Tag Archives: Movie Reviews

Prime Cut (1972)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Shoot-out in Kansas.

If you enjoy a great compact action flick, but are tired of the same old formula then Prime Cut may be for you.  It is the story of Nick Devlin (Lee Marvin) who is head of the crime syndicate in Chicago who travels to Kansas City to take on the head of their syndicate and avenge the death of one of their men as well as recouping an unpaid debt.

The movie has a lot of great offbeat touches that starts during its opening montage that takes place in an actual slaughterhouse.  Here you get a graphic glimpse of the inner mechanics of meat packing while soft, romantic piano music is played in the background.  The credits are displayed in a way that makes them look like they are being sliced by a meat cutter with cool meat cutting sound effects.  From here the quirky elements just keep coming. There is a wild chase through a wheat field where Marvin and Sissy Spacek find themselves attacked by a giant wheat thrasher that eats up their limousine and spits out the car parts into hay bails.  There is also a well filmed shootout amidst a sunflower field as well as Spacek’s revealing see through dress, which she wears to a posh restaurant and a giant plastic cow that gets shot up with holes and spews out milk.

This film is so unique that I am amazed it hasn’t acquired a stronger cult following. It stands up very well by today’s standards and even seems a bit shocking as it includes a scene involving white slavery where drugged young women are caged naked in stalls just like cattle and ranchers inspect and bid on them.

Marvin does well in his tongue-and-check role and pretty much steals it. He speaks his snappy lines in his usual terse manner with his famous stone expression, but he does it with a wink in his eye and at times even shows a soft side.  Sissy Spacek, in her film debut, looks young and fresh faced here. She is pretty and appealing in a very natural way. Only Gene Hackman as the villain named Mary Ann seems wasted. He does a good job for the material that he is given, but he needed more screen time and his character is not allowed to evolve at all.  Honorable mention also needs to go to Gregory Walcott as Hackman’s slimy henchman named Weenie.  The two get involved in an amusing scuffle while their accountants sit at their desks and busily add up their numbers and futilely try to ignore them.

Director Michael Ritchie nicely captures the Kansas landscape and gives it a very picturesque quality. It is probably the best on-location shooting of Kansas since Picnic. I did wish that the film was a little longer and showed more of a history between the two adversaries. It also seems to run out of steam at the end with a final shoot-out that isn’t all that clever or exciting and not up to the standards of the rest of the film.  Still this movie should appease any action fan and the story and direction are consistently original.

My Rating: 8 out 10

Released: June 28, 1972

Runtime: 1Hour 28Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Michael Ritchie

Studio: National General Pictures

Available: VHS, DVD

Stay Hungry (1976)

 

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Read the book instead.

Craig Blake (Jeff Bridges) is a young southern man left alone with his butler in a big mansion when both his parents die in a car crash.  He works at a shady investment firm run by the con-man Jabo (Joe Spinnell).  They have managed to purchase all the other buildings on a block except for a workout gym. Craig is told to meet with the owner of the gym named Thor (R.G. Armstrong) and transact a purchase, so the firm can use the space to build a high-rise office complex.  However, once Craig meets with some of the people working there, including Joe Santo (Arnold Schwarzenegger) who is a body builder and uses the gym to prepare for the Mr. Universe title, as well as the pretty receptionist Mary Tate (Sally Field) he starts to have second thoughts about going through with the deal.

The film is based on the 1972 best-selling novel of the same name by Charles Gaines. There are quite a few differences between the book and the film, with the novel being much better. In the book there is no real estate firm, or potential acquisition of the building. Craig is simply bored with life and goes to a gym on a whim and uses the idea of bodybuilding as a way to find an identity. The book also features a camping trip that the group goes on and a fascinating psychedelic experience that Craig has when he takes an illicit drug that was completely cut out of the movie. The book has much richer characterizations and a profound philosophy that is devoid in the movie.

The film is poorly paced. Nothing really seems to happen and it only comes together at the end and by then it is too late.  Director Bob Rafelson tries to make the movie take on too many things. It shifts awkwardly between drama and sardonic comedy, but fails to achieve any type of cohesion, or momentum.  The flow is more like a European style of filmmaking where the story is told in a more relaxed pace and features long takes and side conversations. However, the dialogue isn’t interesting enough to carry it and the film focuses too much on the relationship between Craig and Mary, which happens too fast and doesn’t seem to have enough chemistry.

I also didn’t like how the character of Craig is portrayed. Bridges gives his usual dependable performance, but he has no southern accent even though he is from the area and everyone else speaks in a very thick one. He talks and acts much more like he is from the west coast and, like the viewer, acts as if he is some detached stranger that is just passing through with no real roots in the area, people, or customs. I think the Hollywood producers intentionally did this because they figured mainstream audiences could not relate to a southerner, who are still straddled with the unfair stigma of being hick, redneck, and racist. So the character was modified to bring broader appeal, but in the process becomes unrealistic and a bit annoying.

On the technical end it is okay although the budget looks limited. Filming on-location in Birmingham, Alabama helps, but I would have liked to have seen more of the area. There are a few unique scenes that make it somewhat enjoyable. One includes Craig stealing a painting off the wall of an office and another involves a throng of half-naked body builders spilling out onto the streets of the city and holding up traffic. There is also a very violent altercation at the end between Craig and Thor that features them battling with each other while using equipment from the gym. The action here is choreographed and edited nicely and looks genuinely real. There is also a brief moment where Field and Bridges go water skiing that was done by the actors themselves and not stunt doubles.

Schwarzenegger is appealing in what is considered his first official acting debut since in his previous two films his voice was dubbed and he had no speaking lines in the other. I liked the way the character is humanized here and shown with a different side to him including having him play the fiddle in a country band. Field is good playing a very feisty and rambunctious character. It also features her in a nude scene although it is from the back only. Woodrow Parfrey also deserves mention as Uncle Albert simply because his eccentric acting style always grabs your attention even in the smallest of roles. He also is the film’s narrator and speaks with the most authentic, best sounding Southern accent out of everyone.

R.G. Armstrong is by far and away the most memorable part of the film. He wears a hilariously awful wig throughout and is slimy in a real goofy way in every scene he is in. His best part comes when he has sex with a couple of prostitutes while on some of the workout machines. He also did, at age 60, his own nude scenes, so you have to give him credit there.

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My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: April 23, 1976

Runtime: 1Hour 42Minutes

Rated R

Director: Bob Rafelson

Studio: United Artists

Available: VHS, DVD

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Living in the past.

This is a classic horror film that managed to resurrect the sagging careers of acting legends Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. It also spawned a whole new ‘psychobiddy’ genre of films. The movie is based on the 1960 bestselling novel by Henry Farrell.

The story takes place almost exclusively in an old, rundown Hollywood mansion where two aging, feuding sisters live. Baby Jane Hudson (Davis) was at one time a big child star, but never managed to cross-over to adult roles. She lives in a fantasy world, refusing to move on with her life, and takes out her frustrations on her crippled sister Blanche (Crawford), who at one time was a big movie star until a horrible car accident left her bound to a wheelchair.

The real-life feud and animosity that the two stars had for each other is now legendary. Some of the things the two said about the other is hilariously over-the-top and too many to quote here, but well worth checking out. When you hear of all the incredible things that the two did to each other behind the scenes you almost become amazed that the film was ever able to get made. I wished that a documentary had been filmed examining the movie’s production as that could have been almost more entertaining than the film itself.

All things considered, Davis is nothing short of fabulous here. She should have won the Oscar hands down and she pretty much steals the film. She also wore gaudy make-up that gives her an almost ghost like appearance. Crawford is very good as well, but her role is not as flashy. Sadly for her this was her last hurrah as her alcoholism took its toll and her roles after this were in B-movies while Davis went on strong for the next twenty years.

Of course some may argue that the real star was director Robert Aldrich. I liked the bird’s-eye shot of Blanche spinning around in her wheel chair in frustration and terror. It is brief, but gives the viewer a very unnerving feeling. The scene where Baby Jane does an old rendition of one of her routines that she did as a child in front of a mirror that she has set-up in her living room that is also surrounded by stage lights is a nice directorial touch. The campy opening that takes place in 1917 that shows Baby Jane at her peak is memorable as is the very offbeat climatic sequence on a crowded beach. I also got a real kick out of all the Baby Jane toy dolls.

Victor Buono deserves mention as he was nominated for the supporting Oscar for his role as Edwin Flagg, the fledgling composer who Baby Jane hires to help resurrect her stage show. Although best remembered for his comedic skills he was also quite good in his serious parts and his immense girth always made his presence known. I enjoyed how they form this weird quasi-relationship that is based solely on each other’s lies and delusions.

I did have a few complaints to what seemed to me to be some serious logistical flaws. One is the fact that Blanche is stuck in her upstairs bedroom with no way to get downstairs. You would think that with all the money that they once made that they would’ve been able to afford building either an elevator, or a chair lift. It also seemed implausible to believe that Blanche had been stuck in her bedroom since 1935 when she had her accident, until present day 1962, which is what the film seems to imply. As much as I liked the African-American housekeeper Elvira Stitt (Maidie Norman), who is well aware of Baby Jane’s psychosis and has no trouble standing up to her, I thought it was awfully dumb the way she set down a hammer that she was holding right in front of Baby Jane and then turned her back to her, which allowed her to be attacked that anyone else could have predicted would happen. I also felt there was a little too much background music that at times got a bit melodramatic.

Still, this is a great film that his highly entertaining from beginning to end. With the exception of some of Baby Jane’s ‘dinner surprises’ the film is devoid of any real scares and there is no gore, which may disappoint today’s younger, more jaded viewers. However, the film has a very strong, dark psychological undercurrent, which proves to be immensely fascinating and will be appreciated by those who are more sophisticated. The film’s theme, which is that of Hollywood’s fickle, vicious cycle of fame, is universal and as strong today as it was back then.

It is interesting to note that the director’s 18 year old son William, who appears at the end as a lunch attendant at the beach, produced  29 years later the made –for-TV remake of this film that starred the Redgrave sisters, but was not as good. Also director Aldrich later made two variations of this same story. One was Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice which he produced and starred Geraldine Page and Ruth Gordon and also the British classic The Killing of Sister George which he also directed.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: October 31, 1962

Runtime: 2Hours 14Minutes

Rated NR (Not Rated)

Director: Robert Aldrich

Studio: Warner Brothers

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

Charley Varrick (1973)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Charley outsmarts them all.

Charley Varrick (Walter Matthau) is a crop duster and former stunt pilot who in order to make ends meet robs small banks in and around the state of Nevada. He does this with the help of his girlfriend Nadine (Jacqueline Scott) as well as a young, quick tempered man named Harmen Sullivan (Andrew Robinson). Unfortunately the latest bank that they rob was a front for the mob and the money they take was already stolen cash and the mob is soon hot on their trail as are the police. Worse is the fact that Charley and Harman don’t seem to see eye to eye on anything, which leads to a lot of intense confrontations and intrigue at every turn.

Initially I felt Matthau may have been miscast. We are so used to seeing him in comedies that watching him in a movie that features gritty violence seems almost unsettling. However, as the movie wears on and the story gets more intricate I started to really enjoy Matthau’s character and felt he was a perfect fit. I loved how he is so laid back and unassuming and yet in his own subtle way still manages to outwit everyone, even the dangerous mob. The film definitely feeds off of the confrontations between Charley and Harman who are diametrically different in every aspect. The fact that Charley manages to get the upper hand on the otherwise violent prone, out-of-control young man makes it all the more pleasing.

Robinson again gives another outstanding performance. The guy is an amazingly intense actor, who has never been given his just recognition. The guy stole the film in his most famous part as the killer Scorpio in Dirty Harry and he practically does it here as well.

Woodrow Parfrey another unfairly over-looked character actor gives a delightful performance as the timid bank manager stuck between the mob and the police. The conversation that he has with the mob boss Maynard Boyle (John Vernon) out near a cow pasture where they ascertain that the cows may have it better in life than the humans is memorable.

The only actor that didn’t quite hit the mark with me was Joe Don Baker as the mob hit man named Molly. I liked the character who was this extremely cold, calculating killer smoldering underneath his calm façade with a nasty penchant for violence and sadism as well as an odd moral code. Baker seems to be having a lot of fun with the part, but I would have liked the character to have been bigger physically and a few more scenes showing just how mean and threatening he really was. Although politically incorrect to the extreme the scene where he ‘convinces’ the Sheree North character to go to bed with him is amusing.

The cinematography seems to be lacking. Nevada can be a scenic desert state if captured right, but that wasn’t done here. The majority of the action takes place in a dusty trailer park, which is expectedly bland visually. The bank that was chosen for the opening sequence was very ordinary as was the locale. I think they should have scouted around for something a little more exotic as the opening shot should always be something that should grab the viewer in and that certainly didn’t happen. Despite being directed by the legendary Don Siegel this whole thing had a little too much of a TV-movie look.

Another beef I had with the film is the segment where Charley goes to bed with a woman named Sybil Fort (Felicia Farr) who is the secretary of the mob boss that Charley wants to get into contact with. Charley barges into her apartment after disguising himself as a flower delivery man and then threatens to harm her if she screams. Then, just a little while later they go to bed together and she behaves like she has suddenly gotten really ‘in’ to him. I know in the post-sexual revolution 70’s and in Hollywood’s effort to always seem ‘sophisticated’ and ‘relevant’ it was common for characters of the opposite sex to go to bed together even if they had just met. Sometimes though this ritual seemed to border on the absurd and this scene here was a perfect example. This woman had no idea who this man was and who had threatened her just a short while before. Also, Matthau does not have the face or physique that most women are going to get the ‘hots’ for. My only guess is that this was meant to be an inside joke since Farr in real-life was the wife of Jack Lemmon and therefore they thought it would be fun to have Matthau go to bed with his best friend’s wife and also possibly live out a private fantasy. Either way it came off as dumb and forced.

Despite all of this it is an entertaining and fun movie especially for those who enjoy a story that emphasizes a clever battle of wits. A remake wouldn’t be a bad idea if it could give it a little more visual flair and a slightly better choreographed action.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: October 19, 1973

Runtime: 1Hour 51Minutes

Rated R

Director: Don Siegel

Studio: Universal

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

Apartment Zero (1988)

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: This friendship gets weird.

Adrian LeDuc (Colin Firth) is living in Buenos Aires, Argentina and owner of a cinema that specializes in showing classics from Hollywood’s golden era. Unfortunately it is not making enough money and he is having trouble paying for his apartment after his mother has a mental breakdown and forced into an institution.  He decides to rent out the empty bedroom to help defer costs. After going through several would-be candidates he decides to take-in a handsome and mysterious man by the name of Jack Carter (Hart Bochner). Despite Adrian’s anti-social tendencies and extreme fixation on movies and movie trivia he takes an immediate liking to Jack even though Jack has a totally opposite personality. As their relationship progresses different sides to their personalities come out and the two create a very odd co-dependency to the other. Things grow troubling as a serial killer is on the loose and Adrian begins to suspect that it might be Jack.

The film shares some strong elements to two very brilliant films that also happen to be personal favorites: Joseph Loosey’s The Servant and The Tenant. Like with those movies this film delves into the dark human psyche and how the passive-aggressive nature of relationships can bring out sides to a person that had never before been seen. Despite the slow, deliberate pace I found myself almost hypnotically wrapped up in the story and characters from the get go. The leads are full of interesting idiosyncrasies and watching how it all evolves becomes infinitely fascinating.

Firth is splendid as usual in the difficult role. I found it interesting how he is so cold and unforgiving with most everyone, but weak and emotionally needy with both his mother and Jack. His thorough knowledge of movie trivia makes a lot of his conversations that he has with Jack are both fun and unique. The part where tells Jack that he refused to befriend someone simply because he did not know who actress Geraldine Page was is a great line and the only one that I remember from when I first saw it over 20 years ago. I also got a kick out of the game that they play where they name three stars and then the other person must guess what film all of them were in. I appreciated the way director Martin Donovan helps accentuate the characters personality by decorating his apartment with portraits of classic film stars. However, for all of Adrian’s vast cinema knowledge he does get one thing wrong. He states that the film Compulsion was released in 1958 when it really was 1959.

Hart Bochner is alright as Jack, but I did not feel that his performance equaled that of Firth’s. He seemed too much of a male hunk for my tastes. He was also way too normal for too long of a time and I would have liked to have seen a little more hints to his supposed dark side come out earlier. There is also a scene where Jack obtains a fake passport, which he tries to use to board a flight in order to leave the country. He hands the document to a ticket agent for inspection while looking visibly nervous and sweating profusely, which didn’t seem consistent. In every other scenario he had been shown to be cool and confident, so I didn’t understand why he would suddenly lose his composure so badly especially when you take into account he has lived his whole life on the run and most expectedly been through these same situations hundreds of times before. The way he takes off his shirt is also weird and I felt needed explanation even though none is given as he strips it off his body, then rubs it underneath both of his armpits before he then smells it.

The elderly tenants that make up the rest of the building population are amusing, but not really needed. Dora Bryan and Liz Smith are goofy as two elderly sisters who spend their time being snoopy and gossipy, but unfortunately their mannerisms ended up reminding me too much of the Pigeon sisters from The Odd Couple movie. These comical scenes are passable, but tend to take away from the suspense and overall dark theme and seem to be remnants from writer/director Donavan’s career as a TV-sitcom writer, which he did for over three decades before he was finally able to break into film. I also couldn’t buy the one scene showing every one of the tenants watching the same news show at the same exact time as I am sure even in 1980’s Argentina there would have to be a variety of channels and programs to choose from and everyone wouldn’t just be sitting and watching the same thing.

The final hour is when this thing really seems to get going. The last fifteen minutes becomes a barrage of one macabre image, situation, and comment after another and my only complaint was that it took too long to get there, yet it is worth it. The twist at the end is memorably shocking and I wished that the camera had focused in on the grotesqueness of it more and not just shown it for a brief few seconds before cutting away as it would have been more effective. Still if you like intelligent psychological thrillers this one hits the mark and the Buenos Aires setting helps give it an added flavor.

My Rating 8 out of 10

Released: September 30, 1988

Runtime: 2Hours 4Minutes

Rated R

Director: Martin Donovan

Studio: The Summit Company

Available: VHS, DVD