Tag Archives: Art Carney

Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Dog becomes a star.

Estie Del Ruth (Madeline Kahn) is a struggling actress still waiting for her big break. While roaming the streets she comes upon a homeless dog (Augustus Von Schumacher) and befriends it. Grayson (Bruce Dern) is a hapless tour guide driving a bus filled with tourists past the homes of the famous Hollywood stars. He’d rather be directing movies and has some great ideas, but is constantly getting turned down. Then one day famous studio mogul J.J. Fromberg (Art Carney) witnesses the dog saving Estie from a lecherous producer (Aldo Ray) and is so impressed that he wants to cast the dog in its own movie. Grayson, seeing this as his chance to finally break into the movie business, pretends to be the dog’s owner and therefore allowed to be in charge of directing the dog’s film, but the dog will only take orders from from Estie forcing him to allow her to tag along, but only if he helps her get a movie contract.

The story was originally titled ‘A Bark was Born’ and written by Cy Howard in 1971 and was an account of the famous 1920’s real-life dog star known as Rin Tin Tin. He commissioned Arnold Schulman to write the script for him. Schulman, who was coming off a good run of films as screenwriter including penning the scripts for Goodbye Columbus and Funny Lady decided to add some satirical elements to the story before finally handing it off to studio head David Picker to produce. However, the owners of Rin Tin Tin sued Picker for producing a film about their dog without authorization causing Picker to remove the fictional elements from the script and turning it into a all-out farcical parody of old-time Hollywood instead.

The film’s biggest problem is that it doesn’t give the viewer a feeling that they’re being transported to a different era as the 1920’s are played-up as being too cartonish and silly to be believable. The characters are caricatures that have no emotional connection to the audience, so watching their ascent into Hollywood success is neither interesting nor compelling. The humor relies too much on throwaway bits that have no connection to the main plot and mostly fall flat while moments that do have comic potential, like the dog only taking orders from Kahn, do not get played-up enough.

Kahn is a poor choice for the lead and single-handily bogs the production down, which wasn’t too great to begin with. She is perfect as a supporting actress playing over-the-top, eccentric characters, but as a normal person trying to elicit sympathy she does poorly. Lily Tomlin was the original choice for the part, but she wanted the script rewritten in order for it to have a more serious edge, which wouldn’t have been a bad idea,  but director Michael Winner wanted to keep the thing silly and lightweight and didn’t agree.

Dern, who expressed in an interview decades later, that doing this film was his one true career regret, is actually quite good and its fun seeing him play in a more lighthearted role versus the darker ones that have made up so much of his onscreen presence. However, by the second half he pretty much gets written-out, which was a shame. Ron Leibman, as the cross-dressing silent film star Rudy Montague, has a few interesting moments, but he plays the part in too much of an intense manner making him seem more creepy than funny.

Art Carney is not funny at all as the big-time studio head and the part would’ve been better served had it been played by Phil Silvers, who gets stuck in a much smaller role that does not take advantage of his comic talents. The rest of the cast is made-up of walk-on bits by famous stars of the past. Most these cameos are not amusing or interesting making their presence much like the movie itself quite pointless.

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: May 29, 1976

Runtime: 1 Hour 32 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Michael Winner

Studio: Paramount Pictures

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

Firestarter (1984)

firestarter

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Girl has fire power.

Andrew (David Keith) and Victoria (Heather Locklear) are two struggling college students who in an attempt to make some extra money decide to take part in medical study where they receive injections of a drug that give them telepathic abilities. They later get married and have a child named Charlene (Drew Barrymore) who has the same type of abilities except hers allows her to start fires using only her mind. Now a secret governmental agency known as The Shop seeks to kidnap Charlene so they can use her abilities for their own nefarious means, which sends Charlene and her father on a cross-country run to try and escape the agency’s clutches.

If there is one thing that really stands out in this movie and makes it worth the watch it’s Drew’s performance. She was only 8 at the time, but has a presence and acting awareness that was well beyond her years and she easily upstages her more seasoned co-stars. Her character isn’t completely fleshed-out and I’ll agree with Roger Ebert in his review that she was created more like a “plot gimmick”, than anything, but Drew still makes it engaging nonetheless. My only real complaint with her character is why, when she does get apprehended by the governmental agency, that she doesn’t she just use her fire ability to burn down the door of the room that she is trapped in to escape?

George C. Scott is an equally interesting as the bad guy even though he ends up being trapped into the same type of contrived character with motivations, particularly his reasons for befriending the girl, that seem quite nebulous and even illogical. However, his presence lends an added edge and I loved his ponytail as well as the contact lens put into his left eye that gives him an android-type appearance.

The rest of the cast though does not fare as well. Art Carney and Louise Fletcher, two Academy Award winners, get stuck in a small, almost insignificant roles as a father and daughter farm family who temporarily takes in Andrew and Charlene when they are on the run, which is okay, but the idea that this same couple would later happily take in Charlene again after they had witnessed her frightening ability first-hand and the burning deaths of several people that she helped create is ridiculous. In reality they would’ve seen her as some sort of ‘freak’ to be wary of and scared that she might do the same thing to them one day and thus want nothing to do with and certainly not welcomed back into their home.

As for the plot it’s okay, but it takes quite a while to get going and only becomes moderately gripping during the second-half. The script is based of course on a Stephen King novel and the scenes showing Charlene setting various people and things on fire seemed too much like an offshoot to King’s more famous Carrie character and thus the originality is lost. There’s also just so much objects/people being set on fire one can watch before it starts getting redundant, which makes the climactic finish boring, lame and even laughable.

I also wasn’t sure how Charlene was able to stop bullets from hitting her. This subject gets discussed in a thread on IMDb with some posters surmising that it was apparently a ‘heat shield’ that she was able to create through her pyrokinesis. However, if that was the case then it should’ve gotten explained earlier otherwise it comes off looking like the filmmakers were just making up the rules as they went whenever it was convenient for them.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: May 11, 1984

Runtime: 1Hour 54Minutes

Rated R

Director: Mark L. Lester

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Going in Style (1979)

going-in-style

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Old guys rob bank.

Three elderly men (George Burns, Art Carney, Lee Strasburg) who are living together in a rundown Brooklyn apartment and on a fixed income decide one day to liven up their lives by robbing a bank. None of them have ever committed a crime before and don’t even know how to handle a gun, but end up pulling off a major heist nonetheless and getting away with $35,000 in cash. However, things begin to fall apart once the crime is completed and even a side-trip to Vegas can’t keep the feds from slowly moving in.

On the outset the plot seems like a very funny idea and some of the social context about the difficulties of growing old that gets mixed in with it is right on-target. However, to me it just doesn’t come together. The men latch on to the idea too quickly and I would’ve expected more resistance or having at least one of them chickening out at the last second. These are individuals with no criminal record and although I realize that they are bored why couldn’t they have just taken up a new hobby or social cause instead. It’s not like they were out on the streets or completely desperate. The apartment they resided in looked livable enough and I might’ve bought into the premise better had one of them needed a major operation and thus the others were forced to go to extremes like robbing a bank to help pay for it.

The part where they sit around a table trying to figure out which stack of bullets goes into which gun is amusing and quite possibly the best bit in the film, but there’s a lot more comic potential that could’ve been squeezed out of this otherwise quirky plot that is never taken advantage of. The crime gets carried off in too much of a seamless fashion with a myriad of possible problems that could’ve and should’ve cropped up being completely overlooked.

The second half that deals with two of them taking a trip to Vegas seems like a plotline to a whole different movie.  Writer/director Martin Brest should’ve chosen one or the other by either playing up the bank robbery premise and its preparation more or just rolled from the beginning with the Vegas trip, which has a lot of funny untapped potential as well, but cramming the two together or not taking enough advantage of either one was a mistake.

Burns gives an excellent performance and I was amazed how very talented this 83 year-old gentlemen was especially when you factor in that he never had any formal acting training and was basically just a vaudeville comedian, but here he creates a convincing and surprisingly savvy character. Strasberg, who spent years as an acting teacher and didn’t do any film roles until much later in his life, is superb as well and I was disappointed his character wasn’t in more scenes.

A reboot of this film has already been completed and set for an April 7, 2017 release. It will star Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin as the three elderly men and I’m quite interested to see how the two versions deviate from the other. I’m hoping that the comedy angle gets played up more and from reading the synopsis I have an inkling it will. It hopefully will be an improvement as I came away from this one feeling like it had missed-the-mark.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: December 25, 1979

Runtime: 1Hour 38Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Martin Brest

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube

W. W. and the Dixie Dancekings (1975)

w w dixie dancekings

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Conman promotes country band.

Burt Reynolds plays a good-natured, fun-loving conman who travels the south robbing gas stations as well as conning anyone out of their money in any way he can. He comes into contact with the Dixie Dancekings a struggling country band trying to make it big. W.W. initially sees this as another con-game by pretending to be a big time manager, who can use his influence to bring them to Nashville and send them straight to the top, but eventually he takes a liking to them and them to him and they begin working together to make it big while robbing banks along the way.

The film  is  fun and breezy and quite entertaining at the start. Reynolds’ charm practically propels the thing the whole way and manages to almost make up for its other shortcomings. His glib non sequiturs and boyish grin are on full display making this one of his better comical vehicles. I also loved the creative scene transitions and the playful digs at southern culture. It all comes to a head near the midway point when the group robs a bank with Polly Holliday playing the teller that makes great use of its cartoonish props and overblown action.

Unfortunately Thomas Rickman’s script fails to introduce any type of third act. The story coasts too much on its playful humor until it becomes old and tiring. There is not enough momentum or conflict and no discernable tension at all. The band members have no individual personalities and come off like faceless lemmings that are there to support Reynolds’ spotlight and nothing more.  Art Carney has a few interesting moments cast in an atypical role of the heavy in this case a police detective who is also a religious zealot that tracks the group down, but the dumb way that their final confrontation gets resolved is dull and disappointing.

It’s great to see country singer Jerry Reed making is acting film debut as he and Reynolds  would later go on to star in three more films together, but his character is not given enough to do, which ultimately makes is presence pointless.  Conny Van Dyke gets cast as the female lead, but shows little pizazz. The part was originally offered to Dolly Parton who would’ve been far superior, but she unfortunately turned it down.

John G. Avildsen’s direction is at times creative, but the plot and characters needed more layers as it all regrettably adds up to being nothing more than forgettable fluff.

w w dixie dancekings 2

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: May 21, 1975

Runtime: 1Hour 31Minutes

Rated PG

Director: John G. Avildsen

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: None at this time.