Category Archives: Cold Climate/Wintertime Movies

The Last Detail (1973)

lastdetail

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Seaman escorted to prison.

Billy Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and Richard Mulhall (Otis Young) are two navy lifers assigned the task of escorting an 18 year-old seamen named Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) to prison. Meadows had been caught lifting $40 from a charity fund run by a wife of a senior officer. In return he got court-martialed and given an 8-year sentence in the brig. Buddusky and Mulhall feel the sentence is too harsh and immediately take a liking to the soft-spoken young man who despite his tall height seems harmless and mile-mannered. During the trip, which is expected to take a week, the two men decide to show Meadows a ‘good time’ by taking him on many side-trips including a whorehouse where the young virgin has sex with a prostitute (Carol Kane). As the time grows near for them to turn their prisoner over to the authorities they start to feel reluctant about doing so, but the fear of being kicked out of the navy and losing all of their pay and benefits keeps them grounded in their responsibility even as Meadows tries several times to escape.

It may seem amazing to believe now, but this film, which has won over almost universal appeal both from the critics and film viewers almost didn’t get made due to the fear from the studio that the word ‘fuck’ was spoken in it too many times. Screenwriter Robert Towne, who adapted the story from the novel of the same name by Daryl Poniscan, was pressured to take most of the uses of the profanity out of the script and in fact production was delayed while both sides had a ‘stand-off’ about it with Towne insisting that “this is the way people talk when they’re powerless to act; they bitch.” Eventually the script got green-lit with all the ‘fucks’ intact, which at the time was a record 65 of them. In retrospect I’m glad Towne held his ground as without the F-word being used, or some silly lesser profanity substituted in, would’ve given the film a dated feel when being watched by today’s standards where the word is said hundreds of times on social media and sometimes even in commercials where it’s only slightly bleeped-out. This is a problem when watching other films from the late 60’s and early 70’s where goofy slang gets thrown in to compensate for the lack of the F-word, which in turn hurts the film’s grittiness and edge, which thankfully got avoided here.

The story was a problem too as many studio execs considered it too ‘non-eventful’ to make for an interesting movie, but this is the whole reason why the movie is so special as it doesn’t try to throw in the cheap antics other Hollywood films might to make it ‘more entertaining’. The film remains low-key and fully believable throughout and may remind others, as it did me, of one’s own coming-of-age experiences when they were 18 and hanging out with others who were older and more worldly-wise. Cinematographer Michael Chapman, who appears briefly as a cab driver, insistence at using natural lighting only also helps heighten the realism.

The story takes many amusing side turns that manages to be both poignant and funny including a brawl that the three have with a group of marines inside a Grand Central Station restroom, though I did wish some of the other segments had been strung out a bit more. One is when the three men attend a group encounter, which features Gilda Radner in her film debut, to a bunch of chanting Buddhists. I felt it was weird that the men just stood in the background and didn’t assimilate with the group during the meeting and begin chanting alongside the others, which would’ve been funny. The scene inside the hotel room where Buddusky can’t get his roll-out cot to fold-out right and forcing him to sleep in a uncomfortable position should’ve been played-out more too. Are we to believe that he slept that way the whole night?

Of course it’s the acting that makes this movie so special. While I never pictured Nicholson with his over-the-top persona as being someone who would be a part of the regimented culture such as the navy I ended up loving him in it and felt this was the performance he should’ve won the Oscar for. I especially got a kick out of the way he would get all fidgety when outside in the cold, which I don’t think was acting at all as it was filmed on-location in the Northeast during the very late autumn/early winter and I believe he was really freezing as he was saying his lines.

While his character is not as flashy, Otis Young is every bit as excellent as it takes a good straight-man, which is what he essentially is, to make for a good funny man. The part was originally meant for Rupert Crouse, who unfortunately got diagnosed with cancer just as the production began forcing the producers to bring in Young as a last minute replacement, but he manages to deliver particularly in the scene on the train where he loudly castigates Buddusky for his misbehavior. Quaid is quite good too even though he goes against the physical characteristics of the character, who in the novel was described as being ‘a helpless little guy’, but director Hal Ashby, who can be seen briefly during a barroom scene, choose to cast against type by bringing in a tall, hefty fellow who looked like he could defend himself if he had to, but is just too sheltered to know how.

The ending is the one segment where I wished it had been a little more emotionally upbeat. It’s still a big improvement over the one in the book where Buddusky dies, which fortunately doesn’t happen here, but it still isn’t too memorable either. The film though overall does a good job of conveying the underlining theme of how the navy men where just as imprisoned as Meadows, at least psychologically, and unable to consider life outside of the navy box that they had spent their entire lives in and where thus locked-in more so than Meadows, whose sentence in jail would only last 8-years versus a lifetime like with Buddusky and Mulhall.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: December 12, 1973

Runtime: 1 Hour 44 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Hal Ashby

Studio: Columbia Pictures

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

The Winnipeg Run (1972)

winnipeg1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Winning a snowmobile race.

Randy (Lance Henriksen) has been institutionalized for several years after suffering from PTSD from fighting in Vietnam. His Dr. (Peter Michael Goetz) feels that he’s ready to go back out into the real world, but must continue to take his medications, which Randy refuses to do. He travels back to his hometown in northern Minnesota, but finds obtaining a steady income to be tough, so he participates in a local snowmobile race that offers a cash prize. He does well enough in that it compels him to travel to Canada to take part in a race called The Winnipeg Run, which runs from Manitoba to St. Paul, but as he prepares for the competition his mental problems return.

This marked Henriksen’s film debut as well as Goetz’s and even though Lance has described this project in interviews as being ‘the worst movie he has ever done and will remain the worst movie he’s ever done’, he’s still the best thing about it. He adds conviction and nuance, which allows the character to rise above the middling material and become a multi-dimensional person that you want to root for.

The location shooting is excellent. While it was never shot in Winnipeg, despite its title, but instead Thief River Falls, Minnesota it’s great to see a movie that truly captures the frigid climate of the region. Most films with a Minnesota setting are usually shot in the summer when the weather is pleasant, or done on a soundstage with fake winter effects, but this one goes the extra step to show the massively high snow hills that you can get there, I was born and raised in the region so I know, and the icy clouds of breath that encircles each individual as they walk outside. The cold temps can also be quite brutal on the film equipment, so kudos to the crew for being brave enough to fight the elements in order to bring authenticity. The racing footage isn’t bad either and I could can only think of one other movie, the Disney pic Snowball Expresswhich came out the same year, that has snowmobile racing in it, so it gets credit for originality.

Spoiler Alert!

However, what I didn’t like is that after having this long, drawn-out build-up watching Randy prepare for the race and describing in detail the  grueling aspects of it, it then never actually occurs. Instead we find that, due to his mental illness, it’s all inside his head. While he does get on a snowmobile and drive it around it’s not a part of any competition and just him speeding alongside a lonely highway while his nervous girlfriend (Cynthia Subby) drives in a car next to him and screams for him to come home.

If the writer and director thought that this was some kind of ‘clever twist’ then it was they who had the real mental problem as it’s more of a bait-and-switch to the viewer who are primed for an action packed climax only to be left with something that has no impact at all. Even as a character study it’s misguided and it’s assessment of mental illness quite dubious. While I initially thought Lance’s take of this movie was a bit harsh, as it does start out okay, I could ultimately see why he now considers it a black mark on his resume.

Alternate Title: It Ain’t Easy

Released: November 10, 1972

Runtime: 1 Hour 22 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Maurice Hurley

Studio: Dandelion Films

Available: None

Mahoney’s Last Stand (1972)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Trying to find solitude.

Leroy Mahoney (Alexis Kanner) wants to be away from the rat race and out in the Canadian wilderness where he feels he can live in peaceful harmony with nature. He finds a rundown home in a vacant area and begins the process of renovating it only to meet a woman named Miriam (Maud Adams) who lives nearby and routinely comes over to visit. Felix (Sam Waterston) is his old friend from the city who hitches a ride to the country and moves-in. Later, so does Felix’s girlfriend Joy (Diana Leblanc) making Mahoney feel like he’ll never find the solitude he craves and will always be surrounded by people who annoy him.

The film was the inspiration of Kanner, who not only starred in it, but wrote the script, co-directed, and even produced. The quirky tone is what helps it stand out as it’s a mixture of the man-in-the-wilderness theme meets the counter culture and to a great degree it works. Some of my favorite moments are things that might seem off-putting, or even boring when put in any other film, but here it helps add to the offbeat quality like the scene featuring Mahoney sitting on his porch endlessly twiddling with his garden hoe, or the segment where he remains trapped in his outhouse as he’s too afraid to come out and meet with Miriam when she arrives unannounced.

The Mahoney character, if you can get past his odd accent and crusty exterior, is quite engaging. Initially he comes off as this rugged individualist only to end up getting scared late at night over the least little noise that hears outside. The scene where he tries to pretend he’s a seasoned horseback rider in an attempt to impress Miriam and his love-hate friendship with Felix and Joy are all amusing as well, but what I really liked is that he remains a true introvert all the way through. Most other films make the broad presumption that everyone secretly craves companionship and can only be truly happy with other around, but here Mahoney only finds his ultimate utopia when he’s finally all alone.

The film’s rustic landscape, which was shot in and around King City, Ontario, helps add to the ambiance. It was filmed between October and December of 1971 with the idea that filming would wrap before the snow and cold moved in as there was no heating in the cabin, but fortunately an early season snow hit the production in late November and gets incorporated into the story. Although it only blanketed the area with an inch or two it still at least gave a preview to what living in Canada year round would be like and if you’re going to do a pic about the rugged adventures of dealing with the northern climate then there better be some snow and cold in the mix or it’s just not fully authentic otherwise.

Spoiler Alert!

The film’s ending really stands out as it recreates the feeling of solitude in a way I’ve never seen done before and will stick with you long after it’s over. It features Mahoney wondering around his property naked with only the faint sound of a water drip in the background, which gives the viewer a total sense of peace and freedom and has a soothing meditation-like quality.

Alternate Title: Mahoney’s Estate

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: Unreleased theatrically until 1976.

Runtime: 1 Hour 49 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Harvey Hart, Alexis Kanner

Studio: Topaz Productions

Available: None

Jenny (1970)

jenny

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: An unmarried, pregnant woman.

Jenny (Marlo Thomas) is a young woman living in New York City who has a one night stand with a man engaged to be married and ends up getting pregnant. She fears the stigma of being an unwed mother, so when she meets Delano (Alan Alda), a struggling filmmaker who wants to marry in order to avoid the draft, she agrees. The marriage of convenience does not start out well as living together brings out all of their differences, but the closer they get to the delivery date the stronger their bond to each other grows.

This was intended to be a breakout role for Marlo, who was still doing her TV-show ‘That Girl’ at the time and filmed this while on hiatus from that one. She was hoping this would be the first of a long line of starring vehicles for her and even precipitated the ending of her series two years later in order to be available to do more movies, but the offers never came. One of the main reasons is that the movie did not do that well either at the box office, or critically. Much of the blame could be given to the limp storyline that acted like the social mores of 1939 were still intact in 1969 where having a baby without a husband would be considered ‘scandalous’ even though it was the height of the hippie movement where lovemaking outside of marriage had become the new trendy thing making this film very dated even before it was ever released.

The film should’ve been titled ‘Delano and Jenny’ as Alda’s performance is the one thing that manages to hold it together. He’s best known for playing Hawkeye in the TV-show ‘M*A*S*H’ where he was a touch-feely, sensitive 70’s guy, but here he’s character is quite self-centered and volatile. Yet this is the one thing in the movie that’s interesting. Marlo’s performance on the other-hand ends up being one-note. Watching her big, brown eyes show a constant look of pain and sadness becomes too excessive and too redundant.

The supporting players help a little. Marian Hailey plays Delano’s world-wise, jaded lover, which is a far cry from the nerdy, nasally sounding, neurotic character that she was in the cult hit Lovers and Other Strangers. Vincent Gardenia and Elizabeth Wilson, who play Jenny’s parents, also played another married couple that very same year in the movie Little Murders. The scene where everyone takes a look at a cabinet full of teeth that Jenny’s father had made during his career, as he was a dental prosthetist, and had encased in the middle of his living room did offer a rare funny moment, but the camera should’ve done a close-up on the dentures as he described them instead of  having the viewers only see it from a distance.

