Tag Archives: Movies Based on Actual Events

The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom (1968)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Lover in the attic.

This wacky film nicely exudes the mod, experimental wave of filmmaking that permeated the era of the late 60’s. The story takes place in London and is about a clothing manufacturer’s wife named Harriet Blossom (Shirley MacLaine) who one day calls her husband Robert (Richard Attenborough) while he is at work to tell him that her sewing machine has broken down. Robert sends his lowly assistant Ambrose Tuttle (James Booth) over to their house to help her fix it. Harriet is a bit bored with life and feels neglected by her husband, so she not so subtly seduces Ambrose and then hides him in the attic where he soon takes up residence.  He comes out only when Robert is away, but the unexplained strange noises that Robert hears and the many close calls make him think he is going insane and leads him to a nervous breakdown.

Director Joseph McGrath’s highly visual style is the real star. The lighting, editing, camera angles, set design, and costumes are creative and imaginative.  The home that was chosen for the setting has a nice architectural flair especially the attic and billiards room, which seems to be draped by a large stain glass window. Certain film professors show this movie to their classes as an example of how stylish direction can help accentuate a story as well as deftly define its era. I was disappointed to see that although McGrath is still alive he hasn’t done a film since 1984, which is a shame as it is obvious from this that he is quite gifted and I would have liked to see him doing more.

This is generally considered a vehicle for MacLaine, but to me her performance isn’t interesting. I think she is a first rate actress, but her character here is the only normal one in the film and she acts more like an anchor trying to corral the craziness around her. Booth, as her lover, goes to the other extreme, but doesn’t fare any better. He is too clownish and is always wearing various disguises and going through different personas, which makes the character unrealistic and cartoonish. If anything, out of the three main leads, it is actually Attenborough who does the best. His nervous and confused facial expressions are priceless. The scenes were he comes home from work and to ‘unwind’ pretends to be a conductor of a large orchestra while listening to a loud record, is amusing.

The colorful supporting cast though, full of legendary British Pros, is what steals the film. Some of them appear just briefly, but they still make a memorable and funny impression. Barry Humphries, playing a male character and not Dame Edna, is good as an art dealer. John Cleese, in one of his very first roles, is engaging as an argumentative postal clerk.  The best however is far and away Freddie Jones as the snippy, suspicious, relentless detective that will leave no stone unturned in his pursuit of Ambrose, who once he moves into Harriet’s attic proceeds to completely drop of society and disappear.

Although generally entertaining the plot doesn’t go anywhere and is simply a set-up for a lot of absurdity. What is worse is the fact that this based on a true story that in its own right was very intriguing.  In the real-life incident that took place in 1913 a 33 year old woman by the name of Dolly Oesterreich met a 17 year old named Otto Sanhuber. She, like the character in the movie, was a bored wife of a wealthy textile manufacturer, and took in the young man as her ‘sex slave’, which he readily accepted. To avoid possible suspicion she had him move into their attic, where he remained for five years and despite some close calls was never caught.  When the Oesterreich’s moved to Los Angeles in 1918 Dolly made sure that their new home had an attic as well and Otto then took up residence there and the deception continued until 1920 when Otto finally ended up killing the husband.

Of course none of that happens here. In fact Ambrose is fond of the husband and considers the three to be one big happy ‘family’, which is offbeat for sure, but not particularly satisfying. Again, this film does have some funny moments. I thought the scene where Robert invents the world’s first inflatable bra only to have the system go awry during an exhibition, which forces the model’s breasts to grow to unbelievable proportions before they go floating in the air, to be hilarious.  Still the end result of this production can best be described as cinematic soufflé.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: September 11, 1968

Runtime: 1Hour 33Minutes

Rating: NR (Not Rated)

Director: Joseph McGrath

Studio: Paramount

Available: VHS

North Dallas Forty (1979)

north dallas forty

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Ugly side of football.

From the very first frame this film grabs your attention. We see football wide receiver Phil Elliot (Nick Nolte) sleeping in his bed with blood spewing out of his nose and soaking his pillow in red. He wakes up and ambles his way to the bathroom looking like a man of 80 instead of 30. We come to realize that his nose is broken and he sleeps with tissue stuffed up his nostril to keep it from bleeding worse than it really does. We soon learn that this is all part of the business. A player is expected not only to play with pain, but live with it as well. Watching Nolte deal with this is so convincing that it will make you feel like you’re having the same symptoms and bring back vivid memories of any physical discomfort that you once had. It gets so bad that when he is making love to his girlfriend he is having to tell her to switch positions, or not touch certain parts of his body because even sex ends up being too painful. When you read about how many players suffer from lifelong injuries from their playing days you feel almost insulted at how other sports movies seem to gloss over it like it is no big deal when it really isn’t.

The movie is based on the best-selling novel by Peter Gent, who once played wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys. Although fictionalized to a certain extent one can’t help but see the ugly truth seeping through. Many of the characters closely resemble star Cowboy players from that era including the Mac Davis character Seth Maxwell who has the same personality as real-life quarterback Don Meredith.  There is also B.A. Strother (G.D. Spradlin) who resembles legendary coach Tom Landry. Like Landry he seems devoutly religious and even quotes scripture, but he also is very cold, calculating, and psychologically manipulative.

I thoroughly enjoyed this film and found it riveting from beginning to end. If only all films could be this revealing and honest. The ‘feel good sports movie’ can be nice, but it is becoming too much of a cliché. Most players that get into the business don’t win Superbowls, or championships. They becomes used and abused by a relentless system until their only goal is simple survival and trying not to be cut. Of course I have never played football, but I don’t think the viewer really has to, to appreciate the dead-on truth that is displayed here. Simply being out in the ‘real world’ and working in corporate America should be enough for just about anyone to connect to what the characters here go through.

The dialogue is exceptional and endlessly quotable. Every scene and conversation dissects another ugly side of the business. Some of it is expected, but other parts become rather startling particularly the way players are pushed to play with injuries in order to ‘help the team’ even if there is a strong possibility that it could cause serious and permanent harm.  Some may say things have gotten better, or worse since this was made, but I can’t help but feel that if anything it pretty much the same in a lot of ways, which is why I still maintain that this film is quite possibly the best sports movie ever made.

You also gotta love Charles Durning as the assistant coach constantly carrying with him a bottle of Maalox and looking like the one doing most of the coaching and disciplining while coach Strother stands at a calculated distance. The scene where Durning screams at the players during a team prayer giving in the locker room by a priest is the film’s single most funniest moment. Bo Svenson has one of his best roles playing the very large and intimidating player who goes from being obnoxious and even frightening at parties to looking dumb, confused, and even scared during the games. The only actor I wasn’t impressed with was John Matusek, who was a real-life pro player for a while. It was nice seeing a well-built actor to compliment Svenson, but Matusek just does not have the ability to deliver his lines with any dramatic impact and the fiery tirade that gives Durning at the end fails to be as strong as it should’ve been.

The only other problem I had with this film is the scenes involving the actual game itself. It doesn’t in any way resemble a pro game. The field is small and looks like it was shot at a high school. The crowd is darkened out, looking like there were no spectators at all. I also didn’t like the way director Ted Kotcheff incorporated dramatic music during certain key segments. It came off as heavy-handed and unnecessary. Of course the team’s uniforms and logos look tacky and although this is a little distracting you can’t blame this on the filmmakers as the NFL refused to endorse the film because of its frank nature.

This film hasn’t mellowed at all with age and I was surprised how potent it still is. I would recommend this to anyone, sports fan, or not, who wants to see the game from a different perspective by a player who was there.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: August 3, 1979

Runtime: 1Hour 59Minutes

Rated R

Director: Ted Kotcheff

Studio: Paramount

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

Paper Lion (1968)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Scrawny guy plays quarterback.

            Lighthearted adaptation of George Plimpton’s best-selling novel detailing his account of playing for the Detroit Lions football team as a back-up quarterback despite having no real experience.  Alan Alda plays Plimpton and the movie’s main focus is during the team’s training camp and his shock at just how hard and rigorous being a pro-quarterback really is.

The film’s most amusing moments come during the many weeks of practice when Plimpton finds that even throwing a pass is difficult because the defenders are so quick that they are in his face and have him on the ground before he is even able to react. Even taking a hand-off from his center proves to be a difficult process as it jams his thumb. Director Alex March does a fine job of giving the viewer a feeling of Plimpton’s experience by having the defenders come barreling towards the camera until you feel like you’ve been tackled yourself.

What makes the story interesting is the fact that despite being an intellectual man from Harvard Plimpton still ends up having the same competitive spirit as the rest of the players. He becomes determined to prove himself by memorizing the playbook and practicing until he is able to function decently in the position. He even finds himself getting into a potential fist-fight with another man at a bar when the man makes a disparaging remark about the team.  Although the players quickly realize that he is not a legitimate athlete and try to scare him away they become impressed enough with his perseverance and fiery spirit to eventually be willing to play for him, which is a nice touch.

The cast is loaded with actual players and coaches incluing: John Gordy, Mike Lucci, Alex Karras, Sugar Ray Robinson, Roger Brown, Frank Gifford and the then head coach Joe Schmidt. All of them are given a lot of screen time and a surprising amount of lines. Despite what one may think they do an exceptionally good job. They are likable and believable especially coach Schmidt. In fact it is their presence that really helps make the movie succeed and gives the viewer the impression that they are experiencing the NFL as it is, or at least as it was at that time. There is even a segment featuring legendary coach Vince Lombardi, which is special.

Probably the only character that I felt wasn’t necessary was Lauren Hutton as Plimpton’s super-hot model girlfriend.  Now, I have never read the book, so I am not sure if Plimpton had an attractive girlfriend in real-life, or not, but the character here seemed to be put in for eye candy and added little if anything to the story.

The footage shown of an actual exhibition game that the Lions play against the St Louis Cardinals at the old Busch Stadium is vivid. So many times film of this nature will borrow footage from another source and then incorporate it in, but the grainy film stock always makes this evident and distracting and here that wasn’t the case. The camera gets right down on the field with the players and you see the plays and hits up close. You even hear the trash talk and a bit of cursing although they do edit some of that out.

The film’s drawback is that it is too serene for its own good. There is never any dramatic tension, or conflict. The pace and music is so easy going that at times it seems ready to put you to sleep. The film had the backing of the league, which I felt ended up compromising it. Some of the harsher ugly elements of football boot camp were clearly glossed over. I would have wanted something a little bit meatier, even if it had been for a only a few brief scenes. The film hasn’t particularly aged well. The ‘big’ players of yesteryear look rather puny by today’s standards. The game and conditioning has evolved a lot and I felt this story should be revisited in the modern day setting.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: October 23, 1968

Runtime: 1Hour 47Minutes

Rated NR (Not Rated)

Director: Alex March

Studio: United Artists

Available: VHS, Netflix streaming

Straight Time (1978)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Parolee can’t go straight.

Straight Time is an engrossing, highly realistic drama detailing a parolee by the name of Max Dembo (Dustin Hoffman) who gets released from prison and cannot seem to stay away from the allure of crime despite his initial efforts. The movie is based on the novel ‘No Beast So Fierce’ by Edward Bunker.  Bunker himself was a career criminal who was in and out of jail from 1955 to 1975 and only managed to finally turn his life around when this novel, which he had written while incarcerated and deals with many of his own exploits, got published. Bunker co-wrote the screenplay and appears in a bit part playing a character with a really bad comb-over by the name of Mickey.

I found this film gripping from the second it started and infinitely fascinating the more it progressed. It gives you a whole new perspective on things as you are forced to see it from the viewpoint of the criminal and as an outsider looking in. Every facet of the story and characters is believable and the film does a very good job of being stark and searing without ever getting exploitive, or overtly shocking.  I remember back in 1977 when I toured the new county jail in the town where I grew up when it was first opened and before it housed any inmates. I remember the officer describing the rather degrading procedures all felons had to go through when they were first booked including being stripped searched and forced to take a shower nude while a fully clothed officer stood by and watched them.  The scene where Max and other criminals are ‘welcomed’ to the L.A. County jail worked exactly like that. It was so authentic and frank that it seemed almost like a documentary.

The essence of the story revolves around Max and his relationship with his parole officer Earl Frank that is wonderfully played by noted character actor M. Emmet Walsh. Earl does his job a little too well. He shows a constant distrust of Max and gives him no respect while overzealously tracking his every move until it finally forces Max to snap. It is a terrific indictment on the flawed system as it examines just how hard it is for the criminal to go straight and stay straight even if they want to. It also exposes how it seems almost designed to push the person back into crime in its refusal to ever treat the criminal as a human being. The part where Max finally has enough and overpowers Earl and chains him naked to a fence in broad daylight on a busy L.A. freeway while hundreds of cars drive by him should leave an indelible image on the minds of anyone who sees it.

The remaining supporting cast is great as well. Theresa Russell is surprisingly effective as Max’s girlfriend Jenny Mercer. Usually she has played more glamorous types of roles, but here she is perfect as a very ordinary woman who inadvertently gets caught up in Max’s eventual self-destruction until she finds herself in over her head.  I liked the fact that she wore no makeup and the camera was able to pick up her natural beauty through regular lighting. The only issue I had with her character is that it is never made clear why she would fall in love with Max so quickly and what it was about him that she liked since he shows some clear destructive tendencies right from the beginning. To me it just came off as a bit forced and phony to have an otherwise well-adjusted woman that he meets at an employment agency get so infatuated with him after just one date that she immediately agrees to move in with him, visit him in jail, and even quit her job on the spot and go on the run. I know it is standard practice in a Hollywood film for the anti-hero to always have ‘his girl’ that can be used to humanize and compliment him, but there still needs to be more of an explanation and history shown to her character in order to validate the relationship.

