Tag Archives: Robert Preston

Junior Bonner (1972)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: An aging bull rider.

Junior (Steve McQueen) is a rodeo star whose better days are behind him. As he enters his 40’s, he needs to find other ways to make a living and returns to his boyhood home of Prescott, Arizona where the rest of his family including his father Ace (Robert Preston), his mother Elvira (Ida Lupino), and brother Curly (Joe Don Baker) reside. When he gets there he finds that his father’s home is being bulldozed by his brother’s company in order to make way for a track of newer homes. Junior decides that the only way to make ends meet for both himself and his father is to win the prize money by riding the ornery bull Sunshine during the rodeo competition. He had attempted to ride Sunshine at another rodeo, but was quickly bucked-off and injured, but this time he feels it will be different and convinces the rodeo owner Buck Roan (Ben Johnson) to give him one last shot.

This film is different from any other Sam Peckinpah movie you’ll see and many viewers/critics at the time didn’t know what to make of it. Peckinpah was known and even stigmatized for his violent movies including The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs, which were deemed, especially the latter one, quite controversial and to an extent even glorifying violence. To help find a balance he decided to do something opposite from those by making a movie that was laid-back and didn’t feature any fighting except for one moment during a bar fight, which is done with a delightfully comic flair where everyone in the place gets punched except for Junior who goes off to a corner to makes-out with Charmagne (Barbara Leigh) even though he was the catalyst for why it began in the first place.

Unfortunately audiences and critics could not adjust to the extreme change in tone. They came to the theater expecting, based on Peckinpah’s reputation, bloody shoot-outs and got none and the end result is it doing quite poorly at the box recouping only $2.8 million from the original $3.2 million budget, which poisoned Peckinpah’s career as he was now deemed a financial risk and seriously affected the choice of projects he could do afterwards and how much control he’d have over them. Even normally friendly critics like Roger Ebert, who had been a fan of the director’s earlier works, bailed on this one calling it a “flat-out disappointment” and describing the material as being “terribly thin”. Another critic, Gary Arnold, described it as a film that “drifts across the screen and fades from your mind an instant later” and that there was “no compelling reason to see or remember it.”

I’ll admit the way it starts out had me a baffled. The story doesn’t go anywhere even after 30-minutes in and McQueen, normally this energetic, rugged action hero, looks like he’s in his 60’s and appearing perpetually tired. I started wondering whether this was just footage caught from a closed circuit camera that examined the slow way of life of small towns.

Things though do improve by the second act. The rodeo riding is captured in a vivid way making you feel like you’re riding the bull itself. Peckinpah’s uses his patented slow motion, but this time in a humorous vein like when Junior and Ace go riding away from a 4th of July parade and through the backyards of some houses where they inadvertently get caught up in some clothes lines. There’s even a couple of touching moments like Junior’s conversation with his father at a train station as well as Ace’s reconciliation with his wife. I was impressed with Joe Don Baker’s performance as well. I know some film-goers have mocked his acting in other movies, but I believe if given the right material he can be quite good though he wasn’t the director’s first choice as it was originally intended for Gene Hackman, but when his salary demands proved too high it was given to Baker much to Peckinpah’s regret as the two had many arguments during the production, which almost came to blows and only prevented when McQueen would get in the middle and calm both sides down.

For a modern day western this is one of the better ones and precipitated a boon of rodeo style movies  during the early 70’s. While its initial reception was not kind its been viewed in a better light today and even revered as being one of Peckinpah’s better works.

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My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: June 20, 1972

Runtime: 1 Hour 40 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Sam Peckinpah

Studio: Cinerama Releasing Corporation

Available: DVD, Blu-ray

The Last Starfighter (1984)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Teen recruited into battle.

Alex (Lance Guest) spends his time playing an arcade game called ‘Starfighter’ and gets so good at it that he becomes the game’s highest scorer. He’s then approached by the game’s inventor, Centuri (Robert Preston), to take a ride in his  futuristic-looking car as a prize. Alex accepts the invitation only to learn that Centuri really isn’t human, but instead an alien recruiting Alex to help them protect the frontier from Xur (Norman Snow) who has found a way to breach the forcefield that protects Rylos and the surrounding planets from invasion. The ‘Starfighter’ game was meant to be a test to find those that were good at the game and then bring them into the battle since the skills needed to win the game are the same ones needed for the battle.

While the film did quite well at the box office, bringing in $28 million from a $15 million budget, as well as spawning a novel version, a video game, and even an off-Broadway musical, I still found it to be a complete bore to watch. I don’t mind sci-fi, space-age movies, which were all-the-rage in the 80’s, but the special effects in this one are so tacky looking that I couldn’t take it seriously. This was one of the first films to use computer graphics instead of physical models, but the result makes this entire galactic war look like a video game. Maybe that was the intention, but I didn’t care for it.

The story, which was written by Jonathan R. Beutel while he worked as a cab driver, is full of too many plot holes. Having the setting inside a trailer park, which wasn’t even Beutel’s idea anyways, but instead director Nick Castle’s, is the only original thing about it. I didn’t understand though why all the people living in the trailer park would be so excited about Alex getting the high score in the game and come out of their homes to cheer him on. To them it’s just a silly kid’s game and becoming good at it doesn’t really mean much in the real-world, or lead to anything, so outside of an idle teenager with too much time on his hands, why care? It would’ve been more ironic had Alex achieved the high score with no one else around making him feel his efforts were under appreciated, only to later learn that in a far off galaxy it was anything but.

The way Centuri finds him, by literally driving up to him in the middle of the night in his snazzy car while Alex is conveniently walking alone is not interesting and this scenario could’ve been played-up in a more creative way by forcing Centuri to tour through the trailer park and visiting the many residents, which could’ve included some offbeat interactions, before he finally comes upon Alex. Also, why are these aliens forced to recruit a human teenager in their effort to save their own space fortress? Aren’t there other aliens within their own galaxy that could take-up the cause? What’s in it for Alex to get involved and put his life on the line for some distant, separate universe that he has nothing to do with and won’t directly affect his life in any way should these planets get invaded? The idea too that only two individuals, Alex and his alien pal Grig (Dan O’Herlihy), can take on this massive army and win are long odds that would only make sense in a cheesy Hollywood movie.

Guest was not the right choice for the part either as he was too old, playing a teen when he was already 23 at the time of filming and looking it. The part should’ve been played by a 12-year-old especially since the storyline is at a bubblegum level that only a preteen would be able to buy into. Preston is certainly a great actor, but I didn’t understand why his character felt the need to wear a human mask to disguise his alien face when all the other aliens freely showed who they were. It’s disappointing too that Norman Snow, who gives an campy performance as the villain, disappears too soon, but I really did like O’Herlihy, who’s completely unrecognizable underneath all of the make-up, and the only thing that makes watching this dopey thing slightly worth it.

The one aspect of the plot that is amusing is the Beta Alex that’s put in Alex’s place to help disguise that the real Alex is missing. These scenes, where the Beta learns to adapt to the human culture in awkward ways, are the only original bits in the film and where filmed after production had already finished when test audiences reacted favorably to the character forcing Guest to return to shoot the added scenes, but because he had already gotten a haircut by this time, the Beta Alex is then seen wearing a wig. Outside of these moments though I found the film to be pretty flimsy especially on the logical end and one of the weakest entries of the 80’s sci-fi craze.

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My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: July 13, 1984

Runtime: 1 Hour 41 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Nick Castle

Studio: Lorimar Film Entertainment

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