Category Archives: Movies Based on Novels

Oh, God! (1977)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: An atheist meets God.

Jerry Landers (John Denver) is a married man with two kids (Moosie Drier, Rachel Longaker) who works as an assistant manager at a local grocery store. He doesn’t consider himself to be religious nor does he attend church (he most likely could be called an atheist, but I assume that term was considered ‘too toxic’ of a label to put on a protagonist that mainstream audiences of the day were expected to like, so he’s just given the much softer description of being a non-believer.) One day he receives a letter in the mail stating that God would like to interview him at a certain location, but Jerry considers this to be a practical joke and throws it away, but when the letter keeps popping up at the most unlikely places he finally decides to take it seriously. He goes to the location and meets God (George Burns) who at first he does not see, but only hears, but eventually the almighty takes the form of an old man. He tells Jerry to spread the word that he exists, which Jerry does only to have it all snowball against him when everyone thinks he’s crazy and even his own family becomes embarrassed to be seen with him.

The film is based on the 1971 Avery Corman novel of the same name though the book had more of a satirical tone and the protagonist was a journalist. The film though manages to retain the same jaded sensibilities of the modern-day public, which is what makes it so amusing and for the most part quite on-target. Denver, who was known more as a singer and did very little acting both before or after this, is quite good here, but only if you can get past his bowl haircut. Burns is excellent as well and I always felt this is the performance he should’ve won the Academy Award for instead of the one in The Sunshine Boys as it easily became his signature role.

The script though by Larry Gelbart is full of incongruities. For instance the God here claims to be a non-interventionist who sets the process in motion and then lets things happen without getting involved. Everyone is given free will and he doesn’t intervene to stop suffering or ‘bad things’ from occurring because that would upset the ‘natural balance’, but then turns around and admits that he had a hand in such superficial things as helping the 1969 New York Mets win the pennant. He is also forced to become a ‘side show magician’ by performing what amounts to being magic acts, like doing a tacky card trick in front of a judge, in order to prove to Jerry and others that he really is the almighty. Yet he then becomes shocked to find that Jerry’s simple word-of-mouth as well as having Jerry pass out God’s ‘calling card’, which is nothing more than a white card with the word God on it, as not being enough to somehow convince others of the same thing.

There’s also a weird conversation, which I found loopy even as a child, where God tries to prove a point by explaining to Jerry that people only dream in black-and-white, which apparently was an accepted belief a long time ago. This idea has later been found to be incorrect, which is good as I’ve always dreamed in color, but it’s still off-kilter to have this supposedly all-knowing God argue a talking point from a debunked myth.

The performances by the supporting cast help  and in fact I consider this to be Teri Garr’s best role as I found her character arch to be more interesting than Denver’s. The aging Ralph Bellamy is good as an aggressive defense attorney and I also like Barnard Hughes as the overwhelmed judge. William Daniels is amusing as Denver’s snippy boss and a type of authoritative character he’d put to perfection years later in the TV-show ‘St. Elsewhere’. Paul Sorvino gets a few laughs too in a send-up of an over-the-top TV evangelist.

The only one that I had a problem with was Donald Pleasance who gets fourth billing, but only 2 lines of dialogue. With such a versatile talent as his you don’t want to waste it by giving him such a small role and unless a lot of his work here ended up on the cutting room floor I’m genuinely surprised why he even took it.

The film is mildly entertaining, but ultimately quite benign and nowhere near as ‘profound’ as some considered it. Nonetheless it was a big hit and even knocked Star Wars out of the top spot for 1-week. It also spawned 2 sequels as well as a TV-movie called ‘Human Feelings’ where Nancy Walker plays a female God set to destroy Las Vegas with a flood unless Billy Crystal, who plays an angel, can find 6 virtuous people that live there.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: October 7, 1977

Runtime: 1 Hour 38 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Carl Reiner

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Pete ‘n’ Tillie (1972)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Marriage and then tragedy.

Tillie (Carol Burnett) is a 33-year-old secretary still looking for ‘Mr. Right’. Her friend Gertrude (Geraldine Page) sets her up with Pete (Walter Matthau) a lifelong bachelor. The two don’t hit-it-off initially, but the other prospects are so dim they decide to make a go of it, so they get married and have a kid (Lee H. Montgomery) only to then be faced with terrible news.

On the onset this may seem like a misfire. The viewer expects, especially with these two stars, a very broad comedy of which this is not. Instead the script, which is based on the novel ‘Witches’ Milk’ by Pete De Vries, relies heavily on dry wit particularly through the dialogue, which on a low key level is quite funny. The attempt to create a sort-of unromantic romance that goes completely against what we’ve come to expect in most other romantic films is commendable and for the first hour or so it kind of works.

Matthau again shines by managing to make an unlikable character likable and even downright engaging while Montgomery is fun as the kid by playing a child that seems far more mature and sensible than his two parents. Burnett’s performance though doesn’t work as well. She’s known for her hammy performances from her TV-show and yet here plays a more serious part that barely has much comedy to it at all. The scene where she  screams up to the sky in a fit of rage over her son’s death is her best moment, but overall her appearance here is largely forgettable.

Her character’s motivations are confusing as well particularly with the way she jumps into marriage with a man she really doesn’t like and who would repel most other women and then she decides to stay with him even as it becomes painfully clear that he’s cheating on her. It just seemed that a reasonably attractive woman such as herself should have other male suitors to choose from, so why she sells-out for this one and sticks with him when others would run is not clear and the movie should’ve done a better job at answering this.

Geraldine Page’s character seems completely out-of-sync with the proceedings. She’s personally one of my favorite actresses and even though she was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance here I didn’t see what her presence added to the story. Having her pass out at a courthouse simply because she doesn’t want to reveal her age gets rather exaggerated. The physical altercation that she has with Burnett afterwards does not fit the tone of the rest of the film, which tried to be low-key while this bit becomes over-the-top slapstick and completely out of place.

Had the film focused entirely on the courtship phase this thing could’ve been a winner as it has a nice dry offbeat touch. Even the melodrama of the second act I could handle, but the crazy antics of the third act don’t work at all and the ending leaves no impact at all making this an interesting experiment that ultimately fails.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: December 17, 1972

Runtime: 1 Hour 40 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Martin Ritt

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD-R (Universal Vault Series)

Where the Red Fern Grows (1974)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Kid raises two hounds.

Billy Colman (Stewart Petersen) is a 12-year-old boy living on a farm in rural Oklahoma during the depression. He becomes obsessed with owning a coon hound which he can train to hunt raccoons. His family is too poor to buy him one, so he spends his summer doing a number of odd jobs until he’s finally able to buy two Redbone Coonhound puppies, which he raises and trains into becoming championship hunting dogs.

The film is based on the 1961 novel by Wilson Rawls, who provides the opening voice-over narration and the script here closely follows the action of the book. It was directed by Norman Tokar, who seemed to specialize in stories of young boys bonding with their pets as he also directed the film versions of Big Red and Rascal. The production was clearly done on the low budget side, which is distracting at first, but eventually meshes with the stark, rural, and economically challenged setting quite nicely.

While the story seems believable enough and may open some viewer’s eyes, such as my own, to the sport of coon hunting, which still thrives today in certain parts of the country, I found certain elements of it to be hard to believe.  For instance Billy decides to walk all the way from his lonely farmhouse to the town of Tahlequah, which is 30 miles away and apparently able to do it in one day. I was also not sure how he would be able to find the town since he did not travel along any type of highway or road, but instead trudged through open fields and without the benefit of either a map or a compass.

The scene where Billy intentionally trips a nasty boy by the name of Rubin (Rex Corley) which causes the kid to fall on the ax that he is carrying and dies seemed questionable from a modern day viewpoint simply because everybody believes the story that Billy tells them and no charges were made. The film and book, which I remember reading in the 6th grade and in fact this is the only part of the story that I remembered, portray this as being an unintentional accident, which it was. However, these days the kid could potentially be put on trial for manslaughter charges especially since there was clearly bad blood between the two, but maybe it is a testament of simpler times that everyone, including seemingly the victim’s parents, believe the story he tells them without question, but in any other era that might not have been the case.

I found it interesting to see Beverly Garland, whom I first became aware of when she played Fred MacMurray’s second wife in the TV-show ‘My Three Sons’ and who looked quite middle-aged then, but for some reasons gets cast here as a young housewife and manages to somehow pull it off despite nearing 50 at the time. Petersen though, who got cast after a long auditioning process of over 500 candidates, is only adequate, but doesn’t quite hit the mark especially with his inability to convey anything other than one facial expression. I also thought the coonskin cap that he ends up wearing made him come off looking like a Davy Crockett or Daniel Boone Jr. although maybe back in the day that was considered ‘cool’.

Certain animal right’s activists of today may not take kindly to what was once considered just a ‘charming’ coming-of-age tale. Although no actual killing of any animal is ever shown it is certainly heavily implied. It got to the point where I started to feel sorry for the raccoons particularly during the hunting competition where night after night different hunters would go out into the forest to see how any many they could catch and then come back with the numerous pelts that they skinned from them making me wonder if there could possible be any raccoons left to kill.

Spoiler Alert!

The film though does manage to end on a strong note although even here this gets botched because as the family goes to the dog’s grave to see this magical red fern growing on top of it we also see a big boom microphone hanging down from the top of the screen , which completely sucks all the magic right out of the scene. This same story was remade in 2003 and in 2018 a 45-minute documentary was released showing behind-the-scenes footage/stills of the movie as it was being made and also featuring interviews with the actors.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: June 21, 1974

Runtime: 1 Hour 37 Minutes

Rated G

Director: Norman Tokar

Studio: Doty-Dayton Releasing

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Out of Africa (1985)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 9 out of 10

4-Word Review: An illicit love affair.

In 1913 a wealthy Danish woman named Karen Dinesen (Meryl Streep) gets spurned by the man she is in love with, so on the rebound she decides to accept the marriage proposal of the man’s brother, Baron Bror Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer) Despite the fact that neither she nor he are in love with the other, but decide to make it a marriage of convenience. They move together to Kenya where they plan to at first start a cattle farm, but it soon turns into a coffee plantation. Through the years Karen’s marriage to Bror begins to sour as he continues to have affairs with countless other women, so Karen turns her attention to the dashing big-game hunter named Denys (Robert Redford) and the two share a passionate and adventurous love affair, but when Karen tries to turn their relationship into a committed one he refuses.

The film, especially the first hour, comes off more like a broad sketch than a fluid story, or a highlight reel taken from a wide outline. I could never really get any type of handle of who this Karen person really was. I never understood why she would want to leave Denmark for Africa, or why she’d be so quick to settle down with a man that she didn’t love. So what if she got spurned by one guy there’s still other fish in the proverbial sea. Why not wait around for someone she could truly be excited about instead of just jumping in with someone that she really wasn’t?

To some degree I did find the marriage-of-convenience idea an interesting one. It’s rare that both parties admit that neither has the hots for the other, but still decide to make a go of it, which seemed like highly modernistic behavior especially for the time period and I was hoping this whole scenario would be explored more, but the film treats this mainly as a side-story that pretty much fades away after the first hour.

The introduction of the Denys character gets a bit botched too as he keeps popping in and out at the most convenient times out of literally nowhere, like when Karen finds herself ready to be attacked by a lion, and then just as quickly disappearing again almost like he were a magical genie.  The fact that Streep puts in so much effort into her Scandinavian accent, but Redford puts none into conveying an English one is off-putting. Supposedly Redford did initially try to speak with a light accent, but director Pollack apparently found it ‘distracting’ and advised him to speak without it, but in the process it makes the acting seem uneven.

It’s during the second-half where the film really comes together as it focuses solely on the affair though in real-life there was only a two year difference between Karen and Denys, but here there’s a 12 year difference between the actors playing the part and it shows, but despite that discretion this segment really works. I loved watching the different things that the couple did like playing a phonograph record to some monkeys and seeing how they responded to it and watching Karen taking an airplane ride for the first time and all the majestic scenery that she takes in.

The cinematography is indeed sumptuous and one of the things that holds it altogether even when the script jumps precariously and sometimes jarringly from one point in Karen’s life to another. The film would’ve worked better had it focused on only one area, like her relationship with Denys, which could’ve helped create a stronger, more immediate emotional impact with the viewer while also cutting down on the excessively long runtime.

My Rating: 9 out of 10

Released: December 10, 1985

Runtime: 2 Hours 41 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Sydney Pollack

Studio: Universal

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

Mister Buddwing (1966)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: He’s lost his memory.

A man (James Garner) wakes up one morning to find himself on a bench in Central Park unaware of how he got there or who he is. He finds a crumpled up piece of paper in his coat pocket and when he calls it a woman by the name of Gloria (Angela Lansbury) answers, but talking to her makes him even more confused. He then spends the day wondering around the city while coming up with the name Buddwing after he spots the word Budweiser on a passing truck and then looks up into the sky and sees the wings of a jet plane. He bumps  into women who remind him of someone that he knows as Grace, but every time he meets someone it just leads to more dead ends and things get even worse when he gets mistaken as being an escapee from a mental hospital.

The film is based on a novel by Evan Hunter and initially holds some intrigue. I was impressed by the opening shot that’s done with a cinematic flair. I was hoping especially with its evocative black-and-white cinematography and jazz score by Kenyon Hopkins that this would have a strong cinema vertite feel, but any potentially artsy style gets lost by a draggy script that bogs down in Buddwing’s past romantic memories that amounts to nothing more than extended talky scenes that cripples the mystery angle until you end up not caring what the answers are.

Garner’s usual appeal gets seriously strained, which is probably why in his memories ‘The Garner Files’ he calls this “The worst movie I ever made” and then asks “What was I thinking?”. Normally I admire actors that are willing to go out of their safety zone, but his constant deer-in-headlights look becomes tiring and one-dimensional and the crying that he does while inside Lansbury’s apartment seems insincere.

The one’s that come off best are the four women that he bumps into as he wonders around. All are portrayed by famous leading ladies: the fore mentioned Lansbury as well as Suzanne Pleshette, Katherine Ross, and Jean Simmons who give outstanding performances and helps keep the otherwise rocky picture afloat. However, during the flashback sequences the different actresses all end up playing the same Grace at different times, which I found confusing and off-putting.

The explanation for Buddwing’s amnesia, which apparently ends up being just the result of having some stressful event occurring in his life, is highly suspect as I’ve not read of this happening to anyone in real-life, or if it does it is extremely rare. Not only does the credibility get pushed, but Delbert Mann’s direction, with the exception of the opening shot, lacks creativity, which makes this already flat story even more of a strain to sit through.

Released: October 11, 1966

Runtime: 1 Hour 40 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Delbert Mann

Studio: MGM

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

The Molly Maguires (1970)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Spy infiltrates secret group.

In 1876 a group of Irish immigrants form a secret society known as the Molly Maguires. Their aim is to retaliate against the cruel and unfair working conditions of the mining company that they work at by secretly sabotaging the company’s work site whenever they can. Police Lieutenant Davis (Frank Finley) hires undercover detective James McParland (Richard Harris) to infiltrate the group and find out who the culprits behind the vandalism are. He becomes friends with the group’s leader Jack Kehoe (Sean Connery) which puts into question whether he will turn them in or become a part of the protest.

The story is based on the real-life incident that occurred in 1876 in Reading, Pennsylvania and an actual James McParland who infiltrated a group of Mollies and brought them to justice after their actions ended the lives of several men. The term Molly Maguire comes from the name of an actual woman who lived in Ireland during the 1700’s and helped lead a revolt against rent collectors.

On the technical end the film is well done. The majority of it was shot in Eckley, Pennsylvania whose authentic buildings remained virtually unchanged from when they were built in the 1870’s making it easy for the filmmakers to recreate the period without much effort. The coal plant was built specifically for the film and still stands today, but what impressed me most was that director Martin Ritt allows the natural ambiance of the working conditions to permeate the soundtrack to the point that not a word of dialogue is spoken until 15 minutes in and Connery, who gets shown on and off, never speaks a word until the 40-minute mark.

Despite being made on a large budget of 11 million it managed to only recoup 2 million of its investment at the box office. Personally I feel this was a direct result of exposing the Harris character as an undercover agent right from the start. Usually movies try to keep this element a mystery, which then allows for a surprise reveal at the end, but here that gets ruined.

What’s worse is that the Harris character never changes in any way. He stoically sticks to his mission of turning the men in and betraying the trust that he had earned from them, which I found frustrating. As a viewer you start to bond with Connery and his men and connect to what they’re fighting against. Yes, they do commit crimes of vandalism, but for good reason as they were clearly being exploited by their corporate masters. You’d expect Harris to internally quarrel with this as he becomes friends with them, but he doesn’t and without any insight given to his background it becomes, despite the otherwise high production standards. off-putting and emotionally defeating to have to sit through.

Ritt later directed Norma Rae which dealt with the same subject of worker unions, but that film made unions the center point of the story. Here the union issue seems to be only a side element while Harris’ ongoing con game the main drama, which ultimately creates a nebulous point-of-view.  I walked away wondering what message if anything the film was trying to convey, which could be yet another reason why viewers never warmed up to it despite being otherwise well executed.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: January 27, 1970

Runtime: 2 Hours 5 Minutes

Rated M

Director: Martin Ritt

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

She-Devil (1989)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Jilted wife gets revenge.

Ruth (Roseanne Barr) is an overweight, plain-looking woman who is married to Bob (Ed Begley Jr.) a womanizer who can’t keep his eyes or hands off other beautiful women that he sees. At a party he spots Mary (Meryl Streep) a wealthy author of romance novels and the two quickly begin a torrid affair. Ruth becomes jealous of all of this and plots a very elaborate, multi-step revenge.

This film marked a change of pace for director Susan Seidelman who burst onto the movie scene during the early 80’s with indie tinged/punk themed films like Smithereens and Desperately Seeking Susan that were subtle on the humor and heavier on the character development. Here it’s the exact opposite as the emphasis is on camp, which is fun for awhile especially the gaudy color schemes that permeate each and every shot, but eventually the broad caricatures become too one-dimensional.

Streep’s  performance as a prissy, stuck-up rich lady is the main part of the entertainment, but the motivations of her character were confusing. I didn’t understand why such a beautiful woman that was loaded with money and could get virtually any man that she wanted would want to settle for such a bland, dopey dweeb like Begley. I also couldn’t understand why she’d stick with him after his kids move into her mansion and turn her life into a living hell. She wasn’t married to him, so why not just throw him and his litter out instead of going through the torment that she does?

I liked that fact that Barr truly fits her part physically. Too many times Hollywood casts good-looking women in roles that require someone homely and feels that by cropping up their hair and putting glasses on them will do the trick, which it doesn’t, so at least here we get someone that more than looks the part especially with the giant mole that gets put on her upper lip.

However, I had issues with her character intentionally setting her house on fire by overloading the circuits and putting aerosol cans into her microwave, which would be easily detected by an inspector once the fire gets put out, so why doesn’t she end up getting arrested for arson? Also, she gets a job at a senior living facility despite not having any experience. Doesn’t anyone check an applicant’s references anymore?

The film is based on the novel ‘The Life and Loves of a She-Devil’ by Fay Weldon, but the movie strays from the original story in many ways. In the book Ruth has  sex with various men, which doesn’t get touched on here at all. She also through plastic surgery ends up resembling Mary and ultimately becoming her after the real Mary dies, which the film doesn’t show at all, but should’ve since it would’ve given it some much needed irony. Weldon also insisted that her story was about envy and not revenge, which is a point that Barry Strugatz’s script misses entirely.

Eccentric character actress Sylvia Miles gets perfectly cast as Streep’s obnoxious mother, which is great and dwarf-looking actress Linda Hunt is enjoyable as Barr’s pal, but the film comes off as a one-note joke that doesn’t know when to stop and ultimately becomes annoying.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: December 8, 1989

Runtime: 1 Hour 39 Minutes

Rated PG-13

Director: Susan Seidelman

Studio: Orion Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video

The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper (1981)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Hijacker eludes the authorities.

Loosely based on the real-life incident involving a man using the alias of Dan Cooper, but later reported in the media as D.B. Cooper, who hijacked a Boeing 727 as it flew towards Seattle, Washington on the night of November 24, 1971 and parachuted out of the plane with $200,000, but whose remains have never been found. In the film D.B. Cooper is the alias for Jim Meade and is played by Treat Williams as he parachutes into a wooden area and becomes chased by Bill Gruen (Robert Duvall) who was Meade’s sergeant in the army and feels he knows him better than anyone.

Had the film made some legitimate attempt at accuracy it might’ve been moderately intriguing, but right from the start it plays fast-and-loose with the facts including having the jump take places in the sunny daytime when in reality it occurred at night during a rainstorm. The time period is supposed to be late autumn, but many people are shown doing summertime activities like having a couple going skinny dipping in a pond even though it would’ve been too chilly for that. There’s also a ridiculous scene where Paul Gleason, playing a useless character that was not needed at all, going headfirst through the front windshield of a moving car and receiving a slight cut on his right cheek as his only injury.

John Frankenheimer was originally hired to direct, but after having numerous arguments with the producers over the film’s insipid script he was fired. He was then replaced by Buzz Kulik who tried turning it into a topical drama by portraying the Cooper character as being a disgruntled Vietnam Vet. Roger Spottiswoode and Ron Shelton were then brought it to ‘jazz-it-up’ a bit with some stunt-work and the chase scene down the rapids is impressive, but the humor they put in is dumb and the ‘Dukes of Hazard-like soundtrack ill-advised.

I started to feel that it would’ve worked better had it not connected itself to the real incident at all but instead had Williams portray a fictional character all together. It also should’ve analyzed the planning/preparation phase much more and shown him pulling off the actual hijacking instead of just starting out with the parachute jump.

While he doesn’t look anything like the sketches shown of the real Cooper I still found Williams to be fun in the lead and Kathryn Harrold lends great support as his resourceful wife. Duvall is solid as usual and even though it doesn’t take place in the Pacific Northwest, which is where the real incident occurred, I still enjoyed the sunny scenery, but that’s where the good points begin and end in a movie that clearly had misfired written all over it before even one frame of it was filmed.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: November 13, 1981

Runtime: 1 Hour 40 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Roger Spottiswoode, Buzz Kulik (Uncredited)

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD (Region 2), Amazon Video, YouTube.

Voyage of the Damned (1976)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: This ship goes nowhere.

Based on the true story of the ill-fated voyage of 937 Jewish refugees who left the port of Hamburg, Germany in 1939 on the ocean liner St.Louis, which was supposed to arrive in Havana, Cuba where they hoped to start a new life free of the rising antisemitism that had plagued them in Europe. However, when the ship reaches Cuba they are not allowed to dock and when the ship’s Captain (Max Von Sydow) tries to take them to the US and Canada they are refused entry as well forcing them to return to Germany.

Given the high production values and riveting story-line I was expecting it to be far more compelling than it ends up being. It’s not like Stuart Rosenberg’s direction is poor either because it isn’t, but it never gains any dramatic traction and the more it goes on the more boring it gets. This is definitely one instance where cutting the runtime would’ve been advantageous. I know we live in an era where the ‘director’s cut’ is considered the gold standard, but sometimes there’s good reasons for why studios edit it and usually it’s because some of the footage just isn’t necessary. I watched the 158 version, but the theatrical cut was trimmed to 134 minutes and after watching this one I can only presume that version would’ve been an improvement and if anything could’ve gained a better pace, which is something that is seriously lacking here.

There also too many characters and it’s hard to keep track of all them or get emotionally invested in their quandary especially when by-and-large their all suffering from the same dilemma. The time span between when they show a character to when they return is so long that by the time you see them again you’ve pretty much forgotten all about them.

The large cast is full big names and familiar faces and a few of them do a terrific job. I felt Von Sydow’s performance as the beleaguered but stoic captain was right on-target and I also enjoyed Orson Welles as the glib Cuban politician. Kudos also should go to Lee Grant, who ended up getting nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar here, for her one shocking scene where she cuts her hair down to its scalp, but overall most of the talent gets wasted. This includes Denholm Elliot and Jose Ferrer who appear onscreen for only a few minutes and Katherine Ross who has only two scenes that come near the end, but still managed to somehow get a Golden Globe nomination for her efforts anyways.

Spoiler Alert!

The film ends on a supposed happy note when the ship’s captain informs the passengers that Belgium and France will accept them, but then the denouncement states that 600 of them ended up dying anyways during the German Occupation making the viewer feel much like the passengers that they’ve just spent almost 3-hours going in circles. Maybe that’s the point, but as an insightful drama it fails. I was almost hoping that the Captain would’ve gone through with his plan to have the ship crash off the shore of England and allowing the passengers to disembark as a safety precaution, but still trying to make it look like it was an accident and not intentional. Although this would’ve swayed from what really happened it could’ve been an interesting thing to see and brought some genuine action into the mix, which was otherwise missing.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: December 22, 1976

Runtime: 2 Hours 38 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Stuart Rosenberg

Studio: Embassy Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video

A Dry White Season (1989)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: He fights social injustice.

The story centers on South African schoolteacher Ben (Donald Sutherland) who has led a peaceful law abiding suburban existence and has no idea about the social injustices around him. One day his black gardener (Winston Ntshona) comes to him complaining about how his son was beaten by police simply for attending a peaceful rally. Ben initially dismisses the claims and insists the son must’ve done something wrong, but when he investigates the issue further he finds some startling revelations about how far the authorities are willing to go to stop dissent and when Ben decides to challenge the police on this his life and security get put on the line.

The film is based on the novel of the same name by Andre Brink and directed by Euzhan Palcy who became the first Black woman to direct a film that was produced by a major Hollywood studio. For the most part the film is polished and well made and at the beginning emotionally effective as we see first hand the brutal treatment of the protesters by the police. I also liked how it shows both sides of the issue by having Ben’s wife Susan (Janet Suzman) admit that apartheid is wrong, but too afraid for its abolishment as she fears it might put the whites at too much of a disadvantage.

Unfortunately somewhere along the way it starts to lose steam and ends on a whimper that is nowhere near the emotional level that it began with. Part of the problem is that it suffers from a weak main character. Sutherland plays the part well, but it’s hard to understand how someone could live well into his middle age years and still have such extreme naivety to what was going on in the country that he resided in. He’s also dependent on those around him to do most of the legwork and you have to question what difference does our hero’s actions ultimately make anyways since apartheid continued on for many years after this film’s setting, which is 1976.

All of this could’ve been resolved had Marlon Brando’s character been made the protagonist. Brando came out of retirement to take on the supporting role and agreed to do it at union scale, which was far below his usual salary demands. His presence adds zest to the proceedings as a lawyer who is quite attuned to the corrupt system, but decides to give it a fiery court battle anyways and it’s a shame that he’s only in it for a brief period and then just completely disappears during the second half.

Spoiler Alert!

The ending differs a bit from the book and was added in by director Palcy, which has a black cab driver Zakes Mokae taking the law into his own hands and shooting the Jurgen Prochnow character, who plays a policemen, after he intentionally ran Sutherland over with his car. Palcy did this to show how even decent people can be pushed to violence, which I agree with, but she seems to feel the need to justify this by having a flashback ‘replay’ of all the previous events that drove Mokae to pull the trigger, which comes off as heavy-handed. If we’ve watched the movie then we already know what happened and don’t suddenly need a ‘refresher course’.

End of Spoiler Alert!

As a drama it’s an adequately compelling, but there’s other movies on the same subject and I can’t say this one stands out from those. I was also disappointed to find that the book from which this is based was fictional as I initially thought it was a true story since it takes place in a very specific year. I’m not saying some of what goes on here didn’t happen in a broad sense, but having it centered on verifiable events gives it more relevance and makes it seem more like telling a story as opposed to just making a political statement.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: September 20, 1989

Runtime: 1 Hour 46 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Euzhan Palcy

Studio: MGM

Available: DVD, Blu-ray (Criterion Collection), Amazon Video, YouTube