Tag Archives: James Caan

Chapter Two (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Trying to start over.

George (James Caan) is a famous author who has just lost his first wife. His brother Leo (Joseph Bologna) gives him the phone number to Jennie (Marsha Mason) who has recently gone through a divorce. After an initially awkward first encounter the two form an attachment and quickly decide to get married. Then on their honeymoon the memories of George’s recently deceased wife comes back to haunt him, which jeopardizes his new marriage.

The film, which is based on the hit Broadway play that ran for 857 performances and was written by Neil Simon, is largely inspired by the events of his own life as he lost his first wife, Joan Baim, on July 17, 1973 and then quickly married actress Marsha Mason on October 25th of that same year. Mason is essentially playing herself and her performance here is one of the movie’s stronger points.

An aspect of the film though that I found even more interesting is the fact that it reteams Mason and Caan just 6 years after they had starred in Cinderella Liberty. The romantic angle here though is much more realistic as both people are on a more equal footing as a relationship cannot work if one person is too severely dependent on the other. I also enjoyed seeing how Mason, a highly underrated actress, could effectively play both an emotionally weak person as she did in the 1973 film and a very strong one as she does here. My only quibble is that her character is again portrayed as being an actress just like she was in The Goodbye Girl, but there she was wracked with anxiety and struggling financially as most artists do while here she seemed too financially secure and more like a woman working in the corporate business world.

The film has a nice breezy pace and the romance is allowed to blossom naturally without ever feeling forced, which along with the excellent on-location shooting I really liked. The problem though comes with the fact that the leads are quite bland when compared to their supporting counterparts, which are played by Bologna and Valerie Harper. Bologna seems to steal any film he is in and he really should be given more starring vehicles. Harper is equally strong and nothing like her more famous Rhoda Morgenstern persona. Their characters have engaging flaws and the banter between them is far more comical. The film shifts uneasily between scenes featuring Caan/Mason to those with Bologna/Harper until it seems like two completely different movies going in opposite directions.

Having Caan’s character go from being really crazy about Mason to suddenly and quite literally overnight becoming aloof towards her is too severe and comes off like he is afflicted with a Jekyll and Hyde disorder. Likewise Mason is too forgiving with it when most people would simply get a quickie divorce since they had known each other for only 10 days. Yet even with all of these weaknesses I still found it a soothing and easy-to-take movie that should please romance aficionados everywhere.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: December 14, 1979

Runtime: 2Hours 4Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Robert Moore

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD (Sony Choice Collection)

Alien Nation (1988)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Newcomers integrate into society.

Sam ‘George’ Francisco (Mandy Patinkin) is an alien who along with 300,000 of his kind land on earth near the Mojave desert in the year 1988 and become known as newcomers. After initially being quarantined they are let out in 1991 and become a part of everyday society. Matt Sykes (James Caan) is a cop whose partner is killed during a shootout with some criminal newcomers. George and Matt then team up to investigate the crime as well as a similar one that seems to be linked to Warren Harcourt (Terence Stamp) a successful newcomer businessman. Matt initially does not trust George and even shows an open bias towards him, but eventually the two form a bond.

The concept is unique in that unlike most sci-fi films the actual spaceship landing becomes only a minor part of the story and just briefly touched on in film’s first couple of minutes before quickly moving into the main theme of seeing how the humans and aliens learn to coincide. The idea of using this to then further examine racism and bigotry may have been a noble one, but it ends up not getting played up as much as I thought it would. The fact that the aliens have assimilated into society as quickly as they do (only 3 years) makes it seem like even if there is resistance to it by some it’s of a small level and for the most part the aliens have it pretty good.

There’s also a myriad of questions that never get addressed. Why exactly were these aliens sent here and will more come along later? Which planet are they from and if they were conditioned to be efficient workers who are highly adaptable then why are there so many seen on street corners and apart of gang that do no work at all. Nothing from their culture is retained and outside of their strange appearance that looks like burn victims with skin grafts there is not all that much difference between them and their human counterparts. They even end up bleeding red blood when they get shot.

The film’s most interesting part is George’s and Matt’s relationship, which starts out rocky, but slowly evolves and even at one point has a humorous moment where Matt tells George a ‘really funny’ joke that George, much to Matt’s frustration, can’t seem to appreciate. Both Caan and Patinkin give excellent performances as the characters go through a wide array of emotions with George seeming at times to be more human-like.

The criminal investigation and mystery dealing with a drug called Jabroka I didn’t find to be as compelling and the final showdown between Matt and Harcourt was to me a yawner. The alien angle comes off more like a thinly disguised attempt to make what amounts to being just another formulaic cop action pic seem unique and ‘profound’ when it really isn’t.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: October 7, 1988

Runtime: 1Hour 30Minutes

Rated R

Director: Graham Baker

Studio: 20th Century Fox

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

Cinderella Liberty (1973)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Sailor falls for prostitute.

John Baggs (James Caan) is a sailor who checks into a Seattle, Washington naval base medical facility for a check-up and while there has his files lost and is unable to receive pay or new orders until they are found. While the navy tries to find them they give him a ‘Cinderella Liberty’ pass, which allows him to come and go from the base as long as he returns before curfew. During his excursions into the city he meets up with Maggie (Marsha Mason) a prostitute and goes back to her place for sex. It is there that he meets her biracial son Doug (Kirk Calloway). Despite the tremendous odds John finds himself falling-in-love with Maggie while trying earnestly to make a better life for Doug.

This is one of those films I enjoyed quite a bit the first time I saw it, but could not get into it as much the second time around, which is a shame as it does have a lot of good things going for it. Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography and the way he captures the seedier side of the city is one of the film’s chief assets particularly the vivid look at Maggie’s squalor of an apartment that no studio could possible recreate quite as effectively. Trying to mix romance with gritty reality while getting away from the soft focus and idealized view of love, which permeated a lot of romance films of the ‘70s is a noble and interesting effort. I also really enjoyed John Williams’s ragtime sounding score and the bouncy opening tune sung by Paul Williams.

The performances are excellent. For Caan this may be the best performance of his career and the role that most effectively works into his acting style. Mason is equally good and deserved her Oscar nomination alone through the strained facial expressions that she shows during the delivery of her child. The supporting cast is great too and includes Dabney Coleman, who wears a wig, as Caan’s crass, blunt superior and Eli Wallach as an old timer in the naval system who seems genuinely shell shocked at the prospect of having to survive as a civilian.

The film’s main fault is that I just could never buy into the idea of why John would ever want to get into the situation that he does. There might be some cases out there where a prostitute and one of her customers do fall for each other and start a relationship, but I would think they’re few and far between and usually doesn’t last. If anything it couldn’t be as extremely bad of a situation as it is here where the woman is a complete emotional mess living in squalor with a delinquent son and pregnant with another.

Several characters throughout the film keep asking John why he would want to get involved in something like this and his answer of ‘because it makes me feel good’ is not sufficient. A good relationship needs a healthy dose of give-and-take, but here John is doing all the giving. There isn’t much to love with the Maggie character anyways as she is extraordinarily irresponsible as a parent and at one point even abandons her son with not much more than a second thought.

Had the film emphasized John’s bonding with Doug and made this the focal point then I could see him wanting to have some limited involvement with the mother in order to help the kid, but the romance angle in this situation given the circumstances bordered on the insane and prevented me as a viewer from fully getting into it.

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My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: December 18, 1973

Runtime: 1Hour 57Minutes

Rated R

Director: Mark Rydell

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Rollerball (1975)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: This game gets nasty.

In the not so distant future where no governments or countries exist and corporations control everything a new type of game becomes the rage. It features two teams on roller blades skating around a circular rink while fighting over a silver hand sized ball, which they use to throw into an electronic type of basket and score points. The game features little officiating and can usually cause injury or even death to the players, but one man named Jonathan E. (James Caan) has risen to the top and become a superstar in the sport. Bartholomew (John Houseman) who is the head of the conglomeration doesn’t like this because the idea of the games is to thwart individuality and not promote it. They push Jonathan to retire, but he refuses forcing the games to become even more violent as their way to get rid of him one way or the other, but the more they try to take him down the more he fights back.

The thing I really liked about William Harrison’s script, which is based on a short story of his called ‘Roller Ball Murder’ is how amazingly prophetic it is. Corporations and their rich lobbyists are pulling the strings of the government officials already making them seem as mere puppets and modern day suburbia much like in the movie is really only a tranquilizer  with its comfy lifestyle used to lull everyone into overlooking the many concessions that come with it. The violent games for both the players and fans acts as an escape from their otherwise sterile existence as the outcomes are the only things not already preordained by the corporations and thus giving the players a small sense of control over something.

Unfortunately the film’s set design is not as intuitive as its story and lacks imagination and even seems quite dated. There are no personal computers and the ones that do get shown are quite archaic looking. I have not seen the 2002 version, but this reason alone justifies a remake although the scene where the party guests go outside to play with a ray gun is a keeper.

The game itself isn’t all that interesting and to me came off as a glorified version of roller derby. I thought it should’ve been more graphic and bloody and the film pulls back when it should instead capture the true brutally of the sport. It does get a little more violent as it goes on and I did enjoy the surreal quality of the film’s climatic game where players from both sides end up either killed or severely injured. The segment showing the men preparing for a game by having the Caan character giving pointers to the new players on some of the strategy that is needed helped convey the idea that the sport had a certain technique to it and not simply rollerblading around a rink.

Caan is adequate in the lead, but is upstaged by John Beck as his playing partner as well as Shane Rimmer who plays his coach. It’s great to see John Houseman in his second feature film after his Academy Award winning performance in The Paper Chase, but his close-ups where ill-advised as it made me notice all of his nose hairs and director Norman Jewison should’ve either avoided framing his face from that angle or giving the elderly actor a pair of tweezers to pull them out.

The ending is unsatisfying as it leaves everything on a vague note. We see the fans cheering Jonathan’s moxie, but there is no indication as whether he was able to ultimately stage a revolt, or whether the corporate heads found some other way to get rid of him. In either case I wanted more of a conclusion and the fact that there isn’t any makes it feel like a great concept that wasn’t fully realized.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: June 25, 1975

Runtime: 2Hours 4Minutes

Rated R

Director: Norman Jewison

Studio: United Artists

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video

Countdown (1967)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating:  7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Man lands on moon.

Lee (James Caan) and Chiz (Robert Duvall) are astronauts who are part of the Apollo 3 mission training to land on the moon. The liftoff date is still a year away when it is found that the Russians have already built a rocket ready for takeoff and plan on sending a man to the moon within the next few days. NASA decides to beat the Soviets by sending one of their men in an older style rocket and then having him live there for one year inside a shelter. Lee is chosen to go instead of Chiz much to his consternation and despite the fact that he had more training, but the project proves to be even more difficult than expected and Lee’s inexperience creates concerns that it might not succeed.

This is an unusual space drama in the fact that you see very little action that takes place in outer space or the moon. The main emphasis is on the human point-of-view both with the people directly involved with the project as well as their families and loved ones. The movie focuses on the behind-the-scenes competition and politics and in the process creates a realistic and vivid viewpoint. The story is engrossing and compelling wrapping the viewer in right away and never letting them go. Despite being over 40-years-old it doesn’t seem dated at all and I had to keep reminding myself that I was watching a 60’s movie.

Duvall is a standout as the very emotional and competitive Chiz. I enjoyed seeing the way he initially refuses to help Lee train for the mission when it is found that he was chosen instead of himself, but then reluctantly comes around and becomes both Lee’s mentor and biggest source of support. Caan’s more restrained performance is a nice contrast to Duvall’s volatile one and it is interesting to compare the work the two do here with The Godfather film that they both starred in 5 years later where they played the completely opposite characters.

Joanna Moore is also excellent as Lee’s wife Mickey who goes through a mixed bag of emotions during Lee’s tumultuous training and eventual flight. She’s the first wife of Ryan O’Neal and the mother of Tatum and Griffin who never achieved stardom due to her bouts with alcoholism and guest starred more in TV-shows than movies, but I have always found her to be impressive and unique in everything that I have seen her in. This is also a great chance to see up-and-coming actors in bit roles including Ted Knight, Mike Farrell, and Michael Murphy.

This was director Robert Altman’s first theatrical feature and he does great work here although you will not see any of his trademark ‘Altmanisisms’.  I did see it budding in certain small ways including a party scene that seemed like a real get together with people actually congregating and having lingering background conversations as the camera moves through the crowd versus the conventional way where the main characters stand directly in front of the camera and then only shows stand-ins in the background who are out-of-focus and moving their mouths, but not really saying anything. I also liked that when they are counting down for liftoff it gets paused when a technical issue is found.  This reminded me of the many times when I would watch on television in the 80’s the countdown for the Space Shuttle liftoff and how it would get paused in a similar way sometimes with just a few seconds to go because of certain similar glitches. Most films fail to show this, so it was nice to see it here.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: August 20, 1967

Runtime: 1Hour 40Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Robert Altman

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD (Warner Archive)