Monthly Archives: April 2013

American Movie (1999)

american movie

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: He needs a life.

Supposedly this is a documentary about all the troubles a young would-be filmmaker has trying to film a low budget independent movie. In actuality it is the rather stark portrait of how elusive the American dream is to the low income citizen and yet how hard they still dream for it. It creates a truly absurd scenario of desperation that could only work if it was real and not the work of fiction.

The film is tightly woven without the extraneous footage one usually finds with most documentaries. We are given a well-rounded look at these people and feel like we know them. There is some question as to whether these subjects are shown so we can learn something from it or just to laugh at them, but either way it is thoroughly engrossing.

Mark Borchardt, the would-be director, is definitely the main attraction. He talks with a heavy Wisconsin accent and is the quintessential ‘pothead’. He is a man, who by his own admission spent his entire adolescence drinking and partying. Now that he must get serious about life, he resists by clinging onto his movie making dreams. His movie idea is uninspired slasher film stuff that is taken from other more successful films. He hopes to duplicate that success and thus ride it’s coattails out of his otherwise woeful existence. He is as empty headed as he looks and sounds. Yet he still puts on a mighty song and dance. He is like an aggressive used car salesman, dishonest politician and ranting street preacher who talks a lot, but says little.

He is surrounded by equally interesting people. You have his Swedish accented mother who passively supports her son in his endeavors, yet reluctantly admits he has no chance. Then there’s cantankerous frail, old Uncle Bill. He is a man who doesn’t talk much, but when he does make a peep it is a doozy. You also have a rather touching bond between Mark and his best friend Mike. A fellow ‘pothead’ who looks and sounds like he is barely functional, yet still assists his friend in all his filmmaking problems even though he himself really isn’t that interested in it.

This thing is literally amazing from start to finish. A few of the gems include: the many, many takes they have to do before old Uncle Bill can say one line of simple dialogue correctly. Then there’s the would-be director himself, who works part time as a custodian at a cemetery, describing his ‘profound’ experience at cleaning up a clogged, messy toilet. There’s even a near comatose friend Mike who breaks out and gives the shrillest special effects scream you will ever hear.

If you like to view people just being themselves then this slice of life comes highly recommended.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: January 11, 1999

Runtime: 1Hour 47Minutes

Rated R

Director: Chris Smith

Studio: Bluemark Productions

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video

Witness (1985)


By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Hiding out on farm.

Samuel (Lukas Haas) is a young Amish boy traveling with his mother Rachel (Kelly McGillis) by train to Baltimore to visit her sister. At the train station he leaves to go to the restroom where he witnesses a murder committed by McFee (Danny Glover) a narcotics cop gone bad. John Book (Harrison Ford) is the policeman investigating the case and when he realizes that there is an internal cover-up and he is now being targeted for blowing the whistle he goes into hiding with the boy and his mother at the farm home of Rachel’s grandfather Eli (Jan Rubes). There John learns to adjust to the Amish lifestyle while forming feelings for Rachel who displays the same for him, but McFee and his henchman doggedly pursue John in an attempt to silence him permanently.

The script by Earl K. Wallace and William Kelley deservedly won the Academy Award and is perfect blend of riveting cop drama and cultural understanding and one of the few films to deal with the Amish culture. It manages to tackle the subject in a non-sensationalistic manner that for the most part shows the Amish community in a positive, but still realistic light. The scenes showing the Amish men getting together and working as a team to hoist up a barn is exhilarating. The part where John punches out a brash heckler who looks exactly like current Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh who is harassing the peaceful people is satisfying as well. The film does also manage to look a bit at the negative side of the religion namely the shunning where if one of their members does not conform completely to their rigid doctrine then they will be literally shunned by the rest of their community even their own family members, which Rachel is told she risks simply by being, in their eyes, too friendly with John.

I remember at the time some critics complained about the scene where Rachel is bathing and turns around to find John peering at her and instead of covering herself up just stands there and exposes both of her breasts. Many people felt that this was not realistic. That a women raised on modesty would not just throw it all away and expose herself to a man who she was not married to and not a part of their community even if she did have some feelings for him and I have to agree. Although I did like the quiet sensuality of the scene I did not feel it was right for his type of picture, but fortunately it is the only time that it ever gets ‘Hollywoodnized’ and for the most part is pretty respectful.

The balance between the potential love angle and the action is surprisingly well done. The film may have one too many romantic moments, but otherwise the pacing is solid. The climatic showdown inside the barn had me on the edge of my seat and one of the best and most creative action finales for a cop movie that I have seen.

Ford is engaging as ever and it is surprising that his role here is his first and so far only time that he has ever been nominated for best actor. It is fun watching him learn how to milk a cow as well as seeing him dressed in an Amish suit with the pants not quite long enough.

Josef Sommar also gives an interesting performance as one of the bad guys. Instead of being the villain that becomes more confident, brazen, evil, and vicious as the pressure mounts he instead begins to behave in a more panicked and confused manner, which is an interesting take on the age-old formula.

Of course the real star of the film has to be Haas who is perfectly cast. He is cute and adorable without it ever having to be forced, or clichéd and one of the main reasons that this film has become so endearing.

The film also features Viggo Mortensen in a non-speaking part as one of the Amish men and Patti Lupone has a brief bit as John’s sister who begrudgingly agrees to take in Rachel and her son for the night in her home. Her reaction when Rachel tells her that she is Amish is subtly amusing.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: February 8, 1985

Runtime: 1Hour 52Minutes

Rated R

Director: Peter Weir

Studio: Paramount

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

The Flim-Flam Man (1967)

flim flam man 2

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Con-man finds apprentice.

Curley (Michael Sarrazin) is a young army deserter living in an over-turned and abandoned freight car in the rural regions of Kentucky. By chance he meets up with Mordecai Jones (George C. Scott) a traveling con-man who decides to use Curly as his apprentice as well as his assistance in some of his more elaborate schemes. At first Curley goes along with it, but when he fall in-love with Bonnie (Sue Lyon) one of Mordecai’s intended victims he decides he wants out much to Mordecai’s reluctance.

Scott really shines and this may be his best comic performance. Although he was only 38 at the time he looks and acts like a genuine old man even though his gray hair looks like it was frosted on much like what is done to white Christmas trees. In some way it might have been more authentic had an older actor played the role, but Scott is so much fun in the part that the movie may not have worked as well.

Sarrazin is solid in support. His quiet demeanor and understated performances never allowed him to get the recognition that he deserved, but he was always effective in these types of roles and having the character walk the moral tightrope and sometimes fall off makes him interesting and believable. Lyon is also good as the romantic interest. Although I felt the romance bogged things down a bit I still enjoyed her natural acting style that is devoid of any pretension.

Harry Morgan is fun as the headstrong sheriff who chases after Mordecai and Curly as is Albert Salmi as his dim-witted deputy. Salmi’s blank looking facial expressions are tops and the car chase that they have with the two culprits features some impressive comical stunt work and seems to tear-up the entire main street of the town.

The soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith has wonderfully soothing melody with some great harmonica and trumpet solos. The on-location shooting in Kentucky captures the countryside and the hazy late summer sunshine of the region well.  For the most part the film is quite amiable and amusing, but predictable. The script lacks the unexpected twist or unique insight that would elevate it above being just the fluff that it is. The ending, which features Curly rigging the courthouse with dynamite and threatening it blow it up has a touching quality to it, but proves frustrating as it doesn’t show us what ultimately becomes of the characters.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: August 22, 1967

Runtime: 1Hour 44Minutes

Director: Irvin Kershner

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: VHS 

The Valachi Papers (1972)

the valachi papers 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Testifying against the mob.

Based on the bestselling novel by Peter Maas this film chronicles the life of Joseph Valachi (Charles Bronson) who became the very first informant for the Mafia in their history. The story chronicles his life from a young man getting involved in the mafia culture to his eventual imprisonment and testifying in front of congress.

At the time of release this was compared closely to The Godfather with some critics outrageously saying it was better, but clearly it doesn’t come close. This film lacks the in-depth characterizations, lyrical quality, and an overall slick design. This film is also rather sloppily produced including one scene involving an exciting car chase taking place in the 1930’s. When the two cars go crashing through the wall of a warehouse and into the East river one can clearly see the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, which weren’t built until 1970. There is also the Lucky Luciano character played by actor Angelo Infanti who wears a type of glasses that did not come into style until well into the 1970’s. However, as a whole the film is still amazingly compelling flick that ends up being both entertaining and somewhat informative. The music score has a terrific ominous tone to it and the prison scenes have a nice starkness.

The film was known at the time for its violence, which by today’s standards may not seem quite as startling or as excessive although the blood and bullets do come at regular intervals. My favorite was the shooting of an old crime boss inside a barbershop although the castration of a victim on top of a table inside a restaurant is pretty wild. However, for all of its violence the film does manage to have a sense of humor as well including a very amusing scene where one of Joe’s mob bosses sits in the living room of the mother of Joe’s girlfriend and asks the mother for her permission to allow Joe to marry her daughter while Joe sits nervously behind and tries to look proper.

Lino Ventura has the perfect face of a mob boss and was ideally cast. The scene of him inside the prison where he has stays in a well-furnished cell and even seems to have his own barber is funny. Joseph Wiseman displays great zest as the opposing crime boss Salvatore Maranzano and his agonizing yells of pain as he lies dying are effective.

Bronson seems perfectly cast as an uneducated simple man who is a follower and has his own quiky code of morality, which makes him strangely endearing. His wife Jill Ireland does not fare as well. She ports a brunette wig and her Italian accent borders on being horrendous to non-existent. Fortunately she is not given very many speaking lines as her British accent is constantly seeping through.

In many ways this film could best be described as an ugly cousin to Goodfellas. While this film lacks that film’s fluid directorial flair it still manages to be an engrossing true-life gangster soap opera like that one.

the valachi papers 2

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Runtime: 2Hours 5Minutes

Released: November 3, 1972

Rated R

Director: Terence Young

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: VHS, DVD

Blade Runner (1982)

blade runner 2

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Where are the replicants?

The movie, based on the novel ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ by Phillip K. Dick, takes place in the year 2019 where human clones called replicants have been created and used basically as slave labor in off-world colonies. However, they create a mutiny and become a danger to the human race on Earth and are therefore banned from returning. If they do come back they are hunted down and killed by a special police force called Blade Runners. Rick Dekard (Harrison Ford) is one of those blade runners and is considered to be the best, but is burned out with his job. He is coaxed out of retirement when an especially dangerous group of replicants led by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) escape and return to the planet.

On a visual level this film scores a bulls-eye and is nothing short of awe inspiring. You truly get the feeling that you have traveled to a whole different world. It’s a very complete and intricate vision that can make this movie enjoyable to watch in that area alone. Having it perpetually raining and gloomy helps add to the decayed nihilistic tone of the story. Although it takes place in futuristic city of Los Angeles one might actually think it is China due to the large number of Chinese ads on billboards and oriental people seen in the backdrop of scenes. I can only presume this was a Chinese neighborhood of the city, but I wasn’t sure why the action was placed there. Personally, I have no problem with it and it does help add an extra flavor to the proceedings, but I still felt it needed more of an explanation, which never came. Quite possibly this is something that is explained in the Dick novel, but for those that haven’t read it and are coming in brand new to it all it could prove just a bit confusing.

I really liked the story idea, but felt, like a lot of the critics did at the time, that the pacing is off. There is so much emphasis put on the style and atmosphere that at times it seems like the plot is almost forgotten. The scenes are stretched out much longer than in a typical action/sci-fi picture, which in some ways makes it interesting, but in another way it seems unnecessary. There really isn’t any action or excitement until almost an hour in and even then it goes by too quickly. Too much emphasis is put into Deckard’s relationship with Rachael (Sean Young) a replicant that doesn’t even know that she is one. There is no real chemistry between the two actors and the whole romantic angle came off as forced and contrived and bogged the whole thing down.

Ford is at his crusty best. Few people can play a sarcastic character like he does and still come off as engaging. I liked the ‘been there, done that’ attitude of the character, but found that his ability to handle the replicants seemed woefully lacking. They seem to be constantly taking him by surprise and then throwing him around like he is a ragdoll. Without the defense of his gun, which in one scene gets slapped out of his hand like it is nothing, he seems utterly even hopelessly ineffectual. There are several moments when he is about to be killed by them and is only saved when someone else comes to his rescue. You would think that if someone is as savvy and cocky as this character is portrayed and considered ‘the best’ by his superiors that he would have acquired some sort of fighting technique or better skill at handling them. Instead he looks like he is completely in over his head.

Having a typical gun as the only weapon seems pretty conventional and unimaginative. I would have thought in the future the technology in the weaponry department would be more advanced. A little more James Bond-like gadgetry would have made the fight scenes more interesting. Also, the technique at telling whether the person is human or a replicant is awfully archaic.

Hauer as the leader of the bad guys was a terrific casting choice. I can’t think of any other actor living or dead who was better suited for the part, but unfortunately he gets terribly underused in the process. He is seen only sporadically in the first hour and is not as menacing and terrifying as he should be. The final showdown between the two is good and makes great use of the moody lighting and Victorian-like background set, but ends up fizzling at the end.

I came away with mixed feelings on this one. On a technical end it verges on being brilliant, but in other areas it is lacking. The tension needed to be played up more, the confrontations needed more sizzle, and the hero needed to be more in control of the situation.

However, I really liked Daryl Hannah who has just the right blend of sexiness and evilness in her part. Brion James is good simply because he appears very benign, but then surprises the viewer with an unexpected and unannounced viciousness. You also got to love Joe Turkel and his very funky glasses.

blade runner 1

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: June 25, 1982

Runtime: 1Hour 57Minutes

Rated R

Director: Ridley Scott

Studio: Warner Brothers

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