Tag Archives: Barbara Harris

North Avenue Irregulars (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Church ladies battle mobsters.

Reverend Michael Hill (Edward Herrmann) becomes the new pastor at the North Avenue Presbyterian Church, but right away things get off to a rocky start when the church’s funds get gambled away on a horse race. When Hill tries to retrieve the money he finds out that it is an illegal gambling joint run behind a dry cleaning business, who are always able to skillfully remove their presence before the police arrive. Hill goes on TV to lambaste organized crime in their town, which catches the attention of two treasury agents (Michael Constantine, Steve Franken) who want Hill to help them close down the gambling joints by having him hire men from his church to place bets at the parlors, but all of the men refuse. Hill then asks for the help of the church women who agree to do it and after some initial setbacks begin to make headway in taking down the area mobsters.

Usually I always say it’s important for films that are aimed for a young audience to have children playing the protagonist, but in this case the children characters have only small supporting roles and yet the film still manages to deliver the laughs. The main reason is the talented female cast who have distinctive personalities and convey comic form in different ways. Cloris Leachman is amusing as the middle-aged cougar with long finger nails, Virginia Capers is quite funny too as a heavy-set woman who doesn’t allow her big build to stop her from running several blocks in order to tail the bad guys and the variety of vehicles she drives with funny phrases painted on their windshields, which are all from her husband’s used car dealership, are humorous too. Barbara Harris as a suburban mother who chases the mobsters while driving in a station wagon packed full of kids in it is great too.

What may be surprising to many is that it’s all based on true events that occurred to Revenrend Albert Fay Hill when he took over as the minister at the North Avenue Presbyterian Church in New Rochelle, NY in 1961. It was there that he became a crusader against organized crime after the murder of a young man for not repaying his gambling debts. Like in the movie his fight gained the attention of US Treasury agents who wanted him to get his male parishioners to place bets with the mobsters, but the men all refused so he recruited their wives whose efforts managed to shut down several gambling houses, which lead to a front page write-up in The New York Times as well as Look magazine.

Of course the movie exaggerates things for comic effect, but it’s forgiven because the stunts are quite funny, which culminates in a massive car pile-up consisting of the demolition of 14 cars at the cost of $155,000. The scene involving the church getting blown up is amusing too because behind-the-scenes when it was first done the cinematographer forgot to put film in the camera forcing the crew to painstakingly rebuild the church just so they could try to do it all over again.

The film’s only weak element is Herrmann whose performance is certainly sincere and likable, but he’s never funny while Constantine is hilarious as the exasperated agent who has a virtual nervous breakdown dealing with the women and for that reason the film would’ve been more engaging had he been the lead character. I was also confused why the Reverend was  a single parent as there’s no explanation I could remember for what happened to the wife. In the book that this film is based, and in the true-life incident, the minster was married, so why was it decided that he should be single here? I got the idea it was because they wanted to create a romance between he and his secretary played by Susan Clark, but since nothing much comes from that it seemed unnecessary.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: February 9, 1979

Runtime: 1 Hour 40 Minutes

Rated G

Director: Bruce Bilson

Studio: Buena Vista

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Family Plot (1976)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Alfred Hitchcock’s last movie.

Blanche Tyler (Barbara Harris) is a phony psychic whose client, the rich heiress Julia Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbitt) offers her a reward of $10,000 if she can use her ‘psychic abilities’ to find Julia’s long-lost nephew who was given up for adoption years earlier. Blanche employs her boyfriend George (Bruce Dern) who works as a cabbie in-between acting gigs, to find the man. George ends up stumbling upon someone who he thinks may be him, Arthur Adamnson (William Devane), but ends up getting in-over-his-head when Arthur proves to have ulterior motives.

The film’s claim-to-fame is that it was the last one directed by Alfred Hitchcock, which is probably the only good thing to say about it. Technically it’s not bad, but it’s not terribly interesting either. Everything that gets done here has been done before in other films with more interesting results. This includes a sequence where Blanche and George’s car goes careening down a mountain highway with no breaks, which isn’t exciting at all and looks clearly shot in front of a green screen.

After completing the far edgier Frenzy I was expecting Hitch to try and push the envelope even more, but instead he draws back with a pedestrian story that’s full-of-holes.  It was based on the novel ‘The Rainbird Pattern’ written by Victor Canning, which had a darker tone. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman wanted to capture that same tone here, but Hitch pushed him instead for a lighter quality that borders on camp, but ultimately comes off as gimmicky. The ending is particularly limp and for someone once dubbed the ‘Master of Suspense’ there is very little of it here.

The only moment that stuck out for me is where Blanche and George sit down to eat hamburgers. Normally actors in films rarely eat the food that they’re served and will usually either take small nibbles, or simply leave it on the plate without taking a single bite, but here both Dern and Harris take big bites from their burgers while continuing to talk. At one point a piece of burger spits out of Dern’s mouth as he speaks and he instinctually holds up his hand in front of his mouth in an embarrassment, which was strangely left in. Most directors would’ve quickly stopped the scene and reshot it, but instead Hitch decided to let it continue, which adds an odd realism probably not seen anywhere else.

The casting is the only real bright spot especially Devane, who normally played good guys, but takes a turn as a villain here and does quite well. In fact it’s the best performance of his career. Unfortunately the two women (Harris and Karen Black who plays Devane’s girlfriend) are wasted and for the most part have very little to do. Black’s role could’ve been cut out completely in a film that especially when compared to the director’s earlier works is a huge disappointment.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: April 9, 1976

Runtime: 2 Hours 1 Minute

Rated PG

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Studio: Universal

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

The War Between Men and Women (1972)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Misogynist cartoonist goes blind.

Peter Wilson (Jack Lemmon) is a popular cartoonist whose drawings depict women in disparaging ways. He enjoys his job and single lifestyle where he can live on his terms and keeps his apartment as messy as possible, which he usually does. However, his already poor eyesight gets worse and upon a recent visit to his optometrist (Severn Darden) he finds that he must get an operation to help save it and even then there is a fifty percent chance that he could still go blind. Despondent and depressed he meets Theresa (Barbara Harris) a single mother with issues of her own. The two enter into a whirlwind romance that quickly leads to marriage only to have Theresa’s ex-husband Stephen (Jason Robards) show up at the wedding and wanting to rekindle their relationship.

Peter’s character is loosely based on James Thurber and the film itself is a distant cousin to the TV-series ‘My World and Welcome to it’ that aired for one year on NBC during the 1969-70 season. The film though doesn’t have enough of Thurber’s whimsical humor to make it worth watching. It starts off with some potential as it opens with a weird animated segment and drawings that closely resembled Thurber’s, but then quickly devolves into a contrived comedy/romance with maudlin drama thrown in that makes it seem like two movies in one. Had it stuck with the animation it would’ve done better, but even that gets kind of stupid including one segment where Peter’s drawings start to attack him, which forces the humans to stage an all-out war between them and the cartoon characters.

Peter’s acerbic, woman hating personality is initially diverting, but then for no reason he does a 180-degree turn by falling in-love with Theresa almost immediately and becoming a conventional husband and father while turning the film into a silly version of ‘The Brady Bunch’. I also couldn’t understand why Theresa would fall so head-over-heels for Peter as the two are trading barbs one second and then in bed together the next making their character’s motivations quite confusing.

Robards, who has his hair dyed dark brown and is almost unrecognizable, gets stuck with a thankless supporting role and is seen only briefly. Initially his presence had some potential as he starts to become buddies with Peter and plot against Theresa, but then his character dies unexpectedly making it confusing why he had been written-in in the first place. Lisa Gerritsen, who is best known for playing Cloris Leachman’s daughter in the ‘Mary Tyler Moore Show’ TV-show and the subsequent spin-off ‘Phyllis’ has some appealing moments, but her constant stammering becomes annoying.

Thurber’s wit was unique and legendary, but this film is too timid to dive completely into it. I suppose the idea of having an openly misogynistic protagonist was considered ‘too edgy’ for early 70’s cinema, so attempts were made to make the character more mainstream, but in the process creates a film that is disjointed and bland.

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My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: June 1, 1972

Runtime: 1Hour 38Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Melville Shavelson

Studio: National General Pictures

Available: VHS

Who is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (1971)

who is harry kellerman 2

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Paranoid songwriter self-destructs.

Georgie Soloway (Dustin Hoffman) is a successful songwriter who has written dozens of chart topping songs for different bands and yet feels alone and guilt ridden. He lives in his swanky Manhattan penthouse feeling paranoid after a man by the name of Harry Kellerman starts calling his friends and saying malicious things about him, which risks jeopardizing his career and reputation. He tells his problems to his psychiatrist (Jack Warden) while also searching for Kellerman, but makes no headway.

Story-wise the film is a misfire as Herb Gardner’s script has no discernable plot and a main character that doesn’t grow or evolve. Even if taken as a collection of vignettes it doesn’t work and it becomes more like a pointless one-man soliloquy instead. The final revelation of the mysterious Kellerman is not all that surprising or worth sitting through. Why the filmmakers thought viewers would be interested in watching a man essentially self-destruct for two hours is a mystery and it is as boring as it sounds. Besides it is hard for the average person to feel sorry for someone who seems to have it all and loaded with money and thus makes the character’s problems and issues seem quite minute and his perpetual whining overly monotonous.

The only thing that saves it is Ulu Grosbard’s creative direction. I enjoyed some of the surreal elements particularly those done during his sessions with his psychiatrist as well as a scene showing Georgie running through a long lighted tunnel that seems to have no end. The final segment done on a single-jet airplane is captivating especially as it flies through the clouds and watching two skiers’ glide through the snow from a bird’s-eye perspective has an equally mesmerizing effect. I also loved the way the film captures the New York skyline during a visual taken from the plane as it swoops over the city and a scene done in the early morning hours in downtown Manhattan without seemingly a single car driving on the street gives off a strangely unique feeling.

Barbara Harris, who doesn’t come on until the second half, is a scene stealer as an insecure actress who bombs at her audition, but then refuses to leave the stage. It was good enough to get her nominated for the Academy Award that year, but she lost out to Cloris Leachman and as much as I love Cloris Barb really should have won it as she is the one thing the enlivens this otherwise flat film and had her character been in it more this would have been a far better movie. David Burns, who died from a sudden heart attack while performing in a play three months before this film’s release, is touching as Georgie’s father.

Grosbard and Hoffman teamed up again seven years later for Straight Time, which is far superior and more worth your time to watch.

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My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: June 15, 1971

Runtime: 1Hour 48Minutes

Rated R

Director: Ulu Grosbard

Studio: National General Pictures

Available: VHS, DVD

Nice Girls Don’t Explode (1987)



By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Love meets spontaeous combustion.

April Flowers (Michelle Meyrink) has a serious problem. Whenever she goes out on a date with a guy and gets even the slightest bit aroused by him she starts inadvertently setting off fires. Smoke comes popping out of nowhere and before her dates know what is happening their clothes are on fire or worse her date’s fancy cars. April is always sure to bring along protection and in this case that means a small fire extinguisher, but they can’t always put out all the fires that she creates. What April doesn’t know is that it is really her mother (Barbara Harris) who is setting the fires. She buys the explosive ingredients from a pyrotechnic (Wallace Shawn) secretly follows April on her dates and then at just the right moment she uses her remote control to set them off, but now April is dating Andy (William O’Leary) who is on to what the mother is doing and determined to expose her shenanigans to April.

Had this film stayed with the idea that April had some sort of ability to start these fires herself it might have worked as there are a plethora of different and interesting avenues that the story could have taken. Having the plot take the avenue that it does brings up more questions and loopholes and doesn’t really make any sense. Are we to believe that April has now grown into young adulthood and never once suspected that her mother is following her around everywhere and doing what she is doing? And what would compel a mother to torment her daughter in such a way and does she actually believe that she can go on achieving this bizarre stunt for the rest of her daughter’s life and never get caught? None of these questions get answered or even touched upon and instead we are given corny humor that becomes increasingly cartoonish as it progresses until is insulting to anyone with any resemblance of an intellect.

The movie is basically a bad example of a one-joke idea getting stretched out farther than it can or should. After the first five minutes the novelty wears off and has nowhere to go and limps along until it becomes excruciatingly boring and mindless.

Harris gives it her all and to some extent succeeds. I have always enjoyed her work no matter how bad the script, but this one really pushes it. I found it surprising why a woman who was nominated twice for the Academy Award, won several Tonys on Broadway, and was Alfred Hitchcock’s last leading lady would have to settle for this low-grade silliness simply to make a living. Unless of course screenwriter Paul Harris was in some way related to her, so she decided to do it as a favor, but that has never been confirmed.

Meyrink is appealing. She has a geeky quality, but still pretty with a good comic delivery and it is a shame that she did only one more movie after this before dropping out of the business completely. Shawn is also fun as the fire expert, but everyone else is either dull, or has no ability to act.

Someone really should have set fire to this script. Filmed on-location in Lawrence, Kansas this may be the only film in history that lists a stunt double for a cat.

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: February 22, 1987

Runtime: 1Hour 28Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Chuck Martinez

Studio: New World Pictures

Available: VHS