Category Archives: Comedy/Drama

The Right Stuff (1983)

 

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: The American space program.

Based on the 1979 best-selling novel by Tom Wolfe, the film explores the history of the American space program starting in 1947 when test pilot Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepherd) successfully broke the sound barrier and then moving into the selection and training of the men who would lead the exploration into space culminating with John Glenn’s historic orbiting flight of the earth on February 20, 1962.

The film was a darling of the critics, but did poorly at the box office and I suspect this is due mainly to over reliance on comedy that eventually becomes off-putting. When doing a film dealing with historical events I don’t mind some comedy as real-life can always have its fair share of funny moments, but writer/director Philip Kaufman becomes obsessed with squeezing every ounce of humor that he can from each and every scene, sometimes even going off on tangents with it, until it seems like that’s more of the film’s focus. At the start there’s an okay blend, but then it gets out-of-control wacky, which creates a surreal world that seems to mock the events instead of tell them. The viewer also has to question whether the filmmaker’s, in their zeal to get a laugh in any way that they can, are really showing us something that is accurate or whether that was even a concern.

There’s also too many characters and they all possess the same clichéd all-American-fearless-good-ole’-boy charm that makes them indistinguishable from the other. The film should’ve had only one central character that the rest of the story revolved around. Supposedly the Chuck Yeager character (the actual Chuck Yeager appears briefly as a bartender) was supposed to do this by having him reappear throughout, but he is gone for so much of the time that you essentially forget about him.

This also becomes a problem when dealing with the story thread of Gus Grissom (Fred Ward) who supposedly ‘panics’ when his spacecraft splashes down. Because we never really get to know any of these characters on any deep level we have no clue why he behaves the way that he does. The scene where he supposedly explodes the hatch’s bolts, which in turn sinks the craft is disputed in its accuracy anyways, but it hurts the film’s pace either way. Spending virtually three hours being comical and then throwing in a highly dramatic element almost out of nowhere is jarring and then just as frustratingly it drops it without any suitable conclusion or exploration as to what might’ve really happened or why.

The production values are excellent, which is why I couldn’t hate it, but the movie also has tendency to one-up itself with each and every progressing scene and thus making John Glenn’s orbiting flight, which should’ve been the film’s highpoint, get lost in the shuffle. There’s also too much of a flag-waiving mentality that almost resembles a government produced propaganda film and helps give the movie an overblown, overreaching feeling when it’s over.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: October 21, 1983

Runtime: 3Hours 13Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Philip Kaufman

Studio: Warner Brothers

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

Only When I Laugh (1981)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Actress is an alcoholic.

Georgia Hines (Marsha Mason) has just been released from a 12-week alcohol rehab program and returns to her Manhattan apartment looking to readjust to civilian life with the help of her two friends; Jimmy (James Coco) a gay unemployed actor and Toby (Joan Hackett) a woman unhappy at turning middle-aged. To Georgia’s surprise Polly (Kristy McNichol) her 17 year-old-daughter shows up wanting to move in with her and ‘patch things up’ from their tumultuous past. Georgia isn’t sure she’s emotionally ready, but forges ahead and things start out okay, but then the demons from the past rear their ugly head forcing mother and daughter to face some harsh realities both about themselves and each other.

The film is based on Neil Simon’s Broadway play ‘The Gingerbread Lady’ that starred Maureen Stapleton and ran for 193 performances. It was not considered a success and when adapted to a film Simon made changes to the story, but to me it all seemed like every other Neil Simon dramedy that he’s done before. Both this film and The Goodbye Girl that also starred Mason featured male characters that were struggling to become professional actors. Both this film and Chapter Two, which again starred Mason, had characters who were playwrights going through writer’s block. His films always take place in New York and have characters who see analysts, and can apparently make enough to afford them. I realize there’s the old adage ‘write what you know’ and that’s exactly what Simon is doing, but it would be nice if he’d get a little bit out of his comfort zone as nothing that gets shown here seems fresh or original.

