 36 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Herbert Ross

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD, Amazon Video

The Take (1974)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Black cop accepts bribe .

Terence Sneed (Billy Dee Williams) is a San Francisco cop brought to Paloma, New Mexico to help take down local crime boss Victor Manso (Vic Morrow). The only problem is that Manso invites Sneed over to his place and offers him a significant amount of cash to get on his ‘payroll’ and thus allow him to get away with his crimes. Sneed is also informed that another top official in the police department, Captain Frank Dolek (Albert Salmi) is on the take as well. Sneed accepts the cash, but then double-crosses Manso by having Dolek secretly tailed where he finds out who all of Manso’s connections are and uses this info to try and bust Manso’s drug operation, which ends up being a tall order that gets Sneed in hot water not only with Manso, but with his police supervisor Chief Berrigan (Eddie Albert) as well.

The film is based on the 1970 British novel ‘Sir, You Bastard’ by Gordon Frank Newman, which became a bestseller and set-off a series of three books that he wrote around the Sneed character. There were though differences between the book and movie as in the novel Sneed was white and worked in Scotland Yard. The one thing though that remained the same was Sneed being unscrupulous and working outside the system.

The fact that the protagonist accepts bribes and most of the way it’s unclear whether he’s even a good guy at all is what makes the movie interesting and helps differentiate it from the other early 70’s cop action flicks. This is the complete opposite of Serpico where the cop refused all bribes and vigorously fought against it. Here we see the other angle. Instead of the main character being on the outside looking in he’s a part of the corrupt system and in order to survive in it must be willing to play along, which I found more realistic and insightful as someone who’s able to totally rise above the evil environments they’re in is rare and therefore we get more of an everyman’s perspective here. It also works against the ‘Save the Cat’ book, which has become the bible of today’s screenwriters, which insists that the main character must be likable for the movie to work. Here Sneed is anything but and at certain points when he forces an overweight suspect (Robert Miller Driscoll) to take-off his clothes and do jumping jacks in humiliating fashion to the amusement of the other cops he becomes downright nasty, but in-turn it makes the movie less formulaic, which too many movies today have become.

Williams’ skill as an actor helps to keep the character engaging and he gets great support not only by Eddie Albert as his exasperated superior, but also surprisingly by Frankie Avalon who has a small, but memorable bit as a drug dealer who initially comes-off as quite cocky, but melts dramatically once inside the interrogation room. Unfortunately for Vic Morrow, who’s played some classic villains in his career, his presence here doesn’t work. This is mainly from his get-up including dyed blonde hair and at one point a pseudo cowboy outfit, which looked campy. I also didn’t like that it’s shown right away that his character has heart problems, which telegraphs a major vulnerability that instantaneously sets the viewer into expecting that this will predictably lead to his eventual demise.

As for the action I felt it started well particularly the opening courthouse ambush, which is well choreographed with a funky score, but it becomes rather pedestrian after this. Having the main character misjudge things like when he tries the intercept Manso’s transporting of illegal goods, but ends up chasing down the wrong van each time, which were intentionally being used as decoys, was refreshing because in too many other police movies the hero cops always gets things right the first time and his hunches are never proven wrong, which again is just not how things work in reality. Either way it’s not as exciting as it could’ve been with a lot of car chases and action scenarios that ultimately prove to be generic in nature.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: May 5, 1974

Runtime: 1 Hour 32 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Robert Hartford-Davis

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD-R

The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia (1981)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Not like the song.

Travis (Dennis Quaid) is an aspiring singer with some talent, but little discipline. He’s achieved one hit song,but his drinking and partying keeps getting him in trouble. Amanda (Kristy McNichol) is his younger sister and though she’s only 16 she is more mature and responsible. She tries to manage Travis’ career by getting him to Nashville, so he can cut a record and get an agent, but his wild ways and their lack of funds, keeps preventing them from getting there. Eventually he gets arrested for public drunkenness and in order to pay the fine is forced to get a job at a local bar. It’s there that he meets Melody (Sunny Johnson) and tries to pursue a relationship, but becomes aware that Seth (Don Stroud), the deputy sheriff, has a thing for her as well and he won’t allow any other guy to talk to her as he’ll fly into a jealous rage and warns Travis of this, but Travis being reckless as always doesn’t let this phase him. As this goes on Amanda begins a romance of her own with with Conrad (Mark Hamill) who works as a state trooper.

Although in theory it’s ‘inspired’ by the song of the same name it technically doesn’t have anything to do with it. In other films that were made from songs like Convoy, Harper Valley PTAand Ode to Billy Joethe central theme was maintained and then expanded on, but here we don’t even get that. The song, with lyrics written by Bobby Russell and then sung by his then wife Vicki Lawrence, had to do with a man getting executed for killing another man who had an affair with his wife even though it was really his kid sister that did the crime. A plot like that could’ve had great potential for being an interesting movie, so why the producers didn’t just go with that original concept I don’t know, but it seems like a travesty for them to retain the song title and I’m surprised the producers of the record didn’t sue.

The plot, as it is here, is limp and uninspired. It basically feeds off of a lot of predictable shenanigans like Travis getting caught in a hotel bed with another man’s wife and then being chased around both on foot and in a vehicle until both he and Amanda are able to get away. In between we get treated to a lot of songs, which normally I’d say was nothing more than filler, which it still is, but since the rest of it is so lame, it comes off more like the best thing in it. Quaid and McNichol do all of their own singing and even wrote their own lyrics and they give energetic performances when onstage, so if you decide to see this thing then I’d suggest fast-forwarding through the rest of it and just stick with the music and you might be pleased.

The acting by Quaid is excellent and Don Stroud is great as the nemesis. McNichol is alright, at least when she’s singing, but otherwise gets pushed to the background and with her super short hair and nagging personality lacks sex appeal and at times looks almost like she could’ve been Quaid’s kid brother instead. The fact that they’re so close and do everything together would make one wonder if there’s something incestuous going on. In the more innocent times of the early 80’s maybe this wouldn’t be the first thought that would pop into people’s minds, but these days I’d suspect others would be wondering the same thing. There’s also no explanation for what happened to their parents. At one point McNichol mentions that she’s orphaned, so there really needs to be a backstory showing of what caused that.

Spoiler Alert!

The biggest gripe though is with the ending in which Travis gets shot and killed by Seth, who also dies in the gunfight. It then concludes with McNichol getting with Hamill, who quits his job as the state trooper, and the two drive-off in her rickety old truck to God knows where. Since the story was mainly about the brother/sister relationship then I felt that’s where it should’ve ended with them in Nashville either getting the record deal, or not. The Hamill character is bland and seemed to be added in with no other purpose, but to extend the already anemic plot. There’s also the fact that he was 29 at the time while McNichol plays someone who was only 16, so them getting into a relationship doesn’t exactly look kosher. Granted the age of consent in the state of Georgia is 16, so I guess in the eyes of law it’s okay, but many today will consider this kind of romance to be cringey, and I can’t help but wonder if that’s the main reason why this film has never had a proper DVD release nor any streaming option.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: June 5, 1981

Runtime: 1 Hour 52 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Ron Maxwell

Studio: AVCO Embassy Pictures

Available: DVD-R

The Disappearance (1977)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Where is his wife?

Jay Mallory (Donald Sutherland) is a professional assassin who works for a secret organization that contracts him out to do hits all over the world. After returning home from his latest assignment he finds that his wife Celandine (Francine Racette) is not there. Since they had a tumultuous relationship he initially presumes she left on her own accord, but then his friend and fellow hit man Burbank (David Warner) informs him that her disappearance may have something to do with his last hit. The organization that employs him now calls with another assignment, but this time they’re reluctant to give any details, which is unusual. Jay is afraid he’s being set-up as Burbank told him that the company is known to ‘retire’ those that are deemed no longer useful or trustworthy. He decides though to go through with the assignment as he’s curious how it will play-out and confident enough in his ability to get out of any jam, but soon finds himself faced with an entangling twist he never expected.

The film is a fascinating portrait of what can be done with creative direction. Stuart Cooper, who’s not exactly a household name and in fact this was his last theatrical film until 2010 when he did Magic Man, lends some interesting directorial touches that makes the story and characters more interesting than they might otherwise. What I especially liked was the non-linear narrative in which the movie cuts back and forth between the past to the present day. These types of storylines are typically frowned upon by Hollywood studios as they’re considered to be ‘too confusing’ for mainstream audiences to follow, but I had no such difficulty and felt it allowed in added nuance that would not have been present had the plot been approached in the conventional way. Nonetheless when the film tanked at the box office upon its initial release the studio insisted that the film be re-cut where the story would be presented in the standard linear format, but this version did even worse, so fortunately for the DVD/Blu-ray release it was brought back to its original way and labeled as being the ‘director’s cut’ though Cooper actually had no input on it, but eventually approved once he viewed it.

