Category Archives: Spiritual Movies

The Last Wave (1977)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Suffering from strange premonitions.

David Burton (Richard Chamberlain) is a lawyer working in Sydney, Australia who is hired to defend some aborigines that have been accused of murder. David’s specialty is taxation law and he feels overwhelmed in this new role, but still takes it on with an earnest dedication, but in the process begins to experience strange dreams and even sees one of his clients, Chris (David Gulpilil), in them. This coincides with weird weather events that begin occurring all over the continent including the phenomena of black rain. David can’t help but feel that somehow this is all connected and after doing extensive research finds that tribal aborigines have a belief system involving what they call dreamtime in which spirits from another world communicate with us through our dreams and David has been the chosen recipient due to his lifelong ability to dream of events in his sleep that eventually occur later in real-life.

The film, which is directed by the gifted Peter Weir, has terrific imagery that almost makes-up for its other shortcomings. There have been a lot of movies that have tried to create creepy nightmare segments, but the ones here work much better than most and gave this viewer an effectively spooking feeling. The silhouette of the aborigines in the pouring rain, the shots of a large seismic wave and use of tribal music all get used to ultimate effect. Even the rain storms become fascinating to watch. None of them were actual ones, but instead large firehoses were employed along with giant fans to create a sort-of surreal stormy effect that actually looked better than the real thing.

The story though borders on being convoluted and would’ve worked better had the movie been given a longer runtime. The first hour is spent with the viewer seeing a lot of strange events that make no sense and are given no explanation. It is only after about an hour in that some expert, who’s given no formal distinction to what their line of study is or degree, explains to David the importance that dreams have to the aborigine culture, which helps tie things together, but this should’ve occurred earlier as some viewers will probably find it too confusing and off-putting otherwise.

Chamberlain is his usual bland self, but okay in this type of role as it doesn’t demand anyone who is colorful. The character though is supposed to be this very pragmatic individual, but he seemed to buy into the mystical qualities of the aborigine belief system much too quickly. A person with a practical approach to life would most likely be quite cynical to the events as they first occurred and even reluctant to base any value on his own nightmares, at least initially.

The ending is a major letdown. For one thing we have the main character inside an ancient sacred site beneath a sewer system where he suddenly has to start ‘thinking out loud’ by explaining what he is seeing on the drawings along the wall even though the viewer could’ve figured this out for themselves without the ‘narration’. The ambiguous conclusion is frustrating and makes sitting through the rest of it feel like a big waste of time.

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My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: November 13, 1977

Runtime: 1Hour 45Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Peter Weir

Studio: Cinema International Corporation

Available: DVD (Criterion), Blu-ray (Reg. B), Amazon Instant Video

Another Chance (1989)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Jaded playboy seeks redemption.

John Ripley (Bruce Greenwood) enjoys trying to bed every attractive woman that comes along. He even has his dog Rocky trained to bite on their purses and lead them over to him wherever he may be sitting. He is a big star on the daytime soaps and uses this position to take advantage of every young, nubile starlet willing to go to have sex with an established actor if it can in some way help boost their career. Then he meets the beautiful Jackie (Vanessa Angel) and starts to have strong feelings for her, but she catches him with another woman and it’s all over. He tries to win her back, but in the process loses his job and home. While working a part-time gig at a look-a-like show he gets into an ugly confrontation with a psychotic man resembling Humphrey Bogart (Robert Sacchi) who pulls out a gun and shoots him on the spot. John then finds out that he has been banished to hell, but pleads for one more shot at redemption, which he is given, but only if he can win back Jackie’s heart.

The film, which was written and directed by B-actor Jesse Vint, certainly has a crazy wide open storyline that seems to want to mix in the mindset of today’s modern world with that of spiritual one, which doesn’t work at all. Initially I thought the heaven and hell thing was thrown in simply as a plot device, but the more it continued the more I became convinced that this movie was intended to be religious one even though it gets enveloped inside the jaded world of modern day Hollywood, which just makes it all the more loopy.

In more competent hands this might’ve worked as an interesting curio, but the script needed to be better focused and the editing much tighter. The narrative is too heavy-handed to take seriously and everything gets photographed in a flat sort of way making the whole thing seem on par to a TV-movie instead of a theatrical one.

Greenwood gives an engaging performance and helps make a potentially unlikable character more tolerable. Angel is good too and it’s too bad she couldn’t have been in more scenes. The supporting female cast is overall quite attractive, but they’re all made to dress and act like bimbos. Anne Ramsey is on-hand for a brief bit as John’s crabby landlady and Allan Rich has a supporting role as a sleazy agent, but overall the one thing I liked most about the movie was Rocky the dog and that’s about it.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: May 5, 1989

Runtime: 1Hour 38Minutes

Rated R

Director: Jesse Vint

Studio: Moviestore Entertainment

Available: VHS

Brother John (1971)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Is an apocalypse coming?

Upon the death of his sister, John Kane (Sidney Poitier) returns to his hometown in Alabama to attend her funeral, but the town’s mayor (Bradford Dillman) and sheriff (Ramon Bieri) think he is an outside union agitator there to stir up trouble with the local factory. Doc Thomas (Will Geer) is an old man who’s been in the town his whole life and knows better. He recognizes that John has a special gift of some kind and can see into the future, but what John proclaims is not good as he states that an end of the world is coming and the human race will have to justify their existence to the almighty.

This film, which was written by Ernest Kinoy and directed by James Goldstone, is unique in that it never reveals too much and keeps the viewer in a shroud of mystery the whole time. We’re given certain hints that John may hold a special power, but never any explanation, which in some films could prove frustrating, but here it makes it intriguing and unusual. Everything is given the low-key treatment including a memorable scene where a racist police officer (Warren J. Kemmerling) invades an African American home bent on teaching John ‘a lesson’ by taking him into the basement only to get a surprise whooping of his own when John proves to be far superior.

Poitier is billed as the star, but he seems constrained in a part that allows for very little emotion. Geer is the one that gives the film its biggest impact particularly with the conversation that he has with Poitier while sitting in a jail cell at the end. I also got a kick out of the fact that he was able in a passing conversation to mention Frankfort, Indiana which was the town that he had been born and raised in, in real-life. Bieri is also quite good as the town’s corrupt sheriff who’s racist on one end, but then when things get out-of-control he then ‘negotiates’ with the town’s black pastor (P. Jay Sidney) to see if they can work together to quell the unrest.

Although the setting is supposedly Alabama it was actually filmed in the town of Marysville, California and for the most part it’s successfully able to camouflage it, but not quite. The ending like the rest of the film is vague and answers little of the questions that the plot puts forth, which may be a turn-off to some, but I enjoyed it. In an era where so many other films were intent on making statements and broad characterizations this one pulled back and much like with religion and faith kept things at an elusive level, which gives it a more sophisticated flair.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: March 24, 1971

Runtime: 1Hour 35Minutes

Rated GP

Director: James Goldstone

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube

The Holy Mountain (1973)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: They search for immortality.

In what seems like a sort-of sequel to Jodorowsky’s cult hit El Topo this film deals with the same type of Christ-like figure and religious metaphor’s. The story centers on a man known as The Thief (Horacio Salinas) who meets up with an alchemist (Alexander Jodorowsky) who introduces him to seven people representing the planets of the solar system as well as the sins of greed, lust and power. The group is instructed to leave their worldly possessions behind as well as their individual identities so that they can become one while they trek up the treacherous terrain of the Holy Mountain where they hope to acquire immortality.

In a lot of ways this film is superior to El Topo simply because it has a bigger budget and more slickly handled. The background sets are dazzling and at some points even amazing. On a purely visual level this film borders on being brilliant and could be enjoyed simply on that note alone. I also really enjoyed the humor and satire. The war manufacturer that makes psychedelic ammunitions to appease the younger generation is great as is the naked woman implanting a giant phallic object into a robotic machine in order to allow it to obtain an orgasm and given birth to a baby robot.

Jodorowsky’s excessive use of shock elements is here as well and for some it becomes the main point of watching it. Within the first 30 minutes alone you’ll see two beautiful women being stripped naked and having their heads shaved. An old man taking his glass eye out and placing it in the hands of a young girl and a young boy being castrated and then putting his testicles into a glass jar, which he places on a shelf lined with other glass jars filled with other testicles. Later on there’s even a scene showing a cow mating with another and a shot of a naked elderly man breast feeding another man. By the end it all starts to get rather mind numbing, but on a purely exploitative level it’s kind of fun because it’s something that most likely could never be filmed today and thus cementing why 70’s cinema is so special and in many ways much more interesting and outrageous than the stuff coming out today.

In the end though it comes off like overkill with a message that gets lost amidst all of the shock elements. It also seems quite contradictory as supposedly this is a spiritual film, but with so much sex and gore it becomes more like a pornographic one and for the most part that’s what many viewers will take from it, which ultimately makes this heavy-handed, experimental production a failed effort.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: November 29, 1973

Runtime: 1Hour 55Minutes

Rated R

Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Studio: ABKCO

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video

The Runner Stumbles (1979)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Priest accused of murder.

Based on actual events the setting is 1911 in a northern Michigan town where Father Brian Rivard (Dick Van Dyke) presides over a small Catholic parish. He feels frustrated at being stuck in such a depressed town where many of the residents are out of work. In comes Sister Rita (Kathleen Quinlan) to help run the school and the Father immediately takes a liking to her youthful enthusiasm and fresh ideas, but gossip and rumors soon abound when it is found that they are spending too much time together and possibly becoming intimate. When the Sister is found murdered it is the Father who is accused and must fight for his life while straddled with an attorney (Beau Bridges) who seems glib and detached.

One of the biggest problems with the film is the miscasting of Van Dyke in the lead. His performance is stiff, wooden and affected. The chemistry between the two stars is non-existent making the romantic angle seem completely unbelievable. The film would have been better served had a younger man that was more Quinlan’s age and trained in method acting been cast in the part.

Quinlan is excellent in her role, but her efforts become lost as they bounce off Van Dyke’s almost corpse-like presence. Maureen Stapleton adds some excellent support and it’s great to see Ray Bolger in his final film role as the intrusive Monsignor. Bridges is also great as the lawyer and the one thing that livens the film up a little. Had his court scenes been more extended it would have helped the picture immensely.

Director Stanley Kramer, whose last film this was, seems to have lost touch with the modern movie goer. The presentation is stagy and the overly melodic soundtrack does not fit the mood and gets overplayed almost like a radio going on in the background that somebody forgot to turn off. The conversations revolving around the predictably stifling atmosphere of the era add little interest and go on too long as do the debates between giving in to human desires versus religious commitments. The surprise ending hardly makes up for a film that is slow and boring and ultimately making it as stale and stagnant as the small town it tries to portray.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: November 16, 1979

Runtime: 1Hour 49Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Stanley Kramer

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: VHS

The Apostle (1997)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Preacher on the run.

As a would-be screenwriter I find it heartening knowing how many great screenplays there are out there that struggle to find a home no matter who has written or pitched it.  Actor Robert Duvall wrote the solid screenplay for this film in the 80’s only to have it rejected by every major studio and only got made when he decided to put up 4 million dollars of his own money.

The story involves a fiery evangelical minister by the name of Sonny (Duvall) whose volatile ways gets the better of him and he ends up killing his wife’s lover. He then goes on the run to Louisiana where he starts up a new church. There he begins to turn his life around and become loved and admired by the community only to have the police close in on him.

In many ways this is similar to a 1962 episode of the old ‘Alfred Hitchcock Hour’ series that was entitled ‘Bonfire’ and starred Peter Falk as the minister.  Both characters were loud and dramatic preachers.  Both men went on the run after committing homicide while continuing to start up new congregations along the way and both ended up being surrounded by the police as they gave one last fiery sermon. However, the difference comes with the fact that the Falk character was clearly a self-serving fraud while with Sonny that is not so clear, which is what makes this film and character so fascinating.

Sonny has a temper as well as other underlying issues, but he makes a genuine effort to rectify things with his new congregation.  He even brings boxes of groceries to the doorsteps of poor families. It is never clear whether he is simply trying to make personal amends for past transgressions, or just a flawed man with a good heart. The viewer is never allowed to feel sure either way, but ends up empathizing with him nonetheless. Every scene and line of utterance becomes more revealing.

Duvall gives a strong performance. I felt this may be his signature role and that comes after a long line of already brilliant performances.  I enjoyed his running ‘conversations with the Lord’ that he has when he is alone or just walking down the street.  The conversation that he has with the police is amusing as is the final scene that is shown over the closing credits.

The casting is unique.  June Carter Cash plays his mother, which is interesting by the fact that in real-life she was only two years older than Duvall.  Farrah Fawcett plays his wife, and although she was much younger than him, I felt she did a good job and made a perfect fit.  Billy Bob Thornton gets a memorable cameo as a man who initially wants to destroy the church with a bulldozer, but then with Sonny’s help becomes spiritually awakened.  I also very much liked James Beasley in the supporting role as the minister who helps Sonny start up his new church.  His calm and collected manner helped balance Duvall’s intensity.

The supporting players were all amateur actors, some of which had never performed in front of the camera before.  Director Duvall was known during filming to keep the atmosphere loose.  He allowed his cast to ad-lib, which gives the film a more authentic feel.  Just like with other actors who turned to directing, like Paul Newman and Marlon Brando, Duvall has scenes that stretch out much longer than most films.  This is done to give the actors more control over their characters and allow their performances alone to carry the scene.  I also liked the fact that the supporting cast was almost all African-American and the story centered on a white minister preaching to a black congregation.

Duvall has long been known to be an admirer of the south, so it is no surprise that the story takes place there or that the shooting was on-location.  He captures the ambience of the region and people quite well, including the sound of the heat bugs buzzing at night.

The only issue I had with the film involves the scene where Sonny kills his wife’s lover. He does this by hitting him over the head with a baseball bat during a little league game while in front of many onlookers.  In most real-life accounts when something similar to this happens people will usually gang up on the culprit and physically subdue him, or chase after him until the police arrive while here the onlookers allow Sonny to peacefully walk away.  Other than that I thought this was a great character study and I would highly recommend it.

My Rating: 8 out of 10 

Released: October 9, 1997 

Runtime: 2Hours 14Minutes 

Rated PG-13 

Director: Robert Duvall 

Studio: Butcher Run Films 

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

Agnes of God (1985)

Agnes of God 2

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Meg Tilly is marvelos.

Sister Agnes (Meg Tilly) is a young nun found in a convent to have given birth to a baby who then dies. Martha Livingston (Jane Fonda) is the court appointed psychiatrist brought in to investigate the case, but as the investigation ensues it only seems to unearth more and more perplexing twists.

The theology is slight and the film, which is based on the Broadway play by John Pielmeier, approaches the subject matter in a very matter of fact way. It has the mindset that the majority of the viewers are non- religious or disgruntled ex-Catholics and portrays the church as a stubborn, age old institution that is slowly losing touch with our more modern sensibilities.

Yet, refreshingly, it also doesn’t try to tear down the church with every chance it gets. There is a certain level of respect and objectivity. The mother superior (Anne Bancroft) is shown to be very human and multi-faceted. She and Fonda make interesting adversaries. Their love-hate relationship is both interesting and enlightening. There is even a rare scene showing an excited young woman being inducted into the sisterhood as her proud family looks on.

Fonda, with her liberated modern woman persona, seems a very obvious choice to play the no-nonsense psychiatrist. She approaches the role with conviction, but her constant chain smoking seems affected and her emotionalism overwrought. I still say she is better suited for comedy like in Cat Ballou and Nine to Five.

Bancroft is solid as usual. Yet it’s Tilly that is really impressive. She portrays the innocence of her character with an incredible clarity and it’s almost astounding.

The mystery unravels well and keeps you intrigued. Yet the ambiguous conclusion is a bit disappointing. The drama side fares better. It poses a few good insights and ends with an interesting perspective. The film is well done on all levels even though outside of Tilly’s compelling performance there is really nothing that memorable or distinctive about it.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: September 13, 1985

Runtime: 1Hour 38Minutes

Rated PG-13

Director: Norman Jewison

Studio: Columbia

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video