Tag Archives: Prison Flicks

Family Business (1989)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Any movie that casts Dustin Hoffman, Sean Connery, and Mathew Broderick as a father, son, and grandson team of robbers has me hooked before I have even seen the first frame. It was a great bit of inspired casting even if Connery was playing Hoffman’s father and in reality was only seven years older than him.  Throw in the fact that it was directed by the late, great Sidney Lumet and you should have a sure fire winner.

The story involves the grandfather Jessie (Connery) getting out of jail and trying to rekindle relations with both his son Vito (Hoffman) and grandson Adam (Broderick).  Vito wants nothing to do with his father as he has done time himself by getting mixed-up in some of his father’s old schemes and is now trying to go straight by working as a manager at a meat packing facility. However, Adam, who is going to college and has a promising career ahead of him, idolizes his grandfather and relishes the idea of pulling off a robbery himself. He has even come up with one that all three of them can do together. The robbery is unique in that they aren’t stealing from a bank, jewelry store, home of someone rich, or even a priceless artifact at a museum, but instead some important research materials at a science lab.

The crime itself is not elaborate and could have been easily pulled off with just one person. I was anticipating something a little more daring and exciting especially since Jessie and Vito were career criminals. It also takes too long to get to it. The first fifty minutes are spent with them endlessly arguing and rehashing the same old points.

The second part is a little more interesting as it deals with Adam getting caught while the other two are able to get away and all the dilemmas that they then face. Even here the drama becomes strained and talky.  The ending fizzles and leaves no emotional impact.  I saw a lot of similarities with this film and Sidney Lumet’s last film that he did before he died, which was Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.  Both of these movies deal with robberies and the consequences of family members betraying one another and yet that film was far more gripping while this one falls flat.

I thought Connery was highly engaging and would have enjoyed seeing him take over the movie. Hoffman gives a solid dramatic performance, but his character is bland.

The Adam character got on my nerves. He had been given everything in life and yet refuses to appreciate it and seems almost ungrateful to his father for working so hard to give him a better life. He acts cocky about going through with the robbery and yet when they get there he is ill-prepared and confused. I understand sometimes people become curious about those that live a different lifestyle than they do and that they don’t fully understand, but I still felt there needed to be a little more balance.  I just didn’t understand why this kid would want to throw it all away just so he could be like his career criminal grandfather.

The film gives one a good taste of New York. I liked how it showed the different neighborhoods and boroughs. Not only do we get a good feel of the Bronx, but we also see Flushing, Brooklyn, and downtown Manhattan. Most films that take place in the Big Apple seem to concentrate in only one section of it while this one tried to give a broader feel.

The indoor sets are nicely realized. Everything from the trashed halls of the prison to Vito’s modernistic, sleek apartment, to the science lab and even Jessie’s small, cramped apartment looked authentic and distinct.

I did notice a few logistical errors. One is the fact that they discuss plans of the robbery in a lot of public places, which seemed just plain careless to me especially since these were ‘professional’ thieves. One discussion takes place at a bar, another on a busy sidewalk with pedestrians going by, and the third at a funeral with mourners standing right behind them. There is also the fact that they park their car on the side of the road in front of the lab and put a sign in the windshield stating that they are out of gas and will be back in one hour. I thought this seemed dumb because a policeman could come by and do a check on the license plate to find out who the owner is. Then, the next day when the robbery is reported, they would only have to put the two together to trace the culprits. There is also a scene were Vito fires one of his employees at his plant for stealing. He punches him violently in his office that is surrounded by windows and is in full view of the other workers.  The man leaves with a broken nose and bloodied face, but the workers do not react and go on with their tasks like nothing happened, which didn’t strike me as believable.

The music score is another problem.  It has a big band, show-tune type melody and sound, which might have worked for a Broadway production, but here it seems completely out-of-sync with the mood and tone of the story.

Although competently done this thing still seems like a misfire namely because the material isn’t diverting, or interesting enough for the cast that it has. I was expecting a little more razzle-dazzle and a lot more action and excitement. I almost felt that if this same story had been approached in a comic vein it might have done better.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: December 15, 1989

Runtime: 1Hour 50Minutes

Rated R

Director: Sidney Lumet

Studio: TriStar Pictures

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

The Mackintosh Man (1973)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Infiltrating a spy ring.

Joseph Reardon (Paul Newman) is a spy that is recruited by the British Intelligence to infiltrate a secret spy ring in order to expose a traitor from inside a high ranking government office. In order to do so he must assume the identity of an Australian criminal and allow himself to be caught and imprisoned. From there he is able to escape using the help of an inside organization that arranges the escapes for high profile prisoners. He is taken to an isolated mansion at an unknown location and trained to be a part of the criminal spy ring, but he unwittingly gives out his true identity, which forces him to make a daring escape and go on the run in the middle of nowhere.

As much as I like Paul Newman I felt he seemed out of place here and really didn’t completely fit the role. For one thing he is an American, but it is never explained why a foreigner is chosen for the operation instead of a British spy. There is also the fact that his alias is that he is from Sydney, Australia, but his Aussie accent does not sound convincing and tends to go in and out.

There is also the issue of him allowing himself to be put into prison. Normally a viewer has to relate to the protagonists circumstances in order to be wrapped up into their plight, but intentionally getting thrown in the slammer seems a bit hard to fathom. This was the maximum security type of jail with extremely small cells and prisoners asking him if he would ‘like to dance’. I realize this was part of the spy operation and spies are expected to take risks, but this seemed too reckless to me. What is going to guarantee that he is ever going to get out? This is after all a top secret organization, so how is he going to be able to hold them accountable if he gets stuck there. To me it is like asking someone to jump off a cliff and telling them there is a safety net to catch them even though they can’t see one.

The script, by the prolific Walter Hill, does have a few exciting scenes although it takes a while to get going. The best ones come when he is stuck at the isolated manor. I enjoyed how he singlehandedly overpowers them and is able to escape while setting the place on fire in the process. The shot showing the mansion on fire from a distance with the black cloud of flames rising into the grey sky had an artsy flair to it and the movie’s best moment.

I thought the barren landscape that he runs through, that doesn’t even have any trees, was cool. It reminded me a lot of the classic TV-series ‘The Prisoner’. This part also includes a viscous guard dog running after him, which is reminiscent of another memorable Newman role from the film Cool Hand Luke.  Here though he is able to exact his revenge on the mutt when he submerges it under water and drowns it, which might prove upsetting to animal lovers as looks realistic and the hound appears to struggle.

The car chase is excellent and nicely captured. Most chases seem to take place on city streets in the majority of films, so it was nice to see one done on curving, gravel roads in the countryside with Reardon stuck in nothing more than a rusty, rickety old pick-up. I loved how the camera shows in a longshot the car going over a cliff and falling several feet before landing with a loud thud. No intrusive computer effects here, nor flashy explosions. Everything was authentic with no cuts, which ends up making a much stronger impact.

A shout out must also go to James Mason as the villainous Sir George Wheeler. This guy is so effective at playing bad guys, and he does it with such ease, that it is almost scary. His ability to go from refined and dignified to vindictive is what makes him so good.

What hurts the film is a wretched music score that sounds like Russian dance music that has no place in a thriller. It is loud and blaring and does not build the mood, or tension in any way. It gets so bad that it almost ends up ruining the whole movie. The climatic sequence is a letdown as well. It features no action and it ends abruptly with a whimper.

It was a great idea to pair Newman with legendary director John Huston, but this product is not one of their best efforts for either individual. It is entertaining enough to be passable, but culminates in being just your average spy thriller.

Neman and Mason would team up nine years later to play adversaries again in the film The Verdict, which will be reviewed tomorrorow.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: July 25, 1973

Runtime: 1Hour 38Minutes

Rated PG

Director: John Huston

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: VHS, DVD (The Paul Newman Collection), Amazon Instant Video

The Longest Yard (1974)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Prisoners play football game.

            Burt Reynolds is Paul Crewe a down-on-his-luck former professional football player who was kicked out of the league due to a point shaving scandal. After going on a long car chase with police he is thrown into the Georgia State Penitentiary where the crooked warden (Eddie Albert) tries to get him to coach the prison football team. Initially he refuses, but after some ‘convincing’ he eventually agrees to play in one game that will feature the guards versus the inmates. The prisoners use this contest as a way to get back at the guards and their brutal treatment of them while the guards approach it as a way to instill their authority.

Some consider this one of the best sports movies of all-time and I would have to agree it is up there. One of the things I liked about the movie is the way it taps into the emotional aspect of not only playing the sport, but watching it. There can be deep seated psychological reasons for why a spectator, or fan, roots for one team over the other.  The prisoners that cheer on their team use the game, as fleeting as it may be, as a sort of equalization and revenge factor to the guard’s authority and corruption. Watching the scenes showing the prisoners cheering their team as they score a touchdown is almost as emotionally charging as the action itself.  Director Robert Aldrich does a great job of using the prison setting and the game as a microcosm of 70’s society and the conflict between the counter-culture and the establishment as well as the haves and have-nots.

The game is nicely choreographed.  The hits look real and the plays are shot in a bird’s eye view just like watching an actual game on TV. The action is easy to follow and it is evident that the filmmakers have a good understanding and appreciation for the sport.  Outside of the final play that is done in slow motion there is none of the fluky, theatrical stuff thrown in that you usually see in most other films of this type. I found myself getting emotionally tied into the action even though I had seen the film many times before.

The only misgiving I had was the segment where the Richard Kiel character slams an opposing player to the ground and announces “I think I broke his fucking neck.” Of course this has become one of the film’s most popular lines and is made funnier when other players and even the game announcer repeats it several more times, but when the injured player is unable to come-to even after being given smelling salts and is carted off motionless from the field it starts to seem cruel to be laughing.

Another scene that I found surprising and had almost as much impact as the climatic contest is at the very beginning when Paul is shown arguing with his girlfriend Melissa (played by Anitra Ford one of the original models on ‘The Price is Right’ game show). She calls him a whore, which has to be the first and only time in film history that a woman has called a man that, but what is even more amazing is when he violently slaps her and knocks her to the floor.  I don’t think I can remember another time where a protagonist male character has done that to a female and yet the audience is still expected to sympathize with the male, which is interesting. The ensuing car chase is one of the better ones you’ll see and the part where he drives the car into a lake while the song ‘Saturday Night Special’ by Lynyrd Skynyrd is playing on the car’s radio and gets muffled as it goes under the water is cool.

Burt is perfect for the role. I love the glib way he delivers his lines and his laid back persona. The fact that he is an anti-hero with obvious personal flaws makes him even more fun. He seems right at home in the southern setting and filming it at an actual state prison gives the film a nice gritty subtext.

The supporting cast is unique. John Steadman as Pop, one of the prison’s oldest members, is memorable and he is the only other actor with a nose big enough to rival that of Karl Malden’s. It is nice to see Richard Kiel, one of the tallest actors you will ever see, with a speaking role.  The part where he starts to cry when he gets hit in the nose is funny.  Charles Tyner is perfectly creepy as Unger and Michael Conrad is compelling in his role as Nate Scarboro. This is also a great chance to see Bernadette Peters in an early career role as the warden’s ditzy and amorous secretary Miss Toot. She wears one of the worst looking beehive hairdos you’ll ever see although there probably isn’t a beehive hairdo that looks good anyways. Former football player Joe Kapp is good as one of the evil guards.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: August 30, 1974

Runtime: 1Hour 1Minute

Rated R: (Adult Theme, Language, Violence)

Director: Robert Aldrich

Studio: Paramount

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video, Netflix Streaming