Category Archives: Movies that take place in Chicago

Medium Cool (1969)

medium cool 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 9 out of 10

4-Word Review: The 60’s up close.

If you ever wanted to travel back in time and take part in the events of the tumultuous 60’s this film comes about as close to that as you can get. Watching this isn’t like viewing a movie, but more like an experience in itself. Acclaimed cinematographer Haskell Wexler who had previously worked in the documentary field heard that demonstrators were going to march at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago so he decided to hire a few actors and throw them into the fray while building a thin plot around it and creating a pseudo-reality effect. The story deals with news cameraman John Cassellis (Robert Forster) who meets and starts to date Eileen (Verna Bloom) who has just moved to Chicago from West Virginia with her 11-year-old son Harold (Harold Blankenship). As the convention and protests begin and John begins to cover it Harold runs away from home and Eileen goes into all the chaos to find him.

The scenes from the riots leave a major impact and even though I had already seen this film several times before I was amazed at how compelling it still was. Everything still seemed fresh with a clarity that makes you feel you are right there and a vividness that seems like it was filmed just yesterday. Watching the National Guard with their rifles raised marching down the streets of Chicago threatening crowds of people is incredible as is the sight of army tanks rolling down Michigan Avenue.  The people in the crowds are not actors and you see them getting clubbed by the police only a few feet from the camera. Watching them take the park benches in Grant Park and use them to build a shield from the police is exciting as are actual sound bites of reporters describing the action and at certain points being roughed up by the patrol as well. The look of fear and confusion on Bloom’s face at what she finds herself in the middle of it is authentic and helps build the tension.

Of course these scenes only make up the final fifteen minutes of the film, but the movie is filled with a variety of other unique moments that are all captured with the same vivid style and are equally memorable. The part where John and Eileen go to a roller derby and watch actual female players beat each other up with some even using their fists gets quite vicious. The scene showing hundreds of caged pigeons being set free and flying off in a giant flock that fills the sky is eloquent. There is even some effective erotica as a naked John chases his naked girlfriend Ruth (Marianna Hill) around his apartment before lifting her up by her legs and spinning her around in a circle.

The film also takes a great critical look at television news and the people who cover it. It shows how reporters and cameramen are very detached from the events and people that they are covering and how their need to capture that ‘great’ image or sound bite supersedes the human element.

Forster is perfect for the lead role. I loved his aggressive, blue collar, tough-guy attitude that perfectly reflects the Windy City. Peter Bonerz who plays Gus his sound man is great, but in the opposite way. His character is much more timid and wants to avoid confrontation at every turn and finds it difficult dealing with some black people who make him feel uncomfortable when he visits their apartment and even some young children when they start to climb on his car.

The only negative is that the song ‘Merry-Go-Round’ by Wild Man Fischer is not included in the most recent Criterion Collection DVD/Blu-ray release. The song was in the original release shown in theaters as well as the film’s first VHS version, which I saw. Unfortunately the song’s copyright holders sued Paramount stating that a VHS/DVD release is not the same as a theatrical/television broadcast, which they were under contract for to use and therefore could not include it in any later reissues, which is a real shame. The song has to be one of the strangest things you will ever hear and done by an eccentric one-of-a-kind artist. It has a weird alluring quality to it that gives personality and an extra edge to the film and in later versions gets replaced with ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ better known as the theme for The Harlem Globetrotters, which is just not as effective.

My Rating: 9 out of 10

Released: August 27, 1969

Runtime: 1Hour 11Minutes

Rated R

Director: Haskell Wexler

Studio: Paramount

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray (The Criterion Collection)

Gaily, Gaily (1969)

gaily gaily

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Naive fellow becomes wise.

Ben Harvey (Beau Bridges) is a sheltered young man who decides to leave the safe confines of his humble little town and make a go of it in the big city of Chicago in 1910. However, soon after arriving he is robbed of all of his money and then taken in by Lil (Melina Mercouri) a Madame at the local brothel. Ben then gets a job at the city newspaper, but finds corruption at every turn and when he tries to stop it he ends up falling victim to its allure like everyone else.

The first hour is engaging. It features just the right mix of Americana and whimsy. The pace is quick with a wonderfully quirky sense of humor that comes flying fast and furiously. Opening the film by having Ben dreaming of topless women and featuring some very old turn-of-the-century black and white porno pics is funky. I also liked the scene where Ben manages to make all the prostitutes at the bordello he is staying at teary-eyed after reading them a sad story that he had written. The look at Lil’s face when he tells her that his life’s ambition is to ‘change the world’ is a hoot.

Unfortunately the second half deteriorates badly. The scenes become stretched out too long and the attempts are farcical humor lack any cleverness. The side-story about the attempts of a mad scientist Dr. (Charles Tyner) at using a serum he has invented to revive the dead is stupid. The slapstick like chase sequence gets overblown and the whole thing ends on a flat and boring note, which is a shame. The sets and costumes recreating the period atmosphere are wonderful, but put to waste by the silly script. I felt the film could have been more interesting had it taken a more realistic and dramatic route.

Bridges is actually pretty good. He has played the wide-eyed idealist so many times that it becomes a bit annoying, but here he seems to be making fun of it and it works to an extent. However, his extreme naivety at not catching on that the women he is living with are prostitutes is just too over-the-top and makes you almost want to hit him on his head in order to drive some sense into it.

Brian Keith does well playing the type of gruff, brash character that he excels at. George Kennedy though seems stiff and out of place in the setting and does not appear to be particularly adept at comedy.

Mercouri looks to be having a lot of fun here and her singing isn’t bad either. Margot Kidder is fantastic in her film debut and one of the best things about the film. She plays one of Lil’s prostitutes who takes a liking to Ben and I enjoyed how her character goes from being jaded to idealistic and rather naïve. Melodie Johnson is great simply because she is gorgeous to look at. She is now a successful novelist and judging from the pictures on her website is still looking quite attractive.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: December 16, 1969

Runtime: 1Hour 47Minutes

Rated R

Director: Norman Jewison

Studio: United Artists

Available: Amazon Instant Video, Netflix streaming

Sixteen Candles (1984)

sixteen candles

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: He has her panties

The 80’s may eventually become known as decade of the teen movie. There were so many and 98% of them were crude, moronic, and forgettable. However this disarming film, a product of John Hughes, is a winner. It’s a simple story that manages to bring out the universal truths of that age in a seamless manner. Its best asset is its ability to show how all those things that are considered insignificant to others is a big deal to teens. The film may be best suited for adults who can look back on that period with a mature perspective and a wry sense of wit as well as nostalgic to those who were adolescents when the film came out.

The film stands out from the rest in other ways too. First is the fact that the majority of the cast actually look the age they are playing and resemble the physical awkwardness. Other teen movies always seem to have pretty models and chiseled faced guys who look older than they should. The kids here also don’t have that annoying smugness. The filmmakers approach it with the idea that behind all that crudeness it is still an innocent time. It’s also nice to see parents and teens getting along and not constantly at odds. The late night talk between Ringwald and her father (Paul Dooley) is quite touching.

The film has some really funny moments. The destruction of a nice suburban home during a wild teen party is fun. Hall’s ‘official’ unveiling of Ringwald’s panties to a group of awed freshman is also memorable.

Ringwald is perfect in the starring role as she was sixteen at the time and seems to embody the character. You hardly see the acting. Hall was also a good choice as the male geek. He certainly has the scrawny physique of a typical freshman as well as the outrageous persona that he creates to help compensate for it. It is also interesting that at times he shows some mature sensibilities, which is a good example of how adolescence can be a mixture of different traits. The adult cast is great as well especially the veteran character actors who play the grandparents.

This film borders on being a minor classic even though there are a few drawbacks. One is the ending sequence where Ringwald’s older sister, who is also the bride, starts to behave erratically, which becomes comic overkill. The picture worked better when it stuck with Ringwald and her high school experiences exclusively. The film also has a few too many neat wrap-ups. The worst being when the hottest girl in the senior class falls in love with Hall, which was too much of a stretch. The music score gets heavy-handed at times especially when it’s used to accentuate a comic moment. There are also a few too many unnecessary sound effects.

John and Joan Cusack can be seen in small roles with John looking very young. Jami Gertz can be seen quickly as a drunken party guest. Also Blanche Baker, who plays Ringwald’s older sister, is the real life daughter of actress Carroll Baker.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: May 4, 1984

Runtime: 1Hour 33Minutes

Rated: PG

Director: John Hughes

Studio: Universal

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video

The Monitors (1969)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: They are watching us.

            Aliens, who dress in suits, long overcoats, and bowler hats, invade earth and an attempt to police everybody’s thoughts and actions while trying to quell a rebel uprising led by Colonel Stutz (Larry Storch). Working for the uprising is Harry (Guy Stockwell) who falls in love with Barbara (Susan Oliver) who secretly sides with the aliens.

The movie starts out with a lot of potential and piqued my interest with unusual montages and camera work. Unfortunately this subsides quickly and soon we are stuck with drab sets, extraneous scenes, and a film unable to hide its low budget roots. I began to wonder if the reason the rebels had their hideout in an abandoned farmhouse was more because the filmmakers could film there without having to pay for a permit than anything else.

The film should have gone completely for parody and farce and if they had done that this might have worked. Instead it seems to drift into a conventional sci-fi narrative complete with a pseudo philosophical climactic debate between the humans and aliens that we have all heard before and does nothing but slow the film down to a tedious level. Adding in the love interest angle between the two leads is contrived and formulaic.

The aliens aren’t too interesting either. There is never any explanation as to how they were able to take over the planet, but the fact that they are unable to even get through a locked door of an old crumbling warehouse made me wonder how they were able to succeed at anything. Equipping them with a little more sci-fi gadgetry would have helped. I realize they don’t have to be carrying around the proverbial ray-gun, but having them break up an angry mob by using ordinary canisters of pepper spray seemed unimaginative.

Spliced into the story are comical TV ads with famous celebrities of the day such as Stubby Kaye and Xavier Cugat promoting the monitors and convincing the public to support them. These commercials are not funny with the only exception being Alan Arkin playing a foreign man who speaks broken English. In the case of former Senator Everett Dirksen it is almost sad. He was very elderly at the time of the filming and he is clearly reading his lines from cue cards and mouthing the words and looking like he is barely functional, or coherent.

The music is another problem. Initially I really liked it as the opening credits feature a computer with a very robotic voice singing the theme. Singer Odetta sings most of the other songs and some of them have a distinctive sound, but they get overplayed and saturated by the end.

The production was shot on-location in Chicago and I loved the aerial shots showing the skyline. I almost wished there had been a little more of them although I did notice that the exact same skyline shots at the beginning get reused in the second half. I didn’t like the idea that it was filmed in the late fall/early winter as the cast is shown shivering in several shots while forced to wear light clothing and their breath is clearly visible.

Susan Oliver gives another solid performance and shown flying an airplane in one sequence as in real-life she was an avid pilot. Sherry Jackson’s presence is minimal, but she is always appealing to the eyes. Avery Schreiber, a comedian known to overact horribly in just every part he is in, comes off as rather amusing here playing the younger brother of Harry who reluctantly joins up with the resistance. Larry Storch, another notorious ham, is engaging as well especially when he appears in drag and later on dressed as General MacArthur.

This is a failed experiment that should have been a lot better. It seems to want to take on the quirky sentiments of the era, but is either too timid, or too unimaginative to go all the way with it.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: October 8, 1969

Runtime: 1Hour 32Minutes

Rated M

Director: Jack Shea

Studio: Commonwealth United Entertainment

Available: Netflix Streaming

The Blues Brothers (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: A mission from God.

Jake (John Belushi) is released from jail and joins his brother Elwood (Dan Aykroyd) in starting up their old band so as to raise money for their old orphanage. Trying to get the members back proves harder than they thought, but because they are ‘on a mission from God’ nothing deters them including having every police agency in the state (and various other riff-raff) on their tail.

If you take away the songs and the extended car chases you have only 20 minutes of actual comedy and even then it is not real hilarious just amusing. Sometimes it gets downright silly like an old Disney movie with no edginess or satire. There isn’t even the expected crudeness or sophmorics and having this thing rated ‘R’ is ridiculous.

For such a simple comedy it is well staged almost like a grand scale spectacle. The stunts are spectacular and at certain times breathtaking. Director John Landis seems to have shut down the whole city of Chicago to do it and it definitely set a new standard for car chases.

Some of it makes you grab the edge of your seat especially when you see in fast motion, from their viewpoint, careening down the street as they dodge cars and pedestrians that seem to pop up at you. It also helps the validity to have them run into some road construction because in Chicago that’s pretty much all you see. I lived there for 18 years and the saying they have is that there are two seasons ‘winter and road construction’. Yet it would have been nice to see them wearing their seatbelts! Anyone else would have been killed or injured with any number of things they do and this thought takes away from some of the fun. It also would have helped the plausibility to have a couple of the bullets shot at them at least hit the car. There is a scene where over a hundred different policemen shoot at the car and not even one hits it!

The songs are great and it’s more of a musical anyways. There is a nice emphasis on the blues that bring out a distinct Chicago flavor. Cab Calloway is terrific doing his famous rendition of ‘Minnie the Moocher’ while the Blues Band plays along dressed like a 1920’s swing band. The numbers done by the Blues Brothers themselves is the most rousing as they guys can really sing! Their rendition of ‘Rawhide’ is hilarious.

Kathleen Freeman has probably the funniest part in a nifty send up of those Catholic school nuns that loved to use a ruler as a disciplinary tool. Carrie Fisher is engaging as a jilted bride out for revenge as she always did have a very ‘Don’t mess with me’ look in her eyes even when she was doing Star Wars. Henry Gibson shows his usual sinister style as the head of the local Nazi party and yet it is Aykroyd who is the real star as he is at his deadpan best throughout.

Look quickly for Paul “Pee Wee Herman” Ruebens as a French waiter. Also the DVD version has 18 minutes of extra footage.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released; June 20, 1980

Runtime: 2Hours 13Minutes

Rated R

Director: John Landis

Studio: Universal

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video

Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Thanksgiving on the road.

This movie’s plot, which is threadbare , deals with a middle-aged businessman named Neal Page (Steve Martin) who is trying desperately to get home to Chicago to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday with his family. During his trip he inadvertently meets Del Griffith (John Candy) an overweight, slightly obnoxious shower curtain hanger salesman. Neal initially cannot stand the man, but is forced to sit with him through his plane flight when he is not able to get the first class seat that he had reserved. Unfortunately due to a snowstorm their flight is rerouted to Wichita, Kansas and the two men find themselves paired together again as they try any means of transportation possible to get themselves to the Windy City. Along the way they begrudgingly start up a friendship.

Martin is okay as the exasperated businessman. This film marked a transition for him as he was now moving away from roles where he played clownish, vapid, but lovable idiots and more into crusty and curmudgeon middle-aged men. He is basically used for his annoyed reactions at all of Candy’s crazy antics and for that part he is fine, but there are a wide assortment of other actors that could have played the part just as well if not better. Martin at times still goes back to some of his old shtick like the dopey way he puts on a clenched teeth grin when he is trying to run real fast, which I never found to be particularly funny when he was doing it way back with skits on Saturday Night Live and still don’t find it funny when he continues to do it now.

Candy is by far the best thing about the film and ends up saving the movie from being an uninspired, goofy mess. The character does at times border on being a caricature, but fortunately writer-director John Hughes pulls back just enough to let you see him as a real person. He does indeed have some laugh-out-loud moments. I chuckled at the way he tries to clear his throat when the two men are stuck in a motel room together. The part where he manages to get both his coat sleeves stuck on some car seat levers and he is forced to drive the car with his two legs is hilarious. I also liked the way he gyrates to a Ray Charles song that he listens to while driving and the conversation that he has with a policeman (Michael Mckean) when their burned out shell of a car gets pulled over is a classic.  I thought the idea of having him be a salesman for shower curtain hangers hit just the right note of absurdity and the fact that he carries around a little box displaying all the different types of hangers he has was novel. The only thing I didn’t like about the character is that at the end we find out that he is somehow rendered homeless simply because his wife died 8 years before. This doesn’t make a lot of sense, for one thing he seemed to have a lot of success selling his merchandise, so I’m sure he had money and for another thing there are many men and women whose spouses end up dying, but that doesn’t mean they no longer have a home to go to. To me it just ends up being a cheap excuse for a sloppy sentiment and it should have been avoided.

The late John Hughes’s writing and directing leaves a lot to be desired especially for the sophisticated viewer. The humor that is used is extremely broad and many times downright cartoonish. He seems to be either not confident in himself as a filmmaker, or in the intelligence of his audience to ever be subtle and subdued, but it would have been nice if a little bit of that had been thrown in. He also uses way too many poor plot devices that are simply used to propel the paper-thin story along and would be considered hack writing at most and something that a third grader could come up with. For instance why does the engine of train that the two men are riding in suddenly break down? No logical explanation is given and what are the odds of that happening as well as having Neal’s rental car missing when all the rest of the cars are there. There is also the cab driver named Wolf who decorates his cab with all sorts of pornographic pictures and other provocative ornaments, which is at first funny until you realize that he supposedly works in Wichita, which is a small conservative city and no one would be riding his cab for long and he would be out of business. If there is no truth to the joke then the joke will fail, which it does here. The same goes for the crude, gross, and very hick pick-up truck driver that relies way too heavily on stereotypes and seems to be put in solely as filler.

I did like the fact that it was filmed on-location as the stark wintry like landscapes does indeed put the viewer in the holiday frame of mind. I also liked the fact that for the most part real snow is used. I was born and raised in Minnesota and I can spot the fake stuff right away and I always find it annoying. I liked that many performers from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off appear in brief cameos including: Ben Stein and Edie McClurg although it would have been nice if they were given a little more to do. Kevin Bacon also appears as does William Windom who is amusing as a one of Neal’s clients who can’t decide on what photo layout to use. I was disappointed that he wasn’t given any lines of dialogue, but the fact that he does reappear at the very end after the credits  makes up for it a bit. I also must mention the burned-out skeleton car that the two men drive in, which is the damnedest looking thing since the bus filled with bullet holes in The Gauntlet.

The music score is awful. It has too much of that tinny, synthesized 80’s sound that is unoriginal and does not fit the mood, or tone of the picture in any way. It also gets overplayed in certain scenes and hurts the film’s overall enjoyment.

I would say this movie would be great for the whole family as it does rely a lot on the broad, fast paced humor that most kids love. However, there is one scene where Martin goes into a long, F-word laden rant with McClurg when he can’t find his rental car. The rant in itself is funny, but some might say it is not appropriate for children. Of course these days I have heard kids as young as six, or seven using the word and I have also heard it used just in casual conversation by people I pass by while walking the streets of Indianapolis, so trying to shield the child from it may be futile and they will all sooner or later hear it in abundance anyways.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: November 25, 1987

Runtime: 1Hour 33Minutes

Rated PG: (Adult Language, Crude Humor)

Director: John Hughes

Studio: Paramount

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video

Midnight Run (1988)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Chased by the mob.

Jack Walsh (Robert De Niro) is a bounty hunter that is looking to get into a less stressful profession. He is offered 100,000 to find bail jumper Jonathan Mardukas (Charles Grodin) who worked as an accountant for the mob and skimmed 15 million from them. Jack thinks he can use the money to open up a coffee shop, but finds that the FBI is in hot pursuit of Mardukas as well. There is also rival bounty hunter Marvin Dorfler (John Ashton) who wants his hands on Mardukas and the money. Jack even finds himself chased by the mob looking to silence Mardukas before he can turn states evidence.

The catalyst of the film is the relationship between Jack and Jonathan and how it slowly turns into an unusual friendship during their long adventure. Both Grodin and De Niro have diametrically opposite personalities and acting styles, which is why this thing really works. The relationship ebbs and flows on the antagonistic level most of the time and the friendship really doesn’t build until the very end and even then it is tenuous, which is nice.  Too many times in ‘buddy’ movies such as this the sentiment becomes forced, but fortunately here it is very balanced and their interactions believable throughout.

Grodin was an inspired choice. I have always thought the guy to be a very talented, underappreciated, and unique comic performer. However, he was not a big name star and the studio heads originally wanted Robin Williams for the role and then even considered changing the sex of the Mardukas character to female and having Cher play the part, but director Martin Brest liked Grodin’s style during his audition and held out until he got him even though it meant losing the backing of Paramount and forcing them to go with Universal.

Grodin adds a lot that the other two stars, as very talented as they are, just wouldn’t be able to do.  One is a completely improvised conversation that he has with the De Niro character while they are stuck inside a train car, which is the one scene from this film that I remember most clearly from having first seen it over twenty years ago. There is another improvised scene involving Mardukas and Jack pretending to be FBI agents and going into a local bar looking for counterfeit bills that makes great use of Grodin’s sardonic humor and deadpan delivery.

John Ashton is a riot as Marvin the rival and slightly dim-witted bounty hunter. He is so over-the-top obnoxious and crude that you can’t help but laugh at it. He takes the caricature of the tough, brash, gruff, blue collar Chicagoan to a hilarious extreme. He is like legendary football coach Mike Ditka on speed. Denis Farina, as the mob boss, is also good as is Joe Pantiliano as the frantic bail bondsmen.

Another thing that makes this movie so successful is that it is able to work on three different levels in a very cerebral way. Not only is it a very good comedy and character study, but it’s not half bad with the action either. The best sequence here is when the two men get swept away by a strong river current, which has the actual actors doing most of the stunts.

Of course the script, by George Gallo, does have a few holes and implausibility’s that can’t avoid being mentioned since some of them are integral to the main plot. The biggest one is when Marvin, in an attempt to impede Jack and find his whereabouts, gets on the phone with Jack’s credit card company and identifies himself as Jack and is able to easily find out where the card was last used and have it cut off. However, with every credit card company I have worked with I am forced to give some more identification before I am given any information including my social security number, a secret word or phrase, or a PIN and yet here Marvin isn’t required to give any of that. There is also that fact that when Jack finds out that his credit card is being rejected he doesn’t just get on the phone with his credit card company and get it straightened out, which is what anyone else would do.

There is also a segment where Jack is somehow able to fleece the FBI badge from agent Alonzo Mosely (Yaphet Kotto), which Jack then uses to impersonate him with during his trip with Mardukas. However, this just would not have been possible as the two men met only briefly inside a car with Alonzo sitting in front and Jack in back scrunched between two other agents who keep a close eye on him. The FBI has also been searching for Mardukas for six years and yet Jack is able to find him easily, which to me seemed too convenient.

The excessive swearing is another issue. Yes, sometimes cursing can help build the grittiness of the characters, but here it goes overboard. Officially the word ‘Fuck’, or a variation of it, gets said a total of 119 times, but I was convinced it was more than that. Its overuse is so redundant that it almost becomes a distraction.

            All things considered this is still a winner. This is one of my favorite De Niro roles and in my opinion his best foray into comedy as I feel his work in the Meet the Parents series is generally wasted. There is also an emotionally strong scene when Jack goes back briefly to visit with his ex-wife and fourteen year old daughter. Normally these types of scenes end up being clichéd, but here it really hits the mark, especially Jack’s interactions with his daughter.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: July 20, 1988

Runtime: 2Hours 6Minutes

Studio: Universal

Rated R (Language)

Director: Martin Brest

Available: DVD, HDDVD, VHS, Amazon Instant Video 

Harry and Tonto (1974)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Old man and cat.

Harry Combes (Art Carney) is a 72 year old retiree living in a small New York apartment with his pet cat Tonto and finds out that the complex is about to be torn down and he must leave. At first he moves in with his son (Phil Bruns) and his family, but it does not work out. He decides to take a cross-country odyssey with his cat where he meets a variety of interesting people in this senior citizen variation of Easy Rider.

One of the great things that sets this film apart from others that deal with aging is that there is no death, dying, illness, or senility here. Instead of learning to adjust to the ending of one’s life, our character instead realizes that old-age is just another stage in a person’s existence and full of new experiences and possibilities. I thought it was cool and interesting how he meets a 15 year old teen girl runaway (Melanie Mayron in her film debut) named Ginger and the two set out to try and find themselves as well as search for life’s answers. They share a lot more in common than one might expect and only prove that life is a continual exploration no matter what stage you are in.

The Harry character is refreshingly laid-back and easy going unlike most elderly characters who tend to be betrayed as stuck in a bygone era. Although he does reminisce about the ‘old days’ with his friends, he does not expound on boring stories of yesteryear with young people, nor act like he has all the answers simply because he is older. He approaches everyone in a non-judgmental way that allows each person he meets to be themselves. He proves to be a lot more flexible and open-minded than the other, younger adults in the film including his own children.

There were only a few scenes involving the Harry character that I didn’t like. One is when he refuses to leave his apartment even as the wrecking ball crew stands outside. The police end up having to be carry him out while he still seats in his favorite chair, which seemed forced and unrealistic. There is another scene where he is at the airport ready to board a plane, but he refuses to allow, for no particular reason, the security to search the cage that has his cat in it even though it is accepted procedure.  This may have been writer-director Paul Mazursky’s way of showing that Harry could at times be set in his ways, but to me it went beyond being simply stubborn and more into the irrational and was not consistent with his behavior in the rest of the film.

The script has a lot of amusing and even touching slice-of-life vignettes as well as characters that are quirky, but not absurd.  The scene with Harry meeting an old Indian medicine man named Sam Two Feathers that is played by elderly Indian actor Chief Dan George is well handled. George had no formal acting training, but his raw delivery is an inviting change of pace.  I also enjoyed at the very end when he meets a woman with a bounty of pet cats that his played by comedian Lenny Bruce’s mother. Again, she had no acting training, but the scene captures her natural out-going personality and it is fun.

I felt Phil Bruns gave an outstanding and overlooked performance as Harry’s older son Burt.  The constant nervous and stressed-out expression on his face seemed to be a perfect composite of the middle-aged suburban male that is overrun with job demands and family responsibilities.  Larry Hagman is good as well in a brief, but memorable appearance as Harry’s other son Eddie. He spends the first part of his visit with Harry trying to impress him with how ‘good’ things are going only to end up breaking down when it becomes painfully obvious that he is desperate and broke.  Even director Mazursky gives himself a cameo as a gay prostitute who makes a pass at Harry.

If the film has any faults it is the fact that it is too amiable. I would have liked to have seen a little bit more action and comic misadventure. I thought it could have been funny and intriguing to see Harry inside a hippie commune, which is where he takes his two teen passengers. Instead he lets them off without going himself, which seemed like a missed opportunity.  There is another part where he inadvertently hitches a ride with a high-priced hooker (Barbra Rhoades) who immediately starts to get ‘horny’ when he Harry gets in. She drives the car off the road and parks it in the middle of the dessert and then the film cuts away. I think this could have been hilarious had this scene been extended. I was also disappointed that the very talented Ellen Burstyn is seen only briefly playing Harry’s daughter Shirley. This was even more of a shame because Burstyn gets cast against type here playing a character that is rather edgy and opinionated and there was strong potential for some good drama.

There are a few extended conversations where Harry discusses with some of his old friends their inability to perform sexually and how they hadn’t had sex for well over twenty years.  With the advent of Viagra, a product that was invented and manufactured right here in good old Indianapolis, these types of topics are no longer as relevant and make the film seem dated.

Of course the one thing that holds it all together and propels the movie from beginning to end is the outstanding Oscar winning performance of Carney, who until then was best known as the comic side-kick Ed Norton from the classic series The Honeymooners. Although he seemed perfect for the part he was not the Producers first choice and had to lobby hard to the get the role.  He was actually only 55 years old when the film was made and to help compensate he openly wore his hearing aid, which gets shown a lot, as well as dying his hair gray.

His win on Oscar night in 1974 became an historic upset. He was going up against very stiff competition that night including Dustin Hoffman for Lenny, Jack Nicholson for Chinatown, and Al Pacino for The Godfather Part 2. When Carney’s name gets called the look of shock on his face is very apparent as even he was not expecting it.  The moment is worth a look and can be seen on YouTube for those who are interested.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: August 12, 1974

Runtime: 1Hour 55Minutes

Rated R

Director: Paul Mazursky

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: VHS, DVD

The Fury (1978)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Blow up the body.

Another Brian De Palma/Hitchcock wannabe, this one involving a sinister secret government agent named Ben Childress (John Cassavetes) who wants to use the amazing psychic abilities of a young college-aged man named Robin Sandza (Andrew Stevens) for his own nefarious purposes. While he is in Israel with the father and son he decides to stage a terrorist attack, which he hopes will kill the boy’s father Peter (Kirk Douglas) and allow him to whisk Robin away to an underground research lab where no one will find him. However, Peter manages to survive the attack and goes on a relentless pursuit to find his son. This occurs while a young woman named Gillian Bellaver (Amy Irving) with equally strong parapsychological traits starts to have visions of Robin and his whereabouts while attending a school that specializes in people with these abilities and eventually she teams up with Peter to help him in his quest.

I liked the opening sequence being shot on-location in Israel, which gives the film an exotic feel. The attack is well-handled and comes as a surprise without any set-up, but I felt there was a fatal flaw with the premise. This is namely the fact that with Robin’s amazing psychic abilities you would think he could figure out that his Dad was still alive and be able to find him while also outsmarting the people who are holding him.

The secret agency thing and what they are using him for is vague and we see only a few scenes with him there. I felt this should have been more detailed and less time spent with Gillian at the psychic school, which is not very compelling and rather draggy.     There are a few good action moments, but unfortunately they come at the beginning and end with a talky middle that lacks any real suspense.

However, Peter’s escape from some gunmen by jumping out of an apartment window and onto the ‘L’ tracks along Wabash Avenue in Chicago is amazingly well shot and nerve-wracking.  A scene where Robin tortures a female Dr. (Fiona Lewis) by using his telepathic powers to spin her around a room until  blood oozes from her body and sprays all over the walls and furniture deserves some merits, but I wished it had been more extended. There is also the exploding body that is the film’s final shot and possibly its best and it is shown several times at different angles. I also enjoyed the darkly humorous scene where Robin uses his powers to send a ride at an indoor amusement park out of control and throwing the riders through the window of a nearby restaurant.

De Palma’s trademark over-direction is in full gear. Sometimes it works, but other times it is a distraction. For instance he uses a lot of panning shots showing one person talking and then panning to the other person and then back again. During a funny scene where Peter breaks into an older couple’s apartment while looking for a disguise this really works, but De Palma continues to go to this well throughout and eventually it becomes annoying. There is also a foot chase that is done in slow-motion, which to me sapped the tension and excitement right out of it. He does have a few bird’s-eye view shots, which while not adding anything to the story, are still kind of cool.

Andrew Stevens, son of actress Stella Stevens, is well cast as the young man who starts out likable, but slowly becomes evil as the film progresses. Stevens has a good knack for this as he can go from nice to menacing very quickly and I first noticed this during a classic episode of Murder She Wrote. His clear blue eyes can give off a creepy stare as well.

John Cassavetes is an excellent bad guy.  He is best remembered as an independent film director with a unique vision, but with his dark features, cryptic glare, and intense delivery he can also be a very good villain. I don’t think the film made the most of it, but it was astute casting.

Although billed as the star Douglas does not have the most screen-time and there are long periods where he isn’t seen at all. This was really a vehicle for Irving, who is convincing and makes the viewer sympathetic to her quandary of having super-powers that she does not fully understand, cannot control and doesn’t really want.

It’s an interesting idea, but doesn’t go far enough with it. There weren’t enough twists to justify sitting through almost two hours. The pacing is poor and had it been trimmed to 90 minutes it would have worked better. The special effects are decent, but there needed to be more of them and they might not hold-up to contemporary standards. John Williams’s orchestral sounding score helps elevate what is really just bubblegum material.

This is a great chance at seeing some young stars in their film debuts including Darryl Hannah, Laura Innes, and James Belushi. There is also an amusing scene featuring Dennis Franz with a full head of hair playing a nervous and befuddled Chicago cop.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: March 10, 1978

Runtime: 1Hour 58Minutes

Rated R

Director: Brian De Palma

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video

T. R. Baskin (1971)

tr baskin

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Out on her own.

T. R. Baskin (Candice Bergen) is a young woman who leaves the nest by striking out on her own in Chicago. Unfortunately she finds nothing but a lot of loneliness, dead-end dates, crummy apartments, and soul-sucking jobs. Our protagonist becomes so emotionally beaten down that when a traveling salesman named Jack Mitchell (Peter Boyle) calls her looking for a ‘good time’, as he mistakenly is given her number under the impression that she is a prostitute, T.R. accepts his invitation simply as a chance to connect with someone. The film then cuts back and forth between conversations that she has with Jack in his hotel room as well as her experiences when she first gets into the Windy City.

Although this film does have its share of faults I was really taken aback by its strong emotional impact. The film was directed by Herbert Ross who would later do Footloose, The Goodbye Girl, and Steel Magnolias. The screenplay was written by Peter Hyams famous for writing and directing Capricorn One, Narrow Margin, and 2010 to name a few.

The film manages to recreate the monotony and isolation of day-to-day living better than just about any other movie that I have seen. Some of the best scenes include T.R.’s job interview process at an accounting firm as well as a long camera pan showing all the rows and rows of desks in the office and T.R. looking lost in the middle. There is another part where she sneaks back into the office on a weekend day in order to make silly announcements over their intercom system and the images of all the dark shadowy desks looks just as ominous. Another moving moment is when she is shown pacing her lonely apartment as well as her phone conversation with her parents where she tries to convince them that she is doing ‘just fine’, but breaks down into tears the second it ends.

The film leaves you with a strong impression. The music that was selected was first-rate and fits the mood of the picture perfectly. It is a real shame that this sleeper has never been released on either VHS or DVD and has not been shown on television since December of the 1980 when it was broadcast on Cinemax. It is well worth seeking out and certainly deserves more attention.

Bergen is terrific in the lead. This is before she attained her acerbic persona from her ‘Murphy Brown’ days and here comes off as more shy and sensitive. Her delicate and attractive features help capture the viewer instantly.

Boyle is equally good and the introspective conversations that the two have nicely runs the gamut between funny and sad. James Caan, who for some reason appears unbilled, has a nice cameo as an attractive and intelligent man that T.R. falls for only to have him callously break her heart.

If the film has any flaw it is in the fact that it is a bit uneven. It starts out with some terrific dry humor including a hilarious scene when she goes apartment hunting, but eventually the movie becomes too much of a downbeat drama. There are certainly universal truths to many of the sad situations that she goes through, but I found it frustrating that we are never shown her eventual fate. All we see is a small period in her life and then a very abrupt and unsatisfying ending. It would have been nice if the story had cut to five, ten, even twenty years down the road and allowed us to find out if she ever found ‘Mr. Right’ and some happiness.

Despite being made forty years ago this film is as trenchant and timely as it was back then. People who avoid watching older films because they believe that they are ‘dated’ are being foolish. This film has more bearing in reality and the human experience than a lot of the movies out today.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: October 20, 1971

Runtime: 1Hour 30Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Herbert Ross

Studio: Paramount

Available: Amazon Instant Video