Harry Dean Stanton gives another great performance as Jerry Schue. He was a long-time partner to Max during the robberies he did before landing in prison. Jerry has now turned his life around. He has a nice house in the suburbs, an honest job, and a beautiful wife. However, when Max comes to visit, and the minute his wife leaves the room, Jerry begs him for a crime job that they can do together because he finds his new found life to be boring.  I thought this made a great statement as to how the sterile suburban existence is not the American dream for everyone and how it will not necessarily ‘domesticate’ those that still harbor a reckless urge.  I also found it interesting how Jerry views the art of robbery as an actual profession that he takes a great deal of pride and care in. When one of the men shows up late for a planned robbery Jerry calls him ‘unprofessional’.

The robbery scenes are filmed in a diverting way. In most films the camera gets real close to the action in order to heighten the tension. Here the action is captured from a long shot that allows the viewer to see just how chaotic and frantic a robbery really is as well as showing how the most nervous people in the place are the thieves themselves.

If I have one complaint with the film it is in the fact that the second hour becomes rather difficult to watch as it focuses solely on the self-destructive downward spiral of the main character. Max has some good qualities, which makes it all the more painful to watch. Yes, some of his anger is justified, but his insistence at ‘evening the score’ with everyone who has wronged him ends up only hurting himself. Hoffman is outstanding as usual. It is interesting to compare his role here playing a very violent character with the pacifist one that he played just seven years earlier in Sam Peckinpah’s classic Straw Dogs.

If you are looking for an intelligent, searing drama that is still relevant today then this no-holds-bar character study is highly recommended.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: March 18, 1978

Runtime: 1Hour 54Minutes

Rated R

Director: Ulu Grosbard

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

The Great Race (1965)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Slapstick isn’t always funny.

            The Great Leslie (Tony Curtis), who makes a living performing in wild stunts during the early twentieth century, decides to stage the world’s longest car race that will span over three continents. It will pit him against the evil Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon) and Fate’s slightly dimwitted assistant Maximilian Meen (Peter Falk) who will employ any dirty trick that they can in order to win.

It promises to be a grandiose comedy, but comes off as overlong and trite. In fact out of the total 160 minute run time I didn’t find any of it funny, it’s not even good for a chuckle. The gags are unimaginative, strained, and forced. It reverts to all the age-old shtick like a tired pie fight and equally tiring barroom brawl without adding anything new to it. Although the cinematography is excellent the action is cartoonish and will easily bore someone who is looking for something slightly more sophisticated. The film fails to achieve any momentum and seems to rely solely on its many lame jokes and stabs at unfunny humor to carry it.

The story is staggeringly threadbare with nowhere to go. The film’s title is misleading when you factor in that very little of an actual race is ever shown. The script goes off on a lot of side-stories and tangents all of which become increasingly more stupid as it goes along.  The worst one comes near the end when the audience should be gearing up for an exciting climax, but instead are treated to an inane scenario were the group find themselves trapped in a palace and dealing with a drunken prince who looks identical to Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon in a dual role).

It would have been better had there been more participants in the race instead of just the two. At the beginning there are several more drivers, but their vehicles all either crash, or break down right away in a highly uninspired fashion.

Curtis is boring in the lead and having him always seen in white makes him annoyingly clichéd. Lemmon’s character, who wears all black, is irritating as well in the opposite way.  Initially it was fun seeing Lemmon ham it up, but the character gets overplayed. I also didn’t like that medieval castle that he resided in, which appeared to be nothing more than a miniaturized model made of paper.

There are also many irritating logistical flaws that go overboard even for silly slapstick. One of the worst is the scene where both racers are stranded in a blizzard presumable somewhere in Alaska. Then the next morning they somehow find themselves on an iceberg that quickly melts as it floats into warmer waters, but how does that happen when before they were landlocked? Also, the Professor slips into the icy waters several times, which should have killed him.

If there is one good thing I can say about this film it is in the presence of Natalie Wood who plays a feisty feminist named Maggie Dubois. She is stunning and easily steals every scene that she is in. I loved the character’s gumption and I wished that she had been able to have her own car the whole way and competed against the two instead of having the derivative romance with Leslie. I also didn’t particularly care for ‘The Sweetheart Tree’ song that she sings, which is sappy, nor did I like the lyrics getting printed onto the screen along with a small bouncing ball.  Did writer/director Blake Edwards actually expect movie audiences to start singing along with her?

Supposedly this whole mess is a tribute to the slapstick films of the 20’s and 30’s particularly the Laurel and Hardy comedies, but as is the case with most of these things the originals are far better. The production values are high, there is a pretty good dual scene between Curtis and actor Ross Martin, and in the scene requiring a polar bear it is nice to see that a real one was used instead of a guy in a bear costume, which always looks tacky. Still, overall, it is a waste of celluloid that seems geared for an audience that no longer exists.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: July 1, 1965

Runtime: 2Hours 40Minutes

Rated NR (Not Rated)

Director: Blake Edwards

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 9 out of 10

4-Word Review: Money for sex change.

Dog Day Afternoon is a 1975 film based on a true story that took place on August 22, 1972.  It tells the tale of a man by the name of John Wojtowicz, who robbed a Brooklyn bank in order to pay for his gay lover’s sex change operation.  Here the character’s name has been altered slightly to John ‘Sonny’ Wortzik (played by Al Pacino), but otherwise this Oscar-winning script by Frank Pierson pretty much sticks closely to the actual events in this incredible saga about everything that can go wrong will.

Just about everyone who has watched this film will tell you how it manages to grab and pull you in right from the start.  It achieves this without having any special effects, pounding soundtrack, elaborate camera work, or artificial lighting.  Instead of ‘telegraphing all of its punches’ the film draws back and puts more emphasis on the little subtitles like the character’s facial expressions, side conversations, and other nuances that put together make this film very rich and textured.   In essence it successfully ‘shows’ instead of ‘tells’, which is a remarkable achievement since so many Hollywood films seem to want to do the exact opposite.

Director Sidney Lumet allowed for a lot of improvisation by his actors and gave each performer full rein on how to create their character, even the minor supporting ones. The result gives each and every one of the characters a distinct personality. The bank hostages become almost as fascinating as the thieves and it is interesting seeing all the different ways each one responds to the situation and how they interact with the robbers, which at times is both amusing and surprising.

The film also vividly captures 1970’s Brooklyn atmosphere. The sights and sounds of the area as well as the people’s personalities and the anti-establishment sentiment that was still quite prevalent at the time are all right on target.  After you finish watching this movie you feel like you just got back from a trip over there.  I really liked how during the opening credits you are shown all sorts of shots and scenes of Brooklyn, so by the time the story actually begins you are already well entrenched in the setting.

Pacino gives a dynamic performance in the starring role.  Some insist this is the best performance never to be nominated for an Oscar and I might have to agree.  If you are a Pacino fan than you absolutely have to see this, but if you are not a Pacino fan you still should see it because afterwards you might become one.

The supporting cast is stellar.  Sully Boyar, who was a real-life lawyer who did not enter into acting until he was in his 50’s, leaves a strong impression as the stoic bank manager.  As the police captain, the always durable Charles Durning is a blast especially during his frenzied and frantic negotiations with Pacino that almost become the film’s highlight. Another memorable moment is the improvised phone conversation between Sonny and his gay lover played by Chris Sarandon.  John Cazale is also amazing as Pacino’s bank robbing partner.  The partner in the actual incident was only 18 while Cazale was then 39, which created some controversy. However, Cazale is so convincing in the part that it is hard to imagine anyone else doing it as well.

In the end the film’s brilliance comes from its ability to convey the humanity of its characters. You can’t help but feel for the Sonny character despite his many flaws.  This a man who craves acceptance and yet goes through life being betrayed and hurt by everyone he meets. The shocked expression he shows at being betrayed by his own hostages, who he felt he had ‘bonded’ with, is, in my opinion, the most memorable shot of the whole film.

I only have two negative comments about this film and they are both minor.  One is the abrupt ending.  Since the film was made only a few years after the incident there wasn’t much of an epilogue to the characters.  The real John Wojtowicz, who really did look a lot like Pacino, didn’t end up dying until the year 2006.  It would have been a stronger conclusion by showing what happened to the Sonny character through the years and maybe even how he might of changed or grown.  My only other complaint is the fact that actress Carol Kane appears as one of the bank employees, but is shown very little.  A quirky and unique talent such as hers should have been given a bigger role.

Overall this is a great movie that I would recommend to any serious movie fan who can appreciate great film-making in top form.

My Rating: 9 out of 10

Released: September 21, 1975

Runtime: 2Hours 5Minutes

Rated R

Director: Sidney Lumet

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: VHS, DVD (2-Disc Special Edition), Blu-ray, HDDVD, Amazon Instant Video