Monthly Archives: May 2015

Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980)

return of the secaucus 7

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: They like to talk.

Seven people who were friends during college reunite ten years after having been arrested while on their way to a demonstration of the Vietnam War. Mike and Katie (Bruce MacDonald, Maggie Renzi) are the hosts and live together while also both being school teachers. J.T. (Adam LeFevre) is a struggling musician looking to finally take a stab at the big time by moving to L.A. Irene (Jean Passanante) is a speech writer for a conservative politician who brings along her new boyfriend Chip (Gordon Clapp) while Maura (Karen Trott) has just broken up with her boyfriend Jeff (Mark Arnott) and starts a fling with J.T. only to have Jeff reappear and wanting to start the old relationship back up.

This film is noted as being the forerunner of the independent film movement. It was made on a budget of less than $60,000, but first time director John Sayles manages to camouflage it well. The variety of shots and camera angles never allow you to realize that the whole thing was done in one location, a ski lodge that he managed to rent out for the summer at a low rate. The dialogue has a great conversational quality and the characters are nicely textured and multi-dimensional making it seem like the camera is capturing an actual reunion. The acting, which was mainly done by performers who had never appeared in a film before is equally good with my favorite being Sayles himself who appears as the character Howie who has one really good scene where he warns his friend Mike to think ‘long and hard’ about getting married while his wife stands behind him looking none too happy hearing him say it.

The biggest problem is that not enough happens. There’s a lot of talking, but story wise it is almost plotless. The few action segments deals with the men playing a rough game of basketball and also a trip to a river bed where they go skinny dipping to the background music of yodeling, but these scenes tend to meander while adding little to the character development.

It’s nice seeing a movie that attacks gender stereotypes by having the woman being the one to change a flat tire as well as having all the nudity shown being that of the men and not the ladies. There are also a few touching moments where Irene is willing to give J.T. a significant amount of money to help him in his struggling career without expecting any payment back, but in the end it all goes nowhere. The characters are just too genteel, which fails to create any type of interesting drama. I was more intrigued with exploring what these people were like in college and how they had changed after entering the adult world, but the film barely touches on that, which to me made it boring and empty.

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My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: April 11, 1980

Runtime: 1Hour 43Minutes

Rated R

Director: John Sayles

Studio: Salsipuedes Productions

Available: VHS, DVD, Hulu

A Jolly Bad Fellow (1964)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: He poisons his enemies.

Professor Kerris Bowles-Ottery (Leo McKern) is a college professor working in the university’s science lab where he conducts experiments on mice. One day he accidently comes upon a poison that kills the mice, but only after sending them into a brief euphoric state, which he then decides to use on his enemies. Only a little bit of it is needed to work, so he is able to use all sorts of methods to get them to ingest it including putting it into their drinks, as well as the cigarettes they smoke, and even dabbing a bit of it on a tip of a pencil, which one of the character’s routinely likes to lick before he begins writing with it. Things go quite smoothly until his wife Clarinda (Maxine Audley) leaves him, which upsets him enough that he become careless and eventually culminates with ironic results.

The film’s chief asset is McKern’s presence whose acerbic delivery and facial expressions perfectly captures a stuffy, pompous curmudgeon in highly humorous fashion. He nails every scene that he is in, but his best moment comes at the very end when he hops into his car and begins driving at high speeds throughout the English countryside while giving off a loud, long maniacal laugh.

The plot is thick with satire, but doesn’t go far enough with it. Just when it seems to be catching its stride it bogs down with an affair that McKern has with a much young woman (Janet Munro) that didn’t make a lot of sense. I could see why he’d be into her, but no so much why she would have the hots for him although the fact that he does seem to truly love his wife even when he fools around on her and becomes upset when she decides to leave him was excellent irony.

The funniest element is when he poisons his enemies and rivals many of whom are as pompous and stuck-up as he is. Watching these refined, stuffy people suddenly act silly and child-like is quite amusing, but again the film stops short of packing the punch as these scenes should’ve been more extended, which is the one thing that makes this potentially hilarious film not half as funny as it could’ve been.

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My Rating: 5 out of 10

Alternate Title: They All Died Laughing

Released: March 15, 1964

Runtime: 1Hour 34Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Don Chaffey

Studio: British Lion Film Corporation

Available: DVD

Tropic of Cancer (1970)

tropic of cancer

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Writer living in Paris.

Rip Torn plays author Henry Miller living in Paris during the 1930’s and struggling to find work, shelter and money. He spends his time shoplifting items from food stands while also having sexual conquests with prostitutes and even the wives of his friends.

