Tag Archives: Paul Winfield

A Hero Ain’t Nothing but a Sandwich (1978)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Getting hooked on heroin.

Benjie (Larry B. Scott) is an African American teen living with his single mother (Cicely Tyson), her boyfriend Butler (Paul Winfield) and her mother (Helen Martin) in a rundown area of Los Angeles. Benjie harbors a low self-esteem at being abandoned by his biological father years earlier and has not adjusted to Butler acting as his surrogate father and the two have many fights. To deal with his alienation he gets into drugs after befriending a local dealer named Tiger (Kevin Hooks). At first he dabbles in marijuana and likes the high it gives him, so he tries heroin, which eventually gets him hooked and it starts a downward spiral. His family tries to help him as best they can, but when he gets suspended from school they feel they have no other choice but to send him to a drug rehabilitation hospital where they hope he’ll recover.

While there were some critics, as evidenced by the film poster above, that did like the film there were also others at the time that labeled it as ‘preachy’ and coming off more like an after school special than a movie. Despite being based on the novel of the same name, which had been highly praised, and with a screenplay written by Alice Childress, who had also been the author of the book, I still came into it a bit leery wondering if the negative reviews had merit and I’d be spending the 2-hours bored, but I came away impressed with how captivating and sincere it overall was.

A lot of the credit goes to Scott, who although was 15 when it was filmed, but effectively looks only 13 like his character, which makes the scenes where he shoots-up all the more shocking. Winfield is also excellent playing someone who’s bitter about life due to a failed music career and reluctant to take on a fatherly role particularly when the kid lashes out at him at seemingly every turn. Glynn Turman is solid too as Benjie’s African studies teacher as well as David Groh, better know as Joe in the TV-series ‘Rhoda’, playing the only white teacher in an all-black school who feels like an outsider himself. Helen Martin though steals it as the elderly grandmother who gets violently mugged by two kids on the street at the beginning and then later on does a provocative dance for the family in remembrance to her days as a young dance hall girl.

What I did have a problem with were the scenes inside the drug rehabilitation clinic that get shown through a series of black-and-white photographs. I don’t mind directors throwing in artistic elements into the narrative, but when the film had been working as a straight forward drama for the entire first hour then it kind of needs to stay that way and suddenly changing the approach becomes distracting. I’m not sure why these hospital scenes get glossed over the way they do, but it makes the viewer feel more distant from the character and what he’s going through.

Winfield’s bonding with the kid ends-up being problematic as well. I didn’t have an issue with it at the start as I kind of liked seeing this guy, who clearly had no blueprint on parenting, being forced into a situation that he really didn’t ask for, or know how to navigate. However, he becomes a little too emotionally bonded with Benjie by the end that just didn’t seem genuine. After all this really wasn’t his biological child and he hadn’t even married the mother, so to take on all of this extra responsibility, that should’ve been the mother’s, didn’t seen realistic. Tyson needed to play a stronger role here having her stand side-by-side with Winfield as they help her son through the withdrawal process. Having her instead getting written-off as this kook who’s into voodoo and at one point strips her teenage son naked and throws him into a bathtub filled with potions that she feels will ‘cure’ him and eventually jumps into the tub with him is a definite cringe moment, particularly by today’s standards, and a low point in a movie that otherwise is adequately done most of the way.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: February 3, 1978

Runtime: 1 Hour 47 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Ralph Nelson

Studio: New World Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, Tubi, Plex

White Dog (1982)

white dog1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Dog attacks black people.

Late one night while driving home aspiring actress Julie (Kristy McNichol) hits a stray dog, which she takes immediately to an emergency vet. They find that his injuries were minimal and she’s allowed to take him home until his owner can be found. She soon starts to bond with the White Shepherd dog, who at one point saves her from a would-be rapist. She also becomes aware that he attacks black people when he goes after one of her African American friends unprovoked. She takes him to an elderly dog trainer named Carruthers (Burl Ives) who advised that the dog should be put to sleep, but another trainer named Keyes (Paul Winfield), who is black, wants to rehabilitate the animal, but finds this undertaking far more challenging than he initially expected.

The story is based on a real-life incident of novelist Romain Gary and his actress wife Jean Seberg, who during the early 60’s took in a stray dog that had previously been an Alabama Police dog, who they later learned, was trained to attack black people. Gary wrote about this experience in a short story that was published in Life Magazine in 1970 and this was eventually turned into a novel. The novel though incorporated many things that had not occurred in real-life, nor in the movie, including having the dog trainer being an angry black Muslim who gets the dog to start attacking white people including Gary himself.

The story rights were purchased by Paramount in 1975 with Roman Polanski set to direct, but when he was forced to flee the country due to statutory rape chargers the projects was put on hold. Then after the success of Jaws producers decided to turn it into a ‘jaws with paws’ storyline with the racism angle taken out, but when director Samuel Fuller was signed on he returned the plot to its original theme, which caused controversy when the NAACP, without ever having seen the film, accused it of being ‘racist’, which frightened Paramount executives enough that they gave the movie a very limited engagement with no promotion, which led to it recouping only $46, 509 out of its original $7 million budget. Despite eventually getting released on VHS and shown sporadically on cable outlets such as Lifetime, it languished in obscurity until finally getting a DVD/Blu-ray issue in 2008 where it’s now seen in a totally different light.

For me the biggest problem is the hackneyed drama starting with the dopey way the dog gets hit by a car and yet miraculously healed enough to go home that very same night and never showing any lingering injuries. The potential rape scene is too manufactured as well as it has the rapist magically appearing in the apartment without showing how he broke-in and later having one of the cops state that he had just arrested the same guy earlier that year for another rape attempt, so if that’s the case then why wasn’t he still in jail? It also has the dog sleeping as the bad guy sneaks in, but I’ve found dogs have a keen sense of awareness and would’ve heard the guy trying to bust in and growling or barking long before he actually made it into the apartment. Having Kristy go on a late night jog with the dog and then being chased by a masked assailant, which the dog would scare away, would’ve been a better way to have done it.

I also didn’t like the part where Kristy meets the dog’s owner and he openly admits to training him to attack black people, which to me didn’t seem believable. I liked the idea of having the owner being this seemingly kindly old man, played by Parley Baer best known for voicing the Keebler Elf, that you’d never expect as being someone who’d train an animal to do such a thing. However, freely admitting this to a stranger is like a murderer admitting to their crime. Most won’t fess up because they know it would get them into a lot of trouble if they did. Movies should also not be obligated to explain everything and like in real-life should leave a few things open-ended. When Kristy accuses him of this he could reveal a funny look on his face, giving the viewer insight that he most likely was guilty, but then have him verbally deny it like most people would.

While I could’ve done without the slow motion and booming music I did find the dog’s retraining sessions with Keys to be the film’s best moments and Winfield’s strong presence is excellent. However, trying to use a dog as a metaphor to racism doesn’t really work, nor hold-up to logic. Winfield explains that the dog was most likely beaten by a black person hired by a white man to get the dog to become the way he does, but I don’t think this could be achieved as the dog would just hate that one individual and not connect it to the man’s skin color unless he was abused by a whole group of black people. We’re also told that the dog does not hate black people he just fears them, but if that’s the case then why does he go out of his way to attack and kill them. Animals will only go on the attack if they feel threatened, but if the perceived threat keeps their distance then the dog shouldn’t feel the need to be aggressive making the blood splattering attacks that the dog does come off as quite over-the-top.

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My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: November 12, 1982

Runtime: 1 Hour 30 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Samuel Fuller

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD/Blu-ray (Criterion Collection)

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