Monthly Archives: January 2012

Paper Lion (1968)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Scrawny guy plays quarterback.

            Lighthearted adaptation of George Plimpton’s best-selling novel detailing his account of playing for the Detroit Lions football team as a back-up quarterback despite having no real experience.  Alan Alda plays Plimpton and the movie’s main focus is during the team’s training camp and his shock at just how hard and rigorous being a pro-quarterback really is.

The film’s most amusing moments come during the many weeks of practice when Plimpton finds that even throwing a pass is difficult because the defenders are so quick that they are in his face and have him on the ground before he is even able to react. Even taking a hand-off from his center proves to be a difficult process as it jams his thumb. Director Alex March does a fine job of giving the viewer a feeling of Plimpton’s experience by having the defenders come barreling towards the camera until you feel like you’ve been tackled yourself.

What makes the story interesting is the fact that despite being an intellectual man from Harvard Plimpton still ends up having the same competitive spirit as the rest of the players. He becomes determined to prove himself by memorizing the playbook and practicing until he is able to function decently in the position. He even finds himself getting into a potential fist-fight with another man at a bar when the man makes a disparaging remark about the team.  Although the players quickly realize that he is not a legitimate athlete and try to scare him away they become impressed enough with his perseverance and fiery spirit to eventually be willing to play for him, which is a nice touch.

The cast is loaded with actual players and coaches incluing: John Gordy, Mike Lucci, Alex Karras, Sugar Ray Robinson, Roger Brown, Frank Gifford and the then head coach Joe Schmidt. All of them are given a lot of screen time and a surprising amount of lines. Despite what one may think they do an exceptionally good job. They are likable and believable especially coach Schmidt. In fact it is their presence that really helps make the movie succeed and gives the viewer the impression that they are experiencing the NFL as it is, or at least as it was at that time. There is even a segment featuring legendary coach Vince Lombardi, which is special.

Probably the only character that I felt wasn’t necessary was Lauren Hutton as Plimpton’s super-hot model girlfriend.  Now, I have never read the book, so I am not sure if Plimpton had an attractive girlfriend in real-life, or not, but the character here seemed to be put in for eye candy and added little if anything to the story.

The footage shown of an actual exhibition game that the Lions play against the St Louis Cardinals at the old Busch Stadium is vivid. So many times film of this nature will borrow footage from another source and then incorporate it in, but the grainy film stock always makes this evident and distracting and here that wasn’t the case. The camera gets right down on the field with the players and you see the plays and hits up close. You even hear the trash talk and a bit of cursing although they do edit some of that out.

The film’s drawback is that it is too serene for its own good. There is never any dramatic tension, or conflict. The pace and music is so easy going that at times it seems ready to put you to sleep. The film had the backing of the league, which I felt ended up compromising it. Some of the harsher ugly elements of football boot camp were clearly glossed over. I would have wanted something a little bit meatier, even if it had been for a only a few brief scenes. The film hasn’t particularly aged well. The ‘big’ players of yesteryear look rather puny by today’s standards. The game and conditioning has evolved a lot and I felt this story should be revisited in the modern day setting.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: October 23, 1968

Runtime: 1Hour 47Minutes

Rated NR (Not Rated)

Director: Alex March

Studio: United Artists

Available: VHS, Netflix streaming

The Best of Times (1986)

best of times

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10 

4-Word Review: Play the game over.

            Robin Williams plays Jack Dundee, a man who on November 15, 1972 dropped a sure touchdown pass in a football game with their chief rival Bakersfield. Now, 13 years later, he still dwells on it all the time and even watches old film footage of it in his basement. He becomes obsessed with playing the game again with all of the same players. The problem is that most everyone has moved on including their star quarterback Reno Hightower (Kurt Russell) who is now working as a local car mechanic due to a knee injury that he suffered during that game. Jack persists and eventually gets a game scheduled, but that proves to be only part of the battle.

The script, by Ron Shelton, has an interesting point that could touch anybody. Who out there doesn’t want to go back and relive some past mistake, or regret, and make it better? The fact that he also lives in a small town and is constantly being reminded of it hits home as well. I was born and raised in a small, Midwestern town, so I know it can be hard to live down certain things. So, in context, it is a great theme. As people age and fall into a dull routine of a dead-end job and marriage it is sometimes an event that happened to them when they were younger that matters and in that capacity it is a great idea.

The problem is that the execution of it is contrived and dull. The first 45 minutes are spent with endless conversations of the ‘dropped pass’ that goes nowhere. Some of the psychological tactics that Jack uses to motivate not only his teammates and those from the other team into playing the game is somewhat interesting, but not terribly funny. In fact there is very, very little in this movie that is funny, or even halfway creative for that matter. It seems to be nothing more than the regurgitated ‘feel good sports formula’ that has been done a million times before without adding anything new. The final game sequence has all the expected clichés and what should be exciting and thrilling becomes boring and tiresome. I was almost hoping that Jack would drop the damn thing again when he had his second chance, which gets shown in annoyingly slow motion, as it would have been funnier and if anything given us some sort of surprise as everything else is painfully predictable.

