Category Archives: Cold Climate/Wintertime Movies

The Disappearance (1977)

disappearance

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Where is his wife?

Jay Mallory (Donald Sutherland) is a professional assassin who works for a secret organization that contracts him out to do hits all over the world. After returning home from his latest assignment he finds that his wife Celandine (Francine Racette) is not there. Since they had a tumultuous relationship he initially presumes she left on her own accord, but then his friend and fellow hit man Burbank (David Warner) informs him that her disappearance may have something to do with his last hit. The organization that employs him now calls with another assignment, but this time they’re reluctant to give any details, which is unusual. Jay is afraid he’s being set-up as Burbank told him that the company is known to ‘retire’ those that are deemed no longer useful or trustworthy. He decides though to go through with the assignment as he’s curious how it will play-out and confident enough in his ability to get out of any jam, but soon finds himself faced with an entangling twist he never expected.

The film is a fascinating portrait of what can be done with creative direction. Stuart Cooper, who’s not exactly a household name and in fact this was his last theatrical film until 2010 when he did Magic Man, lends some interesting directorial touches that makes the story and characters more interesting than they might otherwise. What I especially liked was the non-linear narrative in which the movie cuts back and forth between the past to the present day. These types of storylines are typically frowned upon by Hollywood studios as they’re considered to be ‘too confusing’ for mainstream audiences to follow, but I had no such difficulty and felt it allowed in added nuance that would not have been present had the plot been approached in the conventional way. Nonetheless when the film tanked at the box office upon its initial release the studio insisted that the film be re-cut where the story would be presented in the standard linear format, but this version did even worse, so fortunately for the DVD/Blu-ray release it was brought back to its original way and labeled as being the ‘director’s cut’ though Cooper actually had no input on it, but eventually approved once he viewed it.

It’s also highly atmospheric particularly with the way it captures the cold, wintry climate of Montreal in the dead-of-winter. Having been born and raised in Minnesota I can tell a fake winter scene done on an indoor sound stage using artificial snow within seconds, but here the cold, including the mounds of snow drifts and nasty hollowing wind, is quite vivid and helps to symbolize the cold nature of the characters and the business they’re in.

I was a little more lukewarm with the acting. Sutherland can certainly be an outstanding leading man, but he seems too kind and sensitive for a person making a living killing others for money though I did like the scene where he plays memory games with his wife while at home, which brings out how crucial paying attention to detail is for his line of work. The supporting players are all familiar faces though I felt Warner was a bit wasted and underused. Virginia McKenna, best known for her starring role in the classic Born Free, is seen for only a brief bit though her interaction with Sutherland is quite pivotal while Christopher Plummer doesn’t appear at all until the final 15-minutes, but still manages to come-off with a memorable presence.

Spoiler Alert!

The film’s biggest downfall though is with the ending, which becomes one twist too many. Up until that point the twists had been a logical fit that made sense when you went back and thought about it. Then at the very end Sutherland gets shot and killed while walking home from the grocery store, but it’s never shown who did it, or why. Maybe it was the secret organization that wanted to ‘retire’ him, but this needed to be shown and explained. Just leaving the viewer hanging with a violent, but vague scenario isn’t satisfying and cheapens the rest of it.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: September 17, 1977

Runtime: 1 Hour 31 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Stuart Cooper

Studio: Trofar

Available: DVD (Region 2), Blu-ray

Tomorrow (1972)

 

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Aiding a pregnant woman.

Jackson Fentry (Robert Duvall) is a lonely farm-hand who has never married and lives in a tiny shack on the grounds of the farm that he’s been hired to maintain. One day he comes across a pregnant woman named Sarah Eubancks (Olga Bellin) near the property who’s been abandoned by both her husband and his family. He brings her back to his modest shed to warm her up and since she has nowhere to go he eventually agrees, with the help of a local midwife (Sudie Bond), to assist through the birth of her child. Sarah though dies soon after the baby is born, but not before Jackson agrees that he’ll raise the child. For several years Jackson is able to do just that until the brother’s of the boy’s father arrive and take the child away. Then many years later Jackson is called-in for jury duty on a trial that, known only to him, has a connection to the boy he lost contact with. 

There’s been many movies that have tried to recreate the rural 1800’s, but many for the sake of drama, or to make it more relatable to modern audiences, tend to cheat things. They may make it authentic in some areas, possibly even painstakingly so, but then compromise in others due to the entertainment factor. This though is one film that could genuinely be described as being about as minimalistic as any director could possibly make it. Filmed on a farm in rural Mississippi that was owned by the grandfather of Tammy Wynette the movie gives one an authentic taste of life back then with little to no music and no sense of any staging. The bare-bones shack that Jackson must reside in gives the viewer a stark sense of the grim, no frills existence that many dealt with back then. The slow pacing aptly reflects the slower ways of life and having the camera virtually trapped in the shed, or at most the nearby property, symbolized how people of that era had to learn to endure and expect little.

While those qualities hit-the-mark I felt that black-and-white photography detracted from it. By the 70’s most films were shot in color and only a few like The Last Picture Show, Young Frankenstein, and Eraserhead just to name some, were not, but this was more for mood, or style. Here though with everything already at an intentionally drab level the color could’ve at least brought out the beauty of the outdoor scenery of a southern winter and offered some brief striking visuals and a cinematic presence that was still needed, but missing and kind of hurts the movie. 

Surprisingly I had issues with the acting. One might say with Robert Duvall present that couldn’t be the case, but his overly affected accent, he got it from a man he met once in the foothills of the Ozarks, was from my perspective overdone and even borderline annoying. Bellin is alright though behind-the-scenes she created problems by refusing to take any advice from director Joseph Anthony. She had done mostly stage work up until then and was used to having leverage about how she approached her character once she was onstage and considered that once the camera was shooting meant the same thing. It was okay, like with a play production, for the director to give advice during rehearsals, but when the actual filming started she should have free rein over her craft and having Anthony repeatedly reshoot scenes, like in typical film production, or suggest she do things differently as the filming was going on, was all new to her and not to her liking, which caused numerous arguments not only with Anthony, but Duvall as well making them both later admit that they regretted casting her and she never performed in another movie again. Out of the entire cast it was Sudie Bond as the lady who helps with the birthing that I found to be the most memorable. 

While the story has many commendable moments it gets stretched pretty thin especially since it was based on a short story by William Faulkner and then adapted first as a play and then to the big screen by Horton Foote (the first of two collaborations that he did with Duvall with the second one being Tender Mercies 10 years later). Almost the entire third of the film gets spent on Jackson’s conversations with the woman while his relationship with the son takes-up less than 10 giving the pacing and flow a disjointed feel. It’s also a shame that, like with The Owl and the Pussycat, which came out 2 years earlier, the producers compromised on the elements of the original piece as in Faulkner’s story the pregnant woman was black, but here she gets changed to being Caucasian. Had the character remained black then what Jackson does for her would’ve been more profound as he would’ve been taking great personal risk in helping her in an era and region of the country where racism was high and by no longer being a colored woman it lessens the drama and is not as impactful as it could’ve been.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: March 19, 1972

Runtime: 1 Hour 43 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Joseph Anthony

Studio: Filmgroup Productions

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Plex, Tubi, Amazon Video

 

Roseland (1977)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Participants of ballroom dancing.

In 1976 director James Ivory, who had already collaborated with writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala on 5 other films, wanted to turn her short story ‘How I Became a Holy Mother’ into yet another movie. The story required one scene to be shot at The Roseland Ballroom, a dancing venue in New York City, that was originally built as a ice skating rink in 1922 and then converted to roller skating only to eventually become a popular retreat for ballroom dancers. When Ivory approached potential investors none of them liked the story, but did like the idea of shooting a movie inside Roseland. They agreed to give money to the project as long as the entire setting took place in that venue.

Ivory then had Jhabvala interview the people at the club to get a better understanding of the folks who went there and to help generate story ideas. It was through these visits that Jhabvala was able to come-up with three different vignettes that is based closely on real-life events that occurred with people who attended the Roseland throughout the years and most of the dancers seen in the background were actual members of the dance hall and not paid extras.

While the owners of the Roseland were happy to give permission to shoot there it did come with several stipulations. One was they could only shoot during the day on Wednesdays and could not alter any of the interiors in any way, which included the lighting. Despite these restrictions he was able to succeed pretty well though at the 30-minute mark it’s obvious in a scene where Christopher Walken and Geraldine Chaplin are supposedly in a room alone that there’s a cameraman there as you can easily see his reflection on the wall mirror. Ivory was also forced, much to his chagrin, to hire a scenic artist and art director onto his crew even though they were unable to make any changes to the set, but union rules required one must be hired anyways, and the teamsters union picketed the production outside the building until Ivory finally relented, which resulted in 2 extra people being brought onto the crew to sit around and do absolutely nothing, but still getting paid.

As for the stories they’re okay, though the first one, ‘The Waltz’ is clearly the weakest despite excellent performances by the two leads. It stars Theresa Wright as a widow named May who keeps seeing a reflection of herself and her former husband when they were much younger in a mirror in the ballroom as she dances with her new partner named Stan (played by Lou Jacobi). No one else sees this same reflection except for May and most think she’s going nutty. Stan wants May to get over her memories of her old husband and focus solely on him, but when she doesn’t he loses interest in her though May finally comes around when she realizes that the past is the past and there’s no going back, so why not instead live for the present. This segment, unlike the others, relies heavily on voice-over narration of Helen Gallagher, who plays Cleo, a dance instructor, it also enters in weird supernatural elements as it’s never explained why May keeps seeing these reflections, is she really going nuts, or is some ghostly phenomenon trying to speak to her from the afterlife? This never gets answered and hence is why the story really doesn’t amount to much.

The second story, ‘The Hustle’, is the best one and features a terrific performance by Chaplin. It involves Russel (Christopher Walken) who is seeing the much older Pauline (Joan Copeland) not so much because he loves her, but more because she pays him to be her escort and he likes the money. He then meets Marilyn (Chaplin) who has just gone through a rough break-up. He immediately becomes smitten. Marilyn is at first reluctant in getting into another relationship, but eventually falls for Russel only to learn that he’s not quite ready to give-up Pauline, or her money and seems to want to juggle the two, which Marilyn does not want. While this segment is quite captivating I would’ve like a better, more dramatic confrontation and less of an ambiguous conclusion.

‘The Peabody’ is the third and final segment. It deals with Ruth (Lilia Skala) an older woman with a strong personality looking for a suitable dance partner to win a competition. She meets Arthur (David Thomas) a meek elderly man who agrees to partner with her despite having a weak heart. Ruth takes his friendship for granted and is quite demanding of him only to learn to regret it when he’s no longer around. Skala’s performance, of which she got nominated for the Golden Globe, makes catching this part well worth it.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: October 2, 1977

Runtime: 1 Hour 44 Minutes

Rated R

Director: James Ivory

Studio: Merchant Ivory Productions

Available: DVD

Deadly Games (1989)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Kid versus Santa Claus.

Thomas (Alain Lalanne) is a 10-year-old who’s a wiz with computers and technology. Not only has he set various booby traps throughout the large mansion that he lives in with his mother (Brigitte Fossey), but he can fix cars and even drive them. Despite being super smart he still believes in Santa Claus while his friend Pilou (Stephane Legros) tries to convince him that he isn’t real. Thomas goes on the computer in an attempt to communicate with Santa, but instead gets a vagrant (Patrick Floersheim) on the other end pretending to be the jolly red fellow. He gets Thomas to give out his address and also reveal that his mother is a rich corporate CEO. The vagrant goes to his mother’s company and gets a job as a Santa, but is soon fired by her when he slaps a child. In revenge the vagrant, still in his Santa costume, goes to Thomas’ house where he plans to kill him, but Thomas uses his technical ingenuity to set a trap.

The film is an unusual hybrid between playful children’s comedy, a holiday film, and a slasher horror, which only could’ve been made in France where filmmakers aren’t under a repressive studio system that forces all scripts to conform to a cookie-cutter formula and here allows them to deviate between genres. Many have labeled this the original Home Alone and in-fact writer/director Rene Manzor threatened to sue John Hughes, who had directed the other one, insisting that he had essentially remade his film without permission. There are though quite a few differences between the movies to the extent that I didn’t think it was an unauthorized remake at all. If anything it reminded me more of another French classic Le Joutabout a rich kid living in a big place with a wide assortment of toys. This is also the best of the killer Santa movies as You Better Watch Out and Silent Night, Deadly Night took themselves too seriously while this one has a playful edge that manages to be both amusing and tense.

The kid certainly has an engaging quality and his love for his elderly grandfather (Louis Ducreux) is quite endearing, but he’s also just a bit too smart. I was okay with him being keen on the gadgetry, but having him get underneath a car and able to not only fix it, but also drive it was going too far. I wasn’t sure that a 10-year-old could reach the pedals with his feet and still be able to see over the dashboard. Part of what makes horror movies intense is having a victim appear vulnerable, but right away with the kid being so incredibly ingenious it makes the odds stacked against the killer and thus their cat-and-mouse game not as intriguing. I also really couldn’t stand the kid’s mullet haircut.

The home is over-the-top as well. It gets referred to as a mansion, but really seems more like a castle that’s bigger than anything I’ve seen anyone else, even the billionaires and celebrities, reside in. It doesn’t even seem like a real place, but instead, in certain shots, a miniature model and at other points a painting. All the secret rooms gets a bit dizzying including the hidden one that can be entered via an old refrigerator (are they really expecting us to believe that a 10-year-old kid, no matter how smart he is, could build that?). Another moment has Thomas getting trapped inside a life sized maze, but who the hell would take the time and effort to build a maze in their very own home, which again ends up getting too creative for its own good and negates the tension instead of enhancing it.

The Santa character is a boring. Usually horror movies make an effort to give the psycho, whether it’s through flashback or dialogue, some sort-of backstory, but here this guy pops-up without any idea of who he is, where he’s from, or why he’s so crazy. There’s also a few segments where he gets caught in a trap, like when he falls through a trap door and stuck in a net, but no shot showing how he got out of the predicament. Seeing how he gets himself out should’ve been shown each time (it’s shown in a few scenarios, but not all) in order to make the plot seem more reality based and less cartoonish.

Overall, despite the over-direction, it’s still a fun, wild ride that could be enjoyed by the whole family. It does get a bit intense at times, but the quick-thinking kid always seems to be pretty much in-control. Outside of the pet dog getting stabbed none of the other killings are seen and only the feet of the dead bodies are captured on camera to represent their demise, which should make it palatable for most kids to sit through without having nightmares afterwards.

Alternate Titles: 36.15 code Pere Noel, Game Over

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: March 18, 1989

Runtime: 1 Hour 32 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Rene Manzor

Studio: Deal

Available: DVD-R (dvdlady.com)

Mask of Murder (1988)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: A copycat psycho killer.

Chief Superintendent Jonathan Rich (Christopher Lee) and Police Chief Bob McLaine (Rod Taylor) surround an abandoned home where a killer, who has sliced the throats of several women in the town, is hiding-out. When the killer makes an attempt to escape he shoots and injures the superintendent forcing Bob to return fire and kill the fleeing suspect. Everyone in the town believes that with the bad guy now dead the killings will stop, but instead they continue. Could there be a copycat killer, or is it someone on the police force who’s studied the killer’s methods and is now playing them-out?

A very odd mix that seems at times to being a wanna-be slasher film and at other points a detective thriller and even a psychological study, but on all three levels it fails. The killings lack inspiration and no effort is made for build-up, tension, or atmosphere. They’re captured in a routine way and the special effects are unconvincing. Instead of looking like the victim’s throat is getting slashed it appears more like a streak of lipstick, or bright red nail polish.

The setting is a fictitious Canadian town, but was clearly shot in Sweden, as all the cars have Swedish license plates and the vehicles are much smaller than what you’d find in the North America at that time. The ambulances have a different sound to their sirens and there’s even business signs seen in Swedish. Having Valerie Perrine, who plays Taylor’s wife, go off to Bermuda with her lover Ray (Sam Cook) looks quite fake as we never see any palm trees, or beaches making it seem more like it was shot in a hotel room in Sweden.

Lee gives a solid performance, but he disappears for long periods and only comes back near the end. Despite being several years younger, Taylor, with his very worn, lined face, ends up looking much older. His presence is dour and his inner angst that comes out every once in awhile is neither riveting or intense. Taylor doesn’t carry the movie like a good leading actor should, but instead drags it down. Perrine for her part, isn’t in it long enough to make much of a difference though she does appear nude from the back.

Spoiler Alert!

The twist in which Lee realizes Taylor is the killer doesn’t come-off as any shocking surprise since the film leads us to this conclusion from the very beginning and therefore once it gets revealed it’s more ho-hum than anything. Having Taylor shoot his wife’s lover by tricking him into wearing the mask and thus allow himself to be killed by Taylor in an attempt to make it seem like he had ‘the real killer’ when really it was just a way for him to get rid of a rival for his wife’s affections was too easy of a way out. Most likely there would’ve been some overlooked loopholes in his scheme that would’ve eventually gotten him arrested, so watching him proudly walk away in the snow as the credit’s role doesn’t gel and more a flimsy ending that leaves open too many loose ends.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: December 1, 1988

Runtime: 1 Hour 29 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Arne Mattsson

Studio: Master Film Production

Available: DVD-R (dvdlady.com)

Grotesque (1988)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 0 out of 10

4-Word Review: Punks versus deformed boy.

Lisa (Linda Blair) invites her friend Kathy (Donna Wilkes) over to her remote parent’s cabin for the weekend to help her get over a recent painful break-up. Lisa’s father Orville (Guy Stockwell) is a famous special effects artist for horror movies and the home is filled with all sorts of spooky masks and props. Unfortunately a gang of punks lead by Scratch (Brad Wilson) invade the home looking for money. Lisa’s parents are brutally murdered as well as Kathy. Lisa manages to get away, but eventually chased down outside in the snow. Yet the punks do not realize that another person is in the home, Patrick (Robert Apisa), who resides in a hidden room. He’s a boy with massive facial deformities that the parents kept in a secret room, but who is able to escape after the massacre. He then chases the punks down and begins offing them one-by-one while the police and Orville’s brother Rod (Tab Hunter) also go after the punks.

Filmed on-location in Big Bear Lake the film has a similar storyline to the Canadian cult classic Death Weekend and while that one had its share of faults it’s still far better than this, which has so many issues it’s had to know where to begin. The overly exaggerated performances of the punks, particularly by their leader who acts like he’s consumed way too much caffeine, is one of the bigger problems. There’s also no explanation for how they manage to find Orville’s very remote house especially since their van breaks down on the way. They try to ask Lisa for help, but she drives on, so who eventually came to their rescue to get them back on the road, or did they walk there and if so that should’ve been shown. It’s also irritating how they’re shown outside the home one second and then magically inside the place the next, but with no explanation for how they get in.

Linda Blair is certainly a fine actress, but she gets partially to blame for this monstrosity since she also co-produced. Donna Wilkes is quite appealing as usual and had she stayed in it the whole way and became the heroine I would’ve given it more points, but once she goes down it really gets bad. I felt the idea of having her sleep in the same bed with Lisa in Lisa’s bedroom looked a bit odd. If they were 8-year-olds on a sleepover that might be fine, but adult women, who were not in an intimate relationship, would most likely want more privacy and the home from the outside looked to have three stories, so you’d think there would be an extra spare bedroom, or two.

I didn’t like the addition of the Patrick character at all. Patrick gets mentioned briefly by Lisa and her mother, but I felt the viewer needed to be more fully aware that there was a secret room and someone in it long before the punks arrive. I didn’t understand why this deformed individual had such amazing strength either. If he had been cooped-up in a tiny room his whole life then I’d think the reverse would be true. His muscles would atrophy due to under use and he’d be weaker than normal instead of stronger.

Spoiler Alert!

The addition of the Tab Hunter character I actually liked. He plays a rugged, macho guy who tries to single-handily hunt down the punks and plays it with a fun style. I could’ve even tolerated the one twist ending that revealed Patrick to be his son and that Hunter himself was deformed and only able to hide it by wearing a plastic, form-fitting mask created by his brother. What I couldn’t stand was the double-twist, which has the whole thing being a movie created by Orville and as everyone is sitting in the theater watching it the film reel inside the projection booth gets messed with by a wolf man and Frankenstein, who then proceed to scare everyone out of the cinema when they walk in.

There’s no way anyone would get scared by two idiots that look to be wearing a tacky Halloween get-up and to give the whole thing a comical ending when the rest of it had been played-up as being serious is quite jarring. Normally after watching a bad movie and I feel disappointed, but in his case I was angry. It’s a genuine insult to have to sit through this and I honestly felt the writer-director should’ve been punished for having the audacity to make it and think anyone would be stupid enough to enjoy it.

My Rating: 0 out of 10

Released: September 9, 1988

Runtime: 1 Hour 29 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Joe Tornatore

Studio: Empire Pictures

Available: DVD, Fandor, Plex, Tubi, Amazon Video

The White Buffalo (1977)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Buffalo haunts his dreams.

Based on the novel by Richard Sale, who also wrote the screenplay, the story, which takes place in 1874, centers around Wild Bill Hickok (Charles Bronson) who’s suffering from reoccurring dreams involving a giant white buffalo. He travels to the west in order to find the beast and confront it. It’s there that he meets Crazy Horse (Will Sampson). The two initially don’t get along. Bill is not a fan of Indians and once said “the only good Indian is a dead one”, but the two share a common bond as they’re both after the elusive buffalo in Crazy Horse’s case it’s to avenge the death of his infant daughter who was killed when the beast violently attacked their campsite. Having formed an uneasy alliance the two, along with old-timer Charlie Zane (Jack Warden) go out into the cold, wintry terrain in search for it while debating over whose land this country really belongs to: the white man or the Native Americans.  

Story-wise the film lacks any explanation for why Hickok is having these dreams, or what exactly the image of the white buffalo is meant to represent if anything. The plot goes off on a lot of tangents including a segment where Hickok visits an old-flame (Kim Novak) that doesn’t have much to do with the central story, nor propel the plot along, and could’ve easily been cut. There’s also a few proverbial gun fights though they’re generic in nature, don’t add much excitement, and quickly forgotten. 

Bronson gives his typical wooden performance though seeing him with dark circular glasses and sporting long hair does make him, in certain shots, resemble Ringo Starr. The rest of the cast if filled with familiar B-stars in minor roles including Stuart Whitman and Cara Williams, who have an amusing bit as a vulgar couple whom Hickok shares a stagecoach ride with. Jack Warden, who’s almost unrecognizable, has a fun moment when he takes out the glass eye that he’s wearing much to the shock of Crazy Horse.

The only diverting element is the opening dream sequence that’s done over the credits where the viewer looks right into the eye of the beast close-up. Normally I’m not a fan of outdoor shots done on a sound stage, which always comes-off looking artificial, but in this instance it helps accentuate the surreal elements. The climactic sequence though in which both Hickok and Crazy Horse come face-to-face with the buffalo doesn’t work as it becomes painfully clear that the beast is special effects generated especially when Crazy Horse gets on top of it and repeatedly stabs it, which looks like someone stabbing into a sofa cushion with tacky fur stuck to it. We also never get to see a full-shot of the buffalo, just its head, so it’s difficult to gauge how big it really was. The truly disappointing part is that the illustration of the buffalo on the film’s promotional poster seen above is far more impressive looking than anything you’ll actually see in the movie.

Probably the only interesting aspect about the production is not what occurred in front the camera, but behind-the-scenes. Will Sampson, who’s by far the better actor and the story could’ve been centered around his character alone and it would’ve made it a more interesting movie, refused to read his lines for over 24 hours when he became aware that white actors had been hired to play the roles of the Native Americans and only went back to performing his role once the producers agreed to casting actual Indians for the parts. This then directly lead to the American Indian Registry of the Performing Arts, which he founded. 

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: May 6, 1977

Runtime: 1 Hour 37 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: J. Lee Thompson

Studio: United Artists

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, YouTube (with ads)

 

 

By Design (1981)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Gay couple wants baby.

Helen (Patty Duke) is a fashion designer who’s in a relationship with Angie (Sara Botsford). Despite running a successful clothing business together Helen still longs to be a mother. Angie isn’t so excited about having a kid, but if it makes Helen happy she’ll go along with it. The coupe initially consider artificial insemination, but turn it down when they see the type of male clientele that are allowed in and the adoption agency rejects them outright due to being gay. They eventually set their sights on Terry (Saul Rubinek) an obnoxious and sleazy photographer who works for them and has been hitting-on Helen for years unaware that she’s a lesbian. Helen hopes to have a one-night-stand with him simply to get impregnated, but as the planned event draws near she begins to have second thoughts.

The story certainly has potential and was ahead-of-its-time, but the way director/writer Claude Jutra approaches the material by implementing ill-advised silly humor and trying to turn it into a basic sitcom is all wrong. The one thing that I did surprisingly like was Saul Rubinek. Normally he’s not a favorite of mine, but here he plays the scuzzy, lecherous male on the prowl perfectly. I found it interesting too at seeing how much things have changed. He gets reported for touching a woman in her private area on the job without her consent, which would mean immediate termination today, but the two protagonist women bosses don’t do that. Instead they brush-it-off with a boys-will-be-boys mindset inadvertently making the woman who brought it to their attention feel embarrassed and even humiliated for coming forward.

What I didn’t like was his extreme transformation at the end where he becomes this kind and caring soul that’s too much of a change that wasn’t earned and makes him seem like two different people. The fact that he was unaware that Helen was gay even though everyone else knew seemed a bit preposterous. In keeping with the character’s arrogance and conquest nature he should’ve been fully aware of her being lesbian, but convinced he could ‘cure’ her of it if she simply went to bed with him. His relationship with one of the models, Sonia Zimmer, who for whatever bizarre reason has romantic inclinations for him even though during one photo session he says some of the most degrading and demeaning things I’ve ever heard a guy say to a woman, so unless she’s a masochist there’s absolutely no reason why this beautiful woman should desire him and thus making this romantic side-story completely stupid and unnecessary.

The story starts out okay and had me hooked for a little bit, but it quickly goes downhill. The jump-the-shark moment is when Helen has sex with Terry and at the same time for some inexplicable reason Angie has random sex with some guy (Alan Duruisseau) that she meets in a parking lot, but she’s a confirmed lesbian, so why the sudden/extreme shift? If she’s pan-sexual, or bi-sexual or just has some latent desire to sometimes ‘swing-both-ways’ is fine, but that needs to be introduced earlier and not suddenly thrown-in, out-of-nowhere without warning. The scene also culminates with Angie and Helen calling each other on the phone and professing their love for the other as they continue to have sex with the other men, which I know the director thought would be a ‘hilarious’ moment but comes-off as incredibly dumb instead.

Had this been handled in an intelligent manner it could’ve been ground-breaking, but the director was clearly insecure with the material and thus decided to just give it the jokey treatment, which ruins it. Duke also seems miscast though shockingly you do get to see her nude in a couple of scenes of which she looks pretty damn good.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: May 16, 1981

Runtime: 1 Hour 32 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Claude Jutra

Studio: Astral Films

Available: DVD-R

Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel (1979)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Bizarre occurrences at lodge.

Inspector Glebsky (Uldis Pucitis) is summoned to a remote winter lodge known as the Dead Mountaineers due to a climber who fell to his death off a nearby cliff and whose faithful St. Bernard sleeps underneath a portrait of him in the hotel’s lobby. Glebsky was informed from the anonymous call of some unusual activity that was occurring at the place, but once he gets there no one, including the innkeeper Alex (Juri Jarvet), know what he’s talking about. After he meets the strange collection of guests he becomes even more suspicious. Then he’s handed a note stating that Hinkus (Mikk Mikiver), a man supposedly weakened by tuberculosis, is planning to commit murder. When one of the guests, Olaf (Tiit Harm), does turn-up dead, but Hinkus is later found tied-up in his bed, so he couldn’t have done it. A avalanche blocks off all outside roads trapping Glebsky and the guests in the building where more and more weird things begin to occur until the inspector can no longer trust his senses, or even his logic.

Some people ask; what makes a great movie? And the answer is that a good movie needs a unique and distinctive image that impresses the viewer right from the start and which they can take away with them once it’s over. This film has just that image with a bird’s eye view of the hotel that’s so remote, as it’s nestled in the snowy, mountain landscape, and so small when glimpsed from high up, that at first I thought it was a prop, but it’s a real building, which makes it all the more impressive. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such an isolated place, it doesn’t even seem to have roads leading into it. This shot alone, of which it goes back to it a few times, brilliantly sets the tone for the rest of the movie where everything is totally unique and like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

The fact that this was all shot in what was then the Soviet Union, in this case what is now Kazakhstan, makes it even more jaw-dropping as productions there didn’t receive the same type of budget as a studio driven Hollywood one and yet the visual design is impeccable. The inside of the place has a pronounced, surreal look with excellent shadowy lighting and the special effects, while sparse, come into strong play during the climactic surprise ending that like with the beginning leaves an equally lasting impression. The music by Sven Grunberg has a distinct futuristic tone that helps accentuate the outer worldly quality while the sun glistening off the bright white snow during the outdoor scenes makes it seem almost like another planet.

The story was written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky and based on their book of the same name. They’re better known for their novel ‘Roadside Picnic’, which was turned into the acclaimed Stalker directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Both brothers also wrote the screenplay and it pretty much stays faithful to the book though there’s a few missing characters and Glebsky’s motivation for going to the lodge is different. Here it was due a mysterious phone call while in the book it was for vacation. The plot at first gets played-up like it’s just another police/murder investigation complete with interviews with potential suspects and even Agatha Christie-like flashbacks showing what each guest was doing when the murder occurred, which had me getting bored as the movie starts out as something really different, so to have it devolve into the conventional murder mystery was disappointing, but by the second act this all changes and that’s when it gets really interesting.

The acting is solid and I enjoyed Pucitis in the lead, who despite having his voice dubbed, has the perfect chiseled features of a hardened police detective. My only complaint, and it’s a minor one and probably the only one in this potential cult classic that desperately needs more attention and a Blu-ray/dvd release, comes at the beginning during Glebsky’s voice-over narration where he speaks in the present about his time at the hotel and how during a ‘slow shift’ the events that he witnessed there comes back to haunt him. I found it hard to believe that he’d only think about this when there was nothing else to do, or in this case a ‘slow shift’, as I’d think it would be on his mind all the time to the extent that he may never be able to go back to police work again as the events would’ve been too traumatizing.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: August 27, 1979

Runtime: 1 Hour 20 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Grigori Kromanov

Studio: Tallinnfilm

Available: dvdlady

Towing (1978)

towing

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Fighting a corrupt company.

Lynn (Sue Lyon) and Jean (Jennifer Ashley) are two friends who work at a bar and become increasingly aware of a corrupt towing company in town run by Butch (J.J. Johnston) that tows away cars for questionable reasons and then demands hefty fees for the owners to get them back. Many people in the city of Chicago have been affected and are considering starting-up protests, but when Jean gets fired from her job when a customer has his car towed that she parked is when things really get going. She then gets a job at a gas station across the street from where the towing company is located. She and Lynn as well as Lynn’s new lawyer boyfriend Chris (Joe Mantegna) trick Butch into towing away the Mayor’s daughter’s car, which soon gets him in on notice with the mayor himself.

Although she’s worked on several documentaries, for feature films this was a one-and-done project for writer/director Maura Smith as she hasn’t done another one since. The film looks cheap right from the start and initially I feared this was going to be rock-bottom fare, but it does improve enough to have a slight amiable quality. The story though is too threadbare to hold much interest and in attempt to ‘go for something deeper’ incorporates a side-story dealing with the challenges of being a single woman and going through a lot of empty, dead-end dates, but these segments don’t mesh with the frivolity and overall silliness of the rest and ultimately give the film an amateurish feel.

This obscurity’s biggest claim-to-fame is that it marks both the beginning and end of two careers. For Joe Mantegna this was his film debut and he does have one funny moment, probably the only funny moment of the whole film, where he tries to connect the chains of a tow truck to a car, but being a lawyer he doesn’t really know how to do it. For Sue Lyon this was her final starring role as her brief appearance in Alligatorwhich she did 2 years later was basically just a walk-on. This was also the final time she wore her patented long blonde hair as it was after this that she became a brunette and then ultimately raven-haired. For the most part she seems to be having fun while sporting an engaging smile and amused laugh throughout. She even at one point puts on a wig and pretends to be a hooker and in another part disguises her voice to sound like an old woman, but the production was about as low budget as you can get and I can see why she felt staying in the business wasn’t going to be worth it if this was all the better she was going to be offered.

Jennifer Ashley lends unique support as the flirtatious one who exudes a sensual energy and Johnston, who was at one time an amateur boxer who has written 4 books on the subject, is solid as the heavy and even, despite the script being written by a woman, allowed say to the C-word. My favorite though was Steven Kampmann, probably best known for playing Kirk Devane in the first two seasons of ‘Newhart’ before turning his energies full-time to screenwriting, who plays an angry citizen who helps the two women get back at the towing company though having him break-off to commit hi-jinks of his own along with his girlfriend (played by Audrie Neennan) takes away too much from the central lead characters and dilutes the plot.

The on-location shooting done in Chicago is nice especially with the way it focuses on the working class neighborhoods though I was surprised that even though it was filmed in October and November the scenery already looked quite cold and the actors appear to be shivering as they say their lines. The cool soundtrack has a funky beat and fun lyrics. Had the music been sold separately it would’ve attained a lot of fans and helps give the film some much needed personality and distinction that it otherwise lacks.

Alternate Title: Who Stole My Wheels?

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: May 5, 1978

Runtime: 1 Hour 16 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Maura Smith

Studio: United International

Available: Amazon Video