Sooner or later, every standup comedian gets their own comedy special captured on film, digital or whatever else people are using these days. Richard Pryor performed one of his most famous standup specials on the Sunset Strip at the Comedy Store, George Carlin performed many unforgettable specials on HBO, Kevin Hart got to perform to a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden, and Dave Chapelle has remained a comedic force to be reckoned with on Netflix along with others like Amy Schumer and John Mulaney.
And then there is Eddie Pence. You haven’t heard of him? Well, you clearly have not been paying attention like you should. Eddie has been a stand-up comic for many years in Southern California, has appeared on many different shows, and he is also the vice host of “The Ralph Report” with Ralph Garman. Still, he has not achieved the crazy level of fame others in his field have. But like many in this day and age, he has been busy fundraising in an effort to create his own comedy special, and it has finally arrived and been given the unique title, “Eddie Pence: The (Un)special Comedy Special.” What results is a solid hour of hysterics from a self-deprecating individual who is better at performing than he thinks.
With this comedy special, which Pence filmed in his hometown of Washington, D.C., he wisely sets himself up as an underdog. When rushing towards the camera in the opening moments, he is knocked over by a pedestrian who will not even allow him to say the title of this special which Comedy Dynamics took a little too long to release. As he attempts to give out free tickets to his show, he is greeted by one who mistakenly believes he is a blood relative to a certain Vice President who was recently upstaged by a housefly during a debate. Upon arriving at his appointed venue, the D.C. Comedy Loft, he is informed that the main room is hosting a comedy class on how to tell a joke, and it costs only $10 to attend. As a result, he is forced to perform in the venue’s Cellar room which I imagine is the equivalent of the Belly Room at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles. Nevertheless, Pence is so determined to jump onto the stage to give us what he has got, and he is so pumped up to where he doesn’t realize his comedy set will not start for another two hours.
The set of the Cellar is very simplistic as it features a red wallpapered wall with bland white Christmas lights adorning it. If those lights were blinking constantly, it may have looked more like the seedy bar Laura Palmer visited in “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.” But while Pence may not have the spectacular sets which adorned Carlin’s HBO specials, he is not about to let his sparse set affect his comedy set, and it quickly proves to be endlessly hilarious.
Right from the start, I could see Pence has had a lot of experience as a stand-up comedian, and he shows a lot of confidence as he goes from one joke to the next with what seems like relative ease. As he points out how strippers are doing the Lord’s work or how no one can half-ass streaking, it is clear he has long since found his own unique style of performing and trusts his own point of view implicitly. Even I have never taken into account how strippers are doing the Lord’s work.
What I also admired about Pence is how he goes from one topic to another with the understanding of not staying on the same subject for too long. He is also aided by his director, Dustin Jacobs, who keeps the proceedings moving at a steady pace. Stand-up comedy specials usually have spots where things begin to drag to where you find yourself checking your watch or looking how much time is left before the end, but this special is never undone by such problems. Everything feels smooth and I never felt my attention wavering throughout even when Pence talks about how hamsters make the worse pets.
And like all great comedians, Pence saves his best material for last. His jokes about “Star Wars” are more than welcome, and he comes up with stuff even Kevin Smith did not include in “Clerks.” Pence’s biggest jabs, however, are at “The Empire Strikes Back,” still the greatest “Star Wars” ever made. The penultimate scene in which Princess Leia tells Han Solo she loves him before he is frozen in carbonite, and he tells her “I know” remains one of the most memorable moments in a “Star Wars” film, let alone any other film in cinematic history. But in the process, Pence provides us with definitive proof of how a similar situation will never play out as well in real life. In fact, anyone with a DNR order will find their wishes completely voided if those two words are the last thing they say to their spouse.
Is “Eddie Pence: The (Un)special Comedy Special” one of the greatest stand-up comedy specials ever made? Oh please, do not go into this needlessly comparing this one to others. Simply let it stand on its own and enjoy for what it is. Besides, all these lists get everything in the wrong order. There was one which even dared to put “Bill Cosby Himself” at a much higher position than “Richard Pryor: Live in Concert.” Blasphemy! That’s like saying John Carpenter’s “Ghost of Mars” is a better motion picture than his remake of “The Thing!”
Anyway, I digress. Pence proves to be a durable stand up comedian who generates many laughs for the most enthusiastic of audiences, and his “(Un)special Comedy Special” will present viewers with a nice diversion from the apocalyptic world we have been forced to endure this past year. But by the end of 2020, I hope to have an answer as to which comedy is funnier: this or “Trump Card.”
So, why was this particular David Fincher film called “The Social Network” instead of just “Facebook” or “The Facebook Movie?” When going into the movie theater back in 2010, I figured this film would be all about how Facebook came into existence and of how its audience grew so quickly, but it was not just about that. Looking more closely at “The Social Network,” I think the title is meant to be intentionally ironic as it describes the key individuals who got it off the ground, particularly Max Zuckerberg, as they were more antisocial than they cared to realize. Max was clearly more comfortable being up close and personal with a computer screen than in interacting with real people. The Facebook phenomenon may have brought people closer together than ever before, but ten years later after this film’s release, we are reminded of how it also succeeded in keeping us further apart. And in the year 2020, this is more apparent than ever before.
The beginning of “The Social Network” quickly illustrates Max Zuckerberg’s (Jesse Eisenberg) antisocial behavior as we watch him talk with his girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), and it quickly devolves into an increasingly awkward conversation to say the least. Max can’t look her in the eye, and he ends up insulting her without even realizing it. It looks as though his mind is moving at 100 miles a minute to where he never really slows down enough to take in the reactions coming his way. This is our first look at the young man who has long since become the youngest billionaire in America thanks to his bringing about the world’s most prolific social networking website, and he is proving to be anything but social. Erica makes her frustration with his one-track mind and insensitive nature perfectly. Max fears that unless he gets into one of Harvard’s exclusive clubs, he will never be taken seriously and will just be some techno nerd in everyone’s eyes. Erica, fed up with his attitude, tells him people will keep their distance from him because he is a jerk, not because he is exceptionally bright.
Well, love has a very strange effect on us all, and instead of trying to reconcile with Erica right then and there, Max instead heads straight back to his dorm room and creates a page along with his roommates called “Face Mash.” With this page, he allows students to pick which female students at Harvard are the prettiest by comparing them to one another. Of course, this is right after Max cruelly disses his now ex-girlfriend Erica in a number of ways which includes describing her bra size. “Face Mash” ends up bringing in so many viewers in one night to where Harvard’s computer network crashes completely, and Max becomes one of the most vilified individuals on campus, by girls mostly, as well as one of Harvard’s most ingenious students. In record time, he exploited the network’s vulnerability in a way Harvard never saw coming, and the university is quick to cover their own ass as a result.
This all leads to an invitation by identical twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer) along with their business partner Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) to program a new website they want to put together called “Harvard Connection.” The way they see it, it will be a great way for the students at Harvard to connect with one another. Later, Max meets up with his best, and only, friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and proposes putting together a website he calls “The Facebook,” an online social networking tool which would be exclusive to Harvard University students. Eduardo agrees to help finance the site, and thus begins a phenomenon which just about everyone has a profile on except for those who have long since had their fill of anything with the name Zuckerberg attached to it. But from there on out, battle lines are drawn and lawsuits are underway as the Winklevoss twins and Narendra claim Mark stole their idea, Eduardo ends up suing Max for cutting him out of the whole thing even though he was a co-founder, and friends and acquaintances soon become the most bitter of enemies.
“The Social Network” jumps back and forth between different perspectives of what actually happened. We watch events progress as Max gets “The Facebook” up and running, and of the reaction his supposed business partners have when their friends set up profiles on it. You never know exactly where the film is going as it goes from one event to a litigation between an annoyed Zuckerberg and the infuriated Winklevoss twins and the deeply bitter Divya Narendra. It goes even further to another lawsuit Eduardo files against Max which illustrates how this endeavor forever terminated their friendship. Even if you know everything there is to know about the creation of Facebook, this film succeeds in intensifying the hurt feelings of everyone involved ever so vividly. We know this house of cards will soon collapse on all the main people involved, but you just don’t know how hard the hits will affect you and everyone else.
Now Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin working together might not sound like a match made in heaven, and it’s easier to expect them trying to strangle one another in the process of making “The Social Network.” But together, they make cinematic magic as Fincher’s razor-sharp direction more than complements Sorkin’s brilliant dialogue and story construction. This represents some of their best work, and there is nary a false note to be found here. The visual elements never upstage the script and vice versa. It’s a perfect marriage of sights and sounds in a story of friendship, power and betrayal.
Ever since Sorkin’s unforgettable work on “A Few Good Men” and “The American President,” he has mostly worked in television where he was best known for “The West Wing,” my big brother’s favorite TV show. But his screenplay for “The Social Network,” which was adapted from Ben Mezrich’s non-fiction book “The Accidental Billionaires,” is full of some of the most creative dialogue I have heard in any film I have ever seen. One standout scene comes when the Winklevoss twins meet up with Harvard President Larry Summers (Douglas Urbanski) to discuss their desire to sue Max. Watching Summers dryly dismissing their accusations and politely tearing them a new one as if they had no reason to bother him in the first place is so indelibly clever to where the exchange merits a whole play unto itself.
But much of the credit for “The Social Network’s” success belongs to the actors, all of whom were perfectly cast. At the top of the list is Eisenberg who, as Max Zuckerberg, is never afraid to make his character less than likable, and I admired how he and the filmmakers were never looking to whitewash him for the sake of good press. Eisenberg makes you see how fast Max’s mind is moving and of how his single-mindedness keeps him from realizing who he is as a person. You do find yourself admiring Max in spite of himself, and Eisenberg really succeeds in creating a believable sense of empathy for him. It’s this empathy which makes us all want to follow along with this alienated genius all the way to the very end. It’s a tough role, but Eisenberg nails it perfectly while delivering Sorkin’s rapid-fire dialogue without missing a beat.
Rooney Mara only appears in a couple of scenes as Erica Albright, but her presence on the screen is quite powerful as she wounds Max for all he is worth. This proved to be a stronger showcase for Mara’s talents as opposed to her appearance in the remake of “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” and it made me all the more excited to see her performance as Lisbeth Salander in Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” The fact her performance as Lisbeth was so brilliant was hinted at in her work here.
Then you have Andrew Garfield who, at the time, was more well-known for the role he was cast in as Peter Parker and his alter-ego in “The Amazing Spider-Man.” In many ways, Garfield gives this film’s best performance as the most well-meaning guy of the bunch who becomes the biggest victim of all. As we watch him lose control over something he helped create, Garfield makes us feel Eduardo’s vulnerability and pain of being so thoughtlessly cut out of this internet juggernaut all the more vivid and wrenching to witness. We relate to Eduardo’s situation as we have all been duped once or twice. This could have been a performance which might have come across as hopelessly melodramatic and manipulative, but Andrews makes his character so achingly real to where there is no forgetting him once the film has ended.
With Justin Timberlake, “The Social Network” proved there could be no denial of his acting talents with his revelatory performance as Sean Parker, founder of Napster. Fincher made Timberlake screen test for this role a dozen times, and it looks like all those times he hosted “Saturday Night Live” are giving him dividends he truly deserves. Yes, he gave terrific performances in “Alpha Dog” and “Black Snake Moan” beforehand, but his performance here feels all the more astonishing as he seduces not just Max Zuckerberg, but the audience as well. Timberlake slyly turns Sean into the guy who gets inside your skin to effortlessly take advantage of you as he can clearly see what your soul cries out for. Sean makes you believe that the world can be yours and that anything and everything is possible for you and only you. Timberlake is exquisite in Sean seem all the more appealing to be around while making you completely forget he is a back stabbing snake looking to get Eduardo Saverin out of the way.
A lot of praise is also in store for Armie Hammer who portrays the Winklevoss twins, Cameron and Tyler. It helps that Fincher chose an actor most people were not familiar with at the time because, for a while, I honestly thought it was two different actors playing these roles. Seeing an actor playing twins is nothing new, but it hasn’t been done this well since Nicolas Cage played two sides of Charlie Kaufman in “Adaptation.” Hammer nails all the specific nuances of each brother down perfectly to where you can easily tell them apart, and credit also needs to be given to Josh Pence who was a stand in for Hammer. You never catch yourself witnessing special effects whenever Hammer is onscreen, and this makes his work all the more impressive.
Seriously, even the smallest of roles in “The Social Network” are acted with the upmost skill, and no character could ever be mistaken as an easy throwaway. Actors like Max Minghella, Joseph Mazzello, Brenda Song, and Douglas Urbanski all make great use of their time onscreen, and each leaves their mark on our minds.
Trent Reznor composed the score for “The Social Network” along with Atticus Ross, and their music captures how the world around the characters becomes more and more mediatized as the world keeps turning and technology keeps advancing. The electronic sound Reznor is best known for serves to also illustrate the divisions which emerge among everyone here and of how their emotions end up being drained through anger and hurt feelings which may never be fully repaired. Fincher was convinced Fincher and Ross would not receive an Oscar nomination for their work, but they did and eventually won the Oscar for Best Original Score in a way the filmmaker did not see coming. This would lead to a remarkably creative working relationship between these three as they have composed to other Fincher films including the deliciously twisted “Gone Girl.”
“The Social Network” is not meant to be the definitive story of who is truly responsible for the creation of Facebook. Indeed, no one will ever fully know what went on other than the main people involved, and while hefty settlements were made out of court, there does not seem to be a consensus as to what truly happened. Clearly, neither Fincher or Sorkin were interested in getting down to the truth as much as they were in observing the effect this behemoth of a website had on everyone and of how Facebook came to make an inescapable mark in the realm of social media.
Frankly, I don’t give a damn if the movie is completely accurate as there is always a good dose of dramatization in movies dealing with non-fiction stories. What does matter to me is this all makes for a highly dramatic experience which holds our attention from the start to the very end. There are no gun fights or car chases to be found in “The Social Network,” but the emotionally damage inflicted feels every bit as visceral and brutal as any action picture.
The film’s last scene with Max Zuckerberg sitting alone in an office in front of his laptop computer pretty much defines what we have all become in the past decade; a slave to technology and the world wide web. It makes you wonder if we will ever be able to live without such technology as it has long become an inescapable part of our lives. Can we even remember what the world was like before the internet? These days, we are more comfortable being up front and close with our computers than we are with other people, and this was the case before the current global pandemic. Still, there is still a part of us yearning for human contact which we all need, and the fact we are more removed from it than usual is a sad statement on humanity.
The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent Tony Farinella.
“Bad Education” is the kind of film that would have worked very well in theaters if not for the current Covid-19 pandemic based on the star power of its two leads, Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney. As a reviewer, however, I’m happy to watch it on any platform. As usual, HBO delivers quality programming which stands out from the pack. When it comes to delivering the goods, Jackman gives his best performance, in my opinion, as Dr. Frank Tassone.
When the audience first meets Dr. Tassone, he comes across as probably the nicest, most caring, and thoughtful superintendent known to mankind. He goes above and beyond for his students, the parents, and everyone who works for him. He is the definition of the first one in the building and the last one to leave. He’s also very particular about his weight, appearance, and presentation. But beneath all of this, there is a very dark side to him that is sociopathic, cunning, and very conniving. I can’t imagine too many actors would have been able to handle the juggling act of playing everyone’s favorite superintendent one minute and a conman behind closed doors the next as well as Jackman. Thanks to his hard work and the efforts of Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney), the Roslyn Union Free School District on Long Island is rapidly growing. The numbers are good, people are making money, and everyone is happy.
However, when it comes to handling success and money, all it takes is one slip up for everything to be exposed to the public. “Bad Education” is based on a true story, and it makes you, as an audience member, wonder how this could have happened and why it got so out of hand. I won’t spoil any of the details for you in terms of what happens to Pam Gluckin and Frank Tassone, but as they say, truth is stranger than fiction. This is a film I would have gladly paid money to watch on the big screen. There are moments of dark comedy in this adult drama, and they work perfectly. What makes it even more surreal is the fact their empire was brought down by a young journalism student played by promising young actress, Geraldine Viswanathan (“Blockers,” “Miracle Workers”). There is also great supporting work from Alex Wolff, Rafael Casal and Ray Romano.
However, there are two major reasons this film is such a success. One of the reasons is the performances from Janney and Jackman. Let’s focus on Janney first here, as she delivers a tough, no-nonsense performance. Pam is unapologetic about what she is doing, and Janney portrays this perfectly. Even when Pam is at her worst and it seems like the cards are stacked against her, Janney shows off a side of her that is not going to go down without a fight. Jackman gives a meticulous and detailed performance which does not have a single false note. Much like his character, every single aspect of his performance is well-thought out and serves a purpose. As mentioned earlier, it is the best Jackman performance I’ve ever seen. He can really do it all as an actor.
It was mentioned in the review that, as an audience member, you wonder how this successful school district allowed themselves to get so over-the-top with their own personal needs and financial gain. As noted on the back of the Blu-ray, it was the largest public-school embezzlement in U.S. history. The fact the characters are so fleshed out, and the story is told in such a smart, entertaining, and unique way just adds to your enjoyment level of this film. If you don’t have HBO, or even if you do, this is a film that is worth owning on Blu-Ray. It’s dramatic, sad, funny, and shocking.
Blu-Ray Info: “Bad Education” comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Warner Brothers Home Entertainment. It is also available on DVD as well. “Bad Education” has a running time of 109 minutes and is not rated.
Video Info: The film is released on 1080p High Definition 16×9 2.4:1. While I was very happy to be able to watch and review this film on Blu-Ray, I must admit it is not a perfect Blu-Ray. During random scenes, there are moments of splotches and grainy images. While it is disappointing, Blu-ray is always my preferred method of viewing a film as opposed to DVD, so I was able to overlook it. For the most part, it is a stellar looking Blu-ray with minor flaws.
Audio Info: “Bad Education” comes on a DTS-HD Master Audio: English 5.1 soundtrack with subtitles in English. The audio is superb on this release.
Special Features: The Blu-ray comes with three special features: “Based on a True Story,” “The Perception of Perfect,” and “Hugh Jackman & Allison Janney – Virtual Conversation.” My only problem with these special features is they are all under five minutes. I would have liked if they were a little bit longer as this is such a unique and compelling true story.
Should You Buy It?
“Bad Education” is a film I’ve been telling friends to see ever since I watched its debut on HBO a few months back. On a second viewing, I received even more enjoyment out of this film. As they say, the devil is the details, and this film touches on something that was completely unknown to me before watching it. After watching the film, it made me want to learn more about the true story behind it. If you are looking for a smart, funny and well-crafted adult drama with a lot of bite to it, you will enjoy the hell out of “Bad Education.” This is the type of smart entertainment HBO is known for, and they deliver the goods with this movie. I can’t say enough great things about the performances by the two leads, especially Jackman. At times, I felt sorry for Dr. Tassone, even though he is selfish, as Jackman brings a humanity to this character. This film is definitely worth owning and picking up on Blu-ray.
**Disclaimer** I received a Blu-Ray copy of this film from Warner Archive to review for free. The opinions and statements in the review are mine and mine alone.
“Gone Baby Gone” marked the feature film directorial debut of Ben Affleck, and it is based on the novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane. Back in 2003, another Lehane novel was turned into a great movie by Clint Eastwood called “Mystic River,” but I would actually put “Gone Baby Gone” right ahead of it, and this is saying a lot. It is a completely absorbing and emotionally devastating film involving the abduction of a child whom several individuals are desperate to see returned home safely. Their search for the child will test their levels of morality, and it will change their concepts of right and wrong forever.
Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan play two Boston private detectives who are hired by relatives of the baby’s mother to help assist in the investigation. During this process, they come to work with two detectives (played by Ed Harris and John Ashton) to bring the child back home. As they continue their investigation, the story ends up coming with more twists and turns than you would ever expect.
Ben Affleck’s directorial debut here should be labeled as astonishing, but his success here should have seemed like a big surprise. He has been a Boston native all his life, so he is a natural to direct a movie like this. He perfectly captures the feel of Boston and of the people who live there. He sucks you right into the atmosphere of the town and never lets you go. He also brilliantly succeeds in generating strong tension, and it quickly becomes one of those movies where you feel the gunshots that go off. I found myself ducking in my seat in certain scenes. Yes, it is that intense.
In addition, Ben also succeeds in getting great performances from every single actor here. What a great feeling it is to see a movie which does not contain single bad performance in it. At the top of the list is Amy Ryan who gives an utterly believable and fearless performance as a drug addicted mother who at first does not seem to care at all about her child. She is a fiend and cannot hide it, but she shows cracks in that rough façade of hers to show a mother who desperately wants her daughter back. It is an utterly realistic performance which earned Ryan a deserved Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
Ben took a big risk casting his younger brother Casey in the lead role of Patrick Kenzie. It could have been a very bad case of Hollywood nepotism, something which pisses of my closest friends to no end. But Casey has proven to be a very strong actor in his own right, and he handles what is very difficult role here with a very strong performance. Casey has really gone beyond his brother’s shadow to do some great work in movies like “The Assassination of Jesse James,” and he truly deserved the Best Actor he won for “Manchester By the Sea.” He has shown that he is an actor who has taken many risks back when he was acting opposite his big brother in “Good Will Hunting,” and he continues to gives us one memorable performance after another
There is also great work done here by Ed Harris who portrays Remy Bressant, a good cop who is always trying to do the right thing. But Casey’s character sees the cracks in Remy’s façade, and Remy is indeed not all he appears to be. Harris has given one great performance after another, and this is one more great performance that he can add to a resume filled with them.
It is also great to see John Ashton here as Remy’s partner, Detective Nick Poole. We all remember him best as Sgt. Taggart from the “Beverly Hills Cop” movies and, when I first watched “Gone Baby Gone,” it felt like it has been way too long since I last saw him in anything. Ashton is, of course, very believable as a cop who has seen it all, but still won’t give up in finding that little girl.
And else can be said about Morgan Freeman which has not been said already? We see him often as a major force of morality in just about every movie he appears in, but “Gone Baby Gone” definitely puts this to the test as his character, Captain Jack Doyle, tries to give balance to a situation which threatens to go completely out of control, and the revelation made about Jack near the film’s end will hit you like a ton of bricks.
“Gone Baby Gone” is a very complex film which examines what we think are the right and wrong choices in any given situation. As it goes on, we discover there is a very thin line between what is right and wrong. All these characters spend their time doing what they feel is the right thing, but it does come with its own set of consequences. Nothing will ever come out quite the way we want it to, and there is a negative for every positive.
This is a truly haunting and devastating film on many levels. It is skillfully written and is devoid of clichés and characters that are types more than human beings. It is messy in the way they deal with certain situations, and it shows how even good choices come with severe consequences. Who truly knows if they are making the right choices in life? Can we ever be truly certain of this?
This old expression keeps playing in my head of how the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Not all these characters end up in hell, but many of them find the outcome they want is not what is best for everyone around them. One tagline for this film is that everyone wants the truth until they find it. That is very true for these characters here. For every positive, there is a negative; and the negative can have a far greater impact than the positive. You leave thinking about this constantly. Did the right thing happen? Is everything going to be alright? In this world, I guess we can never really know.
“Gone Baby Gone” was one of the best films of 2007, a year which featured one great motion picture after another. It proved to be a great achievement for Ben Affleck who took a of crap over the years for what even he has to admit were some bad career choices. But ever since his award-winning performance in “Hollywoodland,” things have been changed for him quite significantly, and he earned his place on the Oscar stage when “Argo” won Best Picture. Yes, there was “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” but enough about that one already. He still gave us “The Town,” right?
I saw this film with a friend of mine who grew up around the area it takes place in, and he declared this to be the “best Boston movie ever.” Now I am not in a position to verify this as fact because while I visited Boston when I was a kid, I have never lived there. But with this coming from someone who spent his childhood growing up in this neighborhood and made hundreds of visits to Fenway Park, this is very high praise which cannot be ignored or easily dismissed.
With “The Town,” an adaptation of Chuck Hogan’s novel “Prince of Thieves,” Ben Affleck proves what should have been clear to us after his directorial debut “Gone Baby Gone;” he is truly an excellent filmmaker. Moreover, he has a strong understanding of Boston and the surrounding areas. Affleck also succeeds in giving us one of his very best performances while surrounding himself with a strong cast of talented actors. Upon this film’s release, many were out for his blood as he was making one terrible movie after another with “Gigli,” “Reindeer Games” and “Surviving Christmas,” but “The Town” showed us that his career deserved a second act.
Affleck stars as Doug MacRay who, with his lifelong group of friends, commits robberies on banks and armored cars. One such robbery has them kidnapping a beautiful bank manager named Claire whom they let go after they have successfully made their getaway. But after looking over her driver’s license, they realize she lives only a block or two away from where they reside. Fearful that she might recognize them, Doug volunteers to check her out to see if she knows anything. In the process, he falls madly in love with her, and she is quick to return his feelings. Now this could mean one of two things; crime truly makes you stupid, or love conquers all. This leads the team of robbers to get even more paranoid than they already are as they are about to pull off one last heist, and we all know what happens on that “last job.”
While Boston plays a big part in this film, the setting of “The Town” is actually Charlestown, home of the Bunker Hill Monument which is prominently featured throughout. In the opening titles, it is said Charlestown has more than 500 robberies in a year and is known as a place which breeds a strong criminal element. It all reminds me of what Bono sang about in the U2 song “Dirty Day:”
“If you need someone to blame, throw a rock in the air. You’ll hit someone guilty.”
Now “The Town” is more than likely to earn a lot of comparison with Michael Mann’s “Heat” as both share plot and thematic similarities. But while “Heat” was truly an epic motion picture, “The Town” is far more intimate in its scope and characters. Much of the attention is paid to the criminals themselves than to the police or FBI agents who are obsessively pursuing them. It also surrounds you in an authentic Boston atmosphere and makes you wonder if the characters who were born and raised there will ever be able to survive outside of it, let alone leave it without the threat of death hanging over their heads.
Along with screenwriters Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard, Affleck takes the most familiar elements of your average heist movie and reinvigorates them to create an exciting motion picture which is as big on character as it is on action. Clearly, Affleck’s attention is more acutely focused on the characters and the circumstances which surround them all. As for the action, it has some of the best staged robbery sequences I have seen in recent films, and there is also a brilliantly staged car chase through the narrow streets which makes you wonder if the thieves could ever possibly escape as the police are not always the bumbling idiots they are made out to be on the silver screen.
Then there is Affleck the actor, and a lot of my friends still cannot stand him. Truth be told, I never thought he was a bad actor, and as Doug MacRay he gives one of his best performances to date. I totally believed him as a hardened criminal who looks to find another path in life, and he holds his own against a cast of exceptional actors who give him so much to work off of.
Another big standout performance in “The Town” comes from Jeremy Renner who was on a roll after his Oscar-nominated performance in “The Hurt Locker.” As James “Jem” Coughlin, Renner portrays the most unstable and drug addicted member of the gang, and its most heedless one as well. Coughlin is like a coiled snake waiting to strike and it is easy to see he will be the master of his own downfall, but Renner gives him a wounded soul as well. Having served nine years in prison rather than rat on his best friend Doug, James constantly feels like he is on the verge of being betrayed and feels, as Lars Ulrich once said, “so disrespected.” Other actors would just play up the hothead aspects of this character, but Renner gets at James’ heart and of how his feelings end up dictating his actions.
Jon Hamm is also on board as Special Agent Adam Frawley. But while he looks to be one of your obsessive law enforcement characters in a heist movie, Hamm actually subverts this to show us an FBI agent who proves to be as ruthless as the criminals he is chasing. In certain scenes, he proves more than willing to ruin another character’s life if it means gaining evidence and capturing criminals who are always one step ahead of the law. That Don Draper coolness rubs off on Adam as he almost effortlessly wiggles his way past another person’s defenses and then dives in for the kill.
The actresses cast do remarkable work here, holding their own against a dominantly male cast. Rebecca Hall is Claire Keesey, the bank manager held hostage who later falls for one of the robbers without even knowing it. Claire has to balance out her own frazzled emotions in the aftermath of what she has been through, and she has to deal with her strong feelings for Doug which never falter even after she discovers who he really is. As for Blake Lively, her performance as drugged out single mother Krista showed there was more to her than her work on “Gossip Girl.”. Lively excels in showing how Krista still harbors deep feelings for Doug and yet is unable to pull herself out of a painful downward spiral.
You also have resident character actors Chris Cooper and the late Pete Postlethwaite doing the same solid acting work you can always count on them for. Cooper only appears in one scene as Doug’s dad, Stephen MacRay, but he creates a fully developed character whose troubled history is communicated more in facial expressions and actions than it is in words. Postlethwaite plays Fergie the Florist, your typical mob boss, but his performance never feels anywhere as clichéd as you might expect. Even in a few scenes, his Fergie is a very scary character whose threats seem very real and who holds the answers to the questions Doug is always asking. Both of these guys are proof there are no small roles, only small actors, and these guys are most definitely NOT small actors!
Looking at the plot of “The Town” as a whole, this film could have been average or would have told the same old tired heist story with nothing new or original to say about it. But while this film may not be original, all the specific details put into use here seriously elevate it from the ordinary. The relationships and dialogue between each character never feels contrived or artificial, and the screenplay has great moments where characters realistically regain the trust of others without being at all manipulative:
“Ask me anything you want.”
“I won’t believe you.”
“Yes, you will.”
“Because you’ll fucking hate the answers.”
Going into “The Town,” I knew I was in for a good movie, but I should have known I was about to watch a great one. Affleck more than earned his career resurgence, and his work as a director cannot be held in doubt after this and “Gone Baby Gone,” let alone his Oscar winning triumph “Argo.” This movie could have been a spectacular failure in anyone else’s hands, but Affleck is much smarter than we ever give him credit for. Ten years after its successful release, “The Town” remains a riveting motion picture which sucks you in and never lets you off easy. Even if it brings to mind other heist movies, this one stands on its own as a unique piece of cinema and the kind only Affleck could have given us.
WRITER’S NOTE: This screening took place back in 2011, not long after “The Town” was released in movie theaters everywhere.
Ben Affleck arrived amid throngs of fans and paparazzi at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica for a Q&A of his directorial efforts, “The Town” and “Gone Baby Gone.” Both films have received tremendous praise and given him a second wind to his career which at the time was in lousy shape. Upon being introduced to a standing ovation, he remarked, “This is nice! People are still in the seats! It’s always cool when people stay through the end credits!”
So why did Affleck want to direct? Having worked for some time as an actor, he said he was lucky to work with many gifted people, but he found himself becoming increasingly frustrated with the direction films he starred in went. Realizing film is a director’s medium, he decided it was time to give it a shot. With “Gone Baby Gone,” Affleck said he was determined to fail on his merits and succeed on them as well. He described his previous directorial experience as being comprised of “horrible college movies” which made him happy YouTube was not around when he worked on them.
“Gone Baby Gone” does feel like the work of a confident director, but Affleck said he felt “failure was around the corner” when he made it. He found shooting utterly difficult as he struggled to find things which worked, and he was forced to shoot take after take to bring the actors to a state of relaxation. The whole process apparently made him feel like jumping off a roof. Still, this film does mean a great deal to him as it allowed him to go after the core philosophy of what he called “acting making the movie.” It also dealt with themes he wanted to explore such as children paying for the sins of their parents and of how strong moral ideals are not always rewarded.
With “The Town,” Affleck succeeded in making both a genre film and a character driven motion picture by taking a drama and, as he said, “wrapping it inside the shell of a traditional action movie.” That it was set in Boston was appealing to him as well. “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” served as an inspiration for “The Town,” and Affleck said he wanted to make a modern film noir which felt real to where your brain was not telling you that it wasn’t. Editing it was painful though as the assembly cut was four hours long and he was unsure of what to take out. Test audiences did not help either as he remarked, “They liked the action. They didn’t like the talking!”
Affleck also talked about the Pete Postlethwaite who co-starred in “The Town” and passed away before the movie was released. Postlethwaite was sick during shooting, but Affleck said he still did the movie and came to work each day with a great attitude. Despite him playing such an unsavory character, Affleck said it was always wonderful to be in Postlethwaite’s presence.
With directing, Affleck said it gave him the appreciation he did not always have for what others did on set. He also confessed he had absolutely no idea of what the crew did to make movies a reality, and that actors always believed film sets revolve around them. Considering what he has been through before and after starring in “Gigli,” he considers himself “remarkably sane for winning an Oscar” back in his 20’s.
We have seen Ben Affleck go from making good movies to truly awful ones (even he admits this), but he still describes himself as being a “late bloomer” which is tricky if you have success early on in life. We all thank him for coming by the Aero Theatre on this particular evening, and he left us with this unforgettable piece of advice for all aspiring filmmakers:
The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent Tony Farinella.
Your enjoyment level for Tim Burton’s “Beetlejuice” is going to depend on how you feel about Burton as a director. He is an eccentric director with a flair for style and bright, vivid colors. However, in my view, I sometimes feel as though his characters and stories can distance themselves from audiences. I realize he has many devoted fans and “Beetlejuice” is one of his most beloved films. Whenever Halloween rolls around, I know it is a film which families sit around and watch together, even though there is an F-bomb and some odd innuendos which parents might find off putting to young children. As a first-time viewer of the film, I found I liked certain elements of it, but not nearly enough to recommend it or call it a Halloween classic.
One thing “Beetlejuice” definitely has going for it is the talents of Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis and Winona Ryder. Whenever they are on screen together, the film is really hitting the right notes. The character of Beetlejuice, played by Michael Keaton, is barely in the film, which is odd considering he is displayed so prominently on the film’s poster and in its title. It is more about the dilemma of Barbara and Adam Maitland (Davis and Baldwin) wanting to enjoy two weeks of a nice, quiet vacation at their Connecticut country home. All of this is thrown for a loop when they get into a car accident and perish.
Now, they are ghosts that have returned to their home, only to find it has been taken over by the Deetz family, which includes Charles (Jeffrey Jones), Delia (Catherine O’Hara), and their daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder), although the film is quick to point out that Delia is the stepmother of Lydia. Delia has plans of her own for the house with the help of her interior designer, Otho, played by Glenn Shadix. The father, Charles, is looking to make a real estate deal with the property and its surrounding areas. Lydia is suspicious of the place when she notices the ghosts of Barbara and Adam looming over the house. Here is the catch—Lydia is the only one who is able to see or notice them.
Since Barbara and Adam want the Deetz family out of their home, they are desperate to come up with any solution. They enlist the help of Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton), even though he comes with a lot of baggage, according to their afterlife caseworker, Juno (Sylvia Sidney). She is very familiar with all that comes with Beetlejuice and warns them to stay away from him. In her mind, the best way to get this family out of the house is to find creative and simple ways to scare them into moving out. When Barbara and Adam find this harder than they thought, they say the name Beetlejuice three times, and he appears ready and willing to help, as long as there is something in it for him.
The major problem with “Beetlejuice” is just that, Beetlejuice. As an audience, are we supposed to like this guy? He wants to get married to what we assume is an underage teenage girl. He is very perverted around Barbara and is not all that funny or interesting. For the most part, as a viewer, I found him quite annoying on screen. This is no fault of Keaton, as he is simply playing the character as best he can based on the screenplay he was given and the direction of Burton. Baldwin tries to carry the movie on his back along with the help of Davis, but their charms are not enough to make this film worthwhile.
It’s hard to deny the great make-up and special effects which are on display in “Beetlejuice.” The concept for the film is rather creative as well. The actors are ready and willing to do whatever they can to help the flick. However, because Beetlejuice is so obnoxious and the film is so over-the-top and filled with tricks, there is really no heart to the story. It’s not scary or funny, so it fails as a horror/comedy. It is nice to look at, filled with some clever scenes, and there is good acting on display. In the end, this is not enough to save this film which relies too much on style instead of substance.
4K Info: “Beetlejuice” is released by Warner Brothers Home Entertainment on a 4K Ultra HD Combo Pack, which comes with the Blu-Ray and a digital code. The film comes in the following languages: English, Latin Spanish, Canadian French, and Brazilian Portuguese. It has a running time of 92 minutes and is rated PG. The film is presented in 2160 Ultra High Definition. With 4K, you can’t help but be impressed by the HDR (High Dynamic Range), especially on a film like this. It really stands out.
Video Info: The film comes on 2160 Ultra High Definition for the 4K Version. The Blu-Ray comes in 1080p High Definition.
Audio Info: The 4K Audio is Dolby Atmos-TrueHD: English and Dolby Digital: French and Spanish. For the Blu-Ray, it comes with Dolby TrueHD: English 5.1 and Dolby Digital: English 5.1, French and Spanish. Subtitles for both versions are in English, French, and Spanish.
Three Hilarious Episodes from the Animated “Beetlejuice” TV Series: “A-Ha!,” “Skeletons in the Closet,” and “Spooky-Boo-Tique.”
Danny Elfman Score Audio Track
Should You Buy It?
Much like my review of “The Goonies,” if you LOVE “Beetlejuice,” you will be very, very happy with the 4K update. You might not be so happy with the lack of special features. If they are going to upgrade a film to 4K, you would expect they would add some new special features which look back on the film. This is not the case here. If you are strictly in this for the visual and audio upgrades, you will get your money’s worth. If you haven’t seen the film before and are not a Tim Burton fan, this film is not going to win you over. I would say rent it just to say you have checked it out as Halloween is fast approaching.
The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent Tony Farinella.
This was my first viewing, ever, of “The Goonies,” which might sound almost sacrilegious to film fans that love this flick and have watched it numerous times. To many, it is considered a classic film with quotable lines and loveable characters. I went into the film with high expectations, and I’m sad to report that I left extremely disappointed. The film is very dated, and it is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. However, if you are a fan of the film and have been looking to an upgrade for a while, the 4K release from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment will certainly satisfy you. For those, like myself, who are new to the film, I don’t know if it will win over any new fans.
The film was directed by veteran Richard Donner from a story by Steven Spielberg and a screenplay by Chris Columbus. When you factor in a young cast which includes Josh Brolin, Sean Astin and Corey Feldman, all of the ingredients were there for an enjoyable film with a cast full of wacky characters. This is one of the major problems with the film—the characters. They are loud, screechy and supremely annoying. It is hard to get behind this rag-tag group of misfits in the same way you would get behind the Losers Club in “It” or the friends in “Stranger Things.” The film doesn’t waste time in getting right into the action, which ensures the character development is left with a lot to be desired.
The premise of the film follows a group of friends known as The Goonies. They consist of Sean Astin as Mikey; his brother Brand, played by Josh Brolin; Jeff Cohen as Chunk; Corey Feldman as Mouth; Jonathan Ke Huy Quan as Data along with their female counterparts in Kerri Green as Andy and Martha Plimpton as Stef. Judging by some of their names, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to piece together how they received their nicknames. They are about to lose their homes in the Goon Docks unless they can come up with some big money and fast.
This leads them on a treasure hunt to come up with a way to save their homes. Hot on their tails, however, is a crime family known as the Fratellis: Mama Fratelli (Anne Ramsey), Jake Fratelli (Robert Davi), and Francis Fratelli (Joe Pantoliano). They also have a deformed younger brother named Sloth (John Matuszak), whom is often neglected and mistreated by his family. They are also looking to get some of the treasures on the ship, which used to belong to “One-Eyed Willy,” the original Goonie.
While “The Goonies” is never boring, and Donner keeps the action moving at a rapid-fire pace, at almost two hours, it feels like sensory overload. As a viewer, I felt like I was on this never-ending mission that I didn’t really care about because I didn’t care for the characters. They are likable when they are not screaming, shrieking or being completely over-the-top. The film shines during the quieter and more tender moments. I was hoping the film would focus more on the friendships between the characters and the families. The families are basically non-existent and played for laughs as clueless parents, which was a major problem with many young children’s/teenage films in the 1980’s.
In the end, if you enjoyed “The Goonies” in the past and it is a film you are known to watch over and over again, you will surely watch it over and over again on 4K as it looks out of this world. If you are new to the film (in the minority like myself), I can’t really see you getting much out of this film as a first-time viewer. Even though it is a children’s movie, I wouldn’t recommend it for young children today based on some of the language and innuendo. While films and shows today owe a great deal of gratitude to “The Goonies,” it is very much a film of its era. I can’t say it holds up very well.
4K Info: “The Goonies” is released by Warner Brothers Home Entertainment on a 4K Ultra HD Combo Pack, which comes with the Blu-Ray and a digital code. The film has a running time of 114 minutes, and it comes in the following languages: English, Latin Spanish, Canadian French, and Brazilian Portuguese.
Video Info: The film comes on 2160 Ultra High Definition for the 4K Version. The Blu-Ray comes in 1080p High Definition.
Audio Info: The 4K Audio is DTS-HD MA: English 5.1 and Dolby Digital: French and Spanish. For the Blu-Ray, it comes with Dolby TrueHD: English 5.1, Dolby Digital: English 5.1, English 2.0, French and Spanish. Subtitles for both versions are in English, French, and Spanish.
Commentary (with Hidden Video Treasures) by Richard Donner and select cast members.
The Making of the Goonies Featurette
Cyndi Lauper “The Goonies ‘r’ Good Enough” Music Video
My goal with this review was not to be a contrarian, but I realize I’m probably one of the few people in the world who is not in love with “The Goonies.” As mentioned, it had everything, on paper, I was looking for in a film like this. All of the pieces just didn’t add up in the final product. It was tough to finish this one, as even though the action is wall-to-wall, I found myself checking out of the story because of a lack of interest in the people involved in the action. I’m glad to say I have seen it, so I can check it off my list of highly thought of films I need to see. However, I can’t recommend this one as a purchase unless you absolutely love the film. You will be thrilled with the transfer, the 4K look of the film, which is beautiful, and the astounding high dynamic range that comes with 4K releases. For everyone else, if you really want to see it, get it from your local library.
WRITER’S NOTE: I wrote this article exactly ten years ago in the year 2010.
It was just another day at the office for me, staring at a computer and taking calls, when I got a message from my good friend Shane whom I hadn’t seen for a while. He informed me our acting mentor from Diablo Valley College, Jim Kirkwood, had passed away at 5 a.m. this morning. For the past year or so, Jim had been fighting cancer and had to endure an operation to remove a tumor which lasted several hours. Hearing this news was a blow to me and everyone else who had the unique privilege of having taken an acting class taught by him.
Right now, my heart feels so heavy and I am wondering why tears are not coming out of my eyes. I want to feel this loss fully for Jim had such a profound effect on my life and so many others in Northern California. For many years he was an acting teacher at Diablo Valley College, and I enrolled in several of his classes during my time there before I transferred to the University of California at Irvine. Much had been said about him and how hard it was to get into his classes, and that he had studied with some of the greatest acting teachers including Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler. For those truly serious about acting, you could not pass up any course he taught.
When it came to my first class with Jim, I was nervous to say the least. The man was treated like a legend in the area, and it felt incredibly intimidating to be in his presence. Giving out grades was never a priority for him, and his one rule which stood out among others was if you missed three of his classes without informing him as to why, you were out. This was back in the day when those strict guidelines actually unnerved me.
Anyway, I came to this new place of learning straight out of high school where I did many plays and considered myself a really good actor. Of course, the whole thing about acting back then is that when you’re onstage and you have nothing to say, get off. That first day with Jim, he immediately gave you a sense of what acting was really about. It was about living in the moment, acting with purpose and having an objective in mind. You could not think too much about the outcome of the scene you’re in because it would just take away from the thing you are fighting for. Every character has something to go for, and this is what empowers the actor through the entire show. Even when you are onstage and have nothing to say, he made you see listening is a big part of performing as well.
Among the lessons I remember the most from his classes was when he explained you did not need to have preconceived ideas of how to play a scene or say a line. It was never about pushing for some grand emotion which spelled out award-winning to the audience; it was about letting the emotion come to you while you pursue your objective. To just deliver a line in a preconceived way would just kill the moment. You would just come across as lifeless and vacant, and your scene partner would suffer as a result.
Jim demonstrated the danger of preconceiving what you will do beforehand by giving different readings of the line “get the hell out of here!” The first one was angry, the next was dismissive, the one after that had him laughing like he was talking to a friend, I think he made it look like he was crying in another and so on. By the end, everyone in the class including myself were laughing because he made it all look ridiculous, and it was. By getting stuck in this way of acting, you were never really connected to the scene or those you are working with onstage.
Sooner or later, we came to see that we get our performance from the other actor in the scene. While this became more abundantly clear to me years later while I was a student at Second City, this lesson really originated in Jim’s classes. There was no “me, me, me, me, me, me” in his class because we were all put on the same level. No one was necessarily better than the other, so no prima donnas were ever present (thank goodness for that by the way).
For those new to Jim’s classes, his regimen was to break us down and get rid of all those high school emoting habits many of us had been stuck with for far too long. He could be brutally honest with you, but it was never in a Simon Cowell kind of way (I would have dropped out of his class were it the case). He wanted you to see what you did wrong and how you could improve on it for next time. Feelings did get hurt from time to time and our self-confidence took several direct hits at what seemed like point blank range, but it was never done out of spite or cold-heartedness. Simply put, we had a lot to learn and the road we were on was designed to be a long one and for good reason.
Of couse, he was quoted one time as saying the following, “Getting talent out of this person is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic!”
Another great lesson he taught us which has never left my mind was when he did the “pick up the pen” bit. With this, he went back to when he was an acting student himself and being taught by Lee Strasberg. Now Lee instructed him to pick up a pen which was laying there on the stage. Since he did not tell Jim how he should pick it up, Jim just walked up on stage like he was doing a happy skip across the park and just stumbled upon the pen. We were all laughing hysterically as he looked at the pen with a giddy look on his face, playing up the emotion of the scene as he picked it up.
Lee, however, was not impressed, and Jim said he was made to put it back up on the stage and pick it up again. This time he moved stealthily around and looked like he was about to steal the pen. In this moment, he made it look like he was waiting for the perfect moment and then found it by absconding with the pen just like Indiana Jones took off with the golden idol in the beginning of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Lee again shook his head and told Jim he was still doing it wrong and to do it again.
Now Jim came onto the stage as if his leg were broken, and he was limping over to the pen. At this point, he tried, and failed, to make it look realistic when he was struggling to reach for the pen despite the injury he was faking miserably. Once again, he got the pen and went offstage. It was at this point that Lee was really losing his patience with him:
“Jim, did you hear anything of what I just said?!”
“Yeah, but what am I doing wrong?”
“I told you to pick up the pen!”
“Well I didn’t tell you to go all over the place doing this big act around it, did I?”
“So, what do you want me to do?”
“JIM, JUST PICK UP THE PEN!!!”
So, Jim just walked straight up to the pen and picked it up, and then he walked off the stage as quickly as he got on it. After that, the audience of his fellow students, one of whom was James Dean, applauded him loudly. Jim said he did not understand what the big deal was, and Lee, who also applauded, explained it to him:
“You followed through with the objective. You didn’t think about it, you just did it and with the same level of energy. You didn’t need to put on a big show, you just needed to just pick up the pen. In that moment, that was your only objective. This is the difference between a good performer and a great actor.”
This last sentence has stayed with me to this very day. It is easy to get up and put up a big act just to get laughs from all your friends, but it is another thing to be the character instead of just playing one. You never play the emotion, you play the action, and the emotion will come to you.
I went through a rollercoaster of emotions throughout my time in his classes. Back then I was trying to get all my general education courses out of the way so that, when I transferred to a four-year university, I could concentrate solely on my major. As a result, I did not always give his classes my full-on attention, and it did lead to me having a nervous breakdown one day. It felt like I was failing the class and myself, and while my fellow classmates were there to console me, I was a complete wreck. Jim took pity on me though, gave me a hug, and he always had everyone give their scene partners a hug before and after a scene, and urged me to not be so hard on myself.
But in the end, through all that emotional agony, we each came into our own and got to have that one moment where all the training and character work we did paid off. We had gotten to where we had studied the scene and memorized our lines so many times, we were no longer thinking about what we were doing. All that mattered was we went after our objective. Nothing else mattered. Getting a compliment from Jim was not always easy, but when you got it, you knew you damn well earned it. When we each got that moment, it wasn’t just a victory for us, but for the class as well. Each of us wanted the other person to succeed.
On the last day of Jim’s Advanced Acting class, we all chipped in and got him a plaque thanking him for all he had done for us. He looked at it and immediately burst into tears. It meant so much that we did this for him, and it was a symbol of the kind of people we were becoming thanks in large part to the time we spent with him. Everyone in the class came around to give him a hug, not wanting him to cry. Another guy, I can’t remember his name, offered him a bottle of scotch but then realized he had already drunk it.
In the end, Jim’s classes were never about becoming a star or a celebrity. His classes were about how an actor must live life to the fullest and be serious about their art and their individual craft. It was about getting better and taking on new challenges throughout our lifetimes, and to never be complacent as artists. The life of an artist, be it an actor or director, is never meant to be an easy one. But then again, how else could you learn and grow? It’s like what my brother keeps telling me, “If life were easy, no one would bother showing up.”
I loved how I got to make Jim laugh. I was in his directing class and did this one scene where I used magazine covers with gorgeous women on them as stand ins for a couple of characters. He got a kick out of the fact one of them was an issue of Playboy Magazine with Pamela Anderson, and he jokingly asked me if he could borrow it. Being the embarrassingly literal-minded person I was back then, I thought he was being serious and handed it to him earnestly. Along with the class, he was in utter hysterics.
Then there was another time where we were working on scenes and voicing out what was going through our minds in order to keep us in the moment. Be it if you didn’t know your line or were frustrated and had to vent it somehow, we needed to be there fully and not let all these distractions cloud our ultimate goals. For me, my chief distraction involved a comedy album I bought a few days earlier from a nearby record store. It got to where I could no longer resist it:
“DAMN IT!! I GOT STEVE MARTIN’S NATIVE AMERICAN SINGING GOING THROUGH MY HEAD!!!!”
Jim got a kick out of that and would never let me forget it. It’s nice to have such memories of him this way.
Now Jim is gone, and this loss is deeply felt by all those who were lucky to be in his presence. I write this with a heavy heart, and it will still take some time to accept the fact I won’t get to see or talk with him ever again. It didn’t matter how old he was, he left us way too soon. The last time I saw him was at a Christmas party with friends from his class, and he dropped by and was endlessly interested in what we were all up to. His words of kindness meant a lot to me and I will never forget them.
I thank him for all those lessons on character development, understanding a script and the character’s place in it fully, and of the passion he brought out of all of us. We did not just come out of his class as better actors; we came out as better people. Much of what he taught still comes back to me every once in a while, so I know I am still growing as an artist.
I miss you Jim. Why did you have to leave us now? Leonard Cohen was right; this is no way to say goodbye. But what you taught will live on through all of us for you touched so many lives, and everything you taught will be passed on to future generations. You will live on with us always.
I still wish you were here though. It feels very empty here without you.
“Narrow Margin” was released in 1990, back when movie remakes were as rare as people owning cell phones. Yes, it is a remake of the 1952 film noir “The Narrow Margin,” and it tells the tale of a Los Angeles deputy district attorney tasked with keeping a witness to a murder safe from a pair of hitmen as they travel through Canada in a train. What we have here is a movie with a terrific cast, some great stunts and sharp cinematography, but it also doesn’t have much of a brain in its head as the characters make one ridiculously stupid decision after another.
The movie starts with Carol Hunnicut (Anne Archer) arriving at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles where she has been set up on a blind date with a lawyer named Michael Tarlow (the late and still missed J.T. Walsh). Things go fine between them until Michael has to take a phone call in his hotel room and invites Carol along with him, not wanting to leave her alone. But then well-known gangster Leo Watts (Harris Yulin) arrives along with his henchman Jack Wootton (Nigel Bennett) and doesn’t hesitate in accusing Michael of stealing money from him. Michael, overwhelmed by his guilt, confesses his crime to Leo who offers to forgive him, providing they never do business together again. But we all know that gangsters are not big on honesty, and Leo has Michael murdered right on the spot. But, of course, they have no idea Carol is hiding in the bathroom and has witnessed everything.
Like any person who knows how rich and crooked people get off too easy in the real world, Carol flees Los Angeles, and yet she is somehow easy to find as Deputy District Attorney Robert Caulfield (Gene Hackman) and Detective Sergeant Dominick Benti (M. Emmet Walsh) come to find her hiding out in a remote cabin in Canada. And as you might expect, it doesn’t take long for these three to realize the gangsters have followed them as they were dumb enough to leave a trail of breadcrumbs in their path. Dominick is killed, and Robert and Carol escape onto a train headed for Vancouver. But, surprise, surprise, they are trailed by a pair of ridiculously well-dressed hitmen determined to take them out, and the movie turns into a cat and mouse thriller as Robert tries to keep Carol alive despite their dire and claustrophobic circumstances.
Now “Narrow Margin” does take place in a time where technology was nowhere near what it is today, but it is hard to believe even back then that a person could easily disappear without much of a trace. The fact these gangsters have little trouble in following Robert to where Carol is hiding out shows what terrible preparation he and Dominick put into finding and keeping her safe, and these guys are public servants for crying out loud!
Then there are the two hitmen played by Bennett and James Sikking, the latter I remember fondly as the Captain of the Excelsior in “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.” They come onto the scene dressed to the max in expensive suits and shiny ties which more than spell out to the audience they are bad guys on the prowl. I guess it is asking too much for these hitmen to dress like they are average passengers as doing so just might make them harder to detect. But no, these guys have to show to everyone just how rich and stylish assassins can be to where they are impossible to miss.
There is also the issue of those assassins failing to follow Hackman back to his cabin where they just might find Archer hiding. When you look closely at the screenplay, you will see it has plot holes Christopher Nolan could have flown that giant airplane from “Tenet” through. The characters keep making an endless number of idiotic mistakes, and it just drains much of the suspense and tension “Narrow Margin” hoped to have. There is also a character reveal towards the end, but you can see that one coming from a mile away.
It really is a shame because “Narrow Margin” has the benefit of two great actors headlining it. Gene Hackman is a lot of fun to watch in a role others would have played too broadly. He has a great scene where he faces off with the two hitmen and explains why he won’t accept a bribe to give up his witness. Hackman plays the scene in such a playfully devious way to where it serves as a reminder of why he is one of the best film actors ever. Put him in a bad movie, and he will still give a terrific performance in it no matter what.
Archer appeared in this movie not long after she co-starred in “Fatal Attraction,” a classic which had us all wondering why in the world would Michael Douglas cheat on her with Glenn Close. She makes Carol Hunnicut into a heroine who is both strong-willed and deeply vulnerable as she struggles to stay alive from one moment to the next. She also has strong chemistry with Hackman to where they make quite the team, and the fact they are unable to fully suspend your disbelief is not entirely their fault.
“Narrow Margin” was written, directed and photographer by Peter Hyams. One of his great strengths is in crafting action sequences which truly leave you on the edge of your seat. A car almost going over a cliff is a cliché used in many action movies, but Hyams makes it work to great effect here as watching it almost made my heart stop. There are also a number of great stunts performed on top of a moving train, many performed by the actors themselves. Hyams really knows how to keep audiences riveted to where it is almost worth watching this film just for the action sequences alone.
But in the end, “Narrow Margin” proves to be more laughable than exciting as the characters do far too many idiotic things we can all see right through. Its trailer made it look like a top-notch thriller you would be foolish to miss out on, but sadly this is not the case. When Hackman and Archer cannot save a movie with their strong performances, not much else can.