The Rain People (1969)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Needing to find herself.

Natalie (Shirley Knight) wakes up one day and decides to simply get in her car and drive off with no particular destination in mind. She has just found out that she is pregnant and not sure if she can or wants to handle the responsibilities that come with it. She leaves a note to her husband (Robert Modica) telling him she needs time away from him to think things through. During her travels she meets Jimmy (James Caan), otherwise known as ‘Killer’, he was a former football player straddled with a brain injury that has now left him mentally handicapped. She also meets Gordon (Robert Duvall) a traffic cop who pulls her over for a speeding ticket. The two eventually start to date, but the more Natalie tries to find herself the more lost she becomes.

The film was for the most part considered an ‘experimental’ one as the subject matter was years ahead of its time. While many road pictures of the day like Easy Rider took the male perspective this one dared to tap into the feminist viewpoint, which up to that point hadn’t been explored as much if at all. I enjoyed how the film questions the whole wife/mother idea, once considered ‘the ultimate destination’ for any woman, but here brings out the complex issues that come with it and how not every woman may want to be trapped by it, or even find contentment in that situation.

What’s even more interesting is that Natalie never really seems to go anywhere. Yes, she does get in a car and starts driving and passes by many picturesque places of rural America along the way, but trying to escape the clutches that she feels holds her back never goes away. Everyone she meets, including Gordon who’s stuck raising a young daughter (Marya Zimmet) that he wasn’t totally prepared for, seem to be in the same predicament as her making it feel like the further she drives away the closer she gets to where she started.

Francis Ford Coppola makes wonderful use of the rain and there are many shots of it particularly in the first half as we see it creating puddles on the road and even streaming down the car windows in close-up. The cloudy, murky weather acted as a nice motif to Natalie’s inner emotional state and the confusion that she was going through. The film’s promotional poster seen above is excellent too and brings out the moodiness of the movie with one perfect shot although seeing the couple kissing in the backdrop is a bit misleading as that’s one thing you definitely don’t see here despite Natalie’s efforts to try and find it. The two people should’ve, in order to be consistent with the theme of the film it was promoting, been seen standing side-by-side instead of hugging.

I also really loved Coppola’s use of flashbacks here, which gets sprinkled in throughout. I liked the scenes showing the couple in happier times during their wedding as it illustrates how relationships that go bad or don’t work out still had their good moments even if they were brief. The flashbacks dealing with Duvall trying to save his family from a burning house are quite revealing too as what he describes verbally through voice-over is quite different from what we see.

Leonard Maltin, in his review of the film, called the script ‘weak’, which I completely disagree with. Yes, not a lot happens, the random situations that Natalie goes through perfectly reflect what could happen to anyone on a trip, which I liked because the plausibility here is never compromised. She ends her journey feeling as lost as she did when she started, but I felt that was the whole point, so in my opinion the script is strong.

George Lucas, who worked as an aide on this production, filmed a 32-minute documentary of this movie as it was being made called Filmmaker, which is accessible on YouTube although the sound quality is poor. This film has several revealing moments including conflicts that director Coppola had with Knight, but what I found most interesting is that when the crew traveled down to Chattanooga they all cut their hair and shaved their beards,which included Coppola himself, as they felt the locales wouldn’t work with them unless they appeared clean-cut. Seeing Coppola with a rare non-beard look alone makes this short film vignette worth catching.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: August 27, 1968

Runtime: 1 Hour 41 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Studio: Warner Brothers

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

Chattanooga Choo Choo (1984)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Must arrive on time.

Bert (George Kennedy) is an unscrupulous, conniving owner of a football team who’s having an affair with the beautiful Maggie (Barbara Eden) whom he promises to marry once the father (Parley Baer) of his wife Estelle (Bridget Hanley) dies. He’s hoping to get a large chunk of the will, but finds that it comes with one big stipulation: he must restore the historic locomotive, the Chattanooga Choo Choo, and take it from New York City to Chattanooga, Tennessee within 24-hours and make sure that it arrives precisely on-schedule and if not he’ll lose out on a million dollars.

Producer George Edwards inadvertently struck gold in 1977 when he produced a film based on a hit song, Harper Valley PTA, that did marginally well, so he decided to try his luck with another one, but this time the attempt is an embarrassing failure. Part of the reason is that at least with the Tom T. Hall ditty it had a plot already in the lyrics, but this one doesn’t and the lame scenario that gets written around it is both threadbare and corny.

While Kennedy manages to be amusing he’s also unlikable and the viewer has no interest in seeing him achieve the challenge. For the story to have been more effective the character should not have already been rich, but instead poor and needing the money to help his family survive, which would’ve built more of an emotional interest at seeing him succeed.  Kennedy should’ve also driven the train himself, which would’ve created more comic scenarios instead of just seeing him basically sit back in the diner car doing nothing but nervously glance at his watch while others do the actual work.

Eden is a bore and speaks with in an annoying accent that makes her seem like a floozy from the streets. Bridget Hanley overdoes it with her caricatures of nouveau riche wife that is irritatingly cliched although it’s interesting to note that she did costar with Eden 17 years earlier in a season two episode of ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ titled: ‘My Master, the Swinging Bachelor’.  Jineane Ford, a former Miss USA winner who spent 16 years as a news reporter for KPNX-TV in Phoenix, gets exploited by being forced to play a stutterer, which the filmmakers apparently thought should be a source of amusement, but it isn’t and shouldn’t have been implemented.

Watching Parley Baer’s dead body entombed inside a large box car, which then gets lowered into a giant grave is the film’s one and only original moment. Some may also find Tony Azito as a double-jointed waiter whose never dropped a drink amusing too, but everything else falls flat. More focus needed to be spent on the train scenario, like having it run into a storm, which could’ve threatened its arrival time, or dealing with mechanical problems, instead of dwelling in silly juvenile escapades that are both unfunny and pointless even for mindless escapism.

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: May 25, 1984

Runtime: 1 Hour 41 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Bruce Bilson

Studio: April Fools Productions

Available: VHS

A Star is Born (1976)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: His career goes downhill.

John Norman Howard (Kris Kristofferson) is a famous rock singer who’s found that his career on the road has taken its toll. He’s become jaded by the money and fame and now bored with it while spending his days and nights committing self-destructive acts that alienate the rest of his crew. One night after walking off the stage of his own concert after singing only a few songs he goes to a bar where he sees Esther (Barbra Streisand) singing on stage. He becomes impressed by her talent and uses his resources to make her a star. The two eventually get married, but as her career continues to rise his goes in decline.

This is the third remake of the story that was originally written by William A. Wellman and Robert Carson. The first version came out in 1937 and starred Frederic March and Janet Gaynor while the second one was released in 1954 and starred James Mason and Judy Garland. This version differs from the other two in that the setting was the music scene instead of the movie business, but overall the efforts here to revitalize the tired formula are trite and predictable.

A lot of the blame can go to Streisand who acted as both the star and producer to the project. For one thing she was too old for the part as she was already in her mid-30’s when this was filmed and wearing a tacky afro hairstyle to boot. It would’ve been more effective had a truly young person, like a woman who was 19, which is a typical age for someone to have dreams of breaking into the rock scene, was cast. Possibly having the character start out as one of Kristofferson’s groupies, instead of doing it like it’s done here where he just meets her at random at a bar, which is awkward and forced, and then through their time together he learns of her aspirations and talents and works to help her meet her potential.

It also would’ve helped had the young starlet had the same singing style as Kristofferson, which would’ve made the concert scene where he walks off stage and brings Esther onto it more believable. Kristofferson’s music, or what little we hear of it, has clearly a more hard rock edge while Streisand sings mellow love songs. In the movie we’re supposed to believe that all these fans who paid good money to see Kristofferson sing are suddenly without warning given Streisand instead and are so taken aback by her talent that they all clap and cheer when in reality I think they would’ve been upset and demanding their money back as they came to hear hard rock and not the lite stuff.

I enjoyed Kristofferson’s performance and his impulsive self-destructive acts give the film energy and edge. However, the chemistry between the two is non-existent and he later said that working with Streisand was “an experience which may of cured me of the movies.” His decline gets handled in a rushed, heavy-handed way. Music careers are by their very nature cyclical. Rock stars get replaced with every generation as teens prefer their own singing idols and not those of their parents. For him to become so quickly devastated when his record sales begin to plummet is unrealistic as nobody stays on top forever. He should have enough money to wade out the career lulls and simply held on to when his fans grew up and became nostalgic and then hit the retro tour circuit like many of the pop/rock icons from the past do.

Streisand’s character is flat, one-dimensional, and just plain too-good-to-be-true. She’s well known in real-life for her notorious ego, in fact director Frank Pierson described her as being egocentric, manipulative, and controlling and refused to ever work with her again, so having her then portray someone who is gracious and humble seems very phony and not something that she’s effectively able to convey. The original concept was to have the character be like Janis Joplin and go through a self-destructive decline of her own, but Streisand nixed this idea, which is unfortunate as it would’ve given the film some needed nuance.

The footage of the massive crowds at the concerts is the one element that I found impressive and the segment showing the vast stretch of land that Kristofferson owned in the middle of the Arizona desert was pretty cool too. Everything else though in this otherwise overlong film is boring. Fans of Streisand’s singing may take to it better, but there’s too much of it, making it seem like this was just one big vanity project for her and nothing more.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: December 17, 1976

Runtime: 2 Hours 20 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Frank Pierson

Studio: Warner Brothers

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

Pennies from Heaven (1981)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Escaping from the depression.

Arthur (Steve Martin) is a struggling sheet music salesmen during the depression, who’s looking to escape his dreary existence by becoming a songwriter, but finds that no one including his wife (Jessica Harper) cares about what his dreams, which leaves him feeling lost and alone. He then meets perky schoolteacher Eileen (Bernadette Peters) and the two begin an affair despite her not knowing that he is already married. When she gets pregnant and loses her job because of it Arthur is nowhere to be found and instead he gets unjustly tabbed for committing rape on a blind woman (Eliska Krupka) that he did not do.

The film is based on a 6-part miniseries that aired on the BBC in 1978 and starred Bob Hoskins. Martin saw it and was so enamored with the story that he became compelled to have it remade here and the studio even hired the same writer, Dennis Potter, to pen the script although the studio forced him to do 13 rewrites before they finally accepted it. Despite the extravagant musical numbers, which are pretty good, and positive critical reception, the filmed failed to achieve any success at the box office where it took in a paltry 2 million that barely made a dent in its 22 million budget.

A lot of the blame can be placed on the casting of Martin. While I admire him for not allowing himself to be typecast, and for dying his hair brown here, he still comes off as misplaced. You keep waiting for him to say something goofy and absurd like his character in The Jerk would and when he doesn’t you start feeling bored and frustrated. For his part he lashed out at those that didn’t like it calling them ‘ignorant scum’ while anyone who did enjoy the film he labeled ‘wise and intelligent’.

Yet his character is also a problem as he comes off as arrogant and selfish the whole way through. He constantly antagonizes his shy wife pressuring her to submit to his kinky sexual fantasies and when she doesn’t he threatens to walk out. He then lies about his marital status to Peters and is cold and ambivalent when she gets pregnant making him seem like a true jerk and not the funny kind in his earlier film.

Jessica Harper I enjoyed much more. I think she gives her finest performance here and I was genuinely surprised she wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award. Her interpretation of a shy, sheltered Midwestern wife from a more innocent era is completely on-target and I came to sympathize far more with her than Martin. The line that she utters when the police investigators come to her house, after Martin gets accused of rape, is the best moment in the movie. Peters is good too, but I felt her character got in the way and the film would’ve gelled better had it focused solely on the dysfunctional marriage.

The dance numbers are well choreographed with the best one being with Christopher Walken who does a bona fide striptease that took him over 2 months to rehearse. The bit in which Martin and Peters find themselves transported inside a film starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers is quite cool too although Astaire himself tried blocking the footage from being used. He later commented that as a viewer ” I have never spent two more miserable hours in my life” and describing every scene in the film as being “cheap and vulgar.”

The story though starts out too slowly and for the first hour seems like there really isn’t any plot at all. It improves by the second half, but there needed to be more urgency at the beginning and many viewers may not be willing to stick with it.  Having the actors lip-sync the songs was a bad idea too. It gives the whole thing an amatuerish vibe making it seem like it was intended to be a campy comedy when it really wasn’t.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: December 11, 1981

Runtime: 1 Hour 48 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Herbert Ross

Studio: MGM

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Stroszek (1977)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Germans relocate to Wisconsin.

Bruno (Bruno S.) has recently been released from prison and while warned to stop drinking as a condition for his parole he immediately goes to a local bar. It is there that he meets Eve (Eva Mattes) a prostitute in an abusive relationship with her husband (Burkhard Driest). Bruno offers to allow her to move into his apartment, but this angers her husband and her pimp (Wilhelm von Homburg)  who break into the apartment and terrorize Eva and Bruno making them believe that the only way they can escape the harassment is by moving to America, which we they do along with their elderly neighbor Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz). They presume everyone is the USA is rich and life will be easy, but find that not to be the case.

The story was based loosely on the real-life experiences of its star and the script  written specifically for him by director Werner Herzog as a conciliation for not casting him in Woyzeck as originally intended. Since Bruno had already taken a leave of absence from his job at a steel mill to star in that one Herzog decided to make it up to him by writing this script in a matter of 4 days and then filming it on-location in Plainfield, Wisconsin because that was where the notorious serial killer Ed Gein had lived.

The story should’ve been a complete downer as it focuses on some very depressing realities, but instead, thanks to the genius of Herzog, one comes away from it feeling almost upbeat at all the quirky humor that gets incorporated in. The most memorable moment, which the rest of the crew found highly offensive and refused to film forcing Herzog to do it himself, happens near the end when Bruno travels to North Carolina and uses the last of his money to insert coins into arcade exhibits featuring chickens inside cages that dance and play the piano. The amusing element from this comes when the police finally arrive on the scene and are more concerned with getting the chicken to stop dancing than with the welfare of Bruno.

I also enjoyed the moment when an auto mechanic (Clayton Szalpinski) decides to do his own oral surgery by using the same pliers that he fixes cars with to remove a painful tooth in his mouth. While more blood was needed, as there should’v been streams of it coming out of his mouth, but isn’t, it’s still quite darkly funny and was ‘inspired’ by a true-life scene in the  1972 documentary Spend it All in which a Cajun in Louisiana does the same thing to his teeth, which amazed Herzog so much when he saw that movie that it compelled him to work the scene into one of his stories.

The jabs at America are expectedely negative and to some degree are on-target while at other points goes too far. Watching the trio become overly excited at seeing their new trailer home driven onto a vacant lot and acting like this was a sign that they had finally ‘made it big in America’ is certainly sardonically funny. Yet the scene with two farmers holding rifles as they plow a field in their tractors ready to shoot the other one if either dared touch a small strip of disputed land played too much into the stereotype that Europeans have of Americans and really wasn’t needed especially since it had nothing to do with the main story.

Bruno S.’s performance, who was never formally trained as an actor, is boring as he conveys the same facial expression all the way through where a more seasoned actor could’ve given the role more needed nuance. Scheitz was an amateur actor as well, but his short stature and overall goofy appearance made him a fun part of every scene he’s in while with Bruno that same quality doesn’t exist. If anything Eva has the widest character arc and the film should’ve evolved around her instead.

Herzog casts a lot of non actors in secondary roles as well. I’m not sure if this was done for budgetary reasons, or just played into his long-standing desire to be experimental, but the results aren’t completely effective. I did however enjoy Scott McKain, an auctioneer in real-life, who plays the part of a bank employee that comes to visit the trio in their trailer home to inform them of their delinquent payments and yet no matter how bad the news is that he must convey he always manages to remain upbeat and peppy when he says it.

The film, which has been rightly placed in Steven Schneider’s ‘1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die’ is original in so many ways that it deserves to be seen just for the oddity it is and I really have no complaints with its avant-garde style, which even today comes off as fresh and inventive, but I was confused about why the Glen Campbell song ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ got played so much. The lyrics are never heard, but the melody is and yet there’s no connection to the city of Phoenix in the story, for awhile I thought that was where they’d ultimately end-up, but they never do, so hearing it played so much is out-of-place.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: May 20, 1977

Runtime: 1 Hour 48 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Werner Herzog

Studio: New Yorker Films

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Outrageous! (1977)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Female impersonator befriends schizophrenic.

Robin (Craig Russell) works as a gay hairstylist during the day, but longs to be up on stage as a female impersonator.  Liza (Hollis McLaren) is a schizophrenic who leaves the hospital she was confine in and moves in with Robin her longtime friend. Both find ways to help each other with their problems, which allows Robin the confidence to finally get on stage in drag as Tallulah Bankhead, which makes him an instant hit and gets him a paid gig in New York City. However, when he moves away Liza’s condition worsens forcing Robin to decide what’s more important: his budding career, or his friendship.

The film is based on the shorty story ‘Making It’ by Margaret Gibson, which in turn was based on her experiences dealing with mental illness and her real-life friendship with Craig Russell whom she roomed with in 1971. The story nicely tackles the challenges of dealing with mental illness and how Robin’s support helps Liza overcome her demons that the other professional Dr’s and counselors that she sees don’t because they only view her as just another patient instead of a person.

The grainy, low budget quality works to the film’s advantage as it brings out the fringe, economically disadvantaged lifestyle that the two lived in while McLaren’s performance shies away from the cliches of mentally illness causing the viewer to see her as a regular everyday person, not just some ‘crazy’, valiantly fighting a nasty illness that she can’t always control.

The segments dealing with Russell’s onstage act are quite entertaining as well though when I first saw this film decades ago I found these moments to be off-putting as they turned it more into a documentary, or a comedy special that took the focus away from the actual essence of the story, which was the friendship. However, upon second viewing I liked the way it captures the gay club scene that was unique to that time period. Russell’s impersonations where he does Barbra Striesand, Judy Garland, Mae West and Bette Midler just to name a few are outstanding. I’ve seen some female impersonator acts before, but Russell’s far outshines any of the others I’ve ever watched as he gets the body language, voice, and facial expressions of the people he’s playing just right to the point that he completely disappears into the women characters until you can’t tell the difference.

While the film does have many touching moments I felt it should’ve shown how Robin and Liza first met instead of having it start with them already knowing each other when she moves in with him. Since they are such an odd pair capturing how and where this unique relationship all started and what element brought them together seemed crucial, but we never see it nor does it even get addressed in conversation. Having this backstory could’ve helped the film stay a little more centered on the relationship as well and prevented the over reliance on Russell’s stage routine, which while quite good, still takes up a bit more of the runtime than it should’ve.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: July 31, 1977

Runtime: 1 Hour 36 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Richard Benner

Studio: Canadian Film Development Corporation

Available: DVD, Amazon Video

I Never Sang for My Father (1970)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Father and son clash.

Based on the Broadway play of the same name written by Robert Anderson, who also wrote the screenplay, the story centers on college professor Gene (Gene Hackman) who tries to mend his relationship with his father Tom (Melvyn Douglas) a very bull-headed man who can’t seem to get along with anyone. When Gene’s mother (Dorothy Stickney) passes away suddenly it becomes a concern what to do with the father who is showing early signs of dementia and other health issues. Gene, who has recently been widowed himself, wants to remarry and move off to California, but his father prefers him to stay close by in New York. When Gene offers to move his father to California the old man refuses leading to a bitter feud between the two that also opens up old wounds.

To show just how good this movie is one only needs to compare it to Dad, which was an 80’s film starring Ted Danson and Jack Lemmon, which had a similar subject matter, but that film conveniently glossed over the many negative aspects of taking care of an elderly parent while this one tackles the downside head-on. Hearing the arguments that Gene has with his sister Alice (Estelle Parsons) and how neither one of them want to be straddled with the responsibility of being a round-the-clock caretaker I found to be refreshingly honest. Too many modern movies, in their attempt to make the lead character likable, never address these very real concerns. Also in the movie Dad the Ted Danson character flies across the country to help his father with no explanation for how this affected his job or finances while this one does touch on the economic realities. It also shows how elderly people aren’t always that lovable and can at times be genuinely nasty.

Douglas is outstanding as he manages to bring out different sides to his character. While the viewer finds him exasperating I still enjoyed the shots showing him kneeling at his bedside in prayer, which gave him, even as old and crotchety as he was, a child-like dimension. The conversations that he has about his own father and the poor relationship he had with him are quite revealing as it shows how the same issues can go across many generations with Douglas inadvertently treating his own son in the same shoddy way his old man treated him and not even realizing it.

With Douglas’ powerhouse performance Hackman gets overshadowed. He has fleeting moments where he displays his trademark anger and pent-up frustrations, but it doesn’t come-off as quite as genuine as it does in some of his other roles. It also would’ve been nice had there been some flashback scenes showing past altercations between the two, which would’ve helped the viewer emotionally connect to what he was feeling instead of having their differences just briefly touched on through dialogue. In many ways Parsons comes-off better and the reasons for her anger at her father is more clearly and eloquently explained.

The only complaint that I had with the film is when Hackman goes touring the assisted senior living homes. While the film had approached the material in a straight forward dramatic manner, which stays quiet true to the play, it suddenly shifts during this segment to becoming more artsy and cinematic by blocking out the dialogue and instead playing loud, moody score with a more subjective, hand-held camera. While this is all right I still felt it wasn’t needed and goes against the tone of the rest of the film, which had been very minimalist up until the then. The sudden pounding music doesn’t make the visuals showing the bleak living conditions of those places anymore shocking or disturbing and if anything becomes unnecessarily jarring and in-the-way.

These scenes also feature a very early appearance of James Karen as one of the directors of the senior facilities that Hackman tours. However, with the dark curly hair that he has here and the thick horn-rimmed glasses that he wears, you most likely won’t recognize him unless you look closely and even then you still might not think it’s him. With the decision by director Gilbert Cates to play music over these scenes we unfortunately never get to hear hear what he was saying or how he was trying to sell the dismal looking place to the potential customer, which could’ve been interesting.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: October 18, 1970

Runtime: 1 Hour 32 Minutes

Rated GP

Director: Gilbert Cates

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Die Laughing (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Cabbie accused of murder.

Pinsky (Robby Benson) works as a San Francisco cab driver during the day, but aspires to being a professional singer and attends numerous auditions, but to no avail. One day he picks up a passenger who gets shot and killed while in his cab and Pinsky is mistakenly tabbed as being the killer. Feeling he has no other options he takes the briefcase that the victim was carrying and hides out at his girlfriend Amy’s (Linda Grovenor) apartment. Inside the box they find a live monkey who has apparently memorized the secret formula for turning atomic waste into the plutonium bomb and it’s now their job to keep him away from Mueller (Bud Cort) and his cohorts who want to kidnap the monkey and use what he knows for nefarious purposes.

The film starts out with some potential as it uses Benson’s wide-eyed, deer-in-headlights persona to good comical use, at least initially. Unfortunately by the second half it pivots too much the other way and the minor laughs at the beginning get completely lost when he suddenly becomes this seasoned spy who can quickly think on his feet and outsmart the bad guys at every turn.

Again, this is just an ordinary Joe whose main drive is to make it into the music business, so why get so emotionally invested in a spy case that does nothing but get him deeper and deeper into a dangerous situation? Why not just give the bad guys what they want, hope it appeases them enough that they’ll set you free and then go to the authorities, who are much better positioned to handle this situation, and let them do the rest?

I also thought it was ridiculous that when the couple are tied up and thrown into some dark backroom that they do not respond to the predicament, like any normal person would, with fear and panic, but instead use the moment to become romantic! The fact that they manage to untie each other by biting down on the thick ropes that bind them is absurd as the only thing that would accomplish is a lot of broken-off teeth.

Benson’s musical interludes are a bore and he ends up singing the same damn song three different times. He also performs at a concert when just a little while earlier he was being surrounded by spies ready to push him off of a ship, which would be such a traumatic experience for most people that it’s doubtful he’d be able to emotional calm down enough to focus on singing, or do anything for a long time afterwards.

The story also suffers from having too many villains, Cort is the main one, but he’s seen only intermittently while a bunch of others busily chase Benson around until it becomes dizzying trying to keep track of them all. The plot itself is overblown, relies heavily on worn-out spy genre cliches making it come off like a cheesy parody of James Bond that will cause many viewers to be rolling-their-eyes almost immediately at the campy, strained gags.

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: May 23, 1980

Runtime: 1 Hour 48 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Jeff Werner

Studio: Orion Pictures

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

The Ninth Configuration (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Insane man runs asylum.

Col. Vincent Kane (Stacy Keach), a former marine who is suffering from demons of his own, is selected to head a psychiatric institution built inside a converted castle that specializes in military personal who fought in the Vietnam war and now feign insanity. The challenge is to find if these men are truly mentally ill, or just faking it and Kane’s technique, which allows the patients to openly act out their darkest fantasies, is considered unorthodox. He begins to have an unusual friendship with one of them, Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson) a former astronaut who bailed out of an important mission with a nervous breakdown just before lift-off. The two begin to debate the existence of God and the correlation between faith and sacrifice.

The film has a rocky tone in which part of it delves into campy humor while the other half is more serious. The reason for this is that when William Peter Blatty first wrote the novel of which this movie is based in 1966 it was called ‘Twinkle, Twinkle “Killer” Kane!’ and told in a darkly humorous vein. In 1978 he rewrote the story with a more serious tone and that version was published with the same title as this film.

For me I found the humor off-putting and not funny at all. The whole first hour becomes a complete waste with comical bits that rely too much on mental hospital stereotypes and overall campiness from the performers. There’s also long drawn-out segments dealing with the patients barging into Kane’s office and going on long circular rants that are quite boring.

The second half improves when the tone becomes dramatic, which is what I wished it had been all the way through. It also features a wild barroom fight, which is a bit over-the-top with the way the biker gang dress and behave, but also features some great choreographed violence and a creepy performance by muscleman Steve Sandor as the head of the gang that torments both Keach and Wilson. The second act also features a few surreal, dreamlike sequences, which are the best moments of the film.

The eclectic cast is interesting, but many of them, including Robert Loggia and Moses Gunn, gets wasted in small roles and little screen time. Wilson and Jason Miller are good as two of the patients, but Neville Brand is the best as a drill sergeant that at times seems to be channeling R. Lee Emery and at other moments a confused, overwhelmed man with a deer-in-headlights expression. Blatty, who casts himself as one of the patients is good too, not so much for anything that he says or does, but for his unique facial features, especially his eyes making him look like a guy possessed and the fact that he wrote The Exorcist is even more ironic.

Keach is also excellent, in  a role that was originally meant for Nicol Williamson, but who got fired from the production early-on. Keach manages to be both creepy and hypnotic at the same time. A guy you fear one minute and feel sympathetic for by the end and he does it here without his usual mustache allowing the cleft lip that he was born with to be on full display.

