Category Archives: Movies that take place in the South

The Great Santini (1979)

great santini

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Warrior without a war.

Bull Meachum (Robert Duvall) is a Lieutenant Colonel pilot in the marines, who enjoys much camaraderie and respect amongst his colleagues, who affectionately call him ‘The Great Santini’.  However, his home-life is a different story as Bull treats his family the same way he does those under him in the service. His wife Lil (Blythe Danner) has learned to adjust to it, but his oldest son Ben (Michael O’Keefe), who is ready to turn 18, rebels and this causes much friction between the two, which eventually boils over to the rest of the children just as the family gets ready to move into a new residence in the deep south.

The film is based on the novel of the same name by Pat Conroy, who in-turn based it on his real-life relationship with his strict, militant father Donald Conroy who gave himself the nickname from a magician that he had seen as a child. While the two had a rocky relationship, much like the son and father do in the movie, the film did help the two mend some fences and his father would routinely accompany his son on book signings and they were even in attendance on the set as the movie was being shot.

While the book was well received I felt that the movie came off disjointed and had a wide-array of tonal issues. The scenes with Santini in the military are quite funny, in a raucous sort of way, but when it shifts to focus on the family life it becomes more of a hackneyed drama. There’s also a long-drawn out segment dealing with a stuttering black man named Toomer (Stan Shaw) and his late-night confrontation with a white racist (played by David Keith in his film debut) that gets quite ugly and doesn’t have either Duvall or O’Keefe in the scene and seems like something for a completely different movie. Maybe in the book, which I have not read, this all came together better, but here it’s like a movie searching desperately for its center and never finding it.

Both Duvall and O’Keefe are excellent and both got nominated for the Academy Award for their efforts, but Danner as the wife is badly miscast. For one thing she looks too young for be O’Keefe’s mother and she speaks in a weird accent where it seems like she’s trying to affect a southern dialect, but it doesn’t sound authentic and wavers throughout. I also didn’t understand why her character married Santini as the two had little in common and for the most part seems to resent his bullish behavior much like the rest of the kids do. Why does she stick with him and what did she see in him to have her fall in love with him in the first place as these things just aren’t clear at all.

Lisa Jane Persky, who also makes her film debut as the oldest daughter Mary Anne, is an odd-piece of casting as well. Her performance is okay, but she certainly does not come-off like a child dominated by a supposedly abusive, controlling parent as she routinely teases and mocks Santini right to his face and at one point the teasing gets so bad it chases him away, which hurts the film’s credibility as it makes him seem far less of a tyrant and making O’Keefe’s dealings with him seem overrated. After all if a teen girl can get the old guy to run from her why can’t he do the same?

On the technical end the movie is okay and it’s fun seeing Julie Ann Haddock, best known for playing Cindy in the first season of ‘Facts of Life’ TV-Show, playing Santini’s younger daughter Karen. Unfortunately the film is too much of a mish-mash. Has some good moments here-and-there, but overall fails to deliver any type of sustained emotional impact.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: October 26, 1979

Runtime: 1 Hour 55 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Lewis John Carlino

Studio: Orion Pictures

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

The Last American Hero (1973)

lasthero

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: He follows his dream.

Junior Jackson (Jeff Bridges) works in his family’s moonshine business as a driver who transports the liquor and uses his superior driving skills especially his patented ‘bootlegger-turn’ in which to avoid capture he gets the vehicle to make a 180-degree turn by using the emergency brake, which then allows his car to go speeding off in the opposite direction. However, the authorities are able to catch-up with his father (Art Lund) and they throw him in jail for 11-months. With no moonshine business Junior is forced to find other means for an income, so he decides to try and turn his driving skills into a profit venture by entering into a demolition derby run by Hackel (Ned Beatty). He does well in this and eventually moves up to the higher levels and makes enough money for him to decide on turning it into his career, but his family does not approve as they feel it’s too dangerous. Junior is also forced to buy his own race car and pay for his own pit crew, which causes him to go back into the bootlegging business as a runner all to the disapproval of his father who feels it will just lead Junior into the same prison that he was in.

Overall this is one of the best bio’s out there and impeccably filmed and edited by actor-turned-director Lamont Johnson, who appears briefly as a hotel clerk. Johnson’s directing career was a bit spotty, he also did notorious clunkers like Lipstick and Somebody Killer Her Husbandbut this one is virtually flawless and there’s very little to be critical about on the technical end. The racing footage is both intense and exciting and one of the few racing movies where I was able to follow the race as a whole and not just be bombarded with a lot of jump cuts. I also appreciated how it captures the pit stops and the different conversations that the driver has with his crew during these moments and how sometimes this can be just as intense in its own way. The on-locations shooting done in and around Hickory, North Carolina as well as some of the neighboring race tracks during the fall of 1972 helps bring home both the ambiance and beauty of the region.

For me though what really stood out was Junior’s relationship with his family and how they were not supportive, at least initially, to his dreams as a racer and forcing him to have to pursue it on his own. Many times people who have ambitious goals don’t always have their friends and family on the same page with it and the road to success can definitely have its share of loneliness while also testing one’s own inner fortitude. One of my favorite scenes, that goes along with this theme, is when Junior is inside a K-mart and comes upon a recording booth that allows him to make a voice tape message that can be sent via the mail to one’s family or friends. Junior conveys into the microphone what he wants to say to his family, but ultimately seems to be talking more to himself than them, as a kind of self therapy to release the inner tensions that he’s been feeling, and subsequently never actually sends it out.

The acting is top-notch particularly by Bridges. Normally he’s good at playing mellow, level-headed characters, but here does well as someone who at times is quite volatile and caustic. There’s great support by Beatty as an unscrupulous race track owner, Ed Lauter as a highly competitive owner of a competing racing teams as well as Valerie Perrine as a woman who enjoys bed-hopping between different men, sometimes with those who are friends with each other, and yet completely oblivious with the drama and tensions that this creates. William Smith is good as a competing racer and while his part is small the scene where he walks in on Junior sleeping with his girl (Perrine) and the response that he gives is great. I thought Geraldine Fitzgerald, who plays Junior’s mother, was excellent and her Irish accent somehow effectively made to sound southern, but she should’ve been given more screen time.

The story is based on an Esquire article written by Tom Wolfe that was entitled ‘The Last American Hero was Junior Jackson. Yes!’, which in turn was based on NASCAR racing champion Junior Jackson (1931-2019) who also served as the film’s technical advisor. The movies pretty much stays with the actual account, but does change one pivotal point in that it has the father going to jail when in reality it was Junior who was sentenced to 11-months in 1956. Why this was changed I don’t know, but it usually helps the viewer become more emotionally connected to the protagonist when they see them going through the hardship versus someone else, so having Bridges spend time in the slammer would’ve made more sense. The film is also famous for its theme song ‘I Got a Name’ sung by Jim Croce, but this song has been played so much on oldies radio that one no longer connects it with the film and in fact when it does get played it takes you out of the movie because it reminds you of somewhere else where you’ve first heard it, which most likely wasn’t this movie.

lasthero2

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: July 27, 1973

Runtime: 1 Hour 35 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Lamont Johnson

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

The Moonshine War (1970)

moonshine1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Battle over illegal distillery.

John (Alan Alda), who goes by the nickname of Son, and Frank (Patrick McGoohan) were buddies during the war, but now Son has started up a profitable moonshine business while Frank has become a government agent in charge of arresting those that run illegal distilleries. Frank though is also corrupt and willing to look the other way as long as Son gives him a take of the profits, which Son refuses to do. This forces Frank to bring in Emmett (Richard Widmark) and Dual (Lee Hazlewood) who have violent ways of getting what they want, but when Son still refuses it turns into a shootout with the rest of the town sitting on the sidelines and viewing it as spectators.

The film is based on the novel of the same name written by Elmore Leonard who also penned the script, but Richard Quine’s poor direction impedes the story from achieving its full potential. There’s only a couple of interesting bits one of which takes place inside a café where Dual forces a young couple, played by Claude Johnson and a young Teri Garr who sports a brunette wig, to strip and run around naked, but outside of this there’s not much that’s unique. The editing is choppy as the action jumps from the middle of one scene to another with no set-up in-between. The atmosphere, which is supposed to be the 1920’s does not seem authentic, and the homes, which appear more like shacks, look like they were built in an unimaginative way on a studio backlot. The setting is Kentucky but filmed in Stockton, California where the dry, sandy landscape doesn’t look anything like the Bluegrass state.

I’ll give some high marks to the casting, McGoohan is fun as the agent especially as he tries to speak in an odd sounding American accent, but when Widmark comes along he completely upstages him, which is a big problem. There’s so many offbeat characters within the bad guy clan that putting them all together ends up hurting their potential since Widmark steals it away from all of them. I did like Hazelwood, who’s better known as Nancy Sinatra’s singing partner, in a rare acting bit where he’s genuinely creepy, but not used enough to make the lasting impression that it should’ve. The same goes for Suzanne Zenor, making her film debut, who’s quite delightful as the ditzy blonde, (she played the original Chrissy Snow in the first pilot for ‘Three’s a Company’), but needed to be in more scenes to make her presence truly worth it. Alan Alda is also problematic as his character isn’t seen enough to justify having the viewer root for him and things would’ve worked better had it simply been McGoohan versus Widmark.

The ending is amusing seeing the whole town sitting on the riverbank observing the shootout as if it were some sort of sporting event and the explosive finale, which comes as a bit of surprise, isn’t bad either, but the heavy-handed direction really sinks it. In better hands it might’ve worked better, but ultimately comes-off as a head-scratching misfire that is not one of the author’s best work.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: July 5, 1970

Runtime: 1 Hour 40 Minutes

Rated GP

Director: Richard Quine

Studio: MGM

Available: DVD-R (Warner Archive)

Lolly-Madonna XXX (1973)

lolly3

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Two rural families feud.

Rod Steiger is the patriarch of the Feather family while Robert Ryan heads the Gutshall household. Both families live next to each other in poor ramshackle shacks in rural Tennessee. Neither side gets along and both will occasionally play tricks on the other in order to try and get the upper-hand. One day the Gutshall boys send a letter to the Feathers signed by a Lolly Madonna even though that woman doesn’t really exist and was created to get the Feathers away from their whiskey still so the Gutshalls could destroy it. However, two of the Feather boys, Thrush and Hawk (Scott Wilson, Ed Lauter) spot Ronnie (Season Hubley) sitting at a bus stop in town and think that she’s the mysterious Lolly, so they kidnap her and bring her back to their farm where they hold her hostage. The Gutshalls see them bring in this new girl, but have no idea who she is, so the Gutshall’s daughter Sister E (Joan Goodfellow) sneaks over to the Feather residence to spy on them, but gets accosted and raped by Thrush and Hawk in the process. Now the Gutshalls feel the Feathers need to pay a price and both factions go to war, which causes several casualties.

The screenplay was written by Sue Grafton, better known for her later mystery novels, and based on her book ‘The Lolly-Madonna War’, which was published in the United Kingdom, but never in the U.S. Supposedly the story is a metaphor for the Vietnam War and the horrible destruction of violence, but trying to make a profound statement through the follies of a bunch of stereotyped hillbillies doesn’t work. For one thing they live in homes that look like they were abandoned 30 years ago and drive in rusted pick-ups that seem taken straight out of the junkyard. I realize poor people can’t all live in nice homes or drive fancy cars, but most can at least maintain them a bit better. Also, neither family owns a telephone, but they do have electricity, a refrigerator and even a TV, so if they can have all of those things then why not a telephone too?

Hubley’s character has no real purpose in the story as the Gutshall’s daughter could’ve been raped for a variety of reasons without any stranger needing to be present. She doesn’t do much when she’s there anyways except sit quietly in the background and observe the feuding. Having her fall madly in love with one of the boys, played by Jeff Bridges, and grieve openly when Hawk, the same man who violently kidnapped her just a day earlier, gets injured seems too rushed and out-of-whack to be believable. I’m well aware of the Stockholm Syndrome where victims can over a great deal of time fall for their captors, but this takes that concept to a ridiculous new level.

Despite being top-billed Steiger is seen very little, especially during the first hour and he’s not allowed to chew-up the scenery like he usually does though watching him make a ham sandwich where he applies a massive amount of ketchup is fun. Bridges pretty much takes over things by the end, but for the most part no one actor, despite the plethora of well-known faces, headlines here and if anything they’re all wasted by being locked into roles that are caricatures and indistinguishable from the others.

The pace is slow with an inordinate amount of talking that over explains things that the viewer could’ve picked up on visually. When the action does occur, like the death of Bridges’ first wife, played by Kathy Watts, it comes off as corny. The animal lovers will not like the scene where Steiger shoots a horse looped together from several different angles and in slow-motion, nor the segment where pigs get tied to a post and scream in panic as a ring of fire gets set around them. The final shootout though is the biggest letdown as the film fades-out before it’s over, so we really never know who survives it and who doesn’t.

Fred Myrow’s haunting score is the only thing that I liked, but everything else falls flat. If you’re looking for a movie with a anti-war/anti-violence message there are hundreds of others to choose from that do it way better.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: February 21, 1973

Runtime: 1 Hour 45 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Richard C. Sarafian

Studio: MGM

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

Three for the Road (1987)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Transporting politician’s bratty daughter.

Paul (Charlie Sheen) aspires to have a career in politics and is an ardent believer in the political system and the politicians who work in it. He becomes an aide to Senator Kitteridge (Raymond J. Berry) where he gets assigned to transport the senator’s rebellious daughter Robin (Kerri Green) to an institution for troubled girls. Paul’s writer roommate T.S. (Alan Ruck) comes along with him, but they face many hurdles keeping Robin under control. Eventually Paul bonds with her when he realizes her father isn’t really the great guy he pretends to be, but instead an abuser.

This film is yet another victim of a script, which was written by Richard Martini, that was intended to be far different than what it turned out to be. Originally the idea was to center it on the political angle where the father was a conservative who wanted to put Robin into hiding simply because she was a liberal activist stirring up trouble. Yet after extensive rewrites by three other writers the story becomes just another shallow romance-on-the-road flick that shifts to extremes from slapstick comedy to hackney drama.

One of the things that’s most problematic is the father asking a young man who he really doesn’t know to transport his daughter to some far off location and even gives him handcuffs to use on her just in case she gets ‘out-of-line’, but what sort of parent would hand his teen daughter over to a virtual stranger and trust he won’t rape her? A far more plausible premise would’ve had him entrusting his daughter to a longtime friend, who he at least had better reason to trust. Instead of having her go with guys around her same age, where sexual urges are high, the escort could’ve been middle-aged. Yes, this would take away the teen romance element, which quite frankly comes-off as formuliac and forced anyways, but it could also have brought up generational issues, which would’ve been more interesting.

Sheen, who has described this film as being “a piece of shit that I wished didn’t exist and that I was terrible in”, is actually the best thing in it. I enjoyed seeing him play this straight-lace guy, which he is good at doing, that completely works against his real-life party-boy image. The only issue with him is that his character arc, where he starts out believing in the integrity of the senator father only to eventual grow disillusioned with him, is too predictable and obvious. Most people, even back in the 80’s, had a cynical take on politicians just like they do now. A far better arc would’ve had him cynical about politics, getting into it as an aide simply to boost his career, but not actually believing in the system, only to find much to his surprise that there actually was at least one politician that was honorable.

Green’s character plays too much into the ‘wild teen’ stereotype and her outrageous antics are more obnoxious than funny. She’s also too short and seemingly too young for Sheen, making the romance seem off-kilter. I also didn’t like that during the trip the main characters come into contact with the same people they’ve bumped into before. I’ve taken many long road trips and have never encountered this phenomenon and it really doesn’t add anything to the script especially since the person they keep crossing paths with is a brainless jock (Eric Bruskotter) that culminates into a silly car chase that just succeeds at making the whole thing even more inane than it already is.

There’s enough action and twists to keep it going, but it also becomes increasingly more strained as it goes along. The tacked-on drama along with the over-the-top prison break, which gets pulled-off in too easily a fashion, is particularly torturous and makes this one road trip you won’t mind missing.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: April 10, 1987

Runtime: 1 Hour 28 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: B.W.L. Norton

Studio: New Century Vista Film Company

Available: DVD

Payday (1973)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: A self-destructive singer.

Maury Dann (Rip Torn) is a popular country singer who performs at many clubs throughout the southeast. While he is loved by his many fans he routinely takes advantage of those around him including sleeping with married women while openly seducing the others even when it’s right in front of his current girlfriend Mayleen (Ahna Capri). When Maury is confronted by the father (Walter Bamberg) of one of the young women he’s seduced they get into an ugly fight and Maury accidently ends up killing him, but since he’s so used to exploiting others he asks his loyal limo driver Chicago (Cliff Emmich) to take the blame for him.

The film, which was directed by Daryl Duke, is a masterpiece in penetrating drama to the point that I’m surprised that Duke, who had only directed TV-shows before this, didn’t go on to have a long career in making Hollywood movies instead of going right back to doing episodic TV-work after this. The script though, which was written by Don Carpenter, is completely on-target as it paints a very trenchant, no-holds-barred portrait of the seamier side of show business life and most importantly the people who work in it.

The atmosphere of the smoke-filled bars/nightclubs is vividly captured and the dialogue has a nice conversational quality that makes its point, but never in too much of an obvious way. The characterizations though are the most revealing and include Maury’s loyal manager Clarence (Michael C. Gwynne) who secretly despises Maury and is well aware of his many faults, but does whatever he can to cover them up to the adoring public.  Cliff Emmich as the faithful limo driver, who secretly aspires to be a gourmet chief, is terrific too. He doesn’t say much, but when he does it’s always quite interesting and his facial reactions are great.

My favorite characters though were Maury’s two girlfriends particularly the young, wide-eyed Rosamond (Elayne Heilveil in her film debut) who excitedly jumps into bed with Maury as his new star crush groupie only to become more apprehensive about things, which get revealed through her wonderfully strained facial expressions, the ugliness that goes on around her. Since her character has the most obvious arc I thought she should’ve been the story’s centerpiece.

Capri is quite enjoyable as well playing on the opposite end of the spectrum as a jaded woman who’s been in the groupie scene too long, but desperate enough to stay in it. The film’s most memorable moment is when Maury kicks her out of his limo, without any money, in the middle of a cornfield. She’s able to find another ride quickly, but I would’ve liked seeing a scene later on showing where she ultimately ended-up, or having her return to the story near the end where she could’ve had a climactic final confrontation with Maury, which is what her character deserved.

The only thing that I didn’t like was Maury himself. Torn plays the part in a masterful way, although his singing over the opening credits, which he insisted on doing himself, isn’t so spectacular, but his acting is. The only problem is that his character is just too much of a jerk. Supposedly it’s loosely based on Hank Williams and I’m sure there’s a lot of truth to it, but it would’ve been nice had there been at least one fleeting moment when he did something redeeming as his constant jerkiness becomes almost an overload for the viewer making it border on being too obnoxious to watch, but it’s so well crafted in every other aspect it’s still a worthwhile view.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: February 22, 1973

Runtime: 1 Hour 43 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Daryl Duke

Studio: Cinerama Releasing

Available: DVD

Mountaintop Motel Massacre (1983)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Crazy lady kills guests.

Evelyn (Anna Chappell) has just been released from a mental institution and gone back to running a rural motel. One day she finds her daughter Lori (Jill King) practicing witchcraft in their basement. Evelyn becomes so enraged by this that she ends up killing her daughter with a garden sickle. The police believe her story that it was simply an accident that happened outside in their garden and do not arrest her, but the voices inside Evelyn’s head convince her that everyone else is out to get her. This madness sends her on a killing spree at her hotel in which she is able to enter each person’s room through a trap door in their bathrooms that is connected to an underground tunnel.

The film did only moderately well when it was released to regional theaters and then ultimately nationally in 1986 and a lot of the problem could reside around its promotional poster seen above, which seems to imply that this is a campy horror comedy, which it is not. It also features a completely different woman posing as Evelyn that is not the same one who plays her in the film.

As for the film itself it starts out okay. I liked how it comes up with this very offbeat premise about an old lady killer, but then approaches in a realistic way. Nothing gets jazzed-up for the sake of horror and everything gets handled with a slow deliberate pace including a drawn out scene showing an ambulance crew trying to resuscitate her daughter. The on-location shooting, which was filmed in an around Oil City, Louisiana in March of 1983 gives the viewer an authentic view of the winter landscape in the south and the hotel itself, which was shot at an abandoned fishing camp that sat on Cross Lake in Shreveport, helps add a rustic flair.

The cast of victims are much more diverse than in most slasher movies and fortunately doesn’t just feature teenagers or college kids. I was especially impressed with Major Brock, who plays Crenshaw, who had worked for 31 years as a baggage handler at Delta Airlines, but was convinced by the film’s director to take on the role despite having no acting experience, but he does really well, he even sleeps convincingly, and I enjoyed the character’s no-nonsense attitude and wished he had remained in it the whole way.  I was actually disappointed to see any of them die and instead wanted to see how they could get past their contrasting personalities to work as a team to overcome the crazy lady, but that doesn’t happen.

The killings though are quite boring and the idea that a sickle would be able to kill people so easily with just one swipe after spending most likely years being used in the garden, which would’ve dulled its blade, is just not believable. The victims are also too passive and just stand there when the lady attacks them instead of fighting back. The killer is after all an elderly woman, so you’d think these younger people could’ve overpowered her by even just kicking at her, which would’ve slowed her advance.

The climactic battle inside the underground tunnel offers some tension, but it seemed weird that when the people would open up the trap door that lead to the tunnel there would be this bright ray of light that would spew out making it seem like the tunnel was well lit, but then when they’d get down there the only source of light would be their lanterns, so if that’s the case were was the initial ray of light coming from?

The film would’ve worked better had it not given it all away right at the start. The identity of the killer should’ve been kept a secret until the very end and Evelyn should’ve initially been portrayed as this sweet old lady who you’d never suspect. The tunnel should not have been made known until later either and thus made it more intriguing for the viewer in trying to figure out how the dead bodies of the victims were disappearing out of their rooms.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: July 15, 1983

Runtime: 1 Hour 35 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Jim McCullough Sr.

Studio: New World Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

The Toy (1982)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Becoming a child’s pawn.

Jack Brown (Richard Pryor) is unable to find stable employment and at risk of being evicted from his home. In desperation he takes a job as a night janitor at a local toy store. It is there that he gets spotted by Eric (Scott Schwartz) the young son of business mogul Ulysses (Jackie Gleason). Eric is used to getting what he wants so when Jack inadvertently makes him laugh he decides to ‘buy’ him and turn him into his own personal ‘toy’. Jack is initially reluctant to agree to this, but when he’s offered a lot of money he eventually goes along with it. Initially the relationship between the two is quite awkward, but eventually they form a bond and Jack manages to teach Eric many important life lessons while also getting Eric’s father to realize that money can’t buy a son’s love.

When compared to the original French version this thing is painful to watch. Much of the problem stems around the fact that the satirical point-of-view from the first one gets watered down here. The French film took a lot of calculated potshots at capitalism and corporate hierarchy, but apparently Hollywood was afraid they’d be considered ‘unamerican’ if they took that route, so instead of sharp humorous insights we get tired formula dealing with a rich kid trying desperately to get his father’s attention whose selfish personality needs fixing.

Because the message is so muddled it becomes confusing what point it wants to take, so to make up for it,  they throw in all sorts of cringey life lessons crap like Pryor teaching Eric about the importance of friendship and even a a bit about ‘the-bird’s-and-the-bees’. After awhile it doesn’t seem like a comedy at all, but more like a tacky after school special your parents made you watch when you were in the third grade.

The humor that does get thrown-in gets equally botched. In the French version every comic bit that occurred fit into the film’s main them. Here though any gag that has the potential of getting a cheap laugh gets used whether it actually works with the main story or not. Many of which are tired, overused gags where you already know what the payoff will be before the set-up barely gets going.

Pryor’s casting was a bit controversial at the time due to him being black and then used as a ‘servant’ to a white kid, but the truth is Pryor is the only thing that saves it. He’s not exactly hilarious here, but his onscreen charisma is enough to at least keep it engaging. Gleason on the other hand, who was already in his mid-60’s at the time, seemed too old for the part although with the use of a wig he manages to camouflage it pretty well.

Schwartz, who is better known as the kid who gets his tongue frozen to a flagpole in A Christmas Story, and for his later career in adult movies, is annoying. In the French film I liked the kid, but the child character here is poorly fleshed-out having him go back-and-forth in irritating fashion from spoiled brat to emotionally needy tyke.

Ned Beatty makes the most of his small role, keeping his scenes funny when they could’ve easily been overlooked. Elderly character actor Wilford Hyde-White is amusing too and so is Teresa Ganzel as Gleason’s busty girlfriend, but virtually everything else falls flat. This includes an unnecessary side-story involving the Klu Klux Klan, which was not in the original film, and just extends this already excessive mess far longer than it needed to be.

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: December 10, 1982

Runtime: 1 Hour 42 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Richard Donner

Studio: Columbia Pictures

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

Mississippi Burning (1988)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Searching for missing activists.

Rupert Anderson (Gene Hackman) and Alan Ward (William Dafoe) are two FBI agents sent to Jessup County, Mississippi in 1964 to investigate the disappearance of three civil rights activists who had been canvassing the area trying to get the African Americans registered to vote. The two soon find that any attempts to get to the truth are stymied by the town’s sheriff (Gailard Sartain) and his deputy (Brad Dourif) who exert a fear over the residents not to say anything. However, Rupert finds a ray-of-hope in the form of the deputy’s wife (Frances McDormand) who shows signs of harboring a dark secret. Rupert feels if he can somehow get her to talk that they could then crack the case.

The film is based on the murders of James Earl Charney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, who were killed on June 21, 1964 in Philadelphia, Mississippi while in the area promoting voter registration rallies.  Screenwriter Chris Gerolmo began writing the script after doing research on the incident and his intent was to keep the story as accurate as possible, but once Alan Parker was hired to direct big rewrites were made causing major friction between the two. The ultimate product, once it was eventually released, became quite controversial at the time mainly from surviving family members of the slain activists for the way the film fictionalized things.

Ultimately though I felt it was pretty well made and I was very impressed with the visual aspect that director Parker bought to it. Filmed on-location in several small towns throughout the state of Mississippi the film manages to bring to life the period in stunning detail. The only caveat being the portrayal of the white townspeople who all come-off as one-dimensional racist stereotypes. Of course we know there were bigots living there, but I suspect there had to be some that weren’t and even if the reason they didn’t come forward is because they were scared the film should’ve made an attempt to show this.

The portrayals of the two agents and the different ways they approach the case is interesting. I liked seeing Hackman in a more detached, laid-back character who isn’t as constantly intense as he usually is. Dafoe is good to with his hard-nosed, by-the-books mentality, but we learn absolutely nothing about their private lives especially Dafoe’s which makes him less interesting as we only see him in one type of setting. I thought it was a bit weird too that Dafoe, who in real-life was 25 years younger than Hackman, got cast in the role of Joseph Sullivan, who was the real-life FBI agent that he was portraying in the film, as Sullivan was in reality 9 years older than John Proctor whom Hackman portrayed.

Spoiler Alert!

Using Mrs. Pell, the deputy’s wife, played by McDormand, as the tipster that let the agents know where the dead bodies were buried, was creative license that the screenwriter used since at the time the identity of the real tipster, then known only as ‘Mr. X.’ was a mystery. Eventually in 2004 it was revealed to be that of Maynard King, a highway patrolman. Using the deputies wife in place of the patrolman was okay, but it becomes too obvious that she’ll eventually squeal since it’s made to look like she’s the only non-racist person in the town and thus signaling upfront that she’ll do the conscientious thing. It would’ve been more intriguing as she been a bigot and then to everyone’s shock ultimately reveal the secret anyways for whatever reason.

Having her husband bring home a group of men to observe him beating her when they become aware that she’s told the agents the victim’s whereabouts to me didn’t ring true. I would think any husband, even the abusive kind, would want to keep the couple’s arguments private and not let the whole world in on it. If he loved her even a little I would think he’d give her a chance to explain herself before her tore in on her, but bringing along friends to witness the event rarely occurs even in the most abusive of relationships. Even if it was done to protect his reputation (making sure the other racist townspeople knew he had nothing to do with his wife’s betrayal) I think he’d still have them stand outside the home while he beat his wife and not like it’s done here.

I was glad at least that upon Hackman’s urging a scene featuring him sleeping with McDormand was left on the cutting room floor. A law enforcement agent sleeping with a potential witness is highly unethical even if Hollywood movies do it all the time. Hackman should not have to sleep with her to get her to do the right thing nor does a budding friendship between a man and woman, especially if one of them is married, necessarily always have to automatically lead to sex because many times in reality it won’t.

The film’s second act is also problematic as it sets up the premise, agents looking for missing activists in a racist southern town, and then goes nowhere with it. No new wrinkles get entered in and too many ugly racial confrontations get shown until it becomes almost too depressing to watch. We understand up front the injustice that is going on and don’t need this to constantly get repeated like it does.

The ending scene has the whites now standing side-by-side with the blacks in unity, which is nice to see, but a bit over-the-top dramatically. Where were these open-minded white folks at the beginning, or are we to accept that this one incident as now ‘cured’ the town of it’s racist behavior and moving forward everyone will now hold hands and sing Kumbaya?

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: December 2, 1998

Runtime: 2 Hours 8 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Alan Parker

Studio: Orion Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video

The Rain People (1969)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Needing to find herself.

Natalie (Shirley Knight) wakes up one day and decides to simply get in her car and drive off with no particular destination in mind. She has just found out that she is pregnant and not sure if she can or wants to handle the responsibilities that come with it. She leaves a note to her husband (Robert Modica) telling him she needs time away from him to think things through. During her travels she meets Jimmy (James Caan), otherwise known as ‘Killer’, he was a former football player straddled with a brain injury that has now left him mentally handicapped. She also meets Gordon (Robert Duvall) a traffic cop who pulls her over for a speeding ticket. The two eventually start to date, but the more Natalie tries to find herself the more lost she becomes.

The film was for the most part considered an ‘experimental’ one as the subject matter was years ahead of its time. While many road pictures of the day like Easy Rider took the male perspective this one dared to tap into the feminist viewpoint, which up to that point hadn’t been explored as much if at all. I enjoyed how the film questions the whole wife/mother idea, once considered ‘the ultimate destination’ for any woman, but here brings out the complex issues that come with it and how not every woman may want to be trapped by it, or even find contentment in that situation.

What’s even more interesting is that Natalie never really seems to go anywhere. Yes, she does get in a car and starts driving and passes by many picturesque places of rural America along the way, but trying to escape the clutches that she feels holds her back never goes away. Everyone she meets, including Gordon who’s stuck raising a young daughter (Marya Zimmet) that he wasn’t totally prepared for, seem to be in the same predicament as her making it feel like the further she drives away the closer she gets to where she started.

Francis Ford Coppola makes wonderful use of the rain and there are many shots of it particularly in the first half as we see it creating puddles on the road and even streaming down the car windows in close-up. The cloudy, murky weather acted as a nice motif to Natalie’s inner emotional state and the confusion that she was going through. The film’s promotional poster seen above is excellent too and brings out the moodiness of the movie with one perfect shot although seeing the couple kissing in the backdrop is a bit misleading as that’s one thing you definitely don’t see here despite Natalie’s efforts to try and find it. The two people should’ve, in order to be consistent with the theme of the film it was promoting, been seen standing side-by-side instead of hugging.

I also really loved Coppola’s use of flashbacks here, which gets sprinkled in throughout. I liked the scenes showing the couple in happier times during their wedding as it illustrates how relationships that go bad or don’t work out still had their good moments even if they were brief. The flashbacks dealing with Duvall trying to save his family from a burning house are quite revealing too as what he describes verbally through voice-over is quite different from what we see.

Leonard Maltin, in his review of the film, called the script ‘weak’, which I completely disagree with. Yes, not a lot happens, the random situations that Natalie goes through perfectly reflect what could happen to anyone on a trip, which I liked because the plausibility here is never compromised. She ends her journey feeling as lost as she did when she started, but I felt that was the whole point, so in my opinion the script is strong.

George Lucas, who worked as an aide on this production, filmed a 32-minute documentary of this movie as it was being made called Filmmaker, which is accessible on YouTube although the sound quality is poor. This film has several revealing moments including conflicts that director Coppola had with Knight, but what I found most interesting is that when the crew traveled down to Chattanooga they all cut their hair and shaved their beards,which included Coppola himself, as they felt the locales wouldn’t work with them unless they appeared clean-cut. Seeing Coppola with a rare non-beard look alone makes this short film vignette worth catching.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: August 27, 1968

Runtime: 1 Hour 41 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Studio: Warner Brothers

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