Category Archives: Surreal/Fantasy

Cracking Up (1983)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 0 out of 10

4-Word Review: Jerry needs a psychiatrist.

Jerry Lewis films were long considered light on plot and long on pratfalls with the minimum of character development, but this film, which was his attempt at sketch comedy, makes those others look sophisticated by comparison. The story if you can call it that deals with a man named Warren Nefron (Lewis) whose attempts at suicide do not succeed so he goes to a psychiatrist (Herb Edelman) who he hopes will convince him to live despite feeling like a failure at everything that he does.

The humor has no focus to it at all. Had the comedy bits dealt with the same interconnected theme then I could at least give it some credit, but instead everything gets thrown in with almost no coherence. One minute it’s poking fun at airlines, then 16th century France, hospitals and even art museums. The shtick is excessively broad and Lewis, who also directed, tries milking it too much by staying on jokes long after they’ve played out making what is already lame even more irritating.

What surprised me is how Lewis never tried to evolve his brand. The film was made in the early ‘80s, but could’ve easily been done in the 60’s. No attempt is made to update his comedy with the times, to make it seem trendier, or connect him with a rising star from the decade to help bring in younger viewers. Instead he casts in supporting roles the stars from yesteryear like Milton Berle and Sammy Davis Jr. while continuing on with the exact same pratfalls that he did in the ‘50s that may have seemed somewhat funny back then, but now comes off as predictable and redundant. This movie will only appeal to his aging and already established fans while teens and young adults will most assuredly consider it dated and stupid.

For me the funniest thing about it is what occurred behind the scenes when the studio tried playing it in front of a test audience.  Showing films to a test audience is a standard practice and helps studio heads ‘tweak’ certain parts of a film that aren’t working, or even re-film entire new scenes if it’s found that audiences didn’t take well to the one that was shown to them initially. Studios want to try to save what they have as they’ve put a lot of money into the product and don’t want to just discard the whole thing if they don’t have, but the response to this one was so universally bad in every way that they decided it had literally no chance and no amount of changes could save it, so it was shelved permanently and never released theatrically in the United States.

There are only two moments in this mess that I found even mildly diverting. One comes when Edelman asks Lewis if his parents were related…like maybe being cousins, which is something that every character in every Lewis movie should ask him when he goes into one of those annoying, man-child routines of his. Another comes at the very end during the closing credits where they show behind-the-scenes outtakes. One has Lewis lifting Davis, who was a very small man, into the air  and pretending like he was some sort of trophy that he had won while Davis yells at him to ‘Put me down! Put me down!’

My Rating: 0 out of 10

Alternate Title: Smorgasbord

Released: April 13, 1983 (France)

Runtime: 1 Hour 29 Minutes

Director: Jerry Lewis

Rated PG

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD, Amazon Video

The Swimmer (1968)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Swimming his way home.

On a hot summer afternoon Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) decides to something out of the ordinary. He notices that all of his neighbors have backyard pools and he could essentially ‘swim’ his way home by jogging from house to house and diving into each pool before moving onto the next one. At first it seems like a great idea and the people he meets along the way are happy to see him, but things grow increasingly darker the more pools he goes to as some of the home owners do not welcome his presence while exposing uncomfortable elements from his past. His seemingly successful, happy persona takes a beating and slowly reveals instead a lonely man who’s badly out-of-touch with those around him.

The film is based on a short story written by John Cheever and first published in The New Yorker magazine on July 18, 1964. The story amounted to only 12 pages, but screenwriter Eleanor Perry manages to expand on the idea to create a film full of nuance and interesting dialogue that reveals just enough of the characters to make it insightful without becoming heavy-handed.

Director Frank Perry does a fine job in creating atmosphere by having each residence Ned enters into completely different from each other. Some have jubilant outdoor parties going on while others have just one person there and one pool doesn’t have any water in it at all. The best scenes include a slow-motion segment where Ned and a young lady named Julie (Janet Landgard) jump over hurdles like they are at a track meet as well as the scene where Ned and a young boy named Kevin (Michael Kearney) go to the bottom of an empty pool and pretend like to swim across it like it were still filled with water.

Lancaster gives an excellent performance and it initially comes off almost like a vanity project as the viewer gets to see him practically nude the entire time and in one brief segment his buttocks gets fully exposed. What’s so impressive is the fact that he was in his mid-50s at the time, but has a muscular physique like that of an athletic 20-year-old. His deep blue eyes give a lasting impression especially when they reveal the character’s shocked realization that the bubble he had been living in has now burst.

This also marks the film debut of Joan Rivers who appears as a party goer who has a brief conversation with Ned. The scene lasts for only a few minutes, but apparently took 7-days to film because of repeated arguments between director Perry and Lancaster over how they wanted to convey her character. Perry pushed for a ‘happy girl’ who Ned rejects, while Lancaster wanted a jaded woman who ends up rejecting Ned, which is how it ultimately plays out and which I preferred.

Spoiler Alert!

The ending where Ned gets to his home only to find it empty and abandoned and he’s unable to get inside is excellent because it helps bring together everything else that came before it. My interpretation is that the pools represented memories of his life and his attempts to somehow reconcile his selfish nature with those that he had abandoned or forgotten from his past. The house symbolizes his empty soul created through years of striving for material gain while callously ignoring, or exploiting others along the way. His inability to get back inside corresponds to his failure to reconcile with himself about his behavior and the empty feeling one ultimately gets when material success ends up not being fulfilling.

End of Spoiler Alert!

The film went through a difficult production that saw many conflicts between Lancaster and Perry that ultimately got Perry fired and replaced by Sydney Pollack who reshot several scenes including the one with Janice Rule who replaced Barbara Loden whose scenes were scrapped entirely. Despite these behind-the-scenes complications the film still comes together as a fluid whole and has a nice visual style that makes it well deserving of its strong cult following.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: May 15, 1968

Runtime: 1 Hour 35 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Frank Perry, Sydney Pollack (Uncredited)

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Persona (1966)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 9 out of 10

4-Word Review: Two women become one.

Elisabet (Liv Ullmann) is a famous stage actress who one day decides to quit speaking. Alma (Bibi Andersson) is a nurse at a mental hospital in charge of trying to get Elisabet to talk again, but her efforts prove futile, so the hospital administrator (Margaretha Krook) offers the two her island cottage hoping the quiet, secluded locale will prove more beneficial. As the days wear on Alma begins seeing Elisabet less as a patient and more like a therapist and divulges secrets about her life to her, which causes Alma to feel quite close to Elisabet and treat her almost like a confidant. Then she reads a letter that Elisabet has written where she describes Alma in a condescending way, which creates tension between the two that eventually spills over into a long ongoing confrontation.

This film was considered for many years to be one of the most bizarre and shocking movies ever made and this is mainly due to the strange and eclectic mix of images that gets shown at the beginning. Visions of a lamb being slaughtered, a nail getting pounded into a hand and a close-up of an erect penis flash before the screen while later there is even stock footage of a man setting himself on fire and moments where the film itself gets a hole burned through it.

For me the more subtle moments is what I enjoyed with my favorite scene being the one that occurs in the early morning hours when Elisabet quietly walks into Alma’s room as she sleeps while we hear the distant sound of a boat horn blowing in the background. The shot where the left side of Elisabet’s face gets superimposed next to the right side of Alma’s is also quite amazing.

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There have been many interpretations through the years over what this film’s ultimate message is. For me it shows how we are more alike than different and how what bonds two people to each may not always be readily apparent and might be something that comes out much later after initially seeming like they are two opposites. I also think it is a great examination at how fragile and interchangeable societal roles can be where someone can seem like the stronger one at one point only to later be shown as the weaker. Alma’s emotional meltdown is the most striking especially after seeming so confident and stable at first while Elisabet’s silence is initially perceived as a rejection to the ugly world around her, but later gets exposed as being more of a rejection of herself and the selfish nature that she harbors.

Andersson, who ironically and sadly can no longer speak in real-life after suffering a debilitating stroke in 2009, gives an excellent performance and I enjoyed how her character exudes ugly emotions like jealousy, envy and even anger and yet still manages to remain likable and relatable. Ullmann has the challenge of keeping her character interesting despite saying very little, but with her ever expressive eyes she does.

The scenic locale of the Faro island where this was filmed is nice, but a patient and doctor sharing someone else’s seaside resort and treating it more like a retreat than a therapy session seemed dubious and almost enough to make anyone fake mental illness if it could get them time off to go there. There is also no explanation to Alma’s fiancée and his feelings about her staying with Elisabet and not him. The sudden arrival of Elisabet’s husband is equally confusing. I liked the scene due to the symbolism that it brings out, but I didn’t understand how he was able to find them at such a remote location especially since he appeared to be blind. The segment seems almost like a dream, which is how I had initially interpreted it when I first saw this film year’s earlier, but it’s never made clear.

On the whole though these issues prove minor and in many ways help make the film even more interesting. My only real complaint is when Alma speaks to Elisabet in regards to her child and the camera stays glued onto Elisabet’s face, which captures her increasingly pained expressions, which is great, but then the scene gets played over while showing Alma’s face as she says the exact same things again, which was too repetitious in a film that is otherwise quite brilliant and a landmark in many ways.

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My Rating: 9 out of 10

Released: October 18, 1966

Runtime: 1Hour 23Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Ingmar Bergman

Studio: United Artists

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

Excalibur (1981)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: The sword is magical.

The mystical sword named Excalibur gets cast into a stone by Uther (Gabriel Byrne) and the wizard Merlin (Nicol Williamson) proclaims that the next man to be able to remove it will become the King of England. Many try and fail, but years later it is Uther’s illegitimate son Arthur (Nigel Terry) who is able to do it.  Although very young he is able to create the Kingdom of Camelot with the help of Merlin. He also marries Guenevere (Cheri Lunghi) who has an affair with his most trusted knight Lancelot (Nicholas Clay) and then his half-sister Morgana (Helen Mirren) steals away Merlin’s powers and uses them to try and destroy the kingdom.

The story is based on the book by Thomas Malory who supposedly wrote it while he was incarcerated. Although this film is considered a classic now it was not as well received when it was first released. Critic Roger Ebert called it ‘a mess’ and the great Pauline Kael described the dialogue as being ‘atrocious’. For me I found it long, but enjoyable even though I’m not crazy for this type of genre.

One of the things that I didn’t particularly care for, or find all that exciting were the battle scenes. Watching men roll around in the mud with their swords doesn’t come off as too interesting when compared to gun battles. There were also too many of them and all seemed too similar to the others with the final one ruined by having it shrouded in fog. In reality the knight’s armor was also always made by either steel or iron, but for this film they created it out of aluminum, which made it appear too flimsy and clanky. It is also given a bright glow, which was intentional, but I didn’t care for it.

What I did enjoy was the atmosphere particularly when they go off to search for the grail. The scene where the men approach an area that has dead bodies hanging from the trees and a crow sitting on a branch biting off one of the corpses’ eyeballs, which apparently took several days of continuously rolling the camera before the bird did what they wanted, is in one of the best moments in the film. I also liked the magical glow given off by Camelot when it is seen from a distance, but I would’ve liked a shot of the magical kingdom seen up close, which never occurs and was probably due to budgetary restraints, but would’ve been cool.

The performances are all-around excellent. Terry does quite well in the lead playing Arthur at different stages of his life, but I was most impressed at the way he came off as convincingly being only 19 at the beginning even though he was really already 35. Clay, who plays Lancelot, also looks like he was barely over 20 when in reality he was 34. Williamson is amusing as Merlin and Mirren is effectively evil as the villainess. This is also a great chance to see Patrick Stewart and Liam Neeson in some early roles.

The movie moves along briskly and is overall entertaining although some the scene transitions and dramatic arcs were awkward. Those that are into medieval fantasy will clearly enjoy it more.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: April 10, 1981

Runtime: 2Hours 20Minutes

Rated R

Director: John Boorman

Studio: Orion Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video

Ghostbusters II (1989)

ghostbusters 3

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Called back into action.

It’s been 5 years since our team of Ghostbusters (Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Dan Aykroyd) saved New York City from impending ghostly doom only to be thanked by getting sued for all the damage they created in the process, which promptly sent them out of business. Now though there are signs of an even worse attack from the supernatural in the form of an ectoplasmic river underneath New York, which is being strengthened by all of the negative energy from the citizens that live there. Can our team of heroes put on their uniforms once more and save the city from yet another ghostly attack while also coming to the aid of Dana (Sigourney Weaver) who finds that an ancient sorcerer (Wilhelm Von Homburg) is trying to possess her newborn child?

The premise pretty much starts the film out on bad footing and it’s never able to recover. The idea that they’d be driven out of business by a barrage of lawsuits didn’t make much sense to me. The ghosts that were terrorizing Dana’s apartment building in the first film were witnessed by thousands of spectators as they stood outside on the ground and watched the three men drive them away, so they should’ve been viewed as heroes and those that tried to sue them would’ve been vilified. Besides it was the mayor (David Margulies) who gave them the permission to do whatever they needed to do to take the ghosts out, so if anyone was to be a target for the lawsuits it would’ve been his office and the city. What is even worse is that after the first 40 minutes the story eventually goes back to the original premise where the team becomes popular again and their services are in-demand, so why couldn’t the film simply started from that point as it makes the entire first act come off like a complete waste of time otherwise.

Although it’s great to see Janet Margolin, who plays a prosecuting attorney, in her last film appearance, the court room scenes are static and not right for this type of genre. The ghosts are not scary or frightening like they were in the first one either and instead come off as cartoonish and boring.

Murray gets pigeonholed in a dull routine where he spends most of the time trying to desperately rekindle his romance with Dana, which isn’t interesting. Ramis and Aykroyd seemed more intent on stealing back some of Murray’s thunder by not having him come along on a few of their missions including a long segment where they discover the evil river underneath the city, which is just not as funny without Murray there.

Weaver pretty much just goes through the motions in a part that really does not allow her much to do. I was also confused as to why she had been a musician in the first film, but in this one she had strangely crossed over into being a painter. Rick Moranis and Annie Potts are equally wasted and forced into a makeshift romance simply because the writers didn’t know what else to do with them.

William Atherton, who was so good at playing the prissy, arrogant heavy in the first film, gets sorely missed. Kurt Fuller tries to take up his slack, but he is not as effective. Former wrestler von Homburg plays the evil sorcerer, but his voice ended up being dubbed by Max von Sydow, which made me wonder why they didn’t just cast him in the villainess role to begin with since he was the far better actor.

Just about all the jokes fall flat and the climactic finish which features an animated Statue of Liberty is really lame. The story is never able to gain any traction or momentum, doesn’t add any new or interesting angle to the theme and should’ve been trashed before it was even made.

My Rating: June 16, 1989

Runtime: 1Hour 48Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Ivan Reitman

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, 4K Ultra HD, Amazon Instant Video

Ghostbusters (1984)

ghostbusters 2

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 9 out of 10

4-Word Review: Who ya gonna call?

Due to this film’s recent reboot set for official release tomorrow I thought it would be great to look back at the one that started it all. I haven’t seen the remake and have no plans to, so this review will concentrate solely on the original. However, if you have seen both feel free to leave a comment comparing the two and telling us which one you liked better.

The story here centers on Peter (Bill Murray), Ray (Dan Aykroyd) and Egon (Harold Ramis) who are three parapsychologists who lose their jobs at Columbia University and decide to open up their own paranormal extermination service out of an old, abandoned firehouse. At first business is slow, but it quickly picks up once they capture a particularly pesky ghost known as slimmer from a ritzy Manhattan hotel. Soon they find themselves the center of demand and media attention. Dana (Sigourney Weaver) is a cellist who finds her apartment to be haunted and the womanizing Peter becomes smitten with her and is quick to come to her aid only for her to end up becoming possessed by the demon. The three then must use all of their abilities and weapons to try and stop it as well as the plethora of other ghouls who were mistakenly released into New York’s atmosphere when an aggressive EPA agent (William Atherton) forced them to shut down their ghost containment system.

I saw this film when it was first released and found it to be hilarious, but was worried that after all these years it might not come off as well, but to my surprise it hasn’t aged at all and is still quite fresh and inventive. Usually even in the best of comedies there will be jokes that fall flat, but here every one of them hits-the-bullseye and I enjoyed how the creative script see-saws the humor from the subtle to the over-the-top. The plot is imaginative, but manages to create and stick to its own logic that is consistently clever and amusing, but never silly.

The special effects are also impressive. Usually in comical films the ghosts or monsters are made to be benign and goofy, but here they are frightening, which again helps keep the story from ever getting one-dimensional.

Murray’s glib and detached persona is at a peak level and his throwaway lines, which were almost all improvised, are gems. Aykroyd and Ramis, who wrote the script, wisely step back and give Murray full control to steal the spotlight, which he does effortlessly.

The supporting cast is equally great. I never considered Weaver particularly suited for a role as a love interest, but her sharp, caustic manner works as a nice contrast to Murray’s smart-ass presence. She also becomes quite sexy during the scenes when she turns into a demon. Rick Moranis as her nerdy neighbor is hilarious and has some of the funniest moments in the film particularly the scene he has at a party he throws in his apartment and the way he introduces each guest as they arrive.

Ray Parker Jr.’s theme song is the icing-on-the-cake in a film where amazingly everything clicks perfectly. Why the studio heads felt there was a need to revamp this franchise is a mystery. I realize they are running out of ideas and feel the urge to retool what has been successfully done before in order to appeal to the ‘new generation’ of filmgoers, but this is one classic that should’ve been left alone.

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My Rating: 9 out of 10

Released: June 8, 1984

Runtime: 1Hour 45Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Ivan Reitman

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, 4K Ultra HD DVD, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube

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

The Jogger (1988)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Jogging can be deadly.

Jerry (Terry O’Quinn) is a high-strung businessman with a type A personality who has been told by his doctor to take up jogging to help relieve is stress and improve his health. Like with everything else he goes overboard with it. Jogging excessively until it becomes like a second job. One day while out on another one of his morning runs he comes upon another jogger (Tom Morga). Jerry decides to challenge the man to a race and he ends up winning it making him feel quite vindicated, but the other jogger does not take kindly to losing. He begins to chase Jerry around the park while attempting to stab and kill him. When Jerry is finally able to make it back to his house he realizes that the jogger has followed him and he continues with his assault. In fact wherever Jerry goes the jogger follows making him believe that he will not be able to get rid of him unless he fights back.

For a low budget short film this isn’t too bad. The editing and camerawork is crisp and professional. We get a good idea of Jerry’s character in a short amount of time and it’s great seeing O’Quinn in an early role. The action is exciting and there is enough tension to keep it interesting. There are even a few genuine unexpected jolts and a surprise ending.

The story initially seems original, but as it progresses you realize that it is just another retelling of the classic ‘The Twilight Zone’ episode entitled ‘The Hitch-Hiker’ in which the Inger Stevens character is constantly hounded by a mysterious hitch-hiker who turns up wherever she goes. The surreal elements that get thrown into this thing don’t help and I would’ve liked something that had stayed more realistic and been more subtle. Yet it’s still enjoyable enough for its short running time and some may find the scenario to be more creative than I did.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: 1988

Runtime: 25Minutes

Director: Robert Resnikoff

Available: None at this time.

Il Piccolo Diavolo (1988)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Priest befriends a demon.

Father Maurice (Walter Matthau) is a tired and aging priest who is beginning to question both his faith and existence. One day he is called to exorcise a demon from an older woman and when he does so out pops a funny looking man named Giuditta (Roberto Benigni) who claims to be the demon. At first Father Maurice does not believe him, but after seeing that Giuditta’s reflection does not appear in a mirror he begins to realize that he is dealing with some spirit from another realm. His attempts at trying to get rid of him are futile and eventually he learns to enjoy the companionship that Giuditta offers and even considers him to be a strange blessing in disguise.

There have been many parodies done of The Exorcist, but this one manages to be one of the better ones because it doesn’t stick with the formula. Instead it takes the possession angle and gives it a whole new spin while avoiding the clichés and becoming more like a whimsical character study instead of a horror rip-off.

Benigni, who also directed, is in top form and his naïve, child-like character is quite engaging and helps make him a solid scene stealer throughout. He even manages to do the impossible and upstage the always reliable Matthau, although for the record Matthau is still good and it’s fun seeing these pros with extremely contrasting acting styles work together with a chemistry that is surprisingly strong.

The film features many funny and original moments. One of my favorites is when Giuditta goes into a long, detailed conversation about being ‘inside’ the old woman for days on-end much to the shock of the staid priests at the dinner table who think he is referring to sex. Giuditta’s reliving himself late at night in a park in which his pee shoots out like water from a garden hose is hilarious as well as his over-infatuation with a the alarm on a man’s wristwatch while riding on a train.

Why this charming little gem of a movie has never been released in America despite its big name stars is hard to understand. The film’s only real drawback is that it inserts a romantic angle during the second-half in which Giuditta falls in-love with Nina, which is played by Nicoletta Braschi who later married Benigni in real-life. Although Braschi is amusing and shares Benigni’s child-like, offbeat persona, the camaraderie between Matthau and Benigni is what makes the film work and that is where the focus should’ve stayed.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: July 3, 1988

Runtime: 1Hour 43Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Roberto Benigni

Studio Yarno Cinematografica

Available: VHS (English Subtitles), DVD (Italian Language only) (Region 0)

Big Top Pee-Wee (1988)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Pee-Wee joins the circus.

Pee-Wee (Paul Reubens) is now living the quiet life of a farmer. He’s not too popular with the older townsfolk of the neighboring small town where he resides, but manages to find friends with the circus that blows in after a violent storm. Although he is currently engaged to Winnie (Penelope Ann Miller), who is the beautiful local schoolteacher, he soon finds himself entranced with the trapeze artist Gine (Valeria Golino), which causes a great deal of conflict especially after Winnie finds out about it.

I’m not exactly sure why Tim Burton wasn’t brought in to direct this sequel and it could have something to do with the fact that a different studio produced it, but his vision is noticeably missed. Randal Kleiser has directed some good movies of his own, but never anything is this type of genre. It was Burton’s direction and not Pee-Wee’s persona, which is rather one-dimensional and can only be amusing in small doses, that made the first film the success that it was.  Burton infused a lot of garishly colorful sets, oddball characters that complemented Pee-Wees’, and a surreal storyline that all helped to make it strangely intriguing and funny, but here we get none of that.

Instead it is a contrived and conventional storyline that goes nowhere and just isn’t original enough to be worth catching. The first half comes off as disjointed and makes little sense. Pee-Wee seems to have gone back into time as the people in the town where he lives all wear clothes and drive cars that look that they are from the 1940’s, but with no explanation for why that is. The presence of the circus is equally stupid as it seems to have quite literally ‘blown in’ with the storm and into Pee-Wee’s backyard.

The film really gets boring when it focuses on the romantic subplot, which is what takes up the film’s whole second half. One big issue is why would two really beautiful women find this man-child attractive to begin with? A much funnier scenario that would’ve kept more with the bizarreness of the character would be for him to have a romance with one of the sideshow freaks at the circus like the bearded lady, or even the Siamese twins, which could’ve been played up to an even funnier level by having both twins in-love with him and compete for his affections, or having one in-love with him while the other couldn’t stand him.

In either case the film is just not weird enough to be entertaining and it also leans towards the formulaic by having most of its humor aimed at the kiddie crown, which the first one had thankfully avoided. A definite letdown when compared to the first one.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: July 22, 1988

Runtime: 1Hour 26Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Randal Kleiser

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube