I first saw this trailer when it played before “Mad Love” which starred Drew Barrymore and Chris O’Donnell. This was at Crow Canyon Cinemas, a movie multiplex I once worked at, and the volume was not all that great as the teenage audience, desperately waiting to see O’Donnell take his shirt off, were talking endlessly before the lights finally went down. I saw it again at the UC Berkeley theater, which was once known as the New Beverly Cinema of Northern California, and I got a better idea of what was on display as I could actually hear what was being said that time around.
“Strange Days” is a 1995 science fiction thriller which starred Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett and Juliette Lewis, and the film featured a kind of technology which allowed those who used it to experience recorded memories and physical sensations of others. But despite it being co-written and produced by James Cameron and having been directed by Kathryn Bigelow, it flopped hard at the box office. It is only over time that this film has gotten the cult following it truly deserved as this one offers the viewer a cinematic experience you cannot find elsewhere.
This particular trailer for “Strange Days” was its teaser trailer which had Fiennes selling us on this technology. The dialogue is taken from a scene in which he is trying to get a potential customer to buy some recorded memories, but this time Fiennes is looking straight into the camera, attempting to sell the audience on what he has.
Fiennes starred in this film not long after his Oscar-nominated turn in “Schindler’s List,” and I love how he tells us about this technology here without showing us a thing. His words suck us in to the possibilities of what we could experience if common sense didn’t kick in on a regular basis. It’s a brilliant piece of acting as he succeeds in making us want to open Pandora’s Box and experience pleasures which are ever so forbidden.
I also love the sound design of this trailer as it features a hum throughout which is much like the one I heard as I entered the American Conservatory Theater to watch the first part of “Angels in America.” There is something so comforting and alluring about such a hum that I cannot help but be drawn into the subject matter in a heartbeat.
By the way, can anyone tell me what song was used at the end of this trailer? I really dug it and would love to know where it came from. Perhaps it was by the band Deep Forest as they were supposed to be composing this film’s music score (it would later be done by Graeme Revell), but I don’t know.
If you have not watched “Strange Days” yet, I encourage you to do so as it deals with themes which are more pertinent today than when this film first came out.
In my review of “The Assistant,” I wrote about how the Human Resources department is the place people should go to if they feel threatened or uncomfortable in their working environment. The fact HR failed the film’s main character of Jane proved to be a devastating moment as the company she works at had long become knowingly complicit in its boss’ sexual harassment of aspiring actresses. But on Reddit, some schmuck called this scene accurate as he felt HR’s job is to protect the company above all else. I felt this was crap as they should be responsible to the needs and concerns of the employees as a healthy working environment is more beneficial than a toxic one. Then again, I have worked at companies where employee concerns were not always taken as seriously as they should have.
I bring this up because I found myself watching “Stalking Laura” (a.k.a. “I Can Make You Love Me”) on Amazon Prime which has just been given a 4K restoration. It features a scene in which Laura Black (played by Brooke Shields) goes to HR to report on one of her co-workers, Richard Farley (Richard Thomas), who has been endlessly harassing her. Instead, the HR director informs Laura of how her smiling at Richard may have invited such harassment and that she should watch how she acts around him. As the movie goes on, we see how the company is keen to protect Richard even after it has terminated his employment and given him a letter of recommendation to other workplaces.
“Stalking Laura” is a 1993 television movie which is, yes, based on a true story. Richard Farley was a software technician who worked at ESL Incorporated in Sunnyvale, California, and he became infinitely smitten with Deborah Black upon first seeing her. Richard asked her out many times, but Deborah felt any relationship the two of them would ever have should be professional more than anything else. For one reason or another, he believed Deborah was destined to be the love of his life, and he was determined to make her see this no matter what.
Deborah eventually filed a restraining order against Richard, and a court date was set for February 17, 1988 to make it permanent. But a day before this, Richard drove up to his old office loaded with a huge arsenal of weapons and bullets, and he laid waste to it and killed seven people and wounded four others including Laura. Richard eventually surrendered hours later and was later convicted of first-degree murder and has been living on death row at San Quentin ever since. As for Laura, she managed to make it out of the building after being shot in the left shoulder, and it took several surgeries for her to regain even partial use her shoulder.
“Stalking Laura” starts off with Laura leaving her family in Virginia and driving out to her new place of employment, Kensitron Electronics International (KEI, renamed for obvious reasons) in Silicon Valley, California. During a tour given to her by Chris (William Allen Young), she comes to meet Richard who is immediately smitten with her. After a nice lunch, he invites her to attend a sporting event with him as he just happens to have a couple of tickets on hand. Laura politely declines as she just met him, but this does not deter him from pursuing her further.
We watch as Richard spies on Laura during her aerobics class where she takes off her shirt to reveal the leotard she is wearing underneath, and we cringe as he continually tries to forge an undying connection to her even while she rejects his advances at every and any given opportunity. But when Laura appears to laugh at Richard as he watches her during a softball game, that’s when he really starts going off the rails.
Look, I have never been a big fan of television movies as they seem inevitably burdened by cliches and a formula they can never escape from. “Stalking Laura,” however, proved to be much better than the average TV movie as it does not present this true story in a shallow way. We see and understand just how brutal the harassment Laura is forced to endure. At one point, Richard gives Laura a small remote-controlled tractor as punishment for laughing at him as he feels the need to treat her like a child as a result. This makes Laura’s first scene with HR all the more infuriating as she is made to believe by the department director how she was the one who exacerbated the incident.
When it comes to Brooke Shields, her career as a model for a time seemed far more laudable than her work as an actress. While she received acclaim for performance in Louis Malle’s “Pretty Baby,” her work in “Endless Love,” “Sahara,” “The Blue Lagoon” (a film best appreciated with the sound turned off) and “Brenda Starr” were loudly disparaged. But in “Stalking Laura,” she gives a strong performance as a bright-eyed new employee who is forced to stand up for herself when a male co-worker harasses her to an endless extent. You cannot blame Laura for getting in the HR director’s face when the moment calls for it, and Shields makes it count for all it is worth.
Many know Richard Thomas from his work on “The Waltons,” but I remember him best for playing Bill Denbrough in the miniseries version of Stephen King’s “It.” Regardless, Thomas inhabits his character, also named Richard, with a frightening enthusiasm as he pursues Laura relentlessly even after she makes it perfectly clear she wants nothing to do with him. While Richard looks innocent and friendly at first glance, Thomas makes us see the cracks in his psyche which worsen to where his desperation leads him to resort to violence. The actor is especially chilling when he tells the HR director he is prepared to kill himself and his co-workers if he is fired from the company. Thomas makes you see how far Richard is willing to go, and it is infinitely chilling to watch him purchase 2,000 rounds of ammunition for his shotgun. Even the gun store owner is freaked out at this request, and someone like him is always looking to make a big sale.
The last half of “Stalking Laura” deals with Richard laying waste to his former place of employment while armed with a barrage of firepower. Being this is a television movie, the blood and gore are kept to a minimum, but the rampage is still pretty terrifying. Director Michael Switzer keeps the tension running high up until the last scene where we can finally take a breath as this desperate situation comes to a conclusion. The most unnerving moments come when the characters stuck in the building hear loud gunshots from a distance. This should give everyone an idea of how terrifying it is to be stuck in a school shooting or something equivalent as you cannot tell if it is safe to stay or go. Seeing your co-workers lying dead under fluorescent lights is brutal enough, but hearing guns going off close by is enough to make one hide under a desk, any desk.
Other things worth pointing out here are how the police characters introduced to deal with this shooting are given various dimensions even though they are not given much screen time. While they want to resolve this violent situation, they all know it may involve a sniper eliminating the shooter at any given opportunity. There is also a nice score composed by Sylvester Levay, and I say this even though his main theme to this film sounds like something out of a Cinemax skin flick.
We do not see many movies like “Stalking Laura” these days as shootings like the one portrayed here have become far too commonplace in America. The only other movie I can think of which covered a shooting like this was Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” which served as a meditation on the events at Columbine High School. Watching something like this should serve as a reminder of how senseless shootings like these are as they accomplish nothing. But with these violence occurrences still happening at alarming numbers in America, one has to wonder if enough people will listen.
But hey, at least HR did the right thing by firing Richard. Of course, this was after Laura made them do something about her problem. And yes, the HR director did describe his termination as the result of poor work performance, and that’s even after he told the director he has weapons and would kill people. When it came to the restraining order, Laura had to get it herself as the company no longer had to deal with the situation since Richard was fired. So seriously, HR did attest to the needs of a certain employee, right? RIGHT?!
It is only with a surprising amount of free time that I found myself watching “Stepfather III.” Its reputation is so bad that it did not even merit a theatrical release. Yes, it was made for television, but it looks too cheap even for Cinemax. Even Terry O’Quinn, who was so terrifying as Jerry Blake in the previous “Stepfather” movies, bailed on this one. Still, curiosity overtook me as I sat down to see how Jerry’s quest for the perfect family could continue even after being stabbed more times than any mortal being can possibly endure. Plus, it was free to watch on IMDB.
When “Stepfather III” begins, Jerry (played here by Robert Wightman) has already escaped the psychiatric institution in Puget Sound, Washington. This is the same place he was imprisoned in and escaped at the start of “Stepfather II,” and it makes me wonder why anyone would bother sending him back there after he stabbed a psychiatrist who thought he was making progress with him. Why not just send him to prison? Well, in horror movies like this, everyone gets a second chance, and then a third, and then a fourth. Just like Sideshow Bob from “The Simpsons,” there are idiots out there willing to give him a free pass.
Whatever the case, the filmmakers decided to skip over the escape part and cut straight to the chase. Jerry meets up with a back-alley plastic surgeon (played every so shamelessly by Mario Roccuzzo) who proceeds to alter his face while smoking an endless number of cigarettes. Yes, this is how sterile he keeps his workplace. This leads to one of the few interesting moments as director Guy Magar ended up filming an actual plastic surgery procedure which is more unnerving than what any makeup effects professional could have come up with. And again, this sequel has a ridiculously small budget, so filming the real thing must have saved Magar a few pennies.
With his new face, Jerry does what some would do to keep from going bankrupt due to high medical costs; he kills the doctor. Hey, medical insurance in America doesn’t cover everything. Besides, some companies would say being psychotic is a pre-existing condition.
Yes, yes, I know, this is a back-alley doctor who doesn’t deal in paperwork, but let me have some fun here.
Anyway, Jerry makes his way to Deer View, California where he lives under the alias of Keith Grant and works at a plant nursery. This makes sense as he has previously shown just how good he is with gardening tools and other sharp instruments. It’s also no surprise to see how good he is with a shovel.
While at a church dance where he dresses up as the Easter bunny, Keith ends up meeting Christine Davis (Priscilla Barnes), a divorced school principal with a son who is psychosomatically paralyzed. Surprise, surprise, the two quickly fall in love and get married because, you know, why wait in a movie like this? As you can imagine, there is a jealous ex-boyfriend who is quite possessive of Christine, and Christine’s son is busy doing detective work because kids are smarter than we think and are always cutting through their parents’ bullshit.
If there is an interesting angle in this dreaded “Stepfather” sequel, it’s that the story has a bit of a twist. Keith ends up meeting the widow Jennifer Ashley (Season Hubley) who has just moved into town with her son, and he begins courting her. So instead of one potential bride to start a family with, there is another for him to consider. From there, this sequel could have turned into a far more suspenseful motion picture as you wonder which lady will live and die. It’s like a demonic season of “The Bachelor” where a contestant gets a knife in the heart instead of a rose, or perhaps this more resembles one of the many twisted reality shows which aired on Fox back in the 1990’s.
Whatever the case, “Stepfather III” is a horrible waste of time for everyone involved and people like me who made the mistake of watching it. Moreover, this movie drags its way to a pitiful conclusion which utilizes a wood chipper in a way nowhere as memorable as what the Coen brothers did with one in “Fargo.” At least, the filmmakers here gave Jerry/Keith a more permanent conclusion. While he may have survived a dozen knife wounds, I imagine he has as much luck of being put back together as Humpty Dumpty ever did.
Speaking of dragging, this sequel has a running time of almost two hours. Whereas the original “Stepfather” ran a mere 89 minutes and “Stepfather II” is only 93 minutes long, someone decided they could get away with adding another 20 to 30 minutes of footage. On top of “Stepfather III” being boring and terribly made, it feels like it lasts forever. Towards the end, I couldn’t care less about who lived or died. I just wanted this awfulness to be over and done with.
In regards to Robert Wightman, I don’t know whether to pity him or feel sorry for him. Stepping into a role which O’Quinn handled ever so brilliantly was never going to be an easy feat, and Dylan Walsh didn’t have it any better when he starred in the inevitable “Stepfather” remake. O’Quinn brought both a real pathos and a humanity to Jerry Blake, and this made the character all the more frightening. While Wightman does get Jerry’s old-fashioned mannerisms down well, and lord knows this man is far too old-fashioned and polite on the outside, he is unable to make the character the least bit terrifying. In fact, he comes off looking quite harmless even after impaling a man with a rusty shovel.
What else? The music score sounds like it was done on one of those Casio pianos from the 1980’s (understandably, this movie could not afford any orchestra), the acting is terrible, the story is mostly predictable as we have been down this road before, the cinematography particularly at the beginning is bizarre, and the bloody effects look even worse than what Bob and Harvey Weinstein forced Jeff Burr to add to “Stepfather II,” and those efforts looked ridiculously fake.
While I’m at it, what are Priscilla Barnes and Season Hubley doing in this trash? Barnes played a Bond woman in “Licence to Kill,” Rob Zombie made great use of her in “The Devil’s Rejects,” and she was on “Three’s Company” for crying out loud! As for Hubley, she had an unforgettable scene opposite her then-husband Kurt Russell in “Escape From New York,” and she held her own opposite George C. Scott in Paul Schrader’s “Hardcore.” Surely their agents could have gotten them something better than this dreck.
Look, I did not expect much of anything from “Stepfather III” as any movie in this series lacking Terry O’Quinn is just asking for a severe round of bitch slapping. But still, I have seen many horror movies with worse acting and writing, and they proved to be far more entertaining and scarier than this one. Was anyone involved in this sequel’s making the least bit interested in making something the least bit thrilling, or were they more interested in making a quick buck? All we get here is a pathetic excuse of a motion picture which still has not gotten a DVD or Blu-ray release in America. I bet even Shout Factory doesn’t want to touch this one.
WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2011.
Jason Reitman completed his guest programming at New Beverly Cinema with a screening of Wes Anderson’s directorial debut, “Bottle Rocket.” This film also marked the movie debuts of Luke and Owen Wilson, the latter who co-wrote the screenplay with Anderson. Before seeing this movie, Reitman admitted he was actually scared of becoming a filmmaker especially because he was the son of a famous one (Ivan Reitman). He did see all the great movies of the 1990’s like “Clerks,” “Slacker,” and he checked out all of Quentin Tarantino’s movies, but he said none of them had the same effect on him as “Bottle Rocket” did. For Reitman, this was the movie which made him want to direct films. And of discovering Anderson, he said, “This is the voice that I am going to follow forever.”
Joining Reitman for this special screening was actor Luke Wilson, and it was nice to see him take a break from all those AT&T Wireless commercials he has been doing endlessly. Ironically, the movie Reitman showed the same evening before it was “Breaking Away,” and Wilson said he is actually good friends with one of that movie’s stars, Dennis Quaid. Quaid was away in Hawaii so he was unable to attend the screening with fellow co-stars Dennis Christopher and Daniel Stern. This coincidence did, however, allow Wilson to talk about how Randy Quaid told Dennis he already made the family name and suggested he change his. Dennis ended up asking his brother, “How about McQuaid?”
Anyway, Luke told the audience Wes and Owen originally wanted to shoot “Bottle Rocket” guerilla style so they could shoot it cheaply as Richard Linklater had done the same thing with “Slacker.” However, they ended up meeting a producer who told them about the Sundance Film Festival and advised them to start off by making a short film they could take there. So they made the short and got it entered into Sundance, but nothing happened and they didn’t win anything for it. Despite that, they managed luckily to get hooked up with a producer named Polly Platt who had worked on such movies as “The Last Picture Show” and “Terms of Endearment” among others.
The project went on from there as Platt brought the Wilson brothers and Anderson to the attention of famed writer/producer/director James L. Brooks. Anderson ended up getting everyone to do a read thru of the script at some office in Texas during the summer. Turns out the air conditioning there wasn’t working all that well, and they were reading a screenplay which was two hundred pages long. Luke said he ended up sweating profusely throughout the whole read, and this made Owen glare at him as if to say, what the hell are you doing?
Luke also took some time to talk about Brooks who became one of the chief supporters of “Bottle Rocket,” and he described him as being very nice. However, he also said Brooks can immediately “cut to the truth and be painfully funny.” Of course, Brooks was going through problems of his own. While working on “Bottle Rocket,” he was also busy with his film musical “I’ll Do Anything” with Nick Nolte. For those who remember, it ended up getting released without any of the music as the movie tested poorly (and that’s being polite).
Reitman went on to talk about how he related to the voice of the film and how it had a “strange innocence” to it. Luke replied the film’s voice came from Anderson and Owen, but he said he never got the feeling he was working on anything special. Columbia Pictures, which distributed the movie, wanted to make “Bottle Rocket” but with different actors. When it was all shot and in the can, the studio didn’t like or knew what to make of it. Looking back, Luke said bluntly he was “stunned that the movie got made.”
When it finally came to making “Bottle Rocket” as a feature length film, Luke remarked Wes knew exactly how movies were made. He and Owen, on the other hand, did not. They didn’t understand certain jobs the crew on set had like the boom mike guy. Luke said he and Owen wondered out loud, “How can that guy just stand around like that?”
Also, Anderson did not want the actors to watch dallies of the day’s work, but this didn’t matter much because neither Owen nor Luke wanted to watch them anyway. Luke says he still doesn’t understand what compels actors to watch dallies as he feels it will likely mess you up in terms of how you go about developing your character.
The cast and crew also had the fortune of working with James Caan who had a bit role in “Bottle Rocket,” and Luke recalled he was going through a rough patch at the time, but that he did warm up to the rest of the cast during shooting. At one point Luke, Owen and Wes asked Caan what it was like working with the late Marlon Brando on “The Godfather.” To this Caan replied, “It’s like you guys working with me.”
“Bottle Rocket” did go through the rather unnecessary realm of test screenings. For a movie like this, it must have felt like a waste of time because this is not one which just sells itself to mainstream audiences, but the studio executives decreed that Anderson screen the movie for focus groups nonetheless. So, there was a test screening done in Santa Monica, and out of a crowd of 250 people, 75 walked out. The ones who stayed through the whole thing, as Luke remembered it, wrote nothing but shit about the movie. To date, it remains the one movie with the worst test screenings in the history of Columbia Pictures. Luke said he, Owen and Anderson were convinced they would never get to make another movie ever again.
Despite all that, “Bottle Rocket” did get discovered by audiences through cable, video and DVD. Luke says he still sees it on cable every once in a while, and Reitman remarked it became the “touchstone for those who want to make movies.” Martin Scorsese ended up naming it as one of the best movies of the 1990’s. Still, everyone involved with this little film had a hard time getting over it feeling like a failure. But when these guys got around to making the brilliant “Rushmore,” they found themselves re-energized and have since gone on to make one great movie after another.
“Dolores Claiborne” is, on the surface, not your typical Stephen King novel, and this is important to note before you begin watching this particular adaptation of his work. This cinematic treatment reunites him with the great Kathy Bates who won an Oscar for playing Annie Wilkes in “Misery,” but she’s not playing a deranged psycho this time around. Also, while much of King’s writings deal with terrifying supernatural powers and unspeakable terrors, the horror generated here comes from real life horrors no one should ever have to endure. In some ways, this makes it one of his more terrifying tales because it deals with the kind of horrible crimes we hope and pray never to experience first-hand. Having said this, it is clear how many of us can never be so lucky as to avoid the worst traumas humanity has to offer.
Bates plays the title character who, as “Dolores Claiborne” opens, is believed to have killed her rich employer Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt). This crime immediately reminds the town of Little Tall Island in Maine when Dolores’ husband, Joe (David Strathairn), died twenty years ago under mysterious circumstances, and the general consensus was that Dolores killed him. Detective John Mackey (Christopher Plummer), who had pursued the case against her back then is determined to put her behind bars this time and for good. Into this mix comes Dolores’ daughter, Selena St. George (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a big-time reporter who arrives to defend her mother despite the two of them having been estranged for over a decade.
The novel “Dolores Claiborne” was essentially one long monologue as the story was written entirely from the title character’s point of view. This makes the work director Taylor Hackford and screenwriter Tony Gilroy have done here all the more impressive. They have taken Dolores’ unsettling story and have stretched it out into a character driven motion picture filled with various characters who have been fleshed out in unforgettably compelling ways. None of these characters, even that drunken lout of a husband and father, are one-dimensional or throwaway caricatures. Each one is complex, and they take unexpected directions which might seem jarring at first, but eventually make sense in the large scheme of things.
The plot shifts back and forth in time as we flashback to when Dolores lived with her drunk and abusive husband and of the vicious abuse she took from him in his endlessly drunken state. Director of photography Gabriel Beristain shoots this hideous past with such vivid colors to where he gives the scenes an innocent look which is soon contrasted with horrible violence. It almost acts as a façade for how the past was seen as if it were some sort of Norman Rockwell painting, the kind made to cover up the severe family dysfunction many would like to pretend does not exist.
For the record, King said he wrote the character of Dolores Claiborne with Kathy Bates in mind, and it is very hard to think of another actress who could have inhabited this role. Stripped of any false glamour, Bates takes her character from being a victim to one who understandably takes matters into her own hands. Her acting here is flawless and compelling, and we root for her even though her actions have devastating moral implications.
When you look at her overall body of work, this movie almost seems like a walk in the park for Leigh. She has gone to great physical and emotional lengths to portray a character throughout her long career, but here it looks like she is taking it easy. However, her character of Selena is no less challenging to portray than the others listed on her vast resume. Selena is not easily likable, but she has to be empathetic because the viewer slowly starts to see how her innocence was irrevocably and unforgivably destroyed. Leigh matches Bates’ performance scene for scene by showing how much Selena wants to forget the past, but she comes to see how her most repressed memories cannot stay below the surface forever.
Special attention also needs to be paid to Ellen Muth who portrays Selena as a little girl. This is not the kind of role parents want their children to portray to as it deals with abuse and molestation among other things, but Muth proves to be utterly convincing in making the young Selena deeply distraught and confused by actions no child should ever have to be put through.
There’s also a bevy of excellent performances from the rest of the cast as well. Christopher Plummer, who is never bad in anything, is memorable as the relentless Detective John Mackey. This could have been a throwaway role, but Plummer makes Mackey a complex character to where you question whether his determination is based more on personal revenge than justice. Judy Parfitt is unbearably domineering as Dolores’ wealthy employer, Vera Donovan, and their relationship runs much deeper than we see at first glance. And David Strathairn manages to flesh out his despicable character of Joe St. George to where he’s just slightly more than your average mean drunk.
Most of King’s novels deal with the horror of supernatural elements or ghosts and demons which haunt our nightmares. But “Dolores Claiborne,” much like “Stand by Me,” deals with the horrors of real life which we are never quick to confront unless we are put in a position where the awful truth can no longer be ignored. Perhaps the unsettling nature of this particular work by King is what kept many from checking out this motion picture when it arrived in movie theatres back in 1995, but those of us who were willing to dive into the dark side of things like myself did not deny ourselves a journey to the horrors this film has to offer. But now, 25 years later, this film fits in perfectly with a time which includes the Time’s Up movement as we are forced to realize we have thoughtlessly ignored the worst abuses made against other human beings for far too long. As a result, this particular King cinematic adaption plays even better than it did back when it was released.
“Narrow Margin” was released in 1990, back when movie remakes were as rare as people owning cell phones. Yes, it is a remake of the 1952 film noir “The Narrow Margin,” and it tells the tale of a Los Angeles deputy district attorney tasked with keeping a witness to a murder safe from a pair of hitmen as they travel through Canada in a train. What we have here is a movie with a terrific cast, some great stunts and sharp cinematography, but it also doesn’t have much of a brain in its head as the characters make one ridiculously stupid decision after another.
The movie starts with Carol Hunnicut (Anne Archer) arriving at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles where she has been set up on a blind date with a lawyer named Michael Tarlow (the late and still missed J.T. Walsh). Things go fine between them until Michael has to take a phone call in his hotel room and invites Carol along with him, not wanting to leave her alone. But then well-known gangster Leo Watts (Harris Yulin) arrives along with his henchman Jack Wootton (Nigel Bennett) and doesn’t hesitate in accusing Michael of stealing money from him. Michael, overwhelmed by his guilt, confesses his crime to Leo who offers to forgive him, providing they never do business together again. But we all know that gangsters are not big on honesty, and Leo has Michael murdered right on the spot. But, of course, they have no idea Carol is hiding in the bathroom and has witnessed everything.
Like any person who knows how rich and crooked people get off too easy in the real world, Carol flees Los Angeles, and yet she is somehow easy to find as Deputy District Attorney Robert Caulfield (Gene Hackman) and Detective Sergeant Dominick Benti (M. Emmet Walsh) come to find her hiding out in a remote cabin in Canada. And as you might expect, it doesn’t take long for these three to realize the gangsters have followed them as they were dumb enough to leave a trail of breadcrumbs in their path. Dominick is killed, and Robert and Carol escape onto a train headed for Vancouver. But, surprise, surprise, they are trailed by a pair of ridiculously well-dressed hitmen determined to take them out, and the movie turns into a cat and mouse thriller as Robert tries to keep Carol alive despite their dire and claustrophobic circumstances.
Now “Narrow Margin” does take place in a time where technology was nowhere near what it is today, but it is hard to believe even back then that a person could easily disappear without much of a trace. The fact these gangsters have little trouble in following Robert to where Carol is hiding out shows what terrible preparation he and Dominick put into finding and keeping her safe, and these guys are public servants for crying out loud!
Then there are the two hitmen played by Bennett and James Sikking, the latter I remember fondly as the Captain of the Excelsior in “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.” They come onto the scene dressed to the max in expensive suits and shiny ties which more than spell out to the audience they are bad guys on the prowl. I guess it is asking too much for these hitmen to dress like they are average passengers as doing so just might make them harder to detect. But no, these guys have to show to everyone just how rich and stylish assassins can be to where they are impossible to miss.
There is also the issue of those assassins failing to follow Hackman back to his cabin where they just might find Archer hiding. When you look closely at the screenplay, you will see it has plot holes Christopher Nolan could have flown that giant airplane from “Tenet” through. The characters keep making an endless number of idiotic mistakes, and it just drains much of the suspense and tension “Narrow Margin” hoped to have. There is also a character reveal towards the end, but you can see that one coming from a mile away.
It really is a shame because “Narrow Margin” has the benefit of two great actors headlining it. Gene Hackman is a lot of fun to watch in a role others would have played too broadly. He has a great scene where he faces off with the two hitmen and explains why he won’t accept a bribe to give up his witness. Hackman plays the scene in such a playfully devious way to where it serves as a reminder of why he is one of the best film actors ever. Put him in a bad movie, and he will still give a terrific performance in it no matter what.
Archer appeared in this movie not long after she co-starred in “Fatal Attraction,” a classic which had us all wondering why in the world would Michael Douglas cheat on her with Glenn Close. She makes Carol Hunnicut into a heroine who is both strong-willed and deeply vulnerable as she struggles to stay alive from one moment to the next. She also has strong chemistry with Hackman to where they make quite the team, and the fact they are unable to fully suspend your disbelief is not entirely their fault.
“Narrow Margin” was written, directed and photographer by Peter Hyams. One of his great strengths is in crafting action sequences which truly leave you on the edge of your seat. A car almost going over a cliff is a cliché used in many action movies, but Hyams makes it work to great effect here as watching it almost made my heart stop. There are also a number of great stunts performed on top of a moving train, many performed by the actors themselves. Hyams really knows how to keep audiences riveted to where it is almost worth watching this film just for the action sequences alone.
But in the end, “Narrow Margin” proves to be more laughable than exciting as the characters do far too many idiotic things we can all see right through. Its trailer made it look like a top-notch thriller you would be foolish to miss out on, but sadly this is not the case. When Hackman and Archer cannot save a movie with their strong performances, not much else can.
David Cronenberg’s “eXistenZ” is a film I like to describe as being the cerebral version of “The Matrix.” It gets you to question the reality the characters are in all throughout the movie, and it continues Cronenberg’s exploration of the blurring line between reality and fantasy. With “The Matrix,” it was clear what was real and what was not. But with “eXistenZ,” you can never be sure what is truly real, and its ending will leave you guessing for a very long time. But to quote the title of a certain U2 song, one has to wonder if everyone here has found something which is even better than the real thing.
“eXistenZ” stars the always awesome Jennifer Jason Leigh as Allegra Geller, a well-known game programmer who we first see about to try out her latest game which is said to be like no other. While most new game consoles come in these big metal boxes, Allegra’s box is more of an organic creation as it looks like a sizable piece of human skin which looks to be living and breathing when activated. To play the game, you have to hook a cord, one which looks eerily like an umbilical cord, into a port in your back which connects the game to your spine. Like many a Cronenberg movie, “eXistenZ” deals with the degradation of the human body as well as the human soul.
In the course of testing out the game to an excited crowd, Allegra is nearly assassinated by a man who is intent on eliminating what he sees as a threat to reality. From there, it becomes clear a war has begun between those who want to preserve reality by destroying the gaming industry, and those who want to preserve games and see them be taken to another level of advancement. Allegra is forced to go on the run, and coming along with her is a young marketing trainee, a shy nerd of a man named Ted Pikul. Pikul is played by Jude Law, and it is a role no one could probably see him playing these days. Ever since he showed off his tanned body on the sunny shores in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” he has become a sexy god to so many. There’s nothing sexy to this character he plays here or, at least, not right away.
In the course of the attack, Allegra’s gaming pod is damaged, so she has to play the game to see what needs to be fixed. She encourages Ted to play it with her, but he is not terribly enthusiastic about doing so as he is a virgin to these kinds of games. He has never played them before, and he does not have a bioport in his back which is essential to playing the game. Moreover, he does not like things like bioports or needles being inserted into his body. But Allegra eventually encourages him to play along, and he does get a bioport jack hammered into his back courtesy of Gas (the always reliable Willem Dafoe). From there on out, Allegra’s and Ted’s voyage through the game will challenge their perceptions, and it has them wondering where they really are in all of this.
I remember seeing “eXistenZ” at an art house movie theater in Orange County when it was first released. Along with the characters, I was ever so eager to experience what they were experiencing when they played this game. While it felt like it took forever to get to their game experience, it turned out to be nothing like I could have ever expected.
With our infinite advancements in technology, the story is now far more frightening than ever before. Cronenberg is questioning how far we will go in our pursuit of the high which is virtual reality. Once we have experienced the game, will we even want to leave it? Will it make our “normal” reality feel more unreal? Everyone seems to be stuck in jobs they hate but have to work at, and they always dream of a better life for themselves which they constantly wait for instead of making it actually happen. Could this be accomplished through a game? Maybe not, but with the way technology continues to advance, anything is possible.
The other fascinating thing about “eXistenZ” is how it looks at the moral boundaries these characters cross. The games we play on the latest PlayStation or Xbox console seem to have this effect, but we can easily see we are indulging in a fantasy which makes everything okay. But as the line between reality and fantasy blurs all the more, the consequences seem all the more brutal and fiercer, and these characters end up crossing a line they can never undo. When we cannot tell reality from fantasy, how can we justify the horrible things we do to others?
Cronenberg’s movies have a look all their own, and “eXistenZ” has his signature touch throughout. What other director could come with an organic pod for game playing, or with a gun made out of animal bones with teeth used as bullets? Even in the game the characters are playing, the violence is still pretty vicious, and no death ever looks pretty. This is also typical with Cronenberg’s movies as we see faces blown off to where certain people look like Harvey “Two Face” Dent from “The Dark Knight.“
Leigh and Law are always terrific in just about everything they do, and their work in “eXistenZ” is no exception. Leigh, who usually plays characters who are anything but pretty, is an alluring presence throughout as she not only manages to seduce Law, something which cannot be all that hard to do, but she also succeeds in seducing the audience into the world her character inhabits. This is what her performance needed to accomplish in order to make this film work, and it should make one admire her acting skills all the more.
If “eXistenZ” were made today, I’m not sure we would be seeing Law in this role as he would probably seem too cool to play such an awkwardly social character. People get used to seeing you in a certain way, and it can get to where no one wants to see you as anything else. It’s a shame because Law truly is a great actor, and seeing him go against type here as a man who has to overcome his phobias and aversions in order to play the game and help Allegra is endlessly enthralling. The effect it has on him is immense as it unlocks unconscious desires which quickly rise to the surface. Law portrays this evolution of his character very effectively, and he has great chemistry with Leigh from start to finish. Heck, is it possible for Law to not have good chemistry with any actress?
The ending of “eXistenZ” will leave you with more questions than answers. This may frustrate a lot of audiences, but Cronenberg has not always been one to give you conclusions which tell you all you need to know. You come out of his movies thinking about what you have just witnessed, and this makes his work stay with you long after the end credits have concluded. It is not an action-packed film like “The Matrix,” and you won’t see a lot of actors wearing skin clad leather costumes and wearing cool sunglasses here, but this movie stands on its own as an examination of where technology is taking us. Like “Videodrome,” it threatens to be a very prophetic film as we head further and further into the new millennium with technological discoveries which put us into the action and other realities more than ever before.
We are still all on a search for something which is even better than the real thing, and it’s never gonna stop. But after watching “eXistenZ,” I am reminded of the need for limits on things as many, especially in America, continue to act like children instead of being the adults they have been for some time. Facts should be indisputable, but a reality other than our own is always far more appealing than what our current existence resembles.
I am thankful I live near New Beverly Cinema as it has long since proven to be a great film school for movie buffs like me, and it has allowed me to watch movies I might otherwise not have bothered to watch when they were first released. Case in point is the 1995 movie “Safe” which marked a huge breakthrough for its director Todd Haynes and lead actress Julianne Moore. I do remember when it was first released and of film critics like Roger Ebert singing its praises, and it came out during a time when movies like these played in cities far from where I lived, and getting out to see them was impossible. Even with a driver’s license, certain cinematic events were too far away for me to attend.
Anyway, Moore plays Carol White, a suburban homemaker who is comfortably married to Greg (Xander Berkeley), and she spends her days either doing things around the house, going to her local aerobics class, or having lunch with friends. But one day after driving down Olympic Boulevard, she finds herself coughing uncontrollably after traveling behind a big rig truck whose exhaust seeps right into her air conditioning system. This marks the beginning of an acute sensitivity to just about every chemical known to the human race, and things just get worse and worse for her from there. In addition to coughing uncontrollably, she later finds herself suffering from nose bleeds, she develops asthma-like symptoms, and she ends up convulsing at the local dry cleaners.
Carol is said to have developed multiple chemical sensitivity, otherwise known as MCS or the “Twentieth-Century Disease.” This is still seen as a very controversial diagnosis which remains unrecognized by the American Medical Association. “Safe,” however, is not out to prove if MCS is a real threat to us all or not. Instead, it looks at how a disease can forever change the way we look at ourselves and of how we view the world around us.
“Safe” also gets deep into that anxiety-ridden place in our psyche which goes haywire when our safety zone gets violated by forces beyond our control. We feel Carol’s agony throughout because we all collectively fear getting a disease which has no clear diagnosis or an immediate cure. When you end up going through lord only knows how many doctor’s appointments where it feels like nothing’s working, it really wears you and your loved ones down to the point of sheer desperation.
Things get even more horrifying from there when Carol travels to a resort in the New Mexico desert called Wrenwood. Designed to help those afflicted with MCS, it really seems more like a cult. Instead of finding ways to deal with this condition to where people can function normally in their daily lives, its leader Peter Dunning (the excellent Peter Friedman) subtly enforces his fear of the chemical world on his dutiful followers. Peter comes in the guise of a very friendly person with the best of intentions, but we all know where good intentions lead.
Haynes, working with a minimal budget, makes “Safe” feel all the more real as he portrays suburban life in the San Fernando Valley in ways which never come across as corny or the least bit campy. All the characters are complex and the kind we recognize from our own lives, and the agitation they experience feels unnervingly vivid. Adding to this sense of dread is an excellent ambient score by Ed Tomney which deftly illustrates the growing anxiety of the film’s main character. Haynes brings out the best in each of the actors, and he lets them become their characters instead of just playing them.
Moore’s performance in “Safe” proved to be a revelation as she sucks us right into her character’s dilemma, and we can never take our eyes off her as Carol turns further inward and isolates herself from the world at large. The whole movie rests on her shoulders, and she shows no vanity in her portrayal of Carol. She literally becomes the character before our very eyes to where she looks frighteningly emaciated and close to being completely incapacitated. It’s a deeply affecting performance which made me want to reach out and hug her, and I say this even though it would probably not be enough to save her character.
“Safe” ends on an ambiguous note, leaving it up to the audience to guess what will become of Carol White. This will drive a lot of the mainstream audience members crazy as they demand to have things explained in full detail, but a movie like this cannot and should not offer easy solutions. How can it? I got so caught up in Carol’s ordeal to where I felt I was in her shoes. Personally, I hope she finds a way to overcome her circumstances, but that may just be wishful thinking.
I am really glad I finally got to see “Safe,” and I hope more people take the time to check it out. It stays with you in a way few movies do. It also leaves us with a haunting image of a certain character seen from a distance, completely covered with clothing to where they are hiding every part of their body from the world at large. Arcade Fire may sing about the body being a cage, but what happens when we put another cage over it? This all reminds me of a lyric from a song by Peter Gabriel:
“The more we are protected, the more we’re trapped within.”
* * * * out of * * * *
WRITER’S NOTE: When I first saw “Safe” at New Beverly Cinema, it had been out of print on DVD and VHS for several years. The Criterion Collection, however, has since released a special edition of it on DVD and Blu-ray, and I could not recommend it more highly. Click here to find out more about this special edition.
In this time of quarantine due to the global pandemic known as Coronavirus (COVID-19), I have not stayed in my apartment all day long as I have no choice but to work. Still, getting my ass out of bed continues to be a struggle, and while I keep saying I have no time to watch any new releases, I do find myself watching whatever is playing on one of the various Starz cable channels. And I have to be honest, there is always a certain movie which captures my attention regardless if I already have the movie on DVD or Blu-ray.
One movie which has been playing on Starz a lot recently is “In the Line of Fire,” the 1993 political action thriller which was directed by Wolfgang Petersen and stars Clint Eastwood as the grizzled and cantankerous veteran Secret Service Agent Frank Horrigan.
I worked at a movie theater in my hometown, Crow Canyon Cinemas, which played it, and during my lunch breaks I would go and watch it to take in the excellent direction, brilliant acting and terrific action sequences. It also provided me with one of my most frustrating moments while I worked there. While working a shift, an audience member came up to me and said the lights were still up inside the theater. I rushed in to see what was going on, and the lights were indeed still on as the movie opened up on Washington, D.C. and Ennio Morricone’s began playing. Another audience member yelled out, “ARE YOU GOING TO TURN THE LIGHTS OFF?!” This caused others in the audience to laugh, and I walked out of there inescapably pissed. Hey, if I was operating the film projector, I would have made certain the lights were turned off when the movie began. Please do not automatically assume it’s my fault! Do you even know who I am?! Do you know what us concession workers, ushers and box office personal are forced to deal with on a regular basis?!
Anyway, Frank Horrigan is a veteran Secret Service Agent who is busy breaking in a rookie named Al D’Andrea (Dylan McDermott) whom, as you will see, has a really bad first day at work. Upon arriving back at his apartment, Frank receives a call from a man who calls himself Booth, short for John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. Booth is later revealed to be Mitch Leary (John Malkovich), a disillusioned and deeply obsessed CIA assassin who is determined to assassinate the current President of the United States. From there on out, Frank becomes determined to stop Mitch from ever reaching his murderous goal.
Of course, Mitch has a special reason for telling Frank about his plan as he is the sole active agent remaining from the detail guarding President John F. Kennedy back in 1963 when he was assassinated. Mitch prods Frank into thinking he could have done more to keep Kennedy alive, and we see in Frank’s eyes why this is still a gaping wound which has aversely affected his life for far too long
What really fascinated me about “In the Line of Fire” was the relationship between Frank and Mitch as it worked on different levels. At first, it felt like Mitch was viciously deriding Frank for his failure in Dallas on that fateful day, but perhaps Mitch was taunting Frank in an effort to see if there was any government worker who was still worth believing in. Either that, or perhaps Mitch was eager for some competition as he had long since become such a skilled assassin to where this particular job was easier for him than it should have been. The screenplay by Jeff Maguire is not clear on the answer to this, but this is part of this movie’s charm.
“In the Line of Fire” was the first movie Eastwood had acted in following his Oscar winning triumph, “Unforgiven.” When I saw “Unforgiven,” it forever changed the way I looked at Eastwood as I figured he was just coasting on the success of “Dirty Harry” for far too many years to where he could easily phone in a performance before we realized it But when it came to “Unforgiven,” this movie made me realize he was a consummate artist both in front of and behind the camera. Watching him in “In the Line of Fire” made me see this all the more as, behind that famous glint of his, he succeeds in giving a wonderfully complex performance as Frank Horrigan. From start to finish, Eastwood makes Frank into a difficult, thoughtful, charming, guilt-ridden and stubborn human being, and it is a real shame he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for his performance.
The key scene for Eastwood comes when Frank reminisces about the day of Kennedy’s assassination with Agent Lilly Raines (the always terrific Rene Russo), and he paints a very vivid picture for the audience to where no flashbacks are needed to illustrate what he is talking about. It was also one of the few times back then where we got see Eastwood cry, and an image like this seemed unthinkable for so long. Still, watching this iconic star lose it over an American tragedy which has long since been burned into our collective memory is a beautiful moment. Some are forever trapped in a time and place they can never escape from, and the assassination of J.F.K. is one which still holds many in its grasp.
One actor who did score an Oscar nomination for their performance was John Malkovich. With his character of Mitch Leary, Malkovich created one of the most malevolent psychopaths the world of cinema has ever seen. But as demented as Malkovich makes Mitch (the scene where he puts Eastwood’s gun in his mouth was his idea), he also allows us to see this character has some form of empathy. When Mitch talks about how he doesn’t remember who he was before the CIA “sunk their claws” into him speaks volumes as he has long since become a former shell of his former self to where he has nothing left to live for except revenge. When it comes to Malkovich, you can always count on him to take any character he plays and mold him into something undeniably unique.
I also have to single out Rene Russo who is an absolute joy to watch here as Special Agent Lilly Raines. She made her film debut in “Major League,” but she really caught my eye after co-starring in “Lethal Weapon 3” as Lorna Cole, an internal affairs detective who beat up the bad guys every bit as effectively as Martin Riggs did. When we first saw her in “In the Line of the Fire,” we knew her character was not an agent to be easily messed with as she could kick ass with the best. Still, Russo shows a wonderful vulnerability throughout as Lilly confesses to Frank how she broke off a relationship because she would not give up her job for anyone. Russo does not even have to spell out in words why Lilly is hesitant to become involved with Frank as any potential relationship comes with a lot of baggage, and yet the chemistry between these two proves to be so strong to where we have one of the more hilarious love-making scenes in cinema history. As we see the various objects drop off them as they climb into bed, we can understand Frank’s frustration about having to put all of it back on.
“In the Line of Fire” was directed by Wolfgang Petersen, the same man who gave us the greatest submarine movie ever made, “Das Boot.” Petersen directs this movie in a way which makes it clear to us how character means more to him than spectacle. Whether or not the stunts are the best you have ever seen, they are exciting as hell because we are rooting for the characters from start to finish. As the story heads to a most thrilling climax, I could not take my eyes off the screen for a second.
This movie also has one of my favorite film scores ever by the great Ennio Morricone as he nails every single moment for all its emotional worth. Whether it’s the main theme which is filled with a hard-fought for patriotism, the romantic themes which illustrate the growing relationship between Frank and Lilly, or the themes which add to the taut action sequences, there is not a single false note to be found here.
It is nice to revisit “In the Line of Fire” after all these years, and it still holds up in this day and age. It is a top-notch thriller and the kind of character driven motion picture we do not see enough of these days. It also makes you respect the secret service in a way we always should have. They have to defend the President of the United States regardless of how they feel about him or her as a person. I mean, heaven forbid we have another President serve as a martyr for this great country the way John F. Kennedy did. I bring this up because this is especially the case when we are forced to deal with an infinitely unpopular President, and I will just leave it at that.
WRITER’S NOTE: The following article is about a screening which took place back in 2011.
In the midst of promoting “Contagion” in Los Angeles, California, filmmaker Steven Soderbergh dropped by the Silent Movie Theater where Cinefamily was screening one of his earlier and most underrated features, “King of the Hill.” Not to be confused with the Fox animated series, the film follows 12-year-old Aaron Kurlander (Jesse Bradford) who is forced to fend for himself in Depression era America after his parents leave him alone at the Empire Hotel in St. Louis. Aaron is forced to grow up a lot faster than any kid should ever have to, and he desperately searches for ways to avoid eviction from the family’s apartment. Soderbergh thanked the sold-out crowd for coming to the theater, and he started off by saying, “Why aren’t you guys going to see ‘Contagion’? This film is never going into profit!”
“King of the Hill” was Soderbergh’s third film after “Sex, Lies & Videotape” and “Kafka,” and it was released back in 1993. Based on the memoir of the same name by A.E. Hotchner, it was given to him as a gift by a friend. At the time he was looking for something different than “Sex, Lies & Videotape,” and he found Hotchner’s story to be just what he needed. He did, however, describe it as a “tricky adaptation” since he only had a budget of $8 million and 48 days to shoot the film, and it was a period piece. On the upside, though, he said Universal Pictures, which released the movie through its Gramercy Pictures division, was “hands off” during the production.
Watching it again, Soderbergh described it as the one movie of his he might change aesthetically. He felt the prettiness of the picture would help counteract the harsher parts of the story, but now finds the film to be “almost too pretty.” Most of the conversation he had in pre-production involved the overall palette color which he and cinematographer Elliot Davis wanted to remain within a certain range. Were he to film it today, Soderbergh said he would go out of his way to make it “less commercial.”
Soderbergh recalled doing three preview screenings of his movie, none of which went well. When finished with the project, he admitted feeling somewhat dissatisfied as the movie’s ending did not seem entirely satisfactory to him. Whatever problems he had, they did not stop him from trying to adapt Hotchner’s follow up memoir “Looking for Miracles” which focused on the writer’s relationship with his brother. Sadly, Soderbergh’s hopes were quickly dashed when “King of the Hill” did not find an audience upon its release.
Regardless of his feelings, the audience was in agreement that “King of the Hill” is a great film, and it truly is one of Soderbergh’s best works. The director also found a big fan in Sid Sheinberg, the famous entertainment executive, who, soon after seeing it, introduced him to Lew Wasserman. It also made Soderbergh how that he didn’t enjoy writing as much as he thought, but he did continue writing screenplays for his films “The Underneath,” “Schizopolis,” and his remake of “Solaris.” This was one of five films he did after “Sex, Lies & Videotape” which he openly admitted “did no business,” but perhaps they will eventually.
“King of the Hill” is not currently available on DVD (not in America anyway) or Blu-ray, nor is it available to stream on Netflix. Soderbergh remarked this is because “cult flicks are not marketable right now” and that “no one buys DVD’s anymore.” But with this director being so highly regarded in Hollywood, hopefully this third film of his will get the digital release it deserves so fans can discover it for the great movie it is.
UPDATE: “King of the Hill” has since been released by the Criterion Collection in a DVD/Blu-ray combo pack. It features a new restored 2K digital film transfer, interviews with Soderbergh and Hotchner, movie trailers, and Soderbergh’s fourth film “The Underneath.” To find out more about this release, click here.