The first half is surprisingly watchable as it brings out the inevitable realities that would occur when simply marrying for convenience, but having the film shift to a love story at the end doesn’t jive. These two had so little in common it didn’t seem possible that they could’ve fallen in love even if they had wanted to. Jenny’s character needed to be better fleshed out as well. She comes-off as shy and cautious and yet is brazen enough to hop into bed with a guy engaged to someone else, which is a scene we needed to see played-out instead of only discussed in passing later.

Spoiler Alert!

When the nurse brings in the infant as Jenny and Delano sit in the hospital room was the one moment I thought there might be a surprise as the baby looked from the back to be African American and from the front to be Asian even though apparently he was neither. I was hoping that it was as that would’ve been something that that neither the moody Delano nor the viewer would’ve expected and helped given this otherwise sterile story the edgy twist that it needed.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: January 2, 1970

Runtime: 1 Hour 29 Minutes

Rated M

Director: George Bloomfield

Studio: Cinerama Releasing Corporation

Available: DVD

The Conformist (1970)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Trying to fit-in.

Marcello (Jean Louis Trintignant) is living in Italy during WWII and a member of the fascist secret police. He longs to be a part of acceptable society and partaking in the conventions of what he believes is a normal life including settling down and getting married even if it’s to a woman Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) that he doesn’t really love. He gets ordered to assassinate Quadri (Enzo Tarascio) who was one of his professors back in college, but who has now been deemed an anti-fascist by the government.  Marcello uses the guise of his honeymoon as an excuse to travel with Giulia to Paris in order to carry out his mission. However, once there he begins to have feelings for the professor’s wife Anna (Dominique Sanda) and becomes unable to carry out the assignment despite being aware that Anna is only using him to get to Giulia, which is who she truly desires.

This film became a benchmark in Bernardo Bertullici’s career and was his first box office success that allowed him the ability to go on and direct even bigger  classics such as The Last Tango in Paris and 1900.  While the visuals are impressively stylistic I do agree with many critics that too much emphasis is placed on the sets, that gives it an almost over-the-top kitschy feel, while drowning out the story, which is handled in a more subtle way, in the process. The plot is still captivating, but a good movie should have a nice balance and as critic Gene Siskel stated in his review it’s more of a ‘show than a story’ and reviewer Keven Thomas labeled it a ‘bravura style Fellini’, which I consider to be a very accurate description.

The story is based on the 1951 novel of the same name by Alberto Moravia, but apparently Bertolucci had never read it when he pitched the idea to Paramount and managed to wow the studio execs into loving the idea simply by relying on the the description of the story giving to him by his then-girlfriend who had read it. When he finally did read it he did so while writing it into a screenplay at the same time.

There are many differences though between the source novel and the film with the movie leaving out a lot of Marcello’s childhood backstory that I felt was needed. The book examines Marcello’s penchant for killing lizards and even the neighbor’s cat as well as his witnessing his father’s abusing of his mother and the vandalization of a family photograph, which the film doesn’t touch on. The book also gets into more detail about why Marcello is tormented by his classmates where in the film we see Marcello being harassed, but it’s never made clear why.

Spoiler Alert!

The ending gets changed too. In the book Marcello has an interesting philosophical debate with Lino, a chauffer who sexually abused him as a child, but this conversation is left out of the movie. Marcello also, along with his wife and child, gets gunned down while driving in their car, but surprisingly the movie doesn’t have this part either. You would think that they would since action makes for a good visual, and I’m not sure for the reason why it was left out/revised except that Bertolucci may have feared it would be too similar to the finale in Bonnie and Clyde and didn’t want to seem like he was replicating that one.

End of Spoiler Alert!

Overall despite these deviations I still found it impactful particularly the ambush scene on a lonely road, which was the one thing that I remembered about the movie after having not seen in for several decades. The strong performances help too especially Trintignant’s brooding portrayal though being French born he spoke his lines phonetically without knowing what they meant and then later had them dubbed by Sergio Graziani in post production. The two lead actresses are splendid too and although the parts were originally offered to the more famous Brigitte Bardot and Anouk Aimee I felt it came off better with the then unknowns particularly Sandrelli who’s energetic and almost child-like at the beginning only to behave like jaded, middle-aged woman by the conclusion.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: July 1, 1970

Runtime: 1 Hour 53 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Blu-ray

Garbo Talks (1984)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: A dying mother’s wish.

Gilbert Rolfe (Ron Silver) is a grown man trying to hold down a full-time job, maintaining a marriage with Lisa (Carrie Fisher), and also keeping his social activist mother Estelle (Anne Bancroft) out of trouble. He soon learns though that his mother is dying of a brain tumor and her last wish is being able to meet Greta Garbo, the elusive movie star, in person. Gilbert doesn’t know how he’ll be able to find her, but spends most of his time diligently trying, which causes problems with both his job and marriage.

For the first hour the concept of trying to mix-in fable-like storyline with the bleak realities of day-to-day living actually works. Silver deserves top credit for making what could’ve been a very bland part as a schmuck that wasn’t too interesting or funny into an engaging character that the viewer feels more and more empathetic towards as the movie progresses. The sub-storyline though dealing with the breakup of his marriage and his subsequent relationship with his co-worker Catherine Hicks, who came across as being too kooky to be believable, I didn’t find necessary.

Bancroft gives a compelling performance as well and is particularly funny in the scene where she lectures a group of male construction workers in regards to the catcalls they give to the women walking past them. I found it disappointing though that the side-story dealing with her motivating one of the nurses, played by Antonia Rey, to demand that her union give them a higher pay rate at their next bargaining session was never played-out to its full conclusion. Having her ex-husband, played by Steven Hill, arrive at the hospital for a visit, but then not hearing them get into any type of conversation I found frustrating as well. There’s also a discussion that she has with Gilbert about how the cancer treatment will cause her hair to full out, but then that never happens, so why bring up something if it doesn’t ultimately connect with the plot?

Spoiler Alert!

The film’s biggest downfall though occurs at the end when a half-hearted attempt to use a double, played by Betty Comden, in place of the real Garbo. Apparently some efforts where made by the producers to see if Garbo would be willing to make a cameo appearance, but they were never able to make direct contact with her, so if a multi-million dollar film studio can’t adequately locate her how is some ordinary schmuck going to do it?

The way Gilbert is finally able to meet her, which ends up being at an outdoor flea market no less, is rather cheesy. He’s also only able to ‘recognize’ her from the back of her head, which is all the viewer pretty much ever gets to see too, so how would anyone know that was the right person just from that? The excuse he gives her to get her to come along with him to the hospital to see his dying mother would’ve been considered by most people in the same situation as just an excuse from a stalking fan to get her into his car, so he could kidnap her . Many celebrities must deal with obsessive fans all the time so how could anyone blame her for flatly turning him down, which is what she should’ve done and most likely would’ve occurred in reality.

Once Garbo does arrive at the hospital it’s Bancroft that does all of the talking making Garbo seem like a transparent ghost and not a real person. The film would’ve worked better had Gilbert given up on his attempts to find her and just hired an actress to pretend to be her, just like the movie itself ended up doing. This might not have satisfied everybody, but it at least it would’ve avoided becoming as hokey as it does.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: October 12, 1984

Runtime: 1 Hour 43 Minutes

Rated PG-13

Director: Sidney Lumet

Studio: MGM

Available: DVD, Amazon Video

Jaws: The Revenge (1987)

 

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Shark holds a grudge.

It’s been 9 years since the last shark attack in Amity. Since that time Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) has died from a heart-attack, but the rest of his family continue to live in the area and carry on his legacy. His son Sean (Mitchell Anderson) like his father, works in the police department and one chilly night gets assigned to repair a disabled buoy out in the harbor. It’s there that he’s attacked and killed by a great white shark, making his mother Ellen (Lorraine Gary) believe that the shark is intentionally hunting down the members of her family, she even has nightmares about it. She warns her other son Mike (Lance Guest) to stay out of the water, but since he’s an underwater research scientist this is not possible, which starts to create friction between the two.

Just when the public thought it was safe to go back to the theaters again another formuliac shark movie got propped-up. This one was the brainchild of Universal CEO Sidney Sheinberg, (who was also the husband of the film’s star Lorraine Gary) who wanted to promote the new Jaws ride at Universal Studios theme park. In order to keep the story ‘fresh’ they decided to add-in a mystical element to it, but it’s not thought out enough to make any sense. I would think a shark would view people the same way people view sharks in that they would all look alike. How would a shark know when a Brody family member was in the water? Better yet how would the shark know when the Brodys move from New York all the way down to the Caribbean?

In the early versions of the screenplay, as well as the novel version of the film, the mystical factor gets explained as having been caused by a witch doctor named Papa Jacques who has an ongoing feud with the Brody’s and uses voodoo to compel the shark to kill them, but this idea got nixed in the final draft as it veered too much away from the actual shark. In some ways this was probably a good thing because in the novel there are several chapters done from the shark’s point-of-view where he becomes confused about why he’s killing the Brodys, which would’ve been too ludicrous had that been put into the movie.

The film sorely misses Roy Scheider, who’s only seen in brief flashbacks, and Richard Dreyfuss, who both refused to do the sequel. Had they been the elements of the shark’s revenge and having the nightmares only to decide to go out together on a boat ride to conquer those fears, this might’ve been worth catching.

Lorraie Gary’s presence is not interesting as she had been only a minor supporting player in the first two. She’s not the only one to reprise her role as Lee Fiero, who played Mrs. Kinter the mother of the young boy who gets killed by the shark in the first film, can be seen very briefly. Fritzi Jane Courtney, who played Mrs. Taft in the first two movies, is also on hand reprising the same character, but by this time her hair had turned all white and I didn’t immediately recognize her.

The presence of Michael Caine has to be the biggest head-scratchier. Granted he was notorious for doing what became known as ‘paycheck movies’ where no matter what the quality of the script he’d take the offer if the money was good, but his part here is quite minor and there’s long stretches where he isn’t seen at all. He later admitted that he has never seen the film and is well aware that it’s a flop, but the house it helped build with the money he made is ‘really nice’.

In fact the only performance that I was really impressed with was that of Judith Barsi, who plays the daughter of the Mike character. She’s perky and precocious when it’s required, but also believably frightened when it’s necessary making her untimely death, at the hands of her own father just a year after this film was released, all the more tragic.

Spoiler Alert!

The film’s most controversial moment has to do with the ending in which too variations were filmed. One has Gary ramming the shark with her boat and killing it while the other one has the beast exploding. Both versions show the cast jumping into the water as the boat they’re on breaks apart, but no explanation for how they ended up finding their way back to land, which is a big cop-out.

End of Spoiler Alert!

Probably the most amusing thing about this mess is the interview director Joseph Sargent gives on American Archives in which he mockingly laughs at his own film. He goes on to muse about Caine taking the part and shocked that he would think it was a ‘good script’. He then ponders about how ‘grown, intelligent men’ could ever work on a project that is so  stupid and admits that it was the money and power, as he acted as the film’s producer, that lead him to make the fatal mistake of doing it, which he knew was a really bad idea from the very beginning.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: July 17, 1987

Runtime: 1 Hour 30 Minutes

Rated PG-13

Director: Joseph Sargent

Studio: Universal

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

Stroszek (1977)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Germans relocate to Wisconsin.

Bruno (Bruno S.) has recently been released from prison and while warned to stop drinking as a condition for his parole he immediately goes to a local bar. It is there that he meets Eve (Eva Mattes) a prostitute in an abusive relationship with her husband (Burkhard Driest). Bruno offers to allow her to move into his apartment, but this angers her husband and her pimp (Wilhelm von Homburg)  who break into the apartment and terrorize Eva and Bruno making them believe that the only way they can escape the harassment is by moving to America, which we they do along with their elderly neighbor Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz). They presume everyone is the USA is rich and life will be easy, but find that not to be the case.

The story was based loosely on the real-life experiences of its star and the script  written specifically for him by director Werner Herzog as a conciliation for not casting him in Woyzeck as originally intended. Since Bruno had already taken a leave of absence from his job at a steel mill to star in that one Herzog decided to make it up to him by writing this script in a matter of 4 days and then filming it on-location in Plainfield, Wisconsin because that was where the notorious serial killer Ed Gein had lived.

The story should’ve been a complete downer as it focuses on some very depressing realities, but instead, thanks to the genius of Herzog, one comes away from it feeling almost upbeat at all the quirky humor that gets incorporated in. The most memorable moment, which the rest of the crew found highly offensive and refused to film forcing Herzog to do it himself, happens near the end when Bruno travels to North Carolina and uses the last of his money to insert coins into arcade exhibits featuring chickens inside cages that dance and play the piano. The amusing element from this comes when the police finally arrive on the scene and are more concerned with getting the chicken to stop dancing than with the welfare of Bruno.

