Category Archives: Movies Based on Novels

Pocket Money (1972)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Herding cattle for money.

Jim Kane (Paul Newman) is a not-too-bright modern-day cowboy living in Arizona that is broke and without a job. In desperation he takes an offer from a shady businessman named Bill Garrett (Strother Martin) who promises Jim a lot of money to buy a certain breed of cattle in Mexico and then bring them up to the US. Jim has his suspicions about the deal, but decides he has no choice but to take it. He elicits the help of his longtime pal Leonard (Lee Marving) another down-on-his-luck loser. Together they find the cattle and herd them to the states despite a lot of obstacles along the way, but when they return Bill and his cronies are nowhere in sight forcing Jim to seek him out and right the injustice.

Many people have complained about the film’s slow pace and the script, which was written by Terrence Malick and based off of a novel by J.P.S. Brown, has a lackadaisical quality, but to some extent I really didn’t mind it. Too many Hollywood movies are compelled to rush right into the plot while leaving atmosphere and characterizations behind, but here Laszlo Kovacs cinematography brings the rustic western locations to life. I had traveled just recently to a small town in Mexico earlier in the year and this film captures the same ambience that I saw including all the feral dogs running around, the old rundown buildings that make up the town center, as well as the pot-holed filled roads. It was almost like I can gone there a second straight time.

Newman is brilliant in a rare comedic turn. His character is dopey, but in a funny, lovable way where you laugh at his ineptness one minute and cheer him on the next. Marvin is good too and the banter the between them as well as their contrasting approaches to things help keep things interesting. Reports where that the two did not get along and Marvin even admitted as much in interviews stating that Newman ‘finessed’ him during their scenes and when you get two big name actors with heavy egos this sometimes happens, but they were at least professional enough not to let their animosity show through on the screen. Both Wayne Rogers and Strother Martin, who co-starred with Newman just 5 years earlier in the classic Cool Hand Luke lend great support and in Martin’s case should’ve been seen more.

Spoiler Alert!

My biggest beef comes with the ending, which is a complete letdown. The intention was to show the life of two aimless men who are going nowhere, which is fine, but there still needs to be a payoff at the end. Instead when Newman and Martin finally confront Rogers and Martin in a hotel room, after searching everywhere for them, nothing happens. They never get their money, or revenge, or anything. Even losers can have a random moment of small victory, which is what I felt was needed here, and to have nothing of substance occur makes the viewer feel like the joke was on them and sitting through this, despite the marvelous production values, becomes sadly a big waste of time.

End of Spoiler Alert!

This was another case of where Leonard Maltin’s review, or whoever wrote it for him, is off from what you end up seeing. He commends the performance by Jean Peters, who plays Newman’s ex-wife, like it’s something special when in reality it’s just a throw-away-bit that lasts for a couple of minutes and isn’t too memorable. He also comments on Marvin’s car, which he states is ‘the damnedest thing you’ll ever see’ even though despite a few multi-colored panels I didn’t see what was so unusual about it. The craziest car I’ve ever seen in a movie is the one the two teens drive in Robert Altman’s 1985 flick O.C. and Stiggs, but again watch both movies for yourself and then decide, but I believe most would end up agreeing with me.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: February 1, 1972

Runtime: 1 Hour 42 Minutes

Rated GP

Director: Stuart Rosenberg

Studio: National General Pictures

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

The Long Goodbye (1973)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: His cat is hungry.

One night detective Phillip Marlowe (Elliot Gould) is visited in his home by his long time pal Terry Lennox (Jim Boulton), who informs Marlowe that he’s had a fight with his wife and asks him if he can have a ride to the Mexican border, which he obliges. When he returns home he is met by two cops (Jerry Jones, John S. Davies) who bring him into the station with questions about the whereabouts of Lennox whom they insist has just killed his wife. When Marlowe refuses to divulge anything he gets put into jail only to released 3-days later when it’s reported that Lennox has killed himself. Marlowe becomes suspicious about the suicide and determined to do his own investigation while also getting involved with Eileen Wade (Nina van Pallandt) and her alcoholic, writer husband Roger (Sterling Hayden) both of whom may hold the secret to Lennox and what really happened.

