Category Archives: Drama

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1977)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: She suffers from schizophrenia.

Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Joanne Greenberg, which was written under the pen name of Hannah Green, the story focuses on Deborah (Kathleen Quinlan) a 16 year-old who is put into a mental institution during the 1950’s by her parents (Ben Piazza, Lorraine Gary). A pretend secret kingdom that used to be a childhood fantasy has now completely taken over her life and she is unable to deal with reality. At the institution she works with a sympathetic therapist named Dr. Fried (Bibi Andersson) who tries to get Deborah out of her fantasy world an back into the real one.

The film was produced by Roger Corman better known for his cheap, sleazy drive-in fare, so seeing him try to take the helm by producing a serious picture is a concern since exploitation always seemed to be his foray, but with the then recent success of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest he felt stories with a mental institution theme was a potential money-maker. The production values though right from the start look pretty cheap especially when compared to the Milos Foreman film making this a very weak cousin to the 1975 classic.

The producers made many changes from its source novel much to the consternation of the book’s author who was never consulted during the making of it and who ended up disliking this film version immensely. One of the biggest difference is that the film completely omits the antisemitism, which the filmmakers felt was too much of a ‘hot button topic’, that the main character in the book had to deal with and instead blames her mental health problems solely on her bout with cancer.

For me though the biggest issue centers more on the recreation of Deborah’s make-believe, mystical world which she calls The Kingdom of Yr. In the book the kingdom starts out as a beautiful magical place that slowly turns ugly and threatening while in the movie it’s portrayed as scary from the very beginning, which is confusing as there’s no explanation for how the whole thing started. The sound of the whispering voices going on inside Deborah’s head is creepy, but sight of the characters inside the kingdom, which was played by members of Oingo Boingo looks cheesy and like the singers from the Village People, which gives the film an unintended camp feeling. Instead the characters should’ve been captured from a distance where they were seen as ominous shadowy figures whose faces were never shown.

Despite these drawbacks I still found myself caught-up in much of the drama especially the cruelty that Deborah and her fellow patients received at the hands of an abusive orderly played by Reni Santoni. Unfortunately some of the scenes showing Deborah interacting with the other mentally-ill people in the hospital gets watered-down by having a lighthearted melody played during it, which gives off the idea that this is ‘lightly comical’ instead of the gritty no-holds-barred drama that it should be.

Quinlan gives a great performance, possibly the best of her career and I particularly enjoyed the way she uses her expressive blue eyes to convey her inner madness and turmoil. You also see her as a relatable human being who you want to see get well as opposed to being some sort of ‘freak’. Susan Tyrrell is great in support as one of the patients as well as Martine Bartlett who plays another troubled patient and who starred just a year earlier as the cruel mother in Sybil, which was a TV-movie with a similar theme. Casting Bibi Andersson though as the psychiatrist was for me a distraction since she also played one in Persona, which was her signature role and therefore I couldn’t separate her from that one.

In 2004 the novel was turned into a play under the full cooperation of Greenberg who acted as a consultant. The antisemitism from the book was incorporated into the play as well as several other things that had been omitted making me believe that a remake based on the play should be given a much needed green-light as this film unfortunately is adequate, but not great.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: July 14, 1977

Runtime: 1 Hour 36 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Anthony Page

Studio: New World Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video

Rabbit, Run (1970)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: He’s maladjusted to adulthood.

Harry (James Caan) was a basketball star in high school and nicknamed Rabbit because of his speed. Now he’s a middle-aged man working a thankless job and stuck in a loveless marriage with an alcoholic wife (Carrie Snodgress). One day he decides to just jump into his car and drive away from all of it. He meets his former coach (Jack Albertson) who hooks him up with a prostitute (Anjanette Comer) and the two begin a makeshift relationship, but that doesn’t work out either. Rabbit then decides to return to his wife just as she’s ready to deliver their second child only to ultimately have tragedy strike.

Although the film was not as well received by the critics as the John Updike novel that it’s based upon was I still cam away liking it. There are indeed some lulls but director Jack Smight nicely incorporates the on-location shooting of Reading, Pennsylvania where Updike was born into the story, which gives it a distinctive visual flair. The scene where Rabbit walks into his gray, dingy old apartment only to see his wife slouched on the sofa with a liquor bottle would make anyone want to get up and run out of there and visually you get a sense of what Rabbit is feeling and therefore you don’t totally blame him for doing what he does even as irresponsible as it is.

Caan gives a great performance in a part he was born to play and I was impressed with his long distance running that occurs both at the beginning of the film and the end. However, if would have been nice to have had some flashbacks showing the character in better times. It’s one thing to talk about the character’s success on the basketball court and it’s another to actually see it. It would’ve also helped explain his weird rendezvous with his coach as the old man tells him, much to Rabbit’s shock, that the most important thing in life is ‘tits and pussy’. I think the reason for this, without having actually read the book, is that as a teen the coach acted as a role model and put up a moral facade for his players, but now as both are adults he sees the more jaded side of the guy, but without the benefit of a flashback this point gets lost.

The characters are nicely multi-dimensional, which makes watching them interact fascinating. I enjoyed Arthur Hill as a minister who tries to redeem Rabbit only to admit that he has fantasized about doing the exact same thing that Rabbit did although his wife, played by Melodie Johnson, is too young and dresses too provocatively to ever be taken seriously as being an actual pastor’s wife.

Spoiler Alert!

Smight captures the book’s shocking elements nicely including the baby drowning scene in the bathtub where the viewer sees it from the infant’s underwater point-of-view. However, the moment where Comer gets pressured to ‘go down’ on Caan in an effort to perform fellatio with him, which she apparently did with some of her other customers, has clearly lost its edge since it’s a more mainstream sexual practice between couples now than it was back then although the pounding music that gets played over this sequence as they ‘debate’ whether to do it or not is good.

The ending though I found disappointing as it’s too similar to the one in Adam at 6 AM, which came out around the same time and had the film’s star Michael Douglas driving away from his obligations in a car while here Caan does the same, but only on his feet yet one can’t run away from things their whole lives. I was hoping to see how he changed during the different stages of his life, which this film doesn’t show. Updike wrote three follow-up novels to this story ‘Rabbit Redux’, ‘Rabbit is Rich’, and ‘Rabbit at Rest’, and I hope that they can remake this film while adding elements of those stories into it, which will create a fuller composite to the Rabbit character and his life, which this film lacks.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: October 10, 1970

Runtime: 1 Hour 34 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Jack Smight

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD (Warner Archive), YouTube

The Caretaker (1963)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Homeless man moves in.

Based on the Harold Pinter play the story centers around Aston (Robert Shaw) who suffers from an undisclosed mental illness and lives alone in a cramped, cluttered room of an abandoned home that his brother Mick (Alan Bates) is trying to renovate. Mac Davies (Donald Pleasence) is a homeless man that Aston invites to stay with him, but Mac proves to be a difficult roommate and when Aston asks him to leave Mac refuses and instead tries connive with Mick to have Aston thrown out instead.

From a purely technical standpoint this is a brilliant film as Clive Donner’s direction perfectly captures the claustrophobic setting. It can be hard to recreate a truly cluttered interior, but this room really comes off looking like a storage closet with so many items crowded into it that you wonder how the performers were even able to move around or how the camera crew could fit in to film it. You eventually lose touch with this being a movie at all, but instead start to feel like you’re right in there with the characters as the camera creates an incredible intimacy with the people on the screen until it’s like they’re breathing right on you.

The performances are impressive and the one thing that keeps the viewer captivated as there is very little action otherwise. All three starred in the stage production and basically did this for free as the budget was so low that they couldn’t be paid upfront and were promised a percentage of the profits if the film went into the black. Shaw is particularly interesting as he has played so many dominating characters in the past that watching him portray someone who is shy and unassuming and still do it with equal effectiveness is a testament to his talents while Pleasence, who wears heavy make-up to make him look much older than he really was, is almost unrecognizable.

My only complaint is that not enough happens. I’ve seen and enjoyed many of Pinter’s other plays that were turned into films and although this one is well crafted it still lacks the necessary payoff. I kept waiting for that great dramatic moment that seems from the very beginning to be just bubbling underneath the surface, but it never materializes. I wanted more of an arch that the characters and material seemed ripe for and to have it just end the way it began with not much occurring in between is a real disappointment. Again, the performance and camerawork keep you captivated, but it all adds up to being much ado about nothing and the story’s ultimate message/point being quite murky.

Alternate Title: The Guest

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: July 2, 1963

Runtime: 1 Hour 45 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Clive Donner

Studio: Janus Films

Available: DVD (Region 2)

Daisy Miller (1974)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: She’s a real tease.

While studying in turn-of-the-century Switzerland Frederick (Barry Brown) comes upon the beautiful Daisy Miller (Cybill Shepherd) who’s touring Europe along with her nervous and talkative mother (Cloris Leachman) and precocious younger brother Randolph (James McMurty). Frederick is smitten with her beauty, but unable to handle her free-thinking ways. Nonetheless he follows her around Europe where he continually becomes confounded with whether she likes him or not, or whether he’ll ever be able to convey his true feelings towards her.

This film, which is based on a short story by Henry James, was originally conceived by Peter Bogdanovich as being a vehicle for both him and his then girlfriend Shepherd to star in with Peter playing the part of Frederick and Orson Welles directing it. Peter had become mesmerized with Cybill while directing her in The Last Picture Show and left his then wife and children to move in with her in a situation that was later satirized in Irreconcilable DifferencesFortunately Welles realized that Peter’s obsession with making Cybill a big screen star had sapped him from all common sense and bowed out of the film project considering the material to be weak and lightweight, which it is, but this only then helped to convince the determined Peter to direct it himself.

The result isn’t as bad as I had initially presumed and in a lot ways it’s strangely engaging and certainly  far better than At Long Last Love another Bogdanovich/Shepherd concoction that was rejected by both audiences and critics alike. This one though takes advantage of Cybill’s conniving, flirtatious nature, which is something I feel she’s been doing her whole life and therefore makes this character a reflection of who she truly is. Leonard Maltin described her performance as “hollow”, which I agree as we only see one side to her personality, but when she plays that one side as well as she does then it becomes entertaining nonetheless.

Brown is excellent too and far better in the role than Peter ever would’ve been as Brown manages to retain the necessary modicum of self-respect even as he chases her around like a lovesick mope. Instead of this becoming off-putting we sympathize with his internal quandary and this then helps to propel the story forward even as it seems to be going nowhere.

The film’s other big asset is its on-location shooting. Some viewers have described the period costumes and set-pieces as being great, but for me this was only so-so. What I really liked though was the scene done inside the Coliseum at night under the moonlight, which gives off both a surreal and creepy feeling and adds an extra ambiance making me wish the segment had been extended as well as adding a trip to Rome on my own personal bucket list.

Spoiler Alert!

The film’s biggest failing though comes at the end where Daisy catches malaria and promptly dies, but we never see her sick and only gets told this after she’s already dead. Having a scene showing her ill and vulnerable as opposed to always being free-spirited and in control would’ve helped give the character an added dimension especially if it had been done with Frederick at her bedside.

The idea that if Frederick had just been less ‘stiff’ towards her that the relationship might’ve blossomed is ridiculous as I think this was the type of woman who enjoyed manipulating men and even if she got married to one she’d continually toy with them until she got bored and moved on to the next. Having her die isn’t ‘sad’ as the film suggests, but instead a happy one for Frederick as now he’s ultimately out of her grip and able to free himself to find someone who would really care for him.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: May 22, 1974

Runtime: 1 Hour 31 Minutes

Rated G

Director: Peter Bogdanovich

Studio: Paramount Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

River’s Edge (1986)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Teens ambivalent to murder.

A high school clique must deal with conflicting issues when one of their members (Daniel Roebuck) murders his girlfriend (Danyi Deats) and leaves her nude corpse along the riverbed where he then proudly shows it off to anyone who wants to see it. Some of them consider going to the police while others like Layne (Crispin Glover) thinks they should simply bury the body and cover-up for John’s deeds since he’s their friend.

While I liked the film’s atmosphere and the strong drama I didn’t care for the preachy tone. This is most evident in the scenes with Jim Metzler playing a teacher who’s a baby boomer and brags about how great his generation is compared to today’s teens and even at one point wags his finger at them over their apathy, but never once answers why they’ve become that way. Every generation likes to feel that they’re superior to the one that comes after it and the film seems to want to align itself with that point-of-view; that the kids today just don’t seem to ‘get-it’, but what’s caused that? Is it just some ‘bad DNA’ or instead a crumbling societal structure and if so then the adults are partially to blame for it, which is a complex area that the film seems reluctant to go to.

The fact that there isn’t any real insight to the cause and it doesn’t even analyze the family life of all its characters is a bit frustrating. It does show the chaotic, broken home life to one of them, which could be construed as part of the problem, but then later this gets negated when the teen from that household is the one who ultimately goes to the police.

Keanu Reeves character is a further detraction as he becomes too much of the conventional hero. Watching him literally shake from guilt while sitting in a classroom gives away all the tension as it makes it clear he will eventually go to the police and it would’ve been more intriguing had this instead been kept a mystery. Initially we’re supposed to be ‘shocked’ that the teens don’t immediately run to the police upon discovering the body, but then having him later get accused of the crime once he does go only helps to make those that didn’t seem the wiser.

Dennis Hopper’s character is a problem too. He’s great actor who plays the part brilliantly even though it seems too similar, at least initially, to the one he played in Blue Velvet almost to the point of it being typecasting. Having the guy start out as this weird, overly eccentric, mentally unstable loner who goes around in public with his sex doll only to then turn around and become a moral authority to ‘the crazy kids of today’ is just too much of a weird clash.

Crispin Glover, with his androgenic looks and wild, hybrid VW that he drives around in, is the film’s true star and many might even say that he IS the movie. His warped idea of friendship, loyalty, and ‘honor’ is amusing and even engaging and in a offbeat way brings a sense of innocence to an otherwise jaded climate. The plot would’ve worked better had it made him the centerpiece by turning it into a black comedy where he becomes the anti-hero by trying to save his friend from getting into trouble, which ultimately would’ve hit home the same message that the drama does anyways.

Despite having its plot start from the middle and work into a nebulous finish, it’s still a gripping and groundbreaking film and something I found myself quite caught up in. I just wished it hadn’t felt the need to envelope it with a social message, but instead allowed the situation play out naturally with an ambiguous tone, which would’ve then forced the viewer to ponder the ramifications of it by themselves instead of trying to do it for them.

Although the film never mentions it this it is actually based, or at least inspired by a true incident that occurred in Milpitas, California when 14 year-old Marcy Renee Conrad was murdered by 16 year-old Anthony Broussard on November 3, 1981. After dumping the dead body into a ravine Broussard then showed it off to 10 of his friends who didn’t do anything about it until finally 2 of them decided to go to the police. However, there are some major differences from the real case to the one portrayed here. In the actual incident Marcy was also raped and Broussard was African American and his ultimate fate was much different than what happens to the killer in the movie.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: August 7, 1986

Runtime: 1 Hour 39 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Tim Hunter

Studio: Island Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video

Promises in the Dark (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Caring for cancer patient.

Elizabeth ‘Buffy’ (Kathleen Beller) is a 17-year-old high school senior who breaks her leg while kicking a soccer ball. Alexandra (Marsha Mason) is the attending physician who feels that a beak of that magnitude should not have occurred simply by kicking a ball, so after doing more x-rays they find a cancerous tumor, which necessitates having the leg amputated. While Buffy recovers from that further tests reveal that the cancer has spread and this causes Alexandra to lose her cold, defensive exterior as she tries to comfort Buffy through the remaining time that she has.

This film nicely keeps everything at an earnest level and avoids jazzing things up for dramatic purposes, which is refreshing. The acting from Ned Beatty as Buffy’s father and Susan Clark as the mother is outstanding with Clark’s character being particularly interesting especially when she doesn’t run to her sick daughter’s aid when she hears her cry for help, but instead remains frozen at the bottom of the stairs, which was something I wanted to have explored more.

Mason’s excellent dramatic talents seemed ripe for this type of material, but strangely she doesn’t come-off as well as I would’ve expected. I liked that she is portrayed as being strong and in control and the fact that she just happens to be female, in a time when doctors was still a male dominated profession,  and it’s never used against her is great, but the character’s arch, in which she learns to open-up more after her divorce, is not half as compelling as Buffy’s struggles, which should’ve made her the main character while the Dr. role thrown in as a minor secondary one.

Alexandra’s romantic relationship with another Dr., played by Michael Brandon, wasn’t necessary either. To some degree I liked how the film keeps this at a realistic level, by having the relationship full of a lot of ups-and-downs as opposed to having their eyes magically lock on each other and then in the next shot showing them in bed together like a lot of other movies do, but supposedly the element of this story was Alexandra’s friendship with Buffy and that in many ways becomes secondary to the romance.

Beller is the best thing as her sensitive portrayal connects strongly with the viewer making what she goes through quite upsetting. Having to watch a likable person learn to adjust to life with only one leg, which she does quite commendably, is one thing, but having her then go through more cancer treatments until she is left a virtual vegetable is just too much to bear and it makes the second hour downright tortuous to have to sit through.

Spoiler Alert!

Some may argue that having Buffy die was just keeping things real, but then why throw in a whole secondary story-line that doesn’t get introduced until the third act, which has a Karen Ann Quinlan-like quality to it as it deals with Buffy being kept alive long after her brain activity has ceased and Alexandra’s fight with Buffy’s parents to have the machine shut off. The fact that Alexandra eventually succeeds in turning it off only brings up more questions like did this get her into trouble with her job/reputation, or sued in court by Buffy’s parents? None of this gets answered or even touched on, but should’ve and in essence seems like a plot for a whole other movie.

Films from the 70’s were notorious for having sad endings, which in many ways made them more sincere. Yet this movie is so unrelentingly with it that I failed to see how anyone could enjoy it. Certainly it’s not something you’d ever want to watch more than once, or one that you’d ever want to invite a friend or date to as it would put a damper to any evening. This may be too maudlin for even fans of tearjerkers, which are the only people that could possibly like it.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: November 2, 1979

Runtime: 1 Hour 58 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Jerome Hellman

Studio: Orion Pictures

Available: DVD (Warner Archive), Amazon Video

Romero (1989)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Priest battles the oppression.

Based on the life of Oscar Amulfo Romero (Raul Julia) the film centers on his ascent to Archbishop of San Salvador during the political turmoil of 1977. It was presumed that Romero who had traditionally always been reserved and apolitical would act as a nice balance between the authoritative military regime and the congregation, but as the oppressive authorities welded more of a dogmatic style and killed anyone who spoke out against it, Romero became the symbol of the resistance sending him into a perilous position where his livelihood and life came into serious doubt.

On the technical end this film does quite well and noted Australian director John Duigan creates a vivid atmosphere of the time period. Many scenes are quite disturbing and even gut-wrenching as we see the faces of men, woman, and children shot and killed in cold-blood. The part where Romero sits inside the squalor of a prison cell while hearing the moans of someone being tortured in the next one and unable to do anything about it except cry out was for me the most unsettling. The outdoor scenery has a scorched earth look, which nicely reflected the mood and mind-set of most of the people living there and every shot showing a military tank passing by got me jittery. Sometimes nothing would occur, but just seeing a tank was enough to make me nervous and to that end the film does its job as I’m sure that was the same feeling those that lived through the ordeal also felt.

Although Julia does not resemble the actual Archbishop who was in his 60’s at the time and looked much older than Julia who despite the dyed gray hair still appeared to be in his 40’s, his all-around performance is quite exemplary. Throughout his career he had played many flamboyant parts, so seeing him effectively portray a buttoned-down persona was quite interesting and a testament to his acting skill.

Spoiler Alert!

The only issue that I had was that on the emotional level it fails. Since it was produced by the Catholic church I presumed that we’re supposed to feel ‘inspired’ when it’s over and yet I walked away from it feeling anything but. I kept waiting for a Gandhi-like moment where we would see first-hand how all of his struggles finally came to fruition and how one person can truly move mountains and make a difference and yet that never happens. Instead he gets murdered while conducting a religious service and the war he sought to end continued to rage on for another decade killing an additional 60,000 to 90,000 more people.

Yes, there were indeed moments where Romero displayed amazing courage, but every time he revealed his bravery it just made his situation even worse. If the idea was to motivate the viewer to go out and be a hero it doesn’t work. If anything it unintentionally seems to state that laying low and keeping your mouth shut in the face of adversity is a good thing because at least you’ll remain alive and if you do choose to fight, it will only lead to death and nothing substantial to show for it.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Release: August 25, 1989

Runtime: 1 Hour 42 Minutes

Rated PG-13

Director: John Duigan

Studio: Four Square

Available: DVD, Amazon Video

Banning (1967)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Golf pro seeks revenge.

Mike Banning (Robert Wagner) was at one time an up-and-coming golf star, but then his promising career came crashing down when he was accused of trying to rig a game by bribing his competitor. In reality it was his competitor Jonathan Linus (Guy Stockwell) who did the bribing and when Mike refused to go in on it Jonathan tabbed him for the crime. Now Mike has returned to the golf club that Jonathan and his rich wife Cynthia (Susan Clark) own. He demands to be given a job or he’ll tell the truth about what happened, but after securing a position at the club Mike then must deal with the mob who bankrolled his initial PGA run and now demand repayment, which forces Mike into the type of scheme that he had earlier avoided.

This is the type of film that could be deemed ‘dead-on-arrival’ as the characters  are so painfully cliched in the most soap opera-like extreme that it’s almost laughable, but strangely it’s still captivating. Most likely this is because we as regular people still get-off seeing the rich and powerful self-destruct by not only eating up each other, but many times themselves as well. Realizing that people with a lot of money don’t really ‘have-at-all’ and in many cases can be even more miserable is sort of satisfying and to that extent this movie succeeds admirable.

Unfortunately the sets are not as gaudy and over-the-top as they needed to be. When the characters are excessive the backdrop needs to match it and in this case it doesn’t. The golf club appears to be just some set piece created inside a studio and this visual sterility defeats the campiness by ultimately stymieing the melodrama into a formulaic programmer.

Wagner though is what really kills it by performing his role like he were sleepwalking. He shows no energy or nuance and simply goes around with this perpetual irritated look on his face and nothing more. How can a movie stimulate any interest when its lead has no panache? Even Jill St. John who Wagner later married in real-life buries him with her presence to the point that he doesn’t even seem worthy enough to share the same screen with her.

In support Howard St John (no relation to Jill) is fun as a conniving elderly rich tycoon who pretends to be drunk when he really isn’t as well as Anjanette Comer playing in a rare straight role. Her career has been marked with so many cult movie parts that seeing her play someone who is normal becomes genuinely diverting. Unfortunately Gene Hackman, who is miscast as an aging golf-pro even though he was in reality the same age as Wagner, gets wasted.

The climactic golf match manages to be surprisingly captivating and proves that the game can have a certain cinematic flair if done right, but some of the film’s other stabs at action don’t work so well. The car chase is a particular problem as it becomes painfully clear that Wagner really isn’t driving a vehicle, but simply sitting in front of a green screen instead, which pretty much helps to cements this as a dated relic.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: June 30, 1967

Runtime: 1 Hour 42 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Ron Winston

Studio: Universal

Available: None at this time

Split Image (1982)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Their son becomes brainwashed.

Danny (Micheal O’Keefe) is a struggling athlete who’s feeling overwhelmed by the demands and pressures of college life. He meets-up with Rebecca (Karen Allen) who invites him to a weekend stay at what turns out to be a religious cult run by Kirklander (Peter Fonda). It is there that Danny becomes brainwashed into the organization and cuts off all ties with his parents (Brian Dennehy, Elizabeth Ashley) who decide they have no option but to kidnap him and then have him deprogrammed by a brash, caustic deprogrammer (James Woods) who they find to be rude but helpful

This film is very similar to Ticket to Heaven that was produced in Canada and has the same story and structure. The Canadian production though is a bit better especially with the way it examines the protagonist getting acclimated into the cult. Both films have the young man becoming brainwashed in a matter of one weekend which to me is too quick. The Canadian film though at least examines the different activities that they go through to wear him down and it gets in your face with it, so the viewer feels as exhausted as the young man when t’s over while this film glosses over that part making the transition seem too extreme. The Canadian film also detailed the character’s constant inner turmoil even after he’d been indoctrinated while here Danny behaves like a light switch that completely changes from his old self in a snap and then never looks back, which is less realistic

The B-story dealing with a romance that he has with Rebecca while in the group degrades the the story to a sappy opera level and should’ve been left out. Allen certainly is perfect for her role as her bright, beaming blue eyes gives her character that brainwashed appearance, but the extended conversations she has with Danny are strained making me believe that the scenes inside the cult should’ve been cut as they’re corny instead of compelling and focused instead  solely on the parents point-of-view at trying to get him out.

The film though does score with the deprogramming segment, which gets much more extended here. Director Ted Kotcheff uses elaborate visual effects to convey Danny’s point-of-view and unlike in Ticket to Heaven the deprogrammer doesn’t allow the family and friends to sit-in on his sessions as he feared they won’t understand his methods, which is more believable.

Ashley as the mother is great especially her meltdown near the end with Danny when he tries to physically attack her.  I had some problems though with Dennehy’s character as he seemed much too calm and laid back and even starts singing as they drive to the cult location even though most people would be nervous and then later showing him breaking down and crying as he watched an old video of Danny is too overwrought.

Woods though perfectly captures the anti-hero with his intended brashness being more amusing than offensive. The part where he plays-out a scene to the movie Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde starring Spencer Tracy was I’m convinced ad-libbed and a great example of  how his acting genius gives this movie a needed edge and whose presence keeps it watchable.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: October 3, 1982

Runtime: 1 Hour 50 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Ted Kotcheff

Studio: Orion Pictures

Available: VHS, Amazon Video

Ticket to Heaven (1981)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: He joins a cult.

Despondent over his recent break-up with his girlfriend, David (Nick Mancuso) visits a religious revival group attended by many young adults his age. He finds their incessant, ritualistic games of singing and dancing to be annoying at first as well as their lack of sleep and skimpy diet, but eventually he succumbs to their control. His friend Larry (Saul Rubinek) tracks him down and tries to free him, but realizes they have brainwashed him to such a severe extent that he is forced to concoct an elaborate kidnapping plan in order to bring him to an undisclosed place where he can then be deprogrammed.

Although religious cults aren’t quite as prevalent now back in the 70’s there were many incidents of parents losing their teens or young adult children to the icy grip of these brainwashing organizations and the struggles to bring them back to the real world proved grueling and sometimes futile. This film, based on the nonfiction novel ‘Moonwebs’ by Josh Freed, manages to hit home the finer points of the phenomenon giving the viewer a vivid understanding of the situation not only for those that became members, but their family and friends who had to helplessly watch loved ones devolve into a mindless, robotic shell of what they once were.

One of the drawbacks though is that the protagonist is portrayed too broadly. The film makes it seem as if anyone could get brainwashed by these groups, which I don’t agree with. I realize everyone can at times be vulnerable, but certain people fall more into these mind traps than others and there’s nothing clear as to why David fell prey so badly and just saying he was upset about his recent breakup is not enough of an explanation for a such a severe downward spiral.

Rubinek as his friend is really annoying and turning him into the essential hero of the film makes it even worse. On the petty side I couldn’t stand his overly bushy eyebrows or that he goes on stage dressed as a giant carrot and later a tomato just for cheap laughs, which is the type of guy you want to see fade away not ultimately root for. What really got on my nerves though was how he comes up with such an elaborate kidnapping plan and pulls it off confidently despite having no experience and the fact that he gets so many others to help him do it including his own boss really pushes the film’s credibility badly.

The direction though deserves accolades particularly the first 25 minutes, which detail the different manipulative tactics these groups do in order to wear down the newbies. The shots showing David trying to leave the group and constantly being hounded by other members refusing to ever let him be alone are memorable. I also liked the bird’s eye shots of all the people taking part, which is almost jaw dropping at just how many there were.

The performance by Kim Cattrall as one of the group’s main members nicely illustrates how a young smiling, pretty face could allure a young man to let down his guard only for her to ultimately convey her controlling claws later. The scenes dealing with the deprogramming are good, but could’ve been extended and there’s never any mention of the time frame as the movie makes it seems like it takes only a few days when in reality it could sometimes be weeks or even months. Overall it’s a compelling look at a difficult subject that is quite similar to Split Image starring Micheal O’Keefe, which came out around the same time and will be reviewed tomorrow.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: October 9, 1981

Runtime: 1Hour 48Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Ralph L. Thomas

Studio: United Artists

Available: DVD