Category Archives: Offbeat

Repo Man (1984)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Alien in the trunk.

Otto (Emilio Estevez) has trouble accepting authority, which causes him to get fired from many of his jobs. He eventually gets courted into the car repossession business, which he at first resists, but then, especially with its lure of quick cash, he grows into. This then leads him in pursuit of a Chevrolet Malibu with a $20,000 bounty on it driven by a very strange man (Fox Harris) who harbors a glowing radioactive substance in its trunk that kills anyone who comes into contact with it.

The film’s best selling points is that it gives one a gritty feel of what being stuck in society’s poor underbelly is really like as it traps the viewer inside the inner-city of Los Angeles with its almost non-stop capture of its rundown buildings, which becomes like a dominant third character. The viewer then begins to share the same anxiety, anger and frustrations of the people in a place they don’t really want to be, but with no idea of how to get out of it. The only time the film shows the more vibrant area of L.A. is during a brief shot of the skyline from a distance making it come off like a far away place that’s out-of-reach.

The rebel mystique gets better explored and examined here than in other 80’s films where the term ‘rebel’ seemed to apply exclusively to mouthy suburban teens who didn’t like their parent’s rules and would wear punk attire because it was ‘trendy’. Here you get a much more authentic feeling of being an outsider and the unglamorous, desperate qualities that comes with it.

Writer/director Alex Cox also examines the thin, merging line between being a conformist and non-conformist and the ironic/contradictory results that can occur. This gets best captured with the character of Duke (played with gusto by Dick Rude) who is an in-your-face-I-don’t-like-any-rules street punk one minute only to turn around and tell his girlfriend at another moment that he wants to get married and have kids because ‘everybody else is doing it’.

Estevez gives his signature performance here though his excessive cockiness becomes a bit of strain, which fortunately gets tempered in the scene where he gets shot at and panics showing that even a streetwise brash kid like himself has  his limits, which makes it all worth it. Harry Dean Stanton as his partner is terrific and the vast 40 year age difference between the two isn’t apparent at all. Olivia Barash is quite good too without even trying. Her likable unrehearsed quality makes for a refreshing contrast to all the rest who are more compelled to put on a facade and for the this reason I wished she had been in it more.

Honorable mention should also go to Fox Harris who plays Parnell the driver of the much sought after car even though in real-life he couldn’t drive and he got the vehicle in a few accidents and even damaged other props on the set in the process. Normally this would’ve gotten him fired, but because he had been the only actor who was nice to Alex Cox when he worked as a lowly security guard at the Actor’s Studio and before he became a director, he choose to stick with him despite the problems, which shows that if your nice to everybody even those that have very little social standing it can come back in rewarding ways in the long term.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: March 2, 1984

Runtime: 1 Hour 32 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Alex Cox

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD, Blu-ray (Criterion Collection), Amazon Video, YouTube

Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Businessman becomes a magician.

Donald (Tom Smothers) is tired of the rat-race and decides one day to impulsively walk off of his job  and become a trained tap dancing magician under the tutelage of Mr. Delasandro (Orson Welles). While the pay isn’t good he enjoys the freedom of being on the open-road and avoiding the stress of climbing up the corporate ladder despite the efforts of his former boss (John Astin) who tries anything he can to get Donald to come back and work for him.

This was Brian De Palma’s first studio made venture and he borrows heavily from the same type of surreal comedy that he used in his two earlier independent films Hi Mom! and Greetings. While not all of the gags hit there’s enough inventive camera work and editing to keep it interesting making the fact that the studio ultimately hated the final product and fired De Palma from the project all the more perplexing. This film follows the exact same blue print of De Palma’s earlier work. Had they not watched those films and just hired him based on recommendation? If so then they have no one else to blame but themselves.

While I enjoyed the eclectic energy there are too many comic bits that veer way off from the main storyline and have absolutely no connection to the main plot. The script, by Jordan Crittenden, would’ve been stronger had all the humor been focused around a main theme as it ultimately comes-off as too much of a hodgepodge with no connecting message to it at all. What’s even worse is that some of the gags have a lot of comic potential that aren’t played-out to the fullest, which makes it even more frustrating.

Smothers is quite boring and seems unable to convey any other expression except for a smiling deer-in-headlights look. Apparently behind-the-scenes he didn’t get along with De Palma and refused to show-up for necessary retakes making me think he should’ve been the one fired as he could’ve been easily replaced by a wide array of other comic actors who would’ve done a far better job. Even Bob Einstein, who appears very briefly as a brash fireman, gets far more laughs than anything Smothers does throughout the entire movie.

Fortunately the supporting cast is excellent and one of the reasons that helps keep the film afloat. Welles is especially good as the washed-magician with the scene where Smothers and he get stuck inside their escape sack while trying to perform the trick being the funniest moment in the movie. Astin is amusing too as Smother’s former boss who slowly turns his room inside a seedy hotel into a thriving office. Katharine Ross is also a delight in a perfect send-up of a starry-eyed groupie.

Spoiler Alert!

The ending though in which Smothers finds himself back working inside the same type of corporate office job that he had tried to escape from at the beginning is a disappointment. Sometimes cyclical endings can be clever and ironic, but here it’s more of a cop-out. We never get any sense of how the experiences that the character goes through changes him making it all seem quite shallow and pointless. It also completely forgets about the Orson Welles character, who gets written-out after the second act even though his presence was one of the most entertaining aspects of the movie.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: June 7, 1972

Runtime: 1 Hour 31 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Brian De Palma

Studio: Warner Brothers

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

What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Old lady kills housekeepers.

After the death of her husband, Claire (Geraldine Page) is shocked to learn that there is no money in his will. Fearing a life of destitution she plots to hire old lady housekeepers who she’ll manipulate to give her their life savings in which she’ll invest into stocks through her broker (Peter Brandon). Once these stocks start making money she’ll murder the housekeeper and keep all the profits for herself. After killing off her fourth housekeeper, Miss Tinsley (Mildred Dunnock) and burying her dead body in her backyard, she hires Alice (Ruth Gordon). Alice though has a secret, she was at one time the former employer for Miss Tinsley, who wants to investigate what happened to her and is suspicious that Claire may hold the secret. Claire though becomes aware of Alice’s scheme and decides to try and make Alice her fifth victim.

This marked the third of Robert Altman’s trilogy featuring old lady killers with the first two being What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. This was the first one to be filmed in color and the harsh dry desert landscape setting works as a great metaphor to Claire’s barren, evil soul. I also enjoyed the winding plot, which is based on the 1961 novel ‘The Forbidden Garden’ by Ursula Curtiss that has many offbeat twists including a memorable scene featuring the two old ladies rolling around on the floor during a furious fight that you’ll most likely never see in any other movie.

Page’s performance is the main reason why the film is so entertaining. Watching all the various characteristics that she gives to her haughty character is fascinating and she helps make Claire, as nasty as she is, quite memorable. I especially liked the part where after she kills one of her victims she displays for a split second a shocked expression like even she can’t believe what she has just done and this helps to make her character multi-dimensional, like there’s still some semblance of a tortured conscious somewhere within her and she isn’t just a robotic, evil person.

Gordon is okay in support, but I felt her character should’ve had some backup plan that she would use in defense when things got ugly. She keeps assuring her nephew (Robert Fuller) that she can handle things, but when Claire turns on her she becomes almost like a deer-in-headlights. I also didn’t like the wig that she wears and have to agree with one critic who said it makes her look like a giant, walking-talking peanut. I realize that the wig does eventually come into play as part of the plot, but I felt in the brief segments where she’s shown not wearing it she could’ve been seen with her real hair and not just in another wig, which looked just as dumb.

Honorable mention should also go to Spike who plays a stray dog named Chloe. Spike was a well trained animal who was in many films and TV-shows between 1956 and 1971 and the parts where he bares his teeth and growls at Claire every time he sees her, as she attempts to harm him, are amusing.

Spoiler Alert!

The script by Theodore Apstein, fortunately avoids a lot of loopholes, but I did feel at the end they should’ve shown or explained how the characters played by Rosemary Forsythe and Micheal Barbera were able to escape from their burning house. I also found it hard to fathom why Robert Fuller’s character, upon learning that his Aunt had been killed in a suspicious car accident didn’t immediately accuse Claire of doing it. He had pretended not to have any connection to Alice during the majority of the story as that was part of their scheme, but once she was dead I didn’t see why he still needed to pretend. I would think he’d be so emotionally distraught at that point that he would let out his true emotions without even thinking and possibly even tried to attack Claire while having to be restrained by the others.

End of Spoiler Alert!

The film’s promotional poster, as seen above, is a bit problematic as it features a young model looking like she’s been buried, but in the movie it was only old ladies that were killed and buried. Showing a beautiful lady may have been more visually appealing, but it’s not authentic to the film that it’s trying to promote.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: July 23, 1969

Runtime: 1 Hour 41 Minutes

Rated M

Director: Lee H. Katzin (Bernard Girard for the first 4-weeks of filming)

Studio: Cinerama Releasing Corporation

Available: DVD, Blu-ray

Phase IV (1974)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: The ants take over.

Ants in a small isolated community in Arizona begin to behave strangely by building large towers and geometric designs in the crops. Dr. Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) and James Lesko (Michael Murphy) are two scientists hired to come-in and find out why the ants are behaving the way they are and try to put a stop to it. They construct a computerized lab in the middle of the desert and begin they’re research only to find that they’ve walked into the ant’s trap.

This was the first feature length movie directed by Saul Bass who was an award winning graphic designer who did title sequences and film posters for many famous movies from the 1950’s through the 1980’s. His great attention to detail pays off here in a film that is full of many intricate and stunning imagery including incredible micro photography of the insect life, but unfortunately the movie bombed badly at the box office, which never allowed him to direct another film again.

On the surface it’s easy to see why it didn’t go over well as a large amount of the runtime focuses on the ants and while this photography is impressive it also makes it seem more like a nature film, but without any voice-over narration explaining what the ants are doing. It’s not like you can’t figure it out, but it does require close attention and could still be confusing to some and not something mainstream audiences are used to, or expected to sit through.

When the humans are onscreen the acting isn’t bad and surprisingly there is some character development, which a lot of other high concept Sci-fi flicks sometimes don’t have. I enjoyed Davenport and his very matter-of-fact approach to the situation in which nothing ever gets to him emotionally no matter how grisly and his never ending obsession to usurp the ants no matter how ultimately bleak it gets.

Lynne Frederick is good too as a teen-aged girl who gets taken in by the scientists when the rest of her family are killed. Initially I didn’t like her presence as I was afraid it was going to lead to some annoying, manufactured side romance, but fortunately that didn’t occur and instead becomes more of the emotional, human side of the trio especially with the way her eyes gaze at the evil ants. I also really liked the segment that shows in close-up of an ant climbing on her foot and then up through her body, even going in and out of her bellybutton until finally arriving at her head all while she sleeps.

The ending though is a disappointment as it never explains the reason for the ant’s behavior. I actually did find the story intriguing for awhile and even kind of scary, but you can’t expect a viewer to sit through a near 90-minute film and not supply them with some answers. No conclusion is given either as to who ultimately wins the battle, man or ant, which was something better explained in the original director’s cut, which had a surreal, image-laden montage showing what life on the ‘new earth’ was like, but this got cut by Paramount and never shown in the film released to theaters. In 2012 a faded print of the original ending was found and after being digitally scanned was added to a new 35mm print that was played at several select art house theaters, but this version has never been released onto DVD/Blu-ray, which is a shame as the movie comes off as incomplete without it.

For those who are interested here is a faded print of the original ending:

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: September 6, 1974

Runtime: 1 Hour 24 Minutes (Studio version)

Rated PG

Director: Saul Bass

Studio: Paramount

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

Posse (1975)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Everyone has their price.

Howard Nightingale (Kirk Douglas) is an ambitious Marshall looking to run for U.S. Senate and realizes his best bet of winning the seat is by bringing in the notorious train robbing gang led by Jack Strawhorn (Bruce Dern). Howard manages to kill off the gang by having his posse set fire to the hideout that they were in, but Jack escapes only to be captured later and brought to jail. While on the train ride to Austin where he’ll be hanged Jack comes up with an elaborate escape and turns-the-tables by handcuffing Howard and returning him to the town where they came from and holding him prisoner inside the local hotel. When the posse returns to the town everyone is convinced they’ll free Howard, or will they?

In an era where revisionist westerns were all the rage it’s confusing, at least initially, not to understand why this one, which story-wise goes completely against-the-grain of the conventional western, isn’t propped up there with the best of them and a lot of the blame could possibly be put on the direction. There’s nothing really wrong with the way it’s presented and there are some exciting moments including a realistic shootout as well as a running train being set on fire while also exploding from dynamite, but the rest of it does have a certain static feel. There’s too much reliance on music and not enough on mood or atmosphere as well as actors looking more like modern day people in period costume.

The script though, which is based on a 1971 short story called ‘The Train’ by Larry Cohen is full of many offbeat twists that keeps the viewer intrigued. Of course in an attempt to stretch out the short story into feature length there are some slow spots, particularly in the middle and the emphasis is more on concept than character development, but Jack’s crafty way at escaping is quite entertaining and the surprise ending is one of the best not because it’s a gimmick, which it isn’t, but more because it’s quite believable and yet something that’s never been done in any other western.

Douglas gives his conniving character just the right amount of pompous camp to make him enjoyable and it’s great to see James Stacy in his first movie role after his tragic motorcycle accident where he lost both his left arm and leg. In any other film this handicap would have to become a major issue, but here it doesn’t even get mentioned. The character doesn’t use it to feel sorry for himself nor is he treated any differently than anyone else, which I found to be quite refreshing.

A minor drawback though it that it’s supposed to take place in Texas and my hometown of Austin even gets mentioned a few times, which is kind of cool, but it was actually filmed in the state of Arizona. To some this might not be a big deal, but Arizona’s landscape is much sandier and has more mountains. Their cacti is of the upright kind while in Texas the cactus is of the bushy variety known as the prickly pear. All of which helps to ruin the film’s authenticity. If they didn’t have the funding to film it in Texas then have the story’s setting take place in California or Arizona, but trying to compromise it and hoping that astute viewers won’t know the difference doesn’t work.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: June 4, 1975

Runtime: 1 Hour 32 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Kirk Douglas

Studio: Paramount Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Andy Warhol’s Bad (1977)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Paying women to kill.

Hazel (Carroll Baker) runs a beauty parlor out of her home that specializes in unwanted hair removal, but secretly on the side she hires beautiful women to carry out contract killings of which she gets a part of the take. L.T. (Perry King) is a vagabond in desperate need of money who’s looking to get into the business, but Hazel prefers her killers to be women and is reluctant to take him, but eventually decides to hire him on a trial basis, but then everything starts to go wrong.

One of the best things about this movie is how truly dark it gets. Too many movies that proclaim to be dark comedies always pull back and never get as deliriously twisted as they initially convince you they will, but this film proudly takes things to the darkest extremes becoming a measurement to what true underground filmmaking once was where pushing the envelope was the only goal.

For the most part, depending on one’s sense of humor, it’s outrageously funny. Some of the more wicked moments feature twin sisters (Geraldine and Maria Smith) setting a movie theater on fire and then going home to watch the coverage of it on the TV. There’s also Warhol alum Brigid Berlin as an overweight woman with flatulence issues who’s obsessed at getting brutal revenge on anyone that she perceives as making fun of her weight.

The film also takes satirical jabs at the American obsession of making money and how one’s social standing hinges on how much they have without any concern with what exactly they had to do to get it. This come to a perfect hilt when Hazel throws L.T. out of the house when he refuses to go through with a hit but still somehow feels she’s the morally superior one by taunting him with “At least I pay my own way”.

Due to this being the biggest budgeted film that Andy Warhol produced they  were able to hire some well-known faces into the roles. Baker though was not their first choice as they originally wanted Vivian Vance, whose presence would’ve made this even more of a gem than it already is, but she turned it down fearing it would ruin her reputation with her fans. Shelley Winters, who was their second choice, also rejected the offer, which was rare as she usually accepted anything that came along and she would’ve been brilliant, but I’ll give props to Baker, who took the role simply in an attempt to resuscitate her career, for not holding anything back here and giving it her all.

King is also superb and I enjoyed seeing his character arch as he’s the only in the film that has one, but was disappointed that there was never a final, fiery confrontation between him and Hazel as the film spends the whole time priming you into believing that there will be. Tyrrell is also memorable in a rare sympathetic part where she becomes the only one with a conscious although I have no idea where they got the baby that she is seen constantly carrying around as he’s one of the stranger looking tykes I’ve ever seen.

The cinematic quality though is lacking with almost all of the action taking place inside the drab house. The basic concept isn’t completely well thought out either. While I appreciated the bad cop character, played by Charles McGregor, who gets paid to look the other way, which helps to explain how Hazel is able to get away with these killings for as long as she does, I was still confused with how she was able to bully people. Everyone adheres to her authority, which is never challenged, but you’d think someone running a dicey operation would have some sort of backup plan and weapon on hand should someone get out-of-line, which she doesn’t and for me this seemed questionable.

The film is notorious as well for a scene showing a young mother throwing her baby out of a high story building and watching it go splat on the ground. Supposedly Baker, King, and Tyrrell refused to do the film unless they were promised that this scene be taken out of the script and director Jed Johnson complied only to end up filming it once the rest of the production had wrapped. Years ago when  I first saw this I thought it was pretty funny especially as another mother walks by and says to her young child “that’s what’s going to happen to you if you don’t behave”. It’s clearly a doll anyways and no real baby was harmed, but when I viewed it this time around I found it unsettling, so like with a lot of things in this movie, it’s up to a person’s age and perspective on how much of it they may or may not enjoy.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Release: May 4, 1977

Runtime: 1 Hour 45 Minutes

Rated X

Director: Jed Johnson

Studio: New World Pictures

Available: DVD

Massacre at Central High (1976)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Destroy the social hierarchy.

David (Derrel Maury) is the new kid in school whose only friend is Mark (Andrew Stevens) because years earlier David helped protect Mark from a group of bullies. Now Mark has befriended a group of elitist friends who pick on the other students at the school and instructs David that he better do the same, but David resists, so the clique turns on him. This causes David to kill  the members of the clique off one-by-one in creative ways, but finds that the students who were once the meek victims of these bullies now become the new ones.

This film is a definite step above the usual horror flick and has managed to create, despite it’s limited availability, a strong cult following. Yet with that said it does have some major drawbacks. One is cinematic quality, which is quite grainy, faded, and dated with every shot reeking of a mid-70’s look. The music score is horrendous especially the opening song sung by Tommy Leonitti. In fact it’s so bad that director Rene Daalder, who had written a different score that better fit the mood of the film, but was rejected by the producer, refused to watch this movie for several decades because of it.

There’s also the issue, like in so many of these high school flicks, were the students look older than they should and in fact all of them were already in their early 20’s when this was filmed. Fortunately the setting was the senior high level, so the more mature body types aren’t quite as glaring as it could’ve been.

I felt though that despite being a bit too old for his part this was Andrew Stevens best performance to date. His career and the quality of the projects he’s been in have been quite erratic, but here he fits the role quite well and I enjoyed seeing his character’s arch go from passive middle-man to a reluctant hero although the scene where he confronts David begging him not to kill him even though David had no weapons at the time, was physically smaller and crippled by a bum leg, seemed a bit too wimpy. Stevens could’ve and should’ve beat up David at that point, or threatened to unless there was some reason why he never wanted to fight, which is never made clear.

I did like the killings particularly the hang glider death, which has a point-of-view shot where the viewer feels like they’re riding on the gliders alongside the characters. The transformation of the students from wimps to oppressors is what I enjoyed the most as it exposes the thin line between good guy and bad and how the circumstances of the situation dictate how people respond to either. It also reveals how behavior is greatly affected by one’s immediate environment and if that environment were to suddenly change different aspects of a person’s personality that have long been dormant, or repressed could suddenly come to the forefront. The fact that no adults are ever seen, at least not until the very end, was a cool touch too as it accentuates how in the adolescent world the adults are completely meaningless and it’s their peer group that’s the only thing that’s important, which makes this quite similar to Heathers of which this is considered a close cousin and even an inspiration to.

When the film was first released it got very little attention and was in and out of the theaters quite quickly and I believe a part of the reason for this is its title, which coneys too much of a mindless teen exploitation flick tone, which this really isn’t. While the film was being shot in went under the working title of ‘Incident at Foxdale High’, which to me was more subtle and intriguing. Whether this is also the reason why it has yet to get a well-deserved DVD/Blu-ray release I don’t know, but at some point one should be coming.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: November 10, 1976

Runtime: 1 Hour 27 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Rene Daalder

Studio: Brian Distributing

Available: VHS

April Fool’s Day (1986)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: It’s all a prank.

A group of college students get together at an excluded island home of one of their friends Muffy (Deborah Foreman) to celebrate their last year in school together. Then as the weekend progresses they find that a killer is knocking them off one-by-one. Will the remaining survivors be able to escape, or is there something more to these murders that no one realizes?

The film was an attempt to revive what at the time was a lost interest in the slasher genre by creating a irreverent tone to the staid formula and in that regard it does an okay job. The main issue though is that it gets too jokey making it seem more like a misguided comedy that losses sight of its intended horror fan audience completely.

I didn’t mind a few of the pranks, but too much time gets spent on them and 40 minutes seemed to be a ridiculous wait (if you don’t count the injury that occurs on the initial boat ride in, which seemed more like an accident) before we even get to the first killing. The pranks bordered on being too elaborate and something a regular person wouldn’t be able to pull off. For instance one deals with Rob (Ken Olandt) turning off one light in a room only to have another one turn on, all to the amusement of his girlfriend (Amy Steel) who apparently (I guess?) rigged the lights to do this, but where did she  get the electrical background or time to wire the room in this manner?

If the pranks are supposed to revolve around the fact that it’s April Fool’s Day then all the action should  take place within a 24-hour period instead of over several days. The scenery doesn’t have a spring-like look either as there should be blossoms and buds on the trees, but instead, since it was filmed in August, it looks more like late summer.

The cast comes-off too much like crude and obnoxious junior high kids whose only topic of conversation is sex instead of young adults ready to enter the working world and their dialogue doesn’t seem genuine.  One dumb bit has Harvey (Jay Baker) trying to make amends with Nikki (Deborah Goodrich) by trying to prove to her he really isn’t as much of a ‘dick’ as she thinks, but then proceeds to tell that he’d like to ‘plow her field’, which would only convince her otherwise.

Spoiler Alert!

The killings are brief and feature virtually no gore at all, which will disappoint those expecting to see at least a little. The ending, which reveals the killings to being just another gag, was novel, but there still needed to be a secondary twist. In the film’s original cut Skip (Griffin O’ Neal) kills Muffy after everyone else has left the island, but the studio execs nixed this opting for an ‘upbeat’ ending instead. Upbeat endings are fine if it’s a comedy, but a horror film should have a dark undertone and the fact that this one doesn’t have one at all makes it woefully undernourished.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: March 28, 1986

Runtime: 1 Hour 29 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Fred Walton

Studio: Paramount

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

Raising Arizona (1987)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Childless couple kidnap baby.

Hi McDunnough (Nicholas Cage) is a repeat offender who goes in and out of the state penitentiary. It is there that he meets Edwina (Holly Hunter) an officer in charge of taking his mugshot each time he gets rearrested for holding up convenience stores. Eventually the two form a bond and when he finally gets released they marry, but find that she’s unable to bear children. They then hatch a plan to kidnap one of the quintuplets of furniture store owner Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson), but find this leads to more complications than they were prepared for.

While the Coen’s directing is sharp and on-target there were still those that criticized it as being overly stylistic and, as critic Vincent Canby stated, outside of the technical expertise the story has no life of it’s own, which is kind of true. The editing does give the film a personality, but there were times where slowing it down and allowing the scenes to breathe could’ve heightened the humor. For instance having Cage break into the Arizona residence to kidnap the baby happens much too quickly and there should’ve been a scene showing Cage trying to figure out which window to break into to get to the baby’s nursery as it was a big house, so how exactly would he have known where to go?

With that said there are still plenty of times where the distinct directorial touches spark the comedy and make it years ahead-of-its-time. I particularly liked the Coen’s patented camera tracking during Cage’s dream sequence where he views things from the bounty hunter’s (Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb) perspective as he rides his motorbike over obstacles on the front lawn and then supposedly straight into a bedroom. A chase sequence that starts out on the street and then winds up going through a person’s private residence is quite ingenious and the running-joke dealing Dr. Spock’s child rearing book is very funny too.

The script offers only caricatures, which would normally be a detriment, but here it just adds to the zaniness. I really enjoyed Wilson as the stereotypical aggressive, brash salesman and the scene where he talks to the police after the kidnapping has occurred I found to be the funniest moment of the movie. John Goodman and William Forsythe are also great as a pair of inept bank robbers and Sam McMurray and Frances McDormand are hilarious as the in-laws from hell.

Spoiler Alert!

My only real grievance, and it’s on a minor level, was the kidnap scenario, which could’ve been played-out more. I also thought it was weird that this rich couple would have all these kids and not hire a nanny to help them care for the babies. It’s a head-scratcher too that when Cage and Hunter decide to return the baby that they were able to break-into the same window that they did before. Wouldn’t you think that after a kidnapping this rich couple would’ve implemented crime alarms and cameras in ever room? Also, Nathan Arizona, catches the couple in the bedroom returning the kid to his crib and then after talking to them a bit he leaves the room with Cage and Hunter still with the baby, but you would think that after they took the kid once that the father would be too paranoid to ever leave the baby alone with them again.

The ending in typical Coen fashion doesn’t equal the same energy and imagination as the rest of the story and is a bit of a letdown. It deals with a dream that Cage has where he imagines having a really big family, but I thought it would’ve been funnier had the dream started out pleasant where he thinks about all the good things about family life only to have it slowly deteriorate into a nightmare where the harsh realities of raising kids come into play making him wake-up in a cold sweat and feeling lucky that they couldn’t have children after all.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: April 17, 1987

Runtime: 1 Hour 34 Minutes

Rated PG-13

Director: Joel and Ethan Coen

Studio: 20th Century Fox

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

Simon (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: College professor becomes brainwashed.

An underground group of scientists who enjoy playing elaborate pranks decide to brainwash a college professor named Simon Mendelssohn (Alan Arkin) into believing that he is an alien from another planet. After he is successfully brainwashed he then escapes from the institution and gets in with a religious cult who have a transmitter that can block the TV airwaves and allow him the ability to be seen by the entire nation where he tries to reform American culture while also becoming a celebrity sensation.

This extremely odd comical satire  seems out of place for a studio backed film and more in tune with a independent project as it’s unclear what specific type of audience the filmmakers were hoping to attract as mainstream viewers will most likely find the humor off-putting. One could describe it as being ahead-of-its-time, but the banal potshots at such overused targets as TV and American consumerism makes it seem more dated instead.

The movie would’ve worked better had it remained focused on one intended target and then ravaged the hell out of it instead of soft jabs at various safe targets, which makes its overall message muddled and unclear. There are some funny bits including watching Austin Pendleton, who is the head of the research group, making love to a giant telephone receiver, whose voice is supplied by Louise Lasser. It’s also funny having a brainwashed person such as Simon trying to brainwash others via the airwaves, which could’ve been really hilarious had they gone farther with this idea.

There’s signs that writer/director Marshall Brickman hadn’t fully thought through the quirky story idea to begin with. For instance why would this underground group of scientists allow a video crew in to film what they are doing as the members are seen at the beginning talking directly to the camera and answering questions by some unseen interviewer. Wouldn’t this allow their secret to get out and get them into trouble? The army that takes over the institute is too incompetent as Simon and his girlfriend Lisa (Judy Graubart) are able to escape from it too easily and their inability to locate Simon’s rogue TV transmitter even after days of searching is rather pathetic. I realize this is meant to be ‘funny’, but even a comedy should have some tension to it to make it more interesting and the army’s extreme buffoonery isn’t humorous at all, but just plain dumb instead.

Arkin is the one thing that saves it. His unusual acting style makes him hard to cast, but here he really delivers especially during the segment where he plays out the evolution of man, but without using any dialogue although it might’ve been funnier and more of an interesting contrast had his character not been so kooky to begin with, but instead some stuffy intellectual only to become zany once he was brainwashed.

Judy Graubart makes for a good anchor as the one normal person in the whole movie. She was best known for her work on the children’s TV-show ‘The Electric Company’ and this was her live-action film debut, which should’ve lead to a long line of film appearances, but instead she only had brief bits in two other movies and that was it.

There are signs of a great movie trying to break out and the overall concept has brilliant potential, but this is the type of film where you’ve got to go full-throttle and Brickman seems either unable or too timid to do that making what could’ve been sharp satire into a transparent, benign mess that offers only a few chuckles, but not much else.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: February 1, 1980

Runtime: 1 Hour 37 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Marshall Brickman

Studio: Orion Pictures

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