Category Archives: Black Comedy

Shamus (1973)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Detective uses unorthodox methods.

Shamus (Burt Reynolds) is a down-and-out private detective who uses a pool table for a bed and seems more able to attract woman that he doesn’t know for indiscriminate sex than he does at finding cases to solve. Eventually he gets hired by a millionaire businessman (Ron Weyand) to retrieve diamonds stolen during a violent robbery, but the more he pursues the case the more convinced he becomes that it’s a set-up.

This film has the perfect blend of funny Burt/tough-guy Burt and it’s one of the main reasons why it manages to remain engaging. Most other films that he was in never had the right balance. By the late 70’s his humorous side had gotten overused to the point that his image had become that of a silly country boy, but then in the 80’s he over-corrected by starring in a lot of sterile action flicks where his characters were overly-serious and moody and even less entertaining than his comical side. Here though it’s a fun mix as he playfully jumps from saying quips with a twinkle in his eye to beating the crap out of the bad guys when he needs to and the opening bit where he wakes-up and tries to get ready for the day after a long night of partying is a total gem.

The actions of his character though gets a bit over-the-top particularly with the way he extorts information from those he encounters. Unfortunately he’s no Jim Rockford who would use his cunning and wit to get people to talk, but here Shamus gets physically rough with them to the point that he literally strangles a man with a chain until his face turns purple making it look like he was as bad as those he was pursuing. It also made me wonder how long he could go on using these unsavory methods before it would finally catch-up with him.

He also doesn’t use much of his own brain power as he gets underlings at a bar he frequents to do most of the research for him making it seem like they should be the ones receiving the pay. I was also confused why he’d stay on the case even after the person who had hired him cuts off his funds. For the majority of the film he’s emotionally detached and only doing what he needs to, to get paid, so why continue to pursue something when the incentive is gone especially when there’s nothing in it personally for him?

The story has a lot of twists and complications, but it all ends up circling back to the person that we had suspected from the very beginning making the ending not only predictable but boring. It would also have been nice since this film does make some attempts at being gritty to not have every lead that he comes upon always magically pan out. In real-life many so-called ‘hot leads’ go nowhere and for the sake of balance the film should’ve shown Burt coming to a few dead-ends before finally getting the clues that he needed.

As for the action it’s okay and the foot chase outside of a warehouse is good not so much for what happens, but more because it was shot in late autumn and the orange sunlight coupled with the bare trees gives off a surreal feeling, which gets ruined later during another foot chase where everything is suddenly plush and green and strangely turned springtime without warning. The fact that Burt is always able to jump into vehicles that routinely have their keys already in the ignition hurts the credibility and how he was able to get a forklift to drive itself during the warehouse segment is even more perplexing.

The film starts off with a bang and I was hoping this would be something really different, but ultimately it becomes like a slow, leaking tire that gets flatter as it goes along. That’s not to say it isn’t adequate as it is, but there’s nothing about it that’s truly memorable. Dyan Cannon’s is particularly wasted. Supposedly she had to be coaxed out of semi-retirement to do this after her bad experience in Such Good Friends, but I failed to see the point as her character doesn’t have much to do with the story and could’ve easily been cut out altogether.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: January 31, 1973

Runtime: 1 Hour 46 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Buzz Kulik

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video

Ladies and Gentleman, The Fabulous Stains (1982)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Teen forms punk band.

Corinne (Diane Lane) is an angry 17-year-old who lashes out at a TV-reporter during an interview when she describes the challenges of trying to make-ends-meet while working at a fast food place after the death of her mother. Her tirade resonates with other teens and this new found celebrity gives her the idea to form her own punk band called The Stains.  She goes on tour with two other bands and makes a splash by going out on stage wearing a wild skunk-like hair-do and a see-through blouse. This gets her media attention and a fan following, but will her new found fame last, or will it just go to her head?

This interesting look at the punk band scene, that could make a great companion piece to The Decline of Western Civilization, was filmed in a sardonically humorous pseudo-documentary style, but unfortunately did not fare well when it was initially released. After getting a bad response when it was first shown in Denver in October of 1982 the studio shelved the film for 2 years,inserted a new tacked-on ending and then sold it to the USA Network where it became a staple to their weekend, overnight programming and quickly garnered a cult following.

The film still does not get as much attention as I think it deserves and tends to get overshadowed by the overrated This is Spinal Tap. This film though is a lot grittier and that fact that it was directed by Lou Adler, who worked for many decades in the music business, helps give it an authentic appeal as it analyzes the underside of the music business by showing how the majority of bands live on society’s fringe while excising the glitz and glamour completely. It also astutely examines the inner-conflicts and raging egos that go on behind-the-scenes and how the almost constant back-stabbing infects the mind-set of those trying to break-in.

The script was written by Nancy Dowd who is best known or penning Slap Shot and this film works in much the same way as that one by placing it in a similar setting of an economically strapped, working class Pennsylvania town. The shots of the gray, rundown region is what really gives this film an extra edge and helps the viewer identify with why the characters will do almost anything to get out of it. One of the best shots comes while watching Corinne walking around outside as she makes plans for her band while in the backdrop we see the grimy steel mill life that she’s grown-up in and hitting-home how her dreams for her punk band isn’t based so much on rebellion, but more on hoped for escape.

I loved Lane’s acerbic personality and her hilariously caustic opening interview with a TV-reporter really sets the tone for the rest of the film while also helping to solidify that this isn’t going to be just another mainstream Hollywood flick like Almost Famous, which I felt painted rock band life in too much of a sugar coated way, but instead something with a real attitude. In fact I was disappointed that Lane’s salty sarcasm wasn’t played-up even more as it’s funny and on-target and made it easy to see how her character was able to galvanize such a mass following.

On the slight downside I felt her relationship with her two band-mates (Marin Kanter, Laura Dern) with one of them being her sister and the other her cousin got underplayed. The irony is that Dern sued her mother, actress Diane Ladd, in court in order to work on the movie as Ladd felt she was too young to travel on-location to do the shoot. Dern obviously won the battle, but the fight seemed hardly worth it as she ends up having very little to say or do.

Spoiler Alert!

The only time that things becomes insincere is when the Looters head singer (Ray Winstone) performs the opening act for The Stains and is met with a hostile response by her fans, so in retaliation he informs them that Corinne is a corporate sell-out and just like that they all turn on her. Having an entire stadium of young people go from rapid fans to extreme haters in a matter of seconds is just not realistic and one of the reasons why I believe this film did not do well upon its initial release and required a different ending put in, which was filmed several years later, in order to help salvage it.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Release: October 16, 1982

Runtime: 1 Hour 27 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Lou Adler

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Nekromantik (1987)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: They like dead bodies.

Rob and Betty (Robert Schmadtke, Beatrice Manowski) are a couple into necrophilia. Rob’s job as a street sweeper allows him to steal human body parts, which he brings home and stores in jars. One day he is able to sneak home a decomposed body and his wife makes love to it, which makes him jealous. Then he loses his job causing his wife to leave him and forcing him into an even darker mental spiral.

Director Jorg Buttgereit has stated that he never intended to be a serious filmmaker and made this simply as a means to rebel at the German film rating system, which would routinely edit out violent scenes from their films and ‘to shock as many people as possible.’ In that category it does succeed, but what I got most out of it was how funny it is with the ‘romantic’ sequence where a couple throws a severed head back and forth between each other in  a sort of playful, loving way while soft, romantic music plays in the background being the funniest.

There’s also an interesting film-within-a-film concept here where it makes pointed observations on the effects of horror movies on the general public while using its characters to inadvertently convey that message. The best scene here involves Robert going to a horror movie inside a theater, which shows  a woman onscreen getting ambushed by her attacker and then cut up by his knife, but the camera then cuts back to the movie audience and observes their detached and ambivalent  expressions even as the screams of the woman continue on the screen, which to me was the film’s most frightening and revealing moment.

The gore factor is of course quite high uses the technique first done in Cannibal Holocaust  where it cuts back and forth between an actual animal killing to that of a human getting cut open until you can no longer differentiate the real from the fake. The special effects are quite authentic looking despite the minuscule budget and even features a cat death although thankfully I think that one was improvised.

The acting by Manowski is excellent as she shows no hesitation or restraint with her role in a demanding part most other actresses would’ve refused. Her onscreen presence adds erotic energy and it’s too bad she didn’t remain in it for the whole duration as it’s only when the two leads interact that it gets  the most interesting. In fact a backstory showing how they first met and what started them off into their sick habit would’ve been nice.

If you’re into trashy gore this flick is for you although it’s more sickening than scary and in fact I don’t consider it a horror movie at all, but more a dark comedy, a very dark one. This was followed 4 years later by a sequel, which continues the story right where this one leaves off,  has the same director and star, and I’m told is even more graphic.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: November 19, 1987

Runtime: 1Hour 15Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Jorg Buttgereit

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, YouTube

Rabid (1977)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Graft patient craves blood.

Rose (Marilyn Chambers) becomes the victim of a horrible accident when the motorcycle she goes riding on with her boyfriend (Frank Moore) crashes and she gets pinned underneath the burning wreckage. Fortunately for her the accident occurs near a clinic that specializes in plastic surgery. The head surgeon (Howard Ryshpan) is able to perform an experimental procedure on her that helps graft her burned skin back to normal, but in the process creates a strange orifice in her armpit that sucks blood from everyone she attacks. Her victims then become possessed by a rare form of rabies that sends the city of Montreal into a panic as the authorities try to control the outbreak while also trying to figure out the cause.

This marked director David Cronenberg’s third feature film and from a low budget standpoint the results are impressive. I was especially amazed by some of the car stunts including having an out-of-control vehicle jump a guard rail and crash onto a highway below where a large semi then rams into it. His ability to somehow hire an entire fleet of squad cars is admirable too as most budget-challenged films will make do with just one police car when having authorities investigate the scene of a crime/accident even though in reality there are usually many especially if the crime or accident is severe like here.

I also loved the way he captures the gray/bleak Canadian landscape, which helps supplement the film’s dark and moody tone as well as the bits of dark humor that gets implemented into the story that made me wish the whole thing had been approached as a black comedy from the start.

The horror though isn’t all that much and genuine scares are light including the scenes showing rabid people attacking others, which becomes both clichéd and redundant. The orifice itself looks like an asshole and similar to the giant one that Cronenberg created many years later for his equally provocative film Naked Lunch.

Unfortunately porn star Chambers doesn’t have the presence or talent for mainstream film work. She broke into the business years earlier with a bit part in the Barbra Streisand movie The Owl and the Pussycat, but to her surprise other film offers didn’t follow, which eventually forced her into the X-rated business, which included starring in the cult classic Behind the Green Door, but she always held out hope to one day breaking back into mainstream movies and finally got it here, but it never propelled her further.

Part of the issue is her voice which is abnormally high-pitched and at times sounds like that of a very young child’s. In certain scenes it’s worse than others, but I found listening to her speak to be disconcerting and distracting although she does still look great naked.

The somber, downbeat ending is unusual for a horror film and it might’ve had more impact had the main character been given more depth. The viewer though learns little about her and she fails to have a distinctive personality, which limits the film’s ability to be anything more than just a curio.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: April 8, 1977

Runtime: 1Hour 31Minutes

Rated R

Director: David Cronenberg

Studio: Cinepix Film Properties

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

Piranha (1978)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Mutant fish attack swimmers.

When two teenagers disappear late one night while swimming in a pool inside an abandoned military complex it’s up to Maggie (Heather Menzies) a professional skip tracer to find them. She recruits Paul (Bradford Dillman) a drunken backwoods loner to serve as her guide. As their investigation continues they learn that the swimmers were killed by some mutant fish that had been created by the government to be used as a weapon during the Vietnam War. Now that the war was over they were being kept inside a secret underwater tank, but when Maggie inadvertently drained the tank in order to search for the bodies she released the fish down the river where they are set to attack a children’s summer camp of which Paul’s daughter Suzie (Shannon Collins) is in attendance.

This is billed as a spoof of Jaws and supposedly according to Leonard Maltin’s review loaded with in-jokes, but to me I saw very little that was humorous and in many ways this film could work as a legitimate horror film on its own. The only amusing moments I found are when Maggie plays a Jaws video game near the beginning as well as a female beachgoer who is spotted reading ‘Moby Dick’, but otherwise the chuckles are light unless you count Dick Miller as an overzealous promoter who is indeed pretty funny.

The film starts out like I wants to be different from the typical horror film and initially I was intrigued particularly with the two protagonists. Normally the female/male leads in these types of films consist of good-looking teens/college aged kids, but here we get a guy who was near 50 and a female, who although being quite attractive has more of a take-charge attitude that is usually seen in a guy. Having the film play against gender stereotypes was for me the best thing it had going for it and I really liked the way the awkward relationship between Maggie and Paul initially developed.

Unfortunately it doesn’t stay that way and by the halfway mark Paul is the one taking control while Maggie is just tagging along, which I found disappointing. It also tries to sneak in a romance angle, which is ridiculous since the guy was clearly old enough to be her father. Paul is also seen continually drinking alcohol, but he never shows any signs of being inebriated and I realize alcoholics have a higher tolerance to the stuff, but still I doubt he would’ve been able to stay so sharp and heroic as he ends up being while still under the influence as he supposedly is.

The fish attacks become monotonous and consist of the same shot of rubber fish put on strings shown swimming towards their prey and the sound effects used for the fish when they start biting was performed by underwater dental drills, which to me sounded cheesy. There are a lot of pools of blood that form around the victim as he/she are being bitten, but not much else in the way of special effects. Only at the end does it get gorier and there’s even a shot of one of the fish coming straight towards the screen with its toothy mouth wide open, but I felt this should’ve been put in earlier.

The supporting cast of eclectic B-movie stars is interesting but underused and this also marks the final film appearance of Barry Brown who at the age of 27 killed himself just two months after the film wrapped shooting and was already dead by the time it was released to theaters. Overall though, the whole thing, which was remade in 2010, is watchable but disappointing. The humor and offbeat elements should’ve been played-up much more and the characters made to be more eccentric especially the two leads. In the end it becomes just another routine horror flick that’s no better or worse than the hundreds of others that are already out there.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: August 3, 1978

Runtime: 1Hour 34Minutes

Rated R

Director: Joe Dante

Studio: New World Pictures

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

Heartburn (1986)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Husband cheats on wife.

Rachel (Meryl Streep) writes for a magazine as a New York food critic and meets Mark (Jack Nicholson) at a wedding that they both attend. Mark is a political columnist who’s known around Washington for being quite a ladies man, but the two get into a relationship anyways and then eventually despite their reluctance married. Things go smoothly for a while and Rachel even starts to think that she has a ‘perfect marriage’, but then as she is about to give birth to their second child she realizes that he has been having an affair.

The film is based on Nora Ephron’s autobiographical novel dealing with her marriage and subsequent divorce to newspaper reporter Carl Bernstein. The book starts out with her ready to give birth to the second child, but the movie unfortunately takes a more linear approach to the narrative as it plods along through the initial courtship and wedding even though the red flags are clearly there and the viewer knows exactly where it’s going. The story would’ve worked better had it started at the 50-minute mark where Rachel finds out about the affair and then through brief flashbacks shown how the relationship began, which would’ve cut the runtime, which is too long for such slight material anyways, and helped make the proceedings seem just a little less predictable.

A lot of the humor doesn’t work either. The sequence involving the wedding ceremony and Rachel not sure if she wanted to go through with it which keeps the guests there for hours gets botched because I don’t believe the people would’ve remained sitting there for so long. When she finally does decide to proceed with the wedding the guests all look strangely refreshed when in reality most if not all would’ve been long gone and it would’ve been funnier to see them getting married inside an empty room save for one bored wedding guest who remained there simply because it couldn’t find a ride home.

The dream-like segments where an Alistar Cooke-like character talks about Rachel’s marriage problems while hosting a TV-show is too surreal and should’ve been excised because doesn’t fit the tone of the rest of the film, which is more reality based. The segment where Rachel finds out that Mark is having an affair and then it cuts to a shot of her holding a pie that she is taking to a dinner party is too obvious as the viewer immediately gets a strong sense that the pie will eventually be going onto Mark’s face and when it finally does it’s not funny, but anti-climactic instead.

The script fails to add any new insight into an already tired subject and the characters aren’t likable as they have too much of an elitist coastal feel about them and their lifestyles won’t resonate or connect with anyone living in another part of the country. There are just too many people in this whose only concern or form of entertainment is having catty gossip/conversations dealing with who’s cheating on whom, which quickly becomes derivative.

Streep and Nicholson are good and its interesting seeing them play together here as they also starred together just a year later in Ironweed playing two diametrically different people. Unfortunately Jack, who is for the most part quite likable, doesn’t look or behave at all like the real-life Bernstein, which his character is supposedly loosely based on. Dustin Hoffman, who had already played Bernstein in All the President’s Men was the first choice for the role and he would’ve been perfect, but for whatever reason he turned it down.

Ultimately though the film’s biggest drawback is simply Rachel herself as she frets and nitpicks about everything and her anxiety-ridden ways would most likely annoy any man, which makes the ultimate affair when it finally does happen seem inevitable and not a shock at all. When she ponders to Mark about if they should get married and she tells him that she fears she’ll drive him crazy and Mark replies ‘you already are’ I felt like saying ‘she’s driving the viewer that way too.’.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: July 22, 1986

Runtime: 1Hour 49Minutes

Rated R

Director: Mike Nichols

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Real Life (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Ordinary family reality show.

Albert Brooks plays Albert Brooks a hot shot young filmmaker determined to make a splash by filming a regular American family in their home and capturing everything that they do. The idea is for the family to go about their daily lives as if the cameras aren’t really there and then record their interactions. Things though go off-kilter almost immediately, which sends Brooks into a panic as he fears his movie won’t be entertaining enough and forcing him to compromise the project by instilling outside influences in order to make the movie more commercially viable.

This is another film that gets listed in the book ‘1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die’, but I’m not sure why. I’ll admit when I first saw it over 30 years ago it struck me as being quite irreverent and edgy at least the beginning, but the second half fades as Brooks loses sight of the main theme and writes himself into a hole. This results in a lot of tired jokes that focuses too much on the filmmaker and not the family.

The idea is based off of the documentary called ‘An American Family’, which was broadcast on PBS from January to May of 1973. This is where a filmmaking crew followed around the Loud family of Santa Barbara, California for 7 months in 1971 and filmed everything that went on between them. The idea was not to sensationalize anything, but instead have it work as an educational program examining the dynamics of how a typical American family works. Although things started out normal it soon began to unravel when the wife asked for a divorce and the couple’s 20 year-old son suddenly came out as gay. All these things were unexpected and many critics felt it was the presence of the cameras that brought them out.

Unfortunately this film misses the mark by having the family’s unraveling occur almost immediately and therefore not taking advantage of a prime comedic arch. The family members also lack any discernable personality and proceed to just get more boring as the film progresses. Certain darkly humorous moments like the scene where the father, played by Charles Grodin, performs a botched operation on a horse as part of his veterinarian practice are not funny at all and instead quite disturbing especially since a real horse was used.

The audience comes into this thing expecting to see a story about a family, but instead gets bombarded with Brooks whose sarcastic personality is only tolerable in small doses. The intended satire of a popular TV-series morphs into scenes of a narcissist filmmaker endlessly whining about his anxieties making the whole thing seem more like a vanity project or worse a limp remake of Federico Fellini’s 8 ½.

Some great moments particularly the opening scenes showing the audition phase get lost amidst a rapid fire of sardonic gags that go nowhere.  I started to wonder if Brooks had even seen the actual series that he is supposedly trying to make fun of, or if he just considered the concept as an excuse to try and make himself the star. The intended surrealism doesn’t work and actually gets in the way with a whacked-out Gone with the Wind-like finale being the worst and only helps cement this as a misfire.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: March 2, 1979

Runtime: 1Hour 39Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Albert Brooks

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

…and justice for all. (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Lawyer fights the system.

Arthur (Al Pacino) is a defense attorney who becomes increasingly more frustrated and disillusioned with the court system. He’s fighting to get one of his clients, Jeff (Thomas Waites), out of jail as he’s been sitting behind bars for over a year simply because he was mistaken for somebody else while also being forced to defend Judge Fleming (John Forsythe), a man that he vehemently hates, from a rape allegation.

The script by the husband and wife team of Barry Levinson and Valerie Curtain is chockfull of great insights into the American legal system and how messed up and prone to corruption it can sometimes be. Defense lawyers have in the past been glamourized in TV-shows like ‘Perry Mason’, but here the viewer gets a more stark assessment of their profession as they watch them being forced to defend those that they know are actually guilty. Yet it also balances this by showing how public defenders can also be the lone voice to those who are truly innocent and have no one else to speak up for them.

The film has a weird comedy/drama mix that doesn’t work and ends up getting in the way. When I first saw this many decades back I liked the humorous undertones as it gave production a surreal, satirical edge, but upon second viewing I didn’t find it to be as amusing. The script makes good hard-hitting points and adding in the humor only diminishes this message and takes away from the seriousness of the subject matter.

The side-story dealing with the suicidal judge, played by Jack Warden, should’ve been excised. I’ll admit the images of him eating lunch while sitting out on a ledge of a tall building, or trying to kill himself with a rifle are memorable, but pointless and by coupling this judge character with Forsythe’s crooked one seems to imply that all judges are either bad or crazy, which isn’t fair.

The storyline dealing with Arthur visiting his senile grandfather, played by Lee Strasberg, should’ve been cut out as well as it has nothing to do with the main plot. It also brings up many unanswered questions like why is Arthur close to his grandfather and not to his own parents and why did his parents apparently ‘abandon’ him? This backstory never gets sufficiently addressed and seems like material for a whole different movie altogether.

Spoiler Alert!

The storyline involving Judge Fleming is the most intriguing and should’ve been made the film’s primary focus, but I was disappointed with the way the judge glibly admits to his crime, which takes away the mystery angle and I would’ve preferred the truth coming out in a more dramatic manner. The film also has a very old-fashioned take to his situation by saying that just because the character is involved with BDSM activities that somehow makes him ‘deviant’ and more prone to committing rape, which has been proven untrue as there are plenty of people who can enjoy kinky activities with consenting partners and still remain ethical.

End of Spoiler Alert!

Overall the film is worth catching and has many interesting moments including Pacino’s final speech that he gives to a packed courtroom, which is a gem. This also marks the film debuts of Christine Lahti and Jeffery Tambor as Pacino’s lawyer friend who slowly goes crazy.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: October 16, 1979

Runtime: 1Hour 59Minutes

Director: Norman Jewison

Rated R

Studio: Columbia Pictures

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

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