It’s also highly atmospheric particularly with the way it captures the cold, wintry climate of Montreal in the dead-of-winter. Having been born and raised in Minnesota I can tell a fake winter scene done on an indoor sound stage using artificial snow within seconds, but here the cold, including the mounds of snow drifts and nasty hollowing wind, is quite vivid and helps to symbolize the cold nature of the characters and the business they’re in.

I was a little more lukewarm with the acting. Sutherland can certainly be an outstanding leading man, but he seems too kind and sensitive for a person making a living killing others for money though I did like the scene where he plays memory games with his wife while at home, which brings out how crucial paying attention to detail is for his line of work. The supporting players are all familiar faces though I felt Warner was a bit wasted and underused. Virginia McKenna, best known for her starring role in the classic Born Free, is seen for only a brief bit though her interaction with Sutherland is quite pivotal while Christopher Plummer doesn’t appear at all until the final 15-minutes, but still manages to come-off with a memorable presence.

Spoiler Alert!

The film’s biggest downfall though is with the ending, which becomes one twist too many. Up until that point the twists had been a logical fit that made sense when you went back and thought about it. Then at the very end Sutherland gets shot and killed while walking home from the grocery store, but it’s never shown who did it, or why. Maybe it was the secret organization that wanted to ‘retire’ him, but this needed to be shown and explained. Just leaving the viewer hanging with a violent, but vague scenario isn’t satisfying and cheapens the rest of it.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: September 17, 1977

Runtime: 1 Hour 31 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Stuart Cooper

Studio: Trofar

Available: DVD (Region 2), Blu-ray

Impulse (1984)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: The townspeople act crazy.

Jennifer (Meg Tilly) and her boyfriend Stuart (Tim Matheson) return to the small town she grew up in to help care for her mother (Lorinne Vozoff) who suddenly and quite impulsively shot herself in the head while talking to Jennifer over the phone. When they arrive they find the people behaving in strange ways by acting on their inner impulses without any social restraint. Stuart, who is a chemist, believes it may have something to do with what’s in the water, but when he tests it he finds nothing unusual. The people though continue to behave in a more aggressive manner where even the kindly old doctor (Hume Cronyn) who was looking after Jennifer’s mother in the hospital begins showing homicidal tendencies. The couple fear they might not be able to get out of there alive and begin to suspect that the ultimate cause has some connection to the earthquake that shook the town just days before they arrived.

The premise is certainly intriguing and there are a share of weird moments, but director Graham Baker approaches the material in the wrong way. The original screenplay by Nicholas Kazan, which was entitled ‘Animals’, was intended as a horror film and closely inspired by George Romero’s similarly themed The Crazies, which came out 11 years earlier. For whatever reason Baker didn’t pursue it with a horror bent and that in my opinion is where it all goes wrong. It’s hard to actually know what genre to place it in. At times it seems a little bit like sci-fi and other moments like a drama, but either way the tension is lacking. You see the townspeople doing crazy stuff, which initially piques your interest, but then it goes nowhere with it. The weird acts just continue to go on and on until it becomes redundant and ultimately boring until you really don’t care what the explanation is behind it.

Spoiler Alert!

It’s not until 45-minutes in before even gets slightly suspenseful when Jennifer finds herself trapped in a burning garage, but even this goes by too quickly. There was one moment where Jennifer’s former boyfriend, apparently jealous at seeing her with Stuart, decides to bend his own fingers back, as a sort-of self mutilation, until they break, which I found genuinely shocking and cringy. However, there are other moments, which I found to be unintentionally funny making me believe it might’ve worked better as a quirky comedy.

The ending though is the most annoying. The explanation for why this all occurred is that chemicals from a nearby toxic waste dump got into the facility that produced the milk that the townspeople drank. The leak apparently caused by the earthquake that jostled one of the overhead pipes that then leaked the toxins into the milk vat. Since Jennifer didn’t like the milk she wasn’t affected, but I felt it was a stretch that all 900 of the other people in the town did drink it, as there are many folks who aren’t into milk, so there should’ve been others like Jennifer, who didn’t behave nutty instead of her remaining the only normal one.

What I found really stupid though is that the movie acts like 900 people suddenly dying in a town is apparently ‘no big deal’ and the rest of the country just ‘moves-on’, which I found preposterous. There is simply no way the media would let something like this go unchecked and the rest of the nation would be demanding answers and a federal investigation. It would become the news story of the year if not the decade and something that would be heavily talked about.

Somebody would have to be held accountable at some point, which then brings up the final issue of who the hell was the organization that dropped the crop dusting poisons onto the town via airplanes that ultimately is what killed everybody? The movie doesn’t bother to answer this, which is really frustrating making the whole thing a big build-up to nothing and not worth anyone’s time.

End of Spoiler Alert!

On a lighter note I couldn’t end this review without mentioning Tim Matheson. As an actor I found his performance here to be incredibly dull. Granted the character he played was benign to begin with, but he certainly didn’t do anything to make him interesting. However, with that said, his bare ass steals it. Many ass aficionados have felt, and even debated, that Dabney Coleman’s bare behind seen in Modern Problems wins the prize for best ass put onscreen in a Hollywood movie, but Matheson’s exposed tush, seen at the 17:49 mark, definitely deserves honorable consideration.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: September 28, 1984

Runtime: 1 Hour 31 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Graham Baker

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD-R, Blu-ray

Foul Play (1978)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Beware of the dwarf.

Gloria (Goldie Hawn) is a recent divorcee who takes a car trip along the San Francisco coast where she comes upon a stranded motorist (Bruce Solomon). Since she is looking to meet new people she decides to give him a ride. The man says his name is Scotty and that he’s looking to give up smoking and gives her his pack of cigarettes in an effort to stay away from them. Unbeknownst to Gloria the pack holds a microfilm that a secret organization is after. That evening the two meet-up at a theater to watch a movie, but Scotty, who has already been stabbed, dies while sitting in his seat. Gloria runs to notify the theater manager (Chuck McCann), but when they return the body is gone. Later that night Gloria gets attacked in her apartment by a man (Don Calfa) with a facial scare. She stabs him with her knitting needles and he falls over dead, at least she thinks so, before she herself passes-out. When the she comes to two policemen are in her place, but with no evidence of a body. One of the officers (Brian Dennehy) thinks she may be nutty, but the other one (Chevy Chase) finds her attractive and therefore makes an effort to research her story and while Gloria and he work together to investigate the case they begin a romantic relationship.

While Leonard Maltin, in his review, or whoever wrote if for him, describes this film as ‘Hitchcock plagiarism’ I found it similar to High Anxiety that came out a year before, and more of a homage. Many other films that try to replicate Hitch’s style usually fail because they go overboard with the theatrics, or too much parody, but this one has a nice balance that is both intriguing and funny.  Another great quality of the film is the way it lovingly photographs the city and landscape of Frisco Bay from its beautiful shore line, to row houses, to the scenic boat houses where the Chase character resides. It’s almost enough to compel one to move there if only a person who wasn’t super rich could afford to live there.

The supporting cast is delightful and everyone of them has some really laugh-out-loud moments. Dudley Moore is the best, in a part written specifically for Tim Conway who shockingly turned it down, as a sex starved bachelor who brings Gloria to his pad filled with blow-up sex dolls thinking the two will have sex only to learn that’s the last thing on her mind. Marilyn Sokol as Gloria’s fiercely feminist friend is quite amusing as is dwarf actor Billy Barty as a bible salesmen who Gloria mistakes as being the killer. Burgess Meredith, as Gloria’s kindly old landlord, doesn’t come-off as well and gets upstaged by his pet python. It also would’ve been good had his character brought-up his judo skills earlier in the story instead of having it introduced later on when they must confront the bad guys, which was just a little too convenient though the karate match that he has with Rachel Roberts is quite entertaining and something I wished had gone on longer.

I did though have some issues withe the two leads. Goldie is as enjoyable as ever, but her character makes what I felt were grossly misguided decisions. One is picking-up a stranded male stranger on an isolated road, which from a simple common sense perspective is a major no-no. She also later-on blithely walks into her apartment even after she becomes aware that the front door has been broken into. In another scene she’s given mace and a pair of brass knuckles from her friend Stella to use for protection and Gloria is able to escape from a locked room and knock-out the bad guy with the help of these items, but then she throws them away before running out, but any logical person would hold onto them in-case they were needed again.

Chase playing a police detective was something that I just couldn’t buy into. He initially comes-off, when Gloria first meets him at a party, as a lecherous lounge lizard looking to hit on hot babes and not serious about much else. He’s also seen as being highly klutzy, so having this clownish womanizer suddenly turn into a dedicated cop doesn’t jive and seemed more like two completely different people. Brian Dennehy gives a far more realistic portrayal of a policeman and is actually funnier in his exasperated responses to Gloria’s crazy story, so he should’ve been the sole investigator and Chase could’ve been this ordinary doofus that she meets and because he has the hots for her he agrees to ‘humor her’ and help her out on the case. The story and romance could’ve remained the same, but casting Chase as a regular Joe, which he’s far better playing at, would’ve made better sense.

The story does become strained at the end with a speeding car sequence that’s more nerve-wracking than fun, though the elderly Asian couple that can speak no English and sit in the back seat of the speeding limo are amusing. The whole reason behind the crime and attempted assassination of the Pope is hooky and it would’ve been better had no explanation been given at all than explaining it away the way they do. However, the climactic sequence done during a performance of ‘The Mikado’ at the San Francisco Opera House, is terrific and a nice finish to what is otherwise perfect escapism.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: July 14, 1978

Runtime: 1 Hour 56 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Colin Higgins

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD. Blu-ray

Good Guys Wear Black (1978)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: He’s marked for murder.

John T. Booker (Chuck Norris) was once the head of an elite CIA assassin group known as The Black Tigers. The group was sent into Vietnam on a mission to rescue American POW’s, but instead finds that they were set-up and marked for demise. Only Booker’s brave and cunning leadership allowed the group to survive. Five years later Booker now works as a UCLA professor where he lectures about the problems with the Vietnam War and how it should never have happened. During one of his classes he meets Margaret (Anne Archer) a beautiful, young reporter who works in Washington and relays to him some troubling information: his buddies that were a part of that unit are now being picked-off one-by-one and Booker is most likely the next target. He decides to team up with her to not only warn the remaining members, but also to weed-out the culprit, or secret organization, who are behind it.

This was Norris’ second starring feature with a story based off an outline written by one of his friends, but the biggest problem with it is that there isn’t enough action sequences and I was genuinely shocked. I’ve not seen too many of his movies, so I’m still new to the formula, but I was honestly expecting fights every 5-minutes. Instead it isn’t until an hour in before Chuck displays his karate expertise and even then it’s brief. This was apparently because he wanted to do it differently than with the Bruce Lee movies he had been in, in the early part of his career. He described those as being ‘all karate with a little story thrown-in’ and he wanted to do something that had a lot of story and only some karate scenes.

While this may sound good in theory the plot is weak and the budget sparse to the point that adding in a few more exciting sequences to make-up for the otherwise anemic production would’ve been a good idea. This really comes into play during the rescue mission where The Black Tigers are in Vietnam looking for the POW’s, but the lighting and camera work are so poor that you can barely see what’s going on. The film also cuts away, so we never see how Norris and his buddies manage to escape from their enemies and make it out. It just immediately jumps to them 5 years later working regular jobs and having moved-on from the traumatic experience, which makes the whole thing seem too rushed.

The story has a few logic loopholes as well. Namely the fact that these assassins seem intent to kill their targets in broad daylight with a lot of people around. Most professional killers can find more subtle ways to off their targets like through poisoning, which can work slowly and harder to trace back to the original source. Shooting someone in big crowds is just asking for trouble because it brings in many potential witnesses and no guarantee they’ll be able to get out of there in time before the authorities arrive. If they must do away with their target through shooting then at least have it done when the victim is alone and the fact that this supposedly slick organization thinks of doing it the other way makes both them and the movie seem pretty dumb.

While Norris’ fighting skills are excellent his acting is not and even he admitted that he felt like ‘hiding behind a chair’ while watching it every time his character came onscreen. His voice inflection is poor and he seems unable to convey any type of emotion. Pairing him with Archer helps as her performance anchors it. I thought too that James Franciscus was terrific as the villain as his dashing good looks effectively reflected a slimy politician willing to accept any underhanded agreement in order to close a deal, but he should’ve been in it more. I was disappointed though with Jim Backus’ appearance as he’s given a very nondescript part as a doorman at an upscale condo building. You’d think bringing in a well-known celebrity he’d have something amusing to say, or do, but it’s a bland bit that could’ve easily been done by a no-name actor. He probably needed the work so that’s why he accepted it, but the producers could’ve at least allowed him to ad-lib, in order to jazz the scene up a bit.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: March 23, 1978

Runtime: 1 Hour 35 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Ted Post

Studio: American Cinema Releasing

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Pluto, Freevee, Amazon Video

The Osterman Weekend (1983)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: His friends are spies.

Based on the 1972 Robert Ludlum novel of the same name the story centers around John Tanner (Rutger Hauer) a controversial host of a TV show where government officials are interviewed and many times put on the spot by Tanner who harbors anti-establishment political leanings. Maxwell Danforth (Burt Lancaster) is the director of the CIA who along with fellow agent Laurence Fassett (John Hurt) have uncovered a Soviet spy network within the US known as Omega. The decision is made not to arrest the three members (Craig T. Nelson, Dennis Hopper, Chris Sarandon) that have been identified as the spies, but instead try to get one to turn on the others and thus expose the organizations without tipping-off the KGB that they were aware of it all along. Since Tanner went to college with the three men and plans to have a weekend get-together with them at his place he gets chosen by Fassett to carry-out the trap where he’ll try to get one of his friends during the two-day stay to turn on the others. Tanner initially resists, but eventually agrees and has his whole house rigged with secret cameras and microphones, so the CIA is fully aware of everything that goes on, but ultimately Tanner begins to suspect that things may not be as they seem.

This was director Sam Peckinpah’s final film and 5 years after releasing his last one ConvoyHe was already quite ill due to effects of substance abuse and had to take frequent naps during the shooting day, but still managed to get the movie released on-time and within budget. Many have felt this was one of his weaker efforts, but I came away enjoying it despite the fact that Peckinpah despised the story and the Ludlum novel of which it was based and only agreed to the it because he needed the work. What I liked best was his patented use of slow-motion photography. Here I felt it came into use in excellent ways especially during the car chase. Most chase sequences in movies can get confusing because it’s usually done at fast speeds making it hard to follow and many times done with jump cuts, but here because it gets slowed down it made it more dramatic particularly with the crashes.

Admittedly some of his other directorial touches were a bit odd. The opening sequence showing two naked people in bed together making love, which was shot on video tape and has a romantic music score, making it seem like a soft core porn flick and had many of members of the film’s test audience confused and even walking out in disgust. There is a surprising level of nudity, including seeing Cassie Yates topless, that I didn’t feel was necessary. There’s also touches of humor that I didn’t care for either. Apparently this was Peckinpah’s attempt to balance the violence, but it hurts the tension. The producers didn’t like the comical bits either and cut most of them out when Peckinpah got fired during post production, but a couple do remain, which are amusing, like when Hurt has to be pretend on-the-spot that he’s a television news reader giving an impromptu weather report, but still out-of-place for this type of story.

Many critics complained about the elaborate plot Roger Ebert stated in his review that it ‘made no sense’ and caused him to become ‘angry at it’ as a result. Vincent Canby of the New York Times described it as ‘incomprehensible’ and Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader labeled it ‘a mess’. I didn’t have such difficulty following it and although it’s a bit intricate it isn’t really all that confusing as long as you pay close attention and the twists that do occur I found enjoyable and many times was already predicting. My one complaint was be the way Tanner gets so easily persuaded that his friends, people he’s known for a long time and is very close to, are spies and he immediately turns against them. This is also a man that is supposedly ‘anti-government’, so you’d think he might like the fact that his friends are spies. A good way to have avoided this was having the character not hosting a liberal talk show, but instead a conservative one where Tanner would be a patriotic, pro-American type guy and thus making his acceptance of what the CIA agents tell him more plausible.

It’s interesting seeing Hauer, who usually plays villains, being a good guy, while Lancaster being a perennial protagonist, mixing it up here as a baddie. Both play against type well and the supporting cast has their share of moments too including Craig T. Nelson as a judo fighting expert and Hopper, who should win the award for best nervous expression. In all though it’s Helen Shaver that steals it as Hopper’s cocaine addicted wife. She’s not likable in any way and actually quite annoying, but she definitely stands-out with has a few choice moments.

Spoiler Alert!

I will admit that the ended, where Tanner tries to out the CIA director during an interview on his TV-show, doesn’t work and becomes one twist too many. Having Hauer simultaneously speak on-the-air in his studio and then show-up at the same time at Hurt’s hide-out didn’t seem realistic. Apparently this occurred because the show was taped early and only given the illusion that it was done live, but how they were able to pull all that off is a stretch and having his friend Nelson suddenly become a seasoned in-studio director when that wasn’t his job otherwise didn’t jive either. It’s not enough to ruin everything that came before it, which I overall enjoyed, but it’s still a lame ending either way.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: September 30, 1983

Runtime: 1 Hour 43 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Sam Peckinpah

Studio: 20th Century Fox

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