Tag Archives: Comedy/Drama

Happy Birthday, Wanda June (1971)

 

happy birthday wanda june

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Macho men are annoying.

Since today is my birthday I’ve decided to spend the next two days reviewing films with a birthday theme. Today’s review is based on a play by celebrated writer (and Indianapolis native) Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who also wrote the screenplay.  It examines what happens when an egotistical man and war hero from the past (Rod Steiger) returns home after abandoning his family eight years earlier.

Vonnegut’s script takes a lot of shots and makes some great comments about the empty bravado of the male image and the male’s changing role and expectations in modern society.  The protagonist, Harold Ryan, is deftly written as a relic from the past harboring all the age-old macho characteristics and clinging onto embellishments of the past while unable to evolve, or even communicate with those around him. Dr. Woodley (George Grizzard) represents the more educated and new-age man who is peaceful, sensitive, and cultured. The story revolves around the two battling for the same woman (Susannah York) and culminates with an interesting and off-beat symbolic type of showdown.

Director Mark Robson does an adequate job of implementing a cinematic quality to what is otherwise a filmed stage play. The cutaways involving dead characters that are now in heaven and speak directly to the camera help, but there needed to be more of them and more evenly placed. I would have also liked a few scenes shot outside and in the daytime as the perpetual indoor scenery becomes stagnating and claustrophobic.

Steiger, normally a very good and diverting actor, seems miscast here. He is never convincing as a tough guy and it affects the story’s impact. York, another fine actress if given the right role, doesn’t seem right for her part either although she does look surprisingly sexy in a skimpy waitress outfit during a flashback scene.

I did like the child performers and felt that they did better than their adult counterparts. Steven Paul is excellent as Paul Ryan who initially idolizes his father until exposed to his many flaws. Pamelyn Ferdin is cute as Wanda June, the girl who gets hit by an ice cream truck and spends the entire time jaunting through heaven. Ferdin later became a famous animal activist and was runner-up for the Regan MacNeil role in The Exorcist. Linda Blair was of course great, but Ferdin’s uniquely piercing gaze always made me wonder if she might have ended up playing the part better.

William Hickey is engaging and amusing as Harold’s best friend. Don Murray almost steals it from everyone as Herb Shuttle a very vapid man whose pathetic attempts at trying to be macho are hilarious and make up most of the film’s humor.

The one thing that eventually ruined it for me was the main character who is too obnoxious. At least Archie Bunker in ‘All in the Family’ had a vulnerable side, but the guy here is ignorant without being funny and having to watch the callous way he treats everyone is straining and unpleasant. Also,the musical score is dreary and almost non-existent.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: December 9, 1971

Runtime: 1Hour 45Minutes

Rated R (Adult Theme, Language)

Director: Mark Robson

Studio: Columbia

Availability: None 

Harry and Tonto (1974)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Old man and cat.

Harry Combes (Art Carney) is a 72 year old retiree living in a small New York apartment with his pet cat Tonto and finds out that the complex is about to be torn down and he must leave. At first he moves in with his son (Phil Bruns) and his family, but it does not work out. He decides to take a cross-country odyssey with his cat where he meets a variety of interesting people in this senior citizen variation of Easy Rider.

One of the great things that sets this film apart from others that deal with aging is that there is no death, dying, illness, or senility here. Instead of learning to adjust to the ending of one’s life, our character instead realizes that old-age is just another stage in a person’s existence and full of new experiences and possibilities. I thought it was cool and interesting how he meets a 15 year old teen girl runaway (Melanie Mayron in her film debut) named Ginger and the two set out to try and find themselves as well as search for life’s answers. They share a lot more in common than one might expect and only prove that life is a continual exploration no matter what stage you are in.

The Harry character is refreshingly laid-back and easy going unlike most elderly characters who tend to be betrayed as stuck in a bygone era. Although he does reminisce about the ‘old days’ with his friends, he does not expound on boring stories of yesteryear with young people, nor act like he has all the answers simply because he is older. He approaches everyone in a non-judgmental way that allows each person he meets to be themselves. He proves to be a lot more flexible and open-minded than the other, younger adults in the film including his own children.

There were only a few scenes involving the Harry character that I didn’t like. One is when he refuses to leave his apartment even as the wrecking ball crew stands outside. The police end up having to be carry him out while he still seats in his favorite chair, which seemed forced and unrealistic. There is another scene where he is at the airport ready to board a plane, but he refuses to allow, for no particular reason, the security to search the cage that has his cat in it even though it is accepted procedure.  This may have been writer-director Paul Mazursky’s way of showing that Harry could at times be set in his ways, but to me it went beyond being simply stubborn and more into the irrational and was not consistent with his behavior in the rest of the film.

The script has a lot of amusing and even touching slice-of-life vignettes as well as characters that are quirky, but not absurd.  The scene with Harry meeting an old Indian medicine man named Sam Two Feathers that is played by elderly Indian actor Chief Dan George is well handled. George had no formal acting training, but his raw delivery is an inviting change of pace.  I also enjoyed at the very end when he meets a woman with a bounty of pet cats that his played by comedian Lenny Bruce’s mother. Again, she had no acting training, but the scene captures her natural out-going personality and it is fun.

I felt Phil Bruns gave an outstanding and overlooked performance as Harry’s older son Burt.  The constant nervous and stressed-out expression on his face seemed to be a perfect composite of the middle-aged suburban male that is overrun with job demands and family responsibilities.  Larry Hagman is good as well in a brief, but memorable appearance as Harry’s other son Eddie. He spends the first part of his visit with Harry trying to impress him with how ‘good’ things are going only to end up breaking down when it becomes painfully obvious that he is desperate and broke.  Even director Mazursky gives himself a cameo as a gay prostitute who makes a pass at Harry.

If the film has any faults it is the fact that it is too amiable. I would have liked to have seen a little bit more action and comic misadventure. I thought it could have been funny and intriguing to see Harry inside a hippie commune, which is where he takes his two teen passengers. Instead he lets them off without going himself, which seemed like a missed opportunity.  There is another part where he inadvertently hitches a ride with a high-priced hooker (Barbra Rhoades) who immediately starts to get ‘horny’ when he Harry gets in. She drives the car off the road and parks it in the middle of the dessert and then the film cuts away. I think this could have been hilarious had this scene been extended. I was also disappointed that the very talented Ellen Burstyn is seen only briefly playing Harry’s daughter Shirley. This was even more of a shame because Burstyn gets cast against type here playing a character that is rather edgy and opinionated and there was strong potential for some good drama.

There are a few extended conversations where Harry discusses with some of his old friends their inability to perform sexually and how they hadn’t had sex for well over twenty years.  With the advent of Viagra, a product that was invented and manufactured right here in good old Indianapolis, these types of topics are no longer as relevant and make the film seem dated.

Of course the one thing that holds it all together and propels the movie from beginning to end is the outstanding Oscar winning performance of Carney, who until then was best known as the comic side-kick Ed Norton from the classic series The Honeymooners. Although he seemed perfect for the part he was not the Producers first choice and had to lobby hard to the get the role.  He was actually only 55 years old when the film was made and to help compensate he openly wore his hearing aid, which gets shown a lot, as well as dying his hair gray.

His win on Oscar night in 1974 became an historic upset. He was going up against very stiff competition that night including Dustin Hoffman for Lenny, Jack Nicholson for Chinatown, and Al Pacino for The Godfather Part 2. When Carney’s name gets called the look of shock on his face is very apparent as even he was not expecting it.  The moment is worth a look and can be seen on YouTube for those who are interested.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: August 12, 1974

Runtime: 1Hour 55Minutes

Rated R

Director: Paul Mazursky

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: VHS, DVD

Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1976)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: One is not enough.

This is an oddly structured Brazilian film that became a world-wide hit due to its explicit, edgy storyline.  It details the account of a woman named Dona Flor (Sonia Braga) whose first husband Valdomiro (Jose Wilker), was a bit on the wild side. After gambling away all of their money he dies. She becomes determined not to make the same mistake twice, so she remarries another man who is a doctor (Mauro Mendonca) and a much more responsible mate, but also stiff and boring. Problems ensue when the first husband, who she misses because he was more erotic and exciting in bed, comes back in the form of a ghost who only she can see.

The movie on a whole is well made. The characters are all likable and the theme music, which is played throughout the film, is appealing. The on location shooting is also quite distinctive. It really gives you a genuine, rare flavor of a small Brazil village and the people who inhabit them.

My main complaint with the film is that it takes the entire first hour just too illustrate her marriage with her first husband and the second hour to show her mourning and eventual remarriage. It’s not until the FINAL FIFTEEN MINUTES that the scenario the whole film is based on actually happens. When it does it is lively and funny, but the majority of the movie is surprisingly low key and melodramatic. The highly touted sex scenes are overrated. They are too brief and spread out very thinly.

Braga does well in her star making vehicle. She is able to convey both a simple, sweet nature as well as a sultry, sensual one. She has a pretty face and really does look great naked.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: November 22, 1976

Runtime: 1Hour 50Minutes

Rated R

Director: Bruno Barreto

Studio: Embrafilme

Available: VHS, DVD (Director’s Cut)

Bye Bye Brazil (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Entertainers traveling throughout Brazil.

This movie is a slightly surreal comedy-drama detailing a caravan of five entertainers who travel the Brazilian countryside putting on vaudeville like shows underneath a makeshift tent.  The film works in a vignette style as it analyzes the many scenarios and difficulties that the group encounters as well as making a very strong statement to the poverty and hardships befallen on the townspeople that they meet. In fact if there is one lasting image that the film gives it is that one.

The story is pretty much character driven and the characters are all by and large highly amoral. They reflect the desperation of their audiences, which they quietly hope someday to rise above, but never do.  There are a few fleeting moments where they amazingly and surprisingly decide ‘to do the right thing’, which ends up being the film’s most memorable scenes, but most of the time they are ‘rough around the edges’ and the viewer is forced to appreciate them with all their frailties brightly exposed.

Jose Wilker plays Lorde Cigano who is the leader of the group and a lifelong con-man. He closely resembles character actor Stuart Margolin, who was famous for playing the character of Angel on the classic 70’s series The Rockford Files where he was always trying one amusing scheme after another and the character here works in much the same way. He has a few good lines as well as a funny running gag where he displays obscene toys to attractive woman he meets in order to ‘turn them on’.

Betty Faria plays Salome who does erotic dances during their performances.  She lies and cheats as much as Lorde and is more than willing to fall back to being a prostitute whenever the group is in need of money. Although she does have a few nude scenes she is really not all that attractive, or young, as she was already hitting 40 at the time that the film was made.  However, her worn looking face does help accentuate the hardened lifestyle of the character. Her best scene is when she is ‘servicing’ one of her clients who is a fat, balding middle-aged man who expounds the entire time they are having sex about the many virtues of his wife.

Fabio Junior plays Cico the young man who joins the group because he feels it is a chance to escape the sad existence of a peasant farmer only to find that life on the road can be in many ways just as grueling and thankless. Junior is a famous singer in Brazil and his chiseled, boyish good looks didn’t seem to be a realistic fit for the impoverished farm family that his character came from in the movie.  He shows no concern for his pregnant wife and spends the entire time trying to seduce Salome, which makes him irritating and unlikable.  I did though like the fact that he was the one character who evolved and became introspective at the end.

The character of Daso, which is played by actress Zaira Zambelli and is Fabio’s wife, was a bit frustrating. The film makes it clear that she is aware that Fabio is fooling around with Salome and she doesn’t seem to care. She also excitedly jumps into becoming a prostitute at her husband’s insisting when the group falls on hard times. However, I wanted more explanation, or history given to the character to help understand this, but the story does not supply any.

I was also disappointed with the handling of the Swallow character who performs feats of strength during their productions as well as acting as the group’s driver. Swallow is mute, but easily is the most likable and durable, but he runs away half-way through the picture and never returns. I would have liked the character to have stayed during the entire duration as he helped give balance to the others, or at the very least some detail to his eventual fate.

The film becomes almost a like a Brazilian travelogue as the viewer encounters everything from the small dessert towns, to the exotic rain forests. However, the budget was clearly low and I didn’t feel the cinematography captured the majestic essence of the landscape as much as it could’ve, or as I had expected. The story and situations are not all that unique, or creative, but it stays nicely amiable throughout.  The funniest part of the whole film may actually be the lyrics of the song that is sung at the very end during the closing credits. This is not a great movie, but not a bad one either.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: February 9, 1980

Runtime: 1Hour 40Minutes

Rated R

Director: Carlos Diegues

Studio: Carnaval Unifilm

Available: VHS, DVD

Mixed Company (1974)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Racist coach adopts kids.

Kathy Morrison (Barbra Harris) works at an adoption agency that specializes in placing minority children into stable homes. Although she already has three children of her own, she comes under pressure to ‘practice what she preaches’ and adopt one herself. Her husband Pete (Joseph Bologna) is the head coach of the Phoenix Suns basketball team who are in amidst of a very long losing streak. He is reticent to the idea as he feels he will soon be fired and also harbors certain latent racist feelings. However, when it is found that they can longer conceive a child of their own due to him suffering from the mumps, they decide to go ahead with the idea. At first they adopt a young African American boy and eventually add a Vietnamese girl and an Indian boy.

The film was written and directed by Melville Shavelson, who only six years earlier had done the successful Yours, Mine, and Ours about a widow woman with eight children marrying a widower with ten. Clearly he was trying to go back to the same well, but the concept is uninspired and forced. The plot is too simple and formulaic. I sat through the whole thing feeling like I had seen it all somewhere else before. There is some snappy dialogue at the beginning, but it quickly runs out of gas. The pacing is poor and it plods along with no real momentum or cohesion.  The lighting is flat and the action is captured like it was made for a TV sitcom instead of the big screen.

The children deliver their lines in a robotic fashion and the script gives them little that is clever, or interesting to say. I did like the six year old Indian boy named Joe (Stephan Honanie) who is cute and precocious, but he does have a propensity to pick his nose and there is one icky scene where he appears to eat what he has picked out of it. The film did generate some controversy at the time of its release for featuring the kids swearing, but this amounts to nothing more than a few ‘damns’ here and there. I kind of liked the fact that the kids weren’t portrayed as complete wide-eyed innocents and their salty behavior seemed realistic, but the problems and issues that they deal with are highly contrived.

Joseph Bologna is a standout. His brash, flippant, hard-edged persona is terrific and fun. It is the one thing that holds the movie together and keeps it from being a complete bore.

The basketball sequences are clearly staged. They do edit in some actual footage, but it’s done on a different film stock, which is distracting. I think the one thing that really bugged me in this area is that Pete eventually gets fired as the coach due to the team’s continual losing. Yet, only a few days later the owner of the team comes back and begs him to return. Besides being a movie fan I am also an avid sports follower and I can attest that this has never happened. Yes, sometimes a coach is fired and then many years later he can return to coaching the same team, but that is usually because it is under different management and it is rare. There was also New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner who hired and fired manager Billy Martin a total of five different times, but that was an extreme anomaly and he never rehired him after just a few games. I know movies and especially TV-shows never want to show our favorite characters getting fired and STAYING fired even though it happens to real people all the time and it only makes sense that film characters should deal with the same types of hardships.

It is difficult to tell what audience this movie was aimed for. There is not enough action or comedy to keep the kids entertained, but it also lacks the sophistication needed for adults. After a total of 105 minutes it becomes strained and tedious.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: October 18, 1974

Runtime: 1Hour 49Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Melville Shavelson

Studio: United Artists

Available: Netflix streaming

Happy Birthday Gemini (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Gay son comes out. 

A brother and sister by the name of Judith and Randy Hastings ( Sarah Holcomb, David Marshall Grant) travel to Philadelphia over the summer to visit their college friend Francis Geminiani (Alan Rosenberg).  Judith dated Francis during the school year and wants to continue the relationship. Francis though has come to terms with his homosexuality and realizes that he is now more attracted to her brother.  The story examines their adjustments and attitudes to this news as well as the many eccentric characters that make up the neighborhood.

Despite not rating well with the critics, I kind of liked this movie for the most part. The film was directed by Richard Benner who received acclaim for the directing the groundbreaking Canadian film Outrageous. I think he captured the row houses and inner-city neighborhoods of Philadelphia well. My Mother is from the city and I spent many summers visiting there. I enjoyed the bright color schemes of the different houses as well the character’s costumes. The movie has a very European feel featuring a lot of long takes and a leisurely pace. The characters are also much more open-minded and accepting of each other’s transgressions than you would usually find in an American film.  The toe-tapping ragtime music and upbeat ending help fill it out.

Kudos must also go to Madeline Kahn and her performance as Bunny Weinberger. I was very impressed with this woman’s comedic skills after seeing her in What’s Up Doc as well as in Paper Moon. I didn’t think anything could top those, but this comes close. Her portrayal of a foul-mouthed, ditzy blonde with a very heavy eastern accent is outstanding and a highlight of the whole movie.  Her scenes in a courtroom where she has to defend herself from a battery charge as well as a nicely photographed scene where she threatens to jump off an abandoned building are two of her best moments.

Where the film fails is in the fact that there is little cohesion between the scenes. The film goes off on long tangents, particularly with the Bunny character, until it seems like Francis’s problem is only a side-story. There is a lot of extraneous dialogue that goes nowhere and was not needed. A 115 minute runtime is much too long for this kind of material.  For a comedy the laughs are lacking and the script needed to be injected with a lot more witty conversations and sharp one-liners. Rita Moreno is completely wasted as the character of Lucille Pompi.  She has nothing funny to say and it would have been more entertaining if they had built up more conflict between her and the Bunny character as the two had very contrasting values. The subject matter itself is no longer fresh or groundbreaking and the film failed to put any new or interesting spin on the topic. Although I liked the positive message I still felt that it glossed over the homophobic sentiments that are still out there and did not do its subject matter any real justice.

Fans of Kahn should see this, but others may find it placid and lacking in any type of distinctive quality.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: May 2, 1980

Runtime: 1Hour 47Minutes

Rated R

Director: Richard Benner

Studio: United Artists

Available: VHS

T. R. Baskin (1971)

tr baskin

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Out on her own.

T. R. Baskin (Candice Bergen) is a young woman who leaves the nest by striking out on her own in Chicago. Unfortunately she finds nothing but a lot of loneliness, dead-end dates, crummy apartments, and soul-sucking jobs. Our protagonist becomes so emotionally beaten down that when a traveling salesman named Jack Mitchell (Peter Boyle) calls her looking for a ‘good time’, as he mistakenly is given her number under the impression that she is a prostitute, T.R. accepts his invitation simply as a chance to connect with someone. The film then cuts back and forth between conversations that she has with Jack in his hotel room as well as her experiences when she first gets into the Windy City.

Although this film does have its share of faults I was really taken aback by its strong emotional impact. The film was directed by Herbert Ross who would later do Footloose, The Goodbye Girl, and Steel Magnolias. The screenplay was written by Peter Hyams famous for writing and directing Capricorn One, Narrow Margin, and 2010 to name a few.

The film manages to recreate the monotony and isolation of day-to-day living better than just about any other movie that I have seen. Some of the best scenes include T.R.’s job interview process at an accounting firm as well as a long camera pan showing all the rows and rows of desks in the office and T.R. looking lost in the middle. There is another part where she sneaks back into the office on a weekend day in order to make silly announcements over their intercom system and the images of all the dark shadowy desks looks just as ominous. Another moving moment is when she is shown pacing her lonely apartment as well as her phone conversation with her parents where she tries to convince them that she is doing ‘just fine’, but breaks down into tears the second it ends.

The film leaves you with a strong impression. The music that was selected was first-rate and fits the mood of the picture perfectly. It is a real shame that this sleeper has never been released on either VHS or DVD and has not been shown on television since December of the 1980 when it was broadcast on Cinemax. It is well worth seeking out and certainly deserves more attention.

Bergen is terrific in the lead. This is before she attained her acerbic persona from her ‘Murphy Brown’ days and here comes off as more shy and sensitive. Her delicate and attractive features help capture the viewer instantly.

Boyle is equally good and the introspective conversations that the two have nicely runs the gamut between funny and sad. James Caan, who for some reason appears unbilled, has a nice cameo as an attractive and intelligent man that T.R. falls for only to have him callously break her heart.

If the film has any flaw it is in the fact that it is a bit uneven. It starts out with some terrific dry humor including a hilarious scene when she goes apartment hunting, but eventually the movie becomes too much of a downbeat drama. There are certainly universal truths to many of the sad situations that she goes through, but I found it frustrating that we are never shown her eventual fate. All we see is a small period in her life and then a very abrupt and unsatisfying ending. It would have been nice if the story had cut to five, ten, even twenty years down the road and allowed us to find out if she ever found ‘Mr. Right’ and some happiness.

Despite being made forty years ago this film is as trenchant and timely as it was back then. People who avoid watching older films because they believe that they are ‘dated’ are being foolish. This film has more bearing in reality and the human experience than a lot of the movies out today.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: October 20, 1971

Runtime: 1Hour 30Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Herbert Ross

Studio: Paramount

Available: Amazon Instant Video

All the Marbles (1981)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: These wrestlers are hot.

Peter Falk does another terrific job playing a lovable, but eccentric character. Here he takes on the role of a con-man type manager of two lady wrestlers (Laurene Landon, Vicki Frederick).

This film marked the final project by director Robert Aldrich who did such classics as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, The Dirty Dozen, and Kiss Me Deadly. Although it didn’t do too much on its initial release, it has since acquired a small, but fervent following. These people insist this is the best movie about wrestling and some even go as far to say it is the best sports-themed movie ever. Warner Brothers has become aware of the attention and has now added it to its special-order DVD collection that can be purchased for twenty-five dollars from its archive website.

I remember when this film was released and after seeing the previews I was convinced it was just a mindless T&A picture, but I have read about enough people who have liked it that I decided I needed to give it a view. However, I came away from the film unimpressed with the majority of it. The main problem is that, although labeled a comedy, they stick in some awkward drama in order to show the downside of the wrestling profession. It doesn’t work because the two women playing the wrestlers can’t act. Landon in particular is a problem. She plays the blonde half and has an annoying monotone quality to her voice making her sound like she is simply reading her lines straight off of the script. Both lady characters seem to react to everything in predictable ways and thus become boring. The scenarios and conversations are soap opera like and end up bogging the whole thing down.

I like the attempt at showing the gritty side of the business and even inserting some realism, but this could have been down in a satirical form while still keeping it consistently funny.  A film like Smile from 1975 made some trenchant comments about the beauty pageant business, but remained funny and clever throughout without any of the strained drama like here.

Now with that said, I can still see why this film has attracted some fans and that is based solely on the wrestling scenes, which are excellent. The two actresses were trained by Mildred Burke a famous female wrestler from the 30’s and 40’s.  The techniques they use are true to form and look very authentic and, at times, even painful. Aldrich captures the action from different angles and it is fast and furious. I am no wrestling fan, but found myself caught up in it. The wrestling scenes are without question the best part of the film and there should have been more of them. The climatic match closely resembles the Rocky formula and it is a lot of fun. The highlight here comes when the two women attack and beat-up the crooked referee (played by Richard Jaeckel).

I must also mention that I like Burt Young as the heavy. He gives off one of the creepiest, weirdest laughs you will ever hear.  It was alsogreat to see legendary Los Angeles Lakers announcer Chick Hearn as the ringside announcer during the final match. He even ends up saying the film’s title.

If you don’t like wrestling than this otherwise obscure film is not worth checking out. If you do like wrestling than this film may be worth it however, I would suggest just fast-forwarding to those scenes and skipping the rest.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: October 16, 1981

Runtime: 1Hour 53Minutes

Director: Robert Aldrich

Studio: MGM

Available: DVD (Warner Archive), Amazon Instant Video