By the early 70’s only two of Raymond Chandler’s novels had yet to be filmed, this one and ‘Playback’. United Artists agreed to finance the film and commissioned Leigh Brackett, who had been the screenwriter for another Chandler novel turned into a movie 1946’s The Big Sleep, to write the screenplay for this one. Robert Altman was later approached to direct it and while he was not a fan of the Phillip Marlowe character, whom he labeled as being a ‘loser’, he agreed to take on the project due to the unexpected ending, which had not been in the novel, but that Brackett had added into the screenplay.

While Altman may have seemed an odd choice, he never even read the source novel of which the film is based, the eccentric little sidelights that he adds into the proceedings make it worth it. Some of the movies that he did towards the late 70’s became a bit too undisciplined where his films would go off on tangents with stuff that had very little to do with the main plot, but here the story is strong, so the little detours that Altman adds in helped to playfully accentuate the plot instead of drowning it out.

Some of my favorite Altmanisms included  Marlowe looking for food to feed his hungry cat, who I might add for an animal gives a spectacular performance, and how a stocker that he meets at the grocery store while searching for cat food he ends up meeting again at random at the police station. The next door female nudists, who are also into yoga and attract the attention of both the police and the bad guys who come to Marlowe’s place, are fun too.

There’s some marvelous framing by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond including capturing Roger and Eileen having an argument inside their home, which was filmed at Altman’s Malibu residence, through a glass patio door while at the same time in the reflection you see Gould walking along the beech. Later while Eileen and Marlowe are having a conversation by an open window you can see in a distance, which the other two are unaware of, Roger walking into the ocean in an attempt to kill himself.

Spoiler Alert!

The film also features what I feel is one of the most shocking and disturbing scenes that I’ve ever seen put into a movie and that’s a statement that I don’t use lightly. I’ve seen hundreds of gory horror films, but what happens here I’ve found far more unsettling. I think the reason is because it’s completely unexpected as it features the character played by film director Mark Rydell smashing a glass coke bottle onto the face of his girlfriend who just seconds earlier he had stated that he was deeply in-love with. Hearing her scream out in unending pain while cupping her hands over her face as blood spews out makes it come-off as very real. Even more amazing is that the part of the girlfriend was played by an amateur named Jo Ann Brody who never appeared in any other film and was a waitress that Altman and Brackett met when they went out to dinner while working on the script and who they asked on-the-spot if she’d like to be in their movie.

Altman admitted that he knew this violent scene, which had not been in the book, would upset some fans, but he felt it was important to bring the viewer back to the reality that these were violent characters at heart. This could also be seen as a foreshadowing to the surprise ending when Marlowe finds Lennox still alive in Mexico and then unexpectedly shoots him. In the novel Marlowe allows Lennox to walk away unharmed, but Altman liked the violent twist.

Personally I was ambivalent with the ending here and might actually have preferred the way it was done in the book. My main issue though with it is that Eileen spots Marlowe leaving the place where Lennox was just shot and since she was in a relationship with Lennox and also had strong criminal connections I’d think she’d end up, one way or another, going after Marlowe once she realized he had killed her lover causing the ending to leave open too many potentially interesting tangents that should’ve been followed through on.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: March 7, 1973

Runtime: 1 Hour 52 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Robert Altman

Studio: United Artists

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video

Death in Venice (1971)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Man obsesses over boy.

Based on the Thomas Mann novel of the same name, the story centers around Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde) a composer in the decline of his career and suffering from ill health. To recuperate he travels to the Grand Hotel des Bains in Venice, Italy, but finds his relaxation cut short when he becomes infatuated with Tadzio (Bjorn Andresen) a 15-year-old Polish boy who’s staying with his family. Gustav can’t seem to keep his eyes or mind off of him, but never physically approaches the teen or makes any attempt to communicate with him. While his fixation grows so does the cholera epidemic that is gripping the city, which may end up taking both of their lives.

Like with most of director Luchino Visconti’s films the pace may be too slow for some viewers, but I found it to be fascinating right from the get-go. One of the aspects that really stood out is Visconti’s ability to recreate a period atmosphere. Nothing seems stilted or rehearsed. Visconti wisely pulls the camera back and allows things to happen naturally. The people in the background don’t seem like film extras at all, but real people going about there lives that Bogarde just happens to be in. It’s also really cool that it was shot at the Grand Hotel des Bains where author Mann stayed in 1911 when the real incident that the story is based on occurred.

I liked too that Gustav does not play-out is mental fantasies and remains at a comfortable distance from the boy at all times. Too many other movies give off this impression that everyone who obsesses over somebody else immediately goes after the person they’re attracted to when in reality many don’t. For some they realize things would never work out with whoever they’re attracted to as well as the legal ramifications, or because of the fear of rejection they prefer to keep it at a fantasy level. While they may still figuratively stalk the person, or observe them intently, it never goes beyond this point. In fact the ones that do aggressively go after their target are more the exception than the rule although in the movie world you’d think the opposite was true, so it’s nice to have at least one film that takes this topic in a different direction.

The fact that its based on a true story that Mann eventually fictionalized in his novel makes it all the more interesting. According to Mann’s wife Katia in a 1974 memoir she describes how her husband kept staring at a young boy he saw at the hotel whom she described at being 13 and was portrayed in the movie as being 15, but in reality was only 11. She stated that he kept gazing at the boy the whole time and always thought about him during their vacation.

The actual source of Mann’s attraction was later discovered to be Baron Wladyslaw Moes who was on vacation with his three sisters and had no idea that he was being observed. In fact Moes only became aware that he’d been the inspiration for the book when he saw the film upon its released in 1971. The biggest irony is that Moes looked nothing like the Tadzio character in the movie as evidenced by the below photo of him (blue circle) taken in 1911 the same year as when Mann spotted him.

The biggest issue that I had was seeing Tadzio making eye contact with Gustav like he’s aware that he’s being watched. Initially when I saw this in the theaters many years ago I took this eye contact thing to being a point-of-view fantasy of Gustav, but upon second viewing it seems the intention was different. Personally I don’t like this idea because at the age of 15 I don’t believe the teen would’ve been able to handle this behavior from an older man and would’ve either confronted him about it, or told someone else. Maybe if Tadzio had been older, like in his 20’s, and use to being seen as an object then maybe, but since he was so young this would’ve been all new to him and thus making him very uncomfortable very quickly and causing him to ultimately unravel.

Andresen’s performance is rather poor to boot. There were other good looking young actors who could’ve easily played the part in a more interesting way, but apparently Visconti was looking for a very specific type of look, but Andresen  appears uncomfortable throughout and has stated in interviews that his experience on the set was not a happy one. Bogarde in turn does quite well as he’s able to create a riveting performance despite having very little dialogue.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: March 5, 1971

Runtime: 2 Hours 10 Minutes

Rated GP

Director: Luchino Visconti

Studio: Warner Brothers

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

Kiss Me Goodbye (1982)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Her dead husband returns.

Three years after the death of her husband Jolly (James Caan) Kay (Sally Field) decides to move back into the house where her husband met his untimely fate when he fell down the home’s marble staircase. As she and her mother (Claire Trevor) get the home prepared for the arrival of her fiance Rupert (Jeff Bridges) she suddenly sees the vision of Jolly’s ghost in front of her. Only she can see, or hear it, which causes a great deal of confusion to those around her who all think she’s gone completely crazy.

The film is a loose remake of the Brazilian hit Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, which in itself was based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Jorge Amado although this one does not have the erotic edge that made that film so famous. The comedy takes too long to get going, is a bit heavy-handed at times, and puts no new interesting spin on the ghost theme making it seem like just another modern updating of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.

The introduction of the ghost should’ve occurred after the couple was already married instead of before as it offers both Rupert and Kay too much of an easy out and the stakes needed to be higher. Kay still seemed very much in love with Jolly as she had a complete shrine of him in one of their rooms, so it would seem once the ghost of him arrived she’d have second thoughts of going through with the marriage even though that’s not what happens. As for Rupert it would’ve made more sense had he just walked out of the situation altogether since all the red-flags where there even before the ghost came about that she wasn’t completely over her first marriage and unable to give Rupert the full attention that he  wanted.

The cast is game for the most part although I felt Bridges looked much too boyish here almost like he was still in high school. Caan though is quite engaging and the one element that holds it all together even though he apparently disliked doing it. It’s also great seeing Claire Trevor in her first film appearance in 15 years and the outfits and hats that she wears look quite chic. Paul Dooley has a good funny bit at the end playing a former priest who tries to exorcise the ghost out of the home, which he mistakenly thinks possesses Kay’s dog (Shakespeare).

Much to my surprise I ended up laughing much more than I thought I would. Two of my favorite moments occurs when Rupert and Kay go traveling to a country lodge and stop off at a cafe where Rupert pretends to have a conversation with the ghost much to the confusion of a young boy (Barret Oliver) sitting at the table next to him. The fight that the two have later on while at the lodge, which causes the break-up of another couple (Alan Haufrect, Maryedith Burrell), who start to take sides, is quite good too.

Spoiler Alert!

I was laughing so hard at points I was ready to give this a 7 or 8 rating, but then it gets ruined by the stupid ending. The idea that the ghost would agree to just leave and never come back again was too convenient. Why would he have bothered to come back to this life at all, if he was going to be gotten rid of so easily?

Having Rupert slip down the same staircase that took Jolly’s life looks cheesy and unintentional funny. Jolly’s death was cheesy enough, but to do it a second time with someone else was dumb and what’s worse is that Rupert, even when he smashes his head onto the hard ground, comes back to life with no injuries. Why even have this scene at all if there was no point to it?

A better ending would’ve had Rupert killed the same way as Jolly and then come back as a ghost just like Jolly and then Kay could’ve enjoyed the two men at the same time. Possibly even have the menage a trois that had been tapped into in the first film, but nixed here because it was deemed American audiences would’ve been too prudish to accept.

I also thought it was a bit unbelievable that Jolly had all these affairs behind Kay’s back while he was alive and she seemed to have no clue it was going on. Most married people usually have a sense something isn’t right even if they can’t prove it. Having Kay’s friend Emily (Dorothy Fielding) admit to fooling around with Jolly and Kay not be bothered by it and just go on being friends with her didn’t jibe with me either.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: December 22, 1982

Runtime: 1 Hour 41 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Robert Mulligan

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD

The Mirror Crack’d (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Poison in her drink.

A Hollywood production company arrives in a small English village, where Miss Jane Marple (Angela Lansbury) resides, to film a costume drama. The film will star two actresses, Marina Rudd (Elizabeth Taylor) and Lola Brewster (Kim Novak), who are also bitter rivals. A reception is held to allow the villagers to meet the celebrities. During the reception Marina speaks with Heather Babcock (Maureen Bennett) a devoted fan who tells Marina about having met her years earlier backstage.  While she bores Marina with the details she also drinks a daiquiri cocktail that was laced with poison causing her to die and propelling Miss Marple, who is bedridden with an injured foot, and Inspector Craddock (Edward Fox) to investigate the case.

If there is one reason to checkout this otherwise so-so film it’s to see Taylor and Novak go at it as rival actresses. This was Taylor’s first feature film appearance in 4-years and, if you don’t count her cameo appearance in The Flintstones as well as 1987’s The Young Toscanini, which was never released in the US, the last one of her career. Her standout performance, which amounts to being a mixture of camp and poignant drama, more than makes it worth it and Novak is in top form as well playing-up the comic wickedness to a delicious level. Even Rock Hudson, who was reunited with Taylor 25 years after having done Giant together, does quite well as Marina’s exasperated husband.

Unfortunately Lansbury gets miscast as she was only in her mid-50’s while Marple was considered an elderly woman in her 70’s or 80’s. They dye her hair white in an attempt to make her appear older, but it still doesn’t quite work. It’s also a letdown not to have her in the majority of scenes like you’d expect. While I never read this Agatha Christie novel I have read some others as well as the movies that have been made from her works and all of them had the head detective taking an integral part in the investigation and not shackled up in her home doing nothing to propel the potentially engaging banter that she could have had with the suspects as she interviewed them. Ultimately the supporting cast gets more screen time than she, which was a waste.

The glossy cinematic element that was so apparent in other Agatha Christie movies like Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile is totally lacking here. Some of the on-location shooting does take place in what would be considered large mansions, but the interiors resemble rooms seen in any old building and convey no flair or distinction. Director Guy Hamilton admitted to not liking Agatha Christie’s books nor thinking much of the script, which he openly stated to the producers during the interview and yet they decided to hire him anyways,  but the result, with the exception of the kitschy film-noir opening bit, is mechanical while relying solely on the veteran cast to keep it interesting.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: December 19, 1980

Runtime: 1 Hour 45 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Guy Hamilton

Studio: Associated Film Distribution (AFD)

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

The Bell Jar (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: She suffers from depression.

Based on the semi autobiographical novel of the same name by Sylvia Plath, the story centers around Esther (Marilyn Hassett) who suffers from various mental health issues and can’t seem to relate to the world around her. After graduating from college she goes off to work at a women’s magazine in New York, but finds that the demands and inevitable compromises of being a writer for a big city publication are not for her. She returns home to her mother (Julie Harris) only to find her emotional situation deteriorating even more. She’s eventually sent to a mental hospital where she goes through treatment.

In 1975 Hassett was picked from over 500 other actresses to play the part of paralyzed skier Jill Kinmont in the film The Other Side of the Mountain. The movie became a big hit and lead to her marrying the film’s director Larry Peerce.  While that film was a decent heartfelt story their attempts to bring Plath’s complex, multi-faceted novel to the big screen was clearly an overreach.

The major reason this doesn’t work is because of Hassett. During the early 70’s she had a youthful appeal, but by the time this was filmed she had hit 30 and no longer looked like a recent college grad in any way. For the story to work it hinges on the viewer seeing this person as someone who is young, innocent and vulnerable and unable to deal with the harsh realities of the young adult world that she’s experiencing for the very first time, but Hassett looks and in many ways behaves like a world-weary middle-aged person, which then loses the intended effect.

The portrayal of the central character is a weak point as well. In the similar themed film I Never Promised You a Rose Gardenwhich came out around the same time, the director of that flick did a good job of getting inside that character’s head and allowing the viewer to see the thoughts and fears that she had, but here we get none of that. We are left with no understanding about what’s really bugging Esther and why she behaves the way she does. Instead of us feeling for her we end up finding her off-putting, confusing and at times just downright selfish and bizarre.

The film does still manage to have a few interesting moments. I liked the scene with Jameson Parker, in his film debut who later went onto fame in the TV-show ‘Simon & Simon’, playing Esther’s fiance who strips in front of her so she can see what a naked man looks like upfront for the very first time. The erotic threesome between Hassett, Robert Klein, and Mary Louise Weller is interesting too as is the segment where Hassett is sitting alone at a late night diner and comes into contact with a disturbed, homeless man (Nicholas Guest) who comes in off the street and begins shouting nonsensical things for no reason, which can be a common, frightening reality living in the big city and not tackled enough in most movies.

While the movie stays pretty much faithful to the book it approaches the material in a shallow, mechanical way that offers no insight into the characters or situations and elicits no emotions from the viewer. It also takes some liberties with the material entering in elements that were never in the novel, or only vaguely touched on like the character of Joan, played by Donna Mitchell, being explicitly portrayed as a lesbian while in the book it had been only implied. She’s also shown making a suicide pack with Esther that was never in the original story. This was enough to get Dr. Jane Anderson, a Boston psychiatrist, to sue the film stating that she had been the Jane character in Plath’s novel, but because the movie distorted the truth it had harmed her reputation and career and she ended up winning a $150,000 settlement.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: March 21, 1979

Runtime: 1 Hour 53 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Larry Peerce

Studio: AVCO Embassy Pictures

Available: VHS

A Bridge Too Far (1977)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Conflict behind enemy lines.

Based on the true story of Operation Market Garden that occurred in September, 1944.  The strategy was, in an effort to hasten the end of WWII, to have allied forces drive into Germany and lock up key bridges, which would then block any attempts at German escape, but errors in judgement and planning occurred that caused many unnecessary casualties.

At the time this was one of the most expensive films every produced, but the reaction from critics was tepid.  While the producers insisted that every attempt was made for accuracy they also admitted to taking certain liberties for logistical reasons, which ultimately did not go over well with everyone. Many friends and spouses of the soldiers depicted in the film who were still around at the time complained about what they felt was misrepresentation in regards to what really happen and threatened to sue the filmmakers for libel.

Despite some obvious flaws, which can occur in any film that is this long, I came away quite impressed and even genuinely moved by what I saw. Some of the most memorable moments for me was seeing the parachute drop of thousands of allied paratroopers onto the Netherlands. It is one thing to see old pictures of this, and there are many available, but a completely other thing to have it done via live action in living color.  Another moving scene features Robert Redford reciting a prayer out loud as he and other men maneuver a boat across a river while bombs and artillery fire blast all around them, which is so vivid it made me tense up like I was at risk of getting hit just like the other men.

Another running segment I really liked dealt with the army taking over a couple’s house that was right next to a crucial bridge by barging in unannounced and turning the place into their headquarters. So many other war movies that I’ve seen have never shown this side of battle where innocent pedestrians and homeowners can literally just lose all of their rights on-the-spot and have no recourse. Watching their home get more and more torn-up  by the army as the film progresses is both darkly comical and horrifying as is the eventual mental breakdown of the home’s family.

Many of the complaints that critics had about the movie resided around the large cast and how certain actors were miscast especially Ryan O’Neal as Brigadier General James Gavin. While I admit O’Neal is a weak actor in most cases I came away feeling he did quite well here although if you see a picture of the real Gavin the two look nothing alike. My main criticism in this area was more around the appalling amount of money that the cast made with all of them collecting a fee of $250,000 per week, which would come out to $1,157,540 in today’s dollars while Redford made $500,000 per week that came out to $2,315,000. Now I have nothing against actors making as much money as they can, but many of the parts were just walk-ons and had only a few lines, so to make that kind of money for that little of work seemed obscene, but I guess if I were one of them I wouldn’t complain either.

A much bigger problem was the extreme shifts in tone and a misguided use of music. War time flicks, especially those made in the 40’s and 50’s had a lot of music, which was fine for the period, by many post 60’s films tried to stay away from an excessive soundtrack in order to capture more of the sounds of battle and heighten the realism. This movie though seems to want it both ways having virtually no music during the first-half and then suddenly without warning bombarding the viewer with a lot of it during the second-half, which gets the viewer caught up in the natural sounds of war only to ultimately take them away from it by the end.

While the film has many serious moments it also allows some quirky comedy to seep in, which like with the music issue came-off as jarring and unnecessary. Older war movies kept things on a patriotic level, but post 60’s the trend was to be irreverent, which in movies like Catch-22, can be done brilliantly. Here though it cheapens the effect making the viewer wonder how authentic it is when trendy, modern sentiments get haphazardly thrown-in.

Overall it succeeds at showing the absurdity of war in a profoundly visual way as we see first-hand the brutal injuries and deaths of the soldiers just trying to carry out their orders while the general who came up with the bad plan that killed so many sits in his plush office far removed the destruction that he created and never forced to face the horror of his mistakes.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: June 15, 1977

Runtime: 2 Hours 55 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Richard Attenborough

Studio: United Artists

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, 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

The Super Cops (1974)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Arresting the drug dealers.

David Greenberg (Ron Leibman) and Robert Hantz (David Selby) join the police force hoping to be active in cleaning up the streets from drug dealers. Unfortunately for them once they go through the basic police training and graduate they’re assigned low level jobs like directing traffic, which they find boring. They decide to start using their off-duty hours to make arrests on their own, which gets them into trouble with their department, but their continuing efforts impresses the residents and soon makes them media heroes known as ‘Batman and Robin’.

The film, which was directed by Gordon Parks who also did Shaft, has plenty of engaging moments and I liked how it starts with the two going through the police training, which allows the viewer to see a full transition of the characters from average citizens to street cops. There’s also a lot of quirky comedy that really works including having the two hiding out inside a trash dumpster and ready to make an arrest only to have a large amount of garbage dumped on them just as they do. The bit at the end where two dueling factions of the police department try to arrest each other, even though neither side is sure which side has committed the worst crime, is quite amusing too.

The characters and situations are based loosely on real life events and it’s interesting how the actual Greenberg and Hantz are shown right at the start being interviewed about all of their arrests and then they appear later in the story playing two corrupt cops that get into a big fistfight with their film counterparts. Initially I thought Leibman looked too scrawny and outside of his bushy mustache didn’t resemble Greenberg all that much, but he makes up for it with a highly spirited performance. Selby is good too and I liked how there’s a contrast in personalities between the two although in real-life they had been best friends since childhood while the film makes it seem like they meet and become friends while in training.

The main problem with the film is that we never learn what makes these guys tick. Why are these two so motivated to arrest drug dealers even more so than a regular cop? Did they have a friend or family member die of a drug overdose in the past? And what about their private lives? Are these guys married, single, or gay? None of this gets shown or addressed, which ends up creating a placid effect. While the viewer may admire the relentlessness of the protagonists we’re also never emotionally tied-in to anything that goes on.

Showing the politics that occurs behind-the-scenes inside a police force and how this protocol system can sometimes stymie innovation or individuals that may want to work outside of it is commendable, but also ends up having a defeating quality to it. Every time these guys make any progress they end up falling back into the hands of the same administrators that want to make life miserable for them, and this gets repeated all the way until the bitter end making the viewer feel frustrated when it’s over instead of inspired.

It’s also interesting to note that Greenberg and Hantz weren’t exactly virtuous in their real-lives and ended up getting caught doing the same things that they arrested other people for doing here including Hantz who was forced to resign from the police force in 1975 after getting caught in possession of marijuana. Greenberg also spent two stints in jail once in 1978 for nine months for mail fraud and then again in 1990 for 4 years for insurance fraud.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: March 20, 1974

Runtime: 1 Hour 30 Minutes

Rated R

Directer: Gordon Parks

Studio: MGM

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

Prick Up Your Ears (1987)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Bio of Joe Orton.

This film, which is based on the biography of playwright Joe Orton that was written by John Lahr, has two diametrically different story lines going on at the same time. One part has John Lahr, played in the movie by Wallace Shawn, going around interviewing people that knew Orton when he was alive, which includes Orton’s theatrical agent Peggy Ramsey (Vanessa Redgrave). The other part delves into Orton’s (Gary Oldman) relationship with his Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina) showing how it began and then eventually ending in tragedy.

The film, which was directed by the usually reliable Stephen Frears, starts out right away with the murder scene showing Halliwell covered with blood as he stands over Orton’s body that he has just killed, which to me was a mistake. Sometimes using flashbacks in films can help accentuate the story, but here it gives too much away way too soon. What’s the point of continuing to watch the movie if the viewer knows exactly how it will end? Even if one such as myself was aware of Orton’s demise, which occurred on August 9, 1967 in Islington, England, it still should’ve approached the material in a linear way having the murder occur at the very end after we had gotten to understand and feel for the characters and therefore making the act all that more impactful.

The story should’ve started with the scene, which doesn’t occur until 30 minutes in, where Halliwell and Orton are attending a acting improv class, which is where the two first meet and the funniest moment in the movie. In the scene the students are instructed to pass around a make-believe cat and when this invisible cat gets handed to Halliwell, and to the shock of the other students, but to the amusement of Orton, he kills it and then hands it back to the instructor.  This moment also perfectly reflects the black humor that became so apparent in Orton’s plays as well as conveying the weird dynamic that the two had.

When the film focuses solely on the two lead characters and their love-hate relationship it is quite interesting. Molina gives a powerhouse performance and dominates every scene that he is in. His mental deterioration is both vivid and horrorifying and  leaves a lasting impression. Yet there are also other moments where you feel sorry the guy and it helps to make sense of what lead to the tragedy as you see how Orton, who is much younger and better looking, openly have trysts with other men that he randomly meets while Halliwell, fully aware of what is going on, gets pushed into the background and unable to do anything about it.

The film is also filled with some memorable imagery. The scenes where Orton and sometimes Halliwell would pick up strangers for indiscriminate sex, like in dingy public restrooms with the lights turned off and even at times inside the bathroom stalls themselves while constantly in fear of getting caught and arrested, is well captured. The tiny room that the two lived in for years, with pictures that cover every inch of the walls, gets recreated to a perfect tee. Based on images of the actual room found on Google it looks exactly like the one in the movie and its claustrophobic dimensions hits home making it seem amazing that such significant long lasting stage plays, that were later made into movies, could’ve been written in such an insignificant space that seemed no bigger than someone’s walk-in closet.

The opening bit that focused on Orton’s agent and having her reminisce about her experiences dealing with him is boring and should’ve been taken out of the final cut. Viewers come into this wanting to learn more about Orton and his relationship with Halliwell and that’s where the film should’ve started and stayed. I admit Redgrave gives a very good performance as the agent, so having brief scenes with her in them that intercut between the ones dealing with the lovers might have been interesting, but too much time gets spent on the side characters that almost dismantles the entire rest of the film.

Spoiler Alert!

I didn’t like how loud crashing music gets abruptly played during the murder sequence either. The soundtrack had been quite subtle up until then, so having it suddenly get loud is jarring and goes against the tone of the rest of the film. It also puts too much of a theatrical quality to the murder that was not needed. The  visuals are all that is needed to show the shocking and gruesome nature of the act without music needing to be any part of it.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: April 17, 1987

Runtime: 1 Hour 45 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Stephen Frears

Studio: The Samuel Goldwyn Company

Available: DVD