The Initial Reaction Audiences Had to ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’

John McNaughton’s “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” was made back in 1986, but it did not get a theatrical release until 1990. All these years later, it remains a very disturbing look at a murderer lacking a conscience who essentially kills at random. For those who’ve seen “Henry,” you know how unnerving it gets, and the fact it got released at all is amazing.

Michael Rooker, who plays the Henry of the movie’s title, appeared at the Egyptian Theatre back in 2011 to talk about audience’s initial reaction to it. Neither he nor anyone else involved in its making believed it would ever get any response whatsoever. They filmed what they thought people wanted to see, a scary movie, but this was no average horror flick like “Halloween” or “Friday the 13th.” “Henry” involves real life horror, the kind we often do not go to the movies to see. And in the end, what’s scarier than real life violence?

Chuck Parello, who would later direct “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Part II,” managed to get the film screened at the 1989 Chicago Film Festival, and this later led to it being shown at the Telluride Festival. Rooker recollected about the first time he saw “Henry” in a theater, and he said there was around forty people in the audience. There were not a lot of sounds coming from them, and no laughter. This led Rooker to say that, after you’ve watched “Henry” twenty times, you begin to see the humor in it. For the record, I completely agree with him on this.

“Henry’s” most disturbing and controversial scene comes when Henry and Otis (Tom Towles) do a home invasion and murder an entire family. We watch these two as they view the video they shot of them killing each member, and Otis finds watching it once is not enough. After this scene ended, Rooker said more than 60% of the audience left after this scene, and they all left at the same time. Many of them were vocal about what they had witnessed:

“Fuck this shit!”

“This is bullshit!”

“This is what cinema’s coming to?”

Rooker was sitting with the producers when this happened, and he freely admitted how they all loved the response “Henry” was getting.

People came out of the film stunned and silent, and Rooker remembered seeing one guy walking out of the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles with his hands shaking. The actor also said a friend of his yelled at him because the film made him think “those thoughts.” There were no car chases, no gratuitous violence, and the violence shown in “Henry” is mostly minimal. Many of the murders Henry commits are never shown but heard as the camera circles around the bodies of his victims as we hear them take their last breath over the speakers. It ends up leaving a lot of room for imagination as you can’t help but think about what you didn’t see. Sometimes it is what you don’t see which is the most frightening thing of all.

But the most memorable incident for Rooker happened when he arrived late to one screening. As he headed into the theater, a woman, who was not walking but running out of the movie, ran right smack dab into him. When she realized who he was, she screamed and raced to the women’s bathroom. The ushers and producers had to come out and calm her down, saying to her over and over, “He’s really an actor. “

“Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” is seriously disturbing, but for good reason. Unlike other horror movies which revel in blood, gore and vicious fantasies, this was one which dealt with horror of real-life viciousness. Every once in a while, you need a film like this one to remind people of the ugliness of violence, and to make us realize we are not as desensitized to it as we may think. If “Henry” didn’t cause a good portion of moviegoers to walk out, then the filmmakers would not have succeeded in making this point clear.

Michael Rooker on ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is about a screening which took place in 2011.

Actor Michael Rooker appeared at the Egyptian Theatre for the 25th anniversary screening of the film in which he made his acting debut, “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.” Even with the passing of time, it remains as infinitely disturbing as it did when it was first released. Rooker discussed how he got cast and of what went on during its making. He also told the audience this was the first time he had seen the film since it first was released back in 1986.

Rooker said he started out as a theatre actor in Chicago after graduating from the Goodman School of Drama. At the time casting began for “Henry,” he was in a play called “Sea Marks,” and the director was doing the prosthetics for it. Rooker said he didn’t care if the screenplay was good or bad because he just wanted to do a movie. Doing “Henry” was a test for Rooker to see how working while shooting out of sequence would work for him.

For research, Rooker said he read several books about serial killers which were written by doctors, but he found them to be “mostly crap.” He ended up getting more from the Texas Rangers who interviewed the man this film was more or less based on, Henry Lee Lucas. Also, the director, John McNaughton, asked him and the other actors to write character sketches. Rooker said he did not want to do that though because he did this endlessly in college and was now “sick of writing stuff down.” Instead, he recorded an audio tape of himself speaking in character.

During shooting, Rooker said he tried staying in character all day long. This led to a lot of strange times on set as actors and the crew were not sure if they were talking to him or Henry. McNaughton also got him a room for him to hide out from the actors and crew, and it was filled with mirrors which Rooker later covered up with trash bags. He stayed in the room all day until he was called to set.

The budget for “Henry” was a mere $120,000 according to Rooker, and the guy selling him cigarettes towards the film’s end was the one who financed it. Being an independent film, the filmmakers had no permits and had to hide whenever the cops were in the area. Once they were gone, the crew went right back to filming. They did, however, get busted during a pivotal scene in which Henry is shown throwing a body into the river. While shooting, four police cars came out of nowhere, and one policeman got out and asked, “Are you throwing bodies into the river?”

Once they looked in the bag Rooker was about to hurl over the side, they started laughing uncontrollably and ended up leaving the crew alone.

“Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” opened up a lot of doors for Michael Rooker, and it even scored him a role in John Sayles’ “Eight Men Out.” His terrifying performance is still embedded in the minds of so many who dared to view it either on the silver screen or on their own television sets, and they still cannot get it out of their heads. Since then, he has had a great career which has allowed him to play both good and bad guys with relative ease. Michael still has many great performances left to give, but don’t count on him doing a “Henry” sequel unless he can be convinced it can be turned into a musical.

Nick Nolte and Paul Mazursky on Mike the Dog from ‘Down and Out in Beverly Hills’

DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS, Nick Nolte, Mike the dog, 1986, on all fours

WRITER’S NOTE: As the first paragraph states, this article was written back in 2011.

As great as Nick Nolte, Richard Dreyfuss and Bette Midler were in Paul Mazursky’s “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” they were almost completely upstaged by Mike the Dog. If there was ever an animal in movie history that deserved an Oscar, it was Mike. Forget Benji, Rin Tin Tin, and Lassie, Mike had them all beat in portraying the nasty and incredibly neurotic Scottish border collie Matisse. His reactions to his owners, the Whiteman family, and his affection for Nolte’s character of Jerry Baskin made him as much a character as anyone else in this classic comedy. Mazursky and Nolte were enthusiastic in telling stories about Mike when they appeared at the Aero Theatre on August 14, 2011 for this movie’s 25th anniversary screening.

One memorable scene had Nolte on his knees trying to get Matisse to eat his dog food by eating it with him. Determined to see this through, Nolte said he went to a nearby grocery store and bought all kinds of dog food, mostly of the meat variety. When he started dispensing it into different bowls, however, he noticed that to the side there were other dog bowls filled with peas and corn. Nolte went up to Mike’s trainer, Clint Rowe, and asked why these bowls were out. To this, Rowe replied, “Mike’s a vegetarian.”

OOPS!!!

Mazursky had even more stories to tell about Mike and the big star he was. Reminiscing about an Air France jet he flew on to Europe, he saw Mike sitting in first class and reading a magazine (he didn’t remember which one). People ended up making their way up to first class just to see him. Things got even more bizarre when Mazursky got off the plane as there were photographers out in full force at the gate. Mazursky said he greeted them kindly, but they instead went right past him to shoot pictures of Mike.

Things eventually reached a final straw when Mazursky went up to his hotel room and found he was not in room 704, but 804. Guess who was there to greet him when he opened the door? That’s right, Mike. At this point, Mazursky looked him dead in the eye and said, “Out!”

Mike complied and ran off.

Mike went on to play Matisse in the short-lived TV version of “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and also appeared in various commercials. He has since passed away and is hanging out with Spuds McKenzie and the Taco Bell Chihuahua in doggie heaven. Still, his talent has never been lost on anyone who watched him in the 1986 comedy, let alone those who helped make it. Even during dallies, film editor Richard Halsey kept telling Mazursky:

“That fucking dog is stealing the movie!”

Worst Movie Trailers Ever: ‘Grizzly II – Revenge’

Okay, I have not seen this particular sequel yet, nor have I seen the workprint which has been floating around the internet for years. But seriously, I came across not just one but two trailers for “Grizzly II: Revenge,” and neither of them try to hide how god awful this film must be. It’s bad enough the title reminds me of another excruciatingly awful sequel involving a killer animal, “Jaws: The Revenge,” but this one is so shameless in inviting audiences to check it out regardless of its subpar filmmaking on display (and that’s being generous).

Truth be told, “Grizzly II’s” backstory is bound to be far more interesting than the film itself. A sequel to the 1976 “Jaws” knock-off “Grizzly,” it was made back in 1983, but its production quickly got derailed due to a lack of funding, constant feuding behind the scenes, and technical issues with its 16-foot mechanical bear. 37 years later, after a ton of legal wrangling, it is now being shown in its final cut. But unlike other long-lost films such as “Gone with The Pope” or long in the making sequels like “I Spit on Your Grave: Déjà vu,” this one is unlikely to be worth the wait.

The first thing we in these trailers is the appearance of a couple of Oscar winners, George Clooney and Laura Dern, and Charlie Sheen before he did “Platoon.” Their names headline this movie, but as we can see, they are not in it for very long. We see their screaming faces up close, and it is clear the bear will treat this trio as dinner since hibernation is out of the question. This is not the first time recognizable names have been exploited to garner attention for a movie, and it won’t be the last either.

