Monthly Archives: November 2013

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

kramer vs kramer

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 10 out of 10

4-Word Review: Life after wife leaves.

This is a solid drama detailing the divorce and subsequent custody battle between two young, educated and upper middle class parents (Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep).

To say that this is simply an examination of divorce and its effects on both the child and parents do not do the film justice as this is a very richly textured story that brings out the many variables that come with being a modern day parent. One of the best is the examination of Hoffman’s character’s job and how ‘moving up the corporate ladder’ can have an adverse effect on a man’s home life and his family members. In fact this is a major factor to his break-up and emotional detachment with his wife.

The film also offers a nice glimpse between father and son and the scenes showing this relationship are quite touching especially as they learn to coexist with one another after the mother leaves. Justin Henry doesn’t get enough credit for his performance as the son. Yes, he is adorable in the typical child-like way, but he also manages to create a child character that is diverse and memorable.

Hoffman gives a superior performance and in many ways it is all about him and his adjustment at playing the dual roles of being both a father and mother. He has his aggressive New Yorker persona, but you understand it and really feel for what he is going through. Even watching him frantically running around from place-to-place is interesting.

Streep is also outstanding in what is kind of an unusual role for her. Typically she plays strong-willed women with a strong on-screen presence, but here her character is rather weak and suffers from problems that are elusive, but still intriguing.

Howard Duff is solid as Hoffman’s attorney and Jane Alexander offers good support as the next-door-neighbor although her character is a bit too ordinary and could have been supplied with a few interesting quirks.

The subject itself is still quite topical and everything is kept in a real perspective with nothing getting overblown or clichéd.  Robert Benton’s direction is flawless as it pays attention to the smallest of details and makes them special.  A good example of this is the poor way the father and son try to make French toast when they first find themselves alone together and then the very efficient way they learn to make them at the end. It is also not all serious as there is a really hilarious scene involving Jobeth Williams who plays Hoffman’s new girlfriend and the unusual circumstances onto which she first meets Henry.

There are a few issues to quibble about, but they are minor. One is that you hear Hoffman and Henry peeing in the toilet a lot, but they never seem able to flush it! There is also a scene where Hoffman who is in desperate need for a job applies for one during a holiday party and when he gets it he runs out, grabs a woman he does not know and kisses her right on the lips. If he tried something like that today he would not only be fired on the spot, but have a sexual harassment lawsuit as well.

My Rating: 10 out of 10

Released: December 19, 1979

Runtime: 1Hour 45Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Robert Benton

Studio: Columbia Pictures

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

La Grande Bouffe (1973)

la grande bouffe 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: They stuff their faces.

This film will start an annual Thanksgiving Day theme of reviewing movies that have something to do with food and eating. This one may be the most notorious of them all and despite its offbeat plot and crude scenes won the Cannes Film Festival’s International Critics award as well as attaining a large cult following and be one of the highest grossing movies in the history of Italian cinema.

The story deals with four middle-aged men (Marcello Mastroianni, Ugo Tognazzi, Philippe Noiret, Michel Piccoli) who despite attaining affluence and wealth are bored with life and decide their only recourse is to get together for a weekend and commit group suicide by eating themselves to death.

At first the movie will make you hungry.  After an initial set-up the characters can be seen eating in just about every shot. The variety of foods and menu that is served is almost mouth-watering and features a wide array of exquisite dishes seen only in the most fanciest of restaurants. However, after visually seeing these people overeat I felt myself feeling as bloated as the characters and almost sick. The film also gets quite gross with several segments featuring loud sounds of flatulence and a scene where the toilet bursts and covers the men and room with feces that even drips down and gets into the kitchen.

Some may find this ‘hilarious’ while others will think it’s disgusting. For me despite the moments of over-the-top crudeness the strongest scene may actually be when the characters start dying and their dead bodies are carried into a freezer while the rest of them continue to make food and stuff their mouths like it is a compulsion.

la grande bouffe 2

The four leads are old pros who couldn’t give a bad performance if they tried. I started to wonder though how they could eat so much and whether the scenes were all done in one take with no retake as eventually I think they would all start puking. Mastroianni’s death scene is a stand-out simply because it manages to keep his expression completely frozen and does not manage to blink for several minutes, which I found impressive. Tognazzi’s death moment is also fun although it’s Andrea Ferreol who starts out as a proper school teacher, but ends up becoming as decadent and hedonistic as all the men combined that steals it.

The film makes a strong if not impactful statement about gluttony and how a life of prestige and luxury may actually be more of a trap and curse. The more some people get of it the more they want until it is never enough and death may end up being their only true source of salvation and escape.

The idea is outrageous and clever and I loved the concept, but the execution is lacking. The direction is too loose with scenes going on longer than they should. Some tighter editing would have helped the pace and momentum.  I also don’t think it is possible for a person to stuff themselves with food and then die as I think instead they would just vomit it all out.

la grande bouffe 3

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: May 17, 1973

Runtime: 2Hours 4Minutes

Rated NC-17

Director: Marco Ferreri

Studio: Films 66

Available: VHS, DVD

The House of God (1984)

the house of God 2

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Caustic look at medicine.

This is an interesting, honest, and incisive look at the inner-workings of an average, everyday hospital. Here we have a group of interns fresh out of medical school that come face-to-face with the harsh realities of the hospital ‘business’. Their youthful ideals and energy is soon stamped out and replaced by apathy and indifference because of the ‘system’.

Even if you have no connection to the medical field you may still find this relatable. The hospital business really is just like the everyday business world with the same politics and contrasting personalities. In particular there’s the Jo character, which is well played by Lisa Pelikan. She is called a ‘slurpy’ and can best be described as a ‘company person’ someone with no outside life and thus becomes married to her job. She goes “all out” for every patient, even if they don’t want it, simply to hide her own emptiness and need for approval. You can find one in any office as well as an administrator who is completely oblivious to what is going on and tries to solve all issues by simply talking in circles.

The core group of interns is very identifiable. They start out as one, but eventually break apart. Some adopt the system and even play into it. Others begrudgingly learn to accept it while still others decide to simply drop-out altogether.

It is hard to put this film into any one type of category. It starts out as a sort of absurdist comedy, but then becomes much more realistic. There are moments of both satire and drama, but the second half becomes all serious.

There’s no real cinematic style and the overall visual quality is blah. The film can’t really be described as entertaining either. It’s more like an informative film by someone in the know. If you want to be ‘educated’ about what a hospital environment is really like then this needs watching. Charles Haid’s “Fatman” character alone makes it worth it.

Based on the novel by Samuel Shem this film was shelved by its studio and never released either theatrically or on video, which was unusual since this is a quality picture. This was supposedly from pressure by the American Medical Association who felt it painted too much of an unflattering light on hospitals although the book was even more critical. Finding a copy can be difficult although recently it has been broadcast sporadically on THISTV network.

house of God 1

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: None

Runtime: 1Hour 48Minutes

Rated R

Director: Donald Wrye

Studio: MGM

Not available at this time.

Fatal Beauty (1987)

fatal beauty

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Whoopi hates drug dealers.

Rita Rizzoli (Whoopi Goldberg) is a narcotics cop out to nab Conrad Kroll (Harris Yulin) who she believes is behind a recent shipment of a drug called ‘fatal beauty’ that is an unusually pure type of cocaine that can prove to be instantly deadly to those who unwittingly take it. Unfortunately Kroll has too much money and connections and proves to be untouchable, so she starts an uneasy alliance with Kroll’s security man Mike (Sam Elliot) that is amusing, interesting and revealing for both parties.

Goldberg is fantastic in the lead and one of the reasons this movie works. Her personality and streetwise humor is engaging.  The role was originally intended for Cher who had enjoyed working with Elliot in Mask and wanted to do another project with him, but for some reason when the part finally got offered she turned it down. I actually had a hard time seeing Cher in the part and felt Whoopi did it better. The only issue of course is that the character is a black woman, but also supposedly Italian, which doesn’t make much sense. The part where Mike tells her how much he enjoys an Italian women’s eyes seems absurd and you would have thought somebody would have realized this and altered the dialogue and the character’s name, but didn’t and this becomes the film’s biggest loophole although it is a relatively minor one that doesn’t interfere with the overall enjoyment.

The pairing of Elliot and Goldberg may initially seem odd, but for me it worked and their ongoing banter is the most entertaining thing about the movie. My only quibble is that as a sort of reconciliation gift the Elliot character buys Rita a $5,000 dress, which seemed way overboard especially when a relationship between the two had not been established.

Brad Dourif is terrific as the bad guy and weaves a nice balance between being campy and sinister. Ruben Blades is fun as Rita’s rather inept police partner and Jennifer Warren gets a funky moment when she gets into a big drawn out physical fight with Rita while in front of some shocked and refined guests at a garden party.

The only part that doesn’t really work is John P. Ryan’s as an overly-stressed police sergeant, which doesn’t gel and is not funny. Cheech Marin can be spotted in a brief bit as a bartender.

The story itself lacks originality and at times gets convoluted and even confusing. Mixing moments of humor with gritty scenes of graphic violence gives the whole thing a very uneven feel. Yet there were still some segments that I like and even got into including the part where Rita finds herself trapped and surrounded while inside a crack house. I found the dialogue to be sharp and witty and am at a loss as to why critic Leonard Maltin describes it as being ‘mind-bogglingly awful’ in his book and my only conclusion is that he just didn’t get the humor and should probably give it another view.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: October 30, 1987

Runtime: 1Hour 44Minutes

Rated R

Director: Tom Holland

Studio: MGM

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video

The Pleasure Seekers (1964)

the pleasure seekers

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Finding romance in Spain.

Three young American women decide to room together in Madrid. Fran (Ann-Margret) is the flirtatious, sexy one. Maggie (Carol Lynley) is more stoic and sensible while Susie (Pamela Tiffin) is the most naïve of the trio. Fran falls in-love with a dashing young doctor while Maggie has an affair with her much older boss Paul (Brian Keith) and Susie tries to get her playboy boyfriend Emilio (Anthony Franciosa) to settle down and marry her.

The film is cute and engaging for the most part and helped mainly by the performances and contrasting personalities of the three female leads. Ann-Margret is quite sensual especially when she sings and dances in her bikini on the beach. She also does a great rendition of the film’s title tune and I was at a lost as to why it wasn’t played over the opening credits as it has a definite verve and bounce. Lynley is solid as the more jaded worldly-wise of the three and helps give the story an anchor. Tiffin is amusing with her wide-eyed comments and despite being considered dumb turns out to be quite clever in the way she manipulates her womanizing boyfriend.

I was hoping the film would focus more on their living arrangement as it is evident from the beginning that their different habits and perspectives would be ripe for interesting comic scenarios. Instead the film veers almost exclusively to the romance angle, which makes the film one-dimensional and dangerously close to being completely vapid. Certain prime comic set-ups do not get followed through on and the part where Susie allows herself to be lead into Emilio’s car before she even knows his name is just too recklessly insane even for a more innocent era. The songs are sparse and spread so far apart that you almost forget that it is a musical. I did like the flamingo dance segment done on stage by a talented male performer and then later at the beach by two children who couldn’t have been more than 3-years-old.

Normally I am a great admirer of Brian Keith, but his appearance here is all wrong. His gruff, brash manner does not work as a love interest and there is absolutely no chemistry between he and Lynley making their love affair seem unbelievable. This was also Gene Tierney’s last film.  She gets a rather thankless, small part as Keith’s jilted, bitter wife. Her hair is much shorter and she looks very middle-aged and lost all her youthful beauty that she had during her classic film roles of the 40’s and 50’s, but her confrontation with Lynley during a party is okay.

