Category Archives: Black Comedy

The Witches of Eastwick (1987)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Devil comes to town.

Based on the John Updike novel of the same name, the story centers on three single women (Cher, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer) living in the town of Eastwick, Rhode Island who are also witches, but don’t yet realize it. All three want to meet up with the man of their dreams, which ushers in Daryl Van Horne (Jack Nicholson). He is a rich playboy that buys the town’s landmark home the stately Lennox Mansion. The three women are initially seduced by his powers only to realize later that he is actually the devil incarnate and spend the rest of the time conjuring up a spell that will send him back to where he came from.

After achieving so much success with The Road Warrior franchise Australian director George Miller decided to take a stab at something completely different, but had to deal with studio politics during the production, which made the final product disjointed. However, despite an array of confusing plot points the offbeat elements are enough to hold your attention and keep things interesting.

The creative special effects add an imaginative flair, but tend to get overdone. I enjoyed the scene where Veronica Cartwright vomits out cherry seeds all over her house, which leaves an indelible impression, but then Nicholson does the same thing later inside a church where it becomes redundant and gross. Watching a floating tennis ball defying gravity is amusing, but not needed. This scene, where all four get together to play a game of tennis, should’ve instead focused on the underlying tensions between the characters, which would’ve given the movie some needed nuance.

I enjoyed Sarandon, who goes from being a repressed nerdette to sexual vamp, but overall the efforts of the game cast are wasted as there’s not enough distinction between the women’s personalities making them seem almost like the same person. The only female that is distinct and memorable is Cartwright who’s campy, over-the-top portrayal of a paranoid religious woman hits-the-mark and should’ve been enough to give her more screen time and at least one scene where she confronts Nicholson directly.

I would’ve preferred also that the women been aware right from the start that they were witches, which would’ve made them immediate adversaries to Nicholson instead of these dopey pawns that passively allow him to seduce them one-by-one in long drawn-out segments that become quite strained. In contrast Nicholson could’ve preyed on the other women in town while these same witches spent their time coming up with ways to stop him and thus creating more of a theatrical battle.

Nicholson is great, but his character like with the others is poorly etched. At the beginning he’s a conniving player who possesses the ability to manipulate these women almost seamlessly, but then during the second half this all changes, but with no clear explanation as to why. His speech though inside a church expounding on man’s ever daunting task to tap into the female’s psychic is priceless:

“Do you think God knew what he was doing when he created women, or do you think it was just another one of his minor mistakes like tidal waves?…If it was a mistake maybe we can do something about it; find a cure, then a vaccine, build-up our immune systems.”

The biggest issue though is that the film needed to be genre specific and played more like a horror movie with dark comical undertones instead of a serene/hybrid comedy. The New England setting is picturesque, but not right for this type of story. A better location would’ve been a town that was mostly cloudy and gloomy while containing buildings that were old and gothic, which would’ve helped to create an eerie atmosphere that is otherwise sorely lacking.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: June 12, 1987

Runtime: 1Hour 58Minutes

Rated R

Director: George Miller

Studio: Warner Brothers

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

A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: These thieves double-cross.

Four colorful characters commit a London diamond heist orchestrated by George (Ton Georgeson). After the crime is committed Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her lover Otto (Kevin Kline) call the police and have George turned in as they plan to abscond with all of the diamonds themselves. However, George with the help of his stuttering henchman Ken (Michael Palin) had the diamonds removed from the secret safe that Wanda and Otto thought it was in, so when the couple comes back to retrieve them they find that they’re gone. With George now in jail Wanda decides to seduce George’s lawyer (John Cleese) with the idea that George most likely told him where the loot is stashed, but this causes jealousy with Otto who is highly insecure and doesn’t like to be called stupid.

The story could probably best be described as a comical variation of The Asphalt Jungle in which a crime is successfully committed only to have all the participants turn on each other afterwards. This concept works for the first 45 minutes, but then wears itself out making me feel more of a backstory and a longer set-up was needed. These people are also not very likable and it would’ve been nice to see at least one of them do something, even if it was just briefly, that wasn’t completely underhanded.

