‘The Cotton Club Encore’ Gives This Movie The Version it Deserves

thecottonclubencore-keyart

For years, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1984 film “The Cotton Club” was upstaged by its behind the scenes drama which included the cold-blooded murder of one of its financiers, Roy Radin. With Coppola teaming up again with producer Robert Evans and writer Mario Puzo, audiences must have been expecting another “Godfather” movie, but what they got was something quite different. Despite some good reviews, the movie proved to be a commercial failure, and far more time has spent documenting all of what went into its nightmarish making to where I am truly surprised Eleanor Coppola has never given us a documentary on it like she did with “Apocalypse Now.”

Now it is 35 years later, and Coppola has given us another version entitled “The Cotton Club Encore.” This version came about after he discovered an old Betamax video copy of his original cut which ran 25 minutes longer. From there, Coppola spent $500,000 of his own money to restore this film, and in the process he added 24 minutes and deleted 13 minutes to give us this new cut which just arrived in select theaters. For the record, I have not seen the original 1984 version, but after watching “The Cotton Club Encore,” I am certain I do not even need to bother as this cut is outstanding and absolutely exhilarating to take in. What seemed deeply flawed in the past now seems almost perfect.

In essence, “The Cotton Club” is about two men trying to navigate the hurdles life keeps throwing at them. One is cornet player Dixie Dwyer (played by Richard Gere) who arrives back in Harlem to see his family which includes his mother Tish (Gwen Verdon in an inspired piece of casting) and his brother Vincent (Nicolas Cage) who looks to be all too enthusiastic about becoming a mobster. After saving the life of gangland kingpin Dutch Schultz (James Remar), Dixie finds himself getting involved in the criminal element which, despite his better judgment, succeeds in elevating his career as a musician to a whole new level. In the process, however, he does make the mistake of falling in love with Dutch’s girlfriend, Vera Cicero (Diane Lane). Suffice to say, romances like these come with bloody endings rather than happy ones.

The other main man in this story is Delbert “Sandman” Williams (Gregory Hines) who, along with his brother Clayton “Clay” Williams (Maurice Hines, Gregory’s brother), get hired to perform at The Cotton Club, a jazz club located in Harlem which featured a roster of black (or African American if you will) performers who sang and danced their hearts out. While there, Delbert becomes infatuated with a singer named Lila Rose Oliver (Lonette McKee) to where he cannot wait to sweep her off her feet. But it doesn’t take long for the cracks to show in his personal and professional life as he gets constantly berated by club management which is intent on reminding him where his place is, and he later makes a decision which threatens to tear him and his brother apart forever.

The Cotton Club was a real club in New York which was open from 1923 to 1940, and while it did feature mostly black performers, no one of color could patronize it and the clientele was white. This irony ended up lasting all the way up this film’s making as the financiers, worried the long running time, gave Coppola the following notes:

“Film’s too long. Too many black stories. Too much tap dancing. Too many musical numbers.”

Coppola by then was so burned out emotionally from the movie’s production that he acquiesced to the financiers and cut down many of the African-American related scenes to where the focus was more on the gangsters and the Gere/Lane love story. No wonder he sounds so weary when talking today about the changes he made and of how regretful he was about compromising his vision. It also serves as a sad statement of how things in show business did not change much as, even in the 1980’s, African-Americans were still getting the short end of the stick.

With “The Cotton Club Encore,” Coppola has restored much of the African-American storyline, and this is really where the movie is at its best. Seeing these actors and singers perform their hearts out is endlessly thrilling as is the director’s success in transporting us back to the bygone era of the 1930’s. Coppola really does take us back in time to where I felt like I lived through this era which brought with it great music, good and bad times, violence and, among other things, a stock market crash. Heaven forbid we ever go through anything like that crash again, huh?

One of the big treats of all though is watching Gregory Hines and his brother Maurice dance the night away. Both are extraordinary tap dancers, and the love they had for performing is on display throughout as they make their moves look like a piece of cake. Seeing Gregory here serves as a strong reminder of what an incredibly talented and gifted artist he was, and it is also especially bittersweet as he has long since left the land of the living. He was only 57 years old when he passed away after a battle with liver cancer, and he is still missed.

Indeed, this bittersweet feeling threatened to overwhelm me at times as “The Cotton Club Encore” features a number of actors who have since died like Bob Hoskins who portrays the ruthless club owner Owney Madden, and Fred Gwynne as his right-hand man, Frenchy Demange. The scene these two actors have together following a hostage situation is classic, and is another reminder of the talent we have lost over the years.

Another tremendous performance to be found in “The Cotton Club” comes from Lonette McKee, an actress I first became familiar with in “Brewster’s Millions.” With this new cut, Coppola has gone out of his way to restore her showstopping number of “Stormy Weather,” and watching her belt it out left me speechless. She doesn’t just sing the song, she lives through it, and it is an emotionally draining moment I still think about. It is one thing for a singer to hit all the right notes, and it is another to really perform it to where you are giving the most vulnerable performance imaginable, and McKee pulls this off beautifully.

The movie’s other main story of an illicit love affair had me worried for a bit as this tale has been told countless times on stage and screen to where we feel like we know how it will go. Regardless, it still proves to be enthralling in its own way. While it is easily upstaged by the African-American story, it is still fun to see Richard Gere and Diane Lane mix up as they prove to have a palpable chemistry which they would build on years later when they starred in Adrian Lyne’s “Unfaithful.” While it is a little weird to hear Gere’s Bronx accent at first, he quickly reminds us why he is such a magnetic leading man, and he proves to be quite the coronet player as well.

The only real problem I had with “The Cotton Club,” and this is probably the case with either version, is there are too many plot threads which meander, some of which fail to reach a fulfilling conclusion. Despite his efforts, Coppola is unable to manage these various threads to where everything fits into a cohesive whole. At times, it almost made me wish he cut more out of this version as things might have flowed better as a result. And yes, there is that fake head (you will know it when you see it) which proves to be as fake as the baby in “American Sniper.” Perhaps some CGI magic could have helped with it.

Still, when all is said and done, “The Cotton Club Encore” proves to be a stunning achievement as Coppola has finally given this film the version it truly deserves. While he may have come onto this project as a hired hand at first, it is clear to me he really fell in love with the subject matter and took joy in recreating a historical period which deserves far more than a passing glance.

It has been a big year for Coppola as he has announced plans to make his dream project “Megalopolis” a cinematic reality, and he also gave us another version of one of his classics with “Apocalypse Now: Final Cut.” With “The Cotton Club Encore,” he has righted the wrongs he made in the past, and he can now pat himself on the back instead of moan over the mistakes he made over 30 years ago. More importantly, this movie is no longer upstaged by its production stories and can now be appreciated on its own terms.

Relax Francis, you did great!

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Gremlins’ 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Review

Gremlins 4K Ultra HD cover

The following review is written by Ultimate Rabbit Correspondent Tony Farinella.

Gremlins” came out a year before I was born, but the true test of any good to great movie is how it holds up, regardless of how old it is.  While watching this 1984 classic for the first time in what feels like ages, it does show its age in some respects.  However, there is something rather charming about the 80’s comedy/horror film that still holds true to this day.  The film is rated PG, although if it were released today, I would imagine it would get a PG-13 rating.  There is nothing overly graphic about it, but it’s partially a children’s horror/comedy and partially a young adult horror/comedy. Oddly enough, the PG-13 rating was put into place two months after this film, according to research.

Everything gets set into motion when a quirky and outside-the-box inventor named Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) wants to buy something special for his son on Christmas.   He happens to come across a very special creature known as a Mogwai.  The man in charge of the antique shop does not want to sell it, but his grandson does a side deal with Randall in order to get some much-needed money.   He tells the man to remember three things: Don’t get it wet, don’t expose it to the sun, and don’t feed it after midnight.  Randall thinks this sounds simple enough and proceeds to take the Mogwai home to give to his son Billy for Christmas.

All is fine and dandy with the Mogwai, which ends up being named Gizmo, until one night it gets wet.  They learn that this creates even more Mogwais in the process. Things turn even worse when Billy (Zach Galligan) feeds them accidentally after midnight. Now, Gizmo is one of the good ones.  He is adorable and harmless.  The rest of them, however, turn evil and create mayhem and mischief at every corner.  It is up to Billy and the girl he likes, Katie (Phoebe Cates) to stop these gremlins from destroying everything in their path.

Gremlins 4K scene clip

Considering all of the various films that came out in the 80’s that dealt with teenagers/young people in peril trying to figure things out, it’s easy to see why this film was such a success.  We are seeing a lot of that with “It” and “Stranger Things.”  What’s old is new again. People hold a certain affinity for the 80’s and the films that came out during that period.   They also like to see the young kids taking control of a situation.  That is what happens here.  It doesn’t take long for things to get out of hand.

“Gremlins” is a very fast-paced film directed by Joe Dante, and he mixes the comedy and horror together just right. The screenplay by Chris Columbus is also very well-written, and this helps the proceedings.  It is not a scary film at all, but it is a film which knows what it is trying to accomplish for audiences. This is a film which is a lot of fun and over-the-top with its use of the various creatures inhabiting it.  While they garner a lot of screen time, it is impossible not to notice the cast which also includes Judge Reinhold and Corey Feldman.  It is also great to see a horror film where the parents actually believe the children instead of doubting them, and they are fighting alongside the children against these hideous creatures.

In the end, thirty-five years later, “Gremlins” does show some signs of aging, but as mentioned earlier, considering how people are gravitating toward the horror comedies of the 1980’s with young teens in peril, it works quite well in today’s cinematic world.   With it being released on 4K, this is the perfect time to pick it up and add it to your collection.  The transfer is a solid upgrade, and it’s the perfect movie to watch with Halloween fast approaching.   While there is a lot going on here, it never feels overstuffed or overpopulated.  It feels just right in terms of the pacing, the acting, and the outcome.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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Video Info: The 4K is released on 2160p Ultra High Definition 16×9 1.85:1, and the Blu-Ray is 1080p High Definition 16×9 1.85:1.  While the 4K transfer is a solid improvement over the Blu-Ray, it’s not a huge improvement.  The Blu-Ray is pretty basic and does not stand out all that much. It is still grainy in certain scenes, and they didn’t add anything new to the Blu-Ray.  With the 4K, it adds more color with the high dynamic range.  For those like myself who are really big into audio and video, you want to own the best version of this film. Again, it’s the same Blu-Ray that’s always been out there, but you are buying this for the 4K transfer.

Audio Info:  I did not notice a huge difference in the audio on the 4K disc as much as I do with the video quality. However, there is still a slightly noticeable difference here with the audio on 4K, and this is what makes it an especially worthy purchase.  The audio on the 4K is DTS-HD MA: English 5.1, Dolby Digital: French 5.1, Dolby Digital: Spanish 5.1 (Both Castilian 5.1 and Latin 2.0).   The subtitles are in English, French, and Spanish. For the Blu-Ray, you get Dolby TrueHD: English 5.1, Dolby Digital: English 5.1, Dolby Digital: English 2.0, Dolby Digital: French 5.1, Dolby Digital: Spanish 5.1 (Both Castilian 5.1 and Latin 2.0).   The subtitles are in English, Spanish, and French.  There are no problems to report with the audio, and it is consistent throughout.

Special Features:

Filmmakers’ Commentary with Director Joe Dante, Producer Michael Finnell and Special Effects Artist Chris Walas:  If you are looking for the behind the scenes commentary track on the filmmaking process, this is the special feature for you.  They cover a lot of ground here, and it is especially interesting to hear from Chris Walas who would go on from here to win an Academy Award for Best Makeup on “The Fly.”

Commentary with Joe Dante, Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Dick Miller, and Howie Mandel:  If you are looking to hear from the actors and how they approached this project, this is the right commentary track to listen to as they tell some great stories.  These commentary tracks are on both the 4K and the Blu-Ray.  They are both worth listening to, as they offer something different.

Theatrical Trailers

Photo/Storyboard Gallery

Gremlins Behind-The-Scenes Featurette (06:21):  This was put together when “Gremlins” was being shot, so it is not a modern special feature.  It features interviews with Joe Dante, Hoyt Axton, Zach Galligan, Chris Walas, Phoebe Cates, and Steven Spielberg. Oddly enough, Spielberg did not consider it a horror film or a spoof when talking about it on this special feature from the 80’s.  I wonder what he thinks of the film today.  He said “Gremlins” was unlike anything he had read which was why he bought it and gave it to Dante to direct.  It would have been great to see a more modern special feature which looked back on the film thirty-five years later.

Additional footage which includes an extended opening, an extension of Judge Reinhold’s character, and more with commentary by Joe Dante (10:26): Joe Dante talks about the editing process and how the original rough cut was two hours and forty minutes. He talks about why these scenes were deleted as some were repetitive.  Other voices are heard on the commentary track, but they are not identified.  I believe some of them are from the actors like Phoebe Cates and Zach Galligan. You can listen to this with or without commentary.

Should You Buy It?

While there are no new special features, “Gremlins” is a good addition to add to your collection if you own a 4K TV and 4K Blu-Ray player.  The 4K transfer is an improvement, and the price is only $24.99. That said, it would have been nice to see some new special features as well as an updated Blu-Ray release to go with the 4K disc. If they had just put a little more time and effort into that, this release would have been a home run.

Geretta Geretta on Working with Lucio Fulci and Bruno Mattei

 

Geretta Geretta Demons photo

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is about a screening which took place in 2013.

Actress Geretta Geretta (a.k.a. Geretta Giancarlo) was at New Beverly Cinema to talk about her role in Lamberto Bava’s Italian horror movie “Demons.” It turns out that movie was one of ten she made while living in Italy for several years, and her time there also had her working with a couple of other Italian filmmakers: Lucio Fulci and Bruno Mattei. Both have long since gained a large cult following for their cinematic work, and Geretta took the time to tell the audience what it was like working with them.

Fulci has been called the “Godfather of Gore” by many, and he is best known for his films “Zombie” and “The Beyond.” Geretta worked with Fulci on “Murder Rock: Dancing with Death” which was about the owner of a prestigious New York ballet school who teams up with a male model in an attempt to solve the murders of a few students. One male audience member told Geretta how the movie has one of his favorite death sequences ever, and she was thrilled to hear this and quickly responded, “kiss that man!” Her description of Fulci as a filmmaker and as a person surprised those who didn’t know him as well as she did.

Murder Rock movie poster

Geretta Geretta: He was known to have a difficult personality, and that’s putting it lightly. He had a lot of tragedy in his life. A couple of his wives committed suicide, and his kids were on drugs. Everything was really bad for him, and he had to work. He had to keep working and get that job done. So, when you went to the audition your agent said, don’t talk back, don’t say anything, and don’t ask any questions. What’s your motivation? Your check. Just shut up and do whatever he says. For me, working with him was a dream. I have no problem following direction. But he literally would go into a shaking fit, start screaming, spit coming out of his face, rolling on the ground furious. That’s what it was like working with Fulci.

Mattei was another Italian filmmaker who had gained a significant cult following for his exploitation movies such as “SS Girls” and the zombie flick “Virus: Hell of the Living Dead.” In many circles he is considered to be the “Ed Wood of Italian filmmaking” as his films were filled with a lot of stock footage, bad acting and utterly ridiculous dialogue. Still, Mattei got to work with many noted filmmakers such as Fulci and Claudio Fragasso, and he was lucky enough to direct actors like Lou Ferrigno, Donald Pleasance and Richard Harris before they became famous.

Of all the movies Mattei made, the one he was proudest of was “Rats: Night of Terror.” Inspired by the look of futuristic 1980’s movies, it takes place more than a century after a nuclear war has devastated Earth. What is left of society has been divided into two groups; those who live comfortably in underground cities, and the scavengers who are forced to live in the sunlight. But soon, these two groups are forced to work together to defend themselves against a horde of flesh-eating mutant rats which are prepared to devour everything and anything in their path.

Geretta played Chocolate in “Rats: Night of Terror,” and she gleefully shared what it was like auditioning for Mattei.

Rats Night of Terror poster

GG: With Bruno (Mattei) it was kind of different because with Dario (Argento) it’s all hushed in the halls and everything’s like yes sir, yes sir, and Bruno was like all excited about everything. He asked me, hey kid! You afraid of animals? And I go, no. He then asked, are you worried about furry things? I said no. And he’s all, great because it’s gonna be rats! And I won’t even tell you the things we used to do before the cameras started rolling because it was very scary.

Geretta then went on to say while Bava and Argento had a million dollars to make “Demons” with, Mattei’s budget on “Rats: Night of Terror” was so low to where the film crew kept the dead rats they threw at the actors so that they could reuse them (yikes!).

It was great to listen to Geretta Geretta talk about these two filmmakers, both of whom have since passed away. While some critics have long since dismissed the films of Lucio Fulci and Bruno Mattei, they both still have a strong legion of fans who are more than willing to see every single movie they created. Both Anchor Bay Entertainment and Blue Underground have gone out of their way to remaster their films for new generations of movie buffs to discover, so the stamp they left on the world of cinema is not about to disappear.

‘Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter’ – Yeah, Whatever

Friday the 13th Part IV The Final Chapter movie poster

I was in the second grade when this movie came out in 1984. It was also one of the few movies in this endless series to actually open on Friday the 13th. Looking back, it was interesting to see 8 and 9-year-old kids get excited about a movie they had no business watching at that age. Whether adults liked it or not, these movies played a big part in our lives, and they were to my generation as the “Saw” and “Paranormal Activity” movies are to today’s. The sight of bloody violence on the big screen, as opposed to real life, is still exciting to watch, and this has been the case for much longer than we realize.

Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter” was the first film in what became known as the Tommy Jarvis trilogy, the other two being “Part V: A New Beginning” and “Part VI: Jason Lives.” Tommy is played here by Corey Feldman in a gleeful performance as he delights in making scary masks he can hide behind, but this glee eventually becomes undone by Jason’s bloody rampage. This film marked the beginning of Tommy’s descent into madness which was eventually cut short by a much-needed franchise retcon after “Part V.”

When Jason got an ax to the head in “Part 3-D,” it was the first time in the franchise in which he actually got killed off. Jason didn’t appear in “Friday the 13th” until the very end when he gave us one of the biggest jump scares in movie history, and he wasn’t even killed off in “Part II.” Sure, he got his ass kicked, but it was not a fatal blow for he was slowly grabbing his machete as the virginal heroes walked away. When “Part III” came along, it was assumed Jason finally met his maker. That is, until Paramount Pictures realized they made $36 million off a movie with a $2.5 million budget.

When “The Final Chapter” starts, the police have arrived at Crystal Lake and Jason, wearing the hockey mask first introduced in “Part III,” is being shipped off to the morgue. When he arrives at the hospital, he is left in the care of the biggest slob of a doctor/coroner ever, Axel (Bruce Mahler). Seeing him slobber all over his burrito while watching women in skin tight spandex clothing doing aerobics makes one wonder how he got hired in the first place. For some bizarre reason Axel ends up making out with Nurse Morgan (Lisa Freeman) even though she is utterly repulsed by him. Then again, if common sense was used by any of the characters, this movie would not exist. These two get murdered (big surprise), and Jason somehow makes it pass security with his hockey mask on and heads back to Crystal Lake.

Actually, he ends up going next door to Crystal Lake and drops in on a mother and her two kids who have rented a house next to another where a bunch of teens are looking to have a good time which includes drinking beer, smoking pot, watching vintage porno movies, having as much premarital sex as possible and indulging in some mandatory skinny dipping. You know, the normal weekend one has in Las Vegas. You know what happens next; Jason proceeds to do his Benihana act on everybody like a drunk with power landlord who never hesitates to evict tenants who haven’t paid their rent in months.

The “Friday the 13th” movies usually feature actors you never hear from again, but aside from Feldman there is another actor who still works a lot: Crispin Glover. He plays Jimmy, a man who has had no real luck with women. Throughout the movie, he keeps getting woman advice from Ted (Lawrence Monoson) who seems to know everything about them. Guess who gets laid first. No, it’s not who you think…or maybe it is.

It’s a kick to watch Glover here, as “The Final Chapter” came out before he hit it big as George McFly in “Back to the Future.” You also gotta dig his great spastic dance moves which more or less predated the break dancing era. No one dances like he does, and no one else dies like he does in this movie. Could he be as strange as the characters he plays? Maybe so, but these days he seems to be using his strangeness to good effect.

Of course, we always look forward to Jason laying waste to these unsuspecting teenagers, and he definitely gets a number of seriously nasty cuts in which were probably even nastier until the MPAA came in and said “no I don’t think so.”

One classic moment features a guy getting it right in the groin. Oh to be in a theater when this scene was displayed on the silver screen. It’s one of the few times where you can see a whole audience of men grab their crotches, thankful it was not them who suddenly got turned into falsetto singers. There is also a nice shower scene as well which ends with Jason doing a Norman Bates routine. It’s not as suspenseful as “Psycho,” but it sure is a lot bloodier!

Much has been said over the years of how sexist the “Friday the 13th” movies are towards women. Granted, some female characters are treated like sex objects with magnificent bodies who are out to seduce whatever men end up getting locked in their crosshairs. But at the same time, these movies feature women as being the bravest and most heroic of the bunch. They’re the ones who find the to defeat Jason after everyone else has failed because they were busy making out or doing drugs. Why do critics keep forgetting it’s typically a lone woman who is left alive after all this bloody carnage has reached its inevitable conclusion?

This “Friday the 13th” sequel is also notable for being the last one Tom Savini did the makeup effects for. Having worked on many horror films like “Dawn of the Dead” and “Maniac,” his work has a realism to it as uncomfortable as it is brutally effective. This is even more so when you look at the rest of the sequels where the kills began to look fake and were played for laughs. Apparently, Savini based a lot of his work on what he saw as a combat photographer and soldier in Vietnam, so there is a real authenticity to his work we cannot ignore.

The director for “The Final Chapter” was Joseph Zito, and his credits include “Missing in Action,” “Invasion U.S.A.” and “Red Scorpion.” Zito is one of those workmen-like directors who gets the job done and simply gives the audience what they want. Other than that, his style of directing doesn’t have any distinguishing characteristics.

Playing the immortal Jason Voorhees in “The Final Chapter” is Ted White, but you wouldn’t know it since he had his name taken off the credits. White was selected for the role because he is a big guy (6′ 4″ tall), and he said he only did it for the money. But White, for what it’s worth, gave this film a brutal and seriously terrifying Jason which ranks among the series’ best. He may not have been happy while working on this one, but White has no business thinking this “Friday the 13th” sequel was a waste of his time. After all, he could have been in “Jason X.”

While this sequel is certainly dated stylistically, it holds up better than many of the others. It was also the last “Friday the 13th” movie which was truly scary, and the series more or less went downhill from there. Even if it got a lot of the predictable hatred from film critics, it is nowhere as bad as some of the later entries, let alone the even cheaper knock offs it inspired.

“Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter” is a movie most people like more than they would ever openly admit. Call it a guilty pleasure if you will, but it is an entertaining one even if it rots your brain like others accuse it of doing. Any guy who tells you they hate these movies has got to be lying to a certain extent, especially when they are just going out the door to see the latest horror movie sequel. They’ll say it’s different, but c’mon! Who are they trying to fool?

* * * out of * * * *

‘A Christmas Carol’ with George C. Scott, My Introduction to the Charles Dickens Classic

A Christmas Carol 1984 poster

I’m sure everyone has read or heard the story of “A Christmas Carol” several dozen times by now, be it as a play, a book, or a movie. My introduction to it came back in 1984 with the television movie starring George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge. My parents got my brother and I to this movie back when we lived in Thousand Oaks, California. Back then, I had no idea what I was in store. All that was going through my head at the time as the movie began was, am I staying up later than Santa Claus would like? I sure didn’t want to miss out on any presents, and it was way past my bedtime. Please keep in mind, I was nine years old at the time.

What makes this particular version of “A Christmas Carol” stand out is how down to earth the actors are in their performances. These days when I see this story, it is usually at a play typically acted and directed with incredible theatricality. But with movies, things are done in a far more intimate fashion. Director Clive Donner doesn’t have any of the actors over-emoting anything and, as a result, these characters end up feeling like our next-door neighbors. Forget how this is a period piece; some things about humans never change.

Ebenezer Scrooge reminded me of the meanest bullies from school, especially those determined to make themselves feel stronger by belittling and excluding others from social gatherings. But seeing him go through the heartaches of life made this particular bully all the more sympathetic to me regardless of how cold he was to people around him. I was already feeling bad for Scrooge before the story’s midpoint. Plus, I thought it was inexcusable for the Ghost of Christmas Present to leave Ebenezer in the freezing cold instead of bringing him home to await the next ghost. Some people can be so inconsiderate.

I first came to discover actor George C. Scott in the movie “Taps,” but this is the role I will always remember him for best, and that’s even over his Oscar winning performance in “Patton.” Scott showed how Scrooge can truly be the role of a lifetime as he takes the character from being a hopeless curmudgeon of a human being to the ultimate fun-loving guy by the story’s conclusion. The moment where he realizes that what the Ghost of Christmas Future was not actually real and promises from there on out to always keep Christmas in his heart is an amazing piece of acting, and this moment remains strong in my memory so many years later.

It is Scott’s brilliant performance which made this particular “Christmas Carol” such a memorable experience for me. Now I don’t know about the rest of my family, but I found myself being pulled from one giant emotion to another. There were times where things got a little too dark for me where I almost cried, and I have always been an infinitely sensitive human being, but all those feelings made for one of the most gloriously happy climaxes in any motion picture I have ever seen. Seeing Scrooge meet up with the fully recovered Tiny Tim brought a big smile to my face. It all reminds me of how Robin Williams, in an interview he had with David Frost, talked about a Russian he once met who told him how we have to live with pain in order to feel pleasure.

It has now been over 30 years since we all watched this version of “A Christmas Carol” with George C. Scott, but the experience of watching it remains ever so vivid in my mind as was my fear of Santa not coming down our chimney if I stayed up so late.

For the record, Santa did come by and left me and my brother plenty of presents… or so I was told.

Peter Weller and Company Revisit ‘Buckaroo Banzai’ at New Beverly Cinema

Buckaroo Banzai poster

Looking back at some of the articles I have written about screenings at New Beverly Cinema, I kept saying or implying that you could never expect any screenings showing there to sell out. But now it looks like that’s becoming less and less the case. Ever since Quentin Tarantino bought the building where the theater is located and saved it from becoming another Supercuts, more and more movie geeks have descended on this establishment, the last standing movie reparatory theater in Los Angeles. Jason Reitman did a movie program there which featured “Election,” “Boogie Nights” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” and it brought out huge crowds of people. Torgan and company ended up having to do something they almost never do; turn people away!

Well, the line around New Beverly once again snaked around the corner as actor Peter Weller was scheduled to introduce a screening of the 1984 cult classic, “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension,” on March 29, 2010. Every single was taken, and the screening got delayed because the line at concessions threatened to snake around the theater as well. Weller brought along two other players from Buckaroo’s crew: Billy Vera who played the bass guitarist for Banzai’s rock band the Blue Blaze Irregulars, and Gerald Peterson who played Rug Sucker. The Q&A was moderated by Jeremy Smith, Mr. Beaks from Ain’t It Cool News, and he proclaimed this to be “the nerdiest movie ever made.” Upon saying this, he got a huge applause from the audience.

Weller did look a little ragged, and he later explained it was because he didn’t go to bed until about 2 a.m. the night before as he just got through 86 hours of PhD exams at UCLA. Furthermore, he said he has been wearing the same clothes for several days straight which reek of cigar smoke as he was smoking 10 of them in a day.

“Buckaroo Banzai” turned out to be a lot of fun, and this is despite the fact I have no idea of how to explain what it’s exactly about. However, it turns out the most ardent fans of this movie and the actors who starred in it can’t really explain what the plot is about either.

“I didn’t understand it (the script) actually, and I think no actor in it does understand it. I don’t think Billy or Gerald understood it, but it was fun,” Weller said.

“If you say you understood it, you’re a liar,” Vera said.

Weller went on to say 20th Century Fox didn’t know how to market “Buckaroo Banzai” at all. The studio executives came to the set around the time they were finishing principal photography and asked him, “Is it an action movie?” Later on, the editor of the movie, Oscar nominee Richard Marks, said, “That film is a comedy! It’s a comedy and they should have known that from the jump!”

But perhaps the best way to describe “Buckaroo Banzai” is its half comedy and half drama. Vera added many television shows later took on the half comedy and half drama formula, but he couldn’t think of any which came before this movie. To this, Weller added, “Or after.”

Weller was actually not sure if he was going to do this film because he had his eye on a romance movie around the same time. But this same romantic movie was getting bounced around from studio to studio, and his agent convinced him to take “Buckaroo Banzai” since it looked more and more like the other flick was not going to happen. With a cast which included Christopher Lloyd, Ellen Barkin and John Lithgow, this could not have been easy to turn down.

“The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension” marked the directorial debut of screenwriter W. D. Richter who was best known for writing Phillip Kaufman’s version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and also “Brubaker.” Richter was also responsible for co-writing another movie 20th Century Fox had trouble promoting, John Carpenter’s “Big Trouble in Little China.” Weller described Richter as a beautiful and really laid-back guy, and that he was also an intellectual from the east coast. Richter didn’t have the get up and go Hollywood thing going on, and Weller said this made him perfect for the actors to work with. Also, Richter was a musician as was Weller and several of the cast members, and Weller said his heroes have always been musicians.

Vera said he got cast after Richter and Weller saw him perform at the Viper Room in Hollywood. After he was done, Vera said Richter got a hold of him and asked, “You know, I like the way you improvise on stage. Do you think you could do that in a movie?” “Yeah, I do it every night,” Vera said. ”Do me a favor,” Richter said, “kind of tell me where you’re gonna stand so that I can have a camera ready for you.” Weller, Vera and Peterson all agreed that this was the way Richter directed the whole movie.

Mr. Beaks then started taking questions from the audience, the first one coming from a guy who read somewhere that the producers of “Buckaroo Banzai” were not at all happy with the film. He asked if this dislike of theirs bled onto the set to which Weller replied, “Uh, yeah.“ It must really suck to make a movie while knowing those who got the ball rolling and spent so much money on it don’t believe in it after viewing the dallies. And like many cult movies, this one was a box office flop, but it eventually found a cult following on video, cable, and DVD. You have to wonder how this movie among others could inspire such fans to watch it at least 57 times. Weller summed it all up perfectly:

“The longevity of it is that it’s unique. There’s a uniqueness to it,” Weller said. “They (the producers) wanted it to fit into a mold. They thought that it would be more slapstick, overt action and humor. The humor, although I have to say I don’t understand a lot of it, was fantastic. The humor was so… Just under the radar man.”

“And that’s why they cut a half hour of it,” Vera added. “The movie was a half hour longer which gave the jokes more room to breathe, but the studio said they wanted to cut it short so that they can show it more times per day.”

Particularly fascinating was Weller’s take on Christopher Lloyd whom we all know best as Doctor Emmet Brown from “Back to the Future.” Weller talked about when Lloyd’s house in Montecito burned down during the devastating Malibu fires. Lloyd had gone on television to talk about what happened, and Weller described how he and his wife were so devastated over what happened to him. But during a conversation with one of Weller’s professors at UC Santa Barbara, who brought up how sorry he was for Lloyd losing his house, Weller quoted exactly what he said:

“You’re gonna be the first to know the truth… I was already selling the house and there was nothing in it at all. I was living in an apartment in Montecito!”

Stunned at hearing this, Weller looked right at Lloyd and said, “Chris! The world, not just LA, but the whole world! We even saw this news in Italy! You looked so sad…” Lloyd’s response to this really did turn the whole thing into a comedy:

“I know! Because when the fire was going and I walked up and they put three cameras in my face, and I didn’t know what to do except LIE!”

Weller also said he met Jeff Goldblum on the same night he lost his virginity, and then he brought up an almost insane story about Goldblum which took place when he was getting married. Weller had already been married at that point and was telling Goldblum how excited he was to see him settling down. What Goldblum told him after that made us see him in different light:

“We’re on the other side now Peter!”

Other tidbits about “Buckaroo Banzai” included how the montage of Buckaroo and his comrades coming together during the end credits was actually an addition made by Richter later on. While filming this, Weller admitted he and the actors were actually walking to the tune of Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl.”

Before those end credits began, there was also the promise of a sequel laid out for the audience entitled “Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League.” One audience member asked why this sequel never got made, and it turns out there was more to it than the movie dying at the box office:

“Well the one guy (producer) went to prison for bank fraud, and the other guy blew his brains out in Century City Plaza,” Weller said. “Both of those guys were really good guys and I stayed in touch with the one who went to the joint, and he’s out now.”

 Just before they finally started showing the movie, Weller thanked the crowd for coming out and said that this turnout and excitement was what he had expected when he walked in to meet his professors at UCLA today. Instead, they just gave him more stuff to work on, and that was after the 86 hours of work he had already done. Suffice to say, this crowd was far more welcoming.

It was great to finally see “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai across the 8th Dimension” after all these years, and it was even more fun watching it with a large audience. To see it on television is one thing, but there is nothing like experiencing it on the silver screen in a packed theater. Weller took a very unrealistic character who was a renaissance man, a top neurosurgeon, particle physicist, race car driver, rock star and comic book hero, and he made you buy into him without questioning the logic of how he found the time to take on all these disciplines.

Another memorable evening at the New Beverly Cinema!

The Stars of ‘Repo Man’ Drop By New Beverly Cinema

Repo Man poster

More than 30 years after its release, Alex Cox’s cult classic “Repo Man” still holds up with its truly authentic punk attitude and black humor. This was proven to be the case when a special screening of the movie was held at the New Beverly Cinema which brought out many fans eager to see some of the actors who starred in it. Among them was the great character actor Harry Dean Stanton who plays Bud, the Mr. Miyagi or Yoda to Emilio Estevez’s Otto. Also there was Tracey Walter who played the philosopher of mechanics, Miller, Olivia Barash who played Otto’s would-be girlfriend, Leila, and Del Zamora as Lagarto, one of the Rodriguez brothers.

“Repo Man” is so defiantly punk and proudly refuses to fit into the realm of regular mainstream entertainment. Never politically correct, it delves into a highly exaggerated, not to mention intense, depiction of the life of a repossession agent. Watching it makes you realize there are not enough movies like this these playing at the local multiplex. We need something to balance out all these watered-down blockbusters which comes to us like McDonald’s Happy Meals from the world of corporate cinema. This movie was actually intended to be a UCLA student film, but somehow it managed to become something much bigger.

The actors came out immediately after the end credits concluded, and they looked really happy to be at the New Beverly. Stanton, however, looked like he was three sheets to the wind and occasionally spoke about things not really related to “Repo Man.” At one point he even asked, “Can I smoke in here?” The other actors sympathetically told him they weren’t sure the theater would allow him to smoke. “We can’t smoke in here?” Stanton said, “That’s fucking nonsense!” The crowd couldn’t help but laugh as Stanton looked like he was perfectly prepared to keep smoking for the rest of his days.

Stanton said he couldn’t remember exactly how he got involved in “Repo Man,” and added this lack of memory up to being one of his “senile” moments. Walter, however, said he got his role after having previously worked with producer Michael Nesmith on “Timerider.” Barash said she was originally encouraged not to do the movie on the advice of her agents as they didn’t know the people involved in it very well, and they thought it might be dangerous for her to even go to the audition. But Barash was and still is a huge punk rock fan, and she got immediately sold on “Repo Man” upon seeing that bands like Black Flag were going to be involved. She even told us Iggy Pop, who composed the movie’s theme song, was her neighbor in the apartment building she lived in back then.

Zamora didn’t say exactly how he got cast, but he did remember how Cox got Nesmith involved as a producer. Simply put, Nesmith’s car had gotten repossessed, so he could relate to those car owners who were not paying up on what they bought. Zamora also talked about how Cox got both Stanton and Estevez involved in “Repo Man.” Basically, Cox caught up with Estevez and told him Stanton was already connected to the movie even though he wasn’t at that point, and then he went to Stanton and told him Estevez was connected to the film even though he wasn’t. Suffice to say, both actors did become involved.

Stanton then went on to say he and Cox didn’t always get along. During the shooting of “Repo Man,” Cox got so sick and tired of Stanton telling the actors what to do and threatened to fire him on the spot. To this Stanton replied, “Kiss my ass! Fire me so I can get paid!” Later on, Stanton asked Zamora to let Cox, whom Zamora is still in touch with, know he’s not mad at him anymore and that he would welcome him as an honored guest the next time he saw him.

“Repo Man” also had an abundance of generic food and drink items on display, and the audience couldn’t help but laugh at just how openly generic they all were. Product placements are usually reserved for big budget movies which are more likely to be bland and inoffensive. Zamora said they really had no money so they did talk with companies who were willing to do product placements in the movie. And then they read the script… What they ended up using was a generic brand from Ralphs Supermarket, one of the most dominant of supermarket chains in Southern California today. Of course, had “Repo Man” been made today, Ralphs might not have been as inclined to be involved.

In the end, Zamora and Walter said the art directors did the majority of the work and succeeded in creating the world of the movie which was very convincing despite the low budget. Then Stanton spoke up again and asked who Zamora played in “Repo Man,” and Zamora told him he played Lagarto, one of the Rodriguez brothers, to which Stanton replied, “How many brothers were there?”

 Speaking of the Rodriguez brothers, Stanton’s character of Bud has this intense confrontation where he wields a baseball bat which he threatens to bash the brothers with. Stanton said Cox gave him a rubber bat to use, but he wanted to work with a real one instead, and this led to a fight between the two of them. Zamora remembered this moment on set and said Stanton was under control, but Stanton, who was starting to remember more of the filming, made it bluntly clear he was really crazy and didn’t have any idea of what he was doing.

Walter was asked about his famous “shrimp monologue” scene, and he said it was originally meant to be just an audition piece. It was never intended to be in the film, but Walter fought for it. Indeed, it makes for one of the most memorable moments in “Repo Man” as his character of Miller describes the way he sees things:

“A lot o’ people don’t realize what’s really going on. They view life as a bunch o’ unconnected incidents ‘n things. They don’t realize that there’s this, like, lattice o’ coincidence that lays on top o’ everything. Give you an example; show you what I mean: suppose you’re thinkin’ about a plate o’ shrimp. Suddenly someone’ll say, like, plate, or shrimp, or plate o’ shrimp out of the blue, no explanation. No point in lookin’ for one, either. It’s all part of a cosmic unconsciousness.”

To this day, Walter says that every once in a while he runs into someone who utters one of his signature lines from “Repo Man” like, “John Wayne was a fag!” But of course, the real signature line of “Repo Man” belongs to Stanton’s character of Bud who says, “The life of a repo man is always intense.”

One audience member asked the actors if they still talk to Estevez after all these years. Zamora and Walter said Estevez still works, but more as a producer and director these days because that’s where his passion lies. Estevez still acts occasionally, but it apparently doesn’t interest him as much as it used to.

Wrapping up the evening, the actors were asked if they knew they were making something special during the filming of “Repo Man.” Some of them believed they were, but Stanton bluntly said, “I didn’t give a shit if it was special while making it.” Despite his apparent demeanor and not being able to remember his entire experience on this particular movie, Stanton still had us laughing hysterically. Not once did he try to ruin the fans’ appreciation of “Repo Man.” Whether he realizes it or not, no one could have played Bud better than him.

Many were in agreement when Stanton said both “Repo Man” and “Sid & Nancy” were truly the peak of Cox’s directing career. We haven’t heard as much from him since then, but Barash said he just finished making a quasi-sequel called “Repo Chick” which she has a cameo in it. However, this has not stopped Universal Pictures from sending Cox cease and desist letters as they insist only they have sequel rights to “Repo Man.” Still, Cox has been showing it at festivals, so it looks like nothing is going to stop him.

Before everyone got up and applauded, another audience member asked a question which brought to mind one of Bud’s great lines from “Repo Man,” “Is there any good place around here to get sushi and not pay?” Stanton left us with his best answer of the evening, “That’s where we’re going right now.”

 

 

 

John G. Avildsen’s ‘The Karate Kid’ is Still the Infinite Crowd Pleaser

The Karate Kid 1984 poster

I wanted to write about “The Karate Kid” because it’s one of those movies which stays with me to where I know every piece of dialogue in it. I got to see it at the long-gone Melody Theater back in Thousand Oaks where I saw many classic 1980’s movies. I still vividly remember seeing it with my older brother and mom, and it was one of the few movies she would ever take us to see in a theater back then.

It has now been more than 30 years since the original it came out, so I guess it’s safe to say you all know the story by now. Ralph Macchio plays Daniel LaRusso, a high school teenager who moves with his mom from New Jersey to California. Having moved a lot as a kid, I can appreciate his frustration at having to adapt to new surroundings which are not prepared to welcome you with open arms. He runs afoul of a tough gang known as the Cobra Kais, and they are led by Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka). When he sees Daniel flirting with his girlfriend Ali (Elisabeth Shue), Johnny lays down the law and kicks Daniel’s ass without any pity.

“The Karate Kid” had a strong impact on me. I got picked on a bit when I was a kid, and seeing him get messed around with filled me with a sadness and anger in how unfairly people get treated. You want to see him get his revenge against these guys even though it will likely bring the same vicious reaction from the Cobra Kai. When you see him get beat up again, I remember how angrier and angrier I got. But that’s when this movie gave us one of its best moments as Mr. Miyagi came to the rescue and kicked ass. Seeing Miyagi coming from behind in the shadows got my heart and excitement up, and it was a pleasure to see him give those bullies the beating they deserved.

Mr. Miyagi is one of the best characters to come out of the 1980’s, and he remains one of my favorites from that decade. He is basically an Okinawan Yoda, and he is brought to life by the late Pat Morita in a performance I was so hoping would snag him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar he was nominated for. Although this character became a cliché for many other movies, the guy who does a low profile and lonely job but who is actually a war hero with the greatest of skills and training, Morita is brilliant in how he shows the seriousness of Miyagi as well as his joyous and humorous side as well. I did not realize Morita was a stand-up comedian before he did this movie. Then again, he was on “Happy Days” for a while.

After all these years, “The Karate Kid” still proves to be one of the few movies which really shows us the truth about karate. Karate is a spiritual thing more than anything else, and it was not about being trained to attack the way John Kreese (Martin Kove) taught others to do. It was about defense more than anything else. Moreover, it was about making yourself a better person on the inside as opposed to just the outside. I have heard from my closest friends about how studying karate helped raise their self-esteem to where they felt better about themselves. I even studied karate for a bit to experience it for myself, and it’s something I hope to continue in the near future.

The friendship between Daniel and Miyagi is one of the best I have ever seen portrayed onscreen. You are pretty much in Daniel’s shoes as he tries to figure out what the heck is going on when Miyagi has him washing his cars, painting his fence, sanding his floor and painting his house instead of teaching him karate. This leads to one of my favorite moments where Daniel realizes Miyagi has trained him in karate without him even knowing it. All these chores give him reflexes which have become ingrained in his consciousness to where they are practically automatic, and it is then that he realizes he has long since learned how to defend himself.

As Daniel LaRusso, Macchio gave us his quintessential performance from the 80’s. In the first two “Karate Kid” movies, he found a balance between being obnoxious and sincere, and he makes LaRusso a likable guy to where his transformation into a true karate student feels real and authentic.

Shue was so beautiful in this movie, and I liked how she embodied her character to where she practically spits at the clichés of the typical spoiled rich girl we have seen in far too many movies. Shue and Macchio might seem like a highly unlikely couple, but these two convince you they could be together. I always hated how Shue’s character got dumped in “The Karate Kid Part II.” I never really bought how that all came about, and I thought it was really shitty to not include her in the sequel. Shue was a wonderful and vivacious presence here, and she went on to give an unforgettable performance in “Leaving Las Vegas.”

Morita’s career went downhill after appearing in “The Karate Kid.” Seeing him doing local car center commercials was frustrating, but what he does here with Miyagi is amazing. It’s one of those performances where the actor becomes the character to where you never really see him acting, and that’s great film acting.

John G. Avildsen, best known for directing “Rocky,” helmed this movie with the same level of confidence as he did with the one he won a Best Director Oscar for, and he gives us a rousingly good time at the movies in the process. Since he has two great actors in the lead roles, he doesn’t waste time trying to manipulate our emotions because he makes everything in “The Karate Kid” feel very real. You’re not just watching this movie, you’re experiencing it along with the characters.

I also want to mention Kove’s performance as John Kreese as he proves to be the real villain of “The Karate Kid.” He trains his students viciously as if they are in a constant state of military basic training you would rather see end sooner than later. Kreese has programmed these kids to hurt and inflict punishment, any they look up to him for all the wrong reasons. But towards the end, they come to see Kreese is not all he is cracked up to be. There’s a great moment where he looks at Zabka as he is taking a break in the climatic fight with Daniel LaRusso and tells him to “sweep the leg.” Zabka’s character of Johnny Lawrence looks at Kreese like he is out of his mind, and it adds another to where it keeps the characters from becoming a pair of one-dimensional jerks we have seen too often.

“The Karate Kid” is a well written movie directed to near perfection and acted with supreme skill. After all these years, I never get sick of watching it, and I don’t think I ever will.

* * * * out of * * * *