The first hour is way too serene and I would’ve expected much more of a frosty relationship between mother and daughter, but instead for the most part they get along great, at least initially. There are some passing references to previous drama, but I felt this should’ve been shown and not just talked about. The second half improves significantly with some strong scenes, but I’m afraid that with such a lifeless beginning most viewers will have fallen asleep before it even gets there.

McNichol is excellent and every bit Mason’s equal, but this exposes another of Simon’s weaknesses, which is that although he’s good at writing character parts for adults he seems unable to do so for anyone younger. In The Goodbye Girl the Quinn Cummings character seemed too infantile for a 10-year-old and here McNichol is more like a 20-something and the intended mother-daughter drama more like just two girlfriends rooming together.

Coco and Hackett are excellent and help hold things together and the movie does manage to deliver, at least in the second-half, but I couldn’t help but feel that Simon had gone to this well too often and was starting to lose his edge. You can also spot young Kevin Bacon as a college dude trying to pick and Mason and McNichol as they eat at a café.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: September 25, 1981

Runtime: 2Hours

Rated R

Director: Glenn Jordan

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available:  DVD-R, Amazon Video, YouTube

Airport (1970)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Terror in the skies.

During a major snowstorm at Chicago’s Lincoln International Airport manager Al Bakersfield (Burt Lancaster) must scramble to keep the place open while trying to get a disabled jet plane that is stuck in the snow off the runway. Meanwhile on a flight headed for Italy there’s the mentally unhinged Guerrero (Van Heflin) sitting with a bomb in his briefcase set to go off and explode the airplane and killing everyone inside, so that his family back home can collect on the insurance money.

The film is based on the best-selling novel by Arthur Hailey and despite some critics, like Pauline Kael, hating it for its soap opera-like dramatics I still came away feeling it was perfect crackerjack entertainment. The characters on the plane are quite diverse with unique problems and personalities making them seem like real people that the viewer becomes genuinely concerned for. The special effects, particularly those done inside the plane, are effective and the film has a nice dramedy balance.

The only drawback, and I hesitate to bring this up as I think they did the best they could’ve done under the circumstances, are the special effects dealing with the snow storm. It was shot at the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport during the winter of 1969, but unfortunately the whole time the film crew was there the weather remained sunny forcing them to eventually have plastic snow shown falling while the in the background the sky remains crystal clear and sunny. The snow shown falling during the nighttime scenes is equally problematic. I resided for many years in the North Country and I know that when it snows at night the sky gives off a bright white glow and it’s never pitch black like it is here.

The film was considered innovative at the time for its use of the split-screen particularly when it would show people talking on the phone to each other. Director George Seaton wisely doesn’t overplay this and uses the device sparingly for the most part however the segment where Lancaster is shown in one square talking to his wife, who is in another square along with their two daughters who each pop-up in their own individual squares it starts to resemble the opening to ‘The Brady Bunch’.

The acting by the female performers is quite strong. I was really impressed with Jean Seberg, her career started back in 1958 when she beat out 18,000 other applicants to get the starring role in Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan despite her lack of acting experience and although her performance in that film was lambasted by the critics I felt here she was solid and she could’ve easily carried the film during the scenes at the airport without Lancaster’s presence, who plays her boss, being needed at all.

Jaqueline Bisset is equally good as the stewardess who knows how to think on her feet.  I liked how this role didn’t take advantage of her looks or sexiness and instead kept it focused solely on her dramatic acting ability and I loved her shoulder length hair cut here as opposed to her really long hair style that she usually sports. Helen Hayes is hammy as the old lady stowaway, which netted her an Oscar, but Maureen Stapleton, who was also nominated for best supporting actress, is quite good too. Her talents lie more in her expressive face particularly the moment when she looks out the airport window and witnesses the plane carrying her husband, who she knows has a bomb, take off.

Dean Martin is excellent on the male end. Typically he comes off as tipsy and laid-back, but here he surprisingly takes the reins and helps propel the picture. George Kennedy is also surprisingly strong. Most of the time his presence amounts to nothing more than token supporting parts, but here he plays the gruff, brash airline mechanic to great effect and could help explain why his character was the only one to appear in all four airport movies.

The film does come off like it was released in the ‘50s instead of the 70s by having a cast that was mostly past their prime, but it’s by far the best disaster flick from the ‘70s, and there were a lot of them, as well as better than any of the three sequels that followed it.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: March 5, 1970

Runtime: 2Hours 17Minutes

Rated G

Director: George Seaton

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video

Broadcast News (1987)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Life in a newsroom.

Jane (Holly Hunter) is a television news producer married to her work who breaks down crying when nobody is around. She starts falling for Tom (William Hurt) the good looking new anchorman even though he does not share her same drive or integrity. Aaron (Albert Brooks) is a behind-the-scenes news writer who wishes to get more exposure in front of the camera. Secretly he is in love with Jane and envies the budding relationship that he sees starting between her and Tom, but feels virtually powerless to do anything about it.

The film marks another tour-de-force effort by writer/director James L. Brooks who hits the nail-on-the-head in just about every scene when it comes to revealing the inner workings of a local TV newsroom. I found some of the procedures that are shown including how a producer can continue to feed the anchorman things to say through an earpiece even as he is live on the air and interviewing someone to be quite fascinating. From dealing with a harsh layoff of the news division to the extremes people are willing to go to get promoted prove to be quite insightful. Even the little things are interesting like watching two musicians (Glen Roven, Marc Shaiman) trying to plug their song as the new theme to the news show, which is probably the funniest moment in the movie.

Initially I was turned off by Hunter’s strong southern twang, you would think someone who wanted to make it big in Hollywood would’ve worked harder to soften that, but she gives such a strong all-around performance that eventually I was able to overlook it. I felt though that her character was more compelling when she was fretting about her work, which seemed almost like an obsession to her. Having her chase after a guy, who she really didn’t have much in common with anyways, was far less interesting. She seemed like someone who immersed herself in her job simply to avoid social contact and the film would’ve worked better had Tom been the one doing all the chasing.

Brooks was an odd casting choice. He’s a funny comedian and has done some great satires, but not someone who is warm and likable. The movie wants us to feel sorry for his character because he is always getting passed over both professionally and romantically, but I felt the opposite way about him.  His many sarcastic lines makes him seem bitter and vindictive and the way he screams at Jane to ‘get out’ when she confides with him about her feelings for Tom made him seem downright psychotic.

Director Brooks seems to have a personal vendetta against anchormen as his productions always portray then as being dumb and shallow most notably the Ted Baxter character in the ‘70s TV-series ‘Mary Tyler Moore Show’, which he also produced. In that show the character’s stupidity was clearly over exaggerated, but here Tom gets played with a believable balance as he’s is savvy enough to make up for his lack of intelligence by overcompensating on his image.

I loved how the film starts off with vignettes of the characters when they were kids and then ending it by revealing where they end up 7 years after the main story ends, but overall the plot lacks any major impact. The whole thing is just too gentile and needed another dramatic arch to give it more verve. Jack Nicholson appears unbilled as the station’s top anchor and I would’ve loved seeing him become a major player in the story as he owns every scene he is in especially the part where he enters the newsroom to offer his condolences to those who were laid-off.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: December 16, 1987

Runtime: 2Hours 12Minutes

Rated R

Director: James L. Brooks

Studio: 20th Century Fox

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

The Great Smokey Roadblock (1977)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Old man keeps truckin’.

John Howard (Henry Fonda) is an aging truck driver laid up in a hospital while his rig is repossessed. Feeling that his life may soon be ending he decides to escape from the hospital, take back his rig, which he has named Eleanor after the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and go for one last cross-country run. He picks up a spiritual hitch-hiker (Robert Englund) as well as a group of prostitutes who hide in the truck in an effort to escape the law, but the authorities are onto John’s plans and try to stop him before he can complete his trip.

If there is one reason to watch this otherwise flat and forgettable flick it is for the performance of Fonda, who despite his ailing health still had what it took and easily commands the screen from his other co-stars. In fact Fonda creates such a strong presence that many of the ‘colorful’ supporting characters could’ve been scrapped completely as the most enjoyable moments come with Fonda conversing with Englund who has a diametrically different personality and perspective, as the two drive down the highway.

