Tag Archives: Bruce Dern

Silent Running (1972)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: He saves the forest.

Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) is a member of a 4-man space crew residing on a shuttle called Valley Forge that house underneath giant glass domes plant and animal life that was made extinct back on earth. One day the crew is ordered to destroy these domes, but Freeman refuses and kills his fellow crew members when they attempt to. He then jettisons the craft further into space and uses robotic drones to help keep the forests alive, but is horrified to learn that the members of another space ship called the Berkshire have been able to locate him and now want to board his vessel where they’ll soon find out what he has done.

This film marks the directorial debut of special effects wiz Douglas Trumbull and much like with his ‘80s effort Brainstorm is strong on visual design, but lacking in story substance. The script never bothers to explain what caused the plant life on earth to die, or why they are suddenly forced to destroy the domes on the ship. It’s almost like the three screenwriters, which included Michael Cimino, were merely content to come up with a very basic concept with a lot of simplistic plot devices bundled together.

The way Freeman is able to trick his superiors on the other end of the radio relay into making himself look innocent is so pathetically easy that it is hardly entertaining to watch. I would’ve thought in such as technologically advanced age that there would be cameras installed on the ship, so others could monitor what happens and not simply rely on verbal feedback from the crew.

The story’s second and third acts are in desperate need of more conflict. Instead of wasting time showing cutesy, silly scenes of Freeman playing poker with the drones there should’ve been a bad guy nemesis on the ship trying to thwart Freeman’s attempts to save the forest. The way he is able to kill off the other crew members is too easy especially the Cliff Potts character as all Freeman has to do is lightly push down on Potts’ neck with the handle of a shovel and it’s enough to kill him even though I thought he had just been briefly knocked unconscious as Freeman never bothers to check the man’s pulse and this was the type of character who could’ve come back to life and hide out on the ship while creating trouble.

Attempts to add some intrigue by having the plants in the forest suddenly die off mysteriously is utterly lame. I immediately presumed that it was because of a lack of sunlight, but Freeman the so-called botanist takes several days and lots of research until he finally comes up with this same conclusion, which is pathetic.

The songs by Joan Baez are loud and shrill and having to listen to three of them simply to bulk up the runtime only proves how empty the script is. The numerous flashback sequences showing footage that the viewer has already seen earlier are equally unnecessary.

Dern is good and helps hold the thing together in a role that I felt was tailored made for his acting style and was surprised to learn that he was only given the part after 17 others had turned it down. I also liked the outer look of the space craft even though you could clearly tell that it was a miniature. Unfortunately there are not enough compelling elements in the story to keep it interesting and the long stretches where little happens will easily bore most viewers.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: March 10, 1972

Runtime: 1 Hour 30 Minutes

Director: Douglas Trumbull

Rated G

Studio: Universal Pictures

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

That Championship Season (1982)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Their reunion turns sour.

On the 25th anniversary of when they won the state high school basketball championship four members of the team get together with their coach (Robert Mitchum) to celebrate. George (Bruce Dern) who made the winning shot is now the town’s mayor and up for reelection. James (Stacy Keach) is a high school principal while his younger brother Tom (Martin Sheen) has become a vagabond alcoholic. Phil (Paul Sorvino) is the most successful of the group even though his business methods aren’t always ethical. It’s his revelation that he has had an affair with George’s wife that sends the gathering into a freefall where long dormant secrets from all the members slowly come to the surface.

The film was written and directed by Jason Miller, best known for playing Father Karras in The Exorcist, and the play version, which he also wrote won him the Pulitzer Prize. Despite the rave reviews of the play I was genuinely shocked how lifeless and boring the film is. It takes 35 minutes before any real conflict is introduced and once it does it’s all very contrived. The opening half-hour is nice as it was filmed on-location in Scranton, Pennsylvania, which was Miller’s hometown, but the second half is done completely inside one home, which makes it very stagey. Flashback sequences were done to help make it more cinematic, but unwisely cut by the film’s producer.

The plot thread dealing with Sorvino’s character having an affair with Dern’s wife seemed so utterly contrived that I literally had to roll my eyes when it gets brought up. It’s almost like they had to throw in something to keep it interesting so why not just make it the oldest, most clichéd soap opera-like thing they could think of. What’s worse is we never see this woman in question despite her being the catalyst for all the drama nor any explanation of where she is or what she is doing.

The acting is good for the most part, which is the only reason I’m giving this thing even 2 points, but at times the performers have trouble rising above the melodramatic material including the scene where Keach tries to put on a cry while describing his mistreatment by his father, which sounds very fake and unintentionally laughable.

Sorvino walks around with jet black hair except for a big white patch on the back of his head, which is distracting and gets shown a lot, but never mentioned by any of the other characters. I’ve never seen anyone with that condition, except for someone who intentionally highlighted it like that and even so I don’t think that was the case here. The producers should’ve had that spot dyed black like the rest of his hair to avoid the distraction, or had one of the other characters joke about it in passing, so the viewer didn’t have to keep wondering why they are the only ones seeing it and nobody else was.

The final scene where the men listen to a tape of when their team scored the winning shot, which brings tears to their eyes, is the only segment that rings true and hits home how high school for some people can be the highlights of their whole lives and everything afterwards is all downhill. The rest of the movie though is an exercise in boredom and filled with sterile characters dealing with generic issues.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: December 9, 1982

Runtime: 1Hour 50 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Jason Miller

Studio: Cannon Film Distributors

Available: DVD

The Driver (1978)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: A professional getaway driver.

Ryan O’Neal plays a man who makes a living as a getaway driver for crooks leaving the scene of a crime. His driving skills are superior and in the criminal underworld his services are in high demand. Bruce Dern plays a police detective obsessed with catching this elusive driver. He makes a deal with a couple of bad guys (Joseph Walsh, Rudy Ramos) to hire this driver for their next robbery and then set him up for a police trap. The Driver is initially reluctant to work with the two, but eventually joins them only to ultimately look for help from a beautiful French woman known as the Player (Isabelle Adjani) to get him out of his jam.

I’ve never been much of an O’Neal fan, but here his lack of acting depth makes the movie more intriguing. The part was originally intended for Steve McQueen who would’ve given the role the stereotypically gritty treatment, but O’Neal has more of a boyish male model demeanor which makes you question whether he is tough enough, or brazen enough to handle the driving demands, so seeing him flourish when you’re not quite expecting it gives the character an interesting edge. I also liked the fact that at times even he conveys nervous facial expressions as he takes the vehicle through dangerous turns, which helps show even the ‘cool guys’ are human.

Dern easily steals the picture as he continues to find entertaining ways to give unique and memorable touches to all the characters that he plays. The dialogue that his character utters conforms yet again to his patented delivery. For instance he accuses his partner (Matt Clark) of possibly being a ‘fruitter’. In the past men of the gay persuasion were sometimes called ‘fruits’, but never a ‘fruitter’ which is a word he totally makes-up and would be considered inane and silly if said by anyone else, but when said with Dern’s patented delivery it makes the character seem even more unhinged and threatening instead. In fact Dern’s conversations with Clark are some of the movie’s best moments.

Although Adjani’s screen time is limited and I still enjoyed her presence and the fact that she doesn’t show any of the typical female vulnerability, but instead seems more stoic than any of the men makes her stand out from other female characters of that era. It’s also fun seeing her facial expression turned to an almost catatonic state during the film’s high octane final chase sequence.  Ronee Blakely doesn’t fare quite as well as she says her lines in too much of a monotone fashion though the ironic way that her character meets her demise does deserves a few points.

The chases are exciting particularly the opening one, which is done at night and the one done inside a car garage in which O’Neal intentionally destroys the car that he is driving in an attempt to teach the two other occupants that he is with a lesson. The cat-and-mouse scenario inside an abandoned warehouse that makes up the bulk of the film’s final chase is slick as well, but I felt there needed to be at least one more chase added as the film gets talky in-between and away from the action, which is what people that come to these type of films genres expect especially with the title that it has.

Writer/director Walter Hill shows a keen eye for detail and manages to capture everything, even an abandoned parking garage with a stylish allure. The script is smart and sophisticated with the character’s expressing themselves by using only the most minimum of words possible. The plot has a unique quality, but still manages to stay believable and why this thing failed at the box office and was chastised by the critics at the time is hard to understand, but it’s gained a strong cult following since and deserves more attention for being years ahead-of-its-time.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: July 28, 1978

Runtime: 1Hour 31Minutes

Rated R

Director: Walter Hill

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD, Blu-ray (Region B/2)

The ‘Burbs (1989)

burbs-2

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: New neighbors cause suspicion.

Ray (Tom Hanks) spends his vacation milling about his suburban home while keeping a close eye on his new neighbors that are rarely ever seen, but at night their basement emits strange noises and lights. Mark (Bruce Dern) and Art (Rick Ducommun) are two other men living in the cul-de-sac who notice the same things. Together they decide to form a strategy by finagling their way inside the rundown place and seeing what exactly is going on in there especially after another neighbor, the elderly Walter (Gale Gordon) mysteriously disappears.

Director Joe Dante has had a lot of success at doing films that mixes elements of horror with dark comedy, but this exercise fails almost immediately because there is nothing scary about it. In fact the humor and threadbare story are so innocuous that it becomes downright boring after about the first 10 minutes. The film fails to have much of a second or third act and the light doses of humor and action sprinkled about barely make up for it. The whole thing comes off like something written by an unimaginative novice that was more suited for an episode of an anthology series than a feature film.

Hanks manages to be marginally funny and Carrie Fisher makes for a good anchor as his no-nonsense wife, but Dern gets wasted as what starts out to be an over-the-top caricature of a right-wing gun-toting radical that soon gets as watered down as the rest of the script. He does manage to get in a few of his ‘Dernisms’, which was mainly due to the fact that the actors were allowed to ad-lib their own lines due to the fact that it was shot during a writer’s strike, but the part isn’t half as funny as it could’ve been. Also, in real-life a person like him wouldn’t be married to such a hot-looking younger woman and it would’ve been more impactful had the actress cast as his wife been his physical equal. I also wondered why they had so much free time to spend milling about the neighborhood. Hanks’ character was on vacation, but what was their excuse?

Spoiler Alert!

The ultimate revelation as to who the neighbors are or what they were doing is quite stale and almost like a non-event. If you are actually considering thinking of sitting through this thing just to find out that answer I would suggest that you don’t bother as it’s not in any way worth the effort. Also, there is never any explanation for what the neighbors were really doing, why they have a trunk full of human skulls, or why they would summon the police when they think their house has been broken into.  There is incriminating evidence at their residence, so why bother risking having the police come over to find it? Since they clearly didn’t have any problem killing people why didn’t they just attack the would-be intruders like they had done to their other victims?

End of Spoiler Alert!

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My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: February 17, 1989

Runtime: 1Hour 41Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Joe Dante

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD, Amazon Video

The Laughing Policeman (1973)

the laughing policeman 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: This policeman isn’t laughing.

8 passengers on a San Francisco bus are slaughtered to death by a mysterious gunman for no apparent reason. When Police Sargent Jake Martin (Walter Matthau) investigates he finds that his patrol partner is one of the victims. He soon learns that his partner was working on another case during his off hours dealing with a murdered prostitute that Jake had also worked on, but couldn’t crack. He begins to believe the two cases are somehow connected, but his brash department head (Anthony Zebe) doesn’t agree and thinks it is a waste of time to pursue the possible connection while also sticking him with Leo (Bruce Dern) a younger cop who doesn’t always like to play within the rules and whose manner and methods conflicts with Jake’s.

The film, which is based on the novel by Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall who also did the book version for Man on the Roof, has a finely detailed gritty nature about it that looks at the methods of a police investigation in a realistic and unglamorous fashion, which significantly helps this one stand out from the usual cop dramas. I loved the way they searched for clues on the bus and the autopsies of the victims as well as pursuing leads that never pan out, which is a very common occurrence in most police investigations, but rarely is ever shown in movies. There is even a shot of a tow truck removing the disabled bus from the accident scene once the investigation is completed.

Although the novel’s setting was Stockholm the movie transplants the action to San Francisco making the Bay City almost like a third character. Director Stuart Rosenberg manages to nicely capture the eclectic vibe of the area and the disdain many people had for the police during that era. The movie also uses very little music, which is a major asset and helps accentuate the realism. Outside of the closing credits the only time there is really any other music is near the end when Jake and Leo start following a suspect, which comes off as jarring and should’ve been left out.

Matthau who’s mostly known for his comedic parts does well in an atypical role, which due to his casting and the film’s strange title may make some think it is a comedy though this is far from it. Dern is terrific in a role that takes full advantage of his edgy acting style and I liked how the two characters don’t get along at first, but eventually get past their differences and use each other’s unique strengths to their advantage. I was disappointed though that there is a side-story dealing with Jake’s tumultuous relationship with his teenage son that gets introduced early on, but then dropped and completely forgotten during the second half.

Louis Gossett Jr. gets a star making turn as a brash street cop and Zerbe is superb in support as the gruff police chief. Joanna Cassidy has a brief, but interesting bit as a witness and I liked the shot showing her and Dern sitting amidst a row of tables with table legs made to look like human ones. It’s also amusing to note that Albert Paulsen’s character who becomes the main suspect in the film never utters a single word of dialogue.

Spoiler Alert!

The film’s biggest downfall though is with its ending. It is very hard to believe that a character such as Paulsen’s that is portrayed as being rich and having a lot of connections would feel the need to shoot and kill the bus passengers himself as most if not all rich people simply hire someone else to their dirty work. I also didn’t think that someone who walks down the street surrounded by lawyers would crack as quickly as this one does when Matthau comes to question him about the case. A typical well-off businessman would simply ‘lawyer-up’ and trust that the minimum evidence that the police have would not hold up in court instead of jumping into his car and racing down the city streets in a panic such as he does here. The finale becomes too conveniently Hollywood-like and seems to sell out on the film’s original concept, which left this viewer with a flat and ambivalent feeling towards it when it was over.

the laughing policeman 2

End of Spoiler Alert!

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: December 20, 1973

Runtime: 1Hour 52Minutes

Rated R

Director: Stuart Rosenberg

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD

Tattoo (1981)

tattoo

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: He tattoos her body.

Karl Kinsky (Bruce Dern) is a tattoo artist hired to put tattoos on some models for a fashion shoot. There he becomes obsessed with one of the models named Maddy (Maude Adams). The two begin dating, but when he starts to show signs of being too possessive she breaks it off, which angers him. He then drugs and kidnaps her and takes her to an abandoned house where he becomes determined to put his ‘mark’ on her by spending weeks creating a tattoo that will eventually covers her entire body.

Bob Brooks who was best known for directing award-winning commercials particularly in the U.K. shows a rather lifeless effort here in his one and only cinematic effort. I thought it would have been more interesting to have given the viewer a close-up and clinical understanding of how a tattoo is implemented and the basic overall procedure, but unfortunately the film breezes past this part and tries turning it into a conventional thriller, which lacks tension or intrigue.

Dern’s character resembles that of a psycho caricature and the way he unravels so quickly is uninteresting. The story and pace meander badly and Joyce Bunuel’s script is more like an outline than a character or plot driven story.

Adams is badly miscast. For one thing she is a weak actress that fails to add any extra dimension to either the character or role. She is also too old. Most stalkers tend to prey on younger women and equate their perceived virginal innocence with a better ability to dominate and control them not a jaded 35-year-old woman who has already openly slept with a lot of different men and whose incessant, vapid yammering would be a turn-off to any guy.

When we finally get to see the finished tattoo at the end it looks like the most garish thing imaginable and second only to the awful one that he has on his back. Watching their tattooed bodies gyrate together during sex seems almost comical.

The film achieved some notoriety during its initial release when Dern stated during interviews that the sex the two had was real even though Adams insisted that it was simulated. Personally I think it was faked and Dern merely said this as a way to generate more interest in the movie. Either way it doesn’t matter because it’s a lousy movie anyways.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: October 9, 1981

Runtime: 1Hour 43Minutes

Rated R

Director: Bob Brooks

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: VHS

Middle Age Crazy (1980)

middle age crazy

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Not Ready for 40.

Bobby Lee (Bruce Dern) is a Texas businessman who builds taco stands for a living. Although he is genuinely happy with his life he finds his job boring and dealing with the demanding clients to be frustrating. He loves his wife Sue Ann (Ann-Margret), but her constant smothering him with love makes him feel suffocated. Turning 40 becomes a major milestone and one he wishes would go away. To compensate he starts to act erratically by buying himself an expensive sports car, telling off his obnoxious clients and even having an affair with a much younger woman, but it all makes him feel empty and just as lost and confused.

Having turned the wrong side of 40 myself now several years back I can vouch for what this character is feeling and some of the points it makes are certainly relatable to anyone the same age especially males. The first half of the movie is the best as it has several dream-like segments where the character fantasizes about seeing himself in different situations. The one where he sees himself presiding over his own funeral is amusing, but the best one is where he imagines having sex with his college-aged son’s girlfriend in the backseat of a car while the tune ‘Good Girls Don’t’ by the Knack plays on the radio.

The dialogue is equally funny with some politically incorrect lines that really hit-the-mark with the strongest one coming during a commencement speech that he imagines giving to a graduating class of high school seniors. It was so good I felt obligated to print a slightly condensed version of it here:

“Every year thousands of you kids put on these silly, fucking hats to hear some other kid in a silly, fucking hat tell you that you are the future, but there is not enough future to go around. If you want to know your real future look at your folks in the stands. Fat butts and sagging tits that’s your future. If you had any sense you would give back your diplomas and silly hats and stay 18 the rest of your lives. You don’t want the future because the future sucks!”

The acting is a real grab bag. Graham Jarvis a balding actor best known for playing uptight characters scores here as Bobby’s foul mouthed over-sexed friend J.D. Dern who is almost always engaging especially in bad guy roles seems too restrained and even boring. Ann-Margret is much too clingy as the wife and would probably drive any man away and Michael Kane’s caricature of an obnoxious Texas businessman is irritatingly clichéd.

The film veers into heavy-handed drama during the second half and ultimately limps along to a flat finale. Had the film stayed with the lighthearted, quirky tone that it had at the beginning it might have worked, but instead comes off as rather amateurish and disjointed.

The film is based on a Jerry Lee Lewis song and has a hard time taking a basic idea, which is what a song really is and trying to turn it into feature length material. It is also interesting to note that despite being filmed on-location in Texas the movie was financed by a Canadian production company, which technically makes it a foreign film.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: July 25, 1980

Runtime: 1Hour 37Minutes

Rated R

Director: John Trent

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: VHS

Drive, He Said (1971)

drive he said 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Player doesn’t like coach.

This is one of those movies that shows signs of being a really great movie trying to break out, but never does. It’s about Hector (William Tepper) a college basketball star who is being tugged at different directions by those around him and by society at-large. This creates inner turmoil that leads to outbursts, apathy, and even anti-social behavior.

Tepper as the star isn’t the best of actors. He has a constant blank look and way too much hair. The character he plays has potential. It is nice to see a portrait of an athlete that isn’t one-dimensional sports, but instead shows intelligent and sensitivity to things that go well beyond the court. Yet he is also too self- absorbed and displays a selfish behavior that in most cases would alienate him from his teammates. What is supposed to be betrayed as angst instead comes off as an obnoxious, spoiled college kid. His constant rebellion with his coach (Bruce Dern) doesn’t mesh.

The film makes some good observations and brings up great issues. Unfortunately it ends up becoming diluted. In some ways it should have just stuck with the basketball angle. The camera shots that glides with the action during the games is excellent. Some of the scenes during the practice and some of the locker room segments of Dern coaching the team gives the viewer a good taste of the college basketball experience and makes you want to see more of it. However, incorporating late sixties politics into it only makes it redundant and in this area the film offers no new insight.

The film does have its moments and some of them are even memorable. The best ones involve actor Michael Margotta’s character as a student radical wavering on insanity. His assault on the Karen Black character while inside a large, darkened house is striking both visually and emotionally. The scene where he, while naked, runs into a science lab and releases all sorts of rats, rodents, and reptiles is a sight in itself.

Dern with his glazed stare and intense acting style seems like a natural for the part of the hard-driven coach. It’s too bad the film doesn’t make the most of it, but Black is looking at her best.

Jack Nicholson as a director is not as good as Nicholson the actor although he does show potential, but it doesn’t come together as a whole. The film should best be viewed as a curio or artifact of its era. There is also a surprisingly high amount of male nudity as well as homo-erotic overtones.

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My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: June 13, 1971

Runtime: 1Hour 35Minutes

Rated R

Director: Jack Nicholson

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD (Region 1 & 2)

The Trip (1967)

the trip

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: He tries some acid.

Jack Nicholson wrote the screenplay to this film which is based loosely experiences he had while taking LSD as well as the break-up of his marriage to actress Sandra Knight. The story centers on Paul (Peter Fonda) a director of TV commercials whose marriage to Sally (Susan Strasberg) is on the rocks. He has a need to ‘find himself’ and seeks help from his friend John (Bruce Dern) who is a self-styled acid guru. John gives Paul some acid while promising that he will stay with him during his drug induced trip. The rest of the film then deals with Paul’s experiences both in his mind and in his dealings with the outside world while he is hallucinating.

To prepare for the film Nicholson, Fonda and Dennis Hopper, who appears in a minor supporting role, all took part in a group LSD trip and the various visions that they experienced are incorporated here. Director Roger Corman also tried LSD at a different time to prepare for the film. The only one not to try it was Dern who was staunchly opposed to recreational drug use and in fact even his character doesn’t take any as evidenced by a scene where everyone is taking a puff of some marijuana and when it gets passed to him he simply passes it to the next person without trying even though everyone else does.

The scenes recreating the acid trip are not all that interesting or imaginative. It’s all pretty much what you would expect with a barrage of artsy colorful designs popping up at the viewer in split second intervals that reminded me very much of looking through a kaleidoscope. The images aren’t coherent, nor meant to be, and become vapid in the process. The scene involving Paul sitting on a merry-go-round while trying to justify his existence to Hopper who is dressed in a devil-like costume gets quite tedious.

Things improve during the second half when John, who promised he would stay at Paul’s side during his trip, ends up leaving him momentarily to retrieve some apple juice. During this time Paul escapes from the home he is in and goes out onto the city streets. The editing and effects here are impressive and ahead of its time. Some of the visits he has with the people he meets prove interesting including an offbeat conversation that he has with a lady that he meets inside a Laundromat as well as one he has with a very young girl inside her house.

Although he starts out shaky I felt Fonda’s performance was pretty good and this may be one of the best roles of his career. Strasberg who receives second billing appears just briefly and has very few speaking lines. Dern is always fun when he is playing eccentric or intense characters, but here where he is playing a relatively normal one he is boring. His part was originally written for Nicholson to play and I think he would have done better.

I was expecting some sort of tragic or profound-like ending especially with the opening paragraph that starts the film and is read by a narrator with a very authoritative newsman-like voice describing the ‘horrors’ of drug use and how it is becoming a serious societal problem. However, nothing really happens. The movie just kind of stops and that is it. The weak conclusion hurts what is already a so-so film making it like the drug itself an interesting experiment, but nothing more.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: August 23, 1967

Runtime: 1Hour 25Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Roger Corman

Studio: American International Pictures

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video