Curtis is miscast as she has a very strong and grounded personality in real-life, which always comes through in the parts that she plays, so having her portray such a superficial woman willing to do anything for money seems out-of-sync. Her character is portrayed as being calculating and crafty, but she’s really quite one-dimensional as all she does is use her body and sex appeal to get what she wants, which seems sexist to presume that sex is the only ‘weapon’ that a woman can use and never her mind instead. A truly clever lady would be able to come up with more imaginative ways to manipulate a man and not just immediately feeling the need to prostitute herself. It also made me wonder what she was going to do when she got older and her looks faded as she seemed to have no ‘plan-B’.

Kline gets the showy role and it was enough to net him the best supporting actor Oscar. The character initially comes off as being quite obnoxious, but if you accept the fact that he is extremely insecure then it works and is even somewhat funny particularly the way he spies on Wanda when she’s with Cleese, but by the second half his antics turn too dark making him psychotic and I no longer found him amusing or enjoyable at all.

Palin’s character suffers a similar fate. Initially he’s this dimwit that everyone else overlooks, so you feel like cheering for him. Yet his constant stuttering becomes an overplayed one-joke that seems to mock those in real-life who may suffer from the same affliction. His character loses his appeal when he becomes all too willing to kill off an old lady to silence her as a witness. His inept attempts at killing her becomes the film’s running gag and turns this initially witty movie into slapstick nonsense similar to a live-action version of a Wiley E. Coyote/Road Runner cartoon.

Cleese is enjoyable as the a proper British barrister stuck in a loveless marriage and the scene where the film cuts back and forth between Cleese and is wife getting ready for bed and the way Kline and Curtis also gets ready for it is the funniest, most inspired moment in the movie.  His character though starts to take over the film by the second half even though it worked better when it gets played as an ensemble comedy and the way he goes from being a nebbish to sexually liberated is not interesting. I felt his blossoming romance with Curtis was too forced and having Curtis fall in love with him simply because he could speak in different accents, which is enough to get her overtly aroused, is quite contrived and ridiculous.

I would’ve liked some situation, other than the initial crime itself, put in that would’ve forced these characters to get along and have shown a different side to their personalities instead of just their devious/desperate one, which gets too protracted. The constant double-crossings run-out-of-steam making they’re shenanigans increasingly more strained as it goes along until it becomes just a big cluttered comical mess that despite a few good chuckles doesn’t seem worth it.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: August 5, 1988

Runtime: 1Hour 48Minutes

Rated R

Director: Charles Crichton

Studio: MGM

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

Ruthless People (1986)

Ruthless People Movie Poster (1986)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: His wife gets kidnapped.

Sam (Danny DeVito) wants to kill his shrewish wife Barbara (Bette Midler) so he can get her inheritance, but is unable to when she is kidnapped by a young couple (Judge Reinhold, Helen Slater) who demand ransom. Sam decides not to pay it, but mistakenly tells his lover (Anita Morris) about his plans and she with the help of her secret boyfriend Earl (Bill Pullman) scheme to use this information to extort him, but then a neighborhood psycho known as The Bedroom Killer (J.E. Freeman) throws everything into chaos by threatening to kill all of them.

The script was written by Dale Launer who at the time was a struggling salesman at a sound appliance store much like Judge Reinhold’s character in the movie, but like with many scripts written by first-timers there’s too many characters and a plot-heavy scenario that throws in one irony after another until it gets convoluted. Too much emphasis is placed on the concept and not enough on the characters with an end result that has no point to it other than just being very crass and over-the-top.

Everyone onscreen is simply a flimsy caricature used to propel the elaborate plot along and nothing more. The only one that is likable is Helen Slater whose nervous wide-eyed gaze makes her presence memorable. The film though would’ve worked better had it focused solely on the contrasting couples as well as having Reinhold and Slater shown working together more instead of Reinhold taking over and pushing Slater off to the side until she becomes almost forgotten.

DeVito is enjoyable, but Midler is annoying especially with her exaggerated facial expressions.  I also didn’t buy into the idea that this woman who is otherwise quite cynical and sarcastic would be naïve enough to believe that her husband still loved her and supposedly ‘worshipped the ground’ that she walked on even when he really didn’t. After living with somebody for 15 years, which is how long their marriage apparently was, you get a pretty clear view of your partner’s flaws no matter how hard they try to camouflage it. Even the most wide-eyed of people would’ve been at the very least suspicious that he might have ulterior motives as there’s always red flags and the fact that this lady was completely oblivious to them only proves how poorly fleshed-out the characters here are.

Spoiler Alert!

