Tag Archives: Elizabeth Taylor

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

The Only Game in Town (1970)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: A Vegas love story.

Fran (Elizabeth Taylor) is an aging Las Vegas showgirl living alone in a two-bit hotel room while awaiting the return of her lover (Charles Braswell) who has disappeared yet again while he goes off to his wife that he consistently promises he will eventually divorce. In her loneliness she decides to go out to a piano bar and order a pizza. It is there that she meets Joe (Warren Beatty) and the two quickly hit-it-off while also spending the night together. Joe has a gambling problem, but promises that the minute he saves up $5,000 he’ll be out of Vegas for good. He moves into her hotel room where she helps him save up the necessary dough to achieve his dreams even though with his gambling addiction he will fritter it all away the moment he gets his hands on it. Then Fran’s long lost lover returns and ready for marriage. Will she go back with him, or stay with the self-destructive Joe that she has despite her better judgement fallen in love with?

The script by Frank D. Gilroy is based on his stage play and it’s not particularly rich in character development or plot. In fact the play itself fared poorly when it ran on Broadway and had only 16 performances before being shut down. However, despite its lack of originality I still found myself enjoying it and a major reason for this is the casting.

Taylor shines in a role that didn’t seem to be a particularly good fit for her. She spent the latter part of her career playing bitchy old dames that always seemed one step away from the sanitarium or a nervous breakdown. Here her character merits some sympathy and her usual overacting is actually entertaining and helps propel the flimsy plot along. The pairing of her with Beatty is an odd one, but then again the relationship is supposed to be awkward, so it ends up working to the script’s advantage.

Beatty’s performance is equally impressive. Normally he specializes at playing characters that are cool, calm and in control, but here he portrays one that is quietly crumbling and manages to pull it off to complete perfection. The scenes of him at the craps table and compulsively blowing all of his hard-earned money away is genuinely difficult to watch, especially since real cash gets used, and one of the most effective looks at the gambling addiction that I’ve seen.

This also marks the last film to be directed by the legendary George Stevens. He was known for helming some epic Hollywood productions, so it is a bit surprising that he choose to do this one since the storyline and setting were far more constrained from what he was used to working with. In fact the majority of it was shot in Paris, France and not Las Vegas, which many critics at the time felt was a detriment, but to me it made it even more fascinating to watch because of it. For one thing the crew did spend 10 days in Vegas shooting some of the outdoor shots, so you still get some legitimate Sin City scenery regardless. What I enjoyed though was the way Stevens was able to camouflage the rest of the scenes including having the bright daytime light seeping through the hotel room windows, which convincingly looked like the natural sunlight reflecting off of the sandy desert landscape. The recreation of the giant Las Vegas grocery store was impressive as well and strangely one of my favorite moments from the movie.

If you enjoy quirky love stories particularly between characters who are painfully human and less than glamorous you may enjoy this film better than most. It’s also a terrific chance to see two very fine actors playing against type and doing so in splendid fashion.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: January 21, 1970

Runtime: 1Hour 53Minutes

Rated M

Director: George Stevens

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: Blu-ray

Boom! (1968)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Bitchy lady rules island.

Flora ‘Sissy’ Goforth (Elizabeth Taylor) lives on a secluded island in a large mansion and surrounded by servants who cater to her every whim. She has alienated most everyone she has come into contact with and relies on her secretary Miss Black (Joanna Shimkus) to write down her autobiography that she dictates to her indiscriminately throughout the day. In comes Chris Flanders (Richard Burton) a nomadic poet living on the skids who infiltrates her palace and her oppressed sexual desires with his ruggedness and mystery. Will Sissy fall under his seductive spell, or does this mysterious stranger have even darker intentions?

The film was directed by Joseph Losey who is one of the more inventive and groundbreaking directors who ever lived and sadly doesn’t get enough recognition. Unfortunately he was going through a bout of depression when he made this film, which caused him to abuse alcohol and seriously affected the film’s final result although it still manages to be a fascinating visual excursion nonetheless. The location shooting, which was done almost entirely on the island of Sardinia, is dazzling. The shots of the steep cliffs and crystal blue water, which are literally a part of Sissy’s backyard, are breathtaking. The modernistic mansion that she lives in is equally sumptuous particularly with its myriad collection of art paintings and wet bars that seem to pop-up every few feet in whatever room or patio the characters are in.

The acting is also outstanding as Taylor eats up the scenery with her over-the-top bitchiness and unexplained anxiety attacks, which she takes to an unprecedented campy level. The outrageous hat that she wears to her dinner date is quite possibly one of the most bizarre things ever to be put on top of a human head.

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The normally commanding Burton unfortunately comes off as weak in comparison and overall looks uncomfortable in his role. The script originally called for a young man in his 20’s for the part and thus casting Burton, who was already 42 at the time, seemed misguided.

Dwarf actor Michael Dunn is excellent in support. His character utters only three words, but still makes his presence known with the way he shows complete control over his attack dogs while playing of all things Sissy’s bodyguard. Playwright Noel Coward appears in a fun bit as one of Sissy’s friends who she invites over for dinner. The friends secretly disdain each other in private, but put on a superficial friendship when together and apparently this is also how the two performers behaved with each other behind-the-scenes as well.

Unfortunately the script, which was written by Tennessee Williams and based on his play ‘The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore’ leaves much to be desired. The plot meanders on to an unsatisfying conclusion while rehashing old themes that had already been used in his earlier and better known works.

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Polish Poster

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: May 26, 1968

Runtime: 1Hour 52Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Joseph Losey

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD (Region 2)

The Driver’s Seat (1974)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Crazy lady goes traveling.

Lise (Elizabeth Taylor) is a middle-aged woman with seemingly no past who travels to Rome looking for someone to kill her. Her erratic behavior and weird motivations confuse those that she comes into contact with. She then meets Bill (Ian Bannen) a man who’s more interested in her sexually than anything else and he follows her around in a veiled attempt to get ‘lucky’ despite her repeated rebuffs.

The film is basically a mess that goes nowhere. It was based on a novel by Muriel Spark, who had written some acclaimed stuff in her day including ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’, so I can only imagine that the book made more sense and only bits and pieces of it were taken to create this screenplay. In either case it was a highly strange career move for Miss Taylor who made a lot of weird movie choices in the 70’s, which helped to destroy her once megastar status and tainted her other stellar work.

Her performance by itself isn’t too bad and it’s the one thing that helps keep things watchable. The way that she can go from being passive and helpless to snippy and bitchy within seconds is kind of fun and on a purely camp level even enjoyable. The whole thing seems almost like an extension of the character that she played in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , which became her signature role during her later years.

Bannen lends good support as his leering Cheshire cat grin is a perfect counterpart to Taylor’s crazed glare and he effectively equals her nuttiness. I also loved his so-called macrobiotic diet in which he must attain one orgasm a day for it to work and if he misses one then he must make up for it by having two the next day, which ultimately gives him ‘indigestion’. Mona Washbourne a character actress noted for playing delightfully daffy old ladies is also on hand as one of the people Taylor befriends and their encounter inside the stall of a public bathroom is a gem.

Director Giuseppe Patroni Griffi manages to infuse some interesting visuals, which along with its fragmented narrative helps keep things cheaply alluring, but it eventually plays itself out and by the end becomes quite tiring and tedious. The biggest issue is that there never is any explanation for who this woman is or why she’s doing this, which makes the whole thing quite empty and pointless.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: May 20, 1974

Runtime: 1Hour 42Minutes

Rated R

Director: Giuseppe Patroni Griffi

Studio: AVCO Embassy Pictures

Available: DVD-R, Amazon Instant Video

The V.I.P.s (1963)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Drama at the airport.

Several diverse characters come together at London’s Heathrow Airport. All have urgent needs that require them to board a certain flight that they hope will take off as soon as possible. Frances (Elizabeth Taylor) is the wife of rich tycoon Paul (Richard Burton) and is secretly having an affair with gambler/playboy Marc (Louis Jourdan). She has left him a ‘dear John’ letter at home and hopes to be well on her way to New York before he reads it. Les (Rod Taylor) is a businessman who also hopes to get to the Big Apple quickly to avoid the hostile takeover of his company. Max (Orson Welles) is a famous movie director traveling with his vapid starlet Gloria (Elsa Martinelli) and hoping to leave England before he is forced to pay an enormous tax penalty. Unfortunately for them a fog rolls in, which delays the flight and sends everyone’s plans into disarray.

The drama has some potential at the beginning, but the 2-hour runtime is much too long for this type of material. Whatever compelling elements the threads may have had when it started become lodged in endless talk and boredom. The scene where Burton smashes Liz’s hand against a mirror is the only time there is any action and Terence Rattigan’s soap opera script is too clichéd. Director Anthony Asquith’s direction shows no visual flair and fails to capture the airport in any type of interesting way. The background sets look like they were built on a soundstage and the fog effects are quite tacky.

Margaret Rutherford won the supporting Oscar for her portrayal of an aging Duchess. She adds some much needed humor particularly in the segment where she has difficulty getting her hat box into the plane’s luggage compartment. However, like with the story thread concerning the Orson Welles character she is seen to briefly and their scenes are spread so far apart that you almost forget all about them.

Spoiler Warning!

There is also another segment where a complete stranger played by actress Maggie Smith approaches the Burton character and asks him for a hundred and fifty three thousand pounds and he gives it to her in the form of a blank check, which had me floored. Men like him don’t become rich by handing out a lot of money to anyone who asks especially people they don’t know. Some may argue that because the character was considering suicide that he didn’t care anymore, but it still seemed too much of a stretch and for me sent this already stale drama into the realm of the absurd and ridiculous.

End of Spoiler Warning

Every story thread gets a nice, convenient happy ending that gives the whole thing a TV-sitcom quality and barely worth the effort to sit through. The production has some glossy aspects and certainly big-name stars, but ends up being a buildup to nothing.

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My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: September 19, 1963

Runtime: 1Hour 59Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Anthony Asquith

Studio: MGM

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video

Ash Wednesday (1973)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Liz gets a facelift.

Barbara (Elizabeth Taylor) is not aging gracefully. Her husband Mark (Henry Fonda) is having an affair with a much younger woman, but Barbara is determined to win him back. She decides to get a facelift and then spends her time afterwards at a winter resort in Italy where a young man name Erich (Helmut Berger) becomes intoxicated by her sudden youthful beauty and the two go to bed together. When her husband arrives she still strives to save the marriage, but finds that to him the facelift makes no difference.

The film’s biggest claim-to-fame is the graphic and vivid look at an actual facelift surgery that sickened many viewers who watched the film when it was first released. The footage is explicit, but fascinating as well as I never quite understood how this procedure worked, so seeing it from a medical viewpoint is to a certain extent educational. I also liked that during Barbara’s stay at the hospital she meets a middle-aged man named David (Keith Baxter) who has had several of the some procedures himself and showing that this wasn’t exclusively a woman’s issue although I was confused why a man would spend so much money having facelifts, but then not bother to dye his hair.

The effects of the procedure is a bit misleading because Liz was only 40 at the time and was put into heavy makeup to make her appear much older at the beginning, so the results of the surgery are really just her as she normally looked. The idea that a facelift would have such a galvanizing effect on everyone around her is also not realistic. A recent study found that many people who had the procedure ultimately only looked 3 to 5 years younger instead of the 10-plus that they had hoped for. Sometimes a facelift can make a person look even worse, or in my opinion a sort of ‘duckface’ that this movie doesn’t even hit on, but should’ve.

I also thought that the idea that this woman would want to stay with a man who is openly cheating on her was unrealistic. If this woman was poor, lonely and homely and he was her only source of a social outlet then maybe, but this guy was loaded and I would think most women would simply hire a good divorce lawyer and take the cheating cad to the cleaners and then merrily move on especially when she had already proven to herself that she could attract other more attractive men on her own anyways.

The role itself seems to be an extension of Taylor’s own personality in that of a woman living in an insular world obsessed with shallow problems because she has too much time and money on her hands and unable to either understand or portray an average person in a regular lifestyle even if she wanted to. The wide variety of big puffy hats and scarfs that she wears becomes a bit of a distraction and almost like a character into itself.

Fonda is wasted in another one his typical latter career roles that gives him very little to do. He doesn’t even appear onscreen until the final fifteen minutes and only then long enough to tell her he wants a divorce before promptly leaving.

The opening sequence showing the two stars aging through the years during the credits is interesting and well-done especially seeing Fonda when he was young. The musical score by Maurice Jarre has a nice classic flair to it and lifts this dreary production to a more classy level than it deserves, but unfortunately doesn’t get played much after the beginning.

The film probably would’ve worked better had the surgical procedure not happened right away, but instead been done in the middle and had more of a backstory at the beginning. The facelift scenes are actually the film’s highpoint and it goes rapidly downhill afterwards until it becomes a mind numbing train wreck that isn’t worth watching for any reason.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: November 1, 1973

Runtime: 1Hour 39Minutes

Rated R

Director: Larry Peerce

Studio: Paramount

Available: VHS

Night Watch (1973)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Murder in the window.

Ellen Wheeler (Elizabeth Taylor) is an emotionally unstable woman recovering from a nervous breakdown. Her first husband died in a car crash along with his young lady lover. Now her second husband John (Laurence Harvey) is fooling around with Ellen’s best friend Sara (Billie Whitelaw). One night Ellen witnesses a murder at the abandoned house next door, but because of Ellen’s past mental state no one believes her. Even the police doubt her story, which starts to send her over-the-edge.

I saw this play about a year ago with a group of friends at a local church. It was written by Lucille Fletcher best known for having done Sorry Wrong Number, which was later turned into a classic film starring Barbra Stanwyck. Although the play started out slowly the twist ending was impressive and something no one in the audience had predicted, but what I liked even better was that when you went back and thought about it, it made perfect sense. I thought at the time that it would make a great movie and was interested in seeing what this film did with it. I felt that there was no way they could screw up such a great story, but somehow they managed to do it.

Director Brian G. Hutton adds a lot of elements to make it more cinematic that should have helped it, but it really doesn’t. I liked the flashback sequences showing the car crash of the first husband as well as Ellen visiting the hospital and identifying the bodies. These segments have a good nightmarish visual quality to them, but Hutton goes back to it too often and eventually wears it out. I also liked that the film shows the police inspecting the inside of the abandoned home, which in the play you never see, but I felt they could have done a lot more to make the place seem more distinct and creepy. There is also a skirmish between two people inside the place at the end that you can hear, but not see because it is too dark and shadowy, which was annoying. The music is effectively creepy, but it also has a ringing quality that quickly becomes irritating and gets way over-played.

This was just one of the many misfires that Taylor did during the 70’s that helped extinguish her otherwise illustrious career long before it should’ve. This one fares slightly better than the others, but not by much. Her affected British accent could seem annoying to some and sounds kind of like the put-on one that Madonna sometimes does although for the record Taylor’s is better than hers. Liz’s emotionalism is a bit too theatrical and may come off as unintentionally funny to certain viewers although seeing her go completely nutty is impressive and fun.

Harvey is all wrong as the husband. His cold, detached presence can work in certain roles, but definitely not in this one. In the play that I saw the actor cast in this part looked more middle-aged with a spare tire stomach, balding head, and graying sideburns, which is what I felt the role called for. This is a character that is overburdened with a stressful job and unstable wife and yet Harvey shows none of this. His slick black hair and turtleneck shirts, which were fashionable at the time, make him look like someone still going out to the trendy nightclubs to pick up young chicks… or guys.

Whitelaw is one of the best British character actresses of all-time, but her talents are wasted with a part that doesn’t allow her to show any range. Her blonde hairdo is nice, but Taylor’s histrionics dominate the proceedings and unceremoniously push Whitelaw into the background.

The play had a lot of humor especially with the Mr. Appleby character played here by actor Robert Lange. Unfortunately the movie turns it into a serious drama making it seem more like a soap opera instead of a mystery. I came away from this feeling that the live production that I had seen was far more entertaining and intriguing. I would suggest to viewers to skip this film and wait for a chance to see it done as a play as the movie does not do the story justice.

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My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: August 9, 1973

Runtime: 1Hour 39Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Brian G. Hutton

Studio: AVCO Embassy Pictures

Available: DVD (Warner Archive), Amazon Instant Video