Monthly Archives: September 2012

Bye Bye Braverman (1968)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Where is the funeral?

Four middle-aged Jewish men get together for a mutual friend’s funeral and find that the passage of time has changed many things between them.

There are some really nice vignettes here. The best may be Morroe’s (George Segal) conversation with all the dead people in the grave yard while amidst hundreds and hundreds of tombstones. You also have to love Alan King as the rabbi leading the funeral. Morroe as a middle-aged man becoming disillusioned with life while going through a sort of mid-life crisis is very relatable and his fantasy segments are funny. Godfrey Cambridge also has a great cameo as a black cab driver who runs into them and the group’s difficulties at finding the right funeral are amusingly on-target.

While the film does have its share of delightful moments it fails to ever come together enough to leave any impact. Some of the segments are too talky and the ending fizzles badly. There is also an extraordinarily high amount of footage given to showing a bird’s eye view of the red Volkswagen that they are in driving through the streets of Brooklyn. In some ways this does give one a great glimpse of Brooklyn during the late 1960’s, but it also screams ‘filler’ in the process.

This definitely seems to be the case where the novel by Wallace Markfield that this movie is based on would be the better choice. It’s certainly watchable and mildly entertaining, but the characters and situations need to be better fleshed out.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: February 21, 1968

Runtime: 1Hour 34Minutes

Rated NR (Not Rated)

Director: Sidney Lumet

Studio: Warner Brothers/Seven Arts

Available: DVD (Warner Archive)

El Topo (1970)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Lust is not good.

This is an experimental film that has received a large and loyal following. Although considered highly controversial at the time it is pretty tame by today’s standards. The story deals with a mysterious gunman named El Topo (Alejandro Jodorowsky) who comes out of nowhere to avenge a town that has been massacred. Once finished with this he takes the perpetrator’s women and goes off into the desert. Here he must prove himself against four different masters whom all appear to be invincible. Yet it is the women and his lustful desires that turn him into a victim. Defeated and demoralized he turns to spirituality and ends up fighting to save some deformed people from a town that has barricaded them into an underground cavern.
The blood, violence, and sexuality are no big deal. The special effects are weak and the editing is choppy. In many ways it comes off looking like an amateurish artifact from a bygone era. Yet content wise it is fascinating and Director Jodorowsky shows a unique and definite talent. It bites off more than it can chew especially with its low budget, but it is far from a failure as certain scenes are guaranteed to leave a strong impression.
It has a reputation of being convoluted, but I found it to be quite lyrical. Once one adjusts to its mesmerizing use of symbolism it becomes almost riveting. The heavy allegorical nature is both intriguing and provocative and the unique vision helps raise it well above the fray.

If nothing else it will keep you engaged. It is fun and interesting to see one man go through such different stages and it effectively gives you a complete understanding of him by showing all the different sides to his personality. Besides having a lot of religious correlations and an overall negative view of women there is also, surprisingly, a lot of comedy and lightheartedness.

It does fail to leave an overall strong impact and the tone is cold and alienating with characters that are unpleasant. I also felt it gets too bogged down with its use of symbolism and need to build everything up to epic proportions is overdone. Still for those that like movies that are weird and different they won’t be disappointed. The castration of a pompous colonel is amazing. The showdowns with the masters are memorable and the game of Russian roulette amongst a group of churchgoers isn’t bad either.

The film promotes a rather curious statement made by its director and used as a tagline on most of its posters and box covers. It states “If you are great ‘El Topo’ is a great picture. If you are limited than ‘El Topo’ is limited.” This statement has always struck me as funny because it allows no room for anyone to criticize the film otherwise they will be labeled as ‘limited’. In any case I give this film 7 out of 10 points, which I guess only makes me 30 percent limited.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: December 18, 1970

Runtime: 2Hours 5Minutes

Rated: NR (Not Rated)

Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Studio: Douglas Films

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Don’t trust these guys.

Freddy (Steve Martin) is a small-time con able to trick women into paying for his meals and sometimes even into their beds, but he is nothing compared to Lawrence (Michael Caine). This is a man that lives in luxury all from money that he has duped from rich women. Freddy decides to team up with Lawrence to learn his craft. The two work together for a while with Freddy playing Lawrence’s crazy younger brother, but the two have a falling out and end up becoming rivals instead. They meet Janey Colgate (Glenne Headley) the supposed daughter of a rich soap manufacturer and compete to see who can con her out of $50,000.

This version is far superior to Bedtime Story, which was reviewed yesterday. The pace is snappier and gets into the scenario more quickly. The scenes are consistently amusing and everything is handled at a slick level. The women aren’t all portrayed as naïve idiots like in the first and in certain cases they are just as corrupt and greedy as the two men. The music is bouncy and playful and helps propel the movie along.

Although both films were shot along the French Rivera this one does a better job of capturing the sunny and exotic locale. When Freddy visits Lawrence at his mansion and looks out at his exquisite seaside view and says ‘I want this’ I felt like saying ‘I want it too’.

I wasn’t sure Martin could top Marlon Brando’s performance from the first film, which was the only thing good about it, but he does. It took a little adjusting at first, but Martin takes the reins and in his usual style makes the part his own. His best segment is when he is in jail and can’t remember Lawrence’s name, which makes terrific use of his improvisational skills. The part where he asks to go to the bathroom is a little bit gross, but funny as well.

Caine is excellent is his part and gives the role more panache than David Niven did in the first one. He even puts on an effective German accent during the segment where he pretends to be a famous German psychiatrist. Believe it or not the parts of Freddy and Lawrence were originally intended for Mick Jagger and David Bowie.

Headley is good in her role as well. She has an attractive quality about her that is distinct and natural and avoids the plastic Hollywood starlet image. Her voice borders on being a little nasally, which could have become annoying, but with this type of part it works.

The best thing about this version though is the twist ending, which helps to maintain the slick level throughout the entire duration of the story. In the first version the ending was highly contrived and unimaginative as well as going against the personalities of the characters. Here it hits-the-mark and works as a nice payoff to the rest of the film.

The only critical comment I have about the movie is that it goes on a bit too long. 110 minutes is too extended a runtime for light comedy.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: December 14, 1988

Runtime: 1Hour 50Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Frank Oz

Studio: Orion Pictures

Available: VHS, DVD

Bedtime Story (1964)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Con men fleece ladies.

Freddy Benson (Marlon Brando) enjoys conning his way into women’s beds. He uses all sorts of different ruses and has become so good at it he’s made it into a full-time profession. Then he meets Lawrence Jameson (David Niven) and is impressed because not only is Lawrence able to woo them for sex, but he is also able to get into their finances as well. The two work together for a while, but then there is a falling out and they become rivals instead. Along comes Janet Walker (Shirley Jones) a single woman with a supposedly rich father. The two then compete to see which one can con her best.

The movie itself is so-so, but Brando’s performance is excellent. He is far better known for his brooding dramatic performances, but the guy is amazingly engaging here. I loved every scene that he was in and found him to be consistently amusing. I was impressed with how at ease he was in doing comedy and this is a must for all Brando fans as you will see him doing something completely different from anything else he has done. I came away feeling he was perfect for comedy and wishing he had done more of it in his career.

The story though is contrived and formulaic in the worst way. The first hour is particularly tough going as the schemes the two men play are rather lame and something a fifth grader could see through. The women are portrayed as being utter morons and apparently so good-hearted that they will fall for any trick in the book. It would have given it a better balance had a few of them become wise to the men’s antics, but the fact that none of them do makes the whole thing seem horribly stereotyped and insulting to females everywhere. The humor is trite and unsophisticated and it should come as no surprise that the script was written by Paul Henning known for such ‘classics’ as ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’.

