Tag Archives: Movies

Continental Divide (1981)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Reporter falls for naturalist.

Ernie Souchack (John Belushi) is a newspaper reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times who routinely covers the criminal activity of the local mob, but when his reporting gets a little too close to the action the mob boss (Val Avery) has Ernie beaten-up by a couple of corrupt cops. Howard (Allen Garfield), Ernie’s editor, decides to send him to Colorado for his own protection where he’s assigned to do an interview with the eccentric outdoor enthusiast Nell (Blair Brown). Nell, who spends her days researching eagles, lives alone in a tiny cabin high-up in the Rockies and normally does not take a liking to any reporters. Ernie though moves into her place for 2-weeks and while their initial reactions to one another is frosty they eventually end-up in a romantic relationship.

Hard to imagine that Lawrence Kasdan, who has written and directed so many great movies in his career (Body Heat, The Big Chill), was the screenwriter for this one, but this clearly isn’t his best work. The story is obvious and the set-up too forced. Nothing is worse than watching a movie where you know exactly how it’s going to end right from the start. Part of the problem is that Brown’s character is not played-up enough and she’s nowhere near as feisty as she billed as being. I found it unnerving too that she’d let a strange man burst into her cabin out of nowhere and sleep inside her place in the same room with her without any real protection to stop him from getting frisky if he wanted to. That wooden stick she used wasn’t going to help her especially if he attacked her while she was asleep. For all she knew this guy could’ve been an escaped killer, so what was going to prevent him from assaulting her in the middle of the night?

The main issue though is that these two had absolutely nothing in common, so the odds that a relationship could ever actually form between them is virtually nil. I know that there’s that age-old adage ‘opposites attract’, but there still needs to be a few things that the two have in common, despite the other differences, for that to work. The story’s logic is that spending 2-weeks with someone will be enough to create that romantic feeling, but if that were the case then every teen would automatically fall for their fellow campers each year during summer camp.

I could understand from Belshi’s perspective how Brown would attract him sexually, but what this tubby, out-shape, smoker offered her to make her go so ga-ga over him, I didn’t see. A far more believable romantic partner for her was Max Birnbaum (Tony Ganios) who is a muscular former NFL player who dropped out of society and lived as a hermit in the wilderness. The two share a couple of trysts, but then he conveniently disappears even though he gave the story some potential dramatic conflict and should’ve stayed.

Some people like this movie because it gives you a chance to see Belushi in a wider acting range, but he’s not very funny and doesn’t have anything to say that is either witty or clever. Having the second half of the film shift back to Chicago where Brown comes to visit might’ve been interesting had her character been better defined and we could see her difficulties in adjusting, but since her eccentricities never gets played-up enough these scenes add little.

Spoiler Alert!

I’ll agree with Leonard Maltin in his review where he stated that Kasdan clearly couldn’t come up with a finish and that’s the truth. Having the two go through a quickie, makeshift wedding only to then return to their separate ways and continue to live far apart made no sense and didn’t really ‘resolve’ anything. What’s the use of getting married if you’re never going to see the other person? The script needed more fleshing-out and seems like a broad outline in desperate need of character development and a more creative scenario.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Release: September 18, 1981

Runtime: 1 Hour 43 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Michael Apted

Studio: Universal Pictures

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

Newsfront (1978)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Life of a cameraman.

The story centers on the men and women who worked to bring Australian film audiences the latest footage of news events of the day during post World War II. It focuses on those working for a company called Cinetone, which is run by A. G. Marwood (Don Crosby), who’s a demanding boss who expects perfection in the product that he sends out as well as footage that is brought in. The movie also looks at the private lives of the crew including Len (Bill Hunter) whose brother Frank (Gerard Kennedy) works for a competitor as well as the advent of TV news, which eventually put the weekly news reels out of business since they could show the events live as they happened.

The film is unusual in that the first 15 minutes are in black-and-white looking much like the newsreel footage that is shown during the opening credits only to shift suddenly into color. It then goes back and forth between color and black-and-white at roughly 30-minute intervals where for a couple minutes the scene shifts to black-and-white for no apparent reason that I could find and then eventually back to color. I’m not sure what the significance of this was, but it’s a bit distracting and doesn’t help get the viewer into the story, but if anything drives them a bit away.

The plot is different too as it’s made up of small personal dramas versus one big one. I didn’t necessarily have a problem with this, but I did feel the conflicts should’ve been more tied to the newsreel profession, which the majority of it isn’t. For instance the story thread dealing with Len’s opposition to having an amendment added to the constitution barring affiliation with the communist party, which goes against the sentiments of the rest of the town, has nothing intrinsically to do with his camerawork and therefore didn’t seem necessary to the story. There’s also scenes dealing with his failing marriage and love affair with co-worker Amy (Wendy Hughes), which again could happen in any work place and seemed rather pedestrian.

There’s also other threads that I thought should’ve been played-out more. Len’s conflict with his assistant Chris (Chris Haywood) over his reluctance to get married to his girlfriend after he finds out she’s pregnant had potential for strong dramatic moments and it would’ve been interesting seeing them continue to work together despite the underlying tensions, but like with a lot of things in this movie, it gets briefly introduced and then quickly resolved. The same thing happens when Len is forced to work with a new assistant after Chris dies unexpectedly. It’s obvious during the short scene of the two in a car that there’s a big generational difference between them, which piqued my interest seeing if they could forge a working relationship despite these issues, but the film never goes back to it, which I found frustrating.

Overall it manages to be compelling nonetheless and much of it could be credited to actual newsreel footage that gets shown throughout. The violent ones that get shown at the start I found particularly riveting including the one where a race car careen out of control and drives right into the spectators, where it clearly injuries and kills many. I was almost hoping for a backstory to that one, but none is given yet it skillfully illustrates how vivid some of the newsreel footage was even after all of these years, which is the best point that the movie makes. I just wished the scenarios dealt more with the work aspect. In a lot of ways my favorite character was A.G. as I enjoyed the way he fretted about every little detail, was a classic chain smoker, and seemed married to his job. It’s a shame he didn’t stay on the whole way through as he was the type of obsessive guy you could’ve really built a movie around.

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My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: July 29, 1978

Runtime: 1 Hour 50 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Phillip Noyce

Studio: Roadshow Shows

Available: DVD, Tubi

Under the Rainbow (1981)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Drunk dwarfs vandalize hotel.

In 1938 an audition is held at the Culver Hotel in Hollywood for Little People to play the part of Munchkins for the upcoming movie The Wizard of Oz. Studio assistant Annie (Carrie Fisher) is put in charge of casting 150 dwarfs for the part. Meanwhile German secret agent Otto (Billy Barty), who is also a dwarf, has been sent by Hitler to California to seek out a Japanese spy who will supply him with top secret maps of American defense systems. Also coming to the hotel is secret service agent Bruce (Chevy Chase) who has been assigned to protect an Austrian Royal Duke (Joseph Maher) and his wife (Eve Arden) from assassination and when all these different forces come together in the same place massive calamity ensues especially as the dwarfs get drunk and proceed to tear the place up.

Director Steve Rash and screenwriter Fred Bauer gained a lot of critical success with The Buddy Holly Story and it got them a contract with Orion Pictures where they signed on to direct a movie that would star Chevy Chase. Inspired by a long-running rumor that dealt with dwarfs getting drunk and rowdy while auditioning for the Munchkin roles at the Culver Hotel, where this film was actually shot, and they decided this would make a funny idea for their next project. The concept might’ve worked had they centered it around the dwarfs, but instead they’re treated as secondary players with no discernable personalities, who behave more like children instead of adults with a physical growth handicap.

Throwing in Chase was a bad idea. He had just signed a three picture deal with the studio, so was obligated to take the part when it was given, but he has later described this as ‘one of the worst movies ever made’ and in interviews, most notably on ‘The Tonight Show’, so has Carrie Fisher. I didn’t understand why the three different story threads were needed as it dilutes the plot, but apparently director Rash didn’t think people would come to see a movie that starred dwarfs, so Chase was added in to compel audiences to the theater, but he’s aloof and not funny and looking genuinely uncomfortable the whole way through.

The spy/espionage angle needed to be thrown out and instead everything centered around Fisher and her struggles in maintaining order throughout the audition. The dwarfs needed more of a dramatic presence too with some serious undertones put in showing the challenges of being a small person, which would’ve given the movie some depth that is otherwise missing. I did enjoy Billy Barty, but everything else is a shambles, which justifiably caused it to do poorly with both the critics and box office.

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: July 31, 1981

Runtime: 1 Hour 38 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Steve Rash

Studio: Orion Pictures

Available: DVD-R (Warner Archive), Amazon Video, YouTube

Lookin’ to Get Out (1982)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Hiding out in Vegas.

Alex (Jon Voight) is a high stakes gambler in debt for $10,000. Joey and Harry (Allen Keller, Jude Farese) work with the syndicate and when they come around to collect their debt from Alex he escapes out of the city with his pal Jerry Feldmen (Burt Young) where they go to Las Vegas in hopes of recouping the money by playing blackjack. Alex employs the services of Smitty (Bert Remsen), an expert card counter, to help him at the dealer table, but just as he and Jerry think they’ve got their situation solved Joey and Harry reappear and chase the two through the hotel demanding that the debt be repaid immediately.

The script was written by Al Schwartz who based it on some of his own life experiences as he struggled to make it in the entertainment world. While working as the business manager to singer/songwriter Chip Taylor he showed him the script to get his opinion and Chip suggested that Al send it to Jon Voight, Chip’s brother, and when Jon read it he purportedly ‘fell in love with it’ within the first 30 pages. The story is a bit different as the situations itself aren’t necessarily funny, but instead it relies on the desperate nature of the characters and the way they interact with each other for its humor.

It was filmed at the MGM Grand Hotel, which at 6,852 rooms is the largest single hotel in the United States and third largest in the world. The ambience of the place is well captured and reminded me of the atmosphere of a lot of casinos I’ve stayed at where everyone is looking to ‘get lucky’ while in the process living very much on the edge. Having the plot that place over only a two-day period nicely reflects how gamblers live for the moment without any concern for either the past or future. It’s all just about the risk and excitement of beating the odds, which on that level, the film captures admirably well.

The acting helps, particularly from Voight who gives a souped-up rendition of his more famous Joe Buck character from Midnight Cowboy, playing a clueless schmuck who believes he can con his way out of anything and it’s also great seeing him share a scene with his real-life daughter Angelina Jolie, who at age 4 makes her film debut, appearing briefly as Alex’s daughter near the end and to date has been the only project that the two have done together. Young is also quite good as his more sensible friend and to an extent that he becomes the person the audience connects with. Remsen has a few key moments too playing a character that initially seems insignificant to the story, but slowly begins to have a much more meaningful presence by the end. As a buddy formula it works, but throwing in Ann-Margaret as Alex’s former girlfriend who comes back into his life, doesn’t gel and she should’ve been left out.

The foot chase where Alex and Jerry try to outrun Joey and Harry by dashing throughout the hotel is the film’s single best moment and I was impressed with how unlike other movie chases scenes there were no jump cuts and you can visually follow the action even as it shifts between different rooms. The other segments though get overly drawn-out. While his trademark was a slower, more subtle pace, which worked in his previous movies, director Hal Ashby would’ve been wise to have paired this one down. The plot isn’t intricate enough to justify the long runtime and a 90-minute version would’ve been ideal. The original theatrical cut was 105 minutes, which had issues too, but the longer director’s edition isn’t perfect either and in this instance less definitely would’ve been more.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: October 8, 1982

Runtime: 2 Hours (Director’s Cut)

Rated R

Director: Hal Ashby

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Amazon Video

You Can’t Hurry Love (1988)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: From Ohio to L.A.

Eddie (David Packer) is tired of living in the Midwest and after a failed relationship decides to pack his bags and head out west looking for new opportunities. He moves in with his cousin Skip (Scott McGinnis) who already lives in Los Angeles, in order to check-out the scene, but finds everyone to be weird and wacky. He goes on several job interviews, but none of them hire him. He meets pretty Peggy (Bridget Fonda) who works at a video dating service and makes a video of his own, but his attempts to be somebody he really isn’t backfires at every turn. Can Eddie find true love and happiness and will anyone who watches this movie really care if he does or doesn’t?

One of the main problems is Packer, who strangely enough went on to star in another movie, The Runnin’ Kind, just a year later that had almost the exact same storyline. Quite frankly I was surprised he got any part at all as he came into this already with baggage, which stemmed from what occurred on October 30, 1982. On that night he was at the home of actress Dominique Dunne rehearsing a scene for the upcoming TV-miniseries ‘V’ when her ex-boyfriend John Thomas Sweeney came over and preceded to attack and kill her. Some felt that Packer should’ve/could’ve intervened and had he done so she might still be alive today. While I’ll refrain from passing judgement in that area I will say that his acting here is one of the worst I’ve ever seen in a mainstream Hollywood production. His eyes have a glazed over appearance and his face a shit-eating grin. His vocal delivery is quite monotone like someone who’s high and only half there. Fonda on the other hand (this essentially constitutes as her film debut since the 4 films she did previously were either animated, shorts, or non-speaking parts) is quite engaging despite her part being just as poorly written as his, but her superior acting ability shines through while Packer’s drags it down.

The script by Richard Martini tries too hard to recreate the surreal atmosphere from After Hours, but the cultish vibe from that one doesn’t click here. That one starred Griffin Dunne, (who was ironically Dominique’s real-life brother) who was better able to create a believable character that the viewer could identify with and emotionally connect to while Packer is a transparent guy you wish would just go away. It also overly plays-up the flaky stereotype of those living on the west coast. I resided in L.A. or 6 months and I can attest that some of the people out there are a bit eccentric, but they’re not all that way and the film should’ve brought in a few normal ones for balance.

Cameo appearances by famous actors do help a little. Charles Grodin is amusing as the blue collar-like father of one of Packer’s potential dates, who gives Packer, before they proceed on their date, some very brash and straightforward advice. Kristy McNichol is engaging too as a punk girl who harbors a man-hating streak. The funniest of them all though is Lu Leonard as the director of the video dating service that Packer joins who helps coach him on how to present himself to his potential dates. In fact the video dating aspect, of which I admit I was a part of back in the 90’s, is kind of funny and the movie should’ve centered everything around the inner-workings of a dating service franchise, which would’ve been far more interesting and insightful.

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: January 20, 1988

Runtime: 1 Hour 32 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Richard Martini

Studio: Lightning Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

The Chain Reaction (1980)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Nuclear leak contaminates water.

A nuclear waste site in rural Australia becomes affected by an earthquake, which causes a leak that could contaminate the ground water for hundreds of miles. Heinrich (Ross Thompson), an engineer at the facility who was contaminated by the accident and has only 3-days to live, feels it’s his duty to warn others about what happened, but the company wants the matter to kept a secret. Heinrich manages to escape from the lab, but gets into an accident during a rainstorm on a lonely country road. It is here that he’s rescued by Larry (Steve Bisley) and his wife Carmel (Arna Maria Winchester) who live nearby and take him to their isolated home. Since Carmel has a nursing background she tries to take care of Heinrich at their house even though he now suffers from amnesia and cannot remember anything past 1957. The company though has already sent out a search party looking for him and proceed to terrorize all three once they find them.

The film is a slickly shot sci-fi epic that in many ways seems similar to Mad Maxand in fact both films shared many of the same crew members and this even has a cameo by Mel Gibson who appears briefly as a bearded auto mechanic. The camera captures things in a vivid way and the sharp editing keeps the story moving at a fast pace.

While the plot gets smartly handled and I did find the two main characters to be a bit out-of-place particularly Larry whose outfits and hairstyle look almost campy. The two also don’t have an every day quality about them. Thrillers like these are more exciting when the hero is just a regular person with no special skills and yet still forced to beat insurmountable odds, which is unlike Larry who has expert driving skills and owns a trendy sports car with a souped-up engine.

The way the couple rescue the victim, who they don’t know, by taking him back to their place instead of to a hospital was odd too. Carmel has nursing experience, but not the medicines or equipment that you’d find in a medical facility. They also seem unusually trusting by allowing the man to sleep in one of their bedrooms while they sleep in an adjacent one, but don’t bother to lock their door with the wife lying openly nude for the stranger to just walk-in and attack, or gawk at since there’s a window in the hallway to the room, without any restraint.

The film is noted for its car chases, but they only make up a small fraction of the runtime. One occurs for a few minutes during the second act and then there’s another one at the very end. Both are quite exciting and had me sitting on the edge of my seat with the camera showing things from the driver’s point-of-view and many times through the cracked glass of the windshield making you feel like you’re in the car as it happens. However, I was disappointed that they’re weren’t more of them and both chases take place on the same road and essentially go through the same stunts both times.

Spoiler Alert!

The wrap-up is a bit too quick. For such a nifty, well designed and well crafter set-up I was expecting things to get played-out further. There is though the irony of having a helicopter appear with a news crew that captures the chase when it’s over with the idea that now that the news media is on top of it the truth will get out and everything will be resolved. This though is a far cry from the way things are here in this day-and-age where the media is not trusted by many and having them report on something, even a big story such as this, could only make things worse instead of better.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: September 25, 1980

Runtime: 1 Hour 32 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Ian Barry

Studio: Palm Beach Pictures

Available: DVD (Region 0)

The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (1971)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Challenging a crime boss.

Kid Sally (Jerry Orbach), who works within a crime family where he’s in charge of a small group of crooks, becomes increasingly frustrated at what he feels is a lack of respect that he gets from mobster boss Baccala (Lionel Stander). When Kid is put in charge of supervising a bicycle race that does not go over well he gets demoted, which convinces him to take down Baccala and become the mob boss himself, but the men under him prove inept at every turn. Each time they try to kill-off Baccala the only ones who die are Kid Sally’s guys.

The film is based on the novel of the same name written by Jimmy Breslin and inspired by real-life mobster Joe Gallo who was also the inspiration for Crazy Joe that starred Peter Boyle. However, the Boyle film approached the material in a serious way and tried to keep things more closely tied-in with the actual events while this thing veers-off from what really happened and instead simply uses the situation as a springboard for a lot of zany, comical antics.

One of the main problems is the casting of Orbach who looks nothing like the real Gallo, Boyle was not a perfect match for him either, but he was at least in the same ballpark while Orbach appears too old and without any signs of the mental health issues that had afflicted Gallo who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia in his youth. There are also too many characters to keep track of and Orbach half the time is barely even seen becoming more like a supporting player in his own movie.

The film does have a few amusing moments including the gang’s attempts to bring in a lion, which they use to blackmail the client’s of their opposition. Van Fleet is also quite funny as Kid’s mother who looks and walks like she’s ready to die from old age, but speaks as if she’s a young tough guy. The location shooting isn’t bad either and seeing the entire group of men crammed into Joe’s mother’s apartment as they partake in their weekly spaghetti dinner brings the Italian ambience to a nice head, but director James Goldstone approaches the material in a haphazard fashion and it’s edited in a way that makes it seem more like a collection of vignettes than a story.

The only interesting element is seeing Robert De Niro, complete with long hair, as this young con who comes to New York straight from Italy. He speaks with an authentic accent, which he acquired by going to Italy for a week and recording the people around him and then playing back their voices while he rehearsed. He even prepared for his role as a thief by stealing 2 shirts from a Macy’s department store requiring producer Irwin Winkler to intervene in order to keep him out of jail. Leigh Taylor-Young is excellent as his love interest and her performance as the Kid’s younger more idealistic sister has an organic quality and a far cry from the psycho role that she played in The Big Bounce just 2 years earlier. The romance between her and De Niro and their attempts to forge a relationship while living in a cramped, rundown apartment is kind of touching and had the film focused on these two it would’ve worked better.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: December 22, 1971

Runtime: 1 Hour 36 Minutes

Rated: PG

Director: James Goldstone

Studio: MGM

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Return to Oz (1985)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Nobody believes Dorothy Gale.

Dorothy Gale (Fairuza Balk) has returned to Kansas and the home of Auntie Em (Piper Laurie) and Uncle Henry (Matt Clark), but she continues to talk about her adventures in the Land of Oz and can’t get any sleep. Both her aunt and uncle think she’s become delusional and decide to send her to a doctor (Nicol Williamson) who practices electro shock therapy. It’s there that she’s left under the care of Nurse Wilson (Jean Marsh) while also hooked-up to one of their machines only to be saved when a lightning storm knocks the power out. Dorothy then escapes out of the hospital and runs into a river where she climbs aboard a floating raft and makes friends with a talking chicken. She then gets whisked back to Oz, but this time finds everything in ruins including the citizens of the Emerald City who’ve been turned to stone.

The plot is loosely based on two of L. Frank Baum’s other novels: ‘The Marvelous Land of Oz’ and ‘Ozma of Oz’. The rights to the story had been purchased way back in 1954 by Walt Disney with plans to turn it into a film that would’ve starred Annette Funicello. It was to be a live action movie called Rainbow Road to Oz, but while filming had started and even preview segments aired on TV it was never completed as producers ultimately feared it would be compared unfavorably to the highly popular Wizard of Oz, so the production got scrapped. Then in 1980 film editor Walter Murch convinced Disney executives to give the idea another shot and since they were ready to lose the story rights anyways decided to green light the project with Murch acting as the director. Things though did not go smoothly as Murch had no directing experience and fell behind in the shooting schedule, which got him fired 5-weeks in only to be reinstated when his good friend George Lucas (the two had worked together on THX-1138) convinced Disney to give him another chance by promising that he personally would step-in to direct if Murch was unable to complete.

As a whole, at least in the beginning, I really liked the gothic look of the set design and while some critics complained about the dark tone I actually felt this made it more appealing. Despite being a children’s book the story does have, when you think about it, some very creepy aspects to it, so approaching it in a darker way made sense and the imagery especially during the first half is pretty cool. I particularly liked when Auntie Em takes Dorothy to the doctors via a horse carriage, in which you see a longshot of the carriage traveling across the flat brown prairie, which really brought the desolate quality of Kansas to life, (far better than the original film did, which was shot on an indoor soundstage) with the only irony being that was filmed in Salisbury Plain in the U.K., but the lay out of the land of the Sunflower State, of which I’ve been to many times, still gets replicated authentically.

Initially I liked the way the Land of Oz gets captured as well including the Wheelers, who come off like a punk street gang who have wheels in place of hands and feet. Unfortunately so much has changed here from the original that this ultimately doesn’t seem like a sequel, but a completely different movie instead. There’s no yellow brick road (only shown briefly in a decrepit state, no wicked witch or flying monkeys either.) There is the tin man, lion, and scarecrow, but their look has changed significantly including having the scarecrow appear more like a wide-eyed ventriloquist dummy and not the friendly, amusing character that we’re used to.

The story as it gets played-out is not as interesting. There’s no sense of plot progression, but instead just a constant flow of dangers that Dorothy and her newfound friends get into that are too loosely connected and become more redundant than tense. Dorothy never gets overly upset about anything, which impedes the viewer from becoming emotionally wrapped-up into her peril. After all if she’s taking the whole thing in stride, no matter how dangerous things may initially seem, then why should we. Jean Marsh creates a colorful villain, I enjoyed her closet full of different heads and how she can take one off and put on another one, but she ultimately gets too easily taken down.

The film received only a lukewarm reception and despite working off of a $28 million budget managed to recoup only $11 million. Many felt that director Murch, while showing great eye for visual detail, failed to match it with a riveting story and despite some good elements it’s a misfire.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: June 21, 1985

Runtime: 1 Hour 53 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Walter Murch

Studio: Buena Vista Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, 

Shirley Thompson Versus the Aliens (1972)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Lonely girl meets spaceship.

Shirley Thompson (Jane Harders) is an alienated young adult living in 1956 Australia who one day makes contact with a group of aliens. It happens while her and her biker gang sneak into Luna Park after dark, which is a amusement place for children and when they go into after it’s closed they can go on the rides for free. It’s while doing this that Shirley sees a spaceship and starts communicating with it while the rest of the gang gets scared and leaves. The aliens within the ship tell her that they plan on invading earth and it’s up to her to warn the others of their intent, but if she does it right they’ll reward her with ‘power’, which is what she’s always wanted as she’s felt insignificant otherwise. The aliens then produce a massive rain storm that creates much damage and then the next day they interrupt a radio broadcast to proclaim what they’ve done, but no one believes them especially Shirley’s parents (Marion Jones, John Llewellyn) who thinks it’s a joke. Everyone else responds to Shirley’s alien warnings like she’s a kook, which ends up getting her committed to the mental institution where she then recounts her tale to a cynical staff.

This is the first feature length movie directed by Jim Sharman better known to American audiences for having helmed Rocky Horror Picture Show and to Australians for his work in experimental theater of which he is highly regarded. This film works in line with many of his other Avant Garde efforts where the emphasis is more on the imagery than the story. For mainstream audiences though it may be considered inaccessible as it bucks all areas of conventional storytelling including having it alternate between black and white and color with each scene. There’s also very little dialogue with the focus more on mood. The film does have its share of interesting moments, but how much one appreciates it is completely up to one’s own temperament.

I was struck by how similar the theme was to Sharman’s later film The Night, The Prowler with both movies dealing with an alienated young adult woman still living at home with her parents who feels that no one can understand her and has inner anger/disdain at the world around her. It also has shades of Liquid Skywhich came out 11 years later and dealt with a young woman who befriends some aliens, but instead of being scared of them like everyone else she has a special connection to them and feels as much like a stranger on this planet as they do.

If you’re looking for a typical sci-fi flick then you’ll be sorely disappointed as you won’t even end up seeing any aliens or spaceships. I’m not sure if this was due to budgetary restraints, but in any event the camera stays fully locked on Shirley and becomes more of a satire on life in the burbs and in that regard it succeeds. While not a perfect movie it does have its share of memorable moments especially the ending where Shirley gets strapped to a spinning hospital bed while laughing maniacally.  Why I found this part to be so cool I don’t know, but that’s how the movie works. You either go with the flow or you don’t, but those who are game may find it a fun ride. It’s certainly different than anything you’ll find released today and could only have been made in the early 70’s.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: June 6, 1972

Runtime: 1 Hour 11 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Jim Sharman

Studio: Kolossal Piktures

Available: None

The Moonshine War (1970)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Battle over illegal distillery.

John (Alan Alda), who goes by the nickname of Son, and Frank (Patrick McGoohan) were buddies during the war, but now Son has started up a profitable moonshine business while Frank has become a government agent in charge of arresting those that run illegal distilleries. Frank though is also corrupt and willing to look the other way as long as Son gives him a take of the profits, which Son refuses to do. This forces Frank to bring in Emmett (Richard Widmark) and Dual (Lee Hazlewood) who have violent ways of getting what they want, but when Son still refuses it turns into a shootout with the rest of the town sitting on the sidelines and viewing it as spectators.

The film is based on the novel of the same name written by Elmore Leonard who also penned the script, but Richard Quine’s poor direction impedes the story from achieving its full potential. There’s only a couple of interesting bits one of which takes place inside a café where Dual forces a young couple, played by Claude Johnson and a young Teri Garr who sports a brunette wig, to strip and run around naked, but outside of this there’s not much that’s unique. The editing is choppy as the action jumps from the middle of one scene to another with no set-up in-between. The atmosphere, which is supposed to be the 1920’s does not seem authentic, and the homes, which appear more like shacks, look like they were built in an unimaginative way on a studio backlot. The setting is Kentucky but filmed in Stockton, California where the dry, sandy landscape doesn’t look anything like the Bluegrass state.

I’ll give some high marks to the casting, McGoohan is fun as the agent especially as he tries to speak in an odd sounding American accent, but when Widmark comes along he completely upstages him, which is a big problem. There’s so many offbeat characters within the bad guy clan that putting them all together ends up hurting their potential since Widmark steals it away from all of them. I did like Hazelwood, who’s better known as Nancy Sinatra’s singing partner, in a rare acting bit where he’s genuinely creepy, but not used enough to make the lasting impression that it should’ve. The same goes for Suzanne Zenor, making her film debut, who’s quite delightful as the ditzy blonde, (she played the original Chrissy Snow in the first pilot for ‘Three’s a Company’), but needed to be in more scenes to make her presence truly worth it. Alan Alda is also problematic as his character isn’t seen enough to justify having the viewer root for him and things would’ve worked better had it simply been McGoohan versus Widmark.

The ending is amusing seeing the whole town sitting on the riverbank observing the shootout as if it were some sort of sporting event and the explosive finale, which comes as a bit of surprise, isn’t bad either, but the heavy-handed direction really sinks it. In better hands it might’ve worked better, but ultimately comes-off as a head-scratching misfire that is not one of the author’s best work.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: July 5, 1970

Runtime: 1 Hour 40 Minutes

Rated GP

Director: Richard Quine

Studio: MGM

Available: DVD-R (Warner Archive)