The story is overloaded with loopholes too. For instance Anita Morris and her lover Bill Pullman decide to play the tape of what they think is Sam murdering his wife on a VCR inside a TV-equipment store where all the other customers can see it, but why play something publicly that could potentially get them into a lot of trouble? If Pullman was able to afford a video camera, as he was the one who recorded the incident to begin with, then why couldn’t he also afford his own VCR?

It also takes too long for the police to suspect that Sam may have something to do with his wife’s disappearance even though in reality the spouse is always the prime suspect from the get-go. Having 8 police cars openly tailing Reinhold in hopes that he will lead them to his hideout is pretty stupid too. The idea is to not allow the suspect to be aware that you’re following him because otherwise he will just lead the police on a wild-goose-chase, which is exactly what he does here and any savvy veteran cop would’ve predicted that. I realize the filmmakers thought it would be ‘funny’ visually seeing all these police cars chasing the suspect, but it’s instead nonsensical. Every movie needs to have at least one person who is grounded and sensible even if everyone else is kooky. Having everyone behaving foolishly makes the story inane and unbelievable.

Reinhold’s ability to escape from his submerged vehicle after he drives it into a lake is equally questionable. Putting on a breathing apparatus underwater as he apparently does would be quite difficult if not impossible and how exactly was he able to make it seem like it was the Bedroom Killer (who was killed earlier in the film) as the driver of the getaway vehicle instead of himself? For that to happen the killer would’ve had to have been sitting in the driver’s seat where Reinhold was previously. Are we to believe that Reinhold had the dead killer’s body in the trunk of his car and while underwater somehow able to get the corpse from the trunk into the driver’s seat before the police got to it? The logistics of this is dubious, which is why having a scene done underwater showing him going through all of this should’ve been inserted in, but unfortunately isn’t.

End of Spoiler Alert!

Overall despite a few chuckles it’s a superficial mess and nowhere near the acerbic, dark satire that it likes to think it is. I disliked the gaudy Memphis style furniture used in DeVito’s home as well, which gives the production too much of a campy look.  Billy Joel’s ‘Modern Woman’, which gets played over the closing credits, seems to have nothing to do with the main theme and completely out of place. I also couldn’t stand the dresses that Helen Slater’s character designs. The movie acts like she has ‘talent’ and Midler really likes wearing them even though it looks like something you’d put on a clown and nothing I’d ever want to be seen in and I’d feel sorry for anyone who did wear them.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: June 27, 1986

Runtime: 1Hour 33Minutes

Rated R

Directors: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker

Studio: Touchstone Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Dark Star (1974)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Four guys in space.

Dark Star is a scout ship used to destroy planets in the galaxy that are considered unstable. Its crew consists of four men: Pingback (Dan O’Bannon) who keeps a pet alien resembling a beach ball in the back storage room, Talby (Dre Pahlich) who spends all his time sitting alone in the ship’s observation deck, Boiler (Cal Kuniholm) who enjoys playing around with the ship’s emergency laser rifle, and Doolittle (Brian Narelle) who spends his time dreaming about being able to water surf again. The men have all spent 20 years on the ship and its begun to take a toll on their mental state as well as the ship’s mechanical framework, which ultimately challenges their survival.

This started as a student project while director John Carpenter and O’Bannon were attending USC’s film school back in 1970 and it was met with such enthusiasm that they decided to lengthen it into a feature film. Although critics at the time loved it the public didn’t, which caused the film to be shown to virtually empty theaters only to finally find a second life on the DVD market where it has now achieved a strong cult following.

Despite being an obvious parody of 2001: A Space Odyssey it doesn’t just play it up for cheap laughs, which why it works. Too many times parodies overplay the comedy elements by using an Airplane-like structure that is just one slapstick gag after another. Here there’s an actual story with character’s motivations that make sense given their circumstances and coming off more like a quirky observation of the psychological effects of space isolation instead of just a cheesy comedy.

The special effects are impressive especially given its limited budget. Sure some of it is tacky including having the ship’s console board made up of ice cube trays turned upside down, or space suits made of muffin tins and helmets worn by the crew that were actually designed for children. Yet there’s a share of cool moments too like the flashing lights used to represent a meteor storm in space or a scene involving a former commander (John Carpenter) kept in cryogenic suspension and even a nerve-wracking moment inside an empty elevator shaft.

