‘Unplanned’ – It’s Not Pro-Life, it is Anti-Woman

It is only with morbid curiosity and the fact it was available to view for free on Tubi that I found myself watching the 2019 anti-abortion drama “Unplanned.” Now those who know me know I am forever pro-choice, am very angry at the overturning of Roe vs. Wade, and I am a staunch supporter of Planned Parenthood, so clearly this film was not made for someone like me. Still, I dared myself to sit through this motion picture to see if I can provide any sort of objective criticism on it. So, whatever side of this issue you are on, pray for me.

“Unplanned” is based on the memoir by Abby Johnson who worked for years at a Planned Parenthood clinic before eventually becoming a staunch anti-abortion activist. Abby is played by Ashley Bratcher, and the film opens up on her being asked to assist in an ultrasound-guided suction aspiration abortion for a patient who is 13 weeks pregnant. As she assists, she watches the monitor and sees the fetus trying to fight back against the doctor’s attempts to remove it. So overwhelmed by what she sees, she goes straight to bathroom and cries her eyes out. From there, the film flashes back to eight years earlier when Abby first joined Planned Parenthood and of her experiences with both management and the anti-abortion protesters she later befriends.

Okay, let me start with what I like about “Unplanned,” and that is Ashley Bratcher’s performance. Regardless of how you feel about the subject matter, she does give a strong and convincingly emotional performance as she makes Abby’s inner conflicts quite palpable. In the process, she gives us one of the best performances you could ever hope to find in a Pure Flix production. And let’s face it, their films are not known for having Oscar caliber performances.

Also, the filmmakers do feature a scene which, ever so briefly, serves to separate certain pro-lifers from others. One ani-abortionist screams at a woman entering the clinic for not keeping her legs crossed, but others are not quick to engage such unnecessarily harsh language.

And I do have to say that “Unplanned” does end with one of the biggest laughs I have had at the movies recently as the filmmakers give us an end card stating that Planned Parenthood had no involvement or participation in this film’s production. Wow! Really?! You think?!

Well, I have clearly reached the tipping point here, haven’t I? While everyone is entitled to their opinions and beliefs to where all need to be heard, none of this changes the fact that “Unplanned” is shamelessly manipulative, full of propaganda and outright lies, and its presentation of Planned Parenthood as being like the evil Empire from “Star Wars” is defamatory and borderline criminal. Clearly the filmmakers were not the least bit interested in being unbiased, and I am obligated to hold them accountable for the bullshit parade they have given us here.

Let us start with the opening ultrasound abortion scene. The special effects are truly awful as no fetus recoils like that at 13 weeks, and this is a scientific fact. If a fetus could recoil in such a way, I have no doubt the filmmakers would have used real ultrasound footage to bolster their case. Also, we never do learn exactly why this patient is getting this specific kind of abortion. Was she raped? Is her overall health in danger? Was there a strong chance of her dying if she didn’t get this abortion? Well, no one here seems interested in such questions.

As for the scenes of Abby’s abortions, particularly her second one, writers and directors Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman are completely shameless in making it look both bloody as hell and life-threatening. With all the blood on display, it’s no wonder this is the first Pure Flix production to earn an R rating. The truth is, abortions are actually safer than childbirth, which itself can be very dangerous. But yeah, there are people who hate science for all the wrong reasons and are determined to remain willfully ignorant.

I also found its portrayal of Planned Parenthood as nothing more than a corporate monolith interested in profiting from abortion not just repellent, but completely and inescapably reprehensible. Much of this is corrupted view of the non-profit organization illustrated through the character of Cheryl, director of the clinic Abby works at. Played by Robia Scott, Cheryl comes as a smug as hell individual who is far too cold hearted to be the least bit believable as a fighter for abortion rights. For the filmmakers, Cheryl is essentially a Darth Vader-like character who spouts a lot of crap about how abortions are Planned Parenthood’s cash cow, and that the organization should be run no differently than a fast-food restaurant. Seriously, I kept waiting for her to tell Abby, “I find your lack of abortions at this clinic disturbing.”

And, like many faith-based features, “Unplanned” suffers from a low budget, cheap cinematography, a music score designed to assault your emotions as opposed to simply manipulating them and, as expected, a lot of bad acting. While Bratcher shines, everyone else emotes or acts as if they are reading off of cue cards which are just a few feet away. Granted, they are reduced to spouting many ridiculous and dangerous talking points, particularly towards the movie’s conclusion, but they are in serious need of acting lessons more than anything else. As for Brooks Ryan who plays Abby’s second husband, Doug, he acts as though he barely has a pulse. In the scene where she gives birth to their daughter, he is far too serene and calm to be the least bit believable as an expectant father, and it got to where I wanted Abby to, as Robin Williams once said, grab his scrotum and pull it up over his head.

But what enraged me the most about “Unplanned” is how the filmmakers deny Abby not just her personhood, but her womanhood more than anything else. While she has a loving husband and parents, they cannot help but look down on her as they are defiantly pro-life while she spends most of this movie being pro-choice. When Abby eventually does her 180 on abortion, they come to embrace her fully in a way that they always should have regardless of their differences. Plus, there is a scene in which Doug forgives Abby for her past abortions, and it feels like he is saying to her, “It’s okay. Because you are pro-life now, I can truly see you as a woman now.”

That’s right folks, “Unplanned” is not as pro-life as it is anti-woman. The implications of this are so deep that I have a feeling the filmmakers may not even realize this. The women here are viewed as being selfish and thoughtless for taking on jobs instead of being stay at home mothers. The men, however, are portrayed as such angelic creatures who look to save these women from their own ghastly impulses. Look, not everyone needs to be saved, and if history has taught me anything, it is that women have never been the gentler or weaker sex, ever. Seriously, this is as chauvinistic and misogynistic as any film I have seen in recent years, and there is no excuse for that.

Oh, and Mike Lindell, the My Pillow guy and one of “Unplanned’s” executive producers, has a cameo as a tractor driver who gleefully pulls down a Planned Parenthood sign after the clinic is shut down. But looking deep into his eyes, Lindell looks more like he is vicariously destroying a sign of a local chapter of the Better Business Bureau, and we know how the Better Business Bureau feels about him.

Well, have I given you all an objective review of “Unplanned?” I want to say yes, but with movies like these, is almost impossible not take a side, and this one will simply reinforce those on both aisles of the abortion debate.

Look, maybe the world would be a better place with no abortions, and it should be clear that no one really wants to get one. There has to be a movie out there somewhere in which people on both sides of the abortion debate can find some common ground, and it would be great to find any common ground in such divisive times. “Unplanned” is not that movie, and it was never designed to be as it was made by people who choose to be willfully ignorant, and those people end up making life more difficult for everyone.

To be completely honest with you, “Unplanned” proves to be one of the most infuriating and intellectually insulting motion pictures ever made by human beings. Then again, it was made by the same people who gave us “God’s Not Dead.”

* out of * * * *

‘Elvis’ Movie and 4K/Blu-ray Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Correspondent, Tony Farinella.

Elvis Presley is, without question, one of the biggest names in music history. As a matter of fact, many think he’s the gold standard. Nearly four decades after his death, he is still worshiped and celebrated by legions of fans.  However, there has never been a true Elvis biopic worth its salt. For a man with such a historic legacy, it seemed rather unusual that a true Elvis biopic with a big studio behind it had never been released.  This changed in 2022 with the release of “Elvis,” directed by Baz Luhrmann.  If there ever was a director to bring the life of Elvis to the big screen, it was certainly Luhrmann.  He’s known for his big productions and big budgets.  There is a reason why he hasn’t directed many films. He puts everything into his work, and he’s involved in many aspects of the filmmaking process as a whole.

I remember hearing about this film back in 2020 as Tom Hanks contracted Covid-19 while filming his part as Colonel Tom Parker. When it was finally able to hit the big screen in the summer of 2022, I noticed it was getting people back in the theaters once again.  Now, it has not grossed anywhere near the level of “Top Gun: Maverick,” but it’s still playing in certain theaters to this day even though it was released in June. I credit this to the power of Elvis as he always had a way of bringing people together.  This is certainly the case with this big screen blockbuster.

While the film is called “Elvis,” it could have easily been called Elvis and Colonel Tom Parker, as it focuses on the relationship between the two.  Colonel Tom Parker is played by Tom Hanks.  If I had to go out on a limb here, I’d say they wanted to cast a big-name actor in Hanks because not many people were familiar with Austin Butler. Prior to seeing the film, I had never heard of Butler myself.  While I understand the casting of Hanks and the reason behind Parker being such a pivotal character in the film, his performance is extremely cartoonish and silly.  Colonel Tom Parker was a character indeed, but this performance feels like Hanks in a fat suit with a forced accent.

ELVIS Copyright: © 2022 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures Caption: (L-r) TOM HANKS as Colonel Tom Parker and AUSTIN BUTLER as Elvis in Warner Bros. Pictures’ drama “ELVIS,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

This film focuses on how Elvis was discovered by Colonel Tom Parker who took him under his wing as he saw something special in the young man.  Elvis, being loyal to his family, especially his mother, would do anything to help them out financially, so he did whatever Colonel Tom Parker told him to do even if his mother saw right through him. Elvis’ father was a bit of a simpleton and really wasn’t looking out for his son’s best interests as he had problems of his own. Colonel Parker, on the other hand, was a carney who knew how to manipulate and con Elvis into doing anything he wanted him to do.  Elvis was loyal to a fault. As a matter of fact, they had a contract where Colonel Parker would get half of Elvis’ earnings, which is unheard of in today’s entertainment industry.

Elvis was clearly influenced by African American music, and the film is wise to show that here. While many African-Americans say Elvis stole their music, others say he took from their music while adding his own touches to it. There are many opinions on the subject, but the film does give African-American artists their due and shows he was impacted and moved by their music while growing up in the South.  It’s a tricky subject but the film gives African-American artists their due and acknowledges how Elvis was in awe of what they were doing at the time and how heavily inspired he was by the musical scene on Beale Street in Tupelo, Mississippi.

Elvis Presley is also seen as dangerous because of his sexuality and dance moves.  It’s funny to think of this now because of what other artists are doing today and how far they push the envelope with their sexuality. You have to remember that when Elvis was around, it was during the late 1950’s and early 60’s, so audiences were not yet exposed to this type of artist. Some feared his music and dancing would promote sexuality amongst the younger crowd. Luhrmann also touches on Elvis’ film career, his relationship with Priscila Presley, and his time in the Army.  Luhrmann and his fellow collaborators cover a lot of ground in 159 minutes, but the film doesn’t feel too long in the tooth as there is always something happening on screen.

Let’s start with the pros of the film: Austin Butler is now an official movie star. It would not surprise me if he is nominated and even wins an Oscar for Best Actor. The Academy loves musical biopics, and this is the type of performance which seems right up their alley. It’s definitely one of the best performances of 2022, but there are other films yet to be released in this calendar year. It wouldn’t get my Oscar vote if I had one, but I certainly think it’s a phenomenal performance. Butler looks and sounds just like Elvis.

The film also takes the time to dive into the effect the deaths of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. had on Elvis as he wanted to make music about something instead of always playing it safe due to Colonel Tom Parker’s influence.  The soundtrack is also top-notch and it’s incredibly moving at times. It’s flashy, fun, in-your-face, and a real crowd-pleaser.

Now let’s talk about the cons: Tom Hanks.  What in the world is this performance? I read a comment from Scott Mendelson from Forbes who said it seemed like Hanks was trying to win an Oscar and a Razzie at the same time. That is the perfect way to describe his performance.  The film also follows the usual beats of a biopic: the young kid doesn’t believe in himself, has success, hits roadblocks, and it ends on a high-note.  The only difference here is the Elvis story doesn’t end on a high note as we all know. 

The film also seems a little too uncomfortable with criticizing Elvis and a lot of the things he did in his life and career. He was far from perfect, but the film seems content to blame it all on Parker instead of looking at Elvis for some of the blame. When all is said and done, he’s far from innocent.

I enjoyed “Elvis,” but I didn’t love it.  Luhrmann doesn’t show the ugly side of Elvis, and there was an ugly side to him.  It’s not a very deep or relatable film either.  The story could have been a little more meaningful and thought-provoking but, at times, it seems to fall in love with its star much too often.  It’s a good movie, but it’s not a great one.  I recommend you check it out, as you won’t be disappointed, but I would have liked a little more meat on the bone here.

* * * out of * * * *

4K/Blu-ray Info: “Elvis” is being released on a two-disc 4K and Blu-ray combo pack from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment which also comes with the digital copy of the film. It is rated PG-13 for substance abuse, strong language, suggestive material, and smoking.  It has a running time of 159 minutes.

Video Info: “Elvis” comes to 4K on eye-opening HDR 10+ along with Dolby Vision.  It’s a stunning movie filled with life and color, and it truly took my breath away watching it in 4K.  With some films, you don’t really notice the difference with a 4K release.  Bu this is a film where, if you have a 4K player and TV, it is the way to go without hesitation.  It came to life right before my eyes.

Audio Info: The Dolby Atmos track brings all of the great music right into your living room.  This is a great disc, and they really went all out for this release.  Subtitles are also included in English, Spanish and French.

Special Features:

Bigger Than Life: The Making of ELVIS

Rock ‘N Roll Royalty: The Music & Artists Behind ELVIS

Fit for a King; The Style of ELVIS

Viva Australia: Recreating Iconic Locations for ELVIS

“Trouble” Lyric Video

Should You Buy It?

If you are a hardcore Elvis Presley fan, and I know plenty of them in my own life, you have already made up your mind and are buying this on its release date.  If you are not an Elvis fan, I still think this is a solid and well-made flick.  Would I buy the film if I were a casual Elvis fan?  I would because of the 4K release Warner Brothers Home Entertainment has put out along with the great special features on its making.  However, I’d probably wait for the price to drop a little bit as the 4K version is going for $29.99.  This film was made for 4K. 

Elvis Presley fans, this is probably the best Elvis movie which will ever be made, and it makes me happy to see people I care about enjoying it.  From talking to the diehard Elvis fans in my life, they are in love with this film and have seen it multiple times in theaters and started watching it right away when it debuted on HBO Max. It definitely resonated with a ton of people. I liked “Elvis” and recommend it, but I wish it had a bit more of an edge.  It played it safe too often for my liking. Still, this is one of the best 4K releases of the year so far and a great use of the technology.

**Disclaimer** I received a copy of this film from Warner Brothers to review for free.  The opinions and statements in the review are mine and mine alone.

Underseen Movie: ‘The Men Who Stare at Goats’ – A Highly Unusual War Movie

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2009.

“More of this is true than you would believe.”

You know something? It’s really nice to see a movie use a phrase other than “based on a true story” or “inspired by true events.” Those descriptions have all but lost their meaning because even if what we are seeing actually did happen, it has all been watered down into a formulaic feel-good movie we have seen over and over again to where we want to gag. Even worse, we keep getting suckered into seeing them even when we should know better. Either that, or there’s nothing better to watch. But this year has proven to be great as filmmakers have worked hard to subvert those worthless phrases with movies like “The Informant.” That Steven Soderbergh film made it very clear how it was based on actual events but that certain parts had been fictionalized, and it ended by saying:

“So there!”

Now we have “The Men Who Stare at Goats” which opens with the sentence at the top of this review. The story behind this one is so bizarre to where it’s almost impossible to believe any of what we are watching could ever have happened. All the same, it appears a good portion of these happenings did take place, and it makes for what is truly one of the more unique war movies I have seen in a while. The film is based on a non-fiction book by Jon Ronson which looked at how US military forces used psychic powers against their enemies. They look at New Age concepts as well as paranormal activities to achieve these goals, and of how they worked to use these methods to their advantage. The movie takes place during the Iraq war, but not to worry, the filmmakers is not trying to shove any politics down your throat (not consciously anyway).

Ronson serves as the inspiration for Bob Wilton, an investigative journalist played by Ewan McGregor. Bob’s wife has just left him for his editor and, of course, he is depressed and decides he needs to do something more important with his life in the hopes he can win her back. As a result, he travels to Kuwait to do firsthand reporting of the Iraq War, with hopes of finding someone who can get him across the border. Bob ends up having a chance meeting with a Special Forces operator named Lyn Cassady (George Clooney) who was in the military, but now runs a dance studio. Lyn reveals to Bob he was part of an American unit that was trained to be psychic spies or, as he eventually calls them, “Jedi warriors.” From there, Bob learns everything about this special unit which sounds like something out of a science fiction novel.

I love the irony of all the talk about “Jedi warriors” here, especially since McGregor played one in the “Star Wars” prequels.

Anyway, “The Men Who Stare at Goats” is really a cross between a war movie and a road movie as Lyn and Bob traverse the sandy dunes of the Middle East to where not everything is as it appears. This film is also a mix of comedy and drama the same way “Three Kings,” another war movie which starred Clooney, was. While the tone is largely uneven, especially towards the end, this was definitely an inspired film which kept me entertained throughout and proved to be quite unpredictable.

McGregor is playing the main character here, but let’s face it, Clooney steals the show right out from under his feet. His performance as Lyn Cassady is truly one of his most surprising and inspired. Despite how ridiculous Lyn may seem, Clooney plays him straight and never appears to be self-conscious. Seeing Clooney trying to burst clouds with his mind, and trying to reach into his enemy’s mind by staring right at them has the actor going through emotions ranging from serious to funny to downright tragic. Having gone from playing dramatic roles in movies like “Syriana” to “Michael Clayton,” Clooney once again shows he is really good at comedy and never has to strive hard for a laugh.

I don’t want to take away from McGregor though, who pulls off a convincing American accent. In many ways, his role is more of a reactionary one as he is subjected to conditions one is never fully prepared for. Bob is bewildered at what Lyn is telling him, and yet he still wants to journey further and further into Lyn’s head. I also have to give McGregor a lot of credit because he could have made it look like he was consciously aware of all those “Star Wars” references, but he never did.

But one of the great delights is watching Jeff Bridges channel his inner-dude-ness from “The Big Lebowski” into his role of Bill Django, a military leader who, after being wounded in Vietnam, has a New Age vision of combat he wants to develop. This leads him to study concepts which he incorporates into a special unit called the New Earth Army. Bill becomes a teacher of using non-lethal techniques to gain advantage over the enemy, and his training techniques are unorthodox to say the least. Bridges plays the character broadly, but not too broadly. As funny as Bridges is, he infuses Django with a disappointment which threatens to render him useless to those around him, and with a deep sense of fear and tragedy as his techniques are misused or taken advantage of by those who seek to profit from them.

Having been in London doing tons of theater, it seemed like it would require a herculean effort to bring Kevin Spacey back to the big screen. Seeing him here is a kick as he plays the real antagonist of the film, Larry Hooper. Larry is basically the Darth Vader to Bill’s Obi Wan Kenobi and Lyn’s Luke Skywalker as he takes the non-lethal methods of the New Earth Army and ends up using them for more lethal purposes. Larry ends up doing this not so much out of greed as he does resentment since Django does not consider him in the same light as Lyn. His actions bring about the downfall of the New Earth Army, and he turns all these abilities they developed into something far more insidious. From there, you will see why the movie and the book it is based on has the title it does.

Spacey has great fun as he channels the inner smugness which has enveloped Larry over time. While his role is a little more serious than the others, he still has great moments of comedy which remind us of what a talented actor he is as he balances out the serious and comedic aspects of Larry without tilting too much in one direction.

“The Men Who Stare at Goats” was directed by Grant Heslov, Clooney’s business partner on many films. He has his work cut out for him here as he must find a balance between the humorous and dramatic aspects of the story. Granted, Heslov doesn’t always succeed but he creates a most unusual war movie, and it is all the more entertaining as a result. Even more telling is the way he portrays the Iraqi people in certain scenes. They are not shown as gun toting terrorists, and he captures the look of their helplessness in having to deal with a military occupation they did not ask for.

Like I said, there’s no serious politicizing of the Iraq war in this movie, so don’t feel like you are walking into some sort of trap. Like “The Hurt Locker,” it merely focuses on what those Americans in Iraq were doing in the midst of the chaos, albeit in a more comical way. “The Men Who Stare at Goats” seems almost far too bizarre to be real, but a part of you just might want it to be real. One thing’s for sure, you will never look at “Barney and Friends” in the same way ever again, assuming you ever watched it in the first place (c’mon! Don’t deny it!).

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Stalking Laura’ – A Better Than Average Made for Television Movie

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?!

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: ‘Christine’ Starring Rebecca Hall as Christine Chubbuck

The tragic tale of Christine Chubbuck is one which many, including myself, cannot help but be morbidly fascinated by. She was a television reporter who, on the morning of July 15, 1974, reported on three national news stories and a shooting which occurred at a local restaurant named Beef & Bottle. When footage of the restaurant shooting jammed and could not be played, she said, “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in ‘blood and guts’ and in living color, you are going to see another first—an attempted suicide.” She then pulled out a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson Model 36 revolver, placed it behind her right ear and pulled the trigger. She died of her self-inflicted gunshot wound 14 hours later.

Many have tried to seek out the footage of Christine’s final moments, but those closest to her have done their damndest to keep it out of everyone’s’ hands as they never want it to be seen on any television screen ever again. With the 2016 film “Christine,” audiences will get a chance to see how this on-camera suicide went down, but neither director Antonio Campos or screenwriter Craig Shilowich are looking to exploit this sad death in any way, shape or form. Instead, they are far more interested in looking into what could have led this talented young individual to take her life ever so suddenly.

We are transported back to Sarasota, Florida in 1974 where Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) works at a local television station at which she reports on human interest stories that present a positive look at the world in general. She appears to get along well with her colleagues which include camera operator Jean Reed (Maria Dizzia), and she has an unrequited crush on fellow reporter George Peter Ryan (Michael C. Hall). When she isn’t reporting, she’s performing puppet shows for mentally handicapped kids. But while she may appear happy on the surface, we quickly see she is suffering. Moreover, she is suffering in ways not everyone can easily see.

While Christine is determined to report on human interest stories, her boss Michael Nelson (the great Tracy Letts) demands she focus more on crime stories as they bring in bigger ratings. She protests as such stories seem purely exploitive to her, but the term “if it bleeds, it leads” has long since entered Michael’s lexicon, and neither he nor any other television station manager can get themselves to look away from this especially when it comes to ratings. Christine acquires a police scanner to find grittier stories, but her intention to please Michael comes up painfully short as what she comes up with is not nearly enough.

As for Christine’s personal life, it’s not fairing much better. She still lives with her mother, Peg (J. Smith-Cameron), but they appear a bit distant from one another. This distance grows even stronger when Peg finds a new boyfriend whom Christine has a hard time warming up to. Even when she gets a much-needed hug from Peg, it is not enough to comfort her during the perfect storm of her depression.

And then there’s the issue of the stomach pains she has been feeling for a while. Christine is eager to find a husband and have children, but she is dealt a vicious blow when her doctor (played by Morgan Spector) finds one of her ovaries may have to be removed, decreasing her ability to bear a child. It was at this point I kept waiting for the song “Born Under a Bad Sign” to start playing on the soundtrack as if she didn’t have bad luck, she wouldn’t have any luck at all. Of course, pointing this out would have been obvious and cruel.

At the center of “Christine” is Rebecca Hall who gives one of the most definitive performances of a character suffering from depression and borderline personality disorder. She makes you feel her character’s deepest longings as well as her visible discomfort in being around big crowds of people. I can relate to her wanting to get close to someone and yet suffering a fight or flight moment as she suddenly wants to get away from a situation she has long since become uncomfortable being in. It’s like you desperately want to belong, and yet you also find yourself wanting to run away. Depression is a serious disease which has those afflicted with it suffering from irrational fears to where making certain decisions can be much harder than it ever should.

Another performance worth singling out here is Michael C. Hall’s as George Peter Ryan. When I first saw Michael here, I figured he would be playing George as the average egotistical reporter who would be quick to spurn Christine’s advances at any given opportunity, but the “Dexter” actor instead plays to where he takes her to a place where she can be heard. This leads to one of the most unexpected scenes in the film as I figured things would lead to an inevitably heartbreaking moment, but the filmmakers were not about to give us something predictable.

In some ways, I wish “Christine” dug deeper into its main character and her sadly crippled state of mind. While it does not just skip over the surface, I wanted it to examine other elements of her life which may have led her to make a permanent solution to what we all should see is a temporary problem. We never get to learn of her life as a child or of previous relationships she had with others, and this may have given the audience a broader understanding of her state of mind.

But when all is said and done, “Christine” is a thoughtful portrait of an individual whose life deserves to be known for more than her final and fatal act. While her deadly decision to end her life in a very public way may make her existence a study in morbid curiosity, the filmmakers are intent on making us see the individual at the center of it all. No one should simply be remembered for one act they committed as there is more to a person than meets the eye.

When I think of Christine Chubbuck, I am reminded of a couple of songs by my favorite artists. One is Sarah McLachlan whose lyrics for her song “Black” left quite the impression on me:

“If I cried me a river of all my confessions

Would I drown in my shallow regret?

As the walls are closing in

And the colors fade to black

And my eyes are falling fast and deep into the sea

And in darkness all that I can see

The frightened and the weak

Are forced to cling to mistakes they know nothing of

At mercy are the meek.”

And then there’s Elton John’s title track from the album of the same name, “Too Low for Zero:”

“I’m too low for zero

I’m on a losing streak

I got myself in a bad patch lately

I can’t seem to get much sleep

I’m too low for zero

I wind up counting sheep

Nothing seems to make much sense

It’s all just Greek to me

You know I’m too low, too low, too low for zero

You know I’m too low, too low, too low for zero.”

It can be far too easy to fall into the state of depression before you know it, and my hope is you will never be afraid to ask for help. Christine’s problems happened during a time where I cannot help but think the world at large was unaware of how serious mental illness can be. For those of you watching this film today, I hope you know how serious it is and that there is no shame in asking others to assist you in lifting you out of an emotional dark hole. Christine deserved such assistance, and you do as well.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Social Network’ Remains an Unforgettable Statement on Where Society Is

So, why was this particular David Fincher film called “The Social Network” instead of just “Facebook” or “The Facebook Movie?” When going into the movie theater back in 2010, I figured this film would be all about how Facebook came into existence and of how its audience grew so quickly, but it was not just about that. Looking more closely at “The Social Network,” I think the title is meant to be intentionally ironic as it describes the key individuals who got it off the ground, particularly Max Zuckerberg, as they were more antisocial than they cared to realize. Max was clearly more comfortable being up close and personal with a computer screen than in interacting with real people. The Facebook phenomenon may have brought people closer together than ever before, but ten years later after this film’s release, we are reminded of how it also succeeded in keeping us further apart. And in the year 2020, this is more apparent than ever before.

