Category Archives: Classic

Day for Night (1973)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Movie within a movie.

Director Ferrand (Francois Truffaut) is trying desperately to complete his latest film project, but faces many challenges in the process. His young star (Jean-Pierre Leaud) is threatening to drop-out due to his recent break-up with his girlfriend, so his co-star Julie (Jacqueline Bisset) decides to sleep with him out of pity and in an effort to get the film completed, but in the process gets in trouble with her husband. Ferrand also faces issues with his other leading lady Severine (Valentina Cortese) who is an alcoholic  and with the sudden death of his male lead Alexander (Jean-Pierre Aumont).

What was once an innovative idea now seems rather antiquated. No where is this more apparent then in the scene where Severine constantly forgets her lines and opens up the wrong door during each take. At one point this might’ve seemed funny as behind-the-scenes bloopers really didn’t come into vogue until Hal Needham started showing them during the mid-70’s in the closing credits of his films. However, actor screw-ups are now no longer fresh and instead seem almost sad and pathetic especially here where you begin to wonder if the woman is suffering from severe psychological disorder. I was also surprised that the rest of the crew and director put up with it as most Hollywood productions would have the actress quickly fired and replaced.

Truffaut may be a great director, but his onscreen presence isn’t much and he hardly ever seems to be directing anything anyways, but more overwhelmed by the people and problems that surround him almost like he really isn’t in control. Perhaps this was the point, but a stronger actor with a more definitive personality would’ve hit the idea home better. I was also confused why he constantly wore an earplug that seemed to be connected to what looked like a transistor radio in his shirt pocket. Initially I thought it was to help relay messages/signals to his co-director/cinematographer or vice-versa, but then he is shown wearing it even when he was not on the set making it seem like it might be a hearing aid, but in either case it never gets properly explained, but should’ve.

Bisst is beautiful and I’ll give Truffaut credit as he certainly knows how to capture her exquisite blue eyes better than any other director.   Hearing her speak fluid French is at first surreal, but then kind of fun and watching her climb a tall ladder without hesitation in order to get onto a elevated set was impressive too as I’m not sure I would’ve been quite so brave.

The behind-the-scene romantic/sexual scenarios that occur between the cast members are quite funny, but I wished they had jumped into them sooner as I found them to be more interesting than the filmmaking stuff, which to me didn’t come off as all that revealing or insightful. I also felt the antics got resolved too quickly and easily. Again I presume this was the humorous intent by showing how no matter what the problem or issue somehow, someway they find a way to get the film completed, but the story would’ve been more captivating had these side-dramas been more played-out. It’s still an entertaining watch, but a reboot with the setting in a Hollywood production should be in order as I suspect some of the on-set politics there would be handled much differently.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: May 24, 1973

Runtime: 1 Hour 55 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Francois Truffaut

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD, Blu-ray

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Robbing his own bank.

Thomas (Steve McQueen) is a bank executive who devises what he feels is the perfect crime. He hires five men who he does not know nor do they know each other to rob his bank in broad daylight and then dump the money in a trash can at a cemetery where he retrieves it. The heist works flawlessly, but then insurance investigator Vicki (Faye Dunaway) comes on the scene and she almost immediately eyes Thomas as the culprit. The two begin a torrid affair with Vicki openly telling him her suspicions and that she’ll do whatever it takes to prove it, but Thomas has other plans.

What makes this film stand out from all the other bank robbing movies is that the heist scene was shot using a concealed camera. Only the bank officials and guards were aware that a movie was being made while the rest of the people were actual customers convinced that what was happening was real making their reactions of fear genuine. The best part of this sequence though is when director Norman Jewison has the camera put onto a dolly and glides it through the tear gas that the thieves set off.

The film is famous for its use of the split screen particularly during the opening credit sequence as well as Michel Legrand’s award winning music. Legrand wrote the score after viewing a five hour rough cut and the movie was then edited to be in tandem with the music instead of being done in reverse, which is how it’s usually done. For me the music comes off as sappy and out-of-place making it seem more like a romance when it’s really a game of cat-and-mouse and the blaring score almost gets in the way of it.

The best thing is Dunaway and I really don’t care how many face lifts she may have had, or how many years it’s been since she’s had a relevant role because she’s still a great actress and her presence here proves it. She filmed this before her breakout movie Bonnie and Clyde was released and she takes complete control of every scene she is in. Her character also works in what was still traditionally perceived as a man’s role and thus making it kind of groundbreaking. I also like that she’s never seen as weak or vulnerable in the traditional feminine sense and instead remains quite determined and focused throughout while never swaying from using her femininity as a weapon and nothing more.

McQueen unfortunately, and I can’t believe I’m saying this as he’s one of my favorite actors,  ends up being the film’s weakest link as the role goes against his rugged persona, which is what he’s good at. He had worked with Jewison before in The Cincinnati Kid and lobbied hard for the part, but Jewison rightly felt that character was not the right fit, but ultimately he relented, which was a mistake. The only time he is effective is when he’s doing his own stunts or driving on the beach in a dune buggy but otherwise he’s transparent and utterly dominated by Dunaway.

The supporting cast is good especially Jack Weston as a mope who gets hired on to partake in the robbery and then works as the clumsy catalyst that helps unravel it, but I was disappointed that his character ultimately disappears too soon and would’ve liked him to have remained for the duration. Otherwise this slick production, which was written by Alan Trustman who worked at a bank and would spend his idle time fantasizing on how to rob it, holds up well and includes the famous chess game sequence that still sizzles.

As for the 1999 remake, which changes many key plot points, I’ve never seen it nor do I have any interest to. Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo certainly make for an interesting pair, but I feel that if the original is a classic then it shouldn’t be touched and a law should be written disbarring remakes when they aren’t needed or asked for.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: June 19, 1968

Runtime: 1Hour 42Minutes

Rated R

Director: Norman Jewison

Studio: United Artists

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Jaws (1975)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 10 out of 10

4-Word Review: Shark in the water.

A young woman (Susan Backlinie) goes out for a swim late one night only to have her severed hand wash up on shore the next day, which causes the Amity Police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) to fear that her death may have been caused by a shark. Amity mayor Larry Vaughan (Murray Hamilton) doesn’t want his town to risk losing business, so he has his coroner deny that a shark was responsible and hence the beach remains open, but then more attacks occur. Eventually an eccentric shark hunter named Quint (Robert Shaw), Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) from the Oceanographic Institute and Brody head out on a small fishing vessel called Orca to locate the shark and then kill it, but they find the underwater beast to be far bigger and more cunning than they had ever imagined.

With its exceptional ability to slowly build tension and keep the viewer riveted from the first frame to the last easily makes this the quintessential thriller. John Williams’s legendary score adds to the murky ambience and in many ways is more memorable than the shark itself. Director Steven Spielberg wisely adds a secondary layer to the narrative by creating colorful and distinctive characters, most notably Quint, who gives the proceedings a flavorful nuance and makes the conversations and interactions that occur between the three inside the boat more interesting than what happens in the water.

The most amazing thing though is how little the shark is actually seen and in fact you don’t even get a glimpse of him until about an hour in. Part of this was due to the difficulty of getting the mechanical creation to perform properly in salt water, but in the end this became a blessing in disguise as it’s the mystery and allusion to its large size that makes it so riveting. The viewer feels as helpless and confused as the men on the boat, which makes the climactic sequence when the shark suddenly does jump onto the boat all that more impactful.

Spoiler Alert!

The film though does deviate heavily from the Peter Benchley source novel and a legitimate argument can be made as to which one presents the story better. In the book the tone is darker and the characters less likable. For me this makes it more intriguing from a psychological bent as it conveys the idea that humans are like the shark that they hunt as they both selfishly devour everything around them. Spielberg though didn’t care for this interpretation so the novel’s darker subtext gets erased, but it still made me intrigued, as much of a classic as this movie is, to see a reboot where the narrative stayed more faithful.

Some of the book’s subplots got too involved particularly the one dealing with the mayor’s connections to the criminal underworld, so I’m glad that one got toned down.  However I felt the one though dealing with Hooper’s affair with Brody’s wife (Lorraine Gary) should’ve been left in as it would’ve added extra tensions between the two while on the boat while also seeing how people can learn to work together even when they hate each other.

In the book Hooper dies when the shark attacks the cage that he is in while in the movie he is able to escape and somehow hide from the shark. This though seemed unrealistic as sharks have special sensing organs known as electroreceptors that allow them to detect the electromagnetic field emitted from a moving animal or at close range even the heartbeat of an immobile one, which means the shark most likely would’ve figured out where Hooper was hiding and gotten him.

In the book the shark dies from its many wounds just as it gets a few feet from Brody while in the movie it’s killed when the scuba tank that it has in its mouth explodes when hit by a bullet, but a 2003 episode of Mythbusters proves that in reality this wouldn’t have happened. My main beef though is that by having the shark literally blow-up into little pieces it denies the viewer the chance at seeing what the beast looked like as a whole. Supposedly this was one giant of a shark, so viewing it strung up at the end would’ve been a cool thing to have seen.

End of Spoiler Alert!

Despite these many differences the film still works splendidly and I don’t mean to imply that it doesn’t, but I would still suggest reading the book afterwards as it gives the story and characters an added dimension.

My Rating: 10 out of 10

Released: June 20, 1975

Runtime: 2Hours 4Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Steven Spielberg

Studio: Universal

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

Death Wish (1974)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Architect becomes a vigilante.

In connection with the Eli Roth/Bruce Willis reboot that is set to be released to theaters this Friday I thought now would be a good time to go back and take a look at the original. The story centers on Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) who works as an architect and lives a comfortable life with his wife Joanna (Hope Lange) and adult daughter Carol (Kathleen Tolan). One day while he is at work his New York apartment gets invaded by three thugs (Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Logan, Gregory Rozakis) who kill his wife and rape his daughter. Paul becomes outraged that the police can’t seem to make any headway on the case and decides to take matters into his own hands by becoming a self-styled vigilante shooting random thugs on the street late at night, which in turn has him becoming a cult hero to the many residents of the crime ridden city.

The film is based on the novel of the same name by Brian Garfield. Garfield was inspired to write the story after his car got vandalized. He initially fantasized about tracking down the criminals and killing them before eventually speculating what would happen if someone actually went through with these feelings and decided to take the law into their own hands. The main difference between the novel and film is that in the book the vigilantism becomes more of the problem while in the movie it’s considered the solution.

Many critics at the time gave the film unfavorable reviews as they felt it advocated violence, but I found the movie to have a certain uplifting quality. While the message is certainly simplistic and one-sided it still nicely conveys the idea that ordinary citizens can make a difference and it is up to us, the American public, to foster change and not to simply leave it up to someone else. The film doesn’t completely promote violence as the solution either as there is one scene where an old lady (Helen Martin) scares off her attacker simply by using her hat pin.

The problem that I had with it was why does Bronson constantly get harassed by these thugs in the first place? Whether he is at a restaurant or on the subway the bad guys constantly hone in on him for no apparent reason even when there’s plenty of other people around. In the book it made more sense because the title character would intentionally set traps for the thugs like abandoning his car and putting an ‘out of gas’ sign on it, so the criminals would try to rob the vehicle and then when they did he’d shoot them. Of course this would make the character’s motives more questionable, which the film wanted to avoid, but in the process it becomes less believable.

While this has become Bronson’s signature role it still would’ve worked better had a less brawny actor played the part. In the book the character is a meek accountant and someone like Jack Lemmon, who was originally considered for the role, would’ve been a more authentic fit. Bronson’s image is so entrenched as a ‘tough guy’ that his presence here seems like just another of his action themed vehicles. Chuck should’ve also not known how to use a gun right away either and maybe even been initially clumsy with it as it would’ve made the character arch from peaceful novice to sharp shooting vigilante stronger.

I liked Michael Winner’s directing particularly the way he shot the interiors of the apartments and his grimy portrayal of the urban New York setting that perfectly played-up the city’s crime ridden paranoia at the time. This is also a great chance to see some young performers before they were famous including Christopher Guest as a patrolman. I also found it amusing that Paul Dooley and Vincent Gardenia share a brief scene together as they both went on to play the dad character in Breaking Away. Dooley portrayed him in the movie version while Gardenia played the part in the short live TV-series.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: July 24, 1974

Runtime: 1Hour 33Minutes

Rated R

Director: Michael Winner

Studio: Paramount

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

Risky Business (1983)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Teen becomes suburban pimp.

Joel (Tom Cruise) is a teenager living in a sprawling home on the North Shore of suburban Chicago who is stressing about getting into a top college. His parents (Nicholas Pryor, Janet Carroll) announce that they will be leaving on vacation for two weeks and he’ll have the whole place to himself. After some prodding by his friends he invites over a beautiful prostitute named Lana (Rebecca De Mornay) and takes her for a spin in his Dad’s Porsche, which accidently slides into the lake. The repairs will be expensive, so Lana devises a scheme where his home will be used as a temporary, make-shift whorehouse bringing in customers, many of whom being Joel’s high school friends who will pay to have sex with Lana’s beautiful call girl friends and whose proceeds will go to fixing the car.

The film is a fresh, funny look at capitalism and a perfect composite of the Reagan years and ‘80s attitudes. However, the conversations that the teens have here is jarringly out-of-touch with today’s youngsters who seem to favor more socialistic concepts. On one hand this then dates the picture, but it also makes it fascinating at seeing how people thought from a bygone era.

Cruise is fantastic and really looks like a teen, especially with his bowl haircut, even though he was already in his 20’s at the time. The character though allows himself to be taken advantage of too much by his friends. For most people the friendship would immediately end if they had a pal who would invited over a prostitute as a ‘joke’ that they didn’t want and would still be expected to pay for.

Why are these friends doing these hijinks anyways? It was almost like Joel had never been home alone before. Most likely he had, so why now are his buddies doing these things when they hadn’t earlier? A much better premise would’ve been to have Joel achieve some sort of accomplishment, like pass an all-important SAT test and as a ‘reward’ his friends would pitch-in and buy him a prostitute for the night while his parents were away. Everything else that follows would be the same, but at least the catalyst that sets it in motion would make more sense and Joel would seem less like a pushover straddled with irritating friends no one in their right mind would want.

The sex scene between Joel and Lana comes off like an overly stylized bit from a soft core porn flick. There were several fantasy segments that came before it and I was fully expecting this to be one of them, but it isn’t. Joel is a kid that seriously lacks confidence in every other way, so I would imagine his initial meeting with a prostitute would be awkward especially since he had never done anything like that before. Most likely he would’ve been so nervous that he might not have been able to even ‘rise-to-the-occasion’. Having Joel initially behave clumsily towards Lana would’ve been funny and more believable instead as it is here the ‘reality’ segment is dreamier than the fantasy ones.

The Lana character is frustrating as she remains an aloof composite of a hooker that the viewer never gets to understand as a real person. Seeing her in a vulnerable moment would’ve helped, but it never comes. (Her conversation with Joel about her life was too brief and not enough.) I would’ve liked a more conclusive ending revealing whether their relationship ‘blossomed’, worked into a long term friendship, or just dissipated. Having a scene at the end with Joel in college and calling Lana up to chat could’ve solidified this.

The parents are portrayed as being too stuffy and more like caricatures. The ending, which entails Joel buying back his parent’s furniture that had been stolen and then moving it all back into the home with the help of friends before his parents arrived is implausible. The house was too big and had too many items for them to be able to get everything in near spotless position in only 2 hours’ time.

The movie’s original charm is also affected by the fact that films like Home Alone and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off have had similar plots and stronger cult followings, but there’s still plenty of engaging moments. Watching Cruise dance around in his underwear to a Bob Segar song is hilarious. His precarious attempts to save the Porsche from going into the lake is really funny as is his interview with a college admissions dean from Princeton (Richard Masur) in Joel’s home while prostitutes and their customers scurry all around.

( Joel’s house as it appears today.)

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: August 5, 1983

Runtime: 1Hour 39Minutes

Rated R

Director: Paul Brickman

Studio: Warner Brothers

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

The Bad News Bears (1976)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: From losers to winners.

Ex-minor league baseball player and now full-time pool cleaner Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau) gets hired to coach a bunch of unskilled, untalented kids in a competitive baseball Little League. At first Buttermaker is only interested in collecting a paycheck and has no drive in teaching the kids the fundamentals or even in winning, but things change after the season opener when his team gets drubbed by the far superior Yankees. Buttermaker takes offence at their arrogant manager (Vic Morrow) and feels compelled to ‘show-him-up’. To do this he brings in the talented Amanda (Tatum O’Neal) to be the team’s new pitcher as well as Kelly Leak (Jackie Earle Haley) who is an excellent fielder and hitter, but as his competitive juices flow, so does his surly side making the game no longer fun to play for the kids.

Don’t be fooled because this is anything but a simple kid’s flick. Sure the kids can watch it and enjoy it, but the multi-layered story brings out many issues that the adults will be more than able to relate to. Director Michael Ritchie deftly picks-up on the many nuances of Little League culture and if one played in it or was involved in any capacity then this movie will tap into those memories and bring back a flood of nostalgia.

My only complaint is a missing side-story dealing with the parents attending the games. It is mentioned in passing how the adults are able to be friendly with each other as the season begins, but by the end they are usually no longer on speaking terms, but it would’ve been much more revealing had this been shown instead of just discussed.

The script was written by Bill Lancaster who was the son of legendary actor Burt Lancaster. He based the story of his own experiences of playing Little League ball and the Buttermaker character is supposedly a composite of his famous dad.

This also marks the fifth film that Ritchie directed dealing with the theme of competition. His first was Downhill Racer, which dealt with the sport of skiing, The Candidate dealing with a senatorial race, Prime Cut, which was about rival crime syndicates, and Smile about the ugly side of beauty pageants and while all those flicks were good this one is his best.

Spoiler Alert!

The film’s climactic game, which has the Bears taking on the mighty Yankees for the championship features many of baseball’s intricate tactics that will appeal to the seasoned fan, but still be straight forward enough for the novice to grasp. It also has the film’s most famous scene where the Yankees’ manager smacks his own son (Brandon Cruz), who was the team’s pitcher, when he doesn’t obey his father’s instructions. Then on the very next play, and in order to get back at his dad, the kid fields a grounder, but refuses to throw it to first base, which allows the opposing team to score an easy run.

It is intended that the viewer should side with kid, but I didn’t. For one thing the dad’s advice was good, since this hitter had already gotten some runs off of him earlier it made sense to pitch low and outside. Just because he kid wants to ‘strike him out’ doesn’t mean that he will or that it’s a good idea. Strategy is a part of the game and that’s what a manger is there for. What happens if this kid grows up and plays in the big leagues and then decides he doesn’t want to do what the manager tells him. How’s that going to go over?

The kid also seemed like an incredibly self-centered little brat. Supposedly he lives with his dad 24/7, so couldn’t he have picked some other time to get back at his old man instead of jeopardizing the game for the rest of his teammates who are counting on him to help win?

This also brings up the issue of who’s really the ‘mean manager’.  It’s supposed to be Morrow, but Matthau in a lot of ways gets just as bad if not worse especially with the way he ends up treating Amanda making me almost surprised that she showed up the next day to play. To me it would’ve been more satisfying having one of the Bears players do to Matthau what the son did to his father and in my opinion Matthau would’ve deserved it more.

This then brings up the third issue which is the fact that Matthau has this extraordinary epiphany in the middle of the big game where he realizes in his zest to win he might’ve pushed things too far and decides to pull back. I realize this is the film’s central theme, which is that becoming overly competitive is not good and can turn otherwise nice people into assholes if they aren’t careful, but the shift comes off like a Jekyll and Hyde. Most of these types of games last for only an hour, so having a guy at the start of the hour come off as this relentless warrior willing to do whatever it takes to win only to end the game being this high minded idealist lecturing the other parents on how it’s important that all the children get a chance to play even if it means blowing the game seems too severe for such a short period of time.

I wasn’t completely happy about the Bears losing the big final game either. Normally I’d consider this a good thing because it works against the formula. It’s also beneficial for kids to realize that not everyone ends up with the big trophy or that ‘the good guys always win’, but more important to hold your head high and be proud of your accomplishments, yet I still remained a bit frustrated. You become so emotionally invested in them winning that it’s deflating when it doesn’t happen, but it’s still one of the best sports movies ever made either way!

End of Spoiler Alert!

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: April 7, 1976

Runtime: 1Hour 42Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Michael Ritchie

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Fantastic Voyage (1966)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Inside the human body.

When a Soviet scientist (Jean Del Val), who has sought asylum in the US and has crucial top secret information to give to the government, is shot in an attempted assassination, which leaves him comatose, it is up to a team of five American agents (Arthur Kennedy, William Redfield, Raquel Welch, Donald Pleasance, Stephen Boyd) to go inside his body through miniaturization and remove the blood clot on his brain with the help of a laser. The miniaturizing process is a new invention that only lasts sixty minutes before the person, or object that has been made smaller will begin to regrow. The participants must work fast, but there is an added problem as one of them is also secretly a spy who is intent on undermining the mission.

The film is hailed as a classic by many and this is mainly due to its special effects, which even in this day and age aren’t bad. The question of what gets represented here is what it would really look like if a person were put into an actual body is hard to tell, but the effects are exciting even though the characters were simply matted in front of a green screen to create the psychedelic looking background.  Yet I was still impressed as it gives off a sort-of surreal vision that made me feel like I had been transported to some foreign world along with the cast.

The script though unlike the effects is about as amateurish as you can get and if the action hadn’t been so meticulously designed this might’ve been considered a movie more suited to a camp film festival. For one thing it moves too fast particularly at the beginning. There needed to be more of a backstory about how this miniaturization process had been invented, how long it had been put to use, whether it was safe to use and who was the first to try it and had that person had any after effects none of which gets explained and is simply glossed over.

The characters are also overly obedient and willing to take on any assignment with little if any objection no matter what the potential danger. The Stephen Boyd character gets driven to the science lab and then when told that he’ll be shrunk to the size of a fingertip he puts up very little argument even though anyone else would be frightened about the prospect. Having one of the other characters call home to loved ones, or refuse to go on it would’ve helped make them seem less one-dimensional and robotic.

The crew’s conversations are boring and done in too much of a rhythmic way. Anytime an unforeseen problem arises one of them almost immediately comes up with a solution to it. We learn nothing about these people as the journey progresses nor care all that much about them. In fact the only interesting verbal exchanges that do occur are between Edmund O’Brien’s character and Arthur O’Connell’s who are inside the lab and monitoring the proceedings.

I do not have enough background in the science arena to know how authentic any of this is, but Isaac Asimov who was hired to write the novelization to the movie, stated that the script was full of ‘plot holes’. The one thing that did stand out to me was the part where the crew members are inside the patient’s inner ear and all the doctors inside the lab are forced to stand perfectly still and not make any noise as the sound vibrations could prove dangerous. However, it’s virtually impossible for there to be no noise at all. Even if someone tries to be perfectly quiet other noises that are less conspicuous would become more prominent like breathing, heartbeats, or other background sounds. In either event there would still be sound waves going through the patient’s ear long before one of the nurses accidently drops a medical utensil on the floor like they do here.

For popcorn entertainment it’s not too bad. In fact my favorite part was watching the process of how the crew gets miniaturized, which is actually pretty cool, but this is one of those films were you clearly can’t think about it too hard or it will ruin your enjoyment.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: August 24, 1966

Runtime: 1 Hour 41 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Richard Fleischer

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Saturday Night Fever (1977)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: He’s a disco star.

This film is based on a 1976 story that was published in New York Magazine entitled “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” by Nik Cohn, which for many years was considered a factual account of the disco trends of the young people at the time who frequented the disco 2001 Odyssey nightclub, but it later turned out, through the confession of its author, to have been totally fabricated. The story here centers on Tony (John Travolta) who still lives with his parents while working for low wages at a Brooklyn paint store, but longing for a more exciting existence. Despite being a ‘nobody’ during the week on Saturday nights he’s a star as he takes to the disco floor and has all the women flocking to him. Annette (Donna Pescow) is one of those women, but Tony finds her too unattractive and instead has eyes for Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney) who he wants as his dance partner in order to win a contest.

From the ads and promotions you’d think this was nothing more than a lightweight teeny bopper romance looking to take advantage of the current disco trend, but the film is much more than that. In fact the dance sequences are boring and thankfully director John Badham keeps these segments contained although I would’ve cut back on them even more. The real essence of the film is Tony’s relationship with his friends, family and world as a whole. The film works as a terrific composite of what life in Brooklyn during the ‘70s amongst the teens and young adults was really like as they try to forge their way into young adulthood while fighting to find their place in it.

Travolta gives an outstanding performance mainly because he’s one of those actors who isn’t afraid to expose the vulnerabilities of the characters that he plays as Tony isn’t a completely likable person and many times acts quite arrogant and callous, which leaves the viewer feeling like they’ve seen an unfiltered portrait of a real person with all the edges showing instead of just a manufactured image.

Pescow is great in support. The image of her holding out a hand full of condoms is the one thing I’ve remembered vividly from the movie from when I first saw it over twenty years ago and the scene of where she is assaulted in the back seat of a car by Tony’s friends is genuinely heart breaking.

My only quibble with her is the moment where Tony informs her that he is choosing a different dance partner for the contest and she immediately breaks down crying. My belief is that most people because of personal pride will not wear their emotional vulnerabilities that openly especially if they are downtrodden like her character. Instead I think she would’ve responded to the news in a sort of aloof/defiant way like saying ‘fine if you don’t want me then I don’t want you’ before walking away and then crying about it later in private.

Gorney’s performance was the one that I really didn’t like as her put-on Brooklyn accent is too affected. With Pescow you could tell it was the genuine thing as she was from the region originally, but Gorney was born in Beverly Hills and attended college in Pittsburgh, so her attempts at putting on an accent was not needed or warranted and made her character seem too much at Tony’s working class level when I thought the idea was to show that she wasn’t.

As for her relationship with Tony I liked the concept that these two were genuine opposites, but I wished the movie had played this up more. She’s initially cold towards Tony and rejects his advances and then a few days later without him having done anything differently she’s suddenly warmed up to him. I would’ve liked some situation created where she was forced to hook-up with Tony as a dance partner because her original partner took ill or something and then had the frostiness between them continue and melt away only when they are on the dance floor.

Spoiler Alert!

The ending is a bit limp. The fact that the two don’t end up getting into a long term romantic relationship, but instead agree to be ‘just friends’ is good as too many movies with this type of formula always seem to want to strive for the ideal love scenario, but in most real-world cases that just isn’t practical and these two had too much that was not in common and getting past those things would’ve proved futile.

However, the dance contest is a letdown as the film introduces a Puerto Rican couple who dance better than Tony and Stephanie, but Tony is still awarded the trophy supposedly because of racism, but why throw in this plot point so late? We’ve been following the trials and tribulations of Tony and Stephanie the entire way through not the Puerto Rican couple who we know nothing about. If the movie wanted to make a statement about racism at the club it should’ve been brought out much earlier and not at the very last minute when it becomes essentially pointless.

End of Spoiler Alert!

Overall though it’s a great movie that deserves its classic status as the characters and dialogue are richly textured and the film makes its message through subtle visual means without having to telegraph it. However, the PG-rated version, which was released two years later in an attempt to reel in the teen audience, sanitizes the story to the point that it takes out the heart of the film and should be avoided.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: December 12, 1977

Runtime: 1 Hour 58 Minutes (R-rated version) 1 Hour 52 Minutes (PG-rated version) 2 Hours 2 Minutes (Director’s cut)

Director: John Badham

Studio: Paramount

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

Behind the scenes of Five Easy Pieces (1970)

We celebrate this July 4th by looking back at a iconic American classic ‘Five Easy Pieces’. The film is best known for its memorable scene inside a Denny’s Diner, so I thought it would be fun to show some stills of that scene being filmed, which was in November of 1969 as well as what those same locations look like today. First, here’s a shot of the scene where Jack Nicholson confronts a stubborn waitress (played by Lorna Thayer).

Here’s how that very same booth looks like today:

The film was shot at a Denny’s restaurant in Eugene, Oregon. Here’s some shots of its exterior in 1969:

Here’s a shot of the restaurant today. Surprisingly it hasn’t changed too much:

Here’s a shot of the lighting equipment used for the scene:

Here’s the sign customers saw on the Denny’s door the day the movie was shot.

Cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs getting ready to shoot the classic scene:

Here’s Director Bob Rafelson, Karen Black, Lorna Thayer, and Jack Nicholson sitting around the lunch table and rehearsing their lines for the now famous scene:

Kovacs checks the lighting levels as Nicholson and Black prepare:

Getting the boom mike into place:

Here’s a shot of the final scene where Nicholson decides to abandon Black:

And here’s how that location looks like today:

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: They all did it.

The time is December, 1935 and world-renown detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) boards the Orient Express as an unexpected guest who’s able to find a spare compartment due to his friendship with the train’s owner (Martin Balsam). During the night one of the other passengers (Richard Widmark) is found dead and it is up to Poirot to solve the crime while the train remains stalled by a large snow bank.

This production is considered by many to be the best film version of any of Agatha Christie’s novel-to-screen attempts and in fact the author herself said as much when she attended a showing of the movie on the night of its premiere. Director Sidney Lumet’s ingenious touch is on-target the whole way as he creates a nice blend of kitsch and camp until the over-the-top costumes, playfully sharp dialogue, and glossy camerawork become more of the fun than the mystery itself.

In fact it’s Lumet’s ability to capitalize on the little things and control every minute detail that makes it so captivating even on repeat viewings. Their ability to turn an abandoned warehouse into a bustling train station is just one example. I also enjoyed the moment when the train leaves the station that gets done to the sound of a waltz composed specifically for the film by Richard Rodney Bennett. Originally they were going to have train sounds edited in and had hired a sound engineer who had spent his whole life recording these noises for specifically this purpose only to get the disappointment of his life when he was told that they had decided to go with the music alone, which crushed him so much that his eyes welled up with tears and he never returned.

Finney’s performance is outstanding. He was not someone you’d have in mind initially for this type of part, but through his brilliant acting and effective make-up he disappears into the role and immerses the viewer in the presence of this highly eccentric character and his unusual habits including the way he puts both his hair and moustache into a hair net before going to bed and reads a newspaper while wearing gloves.

The star studded supporting players are perfectly cast for their parts too. Anthony Perkins nicely plays-up his nervous man routine while Wendy Hiller is enjoyable as the caustic aging Princess who wears a constant frown because her doctor advised her that smiling ‘was not good for her health’. Widmark has an amusing conversation with Poirot particularly with his inability to correctly pronounce the detective’s last name and Ingrid Bergman shines in a small bit as a poor, but devoutly religious woman, which was enough to net her the Oscar for best supporting actress.

Spoiler Alert!

The murder scene in which all the passengers file into Widmark’s cabin and systematically take turns stabbing him is, like with everything else, astutely captured particularly with the way it’s shot by using only a blue tinged light as its sole light source. Lumet craftily uses a two-camera set-up here in which one camera captures the characters and the other focuses on Lauren Bacall’s character’s reactions to it as she stands at the doorway as a lookout. Bacall was never known as an actress to show much vulnerable emotion, but here, at least through her facial expressions, she does quite well. However, this segment also reveals a fatal flaw as Poriot’s cabin was right next to Widmarks’s and earlier in the film he was able to hear the conversations going on in the cabin next him almost perfectly, but then as each participant takes turns stabbing Widmark they say something out loud and yet for whatever reason Poirot never hears this, which makes you wonder why.

End of Spoiler Alert!

The script, by Paul Dehn, gets talky but is saved by its amusing verbal exchanges and Lumet’s use of different lenses to capture it, so I didn’t find it a problem in a movie that deserves its classic status both a mystery and cinematic achievement. The remake directed by Kenneth Branagh is set to be released in November.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: November 24, 1974

Runtime: 2 Hours 8 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Sidney Lumet

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Blu-ray (Region B/2, A/1)