Category Archives: Drama

The Last Metro (1980)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Hiding from the Nazis.

Bernard (Gerard Depardieu) is a young actor, who’s also a member of the French Resistance, living in occupied Paris during World War II. He gets a part as the leading man in a play at a playhouse run by Marion (Catherine Denueve) who has taken over the business since her husband Lucas (Heinz Bennent), who was Jewish, and supposedly fled the country when the Nazis took over, but in reality is hiding-out inside the cellar. Bernard and Marion don’t get along at first, but slowly form a bond when they find a mutual enemy in the form of theater critic Daxiat (Jean-Louis Richard) who is an anti-Semite that writes a nasty review about their play, accusing it of being pro-Jewish, in an effort to close the place down, so that he can take it over.

The film, which was writer/director Francois Truffaut’s most successful movie financially and one of the highest grossing French Films ever, remains sufficiently compelling despite very little that actually happens. One of the elements though that I found intriguing was the behind-the-scenes segments revealing all the work that gets put into a play before its opening night premiere . I especially liked Nadine (Sabine Haudepin) as a young actress who tirelessly goes from one acting gig to another, sometimes multiple ones on the same day, in order to help her career and get established.

Revealing right away, or pretty much by the end of the first act, that the husband has never left the country like everyone presumes, was a mistake that lessened the intrigue. For one thing the place he is hiding in, which is the cellar of the theater, is not too creative and even has a back door leading out to the alley way, which made me feel that anyone could’ve caught on to his whereabouts a lot sooner especially as Marion sometimes leaves her visits with him by going out the back entrance. Any passer-by/snitch could see her doing this and wonder what the door lead to, or called the Nazi authorities to have them investigate. It’s also not clear how, in seemingly a few minutes time, Marion is able to hide Lucas and his bed/personal belongings, from the Gestapo when they eventually insist on checking-out the basement.

Marion’s interactions with her husband is not particularly compelling and yet these scenes take up the majority of the runtime during the second act while Depardieu, who is excellent, barely gets seen at all. Then during the third act Marion and Bernard suddenly get really into each other, but the interactions between the two needed to be shown more for this to be organic to the viewer and in fact should’ve been more the focus of the film than Lucas. Had I been the director I would’ve kept Lucas’ whereabouts a secret until near the end when Bernard finally becomes aware of it and used the mystery of whether Marion knew more about it than she lets on as part of the intrigue.

The ending is a bit of a disappointment. The tone of the film works as a drama, but then suddenly shifts with about 10 minutes to go into a quirky comedy, which doesn’t work. The story threads get wrapped up in too tidy of way leaving the dynamics of Marion’s relationship with Bernard and Lucas’ response to it wide-open. After 2 hours and 10 minutes the character arcs should’ve been better defined and since they aren’t it makes the viewer feel like the movie doesn’t really go anywhere, or lead to anything insightful, which is a shame as it’s a nice looking, period authentic production otherwise.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: September 17, 1980

Runtime: 2 Hours 11 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Francois Truffaut

Studio: Gaumont

Available: DVD, Amazon Video

Another Woman (1988)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: She reanalyzes her life.

Marion (Gena Rowlands) is a college professor over 50, whose taken a leave of absence in order to write a book. Due to the construction at her place she sublets another apartment in order to have it quiet for her writing, but finds that it’s next to a psychiatrist’s office and through the vent can hear everything that the patients talk about. She becomes especially intrigued with a young pregnant woman named Hope (Mia Farrow) who talks about how empty her life is and this touches a cord with Marion, who despite being much older, feels the same way about her own life. This then forces her to reanalyze how she’s treated her family and friends through the years and causing her to face some harsh realities about herself.

While writer/director Woody Allen has the reputation of a being an intellectual as well as a perfectionist, the film’s opening shot had to be rewritten several times before he was happy with it, it’s surprising how dumb he is with basic physics. The idea that Marion could put a couple of couch cushions over the vent and this would be enough to blot out all of the noise coming from the neighboring apartment just doesn’t ring true. Sure it might muffle the voices a bit, but not a complete block of sound to where she’d hear no noise at all and having the vent be in another room in the apartment, which would’ve allowed her the convenience of simply closing that room’s door in order to cut-off the noise, would’ve worked better.

I was also surprised how later on in the film, Marion tells the psychiatrist about the ‘acoustical irregularities’ that allows her to hear everything that’s said in his office and the Dr. admits to being aware of this, but says he’ll ‘correct it’. What kind of psychiatrist though would knowingly allow his patient’s most personal thoughts to get out for others to hear? This made me think the plot would’ve worked better as one of Allen’s comedies where a writer puts the stories overheard from the patients into their book and when it becomes a best-seller, both the author and Dr. get sued and tormented by the angry patients sending them to a psychiatrists of their own.

Like with all of Allen’s dramas the cast of characters are entirely made-up of upper middle-class intellectuals, which gives the film an elitist, snobby vibe by implying that these types of people are the only ones sophisticated enough to have complex problems that people in the lower socio-economic classes supposedly don’t. They seem too much like caricatures as well who have the exact same interests (writing, the arts, and going to operas) and it would’ve been nice had there been one working class person who wasn’t into all of these things thrown into the mix simply to give it a better balance.

The fact that just about all of the characters are having affairs, many times with each other, makes it too soap opera-like. The scene where Gena bumps into Sandy Dennis and her husband and the three go to a pub for drinks gets particularly over-the-top when Dennis bluntly accuses her husband of paying too much attention to Gena. In most cases if a wife has a problem with her husband’s behavior she’ll keep it to herself and then bring it up later when the two are alone and not out in public for everyone to hear especially to a friend that she hasn’t seen in awhile and is only an acquaintance.

I didn’t like Marion as she’s too cold and while I realize this was intentional she’s not the type of person that the viewer can warm-up to, or care that much about. Mia Farrow’s character is far more appealing and I wanted more of her and was shocked how little screen time she ultimately gets. The part wasn’t even meant for her as she was set to play Marion before she got pregnant and then when Dianne Weist, who was originally cast as Hope, had to leave the production due to illness and her replacement, Jane Alexander, didn’t approach the character the way Woody wanted, so it was eventually given to Farrow, who does quite well despite the fact that she was already in her 40’s at the time even though the person she was playing was supposed to be in their 20’s.

The film does end on a strong note, but it does take awhile before it gets there and comes-off as clunky and unintentionally funny at other points. The scenes with John Houseman, who plays Marion’s father, are particularly hammy as he sits at the dinner table conveying his lines like he still thinks he’s Professor Kingfish speaking to an auditorium full of students. However, David Ogden Stiers impression of Houseman (he plays a younger version of him during a flashback scene) is spot-on and the movie is almost worth catching just for that.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: October 14, 1988

Runtime: 1 Hour 21 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Woody Allen

Studio: Orion Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, Blu-ray (Region 0), YouTube

Weekend of Shadows (1978)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Manhunt for murder suspect.

In rural Australia during the 1930’s a farmer’s wife is found murdered inside her home. Suspicions immediately fall on a Polish laborer who had always been deemed ‘peculiar’ by the locals and while there’s no other evidence pointing to his guilt it’s enough to get the men in the community together to form a posse. Sergeant Caxton (Wyn Roberts) hopes that if he can capture the suspect it will help mend his reputation, which had been tarnished while working in Sydney and got him demoted to the small town that both he and his wife (Barbara West) don’t like. Vi (Melissa Jaffer) feels this will be a perfect opportunity for her shy husband, Rabbit (John Waters) to bond with the other men by going along on the hunt, but he resists thinking that the whole thing is just a knee-jerk, mob reaction and wants nothing to do with it, but at the behest of his constantly prodding wife he eventually joins, but learns to regret it.

Out of all of the manhunt movies that are out there this one may be the most unusual in that it doesn’t focus on the suspect at all, in fact you barely ever see him, but instead on the various men in the group. Surprisingly though this manages to be quite effective and I found myself wrapped-up in the various personalities of the participants and how all of them clash with each other at various times. The budget though is quite low, screenwriter Peter Yeldham and director Tom Jeffrey were forced to make many concessions on the script just to get the necessary funding, and while the stark production values will initially be a turn-off, the overall drama, which is based on the novel ‘The Reckoning’ by Hugh Atkinson, will eventually compensate.

I didn’t though like the flashbacks showing Vi and Rabbit’s courtship, which I felt wasn’t necessary and bogged down the tension. The relationship between them is intriguing on a certain level as it shows how wives can have a strong influence over their husbands and get them to do things they wouldn’t otherwise, this same scenario also gets played-out between the constable and his wife, but the scenes showing their dating period offers no further insights and no effort is made to make the actors appear younger even though the courtship had been many years prior.

Spoiler Alert!

While the film was a hit with the critics it sank at the box office recouping only $61,000 of the $495,000 that had been put into it, which soured Jeffrey from directing movies and he helmed only one other, The Last of the Knucklemenafter this one. Ironically Hugh Atkinson was quite impressed with the finished product, which was odd since most of the time author’s of the book which the movie is based are usually not happy with the director’s interpretation of their work, but Atkinon felt Jeffrey ‘got it’ particularly with the ending, which he stated represented the crucifixion. Personally I didn’t see this connection, and neither did Jeffrey, who felt like I did that the story was more about how group dynamics can get out of hand, but Atkinson insisted the crucifixion element was the centerpiece. The ending will be a surprise to many and leaves open many questions, but what you ultimately make of it will be up to your own personal perspective.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: April 12, 1978

Runtime: 1 Hour 25 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Tom Jeffrey

Studio: The South Australian Film Commission

Available: VHS

Swing Shift (1984)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Women help build aircrafts.

Kay (Goldie Hawn) lives with her husband Jack (Ed Harris) in a housing complex in Los Angeles and have a happy marriage until December 7, 1941 when the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, which causes Jack to immediately enlist into the Navy and go off to war. Kay now must learn to manage for herself and with the shortage of men many companies begin recruiting area housewives to apply to help fill-in. Kay, along with the other women in her neighborhood, get a job at a factory that builds aircrafts. It’s here that she becomes friends with Hazel (Christine Lahti) who lived next door to her, but she never got to know since her husband considered Hazel to be ‘white trash’. She also meets a fellow co-worker named Lucky (Kurt Russell) who was not drafted due to a heart condition. Lucky takes an immediate liking to her and asks her out even though he knows that she’s married. Kay at first resists his advances, but eventually gives in and starts an affair with him just as Jack returns home.

The film does a good job of recreating the 40’s period atmosphere and there’s an opening catchy tune sung by Carly Simon, but everything else is dull and boring. Many people blame this on Hawn who did not get along with director Jonathan Demme and insisted on many scenes being reshot with another director. Demme was so incensed about the changes that he tried to have his name removed from the credits, but was talked out of it while Nancy Dowd, who had written the screenplay, got listed under the pseudonym of Rob Morton. Hawn’s defense for going against the objections of the director was that she was simply trying to ‘make the movie work’, but in 2017 the magazine Sight and Sound compared Demme’s director’s cut to Hawn’s version and the article’s authors felt that Demme’s was far superior.

This is also where Russell and Hawn first met and precipitated their long relationship that they’re still in today, which is great, but Russell’s character was one of the biggest problems. He continually pesters Kay for a date even after she makes clear several times that she’s married and isn’t interested, which makes him come-off like a potential stalker. I also didn’t understand why he was so obsessed with her, sure she was good-looking, but so was he and he moonlight as a trumpeter at a dance club where he was the center of attention and could easily attract other women, so why get so hyper-focused with Kay when he could easily find many other pretty ladies to date in her place? I also didn’t like that Kay eventually goes to bed with him, which ends up rewarding his bad behavior.

Kay’s relationship with Hazel doesn’t work either. Initially they come-off as having wildly divergent personalities and lifestyles, Hazel is even quite snarky with Kay at the start, but then overnight they become best chums, which isn’t interesting, or authentic. The odd couple-like love/hate approach would’ve offered more zing in a movie that’s too tranquil to begin with. Much of this may be blamed on Hawn as well, as she felt Lahti had become too much of a ‘scene stealer’ and had many of her scenes either rewritten or cut-out completely.

It would’ve worked better had it focused more on the job and women trying to make-it in what was at the time a predominantly man’s world. There are some moments of sexism shown particularly with the character played by Charles Napier, but it gets quickly resolved, which is too convenient and misses out on being a character building drama that this movie was in desperate need of.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: April 13, 1984

Runtime: 1 Hour 40 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Jonathan Demme

Studio: Warner Brothers

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

A Hero Ain’t Nothing but a Sandwich (1978)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Getting hooked on heroin.

Benjie (Larry B. Scott) is an African American teen living with his single mother (Cicely Tyson), her boyfriend Butler (Paul Winfield) and her mother (Helen Martin) in a rundown area of Los Angeles. Benjie harbors a low self-esteem at being abandoned by his biological father years earlier and has not adjusted to Butler acting as his surrogate father and the two have many fights. To deal with his alienation he gets into drugs after befriending a local dealer named Tiger (Kevin Hooks). At first he dabbles in marijuana and likes the high it gives him, so he tries heroin, which eventually gets him hooked and it starts a downward spiral. His family tries to help him as best they can, but when he gets suspended from school they feel they have no other choice but to send him to a drug rehabilitation hospital where they hope he’ll recover.

While there were some critics, as evidenced by the film poster above, that did like the film there were also others at the time that labeled it as ‘preachy’ and coming off more like an after school special than a movie. Despite being based on the novel of the same name, which had been highly praised, and with a screenplay written by Alice Childress, who had also been the author of the book, I still came into it a bit leery wondering if the negative reviews had merit and I’d be spending the 2-hours bored, but I came away impressed with how captivating and sincere it overall was.

A lot of the credit goes to Scott, who although was 15 when it was filmed, but effectively looks only 13 like his character, which makes the scenes where he shoots-up all the more shocking. Winfield is also excellent playing someone who’s bitter about life due to a failed music career and reluctant to take on a fatherly role particularly when the kid lashes out at him at seemingly every turn. Glynn Turman is solid too as Benjie’s African studies teacher as well as David Groh, better know as Joe in the TV-series ‘Rhoda’, playing the only white teacher in an all-black school who feels like an outsider himself. Helen Martin though steals it as the elderly grandmother who gets violently mugged by two kids on the street at the beginning and then later on does a provocative dance for the family in remembrance to her days as a young dance hall girl.

What I did have a problem with were the scenes inside the drug rehabilitation clinic that get shown through a series of black-and-white photographs. I don’t mind directors throwing in artistic elements into the narrative, but when the film had been working as a straight forward drama for the entire first hour then it kind of needs to stay that way and suddenly changing the approach becomes distracting. I’m not sure why these hospital scenes get glossed over the way they do, but it makes the viewer feel more distant from the character and what he’s going through.

Winfield’s bonding with the kid ends-up being problematic as well. I didn’t have an issue with it at the start as I kind of liked seeing this guy, who clearly had no blueprint on parenting, being forced into a situation that he really didn’t ask for, or know how to navigate. However, he becomes a little too emotionally bonded with Benjie by the end that just didn’t seem genuine. After all this really wasn’t his biological child and he hadn’t even married the mother, so to take on all of this extra responsibility, that should’ve been the mother’s, didn’t seen realistic. Tyson needed to play a stronger role here having her stand side-by-side with Winfield as they help her son through the withdrawal process. Having her instead getting written-off as this kook who’s into voodoo and at one point strips her teenage son naked and throws him into a bathtub filled with potions that she feels will ‘cure’ him and eventually jumps into the tub with him is a definite cringe moment, particularly by today’s standards, and a low point in a movie that otherwise is adequately done most of the way.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: February 3, 1978

Runtime: 1 Hour 47 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Ralph Nelson

Studio: New World Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, Tubi, Plex

Careful, He Might Hear You (1983)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Custody battle between sisters.

When his mother dies just a few days after his birth PS (Nicholas Gledhill) moves in with his Aunt Lila (Robyn Nevin) and Uncle George (Peter Whitford). There he has a happy childhood growing up in a working-class neighborhood. Then Lila’s wealthy sister Vanessa (Wendy Hughes) arrives stating she wants custody of the child on weekdays since she has more money and because PS’s absentee father (John Hargreaves) named her as co-guardian. PS doesn’t like going to Vanessa’s as she’s much more rigid and authoritarian forcing him to go to a private school filled with snotty kids and doing other things like taking piano lessons, which he doesn’t like. Vanessa also suffers from a fear of thunderstorms while Lila and George are unemployed making it hard for the judge to decide who the better guardian should be once the battle goes to court.

The film is based on the 1963 novel of the same name written by Sumner Locke Elliot who in turn based it on events of his own life after his mother died just one day after his birth. The film succeeds mainly from the sincere performance of its child star who is quite cute, at times maybe a little too cute, but then surprises the viewer in one completely unexpected moment of nastiness near the end. I also liked the way director Carl Schultz frames of the point-of-view shots where we see things from the child’s height making the adults appear foreboding and like he’s being swallowed up into their world, which is pretty much what happens.

While the film is billed as being this big court battle between two women it really comes-off like a character study of Vanessa, who gets much more screen time and a more of in-depth personality. This is good because Nevin’s character is a bit too basic and offers no real surprises though she does have an unexpected asthma attack while testifying in court, which I felt was a bit over-the-top since this was something that should’ve been introduced earlier if it was going to come into play during a pivotal moment. Hughes though is excellent. She had been only in supporting roles up to this point, mainly that of youthful girlfriend types to the main character, but here she successfully carries the film in an atypical part of a frigid woman.

Spoiler Alert!

The film’s crowning achievement though is the way it takes a character, in this case Vanessa, who you really don’t like for most of the movie, and then turns her into someone you sympathize with and even feel sorry for by the end. A lot of movies don’t do this, especially the Hollywood ones where the good guys and bad guys must work within a rigid formula, so it’s refreshing seeing a film do something differently and it really works. I found myself thinking about this one long after it was over and feeling emotionally conflicted by it and it’s all because of Hughes’ ability to create a three dimensional person that doesn’t fit into any stereotype even though you initially think she can be. A highly recommended film for those who understand how difficult it can be to deal and communicate effectively with children and how one’s best efforts can sometimes backfire badly.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: September 22, 1983

Runtime: 1 Hour 49 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Carl Schultz

Studio: Hoyts Distribution

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Newsfront (1978)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Life of a cameraman.

The story centers on the men and women who worked to bring Australian film audiences the latest footage of news events of the day during post World War II. It focuses on those working for a company called Cinetone, which is run by A. G. Marwood (Don Crosby), who’s a demanding boss who expects perfection in the product that he sends out as well as footage that is brought in. The movie also looks at the private lives of the crew including Len (Bill Hunter) whose brother Frank (Gerard Kennedy) works for a competitor as well as the advent of TV news, which eventually put the weekly news reels out of business since they could show the events live as they happened.

The film is unusual in that the first 15 minutes are in black-and-white looking much like the newsreel footage that is shown during the opening credits only to shift suddenly into color. It then goes back and forth between color and black-and-white at roughly 30-minute intervals where for a couple minutes the scene shifts to black-and-white for no apparent reason that I could find and then eventually back to color. I’m not sure what the significance of this was, but it’s a bit distracting and doesn’t help get the viewer into the story, but if anything drives them a bit away.

The plot is different too as it’s made up of small personal dramas versus one big one. I didn’t necessarily have a problem with this, but I did feel the conflicts should’ve been more tied to the newsreel profession, which the majority of it isn’t. For instance the story thread dealing with Len’s opposition to having an amendment added to the constitution barring affiliation with the communist party, which goes against the sentiments of the rest of the town, has nothing intrinsically to do with his camerawork and therefore didn’t seem necessary to the story. There’s also scenes dealing with his failing marriage and love affair with co-worker Amy (Wendy Hughes), which again could happen in any work place and seemed rather pedestrian.

There’s also other threads that I thought should’ve been played-out more. Len’s conflict with his assistant Chris (Chris Haywood) over his reluctance to get married to his girlfriend after he finds out she’s pregnant had potential for strong dramatic moments and it would’ve been interesting seeing them continue to work together despite the underlying tensions, but like with a lot of things in this movie, it gets briefly introduced and then quickly resolved. The same thing happens when Len is forced to work with a new assistant after Chris dies unexpectedly. It’s obvious during the short scene of the two in a car that there’s a big generational difference between them, which piqued my interest seeing if they could forge a working relationship despite these issues, but the film never goes back to it, which I found frustrating.

Overall it manages to be compelling nonetheless and much of it could be credited to actual newsreel footage that gets shown throughout. The violent ones that get shown at the start I found particularly riveting including the one where a race car careen out of control and drives right into the spectators, where it clearly injuries and kills many. I was almost hoping for a backstory to that one, but none is given yet it skillfully illustrates how vivid some of the newsreel footage was even after all of these years, which is the best point that the movie makes. I just wished the scenarios dealt more with the work aspect. In a lot of ways my favorite character was A.G. as I enjoyed the way he fretted about every little detail, was a classic chain smoker, and seemed married to his job. It’s a shame he didn’t stay on the whole way through as he was the type of obsessive guy you could’ve really built a movie around.

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My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: July 29, 1978

Runtime: 1 Hour 50 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Phillip Noyce

Studio: Roadshow Shows

Available: DVD, Tubi

R.P.M. (1970)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10′

4-Word Review: Caught in the middle.

Paco Perez (Anthony Quinn) is a college professor given the position of acting university president after a group of students overtake an administration building, which forces the other president out. Paco now has the duty of negotiating with these students in order to meet their requests and have them leave the building, but their list of 12 demands are extreme and Paco cannot agree to all of them. Eventually he accepts 9 of the conditions, but Rossiter (Gary Lockwood) the head of the student movement refuses to budge unless all 12 are met, which continues the standoff until Paco feels he has no other choice but to have the police called in and the students forcibly removed.

For a film with the title of Revolutions Per Minute this is woefully lacking in action. There had already been other films dealing with the campus unrest of the day including The Strawberry Statement and Getting Straight and while neither one of those were perfect they at least had violent confrontations between the protesters and authorities, but this thing is mainly all talk. These students are also the most uninteresting ‘radicals’ that I’ve ever seen and spend most of their time just looking out the window. I would think at their age they’d be partying, doing drugs, drinking, listening to rock music, sex, and maybe even some infighting amongst themselves in between meeting with Paco, but instead it has the atmosphere of a retirement community.

Writer Erich Segal and director Stanley Kramer, who later admitted this was the least favorite of his films and the first to do poorly at the box office, were too old and out-of-touch with the young generation to effectively tackle the subject in any meaningful way. The kids are bland and the scenes with them stagnate. All of the emphasis is put on Quinn and while some of the issues that it brings out, which mainly consist at how the older generation sees things and approaches things differently, is not enough to keep it compelling despite the arguments that he has with his much younger live-in girlfriend, played by Ann-Margret, which are the only times when the movie gets quasi-lively, but even then it’s not enough to save it.

The biggest disappointment is when the police finally do invade the building. I was hoping for a big battle to make up for all the boredom that came before, but Kramer fails to deliver. He unwisely uses music during these clashes, which should not be necessary as the yelling, screaming, and other noises from the chaos would be more than enough to keep it riveting, much like in Medium CoolHe also blurs out the images, so we just see these fuzzy little dots on the screen, which I guess was his idea of being ‘artsy’, but it doesn’t allow for any emotional impact. Ultimately it becomes just another run-of-the-mill flick looking to cash-in on the screaming headlines of the day, but offers no new insight. Kramer was famous for making ‘relevant’ films that tackled difficult topics like Judgement at Nuremburg, The Defiant Ones, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and while those were a success this one was an overreach and he should’ve quit while he was ahead.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: September 16, 1970

Runtime: 1 Hour 32 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Stanley Kramer

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD-R

White Dog (1982)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Dog attacks black people.

Late one night while driving home aspiring actress Julie (Kristy McNichol) hits a stray dog, which she takes immediately to an emergency vet. They find that his injuries were minimal and she’s allowed to take him home until his owner can be found. She soon starts to bond with the White Shepherd dog, who at one point saves her from a would-be rapist. She also becomes aware that he attacks black people when he goes after one of her African American friends unprovoked. She takes him to an elderly dog trainer named Carruthers (Burl Ives) who advised that the dog should be put to sleep, but another trainer named Keyes (Paul Winfield), who is black, wants to rehabilitate the animal, but finds this undertaking far more challenging than he initially expected.

The story is based on a real-life incident of novelist Romain Gary and his actress wife Jean Seberg, who during the early 60’s took in a stray dog that had previously been an Alabama Police dog, who they later learned, was trained to attack black people. Gary wrote about this experience in a short story that was published in Life Magazine in 1970 and this was eventually turned into a novel. The novel though incorporated many things that had not occurred in real-life, nor in the movie, including having the dog trainer being an angry black Muslim who gets the dog to start attacking white people including Gary himself.

The story rights were purchased by Paramount in 1975 with Roman Polanski set to direct, but when he was forced to flee the country due to statutory rape chargers the projects was put on hold. Then after the success of Jaws producers decided to turn it into a ‘jaws with paws’ storyline with the racism angle taken out, but when director Samuel Fuller was signed on he returned the plot to its original theme, which caused controversy when the NAACP, without ever having seen the film, accused it of being ‘racist’, which frightened Paramount executives enough that they gave the movie a very limited engagement with no promotion, which led to it recouping only $46, 509 out of its original $7 million budget. Despite eventually getting released on VHS and shown sporadically on cable outlets such as Lifetime, it languished in obscurity until finally getting a DVD/Blu-ray issue in 2008 where it’s now seen in a totally different light.

For me the biggest problem is the hackneyed drama starting with the dopey way the dog gets hit by a car and yet miraculously healed enough to go home that very same night and never showing any lingering injuries. The potential rape scene is too manufactured as well as it has the rapist magically appearing in the apartment without showing how he broke-in and later having one of the cops state that he had just arrested the same guy earlier that year for another rape attempt, so if that’s the case then why wasn’t he still in jail? It also has the dog sleeping as the bad guy sneaks in, but I’ve found dogs have a keen sense of awareness and would’ve heard the guy trying to bust in and growling or barking long before he actually made it into the apartment. Having Kristy go on a late night jog with the dog and then being chased by a masked assailant, which the dog would scare away, would’ve been a better way to have done it.

I also didn’t like the part where Kristy meets the dog’s owner and he openly admits to training him to attack black people, which to me didn’t seem believable. I liked the idea of having the owner being this seemingly kindly old man, played by Parley Baer best known for voicing the Keebler Elf, that you’d never expect as being someone who’d train an animal to do such a thing. However, freely admitting this to a stranger is like a murderer admitting to their crime. Most won’t fess up because they know it would get them into a lot of trouble if they did. Movies should also not be obligated to explain everything and like in real-life should leave a few things open-ended. When Kristy accuses him of this he could reveal a funny look on his face, giving the viewer insight that he most likely was guilty, but then have him verbally deny it like most people would.

While I could’ve done without the slow motion and booming music I did find the dog’s retraining sessions with Keys to be the film’s best moments and Winfield’s strong presence is excellent. However, trying to use a dog as a metaphor to racism doesn’t really work, nor hold-up to logic. Winfield explains that the dog was most likely beaten by a black person hired by a white man to get the dog to become the way he does, but I don’t think this could be achieved as the dog would just hate that one individual and not connect it to the man’s skin color unless he was abused by a whole group of black people. We’re also told that the dog does not hate black people he just fears them, but if that’s the case then why does he go out of his way to attack and kill them. Animals will only go on the attack if they feel threatened, but if the perceived threat keeps their distance then the dog shouldn’t feel the need to be aggressive making the blood splattering attacks that the dog does come off as quite over-the-top.

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My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: November 12, 1982

Runtime: 1 Hour 30 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Samuel Fuller

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD/Blu-ray (Criterion Collection)

Conversation Piece (1974)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Obnoxious tenants take over.

Burt Lancaster plays an aging Professor who lives alone in his giant palazzo situated in Rome along with the exquisite art pieces that he has collected through the years. His only connection with other people comes through the form of his servants headed by his live-in maid Erminia (Elvira Cortese), but even here his communications with them is distant and detached. Then one day a Countess (Silvana Mangano) arrives asking if she can rent his upstairs room, which he rarely uses. The Professor is initially reluctant, but the Countess is looking for a place to harbor her young, left-wing lover Konrad (Helmut Berger) from her right-wing husband as well as using it as a sanctuary for her teen daughter Lietta (Claudia Marsani) to spend time with her boyfriend Stefano (Stefano Patrizi). After a great deal of insistence he finally agrees. The new tenants then immediately begin remolding the room using outside contractors, which creates a great deal of noise and distraction, causing the Professor to regret his decision and feel like his once peaceful abode has now been invaded.

The behind-the-scenes had more drama than anything you see in front of the camera as director Luchino Visconti had suffered a stroke that left him confined to a wheelchair and made it hard to find funding as backers believed he was in such bad shape that the film wouldn’t be completed only to have Lancaster assure them that he would take over directing should it become necessary. To help compensate everything was shot on a soundstage, which is the most impressive thing about it as the interiors were so meticulously created that it genuinely looks like an old lived-in mansion complete with a wide assortment of artifacts that you’d find in an home resided in by an elderly person. There’s even a hidden room and the major renovation by the tenants to the upstairs is visually intoxicating. Ultimately though it becomes static and having at least a few scenes done outdoors, or in a different locale, would’ve helped.

Lancaster is excellent and comes-off seeming quite old even though he was really only in his late 50’s. His facials expressions and body language are enough to carry it even as his voice gets dubbed into Italian, which is weird at first, but eventually you get used to it. Still I didn’t understand why since it was shot in English that the dubbing even was necessary as they could’ve used subtitles for Italian viewers while allowing the authentic voices of the actors to remain.

Spoiler Alert!

The biggest disappointment though is the story, which essentially doesn’t lead to anything interesting. I sat through it convinced there was some subtle context beneath the surface that was sure to come out as I couldn’t believe these tenants could be as obnoxious as they were without intentionally doing it in order to drive the guy mad, so they could  take over the residence, steal his paintings, and resell them on the black market, at least that’s what I thought would be the twist, but instead there really isn’t any. Despite the way they annoy the Professor at every turn he still ends up appreciating their presence and calling them his ‘family’ while anyone else would’ve had them forcibly removed and the locks changed. No matter how lonely one might be dealing with these idiots and the massive upheaval that they brought including criminal elements and even sexual perversity would be considered NOT worth it to any rational person. The fact that the film acts like it is and goes as far as rehabilitating their image to that of ‘well meaning losers’ by the end made it corny and not worth the effort, as talky as it already is, to sit through.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: December 10, 1974

Runtime: 2 Hours 1 Minute

Rated R

Director: Luchino Visconti

Studio: Cinema International Corporation

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