Category Archives: Political Thrillers

Winter Kills (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Who assassinated his brother?

19 years after United States President Timothy Kegan is assassinated and an independent investigation concluded that it was the act of a lone gunman, his younger brother Nick (Jeff Bridges) gets a deathbed confession from a man (Joe Spinell) insisting he was the real killer hired by a secret underground organization. Nick goes to his rich father (John Huston) with the news and then decides to do an investigation of his own, but becomes entangled inside a web of lies and deceit that drives him further away from the truth instead of closer.

The film is based on the novel by Richard Condon and in many ways is a stunning filmmaking debut for director William Richert. The cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond is richly textured with a colorful variety of backdrops, sets and atmosphere making it visually soar while the surreal tone helps give it an added edge.

Unfortunately the film suffered from many behind-the-scenes issues including running out of funding and forcing the cast and crew to put the production on hold while they went overseas to shoot The American Success Company in Germany and then used the proceeds from that one to finish this one. The final result is a fragmented narrative that at times gets too rushed. The story was significantly paired down from the novel, which leaves open a lot of loose ends and it should probably be remade as a miniseries.

The story is also permeated with a lot of dark humor which only makes the viewer even more confused. Some of it is genuinely funny, but it’s unclear what it’s trying to satirize. Certain absurd situations and oddball characters get thrown in for seemingly no reason and takes away from the otherwise compelling storyline while leaving the viewer baffled as to what the point of it was supposed to be and could easily explain why it bombed so badly at the box office during its initial run.

The casting is interesting. Jeff Bridges usually gets stuck in bland, transparent roles and that’s no different here, but he’s surrounded by so many eccentrics that his otherwise vanilla delivery seems refreshing and distinct. Huston is the real star in a bravura performance that steals the film and makes it memorable. There’s also a lot of recognizable supporting players that are on only briefly and if you blink you’ll miss them. This includes an uncredited appearance by Elizabeth Taylor who comes on near the end and has no lines of dialogue, but does clearly mouth the words ‘son-of-a-bitch’.

If you are looking for something that is offbeat, but still intriguing then this is well worth the effort. If it weren’t for its misguided humor this thing could’ve really had an impact although it does reveal its cards too soon and I was able to guess the twist ending long before it actually happened, but as a whole it has its moments and a potential cult following or sure.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: May 11, 1979

Runtime: 1 Hour 26 Minutes

Rated R

Director: William Richert

Studio: AVCO Embassy Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video

The Comedians (1967)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Life under Papa Doc.

Based on the novel by Graham Greene the film centers on Brown (Richard Burton) an emotionally detached British hotel owner residing in Haiti. He has spent years avoiding the political turmoil of the region and the Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier regime, but finds now that the walls may finally be closing in. He must deal with the suicide of a government official that occurs on his grounds in his pool as well as a visiting American couple (Paul J. Ford, Lillian Gish) with strong political connections. His ongoing affair with the wife (Elizabeth Taylor) of a South American diplomat (Peter Ustinov) risks him further trouble as does his friendship with an illegal arms dealer (Alec Guinness).

The film ebbs-and-flows unevenly and isn’t compelling despite some strong moments here and there. What grabbed my attention was the vivid on-location shooting that gives the movie an interesting visual appeal. Because of the political environment going on in Haiti the producers were not allowed to film there and instead choose the small African country of Benin, which was still called the Republic of Dahomey at the time, as their substitute setting. The contrast of the serene tropical landscape juxtaposed with the abject poverty of its citizens is stunning with the most impactful moment coming when they visit Duvalierville a planned city with expensive buildings and homes being constructed with poor homeless people scurrying around begging for money as the structures go up.

The acting though by Richard Burton is atrocious and a major hindrance. I like Burton and consider him in most productions that he has been in to be a very strong actor, but here he doesn’t seem into the part at all. His presence is quite aloof and conveys little emotion to the point that he seems to be just walking through his role and mouthing his lines.

Taylor on the other hand is quite strong and manages to speak with an authentic sounding German accent. She made many bad film choices later her in career that ended up stigmatizes her acting reputation, but if given the right script and a competent director she could clearly convey an onscreen brilliance, which she does here. Unfortunately she is not seen enough and appears only sporadically throughout. If this is supposed to be a Taylor/Burton picture then the two needed equal screen time and prominent roles instead of one being relegated to what seems like only a minor part.

The supporting cast is excellent and this is a great chance to see up-and-coming African American actors when they were just starting out including: Raymond St. Jacques, James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson, George Stanford Brown, and Zakes Mokae.  Gish and Ford offer a surprisingly profound moment when they follow a procession of singing happy young children into a forum for what they think will be a religious ceremony only to find to their shock that everyone is there to witness a firing squad execution instead.

The story has its moments, but I would’ve preferred if it had been a little more focused. At times it is compelling, but it drifts back and forth between too many different story threads and never comes together as a whole not to mention a limp ending that leaves no impact.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: October 31, 1967

Runtime: 2 Hours 31 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Peter Glenville

Studio: MGM

Available: DVD (Box Set), Amazon Video, YouTube

Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Nuclear silo under siege.

Loosely based on the novel ‘Viper Three’ by Walter Wager the story centers on Lawrence Dell (Burt Lancaster) a former military general who was sent to prison on trumped on murder charges, but manages to escape and is now out for revenge. With the help of three accomplices (Paul Winfield, William Smith, Burt Young) he breaks into a nuclear silo and threatens to launch it unless the President (Charles Durning) agrees to come clean on the government’s secret agenda in regards to the Vietnam War.

I’ve never read the film’s source novel, but have been told that this takes many liberties with it. The biggest problem is that it jumps ahead too quickly showing the four men right away breaking into the silo when it should’ve started back further to when they escaped from the prison and how they were able to get the access codes in order to break into the silo system to begin with. Winfield has a few great lines and Smith’s hair-trigger personality allows for interesting conflict, so these characters should’ve remained, but instead they are unwisely killed off leaving only Lancaster to pace around nervously, which quickly becomes boring.

Whenever someone escapes from prison the nearby area gets warned usually through the media. Certainly military personnel would’ve been put on high alert and thus making Dell’s ability to break into the silo, which was too easy to begin with, much less likely. The fact that a crazed general could break into a silo system and threaten to start WW III and have it never leaked to the media is highly unlikely as well, which along with various other loopholes makes this thing hard to fully get into.

Charles Durning is a great supporting actor, but here is badly miscast as the President. His facial expressions during his phone calls with the other Generals warning him of what is going on are unintentionally comical and too much time gets spent focusing on him contemplating on whether he’ll given into Dell’s demands until it seems like he is the star and Lancaster only a secondary player. Having him described as being an ‘honest politician’ and ‘a President who would never lie’ seems like an oxymoron as I don’t think a politician could even survive in Washington if they weren’t able to spin the truth sometimes and only helps to make the character seem too idealized.

Spoiler Alert!

This thing though really ‘jumps-the-shark’ at the end as I cannot imagine any circumstance where the secret service would allow the President of the United States to enter into a nuclear silo all alone and be used as a hostage. If they were real desperate they might try to pawn off an imposter in an attempt to fool them, but never the actual President as it would put him into too vulnerable a position. Also, the ‘shocking secret’ about why the U.S. got involved in the Vietnam War really isn’t all that earth shattering and certainly not worth sitting through simply to find out.

End of Spoiler Alert!

Director Robert Aldrich’s prolific use of the split screen is the one entertaining aspect and almost enough to overlook its other many faults, but at best it’s only a mindless programmer that manages to elicit minor tension only if you don’t think about it too hard.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: February 9, 1977

Runtime: 2 Hours 26 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Robert Aldrich

Studio: Allied Artists

Available: DVD, Blu-ray

Brainstorm (1983)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: They corrupt his invention.

Michael (Christopher Walken) heads a team of researchers who’ve been able to create an invention that allows the sensations from one person’s mind to be recorded onto tape and then transferred to someone else’s. Michael and his team see this as a profitable enterprise, but become uneasy when the government, who want to use it for military purposes, tries to intervene and take over. When Michael attempts to stop them he is fired, which forces him to take extreme measures to destroy the plant before the machine can be made.

This is to date the last feature film to be directed by special effects guru Douglas Trumbull and on a visual level it’s an inspiring ride particularly during the first half. I was also impressed with how the technology that the researchers used in the film didn’t have that dated quality to it like so many other films from that era,  which proves what a keen eye for detail Trumbull had as everything at least on the visual side looks believable and helps keep the film interesting.

Unfortunately the story, which was written by Bruce Joel Rubin, who had intended to direct the film himself years earlier before the financial backing pulled out, is quite contrived and the complete opposite from the state-of-the-art effects. The plot goes off into too many different directions and the pace lumbers along too slowly. The side-story involving Michael’s reconciliation with his wife Karen (Natalie Wood) makes the thing seem more like a romance and should’ve been discarded while the main story suffers from having two different screenwriters, Robert Stitzel, Philip Frank Messina, working off of an idea that was not their own and results in an unfocused final product.

Spoiler Alert!

The climatic sequence, in which Michael and Karen are able to destroy the plant remotely through the phone lines, is too far-fetched. Destroying the plant doesn’t really stop the government from moving forward with their plans anyways as they could simply rebuild the factory and come up with a tighter security system to alleviate the loophole that Michael used so he wouldn’t be able to do it again.

End of Spoiler Alert!

The concept of an invention that would allow someone to essentially read another person’s mind doesn’t really jive as the film portrays the thoughts and memories that people have to be quite linear when in reality it’s more fragmented. Sometimes people can have several conflicting thoughts and emotions going on at the same time making it virtually impossible for another person to decipher the barrage of flashing images that they would encounter from someone else.

The film’s biggest notoriety though is the fact that it was Natalie Wood’s last movie project and while most of her principle scenes where already completed before her untimely death the few that remained were shot using her younger sister as a stand-in. Wood’s presence though and her character are completely transparent and she could’ve been written out of it and nothing would’ve been lost. Louise Fletcher, who plays a bitchy, chain smoking research scientist, gets a far more plum role and ends up being the film’s scene stealer especially with her prolonged death scene. I also got a kick out of Joe Dorsey, who plays this graying middle-aged man who locks himself inside his basement and then uses the device to watch himself having sex with a hot blonde babe over and over again until he becomes completely shut off from the rest of his family and illustrates to a degree an interesting precursor to the porn addiction phenomenon.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: September 30, 1983

Runtime: 1 Hour 46 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Douglas Trumbull

Studio: MGM

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