Category Archives: Movies that take place in the South

Dark Sunday (1976)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Preacher versus drug dealers.

Reverend Lowery (Earl Owensby) works to get teens hooked-on drugs off the city streets and sober, which annoys local drug dealers who order a hit on him. When his family are on a camping trip two hit men (Ron Lampkin, Jac Cashin) shoot both of Lowery’s sons (Todd Reep, Jeff Reep) and his wife (Maggie Lauterer). When Lowery tries coming to their aid he gets shot several times, but manages to survive though with a severe limp and inability to speak. Once out of the hospital he goes on a silent mission to get revenge on those that killed his family while also stopping the dealers from selling anymore drugs and getting them off the streets once and for all.

This is third film of Earl Owensby who in 1973 decided to take a stab at filmmaking by building a studio near Shelby, North Carolina and making movies that he deemed to have ‘old-fashioned values’ and away from the sex and violence of Hollywood. While his movies didn’t have any nudity they did have its fair share of violence, which his critics considered to be hypocritical, but in any event they made money especially on the grindhouse circuit and enough of a profit that it allowed him to continue making movies up to 1991. While other regional directors like John Waters and Charles B. Pierce where able to gain enough attention with their movies to ultimately get a Hollywood contract Owensby never did. Some say it was because he labeled himself a conservative, which automatically made him an outsider with Tinseltown.

Whatever the reason this movie really wasn’t all that different from the Hollywood revenge dramas like Dirty Harry and Walking Tall and I was surprised how watchable it was. It does go on longer than it should and the opening features several jump cuts, which gives it an extreme amateur feel. There’s also way too many scenes that take place in back alleys. Granted it works with the plot, but I still got the feeling it was shot at these locations because it was less likely to get noticed by the authorities for shooting without a permit.

The film was controversial for the amount of violence and was banned from several countries. The shootings could be considered extreme when you see little kids shot directly in the chest and then violently thrown backwards. There’s also a nifty death where one of the drug dealers known as Candyman (Chuck Mines) drowns by having his face shoved into a toilet bowl though this would’ve had better effect had it been shot from above versus to the side. In either case the shootings get redundant and there should’ve been more creative deaths instead of just at the hands of a rifle.

What I did like was that the protagonist suffers lasting injuries and doesn’t just miraculously recover like heroes in a Hollywood movie do. However, with that said, the limp that he gets stuck with, which forces him to walk with a cane, completely disappears during the final foot chase where he’s able to climb ladders connected to buildings even better than the able bodied detective who’s chasing after him.

You would’ve also thought that since he was such a well-loved preacher in his community and lead a big  congregation that they would’ve come to his aid after he was injured by finding him some housing and maybe even a job instead of him becoming this lonely homeless person that no one seemed to know. If he had grown bitter and lost his faith due to what happened to his family and thus rejected their offers of help that’s fine, but a scene showing this needed to be inserted.

It might’ve worked better too had it started from the perspective of the prostitute (Monique Prouix) who takes the homeless Lowery into her apartment because she feels sorry for him and considers him harmless. Then the violent deaths of the drug dealers would force the viewer to connect the dots to Lowery and ultimately through flashback show what happened to his family at the end, which then would’ve given the film an element of mystery and more layers. I was also taken off-guard by the very downbeat ending, which I hadn’t expected and didn’t feel was necessary, but does conform to the ‘everything is terrible’ theme, which was a prevalent in most 70’s movies.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: August 17, 1976

Runtime: 1 Hour 42 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Jimmy Huston

Studio: Intercontinental Releasing Corporation

Available: DVD-R (dvdlady.com)

The Farmer (1977)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Country man seeks vengeance.

Kyle (Gary Conway) returns from fighting in WWII a decorated hero, but finds when he gets back home that trying to run a profitable farm to be tough going and risks having it foreclosed on by the bank. One night while swerving to avoid an animal on the road professional gambler Johnny (Michael Dante) gets injured in a car accident near were Kyle lives. Kyle and his friend Gumshoe (Ken Renard) nurse Johnny back to health and for repayment Johnny gives Kyle $1,500, which is enough to help his farmstead survive for a little while longer. Johnny though soon gets into trouble with racketeer Passini (George Memmoli) who permanently blinds him by dumping acid on his face. Johnny wants revenge and hires Kyle, who’s farm continues to struggle, to do it by having him use his superior shooting skills to kill-off Passini and his men while using Johnny’s inside knowledge to track them down. At first Kyle resists, even after Johnny offers him $50,000, but when one of Passini’s men (Timothy Scott) burns down Kyle’s barn, kills Gumshoe, and rapes his new girlfriend (Angel Tompkins) he then decides to go on the warpath.

This has become, especially in the past decade, known as a ‘lost film’. It had never been shown on broadcast TV nor cable and had never received a DVD release, or Blu-ray, or even VHS. It became impossible to find even a bootleg copy and many had become convinced this was the obscure of the obscure. Code Red promised 10 years ago, much to the excitement of rare film collectors, to release it on DVD, but after some promotion the deal fell through, which frustrated many and gave this film even more of a cult status. Some had come to believe that maybe the movie was simply a ‘myth’ and really didn’t exist at all. Just when everything looked bleak Scorpion Rising gave it a Blu-ray release in February of this year and the print is excellent and the film itself isn’t bad either.

It’s noted for its graphic violence, which may have been the chief reason it never got shown on TV or cable. Some of it is quite cruel, particularly the acid scene and the rape is quite intense too. This tough does effectively get the viewer emotionally riled-up making them want to see Kyle get revenge and relishing the third act when he does. The revenge scenes are just as bloody, but I was disappointed that, as graphic as the movie is, the segment where Kyle shoves one of Passini’s men out a high-story window is not shown. The camera cuts away when Kyle pushes him instead of seeing the body drop down which might’ve been hard to film since a parade was going on below, but an effort should’ve been made.

Conway’s acting is only adequate though he does at least convey a stoic quality. Angel Tompkins does better and while some of her other B-movie roles weren’t so great this one is clearly her best and proves she could act versus just looking pretty. Memmoli is memorable as the slimy villain and he should’ve been in it more, but he got injured on the set while riding in a stunt car and was cooped-up in a hospital during most of the production, which also ultimately lead to his career downfall and death. The former comic who graduated into character actor roles had always struggled with weight, but had gotten himself down to 190 pounds when he was in this movie, but when the accident occurred and he was laid-up his weight ballooned out to as high as 490 and causing him to have to turn down subsequent film parts due to his physical limitations.

The review in Maltin’s book claims that there’s a lot of ‘anachronistic errors’ in the movie and having read the review beforehand I kept my eagle-eye out looking for them, but I really didn’t see any. Again I never lived in the 40’s and technically Maltin, who was born in 1950, didn’t either, but to me I felt it came-off okay. I liked the way it approaches the era in a gritty way versus a nostalgic one and the frequent use of the hand-held camera, which was ahead-of-its-time. The surprise twist at the end isn’t bad either.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: March 9, 1977

Runtime: 1 Hour 37 Minutes

Rated R

Director: David Berlatsky

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: Blu-ray

The Baltimore Bullet (1980)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Pool hustlers travel country.

Nick (James Coburn) is an aging pool hustler who’s best days are behind him. Many years earlier he took a young 15-year-old boy named Billie Joe (Bruce Boxleitner) under his tutelage and taught him the tricks-of-the-trade. Now as a man Billie is able to play the game as well as Nick. The two travel the countryside attending pool halls where they hustle patsies for money. Nick though holds a grudge because a ways back he lost a crucial match to The Deacon (Omar Sharif) another hustler whose just been released from jail. Nick wants a rematch, but The Deacon doesn’t think he’s worthy of his time. Nick though got’s a scheme that will get him to change his mind by playing in a nationally televised pool tournament that The Deacon plans to attend.

For a film that has never had an official US DVD release and was only shown sporadically on late night TV I was surprised at how engaging it is. Screenwriters John Brascia and Robert Vincent O’Neill have written a highly amiable script that features funny vignettes and amusing banter. The focus isn’t on the game of pool, which seems almost like a side-light, but more on the scraps they get into along the way. The two also come into contact with those trying to cheat them and this culminates in an almost surreal like confrontation, that comes around the middle mark, inside a house of mirrors at a carnival side show.

The film also has a segment that seemed prolific in movies that came out during the late 70’s and early 80’s which features what would be considered sexual assault now. The scene has Nick betting Billie Joe that the breasts on a waitress at a cafe that they’re in is silicone and not natural. Billie then proceeds to go into the kitchen to feel-her-up without her consent. While what he does is not shown we do hear her scream and drop her tray of dishes before he walks back out with a broad smile on his face, which back in the day was just considered ‘light comedy’.

Coburn is a great actor, but looks horribly aged. He was only 60, but could’ve easily passed-off as 70 or 75 making his fight scenes look inauthentic as I don’t believe in his elderly condition he would’ve been able to hold his own. Boxleitner is dull and seems only able to display a broad ‘good-ole-boy’ smile and not much else. A more dynamic actor, or one maybe more Coburn’s age, could’ve made the buddy angle better.

I found Sharif to be too soft spoken and he approaches his part in a weird way. For instance when he’s playing a senator at poker he displays moments of outward nervousness, but if he’s truly a cocky, confident player that wouldn’t have been the case. Ronee Blakely is weak as well proving that her appearance in Nashville was her only good performance though her singing is nice and she’ll remind one a lot of Shelley Duvall with her looks. Jack O’Halloran, the former boxer who’s best known for playing Non the henchmen to the evil Zod in the Superman movies, is very funny as Max an inept hit man.

Spoiler Alert!

The ending unfortunately gets convoluted. Having the game broadcast and featuring live play-by-play and commenting by pool legend Willie Musconi is cool, but I wanted to see the ultimate match between Nick and Billie Joe to prove which one was truly better. The script teases this idea, but then adds in too many other unnecessary ingredients like having Nick be pressured to dump the game while there’s also a robbery happening and then eventually the place is raided by the feds. By the time it gets to The Deacon taking-on Nick it’s anti-climactic especially since no one else is around (it should’ve been televised on TV for all to witness). Having it focus more on the game and the strategies, which it starts to do slightly near the end, would’ve given it more substance and what little they do talk about I found to be genuinely interesting.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: April 1, 1980

Runtime: 1 Hour 43 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Robert Ellis Miller

Studio: AVCO Embassy Entertainment

Available: DVD (Reg 2 Import)

The Glass Menagerie (1987)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Daughter receives gentlemen caller.

Tom (John Malkovich) returns to the now abandoned apartment of his childhood. It is here that he recollects to the viewer his life living there where he resided both with his handicapped sister Laura (Karen Allen) and overly-protective mother Amanda (Joanne Woodward). Laura is very shy and has no social life, and instead spends her time taking care of her collection of miniature glass animals. Unable to hold down any job and straddled with a limp her mother fears that Laura will never find a man to marry and as a result will be alone and penniless when she gets older. She pressures Tom, who spends most of his free time watching movies in the theater in order to alleviate the boredom of his own life, to find a suitor, or gentlemen caller, who can come to visit and subsequently court Laura. Tom finally finds someone in the form of Jim (James Naughton) whom he works with at his factory job. Unbeknownst to him Jim went to high school with Laura and she was secretly infatuated with him. When he arrives for dinner Laura’s shyness takes over and she retreats to her bedroom, but then later she comes out. The two begin to talk and Jim tries to give Laura more confidence. Will he be her ‘knight-in-shining-armour’, or like with her glass collection will it simply be an illusion destined to shatter?

The film is based on the famous Tennessee Williams play, and to a degree his own life while growing up, that was originally produced in 1944 and was his first successful play that catapulted his career. It was made into a movie in 1950, which got a lukewarm response from film goers and critics alike for the perceived miscasting of Gertrude Lawrence, an English actress, who played Amanda. It was remade as a TV-movie in 1966 with Shirley Booth and then again in 1973 with Katharine Hepburn. Many felt this was the best filmed version of the play especially since Tennessee Williams wrote the teleplay.

This version is okay, but kind of seems unnecessary. Initially I thought director Paul Newman was going to use a different approach by removing it from a stage setting and having more outdoor scenes, which we see during the opening as Tom walks towards the apartment, which would’ve been different from any other Williams play. Ultimately though this one comes-off no different than the others with virtually everything taking place within the claustrophobic apartment. I realize that the point of the story is to show how trapped these characters were in their dismal lives, but putting a variety to the visuals and making it seem more cinematic would’ve helped. Even just adding in some cutaways would’ve been a plus like showing what Amanda and Tom are doing while Jim and Laura are sitting in the living room for an extended period of time talking. You’d presume that Amanda, being the meddlesome mother that she was, would be attempting to listen into their conversation, but actually showing it would’ve allowed an added context instead of just having them disappear and yet remain in the apartment, but doing who knows what.

Malkovich is solid and it’s nice seeing him in an early role before his ego and persona turned him into a caricature of himself. Allen is also quite good with her expressive blue eyes being the emotional catalyst that holds it all together and helps keep the viewer compelled to the story despite its overly talky nature. Woodward though doesn’t come-off as well. She’s played such strong characters in the past in films that were also directed by her husband that this one seems like a letdown compared to those. She’s also, despite the gray hair, a bit too young for the role as she was only 56 and it would’ve been better served had it been played by a more elderly woman in her 60’s or 70’s who could exude a lady completely lost in a bygone era.

The story is still compelling, but the conversations go on longer than they should and more effort should’ve been made to give it a stronger southern feel. The original film’s runtime was only 107 minutes, but this one goes on well over 2-hours. I’m not sure what was cut from that one, or added here, but it could’ve used some editing and still not hurt the basic integrity of the material.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: May 11, 1987

Runtime: 2 Hours 14 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Paul Newman

Studio: Cineplex Odeon Films

Available: VHS, DVD-R

Conrack (1974)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: He teaches underprivileged kids.

In the spring of 1969 Pat Conroy gets a job teaching children in grades 5 through 8 in a one room schoolhouse off the coast of South Carolina on an island known as Yamacraw. He soon finds that the students, all of whom are poor and African American, don’t know even the basics of arithmetic, or geography and can’t read. He becomes compelled to change that by instituting unorthodox teaching methods, which he hopes will ‘jostle’ them from their intellectual slumber and get them into learning and enjoying it. Mrs. Scott (Madge Sinclair) is the principal who’s not keen to these methods and routinely lectures him. Mr. Skeffington (Hume Cronyn) is the superintendent who also frowns on some of the things Pat is doing and proceeds to have him fired. Pat tries to win his job back and the students and townspeople help him in his fight, but will it be enough?

The film is based on the novel ‘The Water is Wide’, which was written by Pat Conroy, who later went on to even greater success with The Great Santiniwhich was based on his father, and also made into a movie. This story was supposedly based on some of Pat’s true-life experiences while teaching on Daufuskie Island. Some of what’s shown is revealing and even captivating, but I couldn’t help but feel certain other aspects were exaggerated. I realize that these kids didn’t have the best education system and certainly might not be as well read as certain other kids their age, but to not know what 2 + 2 was, or that they lived in the U.S.A. came off as too extreme to me. There’s also no real explanation for why the teacher before him failed to teach even these most basic things to them. Was she/he just lazy, or grossly incompetent?

The film also comes-off a bit too much like a vanity project where Conroy is portrayed as being this ‘amazing’ teacher who’s able to get extraordinary results from kids that no one else could simply by his sheer presence alone. All the students bond with him quickly and there’s no trouble-maker, or discipline issues. One could argue that Mary (Tina Andrews) was difficult because she refused to show-up to class, but truancy and in-class disruptions, as well as those students who test authority, are two entirely different things and the fact that Pat is able to avoid that is something few other teachers can say they’ve been able to do as well.

Voight is certainly energetic and engaging, but the students themselves fail to elicit any distinctive personalities and it’s hard to distinguish any of them from the others. I enjoyed Sinclair a great deal and felt she gave a great performance, but her confrontations with Pat could’ve been played-up more. The side-story dealing with Paul Winfield as an illiterate hermit whom Pat teaches to read is a total waste mainly because his character is underdeveloped and not in it long enough to really care about.

I enjoyed Pat’s visit with Edna (Ruth Attaway), one of the elderly townspeople, but his relationship with the other people in town should’ve been shown intermittently all through the film instead of just saving it until the third act where they all attempt to come to his rescue when he loses his job. They seemed to really like him, which is great, but I wasn’t sure they even knew he existed since there were never any scenes showing him interacting with them up until then.

Spoiler Alert!

The ending had me raising my eyebrow a bit, as Pat, once he’s let go of his job, proceeds to drive around the local town and broadcast his grievances through a speaker attached to the roof of his pick-up, which had me concerned that in typical Hollywood fashion he would be able to win his employment back even though in real-life stunts like that usually don’t work. Fortunately that doesn’t happen making the film, which was already idealized to begin with, not seem quite as fabricated. If you can forgive some of these issues, the production as a whole is well down and the always reliable director Martin Ritt perfectly captures the rural setting and ambiance, which is the best thing about it.

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My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: March 15, 1974

Runtime: 1 Hour 46 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Martin Ritt

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: Blu-ray (Out-of-Print), DVD-R

The Mutilator (1984)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Father harbors a vendetta.

As a child Ed (Trace Cooper) accidentally kills his mother (Pamela Weddle Cooper) while cleaning his dad’s rifle. His father (Jack Chatham) becomes distraught at seeing his wife killed and his relationship with his son is irrevocably destroyed. When Ed (Matt Mittler) grows up to go to college his father asks him to help close up the family’s summer home in Atlantic Beach, North Carolina. Having nothing better to do, and on fall break, he and his college clique decide to head over to the place where they hope to use it to hang-out and party. Unbeknownst to them is that the father is hiding on the premises planning to kill Ed once he gets there, but his friends get in the way, so he starts killing them off as well one-by-one.

Even for a low budget 80’s slasher this is shockingly cardboard with the only thing going for being the special effects, at least I presume that’s why it’s gotten a cult following as I cannot figure out any other reason. While some of the effects are quite graphic others fall flat. The scene where the father fantasizes about slashing his young son’s throat gets botched because you can clearly see that there’s a blood pack patched onto the child’s neck and underneath some clay-like skin. The drowning of one victim, played by Frances Rains, doesn’t work either. The original idea was to have her killed by a spear gun underwater, which would’ve been better, but they couldn’t get the effect to work, so they simply had the killer swim underwater and reach up with his hands and force her under, but I found it hard to believe that this couple being all alone in this otherwise empty room, and the only two people in a clear water pool wouldn’t be able to detect someone else getting in. The scene would’ve been improved had the viewer seen things from the victim’s boyfriend’s point-of-view, where he thinks she’s still alive and gotten out of the pool on her own while leaving a trail of clothes leading to a vacant shack where he presume she’s awaiting to have a sexual tryst only for the guy to get a shock of his life when he opens up the door of the shack and sees the killer, which would’ve also been a jolt to the audience had the director not already made us aware of what was coming.

The opening flashback scene is gets messed-up too. It’s intended to show the kid accidentally killing the mom and the father getting angry when he come home and sees it, but personally I saw it differently. To me it seemed like the kid intentionally wanted her dead as he looks out the door to make sure she’s standing by the counter in the kitchen and then quietly closes it to clean the gun, which he perfectly aims at the door. When the mom falls to the ground he doesn’t cry or shed a tear and when the father arrives he pours himself a drink almost like he’s relieved that she’s gone. I thought the two had some sort of sick pact that the kid would kill the mom for the father as his birthday present, but stage it to look like an accident. Then years later the twist would be that the kid now grown up would intentionally bring his friends to the beachfront for his father to kill, as the two shared a weird blood lust and enjoyed seeing each other slaughter people, which would’ve been a lot more of interesting twist than what we do get, which is nothing at all.

Like with most of slasher films it starts with a lot talky scenes, but unlike those others, the tension doesn’t grow once the killings start. Instead we only get an intermittent few minutes of killings here-and-there and then it goes back to drawn-out talky moments with no attempt to quicken the pace and thus there’s no tension at all and since we already know who the killer is and what motivates him there’s no mystery or intrigue either. It all adds up to a dud of a movie though those that are simply into gory effects may still like it, but even in that category I’ve seen better.

Alternate Title: Fall Break

Released: October 5, 1984

Runtime: 1 Hour 26 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Buddy Cooper

Studio: Ocean King Releasing

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, Tubi, AMC+

The Redeemer (1978)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Murdered for their sins.

Six people, who attended the same high school and graduated from the class of 1967, get invited to a reunion. When they arrive they find that the school has been shut down and the building abandoned, but are let in by a kindly janitor. Inside is a room set-up for a party including an array of delicious food and drinks. They partake in the meal, but still wonder why they were the only ones from the class that got invited. They then begin getting killed-off in violent ways and when the remaining survivors try to leave they realize they’ve been trapped inside, but none of them knows who’s committing the killings, or why?

This yet another proto-slasher made long before the release of Halloweenwhich has become the standard. Like with Savage Weekendwhich was reviewed here last October, this movie goes on its own tangents, unlike 80’s slashers, with deviations that make for a fun watch and are filled with a lot of weird twists and imagery.

The entire production was filmed on-location in the town of Staunton, Virginia in the summer of 1976. The Staunton Military Academy was the building used for the setting of the abandoned school. It was loaned out to the producers for one month by Layne Loeffler, who appears briefly near the beginning. He was hoping that by allowing the movie to film there that it would generate enough interest to allow the academy  to open back-up, but the movie didn’t gain as much attention as they thought causing it to eventually be torn down just a few years later.

As with most low budget films it has the expected trappings of an independent feature produced and directed by a bunch of first-timers including a grainy film stock, which detractors of the film used as an excuse to hate it. I felt though that the faded look worked in its favor as it made it seem more like viewing lost footage dug up from years in storage and thus witnessing carnage captured by a hidden camera.

Despite the majority of the cast never doing another movie after this one, which includes both the director and writer, I came away more impressed than disappointed. There are indeed some genuinely scary moments and the killings are surprisingly vivid. In fact they look more realistic than many of the ones done in bigger budgeted movies that came-out later. The pacing is handled much better too and doesn’t have the slow, awkward drama segments like in other horrors. Even the characterizations showing people’s need to impress others while simultaneously putting up facades to hide what they feel others will judge them harshly on, a common occurrence in most high school reunions, is well brought out.

Spoiler Alert!

Many only complaint is the ending that doesn’t offer any final twist. I was fully expecting that the character of the Redeemer, played by T.G. Finkbinder, would ultimately be exposed as a fraud since he did the killings over what he felt were various perceived sins committed by the others and yet the film acts like these brutal murders were somehow justified and the victims ‘deserved’ what they got, which is pretty warped. However, outside of its weird messaging, it’s still an interesting obscurity particularly for slasher film collectors.

Alternate Titles: The Redeemer…Son of Satan!, Class Reunion Massacre

Released: October 25, 1978

Runtime: 1 Hour 24 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Constantine S. Gochis

Studio: Dimension Pictures

Available: Blu-ray, Tubi, Amazon Video

Gator (1976)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Rubbing-out a friend.

Gator McKlusky (Burt Reynolds) is back living in the swamp lands of southern Georgia with his Father (John Steadman) and young daughter (Lori Futch) with no interest of working for the police again. Then one day federal agent Irving Greenfield (Jack Weston) comes by in his boat asking Gator to work with them as an undercover agent to get incriminating information that can be used in court to convict local mob boss ‘Bama’ McCall (Jerry Reed), who just so happens to also be one of Gator’s former buddies. Gator at first resists, but eventually agrees. Bama seems excited to have Gator onboard with his team and even hires him as one of his collectors, but Gator gets turned-off by Bama’s penchant for drugging underage girls and then using them as prostitutes.  Bama eventually lets Gator leave his organization, but this only strengthens Gator’s resolve to put Bama behind bars, which leads the two former friends into a deadly game of cat-and-mouse.

The film was written by William W. Norton, whose colorful life,  was far more interesting than many of his banal scripts, which include such stinkers as I Dismember Mamaand in fact when Norton was on his deathbed in the hospital a nurse asked him if she knew of any of his movies and his response was “I don’t think your IQ is low enough”.  Despite Norton having written the script for the first film, White Lightningthat this movie was a sequel to, Reynolds was initially not interested in doing it and referred to the script as being “terrible”, but when the studio offered him the option to direct it he called it “wonderful”.

Like with many first-time directors the film has many long takes, but overall I felt Reynolds’ virgin effort behind the camera wasn’t too bad. The best part is the opening boat chase shot at the Okeefenokee State Park in southern Georgia that nicely captures it’s picturesque swamp topography as well as some exciting stunt work. Unfortunately after this bit the film goes downhill.

Much of the reason is the script’s inability to keep a consistent tone. The appeal is the spunky humor and action, but by the second act this all disappears and it becomes too serious and slow until it almost starts to resemble a drama. There’s also a few moments of jarring violence that completely losses sight of the playfulness that it had at the beginning.

Reynolds doesn’t seem into his part either, maybe because he was spending so much focus in directing, but in either case he walks through the role and phones in his lines. He also sports a mustache even though in the first installment he didn’t and for consistency he should more or less look the same as he did in the original. The mustache and wavy hair make him look older and the country boy charm that made his character so infectious in the first one is missing here.

Jerry Reed on-the-other-hand is great and shows the necessary energy to keep the scenes that he’s in interesting. Jack Weston is quite funny as the clumsy and constantly exacerbated agent and I was disappointed that he wasn’t in it more as the movie required him to be with Reynolds at all times in order to keep it engaging. I’ll even credit Alice Ghostley as the eccentric cat lady, but Lauren Hutton as the love interest is all wrong. She at least makes fun of the gap in her teeth, which I liked, but the romance angle comes-off as forced and unnecessary and does nothing but bog down the pace, in movie that’s too slow and choppy to begin with.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: August 25, 1976

Runtime: 1 Hour 55 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Burt Reynolds

Studio: United Artists

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video

The Great Santini (1979)

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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)

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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.

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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