The setting, which was filmed at Castle Eltz in Germany and done there because Pepsi financed the film under the condition that it had to be shot in Europe, is an impressive site. Yet it’s hard to believe that such a Gothic styled fortress, which began being built before 1157, could ever exist inside the USA, which is were the setting is supposed to take place.

The discussions that Keach and Wilson have in regards to the existence of a supernatural being are fascinating and help push the film forward, but the ending, which features a mystical twist, was not needed. The tone, even with the humor, was quite dark, so having it suddenly finish with an ‘uplifting’ moment doesn’t click with everything else that came before it and comes off like it’s selling out on itself.

Alternate Title: Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: February 29, 1980

Runtime: 1 Hour 58 Minutes

Rated R

Director: William Peter Blatty

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video

Miss Firecracker (1989)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Entering a beauty contest.

Carnelle (Holly Hunter) lives in Yazoo City, Mississippi where she works in a factory and suffers from the reputation of being promiscuous. In order to improve her lot in life she decides to enter into The Miss Firecracker Contest, which is held annually in her town every 4th of July. She is hoping to emulate the success of her cousin Elain (Mary Steenburgen) who won the contest years earlier as well as proving to both herself and others that she isn’t a loser, but the competition proves harder than she thought forcing her to reevaluate what’s really important to her.

The film is based on the stageplay written by Beth Henley, who is better known for writing Crimes of the Heart, which won many accolades while this one didn’t. Part of the reason is that when this play was first produced in 1980 many critics thought it was going to be a pro-feminist satire poking fun of beauty contests, which it isn’t, while others disliked it because they perceived it as being an antifemist since Carnelle takes winning the contest very seriously.

For me I was expecting something along the lines of Smile, which was a very funny, on-target 1970’s look at beauty contests, the flawed people who run them, and the superficial women that enter them. I was thinking this would be an 80’s update to that one and was sorely disappointed to find that it wasn’t. The two people who run the contest, which are played by Ann Wedgeworth and Trey Wilson are hilarious in the few scenes that they are in and the film could’ve been a complete winner had they been the centerpiece of the story.

I was also hoping for more of buildup showing Carnelle rehearsing her routine for the pageant as well as her interactions with the other contestants, which doesn’t really get shown much at all. For the most part the pageant is treated like a side-story that only comes to the surface in intervals while more time is spent with Carnelle’s relationship with Elain and her other cousin Delmount (Tim Robbins) which I did not find captivating at all.

Hunter gives a very strong heartfelt performance, which is the one thing that saves it, and Alfre Woodard, who normally plays in dramatic parts, shows great comic skill as the bug-eyed character named Popeye and yet both of these actresses screen time is limited. Instead we treated to too much of Steenburgen, who comes off as cold and dull here, and Robbins, who plays a borderline psychotic that is creepy in a volatile way and not interesting at all.

First time director Thomas Schlamme, who had only directed documentaries and comedy specials  before this, employs a few things that I enjoyed like tinting the flashback scenes with a faded color, but overall he doesn’t show a good feel for the material. Too much of the time it see-saws from being a quirky comedy to maudlin soap opera, but nothing gels.

Even the film’s setting gets botched. In the play the town was  Brookhaven, Mississippi, but for whatever reason the film changed it to Yazoo City where the on-location shooting took place. While it does a nice job in capturing the town’s look it doesn’t reflect the right vibe, or any vibe at all for that manner as the townspeople seem more like something taken out of a surreal Norman Rockwell painting than real everyday folks.

The soundtrack is also an issue as it gets filled with a placid elevator music type score that got started in Steven Spielberg’s Amblin films and was played in a lot Hollywood comedies during the 80’s and 90’s. While it may have a pleasing quality to it also lacks distinction. The music should’ve had a more of a southern sound that would’ve reflected the region and composed specifically for this production instead of  stealing a generic tune that had been used in hundreds of other movies already.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: April 28, 1989

Runtime: 1 Hour 42 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Thomas Schlamme

Studio: Corsair Pictures

Available: DVD