The most memorable segment involves an alien that resembles a beach ball with little feet. Initially this looks absurd and makes the film seem too silly, but when the alien manages to escape from its holding cell and begins creating havoc on the ship it starts to seem, as surprising as this may sound, creepy and gives the film a certain chilling edge that was later used as the basis for Alien.

There are enough original moments here for it to be appreciated by just about any sci-fi fan with a funnybone. The fact that the story focuses on the crew’s mental deterioration and the ship’s eroding structure is not all that far off from reality either. Many other big budget sci-fi flicks, in their quest to bombard the viewer with the latest overblown special effects, usually ignore the psychological angle of being trapped on a spaceship for long periods of time would have, which thus gives this movie, as campy as it ultimately is, a certain insightful edge.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: March 30, 1974

Runtime: 1Hour 23Minutes

Rated G

Director: John Carpenter

Studio: Jack H. Harris Enterprises

Available: DVD

The Running Man (1987)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: A deadly game show.

The year is 2019 and the United States has turned into a militarized police state. In an effort to keep people’s minds off of their bleak existence the government broadcasts game shows in which the contestants are convicted felons who fight for their lives against well-trained and well-equipped assassins called ‘stalkers’. When Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger) gets convicted of a crime he didn’t commit he is put onto one of these shows called ‘The Running Man’ as a contestant, which is hosted by Damion Killian (Richard Dawson). They then try everything they can to kill Ben, but to their surprise Ben proves to be far more resilient than they ever expected.

The film is based on a novel of the same name written by Stephen King under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman. However, the novel is far different than the movie, which had the main character traveling to different towns in the northeast while here the game show action gets confined to a dark, dingy studio. The main character was also thin and meek-looking, which would’ve been more interesting had he been that way in the movie as it would’ve made him seem even more like an underdog.

The film’s comic book look is fun for a while and the shots showing the audiences stunned reactions as Ben continually takes down these supposedly unbeatable stalkers is funny. It also makes some good points regarding media manipulation and the hypnotic power of television although it’s too generalized and could’ve gone further with it.

The casting though is particularly good including Ricard Dawson as the egotistical game show host. He did some acting during the ‘60s, but was mainly known for his work as a panelist on ‘Match Game’ and hosting ‘Family Feud’ and yet here he falls into his role with complete ease and easily steals the film. It’s also fun seeing Jesse Ventura, who later became the governor of Minnesota wearing a tacky looking wig. Former football player Jim Brown gets one of the best roles of his film career as a stalker whose punk hairdo resembles that of a skunks and Barbara Lux is amusing as an old lady who swears liberally.

While the dark humor is engaging the story does get quite derivative. Watching Ben defeat the stalkers one-by-one becomes mechanical and redundant. The film also fails to display any type of futuristic vision as the characters use phones that are still connected by a cord, have computers with big, clunky keyboards, and watch TVs that are still of the boxy variety.

Spoiler Alert!

The most disappointing element though is the ending, which differs greatly from the one in the book and is far too neat and tidy. The idea that one determined individual can single-handedly take down a deeply corrupt system is the stuff of romanticized fiction. Having the brain-washed masses suddenly become ‘de-converted’ by showing them actual news coverage wouldn’t really work. If people have been feed a lie for so long they’re not necessarily going to know what the truth is when it hits them and may actually just consider it to be a ‘lie’. Throwing in a ‘feel-good’ ending diminishes the dystopian theme and dark humor that came before it making the film nothing more than a marketing gimmick with no real bite.

End of Spoiler Alert!

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: November 13, 1987

Runtime: 1Hour 41Minutes

Rated R

Director: Paul Michael Glaser

Studio: Tri-Star Pictures

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

Pretty Maids All in a Row (1971)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Coach kills pretty students.

Ponce (John David Carson) is an awkward teen in his senior year of high school that still hasn’t been out on a date. He suffers from having erections at the most inopportune times and too shy to ask out one of the many beautiful female students that populate his school. He also finds himself dealing with a series of murders of pretty coeds who turn up dead with funny little notes attached to them and he starts to suspect that the killer may be the school’s beloved football coach (Rock Hudson).

The film, which is based on a novel by Francis Pollini with a screenplay written by Gene Roddenberry starts out well with sharp, satirical dialogue and funny situations dealing with the police investigation, but then deteriorates into smarmy sex jokes and becomes nothing more than a teasing T&A flick. The script makes it obvious early on that the coach is the killer and had it not revealed this so quickly it could’ve made the film more of a mystery and given the ending an impactful twist.

My main beef though is that it takes place in a high school instead of a college even though all the students look to be well into their 20’s. The fact that the coach has sex with the female students makes the thing seem off-kilter as does Angie Dickinson who plays a teacher who brings Ponce into her home to help him with his erection problem. If the setting was a college with the student characters over 18 than all this tawdriness would at least be legal and less outrageous.

The female students come off as being too free-spirited and reflect the counter-culture movement that occurred mainly on the college campuses of that era and not the high schools. They also all look too much like models. A realistic portrait of a high school class will have a variety of body types not just those of women ready to become cover-girls. I enjoy beautiful women as much as anybody, but the film should’ve had at least one average or overweight female in the cast simply to give it balance and avoid it from seeming too much like a tacky male fantasy, which is all this thing ends up being anyways.

Hudson, with his monotone delivery, is a weak actor and gave only one good performance in his career, which was in the film Giant. Yet here his discombobulated acting skills successfully reflect his character’s confused personality. Carson is a bland protagonist and his presence doesn’t have much to do with how the plot progresses. His character is put in solely for a dull side-story dealing with his attempts to get-it-on with his teacher in her home, which amounts to being just a dumb comic variation of Tea and Sympathy that is neither funny nor sexy.

The supporting cast is far better. Telly Savalas owns the screen as a relentless investigator. Keenan Wynn is hilarious as a dim-witted policeman in one of the funniest roles of his prolific career and he’s the best thing in the movie.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: February 26, 1971

Runtime: 1Hour 31Minutes

Rated R

Director: Roger Vadim

Studio: MGM

Available: DVD, YouTube

Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1987)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Dad fucks the babysitters.

Rita (Siobhan Finneran) and Sue (Michelle Holmes) are two friends from high school who babysit for Bob (George Costigan) and his wife Michelle (Lesley Sharp). One night while Bob is taking the two babysitters home in his car he decides to make a sexual overture to them and they both enthusiastically reciprocate, which ends up turning into a mini sex orgy. Soon the three are routinely getting together for sexual trysts until Michelle eventually catches on and leaves Bob while taking the kids with her. Sue’s parents find out too, which causes a great deal of stress and infighting amongst the three.

This offbeat comedy unexpectedly became a big worldwide cult hit that made stars of the three leads particularly the two women whose first film this was. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the film’s director Alan Clarke or its writer Andrea Dunbar who both tragically died just 3 years after the film’s release. Clarke from cancer while Dunbar, who was living on welfare and an alcoholic, passed away at her local pub at only 29 years of age.

The film comes off as an odd mix of lighthearted comedy and gritty drama that doesn’t completely work. The story jumps from the upscale middle class neighborhood of Bob’s house to the abject poverty of Sue and Rita’s family life with their apartments so vividly rundown that it’s almost horrifying to imagine anyone could live in such squalor. Part of the reason for this shift is that the film was based on two of Dunbar’s plays, the first being ‘The Arbor’, which was an autobiographical story of her growing up in the slums and at the hands of an abusive father, which she wrote at the age of 15 as a class project, and the other on a later play that she wrote with the same title as the film.

Why director Clarke choose to mix the two plays together into one film I’m not sure. Maybe he thought it would give the story more substance, but it really doesn’t. The antics that go on here could’ve happened in any neighborhood and income bracket making the stark, dramatic scenes of the girl’s sad home life seem inconsequential and meandering.

I didn’t like the film’s abrupt start either as it jumps almost immediately to the three getting-it-on inside the car without any backstory. I kept wondering when did Bob get the idea to make a pass at the two girls and why are the girls so unsurprised when he does? I would think most young women would be shocked when an older man that they babysit for would suddenly make an aggressive sexual come-on and yet here these two aren’t, but why? What sort of signals were the two sending out to Bob to make him feel that he could behave the way he does? Was he already getting ideas when they first came to babysit for him, or did it evolve later? These questions and scenarios never get shown or answered, but should’ve.

We also never see Rita and Sue interacting with the children. The scenes involving their babysitting shows them either sitting watching TV or stuffing their faces with snacks after raiding Bob’s refrigerator while the two children remain complete afterthoughts that are only shown briefly for a few seconds at the 54 minute mark and that’s it, which then brings me to another crucial question. Why is it necessary to hire two babysitters to watch over two kids? When I was younger and babysat I could easily watch my neighbor’s two kids without any help. When I was a child only one babysitter was hired to look after me and my two siblings. Hiring two teen girls to look after two kids is highly impractical and quite unusual to the point that it makes no sense.

The ending leaves open a lot of questions making the film seem almost like an incomplete treatment to a wider story. For instance the three end up moving in together without showing whether this unusual living arrangement would be able to sustain itself long term. I was also curious to see how Bob would explain this arrangement to his children when they came to visit. There is also a side-story dealing with Sue’s relationship with a Pakistani boyfriend (Kulvinder Ghir) that seemed better suited for another movie altogether.

The scenes involving the three inside the car are the funniest, but otherwise I’m not sure why this movie became the hit that it did.  There’s also too many tracking shots almost like director Clarke found himself a new toy that he couldn’t help playing with. Initially the constantly moving camera comes off as innovative and gives the film added energy, but it ends up getting overdone.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: May 12, 1987

Runtime: 1 Hour 33 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Alan Clarke

Studio: Film Four International

Available: DVD, Blu-ray

Polyester (1981)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Suburban housewife has problems.

Francine Fishpaw’s (Divine) world is crumbling. Not only must she endure constant protests in front of her suburban Baltimore home dealing with people upset with her husband (David Samson) running an adult theater, but she must also deal with his affair with his sexy secretary (Mink Stole) as well. Her teenage son (Ken King) is terrorizing the city by intentionally stomping on the feet of every woman he sees and her daughter Lu-Lu (Mary Garlington) wants an abortion. She then meets the dashing Todd Tomorrow (Tab Hunter) and the two immediately fall-in-love only to find that he too has a dark-side.

This was John Waters’ first studio backed film and the first to garner an R-rating while the others had been X. While the budget is an improvement and its technicallys more polished the edginess is lost. The humor and satirical potshots don’t have the same zing and are lacking in originality and outrageousness. The gimmick of passing out a scratch-and-sniff cards where audiences could sniff the scents being smelled by the film’s main character seems excessively juvenile and the film begins with a campy scientist (Rick Breitenfeld) talking about it, which sets the tone too much on a silly/cartoonish level.

Divine’s presence helps, but she isn’t as made-up or as flashy as she was in her past films and looking much more like just some fat guy wearing a lady’s wig. I liked that her character was consistently normal for the most part as in the other films she behaved more erratically although what she goes through here is so unrelentingly traumatic that it borders on being almost cruel to laugh at. It’s also not completely easy to sympathize with her quandary as her kid’s behavior is so outrageous you have to question her parenting skills and whether she’s partially to blame for the bad things that they do.

Edith Massey is funny as a poor woman who wins the lottery and now acts a bit nouveau riche about it. It’s also fun seeing the two teens go through a Jekyll and Hyde transformation, but Tab’s appearance adds little although he does sing a decent opening title tune.

The broad humor for the most part is dumb, but I still found myself laughing-out-loud at some of it, which I suppose is a part of Waters’ ‘charm’ at getting you to laugh at things you otherwise wouldn’t. Some of the moments that had me chuckling were: a ‘nice’ picnic that gets ruined by ants and a skunk. Pregnant young women forced to go on a ‘happy hayride’ in the cold rain by two fascist nuns and the pet dog who commits suicide by hanging himself along with leaving a note saying ‘Goodbye cruel world’.  The part where overweight Jean Hill hijacks a bus and chases down a group of teens who assaulted her on the street and then bites into their car tires to disable their vehicle is pretty wacked-out too.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: May 29, 1981

Runtime: 1 Hour 26 Minutes

Rated R

Director: John Waters

Studio: New Line Cinema

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Suburban housewife gets smaller.

Pat Kramer (Lily Tomlin) is a housewife/mother raising two rambunctious kids (Shelby Balik, Justin Dana) while married to Vance (Charles Grodin) who works in advertising. After being exposed to some products from her husband’s company she begins to shrink until she becomes so small that she is forced to move into a dollhouse and drink out of thimble since a regular glass would be too big for her to hold.

The film is a modern remake of Richard Matheson’s The Incredible Shrinking Man and as much as I loved the original this version takes the storyline in a completely different direction, which for a while proves interesting. Director Joel Schumacher comes up with some wild color schemes and the knowing satire makes great points in its observations on modern suburbia as well as American consumerism. Screenwriter Jane Wagner manages to employ some well thought out scenarios and the special effects aren’t bad either.

Unfortunately by the second-half becomes muddled with scenarios that are no longer funny, but genuinely horrifying and sad instead. The satirical edge gets lost and replaced with an over-the-top mad-scientist-trying-to-conquer-the world angle that becomes cheesy.  I was also confused with how Pat was able to continue to find clothes to fit her especially after she gets smaller than even a toy doll. The film seemed to touch on every other possible problem, so they should’ve had at the very least had a throwaway scene analyzing this one.

Spoiler Alert!

The ending gets too cute for its own good as Pat shrinks to nothing and then has what’s left of the small outfit she was wearing fall into a puddle of spilled chemicals, which somehow makes her big again. This however ruins the poignancy that had been created from showing clips of bells being rung around the world from different countries in remembrance of Pat, which had a certain profound message that no matter how small you are you can still have an impact. Instead of giving the film some substance it goes for a last-second gimmick that cements it as being an empty-headed comedy and nothing more.

End of Spoiler Alert!

Tomlin’s performance is excellent as she creates empathy for her character, which helps make the story more engrossing as you genuinely build concern and sympathy for Pat’s welfare. Noted make-up specialist Rick Baker garnered a cult following for his convincing performance of an ape, although the shot of the animal giving some people in an elevator the finger is pushing it. The movie though as a whole works only in spurts with a message and tone that is too unfocused and inconsistent to be completely effective.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: January 30, 1981

Runtime: 1 Hour 28 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Joel Schumacher

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD-R (Universal Vault Series), Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? (1978)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: He eats too much.

Max (Robert Morley) is a famous food critic who writes an article for the food magazine The Epicurist titled ‘The World’s Most Fabulous Meal’, which described four dishes cooked by four of the world’s top chefs. The problem is those chefs are now turning up dead. Natasha (Jacqueline Bisset) was the chef famous for creating the dessert called the bombe, which was also written about in that same article. Since the other chefs have already been murdered Natasha fears she may be next, so she works with the police to find the killer while also being a suspect since she was with each victim just before they died.

The film is based on the novel ‘Someone is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe’ by husband and wife writers Nan and Ivan Lyons, which came out two years earlier and had more erotic overtones while also detailing the specific recipes of each gourmet dish described in the story. Ted Kotchef’s excellent direction focuses strongly on the food element and each exotic meal is nicely captured and crafted by an actual cuisine chef named Paul Bocuse. Not only do you see the cast eating the stuff, especially Morley’s character, but preparing it as well including a detailed, drawn out segment showing Natasha creating her world famous desert.

The on-location shooting, done in three different European countries, is vivid and the dialogue is quite amusing. The denouncement is interesting because you think for sure it’s one person only to genuinely get surprised when it turns out to be someone completely unexpected. The plot though is too leisurely paced and the side-story dealing with Natasha’s ex-husband (George Segal) trying to rekindle their relationship is unnecessary and could’ve been cut, which would’ve helped shorten the runtime, which is overlong for such otherwise trite material.

Morley is a scene-stealer with everything he utters being hilarious. Bisset is great too and should’ve received top-billing as she’s seen the most while Segal’s presence comes off as downright intrusive. It was nice having a beautiful woman in a lead that was not sexualized and it would’ve made the film a bit ahead-of-its-time had she carried it alone, which she easily could’ve without Segal as a sort of male sidekick.

For light entertainment it’s enjoyable, but I was surprised at seeing how things have changed as there are several throwaway bits that at the time I’m sure were considered innocuous but would be deemed quite controversial by today’s standards. One scene has Bisset speaking with an Italian chef (Stefano Satta Flores) who openly pinches her twice on the rear without her permission. She protests it the first time, but he boldly does it again later and she lets it go, continues to casually talk to him and even agrees to meet him later for dinner. The film seems to play the whole thing off as a ‘boy-will-be-boys’ scenario coupled with the Italian male stereotype that this is simply ‘a part of their nature’.

In another part she refers to a French chef (Jean-Pierre Cassel) as a ‘fag’ and she visits a processing plant where thousands of chickens are housed in tight little cages and barely able to even move which doesn’t seem to bother her at all. I’m sure these scenes back in 1978 went completely over-the-heads of the viewers and most likely were quickly forgotten even though now these same moments would most likely elicit outrage, protest and headlines.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: October 5, 1978

Runtime: 1 Hour 52 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Ted Kotcheff

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD (Warner Archive)