Category Archives: Movies that take place in the South

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

…tick…tick…tick (1970)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: New sheriff faces racism.

Citizens of a small southern town get on edge when the current sheriff (George Kennedy) gets voted out and replaced by a black man (Jim Brown).  As the new sheriff Jim faces stiff resistance even from fellow members of the black community, but he forges on. When the son of a rich white man from a neighboring town runs over and kills a young white girl while he was driving drunk, Jim has him put into jail, but the young man’s father demands that he be released and when Jim refuses it creates the beginning of a potential race riot that forces the white citizens of the town to make a hard choice; do they continue with their racist behavior, or join the black sheriff in defending their town from corrupt outsiders?

The film starts out on the cheesy side by showing up close an egg frying on a sidewalk. The problem is that I tried this last year in Austin, Texas when the temp was 110 (actual temp and not a heat index figure), but I couldn’t get it to work even though I did it on asphalt and in direct sunlight. Some say that the egg has to be put in a frying pan and then have the pan put on the cement and maybe so, but that’s not how the film shows it and what’s worse is that it looks like the egg is already in a fried state even before it hits the pavement.

It’s also annoying that despite having the Deep South as the setting it was actually filmed in Colusa, California where the topography looks much different. I also had to wonder why everyone is constantly glazed over in sweat even when they were in bed at night and only small, little fans to cool them. The story’s time period is the present day (1970) and air conditioners were invented in 1902, so why the hell doesn’t anyone in this hot southern town own and use one?

The soundtrack features loud, poorly sung songs that not only get played over the opening and closing credits, but during a lot of the film as well, which gives the entire production a very B-level movie feel. I also got tired of hearing the sound of a clock ticking in the background that permeates just about every scene during the first 30 minutes and becomes heavy-handed and annoying.

The only thing that saves it is Jim Brown who’s really good here and looks better and younger without his trademark mustache. Kennedy on the other hand doesn’t seem up to the challenge with many of his scenes, particularly the one were he accosts a young man who was harassing him, coming off as unintentionally funny.

It’s sort-of fun seeing Frederic March playing a goofy mayor as well as Mills Watson, in his film debut, playing a racist deputy a decade before playing his most famous role as the bungling deputy Perkins in the ‘Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo’ TV-show.  I also liked how Clifton James and Anthony James (no relation) who had both played racist southern types in other films get roles here where they’re more level headed and help suppress the racist behavior of others instead of stoking it.

The film gets marginally better as it goes along and the ending is okay even a bit unique for this type of genre, but overall it’s just a cheap imitation of In the Heat of Night, which was much better. The only really surprising thing about the movie is that it received a G-rating despite having the N-word spoken throughout by several of the characters.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: January 9, 1970

Runtime: 1 Hour 40 Minutes

Rated G

Director: Ralph Nelson

Studio: MGM

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

Liar’s Moon (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Couple harbors dark secret.

During the summer of 1949 in a small Texas town Jack (Matt Dillon), who has just turned 18, falls for Ginny (Cindy Fisher) who is 17. Jack is from the poor side of town and helps out his father (Hoyt Axton) on a family run farm while Ginny lives a more privileged life as the daughter of the town’s banker (Christopher Connelly) As Jack and Ginny’s relationship progresses they find stiff resistance to it from their mutual parents particularly Ginny’s father, but they don’t know why. In order to get married they go to Louisiana to elope, but Ginny’s father hires a detective (Richard Moll) to track them down and bring his daughter back no matter what the cost.

The one aspect about the movie that I did like is that it paints its small town characters in a generally positive light. Too many times movies that deal with stories that took place in a bygone era always seem to portray the characters as being more dopey than people of today, or more racist and meaner especially if it takes place in the south, but fortunately that doesn’t occur here. Instead we get shown regular, everyday people that you could easily meet today that just so happen to have lived a long time ago.

The film also has a nice leisurely pace to it and the romantic angle doesn’t seem quite as rushed, which is good, but the film also lacks finesse. The only part of the movie that has any atmosphere or cinematic flair is the opening flashback sequence, which gets done in black and white, while the rest of it pretty much flat lines. The scene where three men get royally drunk on some strong whiskey and another one where the town’s young men try to tackle a baby hog at the fair are the only times when there’s spontaneity or verve.

The story itself is too obvious and too many clues are given away, so by the time the ‘shocking’ secret get revealed you pretty much had guessed it way earlier. A few extra twists are thrown in during the final 15 minutes, but overall it becomes soap opera laden and too similar to the tragedy tinged teen romances of the 70’s that gives the whole thing a formulaic feel.

The eclectic cast is really the only interesting aspect about the film with Dillon giving a solid performance and Fisher looking quite beautiful even when she is constantly crying, which is pretty much all she does during the final third. Academy Award winning actor Broderick Crawford, whose last film this was, gets completed wasted in a pointless role that has very little screen time and the same goes for Yvonne De Carlo who speaks here in what sounds to be an Irish accent. Susan Tyrrell though is strong playing another one of her fringe characters, this time in the form of a prostitute, who comes off as cold and snarky at first, but eventually becomes surprisingly sympathetic.

Spoiler Alert!

Two different endings were filmed and distributed and which ending you saw depended on which theater you attended. One has the main character dying while the other one doesn’t, but both come-off as rather cheesy and make you feel like sitting through this thing really wasn’t worth it.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: September 2, 1982

Runtime: 1 Hour 46 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: David Fisher

Studio: Crown International Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video.

Obsession (1976)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: She resembles his wife.

Michael Courtland (Cliff Robertson) is a wealthy land developer living in New Orleans whose wife Elizabeth (Genevieve Bujold) and daughter (Wanda Blackman) become victims of a kidnapping and die during the police shoot-out. Michael becomes tortured with guilt feeling he should’ve done more to save them. 16 years after the crime was committed he meets a woman (also played by Bujold) who looks strikingly like his former wife. He becomes infatuated with her and the two eventually marry only for him to find that she holds a deep, dark secret.

This film marks yet another attempt by director Brian De Palma to emulate his idol Alfred Hitchcock with a film loaded with fancy camera work, but not much else. For the most part, at least visually, it’s tolerable and not quite as overdone as De Palma’s other Hitchcock imitations. To some degree the camera work and soft focus lens is the most entertaining thing about it although having the camera go back and forth from one talking head to another during a scene where Robertson and co-start John Lithgow have a conversation at a restaurant becomes unnecessarily dizzying.

The casting of Robertson is a problem as he’s unable to convey the demands of the part effectively as his constant staring at Bujold becomes creepy and unnatural and he’s obviously way older than any of his costars. They should’ve at least hired an actor his same age as his business partner as Lithgow was 26 years younger than him and it shows. For the most part Lithgow isn’t too good here either as he wears a wig and speaks in an over-the-top bayou accent, which borders on being annoying and it makes him come off as slimy and creepy right from the start.

Bujold on the other hand gives an excellent performance that rises far above the trite material, but she looks too young as a wife to Robertson during the flashback scenes. Turning around and having her also play a 10-year-old girl during some brief sequences comes off as awkward.

The story, which was based on a script by Paul Schrader, but highly truncated by De Palma is full of loopholes. I thought it was unbelievable that the crooks didn’t spot this green police van with a very odd looking antenna on top of it, which was needed to track the honing device that was put into the briefcase with the supposed ransom money that the crooks retrieved, that was following them around at a much too close distance. I thought it was equally unbelievable that the crooks would not have immediately opened the briefcase the minute they retrieved it and made sure there really was money inside it instead of driving all the way back to their hideout before opening it while naively trusting that there was no chance that they might’ve been duped.

There’s also not enough of a visual transition during the 16 year time period that the story takes place in. Except for a few extra white hairs Robertson’s appearance remains virtually the same while the commercial boat that he rides on to deliver the ransom remains exactly the same as does the deserted dock that he throws the briefcase onto even though after such an extended period of time both things most likely would’ve changed or evolved in some way.

Spoiler Alert!

The twist ending where we learn that Michael’s new wife is really just his grown daughter who he had thought had died during the kidnapping does nothing but produce even more loopholes. Supposedly she died with her mother when the car they were in burst into flames and went into the river and supposedly the police tried to recover the vehicle, but found it to be too difficult, so they gave up, but in reality I don’t think this would’ve occurred. After some setbacks they would’ve kept trying until they were able to retrieve it as they knew the approximate spot where the vehicle went in and a river is not an ocean, so it shouldn’t have been that hard anyways.

In order to avoid the controversy of promoting a film with an incest story line the producers decided to reedit the marriage sequence to make it look like it had been a dream, but this ends up just bringing up even more questions. Like how is Bujold able to get into Robertson’s dreams and continue her scheme by telling him he must prove himself all over again by putting a briefcase of $500,000 of his money back onto the same dock he had done 16 years earlier?

The final shot, which is done in slow motion and features Robertson and Bujold reuniting at an airport, is by far one of the corniest things ever put on celluloid and will surely cause most viewers to either roll their eyes or breakout into laughter.

End of Spoiler Alert!

The funniest thing though about this so-so film is probably just Rex Reed’s overly fawning review of it, which gets printed on the promotional poster seen above. In it he calls this movie ‘an immensely important cinematic piece of work’, but how is that as it’s just a tacky Hitchcock rip-off with no message to it at all? He also calls it ‘better than anything Hitchcock has ever done’, which just isn’t true. I know Reed has gotten criticized in recent years for many valid reasons including his fat shaming of Melissa McCarthy, but his career should’ve ended after writing this over-the-top glowing take of a film, which ultimately is nothing more than a third-rate mystery with fancy camera work, as it makes him look like he was a hack paid by the studio to write a puff piece about the movie simply to help promote it.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: August 1, 1976

Runtime: 1 Hour 38 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Brian De Palma

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, YouTube

Sharky’s Machine (1981)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Cop tracks hooker’s killer.

Tom Sharky (Burt Reynolds) is a veteran cop who gets demoted to the vice division after getting involved in a drug deal bust gone wrong. It is here that he begins a 24-hour surveillance of high-class hooker Dominoe (Rachel Ward) who’s seeing a candidate for Governor that may have mob ties and could threaten not only her life, but Sharky’s as well.

This film marked Reynolds thankful break from his yahoo car chase comedies and helped albeit briefly revitalize his career and return him to being an actor who could parlay various genres as opposed to an aging actor relegated to lame B-comedies. For the most part his foray into this Dirty Harry clone is effective and proves he could still act when given the right material. As opposed to some of his earlier cop flicks such as Shamus his character here is not the source of any of the humor, but instead he plays it completely straight while simply responding to some of the goofy people and situations around him, which works just as well.

This also marked his third stab at directing, which is effective. I liked the gritty feel that permeates just about every shot and there’s some good, exciting, hard-edged action. I also like the leisurely pace that takes its time in telling the story and focuses at least somewhat on the investigation aspect of police work particularly the forensic end, which I wished had been extended more. What got me though and which gets a bit excessive is the obsession with the Westin Peachtree Plaza, which at the time was Atlanta’s tallest building, and the way the camera slowly zooms in on the skyscraper almost like it wants to make love to it.

Reynolds surrounds himself with an aging cast, men well over the age of 50 and 60, which I think was intentional because by comparison it makes him, who was 45, appear much younger. However, in retrospect I think this idea was a mistake. It’s not like these old pros were bad because they’re not in fact Charles Durning is quite amusing as Reynolds’ superior who gets off listening to the dirty talk between a hooker and her customer as well as looking over the luxurious apartment of a crime kingpin and stating “I think we’re working on the wrong side”, but these veterans do not help bring in younger viewers, which could’ve broadened Reynolds appeal and the whole reason why his star status tumbled during the 80s because his fan base was getting older while newer audiences weren’t being brought in.

Spoiler Alert!

The story is entertaining, but eventually jumps-the-shark when Domino supposedly gets shot and killed only to have it turn out to be some minor character named Tiffany instead, which doesn’t make a  lot of sense as dental records would’ve identified who the real victim was during the autopsy. It also would’ve made Sharky’s obsession to nab the shooter more compelling and personal had the victim really been Domino, who he was starting to have feelings for, instead of some woman he knew nothing about.

Their romantic angle might be the first time that a hooker falls-in-love with a vice cop. The fact that she’s initially defensive towards him, but then this leads to romance after he gets on top of her and slaps her across the face while also stating during a heated exchange “Don’t make me have to say what you really are!” is probably the most absurd thing of all.

Casting Henry Silva as the psycho gunman is boring because he’s played this type of role too many times and it’s just no longer interesting seeing him do it. Also, Reynolds main nemesis throughout the film was Vittorio Gassman who orchestrated the crimes and that’s who Reynolds should’ve been chasing down at the end instead of the lowly gunman who was simply carrying out orders.

The record breaking stunt showing Dar Robinson (doubling as Silva) doing a 220 foot free-fall from Atlanta’s Hyatt Regency Hotel really isn’t as impressive as it sounds. I remember watching a behind-the-scenes documentary showing what lengths the film crew went to capture it, but you end up only seeing a few seconds of it in the actual film making it seem like it really wasn’t worth the effort to put in.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: December 18, 1981

Runtime: 2 Hours 2 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Burt Reynolds

Studio: Orion Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, YouTube

Fear is the Key (1972)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: He has secret motives.

Based on the 1961 novel by Alistair MacLean the story centers around John Talbot (Barry Newman) who finds himself inside a small town courtroom standing trial for the murder of a policeman that he did not commit. He manages to escape while kidnapping a woman named Sarah (Suzy Kendall) who he takes as his hostage. He evades the authorities only to ultimately end up inside the home of Sarah’s father (Ray McAnally) where another man named Vyland (John Vernon) hires him to operate a submarine that will salvage a cargo of diamonds housed inside an underwater plane wreck.

I never read the novel, but to me the whole thing comes off in a haphazard style where the twists aren’t interesting at all and only help to make the plot even more confusing and unfocused. The car chase sequence is genuinely well done to the point that it had me riveted and quite impressed with how it was shot and looking like one of the more realistic chases I’ve seen amongst the many that are already out there. Unfortunately to go from what initially seems to be a fugitive-on-the-run-flick to an underwater espionage, sci-fi thriller is not intriguing, but jarring instead and comes off like two entirely different movies crammed together with only the thinnest of plot threads to hold it together.

Spoiler Alert!

The biggest disappointment though is when at the film’s midway point John confides to Sarah that everything that we’ve seen before has been staged and none of it was real. For that to happen though would’ve taken many different people working together to pull it off and it’s never explained how he was able to do that. For instance who gave John the blank bullets to shoot at the police officer to escape from the courtroom and why did the policeman agree to pretend he was shot if he really wasn’t and what was in it for him to get in on John’s elaborate scheme? None of this gets explained and only helps to make it even more absurd and ludicrous until you can’t take any of it seriously.

End of Spoiler Alert!

Newman is not strong enough actor for the part and conveys a rather transparent presence when he should’ve had the exact opposite effect. His appearance here is too similar to the one he just gotten done doing in Vanishing Point including driving around in a similar type of car making this film seem like an extension of that one. It also comes-off like typecasting and makes viewers think this is the only type of role he can play, which could explain why his leading man career pretty much tanked after this.

The film’s only interesting aspect is the appearance of Ben Kingsley in his film debut, which was his only movie role during the 70’s as he didn’t appear in another one until 10 years later when he starred in Gandhi. Here he plays one of Vyland’s henchmen who figures prominently in the climactic finish where they must fight for air after the oxygen in the sub gets turned off, which isn’t bad.

This is also a rare production that was financed by a British studio, but filmed on-location in the US. The result captures America through a European perspective, which makes the entire thing a bit off-kilter from the very beginning.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: December 26, 1972

Runtime: 1 Hour 43 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Michael Tuchner

Studio: Anglo-EMI

Available: DVD (Region 2), Amazon Video, YouTube

Carny (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Runaway joins the carnival.

Bored with small town life and an overly-protective boyfriend (Craig Wasson) Donna decides at the age of 18 to break-free of her restraints and travel the countryside by working in a carnival. She befriends Frankie (Gary Busey) who works as a clown and she gets a job as one of the strippers before eventually working the string joint booth while slowly adapting to the shady ways of the gypsy-like lifestyle.

The carnival atmosphere is well-recreated and was directed by Robert Kaylor who years earlier helmed the documentary Derby, which was a behind-the-scenes look at life on the roller derby circuit and this film works much the same by fully immersing the viewer into the dark aspects of a tough environment while also exposing the personalities of the people who work in it. The revealing story manages to be both hard-hitting and intriguing.

The tone though stays too much on the negative side until the viewer feels almost bombarded with one unpleasant situation after another. There’s never anything redeeming and you’re made to feel tense waiting for the next uncomfortable twist to come about, which gets overdone. Certainly there had to be some good times and bonding that occurs and the film lightly touches on this at the very, very end, but I felt more of that should’ve been sprinkled in throughout.

There’s also too many con-games and underhanded shenanigans making me wonder if all carnivals were really this bad , or is it simply playing-it-up for dramatic purposes. The ending in which everyone works together to pull off an elaborate con on a meddling crime boss (Bill McKinney) comes off too much like a poor rendition of The Sting. Some potentially intriguing storylines get dropped; like what happened to Donna’s psycho boyfriend when he finds out that she has left him? I was fully expecting him to come back into the picture at some later point once he tracked her down, but instead he gets forgotten.

Robertson is a famous songwriter and musician whose been around since the ‘60s, but he grew up working in the carnival circuit and helped put his real-life experiences and insights into the script. His performance is okay, but the soundtrack he composed for the film is too upbeat and does not jive with the dark, moodiness of the plot.

The performances are the best thing. Foster usually plays characters that are confident, but here she is someone who is unsure of herself only to acquire an edge as the story progresses. Kenneth McMillan is engaging as the nervous, stressed-out owner and Meg Foster is good as a woman who’s become hardened from being on the road too long. Gary Busey is a standout too even though he sometimes gets mocked today for his weird behavior off-screen, but this guy was at one time considered a serious up-and-coming star and his presence here shows why.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: June 13, 1980

Runtime: 1 Hour 47 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Robert Kaylor

Studio: United Artists

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