I also enjoyed the moment when an auto mechanic (Clayton Szalpinski) decides to do his own oral surgery by using the same pliers that he fixes cars with to remove a painful tooth in his mouth. While more blood was needed, as there should’v been streams of it coming out of his mouth, but isn’t, it’s still quite darkly funny and was ‘inspired’ by a true-life scene in the  1972 documentary Spend it All in which a Cajun in Louisiana does the same thing to his teeth, which amazed Herzog so much when he saw that movie that it compelled him to work the scene into one of his stories.

The jabs at America are expectedely negative and to some degree are on-target while at other points goes too far. Watching the trio become overly excited at seeing their new trailer home driven onto a vacant lot and acting like this was a sign that they had finally ‘made it big in America’ is certainly sardonically funny. Yet the scene with two farmers holding rifles as they plow a field in their tractors ready to shoot the other one if either dared touch a small strip of disputed land played too much into the stereotype that Europeans have of Americans and really wasn’t needed especially since it had nothing to do with the main story.

Bruno S.’s performance, who was never formally trained as an actor, is boring as he conveys the same facial expression all the way through where a more seasoned actor could’ve given the role more needed nuance. Scheitz was an amateur actor as well, but his short stature and overall goofy appearance made him a fun part of every scene he’s in while with Bruno that same quality doesn’t exist. If anything Eva has the widest character arc and the film should’ve evolved around her instead.

Herzog casts a lot of non actors in secondary roles as well. I’m not sure if this was done for budgetary reasons, or just played into his long-standing desire to be experimental, but the results aren’t completely effective. I did however enjoy Scott McKain, an auctioneer in real-life, who plays the part of a bank employee that comes to visit the trio in their trailer home to inform them of their delinquent payments and yet no matter how bad the news is that he must convey he always manages to remain upbeat and peppy when he says it.

The film, which has been rightly placed in Steven Schneider’s ‘1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die’ is original in so many ways that it deserves to be seen just for the oddity it is and I really have no complaints with its avant-garde style, which even today comes off as fresh and inventive, but I was confused about why the Glen Campbell song ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ got played so much. The lyrics are never heard, but the melody is and yet there’s no connection to the city of Phoenix in the story, for awhile I thought that was where they’d ultimately end-up, but they never do, so hearing it played so much is out-of-place.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: May 20, 1977

Runtime: 1 Hour 48 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Werner Herzog

Studio: New Yorker Films

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Snowball Express (1972)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Family rehabilitates rundown hotel.

Johnny (Dean Jones) works as an accountant in New York, but is bored with his job and looking for a way out. He finds his escape with an inheritance that he receives naming him the beneficiary of the Grand Imperial Hotel in Colorado that he’s promised can bring in $14,000 a month. He immediately quits his job and moves his reluctant family to the snowy Rockies where they find the hotel to be in bad shape, but Johnny is determined to still make a go of it and turns the place into a ski resort. At first they have some success with it, but calamity strikes, which destroys the place and forces Johnny to enter into a snow mobile race where he hopes to be the winner and use the earnings from the prize to rebuild the place.

There were aspects to the film that I liked. For one I felt Jones was quite engaging here. Usually his performances in some of his other Disney films were flat and one-dimensional, but here his resiliency had an emotional appeal. I also liked how even though the film is aimed for kids it still dealt with real-world adult issues like going to a bank to get a loan and then how to allocate that money to build equity. Even though children may be too young to grasp all of it, it’s still good to condition them into working world scenarios and what it takes to create a business from the ground up.

The story though lacks the physical comedy that is so prevalent in other Disney comedies. It does have a scene where Jones skis down a hill backwards while knocking over everyone else that is in his way, which is funny, but then the film repeats this same scenario two more times until it’s no longer funny and instead just boring. The scene where Harry Morgan’s character accidentally crashes his logging engine through the hotel is more depressing than funny since the family had spent so much time rebuilding it it was frustrating seeing it get destroyed for such a silly reason.

The climactic snowmobile race is okay and I liked seeing some of the wipeouts, which I wished there had been more of. However, having this really old guy played by Keenan Wynn beating out everyone else year after year as the snowmobile champion seemed weird. Granted he was actually only in his 50’s at the time it was filmed, but with his gray beard and hair he looked to be more in his 70’s, so it seemed a bit goofy why such an elderly guy, who was nothing more than a bank manager during the day, would have such an ability to always beat out everybody else.  Why the race required two men on each snowmobile didn’t make much sense either. I was born and raised in Minnesota and say a few snowmobile races in my time and they had only one person on each vehicle, so I couldn’t understand why it was necessary to have a second person behind the driver since they did nothing but  act like a spectator while holding for dear life as the driver cruised through the snow.

The film needed a more aggressive bad guy. Disney films from the 70’s were fun because the villains were usually so colorful, but here Keenan Wynn just sits behind his desk for most of the film and does nothing more than deny Jones a loan. It would’ve been better had Wynn instead sneaked around behind the scenes doing things that hurt Jones’ business, which would’ve created more of an antagonistic feeling from the viewer and thus made the final confrontation between the two, which gets underplayed anyways, more interesting.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: December 22, 1972

Runtime: 1 Hour 33 Minutes

Rated G

Director: Norman Tokar

Studio: Buena Vista

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Heartland (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Life on the frontier.

In 1910 a widow named Elinore (Conchata Ferrell) and her 7-year-old daughter Jerrine (Megan Folsom) travel to Wyoming where she gets a job as a housekeeper to rancher named Clyde (Rip Torn). The two slowly fall-in-love, eventually marry, and have a baby of their own. Unfortunately the harsh winter and remote locale takes its toll causing tragedy to both their small family and to the ranch itself.

The story is based on the letters written by Elinore Pruitt Stewart to her former employer as she described her adventures working on a ranch as a homesteader to Henry Clyde Stewart during the years of 1910 to 1914. The film stays very faithful in tone and content to the period and some of the most fascinating moments are simply observing the different chores that they had to do back then and what now comes off as very archaic.  Shooting the film on-location in the Rocky Mountain region, substituting Montana for Wyoming, and capturing all four seasons helps add to the authenticity.

Farrell’s strong personality gives life to her character and reveals the inner strength required to endure and survive the hardships of frontier life and it’s amazing how closely she resembled the real Elinore Stewart as evidenced by an old photograph of her taken in 1913. Torn is also quite good, but his thick Scandinavian accent makes it difficult to understand everything he says. I also really enjoyed Folsom as the young girl, who doesn’t have much dialogue, but more than makes up for it with her expressive face. Lilia Skala is also good as Mrs. Landuer a headstrong elderly neighbor who goes by the nickname of Grandma.

While the soundtrack matches the period flavor I felt there was too much of it and would’ve enjoyed more silence as that is pretty much all you would’ve heard anyways on the frontier during that time. I would’ve also liked more of a backstory to Elinore, specifically showing why she was widowed, in real-life her husband died in a railroad accident before their daughter Jerrine was even born, and yet it would’ve helped the viewer understand Elinore better had this been dramatized, or at least touched on.

The ending is also too abrupt. It brings up all the challenges in maintaining the ranch, but no conclusion as to whether they were able to withstand them all or not. Several story threads get left hanging even though in real-life Elinore lived 19 years past when this story took place and Clyde lived for another 35 years, so having some denouncement at the end explaining where they ultimately ended up past what we see here was in my opinion very much needed and the fact that it doesn’t occur makes the film seem like only half-a-movie.

There’s also some scenes that may make certain viewers uncomfortable. Many of them deal with animals getting killed including a wild pig that gets shot at point blank range and then skinned and gutted. Since this was apart of the frontier life back then I didn’t have a real problem with it, but others might. The most disturbing scene though deals with a cow trying to give birth and requires both Torn and Farrell sticking their hands inside the cow’s vagina at the same time in order to turn the calf around, so that its head will come out first. They then tie a rope around the calf’s head and yank him out in extremely explicit fashion. While some may consider this the miracle of birth others may not be able to stomach it, but overall it does help to heighten the realism either way.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: September 22, 1979

Runtime: 1 Hour 36 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Richard Pearce

Studio: Filmhaus

Available: DVD, Amazon Video