Basically this is an updated version of Three Coins in the Fountain, which was done by the same director and the only difference being that it took place in Rome. The film is pleasant enough to be watchable, but rather empty and mindless and best suited for romantics looking for an evening of mild entertainment.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: December 25, 1964

Runtime: 1Hour 46Mintutes

Not Rated

Director: Jean Negulesco

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Not Available at this time.

House Calls (1978)

house calls

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Playboy tries mending ways.

Walter Matthau is by all means an incredibly talented performer and a joy to watch. However, in the looks department he rates pretty low and may be one of the ugliest leading men this side of Don Knotts. Yet this film practically shoots itself in the foot from the very beginning by portraying, with a straight face, Matthau as a doctor who has become a super hunk/chick magnet. All the hot young women are chasing after him! His locker is filled with their love letters and he actually beds a different one each night!!! Problems ensue though when he falls for Ann (Glenda Jackson) who is one of his patients. She is a middle- aged woman who is a bit ‘rough around the edges’. She wants him to drop his playboy ways and commit solely to her, yet he is not sure he can.

This is an overly smug, ‘sophisticated’ comedy that is too light and easy going and in desperate need for a fuller story and little more conflict. The comedy should have been broader instead of just being a long precession of glib one-liners. There’s a few comic set ups that are never even followed through on. However, Art Carney’s eulogy to a dead baseball owner and their subsequent burial of him underneath home plate is good.

The casting of Jackson is one of the few inspired things about this film. Her sharp British wit is a perfect foil to Matthau’s laid-back style, but it doesn’t play it up enough. Their one true ‘confrontation’ doesn’t come until the very end and although the spat is definitely contrived it does at least offer the lively fun you expected of this from the very beginning.

Another problem with this film is that it tries to mix the old fashioned romantic comedy with modern day sensibilities. The silly ‘goof ups’ at the hospital really don’t seem so funny when only a few years earlier these same problems were shown in the excellent film The Hospital with much more serious ramifications. It also looks awkward to have such ‘old school’ middle-agers suddenly jumping into the trendy ‘70’s lifestyle of casual sex and one-night-stands.

There is also the stilted habit of referring to sex as ‘humping’. This seems like a very dated, antiquated term even for back then. Let’s face it this is a slow moving comedy made specifically for adults and kids really wouldn’t want to see it anyways, so striving for the ‘PG’ rating was futile. They should’ve sucked it up, accepted the ‘R’ rating and called sex ‘fucking’ like everybody else.

Jackson and Matthau were later reunited in the 1980 film Hopscotch.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: March 15, 1978

Runtime: 1Hour 38Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Howard Zieff

Studio: Universal

Available: VHS, DVD

Chan is Missing (1982)


By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Chan has their money.

This is a story about Jo (Wood Moy) and Steve (Marc Hayasi) two cab drivers who go throughout Chinatown looking for a man named Chan who took their money and then disappeared. If you have never been to San Francisco’s Chinatown district then this film gives you an illuminating look of what it is like. It shows you everything from its atmosphere, to the landscape, and even its people and their attitudes. At times it is almost like a documentary, which this probably should have been in the first place.

The main cab driver who we follow around in his search is fun in a sort of offbeat way. He is old, short, and very dopey looking. He goes about his investigation in a low key sort of way. After a while he starts to grow on you especially when he makes his wry observations.

Unfortunately these are the only two good things about this film, which on the whole is boring and heavy-handed. The search for Chan is merely an excuse by director Wayne Wang to show how difficult it is for Chinese to assimilate into American society and how they are always looked upon as ‘foreigners’, and the lack of opportunities. It is sort of like one of those movies you watched when you were in grade school where the flimsy plot was just an excuse to try to teach you something. This one works the same way where it seems more like a lecture than a movie.

Technically it is inadequate. The majority of the characters are non-actors who seem to be just mouthing the lines that they have memorized. There is also no action and a desperate need for some humor even the low-key kind could’ve helped the flow.

Certainly director Wang has gone on to do bigger, better, more sophisticated things. This film can best be viewed as an early student project, which it resembles in many ways.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: June 4, 1982

Runtime: 1Hour 20Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Wayne Wang

Studio: New Yorker Films

Available: VHS, DVD

Man on the Roof (1976)

man on the roof 3

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Sniper shoots at police.

Police officer Stefan Nyman (Harald Hamrell) is shot and killed by an unknown gunman. During the investigation police detective Martin Beck (Carl-Gustaf Lindstedt) finds that Nyman was an officer who used brutal and sometimes unethical conduct in his dealings with suspects. Beck begins to consider this as a possible motive, but before he can decide on that the sniper climbs on top of a high rise building in downtown Stockholm and begins shooting and killing all uniformed officers.

The first hour of this Swedish production is different from just about any other police drama you’ve seen. The investigation is slow and meticulous and the identity of the killer is kept a complete mystery.  There is no heart pounding soundtrack and all the scenes are handled in a nicely subdued fashion.  The tension mounts slowly, but deliberately until it finally wraps you into it and becomes riveting.

By contrast the second hour is handled completely differently to the point that it almost seems like two movies in one. The second half becomes this high adrenaline action pic that includes an exciting helicopter crash, but it all proves jarring when compared to the first hour.

man on the roof 1

The story is also too reminiscent of the real-life Charles Whitman incident that occurred in Austin, Texas in 1966.  The ending is much too abrupt and leaves open too many loose ends and a more composite portrait of the killer would have also helped.

This film definitely has its moments both in action, drama and dialogue and is considered highly influential to the modern police dramas that we see today, but the way it comes together is a mishmash. Director Bo Widerberg was known for his poor planning and constantly rewriting scenes and dialogue sometimes while he was sitting on the toilet. The behind-the-scenes atmosphere of his productions was filled with chaos and confusion and the results can be easily detected here. Viewers that enjoy the first half may not like the second one and vice versa.

man on the roof 2

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: October 1, 1976

Runtime: 1Hour 50Minutes

Rated R

Director: Bo Widerberg

Studio: Svensk Filmindustri

Available: DVD (Region 2)

Clara’s Heart (1988)

claras heart

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Clara dispenses her wisdom.

Leona (Kathleen Quinlan) is spending some time at a Jamaican resort trying to recuperate from the sudden loss of her infant daughter. There she meets Clara (Whoopi Goldberg) who is working as a maid there. The two quickly strike up a friendship and Leona then hires Clara to come home with her and take care of her 10-year-old son David (Neil Patrick Harris). David does not like Clara at first, but the two eventually attain a strong bond especially after his parent’s divorce.

After some box office failures with her comical films Goldberg decided to go back to doing drama with so-so results. The whole way that Clara gets hired on as a nanny seems awkward, forced and too quick and screenwriter Mark Medoff should have thought up a better scenario. Clara isn’t completely likable as she has a pushy personality and dispenses her opinions on her employers whether they ask for it or not. Eventually David’s father Bill (Michael Ontkean) stands up to her, but I think others would have confronted her sooner or even fired her.

The runtime is much too long for such slight and predictable material. The whole second half gets consumed with this deep dark secret about the death of Clara’s son Robbie and when she does finally tell David the story it is a nasty one especially for a supposedly ‘family friendly’ film such as this one. It also brings out the question that if Clara raised a son that was so very troubled why then would she be so confident about knowing how to raise someone else’s?

Harris is outstanding in his film debut and really helps to carry the movie along. The sarcastic and glib comments that he spews out is the film’s highlight.  The big glasses that he wears seemed too reminiscent to the Corey Haim character in Lucas, which came out just a couple of years before this one. I was also confused why during a school swim meet he would be the only one wearing a T-shirt when all the other swimmers weren’t.

Spalding Gray appears in support as Leona’s new boyfriend. The script though does not take advantage of Gray’s unique talents and the film would have been better served had they allowed him to ad-lib and improvise.  Also, the woman who plays Bill’s new love interest looks too much like Leona and in a visual medium such as this it is usually better to emphasize contrast.

The production values are good and I loved the large home that David’s family lives in and the by-the-lake location. However, the material is too formulaic and Clara’s and David’s bonding sessions become strained and corny. The film’s ‘feel-good’ message is lost in an approach that is sterile, mechanical, and by-the-numbers.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: October 7, 1988

Runtime: 1Hour 48Minutes

Rated PG-13

Director: Robert Mulligan

Available: VHS, Amazon Instant Video

The New Interns (1964)

the new interns

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: More interns more drama.

It’s another year and time for a new set of young interns to infiltrate the New North Hospital.  Lew (Dean Jones) and Gloria (Stefanie Powers) who became engaged at the end of the first film are now married, but Lew is diagnosed as being sterile and the couple cannot have children, which causes a strain on their marriage.  The caustic Tony (George Segal) who used to be a gang member on the streets and has worked his way up to being an intern looks to leave his troubled past far behind only to have his new girlfriend Nancy (Inger Stevens) attacked and raped by his former gang member friends, which sends him on a one man mission for revenge.

Although the film goes on a bit too long and isn’t quite as compelling as the first one I still felt it was an improvement.  The stories and themes are grittier and don’t have the fluffy or formulaic romance angle. The fact that the interns are housed in a rundown condemned building in order to save on costs allows for some amusing moments as the tenants must make due with all sorts of quirks that come with the old building. There is also a rather startling scene showing an actual baby coming out of the womb who is not crying or breathing  and the doctors attempts to revive it, which is both disconcerting and vivid.

The only story thread that doesn’t work is the rape one. The biggest issue here being that Nancy flirts and even jokes with Tony while she is in the hospital and only a few hours after being attacked, which seemed highly unrealistic as is her acting like the whole incident was ‘no big deal’ and they should just move on from it and not bother to catch the perpetrators. Then a couple of days later she attends a party and something there subtly reminds her of the incident, which sends her into an irreversible catatonic state, which seemed too extreme in the other way. However, Tony’s confrontation with the rapist inside the hospital and his later operation on him to save is life is good.

Segal is impressive. He played so many touch feely lead roles during the 70’s that he acquired almost a benign persona, but here his character is quite brash and acerbic and his confrontations with the equally acerbic Dr. Riccio (Telly Savalas) are fun. Stevens is also quite good as his love interest and it is a shame that she ended up killing herself in 1970 just as it seemed that her film career was ready to take off.

As with the first film one can spot a lot of up-and-coming stars including Barbara Eden, Dawn Wells, George Furth, Marianna Hill, and Adam Williams. One can also spot Bob Crane very briefly during a wild party segment. There is also Sue Ann Langdon as a drug addicted prostitute who speaks in a hip lingo and fakes paralysis simply to get some drugs that will satisfy her fix. This also a unique chance to see Jimmy Mathers the younger brother of Jerry famous for starring in ‘Leave it to Beaver’ and who looks just like him.

A few actors reprise their roles from the first one including Savalas who appears here completely bald even though in the first one he had hair. Powers is effective as the opinionated and stubborn Gloria a woman unhappy that she can’t have a baby and unwilling to accept adoption as the answer. Kaye Stevens reprises her Didi character and takes part in a funny vaudeville act. There is also Michael Callan reappearing as Alec who in the first film ended up having a nervous breakdown, but no mention of that here. The part where he dresses up as a woman to get into the girl’s dorm and his ‘conversation’ with his therapist offer some added levity.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: June 1, 1964

Runtime: 2Hours 3Minutes

Not Rated

Director: John Rich

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Not available at this time.