Monthly Archives: March 2013

Used Cars (1980)

used cars 3

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Don’t trust car salesmen.

Crazy, zany comedy written and directed by Robert Zemeckis dealing with twin brothers Roy and Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden) who run competing used car dealerships that sit right across the street from each other. The film examines the various shenanigans that each pulls on the other in order to give their business the edge.

Steven Spielberg was the executive producer and the result is taking a rather flimsy plot with an ordinary setting and propelling it to gargantuan proportions with lots of stunts, twists, and action. It teeters precariously to falling over-the-edge with too much of it getting silly and exaggerated, but somehow it manages to save itself by being consistently funny and clever.

Some of the segments really had me laughing even after repeat viewings. My favorite is when they jam the TV signals and then break into a live broadcast with one of their off-the-wall commercials. However, from a purely visual perspective the climax, which features over 250 used cars speeding across the desert in order to get to the dealership before an important deadline is impressive.

Although the humor does manage to hit-the-mark the rest of it is run-of-the-mill. The characters are too dishonest, lowbrow, and scheming, which makes it hard to warm up to any of them. This is especially true with the Rudy Russo (Kurt Russell) character as the film goes overboard in creating the obnoxious salesman stereotype. The suits he wears are loud even from a comedy perspective and only a complete moron would be seen in public wearing them. Russell is also too young and too otherwise hip to be caught up in with the down-on-his-luck salesman caricatures and the part would have been better suited for an actor who was middle-aged. Bringing in Barbara Jane (Deborah Harmon) as his love interest is too forced and their romantic interlude bogs down the momentum.

Warden shines as always and this could be considered his career pinnacle. He plays two very different types of characters and as usual pulls it off in effortless fashion. He shows great energy in a fight sequence as well as in the end while standing in the back of a pickup and dueling with Rudy.

Gerrit Graham comes off as the most likable of the bunch and the running joke involving his superstitious nature works. His dog has to rate as one of the better animal performers and does some really funny tricks.

The cars look like they are genuinely of the used variety and it is great seeing all the old model types that they no longer make. My only real quibble involves the climatic sequence which although fun seemed implausible especially when taken into consideration that the hundreds of cars seen careening across the desert were driven by student drivers and yet none of them broke down, or had an accident, which seemed highly unlikely.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: July 11, 1980

Runtime: 1Hour 53Minutes

Rated R

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

The Night of the Iguana (1964)

night of the iguana 2

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Flawed clergyman loves women.

Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton) loses his job as a clergyman when rumors surface of indiscretions he had with a young female parishioner, which pushes him to preach a ranting sermon at the pulpit that eventually drives all the members of the congregation out of the building. He then gets a job as a tour guide in Mexico and has the chore of leading a bus load of middle-aged women around the country. Charlotte (Sue Lyon) is a young nymph who takes a liking to Lawrence much to the chagrin of her over-protective chaperon Judith Fellowes (Grayson Hall). When Charlotte is caught in Lawrence’s bedroom late at night Ms. Fellowes promises that she will have it reported and get him fired. Unable to handle a another potential job loss Lawrence takes the bus load of women to an isolated seaside hotel run by Maxine (Ava Gardner) an old friend of his. He hopes that by somehow trapping them there he will be able to convince Ms. Fellowes to drop the charges, but along the way he meets Hannah (Deborah Kerr) who he starts to fall in-love with.

Unlike most of Tennesse William’s other plays this one, at least the first half, is full of energy and comical nuance. I found the group of ladies and Lawrence’s exasperated dealings with them to be quite amusing and the film moves along at an engaging pace. The second half though bogs down with more of William’s signature brooding drama that ends up hurting the flow. In many ways this film seems like two movies in one and the difference in tone and pace never gels. Despite a good nighttime conversation between Kerr and Burton I kept hoping the ladies and Ms. Fellowes would come back and felt the film was weaker without them.

