Category Archives: Drama

Bless the Beasts and the Children (1971)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Kids free the buffalo.

Six adolescent boys (Barry Robins, Bill Mumy, Miles Chapin, Darel Glaser, Robert Jayson Kramer, Marc Vahanian) room together during summer camp and become known as the ‘bedwetters’. Through flashbacks we learn that the six children have difficult times at home with their individual parents and are routinely picked on by the other kids at the camp. Their camp counselor Wheaties (Ken Swofford) decides to take them to a buffalo corral where the boys witness to their horror the buffalo being shot by various hunters in an effort to ‘thin the herd’ from the weaker or more sickly ones. The boys decide to sneak off one night and free the herd from their corral, but various complications inevitably ensue.

The film is based on the novel of the same name by Glendon Swarthout and one might expect from the movie’s poster, for another topical, preachy, dramatically charged production from director Stanley Kramer, but instead the film is amusing and breezy. If you went to summer camp as a child then this will be sure to bring back a flood of memories. Some of the pranks that the other kids play on our six protagonists are cruel, but there’s also fun moments that effectively recreate the carefree summer days of youth.

In a lot of ways this could be described as early version of The Bad News Bears as these ‘losers’ decided to show everyone who doubts them up and to a degree you could say this one does it better. In the bears film we never saw how the kids related to their parents and their family background, but here we do in a nice fragmented style, which allows the viewer to connect to the kids in a deeper and more emotional level, which makes us root even more for them to accomplish their mission.

The dialogue is banal and Sammy, played by Chapin, is annoying.  He’s supposed to be ‘funny’ with his lame impressions of famous celebrities, mostly those of a very bygone era that viewers today won’t even know, and the fact that he continues to do them throughout the movie made me think he should’ve been ostracized by the others just for that and it would’ve been justifiable. The on-location shooting though shot throughout Arizona helps, and Robins who plays Cotton their leader is a standout especially given the fact that he was 24 when this was filmed, but looked to be only about 14 like the other kids.

The only issue that I had with the movie is the music particularly the opening song sung by the Carpenters. Richard and Karen Carpenter were a terrific brother and sister duo, but they represented the conservative establishment. This is a movie about junior high boys and they most likely would never listen to the Carpenters or like their music. A film’s soundtrack should reflect the attitude and personality of its protagonists and the songs selected here really don’t as the boys represented rebellion while the Carpenters were all about conformity. It’s possible that director Kramer, who was nearing 60 at the time, didn’t know the difference. The Carpenters were getting chart toppers at the time, so from his generation’s perspective that made them ‘hip’ and the ‘in-thing’, which shows how out-of-touch he was to his subjects, which becomes a bit of a drawback.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: August 1, 1971

Runtime: 1Hour 42Minutes

Rated GP

Director: Stanley Kramer

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD-R, Amazon Video, YouTube

The Day of the Locust (1975)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Desperate people in Hollywood.

During the depression a young artist named Tod Hackett (William Atherton) comes to Hollywood to help design the set for a new movie. While there he meets a wide assortment of people, who seek fame and fortune, but find heartbreak and rejection instead. Tod falls for Faye (Karen Black) a woman striving to become the next big Hollywood starlet despite lacking any talent while her father Harry (Burgess Meredith) is on the opposite end of the spectrum. At one time he was a vaudeville comedian, but now with his failing health is relegated to selling health tonics door-to-door.

This film is the last great effort of director John Schlesinger whose films after this lacked the same visual style that made Midnight Cowboy and Far From the Madding Crowd cinematic masterpieces. From a visual standpoint it hits all the right chords and is filled with many memorable segments. The best ones include the scene where a group of bourgeoisie guests who come to Natalie Schafer’s home (she was best known for playing Mrs. Howell on ‘Gilligan’s Island’) to watch porn movies There’s also the scene where an entire film set comes crashing down and injuring the entire crew as well as the climactic moment where a large crowd waiting outside to see the premiere of The Buccaneer turn into a violent, bloodthirsty mob.

The acting is first-rate particularly Black who portrays her desperate character to a perfect tee. Meredith, who was nominated for a supporting Oscar, gives a vivid portrayal of her equally desperate father making his scenes quite entertaining. Donald Sutherland is also solid as a likable, but socially awkward outsider, which best suits his acting persona.

The script though by Waldo Salt, which is based on the 1939 novel of the same name by Nathanael West, misses out on a lot of the book’s subtext. In the movie Tod tries to rape Faye while at a party, but this eruption of his seems to come out of nowhere while in the book it gets better explained by showing how Tod continually harbors rape fantasies for Faye and makes these fantasies a running part of the story.

Donald Sutherland’s character, the aptly named Homer Simpson, which supposedly was the inspiration for Matt Groenig’s character in his famous comic strip, is a confusing enigma. In the book he is given a better backstory and revealed to be a man struggling with a lot of inner turmoil while here he’s seems more like a strange, naïve mope from another planet.

There’s also no explanation in the movie for why the word Locust is in the title, which is in reference to the Bible and the plague of locusts that descended onto the fields of Egypt. Tod symbolizes the locust in the novel’s version of the story while in the movie his character is more of an outsider observing the ugliness, but not having a hand at creating it

The biggest issue though is the film’s underperformance at the box office, which helped relegate both Black and Atherton, who at the time were considered up-and-coming stars, to supporting roles afterwards. I believe part of the reason for this is because none of the characters are likable. It’s fine showing humanity’s bad side as long as the audience doesn’t feel beaten-over-the-head with it, but the film wallows so much in the darkness that it overwhelms the viewer. Having a character that was slightly removed from the madness and not as flawed might’ve helped to balance things and make everything else that goes on more tolerable.

Overall though it’s a great film, but the statement it’s trying to make remains murky. Better efforts should’ve been made to tie it to the disillusionment of the American Dream, which is what the book does and not seemed so much like just a glimpse into a freak show of a bygone era like it ends up doing here.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: May 7, 1975

Runtime: 2Hours 24Minutes

Rated R

Director: John Schlesinger

Studio: Paramount

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

The Todd Killings (1971)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Pied Piper of Tucson.

Skipper Todd (Robert F. Lyons) is a 23-year-old man who hangs around his local high school and dates many of the teen girls who are mesmerized by his ‘rebel image’. He has no ambitions to work and instead sponges off of his mother (Barbara Bel Geddes) who runs a nursing home while he also dreams of one day becoming a rock star. For kicks he convinces some of his friends to get in with him on murdering a 15-year-old girl just so he can see ‘what it feels like to kill someone’ and they oblige, but then the fear that the others might turn on him causes him to murder even more people.

The plot is based on the true story of Charles Schmid, who like the character here hung around a local high school in Tucson, Arizona dating many of the teens there before murdering 15-year-old Aileen Rowe as a ‘thrill-kill’ on the night of May 31, 1964. However, the film does not touch on the extreme eccentricities of Schmid including the fact that he wore cowboy boots filled with flattened cans in an attempt to make him appear taller (and explained the resulting limp as simply a product of getting shot at by the mafia). He also wore make-up to make his nose seem larger, created a large mole on his face so he’d appear more intimidating and even stretched his lower lip with a clothes pin so he would resemble Elvis Presley.

The film though shows none of this and instead tones the character down to the point that he becomes boring. Not only does Lyons look nowhere near as scary as Schmid did, but he plays the part like he was just some lonely kid looking for attention giving the viewer no sense of the allure that he had over the teen girls who flocked around him. Instead of being bigger-than-life the central character becomes flat and forgettable, which is hardly the right ingredient for a riveting drama or thriller.

The murders are not shown, so the viewer doesn’t get a true sense of the horror that went on. The scene where he strangles his girlfriend by gently placing his hands around her neck, which lasts for less than 3 seconds before she falls softly down dead is a perfect example of how overly restrained the whole thing is. The real-life events were shocking, so why create a sanitized film about it when if anything it should’ve been played-up.

The film also begins with the first murder having already occurred, so we get no insight about how he was able to convince his friends to kill the girl. The way he was able to get these otherwise seemingly good kids to do nasty things for him is the most frightening aspect of the case and yet the film glosses over this like it’s no big deal.

Richard Thomas gives a strong supporting performance as Billy Roy who befriends Lyons initially only to eventually turn-on-him. Belinda Montgomery seems quite sincere as his Lyons’ frightened girlfriend and I enjoyed Bel Geddes and Gloria Grahame as the two mothers, but the film’s tepid approach creates a movie that leaves no lasting impression at all.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: October 20, 1971

Runtime: 1Hour 33Minutes

Rated R

Director: Barry Shear

Studio: National General Pictures

Available: DVD-R (Warner Archive)

Almost Summer (1978)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: A high school election.

Bobby DeVito (Bruno Kirby) schemes to get even when Christine (Lee Purcell) is able to get high school hunk Grant (Robert Resnick) knocked out of the race for class president and thus allowing her to run unopposed. For revenge Bobby decides to nominate a shy new kid Darryl (John Friedrich) as her challenger. Darryl is initially unsure about taking on the challenge, but eventually gets into it only to eventually drop-out himself when he realizes Bobby has used some underhanded tricks in order to help him win.

The script is too simplistic and better suited as a ‘life lesson’ film that teachers show to kids in grade school. The action gets too locked into the students and the high school scene instead of broadening the situation out to include the school’s faculty like it did in Alexander Payne’s Election, which was far superior because it took the central scenario and connected it not only the foibles of teens, but adults as well. In fact very few adults get seen here making it seem like they were sucked away to some distant cosmos and the teens were left to run everything.

The film is refreshing to some extent because unlike most other teen flicks there’s no crude humor or sexual innuendos and the kids behave like young adults in the making instead of delayed adolescents, which is nice. However, the story is so boringly basic and told in such a straight-forward manner that after a while I actually wanted a sex joke or two to pop-in simply to have given the thing some life.

The situation needed to be played-up a lot more. Lee Purcell, who portrays a teen here only to ironically portray the mother of one just five years later in Valley Girl, is dull, but only because the part is painfully underwritten. The character is not mean enough for the viewer to really hate her. She is also too easily broken as evidenced by the scene where she breaks down into tears because she arrives at a debate with her hair still wet.

The Darryl character is equally benign. At first he comes off like a truly awkward teen, which could’ve been fun seeing this dopey geek upend a beauty queen at her own game, but the guy slides into the noble hero role too quickly. He becomes too-good-to-be-true making him nothing more than a transparent, good-guy cliché.

Some other reviewers have commented on Didi Conn and how her goofy, supporting presence helps enliven the film. Personally I’m not a fan of the actress as her geeky looks and squeaky voice gets on my nerves, but when a film is as bland as this one I suppose she does help it, which just prove how really bad it is. I also thought ‘Almost Summer’ was a weird title as everything that goes on here happens during the school year. A better title would’ve been ‘Almost Over’ because the whole time I was watching it I kept asking ‘Is this thing almost over?’

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Runtime: 1Hour 23Minutes

Released: September 22, 1978

Rated PG

Director: Martin Davidson

Studio: Universal

Available: None at this time.

Agatha (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Agatha Christie runs away.

Despondent over her husband’s affair famous British novelist Agatha Christie (Vanessa Redgrave) decides to go away for a while to collect her thoughts. She then gets into a car accident while on the road and having her car disabled she first takes a train and then a cab to the Old Swain Hotel where she registers there under an assumed name. The police find her disabled car and fear that Agatha may have drowned in a nearby lake, been kidnapped, murdered by her husband Archie (Timothy Dalton) or committed suicide. A nationwide search begins that encompasses thousands of volunteers that scour the nearby countryside for clues. Meanwhile American reporter Wally Stanton (Dustin Hoffman), working off of  a tip from Agatha’s secretary, decides to check into the same hotel and begins following Agatha around where he keeps notes on everything she does while also falling in love with her in the process.

The film is loosely based on Agatha Christie’s real-life 11-day disappearance that occurred in 1926. No explanation was ever given for the reason nor was it even mentioned in her autobiography. Had there been some actual research about what might’ve transpired during those 11-days then this would be worth a look, but, as the film plainly states at the beginning, it is simply an ‘imaginary solution to an authentic mystery’, so then what’s the point?

Most likely it was nothing more than a woman looking to escape to some quiet location for a short respite that unfortunately due to the press getting wind of it, spiraled quickly out-of-control. The film’s low point comes in the side-story dealing with Agatha’s attempts to kill herself through a jolt of electricity from sitting in a Bergonic chair, but is saved at the last second by Wally who grabs her from the chair just as she’s shocked. Yet as he lays her limp body on the floor he doesn’t perform CPR, but instead shouts at her to ‘breath’ several times and despite no scientific study proving that this ‘technique’ can actually work she still miraculously begins breathing again anyways.

I have never read a biography on Christie, so I have no idea what her real personality was like, but the film portrays her as being a complete wallflower lacking any type of confidence and so painfully shy it’s pathetic. The character is so transparent it’s almost like she’s not even there. Hoffman’s character was completely made-up and the way he chain smokes reminded me too much of the character that he had played in Midnight Cowboy. His growing ‘love’ for her and the way he later expresses it is extremely forced and corny. Also, why is Hoffman given top billing when the main subject is Agatha?

Johnny Mandel’s soothing score is the best thing. I also liked the shot of the thousands of volunteers searching for her along the vast countryside, but everything else about the movie gets either under cooked or overbaked. The scene where Agatha tries to do a triple bank shot while playing pool gets badly botched. We initially see it captured from above where the entire pool table is in view. The pool ball banks off the side and rolls towards the corner pocket, but then it slows up and it becomes clear that it won’t make it to the pocket, so director Michael Apted cheats by cutting to a close-up of the ball and having it magically regain speed, which easily makes it into the corner pocket. The attempt was to ‘trick’ the viewer into believing that this was a continuation of the same shot but any halfway savvy person will realize this close-up was shot later and edited in.

The film’s poster tells us that ‘What may have happened during the next 11 days is far more suspenseful than anything she ever wrote’, but it really isn’t and in fact it’s not even close. The original intent by screenwriter Kathleen Tynan was to make this into a documentary after researching the true facts of the case, which would’ve been far better than the flimsy fanciful thing we get here.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: February 9, 1979

Runtime: 1Hour 38Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Michael Apted

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD-R (Warner Archive), Amazon Video, YouTube

The Competition (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Pianists fall-in-love.

Paul (Richard Dreyfuss) is a gifted, but frustrated pianist. He has entered many classical piano competitions, but has always come just short of winning first prize. He wants to take one last stab at it, but his parents (Philip Sterling, Gloria Stroock) push him to settle down with a regular job and consistent pay. Paul though decides to forge on with his hopes at receiving a medal by entering a contest that will allow for a financial grant and 2 years of concert engagements for the winner. It is there that he meets Heidi (Amy Irving) who is also competing for the same prize. She immediately becomes smitten with him having met him a couple of years earlier at a music festival. She tries to get into a relationship with him despite warnings from her piano teacher (Lee Remick) who feels it might soften ‘her edge’ and allow him to attain the award instead of her.

The film does a masterful job at recreating a realistic atmosphere of a piano competition including showing the judges meticulously following each note on the sheet music they have at hand as the contestant performs while also taking studious notes of each performer afterwards before finally settling on a winner. The viewer is given a broad understanding of all six contestants involved helping to give the movie a fuller context on the human drama that goes on behind-the-scenes in these types of competitions while also showing how parents and instructors can at times be great motivators, but also crippling nags.

Watching the actors mimic the playing of a pianist is another major asset. Usually films dealing with pianists will never show the actor’s hands on the keys, but instead shoot them from behind the piano while editing in close-ups of a professional pianist’s hands later. Here though the actors, with the help and training of music consultant Jean Evensen Shaw, convincingly move their fingers along the keys in tandem with the music. How they were able to later effectively edit in the sound to stay on track with the finger movements and vice-versa is an amazing thing in itself, but watching the actors literally ‘play the piano’  helps to heighten the film’s realism and make watching the concert footage, which gets amazingly drawn out, quite fascinating.

The film has a terrific supporting cast as well including Lee Remick as Heidi’s no-nonsense instructor who looks at Heidi’s budding relationship with Paul with immediate cynicism and isn’t afraid to bluntly speak out about it either. Sam Wanamaker has the perfect look and demeanor of an orchestra conductor and the scene where Paul decides to ‘show him how it’s done’ by taking a stab at conducting is the film’s highlight.

The weakest element though is the romance and the movie would’ve worked better had this been only a side-story instead of the main focus. The idea that Heidi has to do all the sacrificing and at one point even considers dropping out of the competition because it’s ‘more important to him that he wins it’ is sexist. Woman can be just as competitive as men and sometimes even more so. The story would’ve been better served had they both been portrayed as fierce competitors who deep down have mutual feelings for the other, but remain guarded and slowly shows a softer side as the contest progresses and then only when it is finally over does the romance really blossom.

Having Heidi constantly chase after Paul, who is extraordinarily arrogant, is ridiculous. After his initial rebuff she should’ve quickly moved-on as she was pretty and there were plenty of other men for her choose from instead of having her literally throw herself at him like she were some dimwitted groupie. It was bizarre as well that when Paul finds out that is father is dying that Heidi is the first person he decides to turn to for comfort and solace. This is well before a relationship was established and the two had only spoken to each other in passing, so why does Paul consider her a trusted emotional confidant and shouldn’t he most likely have other friends that he would’ve known longer that he could go to instead?

The film has a side-story dealing with a Kazakh performer (Vicki Kriegler) whose instructor (Bea Silvern) decides to defect to the U.S. during the competition, which takes the film in too much of a different direction that distracts from the main theme and should’ve been cut out completely. I also thought it was odd that the music played over the closing credits is a disco sounding song. We’ve just spent 2 hours listening to classical piano music, so shouldn’t the music at the end have been kept with the same theme/sound?  Otherwise this is still a terrific study showing the emotional and mental sacrifices that go in to achieving success and how staying too focused on a central goal can sometimes affect a person’s relationships with their friends, family and lovers.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: December 3, 1980

Runtime: 2Hours 6Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Joel Oliansky

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Wild Seed (1965)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Runaway falls for drifter.

Daphne (Celia Kaye) is a 17-year-old who runs away from her foster parents (Woody Chambliss, Eva Novak) in order to meet her biological father (Ross Elliot) who resides in Los Angeles. On her journey from the east coast to the west she meets up with Fargo (Michael Parks) a drifter who teaches her the ropes of surviving on the streets. As their trip progresses so does Daphne’s feelings for Fargo who resists her advances despite having feelings for her as well.

This black-and-white mid ‘60s drama has too much of the same trappings of the teen runaway films that came both before and after it. There’s just nothing that particularly distinguishes it from the others, which hurts the ability of the viewer from getting into it because you think right from the start that you’ve essentially ‘seen it all before’. The film also has very little action and Daphne who at times acts with extraordinary naiveté could’ve had far worse things happen to her than what does giving the film a sanitized feel in regards to the runaway experience.

Kaye, who later went on to marry famous writer/director John Milius, lacks visual appeal and fails to seem all that ‘wild’ despite what the film’s title suggests. Much of the time she comes off as someone who is quite sheltered and timid about things and not anyone who would even consider going out recklessly into the world without much ‘street smarts’ to go with it. Her character shifts from being overly paternal about certain things, particularly the ‘lectures’ that she gives to Fargo, to acting incredibly naïve making her character lack any type of real center. She also fails to display a vulnerable side just a crusty defensive one. Instead of being someone the viewer cares for she replicates a pesky nag nobody would want hanging around.

Parks, in his film debut, channels James Dean a bit too much while his character remains an enigma that we learn very little about. The fact that he resists Daphne sexual advances, at least initially, was confusing as usually it’s the man that makes the first move. I kept figuring there had to be some reason for it that would come out later, like for instance he was secretly gay or insecure about his ability to perform, and yet no explanation is ever given.

The second-half improves as this is the type of film that grows on you if you’re patient. I enjoyed some of the long shots showing to the two from an extreme distance making them look like tiny little ants on the landscape, which nicely accentuates their place in the world as a whole. Bringing in the parents, both the biological and foster ones helps add to the drama and fills in the holes of the story, but having a relationship develop between the two leads didn’t seem authentic. Spending so much time trying to survive on the outer fringes of society doesn’t allow for much else most of all a romance. The film would’ve been more interesting had it expanded its timeline and shown how things ended up for the two 5 or even 10 years later and whether the relationship had remained, or whether they were even still alive at all.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: May 5, 1965

Runtime: 1Hour 39Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Brian G. Hutton

Studio: Universal

Available: None at this time.

Ironweed (1987)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Life on the streets.

It’s the 1930’s and Francis Phelan (Jack Nicholson) has been living on the streets for over two decades. At one time he was a promising baseball player with a bright future, but then he accidently dropped his infant son and killed him. Dealing with the guilt and shame of it turned him into an alcoholic who roams the cold streets of Albany, New York looking for odds jobs and handouts when he can. He seeks out his lover Helen (Meryl Streep) for companionship and the two share a bottle of booze and their bitterness at the world that is ambivalent to their desperate situation.

The film is based on the novel of the same name by William Kennedy, who also wrote the screenplay and is directed by Hector Babenco who received wide claim for directing Pixote a film that dealt with homelessness in Brazil. This film is without question one of the best to tackle the lives of street people. Most films tend to treat the subject rather timidly and only analyze the topic from a distance (i.e. having a side character who is homeless, or maybe a main character who is temporarily on the streets), but this film engrosses the viewer completely into the homeless lifestyle while supplying absolutely no letup to their bleak existence. The result is a fascinating and revealing journey that shows how complex and multi-dimensional these people actually are while exposing every facet of the homeless experience including the indignities and dehumanization that they must face on a daily basis.

The casting is interesting particularly for the fact that both Nicholson and Streep had just starred together in Heartburn a year earlier playing a couple on the completely opposite side of the socio-economic scale. I commend Nicholson for tackling a challenging role that goes completely against his persona as normally he plays flamboyant types with over-the-top personalities, so it’s great seeing him take on a humble one who feels and acts like a complete miniscule to the world around him. However, the scenes where he interacts with the ghostly visions of people he has murdered in the past does not come off as successfully as it could’ve. The imagery is interesting, but the fact that he had played a character already that dealt with similar types of ghostly visions in The Shining causes the viewer to think back too much to that film and takes them out of this one.

Streep is outstanding and her constant ability to completely submerse herself into her characters and take on different accents with an amazing authenticity never ceases to amaze me. She really looks the part too by not only wearing no make-up, but having her teeth stained and darkened to effectively give off that decayed look. I’m genuinely floored at how many times most films neglect to do this. Actors portraying characters in destitute environments, or from the old west, may convey the down-and-out or rugged look physically, but their teeth still always look great when in reality they should’ve been in as bad of shape or worse as the rest of their bodies.

The supporting cast is good but they have little to do, which includes Fred Gwynne who appears briefly as a bartender. Carroll Baker though is excellent as Nicholson’s ex-wife. She was a blonde beauty that burst onto the scene in the ‘50s and was billed as the next Marilyn Monroe, but her acting ability quickly became suspect and by the ‘60s she was relegated to low budget B-movies and European productions, but in the ‘80s she made a Hollywood comeback in supporting roles and her appearance here was clearly her best performance and proves that she really could act. Margaret Whitton is also a standout as she takes part in one of the film’s few lighthearted moments as an eccentric woman who is prone to histrionic fainting spells and walking outside without any clothes.

The film though does suffer from a few too many dramatic peaks, which includes having two of Nicholson’s homeless friends die almost simultaneously, which only helps to lessen the effect by squeezing out more drama than it needs to, but overall this is a top notch effort where every scene and utterance rings true.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: December 18, 1987

Runtime: 2Hours 23Minutes

Rated R

Director: Hector Babenco

Studio: TriStar Pictures

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

One on One (1977)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: A college basketball star.

Henry Steele (Robby Benson) becomes the star of his small town high school basketball team, which is enough to get him a scholarship to a university in California on their team. Once there he becomes overwhelmed by the demands of his coach (G.D. Spradlin) as well as the under-the-table ‘business side’ of college athletics. The disappointed coach eventually asks him to rescind his scholarship, but Henry refuses leading to many brutal practices where the coach tries to make life a living hell for him, which he hopes will get Henry to finally quit, but to everyone’s surprise Henry perseveres and shows more grit in him than anyone ever imagined.

The script, which was co-written by Benson and his father Jerry Segal shows a revealing look of the underside of college sports making it quite compelling to watch particularly the first half-hour where Henry gets introduced to many things he hadn’t come into contact before including getting involved with ‘payouts’ to college benefactors, drugs, wild parties, amorous secretaries (Gail Strickland) and even romance with his tutor Janet (Annette O’Toole). The film has a nice year-in-the-life approach where the viewer feels like they are following Henry around by his side and experiencing the same first-hand situations as he does. It also examines the discrimination that athletes go through, which is rarely tackled in other films, dealing with Janet’s boyfriend Malcolm (James G. Richardson) who mocks Henry and other athletes like him for being ‘unintellectual’ and trained to passively obey all rules handed to them by their coaches while unable to think for themselves.

Benson’s performance of a wide-eyed, naïve small town lad works and the viewer can’t help but chuckle at his initial inability to handle the many new challenges he’s faced with while also remaining sympathetic to his ongoing quandary. Many actors may not be able to pull off such a feat, but Benson, who’s a far better performer than people may realize, does so flawlessly particularly the times when his character fights back and grows from a hayseed kid to a full grown man.

Spradlin has the perfect look and voice for a college coach and he coincidentally played a coach in North Dallas Forty, which came out that same year. However, his facial expressions reveal too much of his inner feelings particularly that of concern and worry where an actual coach would try to mask these vulnerable feelings from their players in order to prevent them from ‘reading’ what they are thinking and maintain more control.

Henry’s relationship with Janet comes off as forced. The two clearly were on opposite ends of the intellectual plain and I didn’t see what if anything that they actually had in common. Having Henry read ‘Moby Dick’ one of her favorite novels didn’t seem to be enough of a catalyst to have her suddenly fall-in-love with him. She brought in other athletes into her apartment to tutor and since she was paid $265 an hour I’d doubt she’d give that up, which most likely could cause tensions with their relationship, but this never gets addressed.

The songs by Seals and Croft don’t help and the film would’ve been better had they not been involved. They had some great chart toppers during the ‘70s, but slowing up the film by having a montage with their songs played over it takes the viewer out of the drama and unwisely reminds them that they’re just watching a movie instead. The Seals and Croft sound doesn’t coincide with a spots theme at all and it’s too bad that the Hall and Oates hit of ‘One on One’ hadn’t been released earlier  because that song would’ve been a better fit.

Spoiler Alert!

The ending has a dreamy/sports clichéd feel particularly the way Henry comes off the bench and scores all the points as the team scratches and claws their way from behind, which could be enough to make some viewer’s eyes roll, but the fact that all the fans run onto the court afterwards is what had me. This was only an early season game and usually fans only do this during a crucial late season contest or championship. Henry’s team was expected to go undefeated and they were losing to a team that they were favored to beat, so if anything the fans would’ve been annoyed that the game was so close and not inclined to rush the court, but more thankful that they had avoided a potential loss and then critical that the squad was not living up to expectations.

Having Henry stand-up to the coach at the end and leave the team may have been emotionally satisfying for a few seconds, but in the long run he’d be better off had he stayed. If he joined a new team he’d have to start all over again proving himself to the new coach and teammates while here he had finally gotten that out of the way. He’d also have to move to a new school, which would’ve hurt his relationship with Janet.

End of Spoiler Alert!

Overall though as sports movies go this isn’t bad and pretty realistic most of the way. Fans of college basketball should enjoy it as it gives one a sort-of behind-the-scenes view of the inner workings of college athletics.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: June 28, 1977

Runtime: 1Hour 38Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Lamont Johnson

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD-R (Warner Archive), YouTube

Girlfriends (1978)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: She misses her friend.

Susan (Melanie Mayron) and Anne (Anita Skinner) are best friends and roommates, but when Anne decides to get married to Martin (Bob Balaban) and move out Susan can’t handle the solitude. She picks-up a hitch-hiker named Ceil (Amy Wright) who moves in for a bit, but it doesn’t work out. She then gets into a relationship with Eric (Christopher Guest) and even a 60-year-old married rabbi (Eli Wallach), but both of these end in heartache. The more Susan tries to ‘move-on’ the more she longs for the old days with Anne and Anne starts to feel the same way.

This was Claudia Weill’s feature film debut that met with high accolades including director Stanley Kubrick who considered it his favorite film of 1978. There’s a nice understated quality here that not only brings out a vivid late ‘70s feel, but also the very real day-to-day struggles of a young adult trying to swim through the quagmire of relationship and career obstacles. Melanie Mayron is certainly not a beauty by the conventional standard, but her plain appearance helps accentuate the challenges of the regular person trying to break-out and get noticed.

Susan’s struggles at trying to become a full-time photographer had me hooked the most as it portrays the universal challenges anyone can have in trying to get ‘their foot-in-the-door’ no matter what the profession, but I was a bit stunned when she forgets about the exhibition of her work at an art show. If someone is truly excited about getting their first big break then there is simply no way that would happen. It’s also hard for the viewer to completely empathize with someone’s career struggles if they themselves aren’t doing all they can to achieve it.

Another misguided wrinkle to the story was Susan’s relationship with a married rabbi who was almost 40 years older than her. These types of relationships suffer from extraordinarily long odds  and just about anyone would realize that from the get-go, which makes Susan’s ‘shocked’ reaction when the rabbi is unable to get together for a date due to family obligations seem almost  irrational. How a relationship like this could even begin to blossom is a whole other issue that never even gets addressed.

The film suffers from a few awkward scenes too. One has Wallach sitting down to play a game of chess with Melanie only for him to get up a minute later and leave for no reason. Why does he bother to show up for a chess game if he isn’t even going to make a single move on the board? Later Viveca Lindfors appears wearing a neck brace and yet no explanation is ever given for why she has it on. Later she’s shown without it, so why did she have it in one scene and not the other? Maybe it was for a minor accident, which can happen, but film is a visual medium and when something slightly askew gets shown it needs to get addressed even if it’s just in passing otherwise the viewer will key in on that and not the story.

Even more amazingly, and I can’t believe I’m saying this as I’ve never seen it in any other movie that I’ve ever watched before, but there’s an actual scratch on the camera lens that can be spotted in just about every scene. It appears on the top right hand side as a small white mark. If the sun is shining through a window it will reflect the light and be more pronounced. If a character walks in front of the window it fades a bit, but you can still see it and this continues throughout the entire run of the film. I can only presume that cinematographer Fred Murphy was aware of this, but due to the budget constraints they didn’t have enough money to replace the lens and decided to simply chug along with the scratch in place and hope no else would notice.

Ultimately though I found the story, in its simple way, to be touching and poignant this is particularly evident at the end where the viewer can see firsthand how friendships help add insight and support to a person’s life and are an important dimension to the human experience.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: August 4, 1978

Runtime: 1 Hour 26 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Claudia Weill

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD-R (Warner Archive), YouTube