The only time this movie that gets even slightly amusing, and I do emphasize amusing as there is nothing in here that is at any time hilarious, is when they bring back all the old players who are now middle-aged and out-of-shape and try to hold a practice. Having now grown to middle-age myself I can say succinctly that you can’t go back again even if you want to and the movie brings this up in some of the vignettes, but then doesn’t go far enough with it.  Instead, just as the film should be gaining some sort of momentum, it gets bogged down with a meandering segment involving the men trying to reconcile with their wives after some inconsequential tiff.

There is also the fact that if someone who has not moved on in their life and dwells on something as much as Jack does than in most cases would be unable to have long-term relationships with other people, or even hold down jobs. Yet here our hero is in a pretty good marriage and a cushy job. It would have been more interesting and probably funnier had the Jack character been a crook, or living on the absolute fringes of society and not been able to adjust to life until he had a second chance at the catch. Of course this would have been considered too ‘edgy’ by most Hollywood producers and I’m sure test audiences of which Hollywood is very dependent on would not have approved, which probably explains why the character is so boringly normal.

For what it’s worth Williams gives an energetic and engaging performance. The character is not all that well developed, but Robin gives it some life and helps make the movie passable. Russell seems a bit a dull here despite being an always durable actor. I realize the character is a bit passive, but having him transform into an aggressive, angry leader at the end seemed forced and phony. I was also disappointed that legendary character actors appear here including Carl Ballantine, Dub Taylor, Kathleen Freeman, and R.G. Armstrong and are given nothing more than a line of dialogue a piece and in the case of Ballantine only one word, which seems outrageous.

I have nothing to recommend here. I am giving it two points simply because the production values are high enough that it doesn’t look amateurish, but the flat, slightly implausible storyline needs to be injected with some sort of originality. Even for fans of Williams I would say stay away from it as seeing him in such blah proceedings doesn’t make it worth it.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: January 31, 1986

Runtime: 1Hour 44Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Roger Spottiswoode

Studio: Universal

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

Black Sunday (1977)

(In celebration of the Superbowl coming to Indianapolis, which is also the headquarters to Scopophilia, movies about football, or ones that have football as their theme, will be reviewed all this week and through Superbowl Sunday.)

By Richard Winters

My Rating:  6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Blimp wrecks the Superbowl

            Based on the Thomas Harris novel this film involves a female terrorist named Dahlia (Marthe Keller) working for a group called Black September. She plans on killing thousands of people at the Superbowl with the help of a blimp captain named Michael Lander (Bruce Dern), who is also a disgruntled Vietnam vet. As they are putting their plan into place their compound is attacked by an Israeli anti-terrorist group headed by Major David Kabakov (Robert Shaw). He decides not to kill Dahlia when he has the chance, but they confiscate all of their materials including a tape recording by Dahlia talking about a massive terrorist attack planned on U.S. soil in the near future.  Kabakov gives this information to the F.B.I. and they go on the offensive trying to track down what their operation is, as the details are vague, before they can pull it off.

Overall, as a spy thriller, the film is pretty good. I had to chuckle a little at the fact that the government takes the vague threats seriously and acts so swiftly based simply on an obscure tape recording when in real-life our government was warned long before the 9-11 attacks that a terrorist plot was being planned, but did nothing because they didn’t think it was possible. It would be nice to think that the government could one day act as semi-efficiently as it does in films.

There are indeed some memorable moments. One includes Kabakov shoving his gun down the throat of a suspect (Michael V. Gazzo) and giving him a very terse ultimatum ‘Blink for yes; die for no’. There is also an exciting well-choreographed shoot-out chase that starts out in a hotel lobby, goes through the streets and alley ways of the city, and ends up on the ocean beach. Another twisted moment is when Dahlia and Michael go to an isolated hanger in the Mojave Desert to try out a gadget that can supposedly shoot thousands of bullets in a single shot. The image of seeing all the tiny holes created on the wall of the shed from the bullets is cool enough that I was willing to overlook the fact that the wooden beams that crisscrossed the same wall were untouched. This scene also has a good bit of black humor when one of the employees of the hanger, who thinks the machine is a camera, and stands in front of it smiling only to have hundreds of bullets go slicing through him.

Shaw is excellent in the lead although it took me awhile to adjust to him in that type of role simply because he has played so many dark characters so well that it was hard to see him as a good guy. I liked that the character is human and admits to his mistakes, namely to the fact that he doesn’t kill Dahlia when he first has the chance. He also professes doubts about himself and his career, which adds to his multi-dimension. He tends to lean towards rogue tactics when forced, which helped reflect the brutal nature of the business that he was in. Certain lines that the character says are made memorable by Shaw’s dialect and tone that probably no other actor in the part could have done quite as well. I was also amazed at the incredible run he does during the game when he races down several flights of stairs and across the entire football field, which almost becomes a highlight in itself. I know the actor suffered from a weak heart and ended up dying from a heart attack just a year after this film came out, but I was almost surprised that he didn’t fall over from one right there.

Keller is great as the female adversary. Her American acting career never really took off, but that still doesn’t mean that she isn’t a strong actress. Her expression when she is caught in the shower with a gun pointing at her is priceless. I liked how initially she is portrayed as the ‘sane’ one in relation to the Dern character, but by the end it becomes quite clear that she is probably more evil and crazier than he could ever be. Her fight with Michael inside his house when they fear that their intricate plot may be falling apart is definitely her finest stuff.

Dern of course is an exceptional actor whose unique style and odd intensity make him a joy to watch even if the script is poor.  He is certainly well cast here, but I wished he was given more screen time and latitude as I don’t think his talents where given quite enough justice. His best moment maybe the long rant he has during one of his counseling sessions at the V.A. Medical center.

The film’s weakest point is what should’ve been its strongest, which is the segment involving the blimp barreling into the stadium. The set-up is perfect and consists of the some dazzling aerial photography and good up close footage of the football game. However, the actual blimp attack is highly compromised.  For one thing the edits are quick making it hard to follow. A much smaller blimp was used in the long shots and in the scenes where the spectators are running scared onto the field director Frankenheimer put the front end of the blimp onto a crane, which looks tacky and obvious. The blimp’s explosion is fake and when it was all over I felt disappointed. The film’s promotional items, including the film poster as seen above, promised this spectacular event, but then doesn’t come through. It almost makes one feel cheated and ruins the movie’s other good points.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: March 11, 1977

Runtime: 2Hours 23Minutes

Rated R

Director: John Frankenheimer

Studio: Paramount

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

Straight Time (1978)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Parolee can’t go straight.

Straight Time is an engrossing, highly realistic drama detailing a parolee by the name of Max Dembo (Dustin Hoffman) who gets released from prison and cannot seem to stay away from the allure of crime despite his initial efforts. The movie is based on the novel ‘No Beast So Fierce’ by Edward Bunker.  Bunker himself was a career criminal who was in and out of jail from 1955 to 1975 and only managed to finally turn his life around when this novel, which he had written while incarcerated and deals with many of his own exploits, got published. Bunker co-wrote the screenplay and appears in a bit part playing a character with a really bad comb-over by the name of Mickey.

I found this film gripping from the second it started and infinitely fascinating the more it progressed. It gives you a whole new perspective on things as you are forced to see it from the viewpoint of the criminal and as an outsider looking in. Every facet of the story and characters is believable and the film does a very good job of being stark and searing without ever getting exploitive, or overtly shocking.  I remember back in 1977 when I toured the new county jail in the town where I grew up when it was first opened and before it housed any inmates. I remember the officer describing the rather degrading procedures all felons had to go through when they were first booked including being stripped searched and forced to take a shower nude while a fully clothed officer stood by and watched them.  The scene where Max and other criminals are ‘welcomed’ to the L.A. County jail worked exactly like that. It was so authentic and frank that it seemed almost like a documentary.

The essence of the story revolves around Max and his relationship with his parole officer Earl Frank that is wonderfully played by noted character actor M. Emmet Walsh. Earl does his job a little too well. He shows a constant distrust of Max and gives him no respect while overzealously tracking his every move until it finally forces Max to snap. It is a terrific indictment on the flawed system as it examines just how hard it is for the criminal to go straight and stay straight even if they want to. It also exposes how it seems almost designed to push the person back into crime in its refusal to ever treat the criminal as a human being. The part where Max finally has enough and overpowers Earl and chains him naked to a fence in broad daylight on a busy L.A. freeway while hundreds of cars drive by him should leave an indelible image on the minds of anyone who sees it.

The remaining supporting cast is great as well. Theresa Russell is surprisingly effective as Max’s girlfriend Jenny Mercer. Usually she has played more glamorous types of roles, but here she is perfect as a very ordinary woman who inadvertently gets caught up in Max’s eventual self-destruction until she finds herself in over her head.  I liked the fact that she wore no makeup and the camera was able to pick up her natural beauty through regular lighting. The only issue I had with her character is that it is never made clear why she would fall in love with Max so quickly and what it was about him that she liked since he shows some clear destructive tendencies right from the beginning. To me it just came off as a bit forced and phony to have an otherwise well-adjusted woman that he meets at an employment agency get so infatuated with him after just one date that she immediately agrees to move in with him, visit him in jail, and even quit her job on the spot and go on the run. I know it is standard practice in a Hollywood film for the anti-hero to always have ‘his girl’ that can be used to humanize and compliment him, but there still needs to be more of an explanation and history shown to her character in order to validate the relationship.

Harry Dean Stanton gives another great performance as Jerry Schue. He was a long-time partner to Max during the robberies he did before landing in prison. Jerry has now turned his life around. He has a nice house in the suburbs, an honest job, and a beautiful wife. However, when Max comes to visit, and the minute his wife leaves the room, Jerry begs him for a crime job that they can do together because he finds his new found life to be boring.  I thought this made a great statement as to how the sterile suburban existence is not the American dream for everyone and how it will not necessarily ‘domesticate’ those that still harbor a reckless urge.  I also found it interesting how Jerry views the art of robbery as an actual profession that he takes a great deal of pride and care in. When one of the men shows up late for a planned robbery Jerry calls him ‘unprofessional’.

The robbery scenes are filmed in a diverting way. In most films the camera gets real close to the action in order to heighten the tension. Here the action is captured from a long shot that allows the viewer to see just how chaotic and frantic a robbery really is as well as showing how the most nervous people in the place are the thieves themselves.

If I have one complaint with the film it is in the fact that the second hour becomes rather difficult to watch as it focuses solely on the self-destructive downward spiral of the main character. Max has some good qualities, which makes it all the more painful to watch. Yes, some of his anger is justified, but his insistence at ‘evening the score’ with everyone who has wronged him ends up only hurting himself. Hoffman is outstanding as usual. It is interesting to compare his role here playing a very violent character with the pacifist one that he played just seven years earlier in Sam Peckinpah’s classic Straw Dogs.

If you are looking for an intelligent, searing drama that is still relevant today then this no-holds-bar character study is highly recommended.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: March 18, 1978

Runtime: 1Hour 54Minutes

Rated R

Director: Ulu Grosbard

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

The April Fools (1969)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Affair between married people.

Director Stuart Rosenberg was on a high note in 1967.  He had just won rave reviews for his cult hit Cool Hand Luke and many felt he was well on his way to being Hollywood’s next top director only to follow it up with this incredibly vapid and stupid romance movie.

It involves a married man by the name of Howard Brubaker (Jack Lemon) who meets an attractive woman named Catherine Gunther (Catherine Deneuve) at a party. They spend the evening walking around outside and having nothing more than a casual conversation, which is enough to make him decide to leave his wife (Sally Kellerman) and child, quit his high paying executive job, and run off with her to Paris.

The story is pretty threadbare and filled with a lot of characters and situations that are not fleshed out at all.  This almost seems like a partial treatment to a main script that never got completed.  This movie provides no real tension, conflict, or subplots.  Most movies dealing with potential romances usually has one or both of the participants second guessing themselves as to whether they should move ahead with the relationship especially when both of the people are married like they are here.  These two fall in love so amazingly quickly that they make the art and act of dating seem completely unnecessary.

A much better idea would have been to have this quick romance act as only the starting point.  The film then should have cut to 5 or 10 years later where we could have seen how this relationship fared, or evolved. This would have given much better perspective to both the movie and characters.

I also have never felt that two people having an affair is a real good catalyst for a love story because it seems to go against the whole ‘true and everlasting love’ theme that propels most romance stories.  After all if someone can’t stay fully committed to one person what is to say that they will be able to do so with someone else.  To give the argument that they are just ‘crazy’ about this new person doesn’t work because at some point they must have been ‘crazy’ about the person they are currently with or they wouldn’t have married them. So what is to say that in a few years time when the newness of the relationship wears off that the whole vicious cycle won’t just get repeated.  I don’t have the exact statistics in front of me, but research has shown that people who cheat on one person are prone to doing it with their next partner simply because it is in their nature.

In some ways I could see why Catherine would consider leaving her husband, which is well played by Peter Lawford, simply because the guy is a womanizing lout in the worst way.  It is understandable that she may have been initially mesmerized by his wealth and charisma and only had her eyes opened to his shallowness years later.  However, Howard’s marriage didn’t really seem that bad and what is worse is the fact that he had a 5 year old son whom he seemed to have no problem abandoning without even a second thought.

The whole thing comes off like some uninspired idea by some studio head who wanted to make a ‘sure-fire’ hit by throwing together every contrived romantic element he could think of, piecing it together with a flimsy script, and then using the star-power of Lemon and Deneuve to cover up all the holes.  Everything here seems forced and that includes the humor.  Lemon’s duel with Charles Boyer is overdone and irrelevant.  There is also a scene where Howard’s friend (Jack Weston) drives him to the airport while being completely drunk and weaving in and out of on-coming traffic.  Today’s audiences would find this to be highly irresponsible and also terribly unfunny, which it is.

There are some potentially funny ideas that scriptwriter Hal Dresner never seems to think of.  For instance Catherine ends up being the wife of Howard’s new boss.  This could have been a goldmine of a lot of funny scenarios as the two tried sneaking around behind his back. The Lawford character does eventually corner Howard at the airport just as he is ready to board the plane and go off to Paris with Catherine, but even this potential confrontation gets botched badly.

I did really like Deneuve and her presence is the only real good thing about this movie. She looks radiant and I enjoyed the cool, chic way she responds to all the situations she is put in. This also marked her American movie debut.

Lemon though does not fare as well.  He overplays the high-strung businessman persona until it becomes tiresome.  He is nervous and befuddles every second that he is on the screen until you wonder how he was ever able to impress anyone enough to be able to obtain the prestigious position that he has at his company.

The supporting cast is stellar, but not used enough.  Jack Weston has a funny bit as he explains the goofy way that he handled an affair of his own.  Harvey Korman is amusing as a man who tries stealing the alluring Deneuve away from Lemon at the last minute.  It is also fun to see Melinda Dillon in her film debut.  She is best known for her supporting dramatic roles, but here she plays a giggling, ditzy blonde.  She is paired up with comic character actor Kenneth Mars and the two have the makings of being a great hammy couple. Unfortunately they are not given enough screen time, nor enough good lines, to really make it gel. Myrna Loy and Charles Boyer, as a long-time married couple, are essentially wasted.

Besides Deneuve there were a few other things that I did like about the movie.  The Burt Bacharach score is certainly pleasing on the ears.  There is a funky, mod 60’s party that takes place at the beginning of the film that features a lot of weird art exhibits that are nicely realized by award-winning set designer Richard Sylbert. I found the exhibit that featured a faucet dangling in mid-air while running a constant stream of water to be fascinating. I also enjoyed the scene where Deneuve and Lemon go to a wild nightclub where they are handed pop guns as they sit down which they can use to shoot at the rear-ends of the waitresses when they want to get their attention. I thought this was a genuinely neat idea that should be used at every restaurant.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: May 28, 1969

Runtime: 1Hour 35Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Stuart Rosenberg

Studio: National General Pictures

Available: VHS, DVD (Import)

Entertaining Mr. Sloane (1970)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: The first gay marriage.

Based on the Joe Orton play of the same name, this film deals with a handsome young stranger named Sloane (Peter McEnery) who becomes a lodger at an isolated household in the English countryside. He is on the run from a murder he committed and feels this will be a safe haven due to the only other inhabitants being a quirky old lady name Katherine (Beryl Reid) and her equally quirky father Kemp (Alan Webb).  Katherine, or Kath, takes a sexual interest in Sloane despite their wide age difference, which Sloane doesn’t mind as he uses this to manipulate her. When Kath’s brother Ed (Harry Andrews) arrives and takes an amorous interest in Sloane as well, he does the same thing to him. Then Kemp recognizes Sloane as the killer and Sloane is forced to kill him, which culminates with ironic results.

Playwright Orton was years ahead of his time. His plays always had a dark, sexual, even explicit nature to them and his characters were always perverse and amoral in a darkly hilarious way. It is unfortunate that he was bludgeoned to death in 1967 by his jealous gay lover and his career was cut short. However, this adaptation done by screenwriter Clive Exton seems to miss the mark. The dialogue is endless with very little action. The other adaptation of Orton’s work that was made into a film, Loot, was much more lively and full of a lot of campy, zany humor as well as quick edits and imaginative camerawork. This film is visually dull and all the action is jammed into a cramped, dark house with bland decorations. It never really gets going until the final 15 minutes when you get to see the world’s very first gay marriage performed, but by then it is much too late.

For 1970 this film does seem edgy and even controversial in certain parts. The gay erotic subtext is quite strong especially the way the camera scans Sloane’s tan, half naked body. There is also Ed’s pink Cadillac that he drives around, which I got a real kick out of. I liked the way it squeaked as he drove it and was constantly bouncing up and down.  There is also his very provocative hood ornament of a naked man that the camera hones in on. The best part comes when Ed washes his car and is more focused on the ornament, which he lovingly caresses with his towel, than the rest of the vehicle.

However, 40 years later this stuff seems pretty tame and there are too many segments where nothing happens and is handled too conventionally.  It seemed like director Douglas Hickox really didn’t get, or appreciate the material enough, or interpret it in some interesting way because the final result is nothing more than a filmed stage play. The music that is used is terrible and almost enough to get you to turn off the film. It also gets overused and played over scenes when it isn’t needed and hurts the film’s mood in the process.

The biggest problem with the film may actually be with actress Reid herself. Don’t get me wrong this is a wonderfully unique actress who has done some memorable work. I especially liked her in The Killing of Sister George, and she is quite good here as well. However, I do have two issues. The first is a small one. It involves the fact that the character wears dentures. In one scene Sloane supposedly knocks them out and breaks them, but then Reid turns around and screams and you can see that she still has teeth in her mouth.  The other, much more serious issue is the fact that near the beginning of the film she is seen walking through a cemetery in broad daylight wearing a see through blouse. Now with some woman this can be quite sexy and I certainly wouldn’t complain, but when they are 60 and looking more like 70 this is a bad idea, even for perversely comical purposes as it is here it is still a bad idea. What is even worse is when she turns around and a gust of wind blows up her skirt and you can see her entire bare backside, which might be enough to make some viewers sick.

Now, before anyone accuses me of ageism let me relate an interesting experience that happened to me. Back in 2003 I was home from work and decided to take in a movie. I was living in Chicago at the time and I went to the neighborhood theater to see the interesting French mystery Swimming Pool starring Ludivine Sagnier and Charlotte Rampling.  It was a Tuesday and little did I know that it was senior discount day and the place was packed, literally, with people all looking well over the age of 70. The lady that sat beside me looked to be at least 80 and came in using a walker. The film featured an abundance of nudity from the young and attractive Sagnier, which I thought might shock and offend the seniors, but no one reacted to it and everyone went on enjoying the film. Then, towards the end of the movie, 58 year-old actress Rampling starts to take off her clothes and this indeed elicited a nervous response from the crowd. The lady next to me even said ‘oh dear’. In all fairness Rampling didn’t look all that bad naked, but it still hits home the point that even old people don’t want to see other old people naked.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: July 27, 1970

Runtime: 1Hour 34Minutes

Rated R

Director: Douglas Hickox

Studio: Continental Distributing

Available: VHS, DVD (Region 2)

Happy Birthday Gemini (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Gay son comes out. 

A brother and sister by the name of Judith and Randy Hastings ( Sarah Holcomb, David Marshall Grant) travel to Philadelphia over the summer to visit their college friend Francis Geminiani (Alan Rosenberg).  Judith dated Francis during the school year and wants to continue the relationship. Francis though has come to terms with his homosexuality and realizes that he is now more attracted to her brother.  The story examines their adjustments and attitudes to this news as well as the many eccentric characters that make up the neighborhood.

Despite not rating well with the critics, I kind of liked this movie for the most part. The film was directed by Richard Benner who received acclaim for the directing the groundbreaking Canadian film Outrageous. I think he captured the row houses and inner-city neighborhoods of Philadelphia well. My Mother is from the city and I spent many summers visiting there. I enjoyed the bright color schemes of the different houses as well the character’s costumes. The movie has a very European feel featuring a lot of long takes and a leisurely pace. The characters are also much more open-minded and accepting of each other’s transgressions than you would usually find in an American film.  The toe-tapping ragtime music and upbeat ending help fill it out.

Kudos must also go to Madeline Kahn and her performance as Bunny Weinberger. I was very impressed with this woman’s comedic skills after seeing her in What’s Up Doc as well as in Paper Moon. I didn’t think anything could top those, but this comes close. Her portrayal of a foul-mouthed, ditzy blonde with a very heavy eastern accent is outstanding and a highlight of the whole movie.  Her scenes in a courtroom where she has to defend herself from a battery charge as well as a nicely photographed scene where she threatens to jump off an abandoned building are two of her best moments.

Where the film fails is in the fact that there is little cohesion between the scenes. The film goes off on long tangents, particularly with the Bunny character, until it seems like Francis’s problem is only a side-story. There is a lot of extraneous dialogue that goes nowhere and was not needed. A 115 minute runtime is much too long for this kind of material.  For a comedy the laughs are lacking and the script needed to be injected with a lot more witty conversations and sharp one-liners. Rita Moreno is completely wasted as the character of Lucille Pompi.  She has nothing funny to say and it would have been more entertaining if they had built up more conflict between her and the Bunny character as the two had very contrasting values. The subject matter itself is no longer fresh or groundbreaking and the film failed to put any new or interesting spin on the topic. Although I liked the positive message I still felt that it glossed over the homophobic sentiments that are still out there and did not do its subject matter any real justice.

Fans of Kahn should see this, but others may find it placid and lacking in any type of distinctive quality.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: May 2, 1980

Runtime: 1Hour 47Minutes

Rated R

Director: Richard Benner

Studio: United Artists

Available: VHS

Wait Until Dark (1967)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: They want the doll.

Horror writer Stephan King, in his non-fiction book ‘Dance Macabre’, lists Wait Until Dark as the scariest movie ever made and Alan Arkin as one of the scariest film villains. Of course that is a statement that could be wildly debated, but as a thriller it is very well structured with a original storyline, a fantastic heroine, and a terrific climatic sequence that still rates as one of the best.

The film is based on the hit Broadway play by Frederick Knott and follows that script very closely.  It centers on a recently blinded woman named Susy Hendrix (Audrey Hepburn) who accidently acquires a doll filled with heroin and then becomes terrorized by the three drug dealers (Alan Arkin, Jack Weston, Richard Crenna) when they come to retrieve it. Trapped in her small apartment by the three men with her phone line cut off, she decides her only possible recourse is to smash all the light bulbs and then, in the pitch blackness, use her handicap to her advantage and try to escape.

Normally stage plays transferred to film don’t usually work too well namely because all the action takes place in one setting, which eventually creates visual boredom, but here this becomes an asset.  As the story progresses the viewer begins to feel claustrophobic and as entrapped as Susy as well as successfully tapping into the fear of isolation. The lighting is also impressive.  It may not be something one consciously thinks about, but good lighting can really help accentuate a film’s mood and style, which it does here.  I enjoyed the interesting color schemes and the contrasts between light and shadows that becomes more apparent as it goes along.

Of course the element that really makes this film special is the fantastic performance of Hepburn, which I consider to be her best.  She was nominated for the Academy Award and she should have won it.  She displays just the right level of emotions, which creates empathy from the viewer almost immediately. Her reactions as well as the fear and panic that she shows are very convincing. Arkin, as the villain, tends to get a little too flashy and hammy. I felt Hepburn easily out performed him and everyone else. The film just would not have been as good had anyone else played the part.  This also marks her career pinnacle as she went on a nine year sabbatical after this and when she did finally return, the films she did weren’t all too great.

I also like Julie Herrod as the child named Gloria who lives upstairs and becomes a very crucial link to the story.  So many movies portray children as either total brats, or overly wide-eyed innocents solely put on this planet to say cute and amusing things on cue.  Here the balance is just right and so believable she will remind you of kids that you know in real life as it certainly did with me.  She is sneaky and precocious at certain times, but also genuinely helpful and concerned at others, just like adults are.  The line she says to the Hepburn character just before she runs out to find help is a gem.

The climatic sequence still ranks as one of the best.  The clever ways that this petite, handicapped woman manages to outwit the brutal thugs are classic.  The viewer also gets the satisfaction of seeing the character grow and find an inner strength that she didn’t even know she had. It also features a very well staged scare/shock that sent viewers jumping out of their seats when it was first released and still does today as evidenced by the other people who watched the film with me and all screamed out loud when it happened.

As with any film released 40 years ago, there are some dated qualities that do hurt it.  Some of the ‘tough guy’ talk between the thugs seems a bit stilted.  The film was released a year before the ratings system took effect, so there is no cursing, but a little bit of it would have helped make it more authentic.  It would have also been a little more gritty had the bad guys actually carried guns instead of the brass knuckles and silly looking knives.  Air travelers of today will also be shocked at just how easily it was for people to get through airports in the old days.

However, even with these few weaknesses I still feel this film is a pretty solid, compact thriller that can be used as a blueprint for all other thrillers to follow.  There is also the excellent music score by Henry Mancini that is really creepy although the song played over the closing credits should have been avoided.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: October 26, 1967

Runtime: 1Hour 48Minutes

Rated NR (Not Rated)

Director: Terence Young

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video

Dirty Dancing (1987)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Rubbing bodies is sexy.

Some of my lady friends at the office were surprised to hear that I had never seen this film and suggested that I watch and review it for my next column.  Since Hollywood is now planning on remaking this movie and several websites have already started up protesting it as fans of the original feel this can’t be duplicated, now more than ever seems to be a good time to give this movie a look.

The plot, which is paper thin, deals with a seventeen year old girl named Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman, who while vacationing with her family at a resort in the Catskills Mountains of New York in the early 60’s, becomes involved with the craze of dirty dancing that is done behind the scenes by some of the young people. When one of the lead female dancers named Penny Johnson (Cynthia Rhodes) gets pregnant and has to bow out in order to get an abortion, Francis agrees to take her place in the dance routine. She has no experience with the dancing, but after spending long hours practicing with the male hunk Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze) she gets pretty good at it and the two fall in love in the process.

The story is loosely based on the real-life experiences of screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein, who traveled to the Catskills during the summers of her youth with her family and got involved with some of the dirty dancing contests that they had up there. The name of Frances that is given to the character was actually the name of her older sister and the nickname of ‘Baby’ was what Eleanor was called in her teen years.

The first thing that impressed me about the film was the on-location shooting. I had also been to upstate New York during the summers in my younger years and felt that the area was quite scenic. The film does a good job in recreating this to the extent that it also becomes like a third character. The only problem was the fact that it was actually filmed in North Carolina and Virginia, but they disguise it well and the ambience of the Catskills is still there.

The chemistry between the two stars is what makes the movie and spiraled it into the hit that it became. I felt the energy and I liked it despite the fact that apparently behind the scenes the stars did not always get along. I thought the casting of Grey, daughter of legendary entertainer Joel Grey, was overall a good choice. The producers wanted someone who could really dance and she fit the bill even though she was actually ten years older than the character she was portraying. However, I did feel it became somewhat of a problem during some of her exchanges with the Johnny character who was supposedly in his twenties. I would have thought that a young lady of only seventeen would have been a little more intimidated dealing with an older man and even a little awkward at times and yet their ‘spats’ came off more like two adults arguing.

I really liked Frances’ relationship with her father Jake (Jerry Orbach). It was a nice and respectful one with neither side talking down to the other. The scene where the two have a falling out and Francis comes to him to ask forgiveness is actually quite emotional. However, the part where Jake, who is also a Dr., helps Penny when she becomes ill after having an abortion with an untrained physician seems a bit glossy. Normally that situation would prove fatal to the woman, but somehow Jake is able to make her ‘all better again’ simply by using medicines inside his doctor bag and she wasn’t even forced to go to the hospital. I also thought that the fact that Frances kept her dancing a secret from her parents seemed to be a bit of a stretch as she spent so many hours with Johnny that I would have thought they would become suspicious as to where she was all that time.

For the most part the recreation of the 60’s era is all right. However, I did not like instituting 80’s songs into the mix. ‘Hungry Eyes’ and ‘She’s like the Wind’ are good songs on their own, but have a distinctly different sound than music from the 60’s. By putting them into the soundtrack they become jarring and, for this viewer at least, threw me out of the time period of the story completely. To me it was a sign of poor filmmaking.

The movie is formulaic and predictable to the extreme, which was the reason that I never went to see it when it first came out because basically if you’ve ‘seen the previews then you’ve seen the movie’. It is always nice if a movie can give you some sort of unexpected twist, or surprise, or even some new level of insight, but this film offers none. Even on a soap opera level the scenarios and complications are awfully light and there are a few moments of hackneyed drama. If one’s only demand is to see a predictable teen romance then on that level it is competently done. If a viewer were to demand anything more than that then they will most assuredly be disappointed.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: August 21, 1987

Runtime: 1Hour 40Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Emile Ardolino

Studio: Vestron Pictures

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray

The Gypsy Moths (1969)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Skydivers travel to Kansas.

Three skydivers, who make a living going around the country doing airshows for the public, stop off at a small Kansas town on a fourth of July weekend that ends up changing all of their lives. Mike Rettig (Burt Lancaster) is the eldest and the leader of the group. He seems unhappy and suffering from some inner turmoil that he is reluctant to elaborate on.  He ends up having an affair with one of the attractive middle-aged women in town named Elizabeth Brandon (Deborah Kerr).  Joe Browdy (Gene Hackman) is restless and impatient and has a fling with the town stripper (Sheree North).  Malcolm Webson (Scott Wilson) is the introspective member of the trio.  He grew up in the town that they are in and uses the visit as a way to reconcile with his demons from the past.

MGM was hoping for a big hit with this one as it reteamed Lancaster and Kerr 16 years after their famous embrace in From Here to Eternity. The film broke ground as it was the first to feature an established and respected actress who was nearly 50 years of age doing a nude scene. Kerr, who looked great both with her clothes on and off, can be seen fully nude from the front and back during a lovemaking scene with Lancaster.  Yet the film failed to gel with the public.

There were some things that I did like. One is the fact that it was filmed on location in Kansas. The opening shots capturing the countryside of the Midwest really gives a strong visual sense of Americana.  The scenes taking place in the neighborhoods of the small town give the film an added dimension that a studio back-lot just couldn’t do.  The skydiving sequences, which take up the majority of the time, are breathtaking and exciting. The aerial photography makes you feel like you are right there jumping out of the plane and free falling into the air.

The basic plot though is dull and uninteresting.  The characters and situations are contrived and derivative.  It is almost like the story was a second thought to the stunt work and put in merely as filler. I also didn’t like the pretentious quality of the production that made it seem like it was making some sort of profound statement when in reality it was nothing more than second rate soap opera.  The whole thing would have worked better had they skipped the story and made it into a documentary on skydiving instead.

Spoiler Alert!

The most frustrating thing about the movie is the fact that the Mike character dies at the end when he decides, for no apparent reason, not to open his chute and goes, literally, splat on the ground right in front of a throng of spectators. I actually thought this was one of Lancaster’s better later career performances and I was intrigued as to what was causing his character’s inner-strife, but the film offers us no clue, or hint.  I thought there should have been a backstory and even some flashbacks. The ambiguity leaves the viewer cold and unsatisfied and makes the film seem incomplete.

The only possible explanation may come through researching actual Gypsy moths and then correlating the species to the characters. Per Wikipedia, the female gypsy moth is unable to fly. This would then explain why Elizabeth refused to run off with Mike despite her unhappy marriage simply because she could not ‘spread her wings’.  The adult male moth always dies in July, which would then explain Mike’s death. No reason for his demise was needed because his life cycle was ending regardless. July is also the time when the moth lays her eggs, which would explain why Joe and Malcolm, who were much younger than Mike, decided to go off on their own separate ways at the end.

End of Spoiler Alert!

I  ended up finding more misses than hits with this one and can’t help but label it as a misfire.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: August 28, 1969

Runtime: 1Hour 47Minutes

Rated R

Director: John Frankenheimer

Studio: MGM

Available: VHS, DVD