Monthly Archives: June 2019

For Pete’s Sake (1974)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Can’t make ends meet.

Henrietta ‘Henry’ (Barbra Streisand) struggles with hardly any money in the bank as her husband Pete (Michael Sarrazin) works a low paying job driving a cab while he tries to finish college. Then Pete gets a tip from a fellow driver telling him to invest in potbellies as they are expected to have a huge gain in the market, but to do so he will need $3,000. Since he does not have this Henry decides to do some jobs that will pay her quick cash including prostitution and hauling stolen cattle, but everything that she does just gets her further into trouble.

Part of the fun of watching films from decades past is seeing how things have changed and in certain circumstances how they haven’t. Here you get to see virtually the same struggles that a young couple of today face and how the companies and banks joyfully screw them over if it means helping them either save or make a buck. Some of the segments at the beginning where she argues with representatives of these companies over either bills or loans are funny and helps give this otherwise innocuous comedy a bit of an edge.  It also allows for a great chance to see Anne Ramsey in an early role playing a rep at a phone company who not only looks way younger than from her better known role in Throw Momma From a Train, but even marginally attractive and with a much softer sounding voice.

Barbra is great in the lead that takes advantage of her rambling, fast-talking manner which she gets whenever she’s exasperated with the best bit being the running joke where she is constantly calling a distant relative in Dallas begging them for money while also updating them on her latest calamity. It’s also great seeing her play against her Hollywood celebrity image by effectively portraying a very drab everyday person sporting short hair, which was a wig created for her by her romantic partner at the time, hair stylist Jon Peters. It’s also interesting seeing this very liberal icon in a very anti-PC moment when she hands a box of Fruit Loops to an effeminate store clerk (played by Vincent Shiavelli) and tells him “I’m sure you’ll love these.”

The comedy has consistent laughs although the first hour works best and I particularly enjoyed the interplay that she has with the male customers she brings into her apartment while working as a prostitute and I wished this segment had been extended more. She also gets in a few juicy jabs towards Estelle Parsons, who plays the snotty, rich wife of Pete’s brother (William Redfield), that are delightfully savage.

Unfortunately the final third gets a bit too silly and exaggerated making the story lose its footing by becoming too frantically dizzying.  There’s still a couple of good bits here like watching the stolen cattle crash through a movie screen that is showing a film with a herd of cattle on it. I also enjoyed The French Connection parody where Babs plays the same cat-and-mouse game on the subway that Gene Hackman did with Fernando Rey only she does it with a police dog. However, some of the other bits including the appearance of Bill McKinney in a weak tribute to Deliverance are sterile  and helps to deflate an otherwise sparkling Streisand vehicle.

The script also suffers from illogical loopholes. Like the fact that despite having financial difficulties they still employ a housekeeper (played by Vivian Bonnell), but why would a young couple struggling with money and living in a tiny one bedroom apartment with no kids and a wife who stays home all day need hired help?

Pete gets exposed as having some major chauvinistic traits too by forebiding his wife from working full-time because ‘his ego couldn’t take it’, which doesn’t make him seem like a ‘great catch’ at all. Forcing his wife to stay stuck in the kitchen/home because that’s where he feels ‘she belongs’ while he’s unable to provide for her with his own job makes him seem like a total dud that’s not only not worth helping, but, especially in today’s world,  have him deservedly kicked to the curb in no time.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: June 26, 1974

Runtime: 1 Hour 30 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Peter Yates

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Divorce American Style (1967)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Couple can’t get along.

Richard and Barbara Harmon (Dick Van Dyke, Debbie Reynolds) appear to have the perfect life living in a sprawling suburban home with two kids, a good job and paid housekeepers, but underneath the facade their unhappy. Neither of them can communicate with the other, so they decide to see a marriage counselor (Martin Gabel), but this just makes things worse. Eventually they get a divorce, but the alimony and child support are so high that Richard is forced to move into a small 1-bedroom apartment and drive around in an old beat-up car. Barbara begins dating an affluent car salesman (Van Johnson) but both find that, despite all their squabbles, the more they’re apart the more they miss each other.

The script was written by Norman Lear who went on to produce the ground-breaking TV-series ‘All in the Family’, but the edge from that one is completely lacking here. I’m not sure if it was the time period this film was made in and what the studios perceived the public was willing to accept, but the satire is mild to non-existent and becomes boring quite quickly. The subject of divorce is handled in such a sanitized way that it barely even touches the surface and in many ways this thing comes off more like a romantic comedy with divorce being only a side-story.

The two leads are incredibly bland. Van Dyke again just seems to be channeling his Rob Petrie character and seemingly unable to play any variation from that. While his squeaky clean image may have made him likable on TV it makes him quite dull and one-dimensional on film. Reynolds fares better, but as a couple there’s nothing unique or interesting about them and the issues that they fight about, which is mainly the fact that they can’t ‘communicate’, comes off as generic and pointless.

The supporting cast are far more engaging. Joe Flynn, who has no problems paying or sex with prostitutes and does not feel it’s cheating because it’s ‘not romantic’ and his wife, played by Emmaline Henry, who wouldn’t go back home to an unfaithful husband even if he ‘hanged himself’ have the type of edge that could’ve made this film far funnier and more memorable had they been made the stars. Even Jason Robards and Jean Simmons have potential playing a divorced couple where the wife still lives in affluence while the husband due to his high alimony and child support lives in the dumps, but dates a pregnant woman (played by Eileen Brennan in her film debut) anyways.

The comedic tone is inconsistent. At times it conveys a surreal flair like having an orchestra conductor come out at the beginning and pretend to direct the voices of all the arguing couples in the neighborhood like there’s a musical quality to it. Having the kids keep a scorecard to their parents fighting is funny too, but these segments get interspersed with long talky moments that drags the whole movie down and things would’ve worked better had it started out right away with the couple already divorced instead of spending the first hour dealing with their protracted arguing.

The anemic insights that it does make about divorce come off as dated and wholly out-of-touch with today’s realities. A modern day divorced couple will most likely find nothing relatable with the story. Tacking on a pseudo happy ending just adds further insult to the topic by making it seem like all marital disagreements can somehow be ‘worked out’ coming off like it was written and produced by those who really hadn’t dealt with divorce issues in their real lives and did very little research on it.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: June 21, 1967

Runtime: 1 Hour 49 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Bud Yorkin

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

A New Leaf (1971)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Marrying for her money.

Henry Graham (Walter Matthau) has been living off of his vast inheritance for years only to find that his overspending and has now made him broke. Since he has no work history and no interest in getting a job he decides the only other alternative is to marry a rich woman. He finds his target in the form of Henrietta (Elaine May) who is an heiress to a massive family fortune. She is also quite homely, socially inept, and very into botany. Henry decides to ask for her hand in marriage and then once they are hitched kill her off and acquire her fortune for himself, but nothing goes as planned.

The plot is based on a short story ‘The Green Heart’ by Jack Ritchie and is full of many ingenious twists that helps propel the dark comedy along at a very even tone. Director May’s use of dry, subtle humor comes in perfectly for this type of material. So many other Hollywood comedies feel the need to bombard the viewer with broad, in-your-face gags so it’s genuinely refreshing to have a film take a more restrained approach by allowing the humor to peculate more. Instead of a rapid fire, gag-a-minute pace the film stretches the comical bits out for several minutes allowing the actors to play up the scene to a full crescendo with Henrietta’s inability to wear her evening nightgown properly on their honeymoon being quite possibly the funniest.

The characters are made up of extreme caricatures and in less talented hands could’ve been a detriment, but Matthau manages to play his part so astutely that the viewer ends up liking him anyways and his arc, where he reluctantly and quite unexpectedly ends up helping Henrietta out of several jams that she wasn’t aware of, is quite satisfying. George Rose, who sadly and ironically ended up having the same fate that almost befell the May character here when in 1988 in an attempt to get his hands on Rose’s fortune the teenage son that he adopted killed him while trying to make it look like a car accident, lends great support as Matthau’s wise and loyal butler.

Like with May’s other projects including the notorious Ishtar this film suffered many cost overruns and production delays most notably the 10 months it took to edit the film, which initially ended up having a 180 minute runtime and featured a secondary story dealing with Matthau poisoning a blackmailer played by William Hickey. The then head of Paramount Robert Evans decided, much to May’s objections, to cut this part out, which shortened it to 102 minutes, which I personally feel was a good idea. While I usually like director’s cuts the story here is too thin for a 3-hour length and in many ways goes on a bit too long the way it is although it would still be cool to see the extra footage, which is rumored to have been either lost or destroyed, as a bonus feature on a future DVD/Blu-ray release.

As a simple black comedy it comes off pretty well and even has a cute twist ending. Although a box office flop at the time it has garnered strong acclaim and since become a cult classic. The two stars also reunited 8 years later playing another couple in the Neil Simon farce California Suite

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: March 11, 1971

Runtime: 1 Hour 42 Minutes

Rated G

Director: Elaine May

Studio: Paramount

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

Quintet (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Deadly game/frozen tundra.

During a future ice age Essex (Paul Newman) and his pregnant companion Viva (Brigitte Fossey) travel north in hopes of finding his brother Francha (Thomas Hill). They come to his apartment to find him and a group of other people playing a board game called Quintet, which has become the popular form of entertainment in an otherwise frozen, barren world. While Essex goes out to buy firewood the rest of the inhabitants in the apartment are killed by a bomb and when Essex chases the perpetrator (Craig Richard Nelson) he finds a list of five names inside the man’s pocket and realizes that the board game is now being played out in real-time with the winners killing the losers, which forces Essex to become a reluctant participant.

Although director Robert Altman had started the 70’s with the blockbuster hit M*A*S*H and followed it with Nashville his star status by the end of the decade had become severely tarnished especially after he helmed a succession of box office bombs with this film being a financial failure as well, which pretty much put the nail in the coffin for his career and hampered his ability at getting top projects afterwards, but I will at least give him credit for going outside of his comfort zone. While his past films were all dramedies this one was an interesting stab at sci-fi that if anything creates a vivid atmosphere. I particularly like the opening shot that shows nothing but snowy white and the sound of a cold hollowing wind only to slowly see the formation of two human figures walking in the far distance.

Unfortunately the other elements of the film are not as inspired. The costumes worn by the characters look like something leftover by a  Shakesperian college stage production and the board game itself played by the participants sparks no interest in the viewer because it’s never clear how it’s played. Supposedly the working rules of the game were passed out to audience members as they entered the theater, but it would’ve been nice had these same rules been explained in the movie itself.

The setting, which was filmed on-location inside  the abandoned buildings leftover from Montreal’s World Expo ’67 gives off an interesting futuristic vibe, but I was confused why despite being in the future there was no modern technology. I realized it was a new ice age, but are we to believe that all the computers and gadgets from the past generations got frozen over and the only thing left were the buildings? I also didn’t like how Altman smeared the edges of the lens with a translucent substance where only the middle part of the screen is in focus while the edges are fuzzy, which was intended to give it an ice over look, but doing this in literally every shot got to be a bit much.

Watching the characters die or wondering who will be next offers no tension at all as killing them seemed almost favorable as it put them out of their misery and away from their otherwise bleak existence. The plot needed an added angle to give it more intrigue like perhaps having a warm destination that still existed that the characters would try to get to while avoiding being killed in the process. Having it play out though the way it does with everyone locked inside this icy setting is not compelling at all. Altman proves here to be completely outside his realm while it also wastes Newman’s acting talents to the point that I was surprised why he even bothered to take the part at all. Some may wish to seek this out as a curio, but outside of its icy atmosphere there’s little else to recommend.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: February 9, 1979

Runtime: 1 Hour 58 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Robert Altman

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube