Category Archives: Farce

Last Resort (1986)

lastresort1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Family takes nightmarish vacation.

George (Charles Grodin) is a Chicago salesmen who loses a major client when he calls him fat, which in-turn costs him his job. Feeling the need to get away from the cold Chicago winter and reassess things he decides to take his family to a tropical island for some much needed r-and-r, but finds the place run by crazy people who house everybody in tiny little cabins. The island is also surrounded by a barbed wire fence due to a civil war going on, which soon has George stuck in the middle of it.

This film was directed by Zane Buzby, who appears here as a abusive summer camp counselor and who has since left the directing profession and devoted her life to brining aid to last surviving members of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe, which is a far better way to spend her time than making films like these, which isn’t funny and lacks any type of visual style. Much of the blame for this is the low budget, which makes the movie look cheap right from the start with its stock footage of a Chicago blizzard, the generic music score, and every indoor shot looking quite shadowy as if they weren’t able to afford enough spotlights to give it the properly lighted look. The island setting is bad too looking nothing like an actual island, but instead the brown, sun scorched landscape of a studio backlot.

The story is built around a lot of gags the majority of which aren’t funny, or even slightly original. The concept is the reverse of a National Lampoon’s Family Vacation where Chevy Chase plays the inept father who bungles everything while everyone else around him is normal. Here the father is the normal one and all the other people are nuts, but this doesn’t work as well as the folks behave in such an extremely absurd and obnoxious way that they have no bearing at all to real people and for satire to work it still needs to have some semblance to reality and this thing has none. It’s just insanity for the sake of goofiness with no point to it, which gets old fast.

I’m a big fan of Grodin, but his dry humored, deadpan observations are not put to good use and he ends up getting drowned out by all of the foolishness. I did though at least start to understand why Howard Stern always would accuse him of wearing a wig. To me I never thought he did wear one and Grodin, who disliked Stern immensely as he felt the shock-jock’s humor was too vulgar, would hotly dispute these accusations and even had one segment on his own short-lived talk show during the late 90’s where guests were allowed to tug on his hair just to prove it was natural and wouldn’t come off. However, here for whatever reason it really does appear like some rug plopped onto his skull that doesn’t even fit the dimensions of his head right.

Some of the supporting cast, which consists mainly of yet-to-be-famous, up-and-coming-stars does help a bit. This though does not include Megan Mullally, who plays Grodin’s daughter Jessica, who puts-on a high pitched, squeaky voice that I found really irritating. I did though find Jon Lovitz somewhat amusing as a bartender that can supposedly speak English, but can’t understand anything that Grodin says. Phil Hartman, wearing a blond wig, is a riot as a French gay guy named Jean-Michel who comes-onto Grodin, but my favorite was Mario Van Peebles as a flaming gay man who’s also one the tour guides. Some viewers may complain that his portrayal is too over-the-top and stereotypical, but it’s still campy fun especially at the end when he rips off his wig and suddenly turns into a macho guerrilla soldier freedom fighter.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: May 9, 1986

Runtime: 1 Hour 24 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Zane Buzby

Studio: Concorde Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, Shout Factory TV, Pluto TV, Tubi

The World’s Greatest Lover (1977)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Seeking silent film stardom.

Adolph Zitz (Dom DeLuise) is upset that Rainbow Studios, which he heads, is not making as much of a profit as his rival and figures it’s because they don’t have silent film star Rudolph Valentino. He decides, after a meeting with his yes men who constantly surround him, to put out a national search for the world’s greatest lover who will come to Hollywood for a screen test to then become the next big star to rival that of Valentino. Rudy (Gene Wilder) is a hapless baker recently fired from his job who figures that entering this contest could be his ticket out of his penniless doldrums and travels to Hollywood for a screen test. However, once they get there his wife (Carol Kane) breaks away from him and sneaks off to the rival studio in order to try and have a chance encounter with her screen idol Rudolph Valentino (Matt Collins).

While the film did well at the box office bringing in a profit of $21 million off of a $4.8 million budget it flopped badly with the critics who ravaged both Wilder’s screenplay and direction. In a lot of ways they had valid points as the script veers off from the main theme quite a bit and seeming more like a collection of broad gags than a story. The comic bits take a long time to play out becoming almost like skits within a movie. The period atmosphere is poor and you never feel like you’re being transported back to a different era, or that there was even much thought or effort in this area to be authentic. Wilder’s character is problematic too. He can be great when he’s in an exasperated, frantic state and shouting at the top of his lungs, but he goes to this well too often making his character come-off as abrasive.

The one thing that saves it is that it’s surprisingly quite funny. I found myself laugh- out-out-loud at a lot of the bits no matter how meandering they became and really enjoyed the reaction shots from the supporting players. My favorite segment is when Wilder and Kane stay at a hotel with a sunken living room, which accidently gets filled up with water and then Wilder goes swimming in it and pretends it’s a pool when some family members of his come to visit. I also liked how it ultimately drains out onto some guests below who are ordering dinner. I even found the running joke dealing with DeLuise and his man servant barber (played by Michael Huddleston the son of character actor David Huddleston who also appears in the movie) and how he eventually learns to trust his business advice after always beating him up about it first.

The film manages to also make some interesting observations about people although this too borders a bit on getting botched particularly the scene where Kane goes into a tent to meet with what she thinks is Valentino, but really Wilder wearing a veil over the bottom of his face. However, it is clear to the audience just by looking at his eyes, which are very distinct, that it’s Wilder, so if it’s obvious to us it should be obvious to her since she’s been living with him for many years, but it isn’t. I did do like the point that the scene makes where she never enjoyed the sex with her hubby, but when she thought her hubby was somebody else suddenly the sex was ‘great’, which shows how much fantasy works into love making and a fundamental part of its enjoyment.

Wilder’s screen tests are quite amusing too and overall I found myself laughing consistently all the way through. If you’re looking for something light and comical that’s even a bit romantic then this should do the trick.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: December 16, 1977

Runtime: 1 Hour 29 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Gene Wilder

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD

Breaking All the Rules (1985)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Shenanigans at amusement park.

It’s the last day of summer and Jack (Carl Marotte) plans to spend it a an amusement park with his friend David (Thor Bishopric). On the bus ride there they are spotted by Debbie (Carolyn Dunn) and Angie (Rachel Hayward) two best friends who immediately take a liking to the boys. The teen foursome then spend a romantic, even sexy time, at the park, but are unaware that three criminals (Michael Rudder, Pierre-Andre LaRoque, Papusha Demitro) have stolen a diamond and hidden it inside one of the stuffed animals inside the park. When Debbie inadvertently receives the stuffed animal as a prize the crooks stalk the four in order to get the diamond back.

The best thing about the film is Carolyn Dunn, who retired from acting in 2009 and now works as a holistic therapist, and who is drop dead gorgeous especially at the start when she has a normal hairstyle, but even after she gets the ill-advised punk look she’s still a super hottie, which if you’re a male at least, should be good enough to get you through the rest of the pic, which doesn’t have much else going for it. Of course it’s Dunn’s extreme beauty that in some ways actually hurts it since she immediately falls for the very average looking Jack at first glance, which made no sense. This is the type of chick that would have guys flocking all around her and the privilege of choosing the pick-of-the-litter, so why go ga-ga over a dweeb? If dweebs are her thing then fine, but that’s something that needs to be established right up front, but isn’t, so seeing the immediate sparks fly as they do is not believable.

Angie’s romance with David is equally problematic as Angie is almost as hot as Debbie, so why is she falling for a kid that looks like he hasn’t even reached puberty? Seeing them stand side-by-side makes their physical differences even more apparent as Angie looks like she could be 20 and more David’s babysitter than his girlfriend. Had the film cast average looking women that weren’t used to getting a lot of attention from guys and therefore accepting of any dope that came along then it would’ve been more realistic, or simply hired better looking male talent to match the looks of the females.

While I did find the Jack character to be initially amusing, which includes a fantasy segment that he has near the start that is probably the only real funny moment in the movie, he does become increasingly problematic as it goes along especially for modern audiences. Some of the comments he makes, while considered possibly innocuous at the time, will be perceived as controversial today including when he says ‘when a woman says no she really means yes’ or when he states that a women is ‘just dying to get laid’ simply based off of what she’s wearing. There is also a segment where he goes on a rollercoaster ride with Angie and takes advantage of her frightened state by putting his hands underneath her dress and groping her breasts without her permission.

Even if you can get past these issues the plot itself is dumb. The three crooks look like they’re almost the same age as the four teens and older actors should’ve been cast in the bad guy roles simply to give the film a better balance. The crooks also play-off of a mafia-like stereotype complete with affected accents, which is cliched and not funny.

The logic is flimsy too including having Jack become the prime suspect of the stolen diamond simply because his fingerprints were found on the glass case that housed it, but he had been employed part-time at the amusement park, so it would’ve been expected that his prints might’ve innocuously gotten on it when he worked there. The script also shows little understanding between the differences of love and lust. For instance Jack says he ‘fell in-love’ with Debbie the second he saw her, but in reality he just got highly aroused at seeing her half-exposed ass when the wind lifted up her skirt.

I didn’t understand how the film’s title worked into the storyline either. There’s no rule-breaking going on particularly from the four leads who are all boringly transparent and not rebellious at all.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: April 15, 1985

Runtime: 1 Hour 31 Minutes

Rated R

Director: James Orr

Studio: New World Pictures

Available: DVD

The Toy (1982)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Becoming a child’s pawn.

Jack Brown (Richard Pryor) is unable to find stable employment and at risk of being evicted from his home. In desperation he takes a job as a night janitor at a local toy store. It is there that he gets spotted by Eric (Scott Schwartz) the young son of business mogul Ulysses (Jackie Gleason). Eric is used to getting what he wants so when Jack inadvertently makes him laugh he decides to ‘buy’ him and turn him into his own personal ‘toy’. Jack is initially reluctant to agree to this, but when he’s offered a lot of money he eventually goes along with it. Initially the relationship between the two is quite awkward, but eventually they form a bond and Jack manages to teach Eric many important life lessons while also getting Eric’s father to realize that money can’t buy a son’s love.

When compared to the original French version this thing is painful to watch. Much of the problem stems around the fact that the satirical point-of-view from the first one gets watered down here. The French film took a lot of calculated potshots at capitalism and corporate hierarchy, but apparently Hollywood was afraid they’d be considered ‘unamerican’ if they took that route, so instead of sharp humorous insights we get tired formula dealing with a rich kid trying desperately to get his father’s attention whose selfish personality needs fixing.

Because the message is so muddled it becomes confusing what point it wants to take, so to make up for it,  they throw in all sorts of cringey life lessons crap like Pryor teaching Eric about the importance of friendship and even a a bit about ‘the-bird’s-and-the-bees’. After awhile it doesn’t seem like a comedy at all, but more like a tacky after school special your parents made you watch when you were in the third grade.

The humor that does get thrown-in gets equally botched. In the French version every comic bit that occurred fit into the film’s main them. Here though any gag that has the potential of getting a cheap laugh gets used whether it actually works with the main story or not. Many of which are tired, overused gags where you already know what the payoff will be before the set-up barely gets going.

Pryor’s casting was a bit controversial at the time due to him being black and then used as a ‘servant’ to a white kid, but the truth is Pryor is the only thing that saves it. He’s not exactly hilarious here, but his onscreen charisma is enough to at least keep it engaging. Gleason on the other hand, who was already in his mid-60’s at the time, seemed too old for the part although with the use of a wig he manages to camouflage it pretty well.

Schwartz, who is better known as the kid who gets his tongue frozen to a flagpole in A Christmas Story, and for his later career in adult movies, is annoying. In the French film I liked the kid, but the child character here is poorly fleshed-out having him go back-and-forth in irritating fashion from spoiled brat to emotionally needy tyke.

Ned Beatty makes the most of his small role, keeping his scenes funny when they could’ve easily been overlooked. Elderly character actor Wilford Hyde-White is amusing too and so is Teresa Ganzel as Gleason’s busty girlfriend, but virtually everything else falls flat. This includes an unnecessary side-story involving the Klu Klux Klan, which was not in the original film, and just extends this already excessive mess far longer than it needed to be.

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: December 10, 1982

Runtime: 1 Hour 42 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Richard Donner

Studio: Columbia Pictures

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

The World’s Greatest Athlete (1973)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Better than Jim Thorpe.

Sam Archer (John Amos) is the hapless head coach of the sports teams at Merrivale College where none of them have managed to win a single game in the 4 years that he he’s been there. He blames the problem on the inept student athletes and travels to Zambia with his assistant coach Milo (Tim Conway) to get back to his African roots. It is there that he comes upon Nanu (Jan-Michael Vincent) who possesses an amazing athletic ability. Sam is able to get Nanu to travel back with him to the US where he hopes he can place him on his many teams to get them to win, but finds an obstacle in the form of Gazenga (Roscoe Lee Browne) an African witch doctor who raised Nanu and has different ideas about what he thinks Nanu should become.

This film lost me right from the start with its inane and completely unbelievable plot. While I realize this was aimed at kids I still think it’s important to get a child to build a good logical foundation even in their early years and in that respect this film fails pathetically. The idea that all the sports teams at one school would be unable to win one single game in 4 years defies all laws of probability. Yes, there are many bad teams out there in both the pros and amateur level, but they can usually win a couple of games per season and the fact that none of them could here seems almost impossible.

Besides, isn’t it the coach’s responsibility to get the players to perform better and if he couldn’t shouldn’t he be blamed and not the players? Coaches are also in charge of recruiting prospects to come to the school, so if all he can bring in are inept stooges then that should be on him too. Most teams would’ve fired a coach with such a dismal record and yet in this film John Amos resigns when a school administrator puts ‘pressure’ on him to start winning even though 4 years should’ve been enough time to turn things around and anyone else in the same situation would’ve been given the boot long before.

The comic segments involving the athletes exaggerates their ineptness in an extreme way. One bit has a football players (played by David Manzy who later went on to star in the title role in the cult hit The Baby) hand the ball off to a player wearing the opposing team’s jersey and not realizing this was a stupid thing to do even though any first grader would know it was. For the comedy to be funny it has to have some bearing in reality and the ‘hilarious’ moments of sports bloopers that take up the film’s first several minutes don’t come even close.

On the plus side I did enjoy seeing Dayle Haddon in her film debut. While her character doesn’t have all that much to do or say I still found her youthful beauty nice to look at. Jan-Michael Vincent is at his attractive peak here too as this was fortunately filmed years before his self-destructive tendencies got the better of him. However, the character he plays, which is a lame parody of Tarzan, is incredibly dull. It would’ve been more interesting had he had some weakness that he had to overcome instead of just being super great at everything, which gets boring real fast.

Amos is quite amusing for his funny facial expressions alone and Conway has some engaging moments as well. I particularly liked him in the scene where Amos gives a televised interview and the camera zooms into him while Conway  desperately tries to get his face into the picture. The segment where Conway is shrunk to miniature size features some impressive special effects.

Some may enjoy Howard Cosell essentially playing himself as an obnoxious sportscaster who won’t allow his on-air partner, played by Joe Kapp, to say anything. However, this same bit was redone just 3 years later in the movie Gus where Bob Crane played the same type of egotistical announcer, but he was much funnier at it.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: February 4, 1973

Runtime: 1 Hour 32 Minutes

Rated G

Director: Robert Scheerer

Studio: Buena Vista Distribution Company

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Finders Keepers (1984)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Stolen loot inside coffin.

Based on the 1974 novel ‘The Next-to-Last Train Ride’ by Charles Dennis, the story centers on Michael Rangeloff (Micheal O’Keefe) who is a con-man on the run from a women’s roller derby team by hiding out as a U.S. Army General. He boards a train that has a coffin on it with millions of stolen dollars hidden inside. Once he becomes aware of this he tries to hatch a plan with a kooky actress (Beverly D’Angelo) that he meets along the way in helping him to get the money out of the coffin and off the train without being detected.

This is the type of film that gives comical farces a bad name. I’m all for comedies with a hyper-frantic pace and mistaken identities, but it still needs to have some grounding in what’s possible. This thing relies way too heavily on coincidences and random events to hold it together. The whole scenario that leads Michael getting onto the train is too much of an overreach. A more sane and less dizzying premise would’ve had Michael working on the train as a conductor from the start and then coming onto the money by chance, which would’ve been far less protracted.

His relationship with D’Angelo is dumb too. The women immediately comes-off as a babbling nutcase, even admits to suffering from mental health issues, and the type of person who usually gets thrown off of trains and planes for their disruptive behavior. Most people would be glad to be away from her the first chance they had and yet here the two end up going to bed together and profess their undying love for each other within 24-hours of first meeting.

The original concept was to use this as a vehicle for Dudley Moore, but that idea got nixed when the studio decided they wanted to make it an ensemble comedy instead, which was a big mistake. O’Keefe plays the role admirable, but he doesn’t have enough finesse that a comic star would. The supporting cast doesn’t help either. David Wayne’s portrayal of the world’s oldest conductor relies too heavily on the stereotype that every person who gets elderly must also be senile and it’ hard to imagine how anyone could hold done a job being as forgetful and out-of-touch as his character is. Ed Lauter, who wears a wig here, does not have the needed comic flair to make his bad-guy role either interesting or amusing. Oh, and Jim Carrey appears briefly too, but it’s a small bit that isn’t anything special.

Richard Lester directed many good comedies in his career, but the stylish quality that made up so much of his films from the 60’s is completely missing here. Everything gets captured in a flat, uninspired way and I didn’t like the Canadian province of Alberta being substituted for Nebraska as its flat wheat fields look nothing like the rolling prairie of the Midwest and the bleak late autumn topography complete with leafless trees gives off a chilly, depressing feel.

The scene where D’Angelo and Lauter find themselves inside a house while it is being trucked down a highway is kind of cool and outside of the low budget 80’s flick Mind Trapthe only time I’ve seen this done on film. Watching the house then end up losing its roof, after it goes under a low hanging overhead sign, and going down the road with skeletal frame exposed is fun too, but everything else is a bore that tries too hard to be frantic when it wasn’t necessary.

I was also confused why the setting of the story had to be in the year 1973 as it doesn’t play-up the 70’s era enough to make it worth it. My only guess was that with the Vietnam War still raging that it fit into the storyline of having dead soldiers returning home in coffins. However, since the US continually gets involved in foreign conflicts all the time this same scenario could easily work in any time period and sadly wasn’t unique just to that decade.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: May 18, 1984

Runtime: 1 Hour 36 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Richard Lester

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: VHS

Gas (1981)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Fuel shortage causes chaos.

It’s 1979 and the energy crisis is in full-swing. Long lines of cars are seen at every gas station as the shortage of oil makes filling up one’s vehicle difficult. Oil tycoon Duke Stuyvesant (Sterling Hayden) decides to up the price of petroleum even more by pretending that he doesn’t have the needed gas that he really does by secretly transporting it to organized crime syndicates through milk trucks. Jane Beardsley (Susan Anspach) is a news reporter who gets a tip about what’s going on and becomes determined to expose it.

It’s unfortunate that no one told screenwriter Dick Wolf, who has had better success as a producer including winning many awards for his work on the long-running TV-show ‘Law and Order’, that less is more, which is the film’s whole failing point. There’s just too much of everything. Too many lame gags, too many characters, and too much of an unfocused point-of-view.

For a gag-a-minute concept to work like in Airplane! it still needs some sort of point that it’s trying to make. For that film the humor revolved around poking fun of old airline disaster flicks, but here any dumb joke gets haphazardly thrown-in no matter how little it has to do with the plot. The result is a mind-numbing experience where the ‘zaniness’ goes recklessly overboard with nothing making much sense.

The story desperately needed some central character that was normal and could help offset the absurdity around them. For awhile it seemed like the Sara character, played by Sandee Currie, would be it, but then she falls off the radar by getting into a relationship with Howie Mandel, who has no charisma at all, and isn’t seen for long periods. Also, Peter Akroyd, who is Dan Aykroyd’s younger brother in real-life, and plays Sara’s overly possessive brother here, is incredibly annoying in what is already an annoying film and it’s a shame that his character, who has many near death mishaps, wasn’t just quickly killed off.

As bad as this Canadian production is it’s amazing how many well known faces there are here. For some it was understandable why they’d do it. Anspach’s career was clearly on the decline, so she was most likely desperate to take anything in order to remain busy. Helen Shaver’s career was just starting out, so she had to accept the crumbs that she was given. Hayden was going through tax evasion charges and needed to make money quick in order to pay his legal costs, but Donald Sutherland’s presence was a real shock as he was , and still is, a top name star. He stated in later interviews that he did this solely for the money, which is fine, but why was he cast in such an insignificant part as a DJ who flies overhead in a helicopter and seen only sporadically instead being given the lead role?

The film ends with a climactic car chase in which all the characters chase each other  through the streets of Montreal that is similar in spirit to the one done in What’s Up Doc?, but just not as funny. However, the stunt work is rather impressive with lots of vivid crashes more so than in other car chase flicks, which is probably the only positive thing one can say about this otherwise bad, bad, bad movie.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: 1 Hour 34 Minutes

Runtime: 1 Hour 34 minutes

Rated R

Director: Les Rose

Studio: Paramount Pictures

Available: VHS

Wild in the Sky (1972)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Hijacking a B-52 bomber.

Three Vietnam protesters (Brandon De Wilde, George Stanford Brown, Phil Vandervort) are arrested and taken to jail via a paddywagon driven by Officer Roddenberry (Dub Taylor). Along the way Roddenberry pulls over to relieve himself and while he’s outside one of the prisoners uses a wire to pull on the gear shift and make the vehicle move, which runs over Roddenberry who was in an out-house. The three then escape to a nearby air force base and get on a plane carrying a bomb that they threaten to drop onto Fort Knox unless they’re given their freedom.

This very budget-challenged production has a grainy look and a lame soundtrack that quickly makes it a relic of its era. There were so many other better produced films that came out in the same time period that took the same potshots at the army, politicians, and the establishment that it seems virtually pointless why anyone would feel the need to sit through this one as it adds nothing new to the already tired anti-war spoof genre.

The script though, which was co-written by Dick Gautier, who also gets cast as the plane’s co-pilot, and famous ‘Hollywood Squares’ host Peter Marshall, does have a few engaging moments. The conversation that Larry Hovis, who probably comes off best out of the entire cast, has with army general Keenan Wynn, is quite amusing. The moment when macho pilot Robert Lansing spontaneously kisses George Stanford Brown smack on the lips as they attempt to wrestle a gun from each other is pretty out-there especially for the time period. The bit at the end where the army personnel are stuck in an enclosed room and busily kick a live grenade away from each other and to someone else, who just kicks it back to the person who sent it to them, has an amusing quality to it as well.

Unfortunately the film creates a lot of strong characters and then doesn’t know what to do with them. Stanford Brown makes for a formidable lead, in fact the film was reissued with the title BLACK JACK because of his very dominant presence, but then he parachutes out of the plane along with most of the other air crew just as the dynamics between them were getting interesting. Had the film remained focused on the men inside the plane and made it more of a character study showing how their interactions between them changed during the course of the stand-off/flight this might’ve been interesting, but instead it spends too much time on the ground dealing with a petty, bickering fight between Wynn and Tim O’ Connor, which becomes cartoonish and silly.

De Wilde, whose last film this was before his untimely death in a car accident in July, 1972, is boring. He certainly looks the part with his long hair and jaded hippie-like facials expressions and light years away from the innocent child characters that he played in Shame and The Member of the Wedding, but his character has no pizzazz and nothing to say that is interesting or even remotely funny. Stanford Brown was the one that gave it energy and once he goes this already flimsy production goes with it.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: March 16, 1972

Runtime: 1 Hour 22 Minutes

Rated GP

Director: William T. Naud

Studio: American International Pictures

Available: None at this time.

North Avenue Irregulars (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Church ladies battle mobsters.

Reverend Michael Hill (Edward Herrmann) becomes the new pastor at the North Avenue Presbyterian Church, but right away things get off to a rocky start when the church’s funds get gambled away on a horse race. When Hill tries to retrieve the money he finds out that it is an illegal gambling joint run behind a dry cleaning business, who are always able to skillfully remove their presence before the police arrive. Hill goes on TV to lambaste organized crime in their town, which catches the attention of two treasury agents (Michael Constantine, Steve Franken) who want Hill to help them close down the gambling joints by having him hire men from his church to place bets at the parlors, but all of the men refuse. Hill then asks for the help of the church women who agree to do it and after some initial setbacks begin to make headway in taking down the area mobsters.

Usually I always say it’s important for films that are aimed for a young audience to have children playing the protagonist, but in this case the children characters have only small supporting roles and yet the film still manages to deliver the laughs. The main reason is the talented female cast who have distinctive personalities and convey comic form in different ways. Cloris Leachman is amusing as the middle-aged cougar with long finger nails, Virginia Capers is quite funny too as a heavy-set woman who doesn’t allow her big build to stop her from running several blocks in order to tail the bad guys and the variety of vehicles she drives with funny phrases painted on their windshields, which are all from her husband’s used car dealership, are humorous too. Barbara Harris as a suburban mother who chases the mobsters while driving in a station wagon packed full of kids in it is great too.

What may be surprising to many is that it’s all based on true events that occurred to Revenrend Albert Fay Hill when he took over as the minister at the North Avenue Presbyterian Church in New Rochelle, NY in 1961. It was there that he became a crusader against organized crime after the murder of a young man for not repaying his gambling debts. Like in the movie his fight gained the attention of US Treasury agents who wanted him to get his male parishioners to place bets with the mobsters, but the men all refused so he recruited their wives whose efforts managed to shut down several gambling houses, which lead to a front page write-up in The New York Times as well as Look magazine.

Of course the movie exaggerates things for comic effect, but it’s forgiven because the stunts are quite funny, which culminates in a massive car pile-up consisting of the demolition of 14 cars at the cost of $155,000. The scene involving the church getting blown up is amusing too because behind-the-scenes when it was first done the cinematographer forgot to put film in the camera forcing the crew to painstakingly rebuild the church just so they could try to do it all over again.

The film’s only weak element is Herrmann whose performance is certainly sincere and likable, but he’s never funny while Constantine is hilarious as the exasperated agent who has a virtual nervous breakdown dealing with the women and for that reason the film would’ve been more engaging had he been the lead character. I was also confused why the Reverend was  a single parent as there’s no explanation I could remember for what happened to the wife. In the book that this film is based, and in the true-life incident, the minster was married, so why was it decided that he should be single here? I got the idea it was because they wanted to create a romance between he and his secretary played by Susan Clark, but since nothing much comes from that it seemed unnecessary.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: February 9, 1979

Runtime: 1 Hour 40 Minutes

Rated G

Director: Bruce Bilson

Studio: Buena Vista

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Coke bottle causes problems.

One day while flying over the Kalahari desert a airplane pilot inadvertently throws a coke bottle out of his cockpit window, which falls to earth and is found by Xi (N!xau) and he brings it back to his nomadic tribe. At first everyone is intrigued with the object as they are an isolated people unaware of modern technology. They think it’s a ‘gift from the gods’ and make use of the bottle in different and creative ways, but eventually the bottle causes friction from within the tribe because there is only one and no one wants to share it. Xi decides to ‘give the bottle back to the gods’ by traveling to the end of the earth and throwing it off. During his journey he meets a clumsy biologist named Andrew Steyn (Marius Weyers) and a pretty school teacher named Kate (Sandra Prinsloo) while also saving school children who are kidnapped by a group of terrorists led by Sam (Louw Verwey).

This film became the biggest box office success in South African history and when released abroad became the most successful foreign film in the U.S., but the film initially comes off like a nature documentary complete with monotone voice-over narration by Paddy O’Byrne only to then shift uneasily into a flick dealing with political revolutionaries who systematically massacre the heads of state via machine gun. It’s not until about 30 minutes in that the gentle comical flow of the story gets going, but even then there’s a lot of sped up stop action photography, dubbed voices, and a cartoonish sounding musical score that gives it a choppy amateurish feel throughout.

Yet despite all this the concept is quite original and filled with genuinely funny moments. Writer/director Jamie Uys, who appears briefly as a Reverend, shows an amazing ability to squeeze laughs out of virtually any scene and sometimes in the most amazing of ways. Some of my favorite moments was when the jeep hangs upside down in a tree, or the scene showing the same disabled jeep getting tugged along by another vehicle and because the desert was so flat and barren the man driving the vehicle is able to get out of it and it simply drives itself with no fear it would run into anything. The shot where N!xau arrives at what he thinks is the end of the earth, but in reality is a place known as God’s Window is quite memorable and picturesque as well.

Of course the film does come with its fair share of controversy and accused of being racist with two countries, Trinidad and Tobago, banning the movie from being shown there because of it. The main complaint centers around the bushmen tribe that N!xau comes from being shown as completely cut-off from the modern world and unsophisticated when in reality this is not true. The 2004 Columia TriStar DVD edition has a wonderful documentary called ‘Journey to Nyae Nyae’ on its bonus section where a filmmaker travels to the real-life desert bushmen tribe that actor/star N!xau resided and found that although the people were quite poor they were far from ignorant and in fact excitedly embraced technology like a computer when it was shown to them. There’s even a really cute segment where the children get shown this film and laugh along at all the same antics just like American audiences.

This same documentary also has a very sad edge to it as it shows the impoverished life N!xau had even after the film became a worldwide hit. While the movie grossed over 200 million N!xau was only paid $2,000 for his work and the other actors who played the bushmen got paid nothing. Director Uys tried to rectify this by paying N!xau many years later an additional $20,000 and a monthly stipend, but by then he had already become sick with tuberculosis and ended up dying from it in 2003.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: September 10, 1980

Runtime: 1 Hour 49 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Jamie Uys

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube