Monthly Archives: June 2014

The Runner Stumbles (1979)

the runner stumbles 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Priest accused of murder.

Based on actual events the setting is 1911 in a northern Michigan town where Father Brian Rivard (Dick Van Dyke) presides over a small Catholic parish. He feels frustrated at being stuck in such a depressed town where many of the residents are out of work. In comes Sister Rita (Kathleen Quinlan) to help run the school and the Father immediately takes a liking to her youthful enthusiasm and fresh ideas, but gossip and rumors soon abound when it is found that they are spending too much time together and possibly becoming intimate. When the Sister is found murdered it is the Father who is accused and must fight for his life while straddled with an attorney (Beau Bridges) who seems glib and detached.

One of the biggest problems with the film is the miscasting of Van Dyke in the lead. His performance is stiff, wooden and affected. The chemistry between the two stars is non-existent making the romantic angle seem completely unbelievable. The film would have been better served had a younger man that was more Quinlan’s age and trained in method acting been cast in the part.

Quinlan is excellent in her role, but her efforts become lost as they bounce off Van Dyke’s almost corpse-like presence. Maureen Stapleton adds some excellent support and it’s great to see Ray Bolger in his final film role as the intrusive Monsignor. Bridges is also great as the lawyer and the one thing that livens the film up a little. Had his court scenes been more extended it would have helped the picture immensely.

Director Stanley Kramer, whose last film this was, seems to have lost touch with the modern movie goer. The presentation is stagy and the overly melodic soundtrack does not fit the mood and gets overplayed almost like a radio going on in the background that somebody forgot to turn off. The conversations revolving around the predictably stifling atmosphere of the era add little interest and go on too long as do the debates between giving in to human desires versus religious commitments. The surprise ending hardly makes up for a film that is slow and boring and ultimately making it as stale and stagnant as the small town it tries to portray.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: November 16, 1979

Runtime: 1Hour 49Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Stanley Kramer

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: VHS

Lord of the Flies (1963)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Kids turn into savages.

Based on the William Golding novel that has been required reading for most high school students. The story centers on a group of British schoolboys who survive a plane crash on an uninhabited tropical island. The boys are of varying ages, but none older than 14. Ralph (James Aubrey) is chosen as their leader, but finds almost immediate friction from Jack (Tom Chapin) who is an aggressive type that likes to hunt and doesn’t tolerate being told what to do. As things progress Jack breaks off from the main group and eventually starts his own following that comes to odds with Ralph’s. More and more of the boys join Jack and start to display savage behavior that leads to two deaths and puts the frightened Ralph on the run and into hiding.

It has been three decades since I’ve read the book, so I can’t really compare it with the film. The criticisms that I have are aimed solely at the film although as I remember the book had some of the same issues. One of the biggest ones is just the fact that there are so many survivors from a plane crash and all of them are conveniently the kids while all the adults perishing, which seems to play too much against the odds. There are also no scratches, bruises or injuries, which you usually come about with a crash even amongst those that survive it. Director Peter Brook does a clever job of intimating a plane disaster at the beginning over the opening credits through use of photographs, which I found to be creative, but showing an actual destroyed plane with kids getting out of it would have given it a little better foundation.

There is also another segment where the kids are convinced some sort of strange beast is on the island and as they go searching for it, it is found to a pilot in a helmet who was killed while trying to parachute to safety. Yet the kids don’t seem to realize this and remain frightened of it. I realize the setting is the 1940’s around the time of the war, but I would still think the kids of that time would have been sophisticated enough to recognize a dead man in a fighter helmet and the fact that they don’t seems pretty odd and even farfetched.

Overall though I really enjoyed the film and feel reluctant to watch the 1990 remake as I am afraid it would ruin the experience of this one.  It was filmed on-location off the island of Vieques in Puerto Rico during late August of 1961. The entire cast was made up of amateur actors who had not read the book. There was no actual script and the boys were allowed to ad-lib their lines, which helps give it an extra air of realism.

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I will admit there are shots where some of the boys look bored and detached from things, but then again I suppose boys that age can be that way anyways no matter what situation they are, so in some ways it doesn’t really hurt things. Hugh Edwards who plays Piggy is a real standout and apparently got the role simply by writing a letter to director Brook and informing him that he was fat and wore spectacles.

The black and white photography helps heighten the dark undertones. The shot showing a close-up of the pig’s head on top of a stake with flies’ going in and out of its mouth and nostrils is quite impressive and a brilliant realized moment from the book. The climatic sequence where Ralph must run through the burning foliage to escape the other boys is quite intense. The shot showing a dead boy’s body floating in the water under the moonlight has an evocative flair, but fake looking to the extent that the child was stabbed to death and yet has no visible wounds or blood coming out.

On the DVD commentary Brook states that he likes to believe something like this couldn’t happen. That we have somehow evolved enough as a human race where this savagery would be impossible, but I respectively this disagree. I think this could very well happen in this day and age which is what makes this an infinitely fascinating look at human nature and ultimately a great movie.

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My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: August 13, 1963

Runtime: 1Hour 32Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Peter Brook

Studio: Continental Distributing

Available: VHS, DVD (Criterion Collection), Amazon Instant Video

Ladyhawke (1985)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Trying to reunite lovers.

Philipe (Matthew Broderick) is a thief who manages to escape the confines of the dungeon in Aquila by squeezing through a prison drain and then swimming through the underground sewer. When he finally reaches safety he meets up with Navarre (Rutger Hauer) who is also on the run and straddle with a very strange curse placed on him by the Bishop (John Wood). It seems that the Bishop had a thing for Lady Isabeau (Michelle Pfeiffer) and became enraged when he found that she loved Navarre and not him. As part of his revenge he made it so Navarre and Isabeau will never be able to meet in human form by having Navarre turn into a werewolf by night while Isabeau becomes a hawk by day. Now Navarre wants to use the reluctant Philipe’s knowledge of the city to help him find the Bishop and kill him, which he hopes will then end the curse.

I have to admit that medieval fantasy is my least favorite of all movie genres. The archaic living conditions always comes off as gloomy and depressing and the fact that the action is limited to only swordplay seems to make it less exciting. However, the film has some impressive cinematography and Broderick’s humorous character kept me engaged most of the way.

I also liked the pounding Philharmonic musical score. I realize that it doesn’t fit the sound of the 13th century setting and some fans of the film hate it for just that reason, but it still gives the film distinctiveness and helps boost the energy. I was actually disappointed it wasn’t used more as it seems to taper off too much after booming out strong at the beginning.

I am so used to seeing Hauer playing dark characters that I was initially thrown having him play a good guy, but pleasantly surprised at how well he did it. Leo McKern is a standout as the elderly Imperius.  His castle residence is marvelously captured and I loved all the booby traps he has in store for the invading soldiers. Pfeiffer on the other hand is a bit miscast mainly due to her model-like face that seems too glossy for the time period.

The exciting jousting sequence that takes place during the finale between Hauer and actor Alfred Molina’s character is outstanding, but it takes too damn long to get there. The simple plot could have been wrapped up in a much briefer runtime. The second hour is filled with a lot side dialogue and scenarios that add nothing to the story or characters and should’ve been cut completely. The romance angle is also handled too much from the perspective of a 14-year-old schoolgirl and the scene where the lovers reunite could be deemed as corny by some.

There is also the issue of Navarre looking directly at an eclipse that conveniently occurs through a broken stain glass window in a church. Normally a person would have to shield their eyes with their hand, squint or at the very least turn away from it after only a few seconds. Yet this character stares at it for an extended period without even blinking, which at the very least would’ve burned dark spots into his field of vision and yet strangely that doesn’t occur.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: April 12, 1985

Runtime: 2Hours 4Minutes

Rated PG-13

Director: Richard Donner

Studio: Warner Brothers

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

 

The People Next Door (1970)

the people next door 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Daughter is on drugs.

Arthur and Gerrie Mason (Eli Wallach, Julie Harris) are a middle-aged couple living the comfortable suburban existence, which comes tumbling apart in a matter of only a few short weeks. It starts when their daughter Maxie (Deborah Winters) dabbles in acid and is sent to a mental institution. Acrimony and in-fighting commence and even with family counseling nothing helps. As both Maxie’s and Gerrie’s mental condition deteriorates it seems like their family unit is doomed while their neighbors David and Tina Hoffman (Hal Holbrook, Cloris Leachman) have issues of their own including the shock at finding out that their son Sandy (Don Scardino) is a drug dealer and was the one that gave Maxie the acid that sent things spiraling out-of-control.

There were many movies about the drug culture made during the 60’s and 70’s and many of them weren’t very good, but this one I have always liked. It is not that it doesn’t have its share of flaws like the others although not as many, but it is the performance by Winters (no relation) that knocks this to a whole new level.  Although only 17 at the time she exudes an amazing amount of composure and tackles some difficult scenes with ease and naturalism. Her blue eyes penetrate the screen, which director David Greene takes full advantage of especially during her acid trips, which get pretty freaky.

Two scenes of hers in particular really stand out and are worth catching. One is where she takes some acid and then strips off all of her clothes and goes running outside in the nude through the snow banks of their suburban neighborhood while singing and dancing to some strange song. Another is when she runs away from home and Wallach tracks her down living in squalor in a seedy, rundown apartment building with her boyfriend. When Wallach finds her she hops out of bed stark naked and walks over to him and plants him a deep kiss, which makes him violently slap her to the ground.

There are a few other interesting moments including one that takes place during a group counseling session where a young man of 20 named Wally (played by Matthew Cowles who later went on to marry actress Christine Baranski) berates in front of everyone his elderly parents who had him at a late age and he now finds them to be too old and embarrassing. The scene where David and Tina confront their son late at night about his drug dealing is also compelling.

The script by J.P. Miller has some emotionally high moments and hits on the issues of family strife head-on in a way that I felt is still impactful and relevant. Some critics argued that because Miller and director Greene were already 50 at the time that they were ‘out-of-touch’ with the youth generation, which to some extent may be valid, but the drama itself is strong and in the end that is what counts.

The only weak link is that of Wallach and Harris two very good actors who become wasted here. Both are locked in caricatures that are too broad and rigid and at times turn the thing into a heavy-handed soap opera. The correlation to the fact that while the daughter takes drugs they continue to smoke and drink becomes a bit too obvious and overplayed.

The story was originally made as a TV-movie that was broadcast on October 15, 1968 on CBS. Winters, Scardino as well as Nehemiah Persoff who plays the doctor at the institution play the same roles on that one that they do here. Lloyd Bridges and Kim Hunter played Winters’ parents and Fritz Weaver and Phyllis Newman were the Hoffman’s.

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My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: August 26, 1970

Runtime: 1Hour 33Minutes

Rated R

Director: David Greene

Studio: AVCO Embassy Pictures

Available: None at this time.

Hotel (1967)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Drama at the hotel.

Warren Trent (Melvyn Douglas) has been the owner of a large, luxurious New Orleans hotel for years, but finds that his old fashioned business ideas no longer mesh with the modern consumer. The place is losing money and he turns to Peter (Rod Taylor) the hotel manager and loyal employee to help find a suitable buyer.  Curtis O’Keefe (Kevin McCarthy) wants to purchase the place, but his plans call for too many changes that Peter doesn’t like. However, Curtis’s beautiful girlfriend Jeanne (Catherine Spaak) takes an interest in Peter that makes Curtis uneasy. There is also the Duke of Lanbourne (Michael Rennie) staying as a guest with his wife Caroline (Merle Oberon) who inadvertently kills a child during a hit-and-run accident that the two try desperately to cover up. On top of this is Keycase (Karl Malden) a small-time crook who has made copies of all the room keys and uses them to break into the rooms of the guests and steal their money while they sleep.

I loved the locale, but the film fails to capitalize on it. We never see a bird’s eye view of the city despite numerous references to its distinct landmarks and although there are a few outdoor scenes done in its crowded neighborhoods there wasn’t enough of them and the viewer fails to take in the full unique flavor of the region. None of the characters have southern accents or characteristics and in a lot of ways the setting could just as easily have been downtown Manhattan.

I was also disappointed that we never see an actual shot of the building. There are a few exterior shots of the entrance way, but nothing of the building as a whole despite a drawing of one on the movie poster, which then fails to give the viewer a complete sense of the hotel’s presumed immensity. The interior background has the expected gaudiness, but it is rather unimaginative and I actually felt the interior of Peter’s small, loft apartment was more visually creative and interesting.

Johnny Keating’s music score is yet another issue. It is distinctive and melodic at the beginning particularly over the opening credit sequence that features a colorful drawing of the hotel that I liked, but during the second half it becomes too jazzy, loud and obnoxious.

Catherine Spaak with her delicate beauty is a major asset. Not only is she drop-dead gorgeous, but she can act as well. McCarthy gets a good latter career role as the spiritual, but crafty businessman who will stop at almost nothing to get his way. It is also great to see Merle Oberon in her second-to-last film as the perpetually conniving Duchess.

Based on the Arthur Hailey novel it is inevitable to compare this to the classic Grand Hotel, which was far superior. However, the drama is intriguing enough to keep it interesting on a passive level. The scene involving a jammed elevator and the desperate attempts to save the occupants is exciting and well photographed and worth catching simply for that.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: January 19, 1967

Runtime: 2Hours 4Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Richard Quine

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: VHS, DVD (Warner Archive)

Luggage of the Gods! (1983)

luggage of the gods

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Cavemen find some luggage.

This is a bizarre hybrid between Quest for Fire and The Gods Must Be Crazy that really doesn’t work at any level. The story focuses on a lost tribe of cavepeople living somewhere in the deep jungle and what happens when they come into contact with luggage that was dropped from an airplane.

The natural inclination is that this was an American rip-off of The Gods Must Be Crazy as that film was released two years earlier, but really didn’t become the international hit until it was released in the U.S. in 1984, which was a full year after his one came out, so it is hard to tell. Either way this film doesn’t have the charm or gentle humor as that one did and has a glaring amount of loopholes that makes no sense. A viewer can be willing to suspend their disbelief even in a fanciful story, but there still needs to be some overriding logic and explanation of some kind even a quirky one and this has neither.

For instance are we really supposed to believe in this modern age that there are people living somewhere on the planet in a Neanderthal state? I’ve heard of third-word nations, but this has to be fifth or sixth world. How do they come into contact with a plane? Do they go through a time warp, or does the plane? Also, how many plane crews will arbitrarily dump out the entire luggage from their cargo bay the minute there is trouble with the engine? On top of that one of the cave ladies has a curly perm hairdo. Where did she get that from the local cave lady hairstylist?

The scenes showing the cave people interacting with each other becomes quite tedious mainly because they don’t speak any English and communicate through an odd language that the viewer cannot understand. It would have helped had there been some subtitles and might have actually made it funnier. Also, the segments showing the cave people opening up the luggage and their bewilderment at all the items they find inside is quite predictable and one-note.

When two of the plane’s passengers come into contact with the tribe later on while looking for their lost luggage it only adds to the films mounting incongruities.  When one of the men lights a match and holds it in front of one of the cavemen he somehow instinctually pulls out a cigar that he found in the luggage and lights it, but how would he have known that is what a cigar is for? When one of the men asks about a specific crate the cave people immediately knows what he means and even repeat the word, but again how?

I’m all for weird offbeat movie ideas, but this one leaves so many loose ends that it is hard to get into it from the start. Despite its brief 78 minute runtime it is still way too long and ultimately quite boring and pointless.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: June 4, 1983

Runtime: 1Hour 18Minutes

Rated PG

Director: David Kendall

Studio: General Pictures

Available: VHS, Amazon Instant Video