Category Archives: Movies Based on Novels

52 Pick-up (1986)

52

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Blackmailed over sex tape.

Harry (Roy Scheider) runs a successful construction company and is married to Barbara (Ann-Margret) who’s running for city council. One day Harry gets abducted by three men in hoods (John Glover, Clarence Williams III, Robert Trebor). They bring him to an abandoned building and show him a video tape that they’ve recorded featuring Harry’s steamy affair with a 20-something stripper named Cini (Kelly Preston). They demand $105,000 per year to stay quiet and if not they’ll release the tape to the press. Harry decides not to go to the police for fear it would jeopardize his wife’s political ambitions and instead does the investigating himself to find the tape and the men who made it and then turn-the-tables on them.

In 1984 The Cannon Group bought the rights to Elmore Leonard’s novel of the same name with the intent of turning it into a spy thriller with the setting changed from Detroit to Tel Aviv. Leonard was commissioned to write the script, but the drafts he submitted were deemed unacceptable and eventually someone else was hired as the screenwriter and the movie became known as The Ambassador2 years later John Frankenheimer, after having read the novel, decided he’d like to turn it into a movie in a more faithful version to the book. Since The Cannon Group still owned the rights they agreed to produce though several changes were made including having the setting in Los Angeles, which was mainly done for budgetary reasons.

While I’ve complained about other movies produced by The Cannon Group this one looks much more polished and could’ve easily been released by a major studio. I enjoyed the constantly moving camera that turns every scene into one unending tracking shot, which gives it a visual energy and allows the viewer to feel like they’re right there in the setting with the camera acting as their point-of-view as they move around amongst the action.

Many movies from the 80’s touched on the tawdry, underground lifestyles of Los Angeles, but would always pull-back before it became too distasteful and yet this one dives completely in and never leaves. By immersing the viewer into the seamy environment it helps them to better understand the sick nature of the bad guys and the elements that made them believe they could get away with it. It also features adult film stars from the era including Amber Lynn, Jamie Gillis, Tom Byron, and Barbara Dare. Porn legend Seka was also set to be in it, but the aging and apparently still quite horny Frankenheimer pestered her behind-the-scenes in an effort to have sex and even asked her out on a date, which was enough to get her to walk off the set.

The three antagonists are the most entertaining aspect. Glover gives a poetic quality to his character’s sliminess and is mesmerizing in his vileness. Clarence Williams III, best known for his work in the TV-show ‘Mod Squad’ has a creepy intensity that makes his scene riveting. Trebor, as the extremely anxious strip bar owner, makes breaking down in a panic an art form.

The problem is with the two leads who get upstaged by the baddies. In fact during the second-half the three villains receive more screen time than the heroes making it seem like the movie is more about them. Scheider’s insistence on trying to track down the culprits on his own with only an inkling of clues is intriguing to an extent, but he ends up finding their whereabouts too easily. Otherwise Scheider and Ann-Margret do nothing but react to the situation they’re in instead of propelling the action. It’s not because of bad acting either, but more due to the script that doesn’t flesh-out their characters enough to make them interesting, or for the viewer to care what happens to them.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: April 16, 1986

Runtime: 1 Hour 50 Minutes

Rated R

Director: John Frankenheimer

Studio: The Cannon Group

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Tubi

The Ambassador (1984)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Searching for porno film.

Peter (Robert Mitchum) is a US Ambassador to Israel who has an idealistic view on how to find peace in the Middle East by bringing together young Jews and Muslims who he hopes will work together for middle ground solutions. Not everyone including Peter’s own security agent Frank (Rock Hudson) thinks this is realistic. Peter’s wife Alex (Ellen Burstyn) feels ignored by her husband and falls into the arms of a much younger man named Hashimi (Fabio Testi) who just so happens to work for the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization). Alex’s rendezvous with him are sexual in nature and during one of their meetups they are secretly recorded on film. Peter then gets blackmailed to pay a large sum of money, or risk having the movie broadcast on TV. Peter refuses to comply and orders Frank to find the whereabouts of the blackmailers hoping to retrieve the original print before it can be seen by anyone else.

This was yet another film shot on-location in Israel that was produced by Menahem Golan and his cousin Yoram Globus, who bought the production company known as the Cannon Group during the 70’s and were notorious for producing, and sometimes writing and directing, a lot of slap-dash action flicks that were made in such a quick, assembly line style, that it got them the nicknames of the Go-Go- Boys. This film isn’t as bad as some of those and features tight editing and interesting twists. It was inspired by the 1974 Elmore Leonard novel ’52 Pick-Up’ and Leonard himself was hired to write the screenplay, but after his first two drafts were rejected he walked-out. The only elements of the story that was retained was the sex film blackmail plot, but everything else was changed though 2 years later the Cannon Group produced 52 Pick-Up that starred Roy Scheider and Ann-Margaret that was more faithful to the original book.

Surprisingly the best thing about this version is Hudson and while I’ve been critical about some of his other performances he shines here despite being already quite ill and looking gaunt and not as muscular. The role had originally been offered to Telly Savalas, but due to scheduling conflicts he had to bow out and Hudson was brought in just a week before filming began. Even with his poor health he takes part in most of the action and has a strong presence though reports were that he and Mitchum did not get along and had many arguments throughout the shoot.

Mitchum, who took the role after getting accused of being anti-semitic and a holocaust denier, is wonderful despite his age and face that has a very tired and worn-out look. Burstyn is excellent too and I was genuinely shocked at her nude scene, no body double here, and at age 51 still looked great doing it.

Spoiler Alert!

The film’s ending had me rolling-my-eyes a bit with the way it’s able to bring together these Jewish and Muslin students at a remote location and somehow get them to see eye-to-eye on things, which seemed too easy and romanticized. The proceeding bloodbath did take me by surprise though having Mitchum conveniently leave the scene and is therefore not a part of the carnage that kills everybody else seemed like it would come-off as suspicious to others. The viewer knows he had no idea of the pending massacre, but the other characters don’t and having him quietly leave just before the shooting commenced would make some believe that he had something to do with it, or maybe even set-up the students to get killed and thus be despised by the other people at the end instead of considered a visionary hero like he is.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: May 12, 1984

Runtime: 1 Hour 37 Minutes

Rated R

Director: J. Lee Thompson

Studio: Cannon Film Distributors

Available: DVD-R (MGM Limited Edition Collection) Blu-ray

Saint Jack (1979)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: American pimp in Singapore.

Based on the 1971 novel by Paul Theroux the story centers on Jack Flowers, an American who comes to Singapore in hopes of starting-up a profitable brothel and then moving back to the states a rich man. He finds the challenges more staggering than he initially thought and is constantly looking over his shoulder for the syndicate who would like to crush his business so it won’t compete with the other more established brothel’s in the region. In order to cover what he’s doing he works with a Chinese executive as a liaison for his clients. One such person is William (Denholm Elliot) a timid British accountant with a heart condition who has traveled to the area on an assignment. Jack enjoys William’s quiet demeanor and grows fond of him only to be heart-broken when he dies suddenly, which eventually changes Jack’s perspective on things specifically when he’s asked to take part in the blackmail scheme of a U.S. Senator (George Lazenby).

By the late 70’s director Peter Bogdanovich had fallen on hard times. He began the decade doing the acclaimed and award winning The Last Picture Show and followed it up with the equally impressive Paper Moon However, after the critically panned musical At Long Last Love his career began to tumble. He tried following this up with Daisy Miller, but it appealed to only a small audience. Nickelodeon was his attempt at returning to slapstick comedy that had won him success with What’s Up Doc, but it dived at the box office too making this once promising young talent feel fully washed-up. In an attempt for a revival he decided to go in a completely different direction by doing something with a gritty realism.

Cybill Shephard, whom Peter was in a relationship with at the time, had read the Theroux novel when it was given to her by Orson Welles in 1973. She had suggested he make it into a movie, but he had initially resisted. Then in 1978 when she sued Playboy for publishing unauthorized nude photos of her she got rights to turn the book into a movie as part of the settlement and Bogdanovich decided at that point he would do the project. Since Singapore officials were aware of the book, which had not portrayed their country in a positive light, he was forced to create a mock synopsis called ‘Jack of Hearts’, a benign love story that he used to convince the government that was the movie he was making so he could get the permission to film there, which was worth the effort as the unique ambiance of the setting is the main thing that propels the movie and could not have effectively been recreated had it been done inside a Hollywood studio lot.

Gazzara’s performance is another chief asset as he’s never at a loss for quick quips, or sarcastic replies. I loved the way he’s shown constantly moving, never sitting still in one place for too long, which nicely accentuated his situation of needing to ‘on the move’ in order to stay one-step ahead of the bad guys. Elliot is excellent as well in an atypical role. Usually he does well playing stern, jaded, and detached types, but here conveys a genuinely sensitive person who seems cut-off from the worldly ways. Lazenby, best known as the one-and-done James Bond from Her Majesty’s Secret Service, gets a small, but pivotal role as a closeted gay politician who takes a stroll in the middle of the night to hook-up with a male prostitute while Jack secretly follows him that has a great voyeuristic quality and the film’s most memorable moment.

Out of all of his movies Bogdanovich has stated that this one and They All Laughed were his two favorites. Some may not agree as the story has a fragmented style where things happen all of sudden and without forewarning. Yet for me this helped emphasize the reality of Jack’s shaky environment. While hailed by many as a great director’s least known work it deserves to be seen more and when compared to his other output clearly unique and original.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: April 27, 1979

Runtime: 1 Hour 52 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Peter Bogdanovich

Studio: New World Pictures

Studio: DVD, Blu-ray, Fandor, Plex, Tubi, Amazon Video

The White Buffalo (1977)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Buffalo haunts his dreams.

Based on the novel by Richard Sale, who also wrote the screenplay, the story, which takes place in 1874, centers around Wild Bill Hickok (Charles Bronson) who’s suffering from reoccurring dreams involving a giant white buffalo. He travels to the west in order to find the beast and confront it. It’s there that he meets Crazy Horse (Will Sampson). The two initially don’t get along. Bill is not a fan of Indians and once said “the only good Indian is a dead one”, but the two share a common bond as they’re both after the elusive buffalo in Crazy Horse’s case it’s to avenge the death of his infant daughter who was killed when the beast violently attacked their campsite. Having formed an uneasy alliance the two, along with old-timer Charlie Zane (Jack Warden) go out into the cold, wintry terrain in search for it while debating over whose land this country really belongs to: the white man or the Native Americans.  

Story-wise the film lacks any explanation for why Hickok is having these dreams, or what exactly the image of the white buffalo is meant to represent if anything. The plot goes off on a lot of tangents including a segment where Hickok visits an old-flame (Kim Novak) that doesn’t have much to do with the central story, nor propel the plot along, and could’ve easily been cut. There’s also a few proverbial gun fights though they’re generic in nature, don’t add much excitement, and quickly forgotten. 

Bronson gives his typical wooden performance though seeing him with dark circular glasses and sporting long hair does make him, in certain shots, resemble Ringo Starr. The rest of the cast if filled with familiar B-stars in minor roles including Stuart Whitman and Cara Williams, who have an amusing bit as a vulgar couple whom Hickok shares a stagecoach ride with. Jack Warden, who’s almost unrecognizable, has a fun moment when he takes out the glass eye that he’s wearing much to the shock of Crazy Horse.

The only diverting element is the opening dream sequence that’s done over the credits where the viewer looks right into the eye of the beast close-up. Normally I’m not a fan of outdoor shots done on a sound stage, which always comes-off looking artificial, but in this instance it helps accentuate the surreal elements. The climactic sequence though in which both Hickok and Crazy Horse come face-to-face with the buffalo doesn’t work as it becomes painfully clear that the beast is special effects generated especially when Crazy Horse gets on top of it and repeatedly stabs it, which looks like someone stabbing into a sofa cushion with tacky fur stuck to it. We also never get to see a full-shot of the buffalo, just its head, so it’s difficult to gauge how big it really was. The truly disappointing part is that the illustration of the buffalo on the film’s promotional poster seen above is far more impressive looking than anything you’ll actually see in the movie.

Probably the only interesting aspect about the production is not what occurred in front the camera, but behind-the-scenes. Will Sampson, who’s by far the better actor and the story could’ve been centered around his character alone and it would’ve made it a more interesting movie, refused to read his lines for over 24 hours when he became aware that white actors had been hired to play the roles of the Native Americans and only went back to performing his role once the producers agreed to casting actual Indians for the parts. This then directly lead to the American Indian Registry of the Performing Arts, which he founded. 

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: May 6, 1977

Runtime: 1 Hour 37 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: J. Lee Thompson

Studio: United Artists

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, YouTube (with ads)

 

 

An Average Little Man (1977)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 9 out of 10

4-Word Review: Father avenges son’s death.

Giovanni (Alberto Sordi) is an accountant who’s ready for retirement. His son Mario (Vincenzo Crocitti) is following in his father’s footsteps by becoming an accountant as well. He has passed all of his exams and fully qualified, but competition is tough, so his father tries to use his leverage to get his son hired there, or at least have his name pushed to the top of the list. Unfortunately on the morning of the interview Mario is killed by a stray bullet from a bank robbery that was occurring across the street. Giovanni is devastated and the news is so shocking to his wife Amalia (Shelley Winters) that she has a stroke and is no longer able to speak, or walk, or even feed herself. Giovanni doesn’t trust the system to bring the killer (Renzo Carboni) to justice, so he decides he must do it himself by stalking the man and then eventually kidnapping him.

The film, which is based on the novel ‘A Very Normal Man’ by Vincenzo Cerami, who also wrote the screenplay, is filled with many memorable moments. I got a kick out of Giovanni’s tiny car that looked like something he could wear instead of ride and the way he gets around a traffic jam by driving it on the sidewalk. The mounds of paperwork in his office where no one can see each other because they’re literally swallowed up by them is a funny visual as is Giovanni’s supervisor (Romolo Valli) who cleans the dandruff off of his hair and onto his desk. There’s also a scene that is both darkly humorous and highly disturbing where because the cemeteries are filled to capacity the remaining dead bodies must be stored inside a warehouse with each casket put one on top of the other. Families and mourners crowd in to find which one has their loved one in it, but because of the gas coming out of the decomposing bodies that create sporadic explosions that cause the caskets to go tumbling.

The appearance of American actress Shelley Winters is another shocker in that she’s dubbed with an Italian speaking woman. Hearing her in a voice that is clearly not her own is at first disconcerting, but she gives a brilliant performance nonetheless. Normally she’s known for her talkative nature, both for the parts she plays in front of the camera, but also in her real-life interviews, yet she reflects a comatose woman quite convincingly and her facial expressions, particularly when she’s brought into the cabin to observe the killer’s torture, are excellent.

Sordi, a well known Italian film star and comedian, does well too and it’s interesting seeing his hair go from salt-and-pepper to fully gray as the movie progresses. His character though isn’t exactly likable. While he sees himself as being ‘selfless’ as he sacrifices everything, and potentially breaking the rules, for the love of his son, he seems more selfish because why should his son get a unearned break over all the other candidates? While he has his funny share of moments he’s also a bit unhinged even at the beginning with his almost naive belief that a system he knows is corrupt is now somehow ‘morally’ obligated to give him and his son a favor. Maybe this was the intended ironic point, but it would’ve played better had the son been less of a vapid, empty shell.

Spoiler Alert!

What makes this film stand-out from virtually any other is its extreme shift in tone where it starts as a satirical comedy, but ends as a grim thriller. Many script experts will insist this ‘can’t be done’ and in Hollywood would be considered forbidden. It also doesn’t have the inciting incident occur until an hour in even though books like ‘Save the Cat’, which is the ‘screenwriter’s bible’, will tell you it must happen within the first 5 pages of any script. There’s also no forewarning to the killing it’s just a completely random event with no connection to anything that came before, which again most people in the movie business will say is a ‘mistake’.

While I might’ve done it slightly differently by having Giovanni go insane when one of the supervisors refuses to hire his son after promising him they’d do it and then kidnapping that individual to make it seem a little more connected to the first half, I’m still impressed with how effectively it all works either way. It literally breaks every screenwriting rule and still succeeds and should be used as an example to anyone insisting that movie scripts that don’t stringently conform to the Hollywood formula will fail as this one clearly doesn’t.

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My Rating: 9 out of 10

Released: March 17, 1977

Runtime: 1 Hour 58 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Mario Monicelli

Studio: Cineriz

Available: DVD-R (Italian with English Subtitles) (Moviedetective.net)

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Teacher influences her students.

Jean Brodie (Maggie Smith) is a teacher at an all-girls school in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1932.  She routinely strays from the core curriculum and instead instills her own quirky value system, like her admiration for fascist dictators, onto her students. She views them as empty vessels there to be programmed to her liking as she routinely will say: “give me a girl at an impressionable age and she’s mine for life”. The school’s Headmistress, Miss Mackay (Celia Johnson) is aware of Brodie’s unorthodox teaching methods, but unable to do much about it, despite the repeated warnings that she gives to her, due to the fact that Brodie has tenure and been at the school longer than she. Sandy (Pamela Franklin) is one of Brodie’s students, who used to admire her teacher, but now has turned on her and comes up with a way to have her fired, which leads to a dramatic confrontation between the two.

One of the first things that struck me about the story, which is based on the play of the same name by Jay Presson Allen that was based on the novel by Muriel Spark that some feel was inspired by a teacher named Christina Kay who taught at James Gillispies School that Muriel went to as a child, is that it works against the grain of most films. In our individualistic culture the modern day movie centers around the rebel, or those that choose to work outside the system of an autocratic institution and the people that uphold those rules and enforce them are usually the villains. Here though it’s the stuffy authoritarians that ultimately become the makeshift heroes while the non-conformist gets exposed as a ‘loon’ that got too far off-base and needed a serious reeling-in.

It’s also the perfect study of someone who seeks control over others and cannot function in relationships were both sides are on equal footing. We see this not only with the way Jean openly humiliates her students by ridiculing them for even minor infractions like having their shirt sleeves rolled-up, but also in her maladjusted love life. Since she cannot have a healthy relationship with them as that would require selfless behavior from her, which she can’t give, so instead she emotionally manipulates two men (Robert Stephens, Gordon Jackson). She enjoys the attention they give her and gives them just enough incentive to keep on doing it, but never more than that. When the Jacskon character finally does get married to someone else, her sad expression isn’t about losing a person she loved, but more upset that she could no longer have this simp at her convenient disposal.

The recreation of the 1930’s girl school atmosphere was impeccable. Too many times I feel movies dealing with a bygone era don’t recreate it in an accurate way, or it gets viewed through a warped modern lens, but here I came away convinced it was accurate and this in large part could be credited to director Ronald Neame, who was alive when the story took place and therefore better able to feed-off his memory and experience. The scene where the girls all get up out of their seats and stand at attention the second the headmistress walks into the room is one of my favorite moments. To some degree it would be nice if kids today could show that kind of respect to an adult figure, but on the other hand it also reveals the dark side to extreme obedience to authority, which creates an atmosphere that allows someone like Jean to incorporate her will and beliefs onto the students without them ever questioning it.

In the end this is a terrific portrait of how teacher’s where viewed back in the day and the tremendous amount of influence they could hold over their pupils. There were no teen idols, singers, celebrities, or social media influencers back then, so the teacher was the center of most children’s lives sometimes even more so than their parents. While some things have changed the debate about what a teacher chooses to convey in the classroom and how far they should be allowed to stray from the core curriculum rages on today. No matter what side of that issue you may stand it just proves that this story is even more relevant now as it was back then.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: February 24, 1969

Runtime: 1 Hour 56 Minutes

Rated M

Director: Ronald Neame

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD/Blu-ray

Don’t Cry, It’s Only Thunder (1982)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Medic helps out orphanage.

Brian (Dennis Christopher) is an army medic during the Vietnam War who’s stationed at a hospital in Saigon. Young and idealistic he initially cannot handle the death and carnage that he comes into at the clinic and feels he’s not making much of a difference especially as he sees the severely injured soldiers come-in and die with very little that they can do. He then makes a promise to one of them to look in on an orphanage and try to find a safe new location for the children and two nuns who look after them. At first Brian is not into the kids, but eventually he bonds with them especially Anh (Mai Thi Lien) a 12-year-old girl who cannot speak and who he wishes to adopt despite all the red tape that he must go through.

The film is loosely based on the actual experiences of Paul G. Hensler, who first wrote it into a novel before being commissioned to turn it into a screenplay. His motive was to show more of the humanitarian side to the war versus the battle scenes that made up so much of the other films that dealt with the Vietnam conflict. In a lot of ways it’s a refreshing change of pace and unlike with M*A*S*H, that focused on medics during the Korean War, there’s no humor, or pranks, but instead solely focuses on the serious side of taking care of the wounded and how emotionally exhausting it can become. There’s a few moments where a passing character will make a joke, I suppose as an ode to M*A*S*H, but instead of laughs from the others it’s met with eye rolls, which is how it should be as there’s certain situations where humor just isn’t going to help things and in some ways such as here just plain out-of-place.

Christopher, who’d been acting in films since he was 15, but rose to critical acclaim in Breaking Away only to make a bad career turn by starring-in the offbeat dud Fade to Blackredeems himself with his performance here. He does though look incredibly young almost like he’s only 14, but his youthful appearance helps explain his character’s sometimes naive nature and tendency to be overly idealistic and thus makes some of the things that he does, which an older more seasoned person might refrain from, more understandable.

I wasn’t as keen with Susan Saint James. She was 10 years older than Dennis, but looked more like it could’ve been 20 and thus making the eventual love scene between them come-off as forced and mechanical. I’ll give her credit she does have an effective emotional moment, but her character is too Jekyll and Hyde-like as she initially is really into helping the orphanage and even gets Brian more into it and then suddenly like a light switch doesn’t want to have anything to do with it, only to eventually to go back, kind of, to helping the kids out, which is like watching someone with a ping pong personality. If anything I really enjoyed the two Vietnamese nuns (Lisa Lu, Shere Thu Thuy) and the way they would sometimes compromise their moral beliefs for the sake of the kids.

The film manages to be gritty most of the way and despite being filmed in the Philippines still gives one an adequate feeling of the civilian experience in Vietnam during that time. However, the segment where a song gets played that was supposedly sung by the kids while we view a montage of them playing is over-the-top sentimental and even jarring as we were used to the background noise of battle and thus comes-off as sappy and out-of-place. Watching the kids having a bit of fun is fine, but we didn’t need the added music.

Brian’s insistence and almost obsession at adopting a preteen girl will be considered cringey by today’s standards. The film makes clear that his intentions are pure, I suppose this is why there was the sex scene thrown between he and Susan to alleviate any viewer concern that he wasn’t a red-blooded All-American guy who was into chicks his own age, but it still looks even in the most charitable way as kind of questionable especially since he can’t even have any conversations with her since she doesn’t speak. He contends that he’s the one guy who can help her, but how since he has shown no background in dealing with those with speech issues? The book cover of which the film is based has a picture of the real Hensler, of which Brian is supposed to represent, holding an infant girl, which I presume is who he wanted to adopt. Having the girl character being a baby like in the book instead of 12 going on 13 would’ve worked better, or having him try to adopt a group of kids to bring home with him, like 3 or 4 that was an even mix of boys and girls, but to have him get overly infatuated with just one makes it unintentionally seem likes his grooming her to being a Lolita in the making. A bratty child (Truong Minh Hai) even alludes to this at one point, which makes you wonder; did he know something the rest of us didn’t?

Spoiler Alert!

Overall, despite tanking at the box office, it’s an decent drama though its never been released on DVD and trying to find a print of it is difficult.  It also goes on about 15-minutes too long and loses some of its potency by the end. A perfect example of this is when the orphanage gets unexpectedly bombed without warning, which is genuinely horrific, but when another unexpected bomb goes off later the shock effect is no longer there and thus they should’ve kept it down to just one.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: May 3, 1982

Runtime: 1 Hour 48 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Peter Werner

Studio: Sanrio Communications

Available: VHS

The Prisoner of Zenda (1979)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: A king look-alike.

When King Rudolph IV (Peter Sellers) dies in a hot air ballooning accident his heir apparent, Rudolph (Peter Sellers), who spends his days in casinos gambling and carousing, gets summoned to be the next King. His half-brother, Prince Michael (Jeremy Kemp), feels he’d be more suitable for the throne. He sends out an assassin to kill Rudolph in order to allow Michael to become King. While the assassin tries to carry-out the mission his attempt fails due in large part to the quick thinking of Sydney (Peter Sellers) a local carriage driver. Sydney is actually Rudolph’s half-brother due to an affair that the King had with a British actress years earlier, but he is unaware of this and yet due to his striking resemblance to the new would-be King he gets hired as decoy in order to help prevent any more assassination attempts on Rudolph’s life.

While the film, which is loosely based on the classic Anthony Harvey novel of the same name, was met with a lot of criticism upon its release I did come away impressed with the look of it. This was the last film directed by actor-turned-director Richard Quine whose creative output in the early part of his career fared far better than his films towards the end, which were pretty much all box office bombs and critical duds. This one though has some great looking sets and excellent period piece costumes as well as impressive on-location shooting done at historical castles throughout Austria, which almost makes up for its other inadequacies.

Sellers for his part isn’t bad either at least on the acting end. While the reports were that his health was declining he certainly didn’t look it and his use of accents, particularly Sydney’s Welsh-Scottish one, is excellent. However, on a comic level his presence is quite bland. It’s almost like he put in so much effort into the characterizations that he forgot to be funny. Some may find Rudolph speaking with a lisp and unable to say the ‘R’ sound somewhat amusing though this gets overplayed and ultimately old, but outside of that he has nothing else that he says or does that’s humorous. The audiences are coming in expecting him to be the comic catalyst when instead it’s Gregory Sierra, in a very energetic Wily E. Coyote type role as a vengeful count, and Graham Stark as a prison guard who manage to get any genuine laughs.

Incorporating Sellers’ then wife Lynn Frederick into the proceedings doesn’t help. Frederick was fielding leading role offers for two TV-movies at the time including that of The Torn Birds, but Sellers convinced here that cinema work, even if the role was small, was superior to that of doing something for TV and thus she rejected those and took this one. Their marriage though was already in a rocky stage and their therapist advised them not to work together which resulted in Sellers routinely berating his wife in-between takes to the point that she’d sometimes break down into tears. The coldness between the two really shows onscreen as they share no chemistry and thus making their character’s romantic moments come-off as quite flat. If anything the scenes between Sellers and Elke Sommer, whom he co-starred with years early in A Shot in the Dark, works better.

While the production is polished and even has a nice action moment where the carriage that Sydney is in gets attacked the comedy is completely lacking and the film has a poor pace. You keep waiting for the humor to gel, but it never does. The attempts that you do get are corny and lame, or just too subtle to elicit even a chuckle resulting in yet another Sellers’ misfire.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: May 25, 1979

Runtime: 1 Hour 48 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Richard Quine

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD-R

Conrack (1974)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: He teaches underprivileged kids.

In the spring of 1969 Pat Conroy gets a job teaching children in grades 5 through 8 in a one room schoolhouse off the coast of South Carolina on an island known as Yamacraw. He soon finds that the students, all of whom are poor and African American, don’t know even the basics of arithmetic, or geography and can’t read. He becomes compelled to change that by instituting unorthodox teaching methods, which he hopes will ‘jostle’ them from their intellectual slumber and get them into learning and enjoying it. Mrs. Scott (Madge Sinclair) is the principal who’s not keen to these methods and routinely lectures him. Mr. Skeffington (Hume Cronyn) is the superintendent who also frowns on some of the things Pat is doing and proceeds to have him fired. Pat tries to win his job back and the students and townspeople help him in his fight, but will it be enough?

The film is based on the novel ‘The Water is Wide’, which was written by Pat Conroy, who later went on to even greater success with The Great Santiniwhich was based on his father, and also made into a movie. This story was supposedly based on some of Pat’s true-life experiences while teaching on Daufuskie Island. Some of what’s shown is revealing and even captivating, but I couldn’t help but feel certain other aspects were exaggerated. I realize that these kids didn’t have the best education system and certainly might not be as well read as certain other kids their age, but to not know what 2 + 2 was, or that they lived in the U.S.A. came off as too extreme to me. There’s also no real explanation for why the teacher before him failed to teach even these most basic things to them. Was she/he just lazy, or grossly incompetent?

The film also comes-off a bit too much like a vanity project where Conroy is portrayed as being this ‘amazing’ teacher who’s able to get extraordinary results from kids that no one else could simply by his sheer presence alone. All the students bond with him quickly and there’s no trouble-maker, or discipline issues. One could argue that Mary (Tina Andrews) was difficult because she refused to show-up to class, but truancy and in-class disruptions, as well as those students who test authority, are two entirely different things and the fact that Pat is able to avoid that is something few other teachers can say they’ve been able to do as well.

Voight is certainly energetic and engaging, but the students themselves fail to elicit any distinctive personalities and it’s hard to distinguish any of them from the others. I enjoyed Sinclair a great deal and felt she gave a great performance, but her confrontations with Pat could’ve been played-up more. The side-story dealing with Paul Winfield as an illiterate hermit whom Pat teaches to read is a total waste mainly because his character is underdeveloped and not in it long enough to really care about.

I enjoyed Pat’s visit with Edna (Ruth Attaway), one of the elderly townspeople, but his relationship with the other people in town should’ve been shown intermittently all through the film instead of just saving it until the third act where they all attempt to come to his rescue when he loses his job. They seemed to really like him, which is great, but I wasn’t sure they even knew he existed since there were never any scenes showing him interacting with them up until then.

Spoiler Alert!

The ending had me raising my eyebrow a bit, as Pat, once he’s let go of his job, proceeds to drive around the local town and broadcast his grievances through a speaker attached to the roof of his pick-up, which had me concerned that in typical Hollywood fashion he would be able to win his employment back even though in real-life stunts like that usually don’t work. Fortunately that doesn’t happen making the film, which was already idealized to begin with, not seem quite as fabricated. If you can forgive some of these issues, the production as a whole is well down and the always reliable director Martin Ritt perfectly captures the rural setting and ambiance, which is the best thing about it.

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My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: March 15, 1974

Runtime: 1 Hour 46 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Martin Ritt

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: Blu-ray (Out-of-Print), DVD-R

Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel (1979)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Bizarre occurrences at lodge.

Inspector Glebsky (Uldis Pucitis) is summoned to a remote winter lodge known as the Dead Mountaineers due to a climber who fell to his death off a nearby cliff and whose faithful St. Bernard sleeps underneath a portrait of him in the hotel’s lobby. Glebsky was informed from the anonymous call of some unusual activity that was occurring at the place, but once he gets there no one, including the innkeeper Alex (Juri Jarvet), know what he’s talking about. After he meets the strange collection of guests he becomes even more suspicious. Then he’s handed a note stating that Hinkus (Mikk Mikiver), a man supposedly weakened by tuberculosis, is planning to commit murder. When one of the guests, Olaf (Tiit Harm), does turn-up dead, but Hinkus is later found tied-up in his bed, so he couldn’t have done it. A avalanche blocks off all outside roads trapping Glebsky and the guests in the building where more and more weird things begin to occur until the inspector can no longer trust his senses, or even his logic.

Some people ask; what makes a great movie? And the answer is that a good movie needs a unique and distinctive image that impresses the viewer right from the start and which they can take away with them once it’s over. This film has just that image with a bird’s eye view of the hotel that’s so remote, as it’s nestled in the snowy, mountain landscape, and so small when glimpsed from high up, that at first I thought it was a prop, but it’s a real building, which makes it all the more impressive. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such an isolated place, it doesn’t even seem to have roads leading into it. This shot alone, of which it goes back to it a few times, brilliantly sets the tone for the rest of the movie where everything is totally unique and like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

The fact that this was all shot in what was then the Soviet Union, in this case what is now Kazakhstan, makes it even more jaw-dropping as productions there didn’t receive the same type of budget as a studio driven Hollywood one and yet the visual design is impeccable. The inside of the place has a pronounced, surreal look with excellent shadowy lighting and the special effects, while sparse, come into strong play during the climactic surprise ending that like with the beginning leaves an equally lasting impression. The music by Sven Grunberg has a distinct futuristic tone that helps accentuate the outer worldly quality while the sun glistening off the bright white snow during the outdoor scenes makes it seem almost like another planet.

The story was written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky and based on their book of the same name. They’re better known for their novel ‘Roadside Picnic’, which was turned into the acclaimed Stalker directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Both brothers also wrote the screenplay and it pretty much stays faithful to the book though there’s a few missing characters and Glebsky’s motivation for going to the lodge is different. Here it was due a mysterious phone call while in the book it was for vacation. The plot at first gets played-up like it’s just another police/murder investigation complete with interviews with potential suspects and even Agatha Christie-like flashbacks showing what each guest was doing when the murder occurred, which had me getting bored as the movie starts out as something really different, so to have it devolve into the conventional murder mystery was disappointing, but by the second act this all changes and that’s when it gets really interesting.

The acting is solid and I enjoyed Pucitis in the lead, who despite having his voice dubbed, has the perfect chiseled features of a hardened police detective. My only complaint, and it’s a minor one and probably the only one in this potential cult classic that desperately needs more attention and a Blu-ray/dvd release, comes at the beginning during Glebsky’s voice-over narration where he speaks in the present about his time at the hotel and how during a ‘slow shift’ the events that he witnessed there comes back to haunt him. I found it hard to believe that he’d only think about this when there was nothing else to do, or in this case a ‘slow shift’, as I’d think it would be on his mind all the time to the extent that he may never be able to go back to police work again as the events would’ve been too traumatizing.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: August 27, 1979

Runtime: 1 Hour 20 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Grigori Kromanov

Studio: Tallinnfilm

Available: dvdlady