Category Archives: Movies that take place in the South

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

Miss Firecracker (1989)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Entering a beauty contest.

Carnelle (Holly Hunter) lives in Yazoo City, Mississippi where she works in a factory and suffers from the reputation of being promiscuous. In order to improve her lot in life she decides to enter into The Miss Firecracker Contest, which is held annually in her town every 4th of July. She is hoping to emulate the success of her cousin Elain (Mary Steenburgen) who won the contest years earlier as well as proving to both herself and others that she isn’t a loser, but the competition proves harder than she thought forcing her to reevaluate what’s really important to her.

The film is based on the stageplay written by Beth Henley, who is better known for writing Crimes of the Heart, which won many accolades while this one didn’t. Part of the reason is that when this play was first produced in 1980 many critics thought it was going to be a pro-feminist satire poking fun of beauty contests, which it isn’t, while others disliked it because they perceived it as being an antifemist since Carnelle takes winning the contest very seriously.

For me I was expecting something along the lines of Smile, which was a very funny, on-target 1970’s look at beauty contests, the flawed people who run them, and the superficial women that enter them. I was thinking this would be an 80’s update to that one and was sorely disappointed to find that it wasn’t. The two people who run the contest, which are played by Ann Wedgeworth and Trey Wilson are hilarious in the few scenes that they are in and the film could’ve been a complete winner had they been the centerpiece of the story.

I was also hoping for more of buildup showing Carnelle rehearsing her routine for the pageant as well as her interactions with the other contestants, which doesn’t really get shown much at all. For the most part the pageant is treated like a side-story that only comes to the surface in intervals while more time is spent with Carnelle’s relationship with Elain and her other cousin Delmount (Tim Robbins) which I did not find captivating at all.

Hunter gives a very strong heartfelt performance, which is the one thing that saves it, and Alfre Woodard, who normally plays in dramatic parts, shows great comic skill as the bug-eyed character named Popeye and yet both of these actresses screen time is limited. Instead we treated to too much of Steenburgen, who comes off as cold and dull here, and Robbins, who plays a borderline psychotic that is creepy in a volatile way and not interesting at all.

First time director Thomas Schlamme, who had only directed documentaries and comedy specials  before this, employs a few things that I enjoyed like tinting the flashback scenes with a faded color, but overall he doesn’t show a good feel for the material. Too much of the time it see-saws from being a quirky comedy to maudlin soap opera, but nothing gels.

Even the film’s setting gets botched. In the play the town was  Brookhaven, Mississippi, but for whatever reason the film changed it to Yazoo City where the on-location shooting took place. While it does a nice job in capturing the town’s look it doesn’t reflect the right vibe, or any vibe at all for that manner as the townspeople seem more like something taken out of a surreal Norman Rockwell painting than real everyday folks.

The soundtrack is also an issue as it gets filled with a placid elevator music type score that got started in Steven Spielberg’s Amblin films and was played in a lot Hollywood comedies during the 80’s and 90’s. While it may have a pleasing quality to it also lacks distinction. The music should’ve had a more of a southern sound that would’ve reflected the region and composed specifically for this production instead of  stealing a generic tune that had been used in hundreds of other movies already.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: April 28, 1989

Runtime: 1 Hour 42 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Thomas Schlamme

Studio: Corsair Pictures

Available: DVD

I Walk the Line (1970)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Sheriff covers for moonshiners.

Aging Sheriff Henry Tawes (Gregory Peck) has always been a strong pillar of his community, but recently has found himself bored with his domestic life and looking for diversion. He becomes smitten with Alma (Tuesday Weld) a young woman half his age, who lives on the poor side of town with her father (Ralph Meeker) who runs an illegal distillery. Despite the risks Henry begins an open affair with her with her family’s blessing as long as Henry agrees not to report their distillery, but then a federal agent (Lonny Chapman) arrives in town threatening to shut down every moonshiner he finds. Henry’s deputy Hunnicutt (Charles Durning) also becomes suspicious of Henry’s shady actions, which forces Henry to take some calculated risks, which all backfire on him in shocking ways.

This film is a perfect testament to something that I’ve mentioned before on this blog, which is how shooting a film on-location in an actual small town versus one being built on a studio backlot can make all the difference on whether it succeeds at the box office, or not. This one was done in the tiny hamlet of Gainesboro, Tennessee, which has just over a 1,000 people and in fact its downtown, which includes the prominent courthouse, barely looks any different now then it did when principle photography took place in October of 1969. Director John Frankenheimer makes good use of the townsfolk focusing in on their old, weathered faces at the beginning and glum expressions, which helps accentuate Henry’s bored and static life as well as the abandoned, decrepit house the lovers meet-in, which illustrates their empty, vanquished souls.

The script by Alvin Sargent, which is based on the novel ‘An Exile’ by Madison Jones, allows the visuals and action to do most of the talking while keeping the dialogue subtle and concise. I even enjoyed the music interludes by Johnny Cash. Some critics at the time complained that there was no need for this as Johnny’s words that he sings seem to be simply explaining what the viewer is already seeing onscreen, but the music still conveys a raw southern flavor and Cash’s singing style makes it seem more like he’s talking to the viewer and like he’s another character in the film.

Peck’s performance is good here despite the fact that Frankenheimer wanted Gene Hackman for the role, but was forced to settle with Peck because he was already under contract with the studio. Normally Hackman would’ve been the better choice, but here Peck’s usual stiffness and detached delivery brings out convey his character’s inner turmoil. Durning is outstanding as his nefarious deputy and with his energetic and impulsive presence because an interesting contrast to Peck’s more reserved one.

Spoiler Alert!

Weld is great too even though the part she plays seems very similar to the one that she did in Pretty Poison although here at least the character isn’t portrayed as being completely evil, but instead somewhat naive and sheltered, which helps make her more multi-dimensional. Her motivations though are confusing and the film’s one major drawback. I could not understand, and the film never bothers to make clear, why she’d want to stay stuck with her family and their dismal, impoverished situation. Granted she didn’t really love Henry, which is obvious, but she had already manipulated him quite a bit,  and even had sex with him,so why not run off with him like he wanted and use his money to live a better life while also siphoning some of it back to her family to help them too?

Even if one would argue that she had a close-knit bond to her family it still doesn’t make sense. Many young woman have close ties to their family, but at some point they still leave the nest especially when vanquished to abject poverty otherwise. With her good looks a lot of doors could be opened, so why not see what else is out there? It comes out later that she’s married to another man who’s in jail, but the film glosses over this like she’s not any more in love with him than Henry and still doesn’t help to explain much. It also would’ve worked better had the viewer been left in the dark until the end as to whether she was really in-love with Henry or not instead of making it obvious that she was playing him, which lessens the shock effect for what occurs at the end.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: October 12, 1970

Runtime: 1 Hour 37 Minutes

Rated GP

Director: John Frankenheimer

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube