Nicholas Meyer on the Making of ‘Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country’

Nicholas Meyer on the set of Star Trek VI

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written back in 2011.

With “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country,” co-writer and director Nicholas Meyer described it as being different from the previous films in the franchise due to it being “political in context.” At a Q&A which was held after a screening of it at the Egyptian Theatre, Nicholas said the story came about when he met with Leonard Nimoy. The story focuses on the Federation making an uneasy truce with their longtime enemies the Klingons, and it deliberately reflected the relations between the United States and Russia at the time the film was made.

Nimoy described the idea of having an “intergalactic Chernobyl” and of “the wall coming down in space” to Meyer, and the story came out from there. As it happens, the coup which took place in Russia happened around the time “Star Trek VI” was released, and Meyer said his dentist saw how the film predicted it would happen. His response was to see “The Undiscovered Country” again as he didn’t realize this was the case.

Watching it today made Meyer realize there was no way anyone could have anticipated the changes coming, be it the collapse of the Soviet Union or the current events in the Middle East. He said it all makes the Cold War seem good in retrospect. Indeed, with the wars being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, the scene where Spock forces a mind meld on Lieutenant Valeris to get information now seems like torture. Although Meyer said Spock’s intention in the scene was to just get information, he winces at it now and says it’s hard to watch when Valeris moans in Vulcan agony.

For the character of Klingon General Chang, Meyer freely admitted he wrote the part with Christopher Plummer in mind. This was largely due to how he loved listening to Plummer’s recording of “Henry V,” and he made it clear to the film’s casting director, Mary Jo Slater, that she should not come back to Hollywood without him. Incidentally, Mary’s son, whom you just might recognize, makes a cameo in the film as an officer aboard the Starship Excelsior.

“Star Trek VI” was the last movie which featured the original crew of the starship Enterprise. Meyer described every day as being “normal” until the last one. At that point, the whole cast became very cranky, and they forgot lines of dialogue which some of them did not like in the first place. The whole cast had been together for 30 years, and since they go back a long way, they approached the end of it all in a very “bewildered” state. One thing’s for sure, the signatures from the cast at the movie’s end were not hokey in the slightest.

This also turned out to be the last “Star Trek” movie which series creator Gene Roddenberry got to see before he died. Meyer said his interactions with Roddenberry were “minimal” as Roddenberry was not officially involved with the movies after “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and was relegated to being an “executive consultant.” Apparently, Roddenberry was incensed that the screenplay for “Star Trek VI” made the crew out to be racist, but it did give this movie its much needed dramatic conflict. He died three days after he viewing a rough cut of it, and the movie is dedicated to his memory just as it should have been.

Looking back, “Star Trek VI” questions whether we have reached the end of history, and it is clear we have certainly not. It served as a perfect swan song for the original cast and was a much better movie than its predecessor (“Star Trek V: The Final Frontier”) which almost destroyed the franchise. It also provided us with one of the greatest pieces of dialogue ever in a “Star Trek” movie:

“You’ve never experienced Shakespeare until you’ve read him in the original Klingon.”

So true!

Soundtrack Review: ‘Die Hard with a Vengeance’

Die Hard 3 soundtrack

Anyone remember the RCA Victor release of the “Die Hard with a Vengeance” soundtrack back in 1995? That release was a joke and an unforgivable one as well. It did have some of Michael Kamen’s music score on it as well as a couple of rap songs which I’m not sure were in the movie, and some symphony pieces by Beethoven and Brahms which are not in this movie at all. It was as if RCA just wanted to throw any kind of soundtrack together so they could cash in on this sequel’s expected success, and what resulted was a travesty which any true soundtrack fan would be right to despise.

Well, it took over a decade, but La La Land Records has finally given “Die Hard with a Vengeance” not only the proper soundtrack release it deserves but an expanded one which contains two discs of music. In addition, it also comes with an informative booklet written by Jeff Bond who discusses how this “Die Hard” movie differs from the two which came before it, and it looks at how Kamen came to develop this particular score. But the great thing about this soundtrack release is it forces you to listen to Kamen’s music more closely in a way we didn’t previously.

When I first saw this sequel, I wondered if Kamen had actually bothered to create a new score for this “Die Hard” adventure. Many of the music cues sounded like they came from “Die Hard” and “Die Hard 2,” and it was hard to spot any new musical themes throughout. Listening to the La La Land Records release, however, makes you realize Kamen did not just simply throw something together. Much thought went into this particular score as it presents a somewhat darker John McClane (played by Bruce Willis) than what we have seen previously, and it also captures the joyful qualities of the heist movie that “Die Hard with a Vengeance” is meant to be.

Among the pieces of music I was thrilled to hear on this soundtrack is “Taxi Chase” which has McClane and Zeus Carver (played by Samuel L. Jackson) driving through a populated park in New York in an effort to catch a train before it explodes. “Taxi Chase” sounds unlike any music Kamen has previously composed for a movie with all its urban percussion. In the booklet, Bond quotes Kamen on this cue as it is one of the composer’s favorites which found its inspiration from his living in Manhattan.

“A lot of it (the movie) takes place on the streets I inhabited,” Kamen said. “I was trying to figure out what music to put there and I remembered that Needle Park is just up the street, and all you ever hear is bongo players and people driving past, and that’s why that cue is all native percussion. We’re using drums and drum loops and the normal accouterment of a modern recording studio – even a live drummer from time to time.”

This soundtrack not only contains music which was not on the original release, but also the music which was written for the movie but not included in it. Bond writes how director John McTiernan removed a number of Kamen’s cues from the movie, but Kamen wasn’t bothered by this too much because he was very collaborative and agreed with many of the changes McTiernan wanted to make.

And yes, The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City” which opens the movie is on this soundtrack as well, and it has never sounded better.

When it comes to these expanded soundtracks, I usually say how they have never looked or sounded better. With La La Land Records’ release of “Die Hard with a Vengeance” though, that’s a given as the original release was put together before Michael Kamen even had a chance to finish his score. While it may not have the same exhilarating or emotional sweep as his score for “Die Hard 2,” what Kamen has put together here is great and highly enjoyable to listen to. This release also forces you to realize Kamen was never out to just recycle his own work in the way the late James Horner was often accused of doing.

Sadly, this proved to be the last “Die Hard” movie Kamen scored before his death. Marco Beltrami later took over composing duties for “Live Free or Die Hard” and “A Good Day to Die Hard,” but the music Kamen created for these films will live on forever.

CLICK HERE TO FIND OUT HOW YOU CAN PURCHASE THE “DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE” EXPANDED SOUNDTRACK.

Thomas Jane on Playing Todd Parker in ‘Boogie Nights’

Boogie Nights Thomas Jane photo

WRITER’S NOTE: This is from a Q&A which took place on October 5, 2012.

Actor Thomas Jane was excited to be a guest at New Beverly Cinema as the theater presented the first day of their Paul Thomas Anderson movie marathon. One of the movie’s being shown this evening was “Boogie Nights” which served as Jane’s big acting breakthrough, and in it he plays dancer Todd Parker who becomes a dangerous friend to the characters played by Mark Wahlberg and John C. Reilly. During a Q&A which was moderated by Brian McQuery, Jane talked about how he prepared to play Todd and of what it was like working with Anderson.

One audience member asked Jane if he prepared a certain voice or walk for when he played Todd, and he replied he usually took the script for “Boogie Nights” to this theater he was working out of in Los Angeles where he could get his fellow actors to play all the other parts. It was there where Jane did a lot of experimentation which led him giving the role his own interpretation.

“I’d bring in funny glasses, do my hair crazy and try all this different stuff like bringing in a flowered shirt to wear,” Jane said. “I didn’t have any clue about who this guy was. I just knew that I was trying to find him, and then it just clicked in one day. I think it was the voice and just doing the scenes in my little theater off of Hyperion and Melrose. The first thing I found as an actor was the way Todd talked, and once I found that then everything else happened with the role.”

Jane first heard about “Boogie Nights” from casting director Christine Sheaks who had sent him the script which she said was “pretty amazing.” Upon reading the scene where Todd, along with Dirk Diggler and Reed Rothchild, go to rob a drug dealer, Jane said he was especially interested in playing Todd. Then, after doing an improvisation with Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly in front of Anderson which lasted about fifteen minutes, he was cast in the role.

Looking back at shoot, Jane recollected much of what went on was improvised on set, and he attributed it to Anderson’s jazz-like direction.

“One thing that’s notable about the way Paul Thomas Anderson works is the freedom he gives to his actors,” Jane said. “We did have lines to say and stuff, but if you had an idea at the moment or a line to throw in or if something happens by mistake, he always encouraged that spontaneity and that freedom. That was what was so fun about working on ‘Boogie Nights.'”

When asked if he had any stories about the actors he worked with, Jane came up with a great one about Burt Reynolds. He talked about the scene where Wahlberg gets into a fight with Reynolds over wanting to shoot his sex scene now instead of later, and Anderson told Jane to fuck with Reynolds and “get in his face” once Wahlberg ran away. So, Jane started messing with Reynolds like Anderson asked him to and even pushed him, and Reynolds ended up kicking Jane right in the nuts.

“He thought the take was over and I was some punk actor getting in his face,” Jane said of Reynolds. “Paul Thomas Anderson didn’t tell Burt Reynolds that we were doing a little improvisation after the scene was over! To his (Reynold’s) credit, he gave me a bottle of champagne in my trailer the next day and he actually turned out to be really cool.”

There was also a lot of talk about the scene at the drug dealer’s house when Cosmo kept throwing fire crackers all over the place. It turns out the actor playing Cosmo was actually a friend of Anderson’s, and the fire crackers were not originally in the script. However, it got Anderson the reactions he wanted so he just put it into the movie. But since the scene was shot over several days, Anderson had to find other ways to keep the actors on their feet.

“The first day was all fire crackers, but then we had to recreate that over the next three days,” Jane said. “After the first twenty or thirty fire crackers go off you’re kind of over it, but then you can’t hear anymore. So, Paul brought a starting pistol in and he used a starting pistol for a while and then that got old. I remember he brought in a big couple of boards and was whacking those together. That was a brilliant scene because all that stuff made the tension so high.”

Thomas Jane has come a long way from his hungry days as an actor, and seeing him strut his way onto the screen in “Boogie Nights” showed us a star had arrived. For him, talking about this movie at New Beverly Cinema was very special as he said he got his film education there. He also remembered when Sherman Torgan was running the theater back then and of how he let Jane in for free, and that popcorn and candy bars served as his nightly dinner for a time.

Jane has since moved on from “Boogie Nights” to make a successful acting career for himself, and he still has many great performances left to give.

All-Time Favorite Trailers: ‘Naked Lunch’

William S. Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” is a novel you may not have read, but you have definitely heard of it. Due to its subject matter which involves drug addiction (be it heroin, morphine or hashish) and obscene language which people back in 1959 had yet to become numbed to, it was banned in the American states of Boston and Los Angeles. Still, the more people tried to suppress the novel’s existence, the more people came to discover it. Eventually, filmmakers became keen to adapt this controversial novel into a motion picture, and it makes perfect sense David Cronenberg would be the one to successfully do so.

I love how this movie trailer starts off with black and white footage of Burroughs back in the 1950’s as we hear him (his voice was done by an impersonator) talking about how “Naked Lunch” was described by critics as being “disgusting,” “pornographic” and “un-American trash.” Upon its publication, it became a subject for discussion at town hall meetings and book burnings, the latter which is in itself deeply un-American. Burroughs in his impersonated laconic voice, revels at how big a mark his novel made on the American public, and I loved how he talked about how Hollywood in its “infinite wisdom” decided to make a movie out of it 30 years later.

From there, the trailer shifts into color mode as we watch scenes from Cronenberg’s movie which feature Peter Weller, who turned down “Robocop 3” to do this, Judy Davis, Roy Scheider and Julian Sands among others. The visuals Cronenberg gives us here make this motion picture seem wonderfully unique among so many others released back in the 1990’s, and the Canadian filmmaker was still riding high on the success of his remake of “The Fly” which led him to make this and the deeply unsettling “Dead Ringers” with Jeremy Irons.

Why is this movie trailer among my favorites? Well, it makes “Naked Lunch” out to be a unique motion picture like no other, and it revels at how such a controversial novel could still be made into a movie even when so many tried to squash its existence from our collective consciousness. Plus, you don’t see trailers like this anymore as Hollywood is playing it safe now more than ever. Studio executives would not be quick to green light such a controversial tale in a time when superheroes continue to reign supreme at the local multiplex. Then again, the sight of Burroughs wearing a cape would be a fascinating sight in this day and age.

Sadly, Cronenberg’s “Naked Lunch” was a box office bomb as it grossed only $2.6 million against a budget of around $18 million. Then again, it didn’t help that 20th Century Fox put it out in a limited release and put little effort in expanding it beyond five theaters. Regardless, it has since become a cult film and garnered a special release on DVD and Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection. After all these years, many continue to empower what they do their damndest to resist.

Naked Lunch movie poster

Worst Movie Trailers Ever: ‘Return to the Blue Lagoon’

Return to the Blue Lagoon poster

I still vividly remember watching the trailer for this sequel at Crow Canyon Cinemas where it played before a screening of “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.” I could hear and feel the audience’s disdain for “Return to the Blue Lagoon” to where I kept waiting for them to erupt into a chorus of boos. This trailer made this sequel to “The Blue Lagoon” look infinitely lame as well as completely unnecessary. The trailer’s narrator talked of how the 1980 original was “the first movie to explore the innocence of natural love,” and my eyes immediately rolled up in the back of my head. Oh lord…

Seriously, was anyone begging for a follow up to Randal Kleiser’s 1980 film which starred Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins? While “The Blue Lagoon” was a huge hit which made almost $60 million and only cost between $4 and $5 million to make, it was critically eviscerated in a way few movies were at the time. Indeed, its portrayal of these two kids living an idyllic existence and developing outside of what is considered civilized society is laughable to say the least, and the overly dramatic score by the late Basil Poledouris made things even more cringe-inducing to where watching this movie on mute made it slightly easier to digest.

The trailer for “Return to the Blue Lagoon” made this sequel look like it will be an exact photocopy of its predecessor as it features Milla Jovovich (in her breakthrough performance) and Brian Krause going through the same motions as Shields and Atkins did before them. When Jovovich tells Krause how she realizes she is now a woman, I did my best to stifle a laugh and failed. When the narrator says “through the eyes of innocence, they discover their sensuality,” I did a facepalm. Remember those unintentionally hilarious videos we watched in health class? Watching this trailer reminded me of them.

Movie trailers are supposed to get you excited about what they are advertising, not give you a reason to avoid it altogether. The one for “Return to the Blue Lagoon,” however, gave us more than enough reason to not bother taking a second trip to that deserted island. The sequel opened in theaters on August 2, 1991 and grossed only $3 million dollars against a budget of $11 million. Jovovich has since said this was the worst movie she has ever done, and I imagine any of the “Resident Evil” sequels are vastly more entertaining to sit through.

The only other thing which may have kept audiences away from “Return to the Blue Lagoon” was perhaps sheer jealousy. Krause got to make out with Jovovich while we sat back and watched. Deep down, you had to feel jealous about that. Rod Stewart was right, some guys have all the luck.

Feel free to check out the misbegotten trailer below.

All-Time Favorite Trailers: ‘Toys’

I still remember watching this particular trailer before Phil Alden Robinson’s highly entertaining comedy caper, “Sneakers.” Most movie trailers do follow a certain formula as marketers are determined to sell their product to the widest audience possible, but every once in a while, we get one which breaks the mold and gives us something different and unforgettable. This came with the teaser trailer for Barry Levinson’s “Toys” which featured Robin Williams improvising in a field which he called the largest studio on the 20th Century Fox lot, and I almost believed him when he said the field was inside one building. Back then, Williams was at the height of his box office powers, and this trailer quickly reminded me of how brilliant a comedian he was.

This trailer essentially has Williams riffing on the various ways this movie could be promoted to the public, and each of them proves to be hilarious even as certain references have long since become dated. And if you didn’t know about the existence of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, you certainly did after watching this trailer. And yes, we can agree it is not the right holiday to release this movie, let alone any movie, on.

The only downside of this trailer is it made “Toys” look like a full-on comedy. For those who saw it, however, they can agree it was hard to put Levinson’s movie into one particular genre. In fact, it proved to be one of the most experimental movies released by a major Hollywood studio back in the 1990’s as well as one of the biggest box office flops of that decade. But for those willing to go into “Toys” with an open mind will find it to be strikingly original and one of the most powerful anti-war movies ever. At the very least, you have to love Ferdinando Scarfiotti’s art direction which he spent more than a year working on.

Robin Williams, you are still missed…

Toys movie poster

The Best Movies of 1998

1998 logo

Now it’s time to go to take a look back at the movies of 1998, the same year when California started the ban on smoking in bars and restaurants. What else happened that year? John Glenn became the oldest astronaut to go into space, and it gave us a reason to watch the space shuttle launch on television for the first time in years. The Denver Broncos became the first AFC team in 14 years to win the Super Bowl when they beat the Green Bay Packers (I’m so glad I didn’t bet on that game). The whole controversy of President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky exploded, which the President’s enemies seized upon like teenagers going through their dads’ Playboy magazine issues while he is out of town. And, most ironically, a court in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan ruled Osama Bin Laden was “a man without a sin” in regard to the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Well, we knew better.

As for myself, I was in my second year at UC Irvine and my fourth year in college. I still had a dorm room all to myself, and I was busy with school work and appearing in plays like “Enrico IV,” “The Scarlet Letter” and “Twelfth Night.” Of course, I tried to get out to the movies as much as humanly possible. Many of the movies on this list were ones I actually didn’t get around to seeing until years later, so it’s probably best I am giving you this list now.

10) There’s Something About Mary

Theres Something About Mary poster

Bobby and Peter Farrelly gave us one of the most gut bustlingly hilarious movies ever made with “There’s Something About Mary.” I was dying with laughter while watching this, and I wasn’t expecting to. In retrospect, I should have though since this came from the same directors who gave us “Dumb and Dumber” as well as “Kingpin.” On top of having so many funny moments, the movie also has a lot of heart in the way it portrays the two main characters played by Ben Stiller and Cameron Diaz. Those of you who think Diaz can’t act need to revisit this one because she is so good at playing a teenager who we later see as a well-meaning adult with a few too many stalkers.

9) American History X

American History X poster

So much has been said about the making of “American History X” and the bitter disagreements between director Danny Kaye and actor Edward Norton. Regardless of whoever deserves the majority of the credit, there is no denying this is a powerful and unforgettable motion picture. Norton gave one of his very best performances as white supremacist Derek Vineyard, and the look he gives the camera after killing two people is a very chilling moment which is not easily erased from the conscious mind. Norton also gets great support from Edward Furlong who plays Danny, Derek’s brother, who threatens to tread down the same hateful path Derek has. Kaye, even if he didn’t get final cut, gives the movie an amazing look in black and white which captures the escalating tension of Derek’s journey from a world of hate to a place of compassion.

8) Dark City

Dark City movie poster

Alex Proyas followed up his brilliant adaptation of “The Crow” with this visionary sci-fi epic about a man who wakes up not knowing who he is, and of those who seek to capture him for their own twisted experiments. Like many great sci-fi movies “Dark City” was a box office flop upon its release, but it has since found an audience to where there’s no denying it is a cult classic. You’re along for the ride with Rufus Sewell as he tries to understand his place in a world ruled over by the Strangers. This movie remains suspenseful to the very end, and the look of the movie feels like no other I have ever seen. Jennifer Connelly also stars in the film and looks beautiful as always, and it is interesting to watch Kiefer Sutherland play a complete wimp after watching him for so long on “24.”

7) Out Of Sight

Out of Sight movie poster

Here’s the film which brought Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney together, and it also serves as one of the very best adaptations of an Elmore Leonard novel. With “Out of Sight,” Clooney proved without a doubt there was going to be life for him after “ER” with his performance as Jack Foley, the most successful bank robber in America. When Jack escapes from jail, he ends up sharing some trunk space with Federal Marshall Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez). “Out of Sight” also marked the beginning of a career resurgence for Soderbergh, and he got to work from a truly great screenplay written by Scott Frank. Also starring is the fantastic Catherine Keener, Ving Rhames, Steve Zahn, Dennis Farina, Isaiah Washington, and the always reliable Don Cheadle. This movie was a lot of fun, and Clooney and Lopez had such great chemistry together.

6) Rushmore

Rushmore movie poster

This was my introduction to the highly creative world of Wes Anderson. “Rushmore” is an instant comedy classic with more depth to it than many others of its genre at the time. Max Fischer is an original eccentric character; a young man involved in just about ever extra-curricular activity at school, all at the expense of his report card. Jason Schwartzman is great fun to watch as Max, and Bill Murray gives a performance which damn well should have earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. With Anderson, his comedy is fueled by the sadness and isolation of his characters, and of the things they desperately want in life. “Rushmore” is filled with as much meaning as it does laughter as both Schwartzman and Murray battle over the same woman played by Olivia Williams. It also owes a lot to the late Mike Nichols’ enduring classic “The Graduate.”

5) Happiness

Happiness movie poster

Todd Solondz’s follow up to “Welcome To The Dollhouse” may very well be the most ironically titled film in cinema history. Controversy followed “Happiness” all the way to its release, and the MPAA of course just had to give it an NC-17 (it ended up being released unrated). One of the blackest of black comedies ever, it follows the lives of three sisters and the various people who are a part of their fragile lives. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a frighteningly memorable performance as an obscene phone caller, and it was one of the first real examples of the brilliant character actor we came to see him as. But the bravest performance comes from Dylan Baker who plays Bill Maplewood, a psychiatrist, husband and loving father who, unbeknownst to his family, is a pedophile. Baker ends up making you empathize, but not sympathize, with a man who we would instantly despise once we discovered his terrible secret. As unappealing as these characters may seem, Solondz makes us see ourselves in them and to where we cannot see we are not all that different.

4) The Big Lebowski

The Big Lebowski movie poster

I didn’t get to see this when it first came out in theaters, but my parents did eventually strap me down in a chair to watch it, and this should give you an idea of how much they love it. The Coen brothers follow up to “Fargo” did not get the same reception when originally released, but it has since built up an amazing cult following. Much of this is thanks to Jeff Bridges’ brilliant performance as Jeffrey Lebowski, aka “The Dude.” What could have been a performance built on stereotypes of the slackers we know in life turns out to be perhaps the most memorable character in Bridges’ long and underappreciated career. It’s an ingenious comedy with not so much a plot as a connected series of events which start with the theft of Lebowski’s carpet which he says “tied the whole room together.”

3) The Truman Show

The Truman Show movie poster

It still seems criminal how Peter Weir’s film was surprisingly, and infuriatingly, snubbed for a Best Picture nomination. Jim Carrey gives a truly astonishing and powerful performance as Truman Burbank, a man who slowly becomes aware he is the star of a reality show about his life. Yes, he should have been nominated for an Oscar alongside his co-star Ed Harris, but there will always be the unforgivable snubs. “The Truman Show” has become a prophetic movie of sorts as reality shows are the norm in today’s culture, and this obsession we have over them remains very strong to this day. Andrew Niccol’s screenplay was a brilliant examination of how we might view our own life if we found out it was based on a lie, and that everything we know is actually wrong. This stands as one of Weir’s best American movies in a long and justly acclaimed career.

2) Shakespeare In Love

Shakespeare in Love movie poster

While it may have gotten overwhelmed by Miramax’s Oscar campaign, there’s no denying “Shakespeare In Love” is a brilliant and highly entertaining romantic comedy. The film tells the story of how Shakespeare goes about writing “Romeo & Ethel The Pirate’s Daughter” which eventually evolves into “Romeo & Juliet.” Gwyneth Paltrow gives a most entrancing performance, and I loved watching her every second she appeared onscreen. Joseph Fiennes is perfectly cast as Shakespeare himself, a passionate writer who is hopelessly enamored with Paltrow’s Viola. I also got a huge kick out of Geoffrey Rush’s performance as theater manager Philip Henslowe, a brilliant comic creation who steals every scene he is in. “Shakespeare In Love” serves as not just a great story of how Shakespeare may have written one of the most immortal plays ever, but also as a great satire of the film industry and how it deviously profits from unsuspecting participants.

And now, drum roll please…

1) Saving Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan movie poster

It would be so easy to put this as my top choice thanks to some of the greatest and most vividly realistic depictions of war ever put on film. Steven Spielberg’s depiction of the landing on D-Day is nothing short of amazing, and it was one of the reasons why I saw this film five times before it came out on DVD. But moreover, it is a deeply respectful salute to those war veterans who served in the armed forces during World War II. “Saving Private Ryan” is filled with great performances from a great cast of actors including Edward Burns, Jeremy Davies, Giovanni Ribisi, Tom Sizemore, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Matt Damon, and Barry Pepper among others. But it also has one of Tom Hanks’ best performances ever as Captain John Miller, a military man who leads his men to find Private Ryan and bring him back home to his grieving mother. Just when you thought Spielberg had peaked with “Schindler’s List,” he gives us yet another astonishing piece of filmmaking which shows him at the height of his powers.

Honorable Mentions:

Primary Colors – Great Mike Nichols movie based on the book by Joe Klein. It features great performances from John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Kathy Bates as well as an extraordinary cameo from Mykelti Williamson.

Bullworth – Warren Beatty’s scathing political satire may be a bit too broad, but it is a very effective indictment of how the Democratic Party let the American people down.

Elizabeth – Definitely worth mentioning for the brilliant breakthrough performance of Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth.

Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas – Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s crazy novel is a true acid trip nightmare with Johnny Depp channeling the reporter all the way to what he was famous for wearing and smoking.

God Said, Ha! – Wonderful concert film of Julia Sweeney’s one-woman show which deals with the time her brother got cancer, and of how she later got cancer herself.

Hurlyburly – Film adaptation of David Rabe’s play dealing with Hollywood players and their dysfunctional relationships with one another. Features a great cast which includes Sean Penn, Chazz Palminteri and Anna Paquin among others.

Affliction – Another emotionally bruising movie from Paul Schrader which is based on the novel by Russell Banks. Features career high performances from Nick Nolte and the late James Coburn who deservedly won an Oscar for his work.

Next Stop Wonderland – An eccentrically unusual kind of romantic comedy which helped introduce actress Hope Davis to a wider audience.

Ronin – One of the last films from the late John Frankenheimer which stars Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, and Jonathan Pryce among others. It also features some of the very best car chases of the 1990’s.

Run Lola Run – Kinetic German thriller with Franka Potente that views her attempts to save her boyfriend’s life in three different ways. This was a great teaser for what would come in 1999, when movies of different kinds proceeded to change the rules of where a story could go.

The Thin Red Line – Terrence Malick’s first movie in over 20 years threatened to be more meandering than anything else, but it is filled with such powerful imagery and to where many considered it more anti-war than “Saving Private Ryan” was.

John Carpenter’s Vampires – It was advertised as a horror movie, but it is really a more of a western and the closest John Carpenter has ever come to making one. James Woods’ performance alone is worth the price of admission as he plays the most badass of vampire hunters, Jack Crow.

Star Trek: Insurrection – Much better than its reputation may suggest, being an odd numbered Star Trek movie and all.

 

 

‘Jurassic Park’ – Michael Crichton’s Novel vs Steven Spielberg’s Film

Michael Crichton’s book “Jurassic Park” served as a cautionary tale on scientists’ tampering with biology as they bring dinosaurs back to life without thinking about the consequences of their actions. When Steven Spielberg adapted it to the silver screen in what turned out to be a genuinely thrilling movie, much of it was changed and details were omitted to make it the kind of audience pleasing movie he was best known for making at the time. He doesn’t delve as much into the darker side of Crichton’s characters and made them more likable, and the changes proved impossible to miss.

Working with David Koepp, who got screenwriting credit along with Crichton, Spielberg developed the cartoon the main characters watch during the park tour to remove much of the exposition found in the book. Crichton goes into extensive detail about how dinosaurs were recreated using their DNA which ends up being found in mosquitoes trapped in fossilized tree resin. Despite many scientists saying it is impossible to create dinosaurs in this way, it still makes for a very compelling story.

Koepp also cut out a sequence from the book which had Grant and Hammond’s grandchildren being chased down the river by the Tyrannosaurus. This was done for budgetary reasons, but this dinosaur would later appear in “Jurassic Park III.”

The book also had a sub-plot about young children getting attacked by small theropod dinosaurs, but Spielberg cut this out because he found it too horrific. However, that same sub-plot would be used to start off the movie version of “Jurassic Park: The Lost World.”

When it came to the characters, some of the biggest changes occurred with John Hammond, the curator of Jurassic Park. The book describes him as a ruthless businessman who is arrogant, deceptive, utterly disrespectful, and thoughtlessly rude. Even though he eventually comes to see the consequences of his experiments, he still moves ahead with his plans in the name of profit. He is even willing to sacrifice his grandchildren to the dinosaurs if that’s what it takes.

In the movie where Hammond is portrayed by Sir Richard Attenborough, he is instead an eccentric and friendly old man who is caught up in the wonder of what he has helped bring to life. However, he eventually realizes he cannot control the dinosaurs and is desperate to see his grandchildren brought back safely. This change came about because Spielberg very much related to Hammond’s obsession with showmanship.

Dr. Alan Grant, played by Sam Neil, is shown to like kids and enjoys being around them in the book. However, the movie has him being not the least bit fond of them. This change was made to give Grant more room for character development as he comes to be the father figure Hammond’s grandchildren lack when things go wrong.

Ellie Sattler, played by Laura Dern, is described as a 23-year old graduate student of Grant’s who is planning to get married to someone other than him. In the movie, she is Grant’s love interest and hopes he will one day be open to having children with her.

Jeff Goldblum gave a scene stealing performance as chaos theorist Ian Malcolm, and he gives Spielberg’s film the bulk of its comic relief. Crichton, however, wrote Malcolm as being more serious, philosophical, and at times downright condescending. Unlike the movie, Malcolm is killed off at the end of the book, but in the follow-up book “The Lost World” he is revealed to have survived.

One character that got drastically downsized was Dr. Henry Wu who is played by B.D. Wong. Crichton has him providing much of the detail about how the dinosaurs are cloned, and he stays on the island and is eventually killed off while the movie has him heading off to the mainland where he survives, and he was the only actor from this movie to appear in “Jurassic World.”

The lawyer Donald Gennaro, one of the movie’s greediest and thoughtless characters, comes across as rather likable in the way Crichton writes him. While he becomes something of a scapegoat towards the end, he is the one most insistent on the island being destroyed to protect the rest of the world from these dinosaurs. But in the movie, he is ever so eager to exploit the park’s profit potential any which way he can.

Then there are Hammond’s grandchildren, Lex and Tim, who are along for the tour of the island as well. In the book, Tim is the oldest of two at 11 years old and is good with computers while Lex is only 7 and more into sports. Spielberg switched these characters around to where Lex was the oldest, and he did this in order to cast Joseph Mazzello as Tim. Ariana Richards plays Lex, and she’s the more into computers and helps save the main characters in one critical scene.

Looking back at “Jurassic Park” the movie, it was the last time Spielberg adapted a book and changed the characters to where they were likable and easier for audiences to spend time with. His next movie was “Schindler’s List” which had him exploring one of the darkest periods of human history, and making it had a major effect on the movies he directed afterwards. When it came to turning “The Lost World” into a movie, Spielberg was more willing to embrace the darker aspects Crichton explored intensely in his books, and this was something readers wished he had done with the first movie.

All-Time Favorite Trailers: ‘Cliffhanger’

The 1990’s were not a kind decade to Sylvester Stallone. “Rocky V,” which was supposed to be Stallone’s last go around as Rocky Balboa (LOL), proved to be a critical and commercial disappointment, and his foray into comedy with “Oscar” and “Stop or My Mom Will Shoot” was disastrous to say the least. Clearly, Stallone was in serious need of a comeback as well as a return to the dramatic action movies he became best known for. As a result, he teamed up with “Die Hard 2” director Renny Harlin and Carolco Pictures to star in the action adventure film “Cliffhanger,” and the first trailer made for it remains forever burned into my memory.

The genius of this teaser trailer was how the filmmakers scored the images to Mozart’s “Dies Irae,” a powerful piece of music which served to make this movie seem more epic than it ended up being. There is no dialogue to be heard here as the focus is on the snowy mountain landscape which proves to be as beautiful an environment as it is a brutal one for those unprepared to deal with its frigid temperatures. As we watch Stallone and his fellow cast members John Lithgow, Michael Rooker, Leon and Janine Turner battling the elements which range from climbing up a mountain without a winter jacket or being trapped in a cold lake beneath a thick sheet of ice, it made “Cliffhanger” look like the end all of mountain movies as it captured a reality which is usually faked on a Hollywood soundstage.

Then there is the trailer’s final image of Stallone making a death-defying leap from one mountain side to another, and it’s a fantastic visual to close out on before the movie’s title comes up. Watching him do this quickly reminded me of when he performed similar feats as John Rambo in “First Blood” and its sequels as he the situations Rambo was caught up in were not entirely realistic, but Stallone’s physicality and performance made us believe he one could survive such impossible circumstances to where stopped asking questions and just went along for the ride.

Of course, upon learning Stallone had co-wrote the screenplay, I went in to see “Cliffhanger” with reduced expectations as I figured it would be a variation on the story he writes about more often than not of a man haunted by a tragedy and of his need for redemption. The movie did prove to be very entertaining, but it was not as deep and epic as this trailer promised. Regardless, I look back on this particular trailer very fondly as I said to myself after watching it, “Now that’s how you sell a movie!”

Cliffhanger teaser poster

All-Time Favorite Trailers: ‘Die Hard 2’

I so wish I saw this particular movie trailer in a theater when it first came out. Instead, I first watched it on the Movietime Channel which would later become E, Entertainment Television. One of my dad’s friends, however, told me of when he saw the “Die Hard 2” teaser trailer on the silver screen and of the reaction it generated. At first, it looked to him and the rest of the audience like just another action movie as the narrator went about describing Dulles International Airport even as there were title cards showing us exactly what he was saying. In my mind, I could see the audience repeating what they saw onscreen in a lifeless way as they waited impatiently for this trailer to end and for the movie they came to see begin.

But then Bruce Willis appeared as John McClane, and the audience burst into spontaneous applause as “Die Hard” quickly became an all-time action movie classic upon its release, and to see the former “Moonlighting” actor bringing this character back to the big screen made them super excited. With John McClane, Willis gave us a new kind of action hero which was so different from the superhuman ones Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone among others gave us time and time again. As a result, McClane proved to be more human than any other action hero many of us had seen previously.

When it comes to this particular teaser trailer, what I love is how it has all these sound effects going on even as the narrator narrates away, and it forces you to imagine what is going on at this airport during one of the busiest travel seasons ever. We have all been to the airport during the holidays and have experienced the craziness and insanity of getting checked in and of the flight delays which are usually inevitable, and this teaser pokes at those fears and anxieties we have while waiting to travel home to see our families.

Once we see the title card which says “but tonight on Christmas Eve,” I began to realize this might be the “Die Hard” sequel we had been waiting for. Then Bruce Willis enters and says, “How can the same thing happen to the same guy twice?” It makes perfect sense that McClane would say this as, like I said previously, this is an action hero more human than the average one we had been exposed to for many years. Furthermore, I was happy to see Willis say this as many sequels strand characters like McClane in the same situation, and yet the filmmakers would treat it as though the previous movie never happened. But with this simple exchange which spells out how he spent Christmas this way last year, I became even more enthusiastic about this sequel as the filmmakers knew in advance that they had to deal with this inescapable fact.

Even after all these years, I still love watching this “Die Hard 2” trailer as it raises my excitement level to a very pleasurable degree, and it takes a lot for a movie trailer to do this for me these days.

WRITER’S NOTE: In addition to the teaser trailer above, I am also including the two trailers which came after it. Back then, this proved to be the first time when I realized movie studios were never content to release just one trailer for a summer blockbuster. Each of them was thrilling to watch, and this sequel was released back in a time when my expectations for a motion picture were much higher than they are now. These days, I am very guarded in my expectations as I usually expect them to not be met.