Category Archives: Movies with a Hospital setting

High Anxiety (1977)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: He’s afraid of heights.

Dr. Richard Thorndyke (Mel Brooks) is hired as the new resident psychiatrist at the Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very, Nervous where he is to replace another Dr. who died under suspicious circumstances. While there he becomes aware of many odd things occurring making him believe that the people running the hospital, Dr. Charles Montague (Harvey Korman) and Nurse Diesel (Cloris Leachman), have a scheme going on where they take in rich patients and pretend their conditions are worse than they really are, so that they can keep the patients hospitalized for indefinite periods and thus bilk the patient’s rich families for large sums of money. Richard, together with Victoria (Madeline Kahn) who is the daughter of another patient that is being held there against his will, become determined to expose the scheme, but his adversaries use nefarious tactics to try and stop him by taking advantage of his extreme fear of heights.

Per an interview that Mel Brooks gave with NPR in 2013 he revealed that he wrote a letter to Hitchcock in 1976 telling him that he wanted to do a parody of his movies and was interested in getting his feedback. Hitch wrote back saying that they should get together in his office to go over ideas. In fact it was Hitch’s suggestion to have the scene involving the birds pooping on Brooks. When the film was completed he got his own private screening and afterwards he sent Brooks a case of expensive French wine with the note: “A small token of my pleasure, have no anxiety about this.”

Two of my favorite moments include a Psycho parody where a bellhop (played by a young and soon-to-be famous director in his own right, Barry Levinson) who stabs Brooks with a newspaper while he’s in the shower. The afore mentioned Birds parody is good too with the bird droppings made up of mayonnaise and chopped spinach, but because a helicopter was used during the segment it scared a lot of the pigeons causing real bird do-do to get mixed in with the fake stuff.

I enjoyed the bits involving a parody of the ‘gliding camera’ a technique used in many films where a camera shot begins on the outside of a building, but then somehow ‘glides through’ a wall and goes inside a place without any barrier. Here the camera shatters the glass as it tries to ‘glide through’ the window of the hospital, but Brooks almost ruins the moment by having the characters react by looking up to where the noise occurred, but then going back to their conversation, which makes no sense. If a camera operator has just crashed through a window, most people would get up from their seats and inspect the damage, which would’ve overplayed the joke, so they should’ve just had the characters not respond to the crashing noise at all. This same issue occurs at the end where the camera operators are heard talking just before they crash through a wall, but the scene would’ve played better without the banter.

The plot, as thin and goofy as it is, has some interesting moments. I especially enjoyed the segments done inside the lobby of the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco and the way it takes advantage of the glass elevators there. The scene involving actor Ron Carey blowing up a picture that he took there in order to solve a crime is cool because it goes back to the old way of developing film, which will be a good education for today’s younger viewers who are more used to digital.

The performances are first-rate with Brooks in an uncharacteristic straight part though he still gets in a few zany moments including a segment where he’s a baby who falls from his high-chair. Leachman though steals it in a brilliant send-up of Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In fact it’s her contorted face with no make-up and a faint mustache that leaves a lasting impression. She has stated that she disliked doing the role, but it’s so hilarious that I wished her part had been given a wider storyline.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: December 25, 1977

Runtime: 1 Hour 34 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Mel Brooks

Studio: 20th Century Fox

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

Garbo Talks (1984)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: A dying mother’s wish.

Gilbert Rolfe (Ron Silver) is a grown man trying to hold down a full-time job, maintaining a marriage with Lisa (Carrie Fisher), and also keeping his social activist mother Estelle (Anne Bancroft) out of trouble. He soon learns though that his mother is dying of a brain tumor and her last wish is being able to meet Greta Garbo, the elusive movie star, in person. Gilbert doesn’t know how he’ll be able to find her, but spends most of his time diligently trying, which causes problems with both his job and marriage.

For the first hour the concept of trying to mix-in fable-like storyline with the bleak realities of day-to-day living actually works. Silver deserves top credit for making what could’ve been a very bland part as a schmuck that wasn’t too interesting or funny into an engaging character that the viewer feels more and more empathetic towards as the movie progresses. The sub-storyline though dealing with the breakup of his marriage and his subsequent relationship with his co-worker Catherine Hicks, who came across as being too kooky to be believable, I didn’t find necessary.

Bancroft gives a compelling performance as well and is particularly funny in the scene where she lectures a group of male construction workers in regards to the catcalls they give to the women walking past them. I found it disappointing though that the side-story dealing with her motivating one of the nurses, played by Antonia Rey, to demand that her union give them a higher pay rate at their next bargaining session was never played-out to its full conclusion. Having her ex-husband, played by Steven Hill, arrive at the hospital for a visit, but then not hearing them get into any type of conversation I found frustrating as well. There’s also a discussion that she has with Gilbert about how the cancer treatment will cause her hair to full out, but then that never happens, so why bring up something if it doesn’t ultimately connect with the plot?

Spoiler Alert!

The film’s biggest downfall though occurs at the end when a half-hearted attempt to use a double, played by Betty Comden, in place of the real Garbo. Apparently some efforts where made by the producers to see if Garbo would be willing to make a cameo appearance, but they were never able to make direct contact with her, so if a multi-million dollar film studio can’t adequately locate her how is some ordinary schmuck going to do it?

The way Gilbert is finally able to meet her, which ends up being at an outdoor flea market no less, is rather cheesy. He’s also only able to ‘recognize’ her from the back of her head, which is all the viewer pretty much ever gets to see too, so how would anyone know that was the right person just from that? The excuse he gives her to get her to come along with him to the hospital to see his dying mother would’ve been considered by most people in the same situation as just an excuse from a stalking fan to get her into his car, so he could kidnap her . Many celebrities must deal with obsessive fans all the time so how could anyone blame her for flatly turning him down, which is what she should’ve done and most likely would’ve occurred in reality.

Once Garbo does arrive at the hospital it’s Bancroft that does all of the talking making Garbo seem like a transparent ghost and not a real person. The film would’ve worked better had Gilbert given up on his attempts to find her and just hired an actress to pretend to be her, just like the movie itself ended up doing. This might not have satisfied everybody, but it at least it would’ve avoided becoming as hokey as it does.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: October 12, 1984

Runtime: 1 Hour 43 Minutes

Rated PG-13

Director: Sidney Lumet

Studio: MGM

Available: DVD, Amazon Video

The Bell Jar (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: She suffers from depression.

Based on the semi autobiographical novel of the same name by Sylvia Plath, the story centers around Esther (Marilyn Hassett) who suffers from various mental health issues and can’t seem to relate to the world around her. After graduating from college she goes off to work at a women’s magazine in New York, but finds that the demands and inevitable compromises of being a writer for a big city publication are not for her. She returns home to her mother (Julie Harris) only to find her emotional situation deteriorating even more. She’s eventually sent to a mental hospital where she goes through treatment.

In 1975 Hassett was picked from over 500 other actresses to play the part of paralyzed skier Jill Kinmont in the film The Other Side of the Mountain. The movie became a big hit and lead to her marrying the film’s director Larry Peerce.  While that film was a decent heartfelt story their attempts to bring Plath’s complex, multi-faceted novel to the big screen was clearly an overreach.

The major reason this doesn’t work is because of Hassett. During the early 70’s she had a youthful appeal, but by the time this was filmed she had hit 30 and no longer looked like a recent college grad in any way. For the story to work it hinges on the viewer seeing this person as someone who is young, innocent and vulnerable and unable to deal with the harsh realities of the young adult world that she’s experiencing for the very first time, but Hassett looks and in many ways behaves like a world-weary middle-aged person, which then loses the intended effect.

The portrayal of the central character is a weak point as well. In the similar themed film I Never Promised You a Rose Gardenwhich came out around the same time, the director of that flick did a good job of getting inside that character’s head and allowing the viewer to see the thoughts and fears that she had, but here we get none of that. We are left with no understanding about what’s really bugging Esther and why she behaves the way she does. Instead of us feeling for her we end up finding her off-putting, confusing and at times just downright selfish and bizarre.

The film does still manage to have a few interesting moments. I liked the scene with Jameson Parker, in his film debut who later went onto fame in the TV-show ‘Simon & Simon’, playing Esther’s fiance who strips in front of her so she can see what a naked man looks like upfront for the very first time. The erotic threesome between Hassett, Robert Klein, and Mary Louise Weller is interesting too as is the segment where Hassett is sitting alone at a late night diner and comes into contact with a disturbed, homeless man (Nicholas Guest) who comes in off the street and begins shouting nonsensical things for no reason, which can be a common, frightening reality living in the big city and not tackled enough in most movies.

While the movie stays pretty much faithful to the book it approaches the material in a shallow, mechanical way that offers no insight into the characters or situations and elicits no emotions from the viewer. It also takes some liberties with the material entering in elements that were never in the novel, or only vaguely touched on like the character of Joan, played by Donna Mitchell, being explicitly portrayed as a lesbian while in the book it had been only implied. She’s also shown making a suicide pack with Esther that was never in the original story. This was enough to get Dr. Jane Anderson, a Boston psychiatrist, to sue the film stating that she had been the Jane character in Plath’s novel, but because the movie distorted the truth it had harmed her reputation and career and she ended up winning a $150,000 settlement.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: March 21, 1979

Runtime: 1 Hour 53 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Larry Peerce

Studio: AVCO Embassy Pictures

Available: VHS

The Man with Two Brains (1983)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Brain in a jar.

Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr (Steve Martin) is a world famous brain surgeon who accidentally hits Dolores Benedict (Kathleen Turner) one day while driving his car. He immediately does surgery on her and during the recovery the two get married. However, Dolores is only interested in Michael’s money and continues to see other men behind his back. Michael on-the-other hand  meets with Dr. Alfred Necessiter (David Warner) who keeps live brains in jars in his condo. Michael (Steve Martin) begins communicating with one of the brains (voice of Sissy Spacek) via telepathy and decides it is she that he really loves. When he becomes aware that the brain will not survive much longer on its own he desperately tries to find a suitable body to transplant it into.

This Steve Martin/Carl Reiner production, which is their third project together, certainly has its moments and I particularly liked the the mysterious elevator killer although once his identity is finally revealed viewers today will have no idea who that person actually is. However for the most part the film is highly uneven. Having it centered as a horror movie parody would’ve given it better focus and the jokes more of a point-of-view instead of just throwing in any haphazard gag it wants many of which have nothing to do with its already paper thin plot.

I realize this is all meant to be a very silly comedy, but having two victims get hit by a vehicle, once with Turner and then later on with Stephanie Kramer, in her film debut, where neither victim shows any sign of blood, scratches, or bruising is a bit ridiculous. This is where if it had been approached as a horror/comedy then they could’ve thrown in some gore, but in an over-the-top goofy way, that would’ve allowed a new dimension for laughs while also given it just a smidgen of reality to it, which otherwise is lacking.

Martin’s ability to have a conversation with a brain in a jar without any special apparatus connecting the two is equally ridiculous. The excuse is that it’s ‘telepathy’, but why is he able to communicate with just the one brain when there are many others that are also in the room? What special ability does this brain have over the others and why is Martin the only one that can hear it and no one else?

Having Martin hear Spacek’s voice as her thoughts come into his brain doesn’t make sense either. The definition of telepathy is the  communication of thoughts and ideas other than the known senses, but nothing to do with voices. Thoughts in themselves don’t have a distinct voice connected to them unless the brain is attached to a voice box, which this one isn’t.  It is true that thoughts going on in person’t own head may have that person’s voice, so Martin should actually be hearing his own voice as his brain deciphers the messages being sent to it from the other one much like if he were reading out loud a note that had been written by someone else.

This also marks an odd career choice for Turner who burst onto the scene with her sexy performance in Body Heat . I realize that in her effort to avoid typecasting she wanted to do something that was completely different from her first film, but her character is too campy and one-dimensional and she ends up getting completely upstaged by Martin in every scene they’re in. The role also has a creepy foreshadowing as her character gains a lot of weight much like she has in reality due to her rheumatoid arthritis. In real-life it’s the drugs and chemo that caused the weight gain while here it’s created through make-up and a body suit and intended for comical effect.

There’s also an interesting behind-the-scenes story dealing with a scene involving a 5-year-old girl, played by Mya Stark, who must verbally repeat back to Martin from memory a very complicated set of directions that he had just told her. Since she was too young to read no cue cards were used and director Reiner figured it would take all day to film the scene convinced that many retakes would inevitably be required for her to finally get the lines right, but instead to his shock she repeated the lines back correctly the very first time. Then 30 years later in 2012 Reiner was standing in line at a store when a female business executive approached him and introduced herself. She stated that they had met many years before, but Reiner didn’t recognize her until she told him that she was that little girl now all grown up.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: June 3, 1983

Runtime: 1 Hour 31 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Carl Reiner

Studio: Warner Brothers

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

The Ninth Configuration (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Insane man runs asylum.

Col. Vincent Kane (Stacy Keach), a former marine who is suffering from demons of his own, is selected to head a psychiatric institution built inside a converted castle that specializes in military personal who fought in the Vietnam war and now feign insanity. The challenge is to find if these men are truly mentally ill, or just faking it and Kane’s technique, which allows the patients to openly act out their darkest fantasies, is considered unorthodox. He begins to have an unusual friendship with one of them, Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson) a former astronaut who bailed out of an important mission with a nervous breakdown just before lift-off. The two begin to debate the existence of God and the correlation between faith and sacrifice.

The film has a rocky tone in which part of it delves into campy humor while the other half is more serious. The reason for this is that when William Peter Blatty first wrote the novel of which this movie is based in 1966 it was called ‘Twinkle, Twinkle “Killer” Kane!’ and told in a darkly humorous vein. In 1978 he rewrote the story with a more serious tone and that version was published with the same title as this film.

For me I found the humor off-putting and not funny at all. The whole first hour becomes a complete waste with comical bits that rely too much on mental hospital stereotypes and overall campiness from the performers. There’s also long drawn-out segments dealing with the patients barging into Kane’s office and going on long circular rants that are quite boring.

The second half improves when the tone becomes dramatic, which is what I wished it had been all the way through. It also features a wild barroom fight, which is a bit over-the-top with the way the biker gang dress and behave, but also features some great choreographed violence and a creepy performance by muscleman Steve Sandor as the head of the gang that torments both Keach and Wilson. The second act also features a few surreal, dreamlike sequences, which are the best moments of the film.

The eclectic cast is interesting, but many of them, including Robert Loggia and Moses Gunn, gets wasted in small roles and little screen time. Wilson and Jason Miller are good as two of the patients, but Neville Brand is the best as a drill sergeant that at times seems to be channeling R. Lee Emery and at other moments a confused, overwhelmed man with a deer-in-headlights expression. Blatty, who casts himself as one of the patients is good too, not so much for anything that he says or does, but for his unique facial features, especially his eyes making him look like a guy possessed and the fact that he wrote The Exorcist is even more ironic.

Keach is also excellent, in  a role that was originally meant for Nicol Williamson, but who got fired from the production early-on. Keach manages to be both creepy and hypnotic at the same time. A guy you fear one minute and feel sympathetic for by the end and he does it here without his usual mustache allowing the cleft lip that he was born with to be on full display.

The setting, which was filmed at Castle Eltz in Germany and done there because Pepsi financed the film under the condition that it had to be shot in Europe, is an impressive site. Yet it’s hard to believe that such a Gothic styled fortress, which began being built before 1157, could ever exist inside the USA, which is were the setting is supposed to take place.

The discussions that Keach and Wilson have in regards to the existence of a supernatural being are fascinating and help push the film forward, but the ending, which features a mystical twist, was not needed. The tone, even with the humor, was quite dark, so having it suddenly finish with an ‘uplifting’ moment doesn’t click with everything else that came before it and comes off like it’s selling out on itself.

Alternate Title: Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: February 29, 1980

Runtime: 1 Hour 58 Minutes

Rated R

Director: William Peter Blatty

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video

Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Cops on the beat.

Murphy (Paul Newman) is a middle-aged cop working a beat in a tough Bronx neighborhood while partnered with Corelli (Ken Wahl) who is much younger. Murphy has become jaded to the corruption around him, but still feels a sense of purpose about coming forward when he witnesses a fellow cop killing an innocent bystander. Corelli, who also witnessed it, feels they should keep quiet about it, fearing the backlash they will inevitable get if they don’t, but Murphy quarrels with his conscious and considers risking his own safety and career in order to do the right thing.

While the film opened to mainly positive reviews and did quite well at the box office it was not without controversy as author Tom Walker, who had written the novel ‘Fort Apache’ which had a similar theme and storyline as this one, sued the production company claiming they had stolen many ideas from his book. However, the courts decided in the film’s favor arguing that the movie was filled with a lot of generalized stereotypes that is present in just about every cop film and therefore could not be signaled out as copyright infringement, which seemed more like a backhanded victory as it admits that a lot of what  you’ll see here is just one giant cliche.

From my perspective though I still enjoyed it especially the street scenes where the two protagonists find themselves dealing with petty crimes that makes up a lot of what real-life policemen have to deal with, as opposed to the sexy murder mysteries that cops in other police dramas get to investigate. The scene where Newman chases a suspect, but then runs out of breath and is unable to catch him nicely examines the exhausting physical nature of the job as well.

My biggest gripe has to do with a scene that comes right away, which involves a prostitute, wonderfully played by Pam Grier, who shoots and kills two unsuspecting cops sitting inside a squad car. The excuse is that these two were rookies and therefore not seasoned enough to catch the warning signs of what was going on, but I felt right away that something was off by the way the prostitute was fishing around her purse making me sense even before it happened that she was going for a gun and if I the viewer could’ve caught on to this then the two cops, whether they were new on the job or not, should’ve too.

Spoiler Alert!

I was disappointed that this storyline involving the psycho prostitute does not get fully played-out as she ends up getting killed in the middle of the film in a very random and uninteresting way, which ruins the anticipation/suspense of seeing her and Newman ultimately confront each other, which is what the viewer is primed into believing will happen.

The storyline dealing with the cop killing a defenseless man gets botched too as it occurs during the middle, but with no satisfying conclusion. We never get to see how Newman’s decision to come forward ultimately effected his life and safety.

I had problems with the sequence of events concerning Newman’s girlfriend, played by Rachel Ticotin, as well as we see her die from a lethal drug overdose, but this occurs before some gunmen take over the hospital where she worked as a nurse and held everyone hostage. It would’ve been far more suspenseful had the viewer at least thought that the girlfriend was one of the hostages instead of knowing upfront that she wasn’t, which ultimately makes this sequence less emotionally compelling.

End of Spoiler Alert!

Newman as usual gives a great performance and this marked the last role he played where his age was not a factor as his roles after this all dealt in some way with him becoming elderly. However with that said he still looks very much to be in his 50’s and he states at one point that he’s divorced with two daughters making me believe that they were most likely young adults, but instead we see a brief scene where he picks them up from school showing that they’re still young children, which given his very middle-aged appearance looked ridiculous.

Wahl is good as his young partner, but I felt his character should’ve been the one that was idealistic and wanted to go to the authorities while Newman, being older and more desensitized the one who tries to talk him out of it. Ed Asner, as the cantankerous new police chief gets wasted as does Pam Grier who’s real creepy and should’ve had both her character and motives explored much more.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: February 6, 1981

Runtime: 2 Hours 5 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Daniel Petrie

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD

Birdy (1984)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Fly like a bird.

Al (Nicholas Cage) becomes friends with an introverted neighborhood boy (Mathew Modine) nicknamed Birdy due to his fascination with birds. Al begins to follow Birdy around as he collects pigeons and stores them inside an aviary that he has built in his backyard. The two share a strong bond, which is broken when they both get drafted and have to go off to war. Al returns from battle with facial injuries, but Birdy is sent to a mental hospital because after missing in action for a month, he refuses to speak. Al spends time with Birdy trying to get him to talk again, but finds it futile and fears that if he can’t get him to talk the Dr’s will confine Birdy permanently.

The film is based on the William Wharton novel of the same name that was initially rejected by director Alan Parker as a possible movie because he considered the story to be ‘uncinematic’, but after the screenplay was commissioned to writers Sandy Kroopf and Jack Behr who were able to restructure the thoughts of the main character from the novel into dialogue and action Parker was then willing to sign on. The result is a interesting drama that manages to have some touching, quirky moments, but it’s also quite reminiscent of Brewster McCloud and comes complete with the same winged flying contraption which Birdy uses to fly briefly over a junkyard that Bud Cort also used to fly around the Astrdome in that film.

While both Cage and Modine give excellent performances I found the friendship between the two to be confusing. They had very little in common and why Cage would want to follow Modine around all the time as he collected pigeons, which he himself thought to be kind of ‘weird’, did not make much sense. Had they both had an interest in birds then it would’ve worked, but they don’t, so what’s the bond that keeps them together? Having them portrayed as being gay would’ve been the solution and at times it seems that is what Birdy is since he shows no interest in women at all and in one amusing scene watches in boredom while Cage has sex with another women on a beach. Cage could’ve been portrayed as being bi-sexual, or not fully aware of his secret attraction to Birdy, but could later eventually come out and that could help explain why he’d stick with someone that he otherwise found ‘kooky’.

Despite the film’s length  and having some definite slow parts including Cage’s ‘conversations’ with Birdy when he’s inside the mental hospital, which are quite static and should’ve been trimmed, there’s still some memorable moments including a scene showing baby canaries hatching out of their eggs. I also like the tracking shot where Birdy imagines himself flying and done from the point-of-view of a bird, which gives one a very authentic feeling/experience of what it would be like and it was shot with a Skycam, at least partially, which is the first time that had ever been used in a movie.

I also enjoyed how the film examines the different dynamics of both Cage’s and Birdy’s family life and the contrasting personalities of the parents where in Cage’s family the father, played by Sandy Baron, was the dominant force while with Birdy it was his mother (Dolores Sage). My only complaint in this area is that there’s a running subplot dealing with the fact that Birdy’s mother would take all the baseballs that the neighborhood kids would accidentally hit into her backyard and keep them, but no one knew where she hid them. Cage then, years later, asks the Dr’s at the hospital to convince the mother to send the hidden balls to Birdy in an effort to get him to talk again and the mother complies, but the scene showing her retrieving the balls is never shown. So much time is spent talking about where she hid the balls that the film should’ve revealed the hiding place while also showing a tender side to the mother who otherwise came off as being quite cold, so not having this scene at all really hurts the film.

Spoiler Alert!

There’s also complaints by some viewers and critics about the ending, which some, like critic Leonard Maltin, refer to as a ‘gag’ ending. For me this wasn’t an issue as it offered some much needed levity in what is otherwise a very dramatically heavy film, but I was frustrated that there’s no conclusion given to what ultimately happens to the two characters. They’re shown trying to escape from the hospital, but never whether they were able to break-free permanently. After spending two hours following these two around the viewer deserves more concrete answers as to their ultimate fate and keeping it so wide-open is a bit of a cop-out/letdown.

 

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: December 21, 1984

Runtime: 2 Hours

Rated R

Director: Alan Parker

Studio: TriStar Pictures

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

Dad (1989)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Son cares for father.

John (Ted Danson) is a busy executive who learns during one of his business meetings that his mother (Olympia Dukakis) has had a heart attack and rushes back home to care for his father (Jack Lemmon) who isn’t use to doing things on his own. John teaches his father how to do the every day chores while also learning to bond with his own son Billy (Ethan Hawke) who comes to visit. Just as things seem to be getting better and his mother gets out of the hospital it is the father who then gets sick with cancer leading to even further complications.

The film is based on the 1981 novel of the same name by William Wharton, which I’ve never read, but if it’s anything like this script then it’s not too good. One the main problems is the extreme shifts in tone that starts out with elements of Rain Man and then at the halfway mark becomes like a dark satire of incompetent medical delivery in the vein of Hospital and then in the third act turns almost fable-like.

My biggest beef is the pseudo-science that gets thrown in after the father goes to the hospital with his cancer. This is when the old man suddenly without warning starts going delusional and then ultimately into coma only to one day miraculous snap out of it. We’re told that the explanation for this is that the father was so fearful of cancer that the brain produced some sort of enzyme that acted as a defense mechanism that shut off the mind so it wouldn’t have to deal with it and it was the love shown by the son that ultimately allowed the dad to come back to consciousness, but what reputable medical journal has ever discussed this phenomenon?  Things get even more ludicrous when the old guy starts thinking he’s on a farm in a different time period and we’re told this is a schizophrenic condition caused by the cancer and everyone needs to play along with it, or he’ll go back into a coma.

Danson, for what it’s worth, gives a strong performance here, probably the best in his otherwise lukewarm film career. I found it frustrating though that his character doesn’t have all that much of an arch. Supposedly he’s self-centered at the start and needs to learn to be caring, but this only gets explained by the character during a long soliloquy during the middle part, when the viewer should’ve instead seen the transition play out. I also thought it was wacky that he’d be allowed to bring in a cot and stay with his father inside his hospital room as I’m pretty sure most doctors would not allow this.

Lemmon’s performance is good too, but I didn’t like how a tuft of white hair was kept on his otherwise balding head as I found it distracting. While it was nice that his character wasn’t a crotchety old man, which has become a bit of a cliche, I found his extreme dependency on his wife, to the point where he allowed her to dress him and even butter his toast despite the fact that he was physically able to do it himself, as pathetic. His later transition to laid-back hippie who wears colorfully garish outfits as he takes on a whole new perspective on life is too jarring and extreme.

The film never comes together as a whole and if anything could’ve been shortened with the first half dealing with the mother’s heart attack taken out and just started with the father’s cancer diagnosis as that’s when the main plot gets going. In either case it tries too hard to be cute while compromising too much on the believability.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: November 10, 1989

Runtime: 1 Hour 57 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Gary David Goldberg

Studio: Universal Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Nothing in Common (1986)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Father needs his son.

David Basner (Tom Hanks) is leading a happy life as a successful advertising executive yet he’s forced to put it all on hold when his parents (Jackie Gleason, Eva Marie Saint) of 36 years announce that they’re getting a divorce. His father also loses his job as well as being diagnosed with diabetes forcing David to give him round-the-clock care despite the fact that they don’t get along.

The best thing about the film are the performances of its two stars. For Hanks this marked his transition from comedy to more serious roles, but for the most part his charm still comes from his comic edge especially with the way he greets each of his co-workers when he returns to the office after a vacation. It’s really Gleason though, who was dying from cancer as he performed in this, that is the most compelling and he should’ve been in the movie more and better yet made the star as he literally owns every scene that he’s in and despite his cantankerous personality manages to elicit a lot of sympathy from the viewer.

Unfortunately the script doesn’t focus enough on the father/son relationship and instead goes off on many tangents like David’s struggles to come up with a creative ad for one of his clients, which isn’t as compelling or interesting. There’s also several running jokes that digresses the whole thing down to almost a sitcom level especially with Hector Elizondo’s, who plays David’s boss, desperate attempts to come up with a suitable hairpiece. The bits involving David’s pranks on an office receptionist in order to try and get her to laugh makes him seem more annoying than funny and she would’ve been justified to have him reported for harassment.

Dwelling into David’s love-life dilutes the story even further. Initially I thought his courting of Sela Ward had some spark as she played-hard-to-get and part of what makes potential relationships so interesting is the chase itself, but after putting up a cold front for a few minutes she then jumps into bed with him, which just takes the air out of everything. Bess Armstrong, who plays his former girlfriend, seemed more his type. However, the scene where he barrages into her apartment drunk late at night and hassles her and the new guy she’s sleeping with made him seem extremely obnoxious to the point that I was hoping he’d get punched in the face.

Saint’s character does nothing but add to the dramatic clutter in a bland role that  offers little to the story. It would’ve been more effective had she died instead of divorcing the husband, which would’ve offered more of a catalyst for Hanks and his father to get together.

The film ends where it should’ve began with Hanks deciding to move in with his father in order to help him with his health problems. Watching these two with very diametrically opposed personalities trying to get along inside this very cramped apartment could’ve been quite revealing and insightful and yet we see none of it. Instead we’re treated to a rambling narrative that offers generic drama and little else.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: July 30, 1986

Runtime: 1 Hour 58 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Gary Marshall

Studio: TriStar Pictures

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

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1977)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: She suffers from schizophrenia.

Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Joanne Greenberg, which was written under the pen name of Hannah Green, the story focuses on Deborah (Kathleen Quinlan) a 16 year-old who is put into a mental institution during the 1950’s by her parents (Ben Piazza, Lorraine Gary). A pretend secret kingdom that used to be a childhood fantasy has now completely taken over her life and she is unable to deal with reality. At the institution she works with a sympathetic therapist named Dr. Fried (Bibi Andersson) who tries to get Deborah out of her fantasy world an back into the real one.

The film was produced by Roger Corman better known for his cheap, sleazy drive-in fare, so seeing him try to take the helm by producing a serious picture is a concern since exploitation always seemed to be his foray, but with the then recent success of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest he felt stories with a mental institution theme was a potential money-maker. The production values though right from the start look pretty cheap especially when compared to the Milos Foreman film making this a very weak cousin to the 1975 classic.

The producers made many changes from its source novel much to the consternation of the book’s author who was never consulted during the making of it and who ended up disliking this film version immensely. One of the biggest difference is that the film completely omits the antisemitism, which the filmmakers felt was too much of a ‘hot button topic’, that the main character in the book had to deal with and instead blames her mental health problems solely on her bout with cancer.

For me though the biggest issue centers more on the recreation of Deborah’s make-believe, mystical world which she calls The Kingdom of Yr. In the book the kingdom starts out as a beautiful magical place that slowly turns ugly and threatening while in the movie it’s portrayed as scary from the very beginning, which is confusing as there’s no explanation for how the whole thing started. The sound of the whispering voices going on inside Deborah’s head is creepy, but sight of the characters inside the kingdom, which was played by members of Oingo Boingo looks cheesy and like the singers from the Village People, which gives the film an unintended camp feeling. Instead the characters should’ve been captured from a distance where they were seen as ominous shadowy figures whose faces were never shown.

Despite these drawbacks I still found myself caught-up in much of the drama especially the cruelty that Deborah and her fellow patients received at the hands of an abusive orderly played by Reni Santoni. Unfortunately some of the scenes showing Deborah interacting with the other mentally-ill people in the hospital gets watered-down by having a lighthearted melody played during it, which gives off the idea that this is ‘lightly comical’ instead of the gritty no-holds-barred drama that it should be.

Quinlan gives a great performance, possibly the best of her career and I particularly enjoyed the way she uses her expressive blue eyes to convey her inner madness and turmoil. You also see her as a relatable human being who you want to see get well as opposed to being some sort of ‘freak’. Susan Tyrrell is great in support as one of the patients as well as Martine Bartlett who plays another troubled patient and who starred just a year earlier as the cruel mother in Sybil, which was a TV-movie with a similar theme. Casting Bibi Andersson though as the psychiatrist was for me a distraction since she also played one in Persona, which was her signature role and therefore I couldn’t separate her from that one.

In 2004 the novel was turned into a play under the full cooperation of Greenberg who acted as a consultant. The antisemitism from the book was incorporated into the play as well as several other things that had been omitted making me believe that a remake based on the play should be given a much needed green-light as this film unfortunately is adequate, but not great.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: July 14, 1977

Runtime: 1 Hour 36 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Anthony Page

Studio: New World Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video