Tag Archives: John Cassavetes

Big Trouble (1986)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Insurance agent commits fraud.

Leonard (Alan Arkin) is an insurance agent who does not have enough funds to put his three sons through Yale, which causes him a lot of stress. During a random sales call he meets Blanche (Beverly D’Angelo) who has a sick husband named Ricky (Peter Falk) who has only a week to leave. They hatch a scheme to write-up a life insurance policy that has a double indemnity clause that offers a big payout if Ricky dies by falling off a moving train. The plan starts out fine only to ultimately backfire when Leonard realizes he’s been double-crossed.

At the outset one might assume that this is a sequel to The In-Laws since it has the two stars from that film as well as the same screenwriter, though done under the pseudonym of Warren Bogle, but that’s not the case because Andrew Bergmen got the bright idea of trying to do a parody of Double Indemnity instead. This became a complete disaster for its studio Columbia Pictures because after the script was completed it was deemed a remake of the original film, which Universal Studios still held the rights to, forcing Columbia to give up the rights to Back to the Future and given to Universal as compensation who made a ton of money off of it while this film flopped badly.

A lot of the problem is that unlike in The In-Laws the two stars don’t play off of each other enough and in fact for most of the film they seem to be adversaries. The tone is also inconsistent seeming at times that it wants to be a parody/farce while at other moments it comes off more like a surreal comedy. It doesn’t help matters that John Cassavetes took over directing the production when Bergmen dropped out and his forte was more in drama with a cinema vertite approach causing many of the scenes here to go on longer than necessary while lacking a good comic pace. I also thought it was ridiculous that the plot features many twists, but then ends up telegraphing to the viewer well ahead of time that they’re coming, which takes away any surprise.

Arkin’s character is particularly problematic. Part of why he was so funny in The In-Laws is because he played this sane man thrown into an insane situation, but here he allows himself to get swept up into the nuttiness too easily until he seems almost as crazy as the rest. There’s also no way that a seasoned insurance agent, such as the one he played, would be dumb enough to think he could pull off such a poorly thought out scheme. Being an agent he would know that an autopsy would be done on the dead body and they would find that the victim had been strangled well before he fell off the train and the fact that this all occurs less than 24-hours after the policy was signed would send off massive red flags to anyone working in the industry.

While there are a few funny moments which includes Arkin trying to disguise himself as Falk and even speak in his voice as well as Arkin’s reaction when he takes a sip of Falk’s very exotic liqueur, the rest of it falls depressingly flat. The worst of it is the ending, which throws in a wild coincidence that has no bearing to the main plot nor any forewarning or connection to anything else that came before it, which helps to cement this as a big mistake that should’ve never have been given the green light.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: May 30, 1986

Runtime: 1 Hour 33 Minutes

Rated R

Director: John Cassavetes

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Two-Minute Warning (1976)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Sniper at football game.

Based on the novel of the same name by George LaFountaine the story centers on a lone gunman (Warren Miller) who for reasons that are not clear decides to massacre spectators at a football game with his high powered rifle by sneaking into the clock tower of the L.A. Coliseum during a championship game. Eventually he gets spotted by a TV crew and the police and S.W.A.T. team are brought in to stop him before he creates any carnage.

While it may sound like I’m going off on a tangent by complaining about the unimaginative uniforms used by the football teams since the game itself is only a minor subplot it still hits-home how every little aspect of a film is important and if one part of it is sub-par it drags down the rest. Since the NFL refused to give permission that would’ve allowed them to use logos of actual football teams they were forced to make-up their own, but what they come up with is quite bland including having fans in the stands waving flags for the Los Angeles team, which are colored black and yellow while the colors of the uniforms of the team on the field are maroon and gold. The fan atmosphere isn’t authentic either as the spectators come-off looking more like people going to church with none of them immersed in their team’s insignia, which would include body and face paint that you usually see at most ballgames. Even the name of the game is boring since they weren’t able to use the Superbowl title so it gets called a very uninspiring ‘Championship 10’ instead.

The cast is made up too many people looking well over 50, almost like this was a movie made by aging old farts for aging old farts, and at least one of the three leads should’ve been a young person in order to give it balance. While I liked John Cassavetes as the S.W.A.T. team captain as he gives the film a unique intensity, I felt Charlton Heston as the police chief, who always comes off as a stiff who conveys his lines like he’s orating a lecture, could’ve been replaced by Beau Bridges, one of the few cast member who was in his 20’s and who gets wasted as a dopey unemployed father who doesn’t have all that much to do with the plot.

The rest of the supporting players are made up of B-actors and include David Janssen and Gena Rowlands as a benign bickering couple and an aging Walter Pidgeon, in his second-to-last film, as a pickpocket. Jack Klugman is somewhat interesting as a desperate gambler, who doesn’t appear here wearing his usual wig and I kind of enjoyed seeing David Groh hitting on Marilyn Hassett, who at the time was married to the film’s director, while her jealous boyfriend (Jon Korkes) is unable to do anything about it.

Spoiler Alert!

The plot is mildly interesting, but it takes too long, a full hour, just to construct the basic set-up. The second half is spent watching how the authorities plot to stop the sniper without panicking everybody in the stands, which might’ve been more riveting had they not, despite all of their best efforts, failed at it. This also creates an unintentionally funny moment where one of the S.W.A.T. team members gets shot by the sniper and his body dangles by a rope from the stadium lights, but the crowd is so into the game they fail to notice the bloody, bullet-riddled body hanging just above their heads.

The most frustrating aspect though is the fact that we learn nothing about the killer or what motivated him. I don’t mind it being a mystery initially, but at some point the viewers deserves some answers. There’s just too many questions that demand explaining like how did the killer know where to go to get into the the stadium tower and how did he know to bring along raw meat in order to quiet the guard dogs? It almost seemed like he might’ve been a former employee of the stadium, which is a backstory that eventually needed telling.

End of Spoiler Alert!

The part of the film that actually does work are the scenes dealing with the panicked crowd that becomes an out-of-control mob once the shooting starts. Many films have tried to recreate the mob atmosphere and have failed, which isn’t surprising since you’re forced to work with a lot of extras who have no acting training, but here director Larry Peerce somehow manages to pull it off making these moments quite intense and memorable and helps to overshadow its other faults.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: November 12, 1976

Runtime: 1 Hour 56 Minutes (Theatrical Version)

Rated R

Director: Larry Peerce

Studio: Universal

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

A Child is Waiting (1963)

a child is waiting

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Help for retarded children.

Jean Hanson (Judy Garland) is a woman looking for direction in her life. She takes a job with Dr. Matthew Clark (Burt Lancaster) who runs a school for children with mental handicaps. She finds the work to be more taxing than expected, but also forms a strong attachment to one of the boys named Reuben Widdicombe (Bruce Ritchey).  Dr. Clark notices this bonding and considers it to be a potential problem so his has Jean moved to another building, which causes Reuben to become very upset and displays his anger in all sorts of anti-social ways.

This film is raw and compelling and offering a refreshingly vivid non-sanitized look into work with the mentally handicapped. Director John Cassavetes and screenwriter Abby Mann take off all of the Hollywood gloss and shows things in a real and uncompromising way. The majority of the children are disabled and not actors. Their responses and behaviors are genuine. Some of the best moments are when Cassavetes turns on the camera and then just let things happen particularly when Garland and Lancaster visit a hospital for mentally handicapped adults as well as when they put on a play celebrating Thanksgiving with the children as the performers.

The film is tastefully done and avoids showing some of the cruelties people with these disabilities go through and instead only talks about them lightly. What I really liked though was that it shows things from the adult perspective particularly those of the parents and the difficult adjustment they have as well as the array of emotions. The meeting between a group of doctors discussing which schools for which handicapped children should be given more money and which one of them had a better potential to being more self-sufficient was equally interesting. The movie also makes great use of silence to help propel the emotion and thankfully keeps the music to a minimum.

Garland was a good choice simply for her perpetual look of concern on her face, which remains throughout. However, she has a very worn and haggard appearance and looking much older than the forty years that she was and by looking at her here it should come as no surprise that a mere seven years after filming this she would be dead.

Lancaster is splendid and this may be one of his best roles of his already illustrious career. His soothing and calm voice is perfect for the part and his best moment comes when he patiently tries to teach the children how to correctly annunciate certain words.

Ritchey is good as the child and has a face that is very cute and full of expression. However, he seems to suffer from a severe speech impediment that makes it difficult to understand what he is saying. I wasn’t sure if he suffered from this in real-life, or it was just done for the part, but since he never appeared in any other film role makes me believe that he did.

Steven Hill is also superb playing Reuben’s father a man who turned his back on his son and virtually abandoned him when he was diagnosed as being mentally handicapped only to at the very end have a change of heart.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: January 14, 1963

Runtime: 1Hour 42Minutes

Not Rated

Director: John Cassavetes

Studio: United Artists

Available: VHS