Category Archives: Comedy/Drama

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

Freebie and the Bean (1974)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Protecting a state’s witness.

Detective Sergeant Dan Delgado (Alan Arkin) is ‘Bean’ while Detective Sergeant Tim Walker (James Caan) is known as ‘Freebie’. Together they are two San Francisco cops investigating a well-known racketeer named Red Meyers (Jack Kruschen). Just when they think they have enough evidence to bring him in they find that there’s a hit-man ready to kill him and it is now their job to keep the cantankerous Meyers alive until they can bring in a key witness to testify against him, which proves difficult.

The script was written by Floyd Mutrix who shopped it around to many studios before finally selling it to Warner Brothers because he felt he could trust then Studio Boss Richard Zanuck to keep the story in tact only to have the script go through massive rewrites once it was handed over to Richard Rush to direct. The story was originally conceived as being in the serious vein, but during rehearsals it was found that Caan and Arkin had a good comic chemistry together, so the dialogue took on more of a humorous take.

In many ways I liked the comic spin. This was in the age of Dirty Harry and The French Connection where cops had taken too much of a serious tone, so having something making fun of the trend is refreshing. The story itself remains gritty, which culminates in this odd dynamic where you find yourself laughing one minute and then cringing the next. My only complaint is that it seemed like Freebie and Bean where getting away with too much, the destruction of police property and reckless driving was one thing, but the way they would freely rough-up suspects under their care was another. Their ethical boundaries were so loose that real-life cops in the same situation would most certainly end up  getting reprimanded, at least hopefully.

The stunt work is worth catching as the car chases create a true adrenaline rush. The best one starts inside a dentist’s office, then goes out onto the streets where Caan, or at least his stunt double, rides a motorbike over the roofs of several cars in his pursuit of the bad guys, then proceeds to go through an outdoor art exhibit only to culminate inside the kitchen of a ritzy restaurant.

The supporting cast includes Loretta Swit as the wife of the crime boss who initially seems to have a very insignificant role, but it eventually works into being an integral part by the end. I also enjoyed Christopher Morley, who is a well-known female impersonator best remembered for playing Sally Armitage a character that was known as a woman who eventually came out as a man on the daytime soap opera ‘General Hospital’ that later inspired the movie Tootsie.  Here he plays a transvestite that Freebie meets briefly early on. Due to his small body frame Freebie initially considers him a ‘lightweight’ only to get the shock of his life when later on Morley proves to be far more able to defend himself than Freebie could’ve ever imagined in a unique fight sequence that I wished had been extended.

The casting that I had an issue was with Arkin and Valerie Harper as his wife. Usually these are great actors, but here they play Hispanic characters even though both were actually Jewish. Hearing Harper speak in a fake Spanish accent is quite annoying and the scene where the two bicker at each other would’ve had far better energy had it been played by actual Hispanics.

Spoiler Alert!

The part where Bean gets shot is problematic too. Normally I don’t mind having some reality seep into a story,  but here Bean being put out of commission is all wrong. The two had done everything together up to this point, so it cheats the viewer and the film’s chemistry with him missing during the climactic fight. Having him then miraculously recover after he’s taken away in the ambulance and pronounced dead makes the whole scenario ridiculous and implausible.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: December 25, 1974

Runtime: 1 Hour 53 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Richard Rush

Studio: Warner Brothers

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

Miss Firecracker (1989)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Entering a beauty contest.

Carnelle (Holly Hunter) lives in Yazoo City, Mississippi where she works in a factory and suffers from the reputation of being promiscuous. In order to improve her lot in life she decides to enter into The Miss Firecracker Contest, which is held annually in her town every 4th of July. She is hoping to emulate the success of her cousin Elain (Mary Steenburgen) who won the contest years earlier as well as proving to both herself and others that she isn’t a loser, but the competition proves harder than she thought forcing her to reevaluate what’s really important to her.

The film is based on the stageplay written by Beth Henley, who is better known for writing Crimes of the Heart, which won many accolades while this one didn’t. Part of the reason is that when this play was first produced in 1980 many critics thought it was going to be a pro-feminist satire poking fun of beauty contests, which it isn’t, while others disliked it because they perceived it as being an antifemist since Carnelle takes winning the contest very seriously.

For me I was expecting something along the lines of Smile, which was a very funny, on-target 1970’s look at beauty contests, the flawed people who run them, and the superficial women that enter them. I was thinking this would be an 80’s update to that one and was sorely disappointed to find that it wasn’t. The two people who run the contest, which are played by Ann Wedgeworth and Trey Wilson are hilarious in the few scenes that they are in and the film could’ve been a complete winner had they been the centerpiece of the story.

I was also hoping for more of buildup showing Carnelle rehearsing her routine for the pageant as well as her interactions with the other contestants, which doesn’t really get shown much at all. For the most part the pageant is treated like a side-story that only comes to the surface in intervals while more time is spent with Carnelle’s relationship with Elain and her other cousin Delmount (Tim Robbins) which I did not find captivating at all.

Hunter gives a very strong heartfelt performance, which is the one thing that saves it, and Alfre Woodard, who normally plays in dramatic parts, shows great comic skill as the bug-eyed character named Popeye and yet both of these actresses screen time is limited. Instead we treated to too much of Steenburgen, who comes off as cold and dull here, and Robbins, who plays a borderline psychotic that is creepy in a volatile way and not interesting at all.

First time director Thomas Schlamme, who had only directed documentaries and comedy specials  before this, employs a few things that I enjoyed like tinting the flashback scenes with a faded color, but overall he doesn’t show a good feel for the material. Too much of the time it see-saws from being a quirky comedy to maudlin soap opera, but nothing gels.

Even the film’s setting gets botched. In the play the town was  Brookhaven, Mississippi, but for whatever reason the film changed it to Yazoo City where the on-location shooting took place. While it does a nice job in capturing the town’s look it doesn’t reflect the right vibe, or any vibe at all for that manner as the townspeople seem more like something taken out of a surreal Norman Rockwell painting than real everyday folks.

The soundtrack is also an issue as it gets filled with a placid elevator music type score that got started in Steven Spielberg’s Amblin films and was played in a lot Hollywood comedies during the 80’s and 90’s. While it may have a pleasing quality to it also lacks distinction. The music should’ve had a more of a southern sound that would’ve reflected the region and composed specifically for this production instead of  stealing a generic tune that had been used in hundreds of other movies already.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: April 28, 1989

Runtime: 1 Hour 42 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Thomas Schlamme

Studio: Corsair Pictures

Available: DVD

The Front (1976)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Covering for blacklisted writers.

In 1953 during the height of the Red Scare where many working in Hollywood were blacklisted if they had any connections with communist sympathizers writer Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy) suddenly finds himself out of work and unable sell any of his scripts. He asks his friend Howard (Woody Allen) who works as a cashier at a cafe to act as a ‘front’ for him by selling his scripts to producers and acting as if he wrote them instead of Alfred. In exchange Howard would be able to collect 10 % of the profit, which he readily accepts. Soon Alfred’s other writer friends hire Howard to sell their scripts, which quickly makes him financially comfortable, but he soon sees the dark side of the business especially when he gets investigated for being communist sympathizer himself.

The film was written and directed by those who personally went through the blacklisting when it happened, which is great, but the film cannot seem to decide whether it wants to be a drama or comedy and takes too much of a timid, middle-of-the-road approach that is neither impactful nor memorable.  Lots of prime comedic potential gets completely glossed over like when Howard is forced to do a rewrite on a script in a hurry despite having no background, or knowledge on how to do it. This occurs twice and both times the film fails to show what he does to get out of the jam, he is shown for a couple of seconds on the phone presumably with Alfred getting advice, but it would’ve been funny hearing their conversation and seeing him quite literally sweat his way through the process.

Spoiler Alert!

The drama gets handled in too much of a genteel way too making the intended message mild and not something that completely connects emotionally with the viewer. The scene where Zero Mostel jumps out of a hotel window when he realizes his career is over happens much too fast. One second we hear the window being opened and the next second the camera quickly pans over to see that Mostel is no longer standing in the room making it seem more like he just disappeared into thin air. The ending where Howard finds himself forced to testify in front of the House of UnAmerican Activities panel is weak as well. The final 20 minutes is spent with this big build-up of what Howard will do when he is put in front of them, but the payoff is slight and hinges on him telling them to go ‘fuck themselves’, which is such an overused expression in this modern age that it hardly resonates as it once might’ve been.

End of Spoiler Alert!

Allen is an obnoxious protagonist that I did not find funny or sympathetic. He became so unlikable that I started wanting to see him get caught and even humiliated, which I don’t think was what the filmmakers intended the viewer to feel. I also thought it was ridiculous that this scrawny, dorky looking guy would be so brazen to come-on to hot looking women like he does. I know in the movies that he directs this always occurs and I looked past it as Woody simply revealing his diluted, narcisstic ego, but this film was done by a different director, so things should’ve been presented in a more realistic way by having the beautiful women laugh at Woody when he attempted to ask them out and forcing him to settle for someone his physical equal. I realize that Andrea Marcovicci’s character falls for Woody because she thinks he’s the writer of the scripts, but I would think after she went out with him for awhile she’d start to realize he wasn’t the same person she thought he was and not have to have it explicitly spelled out  for like it ultimately is.

It would’ve worked much better had Michael Murphy been cast as Howard as he was more able to convey likable qualities. Zero Mostel is also quite strong as the desperate comedian and had his character been cast in the lead it would’ve given the viewer a stronger feeling of what it was like to be blacklisted during that era as the story would’ve been told from the victim’s point-of-view instead of having those directly affected by the McCarthyism relegated to only supporting parts.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: September 30, 1976

Runtime: 1 Hour 35 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Martin Ritt

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Oh, God! You Devil (1984)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: God versus the devil.

Bobby Shelton (Ted Wass) is a struggling songwriter who is becoming increasingly frustrated at his inability to make it big. He blurts out at one point that he’d be willing to sell his soul if it could get him success and this catches the attention of the Devil (George Burns) who goes by the name Harry O. Trophet. He offers to become Bobby’s agent as long as Bobby signs a contract that gives him his soul after an indefinite period of time. Bobby, so desperate to reap the benefits of fame and fortune that has alluded him all his life, decides to take him up on the offer and soon becomes a world famous rock star named Billy Wayne. Yet Bobby misses his girlfriend Wendy (Roxanne Hart) who he can no longer see because he’s inhabiting a different identity. He longs to go back to his old way of life and tries to contact the services of God (George Burns) to dissolve the contact he signed and return him back to the way it was before.

After the critical shellacking of Oh, God! Book II the studio realized their mistake and attempted to take the theme in a whole new and hopefully fresh direction. They commissioned both Josh Greenfield and Andrew Bergman to write separate scripts and then ultimately choose Bergman’s over the other one. While the idea may sound funny the way it gets handled is not. All Bergman does is simply rework the Faust legend while offering very little that is new or inventive to it. The plot gets handled in an extremely heavy-handed and melodramatic manner that is neither funny nor engrossing. Bergman shows little feeling for the material and the story plods along in a predictable and boring way.

Wass, who no longer performs in front of the camera and has since 1995 worked exclusively behind-the-scenes as a director, is extremely weak. His performance is one-note and his constant deer-in-headlights expression is annoying. The film doesn’t do a good job of portraying his desperate situation either. Despite making very little money he’s still able to somehow afford a chic-looking apartment and maintain a relationship with a very hot-looking woman. I realize the point of the movie is to show that he already had a good thing going and just didn’t realize it, but his situation should’ve been shown to be more bleak in order to have his signing of the contract make more sense.

Burns is the only thing that saves it. He had never played a bad-guy before, so seeing him fall into the devil character as well as he does is fun and some of the lines that he conveys are the only amusing bits in the movie. However, the big showdown between God and the devil in which the two play a game of poker is not interesting at all and they needed to do something that offered more action, which is badly missing from the film otherwise.

This marked the final movie to date in the Oh, God! franchise. There were discussions a few years back about reviving it with Betty White playing the role of God, but because of her advanced age no insurance company would back it, so the idea got scrapped, which is a shame as this would be one reboot I’d be interested to see.  It would be nice if someone would make a film that more closely resembled the ‘Oh, God!’ novel by Avery Corman, which had a satirical tone that none of the three films replicated.

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: November 9, 1984

Runtime: 1 Hour 37 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Paul Bogart

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Pete ‘n’ Tillie (1972)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Marriage and then tragedy.

Tillie (Carol Burnett) is a 33-year-old secretary still looking for ‘Mr. Right’. Her friend Gertrude (Geraldine Page) sets her up with Pete (Walter Matthau) a lifelong bachelor. The two don’t hit-it-off initially, but the other prospects are so dim they decide to make a go of it, so they get married and have a kid (Lee H. Montgomery) only to then be faced with terrible news.

On the onset this may seem like a misfire. The viewer expects, especially with these two stars, a very broad comedy of which this is not. Instead the script, which is based on the novel ‘Witches’ Milk’ by Pete De Vries, relies heavily on dry wit particularly through the dialogue, which on a low key level is quite funny. The attempt to create a sort-of unromantic romance that goes completely against what we’ve come to expect in most other romantic films is commendable and for the first hour or so it kind of works.

Matthau again shines by managing to make an unlikable character likable and even downright engaging while Montgomery is fun as the kid by playing a child that seems far more mature and sensible than his two parents. Burnett’s performance though doesn’t work as well. She’s known for her hammy performances from her TV-show and yet here plays a more serious part that barely has much comedy to it at all. The scene where she  screams up to the sky in a fit of rage over her son’s death is her best moment, but overall her appearance here is largely forgettable.

Her character’s motivations are confusing as well particularly with the way she jumps into marriage with a man she really doesn’t like and who would repel most other women and then she decides to stay with him even as it becomes painfully clear that he’s cheating on her. It just seemed that a reasonably attractive woman such as herself should have other male suitors to choose from, so why she sells-out for this one and sticks with him when others would run is not clear and the movie should’ve done a better job at answering this.

Geraldine Page’s character seems completely out-of-sync with the proceedings. She’s personally one of my favorite actresses and even though she was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance here I didn’t see what her presence added to the story. Having her pass out at a courthouse simply because she doesn’t want to reveal her age gets rather exaggerated. The physical altercation that she has with Burnett afterwards does not fit the tone of the rest of the film, which tried to be low-key while this bit becomes over-the-top slapstick and completely out of place.

Had the film focused entirely on the courtship phase this thing could’ve been a winner as it has a nice dry offbeat touch. Even the melodrama of the second act I could handle, but the crazy antics of the third act don’t work at all and the ending leaves no impact at all making this an interesting experiment that ultimately fails.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: December 17, 1972

Runtime: 1 Hour 40 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Martin Ritt

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD-R (Universal Vault Series)

Nothing in Common (1986)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Father needs his son.

David Basner (Tom Hanks) is leading a happy life as a successful advertising executive yet he’s forced to put it all on hold when his parents (Jackie Gleason, Eva Marie Saint) of 36 years announce that they’re getting a divorce. His father also loses his job as well as being diagnosed with diabetes forcing David to give him round-the-clock care despite the fact that they don’t get along.

The best thing about the film are the performances of its two stars. For Hanks this marked his transition from comedy to more serious roles, but for the most part his charm still comes from his comic edge especially with the way he greets each of his co-workers when he returns to the office after a vacation. It’s really Gleason though, who was dying from cancer as he performed in this, that is the most compelling and he should’ve been in the movie more and better yet made the star as he literally owns every scene that he’s in and despite his cantankerous personality manages to elicit a lot of sympathy from the viewer.

Unfortunately the script doesn’t focus enough on the father/son relationship and instead goes off on many tangents like David’s struggles to come up with a creative ad for one of his clients, which isn’t as compelling or interesting. There’s also several running jokes that digresses the whole thing down to almost a sitcom level especially with Hector Elizondo’s, who plays David’s boss, desperate attempts to come up with a suitable hairpiece. The bits involving David’s pranks on an office receptionist in order to try and get her to laugh makes him seem more annoying than funny and she would’ve been justified to have him reported for harassment.

Dwelling into David’s love-life dilutes the story even further. Initially I thought his courting of Sela Ward had some spark as she played-hard-to-get and part of what makes potential relationships so interesting is the chase itself, but after putting up a cold front for a few minutes she then jumps into bed with him, which just takes the air out of everything. Bess Armstrong, who plays his former girlfriend, seemed more his type. However, the scene where he barrages into her apartment drunk late at night and hassles her and the new guy she’s sleeping with made him seem extremely obnoxious to the point that I was hoping he’d get punched in the face.

Saint’s character does nothing but add to the dramatic clutter in a bland role that  offers little to the story. It would’ve been more effective had she died instead of divorcing the husband, which would’ve offered more of a catalyst for Hanks and his father to get together.

The film ends where it should’ve began with Hanks deciding to move in with his father in order to help him with his health problems. Watching these two with very diametrically opposed personalities trying to get along inside this very cramped apartment could’ve been quite revealing and insightful and yet we see none of it. Instead we’re treated to a rambling narrative that offers generic drama and little else.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: July 30, 1986

Runtime: 1 Hour 58 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Gary Marshall

Studio: TriStar Pictures

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

Butterflies are Free (1972)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Blind man digs blonde.

Don (Edward Albert) lives alone in a studio apartment as a blind composer trying desperately to break into the music scene while his mother (Eileen Heckart) wants him to move back home with her, but he resists. In comes free-spirited new neighbor Jill (Goldie Hawn) who has a hard time remaining in long-term relationships. The two quickly hit-if-off, but when Don pushes for a commitment she begins to back away.

The film manages to retain the charm of the hit Broadway play that it is based on and this is mainly due to the fact that that Leonard Gershe, who wrote the play also did the screenplay and Milton Katelas, who directed the Broadway version also does the film, but the claustrophobic setting becomes a detriment. To some degree I liked the apartment’s layout, which was shot on-location in an actual apartment building that still stands today at 1355 Grant Avenue in San Francisco, but the gray decaying walls and overall grimy interiors become depressing to look at and having almost all the action take place in it makes the film visually boring.

Changing the story’s setting from New York to San Francisco though is a major plus. The bit done over the opening credits showing the hippie subculture of the area gives off a great vibe and helps to explain Jill’s very free-spirited ways that may not make much sense to viewers living in today’s world. Seeing a man staring at her from the neighboring apartment may scare most women today and have the guy considered a ‘creep’, but Jill instead sees it as a ‘turn-on’ and even playfully flashes him, which is something that back then, in a more trusting, experimental, and ‘anything goes’ culture might have been even predicted and this goes along with her hopping into bed with Don on the first day she’s met him without even a second thought.

The scenes showing the couple walking down the city sidewalks has an eclectic energy because regular people were used in the background instead of paid extras, which helps to create an  authentic feel. All shapes and sizes of the subculture folks that made up the city’s neighborhoods get captured including one guy seen walking around with what looks to be a headcast. More scenes should’ve been done outdoors as it’s the one thing that gives the film an added ambiance and the fact that there aren’t enough of them causes an unintended static quality.

Albert, who is the son of actor Eddie Albert, is pretty good, but I was surprised why the introducing label gets listed next to his name in the opening credits as if this were his first film when just 7 years earlier he appeared prominently in The Fool Killer with Anthony Perkins. Hawn is solid too in a part tailored made for her persona and she also looks great running around in her skimpy underwear, but Blythe Danner who played the role in the stage version, might’ve given the character a more earthy quality.

My favorite person though was Heckart who adds some much needed drama with her presence and the film drags when she’s not in it. She is portrayed as being a heavy, but instead I found her to be completely relateable with her worries about her handicapped son living alone and something I would think most any other parent would also have. The fact that she starts out as controlling only to eventually let go and allow her son to finally spread-his-wings at a most critical time is the film’s best moment and deservedly helped her net an Oscar.

Unfortunately there are some dumb parts to the story as well. The first is the fact that it all takes place over a two day period, which makes Don’s emotional devastation at finding out that Jill plans to move in with some other guy seem too severe since he didn’t even know she existed just 48 hours earlier. Jill’s willingness to get involved in the personal affairs of Don and his mother and at one point even lectures the mother on her parental failings seem almost over-the-top since she technically barely even knows the woman. All this would’ve made more sense had the  relationship been going on for several months before either the mother or rival boyfriend arrived.

The segment where Jill tells Don that she’s moving in with her newfound boyfriend, which she knows will hurt him, and then goes back to her apartment to pack while Don has it out with his mother is problematic too since it was made clear earlier that the walls between the two apartments were paper thin. Therefore you’d expect that Jill would’ve overheard the conversation between the two and yet the film makes it seem like she hadn’t.

Spoiler Alert!

Having Jill reject her boyfriend and comeback to Don was a bit hard-to-swallow as most people don’t change their lifelong behaviors so quickly especially for someone they’ve just met, but fortunately the film doesn’t overdo it by having her rush back into his arms, but instead just shows them sitting down on the floor and talking. To me this signified a long lasting friendship as opposed to a romance, which in these types of circumstances is better and ultimately helps to make the movie, despite some of the grievances described above, a winner.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: July 6, 1972

Runtime: 1 Hour 49 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Milton Katselas

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Teachers (1984)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Teaching can be difficult.

Alex (Nick Nolte) is a burned-out teacher who feels that the system is working against him as he tries to do his job in an inner-city school despite having no support from administrators. Things come to an ugly light when Lisa (JoBeth Williams) a former student of his who’s now an attorney takes part in a lawsuit suing the school for graduating a student who could not read.

Producer Irwin Russo drew on his 10-years as a teacher at an inner-city New York high school as the basis for the story and the film has some good trenchant points, but trying to put a satirical spin to it was a mistake. To make a good satire you gotta go all-in and this film timidly goes half-way with humor that at times, especially at the beginning, is off-putting. It’s not until the second-half when it gets more serious does it ever start catching its stride and the production would’ve been better had it remained a drama from the very beginning.

Nolte comes off like he’s suffering from one long hang-over, which may have been the intention, but the way he basically sleepwalks through the role gives the film no energy and makes the viewer feel as drowsy as he is. His relationship with Lisa, his former student, is forced and uninteresting and even a bit unbelievable since they look to be basically the same age. Judd Hirsh who plays the vice principal should’ve been the lead adult character as he does a great job of balancing the comedy with the drama by playing it straight and simply responding in sometimes glib and humorous ways to the insanity around him.

Ultimately it would’ve worked better had Ralph Macchio been made the star as he’s excellent despite the irony that he was already 23 at the time, but looking more like he was still in the eight grade. Crispin Glover as his goofball friend doesn’t work as well. Sometimes his pseudo-psycho characters are interesting, but here it is poorly defined and distracting. Laura Dern’s character is annoying as she plays another one of those perennial teen girls who gets pregnant and then wants an abortion, which has been so overused in so many other high school films that by now it seems like a cliche.

I did like the on-location shooting done at the former Central High School in Columbus, Ohio and the student body looks to be made up of actual teens and not just young adults trying to play one, but they did seem at times to be a bit unrealistically too well behaved. The scene where a teacher Mr. Stiles (Royal Dano) would fall asleep behind his desk and the students would still quietly do their homework made no sense as I would think they’d take advantage of the situation and goof-off instead.  Richard Mulligan’s role as an escaped mental patient pretending to be a substitute teacher is equally implausible as I thought the authorities would’ve caught up to him much sooner than they do although it is fun seeing him wearing a General Custer outfit as it looks quite similar to the one he wore in Little Big Man when he played the actual Custer.

There are a few good moments here and there, but it’s badly undermined by the misguided humor and corny ending. The eclectic supporting cast though is a treat to watch. I enjoyed William Schallert as a principal who seemingly wants to avoid confrontation at all costs as well as Lee Grant as a lawyer, which is the type of profession her acting style seems born to play. Originally the part was written for a man, but she plays it better than any guy ever could and I also enjoyed seeing her with a brunette hairdo instead of her usual red one, which makes her appear younger than she did in the 70’s.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: October 5, 1984

Runtime: 1 Hour 47 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Arthur Hiller

Studio: MGM/UA

Available: DVD

Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins (1975)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Lost souls go traveling.

Rafferty (Alan Arkin) works as a driving instructor and is also an alcoholic. One day while relaxing at a park he meets him up with a kooky lesbian pair known as Frisbee (Mackenzie Phillips) and Mac (Sally Kellerman) who have both been recently released from prison. Initially the pair kidnap Rafferty at gunpoint and force him to take them to New Orleans, but Rafferty soon develops a bond with them as they go jaunting around the west looking for excitement and diversion from their otherwise boring lives.

This film works differently from the usual road movie as there’s no real structure to it at all. In some ways this is more realistic as the romanticism is erased and we’re left with nothing more than random events that leads to no conclusion other than dispelling the myth that hitting-the-road will somehow lead to some new self-awareness as these character’s lives remain just as directionless upon their return as it was when they left. Watching the petty crimes that they commit in order to survive ends up being the film’s only entertaining value in what is otherwise a meandering and flat story.

Phillips gives a good performance as a tough, street smart juvenile delinquent who I felt was channeling her own precarious upbringing as the daughter of singer John Phillips in order to have been able to play the part with such a vivid authenticity. If anything she gives the film a much needed edge and is the only real good thing about it.

Kellerman is okay and even sings a country tune, but what impressed me most was how young they made her appear as she was nearing 40 at the time, but she looked more to be in her early 20’s. Arkin surprisingly manages to stay restrained and never once goes into one of his patented hyper rants, but in the process comes off as too mellow and allows his two female co-stars to act circles around him.

The film also features some good supporting work by a cast full of faces who you’ve seen before, but don’t quite know what their names are. Alex Rocco is particularly engaging as a shyster that Arkin meets in a casino who clings to the trio as a hanger-on before getting inadvertently dumped, which was a shame as I liked his energy. Charles Martin Smith has an engaging bit as a naive soldier on a 15-day army leave who gets robbed by Phillips and then tries to relentlessly track her down.

Director Dick Richards won many accolades for his first flick The Culpepper Cattle Company and the realism it gave to the old west and he seems to be taking the same approach here by connecting the modern-day road movie to the rugged individualism of the bygone cowboy, but it doesn’t come off as effectively as it could’ve. A stronger cinematic approach that captured the western landscape would’ve made it more visually appealing as well as having a soundtrack that wasn’t so generic.

Spoiler Alert!

The ending is a bit perverse by today’s standards as Kellerman leaves them so Arkin then poses as Phillips’ father in order to get her out of the orphanage and allow the two to travel to Uruguay. The intent at the time may have seemed innocuous as Arkin was simply filling the role as her surrogate father, but these days many viewers will consider it ‘creepy’ and presume that the middle-aged man was trying to take advantage of this 15-year-old’s desperate situation in order to have a sexual relationship with her.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: February 2, 1975

Runtime: 1 Hour 29 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Dick Richards

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: VHS