Tag Archives: Lee Grant

The Mafu Cage (1978)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Her sister is psycho.

Ellen and Cissy (Lee Grant, Carol Kane) are two sisters living together in a dilapidated mansion, where they keep a pet ape named Mafu locked in a cage that sits in their living room. One day Ellen finds that Mafu has died so at the insistence of Cissy, who says she will kill herself unless they get another one, she goes to a local zoologist (Will Geer) and buys another. Things go well at first, but Cissy’s behavior becomes increasingly more erratic and she takes her frustrations and anger out on the new ape in abusive ways.

The film was directed by actress-turned-director Karen Arthur by a script written by Don Chastian who was another actor and based on a play by Eric Wesphal. I really wasn’t sure what these characters or this bizarre story was supposed to mean. I thought being the ‘70s and a female director that it would have symbolic connections to feminism or even lesbianism, which does get alluded to briefly, but overall the message is confusing and unfocused. The pacing is poor and about 10 minutes in I was already quite bored with it.

The only real saving grace is Kane’s presence who gives a startling performance as a psychotic woman. I had always admired her talent, but became even more impressed with her after seeing this. Her most amazing/bizarre moment is when she dresses up as an African warrior complete with red body paint and then later soaks in a tub filled with blood red water while carrying on an impromptu phone conversion with herself.

I had mixed feelings in regards to Grant whose age difference between Kane is 25 years making her look more like a mother figure than a sister. It was also hard to sympathize with her character as she refuses to have Cissy institutionalized or even examined by a mental health professional even though her behavior is dangerously erratic and only a completely irrational person would choose to ignore it or think that it will somehow ‘magically’ improve, which of course it doesn’t

The ape was the one performer that I enjoyed the most and fortunately a real one was used. The way the chimp responds to things and interacts with Kane are genuinely fascinating to watch and makes him a natural scene stealer without even trying. However, the part where she beats him with a metal chain is quite disturbing supposedly he was never actually hit and the credits do list an animal agency was present during filming and monitored it, but it’s difficult to watch nonetheless.

Patient viewers may find certain segments and imagery to be interesting and the film does improve a bit as it progresses, but overall it’s a weird curio that will leave most people indifferent and confused.

Alternate Title: Don’t Ring the Doorbell

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: December 1, 1978

Runtime: 1Hour 42Minutes

Rated R

Director: Karen Arthur

Studio: Clouds

Available: VHS, DVD

 

 

When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? (1979)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Terror at a diner.

The year is 1968 and the setting is a small, lonely diner nestled at the border of Texas and New Mexico. Richard (Hal Linden) and his violinist wife Clarissa (Lee Grant) arrive for a morning cup of coffee. There is also Angel (Stephanie Faracy) the diner’s lone waitress and Stephen (Peter Firth), who was nicknamed Red during his youth due to his red hair at the time, but besides them the place is empty and peaceful. Then Teddy (Marjoe Gortner), an unhinged Vietnam vet and his hippie girlfriend Chery (Candy Clark) enter. They are without money and stranded with a broken down van, which makes Teddy particularly volatile as he begins harassing the others with evasive questions before eventually terrorizing them all by trapping them inside the place and forcing them to do whatever weird, sick thing he asks.

The film is based on the 1973 Off Broadway play by Mark Medoff, who also wrote the screenplay. In many ways it’s similar to the 1967 black-and-white drama The Incident in which Tony Musante and a young Martin Sheen trap several subway riders inside a subway car and spend the rest of the night terrorizing them simply for their own personal amusement.  Both films are structured the same with the first part examining the characters before they arrive at the scene and revealing a bit of the personal dramas that each of them face and then spending the second half showing them trapped in a claustrophobic setting and forced to deal with their reluctance at confronting their fears.

The 1967 film though outshines this one as there were more characters, which gave it a better variety of personalities as well as bad guys that were menacing and believable. Gortner is too much of a ham making him more irritating than scary. The part was originally played by Kevin Conway during its Off Broadway run and his performance won many accolades, which should’ve been enough for them to have offered him the chance to reprise the role here. Gortner, who also produced seemed intent at trying to use this as a vehicle to promote himself as being a ‘serious’ actor, but he was too old for the role from the beginning since he was already in his mid-30’s at the time this was shot while vets coming back from the war during the ‘60s where only in their late teens or early 20’s.

The film only gets mildly interesting during the confrontation sequence inside the diner, which takes 45 minutes of the film’s 2-hour runtime just to get there. The way the characters respond to Gortner’s scare tactics and the supporting cast’s performances, who are all far better actors than Gortner, is the movie’s only compelling element, but even here there are issues. The biggest one being that the people seem too wimpy and today’s viewers will get frustrated at how overly compliant they are to Gortner’s demands and never once try to overpower him despite having ample opportunity.

The movie is also notorious for featuring some rather shocking moments of nudity. It starts out with a full body shot of Candy Clark in the buff, who was married to Gortner in real-life at the time this was made and that isn’t too bad, but then it proceeds to later show 48-year-old Linden in nothing but speedo shorts doing sit ups with his butt crack clearly exposed. Still later there is a scene where 52-year-old Lee Grant has her shirt hoisted all the way over her head with her breasts in full view and then paraded around the diner in mocking fashion. The film’s most over-the-top moment though comes when Gortner himself is stripped naked and bent over a table while having a proctoscope shoved up his rectum as he continues to have a conversation with the man who’s doing it.

Filmed on-location in Fabens, Texas, which was also the site of a famous scene in The Gateway, and Las Cruces, New Mexico the movie just doesn’t convey enough tension to make it compelling or worth catching. It would’ve worked better had it skipped the first half dealing with the backstories of the characters, which was never a part of the original play anyways and just gone straight into the diner sequence while also casting a leading actor that had some actual acting training.

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My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: February 9, 1979

Runtime: 1Hour 58Minutes

Rated R

Director: Milton Katselas

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: VHS

Marooned (1969)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Astronauts stranded in space.

Unfortunately this film’s biggest claim to fame is that it is the only movie nominated for an Academy Award to be shown on ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’.  As much as I enjoy that show I think it is unfair to throw this movie into the pile and make fun of it as I think it holds-up well and is a solid space drama.  The story based on the novel by Martin Caidin is about three astronauts (Richard Crenna, Gene Hackman, James Franciscus) who have been orbiting the earth for several months in a space lab, but as they try to return to earth they find that their retro rocket won’t fire and they’re stranded. Initially NASA, which is headed by Charles Keith (Gregory Peck) decide they have no alternative but to leave them there however, Ted Daugherty (David Janssen) puts up enough of a raucous that they decide to allow him to head a rescue mission. An impending hurricane and the astronaut’s dwindling supply of oxygen all cause further problems and force everyone to work at break-neck speed to pull it off.

One of the things that grabbed me initially was the lack of music. Instead we just here beeping sounds of a computer and the hum of a rocket during the opening credits, which helps give the film a futuristic and distinctive flair. I also liked the cool sounding hum that the viewer hears every time the men are outside of their capsule and in space. It has kind of a hypnotic tone to it and makes things a bit surreal. The special effects were decent for its era. You do have to forgive it a little particularly the scenes showing the rocket and men floating in space, which were clearly matted over a blue screen, but at least when the men are shown floating around with no gravity there are no visible strings. My favorite moment out of the entire film is when one of the men goes floating off motionless into the dark abyss while the other two watch solemnly from the capsule door.

The narrative could have been handled better. Instead of starting things out right away with the rocket taking the men off into space I felt there should have been more of a backstory to the main characters so we got to know them better and felt more empathy to their predicament. Even having flashbacks of the characters at different times in their life dotted throughout the film would have helped make them seem less cardboard. The scenes involving all three wives of the astronauts (Nancy Kovack, Mariette Hartley, Lee Grant) talking to their respective husbands via satellite just before the rescue mission takes off becomes too extended, predictable and maudlin. However, the scene involving the conversation that the astronauts have amongst themselves when it is learned that there isn’t enough oxygen for all three and one of them must be willing to die to save the other two I found to be gripping and compelling.

Peck is as usual incredibly stiff and delivers his lines like he is preaching some sort of sermon. Here though his style works with a character that is no-nonsense and locked into being completely practical at all times. His looks of nervousness as the rescue rocket gets ready to take off are great as is his delicate conversation that he has with Crenna involving which of them must sacrifice their life for the other two. Hackman is solid as usual playing an emotional Gus Grissom-like character, but he has played these roles so much it would have been interesting to see him play one of parts that required more restraint. The beautiful and talented Grant is wasted in a non-distinguished role as one of the wives, but her line about ‘the girls’ leaving the men alone so they can get back to their jobs seemed incredibly sexist especially from her.

The rescue mission is exciting, but excruciating and the ending is way too abrupt. However, my biggest complaint about this film that I otherwise find to be realistically and plausibly handled is that no explanation is ever given for why the rockets failed to fire, which I felt there should have been especially since there is a moment showing the green light on their dashboard stating that the rockets did fire and this light mysteriously stays on even when they shut down the power to the rest of the cabinet.

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My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: December 11, 1969

Runtime: 2Hours 14Minutes

Rated G

Director: John Sturges

Studio: Columbia

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video

The Landlord (1970)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: In over his head.

Elgar Enders (Beau Bridges) is a spoiled 29 year-old from a wealthy family who is still living at home with his parents in an affluent suburb of New York.  He decides it is time to ‘make his mark’ by purchasing a rundown building housing black tenants in inner-city Brooklyn.  He plans to evict the people and have the structure renovated into a posh flat.  He starts having second thoughts though as he gets to know the people and learns of their struggles.  He begins a relationship with one of the women (Diana Sands) and soon he is working to upgrade the building as well as trying to enlighten his racist, snobbish parents (Walter Brooke, Lee Grant) to embrace the black movement.

The Enders character is a perfect microcosm to the 70’s period where idealism and efforts to improve inner-city life, as well as some of the harsh realities that came with it, where at an all-time high.  Director Hal Ashby’s first film is full of strong gritty visuals from the rundown, graffiti-laden buildings to the garbage strewn lawns. Everything was filmed on-location and you get a vivid taste of the black experience. It is boosted even more by the detailed cinematography of Gordon Willis, which makes the most of the natural lighting and making you feel like you are right there.   The honest no-holes-barred approach is terrific. It perfectly captures the mood and feel of its era. I was surprised for a first time director, even a really good one like Ashby,  how well-constructed and technically sharp this was, which could have some link to the fact that it was produced by another great director, Norman Jewison, whom I’m sure lent a lot of input.

Initially I found the Elgar character to be off-putting, but that could’ve been intentional.  We first see him sitting on his lawn chair being served a drink by a black servant while talking about his great plan and looking like a spoiled, snot- nosed kid who has been coddled all his life.  The one scene that I remembered from this film when I first saw it over 20 years ago is when he  gets out of his Volkswagen bug to look at the building while wearing a tacky looking Pat Boone white dress suit.  When some of the black men sitting on the building’s front steps tease him a little, he immediately panics and runs eight blocks down the street in terror even though no one was chasing him.  However, he does start to grow on you as the film progresses.  I liked the fact that he faces adversity and is not scared away.  He learns to persist and adapt.  He genuinely starts to care about the people and backs-up what he says to the extent that he single-handedly carries new toilets one-by-one from the hardware store to the apartment building when the plumbing breaks down in an amusing vignette.  He isn’t afraid to tell off his arrogant parents when he needs too and his definition of NAACP is pretty funny.  It is satisfying to see him mature, learning that instituting change is not easy and things are the way they are for a reason.  He eventually is forced to confront his own limitations, but becomes a stronger person for it. This is without a doubt Bridges best performance to date.

There are other great performances as well.  Pearl Bailey is a gem as one of the building’s feisty, older women tenants who is the first to befriend Elgar.  Her awkward visit with Elgar’s equally feisty mother is considered the film’s highlight by many viewers and critics. I also loved the look she gives Elgar at the very end when he tries to wave goodbye to her.  The gorgeous Diana Sands is outstanding playing the role of Francine who has an ill-fated affair with Elgar. She shows just the right balance of sexiness and seriousness and it was a shame that just a few years after this film was made she ended up dying of cancer at the young age of 39. Susan Anspach is fun in one of her early roles as Elgar’s pot smoking sister.  The performance though that leaves the strongest impression is that of Lee Grant who is hilariously hammy as Elgar’s priggish mother.

When I first saw this film I came away thinking that it was uneven and a bit bipolar. It runs most of the way as a gentle, quirky satire filled with goofy cutaways, but then ends with a very stark and frightening scene with Elgar being chased down the grimy hallways of the building by Francine’s angry ax-waving husband (Louis Gossett Jr.) when he finds out that Elgar has gotten his wife pregnant.  The scene is ugly and intense and a far cry from the rest of the film’s gentle tone. Yet upon second viewing I think this scene works and was necessary. It makes a good statement at how volatile temperaments can be of those that are forced to leave in squalor as well showing how easily people, even with the best intentions, can get in over-their-heads when they don’t fully appreciate, or understand the situation that they are getting into it.

The side story involving a mulatto women (Marki Bey) who falls in love with Elgar is solid as well and gives the viewer a keen insight as to how difficult it is for someone who can’t seem to be accepted by either race. The language and conversations are tough and vulgar, but always laced with realism.

The only complaint I have with the film is the portrayal of the white characters who are buffoonish and overly idiotic even for satire.  I thought the idea of having them still use black servants was over-done, but then when one of them shows up at a party wearing blackface it was overkill. I thought it was unfair and unrealistic in the way that the film worked so hard to give depth to its black characters, but then turns around and, with the exception of Elgar, paints the whites as nothing more than broad caricatures.

The Landlord has finally been released on DVD through MGM’s Limited Edition Collection. I would suggest this film for anyone who enjoys an intelligent comedy-drama with something to say. It is also a great chance to see young up-and-coming actors. This includes Hector Elizondo as well as comedian Robert Klein. You can also get a very quick glimpse of Samuel L. Jackson who appears briefly in an uncredited role as a minister near the end.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: May 20, 1970

Runtime: 1Hour 52Minutes

Rated R

Director: Hal Ashby

Studio: United Artists

Available: VHS, DVD