Tag Archives: Rip Torn

A Stranger is Watching (1982)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Her mother’s killer returns.

At the age of 6 young Julie (Shawn Von Schreiber) witnesses her mother’s rape and murder at the hands of Ronald Thompson (James Russo) at least she thinks that’s who it was when instead it was really Artie Taggart (Rip Torn). Now Ronald is slated to go to the electric chair and news reporter Sharon Martin (Kate Mulgrew) covers the controversy, but just before his execution Julie and Sharon are kidnapped by Artie. He takes them deep into the bowels of Grand Central Station where he holds them hostage while demanding a ransom of $182,000 from Julie’s Father (James Naughton).

The story is based on the Mary Higgins Clark novel of the same name and due to his success with Friday the 13th director Sean S. Cunningham is given a bigger budget to work with, which gives the production more of a visual style from the usual low budget horror flick. However, I was never convinced that Cunningham was all that great of a director and it was only through dumb luck that the Jason franchise became the big hit that it did and if anything this movie proves it. Even with more money put in and an interesting backdrop it still comes off as lackluster and uninspired.

The characters are boring particularly Torn’s psycho role where no backstory is given as to why he decides to come back to terrorize the same family when he was able to get away with the murder the first time and should feel lucky by allowing the other schmuck to take the fall and simply move on. Julie’s behavior is all wrong too. This is a child who witnessed her mother’s rape and murder, which would psychologically damage anyone else for life and yet she recovers from it like it was no big deal and acts overly angelic and gracious about everything.

The underground of Grand Central Station are the film’s best element as it captures the dark, dingy dankness quite well to the point that it almost becomes like a third character. However, when Torn kidnaps the two women he puts the girl into a sleeping bag and then carries her through the station in order to get to the spot where he hides her, but I kept wondering why she didn’t yell for help as they pass by many people in the process. He didn’t drug her, so she was free to yell out, so why doesn’t she?

I’ve read other novels written by Clark although not this one, but I was always impressed with the amount of twists that she had in them and was surprised how little that there are here. The film does feature one small surprise, but then treats it as a throwaway scene that soon gets forgotten. In the end the viewer gets treated to nothing more than a placid blueprint of the novel in a plot that gets more formulaic and pedestrian as it goes on.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: January 22, 1982

Runtime: 1 Hour 31 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Sean S. Cunningham

Studio: MGM

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

First Family (1980)

first-family

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: President discovers giant vegetables.

Manfred Link (Bob Newhart) is the current President of the United States. His 28-year-old daughter Gloria (Gilda Radner) is a raging nymphomaniac and his wife Constance (Madeline Kahn) a closet alcoholic. He travels with his family to the fictional nation of Upper Gorm because their active volcano harbors an energy source that could be used to propel nuclear energy. While there he comes upon some giant vegetables that they grow and learns that if he and the nation are willing to sacrifice one virgin per year he could harvest the same results, but with a price.

I’ve been a fan of writer/director Buck Henry for many years, so I’m not exactly sure what went wrong here, but it’s a disaster of epic proportions. Literally nothing is funny and many times just plain excruciatingly lame. It’s almost like they intentionally were trying to make a bad movie and see how many dumb jokes they could throw out before the viewer went screaming from the theater. Much of the humor gets badly botched with a good case in point being the scene where Newhart sips a drink made from goat urine and when he finds out what it is his face turns green, but this effect was done by shining a filtered spotlight on his face and it is very obvious making the effect like much of the movie seem quite hokey.

The movie would’ve worked better had the humor stayed linked to actual politics or what could occur to someone who actually worked in the White House. Instead they throw in any dumb joke that they can simply for the sake of a cheap laugh. The satire is extremely dated and has no connection at all to today’s political scene. The story thread dealing with the giant vegetables is not only stupid, but makes it seem like a material for a completely different genre like cheesy sci-fi.

I didn’t like Gilda Radner’s part at all. Having the secret service constantly chase her down every time she tries to make-out with a man might’ve been funny had the character been an oversexed teen, but this is a 28-year-old woman who has every right to sleep with anyone she wants no matter if her father is the President or not and she should’ve had her parents sued for trying to deny her civil rights.

The rest of the cast is pretty much wasted as well especially Rip Torn who’s given only 4 minutes of screen time. Harvey Korman is mildly amusing as the exasperated Ambassador and Bob Dishy elicits a few chuckles as the wimpy Vice President, but the highly talented Kahn gets stuck in a very unfunny role with her character’s alcoholism being an attempted, but very tasteless satirical stab at First Lady Betty Ford who did suffer from disease.

The filmed bombed badly at the box office and it’s easy to see why. It’s sloppily put together with no eye for detail. Not only is the comedy a dud, but everything else too including the filming of the outside of the island nation which was clearly shot in an indoor set as well as the scene that is supposedly shot in Minnesota, but shows mountains in the background. I was born and raised in Minny and believe me there are no mountains anywhere making me wonder if there was any thought put into this useless tripe at all.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: December 25, 1980

Runtime: 1Hour 37Minutes

Rated R

Director: Buck Henry

Studio: Warner Brothers

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

Tropic of Cancer (1970)

tropic of cancer

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Writer living in Paris.

Rip Torn plays author Henry Miller living in Paris during the 1930’s and struggling to find work, shelter and money. He spends his time shoplifting items from food stands while also having sexual conquests with prostitutes and even the wives of his friends.

The film is based on Miller’s landmark novel that was published in France in 1934, but banned in the US until 1961 and even then went through several obscenity  lawsuits, which were finally all dropped in 1964 when the US Supreme Court deemed the book to have artistic merit. The novel, which is considered highly influential and won wide critical acclaim, has an odd mixture of stream-of-consciousness elements as well as autobiographical ones that works well in book form due to Miller’s first person narrative, but fails on the big screen. It was never meant to be made into a movie and director Joseph Strick’s ambitious attempt to make it into one, who just three years earlier tried to do the same thing with James Joyce’s equally unfilmable novel Ulysses seems futile and ridiculous.

The production looks cheap and lacks any type of atmosphere or visual flair. The setting is supposed to be the late 20’s, but it hardly seems like it. The acting is weak particularly by the supporting actresses playing the prostitutes who almost come off like people pulled off the street with no acting training of any kind.

The film’s most notorious claim to fame like with the book was its explicit sexual content that by today’s standards seems quite tepid. There are some nude scenes here and there including seeing actress Ellen Burstyn fully naked from the front, but it adds little. The best stuff is Torn’s voice over-narration describing his character’s sexual fantasies much of which was lifted directly from the novel. This was the first film to ever use the word ‘cunt’ and it gets said frequently. In fact it’s the character’s sexual conversations and the caustic way women get described in them that are the most amusing thing about the movie.

A few other funny moments include Miller having sex with a prostitute while she is also taking care of her sick mother and who would sometimes leave the bed to look in on her and although Miller initially pays the woman for her ‘services’ he eventually steals it back when she is away during one of her trips to her mother’s room. Miller’s roommate Carl (David Baur) has a great scene where he writes love letters to a woman he wants to have sex with and the two finally meet only to have the actual encounter not live up to the fantasy.

This was filmed at the same time as Quiet Days in Clichy, which was also based on the same novel. Both films were made in Paris and Henry Miller would routinely sit-in on the productions, which were done not far from the other. However, despite an admiral attempt the movie comes off as flat and boring and the viewer would be far better off skipping this and reading the source material instead as the only time it ever gels is when it uses text taken directly from the book.

tropic of cancer 2

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: February 27, 1970

Runtime: 1Hour 27Minutes

Rated X (Reissued as NC-17)

Director: Joseph Strick

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube

City Heat (1984)

city heat

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Clint and Burt together.

Mike Murphy (Burt Reynolds) is a private eye living in 1930’s Kansas City who at one time worked as a cop. When his friend Dehl (Richard Roundtree) gets murdered after obtaining the secret accounting records of a local mobster and then trying to blackmail him with it Mike goes on a mission to find the culprit, but soon finds himself in over his head. His former police partner Speer (Clint Eastwood) gets involved and the two reluctantly work together to solve the case despite the many clashes with their personalities and methods.

The script was written by Blake Edwards who gets credited under the pseudonym Sam O. Brown. He was originally slated to direct, but Burt didn’t want to work with Edward’s wife Julie Andrews who was cast in the role that later went to Madeline Kahn because the two had clashed just a year earlier while starring in The Man Who Loved Woman. Clint desired a less intense director at the helm, so the two used their star status to have Edwards yanked from the project and replaced with actor-turned-director Richard Benjamin. The result is a strange mish-mash of a movie that at times seems like a pedestrian action flick and at other moments becomes a campy comedy.

The film starts off well. I enjoyed the fight Reynolds with has with two men inside a café while Eastwood sits back and does nothing, but things deteriorate quickly after that. Part of the problem is Eastwood and Reynolds are only funny when they are seen together and working off of each other’s contrasting styles. Alone there are boring at least here with Eastwood playing too much of a caricature of himself while Reynolds is unconvincing as a tough guy. The film would’ve worked much better had the two been partners from the very beginning instead of throwing in this contrived bitterness between the two, which is never funny or interesting.

Outside of Rip Torn’s performance as a rival gang boss the supporting cast is wasted especially Jane Alexander in a thankless throwaway role as Reynold’s secretary. Kahn manages to have some redeeming moments when she gets kidnapped by the mob and then beats her captors at poker, but it is not enough. Irene Cara sings a few good tunes, but proves to be weak as an actress.

The shootouts are great and the best thing in the movie as unlike the rest of the film they manage to have a nice balance between being exciting and funny. Unfortunately the plot itself is overblown, confusing and formulaic and a prime example of a Hollywood production relying too much on the charisma of its two stars while failing to supply them with material that is fresh or original.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: December 7, 1984

Runtime: 1Hour 33Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Richard Benjamin

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube

The Telephone (1988)

the telephone 2

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: I liked the owl.

Vashti Blue (Whoopi Goldberg) is an out-of-work actress sitting inside her dreary small apartment and having conversations with people over the phone. She also argues through a locked door that she shares with the women next door while waiting for a call from an agent for a job opportunity that never comes.

I am all for experimental cinema, which is the best way to describe this misguided project, but to work it still needs an artistic design and focus and this has none. It pretty much comes off as somebody’s cheap home video where a camera is turned on and then someone is allowed to rant and rave without pause for eighty minutes. Some could blame Rip Torn who is an actor turned first-time director here, but in subsequent interviews he has complained that Whoopi wouldn’t listen to any advice or direction that he gave and pretty much made his presence insignificant.  You could also blame the screenplay, which was written by the very odd pairing of Terry Southern and Harry Nilsson. Southern is best known for penning the screenplay for Dr. Strangelove while Nilsson is a famous singer/songwriter whose best work was doing the song ‘Everybody’s Talking’ that was the theme for the classic film Midnight Cowboy. However, Whoopi took great liberties with the material and ad-libbed a lot, so what was originally put down on paper and what is left on the screen could be minimal.

The conversations that Whoopi has over the phone ranges from lame to ridiculous. One includes calling the police and trying to get them to arrest a video store owner because he rented her a tape of Christmas in July with a scene excised is too absurd to be even remotely amusing. The Whoopi character also incorrectly stated that Frank Capra was the director of the film when it reality it was Preston Sturges.  Goldberg puts on a variety of accents including British, Japanese, Indian, and Southern as well as a few others, but her Irish one is suspect and her impression of John Wayne is terrible.

The apartment set is dull and bleak. The viewer feels trapped and with such little visual design their eyes and thoughts are apt to wander. Cutaways are sorely needed, but there are none. An infuriating moment is when there is a sound of a loud car pile-up outside, but despite this being a visual medium the camera never cuts away to show any of it. This was probably due to budget constraints, but what is even more perplexing is that there are sounds of people screaming, police sirens and even rioting and then a half minute later it all suddenly stops for no explained reason.

The supporting cast is eclectic but wasted. Noted character actor Severn Darden, in his last film role, appears in a brief bland bit as Whoopi’s neighbor. Elliot Gould gets a few minutes as Whoopi’s former agent and seems to be seriously slumming as he was a headline star during the seventies and now sadly stuck in this. John Heard is the only one who comes off best as a caustic, brash telephone repairman.

Whoopi’s two pets upstage the human cast by a mile. Her pet owl is very cute and I dug the goldfish particularly when he gets sucked down the drain of her bathtub and she must use a plunger to save him, which is the only time there is any action in the entire movie.

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: January 22, 1988

Runtime: 1Hour 20Minutes (The DVD cover states it’s 1Hour 36Minutes, but it is wrong.)

Rated R

Director: Rip Torn

Studio: New World Pictures

Available: VHS, DVD