Category Archives: Drama

Footloose (1984)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: A town bans dancing.

Ren (Kevin Bacon) is a teenager from Chicago who moves with his mother (Francis Lee McCain) to a small town in Utah where he finds that dancing has been banned by the town’s fiery minister (John Lithgow). He becomes determined to try and change that and convinces the other kids including his new found friend Willard (Chris Penn) that dancing really isn’t all that bad. He also falls for the minister’s daughter Ariel (Lori Singer) who is far more liberated than you’d expect someone from a religious upbringing to be.

I remember when this film came out and I intentionally refused to see it as I felt that the plot was too absurd to be believable. I was born and raised in a small Midwestern town of about 7,000 people and the idea that some lone minister could overtake it and start making extreme rules that everyone would follow especially in the modern era of the 80’s is just not realistic. If the town was really small and isolated with a population of like 200 then maybe but the one portrayed in the film comes off as being fairly big and was filmed mostly in American Fork, Utah, which in the 1980 census had a population of 13,606. Having a scene dealing with a literal book burning makes the thing even campier and made me believe this would’ve worked better had the setting been the 1950’s.

There is also no explanation to what the penalty would be if one is caught dancing. Everyone acts like it would mean jail time or something like that when most likely it would just be a small fine and since when have teens ever been that compliant when it comes to rules? There are several scenes where they are seen with joints, so if they’re willing to fudge the law in that respect then why not do it with the dancing too?

The concept is loosely based on an actual incident that occurred in Elmore City, Oklahoma in 1978 where the local teens challenged a city ordinance that banned dancing. However, the incident there made more sense because it was an ordinance that had been on the books for over 90 years. Many cities and towns have old ordinances and laws that are no longer relevant, or followed, but just haven’t been officially removed as opposed to some minister coming into a town and implementing a new law that everyone is forced to comply with. The town was also much smaller (population of only 653 in 1970) than the one portrayed in the movie, so religious sentiment would be more able to oppress the rest of its citizens.

The drama for the most part is limp and does not justify its runtime as there are long segments that have nothing to do with the main story including cringe worthy scenes where we watch Singer dangerously trying to leap between two moving cars and a game of chicken between tractors with Bacon and another teen driving them. There’s also a B-storyline dealing with Bacon trying to teach Penn how to dance, which gets corny.

The most annoying aspect though for me was Singer’s character as she doesn’t seem like a minister’s kid at all. She behaves in too much of a free-spirited way and I would think someone raised in such a repressed environment would reflect some religious traits and yet Singer conveys none. Having her religious at the start and even opposed to dancing and then become tolerant to it after she meets Bacon would’ve created an interesting character arch. Also, if she behaved in a cult-like manner due to her strict upbringing then it would’ve made the minister character more menacing because the viewer would be made to feel that was what he wanted to turn the rest of the town into.

Lithgow is a great actor, but he’s not right for this type of part as he is too young and was only 12 years older than Singer who played his daughter. A much older actor would’ve better illustrated how the older generation was desperately trying to cling onto their old way of life in an ever changing world and how completely detached they were from modern teens. Also, the character here doesn’t seem threatening enough as he is unable to control his own daughter so then how is he expected to control the rest of the town?

The opening bit done over the credits showing the different types of dancing feet is the best thing in the movie although some may take a liking to Bacon’s dancing inside an abandoned warehouse although much of that was done with the help of body doubles.  Otherwise this empty-headed movie, which was remade in 2011, has very little to recommend.

I did want to mention too that recently there was an 80’s podcast that I listened to where they reviewed this movie and one of the critics complained that the town had only white kids and acted like somehow that was not politically correct, but having grown up in a small town during the 70’s and 80’s I can vouch for the fact that there were little if any minorities there and therefore having an all-white cast, whether it is politically correct or not, was realistic.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: February 17, 1984

Runtime: 1Hour 47Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Herbert Ross

Studio: Paramount

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

Heartbreakers (1984)

Heartbreakers Movie Poster (1984)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Fetish artist goes mainstream.

Arthur (Peter Coyote) is an artist who specializes in erotic portraits of women that he sells to men’s magazines, but he strives to have his work seen by more people. He gets his chance to have his artwork shown at a gallery and works with his fetish model Candy (Carol Wayne) to make enough new material for it. When his former girlfriend Cyd (Kathryn Harrold) moves in with his artistic rival King (Max Gail) he becomes attracted to Lilane (Carole Laure) the manager where his artwork will be displayed, but this puts him at odds with his friend Eli (Nick Mancuso) who also has an interest in her.

This independently produced film offers nothing spectacular, but remains strangely captivating. Sometimes it’s nice not to be bombarded with a heavy-duty plot and instead just focus on someone struggling to get through the challenges of day-to-day life, which makes the situations shown here highly relatable and where this movie succeeds.

Unfortunately Coyote was not the best person for the part. He was supposed to be this guy in his 30’s even though he was well over 40 and looking it. A younger guy in is 20’s would’ve been a better fit and created more of a connection to someone just starting out. It would also help explain the character’s moments of raw, unfiltered emotion, particularly his public display of anger at King, which is something seen more in younger adults while middle-aged folks have usually mellowed out, or better able to keep their feelings in check and only letting them come out when it’s more appropriate or strategic.

Coyote’s friendship with Mancuso doesn’t work either. The film is only captivating when it sticks with the main character and expanding it out just gives it a flat, generic feeling like it wants to create a soap opera scenario that is not needed. Guys’ fighting over the same girl has been done many times before and this thing adds nothing fresh to that perspective. Besides Carole Laure’s character is so emotionless and detached anyways, while also looking as pale as a ghost that she seemed hardly worth the effort and someone most guys would probably tire of pretty quickly.

The film’s main attraction is seeing Carol Wayne in her secomd-to-last movie. She came to Hollywood with her sister Nina in the mid-60’s having already attained some fame as Las Vegas showgirls. She almost immediately got guest starring roles in TV-shows and bit parts in movies before finally attaining her most famous part as the Matinee Lady on the ‘Tonight Show’, which she did for 13 years before dying under mysterious circumstances while on vacation in Mexico. Her part here proved to be one of her biggest and she even goes topless before hopping into bed with both Coyote and Mancuso for a threesome.

Harrold, who no longer works in the acting business, is solid as the former girlfriend, but she should’ve had more scenes. Walter Olkewicz, Jerry Hardin, and Jamie Rose can be seen in brief bits in a movie that’s not bad if you come into it with modest expectations although Tangerine Dream’s loud techno, 80’s fused score doesn’t help it.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: September 28, 1984

Runtime: 1Hour 38Minutes

Rated R

Director: Bobby Roth

Studio: Orion Pictures

Available: VHS

The Romantic Englishwoman (1975)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Writer suspects wife’s infidelity.

Unhappy in her marriage Elizabeth (Glenda Jackson) goes off to Baden-Baden, Germany for a little respite and there meets up with the dashing Thomas (Helmut Berger). Although quite charming Thomas is also caught up in the criminal underworld and being chased by gangsters. After the two share a brief tryst she returns home to her husband Lewis (Michael Caine). Lewis suspects that Elizabeth was unfaithful during her trip, but can’t prove it. He invites Thomas to stay at their place in order to help him finish a screenplay that he is working on and in the process the affair between Thomas and Elizabeth starts up again, but this time Lewis is determined to stop it.

The concept is intriguing, but the film gets ruined by playing its cards too early. A far more interesting scenario would’ve been to have Lewis not suspect Thomas at all or even his wife’s longing for him and instead simply invited Thomas over as a genuine writing partner and only slowly becoming aware of the tensions boiling beneath the surface. Unfortunately having Lewis almost immediately figure things out even before Thomas arrives makes for a very boring first hour with the couple arguing over the same staid, redundant infidelity talking points that have been done a million times before.

The story’s only interesting wrinkle has Thomas starting up a relationship with the nanny (Beatrice Romand), which made more sense as Elizabeth was way older than him and I failed to see why he would’ve been attracted to her to begin with. The nanny was young and cute and it was fun seeing Elizabeth seethe with the same type of jealousy as Lewis, but the film quickly kills this storyline by having the nanny forced to move out and everything goes back to the same formulaic love triangle.

Having Lewis recreating scenes in his screenplay that replicates what he is going through in real-life had potential as it nicely illustrates the thin line between fact and fiction that writers routinely do. Unfortunately the film treats these scenes in a campy/hooky manner and then drops it just as quickly as the romance scenario mentioned above.

The direction is static with a camera nailed to the ground and everything captured in a dingy, shadowy way. The opening bit detailing how Elizabeth first meets Thomas had a naturalistic quality, but the shot were she spots Thomas from across the room and her eyes remained locked on his and she never turns away is not believable. If two people are strangers and one catches the other one staring at them it’s sheer human reflex that the other one will divert their gaze as it’s rude, awkward and off-putting otherwise. Also, to have the word romantic in the title is absurd especially after the two proceed to have sex inside an elevator during their first meeting, which is pure animalistic lust and a more accurate title would’ve been ‘The Horny Englishwoman’.

Spoiler Alert!

The third act helps fill in the gaps in regards to Thomas’ secret past, but having Elizabeth run off with him makes her character seem exceedingly shallow as she essentially abandons her young child in the process. Earlier in the film she got very upset when she saw her child sitting out on a ledge and she fired her nanny for being irresponsible and not watching him more carefully only to then by running off with Thomas behave just as irresponsibly.

The film’s final shot features strange people inhabiting Lewis and Elizabeth’s home like they’re having a party without the owners there. Lewis then after having taken Elizabeth away from Thomas and back with him drives the car the two are in up to their house. Elizabeth looks shocked at seeing all the people inside, but Lewis has a jaded expression and seems to being enjoying watching Elizabeth’s discomfort, but then the film cuts to the credits and never explains what’s occurring and nothing is more frustrating than a film which ends just as it’s finally beginning to get interesting.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: November 26, 1975

Runtime: 1Hour 56Minutes

Rated R

Director: Joseph Losey

Studio: New World Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video

Blue Collar (1978)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Workers rob their union.

Zeke (Richard Pryor) Jerry (Harvey Keitel) and Smokey (Yaphet Kotto) work at an auto plant in Detroit and become increasingly frustrated with their union and feel it they’re being ripped-off by them. The three get the idea to rob a safe stored at the union office. The crime itself is a cinch, but they only get $600 dollars out of it even though the union reports to the press that $10,000 was stolen. Then they find paperwork detailing some of the union’s dirty loan deals and decide to use that as blackmail, but the union has other ideas.

This was the first film directed by Paul Schrader and although he has gone on record stating that he dislikes it and has never watched it since its release I consider it to be one of his best. The music by Jack Nitzsche is a bit heavy, but otherwise this is a strong hard-hitting look at the life of an auto worker a subject that doesn’t get tackled too often. The fact that the film takes no sides and shows that both management and unions can be equally corrupt gives the proceedings a refreshingly honest tone.

Personally I support unions, but I realize that like with everything some can be less than perfect and since reality is not black-and-white, but instead quite complex it’s important to show all sides of an issue. The whole inspiration for the film came when Schrader went to Detroit and interviewed actual assembly-line workers and found to his shock many of them hated their unions even more than management. Films like Norma Rae, which is still excellent, tend to portray a very one-sided narrative while this one makes you wonder who the good guys actually are especially as the three leads turn on each other for different reasons.

The biggest surprise is Richard Pryor who really drives this film with his excellent dramatic performance. He seems to be channeling his harsh upbringing to create an edgy and enduring character. I loved the way he critiques other black sitcoms like ‘Good Times’ and ‘The Jeffersons’ as well as the way he constantly says the f-word even when in front of his own kids. George Memmoli a very obese actor gets a memorable bit as a disgruntled factory work that destroys a vending machine when it won’t give him his coffee.

The film features two very unique scenes. One is where a character dies while being trapped inside a room where a car is being painted and it’s quite intense. The other scene features Keitel in a car chase as he tries to get away from some bad guys who want to shoot him. Most films capture a car chases from the outside-looking-in with shots showing both vehicles at a distance and the point-of-view of both drivers. This one stays only on Keitel’s perspective making the viewer feel like they are trapped in the car with him and thus making the chase a much more personal and frightening experience.

Due to the subject matter no auto company would allow the film to be shot at their plant, so the producers were forced to use the Checker Cab Company, but this was a much smaller plant and the viewer never gets a true feeling of the immensity of an actual auto factory. The film’s final shot is another distraction as it’s the one point where the movie suddenly becomes heavy-handed despite successfully remaining otherwise gritty. It’s still a strong story overall that brings out perplexing issues without supplying any easy answers.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: February 10, 1978

Runtime: 1Hour 54Minutes

Rated R

Director: Paul Schrader

Studio: Universal

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

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