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.

The Help Does Not Seek To Shamelessly Manipulate Our Emotions

The Help” was released with some controversy back in 2011 as it was based on a 2009 best seller by Kathryn Stockett, a white woman who wrote about African American maids’ experience working in the houses of white people. Many would have preferred to have had a black man or woman write this story, but it is important to note Stockett was herself raised by a black maid who instilled her with a strong confidence which proved to be unwavering, and this was all while her mother was absent from her life. Plus, Stockett, as represented by the character of Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, captured the voices of these ill-treated black women with really piercing honesty, and she made herself a vessel for their voices to be heard. From the start, she made it clear to the world that this book was about them and not her.

The movie version comes to us wrapped in a bow of beautiful colors and a very appealing movie poster. I kept think of Rob Reiner’s “Ghosts of Mississippi” which blew the opportunity to make audiences aware of who Medgar Evers was at the expense of some truly bland while characters, and neither Alec Baldwin or James Woods could not save the movie from its inescapable banality. “The Help” looked like it would make the same mistakes, but thankfully it does not. Regardless of whatever flaws it has, it is still a deeply felt motion picture which revisits a painful part of American history people have either forgotten or are sick of revisiting.

At its center is Skeeter (Emma Stone), a recent college graduate who gets a job writing a housekeeping column for the local paper in Jackson, Mississippi. After reuniting with good friends in her hometown, she finds herself perturbed by the senseless racism which has divided the blacks and whites in an almost unspoken way. Skeeter also becomes concerned as to the whereabouts of the maid who raised her, Constantine, as she has vanished without a trace. These events compel her to start writing a book of the travails black housekeepers go through, and she is determined to capture their pride, heartache and deep-seated anger resulting from their thoughtless mistreatment.

This could easily have been a manipulative motion picture filled with cloying emotions, but the filmmakers have given us a variety of characters, black and white that are complex and who never come across as simply caricatures. Each one has their own needs and desires which conflict with those of others, and after a while it becomes clear their problems do not always have to do with race.

The black maid Skeeter leans on the most is Aibileen Clark, played in a powerhouse of a performance by Viola Davis. Just as she did in “Doubt,” Davis inhabits her character with a pride which, while wounded, remains defiantly strong. While her voice projects a kindness and understanding on top of an obedience to her employers, Clark’s face and eyes betray a huge resentment which has long since reached its boiling point.

The next black maid who contributes to Skeeter’s book is Minny Jackson, played in another great performance by Octavia Spencer. She proves to be the most outspoken of the bunch which results in her getting fired quite often, and yet she is reluctant at first to talk with Skeeter about her experiences. We later see Jackson getting her revenge in a way which somehow feels inspired by episodes of MTV’s “Punk’d” or “Jackass.” Spencer gives “The Help” a great sense of humor it might have otherwise not had, and she is every bit Davis’ match.

Minny also develops a highly unusual relationship with the hopelessly naive Celia Foote. Unlike other working relationships, she gets the opportunity to be blunt with Celia and tells her what she needs to hear. I found the friendship between them to be one of “The Help’s” most welcome surprises. Jessica Chastain brilliantly portrays Celia Foote, and she has long since proven to be one of the best actresses working in movies today.

As for Emma Stone, she proved to be a revelation here, and she holds her own against a large number of acting stalwarts. Stone imbues Skeeter with a hard-won independence which never waivers. I love how even in Stone’s eyes you can see her determination in proving how strong a woman Skeeter is and of the sincere goodness in her heart. If she has not proven herself as a dramatic actress before this movie, she certainly did here, and now she has an Oscar to make this clearer to those foolish not to pay attention.

The majority of the white characters in “The Help” could have all been one-dimensional idiots, and while several of them make assumptions which are as ridiculous as they are racist, we see other sides of their personalities as well. One white character who can be seen as the movie’s chief villain is the snobby Hilly Holbrook, played in a truly gutsy performance by Bryce Dallas Howard. Her superiority against the black maids turns out to be driven more by fear than anything else, and realizing this at the film’s end gives Hilly a dimension we weren’t sure she had in the first place.

Howard has done phenomenal work over the years, and she was a good reason to actually see some of M. Night Shyamalan’s movies like “The Village.” She has also given us reasons to sit through “Jurassic World” and its sequel as well as “Spider-Man 3.” While those movies failed to reach the heights of greatness, she gave you a reason to watch them in the first place.

Other great performances in “The Help” come from Allison Janney as Skeeter’s mother, Charlotte, who goes from being a stubborn mother desperate for her daughter to get a man to someone who regrets the decisions she has made in her life. Sissy Spacek is a hoot throughout as Hilly’s mother, Mrs. Walters, who delights in her daughter’s misfortunes as her dad made the unforgivable mistake of spoiling her rotten. One underrated performance comes from Chris Lowell who plays Skeeter’s eventual boyfriend, Stuart. He starts off as an arrogant young man who thinks he has women all figured out, but he later comes to his senses thank goodness.

“The Help” is not perfect and does get a bit too cute at times, but its emotions ring true thanks to the acting and the direction by Tate Taylor who is a longtime friend of Stockett’s. It skirts the conventional narrative to give us something more authentic which is not, if you will excuse the expression, white-washed like so many other Hollywood movies. It covers a subject which we have no choice but to revisit as history repeats itself much too often, and it says a lot about the movie that it jumped from number two to number one at the box office in its second week of release.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: The Interrupters – Trying to Stop Violence in America

“The Interrupters” is a truly brilliant documentary which explores violence in America, and of a group of people working desperately to stop it. It covers a period of a year in South Side Chicago, but the events we see could be happening in any other city where violence has long since engulfed its citizens. At its center is the non-profit group CeaseFire (now known today as Cure Violence) which treats violence like an infectious disease, and those employed by it work to stop the violence before it happens. While the description of this documentary sounds bleak, it is full of hope and redemption that most fiction movies can only dream of portraying honestly.

What makes CeaseFire an especially unique group is the workers have been on the wrong side of the law in the past. These are not just citizens wanting to live peacefully, but those who were once as bad as those gang members they are working with and trying to help. They are well-meaning and working to find redemption for their wicked pasts which could easily have destroyed their lives. Among them is Ameena Matthews, whose father, Jeff Fort, was a notorious gang leader. Through finding peace in her Muslim faith and having children, she turned her life around and started helping those who are travelling down the same path she once did.

The most compelling moments in “The Interrupters” involve the workers of CeaseFire themselves. We watch as Ameena struggles desperately to get through to a deeply troubled teenage girl who seems stuck in between going into a life of crime and seriously trying to find a way out of it. Seeing Ameena working with her is understandably exhausting emotionally; we all want the best for this person, but there is only so much that can be done.

Next there’s Cobe Williams who spent much of his years in and out of prison before joining CeaseFire. Cobe manages to get some footing with the toughest of people through his genuinely good nature and disarming sense of humor. Then we have Eddie Bocanegra, who served 14 years in prison for a murder which haunts him to this very day. His attempts in teaching art to children show how sincere he is in his efforts to help them avoid the mistakes he made, some of which can never be undone.

Directing “The Interrupters” is Steven James, the same filmmaker who is responsible for one of the greatest documentaries ever made, “Hoop Dreams.” Not once does Steven try to beat us over the head with statistics showing us how bad things are. We can tell the situation is bleaker than many of us could ever imagine. In capturing the memorials of those slain (most in their teens or early 20’s), we feel the innocence cruelly deprived just by looking at the names listed underneath them.

But perhaps the most powerful scene to be found here comes when a former gang member, now released from prison, visits the barbershop he robbed with friends to apologize for what he did. It is an amazing moment, and one I do not often expect to see (but certainly hope to). You can feel the raw emotions of the employees as they respond to this most unexpected of visits, and if this does not make you believe in the power of redemption, you have a heart made of stone.

“The Interrupters” is a must-see documentary which captures moments that cannot be found elsewhere, let alone in many Hollywood movies which boast about being “based on a true story.” This is real life being shown here, and it is the kind many of us do not see up close. The hope and redemption it captures is completely genuine, and it is a one of a kind cinematic experience in this or any other year. This is a must see!

* * * * out of * * * *

Beyond The Lights is Not Your Average Showbiz Movie

I walked into “Beyond the Lights” expecting it to be some sort of manipulative soap opera which aimed to be “The Bodyguard” for a new generation. What I got instead was a showbiz story which felt surprisingly genuine in its emotions and intentions. It does have that familiar ring of two people from opposite walks of life coming together, but the way their relationship evolves throughout proves to be very entertaining to watch.

When we first meet Noni Jean, she’s a little girl performing in a talent competition and singing Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” which leaves the audience in a state of awe. However, when the judges award her a runner up prize, her mother Macy (Minnie Driver) angrily takes her out of the auditorium and orders her to “chuck” her trophy in defiance. The way Macy sees it, being second best counts for nothing in a world where you need to be number one.

We then move to years later when Noni, now played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, is on the verge of stardom after having won a Billboard Award even though she hasn’t released an album yet. But after retreating to her hotel room, we come to see how much the pressures of fame are bearing down on Noni as she sits on a balcony ready to jump. Coming to her rescue is police officer Kaz Nicols (Nate Parker) who pulls her back from the edge, literally and figuratively speaking, and two quickly get lost in each other’s eyes. What happens from there is easy to guess.

Initially, Kaz feels somewhat betrayed when Macy pays him off to publicly say Noni did not try to commit suicide, but Noni warms up to him quickly as she can tell he sees something in her others do not.

While they may come from different worlds, Kaz and Noni are going through similar issues. Her mother Macy has been grooming her for stardom ever since she was little, and she has helped turn Noni into the kind of woman every man wants or at least fantasizes about. As for Kaz, his police captain father David (Danny Glover) is grooming him for public office, something he does in fact have ambitions for. However, when you look into Kaz’s eyes, you wonder just how serious he is about politics or if he really wants a different path in life.

Basically, Kaz and Noni are trying to fulfill the desires of their parents, and we have caught up with them as they have long since played a role they feel society wants them to play. In the process, they have lost touch with what they really want out of life, and we follow them as they go through a much-needed period of self-discovery. Watching these two evolve and change from start to finish is deeply involving and, even if the conclusion is never in doubt, we revel in their personal triumphs.

I am not at all familiar with Mbatha-Raw or her work as an actress, and she gives an extraordinary performance here. She is mesmerizing to watch as Noni begins to shed the public persona which has been foisted upon her, and it allows the frightened child inside of her to come out into the open. Also, she has a show stopping moment where she sings “Blackbird” by herself onstage, and you cannot take your eyes off of her for a single second.

Parker also puts in a strong performance as a well-meaning man who respects the law, wants to help people and who has, as his shirtless scenes will attest, spent a lot of time in the gym like any cop should. Looking at the actor’s past which had him involved in political activism, charitable work and working as a wrestling coach, you get the sense he was born to play Kaz. As he wades deeper into Noni’s world of fame, Parker shows Kaz to be someone who keeps his head above water and is not easily seduced by the closed-off world of show business. But there’s also no doubt that the chemistry between him and Mbatha-Raw is very palpable.

Kudos also goes out to Minnie Driver who takes what could have been a one-dimensional stage mother from hell and turns her into a complex character who is far more vulnerable than she lets on. We come to see how Macy has never had it easy, and she is eager for Noni to have everything she never had. But as much as she cares for her daughter, Macy also comes to realize her determination to make Noni a star speaks more about her ambitions than anyone else’s. Driver is a powerhouse as she lets us see how Macy has been wounded by others who had no faith in her when she was young, and it becomes understandable why Macy wants to beat everyone at their own game.

“Beyond the Lights” was written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood whose previous films include “Love & Basketball,” “Disappearing Acts” and “The Secret Life of Bees.” I regret to say I haven’t seen those films, but I am certainly willing to see them now based on the work she has done here. Prince-Bythewood succeeds in giving us a showbiz tale which actually feels grounded in reality. The atmosphere at the award shows and parties Noni attends feel authentic, and they never seem like a spectacle to be easily laughed at. She also gives us a number of complex characters who struggle to survive the high pressure world of fame and fortune where people have everything and nothing at the same time.

I also have to applaud Prince-Bythewood for sticking by Mbatha-Raw when studios were insistent on getting a bigger name cast in the role of Noni. Perhaps a music star would have done a good job here, but they also would have brought an enormous amount of baggage with them which would have had an unintentionally negative effect on this movie. Mbatha-Raw has the advantage right now of not having this baggage, and that makes her performance all the more enthralling as a result.

Sure, there are some soap opera dramatics here and there and certain moments do not ring true, but “Beyond the Lights” really did prove to be one of the big cinematic surprises of 2014. It is also another film to add to the list of worthwhile romantic movies. Just as this particular genre looked to be burning out, the movies coming from it are getting so much better. I’m starting to like these kinds of movies again. What’s wrong with me anyway?

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Click here to check out the video interviews I did with Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker which I did for the website We Got This Covered.

Chester Farrow, a Titan Among the East Bay School Teachers

Photo courtesy of Jose Carlos Fajardo/Contra Costa Times

Looking back at time as a student at Monte Vista High School in Danville, California, it felt more like a prison sentence than anything else. Nevertheless, many years have passed (to count how many is terrifying) since I went there, and I somehow find myself becoming nostalgic for certain things about it. Considering how I could not wait to graduate from there, this is almost surprising until I am reminded of one of my favorite teachers from this institution which was once considered one of California’s Most Distinguished Schools: Chester Farrow.

Chester, or Chet as his students liked to call him, taught many classes at Monte Vista High School including TV Productions and electronics for 32 years until he retired in 1999. In addition to teaching, he was also the scoreboard operator for the Oakland Athletics (a.k.a. the Oakland A’s) for even longer. On top of that, he was a well-known concert promoter who succeeded in bringing such music acts like Journey, Greg Kihn and Huey Lewis and the News to the Al Gentile Theatre on the Monte Vista campus. With the money he made from those concerts, he and his students built a production studio which came to be known as Rainbow Studios, and it became a place of refuge for many students including myself. Looking at this, you have to wonder how Chet found the time to do all of this. While most teachers need a second job to get by financially, much of what he did was out of a love for music, baseball and hanging out with teenagers who were desperately trying to find their way in a harsh adolescent landscape.

Chester Farrow died Sunday morning, May 24, 2020 at the age of 77 after a long battle with cancer. This was not a big surprise as many of us knew of his terminal diagnosis for some time, and he was determined to spend his final days at his home in Walnut Creek. His longtime girlfriend, Wendi Leyba, organized a fundraiser on GoFundMe.com to help pay for his part time health care which was said to be very expensive and not covered by his insurance. The fundraising goal was $10,000, but more than two months later, the total reached $31,150. If this does not describe the strong loyalty Chet’s students had for him, what will?

Like I said, the news of Chet’s death was not very surprising, but the void his passing has left is what really hit me hard. Chet was a titan in the Easy Bay of Northern California, and his influence on the lives and careers of many of his students is utterly profound to say the least. Those who knew him best have made it clear he will never be replaced, and I imagine Monte Vista is still on the lookout for a teacher like him ever since he retired back in 1999.

I was a student of Chet’s TV Productions class during my junior and senior year, and I became eager to enroll in this class after watching the cable access show “Just for You” which he produced at Rainbow Studios. Chet had produced this show for many years and, having just discovered a deep love for acting and performing, I was eager to become a part of it.

During my first year in Chet’s class, I found him to be a very intimidating presence, and I know I was not the only one. When we filmed an episode of “Just For You,” we initially did it live, and he demanded a level of professionalism we had no reason not to give him. Granted, this resulted in many stressful moments for him and his students as not everything came together in a perfect way. If he had problems with something you had written for the show, he would tell you straight out. There was always a no bullshit attitude about him, and he never hesitated to tell you what you needed to hear. Sometimes it hurt to hear his thoughts on your work, but the kind of honesty he gave us was hard to find elsewhere.

The second year, my view of Chet evolved as my classmates and I came to really respect his way of doing business. As time went on, he had a warm presence about him, and it became clear he liked talking to us instead of down to us like other teachers did. By this time, we were already working on Monte Vista’s annual video yearbook, and a couple of students neglected to film a lunch the freshman students were having at Oak Hill Park. To put it mildly, he was pissed.

“Okay people, there was a freshman lunch today which students in this class were assigned to film for the video yearbook, and they didn’t bother doing so. If this happens again, FUCK YOU, OUT OF THE CLASS! Now folks, I am not a happy pup…”

At the end of Chet’s rant, we all applauded him. Whereas these rants seemed frightening at times, we came to appreciate them because, hey, we were given a task to complete. If we didn’t get the job done, he had every right to get super fucking pissed at us. If you put in the hard work, it did eventually get recognized by him and he would point out your strengths to the rest of the class.

As I am sure you can tell by now, Chet did use a lot of profanity in the classroom. He never seemed to be ashamed of it, and he always felt free to express his opinions the way he wanted. Granted, this upset many parents who could not appreciate his unorthodox teaching methods or him going against the conservative grain most high school teachers were expected to work under. For the record, my dad was on the school board during this time, and he told me many of his colleagues wanted to see Chet get fired. My dad, however, liked Chet for the same reasons they did not as he felt every high school needed someone like him to shake things up, and I agree with my dad wholeheartedly on this.

Among other things, Chet taught us the power of promotion and of getting the word out about something you wanted to sell. This came about when he talked to us about putting the idea of the video yearbook into everyone’s head at Monte Vista. You always had to be talking about wherever you went:

“Hey, what are you doing out of class? Video yearbook. Say, do you know classroom the music department is at? Video yearbook. Hey, what are you doing smoking cigarettes by your car? Video yearbook…”

There was also the time when of his most prized students, Ian Williamson, was going through Chet’s old collection of tapes and discovered one in which he did a commercial about rock concerts which had, shall I say, a highly subliminal quality as a voice was droning in the background saying, “see you at the concert, see you at the concert, see you at the concert, see you at the concert…” Listening to it years later, were rolling on the floor with laughter, but I bet you it got a lot of people to attend those shows.

Granted, there were many times where he didn’t teach us but talked instead about things on his mind and of lessons we needed to learn sooner rather than later. After a time, it felt like we were in the presence of a wonderfully profane stand-up comedian who was polishing up his act with us. I will never forget when he took his kids to Disneyland, “the happiest place on Earth,” and the blank expression on his face perfectly illustrated the typical tourist who arrived there only to find things are more profit driven than magical. Then there was the time he was fixing a fellow teacher’s VCR, and once he figured out what was wrong with it, he quickly started doing the moonwalk while singing the chorus from the Beatles song “Come Together.” More often than not, he had us in hysterics, and you could usually count on him to put a smile on your face.

While Chet could be hard on his students, he loved hanging out with us and was always interested to hear about what we were up to. I came back to his classroom many times after I graduated, and he was always quick to tell me, “You are always welcome here Ben.”

Here are some testimonials from students of his:

Trevor Boelter: “Chet – I want to thank you for the philosophy of E.T.C — I think about that day working late in Rainbow Studios, cleaning the heads of the tape machines and having a private audience with you as you shared this piece of wisdom. I have always thought about this and have shared it with many people over the years. I wish I could embody this daily, but some days, I do and it always makes things better. If I have no EXPECTATIONS, due to not having CONTROL, my TEMPERAMENT will always be COOL. It was/is/always will be profound.”

Ian Williamson: “It’s important to me to say that Chester was an incredible person who over the years influenced so many people, including myself. He not only put me on the path my life has gone, but he was absolutely instrumental with the start of my career and the successes and happiness I’ve found along the way.  I don’t think there has ever been anyone who believed in me as much as he did. To me he was an absolute giant among men, and more to my heart, he was like a father to me.”

Kenneth Hunter: “Hands down the best and most influential teacher I ever had the pleasure of knowing. What a great man he was! Love you long time Chester Farrow! You were not only a friend, a teacher, a mentor, but you were part of my family. Thank you for being such a great influence in my life.”

Laura Lamson: “I’ll always remember the Bammies! You were like a father figure to me. Even when I looked like I was down, you knew just what to say to brighten my day! I’ll always love you for that! I will miss you. You will always be in my heart!”

Michael Coats: “He and I had a 48-year relationship starting in 1974 at Monte Vista High School in Danville. Chester was the hippest, the best teacher many had. He will be missed. We love and thank you buddy, and may fair winds and following seas carry you on.”

Michele Goodrich General: “I loved him so much as a teacher. If it’s wasn’t for him, our lives would be so different.”

Laura Lamson also took the time to email the current principal of Monte Vista High School about Chet’s passing, and this was the principal’s response:

“Ms. Lamson,

I am very sad to hear of Mr. Farrow’s passing. While he was at MV long before I arrived, I have heard quite a few stories about his time at Monte Vista. He was definitely an amazing teacher who truly cared about his students and his colleagues. . . and from reading your email, they loved him back. I have shared the news with our staff and will follow up with another announcement at tomorrow’s staff meeting.

Take care.”

Dr. Kevin Ahern

Principal

Monte Vista High School

Dr. Ahem also included the following quote in his email:

“What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.” – Charles Bukowski

Chet, as much as I do not want to relive my high school years during which I was afflicted with psychological disorders which were not yet diagnosed, anxiety and depression, your classes made going to Monte Vista worth the trouble. The first day of school always had me on the verge of tears as I wondered if I could endure another year of adolescent bullshit, but then I arrived at Rainbow Studios and found myself with a smile on my face. I remember when I was a senior and you made your entrance for the TV Productions class. Everyone there was quick to applaud your entrance, and few other teachers at Monte Vista could ever elicit such a response.

I thank you for laughing when I said “yo” instead of “here” when you actually took the time to take attendance. I used to say this or some variation of it like “yes man” or “here dude,” and while other teachers were annoyed with my choice of words, you were quick to laugh before my fellow classmates did.

Thanks for encouraging me to bring props for my “Just A Thought” segments on “Just For You.” Thanks for your at times brutal honesty because you always told us what we needed to hear. More importantly, thanks for being there for us when we were down and for relating to our struggles. Thanks for giving us reasons to rise above our miserable lives and giving us compliments when we flat out deserved them. Thanks for giving us a solid path to travel down which came to define our lives in a very positive way.

Godspeed Chet. You will be missed.

Here are some articles about Chester Farrow worth checking out:

Chester Farrow, longtime Oakland A’s scorekeeper, dies from cancer

A Hard Act to Follow / Teacher says goodbye with a little help from his famous friends

Back story: Oakland A’s scorekeeper Chester Farrow

Chet took the time to upload many Rainbow Studio videos which include episodes of “Just for You,” several volumes of the Video Yearbook, concerts and rock and roll recitals. Click here to check these videos out.

Before his passing, he took the time to write a memoir entitled “Chester: No Limit! – From Educator to Oakland A’s Scoreboard Operator. A Trip Down Memory Lane.” Click here to find out how you can purchase a copy.