From there, we are introduced to actors who are forced to spout ridiculous dialogue a film like this always has to offer. A female scientist tells a group that the bear they are hunting is “huge.” No! Really??!! I mean, heaven forbid the bear they are dealing with is a small one! Can you imagine a little cub going psycho on so many stupid and unsuspecting humans?

There is also a brief moment with Louise Fletcher of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” fame telling someone to kill the bear as soon as possible because there is a big concert coming up. And then we have John Rhys-Davies playing what I guess is a mountain man of sorts, and he has one of those dramatic moments where he pauses before saying something intended to be hair-raising (“It’s very bad… you got the devil bear!”).

Speaking of the concert, we are shown some of it as well. But while the crowd looks huge, the onstage performers look like they are re-enacting scenes from the so bad it’s good rock musical “The Apple.”

But perhaps the biggest problem with these trailers is the lack of the bear itself. We hear it grunting throughout and see its point of view from time to time, but we never see its face until the last few seconds. Before this, we see Davies preparing to attack it, and it looks like the actor is about to attack a big pile of wool designed to look like a bear’s legs. Clearly there is no real bear there as it would have gobbled up Davies before he had a chance to draw a weapon.

In the end, these trailers for “Grizzly II: Revenge” represent filmmaking and marketing at its most cynical. The producers are simply looking for a quick buck here as they are exploiting big names and this film’s troubled production history for all it is worth. This sequel may have been 37 years in the making, but that was never intended to be the case. Its production was simply a case of very bad luck, and now this sequel exists as a mere oddity.

All of this just makes me miss Bart The Bear, a real-life grizzly who upstaged Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin in “The Edge.” Now if Bart were in this, it just might have been worth watching.

‘Beetlejuice’ Movie and 4K/Blu-ray Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent Tony Farinella.

Your enjoyment level for Tim Burton’s “Beetlejuice” is going to depend on how you feel about Burton as a director.  He is an eccentric director with a flair for style and bright, vivid colors.  However, in my view, I sometimes feel as though his characters and stories can distance themselves from audiences.  I realize he has many devoted fans and “Beetlejuice” is one of his most beloved films.  Whenever Halloween rolls around, I know it is a film which families sit around and watch together, even though there is an F-bomb and some odd innuendos which parents might find off putting to young children. As a first-time viewer of the film, I found I liked certain elements of it, but not nearly enough to recommend it or call it a Halloween classic.

One thing “Beetlejuice” definitely has going for it is the talents of Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis and Winona Ryder.  Whenever they are on screen together, the film is really hitting the right notes.  The character of Beetlejuice, played by Michael Keaton, is barely in the film, which is odd considering he is displayed so prominently on the film’s poster and in its title.  It is more about the dilemma of Barbara and Adam Maitland (Davis and Baldwin) wanting to enjoy two weeks of a nice, quiet vacation at their Connecticut country home.  All of this is thrown for a loop when they get into a car accident and perish.

Now, they are ghosts that have returned to their home, only to find it has been taken over by the Deetz family, which includes Charles (Jeffrey Jones), Delia (Catherine O’Hara), and their daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder), although the film is quick to point out that Delia is the stepmother of Lydia.  Delia has plans of her own for the house with the help of her interior designer, Otho, played by Glenn Shadix. The father, Charles, is looking to make a real estate deal with the property and its surrounding areas.  Lydia is suspicious of the place when she notices the ghosts of Barbara and Adam looming over the house.  Here is the catch—Lydia is the only one who is able to see or notice them.

Since Barbara and Adam want the Deetz family out of their home, they are desperate to come up with any solution.  They enlist the help of Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton), even though he comes with a lot of baggage, according to their afterlife caseworker, Juno (Sylvia Sidney). She is very familiar with all that comes with Beetlejuice and warns them to stay away from him.  In her mind, the best way to get this family out of the house is to find creative and simple ways to scare them into moving out.  When Barbara and Adam find this harder than they thought, they say the name Beetlejuice three times, and he appears ready and willing to help, as long as there is something in it for him.

The major problem with “Beetlejuice” is just that, Beetlejuice.  As an audience, are we supposed to like this guy?  He wants to get married to what we assume is an underage teenage girl.  He is very perverted around Barbara and is not all that funny or interesting. For the most part, as a viewer, I found him quite annoying on screen.  This is no fault of Keaton, as he is simply playing the character as best he can based on the screenplay he was given and the direction of Burton. Baldwin tries to carry the movie on his back along with the help of Davis, but their charms are not enough to make this film worthwhile.

It’s hard to deny the great make-up and special effects which are on display in “Beetlejuice.”  The concept for the film is rather creative as well.  The actors are ready and willing to do whatever they can to help the flick. However, because Beetlejuice is so obnoxious and the film is so over-the-top and filled with tricks, there is really no heart to the story.  It’s not scary or funny, so it fails as a horror/comedy.  It is nice to look at, filled with some clever scenes, and there is good acting on display.  In the end, this is not enough to save this film which relies too much on style instead of substance.

* * ½ out of * * * *

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4K Info: “Beetlejuice” is released by Warner Brothers Home Entertainment on a 4K Ultra HD Combo Pack, which comes with the Blu-Ray and a digital code. The film comes in the following languages: English, Latin Spanish, Canadian French, and Brazilian Portuguese. It has a running time of 92 minutes and is rated PG.  The film is presented in 2160 Ultra High Definition.  With 4K, you can’t help but be impressed by the HDR (High Dynamic Range), especially on a film like this.  It really stands out.

Video Info:  The film comes on 2160 Ultra High Definition for the 4K Version.  The Blu-Ray comes in 1080p High Definition.

Audio Info: The 4K Audio is Dolby Atmos-TrueHD: English and Dolby Digital: French and Spanish.  For the Blu-Ray, it comes with Dolby TrueHD: English 5.1 and Dolby Digital: English 5.1, French and Spanish. Subtitles for both versions are in English, French, and Spanish.

Special Features:

Three Hilarious Episodes from the Animated “Beetlejuice” TV Series: “A-Ha!,” “Skeletons in the Closet,” and “Spooky-Boo-Tique.”

Theatrical Trailer

Danny Elfman Score Audio Track

Should You Buy It?

Much like my review of “The Goonies,” if you LOVE “Beetlejuice,” you will be very, very happy with the 4K update.  You might not be so happy with the lack of special features.  If they are going to upgrade a film to 4K, you would expect they would add some new special features which look back on the film.  This is not the case here.  If you are strictly in this for the visual and audio upgrades, you will get your money’s worth.  If you haven’t seen the film before and are not a Tim Burton fan, this film is not going to win you over. I would say rent it just to say you have checked it out as Halloween is fast approaching.

‘The Goonies’ Movie and 4K/Blu-ray Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent Tony Farinella.

This was my first viewing, ever, of “The Goonies,” which might sound almost sacrilegious to film fans that love this flick and have watched it numerous times.  To many, it is considered a classic film with quotable lines and loveable characters.  I went into the film with high expectations, and I’m sad to report that I left extremely disappointed.  The film is very dated, and it is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. However, if you are a fan of the film and have been looking to an upgrade for a while, the 4K release from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment will certainly satisfy you.  For those, like myself, who are new to the film, I don’t know if it will win over any new fans.

The film was directed by veteran Richard Donner from a story by Steven Spielberg and a screenplay by Chris Columbus.  When you factor in a young cast which includes Josh Brolin, Sean Astin and Corey Feldman, all of the ingredients were there for an enjoyable film with a cast full of wacky characters. This is one of the major problems with the film—the characters.  They are loud, screechy and supremely annoying.  It is hard to get behind this rag-tag group of misfits in the same way you would get behind the Losers Club in “It” or the friends in “Stranger Things.”  The film doesn’t waste time in getting right into the action, which ensures the character development is left with a lot to be desired.

The premise of the film follows a group of friends known as The Goonies.  They consist of Sean Astin as Mikey; his brother Brand, played by Josh Brolin; Jeff Cohen as Chunk; Corey Feldman as Mouth; Jonathan Ke Huy Quan as Data along with their female counterparts in Kerri Green as Andy and Martha Plimpton as Stef. Judging by some of their names, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to piece together how they received their nicknames. They are about to lose their homes in the Goon Docks unless they can come up with some big money and fast.

This leads them on a treasure hunt to come up with a way to save their homes.  Hot on their tails, however, is a crime family known as the Fratellis: Mama Fratelli (Anne Ramsey), Jake Fratelli (Robert Davi), and Francis Fratelli (Joe Pantoliano).  They also have a deformed younger brother named Sloth (John Matuszak), whom is often neglected and mistreated by his family.  They are also looking to get some of the treasures on the ship, which used to belong to “One-Eyed Willy,” the original Goonie.

While “The Goonies” is never boring, and Donner keeps the action moving at a rapid-fire pace, at almost two hours, it feels like sensory overload.  As a viewer, I felt like I was on this never-ending mission that I didn’t really care about because I didn’t care for the characters.  They are likable when they are not screaming, shrieking or being completely over-the-top.  The film shines during the quieter and more tender moments. I was hoping the film would focus more on the friendships between the characters and the families.  The families are basically non-existent and played for laughs as clueless parents, which was a major problem with many young children’s/teenage films in the 1980’s.

In the end, if you enjoyed “The Goonies” in the past and it is a film you are known to watch over and over again, you will surely watch it over and over again on 4K as it looks out of this world.  If you are new to the film (in the minority like myself), I can’t really see you getting much out of this film as a first-time viewer.  Even though it is a children’s movie, I wouldn’t recommend it for young children today based on some of the language and innuendo.  While films and shows today owe a great deal of gratitude to “The Goonies,” it is very much a film of its era. I can’t say it holds up very well.

* * out of * * * *

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4K Info: “The Goonies” is released by Warner Brothers Home Entertainment on a 4K Ultra HD Combo Pack, which comes with the Blu-Ray and a digital code. The film has a running time of 114 minutes, and it comes in the following languages: English, Latin Spanish, Canadian French, and Brazilian Portuguese.

Video Info:  The film comes on 2160 Ultra High Definition for the 4K Version.  The Blu-Ray comes in 1080p High Definition.

Audio Info: The 4K Audio is DTS-HD MA: English 5.1 and Dolby Digital: French and Spanish.  For the Blu-Ray, it comes with Dolby TrueHD: English 5.1, Dolby Digital: English 5.1, English 2.0, French and Spanish. Subtitles for both versions are in English, French, and Spanish.

Special Features:

Commentary (with Hidden Video Treasures) by Richard Donner and select cast members.

The Making of the Goonies Featurette

Cyndi Lauper “The Goonies ‘r’ Good Enough” Music Video

Outtakes

Theatrical Trailer

My goal with this review was not to be a contrarian, but I realize I’m probably one of the few people in the world who is not in love with “The Goonies.” As mentioned, it had everything, on paper, I was looking for in a film like this.  All of the pieces just didn’t add up in the final product.  It was tough to finish this one, as even though the action is wall-to-wall, I found myself checking out of the story because of a lack of interest in the people involved in the action.  I’m glad to say I have seen it, so I can check it off my list of highly thought of films I need to see.  However, I can’t recommend this one as a purchase unless you absolutely love the film. You will be thrilled with the transfer, the 4K look of the film, which is beautiful, and the astounding high dynamic range that comes with 4K releases.  For everyone else, if you really want to see it, get it from your local library.

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘The Killing Fields’

I remember renting this film from Netflix a few years ago and telling my friends what I was about to watch. I got a good dose of jaws dropping open and many of the same responses:

“Oh, that’s a fun one!”

“Go into it with a strong stomach. There are scenes in it that will pulverize you!”

“Not a fun movie!”

I remember hearing a lot about “The Killing Fields” when it was first released back in 1984, but it took me until recently to finally sit down and watch it all the way through. From a distance, it looks like another in a long line of movies about the Vietnam War and of the terrible damage it left in its wake. But in actuality, it takes place in Cambodia when the country is in the midst of a civil war with the Khmer Rouge regime; a result of the Vietnam War spilling over the country’s borders. It is based on the memoirs of award-winning American journalist Sydney Schanberg who was a correspondent for The New York Times, and of how he spent years reporting the endless fighting and bombing which took place in Cambodia and Laos. Along with photographers Jon Swain (Julian Sands) and Al Rockoff (John Malkovich), he works to capture the reality of this horrific situation as it escalates into something far worse, and before the United States military can sanitize what is being presented for public consumption.

But as much as “The Killing Fields” is about what happened in this conflict, it is really at its heart a story of friendship between Sydney and his translator, Cambodian journalist Dith Pran. Together, they work to get to the unvarnished proof of the situation and risk their lives in many instances. In the process of escaping Southeast Asia with their lives, Schanberg helps Pran’s family escape, but as the Americans get ready to leave, they are forced to give up Pran as the new regime wants all Cambodian citizens to be returned to them. This leads to a guilt ridden Schanberg spending as much time as possible searching for Pran through humanitarian services and government officials. While he does so, we watch Pran being subjected to forced labor under the “Year Zero” policy the Khmer Rouge initiated to destroy the past and start a new future.

The scene where Dith Pran stumbles upon the corpses left to rot in the Cambodian fields is where the movie gets its name, and these images will never leave my mind. In that moment, director Roland Joffé captures the vicious and evil nature of Pol Pot, Cambodia’s answer to Adolf Hitler. What happened in these fields is no different from what the Nazi’s had done to the Jews during World War II. But what’s even worse is this same kind of ethnic cleansing is still being exacted in different parts of the world today. Some might foolishly think the events of “The Killing Fields” have no real relevance to what we are suffering through today, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, with this movie, we get depressing proof of how history repeats itself.

What gives “The Killing Fields” even more emotional heft is that Haing S. Ngor, who plays Dith Pran, went through the same ordeal as did his real-life counterpart. It is impossible to watch Ngor here without knowing he shared a horrifyingly similar experience as he had to convince the soldiers he was an uneducated peasant. Had they realized Dith was really an intellectual and a reporter, he would have been killed right on the spot. Ngor was not a professional actor when he got cast, so he doesn’t act as much as provide an undeniably human face of what Cambodians were forced to endure when the Khmer Rouge came to town, and he gives what is undoubtedly one of the bravest performances I have ever see. Forget the Oscar; Ngor should have received the Purple Heart!

But as great as Ngor is, let’s not leave out the other actors whose work is every bit as good. Sam Waterston plays Sidney Schanberg, and this was long before he got involved in that long-running show with the overbearing “chung CHUNG” sound. Waterston does exceptional work capturing Schanberg’s relentless quest for truth and presenting it for all the world to see. Throughout, we see him stubbornly pursue whatever sources are available to him regardless of how it puts his life and the lives of those close to him in constant mortal danger. This later leads to a deep sense of guilt as he encouraged Dith Pran to stay with him even though he was at greater risk than anyone else in his circle. Waterston captures the complexities of a reporter who sees the importance of getting at the heart of a story as well as the large cost which becomes all too difficult to deal with.

In addition, we have John Malkovich in one of his earliest roles, and we see the unrelenting intensity he brings to Al Rockoff as he quickly recovers from an explosion which goes off right next him. Almost immediately, Malkovich jumps right back up to take as many photos as possible. Julian Sands also has one of his earliest roles here as fellow photographer Jon Swain, and this was long before he got stuck in those “Warlock” movies. Plus, you have Craig T. Nelson on board as Major Reeves, the face of the military officials who work to cover up American mistakes while maintaining whatever control they have left over an increasingly chaotic situation.

And then there is the late Spalding Gray who co-stars as the U.S. Consul, and his experience of making “The Killing Fields” ended up inspiring his one-man monologue “Swimming to Cambodia.” Hence, another career was born thanks to this movie which led to many more immensely entertaining monologues performed by him until he left us ever so tragically.

Looking back, it’s surprising to see “The Killing Fields” marked the feature film directorial debut of Roland Joffé. From watching this, I figured he had been directing motion pictures already for decades. Nothing on display here ever feels like it was staged or overly rehearsed. Joffé makes you feel like you are watching a very in-depth documentary which no one else could have pulled off, and that is saying a lot.

Joffe was also aided greatly by Director of Photography Chris Menges, who won an Oscar for his work here, as he captures a land and a time which is anything but sentimental. Composer Mike Oldfield, best known for composing and performing “Tubular Bells,” also provides an original sounding film score which heightens the horror and unrelenting chaos consuming Cambodia and those unlucky enough to be stuck there.

All these years later, “The Killing Fields” remains an immensely powerful cinematic achievement, and I wonder if people still think about it as much as they did back in the 80’s. Ngor, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar (I was rooting for Pat Morita who was nominated for “The Karate Kid“), was murdered during a robbery in downtown Los Angeles outside his home in Chinatown. Knowing he survived the horrific fate which consumed and destroyed the lives of many Cambodians only to have his life cruelly ended in such an utterly senseless crime makes watching this film today seem all the more tragic.

As for Joffé, he went on to direct “The Mission” with Robert DeNiro and Jeremy Irons which received critical acclaim. But then he helmed the dreadfully miscalculated adaptation of “The Scarlet Letter” which changed the end of the book and added more sex to it for all the wrong reasons. Then he went on to direct “Captivity,” a movie so blatantly unwatchable I turned it off after less than 20 minutes. You look at “The Killing Fields” and then at “Captivity,” and you wonder what the heck happened to this guy.

I am really glad I finally took the time to watch “The Killing Fields” long after its original release in 1984. Even if its Best Picture montage give away the film’s ending, it did not take away from the experience of watching it. This proved to be not just a great directorial debut, but a great collaboration of artists who completely sucked you into the reality of a place and time many of us would never want to experience up close. So many years later, this is a cinematic masterpiece which forces you to experience what people go through. There’s no way to come out of “The Killing Fields” without being deeply affected by it.

I desperately tried to resist using this cliché, but I have to say it; they don’t make movies like this anymore. With Hollywood’s constant obsession with comic book and superhero movies, let alone the latest unnecessary remake, you have to wonder if we will ever see a movie like “The Killing Fields” ever again.

* * * * out of * * * *

Alan Parker’s ‘Angel Heart’ is a Devastating Descent Into Hell

Angel Heart” is a heavily atmospheric movie which makes you feel the coldness of New York and the never-ending heat of Louisiana in the summertime which makes you sweat like nothing else can. It is not a loud slam bang movie, and it does take its sweet time in setting up the story and the locations which the characters exist in. Each city proves to be an important character, and they reflect the nightmares and dreams of the main characters. If this movie were made today, I imagine the studios would want the actors cast in it to be younger and hipper and take away some of the dark stuff. I hope this is one Hollywood can leave off of the remake table.

Back when this was made, Mickey Rourke was a much bigger star, and this is one of the many movies he starred in without shampooing his hair beforehand. As Harry Angel, he does excellent work in making this New York City private investigator seem tough and sleazy, yet resourceful and vulnerable. Harry’s life unravels faster and faster as he digs deeper and deeper into the mystery which surrounds him. Watching Rourke here reminds me of what a strong and brave actor he can be when given the right material. Back then, he was not afraid to play someone whose dark side could often prove to be overpowering. His off-screen antics seemed to get the best of him over the years, but thanks to his performances in “Sin City” and “The Wrestler,” there is no forgetting who he is.

The movie credits itself for having “a special appearance” by Robert De Niro. Special appearance? This seems to imply you see him in the movie only once. On point of fact, we see him several times throughout as Louis Cyphre (pay close attention to this name). It is one of the few performances where De Niro never goes over the top and becomes a threatening force without ever having to put much effort into doing so. As Cyphre, De Niro gives a delicious performance of a man endlessly fascinated by the corruption and decay of the soul, and it appears he finds this as delicious as the hard-boiled eggs he always has on hand to eat. When he says the egg is the symbol of the soul and then slowly bites into it in front of Harry, it is a very chilling moment.

Lisa Bonet was deep into playing Denise Huxtable on “The Cosby Show” when she was cast in “Angel Heart.” I imagine the MPAA tricked themselves into giving this film an adults only rating because they got all hot and bothered at one Cosby’s television daughters showing her breasts. I can see them now:

“We can’t let kids see this movie! They will never look at one of television’s famous daughters the same again! This will destroy their innocence!! Won’t somebody think of the children?!”

Alan Parker, who directed “Angel Heart,” ended up cutting out ten seconds of the sex scene between Rourke and Bonet in order to secure an R rating. Upon its release on video and laserdisc, those ten seconds were restored. I first saw this film at New Beverly Cinema which prides itself on showing everything in 35mm, so I can only assume I was watching the theatrical version. But seriously, you cannot convince me this deserved to be an NC-17 movie even with those extra seconds. People can be so testy for all the wrong reasons.

A lot of the controversy surrounding “Angel Heart” almost hides the fact Bonet is actually really good here. A lot of people probably assumed she got the role of Epiphany Proudfoot because of her success on “The Cosby Show,” but Parker made it clear to everyone he picked her because he felt she was right for the part. Having seen this movie, I completely agree. I also have to admit it was fun seeing her naked, but anyway. Epiphany (perfectly named by the way) is a mysterious person who seems to say everything yet reveals nothing, and Bonet captures her character’s mystery very well to where she keeps us guessing.

Parker made many great movies over the years like “Birdy” and the cinematic experience which is “Midnight Express” to name a few. Like “Angel Heart,” they deal with lost souls trying desperately to free themselves of whatever is holding them back. There is a lot holding Harry Angel back, but when he finally gets to the truth, he will find that being held back was actually a blessing he could never see. Parker gives the movie a distinctive look as it takes place in the 1940’s, and he directs the actors very well and gives each a memorable moment which sticks with you long after the lights come up.

Trevor Jones composed the music score, and he does great work capturing the tension and atmosphere. Right from the start, he aids the filmmakers in realizing the horrifying truth Harry has spent the entire movie trying to find.

The first official trailer for “Angel Heart” goes out of its way to make it look like this is the second coming of horror by comparing it to “The Exorcist” and “Chinatown.” This proved to be a bit misleading as this film does not quite reach the heights of those two classics, and it really stands out as being from them. Still, it is a very good film which once against demonstrates Parker’s unique gifts as a filmmaker.

It did not receive much of an audience upon its release which almost led to me putting this in my “Underseen Movies” category, but it has since received a significant cult following throughout the years. Here is hoping that cult following will continue to grow, and that the remake train will leave this one off its passenger list. Seriously, Hollywood really needs to try more original stuff.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: Alan Parker’s ‘Birdy’ Starring Nicolas Cage and Matthew Modine

Birdy” is a great movie and a deeply felt character study about two young men who grow up together, and who are forever changed by the war they are drafted into. The movie is based on a book by William Wharton which chronicles two characters who are thrown into World War II. For the film, it was changed to Vietnam as the screenwriters, Sandy Kroopf and Jack Behr, wanted to work with their own youthful experiences. The story starts out with the two main characters who are now out of the Vietnam War, but who are forever scared by it permanently. In the end, they see all they have is each other.

Events move back and forth in time as we first see Nicolas Cage’s character of Alfonso “Al” Columbato coming out of the hospital following a bomb explosion which seriously disfigured his face. Bandaged like a Frankenstein creation, or like Michael Myers at the beginning of “Halloween 4,” he is no longer the ladies’ man we see getting to first base in scenes from his past. From there, Al travels to another army hospital where Birdy (Matthew Modine) is holed up in a cell not saying a word. After the damage the war has done to him, Birdy (we never learn his real name) has seemingly accomplished what he has set out to do – to become a bird in his own mind.

“Birdy” then shifts to their high school years in Philadelphia when Al and Birdy first met. While they initially seem like complete opposites, we come to see they want the same thing in life: to fly away from their problems. With Al, he has an abusive father to deal with who thinks nothing of smacking his son around when he screws up, and being on the high school wrestling team helps him deal with his utter frustration of not being able to stand up to him. With Birdy, he has a tough as nails father who is nowhere as sympathetic and understanding as his janitor father, and who is always taking away the baseballs that the kids unintentionally keep batting into her yard. Both Al and Birdy keep coming up with schemes to make money while hoping for an escape from their meager existence. But when it comes to flying away, Birdy is a far more literal about it.

Al really represents Birdy’s strongest link to the outside world as he falls deeper and deeper into his obsession with birds and in wanting to fly like one. He never shows much interest in anything you expect teenagers to indulge themselves in like girlfriends, making out, or being normal. One of the funniest expressions Birdy has is when he talks about how bad he feels for women as they have to have breasts which they just have to carry around and how they flop all over the place. I can’t think of anyone else who would make such a ridiculous argument, man or woman.

The scenes in which Birdy spends time with a beautiful yellow canary he gets and names Perta are some of the most memorable to found here. This is not just some National Geographic special you are watching as we see him studying birds ever so closely, almost making love to them. There is one amazing sequence where he dreams he is flying like a bird and director Alan Parker shoots the scene from a bird’s eye view as we go around people and fly over cars and then way up into the sky above. All this done to the instrumental version of Peter Gabriel’s “Not One of Us,” and this is one first movies to make use of the Skycam which is used to incredible effect.

While all this may make this movie sound like a nostalgic journey to the past, it is really a very hard-hitting movie which has its funny and nostalgic moments and also many awkward and painful ones. Seeing Birdy going to a prom, only because his mom threatens to get rid of his birds if he doesn’t, is painful in terms of how much we know he doesn’t want to be there, and you feel for his date who has the biggest crush on him. Hell, I would have killed to date the girl he goes out with! And seeing at the start how these guys are now at living in a time where they are forever changed, we know they are on an emotional descent which may permanently rob them of what is left of their humanity.

Seeing these two actors early on in their careers reminds you of just how talented they are. Cage’s role of Al is one of my favorites of his as we see him as a fun-loving guy, and then as a frightened war veteran who is terribly uncertain of what lies ahead for him. Having to spend so much of this movie in bandages could seem so limiting to many actors, but not to Mr. Cage. Before production began, it was said he had his wisdom teeth removed and without Novocaine. Learning this really made my mouth hurt! Talk about suffering for your art! Still, it did make his performance feel rawer and more genuine, and I still look forward to seeing more work from him like this even as he continues to dwell in the direct to video realm.

Modine has an especially hard role to play because he could have played it far too broadly, but he makes Birdy’s love for birds seem so real to where it is perfectly understandable why he has since withdrawn from reality. When we see him at the hospital, he is almost completely speechless and has to convey how he feels through his eyes, something actors need to learn if they want to be great at their job. This is one his best performances as well, and it led him to a career where he has played many different roles, and he continues to do so.

This is one of Parker’s best movies, and it stands alongside his strongest efforts including “Midnight Express” and “Mississippi Burning.” With “Birdy,” he has not just made some simple antiwar movie about how unnecessary and brutal war is, but of the bond of friendship and how it can never be completely broken, especially when you are in need. In essence, the scars, both physically and mentally, which have been inflicted on these two men bring them together because it seems like no one else can ever truly understand them. The heart of this movie is in the way these two men lean on each other, and how they recognize each other’s strengths. Parker gets this and makes it the main thrust of this excellent motion picture. In the end, most of his movies deal with people in a place which seems so alien and unwelcome to them, and of the rough and tumble journey to get back to the land of the living.

And, of course, I cannot complete this interview without mentioning Peter Gabriel’s film score as it has provided me with a soundtrack I never get sick of listening to. While it may seem weird to compose music to a period movie with electronic instruments, his music fits perfectly into the themes Parker deals with here. Like the characters, it is in its own world and dwells in both the beauty and pain of life. The music is cribbed from a lot of Gabriel’s other albums (which he has he freely admitted to many times), and it would have been interesting if he did include some of the lyrics to the songs used here like “Wallflower” as they illustrate the mental health obstacles these two men have to overcome.

Seriously, I love “Birdy,” and when the name Alan Parker comes up, this is one of the first movies of his I think of. It also contains one of the best endings of any movie I have ever seen, and you have to watch “Birdy” all the way through to the end in order to fully appreciate it. Trust me, it is worth the trouble, and it makes this Grand Prix Spécial du Jury prize winner from the Cannes Film Festival all the more unforgettable.

* * * * out of * * * *

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.