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The Last American Hero (1973)

lasthero

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: He follows his dream.

Junior Jackson (Jeff Bridges) works in his family’s moonshine business as a driver who transports the liquor and uses his superior driving skills especially his patented ‘bootlegger-turn’ in which to avoid capture he gets the vehicle to make a 180-degree turn by using the emergency brake, which then allows his car to go speeding off in the opposite direction. However, the authorities are able to catch-up with his father (Art Lund) and they throw him in jail for 11-months. With no moonshine business Junior is forced to find other means for an income, so he decides to try and turn his driving skills into a profit venture by entering into a demolition derby run by Hackel (Ned Beatty). He does well in this and eventually moves up to the higher levels and makes enough money for him to decide on turning it into his career, but his family does not approve as they feel it’s too dangerous. Junior is also forced to buy his own race car and pay for his own pit crew, which causes him to go back into the bootlegging business as a runner all to the disapproval of his father who feels it will just lead Junior into the same prison that he was in.

Overall this is one of the best bio’s out there and impeccably filmed and edited by actor-turned-director Lamont Johnson, who appears briefly as a hotel clerk. Johnson’s directing career was a bit spotty, he also did notorious clunkers like Lipstick and Somebody Killer Her Husbandbut this one is virtually flawless and there’s very little to be critical about on the technical end. The racing footage is both intense and exciting and one of the few racing movies where I was able to follow the race as a whole and not just be bombarded with a lot of jump cuts. I also appreciated how it captures the pit stops and the different conversations that the driver has with his crew during these moments and how sometimes this can be just as intense in its own way. The on-locations shooting done in and around Hickory, North Carolina as well as some of the neighboring race tracks during the fall of 1972 helps bring home both the ambiance and beauty of the region.

For me though what really stood out was Junior’s relationship with his family and how they were not supportive, at least initially, to his dreams as a racer and forcing him to have to pursue it on his own. Many times people who have ambitious goals don’t always have their friends and family on the same page with it and the road to success can definitely have its share of loneliness while also testing one’s own inner fortitude. One of my favorite scenes, that goes along with this theme, is when Junior is inside a K-mart and comes upon a recording booth that allows him to make a voice tape message that can be sent via the mail to one’s family or friends. Junior conveys into the microphone what he wants to say to his family, but ultimately seems to be talking more to himself than them, as a kind of self therapy to release the inner tensions that he’s been feeling, and subsequently never actually sends it out.

The acting is top-notch particularly by Bridges. Normally he’s good at playing mellow, level-headed characters, but here does well as someone who at times is quite volatile and caustic. There’s great support by Beatty as an unscrupulous race track owner, Ed Lauter as a highly competitive owner of a competing racing teams as well as Valerie Perrine as a woman who enjoys bed-hopping between different men, sometimes with those who are friends with each other, and yet completely oblivious with the drama and tensions that this creates. William Smith is good as a competing racer and while his part is small the scene where he walks in on Junior sleeping with his girl (Perrine) and the response that he gives is great. I thought Geraldine Fitzgerald, who plays Junior’s mother, was excellent and her Irish accent somehow effectively made to sound southern, but she should’ve been given more screen time.

The story is based on an Esquire article written by Tom Wolfe that was entitled ‘The Last American Hero was Junior Jackson. Yes!’, which in turn was based on NASCAR racing champion Junior Jackson (1931-2019) who also served as the film’s technical advisor. The movies pretty much stays with the actual account, but does change one pivotal point in that it has the father going to jail when in reality it was Junior who was sentenced to 11-months in 1956. Why this was changed I don’t know, but it usually helps the viewer become more emotionally connected to the protagonist when they see them going through the hardship versus someone else, so having Bridges spend time in the slammer would’ve made more sense. The film is also famous for its theme song ‘I Got a Name’ sung by Jim Croce, but this song has been played so much on oldies radio that one no longer connects it with the film and in fact when it does get played it takes you out of the movie because it reminds you of somewhere else where you’ve first heard it, which most likely wasn’t this movie.

lasthero2

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: July 27, 1973

Runtime: 1 Hour 35 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Lamont Johnson

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Maid to Order (1987)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Rich girl becomes servant.

Jessie (Ally Sheedy) is a spoiled rich girl still living at home with her philanthropist father (Tom Skerrit). Even though she’s in her mid-20’s she has never worked a job due to her father’s fortunes and she takes everything for granted seemingly unaware of her privileged lifestyle and how it affects others. Her father becomes frustrated with her cavalier attitude and one day speaks out loud that he wished he never had a daughter, which summons a fairy godmother named Stella (Beverly D’Angelo) to come to earth and erase all memory of Jessie from him. Now Jessie must learn to survive on her own, but without any job skills. She finds work from a rich Malibu couple (Dick Shawn, Valerie Perrine) who are practicing ‘reverse affirmative action’ by hiring white woman in the role of the household maid instead of a Hispanic or Black one. Jessie, now desperate for money, readily accepts the offer, but her inability to do even basic household chores causes her employment to be in almost constant jeopardy.

The main character is what really hurts this one and it’s not so much that she’s unlikable either, which she isn’t,, but more because her personality is too watered down. This is the type of role that needed a real bitchy lady that exuded snobbery at every turn like Alison Arngrim who played Nellie Oleson the brat in the old TV-show ‘Little House on the Prairie’ or maybe even Shannen Doherty from ‘Beverly Hills, 90210’ fame. Sheedy is just plain unable to play-up the bitchiness enough coming-off more like someone who lacks self-awareness instead of an elitist snob, which then makes her transition to humbleness not as interesting, dramatic, or funny. I’ve liked Sheedy in some of her other films and I realize she was trying to broaden her acting resume her by playing against-type, but she lacks the necessary charisma to keep it engaging.

The limp plot doesn’t help things either. It’s way too obvious where it’s headed and the viewer can easily predict the plot points before they even happen. There needed to be more confrontation from the contrasting personalities and more comedy from the quirky situation instead of the annoying life lessons that makes it seem almost like some afterschool special. Everything is aimed too much at the pre-teen audience, which leaves very little for a discernable adult tp enjoy.

The fairy godmother concept is a bit batty too. Why does a fairy answer this father’s wish, but no one else’s? Many people make wishes all the time, but no fairy godmother ever gets summoned, so what makes this situation so special? The script should’ve implemented some sort of side-story involving the father, or maybe even Jessie, getting involved in mysticism, which could’ve helped explain why this otherwise unusual incident then occurs.

I did however, really enjoy Dick Shawn in a very funny portrayal of the nouveau riche and he along with Beverly D’Angelo as the wise-cracking fairy godmother needed far more screen time. I was especially perplexed how underwritten D’Angelo’s part was as she plays a role that is quite fundamental to the story, but not in it half as much as you’d expect though her snarky remarks give this otherwise vapid material some much needed energy for the few minutes that she has.

Valerie Perrine, as Shawn’s wife, isn’t as amusing though her variety of gaudy outfits, and hairstyles, does at least lend visual flair. Skeritt though is completely deadening and it’s amazing how this guy has been acting on the screen since 1962 and yet the vast majority of his work is highly forgettable despite some of the movies he’s been in being memorable in other ways. Same for Michael Ontkean as Jessie’s romantic interest, he’s got the perfect pretty-boy face and hunky body, but seemingly no actual personality.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: July 31, 1987

Runtime: 1 Hour 33 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Amy Holden Jones

Studio: New Century Vista Film Company

Available: DVD

Water (1985)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Island nation fights back.

Governor Baxter Thwaites (Michael Caine) runs the British Colony island of Cascara a largely peaceful place that is mostly ignored by everyone else. Then one day one of the oil rigs on the island taps into a underground reservoir of water that has all of its impurities already removed. The delicious tasting drink, that can also be used as a laxative, becomes much sought after from bottling companies across the globe. Now suddenly the British government wants everyone on the island to move out and find some other island to live on while taking over and turning this one into a profit making venture.

The film is patterned after many British satires of the 50’s through the 70’s like The Bed Sitting Room and O Lucky Man that mixes in wacky characters with absurd comic scenarios and also trying to make sharp political observations in-between. Unfortunately this film, which is based on a story by Bill Persky who appears briefly as a TV director, goes soft and is too similar in its vapid tone to Persky’s other social satire flop, Serial, which came out 5 years earlier. The message is too ambiguous and the plot too cluttered with insignificant characters that it becomes almost nonsensical.

The characters are so eccentric that the viewer cannot identify with, or care about any of them. The film in a way comes off as almost racist since the island is populated with black people, but the main characters are all white while the blacks folks get completely pushed into the background. If anything the viewer could’ve sided with the islanders and their quest to protect their homeland, but since all focus is put on the British people who control them, that never happens.

The eclectic cast is the only thing that somewhat holds it together. Brenda Vaccaro, who normally plays in dramatic roles, is very funny as Caine’s feisty wife although I could’ve down without her misguided accent. Valerie Perrine, with her clear blue eyes is fun too as an idealistic social activist although she was already in her 40’s at the time in a role which would’ve been better served by someone in their late teens or early 20’s.

Caine on-the-other-hand isn’t all that entertaining with the exception of the scenes showing him wearing a cocked hat, which are amusing.  He at least seems more comfortable here than in Blame it on Rio, which he did the same year as this one, but due to the subject matter in that one he clearly looked quite awkward and stiff while here he’s having a fun time even if the audience really isn’t.

This also marks the last feature film appearance of Leonard Rossiter, who died in his dressing while waiting to go on stage in a play he was in just a few months after completing his filming here. Normally he’s enjoyable to watch even when he’s playing a stuffy character, which is what he usually did anyways, but here he’s too much of a jerk and I did not find him to be humorous or interesting in any way.

If there is one person that ultimately does comes-off best it would be Billy Connelly who’s hilarious as this rebel leader who refuses to speak and instead communicates everything through singing. Dick Shawn is also quite good as this arrogant actor whose career has declined and now forced, much to his dismay, to being a spokesperson for informercials. You can also spot Joyce Van Patten very briefly in an uncredited role as a TV news reporter.

George Harrison, who also produced the film, appears near the end playing the bass guitar in front of political leaders at the UN while Ringo Starr handles the drums and Eric Clapton does the vocals, but the movie would’ve been more entertaining had all three of them been given roles to play, or at  least it couldn’t have hurt. The film’s title is a bit misleading too as the water ultimately has nothing to do with what saves the island from takeover, or allows them to keep their independence.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: January 11, 1985

Runtime: 1 Hour 55 Minutes

Rated PG-13

Director: Dick Clement

Studio: Atlantic Releasing Corporation

Available: DVD

The Electric Horseman (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Aging cowboy steals horse.

Sonny (Robert Redford) used to be a championship rodeo star, but those days are long behind him. Now he works as a spokesmodel for a cereal company and his next gig has him in Las Vegas where he’s set to ride a horse on stage while he wears a string of flashing lights. Sonny though has become disillusioned with the business as well as upset to find that the horse has been drugged, which propels him to ride off with it while the authorities and an aggressive TV reporter (Jane Fonda) are hot on his tail.

The story can best be described as a lightly comical variation of Lonely are the Bravebut without any of the strong dramatic impact. The biggest problem is that it reveals its cards too quickly making it too obvious what Sonny is planning to do, so when he finally does y abscond with the horse it’s not surprising or even interesting. I was intrigued at how he would get it out of the casino and past security, but the movie cheats this by cutting from him inside the casino one second to showing him outside on the street in the next frame, which takes away from potential action and excitement of having him fight his way out.

