Category Archives: Movies for the Whole Family

Digby: The Biggest Dog in the World (1973)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Dog grows really big.

Billy (Richard Beaumont) is a young boy who buys an Old English Sheepdog from a local dog home manager ( Victor Maddern). However, when he brings the dog home his grandfather (Edward Underdown) doesn’t want it in the house, so his mother (Angela Douglas) tells him to give the pet to someone else. He then leaves him at the home of Jeff (Jim Dale), a researcher who works at a defense lab that is experimenting in growth formulas. Jeff is smitten with Billy’s mother, but too shy to ask her out. He ultimately agrees to take the dog as an excuse to be around the mother more. Things though turn chaotic when Jeff decides to borrow some of the growth formula at his lab, in order to feed it to his tomato plants, but instead it gets accidentally given to the dog, who then grows to gigantic proportions.

This is the type of movie that’s clearly meant for kids, but kids today, with the advanced computerized special effects seen in modern films, will quickly be turned-off by the cheesy effects here. The attempt to make the dog seem bigger by placing him in a miniaturized kitchen doesn’t exactly work. Other segments where he’s seen outdoors and at a circus don’t work either because it’s obvious that the animal was simply put in front of a green screen. The segment that has Jeff sneaking the dog outside while having him wear an outfit meant for a horse is stupid too because a horse’s head is shaped differently than a dog’s, so there would be no way it would fit over the dog like it does.

The only inspired effect is when Billy crawls into the dog’s giant mouth in order to feed it a formula that will supposedly get the animal to shrink back to normal size. The recreation of the dog’s mouth to a large size is impressive though a dog’s tongue is thinner and longer than a person’s and yet the tongue in this mouth is styled much more like a human’s. Having the kid command the dog not to swallow, as if he did it would’ve sucked the boy down the throat, is dumb because swallowing is a natural reflex when liquid is poured in, so I’m not sure it could’ve been prevented, or that the dog would’ve understood what the command ‘don’t swallow’ would’ve even meant.

The story is based on the novel by Ted Key, who besides creating the comic strip ‘Hazel’ also wrote the screenplays for Gusabout a mule who kicks field goals, The Million Dollar Duckabout a duck who lays golden eggs, and The Cat from Outer SpaceThose movies fared a bit better as they were more imaginative and had better character development. Outside of a circus scene, which features an elderly and near-sighted knife thrower played by Bob Todd, there is nothing that is funny, or even slightly amusing.

A good story should have a protagonist that the audience can root for and and a clear antagonist that the audience hates, or at least fears. This film though doesn’t have that.  Jim Dale is a likable enough, but a scientist nerd who’s awkward around women is a tired stereotype that isn’t interesting. The kid had more appeal and could’ve easily been the hero without the Jeff character even being present. The supporting cast is essentially the same person; deluded, wacky folks who are lost in their own little worlds and clueless about what is really going-on. It’s okay to have one dumb character, but when everybody is goofy it gets tiring fast. There’s no bad guy either just a bunch of buffoons running around saying buffonish things and getting into cartoonish predicaments. If that’s your idea of entertainment then have-at-it, but most will find this to be a dated and silly though those that remember watching as a kid may for nostalgic purposes like it a bit more.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: December 6, 1973

Runtime: 1 Hour 25 Minutes

Rated G

Director: Joseph McGrath

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD (Region 2)

The Villain (1979)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: An inept western robber.

Cactus Jack (Kirk Douglas) is an aging western outlaw who’s hired by Avery Simpson (Jack Elam) to commit a robbery. Charming Jones (Ann-Margaret) is a beautiful, young woman who’s being escorted west by Handsome Stranger (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and is also carrying a large sum of money. Cactus Jack sets up an array of elaborate traps to try and rob them, but fails each time, so he enlists the help of a local Indian tribe headed by Nervous Elk (Paul Lynde) to assist him.

After the box office success of Smokey and the Bandit and Hooper executives at Columbia Pictures were apparently convinced that stunt man-turned-director Hal Needham could do no wrong and thus gave him a ton of money to direct a movie of his choice. Needham decided to do a send-up of the Road Runner cartoons, but as a live-action. The result though isn’t amusing, or lively with not enough stunt work and what you do see had already been shown many times before in other movies. The script by Robert G. Kane, who was a former joke writer for Dean Martin, is unimaginative and gets stuck in a one-dimensional gear where Cactus Jack continually tries to rob the two, but fails, which takes over 90-minutes to play-out while the old Road Runner cartoons where able to do it in less than 5.

There’s also quasi-surreal moments where Jack paints a tunnel opening onto the side of a mountain with black paint and yet Arnold and Ann are able to drive through it like it were a real tunnel. There’s another segment where Jack pours glue onto some train tracks, which Arnold and Ann are able to drive over without getting stuck while Jack does, but why? I realize this is supposed to be a silly movie and logic should not be demanded, but it just shows how lame it is where the director and writer do not challenge themselves to come-up with a clever way, that works within the realm of reality, for the protagonist to get out of their jam and instead lowers the bar to such an extent that they throw-out anything stupid and figure it will suffice.

Kirk for his part has a lot of fun. Some may feel he took it because his career was waning, but Needham had been the stunt coordinator on many of his movies back in the 60’s, so the two were friends and Douglas eagerly accepted the offer. At age 61 he looks great and did many of his own stunts, which is even more impressive, but no matter what the pratfall his character never gets injured. Despite the common belief many cartoons do at times show the antagonist like Wily E. Coyote getting banged-up and wearing bandages, bruises, and even walk with a crutch, so having Jack get that way and yet still determined to commit the crime would’ve been funnier.

Schwarzenegger is funny too simply for being this big, brawny guy who’s painfully naive though why someone would be walking around in the old west speaking with an Austrian accent needed to be questioned. Mel Tillis does mention at one point that he ‘talks funny’, but I felt that should’ve been a running joke where all the characters mention it when they meet him. It also would’ve been nice to have seen his character evolve and not remain so clueless by upping-the-ante with an exciting climactic battle/gunfight between he and Kirk at the end, which doesn’t happen.

Famous character actors like Strother Martin, Ruth Buzzi, and Foster Brooks are completely wasted. Mel Tillis does his stuttering routine (twice), which I’ve never found amusing though he also does the soundtrack and his singing is great. Initially I thought Ann-Margaret was miscast as she was too old for the part, but they make her look convincingly young and by the end I appreciated her presence.

The best by far is Paul Lynde as Indian Chief Nervous Elk, or as he says it N-e-e-e-e-rvous Elk. Today’s more sensitive audiences may not like a white guy playing a Native American, nor wearing an Indian styled head dress. I don’t know this for sure, but I suspect it’s the reason why the movie has never received an official studio DVD/Blu-ray release nor is it available on streaming, which is unfortunate. Yes, it’s political incorrect, but it’s done in such a goofy, campy way that it manages to become stupid funny and the only part that had me chuckling.

Everything else borders on being pathetic and all it succeeds at doing is getting you wanting to watch an actual cartoon, which will be far more sophisticated and entertaining than anything you’ll see here.

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Alternate Title: Cactus Jack

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: July 20, 1979

Runtime: 1 Hour 29 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Hal Needham

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD-R

Jimmy the Kid (1982)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Inept kidnappers bungle crime.

Jimmy (Gary Coleman) is the son of a singing duo (Cleavon Little, Fay Hauser) who feels neglected while his parents are out on the road singing in concerts. Kelp (Walter Olkewicz) is an inept would-be crook who’s finding it a struggle to successfully commit any crime. He then reads a book about kidnapping and convinces his reluctant brother John (Paul Le Mat), John’s girlfriend May (Dee Wallace) and even his own mother Bernice (Ruth Gordon) to get in on it. Their plan is to kidnap Jimmy and hide him out in a secluded cabin in the woods while extorting money from his rich parents for ransom. The problem is that Jimmy is quite intelligent for his age and outsmarts the crooks at every turn, but also forms a bond with them and they to him, so when his father and the private investigator (Don Adams) comes looking for him in order to ‘rescue him’ he resists their attempts.

The film is based on a Donald E. Westlake novel and while many of his books that were turned into movies were quite entertaining this one isn’t. The same story was filmed before in 1976 as Come Ti Rapisco Pupo and although that was no classic either at least was better than this version, which tries too hard to attract the family audience by being about as benign as you can get. Even a kiddie flick, at least the good ones, need some genuine tension and excitement, to keep the interest going. Classic kid’s films like Benji had some stressful moments where it seem like the kids, who had also been kidnapped, where in danger and you worried for their safety, which got the viewer emotionally caught up in it and intrigued enough to keep watching. This film though makes it quite clear from the start that the bad guys are too stupid to pull-it-off and the kid is never in any kind of real trouble, so the interest level is virtually nil. The crooks are also too dumb to be believable making their clueless remarks and pratfalls more eye-rolling than funny.

The supporting cast is filled with ‘zany characters’ that are equally pathetic. I’ll give some credit to Cleavon who goes out on stage with his wife wearing a get-up that looks like he’s apart of a soul duo, but instead sings a country-tinged song that wasn’t half-bad, Pat Morita as the legally blind limo driver though is ridiculous. I think his part was put-in to give the thing some action by showing all sorts of car pile-ups that he causes as he drives, but no sane person would ever get into a car with him and his ability to hold onto a job as a driver and not be arrested for endangering others, would-be non-existent.

Coleman is especially boring and never says or does anything that’s especially funny. Having him be this super smart kid gets played-up too much and is neither fun, nor amusing. He also shows no character arc other than supposedly ‘learning to be a kid’ though we don’t really see this, which in a good movie would be, but instead verbally explained by Coleman. The movie should’ve had a moment where the crooks, despite their dumbness, knew something that the kid, despite his smartness, didn’t because of the fact that they’d been around longer and a little more worldy-wise, which could’ve lent some insightful irony, but the stupid script wasn’t savvy enough to even go there.

The only two good things about the film are Don Adams and Ruth Gordon. For Adams he plays basically just an extension of his more famous Maxwell Smart persona even having him wear the same type of trench coat. While his pratfalls inside the home of Jimmy’s parents where he inadvertently tears-up the place borders on inane, the scenes where he dresses in drag are actually kind of funny. For Gordon you get to see her, at the age of 85, climb-up a telephone pole. While I’d presume they didn’t really make her do it and just filmed it in a way that made it appear like she did, it still ends-up looking authentic and she says some amusing things as she does, but outside of these two brief moments the movie clunks.

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: November 12, 1982

Runtime: 1 Hour 25 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Gary Nelson

Studio: New World Pictures

Available: VHS

The Ugly Dachshund (1966)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Dog has identity crisis.

Fran (Suzanne Pleshette) and Mark (Dean Jones) are a married couple who are proud owners of a dachshund named Danke. When they take her to the pet hospital to give birth to her liter the veterinarian (Charlie Ruggles) mentions to Mark that he has a Great Dane on hand that has also given birth, but pushed away one of  her puppies due to having a lack of milk for him. Mark decides to take the pup home and pretend that he’s one of the liter, but it soon becomes apparent to Fran that he isn’t. The dog, who Mark names Brutus, starts to think that he’s a dachshund like the others and even tries to walk like them, but his large size causes many problems for the homeowners as he inadvertently destroys much of the home, which is usually at the instigation of the other dogs who never get blamed. Fran pressures Mark to get rid of the dog, but he continually refuses, which eventually puts a strain on their marriage.

For a Disney movie this one, which is based on the 1938 novel of the same name by Gladys Bronwyn Brown, isn’t too bad and has much better character development than many of the others that the studio produced. The distinction between their personalities is clear as is the dynamics of the marriage where each learns, like in any real union, to begrudgingly give-and-take in order to make the other partner happy. The film though comes off as quite dated in the fact that they sleep in separate beds, I guess seeing them in the same bed would’ve been considered by some in that era as ‘racy’, but what’s the use of getting married if you still end up having to sleep alone?

The comedy starts out a bit slow and young children may get bored with it at the beginning, but it does redeem itself once the dogs proceed to destroy everything in sight. It’s refreshing change to see animals causing the chaos instead of goofy people like in the other Disney flicks and they’re a lot funnier at it too, but the adult side of me had to cringe a bit knowing all the money it was costing the homeowners seeing their place and everything in it turned to shreds. It also hurts the humor that Brutus is always constantly getting blamed for the mess when it’s really the bratty dachshund’s that cause it, but are never adequately punished. Certain modern viewers may also be uncomfortable with the Japanese themed party that the couple hold at their home, which also gets destroyed by the dogs, as it features a lot of cultural appropriation, which in this era has become a big no-no.

The three acts serve as three distinctly different stories. The first one deals with the couple feuding over the dog, the second one has a cat burglar on the prowl, and the third centers on Mark training Brutus for a dog show. While the cat burglar thread does feature a funny scene where Brutus forces a policeman, played by Kelly Thordsen, up a tree and traps him there the entire night, we never get to see the actual burglar. The story would’ve been stronger had the dog caught the real bad guy instead of just scaring an innocent man due to mistaken identity. The third story is weak too as Brutus had very little training before he enters the contest, which seemed rushed and unrealistic.

The only real complaint that I had with the movie, which I overall found to be kind of cute,  was that the two main characters should’ve been children instead of adults. This is a kids movie and kids relate better to protagonists who are their same age. Having a sister into her dachshunds and a brother in love with a Great Dane would’ve entered in some interesting variables though Jones and Pleshette play their parts well and they reteamed 10 years later as another married couple in the The Shaggy D.A. 

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: February 4, 1966

Runtime: 1 Hour 33 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Norman Tokar

Studio: Buena Vista

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Storm Boy (1976)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: A boy raises pelicans.

Mike (Greg Rowe) is a 10-year-old boy living in a ramshackle home near the ocean on Australia’s southern coast. He lives with his reclusive father Tom (Peter Cummins) who wants no connection with the outside world and won’t even allow his son to have a radio. One day Mike meets Fingerbone (David Gulpilil) an aborigine living alone on the beach due to a falling out with his tribe. Together they come upon a group of hunters shooting at birds. Fingerbone is able to scare them away, but not before they’re able to shoot and kill a mother pelican leaving her young to die of starvation. Mike decides to take the baby birds home with him and despite his father’s initial objections he’s allowed to keep them. The bird’s require a lot of food, but Mike is able to keep them fed and once they’ve grown he and his father set them free, but one of the bird’s, whose name is Mr. Perceval, comes back and Mike grows a strong bond with him.

The film is based on the children’s book of the same name written by Colin Theile, which won many awards. The film has acquired many legions of fans as well, but filming it proved to be quite complicated. Training the birds took 12-months and many times they’d fly off during the filming including one of them flying into a nearby private party that scared many of the party goers there. They also had the challenge of trying to get the Rowe to interact with the bird as he was initially quite scared of them.

Personally I’ve never found pelicans to be all that cute or lovable and their large beaks are an odd sight second only to that of the toucan’s. I did though enjoy seeing the baby pelicans who don’t even have any feathers on them and was hoping more time would be spent on to their feeding and caring, but the movie glosses over this part pretty quickly.

The bird storyline is in fact only one part of the movie as the script also focuses on several other threads including a local teacher (Judy Dick) trying to get the father to allow Mike to attend school with the rest of the children. There’s also a segment where a bunch of young men in dune buggies come out of nowhere late one night and proceed to tear up, with their vehicles, the home that Mike and his father live in. I suppose the reason this is put in is to show how the bird warns Mike of the impending danger, which gets him out of the house, but otherwise it has no connection to the rest of the plot and it’s left a mystery to what motivated these young men to do it nor are they ever seen or heard of again.

The performances are quite good, which is the one thing that holds it all together. Cummins as the father impressed me the most because he is so different here than any of the other parts he’s played. Gulpilil is entertaining too and has some of the most lines, which is the exact opposite from Walkabout where he had none. Rowe is excellent as well despite the fact that he wears the same clothes the whole way through. Only at the very end is he seen wearing something other than his drab green sweater, but I felt for the sake of body odor he should’ve had a variety of outfits to wear all the way through. I realize they were poor, but even poor people don’t usually wear the same clothes everyday for months on end.

Spoiler Alert!

The ending, in which the bird gets shot by a group of hunters, most likely the same ones that killed the bird’s mother, is very predictable, which is the film’s biggest drawback. No real surprises and the life lesson’s are pretty routine and something seen in a lot of children’s stories, so if you take the pelican out of it it’s not all that special. The constant gray, overcast sky gets a bit depressing to look at too, but the film has found a loyal following and was remade to a degree in 2019, where Geoffrey Rush plays a now grown Mike and relating back to his kids about his adventures when he was young. It also stars Gulpilil as the father of Fingerbone Bill.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: November 18, 1976

Runtime: 1 Hour 25 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Henri Safran

Studio: Roadshow Films

Available: DVD-R (Region Free), Blu-ray (Region 0)

The World’s Greatest Athlete (1973)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Better than Jim Thorpe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: February 4, 1973

Runtime: 1 Hour 32 Minutes

Rated G

Director: Robert Scheerer

Studio: Buena Vista Distribution Company

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Snowball Express (1972)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Family rehabilitates rundown hotel.

Johnny (Dean Jones) works as an accountant in New York, but is bored with his job and looking for a way out. He finds his escape with an inheritance that he receives naming him the beneficiary of the Grand Imperial Hotel in Colorado that he’s promised can bring in $14,000 a month. He immediately quits his job and moves his reluctant family to the snowy Rockies where they find the hotel to be in bad shape, but Johnny is determined to still make a go of it and turns the place into a ski resort. At first they have some success with it, but calamity strikes, which destroys the place and forces Johnny to enter into a snow mobile race where he hopes to be the winner and use the earnings from the prize to rebuild the place.

There were aspects to the film that I liked. For one I felt Jones was quite engaging here. Usually his performances in some of his other Disney films were flat and one-dimensional, but here his resiliency had an emotional appeal. I also liked how even though the film is aimed for kids it still dealt with real-world adult issues like going to a bank to get a loan and then how to allocate that money to build equity. Even though children may be too young to grasp all of it, it’s still good to condition them into working world scenarios and what it takes to create a business from the ground up.

The story though lacks the physical comedy that is so prevalent in other Disney comedies. It does have a scene where Jones skis down a hill backwards while knocking over everyone else that is in his way, which is funny, but then the film repeats this same scenario two more times until it’s no longer funny and instead just boring. The scene where Harry Morgan’s character accidentally crashes his logging engine through the hotel is more depressing than funny since the family had spent so much time rebuilding it it was frustrating seeing it get destroyed for such a silly reason.

The climactic snowmobile race is okay and I liked seeing some of the wipeouts, which I wished there had been more of. However, having this really old guy played by Keenan Wynn beating out everyone else year after year as the snowmobile champion seemed weird. Granted he was actually only in his 50’s at the time it was filmed, but with his gray beard and hair he looked to be more in his 70’s, so it seemed a bit goofy why such an elderly guy, who was nothing more than a bank manager during the day, would have such an ability to always beat out everybody else.  Why the race required two men on each snowmobile didn’t make much sense either. I was born and raised in Minnesota and say a few snowmobile races in my time and they had only one person on each vehicle, so I couldn’t understand why it was necessary to have a second person behind the driver since they did nothing but  act like a spectator while holding for dear life as the driver cruised through the snow.

The film needed a more aggressive bad guy. Disney films from the 70’s were fun because the villains were usually so colorful, but here Keenan Wynn just sits behind his desk for most of the film and does nothing more than deny Jones a loan. It would’ve been better had Wynn instead sneaked around behind the scenes doing things that hurt Jones’ business, which would’ve created more of an antagonistic feeling from the viewer and thus made the final confrontation between the two, which gets underplayed anyways, more interesting.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: December 22, 1972

Runtime: 1 Hour 33 Minutes

Rated G

Director: Norman Tokar

Studio: Buena Vista

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Dog becomes a star.

Estie Del Ruth (Madeline Kahn) is a struggling actress still waiting for her big break. While roaming the streets she comes upon a homeless dog (Augustus Von Schumacher) and befriends it. Grayson (Bruce Dern) is a hapless tour guide driving a bus filled with tourists past the homes of the famous Hollywood stars. He’d rather be directing movies and has some great ideas, but is constantly getting turned down. Then one day famous studio mogul J.J. Fromberg (Art Carney) witnesses the dog saving Estie from a lecherous producer (Aldo Ray) and is so impressed that he wants to cast the dog in its own movie. Grayson, seeing this as his chance to finally break into the movie business, pretends to be the dog’s owner and therefore allowed to be in charge of directing the dog’s film, but the dog will only take orders from from Estie forcing him to allow her to tag along, but only if he helps her get a movie contract.

The story was originally titled ‘A Bark was Born’ and written by Cy Howard in 1971 and was an account of the famous 1920’s real-life dog star known as Rin Tin Tin. He commissioned Arnold Schulman to write the script for him. Schulman, who was coming off a good run of films as screenwriter including penning the scripts for Goodbye Columbus and Funny Lady decided to add some satirical elements to the story before finally handing it off to studio head David Picker to produce. However, the owners of Rin Tin Tin sued Picker for producing a film about their dog without authorization causing Picker to remove the fictional elements from the script and turning it into a all-out farcical parody of old-time Hollywood instead.

The film’s biggest problem is that it doesn’t give the viewer a feeling that they’re being transported to a different era as the 1920’s are played-up as being too cartonish and silly to be believable. The characters are caricatures that have no emotional connection to the audience, so watching their ascent into Hollywood success is neither interesting nor compelling. The humor relies too much on throwaway bits that have no connection to the main plot and mostly fall flat while moments that do have comic potential, like the dog only taking orders from Kahn, do not get played-up enough.

Kahn is a poor choice for the lead and single-handily bogs the production down, which wasn’t too great to begin with. She is perfect as a supporting actress playing over-the-top, eccentric characters, but as a normal person trying to elicit sympathy she does poorly. Lily Tomlin was the original choice for the part, but she wanted the script rewritten in order for it to have a more serious edge, which wouldn’t have been a bad idea,  but director Michael Winner wanted to keep the thing silly and lightweight and didn’t agree.

Dern, who expressed in an interview decades later, that doing this film was his one true career regret, is actually quite good and its fun seeing him play in a more lighthearted role versus the darker ones that have made up so much of his onscreen presence. However, by the second half he pretty much gets written-out, which was a shame. Ron Leibman, as the cross-dressing silent film star Rudy Montague, has a few interesting moments, but he plays the part in too much of an intense manner making him seem more creepy than funny.

Art Carney is not funny at all as the big-time studio head and the part would’ve been better served had it been played by Phil Silvers, who gets stuck in a much smaller role that does not take advantage of his comic talents. The rest of the cast is made-up of walk-on bits by famous stars of the past. Most these cameos are not amusing or interesting making their presence much like the movie itself quite pointless.

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: May 29, 1976

Runtime: 1 Hour 32 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Michael Winner

Studio: Paramount Pictures

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

!Three Amigos! (1986)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Western stars travel south.

El Guapo (Alfonso Arau) and his gang terrorize a small village in 1916 Mexico by demanding that its residents pay him ‘protection money’ or risk getting pillaged. Carmen (Patrice Martinez), who is the daughter of one of the village elders, tries to come up with a plan to stop them and finds her solution after watching a silent film featuring The Three Amigos (Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, Martin Short) who  fight evil doers and injustice. Thinking they are real heroes she sends them a telegram inviting them to her town to fight El Guapo. The Amigos, who have just gotten fired, think it’s an invitation to do a show and in desperate need of money travel across the border unaware of the dangers that await.

While the concept is ripe for great comic potential the script almost immediately starts showing its cracks. Now, I was not around in 1916, but it seems to me that people would’ve still been sophisticated enough to know the difference between movie acting and the real thing and the fact that Carmen, who is well over 18, doesn’t makes her seem a bit too naive. The three amigos aren’t much better as they fail to know the meaning of such words as infamous, tequila, or even veranda. Comedies based on misunderstandings can be highly enjoyable, but it still depends on the characters being reasonably intelligent to make it work and the group here are just too dumb to be believed making the whole scenario weak and watered down from the get-go.

What’s even more aggravating is that the film cheats on its own rules. Steve Martin scolds the bandits for using real bullets, as at that point he was still under the impression that they were fellow actors, but then the amigos’ guns end up having real bullets too even though if they were really just actors they should’ve been stage props with blanks. They turn out to be great shots too, able to shoot the bad guys even from long distance making them seem like actual gunfighters and not actors at all. There’s also a scene where Martin gets shot in the arm and while this might not be fatal it could still cause severe pain and infection, but there’s no scene showing it getting removed and bandaged up and  he continues to move it like it wasn’t even injured.

While it was interesting seeing Chase getting laughs for being a doofus as opposed to his snarky quips I still felt the three characters were too transparent. Not only is there very little contrast between their personalities, but there personal lives are never shown. These were supposedly big stars who should’ve had a big fan base, agents, friends, or wives/girlfriends, so the idea that they had ‘nothing to go back to’ and thus decided to remain in Mexico didn’t really make sense. Even with the argument that they had recently gotten fired from their jobs they should’ve had enough fame and connections in L.A. to find other gigs without immediately being so hard-up.

There’s a scene too where the three are shown sleeping together in a small bed, which seemed to intimate that they were gay. This never gets confirmed, but the film might’ve been more interesting had they been.

The moment where the three sing ‘My Little Buttercup’ inside a rough Mexican bar filled with bandits is the high point, but everything else is downhill. Instead for forcing these dimwitted actors to face the harsh realities of true western life outside of their Hollywood safe place it deviates into ill-advised surreal fantasy that contradicts the whole premise. The worst moment is when they sing a song in front of an incredibly fake looking sunset backdrop that features talking animals, which is so stupid that it destroys everything else that comes either before or after it.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: December 10, 1986

Runtime: 1 Hour 43 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: John Landis

Studio: Orion Pictures

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

Explorers (1985)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Kids go into space.

Ben (Ethan Hawke) is a teen who keeps having dreams dealing with a spacecraft and eventually writes down the dimensions of it onto paper and then sends it to his super smart friend Wolfgang (River Phoenix) who uses it as a blueprint to eventually create it in real-life using various parts that they find in a junkyard. Once completed Ben, Wolfgang, and their other friend Darren (Jason Presson) decide to take it for a ride. Initially they fly it around their coastal California town, which catches the eye of the police (Dick Miller), who chases after it to no avail. Eventually though they decide to take it into outer space where they visit aliens inside a intergalactic space station.

Out of all of the sci-fi movies that came out during the 80’s this one has gotten lost in the shuffle and wasn’t too well received by the critics when it was first released though it has achieved a cult following since then. Director Joe Dante has complained that the final cut was taken out of his hands and he was never able to complete the ending that he wanted though for the most part the film never really gels, has a slow pace and only spotty moments where it becomes even halfway amusing.

One of the things that I did like was that the cast is age appropriate for their parts and the scenes done on a junior high campus have a student body that really looks to be teens instead of older college age actors trying to look younger, which happens in so many other teen films. The three leads thankfully aren’t crude or foul mouthed and aren’t obsessed with parlaying a ‘cool’, trendy image, which is also nice, but they seem just a bit too smart and able to do things that most adults can’t like welding and carpentry and  building a craft to exact specifications without any hitch or screw-up. Sure that Wolfgang kid is supposed to be smart, but even geniuses can make incorrect estimations, but this guy never does.

Watching the silly looking contraption actually get off the ground is farcical as in reality it most likely wouldn’t and the science gets completely thrown out the window. When they go out into space on their second trip they don’t even bother to equip themselves with oxygen and since there’s none in space I wasn’t able to figure out how they could breath. There’s no explanation either for how they were able to survive the extreme drop in temperature that occurs in high altitudes nor how the craft was able to get back through the earth’s atmosphere without burning up.

Spoiler Alert!

The scenes where the boys fly the craft around their town and even disrupt a sci-fi movie that is being shown at a local drive-in is when its funny and where the story should’ve stayed. Having it venture out into space and meeting other teen aliens is when it jumps-the-shark. The first hour plays like a whimsical fantasy, which is passable, but the third act becomes too campy. It also criminally under-uses Amanda Peterson, who plays Ben’s attractive love interest, who gets barely seen at all even though she should’ve gone on the trip with the other three boys, which would’ve bolstered the entertainment value and the fact that she doesn’t makes this already weak file even weaker.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: July 12, 1985

Runtime: 1 Hour 49 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Joe Dante

Studio: Paramount Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube