Monthly Archives: December 2015

J. W. Coop (1971)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Rodeo star makes comeback.

J.W. Coop (Cliff Robertson) has just spent 9 years in prison. After finally being released he finds that the world has changed quite a bit. He’s no longer the big rodeo star that he once was and younger, more educated men have now taken his place. There’s also the new hippie movement that he isn’t quite sure what to make of. With his mother (Geraldine Page) growing senile and no other friends to turn to he decides to take one last stab at the rodeo circuit and determined to beat the odds and become the champion because for him second place is the same last.

The film has a wonderfully gritty quality to it that fully immerses the viewer into the western rodeo landscape and lifestyle. The rugged characters and conversations seem authentic without ever being condescending. The film reveals a lot about the inner toughness needed to survive in that environment as well as the competiveness and eventual loneliness.

Robertson’s stab at directing is flawless and convinced me that he should’ve done more movies behind the camera. He uses several techniques that make the rodeo experience vivid for the viewer including filming a point-of-view shot from on top of the bronco as well as even more impressively showing one taken from underneath a horse as it is running. I also liked the shot where the screen gets split into four squares with each of them showing some of the many hotels that he stays at during his travels on the circuit, which visually hits home how exhausting life on the road can be. There’s also a haunting segment shot late at night at a lonely oil rig that is brief, but quite memorable.

Former model Cristina Ferrare, who is probably best known as being the ex-wife of automaker John DeLorean as well as host of ‘Home and Family’ gets a rare turn at acting playing a hippie who falls in love with Coop.  Her performance is solid even though I found it hard to believe why such a young woman would fall for a man who is so much older, less educated and having not much more money than she does. Their relationship goes on far longer than I realistically would expect, but I still liked the idea of how two people from two very different backgrounds and generations can still manage to connect. Robertson’s performance is equally good and the film also has the novelty of casting Page as his mother even though in real-life she was actually one year younger than he was.

The segment where a throne of teen girls jump out of a trailer and beg for Coop’s autograph as well as the ending in which Coop, with his leg in a cast, attempts to ride a bull are the only two times that it overreaches in a film that is otherwise quite honest and uncompromising and particular good at mixing subtle comedy with stark drama.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: October 3, 1971

Runtime: 1Hour 52Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Cliff Robertson

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video

Chu Chu and the Philly Flash (1981)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Goofy couple steals briefcase.

Flash (Alan Arkin) is a former big league pitcher who is washed up while living on the city streets selling stolen watches that don’t work. Emily (Carol Burnett) is a former dance instructor who is equally down-and-out and now makes a meager living doing dance routines on the streets while wearing a Carmen Miranda outfit. The two inadvertently meet one day while coming into contact with a briefcase that has stolen government documents. They agree to give it back to the men who are demanding it, but only for a price, which only helps to get them into more and more trouble.

This offbeat comedy, which was written by Barbara Dana who at the time was married to Arkin, has a few funny, dry humored moments at the beginning that makes it somewhat passable, but it’s unable to sustain any type of momentum and does not have enough action or comedy to keep it engaging. The middle half is slow and boring and the ending, which takes place at an amusement park, is too full of forced humor and sloppy slapstick to be considered either funny or entertaining. The film also never explains what specifically these secret plans are, or who these men are that are chasing after it, which only proves how poorly thought out and threadbare the plot really is.

The relationship between the two main characters doesn’t work either. They seem to let their guards down too easily for people that have been living alone and on the skids for so long and having them share more of a bickering and distrustful chemistry would’ve made it more realistic and edgy. The whole middle half is spent hearing them telling each other about their woeful pasts, which is neither compelling nor insightful and only bogs the film’s already slow pace down even further. These are the type of wacky character who can only be effective if put into comically frantic scenarios of which there needed to be much more of.

Arkin manages to give a pretty good performance playing a surprisingly subdued character that does not go off on hyper rants like the characters in some of his other film roles do, which is a good thing. However, Burnett is completely wasted despite seeing her in a Carmen Miranda outfit, which is a definite hoot. The only one who is genuinely funny is Danny Aiello as the exasperated bad guy.

Danny Glover can also be spotted in an early role as a homeless person trying to spy on Burnet and Arkin to see what they’re up to, but his part is one of the corniest ones in the movie and should’ve been dropped completely. The San Francisco setting may remind one of the classic comedy What’s Up Doc?, which also took place in that city and had a similar storyline dealing with a misplaced briefcase, but that film was far more consistently funny and took more advantage of the bay area locales while this one only focuses on the rundown areas of the city.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: August 28, 1981

Runtime: 1Hour 32Minutes

Rated PG

Director: David Lowell Rich

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: VHS

Slacker (1991)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: A movie about nothing.

A look at a day-in-the-life of society’s left behinds that filter the streets, bars and coffee shops of Austin, Texas. The viewer hears a wide variety of weird topics, theories and extreme political points-of-view from the detached 20-something crowd as the camera winds its way from one conversation to the next and never stopping on any one person for longer than a few minutes.

This was considered at the time of its release to be a major breakthrough for the independent film movement and one that remains an inspiration for many indie filmmakers today. It succeeds because it proves you don’t need a big budget, state-of-the-art effects or even a compelling story to work. It washes all those things away and gets down to the very essence of why we watch movies, which is because we are all secretly voyeurs intrigued with seeing how the ‘other half’ lives without having to get our own feet wet in the process. The characters, as offbeat as they and their conversations may be, have a definite element truth to them and this film manages to convey reality far better than 95 percent of the other movies out there.

Some of my favorite conversations, which seem mostly ad-libbed, involved the one with the guy who was obsessed with the JFK assassination and his ‘shocking’ new revelations involving Jack Ruby’s dog. There are also the two young men inside a bar who talk about the ‘subliminal messages’ of the Smurf cartoons and the film’s director Richard Linklater who opens the film with a discussion on how every choice that we don’t make continues off and has a reality of its own. I also liked the anarchist (Louis Mackey) who talks about the man who assassinated President McKinley simply because all you ever hear about are the Kennedy and Lincoln assassinations and never anything about anything about the other two.

I also liked Teresa Taylor, who was the former drummer for the Butthole Surfers, playing a woman trying to sell a vial containing singer Madonna’s Pap smear and the guy who locks himself inside a room with what seems like hundreds of TV’s that run all day and night. However, I was a bit disappointed that during this scene we get shown a video of a man who supposedly shots the camera with his rifle and although he does indeed aim his gun at the lens he never fires it, which I found to be a letdown.

Some may consider these characters, in our very job oriented culture, to be ‘losers’ simply because they ‘aren’t working’ and being ‘productive members of society’, but director Linklater takes a different perspective by stating in an interview that he feels slackers are instead a ‘step ahead’ and ‘rejecting the social hierarchy before it rejects them’.

To some extent I agree as I was pretty much the same way at that age, but I also couldn’t help but think what these same characters were doing now 20 years later. It’s easy to be detached when you’re younger, but when a person reaches middle-age and the financial responsibilities become stronger, it’s not, so I kept wondering if these same people may have now ‘sold-out’ or even ‘grown up’. I also wondered how they may have evolved in other ways for instance the guy who was so into the conspiracies of the JFK assassination may now have crossed over to ones involving 9/11 and the young man that was really into TV’s may now be a Blu-ray player nut instead. If anything this is a movie crying out for a sequel and one that could easily be just as fascinating as the first one especially if it involved the same people.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: March 22, 1991

Runtime: 1Hour 37Minutes

Rated R

Director: Richard Linklater

Studio: Orion Classics

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

 

 

Roxanne (1987)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: His nose is big.

Charley (Steve Martin) runs the local fire department and just happens to have a really long nose, which at times causes him to be the butt of jokes. Roxanne (Daryl Hannah) is a beautiful student of astronomy who is spending the summer in the small town of Nelson studying a comet. Charley becomes smitten with her, but doesn’t dare ask her out due to his fear that she will reject him. Chris (Rick Rossovich) is the good looking guy who moves to the area and immediately catches Roxanne’s eye. The problem is that he is very shy with women, so Charley helps him out by writing letters to her while pretending that they were done by Chris, which captures Roxanne’s heart without her realizing that the man she is really in love with is Charley.

There have been many remakes old movies and in this case an old stage play named Cyrano De Begerac and for the most part they fail and only help to make the viewer long for the original, but this is the rare case where the updating of the story actually works. One of the main reasons is that it doesn’t try, in an effort to be ‘hip’, to go for the crude angle like a lot of modern remakes do and instead keeps it charming and breezy while having a main character with a sense of humor and not drowning in self-pity.

The on-location shooting, which was done in the small town of Nelson, British Columbia, helps as well. The hilly, green landscape gives the film a serene feeling and the quirky supporting characters seem very much like people you’d bump into when passing through one of these places. The humor is also top notch particularly the running gag involving the incompetent fire department.

Martin remains the film’s biggest selling point particularly the scene where he tries to use eye shadow to help darken his nose and make it less conspicuous or the moment when he lets a parakeet perch itself on it. His best part though comes when tries to come up with 20 insults to say to someone with a big nose.

Hannah is stunningly beautiful to the point of being breathtaking and fortunately this was years before she had her ill-advised plastic surgery, which now makes her looks far less appealing. Rossovich is also quite good and tends to be overlooked due to Martin’s presence, but manages to be quite funny as well especially the scene where he tries to meet Roxanne in person while having Charley telling him what to say through a radio transmitter.

Shelley Duvall, Michael J. Pollard and Fred Willard also deserve mention for their supporting work here and this marks the film debut for Kevin Nealon who appears in an early bit as a bully who tries to make fun of Charley’s nose, but learns the hard way that he shouldn’t.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: June 19, 1987

Runtime: 1Hour 47Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Fred Schepisi

Studio: Columbia Pictures

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

Dear Heart (1964)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Love at a convention.

Harry Mork (Glenn Ford) is a greeting card salesman traveling through New York on business when he bumps into the quirky and very lonely Elvie (Geraldine Page) who’s attending a convention there and eyes Harry as a potential catch. Harry though is already engaged to Phyllis (Angela Lansbury) a woman he has only known through correspondence, but is starting to have second thoughts about when he meets her grown son (Michael Anderson Jr.). Elvie tries putting on some moves, but Harry keeps backing away unsure at age 48 if he even wants to settle down at all as he has at times still feels the itch for the occasional fling.

One of this film’s crowning achievements and something that becomes like a third character are the crowd scenes. This may sound inconsequential, but many films have a hard time getting background extras to behave like people amidst large groups of strangers do, but here for whatever reason it gets it right and seeing the dizzying stream of people going back and forth leaves a strong impression and helps accentuate the loneliness and isolation of the main characters particularly Elvie.

I also liked the way the characters hemmed and hawed with each other during the beginning stages. At times Elvie seems more into Harry than he is with her and then other times it gets reversed. Both characters at different points put up an array of defenses and it takes a while for either of them to trust the other and come out of their shells and move into an actual relationship, which is far more realistic than most movies that usually jumps ahead too quickly and never shows the awkward phase that most anyone else goes when testing the waters with someone that they’ve just met.

Page is excellent as always playing the eccentric type of character that she’s proven to be quite adept at, however her myriad of strange quirks got a bit ridiculous and overdone.

Ford is equally good especially with this type of comedy where he plays nervous characters unsure of how to deal with some of the offbeat people around him. I was disappointed though that there was a long drawn out sequence where he tries to get a clerk at the gift card shop (Barbara Nichols) up to his hotel room for a fling, but the film then cuts away and never follows through with what occurred once they got up to the room even though it is later intimated that things didn’t go too well.

The supporting cast of familiar faces lends great comic support, but the most memorable thing about the film is that it features both actresses who went on to play the Mrs. Kravitz character in the ‘Bewitched’ TV-Show. There’s Alice Pearce, who played Mrs. Kravitz for the first two seasons before she died of cancer and then Sandra Gould who replaced her and there’s even a surreal moment where the two have a bit of a confrontation, which I found to be pretty cool.

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My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: December 2, 1964

Runtime: 1Hour 54Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Delbert Mann

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: VHS, DVD (Warner Archive), Amazon Instant Video

Serpico (1973)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: A cop fights corruption.

One of the followers of this blog has requested that I review this movie, so today we take a look at Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) a policeman who fought against corruption that plagued New York’s police department during the ‘60s. Even though many of his partners on the force would accept under-the-table payouts from criminal elements in exchange for ‘looking-the-other-way’ he wouldn’t and when he would tell his superiors about it nothing would get done. Instead they would transfer him to other precincts only for him to find the same problems there. It was only when he decided to report the issue to the New York Times that people started to take action, but in the process he also made himself a mark and vulnerable to having his unhappy comrades set him up to be shot while on-duty.

The film is based on the Peter Maas novel, which in turn recounts the life of the actual Frank Serpico and the events he went through while working on the force between the years of 1959 to 1972. Not only does he remain alive today, but according to recent reports is even considering, at the ripe old age of 79, a run at political office. Equally interesting is that he and Pacino roomed together during the summer that this was filmed and became close friends.

It’s been years since I’ve read the novel, but I felt this film sticks closely to what actually happened and the always reliable Sidney Lumet manages to keep things exciting and insightful. The dialogue is sharp and the on-location shooting, which was done in every borough of New York except Staten Island, gives the viewer an authentic feel of the city as well as the police environment.

The film also does a successful job at showing the drawbacks of accepting bribes without ever getting preachy or heavy-handed. One might think, like many of Serpico’s partners do, that taking some kickbacks isn’t that big of a deal, but then the film shows in one brief moment a policeman shoving another man’s head into a toilet when he doesn’t ‘pay up’, which hits home how the police become no better than organized crime who would notoriously demand ‘protection money’ from business owners.

The only thing I didn’t like was the music, which was too loud and jarring. Fortunately it’s put in only sparingly, but its melodic quality takes away from the grittiness and the film works far better by simply relying on the ambient sounds of the locations that the scenes are in. In fact this is one movie that could’ve done fine without any music at all.

Pacino is fantastic and I loved how the character starts out as this clean shaven, boyish looking fellow only to grow into a bearded, long haired guy as the story progresses, which symbolically connects with the way he becomes savvier to the system. The character also sports earrings long before it became vogue for males to wear them.

Tony Roberts does well as one of the few cops that sides with Serpico and tries to help him in his fight and F. Murray Abraham can be spotted near the end as a member of a vice squad who tries setting Serpico up to be killed. This movie also marks the film debuts of character actors Alan Rich and Kenneth McMillan. In my mind this is also the debut of Judd Hirsh. Some sources state that his first onscreen appearance is in Jump, which came out two years earlier, but I watched that film and couldn’t spot him anywhere, but her I was able to spot him right away.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: December 5, 1973

Runtime: 2Hours 10Minutes

Rated R

Director: Sidney Lumet

Studio: Paramount

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

When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? (1979)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Terror at a diner.

The year is 1968 and the setting is a small, lonely diner nestled at the border of Texas and New Mexico. Richard (Hal Linden) and his violinist wife Clarissa (Lee Grant) arrive for a morning cup of coffee. There is also Angel (Stephanie Faracy) the diner’s lone waitress and Stephen (Peter Firth), who was nicknamed Red during his youth due to his red hair at the time, but besides them the place is empty and peaceful. Then Teddy (Marjoe Gortner), an unhinged Vietnam vet and his hippie girlfriend Chery (Candy Clark) enter. They are without money and stranded with a broken down van, which makes Teddy particularly volatile as he begins harassing the others with evasive questions before eventually terrorizing them all by trapping them inside the place and forcing them to do whatever weird, sick thing he asks.

The film is based on the 1973 Off Broadway play by Mark Medoff, who also wrote the screenplay. In many ways it’s similar to the 1967 black-and-white drama The Incident in which Tony Musante and a young Martin Sheen trap several subway riders inside a subway car and spend the rest of the night terrorizing them simply for their own personal amusement.  Both films are structured the same with the first part examining the characters before they arrive at the scene and revealing a bit of the personal dramas that each of them face and then spending the second half showing them trapped in a claustrophobic setting and forced to deal with their reluctance at confronting their fears.

The 1967 film though outshines this one as there were more characters, which gave it a better variety of personalities as well as bad guys that were menacing and believable. Gortner is too much of a ham making him more irritating than scary. The part was originally played by Kevin Conway during its Off Broadway run and his performance won many accolades, which should’ve been enough for them to have offered him the chance to reprise the role here. Gortner, who also produced seemed intent at trying to use this as a vehicle to promote himself as being a ‘serious’ actor, but he was too old for the role from the beginning since he was already in his mid-30’s at the time this was shot while vets coming back from the war during the ‘60s where only in their late teens or early 20’s.

The film only gets mildly interesting during the confrontation sequence inside the diner, which takes 45 minutes of the film’s 2-hour runtime just to get there. The way the characters respond to Gortner’s scare tactics and the supporting cast’s performances, who are all far better actors than Gortner, is the movie’s only compelling element, but even here there are issues. The biggest one being that the people seem too wimpy and today’s viewers will get frustrated at how overly compliant they are to Gortner’s demands and never once try to overpower him despite having ample opportunity.

The movie is also notorious for featuring some rather shocking moments of nudity. It starts out with a full body shot of Candy Clark in the buff, who was married to Gortner in real-life at the time this was made and that isn’t too bad, but then it proceeds to later show 48-year-old Linden in nothing but speedo shorts doing sit ups with his butt crack clearly exposed. Still later there is a scene where 52-year-old Lee Grant has her shirt hoisted all the way over her head with her breasts in full view and then paraded around the diner in mocking fashion. The film’s most over-the-top moment though comes when Gortner himself is stripped naked and bent over a table while having a proctoscope shoved up his rectum as he continues to have a conversation with the man who’s doing it.

Filmed on-location in Fabens, Texas, which was also the site of a famous scene in The Gateway, and Las Cruces, New Mexico the movie just doesn’t convey enough tension to make it compelling or worth catching. It would’ve worked better had it skipped the first half dealing with the backstories of the characters, which was never a part of the original play anyways and just gone straight into the diner sequence while also casting a leading actor that had some actual acting training.

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My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: February 9, 1979

Runtime: 1Hour 58Minutes

Rated R

Director: Milton Katselas

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: VHS

A Zed & Two Noughts (1985)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: They’re really into decay.

Oswald and Oliver (Brian and Eric Deacon) are twin brothers working at a zoo who become devastated to learn that both of their wives have died in the same freak accident in a car driven by Alba (Andrea Ferreol) who survives, but without her leg. Initially the brothers’ are angered with her, but this slowly grows into a strange attraction, which eventually forms into a ménage a trois. To help with their grief they begin doing time-lapse photography of the decaying process. They start with dead animals before deciding on a human subject with Alba as their chosen ‘star’.

From a completely visual level this film can be considered a great success. This was the first of ten projects that Director Peter Greenaway and cinematographer Sacha Vierny collaborated on and the result is stunning. The vivid contrasting colors, lighting and symmetrically designed sets make each and every shot look like its own painting. This is also one of the few films that completely transcend its era. Usually one can tell what decade a movie is from by watching it for only a few minutes, but this film is unlike any other ‘80s movie made, which is an achievement unto itself.

The best part of the movie is its depiction of the real-life decaying process captured in time-lapse form. I realize this may sound extremely morbid and ‘sick’, but it’s a natural process of the world we live in and if taken from a purely scientific perspective quite an interesting and fascinating phenomenon to watch. It gives the film a unique one-of-a-kind edge and something I wished had been shown even more.

The film’s drawbacks are the characters that come off as too weird and twisted, which is an issue in a lot of Greenaway’s movies that are always technically brilliant, but lacking in emotion or empathy. A good movie, no matter how ‘artistic’ it may be still needs relatable characters to help propel it and instead this movie has what amounts to mouth pieces in disguise as people who are simply used to relay a concept, but in no way connected to anyone you’d ever meet in real life. This results in leaving the viewer cold and making the film more of an ‘Avant-garde experiment’ than an actual story.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: October 4, 1985

Runtime: 1Hour 55Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Peter Greenaway

Studio: British Film Institute

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray