Category Archives: Movies for the Whole Family

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

North Avenue Irregulars (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Church ladies battle mobsters.

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: February 9, 1979

Runtime: 1 Hour 40 Minutes

Rated G

Director: Bruce Bilson

Studio: Buena Vista

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

The Gods Must Be Crazy II (1989)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Misadventures in the desert.

Xiri (Eiros) and Xisa (Nadies) are the two children of Xixo (N!xau) and a part of a nomadic desert tribe of the Kalahari who go roaming off into the wilderness and encounter a truck driven by two elephant poachers (Lourens Swanepoel, Pierre van Pletzen). Having had no previous contact with modern technology the children become fascinated with the vehicle and climb into its water tank just as it drives off taking them many miles away from their home. When the children fail to return their father goes out looking for them and in the process comes into contact with a lawyer (Lena Farugia) and a zoologist (Hans Strydom) who are stranded after their small engine plane crashes as well as two soldiers (Erick Bowen, Treasure Tshabalala) fighting from opposite sides of the war and each precariously trying to get the upper hand on the other.

This follow-up to the run away hit was filmed in October, 1985, but took over 4 years to find a distributor and suffered many setbacks during its production, which frustrated writer/director Jamie Uys so much that he retired from directing after completing this one and never worked on another film. On the whole though it’s not too bad, but like with the first one it does start out a bit clumsily.

My biggest complaint had to do with the scenes dealing with the lady lawyer named Ann and her interactions with the macho pilot/zoologist Hans who takes her up in the plane, which to me became too sexist and too similar to the scenario played-out in the first film where a lady-in-distress being rescued by a male character more acclimated to the environment. However, in the first film this was funny because the male was so clumsy and inept it made him seem more like a lovable clod, but here the guy character resembles the male image, especially with his mustache, of the Marlboro man and his constant aggravation at this ‘ditzy lady’ isn’t amusing while her inability to understand technology played too much into the feminine stereotype that women can’t comprehend machinery must have a man come to their rescue.

I did find the small engine plane that they rode in, which was a modified Lazair Ultralight, fascinating as I found it interesting at how something so small and flimsy could carry two people and still get off the ground, but was disappointed to learn later that this was only because it got attached to a crane and in reality wouldn’t have flown. Although the filmmakers achieve this illusion pretty well the scene where the two fly above the clouds is clearly fake as you can tell the backdrop of the sky is a painting and in that regards the whole plane scene, especially since it really couldn’t fly anyways, should’ve been discarded and some other plot line created that would’ve brought the two together.

The two runaway children though are quite cute especially the frightened but resourceful little boy who grabs a nearby piece of wood to put on top of his head to fool the hyena that has been stalking him into thinking that he is taller than he really is, which actually ends up working. I was also most impressed with the scenes dealing the Honey Badger, which is known for its ferocious defensive abilities and lives up to its reputation here when he grabs a hold of Hans boot with his teeth and refuses to let go no matter how far Hans walks.

The last half-hour when all the various characters from the four divergent story lines eventually merge is when the film finally manages to hit its stride and it’s a shame this couldn’t have occurred sooner, but ultimately as a sequel it’s surprisingly funny and manages to retain much of the same charm from the first one.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: October 13, 1989

Runtime: 1 Hour 38 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Jamie Uys

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD, YouTube

The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Coke bottle causes problems.

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: September 10, 1980

Runtime: 1 Hour 49 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Jamie Uys

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Bye Bye Birdie (1963)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Teen idol gets drafted.

Based on the hit stageplay of the same name, the story deals with Conrad Birdie (Jesse Pearson) a rock ‘n’ roll teen idol who gets drafted into the army.  As a big send off Conrad is chosen to perform in Sweet Apple, Ohio on the Ed Sullivan Show. As a special treat one lucky teen girl (Ann-Margaret) gets picked to give him a kiss while he sings the song ‘One Last Kiss’ written by Albert (Dick Van Dyke) a fledgling songwriter who hopes that the publicity of having a song sung by a big star will be just the ticket he needs to find success and enable him to finally marry his secretary (Janet Leigh) and get away from the clutches of his meddlesome mother (Maureen Stapleton).

The story was loosely based on the real-life incident in 1957 when Elvis Presley got drafted and in fact the part was originally intended for him, but his agent turned it down. While some may consider the humor here to be engaging satire I really felt it was lame and uninspired and only saved by the song and dance sequences. My main gripe was the way the teens get portrayed as being overly clean-cut kids, no leather jacket crowd here who smoked cigarettes even though they did exist, who are too benign and show no evidence of individuality. It would’ve been nice for the sake of balance to have at least one girl that was not into the rock star and didn’t faint or swoon the second she saw him, like all the others, and instead looked on with disdain at everyone who did.

While I did like Janet Leigh, who wears a black wig, and enjoyed her dance number at a Shriner’s convention I did feel overall that the adults here, with the exception of Paul Lynde, were boring and not needed. Van Dyke again gets straddled in another Rob Petrie type role who shows no pizzazz and having him a ‘mama’s boy’ at the age of 38 is more pathetic than funny. What’s worse is that Stapleton who plays his mother was in reality Van Dyke’s same age and despite some white in her hair really didn’t look that old and having the part played by an actual old lady would’ve given it more distinction.

The story should’ve centered around the teens, but in a more interesting way by entering into all the side dramas that almost always occur in these types of situations, but doesn’t get explored here. For instance there could’ve been some jealous classmates of Ann-Margaret’s upset that she got picked to kiss Birdie and not them and devised a scheme to ruin her big moment, or having all the boys, who admitted to hating Birdie because their girlfriends were so into him and not them, kidnapping him in revenge.

Despite having his name in the title Birdie has only a few lines of dialogue and needed more to do than just swiveling his hips, which becomes a derivative running joke. One idea would be to have him scared about going off to the army and secretly coming up with a plan with his fans to go undercover, so he could escape going, which would’ve added more depth to the satire, which is too placid, by showing how celebrities in private can be the opposite of their public image.

Beyond my many grievances with the story, which is even more flimsy than most musicals, I still found the songs, dances, and colorful sets to be fun and Paul Lynde has a few great lines. If one watches it for the musical quality while treating it as a relic of its time then it should still go over modestly well.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: April 4, 1963

Runtime: 1 Hour 52 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: George Sidney

Studio: Columbia Pictures

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

Oh, God! Book II (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: God returns to earth.

Tracy (Louanne) is an 11-year-old girl who one day meets God (George Burns) when he invites her via a fortune cookie into the lounge of a Chinese restaurant where he asks her to help him spread the word that he exists. She then, with the help of her friends, creates posters that say ‘Think God’ which she puts up all over town, but this gets her suspended from school and then her parents (David Birney, Suzanne Pleshette) consider having her sent to a mental hospital after she keeps insisting that she’s spoken to the Almighty directly.

This follow-up to the 1977 hit lacks the freshness and originality of the first. The studio had initially wanted the John Denver character to return, but the producers insisted they wanted a ‘fresh start’ and not just continue the storyline from the first film. While the characters are different, the plot line remain the same causing the film to come-off like a boring reworking of the first one instead of a continuation.

Louanne, who now goes by Louanne Sirota, is adorable, which helps, but her hairstyle looks like something out of the 1940’s. She also believes in God right from the start even before she meets him, which doesn’t allow for any type of interesting character arch. It’s also quite  hard to believe that her ‘Think God’ poster campaign would have any affect and that a nonbeliever would somehow suddenly become a raging theist after spotting one of the amateurish looking signs.

Another issue is the God character who is full of idiosyncrasies. For one thing the concept of evolution gets glossed over and the film makes it like how we see things now in regards to animal and plant life is exactly how God envisioned them when they were created at the beginning of time. He also mentions having to sometimes sneeze, but why would a spirit need to do that? At another point he talks about answering phone calls, but why would there be telephones in Heaven?

It’s also confusing why God, who is supposedly an omnipotent being that knows what each person is thinking and feeling would need the help of a young child in order to ‘reach people’. He also seems like a cruel jerk as he coaxes this girl into this ad campaign, which puts her into a very traumatic situation as it gets her suspended from school and even on the brink of being put into an institution. If God is all-powerful why can’t he simply make himself appear on everyone’s TV at the same time in order to let everyone know that he exists instead of putting a young child through such unnecessary stress?

The humor is lacking and the only funny lines are the ones dealing with the big breasts of David Birney’s girlfriend (Denise Galik). I also didn’t understand why the word book gets put into the film’s title as there was never any second Oh God! novel written. Was this supposed to be a play-on-words in regards to the books of the Bible? If so then that joke, like just about everything else in the film, falls flat.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: October 3, 1980

Runtime: 1 Hour 34 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Gilbert Cates

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube