Michael Stuhlbarg on Managing an Unstable Genius in ‘Pawn Sacrifice’

WRITER’S NOTE: This interview took place back in 2014.

Ever since he made his cinematic breakthrough in the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man,” actor Michael Stuhlbarg has presented us with an array of characters he completely disappears into in movies like “Men in Black 3,” “Lincoln,” “Seven Psychopaths,” “Blue Jasmine,” “Cut Bank” and “Steve Jobs.” In “Pawn Sacrifice,” the Julliard trained actor portrays Paul Marshall, the manager and attorney to chess prodigy Bobby Fischer (played by Tobey Maguire). Bobby proves to be a hard man to get control of, and Stuhlbarg makes you see how exhausting it was for Paul as he was determined not to lose his most famous client even as the chess genius descended into madness

Stuhlbarg was at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California for the “Pawn Sacrifice” press day, and he talked in depth about he prepared to play a character who is based on a real-life person. Always a daunting task for any actor, Stuhlbarg appeared to handle this task with what seems like relative ease.

Ben Kenber: Your character of Paul Marshall reminded me a bit of Paul Giamatti’s character of Jerry Heller in “Straight Outta Compton” as both men are managers and forced to manage their clients under increasingly difficult circumstances. In your research, did you look a lot at different managers and how they worked with their clients?

Michael Stuhlbarg: Not so much. I stuck primarily with who Mr. Marshall was. It seemed to be enough. And also, particularly with what the script was asking of the dramatic situation, I just sort of threw myself into it and sort of said how can I get him into the next room if I need to get him there. And how can I please him as much as I can? Because it behooves all of us that he gets where he needs to go and he gets what he asks for. I tried to reason with him and just sort of placed myself in that dramatic context, so that was the dramatic result.

BK: Like Edward G. Robinson (whom he plays “Trumbo”), your character is based on a real-life person, but it’s a person most people don’t know as well as Bobby Fischer. Did this make your job as an actor harder or easier?

MS: The job is the same either way. I imagine I didn’t have to necessarily push myself to behave too much like Paul Marshall because not too many people, I believe, out there would have known him or perhaps fewer people would have known someone like him, Bobby Fischer or Edward G. Robinson. So I didn’t worry about that too much, but on the flipside of that is I tried to get as much video on him as I could so that I knew who he was, and I could listen to his rhythms and hear where he came from and try to embody it is truthfully as I could. At the same time, I was trying to be truthful to the situation.

BK: As an actor, would you say it’s more like working from the inside out or the outside in?

MS: I guess it has to be a marriage of both honestly. You ask questions enough about what you would do in a particular situation that a character finds himself in and you go from there. If he wore a particular pair of glasses which Paul did, it’s then let’s put on those glasses and how does it make me behave. Does it make me behave differently? Perhaps it does. Perhaps I hold my head a little differently. There are the outside influences that will change the way I behave, and there are questions that I could ask that he may have had to ask in his life that may also change me internally. So, I guess it’s always kind of a combination of the two for me.

Like the best character actors working in movies today, Michael Stuhlbarg shows no signs of slowing down as he has a number of projects coming up. It will be fascinating to see which role he will bring to life next.

Pawn Sacrifice” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

PLEASE CHECK OUT THE VIDEO INTERVIEW I DID WITH STUHLBARG WHICH I DID FOR WE GOT THIS COVERED DOWN BELOW:

Tobey Maguire on Chess, Poker and ‘Pawn Sacrifice’

WRITER’S NOTE: This interview took place back in 2014.

Tobey Maguire brings his usual coiled intensity to the role of American chess prodigy Bobby Fischer in “Pawn Sacrifice.” Directed by Edward Zwick, the movie takes us back to the days of the Cold War where Russia and America were constantly facing down one another. Having become a master at chess at such an early age, Bobby eventually becomes determined to beat the Soviet Empire at the game as they have dominated it for decades. This puts Bobby in the crosshairs of Soviet chess grandmaster Boris Spassky (played by Liev Schreiber), and they come to face each other in what became known as the “Match of the Century,” a 21-game competition held in Iceland back in 1972.

Maguire dropped by the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California to talk about his experience making “Pawn Sacrifice” and playing a real-life person. In addition to being an accomplished actor and producer, he is also known for being quite the poker player as he has played in various tournaments throughout the years and has won a lot of money. Front Row Features Managing Editor Angela Dawson asked him if he was able to utilize his knowledge of poker in this role.

Tobey Maguire: I think it doesn’t hurt. I mean it’s very different, and I think Bobby himself hated games if there was any element of chance. When he was six years old he would play some other games, but where there was any element of chance, whether it was cards or dice or something like that, he would get really frustrated because his skill would maybe gain him an advantage but then the chance element might take that advantage away. He almost felt that was unfair, so he no longer played games that have any element of chance and only wanted to play a strictly skilled based game which is essentially chess. He had all of the control and it was all skill, and the communication is very pure. He loved that there was this framework and essentially this pure communication with the person he was playing with. There’s no kind of manipulation or something else that could happen. It was like a safe place to communicate purely. But I also think it doesn’t hurt that I’ve played games and sort of battled with people over boards and across felt tables.

Looking at both games, it seems like there’s a similarity between them because both games require a lot of mental energy as you constantly second guess your moves and the moves you think your opponent will make. Whether you are about to move a chess piece or put down a poker bet, there’s a lot to consider beforehand as a player has to be actively concerned about making a wrong move that will have them suffering a loss they could have avoided. I brought this up to Maguire who sees similarities between the games, but he was also quick to describe how they are different from one another.

Tobey Maguire: Yeah, although with cards you’re acting on current, partial information. You have cards that I don’t see, so I’m then kind of mostly looking at your historical behaviors as it relates to betting and less on tics and moves and stuff. I think that there’s way too much put on so-called tells of poker. I think it’s much more about patterns of betting. I think that’s much more reliable than behavioral tells. I do think it’s a huge differential because in chess there is no hidden information. On a chessboard all the information is right in front of you. There is nothing hidden. The only thing you are guessing or second-guessing is really in your preparation. Bobby Fischer was extremely consistent and would play the same opening move over and over and over and over and over and over again. He actually went and I believe, although I don’t have the proof of this but based on people I talk to, that he basically studied variations that he hadn’t played before and ended up using a different opening move in game six that was very unusual for Bobby. It’s possible that he was doing what you’re talking about, kind of not counting on but anticipating that they would not have prepared to open with that. So, in that way, that’s a comparison that I could draw in relation to what you asked.

Maguire is riveting as always in “Pawn Sacrifice,” and the movie is now available to watch on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

You can also check out my video interview with Tobey Maguire below which I conducted for We Got This Covered.

Soundtrack Review: Ennio Morricone’s Score to ‘The Untouchables’

WRITER’S NOTE: I wrote this review back in 2012 when this limited edition of the soundtrack was released. This edition has since sold out, but it can be found on websites such as eBay, Amazon and Discogs. Of course, this edition does not come at a cheap price, so be sure to do your research. I am presenting this review here out of respect for the great Ennio Morricone who passed away on July 6, 2020 at the age of 91 years old.

Ennio Morricone’s film score for Brian DePalma’s “The Untouchables” remains one of my favorites of his from the 1980’s. It covers the gamut of musical themes from victory to tragedy, and it captures the corruptness of the city our heroic characters played by Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Andy Garcia and Charles Martin Smith have to fight against. Now, La La Land Records has put together a long-awaited remastered edition of this soundtrack which has Morricone’s music sounding better than ever. It features two discs, has over two hours of music and contains an informative booklet written by Jeff Bond, all of which makes for a release fans of Morricone will be pleased to add to their collection.

The first disc contains the original motion picture score for “The Untouchables,” and the tracks are sequenced in the order in which they appeared. This was not the case when the original soundtrack was released in 1987. That version started with the movie’s end title for some odd reason. There’s still no beating “The Strength of the Righteous” which gets the movie off to a thrilling start, and it’s one of those pieces of film music I never get sick of listening to. “Al Capone” perfectly illustrates the obscene wealth and greedy nature of a man who is more than willing to use violent means to achieve his goals.

Listening to this soundtrack for “The Untouchables” also reminded me of how beautiful Morricone’s music is. He captures the idyllic home life of Elliot Ness (played by Kevin Costner) and his family so well to where it makes you wonder if your own family life can ever compare. Other tracks like “Four Friends” help to elevate the tragedies the main characters suffer. I remember watching “The Untouchables” when it came out on VHS, and it was the first film I saw where the heroes do not make it to the end with a pulse. This shocked and saddened me, and Morricone’s “Four Friends” emphasizes not only the loss of life but of what that life meant to those who remember him dearly. Some of my other favorite tracks include “Waiting at the Border” which has Ness and company waiting in Canada for the arrival of Capone’s liquor shipment, and I love how the track starts soft and continues to build dramatically throughout. There’s “Courthouse Chase” which adds a lot to the big action scene between Ness and Frank Nitti (played by Billy Drago). The end title of “The Untouchables” is also one of those thrilling pieces of music as it celebrates the victory of those characters who scored one for justice, and listening to it always raises my spirits.

There is also no forgetting Morricone’s masterpiece of this score which is “Machine Gun Lullaby,” and it shows his brilliance in how he escalates the suspense and tension of certain scenes in DePalma’s movie. The first disc also contains tracks of Morricone’s which were not used, most of which are short transitional cues. The second disc contains the remastered version of the original soundtrack release from A&M Records, and the order of the tracks remains the same. Hearing it again might seem redundant for those who spent an hour listening to the first disc, but some still hold the original release of “The Untouchables” as sacred so it is here for them to enjoy with a better sound quality than ever before. The second disc also has several bonus tracks which include different versions of “Machine Gun Lullaby” and “On The Rooftops” among others. There’s also the “Love Theme from The Untouchables” which is sung by Randy Edelman and did not make it into the movie.

Jeff Bond, who has written informative booklets for many special edition soundtrack releases, writes us another great one for this release of “The Untouchables” which is entitled “The Strength of the Righteous and the Triumph of the Police.” Most of Bond’s booklets are usually written in two halves; one half details the making of a movie, and the other half details how its soundtrack came together. With “The Untouchables,” however, Bond is more interested in focusing on Morricone and the working relationship he had with DePalma. Bond even takes the time to write about every single track on each disc and the specific instruments which stand out and help to define certain characters and scenes.

“The Untouchables” actually marked the first collaboration between Morricone and DePalma, and the composer came to work with DePalma again on “Casualties of War” and “Mission to Mars.” In the booklet, Bond quotes from an interview with Morricone in which he describes DePalma as being “a great film director” and “wonderful to work with.”

“At a human level, too, he is a wonderful person, even if he gives the appearance of being a very reserved sort,” Morricone said of DePalma. “Behind that gruff exterior is a very kind soul.”

Morricone has still never won an Oscar for any of his scores, but he did deservedly receive one for lifetime achievement in 2007. Then again, he does not need one to prove to the world what a prolific film composer he is, and his output of work over the decades is amazing. “The Untouchables” remains one of my favorite film scores of his and it takes listeners through a wave of different emotions, some sad and others which make you happy and fulfilled.

La La Land Records has limited this special edition of “The Untouchables” to only 3500 copies, so be sure to get yours soon before it sells out. They have once again put together a great release of a truly unforgettable film score.

ADDITIONAL WRITER’S NOTE: Morricone finally won the Best Original Score Oscar which had long eluded him in 2016 for his work on Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight.” To say this was deserved is to point out the bleeding obvious.

Rest in peace Ennio.

Underseen Movie: Michael Haneke’s Shot-For-Shot Remake of ‘Funny Games’

There is no in between with a film like this. You will either like or hate it with a fervent passion. Reviews for “Funny Games” have gone all over the place from praise to vicious hatred. Some will describe it as a completely immoral piece of work which revels in what it despises. Others will look at as very strong suspense film which does not hide from the ugly reality of violence. After seeing this film, I can’t help but think this is what director Michael Haneke wanted. Alfred Hitchcock was once quoted as saying, “I love playing the audience like a piano.” So does Haneke.

Truth be told, Haneke must be reveling in getting us into such an emotional state as he did the same exact thing in the past. “Funny Games” is a shot-for-shot remake of his original suspense thriller of the same name from 1997. I actually did not realize it was a remake until around the time it arrived in theaters. But since this is a virtual duplication of another film, I’m not sure how necessary it will be to see the original.

Haneke wanted to remake “Funny Games” for an American audience because he felt it was in essence an American story in which he sees its citizens being giddily in love with violence onscreen and in the media. While there is something rather condescending about him thinking this, he does have a point. Every once in a while, we need a film which reminds us of the brutality of violence. While we may fiend for gun battles on the big screen, violence in real life is scary and something we should be eager to avoid. “Funny Games” was the first ironically titled and truly polarizing movie of 2008. It is anything but entertaining, and in the end, it is not meant to be. Some movies are made to be experienced, and this is one of them.

“Funny Games” revolves around the married couple of Ann and George Farber (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) whom we first see driving down the highway with their son Georgie (Devon Gearhart) and their sailboat in tow. When they finally arrive at their destination, they are met by two young men, Paul (William Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbet), both of whom look like well-bred preppies equipped with very nice manners. Brady’s character comes to borrow eggs to give which Watts gives him kindly. But on the way out, he accidentally drops them and won’t leave until he gets some more. Soon, both husband and wife are trying to throw these two guys out, and then the two show their true intentions when they take a golf club and smash one of George’s kneecaps.

With the family held hostage, Paul and Peter reveal their heinous plan; they bet that in 12 hours, the whole family will be dead. From there, it becomes a game of survival for the family as the games these two force them to play get increasingly dangerous. One of the major criticisms I have heard leveled at the killers is they have no motive. Sometimes not knowing why people do the things they do makes things much scarier. When “Silence of The Lambs” was first released in theaters, we were never told why Hannibal Lecter was a cannibal. But here, these two evil schmucks do have a motive which is senseless and viciously cold: they are torturing this family for the thrill of it and for what one of them calls “the importance of entertainment.” The director has given us two psychos whose motives, as he puts it are not “easily explained by societal factors.” They look to enjoy the power they have over this helpless family.

This phenomenon of people getting a high off of violence and torture feels like it is growing at a horrifying rate. There have been movies like “Henry – Portrait of A Serial Killer” and “Menace 2 Society” that have moments where the characters commit violent acts which have been intentionally or unintentionally videotaped. We later see these same characters watching their hideous acts over and over. There was an episode of “Homicide: Life on The Street” which featured a scene with one man filming his friend as he goes over to a nearby bus stop and shoots an old lady to death. No reason is given, other than the fact they find the visual so incredibly entertaining.

Like those characters, Paul and Peter are utterly repellent individuals. But the thing is, you should be repelled at what these guys are doing. They are without morals, and the rules of society are nonexistent to them which makes them all the more threatening and dangerous. The comfortable conventions of the normal suspense thriller are thrown out here. If they are employed here, then it is only for us to see them overturned when we least expect them to be. Unlike other Hollywood thrillers, the violence here feels much more real than you would expect it to be.

Another interesting thing is while this is technically an ultra-violent movie, there is actually not a lot of violence shown onscreen. Most of the violence is committed offscreen, making it all the more terrifying. There’s another moment where Ann is forced to disrobe completely, but you never see her from below the neck. It’s a moment where Haneke dares you to wonder why the camera isn’t showing us more here. You may end up hating him for that, but you cannot deny your mind went down to that dark and dirty place.

Like “Cache,” Haneke likes to film shots in long takes. This succeeds in trapping the viewer in with this family as we wait to see if they can escape their fate. One shot lasts a good five minutes or so as Ann desperately tries to break free of the tape which binds her hands behind her back. There are a lot of static shots here which are free of overly clever camera moves, and they suck us in to the action while generating strong suspense. There are points where we are not sure when these two psychos threaten to strike next.

Haneke goes even further by having Paul break the fourth wall between the characters and the audience watching this movie. Many found this device to be annoying, but I wasn’t bothered by it because it made the movie seem even creepier than it already was. It probably would have been an unnecessary device had it been overused, but the director uses it sparingly and to a powerful effect.

There is also a moment a rewind of events is employed. It is as brilliant a move as it is done to completely frustrate the viewer as it completely eschews the formula of movies like these. Haneke doesn’t hesitate to subvert our expectations, and trap us into a reaction we cannot hide.

Whatever you think of the movie, there is no denying the superb work done by the cast here. Tim Roth does strong work, and I can’t remember the last actor who made the pain of broken bones feel so vivid. I also don’t want to forget Devon Gearhart who plays Georgie Jr. as he has a very unenviable role as a child caught up in the worst of situations. He is asked to do things we would rather not see a child actor do, and he makes his sheer terror seem all the more horrifyingly real.

Michael Pitt makes Paul into such a cleverly cold character to where some have compared Paul to Alex in “A Clockwork Orange.” This is a young actor who has made a strong impression in movies like “The Dreamers” and “Bully” among others. He excels in roles like this which play on his charm to an incredibly unsympathetic effect. Brady Corbett plays the seemingly Peter, and he also has done memorable work in “Thirteen” and “Mysterious Skin.”

But in the end, this movie really belongs to Naomi Watts who has long since proven to be one of the bravest actresses working today. She has portrayed characters so naked in their vulnerabilities onscreen to where I constantly wonder how she gets through these roles without having a nervous breakdown. Her performance in “Funny Games” is no exception as she puts herself in situations so difficult to make seem real, but she succeeds here in making us believe just how terrifying her ordeal is.

“Funny Games” is one of those movies which make me want to ready everyone’s reaction to it. Like I said, this is without a doubt a very polarizing motion picture which people will either admire or despise. The again, if many did not have a negative reaction, then Haneke would have failed in his mission to completely unnerve us. No, it is not an enjoyable movie, but it is an experience which cannot easily be ignored as you walk out of the theater. It is a thought-provoking as it in no way allows for a neutral opinion. For my money, it is a very strong exercise in suspense which never lets up throughout its two-hour running time.

While it is not the most disturbing movie I have ever watched in a theater (“Requiem for A Dream” takes the cake there), it sure does come close. The violence presented here is of a real kind, and it does not offer the typical feeling of escapist entertainment. The best advice I can give you is if you don’t want to subject yourself to a very disturbing cinematic experience, then don’t see “Funny Games.” You have been warned, so take the R-rating seriously.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: ‘MacGruber’ – The Best SNL Movie in Years

MacGruber movie poster final high resolution

When I went to see “MacGruber” at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood back in 2010, I actually saw Jason Sudeikis while standing in line to buy a ticket. His impersonation of Joe Biden is a still a big hit with fans of the show, and he seemed like a very down to earth guy as he blended in with the crowd and talked with others.

Anyway, enough about him. Let’s get on with my review of this particular SNL sketch turned movie called “MacGruber.” About a decade before this one, movies from the long running comedy show were being released all the time, and many proved to be nowhere as funny as the sketches which inspired them. “The Ladies Man,” “Superstar,” or “A Night at the Roxbury” appeared to underwhelm audiences, and I wondered why none of them could come close to matching up with “Wayne’s World” or “The Blues Brothers.”

Now keep in mind, those movies were based on sketches which lasted 3 to 5 minutes on the average SNL episode. With “MacGruber,” we have a movie based on a sketch which typically lasts for a minute at most. We all know from watching this obvious spoof of “MacGyver” that they all end in the same way, with MacGruber failing to diffuse the bomb and it going off, blowing him and his whole team to smithereens. So therein lies the fascination of this movie; Can MacGruber keep himself from blowing up and killing everyone around him for more than a minute? Can he sustain a full-length motion picture when he can barely sustain himself in every control room known to man?

Well, it turns out he can and for around 99 minutes. Before it was released, “MacGruber” was bursting all over with reviews calling it the best SNL movie since “Wayne’s World.” I find this praise to be completely justified as it is consistently hilarious and filled with moments which had me laughing harder than anything I saw in the remake of “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” and that was supposed to be horrific and serious. But while the jinx on SNL movies finally came to an end with “MacGruber,” this same jinx has unfortunately not been broken at the box office. It ended up grossing only $9.3 million worldwide against a budget of $10 million, but it has since become a cult classic. Trust me, “MacGruber” is great fun and contains many gut-busting laughs, and it deserved a much bigger audience than it initially got back in 2010.

Like “Hot Shots Part Deux,” the movie opens with MacGruber (Will Forte) living a post-Rambo type existence in a monastery where he finds peace from all things explosive. But Col. Jim Faith (the late Powers Boothe) brings him back into service when it is discovered his old nemesis, Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer gone wild), has acquired the X-5 nuclear missile and threatens to use it on a highly valuable target primed for utter destruction. Dieter also turns out to be the same man responsible for killing MacGruber’s fiancé, Casey (Maya Rudolph). To say this is all personal for MacGruber is pointing out the obvious. But seriously, what doesn’t this Inspector Clouseau of bomb experts not take personally? If you piss him off, please make sure he doesn’t memorize your license plate.

Forte never does quite convinces us that MacGruber is this great war hero, but that is part of the joke. He does, however, more than make us believe this character he has won more than a dozen purple hearts (how he earned all those is another story). No longer constricted by the dreaded FCC on network television, Forte really lets it loose here, getting away with stuff which would have had NBC and Lorne Michaels drop kicking him out of 30 Rockefeller Plaza if he pulled this off on live television. He also co-wrote the script, and he takes advantage of every opportunity for his character to make a supreme ass of himself while still remaining one you want to root for.

Plus, Forte does sex scenes here like no one else does in movies today, and I am certain no one has tried to match his acting in bed ever since.

Ryan Phillippe co-stars as MacGruber’s right hand man, Lt. Dixon Piper, a dedicated soldier who is of course infinitely brighter than him, and this causes a lot of violent resentment between the two of them. Phillippe does great work in playing the straight man to Forte’s idiotic lunatic. Had he tried to outdo Forte in terms of getting laughs, this pairing never would have worked. Lord knows MacGruber needs a partner, but he would never admit this unless he became incredibly desperate (and he does, so watch out). He also perfects that stony stare you get from some NFL star turned actor, and his funniest moments come when he reacts honestly to just how stupid this Miata-driving explosive expert truly is. Other actors would have overplayed this role, but Phillippe doesn’t thank goodness.

Kristin Wiig reprises her role as MacGruber’s assistant, Vicki St. Elmo. She is great as always, and MacGruber keeps stupidly putting her in such thoughtless situations where her life is in constant mortal danger. The scene in the coffee shop where she is disguised as MacGruber is nothing short of hilarious as she shivers in utter terror, having no clue what to do if things go bad. Still, you want to see Vicki get together with this clueless idiot because giving up this line of work for her music doesn’t make much sense, and this is especially the case when you listen to the songs she wrote.

Then you have Val Kilmer on board as the evil Dieter Von Cunth , and he gets to act all unhinged and crazy in a way he has not for some time. We know the only way MacGruber can defeat Cunth is through sheer luck, and Kilmer’s rubs in his character’s smug intelligence which he has in spades over this heroic douche bag. This represented a comeback for the actor, but it was sadly cut short due to his continuing battle against throat cancer.

“MacGruber” was directed by Jorma Taccone, one third of the Lonely Island comedy troupe which is responsible for all the “SNL Digital Shorts.” I was also surprised to learn he is actually the son of Tony Taccone, the former Artistic Director of Berkeley Repertory Theater. If you are ever in Northern California, be sure to check out a show there as they continue to challenge their audiences as much as entertain them. Anyway, Jorma keeps the proceedings going at a good pace, and he never lets the movie drag during its running time. While he doesn’t do anything groundbreaking with this movie or its formula driven plot, he does succeed in making this kind of satire feel fresh again. This genre has been so burnt out that we’re lucky if anything works as well as it does here.

The audience I saw “MacGruber” with at Grauman’s Chinese treated the whole thing like a rock concert, cheering when the title character first appeared on screen. It was a great crowd to experience this movie with, so it was surprising and depressing it got such a lackluster reception during its opening weekend. Even with competition from “Robin Hood,” “Iron Man 2,” and even “Shrek Forever After,” I figured it would still make a sizable dent at the box office. Still, it did eventually find its audience years later.

“MacGruber” is by no means a classic, and it is far from original, but it is certainly above average for this kind of movie. Saying it is the best SNL movie in years is faint praise. If you’re looking for a terrific comedy which emanated from the classic late-night show, then this is one you should check out. Even if you never laughed much at the skit on SNL, this movie will give you several belly laughs which we all live for. Just be sure not to eat any celery before you see it.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ – 60 Years Later and Shower Curtain Sales Have Still Not Recovered

I did not become aware of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” until its first sequel, “Psycho II,” was released back in 1983, 23 years after the original. Of course, I didn’t watch this sequel at the time as I was just a kid, but I do remember its movie trailers and the title cracking up on the big screen as it played before the feature presentation of “Return of the Jedi.” This image really freaked me out, and it was just as well I didn’t see the classic film which inspired it until many years later. When I rented and watched it on VHS with my older brother, we did not  see what the big deal was as we had long since been spoiled by the “Friday the 13th” and “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies with all the blood and gore a hormonal teenager could ever want or endure.

Well, it turns out watching it once was not nearly enough. Whether or not you think “Psycho” is Hitchcock’s best movie ever, it is often the one he is remembered best for making. After 60 years, it remains a great study of how a director can maintain suspense throughout the entire running time of a movie, and of a master playing the audience all the way up to the last frame. This becomes even more apparent when you watch it for a second and third time. Hitchcock puts you into the mindset of Marion Crane as she drives out of town after embezzling some money, and then he completely changes the dynamic of the story once Norman Bates arrives.

With “Psycho” now at its 60th Anniversary, we have another chance to go behind the scenes to see how this horror classic was made. It also represents another opportunity for Universal Pictures to release a new digital edition of the movie so they can fleece a few more dollars from our wallets. There has already been a Blu-ray release which made it look exquisite, and there has got to be a 4K Ultra HD version at some point. Anyway, looking back at the history of this classic proved to be one of the most interesting research projects I have taken on in years as there is much to be said about what went on behind the scenes.

“Psycho” originated as a novel written by Robert Bloch which itself was based on Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein, a man whose horrific exploits would inspire many horror movies to come. Hitchcock acquired the film rights through his agent for $9,000, and he chose to film it after two projects he was working on for Paramount Pictures, “Flamingo Feather” and “No Bail for The Judge,” fell through. But Paramount did not want to help Hitchcock out on this one either as they were quoted as saying they found Bloch’s novel “too repulsive” and “impossible for films.” The executives refused to finance the production, and they even went as far as telling Hitchcock their soundstages were unavailable because they were being used for other projects. Of course, this proved to be a bold-faced lie as their production schedule was already in a slump at the time.

Undaunted, Hitchcock was still determined to bring “Psycho” to the silver screen, and he even offered to defer his normal director’s fee of $250,000 in exchange for 60% ownership of the movie’s negative. Still, executives would not grant him the financing he desired, so he continued to go through several different cost-cutting measures before getting a budget of no more than $1 million to make the movie his own way. Hitchcock had planned to make the film fast and cheap anyway, and he employed the crew members of his television series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” who were already skilled at doing the same. He also succeeded in casting proven stars Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins at a quarter of their usual salaries.

Bringing down the budget also meant shooting the film in black and white, but this was fine with Hitchcock as he wanted to film it that way as to make the shower scene come across as less gory, and he was also a big fan of “Les Diabolique” which was also shot in black and white.

Like “Psycho,” “Les Diabolique” was remade many years later. Unlike the originals, both were filmed in color. Even more unlike the originals, they received mercilessly scathing reviews upon their separate releases.

In filming “Psycho,” Hitchcock started off by making it as objective an experience as possible, and we feel what Marion goes through as the voices in her head fill her with guilt and doubt over what she has done. To help emphasize this effect, Hitchcock shot much of the movie with 50 mm lenses on 35 mm cameras. By doing this, the camera was said to mimic normal human vision. As a result, you are not just watching the movie, you are experiencing it. This even goes on after Marion has gone and the story turns its focus to Norman Bates. When he pushes her car into a nearby swamp, you share in his anxiety when it does not completely sink. That’s the thing; like Norman, you want the car to sink, and it makes one feel like a voyeur just as Hitchcock intended.

Then, of course, you have the famous shower scene, and after all these years it remains one of the most talked about and heavily dissected moments in cinema history. I am sure you all know the details regarding it: it was shot over six days from 77 different camera angles, and the scene features around 50 cuts in the three minutes which it lasts. Not much is shown as you never see the knife penetrating Marion’s flesh, and there is no gore other than the blood (chocolate syrup was used) going down the drain along with the water. Indeed, it is what you do not see which makes the scene feel so violent. Like Spielberg later did with “Jaws,” Hitchcock dared the audience to use their imagination in regards to what they thought they saw here. This is one of many reasons why this scene has stood the test of time, and it was also the first time a director killed off his leading lady in the middle of a movie. Back in 1960, audience members could not help but wonder where things could possibly go from there, and shower curtain sales have never been the same since.

I also cannot go on without mentioning the infamous score composed by the great Bernard Herrmann, and it remains one of the scariest pieces of music ever applied to a motion picture. Throughout his career, Hermann proved brilliant in composing film scores which really captured the psychology of the characters. This proves to be as true about “Psycho’s” score as it was with Hermann’s work on “Cape Fear” and “Taxi Driver.” It was a surprise to learn how this score almost didn’t come about as Herrmann balked at Hitchcock’s request to take the job on a reduced salary. Somehow though, Herrmann agreed to the terms and ended up writing music for a string orchestra as opposed to a full symphony which would have included brass and woodwind instruments. This is now clearly seen as a masterstroke on his part as the screeching of violins captures the sheer terror which overtakes Marion and the audience during the infamous shower scene.

Although “Psycho” is now recognized today as a classic, it actually received mixed reviews upon its release. Some admired the buildup of tension, but others questioned the psychological elements as being less effective. It even made one critic, C. A. Lejeune, so offended to where she walked out of the movie before it was even over, and she soon after resigned from her position as film critic for The Observer. Looks like Norman’s mother did not just claim victims onscreen!

When you look at the history of cinema, it is important to keep in mind how movies we see these days as classic were not necessarily treated this way upon their original release. It is over the passing of time where movies get re-evaluated or seen in a different light, and none can ever truly be perfect (although some do come very close to it). “Psycho” was a game changer as it came about during the Motion Picture Production Code which was heavy in its censorship of violence and sex in American films. With “Psycho,” Hitchcock flirted with showing nudity as well as gore, and this later opened up doors for filmmakers to exploit these elements with far more detail. Without “Psycho,” there may never have been a “Halloween” which by itself inadvertently sparked a whole wave of slasher movies. And without “Halloween,” there certainly would not have been a “Friday the 13th” as Jason Voorhees, like Norman Bates, also had serious mommy issues.

The cultural impact of “Psycho” lasts on to this very day. There are only so many movies which could have a sequel made to it several decades later. “Psycho III” followed a few years later, and a prequel came about because some just thought it would be a good idea to show how Norman Bates got to be the shy psycho we know him to be. There was even a failed television pilot called “Bates Motel” which starred Bud Cort as Alex West, an asylum inmate who befriends Norman and later inherits the motel and the house where mother lived (Anthony Perkins wanted nothing to do with that one). It also inspired a shot-for-shot remake by Gus Van Sant which seemed almost every bit as odd as Norman himself. The only purpose of it seemed to be proof of how remakes will never be able to recapture what made the original so good. But if they make money, the studios will clearly not mind the critical bashing even if it proves to be justified.

Television would later take another shot at the “Psycho” franchise with another version of “Bates Motel,” and this one starred Freddie Highmore as Norman Bates and Vera Farmiga as his mother. This version ended up lasting five seasons and proved to be very compelling as our fascination with the dark side of human nature is always stronger than we ever bother to realize. While some may have said enough already with “Psycho,” this show proved there was more life to it than we cared to initially realized.

Even today, you cannot hear screeching violins and not think of “Psycho.” Filmmakers reference it today like Wes Craven did in “Scream,” and there are dozens of movies out there which have done the same. That shower scene has been spoofed lord only knows how many times, my favorite being on “The Simpsons” where Maggie ended up attacking Homer with a mallet after watching one Itchy & Scratchy cartoon. Another great one came about during one of Billy Crystal’s Oscar montages where he was in the shower and ends up getting accosted by Kevin Spacey who plays his “American Beauty” character of Lester Burnham. Turns out it was not the same shower Marion got stabbed in, but instead the one where Lester often experienced the highlight of his day.

Leigh never looked at taking showers the same way again, and it would be ages before she ever took one. Perkins would forever be typecast in roles similar to Norman Bates, but he said he would still have done “Psycho” even if he knew this would be the case. Many filmmakers (Brian DePalma especially) have tried to use the tricks Hitchcock employed in this and his other films to varying degrees of success. Still, there is no topping what Hitchcock did with this classic 1960 movie, and it remains the one so many other suspense and horror movies are judged by. Hitchcock’s powers of manipulation remain very hard to duplicate after all these years, and this illustrates what he meant when he was quoted as saying, “I enjoy playing the audience like a piano.”

Cla

‘Point Break’ Remake is Visually Spectacular But Dramatically Inert

Was the world really pining for a “Point Break” remake back in 2015, especially when it already got an unofficial remake back in 2001? That remake was called “The Fast and The Furious,” and its director Rob Cohen freely admitted on many occasions how its plot was lifted directly from Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 action film. Nevertheless, the good people at Alcon Entertainment felt an official remake was needed. What results is a film of spectacular visuals, but they all come with a screenplay which is dramatically inert and with actors who barely look like they are having much fun even after all the surfing, rock climbing, snowboarding and wingsuit flying we see them do.

The plot is basically the same as the original, but the characters led by Bodhi (Edgar Ramirez) are not thrill seekers robbing banks to fund their exploits, but instead ecoterrorists who look to play a Robin Hood role in society. Moreover, they are trying to complete the Ozaki 8, a list of eight extreme ordeals designed to honor the forces of nature. FBI agent and extreme sport athlete Johnny Utah (Luke Bracey) picks up on this and becomes determined to infiltrate this gang and bring them down. Of course, this has him going undercover, and we all know what happens to undercover agents in movies like these.

I should note how this “Point Break” starts off with a prologue which has Johnny Utah racing over a steep ridgeline on a motorbike with his friend Jeff (Max Thieriot). But while Johnny lands successfully onto a lone stone column, Jeff does not and ends up falling to his death. As a character in “Cliffhanger” once said, “gravity is a bitch.” Did this remake need such a scene? I think not as the original didn’t. Seriously, how many times have we seen this scenario played out?

One thing I have to say about this remake is it does look spectacular on a visual level. It was directed by Ericson Core who, quite ironically, was the director of photography on “The Fast and The Furious.” He also serves as his own cinematographer here, and he captures some amazing sights whether it’s the waves surfed at Teahupoʻo in Tahiti, the wingsuit flying sequence in Walenstadt, Switzerland, the snowboarding scene shot on the Italian side of Aiguille de la Grande Sassière in Aosta Valley, or the rock climbing which takes place at Angel Falls in Venezuela, Throughout, Core captures the beauty of each location to where I am compelled to visit them as soon as this Coronavirus epidemic is resolved. Yes, I am willing to wait that long.

But while the look of this “Point Break” is spectacular, it does not feel particularly the least bit exhilarating. The beauty of Bigelow’s film was she made you, as an audience member, part of the action. This was especially the case during the skydiving scenes as you felt like you were falling from the sky with the characters. With Core’s remake, I felt like I was watching everything from a distance to where I admired the view, but was never really enthralled by it.

Seriously, none of the actors look like they are having much fun here as they all seem so deadly serious to where you wonder if any of them has a mere understanding of what an adrenaline rush is. Luke Bracey may be a good actor, but his performance as Johnny Utah makes Reeves’ in the original appear all the more stellar. Reeves’ Utah had the good sense to know how scary and thrilling his adventures were to where his screaming while skydiving made complete sense. But to see Bracey remain calm while he falls from a mountaintop so high up makes his silence during such a descent utterly ridiculous and unbelievable.

Then there is Edgar Ramirez who has turned in memorable performances in “The Bourne Ultimatum,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and most especially in the biopic “Carlos.” But as strong an actor as he is, he does not succeed in making Bodhi a compelling character in this remake. Throughout, his face looks like it is etched in stone, and I kept waiting for him to show a little more excitement about his death-defying exploits. Patrick Swayze’s performance in the 1991 film was my favorite of his even if everyone thinks his penultimate role was in “Dirty Dancing,” and Ramirez does not come even close to matching the late actor’s charisma. This is especially evident in the scene where is sailing through some insanely high waves which are the same kind George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg attempted to traverse over in “The Perfect Storm.” Ramirez looks far too collected as he is facing death at any second, and the fact he is able to even get on his surfboard to travel that one last perfect wave is completely unbelievable. Come on, you have to be the least bit scared in a situation like this.

You also have Delroy Lindo and Ray Winstone here as FBI Instructor Hall and Special Agent Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey played Pappas in the original). Both are also playing characters who look like they are having a miserable time due to the challenges and endless frustrations of their jobs, but they should be forgiven as their characters were written as such. Besides, with actors like these two, you can never go wrong.