The film is based on Miller’s landmark novel that was published in France in 1934, but banned in the US until 1961 and even then went through several obscenity  lawsuits, which were finally all dropped in 1964 when the US Supreme Court deemed the book to have artistic merit. The novel, which is considered highly influential and won wide critical acclaim, has an odd mixture of stream-of-consciousness elements as well as autobiographical ones that works well in book form due to Miller’s first person narrative, but fails on the big screen. It was never meant to be made into a movie and director Joseph Strick’s ambitious attempt to make it into one, who just three years earlier tried to do the same thing with James Joyce’s equally unfilmable novel Ulysses seems futile and ridiculous.

The production looks cheap and lacks any type of atmosphere or visual flair. The setting is supposed to be the late 20’s, but it hardly seems like it. The acting is weak particularly by the supporting actresses playing the prostitutes who almost come off like people pulled off the street with no acting training of any kind.

The film’s most notorious claim to fame like with the book was its explicit sexual content that by today’s standards seems quite tepid. There are some nude scenes here and there including seeing actress Ellen Burstyn fully naked from the front, but it adds little. The best stuff is Torn’s voice over-narration describing his character’s sexual fantasies much of which was lifted directly from the novel. This was the first film to ever use the word ‘cunt’ and it gets said frequently. In fact it’s the character’s sexual conversations and the caustic way women get described in them that are the most amusing thing about the movie.

A few other funny moments include Miller having sex with a prostitute while she is also taking care of her sick mother and who would sometimes leave the bed to look in on her and although Miller initially pays the woman for her ‘services’ he eventually steals it back when she is away during one of her trips to her mother’s room. Miller’s roommate Carl (David Baur) has a great scene where he writes love letters to a woman he wants to have sex with and the two finally meet only to have the actual encounter not live up to the fantasy.

This was filmed at the same time as Quiet Days in Clichy, which was also based on the same novel. Both films were made in Paris and Henry Miller would routinely sit-in on the productions, which were done not far from the other. However, despite an admiral attempt the movie comes off as flat and boring and the viewer would be far better off skipping this and reading the source material instead as the only time it ever gels is when it uses text taken directly from the book.

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My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: February 27, 1970

Runtime: 1Hour 27Minutes

Rated X (Reissued as NC-17)

Director: Joseph Strick

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube

Vagabond (1985)

vagabond 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: She has no home.

Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire) is a young woman of about 20 who wanders the South French countryside in the dead of winter searching for food and money. She camps out in a small tent wherever there is space including at one point even a cemetery. She is offered a few odd jobs here and there, but she never lasts long in them and resents being ‘bossed around’. She makes a few acquaintances along the way and even a couple of male lovers, but like with her jobs she doesn’t get settled with anyone for too long.

The best aspect of this critically acclaimed French film that is directed by the legendary Agnes Varda is that it avoids the political correctness. Most films especially Hollywood ones tend to portray the poor and homeless as humble and contrite, but the main character here is anything but. She is arrogant and aloof to those around here even the ones that offer her help. She acts strangely entitled in even in the direst of situations and in many ways almost oblivious to how truly desperate she is. Varda creates a richly textured character that while not likable and sometimes even confounding still manages to be always fascinating.

The narrative works in vignette style starting with some farmhands finding her dead, frozen body in a field and then progressing backwards showing the last few weeks of her life and the people that she met. To some degree this is interesting as it reveals how others see her some of whom are even jealous of her ‘freedom’ and ‘independence’ while also exploring how everyone can make a lasting impression on others even if they seem insignificant and the encounter brief. However, the segments where these characters speak directly to the camera comes off as jarring, clumsy and heavy-handed and it would’ve been nice had these same reactions been worked into the story in more of a subtle and sophisticated way.

My biggest issue with the film and in many ways it’s most disappointing aspect is that we learn nothing of this woman’s background. What exactly brought her to do this? Was it by choice or circumstances? Where’s her family and what about her upbringing? None of this is shown or talked about making this character study not only frustrating, but incomplete.

The character also gets sexually assaulted at one point, which to a degree brings added realism, but she is shown not to suffer any post-traumatic stress from the incident, which was not believable. Also, having the film begin with her death hurts the tension and it would’ve been more compelling had we not known her ultimate fate until the very end.

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My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: December 4, 1985

Runtime: 1Hour 45Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Agnes Varda

Studio: MK2 Diffusion

Available: DVD (Criterion Collection)

The Holy Mountain (1973)

holy mountain 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: They search for immortality.

In what seems like a sort-of sequel to Jodorowsky’s cult hit El Topo this film deals with the same type of Christ-like figure and religious metaphor’s. The story centers on a man known as The Thief (Horacio Salinas) who meets up with an alchemist (Alexander Jodorowsky) who introduces him to seven people representing the planets of the solar system as well as the sins of greed, lust and power. The group is instructed to leave their worldly possessions behind as well as their individual identities so that they can become one while they trek up the treacherous terrain of the Holy Mountain where they hope to acquire immortality.

In a lot of ways this film is superior to El Topo simply because it has a bigger budget and more slickly handled. The background sets are dazzling and at some points even amazing. On a purely visual level this film borders on being brilliant and could be enjoyed simply on that note alone. I also really enjoyed the humor and satire. The war manufacturer that makes psychedelic ammunitions to appease the younger generation is great as is the naked woman implanting a giant phallic object into a robotic machine in order to allow it to obtain an orgasm and given birth to a baby robot.

Jodorowsky’s excessive use of shock elements is here as well and for some it becomes the main point of watching it. Within the first 30 minutes alone you’ll see two beautiful women being stripped naked and having their heads shaved. An old man taking his glass eye out and placing it in the hands of a young girl and a young boy being castrated and then putting his testicles into a glass jar, which he places on a shelf lined with other glass jars filled with other testicles. Later on there’s even a scene showing a cow mating with another and a shot of a naked elderly man breast feeding another man. By the end it all starts to get rather mind numbing, but on a purely exploitative level it’s kind of fun because it’s something that most likely could never be filmed today and thus cementing why 70’s cinema is so special and in many ways much more interesting and outrageous than the stuff coming out today.

In the end though it comes off like overkill with a message that gets lost amidst all of the shock elements. It also seems quite contradictory as supposedly this is a spiritual film, but with so much sex and gore it becomes more like a pornographic one and for the most part that’s what many viewers will take from it, which ultimately makes this heavy-handed, experimental production a failed effort.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: November 29, 1973

Runtime: 1Hour 55Minutes

Rated R

Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Studio: ABKCO

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video

Megaforce (1982)

megaforce 2

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: This is really embarrassing.

The fictional country of Sardun is being threatened by their neighbor Gamibia and mercenary General Duke Gurerra (Henry Silva). This prompts two Sardun representatives (Edward Mulhare, Persis Khambatta) to travel to the desert and request help from a secret group of soldiers who have advanced vehicles and weapons that can help stop the Gamibian aggression. The group calls themselves Megaforce and is led by the charismatic Ace Hunter (Barry Bostwick) who at one time was friends with Gurerra and the two play an intricate game of cat-and-mouse as they both try to deploy an attack strategy that will stop the other.

One of the biggest problems with the film is that it was directed by Hal Needham a former stuntman who had some modest success directing such southern fried action flicks as Smokey and the Bandit and Hooper, but clearly has no clue how to do a comic book-styled action flick such as this. The film teeters between being campy and comical to innovative and slick, but ends up failing on both ends. The main problem is that Nedham (who also appears unbilled as a technician) lacks any true artistic vision while showing no appreciation or understanding of the comic book genre or its readers and creates an empty-headed, unimaginative premise with wooden characters and dialogue surrounded by a lot of action and effects, which he thinks will be enough to save it, but really isn’t.

The eclectic cast is interesting. Khambatta a beauty queen from India who is probably best known for playing the bald Ilia in Star Trek: The Motion Picture is on hand as the love interest to Bostwick. Michael Beck who was just 3 years removed from his star making turn in the cult hit The Warriors plays a southern bred member of the Megaforce team. Silva, who’s played many memorable villains in his day camps it up as best he can with the limited material and Bostwick, who nowadays looks very old and elderly, sashays his way in some incredibly skintight uniforms and looking almost like a male model.  

The only reason I’m giving this embarrassment 3 points instead of the 0 that it really deserves is because it does fall into the ‘so bad its good category’ that almost makes it worth catching. The best of the worst is Needham’s use of matting a character over a blue screen to make it look like they are flying in the air. He does this twice once when Khambatta and Bostwick go parachuting out of a plane and then at the climactic finish when Bostwick uses his motorbike to fly up to a plane. In both instances the effects are so hilariously awful and obvious that it becomes memorable and worth the price of the rental.

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My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: June 25, 1982

Runtime: 1Hour 39Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Hal Needham

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray (Region A)