Eileen Brennan lends good support in a rare dramatic role and it’s fun seeing Susan Sarandon, who also co-produced, playing a minor part as one of the prostitutes. She looks so young here and it was hard to believe that only a decade later she would have aged so much that she would be playing a prostitute again in Bull Durham albeit a much more mature one.

Dub Taylor is enjoyable as a crazy, hick, which he has done many, many times before and it should’ve gotten old by now, but he always exudes so much energy in his parts that its highly diverting anyways. However, the efforts by Austin Pendleton, John Byner, and Valerie Curtain aren’t as entertaining and the motivations of their characters so unclear that it would’ve been better had they not been in it at all.

The only action comes when John takes his truck and crashes it through a police barrier, which gets shown in slow-motion. Whether a truck would’ve actually been able to plow through several police cars and not cause any injuries or fatalities and no significant damage to the rig itself is highly dubious and only helps to prove how trite and whimsical this whole thing is.

There are moments when the film seems to be straining for something deeper, but it never gets there. There are so many other, far better road movies out there that this one doesn’t even deserve an honorable mention. Writer/director John Leone is clearly working over-his-head here and it’s no surprise that this was his only feature in a movie that amounts to being a passable time waster at best and nothing more.

Alternate Titles: The Last of the Cowboys, The Goodbye Run

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: September 7, 1977

Runtime: 1 Hour 44 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: John Leone

Studio: American Cinema Releasing

Available: DVD

Just Between Friends (1986)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 0 out of 10

4-Word Review: Friends share same guy.

Holly (Mary Tyler Moore) and Sandy (Christine Lahti) become friends while attending an aerobics class. Holly then invites Sandy over to her home for dinner unaware that Sandy is having an affair with her husband Chip (Ted Danson). Sandy is equally unaware that the man she is seeing is her new best friend’s mate. After the awkward experience is over Sandy decides to call off her relationship with Chip only to have him die unexpectedly a little bit later. Sandy then tries to help Holly get back on her feet, but without ever confiding with her that she was at one time ‘the other woman’. When Holly is cleaning out her husband’s office she comes across incriminating photographs of Sandy and Chip together and decides to angrily confront her with it.

One of the biggest drawbacks to the film is the casting of Moore in the lead. She’s an actress I’ve always liked, but here she is too old for the part. She was already pushing 50 at the time and Danson, who was 11 years younger, comes off more like an older son than a husband. In fact the opening shot has an extreme close-up of her where you can clearly see the age lines etched on her face making her later conversation where she asks her hubby if they should have another child seem utterly absurd. The intended idea of showing how completely opposite Holly and Sandy are seems more like a generation gap than contrasting personalities and watching Moore in an exercise outfit is genuinely disturbing as she is too thin and her ribs jut right through her shirt.

Lahti’s character is crass and snarky and not at all likable. The idea that she would know nothing about the personal life of the man she was seeing isn’t believable. Now I’ve never been involved in an affair, but I would think if someone is really into someone else, even if it is as the other woman, they’d want to know as much about him as they could including having some knowledge about who he was married to instead of being completely in the dark with what they were up against.

The affair angle gets introduced too suddenly and then right away she gets invited over to Holly’s for dinner and the awkwardness ensues, which isn’t half as funny or compelling as it could’ve been. The film should’ve shown how the affair began as well as to why Chip was unhappy with Holly, which never gets thoroughly explained, and then had the dinner scene played out later on when the viewer was more engrossed with the situation and characters.

There is also a lot of embarrassing comedy that gets mixed into the already cringy drama and only helps to unnecessarily prolong the scenes. The satirical jabs at the on-air news talent are particularly poor as it exaggerates how dumb they are in a film that is supposedly trying to be realistic otherwise. I don’t exactly know what writer/director Allan Burns has against newscasters, but both he and James L. Brooks produced the ‘Mary Tyler Moore Show’, which portrayed Ted Baxter, the newscaster on that series, as being a complete imbecile and here the news anchors are shown in much the same way, but by this time it comes off like an old, overplayed joke.

Having Danson die in the middle was a big mistake as his character was the only thing that brought in any interesting dramatic tension and the film flat lines the rest of the way without him. Allan Burns had some success producing TV-series despite the dubious distinction of having created ‘My Mother the Car’, but clearly making movies was beyond his capabilities and it’s no surprise that he never directed another film after this one.

My Rating: 0 out of 10

Released: March 21, 1986

Runtime: 1 Hour 50 Minutes

Rated PG-13

Director: Allan Burns

Studio: Orion Pictures

Available: DVD (MGM Limited Edition Collection), Amazon Video, YouTube

Punchline (1988)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: The perils of standup.

Lilah (Sally Field) is a New York housewife who enjoys making people laugh and takes a stab at stand-up, but finds the experience challenging and ends up paying someone $500 for jokes, but they don’t go over well. Then she meets Steven (Tom Hanks) a struggling med student who moonlights at the same comedy club that she does. Steven is genuinely funny, but so highly insecure that he ends up self-destructing at the most crucial times. He tries to help Lilah hone in her comedic skills while she gives him confidence.

The film, which is written and directed by David Seltzer, nicely analyzes the very unfunny side of the comedy business particularly its emphasis on how one must toil away at seedy clubs, hecklers, low pay, drunken audiences and a permeating sense of insecurity. Hanks abrasive character is spot-on and a good composite of those still stuck in the trenches and bitter about not yet being discovered. In fact I had wanted the surliness of his character to be played up even more as I had come into contact with struggling comedians during my time when I dabbled in improv and found a lot of them to be basket cases of insecurity and when not onstage were quite unpleasant to be around.

In fact it was because the Hanks character was so unlikable and even more so in some of the earlier versions that the script sat on the studio shelf for so long before it finally got the green light. To help compensate certain overreaching attempts were put in to soften his persona, which only ends up hurting the film’s authenticity. One scene has him inside a hospital doing one of his comedy acts for the patients and as he is leaving he suddenly shows this extreme concern for a sick child that he doesn’t even know and he immediately runs over to him, which seemed forced.

Another bit has him onstage and suffering from an extreme emotional breakdown when he sees his father sitting in the audience. Many people harbor demons from the past and frosty relationships with their parents, but they don’t have such over-the-top reactions especially when in front of an audience, which only helps to make this scene reek of hackneyed melodrama.

His friendship with Field, which I initially found cute as the two are complete opposites, gets ruined when a romantic angle unwisely gets thrown in. These two had very little in common, the Field character was married with three kids, ten years old than him and not particularly stunning, so I didn’t see the chemistry or reason for the sudden attraction on Hanks’ part. Having him gush all over her after only knowing her for a brief time is unrealistic. His personal struggles including the fact that he had been evicted from his apartment and had no money would be occupying his mind so much that a potential relationship wouldn’t even enter into it.

Fortunately the film recovers with a strong ending and Field is excellent, but I wished that we had seen more of a backstory to her character and were able to witness the very first time that she ever ventured out onto the stage. The supporting cast offers great performances as well including John Goodman as Field’s husband who initially isn’t supportive of her stand-up ambitions, but eventually warms up to it. Mark Rydell is solid as the club owner and Mac Robbins has a touching moment as an aging comedian who has seen it all before in a film that offers a revealing look at the comedy business.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: October 7, 1988

Runtime: 2Hours 2Minutes

Rated R

Director: David Seltzer

Studio: Columbia Pictures

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

Willy Milly (1986)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Girl turns into boy.

Milly (Pamela Adlon) is a teen who dreams of one day becoming a boy. One day she purchases a magical potion from a kid named Malcolm (Seth Green), which promises to make her wish come true as long as she takes it during the next solar eclipse, which she does. Now as a boy she changes her name to Willy, but finds mixed reactions from those around her. Her father (John Glover) likes the change, as he always wanted a son, but her mother (Patty Duke) doesn’t. He/she starts going to a different school, but finds that both genders have their equal share of problems.

Although the storyline may sound novel it really isn’t and this thing suffers from being just another generic ‘80s teen movie. The humor of having Milly suddenly waking up with a penis and the shocked reactions of her family and friends is not played-up enough while the myriad of issues that this sort of change would produce gets woefully underexplored. Instead it devolves into the typical teen dramas that we’ve seen done before and no need in seeing again.

The most annoying aspect deals with the proverbial bully storyline. I realize every school has got one, but it would be refreshing to have a high school movie that didn’t feel the need to always have to take this redundant route. This one, which gets played by an actor named Jeb Ellis-Brown, is particularly dull and what’s worse is that he looks scrawny and could be easily be beat-up by the kids he is supposedly intimidating.

Adlon’s performance, who gets billed under the last name of Segall, is irritating and a major detriment. For one thing she looks a bit androgynous from the start and then when she does turn into a boy all she does his cut hair short and that’s it even though her voice stays high pitched and her mannerisms remain girly making it seem more like just another female with short hair. There are a few good moments with Glover as the father as he tries to ‘train’ her to be more like a ‘man’, but Duke is horribly wasted in a small and forgettable supporting part.

The material is dated and these days this same storyline could be used minus the magical potion and instead tackled as a storyline dealing with a transgender teen. I also had problems with the Eric Gurry character who plays a teen friend to Willy that is stricken to a wheel chair. Initially I thought it was great that they introduced a character who had a handicap, but then it gets treated as being nothing more than a psychosomatic condition, which demeans all those victims of spinal cord injuries who are permanently paralyzed and unable to walk ever even if they wanted to.

There’s a film called Just One of the Guys that came out around the same time as this one and had a similar theme, but in that one the teen character only pretended to be a guy and it was much funnier and more perceptive.

Alternate Title: Something Special

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: November 14, 1986

Runtime: 1Hour 23Minutes

Rated PG-13

Director: Paul Schneider

Studio: Concorde Pictures

Available: VHS

Author! Author! (1982)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Playwright has family issues.

Ivan (Al Pacino) is a playwright struggling to get his next creation ‘English with Tears’ financed and produced. While he has managed to attain the necessary funding he still has a second act that everyone feels ‘needs work’, but before he can tackle that his wife Gloria (Tuesday Weld) leaves him for another man (Frederic Kimball). Now he must contend with raising the five kids alone with four of them being hers from a previous relationship.

The screenplay was written by Israel Horovitz and loosely based on his own experiences as a single parent. Horovitz has written many plays, over 70 of them, several have been considered at least in their day as groundbreaking, so this thing seems incredibly contrived by comparison. The scenes dealing with Ivan’s struggles in regards to his play and the politics that ensue in order to get it made are the most interesting aspects of the movie and the story should’ve solely focused on this angle while the home-life stuff proves sterile and better suited for a sitcom.

The kids seem too connected to the adult world around them. Children can certainly be astute at times, but they still dwell in their own little bubbles and this film shows no awareness of that and instead has them saying lines that more likely would’ve been uttered by an adult. Benjamin H. Carlin has a few cute moments as the young Geraldo, but Ari Meyers, who would later go on to star in the TV-show ‘Kate and Allie’ gives the best performance when she breaks down into tears as she describes the hardships of being booted around from one household to the next.

It’s nice seeing Pacino doing light comedy, which is a real change of pace for him, but he’s too intense and does not play off of Weld, who is more emotionally restrained, well at all. The scene where he tries to physically drag her into a taxi cab isn’t funny, but scary instead and most likely would’ve had those who were standing around witnessing it trying to intervene, or calling the cops.

Dyan Cannon is not effective as the kooky actress who stars in his play and then later moves in with him. Had her character’s eccentricities been played up more she might’ve at least been amusing, but the script doesn’t go far enough with this and having her call him up out-of-the-blue and ask to go to bed with him seemed too outrageously forward. There was some dramatic potential when, after she moves in with him and his kids, she is then asked to move out when Weld’s character comes back into the picture. This could’ve opened the door to a lot of dramatic fireworks and given the film a real lift, but instead she just leaves quietly and is essentially forgotten, which then begs the question why even bother introducing her character at all?

The scenes where Ivan frets about his play and the audience reactions to it are the best parts of the film because it shows the inner anxieties of just about any playwright or screenwriter out there, which is why this should’ve been the central point of the movie as it is the only thing that helps the story stand out. By comparison the family life stuff is generic and filled with too much manufactured cutesiness. It also wastes the talents of Alan King who is mildly amusing, at least at the beginning, as the play’s producer as well as the legendary comedy team of Bob Elliot and Ray Goulding who play the part of the play’s financiers.

The film’s title song ‘Coming Home to You’, which plays over the opening credits as well as the closing ones is so overly sugary that it is enough to make you want to turn the movie off before it’s even begun. It got nominated for a Razzie award for worst original song and it should’ve won as there could not be anything that would be worse, but what is even more amusing is that no one gets credited for singing it, which should’ve been a signal to director Arthur Hiller not to feature it in the film because if the song’s own singer is embarrassed by it then who else would like it.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: June 18, 1982

Runtime: 1Hour 50Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Arthur Hiller

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD

Amateur Night at the Dixie Bar and Grill (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Five minutes of fame.

A bar on the outskirts of a nameless small town becomes the social setting for a group of everyday people who flock to it one night in hopes of winning an amateur act contest. Every one of the contestants is fighting some inner demon or insecurity and critiqued by a judge (Henry Gibson) that is being bribed by different parties to choose their candidate over the others. There’s also a dangerous serial killer lurking about known as the Disco Killer, who has shot up several other venues in the area and may be eyeing the Dixie bar as his next target.

This TV-movie, which was written and directed by Joel Schumacher, seems way too similar to Robert Altman’s Nashville to be considered original. Clearly that film was this movie’s inspiration and this one does not go far enough with the concept and would’ve been better had its runtime been extended and the characters more fleshed out. Certain actors, such as Don Johnson and Candy Clark, are underused and there’s not enough of an understanding of the town that the bar was in. Some shots of rundown buildings in an isolated area would’ve helped give the viewer a better feel for how bored these people were and why they would be motivated to go on stage and essentially make fools of themselves just for the lofty chance at somehow escaping their otherwise hopeless existence with a small shot at fame.

What I did like is that the entire story takes place in one setting. The only time the camera ventures outside of the cramped place is when it goes into its parking lot for brief periods, but otherwise this bar is the center of the universe for these characters, which for many small town people, especially before the advent of the internet, is what bars such as these represented.

The stage acts themselves were a bit disappointing and could’ve been played-up more as I was expecting something a little more along the lines of stuff seen on the old Gong Show or stupid human tricks from David Letterman. The scene where a big fight breaks out in a dressing room that is far more exciting than anything occurring on stage does allow for some irony and the part where actor Rick Hurst attempts to crack open a coconut by using nothing more than his bare teeth is engaging, but more acts in this vein was needed.

Having Tanya Tucker appear as this shy woman who lacks confidence despite possessing the talent and walks off the stage in humiliation at the start only to redeem herself later, is too manufactured. I much preferred Pat Ast as this homely, overweight woman who unexpectedly wows everyone with some rousing showstopping numbers that should’ve made her the winner instead. I also felt that the so-called prize, which was simply the privilege to appear on stage at that same bar for two straight weeks, was too skimpy. People have bigger dreams than that even in a dusty small town and want more of a reward like  a trip to Hollywood, New York or a contract with an agent in order for them to be excited enough to go through what they do.

There is also no payoff to the Disco Killer storyline. He gets discussed quite a bit and there are even TV news reports about him, but then he never appears, which feels like a letdown. I’m not saying there needed to be a bloody sequence where a killer shoots people dead, but maybe a scenario where the contestants, who are quite competitive with one another otherwise, manage to come together enough to subdue the bad guy, or some other lighthearted element that would’ve at least brought a conclusion to the subplot instead of just letting it hang.

Sheree North as an embittered alcoholic easily steals it and has some of the best lines. There is also a long tracking shot in which the camera starts out at the back of the bar and then slowly weaves its way up onto the stage that is great too. The film certainly has its share of moments and as a TV-Movie it’s impressive, but lacks finesse for the big screen.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: January 8, 1979

Runtime: 1Hour 36Minutes

Director: Joel Schumacher

Studio: Universal

Available: None at this time.