Monthly Archives: March 2012

Bunny O’Hare (1971)

bunny

By Richard Winters

My Rating 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Bette becomes a hippie.

Extremely odd Bette Davis vehicle made in her later years when her career had crested and she was forced to be less choosy about her projects. The story has to do with a lonely widow named Bunny O’Hare (Davis) who losses her home to foreclosure and is rendered homeless. She meets an older man named Bill Gruenwald (Ernest Borgnine) who is an escaped bank robber. Together they dress up as hippies and rob banks throughout the state of New Mexico in order to survive.

Davis is exceptional. Usually she plays cold, manipulative characters, but here she gives a perfect, touching performance as a nice old lady. She is terrific in every scene that she is in and the only bright spot in what is otherwise a misfire. Borgnine though seems wasted and thrown in only as a stock character.

The story really has nowhere to go. The intention was to make the film a mixture of social satire and slapstick, but it fails on either end. The novelty wears off quickly and it soon becomes derivative. Initially their ploy to rob the banks seemed clever as Bill releases a bird into the bank, which causes such a distraction that they are able to rob it without detection, but it becomes tiring when it gets played-out again and again. The police are portrayed as being universally bumbling and making it seem like a six-year old could rob a bank and easily get away with it. I also did not like the banjo music being played as they are trying to get away from the cops as it seems too similar to the much better film Bonnie and Clyde and in fact the original title for this movie was going to be ‘Bunny and Claude’.

The casting of Jack Cassidy as Lieutenant Greely, the policeman who becomes obsessed with capturing them, should’ve worked.  He was very adept at playing cold, cunning, slightly offbeat characters as evidenced by his Emmy Award winning performances on the old Columbo TV-show as well as the cult TV-series He and She. He was the husband of actress Shirley Jones and the father of Shaun and David Cassidy whose career was unfortunately cut short when he ended up dying in a fire in 1976 after falling asleep with a lit cigarette. His unique talent here is stifled because the character is portrayed as being unrealistically dimwitted and saps any possible energy from the scenes that he is in.

Actress Joan Delaney makes a terrific addition as his female counterpart R.J. Hart. She is young, attractive, and hip. She plays off of Greely’s old, regimented ways quite well and it is a shame that, with the exception of a very brief appearance in the 1991 comedy Scenes From a Mall, this ended up being her last film.

The New Mexico landscape is nice, but I got the feeling that the location shooting had not been scouted out sufficiently. The police station didn’t look authentic at all. It seemed like scenes where shot in any building that they were able to attain a film permit. The lighting consists of one bright spotlight put on the subject while the sides of the frame and the background are dark and shadowy. Sometimes, in a good movie, this is done for artistic effect, but here I felt it was more because that was all they could afford. This one is for Bette Davis completest only.

Well known character actors John Astin and Reva Rose appear as Bunny’s two grown children, but are essentially wasted. The then acting governor of New Mexico, David Cargo, plays one of the state troopers.  Larry Linville, who would later become famous for playing Major Frank Burns on the classic TV-series M*A*S*H, can be seen very briefly at the end, but has no lines of dialogue.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: October 18, 1971

Runtime: 1Hour 28Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Gerd Oswald

Studio: American International Pictures

Available: Netflix Streaming

Happy Birthday to Me (1981)

happy2

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: This birthday isn’t happy.

            Virignia Wainwright (Melissa Sue Anderson) attends a private school where she is a part of a snotty clique whose members start getting killed off just before her 18th birthday. Due to a freak accident suffered years before she has blackouts causing suspicions that she may be the culprit. With the help of her psychiatrist Dr. David Faraday (Glenn Ford) they try to come up with some answers.

Despite being listed as a slasher film and having gained a loyal cult following I found the gore factor to be disappointing. The killings are quite brief and the camera quickly cuts away before much blood, or anything else is shown. The famous shish kebab murder that is captured on the film’s poster is poorly executed. Apparently there was more footage of the killings, but in order to get an R-rating director J. Lee Thompson was forced to cut a lot of it out. However, it would be nice to get a director’s cut version as I am sure today’s horror fans may feel cheated otherwise. The grossest sequence for me wasn’t the killings at all, but instead the scene where Virginia undergoes brain surgery and her skull is vividly cut open and one can see the brain pulsating and expanding inside. The deaths really didn’t seem all that creative and clever despite the film’s reputation and if anything my favorite death scene didn’t involve one of the killings but instead was the part where Virginia and her mother are riding in a car that goes off a bridge and then fills up with water, which is surprisingly intense.

I also had some major issues with the film’s opening murder that features a young girl getting strangled while inside her car. For one thing the killer’s hands didn’t seem to be all that tight around her neck and when the girl manages to escape there are no marks around her neck even though realistically there should be. Also, when she escapes she runs for only a few feet and then stops behind a nearby parked car and acts like she is now ‘safe’ even though most people would run several blocks and probably wouldn’t stop until they found someone else that could help, or the police. The victim also speaks, but if someone has been strangled as severely as she has her voice would have to be effected by it and she might not be able to say anything, or at least speak in a very raspy tone, which is not the case here.

For the most part I found the film to be boring and predictable. I never once got scared, or even all that intrigued. The movie is jammed with every cheesy 80’s horror movie cliché that you can think of. Normally film’s from this genre run no more than 90 minutes and sometimes even less. Going 110 minutes as this one does is much too long for a plot that is paper-thin.  However, the very macabre ending is excellent and almost makes up for it. The surprise twist isn’t bad either although a bit implausible.

Anderson, best known as Mary Ingals from the long running TV-show ‘Little House on the Prairie’, isn’t bad. A shot of her at the end where she is carrying a birthday cake and looks up and smiles is both chilling and sexy and quite possibly the film’s pinnacle. There is no nudity although director Thompson teases the viewer by having her undress to get into the shower, but the camera never gets past her bra and panties.

Hollywood icon Ford is wasted and his tired appearance is almost sad. His wardrobe features him wearing an open shirt showing his bare chest and it looks ridiculous for a man his age. There is another scene where the police dig up a skull on the school’s grounds and the Ford character asks to take a look at it and the police promptly hand it over to him, which I found to be equally ridiculous as that is a crucial piece of evidence that would only be handled by a forensic expert.

If anything Sharon Acker as Virginia’s alcoholic mother Estelle gives the best performance.  Her overwrought slightly hammy scene near the end gives the film some much needed energy.

There were a few other loopholes and inconsistencies that irritated me enough to be mentioned here. One is that years earlier Virginia had a birthday party and all her friend’s snubbed her and didn’t show up, so they could instead go to a party held by a girl who was more wealthy and popular, which made me wonder why then would Virginia want to remain friends with them like she did.  Another part involves a member of their clique named Alfred (Jack Blum) who the girls initially think is storing the severed head of one of their murdered friends. They later realize that this was simply a realistic looking plastic mold that he had made to resemble her, which makes them feel ‘relieved’ enough to continue to socialize with him. However, anyone who makes plastic molds of heads from someone they know that has just been killed seems just as creepy to me and enough to make most normal people concerned, which the characters here are not. There is also no explanation at the end for how the killer, whose identity I will not divulge, was able to come up with such an elaborate and realistic disguise. The gory effects are also not convincing and could have used Tom Savini’s help

Like I said I found the film’s ending to be pretty cool and enough for me to suggest this film to horror fans, but only if they are willing to stick around for it.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: May 15, 1981

Runtime: 1Hour 50Minutes

Rated R (Violence, Language, Adult Theme)

Director: J. Lee Thompson

Studio: Columbia

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

Happy Birthday, Wanda June (1971)

 

happy birthday wanda june

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Macho men are annoying.

Since today is my birthday I’ve decided to spend the next two days reviewing films with a birthday theme. Today’s review is based on a play by celebrated writer (and Indianapolis native) Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who also wrote the screenplay.  It examines what happens when an egotistical man and war hero from the past (Rod Steiger) returns home after abandoning his family eight years earlier.

Vonnegut’s script takes a lot of shots and makes some great comments about the empty bravado of the male image and the male’s changing role and expectations in modern society.  The protagonist, Harold Ryan, is deftly written as a relic from the past harboring all the age-old macho characteristics and clinging onto embellishments of the past while unable to evolve, or even communicate with those around him. Dr. Woodley (George Grizzard) represents the more educated and new-age man who is peaceful, sensitive, and cultured. The story revolves around the two battling for the same woman (Susannah York) and culminates with an interesting and off-beat symbolic type of showdown.

Director Mark Robson does an adequate job of implementing a cinematic quality to what is otherwise a filmed stage play. The cutaways involving dead characters that are now in heaven and speak directly to the camera help, but there needed to be more of them and more evenly placed. I would have also liked a few scenes shot outside and in the daytime as the perpetual indoor scenery becomes stagnating and claustrophobic.

Steiger, normally a very good and diverting actor, seems miscast here. He is never convincing as a tough guy and it affects the story’s impact. York, another fine actress if given the right role, doesn’t seem right for her part either although she does look surprisingly sexy in a skimpy waitress outfit during a flashback scene.

I did like the child performers and felt that they did better than their adult counterparts. Steven Paul is excellent as Paul Ryan who initially idolizes his father until exposed to his many flaws. Pamelyn Ferdin is cute as Wanda June, the girl who gets hit by an ice cream truck and spends the entire time jaunting through heaven. Ferdin later became a famous animal activist and was runner-up for the Regan MacNeil role in The Exorcist. Linda Blair was of course great, but Ferdin’s uniquely piercing gaze always made me wonder if she might have ended up playing the part better.

William Hickey is engaging and amusing as Harold’s best friend. Don Murray almost steals it from everyone as Herb Shuttle a very vapid man whose pathetic attempts at trying to be macho are hilarious and make up most of the film’s humor.

The one thing that eventually ruined it for me was the main character who is too obnoxious. At least Archie Bunker in ‘All in the Family’ had a vulnerable side, but the guy here is ignorant without being funny and having to watch the callous way he treats everyone is straining and unpleasant. Also,the musical score is dreary and almost non-existent.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: December 9, 1971

Runtime: 1Hour 45Minutes

Rated R (Adult Theme, Language)

Director: Mark Robson

Studio: Columbia

Availability: None 

The Notorious Landlady (1962)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Landlady could be killer.

            William Gridley (Jack Lemmon) is an American who has arrived in London and looking for a place to stay. He rents a room from a home owned by Carly Hardwicke (Kim Novak) a gorgeous woman who Bill immediately becomes smitten with. The problem is that many people think Carly has killed in her husband even though his body has not been found. When Bill gets word of this he becomes determined to investigate the case and prove her innocence.

You would think a script written by Larry Gelbart and Blake Edwards would be funnier and full of zany scenarios and slapstick, but instead it gets grounded in a lot of dialogue for much of the first hour and forty-five minutes and only starts to get interesting during the final fifteen. The conversations lack any wit, or sharp one-liners, and the premise plods along at a much too leisurely pace. There is a segment where Bill accidentally sets fire to the patio, but I think this was simply thrown in for some action as there is very little else of it. The plot is formulaic and fails to add any new twist or perspective and once it is over it is easily forgettable. Lemmon’s character is bland and transparent and more than a little naïve since he falls in love with her immediately and is then convinced that she is innocent even though he has only known her for a day.

The best part comes at the very end where the two find themselves at a recital for a group of senior citizens that are all sitting in covered wheelchairs. This scene gets drawn out amusingly and includes a bit where an old lady named Mrs. Dunhill (Estelle Winwood) is pushed down the side of a hill, which is nicely captured in a silhouette style with Bill chasing after her. Winwood, who was already seventy-nine at the time, hams it up perfectly as the daffy old woman.  Of course all this comes much too late to really help the picture, or story, but at least it saves the film from being a complete bore, which it otherwise would have been.

Novak gives a surprisingly strong performance and a convincing British accent that I wish she had spoken in for the entire duration.  She was always a stunner, but here she may look her all-time best. One scene taken with her in the bathtub was highly risqué at the time and doesn’t leave much to the imagination. British character actor Lionel Jeffries is engaging as the inspector, but Fred Astaire is essentially wasted as Bill’s boss. The production values are decent, but the results are middling.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: July 26, 1962

Runtime: 2Hours 3Minutes

Rated: NR (Not Rated)

Director: Richard Quine

Studio: Columbia

Available: VHS, DVD (Region 1 & 2)

Taking Off (1971)

taking off 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 9 out of 10

4-Word Review: Running away from home.

This is a thoroughly entertaining gem that takes a look at the early 70’s American culture through a foreigner’s eyes in this Milos Forman’s first American feature. The comedy bounces playfully from the wry, to the absurd and even the satirical without ever losing its charm.

The film examines what happens when parents Larry and Lynn Tyne (Buck Henry, Lynn Carlin) find that their daughter Jeannie (Linnea Heacock) has run away. Instead of focusing on the teen, as most films tend to do, it instead looks at the parents. It shows that the adolescent years can be as awkward for the father and mother as it is for the teen and parenting is a journey much like growing up is. I especially liked the part of the message showing how people in their forties have a need to run away and find themselves too.

The film matches its unique perspective with offbeat humor. You get to see parents smoking pot for the first time in order for them to experience what the kids go through. Another scene has them getting together for a wild game of strip poker. There are also amusing cutaways of auditioning singers, which is where the daughter runs away too. One of the singers is a sweet young thing who sings a soft melody that is laced with the word ‘fuck’ and has to be heard to be really appreciated.

Both actors who play the parents are excellent. Balding, bespectacled Henry fits the mold as the overworked, henpecked father/husband quite well and it is fun to see him display isolated moments of unexpected rebellion. Carlin conveys a nice characterization of an overwrought mother who wants to communicate with her daughter, but has no idea how.

Jeannie is the one we learn the least about, which is actually to the film’s benefit. This isn’t just the Tyne’s daughter, it’s everybody’s daughter complete with all the trials and tribulations that every parent goes through with their teen. In fact the film’s most definitive moment is probably the freeze-frame shot of disdain on the daughter’s face as her parents try to entertain her and her boyfriend with a song from ‘their’ generation. It’s the type of look that defines the parent/teenager relationship no matter if it’s today, tomorrow, or a hundred years from now, which may help to make it accessible to today’s viewers despite an overabundance of early 70’s period flavor.

Characters actors Audra Lindley, Paul Benedict, and Vincent Schiavelli are terrific in support. This also marked the film debuts of Georgia Engel and Kathy Bates. Ike and Tina Turner appear as themselves.

My Rating: 9 out of 10

Released: March 28, 1971

Runtime: 1Hour 33Minutes

Rated R (Language, Adult Theme, Brief Nudity)

Director: Milos Foreman

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD (Region 2)