If you survive the boring and silly first hour things improve slightly during the second. The antics that Lawrence and Freddy pull on Janet are a little more clever and it is fun to see how each tries to one-up the other. Freddy pretends to be a man stricken to a wheel chair after he becomes traumatized from the rejection of a woman he loved. The only person who can cure him is a famous, but expensive psychiatrist that gets played by Lawrence. Larwrence’s initial examination of Freddy is funny as is the part where Freddy and his wheelchair go wildly out-of-control and crash into a countryside barn.

I was disappointed that there was no twist ending here as I was starting to think there would be and defiantly should have been. Instead it is just another ‘happy’ hollow Hollywood ending that was typical for that era and solidifying this as an empty lightweight exercise that barely deserves any attention at all if not for Brando’s performance.

In 1988 this film was remade as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels that starred Steve Martin and Michael Caine. That film will be reviewed tomorrow.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: June 10, 1964

Runtime: 1Hour 39Minutes

Rated NR (Not Rated)

Director: Ralph Levy

Studio: Universal

Available: VHS 

The Paper Chase (1973)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 9 out of 10

4-Word Review: He can’t please Kingsfield.

James Hart (Timothy Bottoms) attends his first year at Harvard Law School and finds himself obsessed with the notoriously stern Professor Charles Kingsfield (John Houseman). His fascination increases after he begins a relationship with Kingsfield’s daughter Susan (Lindsey Wagner). The rest of the story deals with the pressures and demands of being a law student.

This quite possibly is the quintessential movie about college life. Everything is captured in such a real and revealing way that it will very likely send the viewer back to their college days. Despite being nearly forty years old it doesn’t seem dated at all as it touches on many universals that every generation goes through at that age. If anything it is still quite topical. The few dated elements are actually fun to see including the scene in the pre-cellphone days where the students would line up and wait their turn to make a call on the dorm’s one and only pay phone.

The student characters have diverse personalities and seem like young adults one would meet during their college days, or even see on a campus today. It is nice to have a college movie where students are actually studying. In fact these scenes are some of the best moments in the film including Hart’s dealings with difficult people in his study group.

The Hart character is appealing and relatable. I liked how he is multi-faceted and displays elements from both his own era including his counter-culture hairstyle as well as past ones.

Having it filmed on-location and capturing the different seasons of the year makes the viewer feel like they are attending the school year right along with him. I particularly liked the scene shot in the historic Harvard stadium.

The film also makes terrific use of silent moments as there is very little music. Many college movies dwell on the loud and raucous partying, but there is a lot of quiet time as well particularly the first day of class in a large auditorium wondering what the instructor will be like. The opening sequence done underneath the credits showing an empty classroom quietly filling up with students was not only novel, but brilliant.

Houseman deservedly won the Oscar for his portrayal of the crotchety professor. Outside of a small and unaccredited role in Seven Days in May this was technically, at age 71, his film debut. Some may complain that the character is one-dimensional. We are never shown any type of softer side to him and I am sure most films would have thrown some in, but the fact that they don’t do it makes his mystique more interesting. My favorite moment of his is when at the end of the year the students give him a standing ovation while Kinsgfield responds with his trademark scowl before walking out of the room.

The supporting cast of students is terrific and many were making their film debuts. There is Graham Beckel as Hart’s study partner Franklin Ford who looks like a twin of Brad Dourif. There is also Edward Herrmann and James Naughton as Kevin Brooks a man with a photographic memory, but no analytical ability. My favorite though was Craig Richard Nelson as the moody and belligerent Willis Bell.

Blair Brown can also be seen as one of the female students during the classroom scenes. She speaks in a strange accent and I think she was trying too hard to get the Bostonian sound, but I ended up kind of liking it anyways.

The implementation of Kingsfield’s daughter into the story really didn’t work with me. Lindsey Wagner is a competent actress, but the way they meet on a sidewalk seemed too forced and random. It is also beating extreme odds that Hart would by chance get into a relationship with the daughter of a man that is the complete center of his universe and the fact that she turns out to be hip, sexy, and gorgeous even though she is related to a man who is anything but was also a stretch. It would have been interesting had there been a few scenes and dialogue between Kingsfield and Susan, but none is ever shown.

There is a part involving Hart sneaking into the library when it is closed in order to get into a section that houses the notes taken by the professors when they attended the school as students, which I found to be odd. I have never known any college that has done this and talking with others no one else has either. I was still willing to roll with it but found it frustrating that when Hart takes out the notes written by Kingsfield in 1927 that the camera doesn’t focus in on the page to allow the viewer to see it for themselves. Having Hart simply describe what he sees including some doodling that Kingsfield apparently made on the side of the page is not as satisfying.

I had a few problems with the end as well although it was not enough to ruin what is otherwise a great movie. However, there is a scene showing Kingsfield grading his student’s tests by himself even though most tenured professors who teach large classes have graduate assistants do this for them. It may be more cinematically satisfying especially for the general viewer to see Kingsfield doing the grading, but that is not how it actually works.

Also, when Hart receives the grades in the mail he doesn’t bother to open the letter, but instead turns it into a paper airplane and floats it into the ocean. I didn’t understand the motivation of this because during the film Hart spends an enormous amount of time preparing for the test, so I would think anyone who went through that would want to see what they got. If he wants to turn it into a paper airplane afterwards that is fine, but at least see the results. I spoke to a fan of the film who says he interprets this scene to mean that Hart was more interested in learning the subject for his own enjoyment and not concerned with what he got out of it, but if that is the case the film fails to bring that out earlier and instead seems to show the exact opposite.

My Rating: 9 out of 10

Released: October 16, 1973

Runtime: 1Hour 53Minutes

Rated PG

Director: James Bridges

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

Batman and Robin (1997)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: This is getting bad.

This is a tired rendering of the Caped Crusader (George Clooney) and Robin (Chris O’Donnell) battling Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) while also joining forces with Batgirl (Alicia Silverstone).

The series has definitely lost its original inspiration and doesn’t resemble anything like the first film. This was supposed to be a whole new direction away from the TV-series and yet now it is not only as campy, but even worse. The characters are just props for one-liners with no real dialogue just cutesy little barbs. Mr. Freeze spews out so many cold clichés that it becomes nauseating. There is also no tension or suspense as the villains are a couple of eccentric clowns with no frightening qualities to speak of.

Thurman as Poison Ivy is good, but it really doesn’t help. The idea of a nerdette turned into sexy siren seems like an extension of the Catwoman character. She has poisonous lips and can kill a man simply by kissing him. The ploy Robin uses to survive this kiss is an idea taken right out of an episode of the old “Get Smart” TV-series.

Gotham is no longer used as a third character and at times only seems like an afterthought. It is missing that unique set design and atmosphere as well as the dark undercurrent. The lighting and color is loud and garish with the overall production values looking cheap. The set for Mr. Freeze’s hideout look dangerously close to the same sets used in the TV-show.

The story is cluttered and nonsensical. It peaks with calamity every other minute and there are way too many loopholes. The editing of the action sequences is too fast and makes it hard to follow and it’s processed with a permeating sense of glibness.

Clooney is by far the best Batman as he is relaxed and poised with just the right amount of wit. O’Donnell seems like he was born to be Robin and their ongoing banter creates a nice added element. However, when shown side by side without their costumes they look more like brothers than father and son, which is the type of relationship that this was supposed to be. A little more gray in Clooney’s hair would have given that needed distinction.

Silverstone is all right, but she actually doesn’t turn into Batgirl until the very end. She has a good one-on-one fight with Poison Ivy, but it should have been played out more. It would have also been nice, like in the TV series, where she worked independently from Batman and didn’t have to share his batcave or necessarily take his orders. Also her background relationship with butler Alfred is completely absurd.

Overall this is silly and strained. The Batman revitalization has hit a brick wall and this is easily the worst of the series.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: June 20, 1997

Runtime: 2Hours 5Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Joes Schumacher

Available: DVD, Blu-ray

Sweet Liberty (1986)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Retelling history Hollywood style.

Michael Burgess (Alan Alda) is an historian who writes a book that is purchased into a movie. To his dismay the screenplay is ‘Hollywoodnized’ and looks nothing like the original story. Michael then attempts to get the script corrected while the movie is being produced.

This is a mechanical comedy with situations, characters, and jokes are that quite predictable. There is not one moment that stands out as hilarious and the direction lacks visual flair. Yet when compared to Alda’s other efforts this one fares better. The dialogue is livelier and the story has more energy and conflict, but as satire it is too light.

There are more subplots than are necessary and take away from the main plot. One involves his relationship with a fellow history professor Gretchen (Lisa Hilboldt) and their constant arguing about whether or not to get married becomes tiring. There is also a storyline involving his interactions with his aging mother, which is played by the legendary Lillian Gish. Of course it is always fun to see Gish in a later day role and this is indeed one of her most amusing, but the segment itself is contrived.

Alda always likes to cast fellow performers around his same age, which would explain the miscasting of Michael Caine. Caine is reliable, but having him play a Colin Farrell like leading man seems best suited for a younger actor. A more virile performer would have made the animosity between the character and Alda’s more distinct and intriguing.

Michelle Pfeiffer is cast as a beautiful actress hired to play the leading lady. Her character is interesting because it shows how on her off time how she is completely different person from the one she is playing in the production. This allows for some light insight into the acting process. The film also touches on the politics and behind the scenes maneuverings that go on during a production although it could have gone a lot further with this.

Having Burgess end up sleeping with Pfeiffer seems to be a stretch. Things become even more incredulous when Gretchen, in a fit of revenge, forms a relationship with Caine. The Caine character is a self- absorbed star with lots of beautiful women chasing after him and the chances of him getting excited or even noticing an average looking woman like her seems unlikely.

The Bob Hoskins character is by far the most engaging. He plays the scriptwriter and tries to educate Michael on the ins and outs of the film business. Saul Rubinek as the film’s director runs a close second. He perfectly creates the frantic traits of someone who must act more like a politician than a director.

Overall this is a film that could have done more with the material. It rates slightly better than some of Alda’s other efforts, but it is still just a pleasant time filler that is easily forgettable. I did however like the original music.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: May 14, 1986

Runtime: 1Hour 46Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Alan Alda

Studio: Universal

Available: VHS, DVD

Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: A big airplane race.

This is a wide open comedy in a similar vein as It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World dealing with a 1910 cross country plane race and involving a wide assortment of over-the-top characters.

This is a good film for family viewing and has enough pratfalls to elicit at least a chuckle or two from everyone. The aerial photography is impressive and most of it looks like the actors are actually flying the planes instead of just being propped up in front of a blue screen. Stuart Whitman makes for a solid lead and Gert Forbe is funny as a German Commander. However, it is Benny Hill that practically steals it as the besieged fire captain constantly rescuing the participants from their many accidents.

On the negative side the film seems too similar to all the other comical race movies from that era without offering anything new or original.  The characters are broadly sketched and become tiring after a while. It also takes too long for the race to get going and when it does it isn’t all that exciting, or gripping. The film also has a tendency to miss out on potentially interesting, or even inventive comical moments. One segment has a French pilot crashing into a convent and requiring the services of the nuns to help repair the plane. I thought this scenario could’ve been loaded with hilarious possibilities, but the film pursues none of them.

The non-discriminating viewer may consider this funny and amusing, but everything gets played-out by the standard formula of that era without offering anything that is memorable.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: June 16, 1965

Runtime: 2Hours 18Minutes

Rated G

Director: Ken Annakin

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

Paper Moon (1973)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Tatum is the star.

Due to the recent reality show airing on the Oprah Winfrey Network about Tatum and Ryan O’Neal trying to patch things up as father and daughter after years of acrimony I thought it was time to dig up this gem of a 70’s movie and give it a review. It is the story of  Addie (Tatum in an Academy Award winning performance) a 11 year old girl who has just lost her parents and comes into the custody of a traveling salesman/con-artist (Ryan). Their relationship starts out as contemptuous, but eventually evolves into a strong friendship as the two travel the lonely roads of Kansas selling Bibles door-to-door during the Depression.

Lazlo Kovac’s incredibly evocative black and white cinematography is the true star here. Absolutely everything is in focus and his ability to bring out the beauty and charm of the otherwise barren and stark Kansas landscape is an achievement in itself. Tatum is sensational and eats up every scene that she is in. Madeline Kahn as Trixie Delight is also great. The opening scene where she walks up with her breasts juggling up and down in her dress is memorable. The story itself works off of the cuteness formula, but somehow manages to pull it off without it becoming forced or annoying.

Ryan’s performance is a little too affected. At times he becomes badly upstaged by his daughter and seems even a little intimidated by her. The film might have been better served with someone else playing the part. Also the scene showing him in the aftermath of a big fight where he gets beat up by a group of four men looks cheesy. He comes away with only a few cuts and bruises when it reality it should have been a lot worse.

Overall this is a charming and entertaining movie that, scene for scene, hits all the right marks. On a technical level this film is brilliantly photographed and directed and effectively brings back the 1930’s period detail and feeling.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: May 9, 1973

Runtime: 1Hour 42Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Peter Bogdanovich

Studio: Paramount

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

Batman Returns (1992)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: This version is cool.

Genuinely twisted, marvelously executed superhero tale in this the second and by far the best in the series. This time Batman (Michael Keaton) must battle both Catwoman (Michele Pfeiffer) and The Penguin (Danny DeVito) who is running for mayor.

The big reason I feel that this film works so well is because director Tim Burton continues to use the city of Gotham as the major centerpiece. It’s a consistently gray apocalyptic setting with a surreal element that has its own unique set of rules that correlates well with the story. It also emanates a cold and lonely feeling that creates the desperation and madness that the villains show.

The villains themselves are terrific. The film nicely captures their dark nature and all the components that drive them to it. They are colorful, but still menacing and funny without being silly. Also, unlike a lot of today’s action flicks they are not used merely as props to spew out clever one-liners.

Devito as The Penguin makes one of the better villains. He is physically perfect for the role. He wears some nice ghoulish make-up and is not one-dimensional. We are shown that he was a ‘freak baby’ and how badly he was treated and thus understand his personality. He does get vicious, but in a funny way kind of like the Louie De Palma character he played on the TV-show ‘Taxi’. The only thing that is missing is the Penguin walk that Burgess Meredith had in the 60’s TV series.

Pfeiffer as Catwoman does her part without a fault and yet doesn’t seem completely right for the role. I found it hard to believe that with such a great looking face and figure that she could be overlooked by all the men even if does wear glasses and act nerdy. Also, the sinister cat has always been portrayed as being a black one and therefore the Catwoman character would have been better played by a raven haired actress. Sean Young competed for the role and might have been a better fit as her complexion is darker and her voice deeper. Pfeiffer though is still quite good and her constant dual personalities make her character interesting.

Keaton is the weakest link and continues to seem uncomfortable in his superhero role. Having the boy wonder beside him would have helped.

This feature comes together much better than the first one and has a more complete vision. It is kind of like a Grimm fairy tale, cult comedy, sci-fi, and modern day actioner all rolled into one. There is a good set-up and a nice emphasis on atmosphere. The humor never gets out of hand and is always laced in dark origins. It stays consistently twisted including the finale which features bomb wearing penguins marching into Gotham ready to blow it all up. Lots of fun!

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: June 19, 1992

Runtime: 2Hours 6Minutes

Rated PG-13

Director: Tim Burton

Studio: Warner Brothers

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