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A mere stepping stone for director Altman and his male leads...
The race to space gets heated between the U.S. and Russia after Russia announces a planned lunar orbit using three civilians; it's determined that just one American astronaut will make the pilgrimage to the moon, where he must remain for a year in a shelter until an Apollo mission can bring him home. The decision to send a geologist (James Caan) over a more-knowledgeable military man (Robert Duvall) causes tempers to flare between the two friends (Caan tells Duvall, "You've got the guts but you haven't got the brains!") and for Caan's wife to worry about his return. Early directorial effort from Robert Altman was one the filmmaker publicly denounced (his artistic vision was strait-jacketed by executive producer William Conrad, who shot additional scenes after production wrapped). While the project is certainly a curio for film historians, it isn't an exciting movie. Youthful Caan, Duvall and Michael Murphy all look terrific, and yet they all dress and talk the same--there's no personality in evidence before or behind the camera. ** from ****
Stolen: One Husband (1990)
Man turns 50 and leaves his wife...sound familiar?
Entrepreneur Elliott Gould feels old at turning 50: he's concerned about his blood pressure and eating habits, he's suffocating and suddenly feels unhappy in his long-time marriage to Valerie Harper, who put her life on hold to help build his career. She suspects another woman in the picture (there is, of course) and plots rather juvenile, 'feminist' revenge. TV-movie is meant to be the stuff of high comedy--jilted wife gets back at cheating husband--but this oft-used scenario has molded over. The upshot of the whole thing is that Harper "finds herself" post-divorce, but couldn't she have reached the same conclusions without trashing his car?
Dead Men Don't Die (1990)
High-concept comedy is zombie-fied...
Elliott Gould scraping rock bottom. TV news-anchor sees something suspicious going down in the parking garage and, having been encouraged to start livening up his news report, follows the men upstairs, where he encounters a drug-smuggling ring. Slapstick comedy with voodoo and TV news satire, both gratingly broad. Very sloppily made, with poor writing and directing (both by Malcolm Marmorstein), a gloppy production and hammy supporting performances. Gould's deadpan charm has been heightened to ill effect (he comes off like a schnook), while Melissa Anderson as his co-host looks attractive but is never given the chance to create a character. Amateur night in Zombie Land. NO STARS from ****
Elliott Gould in benign Disney-mode--like a G-rated Bogart
Unemployed pilot must pay 5 G's in 24 hours to his bookmaker or else his goons will work him over; he reluctantly accepts a job flying a feisty missionary and her farm animals to an island in the South Pacific in a rickety B-29 bomber, but the plan goes awry. First, the couple is joined by two stowaway orphans who are worried about the animals, then the plane goes off-course and the pilot is forced to crash land the aircraft on the beach of an uncharted island--inhabited by two Japanese soldiers who are unaware that WWII is over. In the first half of the 1970s, Elliott Gould made film after film, mostly counterculture comedies which established him as an anti-hero; he appealed to the young people of the era who hoped to shout down the Establishment. By 1980, Gould had become part of the Establishment, a working stiff in Hollywood, and the industry's middle ground (Disney) was eager to turn him into a grouchy sweetie-puss, a Bogart father-figure for marriage-minded women and wet-eyed youngsters. Gould doesn't embarrass himself here--he's firm with both the kids and the missionary (a forthright but not stubborn Genevieve Bujold)--but he's coasting, his energy at half-mast. The film, adapted from Ernest K. Gann's story "The Gremlin's Castle", has elements of "Swiss Family Robinson", "The African Queen" and even (God help us) "Jaws", but director Charles Jarrott blessedly keeps it moving instead of stopping to preach. There are things Jarrott probably had no control over, such as the kids fussing and crying over the animals or Maurice Jarre's cloying music, which tugs at the audience hoping to get viewers to cry. It doesn't quite work, but there are compensations. Gould and Bujold manage to develop a faintly-warm rapport, and Charles F. Wheeler's cinematography is excellent. The island location is lovely, and the Japanese men (John Fujioka and Yuki Shimoda) are handled with respect. As for the bookmaker, we are to assume he got his money, and also that the seasick bull made a speedy recovery. This is Disney, after all. **1/2 from ****
Rope of Sand (1949)
"Take the diamond itself...the hardest of all matters. Whatever it touches must suffer."
Hal B. Wallis production for Paramount, reuniting Paul Henreid, Claude Rains and Peter Lorre from the supporting cast of Wallis' "Casablanca" in 1942, involves Burt Lancaster as an American hunting guide in South West Africa refusing to reveal the location of a cache of diamonds in a restricted area known as the Rope of Sand. Security chief Henreid is the hissable nasty who threatens Lancaster, Rains is the owner of the diamond company who hopes a French woman can seduce Burt into revealing all, while Lorre is a scroungy merchant who knows everyone's business. Limp action-drama with funereal pacing, an annoying femme fatale (Corinne Calvet, a Wallis discovery, in her first major role) and a sour leading man in unhappy spirits. ** from ****
Smash-Up on Interstate 5 (1976)
TV disaster movie counts down the hours to the ultimate pile-up...
Satisfactory movie-of-the-week in the disaster-movie genre, prevalent in the mid-1970s. Over the July 4th weekend in southern California, police sergeant Robert Conrad tells his men whatever could go wrong will go wrong...it does. Buddy Ebsen and Harriet Nelson are loving oldsters (she has weeks to live); Vera Miles is a divorcée swept off her feet by romantic trucker David Groh; Scott Jacoby is a car thief hijacked by a fugitive couple (all are involved in the shooting of rookie cop Tommy Lee Jones, whose wife just had a baby); and Sue Lyon is a biker chick who, just hours before, attempted to engage her buddies in the gang-rape of Miles in broad daylight. All are involved in the violent freeway pile-up which begins and ends the movie in a flashback frame. The action is well-filmed and edited, and the characters are surprisingly interesting if unsavory. Conrad keeps an amusingly cool head throughout and anchors the story with his macho charm.
Body Snatchers (1993)
Excellent special effects, but characters we don't care about...
Chemist and his family move to a military base in Alabama to investigate the level of toxins in their water--could this pollution be the reason why the military personnel are exhibiting such odd behavior? "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" with both a new milieu and environmental overtones, also a heavy emphasis on the grisly body duplications. The protagonist this time is the chemist's teenage daughter, who also provides an infrequent voice-over in the past tense. Director Abel Ferrara makes the attempt to slowly build suspense, however his morose, darkly-filmed opening (some 30 minutes in) backfires; tension doesn't so much mount as it does bide its time. Adaptation of Jack Finney's novel "The Body Snatchers" was worked on by several writers who provide lots of activity but no interesting people. Some effective and hair-raising moments, a good performance from Meg Tilly in a small role, but a fiery finale that falls flat. ** from ****
Ladies in Lavender (2004)
Often lovely story with the proverbial dramatic complications...
On the Cornwall coast in the 1930s, elderly, unmarried sisters living in a manor by the sea discover an unconscious young man washed up on the shore and take him in; upon nursing him back to health, they discover he is a Polish violinist who was immigrating to America when his ship capsized in a storm. Playing the aged sisters whose hearts are still capable of passion and desire, Maggie Smith and Judi Dench are marvelously attuned to their roles--every disapproving glance, withering criticism or rueful remark between the two is delivered flawlessly. Still, the ladies' growing attachment to the handsome stranger is a little bit uncomfortable (particularly that of Dench's Ursula, who eyes flash with possessiveness). Although director Charles Dance's screenplay is based upon a short story from 1908, the narrative begins to mirror that of "The Beguiled". Thankfully, before Dance can become entrenched in darker waters, the plot takes a turn based more in emotion than melodrama. For the first hour or so, a marvelous, bittersweet tale, and a fine showcase for the legendary leads. ** from ****
Red Sky at Morning (1971)
"There's no use trying to pretend that there isn't any war."
Not-bad adaptation of Richard Bradford's coming-of-age novel about an Alabama teenager in 1944 relocated with his mother to New Mexico. His naval officer father has left for service, leaving the young man to deal with the culture clash alone, including race relations, a Hispanic bully, a flirtatious tomboy and the destructive behavior of his mother, who doesn't value her reputation. In the lead, Richard Thomas does his affable nervous-teen bit, an overeager colt desperate to fit in with the pack (he's like a G-rated James Dean). He is especially good in his scenes with forthright little Catherine Burns, however the interplay between the young people pales in comparison to Frank Perry's "Last Summer" from 1969 (which featured both Thomas and Burns). Director James Goldstone keeps the pacing brisk, juggling many different episodes, but he doesn't have the knack for this kind of material, which is pitched far too high. ** from ****
The Hearse (1980)
Derivative, dung-colored screamer...a waste of an attractive leading lady
Trish Van Devere almost makes this spooky trash worth sitting through. She plays a recent divorcée, recuperating after an emotional breakdown, who inherits her aunt's old house in the nutty town of Blackford. Seems auntie left a diary behind where she admits being in league with Satanists, and now Van Devere is haunted by nightmares and the sight of an omnipresent black hearse. Borrowing liberally from other screamers like "Let's Scare Jessica to Death" and "Burnt Offerings", one gets the feeling this independently-produced quickie was churned out just to make a fast buck. It features some of the worst writing, directing and editing I've seen in some time. Still, there's something special in Van Devere's performance; she carries herself in an attractive way, with a direct manner of speaking--and when she tells somebody off, you believe she means business. The weak script has her continually running to her car, or running around terrified in her nightgown, when all writer Bill Bleich needed to do was give his star some dialogue to work with. It's a mess, filmed in muddy color and with a weak supporting cast (including a frail-looking Joseph Cotten). But Van Devere makes a valiant attempt to overcome the situation, and her efforts are admirable. *1/2 from ****