Legendary director John Huston hits most of the right buttons here although it is not his best work. I was surprised and impressed to learn that Maxine’s hotel was built specifically for the production in an otherwise deserted region of the country. The building had an authentic old look and helped give the film added style and personality. I had mixed feelings with the black and white photography. On one had it helps bring out the dark recesses of its flawed characters and accentuate the moodiness of William’s script, but it also takes away from the exotic beauty of the locale.

Burton is good as usual and playing the part of an emotionally fractured, alcoholic character seems right up his alley. Gardner is great as the brassy Maxine and the scene of her making out with her two young, shirtless, maraca playing male assistants along the beach late at night is genuinely steamy. Kerr is in fine form as well and her more restrained demeanor makes a nice contrast to Gardner’s.

Lyon’s acting isn’t quite up to her costars and she seems particularly out of her league during her scene with Burton, but in the looks department she is unmatched. She is more filled-out and mature than in Lolita and in many ways even hotter. The scene of close-up shots of her moving her hips to a tune at a Mexican bar may excite some of the male viewers.

The under-rated Hall is excellent in her role as the heavy. Her craggy face and personality are perfect for the part and it rightly got her a supporting actress nomination.

In the final analysis this is not a bad version of Tennessee William’s material, but not a great one either.

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My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: August 6, 1964

Runtime: 1Hour 58Minutes

Not Rated

Director: John Huston

Studio: MGM

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

Cold Sweat (1970)

cold sweat

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Chuck won’t be intimidated.

Joe Martin (Charles Bronson) is a man living with a past. Ten years earlier he was part of a prison break led by corrupt Captain Ross (James Mason). Joe was selected as the getaway driver, but after he witnesses one of them kill a police man he decides to drive off with the car and strand the others. Now he is living the quiet life in the south of France with his new wife Fabienne (Liv Ullmann) and her daughter Michele (Yannick Delulle), but as he starts to settle into his new lifestyle he finds that the old gang has tracked him down. They want him to be the boat driver in a drug deal they have planned and they won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Fabienne and her daughter Michele are brought along for collateral, but Joe has a trick up his sleeve and instead kidnaps Ross’s girlfriend Moira (Jill Ireland) and puts her in an isolated cabin and when all parties converge onto the place is when the tensions and action boils over.

This is a simple film with the most basic of storylines. The characterizations are standard with no gray areas in-between. The good guys are really good and the bad guys really bad and nothing is ever nebulous as the tried and true formula gets followed from beginning to end. However, I liked it. Sometimes it is nice to have a film that isn’t trying to reinvent the genre and does things in a compact, crackling non-think style where the viewer can sit back and enjoy an old fashioned white knuckler without having to be challenged. After a slightly awkward start the film begins to roll and then never lets up. Chuck puts his gruff, stoic caricature to the hilt here helping propel the viewer emotionally into the action as he finds increasingly novel ways to overpower the baddies just as the odds look stacked against him.

Having him married to Ullmann was offbeat casting, but it works. Ullmann who has quite possibly one of the most expressive faces in all of cinema seems game for the proceedings. It was nice seeing her in something different than a brooding Ingmar Bergman drama. She gets right into the fray and becomes an integral part of the story and succeeds quite well.

The always reliable and many times brilliant Mason sports an American accent and its fun. He also takes part in a great death scene that gets amazingly prolonged until his increasingly pale complexion becomes genuinely disturbing.

Ireland shows flair as a jaded hippie type. Her and Chuck’s sparring clicks and casting the real-life couple as characters with animosity for the other is cute. I just wished that director Terence Young had played it up more and given Ireland more screen time.

Having the second half of the film take place almost exclusively at an isolated locale gives the picture added personality, but what impressed me the most was the action. In particular was a car chase along the long, winding French roads. I know the car chases in Bullitt and The French Connection get the honors for having the best and most famous chase sequences, but the one here comes amazingly close. I found myself turning uncomfortably in my seat as Chuck’s car travels each curve at high speeds and when he takes the auto off the road and onto the rugged terrain I was out of breath. The foot chase between Fabienne and her daughter and one of the lone gunmen along the ragged, rocky landscape is equally exciting and well captured at different angles.

This one is sure to please Bronson fans as it has all the ingredients his films are known for. My only complaint is with the DVD transfer available on Amazon Instant. Normally I love the way Amazon has made available films that are hard or even impossible to find and most of the time picture quality is decent to good, but here it looks like someone’s old home movie with a color that is faded and at certain spots completely washed out. It also very grainy and looks like it was taken from an old film stock, or lost VHS tape. The less than ideal presentation unfairly taints what is otherwise a solid production that deserves a much better looking reissue.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: December 18, 1970

Runtime: 1Hour 34Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Terence Young

Studio: Fair Film

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video

The Border (1982)

border

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Border patrol isn’t easy.

Charlie Smith (Jack Nicholson) is a guard new to the border patrol who must learn to deal with the ugly realities that come along with his profession including becoming more and more pressured to get involved with the corruption that goes on there.

This is a stark presentation with an authentic atmosphere that at times makes it seem like a documentary. The viewer becomes submerged in this intelligent study on a serious and important issue with a result that is nothing short of enlightening. Unlike most other Hollywood movies nothing is over-the-top or melodramatic. It doesn’t try for shock value nor resort to clichés. The narrative is straightforward and uncompromising while offering no easy answers or annoyingly false wrap-ups.

Director Tony Richardson takes an expectedly humanistic approach and yet doesn’t seem inclined to push any type of agenda. This film has a look and feel different from any of his other films. He is known primarily for his wacky comedies (Tom Jones, The Loved One) and yet this film is grainy and grim. Much of that is due to the excellent use of natural lighting. This film has a very serious tone throughout and yet for some reason doesn’t end up being oppressive like some of those other ‘important’ pictures. It is also well paced with a riveting and compelling finish.

Nicholson gives a sensitive and sincere performance and a rare turn seeing him underplay everything. Valerie Perrine is very good as his wife and having her spend lavishly while oblivious to the poverty around her makes for interesting insight. Warren Oates is top-notch as always in support as Charlie’s supervisor. His character is brimming with a potential confrontation with Charlie and it is unfortunate that the movie doesn’t pursue this further.

Overall this is a strong picture that deserves more praise and attention and one of Nicholson’s best performances.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: January 31, 1982

Runtime: 1Hour 48Minutes

Rated R

Director: Tony Richardson

Studio: Universal

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

The Birthday Party (1968)

the birthday party 3

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Tear up the newspaper.

Since tomorrow will be my birthday I wanted to come up with a film that had birthdays as its theme and found this bizarre but fascinating obscurity. It is the story based on the play by Harold Pinter of Stanley Webber (Robert Shaw) a mysterious and private man who takes up lodging in a rundown British seaside house. He rents an upstairs room from Mr. and Mrs. Bowles (Moultrie Kelsall, Dandy Nichols) who are quite odd themselves. One day two men dressed in black suits (Patrick Magee, Sydney Tafler) come to pay Stanley a visit. They know something about Stanley’s past and their presence frightens him to the extent that it causes him to have a nervous breakdown.

On the surface this film shouldn’t work. There is an excessive amount of talking with dialogue that doesn’t say much and at times seems absurd. The set is drab and dirty with the camera seemingly locked down inside of it. There is never any explanation about Stanley’s past or what he is running from nor who the men are or what they know about him. The ending is elusive and the viewer will go away feeling more confused than they did at the start.

However, it is these ingredients that make the film so thoroughly intriguing. The seemingly banal dialogue is simply a façade for underlying thoughts and feelings. What Stanley is trying to run from is unimportant because it is really not about him at all and is instead more about ourselves, human nature and the quandary of our existence. It’s an examination of people’s futile attempts at trying to escape from who they are only to have society and life catch up with them. The set could be a metaphor for the inside of Stanley’s head. The grimy and decayed place symbolizes his decayed soul and the men in black suits are his conscience coming to haunt him.

Once you adjust to the eccentric narrative it then becomes a fantastic film for observing subtitles and nuance. Director William Friedkin shows a keenness for detail not only visually, but with the sound as well. The way the Magee character tears up a newspaper and the sound used for it could actually unnerve some viewers. Stanley’s meltdown scene is very unique and overall the direction is superb for such difficult material.

This movie was years ahead of its time, but for some it may be off-putting. However, it should be enjoyed by those who crave the avant-garde. It is also a rare chance to the see the normally strong-willed Shaw playing a very weak and vulnerable character. Nichols is also a stand-out playing an Edith Bunker type with a perverse streak lying just beneath the surface.

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My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: December 9, 1968

Runtime: 2Hours 3Minutes

Rated G

Director: William Friedkin

Studio: Palomar Pictures International

Available: VHS, DVD (Region 2)

Someone Behind the Door (1971)

someone behind the door 3

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Chuck has no memory.

This review will kick-off a two month long tribute to movies done in the 70’s by Charles Bronson with his wife Jill Ireland. Each Friday I will review one of their films, which will run through April. The only ones that will not be reviewed during this stretch are Love and Bullets, which was already done during our January tribute to Rod Steiger and The Mechanic and Hard Times, which will be done at a later time.

This film is one of the more unusual ones that they did and although not completely successful may still interest Bronson fans simply for a chance at seeing him in an offbeat part. The story concerns neurosurgeon Laurence Jeffries (Anthony Perkins) who takes in a man (Charles Bronson) who has lost his memory and has no idea who he is. Laurence decides to exploit this issue by brainwashing the man into thinking that Laurence’s cheating wife Frances (Jill Ireland) is actually his own and to take action by killing the woman’s lover (Henri Garcin).

The film has a great idea, but the set-up is much too rushed. We are given no backstory to any of the characters. The film opens with Laurence leaving his hospital job and by chance bumping into the man and taking him home before we even know what his motive or plan is. I also found it a bit perplexing that the Dr. character is supposedly conniving and crafty and yet he brings a man into his house while his wife is there sleeping in another room as well as their maid downstairs, which seemed reckless. When his wife awakens the next day and tries to go into the room where the stranger is Laurence panics, but I felt he should have been aware of that potentially happening from the very beginning. He also dictates his plans into a tape recorder, which seemed like prime material to be used for evidence later on.

The psychological side of the story is shallow and transparent. The way Laurence tricks the man into doing his evil bidding was too easy. I realize that the man has lost his memory, but it seems like he has lost his entire brain as well. The character is too child-like and gullible. I also thought that if the man cannot remember his wife and doesn’t know her from anyone else then why would he care if she is fooling around with someone, or get so over-the-top angry about it.

Bronson can be perfect in certain roles, but this is not one of them. Yes, he has a certain likable quality here simply because he plays such a vulnerable and trusting wide-eyed innocent, but the angry emotions that he displays are too rehearsed and over-acted.

Ireland on the other hand is attractive and alluring and comes off well though her part is minimal.  The nude photograph of her lying on a sofa that is shown in close-up is sexy.

The film has very little action especially for a Bronson vehicle though the part where the Bronson character sexually attacks Ireland and then the film intercuts this with him simultaneously attacking another woman on a lonely beach is interesting. The ending though is pathetic as it leaves everything wide-open while resolving nothing. The sequence where the camera cuts quickly back and forth between Perkin’s face and then Ireland’s, which is shown continuously over the closing credits is irritating and almost like the filmmaker’s wanted to drive the viewer as crazy as the kooky characters.

With that said I still found the film to be entertaining most of the way. The idea is a fascinating one and it kept me guessing throughout. Director Nicholas Gessner does an adequate job of taking advantage of the gray countryside to create a nice moody feel. A definite mixed bag.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: July 28, 1971

Runtime: 1Hour 33Minutes

Rated R

Director: Nicholas Gessner

Studio: Lira Films

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video