Category Archives: Comedy/Drama

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

Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (1970)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: He learns to adapt.

Quackser (Gene Wilder), a nickname given to him as an infant because he would make noises that sounded like a duck, enjoys his life working an alternative job that has him scooping up horse manure from the streets of Dublin, Ireland and then reselling it as fertilizer. His parents (May Ollis, Seamus Forde), of which he still lives with, feels this is not a suitable long term profession as it will never pay enough for him to live on his own, but Quackser refuses to work at the refinery where everyone else in his neighborhood does. He then meets Zazel (Margot Kidder) an American college student who’s studying abroad. He hopes to start up a relationship with her, but finds this to be a challenge when the milk company replaces all of their horse drawn carriages with trucks, which takes all the horses off of the streets. With no horses there’s no manure forcing Quackser to consider other ways to make  an income.

The script, by Gabriel Walsh, has a wonderfully unpretentious quality to it as it tells a story about a simple man living a simple life and on that level it succeeds and even stands out as so many other films seem to feel the need to jazz things up, but this one doesn’t. I particularly liked the on-location shooting done in Dublin that nicely captures Quackser’s humble economic settings and the starkness of his blue collar neighborhood and yet later in the film we see him inside a luxurious hotel, which is also inside the same city. I found this fascinating as it shows how close in physical proximity Quackser is to the more affluent area, but economically, and educational-wise, he was still a long way from ever getting there.

Wilder plays his part quite well if you can get past his thick Irish accent, which is off-putting at first. I liked how he approaches the character as not being this one-dimensional simpleton, but someone who, despite being an overall nice person, can have his angry and even arrogant side to him. Kidder is at her peak of youthful beauty and their quasi-romance allows for an interesting dynamic although I did find it put a strain on the plausibility.

My biggest complaint was that I couldn’t understand why this attractive young woman from a completely different socio-economic background would find this poor, less educated individual so fascinating, or why she’d want to bother to get to know him better. As a quant little friendship it might’ve possibly worked, but as a relationship, even a potential one, it was just too much of a stretch especially with such a drastic 15-year age difference. Sharing a passing kiss during a random moment is as far as this thing would’ve gotten in real-life, but to have her later on go to bed with him, not so much because she loves him, but more as a ‘pity-fuck’ before she leaves, is something that only happens in movieland. It’s also never clear whether she genuinely likes the guy, or has a secret cruel streak and enjoys setting him up for humiliation as there are times when it could easily be seen as going either way.

Spoiler Alert!

The twist ending where Quackser inherits a load of money from his cousin in the Bronx, which he uses to buy a bus in order to be a tour guide when he realizes he can no longer collect manure, doesn’t work. For one thing why did this cousin just out-of-the-blue give the money to Quackser not the other family members as well especially since the two shared no special relationship, or correspondence? Having him go to the Bronx like he was initially going to do and maybe get a job recycling trash would’ve been more of a connection to what he had done in the past. Even having him working in the refinery, which he dreaded, but finding it not as bad as he feared, or that he could do some function there different than the others, which would make him feel ‘special’ would’ve been a better ending, but either way it’s still a cute movie perfect for those looking for a working class ‘kitchen-and-sink’ drama without any of the fashionable dressings.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: July 13, 1970

Runtime: 1 Hour 30 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Waris Hussein

Studio: Universal Marion Corporation

Available: DVD, Amazon Video

Three for the Road (1987)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Transporting politician’s bratty daughter.

Paul (Charlie Sheen) aspires to have a career in politics and is an ardent believer in the political system and the politicians who work in it. He becomes an aide to Senator Kitteridge (Raymond J. Berry) where he gets assigned to transport the senator’s rebellious daughter Robin (Kerri Green) to an institution for troubled girls. Paul’s writer roommate T.S. (Alan Ruck) comes along with him, but they face many hurdles keeping Robin under control. Eventually Paul bonds with her when he realizes her father isn’t really the great guy he pretends to be, but instead an abuser.

This film is yet another victim of a script, which was written by Richard Martini, that was intended to be far different than what it turned out to be. Originally the idea was to center it on the political angle where the father was a conservative who wanted to put Robin into hiding simply because she was a liberal activist stirring up trouble. Yet after extensive rewrites by three other writers the story becomes just another shallow romance-on-the-road flick that shifts to extremes from slapstick comedy to hackney drama.

One of the things that’s most problematic is the father asking a young man who he really doesn’t know to transport his daughter to some far off location and even gives him handcuffs to use on her just in case she gets ‘out-of-line’, but what sort of parent would hand his teen daughter over to a virtual stranger and trust he won’t rape her? A far more plausible premise would’ve had him entrusting his daughter to a longtime friend, who he at least had better reason to trust. Instead of having her go with guys around her same age, where sexual urges are high, the escort could’ve been middle-aged. Yes, this would take away the teen romance element, which quite frankly comes-off as formuliac and forced anyways, but it could also have brought up generational issues, which would’ve been more interesting.

Sheen, who has described this film as being “a piece of shit that I wished didn’t exist and that I was terrible in”, is actually the best thing in it. I enjoyed seeing him play this straight-lace guy, which he is good at doing, that completely works against his real-life party-boy image. The only issue with him is that his character arc, where he starts out believing in the integrity of the senator father only to eventual grow disillusioned with him, is too predictable and obvious. Most people, even back in the 80’s, had a cynical take on politicians just like they do now. A far better arc would’ve had him cynical about politics, getting into it as an aide simply to boost his career, but not actually believing in the system, only to find much to his surprise that there actually was at least one politician that was honorable.

Green’s character plays too much into the ‘wild teen’ stereotype and her outrageous antics are more obnoxious than funny. She’s also too short and seemingly too young for Sheen, making the romance seem off-kilter. I also didn’t like that during the trip the main characters come into contact with the same people they’ve bumped into before. I’ve taken many long road trips and have never encountered this phenomenon and it really doesn’t add anything to the script especially since the person they keep crossing paths with is a brainless jock (Eric Bruskotter) that culminates into a silly car chase that just succeeds at making the whole thing even more inane than it already is.

There’s enough action and twists to keep it going, but it also becomes increasingly more strained as it goes along. The tacked-on drama along with the over-the-top prison break, which gets pulled-off in too easily a fashion, is particularly torturous and makes this one road trip you won’t mind missing.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: April 10, 1987

Runtime: 1 Hour 28 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: B.W.L. Norton

Studio: New Century Vista Film Company

Available: DVD

Bread and Chocolate (1974)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 9 out of 10

4-Word Review: He has no home.

Nino (Nino Manfredi) has moved to Switzerland to work as a guest worker in that country since he’s unable to find employment that pays a living wage in his homeland of Italy. In order to provide for his family he works various odd jobs and then sends the money back home to his wife and kids who he has not seen in years. There are many other foreigners from other countries competing for the same jobs as Nino including a Turkish worker (Gianfranco Barra) who vies for the head waiter position at a fancy restaurant that Nino also wants, but even though the two don’t get along they’re still forced to room together in a cramped attic apartment. Nino’s only source of companionship comes in the form of a friendship that he has with Elena (Anna Karina) a Greek who lives across the street from him in an equally small loft. He moves in with her and her son when he gets kicked out of his other place, but because she’s also a guest worker striving to make ends meet she has no time for a relationship making Nino feel like an unwanted outsider no matter where he goes.

This critically acclaimed film really allows the viewer to get to know their characters and the desperation that they feel. Many viewers today may be unaware of the guest worker program that many European countries took part in during the 60’s and 70’s, so watching this will be an educational experience as well as a good character study. What I found most fascinating though was the issue of racism. Most people wouldn’t consider Switzerland to be a ‘racist’ country, so it’s interesting to see how this element can creep in anywhere and it doesn’t have to hinge on one’s skin color either as the Swiss end up picking on the Italians simply because they aren’t from there, poor and ‘stealing their jobs’, so are therefore in their minds deserving of being looked down upon, much like foreign workers in this country can sometimes feel.

The film also makes keen observations in regards to the rich versus poor and how having a lot of money can sometimes make one a weaker person less able to handle challenges. This comes to a head with Nino’s friendship with an Italian Industrialist (Johnny Dorelli) who despite living a lavish lifestyle commits suicide after losing a custody battle with his ex-wife even though Nino hasn’t seen his family for years and lives in near squalor, but because he’s toughened to the hard times he’s able to preserve and remain upbeat where the rich man couldn’t.

There’s many memorable moments, so many that it would be hard to list as the story and characters are so multi-layered the laughs and insights come in literally just about every frame. Many will consider Nino’s visit with some farm workers who out of desperation have moved into a chicken coop and start behaving like the chickens they tend, which is funny and unique, as the film’s highlight. However, my favorite part came when Nino decides, in an effort to move up in society, to pretend that he’s Swiss and even dyes his hair blond and begins speaking in a Swiss accent. Then while at a bar he watches a soccer match between Switzerland and Italy on the TV and even though he initially cheers for the Swiss team he can’t help but eventually shout out in excitement when Italy scores a goal, which just proves the old saying: You can take a person out of their homeland, but you can never take the homeland out of the person.

The film’s most redeeming quality though is showing the strong bond that forms between the guest workers. Even if they’re at first strangers and from different countries they immediately offer support and friendship to Nino no matter where he goes simply because they are going through the same hardships as he, which becomes a wonderful testament to the hearty human spirit.

My Rating: 9 out of 10

Released: January 18, 1974

Runtime: 1 Hour 40 Minutes

Director: Franco Brusati

Studio: Cinema International Corporation

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

Fast Talking (1984)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Teen gets into trouble.

Steve (Rod Zuanic) is a teen who has a rocky relationship with his alcoholic father (Peter Hehir) and ditzy mother (Julie McGregor). To survive on his own he’s forced to deal marijuana and  steal newspapers, which he then resells to motorists in their cars while they wait at a red light. His shenanigan’s get him into constant trouble especially at school where he’s perpetually dodging capture with his amazing ability to escape out of just about any jam.

Writer/director Ken Cameron was inspired to do this film after working as a high school teacher as well as for his love of Francois Truffaut’s 400 Blows, which he saw while growing up. The realism is on-target and has a certain cinema vertite feel. I went to high school when this film was made and can attest that the behaviors of the students here resembled many that I knew then and it’s amazing that even though this was shot on a continent halfway around the world the adolescent experience in Australia isn’t all that much different than that in the U.S. In fact if it weren’t for the Aussie accents one might think that it had been filmed here.

The story though, which was based on short films that Cameron made before he did feature length productions, isn’t connected enough to be impactful. The script is more like a collection of vignettes than a plot and while there’s some interesting moments it’s too spotty to be fully effective. I enjoyed Steve’s budding friendship with a mechanic (Steve Bisley) who tries to teach him the trade, but the film cuts away from this only to briefly go back to it much later when it should’ve been more of the focus. This same thing occurs when Steve tries to save a greyhound, that he apparently had a deep emotional bond to, from being killed by his father, but this storyline gets introduced almost 60 minutes in and should’ve at least been alluded to earlier.

Zuanic was discovered after Cameron spent three months teaching drama classes in High Schools around Sydney and while he looks like a genuine teen and not a college-aged kid pretending to be one as in other teen flicks his physique is too scrawny. (The painted image of him seen in the film poster above makes him seem much bigger and mature than he really is.) He resembles more of a child at age 12 and nowhere near someone entering manhood. Maybe that was the point, but watching him smoke, swear, steal, and get involved at times in amorous activities gets unsettling to watch because of it. When he confronts those that are bigger than him, which happens a lot since he’s so painfully small, I kept wincing thinking he’s going to get his ass kick despite his cocksure attitude and with no real ability to defend himself. Having the part played by a 17 year-old with a stocky build would’ve been preferable.

Not much insight is given towards Steve’s relationship with his mother, who’s seen only briefly, even though this is the catalyst for his desperate behavior, so I felt it needed to be played-out far more. His constant ability at escaping capture by whatever authority figure is after him is amusing at first, but eventually becomes redundant and unrealistic as at some point he’s going to be forced to face the consequences of his actions, which needed to be shown, but never is. The wide-open ending, apparently done because Cameron thought this would be made into a sequel, but due to the poor box office returns never was, offers no definitive conclusion to our character’s ultimate destiny, which makes the film even more transparent than it already is.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: August 23, 1984

Runtime: 1 Hour 35 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Ken Cameron

Studio: Filmways

Available: DVD (Region 4), Amazon Video

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