The beginning of “The Social Network” quickly illustrates Max Zuckerberg’s (Jesse Eisenberg) antisocial behavior as we watch him talk with his girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), and it quickly devolves into an increasingly awkward conversation to say the least. Max can’t look her in the eye, and he ends up insulting her without even realizing it. It looks as though his mind is moving at 100 miles a minute to where he never really slows down enough to take in the reactions coming his way. This is our first look at the young man who has long since become the youngest billionaire in America thanks to his bringing about the world’s most prolific social networking website, and he is proving to be anything but social. Erica makes her frustration with his one-track mind and insensitive nature perfectly. Max fears that unless he gets into one of Harvard’s exclusive clubs, he will never be taken seriously and will just be some techno nerd in everyone’s eyes. Erica, fed up with his attitude, tells him people will keep their distance from him because he is a jerk, not because he is exceptionally bright.

Well, love has a very strange effect on us all, and instead of trying to reconcile with Erica right then and there, Max instead heads straight back to his dorm room and creates a page along with his roommates called “Face Mash.” With this page, he allows students to pick which female students at Harvard are the prettiest by comparing them to one another. Of course, this is right after Max cruelly disses his now ex-girlfriend Erica in a number of ways which includes describing her bra size. “Face Mash” ends up bringing in so many viewers in one night to where Harvard’s computer network crashes completely, and Max becomes one of the most vilified individuals on campus, by girls mostly, as well as one of Harvard’s most ingenious students. In record time, he exploited the network’s vulnerability in a way Harvard never saw coming, and the university is quick to cover their own ass as a result.

This all leads to an invitation by identical twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer) along with their business partner Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) to program a new website they want to put together called “Harvard Connection.” The way they see it, it will be a great way for the students at Harvard to connect with one another. Later, Max meets up with his best, and only, friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and proposes putting together a website he calls “The Facebook,” an online social networking tool which would be exclusive to Harvard University students. Eduardo agrees to help finance the site, and thus begins a phenomenon which just about everyone has a profile on except for those who have long since had their fill of anything with the name Zuckerberg attached to it. But from there on out, battle lines are drawn and lawsuits are underway as the Winklevoss twins and Narendra claim Mark stole their idea, Eduardo ends up suing Max for cutting him out of the whole thing even though he was a co-founder, and friends and acquaintances soon become the most bitter of enemies.

“The Social Network” jumps back and forth between different perspectives of what actually happened. We watch events progress as Max gets “The Facebook” up and running, and of the reaction his supposed business partners have when their friends set up profiles on it. You never know exactly where the film is going as it goes from one event to a litigation between an annoyed Zuckerberg and the infuriated Winklevoss twins and the deeply bitter Divya Narendra. It goes even further to another lawsuit Eduardo files against Max which illustrates how this endeavor forever terminated their friendship. Even if you know everything there is to know about the creation of Facebook, this film succeeds in intensifying the hurt feelings of everyone involved ever so vividly. We know this house of cards will soon collapse on all the main people involved, but you just don’t know how hard the hits will affect you and everyone else.

Now Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin working together might not sound like a match made in heaven, and it’s easier to expect them trying to strangle one another in the process of making “The Social Network.” But together, they make cinematic magic as Fincher’s razor-sharp direction more than complements Sorkin’s brilliant dialogue and story construction. This represents some of their best work, and there is nary a false note to be found here. The visual elements never upstage the script and vice versa. It’s a perfect marriage of sights and sounds in a story of friendship, power and betrayal.

Ever since Sorkin’s unforgettable work on “A Few Good Men” and “The American President,” he has mostly worked in television where he was best known for “The West Wing,” my big brother’s favorite TV show. But his screenplay for “The Social Network,” which was adapted from Ben Mezrich’s non-fiction book “The Accidental Billionaires,” is full of some of the most creative dialogue I have heard in any film I have ever seen. One standout scene comes when the Winklevoss twins meet up with Harvard President Larry Summers (Douglas Urbanski) to discuss their desire to sue Max. Watching Summers dryly dismissing their accusations and politely tearing them a new one as if they had no reason to bother him in the first place is so indelibly clever to where the exchange merits a whole play unto itself.

But much of the credit for “The Social Network’s” success belongs to the actors, all of whom were perfectly cast. At the top of the list is Eisenberg who, as Max Zuckerberg, is never afraid to make his character less than likable, and I admired how he and the filmmakers were never looking to whitewash him for the sake of good press. Eisenberg makes you see how fast Max’s mind is moving and of how his single-mindedness keeps him from realizing who he is as a person. You do find yourself admiring Max in spite of himself, and Eisenberg really succeeds in creating a believable sense of empathy for him. It’s this empathy which makes us all want to follow along with this alienated genius all the way to the very end. It’s a tough role, but Eisenberg nails it perfectly while delivering Sorkin’s rapid-fire dialogue without missing a beat.

Rooney Mara only appears in a couple of scenes as Erica Albright, but her presence on the screen is quite powerful as she wounds Max for all he is worth. This proved to be a stronger showcase for Mara’s talents as opposed to her appearance in the remake of “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” and it made me all the more excited to see her performance as Lisbeth Salander in Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” The fact her performance as Lisbeth was so brilliant was hinted at in her work here.

Then you have Andrew Garfield who, at the time, was more well-known for the role he was cast in as Peter Parker and his alter-ego in “The Amazing Spider-Man.” In many ways, Garfield gives this film’s best performance as the most well-meaning guy of the bunch who becomes the biggest victim of all. As we watch him lose control over something he helped create, Garfield makes us feel Eduardo’s vulnerability and pain of being so thoughtlessly cut out of this internet juggernaut all the more vivid and wrenching to witness. We relate to Eduardo’s situation as we have all been duped once or twice. This could have been a performance which might have come across as hopelessly melodramatic and manipulative, but Andrews makes his character so achingly real to where there is no forgetting him once the film has ended.

With Justin Timberlake, “The Social Network” proved there could be no denial of his acting talents with his revelatory performance as Sean Parker, founder of Napster. Fincher made Timberlake screen test for this role a dozen times, and it looks like all those times he hosted “Saturday Night Live” are giving him dividends he truly deserves. Yes, he gave terrific performances in “Alpha Dog” and “Black Snake Moan” beforehand, but his performance here feels all the more astonishing as he seduces not just Max Zuckerberg, but the audience as well. Timberlake slyly turns Sean into the guy who gets inside your skin to effortlessly take advantage of you as he can clearly see what your soul cries out for. Sean makes you believe that the world can be yours and that anything and everything is possible for you and only you. Timberlake is exquisite in Sean seem all the more appealing to be around while making you completely forget he is a back stabbing snake looking to get Eduardo Saverin out of the way.

A lot of praise is also in store for Armie Hammer who portrays the Winklevoss twins, Cameron and Tyler. It helps that Fincher chose an actor most people were not familiar with at the time because, for a while, I honestly thought it was two different actors playing these roles. Seeing an actor playing twins is nothing new, but it hasn’t been done this well since Nicolas Cage played two sides of Charlie Kaufman in “Adaptation.” Hammer nails all the specific nuances of each brother down perfectly to where you can easily tell them apart, and credit also needs to be given to Josh Pence who was a stand in for Hammer. You never catch yourself witnessing special effects whenever Hammer is onscreen, and this makes his work all the more impressive.

Seriously, even the smallest of roles in “The Social Network” are acted with the upmost skill, and no character could ever be mistaken as an easy throwaway. Actors like Max Minghella, Joseph Mazzello, Brenda Song, and Douglas Urbanski all make great use of their time onscreen, and each leaves their mark on our minds.

Trent Reznor composed the score for “The Social Network” along with Atticus Ross, and their music captures how the world around the characters becomes more and more mediatized as the world keeps turning and technology keeps advancing. The electronic sound Reznor is best known for serves to also illustrate the divisions which emerge among everyone here and of how their emotions end up being drained through anger and hurt feelings which may never be fully repaired. Fincher was convinced Fincher and Ross would not receive an Oscar nomination for their work, but they did and eventually won the Oscar for Best Original Score in a way the filmmaker did not see coming. This would lead to a remarkably creative working relationship between these three as they have composed to other Fincher films including the deliciously twisted “Gone Girl.”

“The Social Network” is not meant to be the definitive story of who is truly responsible for the creation of Facebook. Indeed, no one will ever fully know what went on other than the main people involved, and while hefty settlements were made out of court, there does not seem to be a consensus as to what truly happened. Clearly, neither Fincher or Sorkin were interested in getting down to the truth as much as they were in observing the effect this behemoth of a website had on everyone and of how Facebook came to make an inescapable mark in the realm of social media.

Frankly, I don’t give a damn if the movie is completely accurate as there is always a good dose of dramatization in movies dealing with non-fiction stories. What does matter to me is this all makes for a highly dramatic experience which holds our attention from the start to the very end. There are no gun fights or car chases to be found in “The Social Network,” but the emotionally damage inflicted feels every bit as visceral and brutal as any action picture.

The film’s last scene with Max Zuckerberg sitting alone in an office in front of his laptop computer pretty much defines what we have all become in the past decade; a slave to technology and the world wide web. It makes you wonder if we will ever be able to live without such technology as it has long become an inescapable part of our lives. Can we even remember what the world was like before the internet? These days, we are more comfortable being up front and close with our computers than we are with other people, and this was the case before the current global pandemic. Still, there is still a part of us yearning for human contact which we all need, and the fact we are more removed from it than usual is a sad statement on humanity.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Bad Education’ Movie and Blu-ray Review

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

Bad Education” is the kind of film that would have worked very well in theaters if not for the current Covid-19 pandemic based on the star power of its two leads, Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney. As a reviewer, however, I’m happy to watch it on any platform.  As usual, HBO delivers quality programming which stands out from the pack.  When it comes to delivering the goods, Jackman gives his best performance, in my opinion, as Dr. Frank Tassone. 

When the audience first meets Dr. Tassone, he comes across as probably the nicest, most caring, and thoughtful superintendent known to mankind. He goes above and beyond for his students, the parents, and everyone who works for him.  He is the definition of the first one in the building and the last one to leave.  He’s also very particular about his weight, appearance, and presentation.  But beneath all of this, there is a very dark side to him that is sociopathic, cunning, and very conniving.  I can’t imagine too many actors would have been able to handle the juggling act of playing everyone’s favorite superintendent one minute and a conman behind closed doors the next as well as Jackman.  Thanks to his hard work and the efforts of Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney), the Roslyn Union Free School District on Long Island is rapidly growing. The numbers are good, people are making money, and everyone is happy.

However, when it comes to handling success and money, all it takes is one slip up for everything to be exposed to the public.  “Bad Education” is based on a true story, and it makes you, as an audience member, wonder how this could have happened and why it got so out of hand.  I won’t spoil any of the details for you in terms of what happens to Pam Gluckin and Frank Tassone, but as they say, truth is stranger than fiction.  This is a film I would have gladly paid money to watch on the big screen.  There are moments of dark comedy in this adult drama, and they work perfectly. What makes it even more surreal is the fact their empire was brought down by a young journalism student played by promising young actress, Geraldine Viswanathan (“Blockers,” “Miracle Workers”).  There is also great supporting work from Alex Wolff, Rafael Casal and Ray Romano.

However, there are two major reasons this film is such a success.  One of the reasons is the performances from Janney and Jackman.  Let’s focus on Janney first here, as she delivers a tough, no-nonsense performance.  Pam is unapologetic about what she is doing, and Janney portrays this perfectly.  Even when Pam is at her worst and it seems like the cards are stacked against her, Janney shows off a side of her that is not going to go down without a fight.  Jackman gives a meticulous and detailed performance which does not have a single false note.   Much like his character, every single aspect of his performance is well-thought out and serves a purpose. As mentioned earlier, it is the best Jackman performance I’ve ever seen.  He can really do it all as an actor.

It was mentioned in the review that, as an audience member, you wonder how this successful school district allowed themselves to get so over-the-top with their own personal needs and financial gain. As noted on the back of the Blu-ray, it was the largest public-school embezzlement in U.S. history.  The fact the characters are so fleshed out, and the story is told in such a smart, entertaining, and unique way just adds to your enjoyment level of this film.  If you don’t have HBO, or even if you do, this is a film that is worth owning on Blu-Ray.  It’s dramatic, sad, funny, and shocking.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

______________________________________________________________________________

Blu-Ray Info: “Bad Education” comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Warner Brothers Home Entertainment. It is also available on DVD as well.  “Bad Education” has a running time of 109 minutes and is not rated.

Video Info: The film is released on 1080p High Definition 16×9 2.4:1.  While I was very happy to be able to watch and review this film on Blu-Ray, I must admit it is not a perfect Blu-Ray. During random scenes, there are moments of splotches and grainy images.  While it is disappointing, Blu-ray is always my preferred method of viewing a film as opposed to DVD, so I was able to overlook it.  For the most part, it is a stellar looking Blu-ray with minor flaws.

Audio Info: “Bad Education” comes on a DTS-HD Master Audio: English 5.1 soundtrack with subtitles in English.  The audio is superb on this release.

Special Features: The Blu-ray comes with three special features: “Based on a True Story,” “The Perception of Perfect,” and “Hugh Jackman & Allison Janney – Virtual Conversation.”  My only problem with these special features is they are all under five minutes. I would have liked if they were a little bit longer as this is such a unique and compelling true story.

Should You Buy It?

“Bad Education” is a film I’ve been telling friends to see ever since I watched its debut on HBO a few months back.  On a second viewing, I received even more enjoyment out of this film.  As they say, the devil is the details, and this film touches on something that was completely unknown to me before watching it.  After watching the film, it made me want to learn more about the true story behind it.  If you are looking for a smart, funny and well-crafted adult drama with a lot of bite to it, you will enjoy the hell out of “Bad Education.”  This is the type of smart entertainment HBO is known for, and they deliver the goods with this movie.  I can’t say enough great things about the performances by the two leads, especially Jackman. At times, I felt sorry for Dr. Tassone, even though he is selfish, as Jackman brings a humanity to this character.  This film is definitely worth owning and picking up on Blu-ray.

**Disclaimer** I received a Blu-Ray copy of this film from Warner Archive to review for free.  The opinions and statements in the review are mine and mine alone.

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

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

“Oh, that’s a fun one!”

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

“Not a fun movie!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Milk’ Celebrates the Life of a Man Who Opened Doors For Many

I keep hearing about how Sean Penn wants to retire from acting and just direct from now on. He keeps saying he never really enjoys acting, so it has to make you wonder why he would keep doing something he doesn’t enjoy. But after watching him give another great performance in “Milk,” I would really like to believe he really enjoyed playing the late gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk despite the role’s emotionally draining moments. Penn gives us a man who loved life and smiled more often than not. Whether you are gay or straight, I am sure you would have like to have known the real Harvey Milk as he always seemed to be in the best of spirits no matter what he is doing.

Milk” is a longtime dream project of Gus Van Sant, and it looks at Harvey before and after he became America’s first openly gay man ever elected to political office. It follows him from when he moves from New York to the Castro district of San Francisco and the numerous political races he ran in. It culminates with his and Mayor George Moscone’s assassination at the hands of Supervisor Dan White. But don’t worry, I have not given anything away. The movie is an intimate character piece of Harvey as well as those closest to him as he fought for equal rights for all homosexuals in San Francisco and the rest of America.

It was actually quite prophetic that “Milk” was released in the same year California witnessed the depressing and infuriating passage of Proposition 8 which banned gay marriage in the state (it was later ruled unconstitutional in 2010). In the movie, we see Harvey and his friends fighting the good fight against Proposition 6 which was enacted by then California Senator John Briggs with the objective of banning gay men and women from teaching jobs in California public schools. Back then, people foolishly believed there was a connection between homosexuality and pedophilia which was and still is total crap. “Milk” came out at a time when the fight for gay rights was still far from over.

The majority of the action takes place in San Francisco in the Castro market. Anyone residing in or familiar with the history of Castro will see it is to San Francisco what West Hollywood is to Los Angeles. Harvey ends up opening a little camera shop with his lover Scott Smith (James Franco), but he is not greeted with open arms from the local merchants as they are convinced that, because he is gay, he will be closed down in record time. From there, Harvey decides to run for public office in order to find a voice for those who never had one before.

Van Sant does a great job of recreating 1970’s ever so vividly on what must have been a very tight budget. He also successfully interweaves television footage of the time with the actors to where it is not at all distracting. But his biggest accomplishment here is he does not turn Harvey Milk into some sort of superhero, and instead he treats him as a regular human being with flaws and all. Harvey helps those in need of help as much as he can, and he does this to a fault. His political life eventually overtakes his personal life and creates heartbreaking difficulties in his ability to maintain a loving relationship. He is encouraged to give up running for political office after he loses for a second time (he ran for office 4 times before he won), but with each election he makes a bigger impact with more and more voters.

Van Sant was originally planning to make this movie with Robin Williams in the lead several years before, but it did not work out. At first, it almost seems a bit odd to have Sean Penn playing Harvey Milk, but after the movie is over, you realize there is nothing odd about it at all. Penn gives this role an utterly gleeful spirit which I do not often see in his other performances. Most roles he plays are of characters in the pit of despair or of those so cynical about the world that it takes a battering ram to get through the traumatized psyche to get a genuine sense of feeling. This may very well be his most cheerful performance since he played Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” Penn really captures the spirit of what made Harvey so special, that he wanted to help people and gays around him come out of the closet.

Aside from Penn, there are other great performances to be found. James Franco plays Harvey’s lover, Scott Smith, and he is excellent as he creates a link to Harvey which can never be broken, ever. Franco matches Penn step for step in showing the highs and lows of a relationship between two loving people who struggle constantly to make things work between them.

Another standout performance comes from Emile Hirsch who plays street hustler Cleve Jones, and Harvey ends up encouraging him to help run his campaign. Hirsch gives Cleve a spirit and a determination which can never be easily broken, and he shows no shame in whom he is nor should he.

Other great performances come from Alison Pill who plays campaign manager Anne Kronenberg, a proud lesbian who helps Harvey finally win an election. Diego Luna is also heartbreakingly good as Harvey’s second lover, Jack Lira. An emotionally high-strung man with needs greater than anyone, let alone Harvey, can ever satisfy, Luna holds the screen strongly as he carefully illustrates his character’s constantly unsteady state of mind.

But another truly great performance in “Milk” comes from Josh Brolin who portrays Supervisor Dan White. Ever since 2007, Brolin has made a name for himself with terrific performances in “No Country for Old Men.” With his role as Dan White, he never goes the route of simply demonizing this man whose crime is still absolutely unforgivable to so many. Along with director Van Sant, Brolin gives us a complex portrait of a man brought up through a strong religious background, and who ends up getting so caught up in it to where it blinds him to the deep dark hole he keeps digging for himself. In a sense, his outcome is tragic in its own way, and when you find at the end credits how he ended up leaving this earth, there is no cheering. There is nothing but pity for the man who got a much too lenient sentence thanks to the so called “Twinkie defense.”

You don’t come out of this movie wanting to forgive Dan White for what he did, but the filmmakers never try to make you hate him. Besides, I am not sure Harvey would have wanted anyone to hate him either.

Van Sant succeeds in making “Milk” a largely uplifting motion picture without resorting to manipulative tactics in an effort to tug at your feelings or with an overwhelmingly emotional film score which begs you to shed tears. Truth be told, composer Danny Elfman does a great job of creating music which supports the characters and the movie without ever overdoing it. Van Sant is also served well with a tremendous screenplay by Dustin Lance Black, and he introduces us to the wonderful people in Harvey’s inner circle and makes each one a unique individual worthy of attention.

If there is anything which disappointed me about “Milk,” it is the archival footage of Anita Bryant featured throughout where she talks about how she sees homosexuality as a sin. Anita speaks of how the word of God must be directed, and she is clearly one of many people who have completely misinterpreted what the bible says about homosexuality. The one scene I kept waiting for was when she got a pie thrown in her (even God knows she deserved that). The fact this footage was not shown here was a bit of a letdown.

The real triumph of “Milk” is in how Van Sant makes you see what an inspiration Harvey was to so many people. The movie starts out with him saying, as he is about to turn 40, that he has done nothing with his life. By the end, both Van Sant and Penn make it clear he did so much and is still a huge inspiration to many more than 30 years after his assassination. Come to think of it, he may even be more of an influence to people in death than he was in life.

Many may end up not seeing this movie either because of their misplaced religious views, or because we know it will end with Harvey Milk being murdered. But “Milk” is not a movie about how Harvey died. It is a movie about how he lived, and of how his life is worthy of celebration. His courage did so much for people, and it is still needed in the darkest of times. This was a career high for Van Sant and Penn, and it was one of 2008’s best movies.

* * * * out of * * * *

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: Bonnie and Clyde

I went into “Bonnie and Clyde” with the same mind set I had when I sat down to watch Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” I figured the passing of time dilute the immense power it possessed upon its initial release. Plus, already knowing the basic story, I felt I was more than prepared for the movie’s most controversial elements to where I did not think I would come out of it particularly disturbed.

But in the end, none of that mattered. “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” still is an extremely unsettling horror film, but “Bonnie and Clyde” isn’t far off in the shocking department. It’s a brilliant character piece which follows the exploits of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker as they make their way across America robbing banks, and of the people they pick up on their journey. It was also one of the first films to come out of the New Hollywood era in how it portrayed sex and violence in a much more visceral fashion. More than 40 years later, it still packs a powerful wallop, and nothing has taken away from its accomplishments.

Yes, this is another one of those movies “based on a true story,” a major pet peeve of mine as this term typically signals another real-life story undone by clichés and Hollywood formulaic conventions. This term, however, is not seen in the opening credits which is a major plus. Instead, we are presented with snapshots of the title characters which, while from a time long since past, feel very vivid. By introducing these two infamous people in this fashion, we are already drawn into their reality without questioning it much. I wish more movies today would try this tactic more often as it has me believing I am about to watch something out of the ordinary.

“Bonnie and Clyde” jumps right into the action as we come upon Bonnie (Faye Dunaway) listlessly resting in bed and clearly bored with her life as a waitress. When she suddenly spots the mischievous Clyde (Warren Beatty) trying to steal her mother’s car, she is immediately smitten and jumps right out of the house to join him. While in town, Clyde tells her he robs banks, and she questions just how serious he is. Clyde ends up proving it to her by robbing a store across the street, and he proudly shows off the loot he absconded with. From there, these two are on the run and crazy in love with one another.

What is shown onscreen likely doesn’t resemble complete historical accuracy, but Arthur Penn’s true aim was to present a more romanticized version of these two individuals who were as passionate as they were dangerous. The story takes place in the middle of the Great Depression when families lost much of what they owned, and criminals were treated like celebrities. This becomes apparent when Bonnie and Clyde hide out at an abandoned farmhouse when its owner comes by for one last look. It turns out the bank took his farm from him heartlessly, and the two bank robbers no longer see him as a threat but as someone who was thoughtlessly wronged. When they tell him they rob banks, the farmer sees them like they are coming to the rescue of folks like him. Now does any of this remind you of anything we are going through in this day and age?

But don’t mistake the romanticism of “Bonnie and Clyde” as being the same as glamorizing the criminal lifestyle. While Beatty and Dunaway look fabulous in their costumes, which quickly became fashion statements of the time, the violence shown here is harsh in its senseless brutality. The movie marked the first time a character got shot at and killed all in the same frame, and even today it is still shocking to watch.

This brings me to another big accomplishment of this classic film; the screenplay makes us empathize with these characters. Brilliantly written by David Newman and Robert Benton, with Robert Towne on board as a special consultant), the screenplay sucks us completely into the lives of these criminals to where we don’t get much of a perspective outside it. Now in real life we have the common sense not to be around these people, but the appeal of being so close to those who are considered famous is more enticing than we ever care to admit. Bonnie and Clyde are criminals, but we are seduced by their desire to lead a life that unrestrained by legal boundaries and filled with a strong desire to feel alive. Seriously, this devilish desire exists in all of us as everyone has a dark side.

With Beatty, I have long since gotten so used to seeing him as one of Hollywood’s elder statesmen. But watching him as Clyde wiped this image away from my consciousness for two hours, and I was instantly reminded of what a great and charismatic actor he was and still is. He must have had the time of his life playing this gleefully law-breaking criminal because it shows in his face throughout. Beatty inhabits Clyde with a wild abandon, fully accepting of the path this character has taken in life with little to no remorse.

Watching Faye Dunaway as Bonnie, it’s easy to see why this movie turned her into such a big star. Now I don’t just mean her first scene where she stands naked in front of her bedroom window as she stares seductively down at Beatty. What struck me was how she brought a fantastically crazed energy to Bonnie as she fearlessly takes this character through a throng of deeply felt emotions. Whether she is in sheer ecstasy or utter frustration over her circumstances, she fully inhabits Bonnie to where it’s impossible to catch her acting.

“Bonnie and Clyde” also marked one first movie roles for the great Gene Hackman who plays Clyde’s never-do-well brother, Buck. It’s immensely entertaining to watch him imbue Buck with such a combustible lifeforce, and it makes me miss his work on the big screen all the more. Seriously, he deserves a better cinematic swan song than “Welcome to Mooseport.”

I remember Michael Pollard from “Tango & Cash” in which he lent Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell his state-of-the-art van which they, unsurprisingly, destroy. As getaway driver C.W. Moss, I can’t help but wonder if he got typecast as a car expert or mechanic on the basis of his performance here. Whatever the case, I loved how he got all sucked into the fame this bank robbing duo were obsessed with, and the look of fear and confusion on his face when things go horribly wrong reflects our own. Like him, we slowly realize just how deep into the muck we have gotten ourselves into.

Estelle Parsons, who plays Buck’s wife, Blanche, won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance. Regardless, I have to say though I was with Bonnie in wanting to shut Blanche the hell up because she was constantly yelling throughout the whole film, and I can only take so much of that. Still, you have to admire just how far Parsons went with her character. If Blanche and Buck ever had a son, it would have looked and sounded a lot like Bill Paxton’s character of Hudson from “Aliens.”

“Bonnie and Clyde” also marked the film debut of Gene Wilder, and he gives the movie some of its funniest moments as Eugene Grizzard. When the gang steals his car, Eugene promises his girlfriend he will tear them apart. Of course, things don’t go quite as planned, and watching Wilder’s expressions throughout reminds us of what a brilliant comedian and actor he was.

Arthur Penn was not just looking to make an average gangster movie, nor was he showing violence for the sake of it. Even back in the 1960’s, there were already several movies like this one, and he had to find a way to make it stand out from the pack. By giving us the combustible elements of sex and violence, he made “Bonnie and Clyde” a true classic for the ages. There are never really and good or bad guys to root for or against here, and by its viciously bloody conclusion, we are emotionally drained at all we have witnessed. Whether or not you feel justice was served, you still can’t escape the feeling of loss presented here.

This movie certainly has had a huge influence on many other movies I deeply admire like Tony Scott’s “True Romance,” Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers,” David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart,” or even Ridley Scott’s “Thelma & Louise.” The combination of sex and violence remains a potent one in some of the best films ever made, and I would like to think “Bonnie and Clyde” was the first one to make this clear to audiences.

I apologize for taking way too long to sit down and watch this one, but in retrospect, it was well worth the wait.

* * * * out of * * * *