The chase inside a small town where Sonny and his horse outrun a mob of police cars and cops on motorbikes is fun, but it ends up being the only exciting moment in the film. Everything else gets toned down too much where even the bad guy, played by John Saxon, is boring because all he does is sit in a office while getting reports from others as to Sonny’s whereabouts instead of having him actively chase after the renegade cowboy himself, which would’ve heightened the tension.

Fonda’s character comes off like an unwanted house guest who tries to take over the place even when they weren’t invited. Her character is too abrasive and while everyone else is laid-back she comes of as being quite aggressive and otherwise out-of-place with the tone of the movie. Valerie Perrine, who has a much smaller part as Sonny’s ex-wife, does a far better job here and is more in step with the unglamorous, rugged western theme. Had she been the one to chase after Sonny then the romantic side-story that develops would’ve been cute and engaging, but having Fonda become the love interest just makes the whole thing seem forced.

Had the action and humor been  more jacked-up than it might’ve been a winner as Redford himself is quite good. I was a bit surprised too because I initially didn’t think this was the right fit for his talents, but his subtle country accent and brash attitude is fun and Willie Nelson, in his film debut, is quite good in support. Unfortunately the plot never catches its stride and in fact the more it goes on the boring it gets.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: December 16, 1979

Runtime: 2 Hours 1 Minute

Rated PG

Director: Sydney Pollack

Studio: Universal Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray (Region B/2)

The Border (1982)

border

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Border patrol isn’t easy.

Charlie Smith (Jack Nicholson) is a guard new to the border patrol who must learn to deal with the ugly realities that come along with his profession including becoming more and more pressured to get involved with the corruption that goes on there.

This is a stark presentation with an authentic atmosphere that at times makes it seem like a documentary. The viewer becomes submerged in this intelligent study on a serious and important issue with a result that is nothing short of enlightening. Unlike most other Hollywood movies nothing is over-the-top or melodramatic. It doesn’t try for shock value nor resort to clichés. The narrative is straightforward and uncompromising while offering no easy answers or annoyingly false wrap-ups.

Director Tony Richardson takes an expectedly humanistic approach and yet doesn’t seem inclined to push any type of agenda. This film has a look and feel different from any of his other films. He is known primarily for his wacky comedies (Tom Jones, The Loved One) and yet this film is grainy and grim. Much of that is due to the excellent use of natural lighting. This film has a very serious tone throughout and yet for some reason doesn’t end up being oppressive like some of those other ‘important’ pictures. It is also well paced with a riveting and compelling finish.

Nicholson gives a sensitive and sincere performance and a rare turn seeing him underplay everything. Valerie Perrine is very good as his wife and having her spend lavishly while oblivious to the poverty around her makes for interesting insight. Warren Oates is top-notch as always in support as Charlie’s supervisor. His character is brimming with a potential confrontation with Charlie and it is unfortunate that the movie doesn’t pursue this further.

Overall this is a strong picture that deserves more praise and attention and one of Nicholson’s best performances.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: January 31, 1982

Runtime: 1Hour 48Minutes

Rated R

Director: Tony Richardson

Studio: Universal

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

W. C. Fields and Me (1976)

W. C. Fields and me

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Fields had a girlfriend.

Based on the memoirs from Carlotta Monti who was W.C. Field’s (Rod Steiger) companion for 14 years this film looks at their relationship as well as W.C.’s alcoholism and difficult personality.

This biography is highly romanticized and very light on the details. Apparently only one scene from the book is actually used in the movie. If one watches this in hopes of learning more about Field’s the man they will be disappointed. The tone seems similar to Oliver Stone’s The Doors where the intent is more on perpetuating the myth of its subject instead of tearing it down and showing the complete person. Just about everyone is familiar with Field’s drinking and cantankerous behavior, so having the film dwell exclusively in this area for the entire time is not interesting, or captivating.

The story would have been better served if it had been a complete bio beginning with Fields life as a child and then going all the way through to his death. Apparently he was born to an alcoholic father who beat him forcing Fields to run away from home at the age of 11 and live in a hole in the ground where he became dependent on stolen food and clothing for survival. He was in many fights and in and out of jail for most of his youth. Showing this could have been quite revealing, but instead the film skips past all of it and starts instead with Fields already in vaudeville and recreating a lot of corny comedy routines before having him drive off to Hollywood where his ascent to stardom seems much too easy and superficial.

Things improve during the second act when he begins his love-hate relationship with Carlotta (Valerie Perrine). Part of the reason this works is because Perrine is excellent. Her down to earth sensibilities really help balance the flamboyant ego’s around her and fit the character well. She is the one, not Steiger, who carries the movie and it was worthy of an Oscar nomination.

Steiger thought for sure that he would nab his second Oscar for his portrayal here, but instead didn’t even get nominated. His mimicking of Fields voice comes off as too rehearsed and effected. At times it gets annoying and just makes one want to watch a movie with the real Fields instead. His dialogue is too cutesy using lines borrowed from many of W.C.’s famous jokes and punch-lines. As expected he does induce the character with his famous Steigerisms and manages to not make it a complete misfire that it otherwise is. The scene, near the end, where Fields meets his now grown son that he hadn’t seen since he was three is his best moment.

Jack Cassidy is great in support as actor John Barrymore. The scene where he dies and his friends prop his dead body up into a chair and have him holding a liquor glass is amusing. Dwarf actor Billy Barty is good as Ludwig one of Field’s long-time friends. Some of the scenes the two share together are actually quite touching.

The film does a commendable job of recreating the period atmosphere. The music has a nice soothing quality to it and on the charm level it scores a bullseye. Despite my reluctance I found myself entertained by it, but as a biography it is flimsy, fictional and irrelevant.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: March 31, 1976

Runtime: 1Hour 51Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Arthur Hiller

Studio: Universal

Available: Amazon Instant Video

Can’t Stop the Music (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Somebody stop this movie.

It’s an extraordinary achievement that this actually got made. It’s a relic of its time that is beyond words and is like nothing you have ever seen or will ever see again. This is one of those bad movies that you just have to see and, for a while, even enjoy in all its awfulness as it tells the story of the Village people and their rise to fame.

Unfortunately it’s not overdone enough to achieve that coveted cult status. The humor isn’t corny enough the storylines are not dumb enough and the costumes are not gaudy or the sets garish enough. They don’t even let the Village People try to act and make complete fools of themselves. They do have some speaking lines, but they are wisely brief. Eight minutes is all you need of this phenomenon before its long takes and general empty headedness become overwhelming.

Steve Guttenburg is probably the most annoying even more than he usually is. He is too clean cut and eager to please and his swift rise to success is artificial. The songs he writes are bad even for disco. Hearing lines like “he’s a genius” and “he knows what people want to hear” are probably the film’s single most insulting element.

Most youth oriented movies don’t cast too many older actresses, but this one does. Tammy Grimes, June Havoc, and Barbra Rush put a lot of energy into their parts and in the case of Grimes a lot of camp too. It’s a strange sight to see these three jump onto stage and line dance with the Village People during their last number. Paul Sand is fun in a part that goes against his persona as he plays an aggressive, no-nonsense record producer. Even Bruce Jenner, and I hate to say it, has his funny moments as an uptight lawyer. Yet it is Valerie Perrine that comes off best as her down to earth sensibilities helps to hold the whole thing together.

It is hard to tell what type of audience this film was aiming for, or even what the thinking was. The overall banality seems best suited for pre-teen girls yet the gay overtones snub that. Anyone over sixteen just isn’t going to buy into it and having the whole thing directed by 60-year-old Nancy Walker best known for play Ida Morgestern on the TV-Show ‘Rhoda’ makes it even more confounding. Even members of the Village People have stated in interviews that they dislike this movie. The only possible explanation is that it was made by people on cocaine for other people on cocaine.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: June 20, 1980

Runtime: 2Hours 4Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Nancy Walker

Studio: Associated Film Distributors

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video