If there is a bright spot in this remake, it is Teresa Palmer who portrays Utah’s girlfriend, Samsara. She is such a luminous presence in any movie she appears in whether it is “The Choice,” one of the many misbegotten cinematic adaptations of a Nicholas Sparks novel, or “Hacksaw Ridge.” Her first appearance here is unforgettable as she dives into the ocean to where Utah is as compelled to dive after her as we are. Seeing her lay back into Bracey’s arms while in the ocean made me infinitely envious of him as I would have loved to been in his position. Palmer, however, is barely in this movie and is wasted in a role which demands more of her than the screenplay is willing to give. This is a real shame considering she gives this remake its most lively presence.

Bigelow’s “Point Break” cost only $24 million to make while this remake had a budget of around $100 million. Money may buy you impressive sights, but it cannot guarantee any audience an adrenaline ride. Besides, when it comes to filmmakers, male or female, can any of them compete with what Bigelow has to offer? Seriously, there is a reason why she was the first female to win the Best Director Academy Award for her work on “The Hurt Locker.”

When it comes to remakes, filmmakers and studio heads these days seem determined to play things straight. But looking at this remake of “Point Break” serves as a reminder of how it helps to not take things ever so seriously. Furthermore, Bigelow’s film has aged well over the years to where we are more than ready to accept Reeves as an action hero. While it helps to have a ton of money to make any motion picture, the budget on this remake did little to keep us on the edge of our seats. Just remember this the next time you feel like the budget for your flick is not nearly enough.

By the way, James LeGros who played Roach in the original “Point Break” appears here as FBI Deputy Director #2. I just thought you might be interested to know this.

* * out of * * * *

‘Jaws’ – Looking Back at Steven Spielberg’s ‘Apocalypse Now’

By the time I finally got around to renting Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” on VHS, I already knew how it ended. Heck, everyone knew the ending of all the “Jaws” movies just as we did with “Rocky” and its endless sequels, and yet we still went in droves to the nearest theater playing them when they opened. But even while the great white shark’s final moment was never in doubt, it still provided to be one hell of an exciting movie. Much of this is thanks to Spielberg and actors Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw. Its landmark success has been noted for starting the trend of summer blockbusters as well as the collective phobia of what’s in the water. 45 years later, many of us still do not feel the least bit safe about going into the water.

Looking back at the making of “Jaws” reveals a very troubled production which almost didn’t make it to the silver screen. From what I have read, this movie was to Steven Spielberg what “Apocalypse Now” was to Francis Ford Coppola. Remember the picture of Coppola on the set of “Apocalypse Now” with a gun to his head? Steven had one of him resting in the shark’s mouth, and he looked like he was more than ready for the shark to eat him.

The story of a great white shark terrorizing a New England island originated as a novel of the same name written by Peter Benchley which itself was inspired by several real-life incidents of shark attacks including the ones on Jersey Shore back in 1916. After buying the rights to the novel, film producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown tried to get John Sturges who made “The Great Escape” to bring it to the screen. When this did not happen, they went to Dick Richards who ended up calling the shark the whale, so he didn’t last long. Zanuck and Brown finally brought on Spielberg to direct, and this was just before the release of his first theatrical film “The Sugarland Express.” In adapting the novel, Spielberg focused on its main concept and took out the various subplots such as the affair between Ellen Brody and Matt Hooper. In retrospect, this was an excellent call as it would have added more stories to a movie which did not need any extra baggage.

Hearing Dreyfuss describe his take on the whole production gives one idea of the mess Spielberg and Universal got themselves into:

“We started the film without a script, without a cast and without a shark.”

When he appeared on “Inside the Actor’s Studio,” Spielberg said he invited the actors to dinner and they ended up “spit balling” the entire movie or, in other words, they made it up. Pages of the script were apparently not available to anyone until the day they were actually shot. A lot of filmmakers still work like this today even though it makes far more sense to work with a finished screenplay.

Then there was the shark itself which Spielberg nicknamed “Bruce” after his lawyer, Bruce Raimer. Three mechanical sharks were built for the production: a whole shark to be used for underwater shots, one which moved from camera-left to right as to hide the other side which completely exposed its internal machinery, and an opposite model with the right side uncovered. But while these models were tested in a pool under controlled conditions before production began, making them work in the ocean was another story. Some of them accidently sank and a team of divers were forced to retrieve them. The main mechanical model endured various malfunctions throughout, and its operation was constantly hindered by the hydraulics being corroded by salt water. Spielberg even joked about Bruce’s maiden voyage and how he sank to the bottom of the sea:

“It was a terrible sight! The shark comes out of the water tail first, wagging like Flipper! The tail comes down into the water, and then it sinks. And then there’s another explosion of white water, and all these pneumatic blue cables come out like snakes everywhere flying around! And then that got quiet, and then there was one last belch of bubbles, and that was the last we saw of the shark for about three weeks.”

Dreyfuss described the frustration everyone had with these models, and those walkie talkies being used by the crew always had the same words coming out of them:

“(static) The shark is not working, (static) the shark is not working.”

Things got even worse from there as filming at sea resulted in many delays as it would with just about any other film. Uninvited sailboats kept drifting into shots, and the Orca ended up sinking while the actors were onboard. This apparently led Spielberg to yell out as it was sinking:

“Screw the actors! Save the sound equipment!”

The crew members had absolutely no reason to believe they were filming a classic, and they instead nicknamed the film “Flaws.” Brown commented how the budget was originally $4 million, and it ended up costing $9 million. While this may sound like chump change today, this was long before the days when movies came with budgets of at least $100 million. Filming was scheduled to last 55 days, but it ended up lasting 159. Spielberg was not yet the director we know him as today, so you have to understand what was going through his mind while he was enduring this trial by fire:

“I thought my career as a filmmaker was over. I heard rumors that I would never work again because no one had ever taken a film 100 days over schedule.”

Spielberg was not even on set for the final shot when the great white meets its maker, and it was mainly because he was under the suspicion the crew would throw him into the water. This has apparently become a tradition for Spielberg on the films that he directs; not being there for the shooting of the final scene. This is regardless of the fact not all his movies take place on the water.

As we all know now, the shark malfunctioning proved to be a blessing in disguise as it gave the “Jaws” a more suspenseful tone than it had already. By filming the dorsal fin as often as he could or using those yellow barrels to indicate the shark’s location, he was able to get away with not showing the whole thing through most of the movie. In fact, he had already told the producers he would agree to direct the movie on the condition he did not have to show the shark for the first hour. Spielberg went on to explain the logic behind this decision:

“I don’t know of anything more terrifying than off-camera violence, off-camera suspense. You have to give the audience credit; they bring with them to the movie theater probably collectively more imagination than any of us behind the scenes put together. And they come in there with their imaginations and implore us as filmmakers to use it.”

Looking back at the hell Spielberg went through to finish this, it is amazing any movie came out of it. You can only imagine what he was thinking before “Jaws” was even released. One of the funniest stories he ever told about it was when he went to a preview or test screening. As he stood in the back of the theater right near the exit, he was expecting the worst:

“Around the time that little boy was killed on the raft, a man got up and began to walk out of the theater. And I said ‘well, here’s our first walk out, the movie’s too violent. I shouldn’t have done this; I shouldn’t have made it that intense.’ The guy then starts running and I go ‘oh worst the walking out, he’s running out of the theater! He’s RACING out of the theater!’ He got right next to me, went to one knee and threw up all over the carpeting of the lobby. Went to the bathroom, came out five minutes later, walked back to his seat and I said ‘IT’S A HIT!’ “

“Jaws” ended up becoming the first movie in history to gross over $100 million at the box office, and it marked a watershed moment in how movies were distributed. Since its release, it has spawned several sequels, become a memorable part of the Universal Studios tour and has spawned lord knows how many VHS, laserdisc, and DVD reissues. And, of course, it was released on Blu-ray, and it has now been released on the format 4K Ultra HD. If there is to be another new format on the horizon, you can be sure “Jaws” will be released on it.

As for the sequels, “Jaws 2” had its moments, the only saving graces of “Jaws 3-D” was its 3D effects which look awful when viewed on your television, and for the beautiful appearances of Bess Armstrong and Lea Thompson. As for “Jaws: The Revenge,” it remains one of the worst movies ever made as it contains many unforgivably glaring errors. On the upside, “Jaws: The Revenge” did inspire one of the greatest movie reviews on “Siskel & Ebert” which still has me laughing whenever I watch it. Spielberg later said he felt bad about how the franchise turned out, but he couldn’t go back to it after the frustration he had with making the first. By the time “Jaws 2” came around, Spielberg and Dreyfuss were already busy making “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

After all these years, “Jaws” remains one of the all-time great movies as it effortlessly taps into those fears we all have of the unknown, or of what is underneath us in the water. You could watch it a dozen times and still be thrilled by it, and it made Spielberg into the director he is today. If you are about to watch it for the first time, and you will find that the shark is indeed still working.

Here are some other interesting tidbits about “Jaws”:

  • Spielberg originally offered the role of Brody to Robert Duvall, but he was more interested in playing Quint.
  • Charlton Heston expressed interest in playing Quint, but Spielberg felt he was too big a personality and would end up overshadowing what he saw as the film’s real star: the shark.
  • Spielberg was initially apprehensive about casting Scheider because he feared he would play a tough guy like he did in “The French Connection.”
  • The role of Quint was offered to Lee Marvin and Sterling Hayden, but both turned it down.
  • The scene where Hooper discovers Ben Hooper’s body in the hull of his wrecked boat was actually added after an initial screening of the film. Spielberg said he was greedy for one more scream, and he ended up financing this moment with $3,000 of his own money since Universal Pictures denied him anymore financing at that point in the production.

‘Milk’ Celebrates the Life of a Man Who Opened Doors For Many

I keep hearing about how Sean Penn wants to retire from acting and just direct from now on. He keeps saying he never really enjoys acting, so it has to make you wonder why he would keep doing something he doesn’t enjoy. But after watching him give another great performance in “Milk,” I would really like to believe he really enjoyed playing the late gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk despite the role’s emotionally draining moments. Penn gives us a man who loved life and smiled more often than not. Whether you are gay or straight, I am sure you would have like to have known the real Harvey Milk as he always seemed to be in the best of spirits no matter what he is doing.

Milk” is a longtime dream project of Gus Van Sant, and it looks at Harvey before and after he became America’s first openly gay man ever elected to political office. It follows him from when he moves from New York to the Castro district of San Francisco and the numerous political races he ran in. It culminates with his and Mayor George Moscone’s assassination at the hands of Supervisor Dan White. But don’t worry, I have not given anything away. The movie is an intimate character piece of Harvey as well as those closest to him as he fought for equal rights for all homosexuals in San Francisco and the rest of America.

It was actually quite prophetic that “Milk” was released in the same year California witnessed the depressing and infuriating passage of Proposition 8 which banned gay marriage in the state (it was later ruled unconstitutional in 2010). In the movie, we see Harvey and his friends fighting the good fight against Proposition 6 which was enacted by then California Senator John Briggs with the objective of banning gay men and women from teaching jobs in California public schools. Back then, people foolishly believed there was a connection between homosexuality and pedophilia which was and still is total crap. “Milk” came out at a time when the fight for gay rights was still far from over.

The majority of the action takes place in San Francisco in the Castro market. Anyone residing in or familiar with the history of Castro will see it is to San Francisco what West Hollywood is to Los Angeles. Harvey ends up opening a little camera shop with his lover Scott Smith (James Franco), but he is not greeted with open arms from the local merchants as they are convinced that, because he is gay, he will be closed down in record time. From there, Harvey decides to run for public office in order to find a voice for those who never had one before.

Van Sant does a great job of recreating 1970’s ever so vividly on what must have been a very tight budget. He also successfully interweaves television footage of the time with the actors to where it is not at all distracting. But his biggest accomplishment here is he does not turn Harvey Milk into some sort of superhero, and instead he treats him as a regular human being with flaws and all. Harvey helps those in need of help as much as he can, and he does this to a fault. His political life eventually overtakes his personal life and creates heartbreaking difficulties in his ability to maintain a loving relationship. He is encouraged to give up running for political office after he loses for a second time (he ran for office 4 times before he won), but with each election he makes a bigger impact with more and more voters.

Van Sant was originally planning to make this movie with Robin Williams in the lead several years before, but it did not work out. At first, it almost seems a bit odd to have Sean Penn playing Harvey Milk, but after the movie is over, you realize there is nothing odd about it at all. Penn gives this role an utterly gleeful spirit which I do not often see in his other performances. Most roles he plays are of characters in the pit of despair or of those so cynical about the world that it takes a battering ram to get through the traumatized psyche to get a genuine sense of feeling. This may very well be his most cheerful performance since he played Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” Penn really captures the spirit of what made Harvey so special, that he wanted to help people and gays around him come out of the closet.

Aside from Penn, there are other great performances to be found. James Franco plays Harvey’s lover, Scott Smith, and he is excellent as he creates a link to Harvey which can never be broken, ever. Franco matches Penn step for step in showing the highs and lows of a relationship between two loving people who struggle constantly to make things work between them.

Another standout performance comes from Emile Hirsch who plays street hustler Cleve Jones, and Harvey ends up encouraging him to help run his campaign. Hirsch gives Cleve a spirit and a determination which can never be easily broken, and he shows no shame in whom he is nor should he.

Other great performances come from Alison Pill who plays campaign manager Anne Kronenberg, a proud lesbian who helps Harvey finally win an election. Diego Luna is also heartbreakingly good as Harvey’s second lover, Jack Lira. An emotionally high-strung man with needs greater than anyone, let alone Harvey, can ever satisfy, Luna holds the screen strongly as he carefully illustrates his character’s constantly unsteady state of mind.

But another truly great performance in “Milk” comes from Josh Brolin who portrays Supervisor Dan White. Ever since 2007, Brolin has made a name for himself with terrific performances in “No Country for Old Men.” With his role as Dan White, he never goes the route of simply demonizing this man whose crime is still absolutely unforgivable to so many. Along with director Van Sant, Brolin gives us a complex portrait of a man brought up through a strong religious background, and who ends up getting so caught up in it to where it blinds him to the deep dark hole he keeps digging for himself. In a sense, his outcome is tragic in its own way, and when you find at the end credits how he ended up leaving this earth, there is no cheering. There is nothing but pity for the man who got a much too lenient sentence thanks to the so called “Twinkie defense.”

You don’t come out of this movie wanting to forgive Dan White for what he did, but the filmmakers never try to make you hate him. Besides, I am not sure Harvey would have wanted anyone to hate him either.

Van Sant succeeds in making “Milk” a largely uplifting motion picture without resorting to manipulative tactics in an effort to tug at your feelings or with an overwhelmingly emotional film score which begs you to shed tears. Truth be told, composer Danny Elfman does a great job of creating music which supports the characters and the movie without ever overdoing it. Van Sant is also served well with a tremendous screenplay by Dustin Lance Black, and he introduces us to the wonderful people in Harvey’s inner circle and makes each one a unique individual worthy of attention.

If there is anything which disappointed me about “Milk,” it is the archival footage of Anita Bryant featured throughout where she talks about how she sees homosexuality as a sin. Anita speaks of how the word of God must be directed, and she is clearly one of many people who have completely misinterpreted what the bible says about homosexuality. The one scene I kept waiting for was when she got a pie thrown in her (even God knows she deserved that). The fact this footage was not shown here was a bit of a letdown.

The real triumph of “Milk” is in how Van Sant makes you see what an inspiration Harvey was to so many people. The movie starts out with him saying, as he is about to turn 40, that he has done nothing with his life. By the end, both Van Sant and Penn make it clear he did so much and is still a huge inspiration to many more than 30 years after his assassination. Come to think of it, he may even be more of an influence to people in death than he was in life.

Many may end up not seeing this movie either because of their misplaced religious views, or because we know it will end with Harvey Milk being murdered. But “Milk” is not a movie about how Harvey died. It is a movie about how he lived, and of how his life is worthy of celebration. His courage did so much for people, and it is still needed in the darkest of times. This was a career high for Van Sant and Penn, and it was one of 2008’s best movies.

* * * * out of * * * *

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘The Grey Fox’

I remember when this film came out in 1982. I was a big fan of movie review shows like “At the Movies” back then, and the scene where Bill Miner tells an unsuspecting passenger about how he used to rob stagecoaches always stayed with me. As a result, when the opportunity came to watch “The Grey Fox,” which Kino Lorber has just re-released in a new 4K restoration, I jumped at the chance. The question was, do I put this film in the “No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now” category of this website, or in the one known as “Underseen Movies” as it has been said the film only grossed $5 million worldwide. Well, considering how I remember when it was first released 38 years ago, I think the former category makes the most sense.

“The Grey Fox” stars Richard Farnsworth as Bill Miner, a stagecoach robber who eventually became known as “The Gentleman Bandit” after masterminding 26 robberies and for originating the command, “Hands Up!” As the film opens, Bill is being released from San Quentin Prison after a 33-year prison sentence, and he is also heading straight into the 20th Century, a period in time which he may not be the least bit prepared for.

Bill seems to get off to a nice start as he takes a train ride where a fellow passenger shows him a device which peels apples very quickly, and he seems amiable even when he tells this passenger how he once robbed stagecoaches. But while his sister gives him the warmest of welcomes, her husband, well aware of his past crimes, is not quick to show Bill the same kind of welcome. Bill is eager to show him he is worthy of his attention, and the next day he begins a new job which has him shucking oysters.

Things look to be going okay, but then Bill sits down in a movie theater which is playing “The Great Train Robbery,” the classic film which is especially famous for a scene where an actor shot his gun right at the camera. As we look at Bill’s face, we see a passion arise in him to where he becomes intent on resuming his previous career sooner than later. His sister begs him to stay, but he tells her, “I have ambitions in me that just won’t quit.”

Most films from the 1980’s take their sweet time in showing their main character start off being released from prison and adjusting to life as a civilian before giving up and returning to a life of a crime. Back then, you did not need to speed everything along to get to the good stuff, and learning of a character’s history and experiences proved to be rewarding in a way which added to the cinematic experience. Of course, as time went on, filmmakers are obligated to move through the story at a rapid pace even if we do not have time to catch our breath. What is interesting here is how the filmmakers of “The Grey Fox” do not hesitate to move past Bill’s attempts to live as a peaceful civilian in very quickly in order to see him return to his previous occupation as a robber. If there were any other 80’s films which pulled off such a feat, I have yet to watch them.

In many ways, “The Grey Fox” is an anti-western along the lines of Robert Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” as Bill’s exploits are not as spectacular as this genre may suggest. His initial efforts to rob trains of their valuables proves to be unsuccessful as he is confronting by those who are not quick to give up anything without a fight. While his exploits may have made him infamous in the past, he is now living in an age which is far more eager to stop crime than celebrate it. As a result, he flees to Canada to see if he can have more success there as his passion for adventure usurps most other desires in his life.

“The Grey Fox” was directed by Phillip Borsos who had previously found tremendous critical acclaim in Canada with his short films “Nails,” “Spartree” and “Cooperage.” “The Grey Fox” marked his feature film directorial debut, and it proved to be a resounding triumph as he created a wonderful character study of a man trying to survive in a time he is not fully prepared to live in as he goes back to what made him famous, or infamous, in the first place. Along with cinematographer Frank Tidy, he perfectly captures the beauty of the Canadian wilderness which anyone can get lost in, and serves to illustrate how isolated Bill has been over the years. I have yet to view this film on the silver screen as the world is still in the grips of the Coronavirus (COVID-19), but I do hope the day will come when I can.

Borsos would go on to direct “The Mean Season” which starred Kurt Russell, and anything with Kurt Russell in it has got to be worth seeing. His last film was “Far from Home: The Adventures of Yellow Dog,” an innocent adventure film which came out at a time when younger audiences were starting to get more cynical about the family movies being released in theaters. I remember when an English teacher I had in college remarked at how the film’s trailer was playing and of her observing teenagers a couple of rows ahead of her who remarked at how it looked “lame.” She would go on to say how our generation was being mediatized to where we had been forever robbed of our innocence.

What a shame Borsos’ life got cut short at the far too young age of 41 following a battle with acute myeloblastic leukemia. He still had a lot to give to us from behind the camera.

But let’s be honest, the real star of “The Grey Fox” is indeed Richard Farnsworth who is unforgettable to where it makes perfect sense why he was cast as “The Gentleman Bandit.” Having started out as a stuntman who later became an actor and appeared in movies such as “Gone with The Wind,” “Red River” and “The Wild One,” he had already been working in show business for years when he got this role. Vincent Canby was correct in describing “Farnsworth” as being “remarkably appealing with a face the camera adores.” The actor, who passed away back in 2000 after a painful battle with cancer, certainly had a face which had life written all over it, and it is the kind of face Hollywood does not value as much as it used to.

Farnsworth creates a lived-in portrait of a man who is famous for being a robber, but who ended up spending more time behind bars than he did robbing stagecoaches. From start to finish, he nails the complexities of Bill Miner who proved to be a genuine, thoughtful, gentleman-like, loving, and at times quite the dangerous individual. And those eyes of Farnsworth’s are beautifully indeed as he lets us into his soul to show a life still yearning for adventure and a connection with someone which can possibly give him something to live for other than robbing trains.

The actor also has some terrific scenes opposite Jackie Burroughs who portrays feminist photographer Katherine Flynn. They have instant chemistry together, and their dialogue feels real, genuine and not the least bit manipulative. When the truth of who Bill is comes to the surface, we can see in Burroughs’ eyes how Katherine cannot simply tear herself away from him. Bill is one of the more unique individuals she could ever hope to meet, and Katherine knows she will likely never meet someone like him ever again, so why stop things there?

Well, it took me almost 40 years to sit down and watch “The Grey Fox” after that movie clip I saw on “At the Movies” was forever burned into my conscious mind. I think it is safe to say it was well worth the wait. Lord knows I would never have appreciated it on the same level when I was 7 years old, so it’s nice to catch up with it now long after my view of movies had evolved to another level. It is a beautiful relic which deserves to be embraced by a new generation of film buffs. I do hope you take the time to see it whether in a theater or by virtual cinema. With this new 4K restoration, it is now more beautiful than ever.

* * * * out of * * * *

Please click here to visit “The Grey Fox” page at the Kino Lorber website.