Gene Hackman and Anne Archer Cannot Save ‘Narrow Margin’

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.

* * out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: David Cronenberg’s ‘eXistenZ,’ a Cerebral Version of ‘The Matrix’

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.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: Safe – Directed by Todd Haynes and Starring Julianne Moore

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.

Coronavirus Quarantine Viewing: In the Line of Fire

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.

* * * * out of * * * *

Steven Soderbergh Looks Back at King of the Hill

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.

Billy Crystal Talks About Working with Jack Palance on City Slickers

While at the twentieth anniversary screening of “City Slickers” which was held at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica on August 12, 2011, Billy Crystal talked about working with the late Jack Palance in that film. Palance co-starred as Curly Washburn, the most authentic of cowboys, and it was a role which earned him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. In addition, it provided Crystal with one of the best setups in his Oscar hosting history; Palance’s one-armed push-ups which proved he was not too old to ever act in a motion picture.

One movie the “City Slickers” filmmakers viewed before they started shooting was “Shane,” the 1953 western starring Alan Ladd as the title character and Palance as Jack Wilson, and Crystal said this was the first movie he ever saw on the silver screen. When it came to casting Curly, he said they considered no one but Palance for the role. “Shane” marked the last time Palance got an Oscar nomination until he did “City Slickers,” and that’s a difference of 38 years!

Palance worked on “City Slickers” for a total of 10 days. Before he arrived on set, the crew kept saying, “the big cat is coming.” The director of the movie, Ron Underwood, was described by Crystal as the “sweetest guy” and a “puppeteer.” But when it came to the first day of shooting, Palance told Crystal he always got “nervous.” When Underwood asked him to do that “glare” of his one more time, Palance replied, “What glare?!”

After this, Palance put up a fit which had Underwood’s hair standing on end. No one was expecting this kind of tantrum from the former host of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.” But after the first day, things got better even though Palance was never thrilled about being on a horse. Both he and Crystal continually ran lines with one another, and Crystal described the two weeks they worked together as feeling like nine months.

Crystal described Palance as a “real movie actor” in how he understood the size of his head. Palance owned the camera and his appearance in a way few actors can ever hope to. His role as Curly capped off a long and memorable acting career. While he sadly passed away in 2006, his legacy continues to live on from one generation to the next.

Billy Crystal Looks Back at the Making of City Slickers

Billy Crystal was at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, California on August 12, 2011 when American Cinematheque screened “City Slickers” in honor of its 20th anniversary. Unlike other guests, Crystal actually sat through the entire movie with the sold-out audience and a few people involved in its making: director Ron Underwood, director of photography Dean Semler, actors Daniel Stern, Tracey Walter and Bill Henderson, and screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. Afterwards, Crystal did a Q&A with Geoff Boucher of the Los Angeles Times, and he said the last time he saw “City Slickers” was at its premiere in Hollywood.

“City Slickers” was made with the invaluable help of Castle Rock Entertainment. Crystal said he pitched it and “Mr. Saturday Night” to the studio. Unlike “When Harry Met Sally,” which he did before this, “City Slickers” proved to be a logistically difficult film to make. However, the prep time he had with Stern and the late Bruno Kirby was the best ever, and Crystal described the training they had as being so much fun.

Prior to filming, Crystal, the writers and Underwood looked at the classic westerns “Shane” and “Red River” for inspiration. Crystal said it looked like they had 9,000 cows in the shots, and this made him think markets had no beef to sell as a result. Everyone involved felt everything needed to look real, so the production pushed those cows and trained those horses endlessly.

The movie’s opening scene in Pamplona, Spain, was shot there and not on some soundstage. Crystal said Ganz was the one who suggested the bulls running to the studio. An hour after hearing this, the studio had hotel reservations ready for the cast and crew. It was no surprise to hear Crystal say they would never be able to do this scene today as it would all have to be done digitally now.

One audience member asked if Norman the cow was still around. It turns out there were 10 or 11 different cows used as they got old very quickly and had to be replaced. As for Norman’s birth scene, Crystal said it was shot in three different states and that he and Jack Palance, while in the same scene, were not on set together for it. Crystal shot his takes in Colorado while Palance filmed his in New York. Other parts of the scene were shot in California near Simi Valley.

The river crossing scene was the toughest one to shoot in “City Slickers,” Crystal said. The cows kept mounting each other and he, Stern and Kirby were all wearing wetsuits underneath their clothing, as the water was about 50 degrees. This led one of the stunt coordinators to tell Crystal, “Pee in your wetsuit!” Now, as disgusting as this may sound, urine has a temperature of 90 degrees or more, so it sure must have come in handy during filming!

Crystal laments how Hollywood does not make movies like “City Slickers” anymore. While he did not want to sound bitter, he said there was a different sensibility back when it was made, and he hopes movies will come around back to it in the future. Picturing how a studio executive would see it today, Crystal felt they would probably say to him, “Can we get them to the ranch faster? I want those guys there by page nine!”

Still, 20 years later after its release, we were all in agreement with Crystal that “City Slickers” holds up very well and is just as funny and entertaining as it was when it first came out. Seeing it on the big screen where it plays best made this clear to everyone in attendance.

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.