‘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 * * * *

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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 * * * *

‘Patty Hearst’ – Based on a True Story, But in a Good Way

I have always been fascinated by the story of Patty Hearst, of how she was kidnapped by the SLA (Symbionese Liberation Army) in an effort to get some of their comrades released from jail. How she later joined the SLA in their fight against what they perceived as a fascist police state fascinated me even more. When I first heard about this event, probably around the same time the movie was released, I couldn’t help but wonder, how can someone who was kidnapped by people with guns suddenly join up with her captors? Can someone be changed into a completely different person in a situation like this? Taking all this into account, I wonder if makes sense we should prosecute someone for crimes they committed after being brainwashed and sexually abused by their captors. It’s such a strange story, and one ripe to be made into a movie. Thank goodness the story of her ordeal ended up in the hands of the great Paul Schrader, famed screenwriter of “Taxi Driver” and director of “Blue Collar,” Affliction” and “First Reformed.”

Yes, “Patty Hearst” is based on a true story, but this movie was made back in 1988 when that term actually meant something. Is this movie factually true to what happened to her in real life? I don’t know and, quite frankly don’t care. Movies based on a true story always have moments which are fictionalized or changed for dramatic effect. It is too easy to brand movies like these as “a lie” or “factually incorrect” to what actually happened. Movies cannot play a real story out the same way it did in real life because there has to be a structured story in place which takes you from point A to point B. In the end, the filmmakers need to be respectful of the facts, but they can’t just do it the same exact way it all happened. Besides, people will accuse the filmmakers of being too faithful to the original material, and this makes it all seem like a no-win situation. People making these kinds of movies are going to get attacked one way or the other, and there is no way around it.

“Patty Hearst” stars Natasha Richardson in her breakthrough performance as the title character, and the movie starts with her walking around the campus of UC Berkeley, giving us our first glimpse of her as a person. In a voiceover, she takes the first opportunity of many to break down preconceptions that may have of Patty Hearst who is the granddaughter of the famous publisher William Randolph Hearst. From the start, she makes it clear Patty was never spoiled and had a happy, normal childhood. These opening moments show how nothing could have prepared her for the kidnapping which would come to define her life.

What makes this movie so effective is the way Schrader manages to tell the whole movie almost entirely from Patty’s point of view. As a result, we end up experiencing what she goes through as she is thrown into the trunk of a car and driven off to a place where she is imprisoned in a tiny closet. Spending most of her time in this claustrophobic space, she becomes completely disoriented. Throughout, she is met by soldiers of the SLA who shout their beliefs at her, and she is made to believe she is the enemy. These moments are presented with the actors acting in front of a blindingly white backdrop which gives us a strong feeling of displacement as even we don’t know where we are. What keeps Patty going through this is her gnawing fear of being buried alive, and of her need to survive.

The fact Patty ends up joining the SLA in their “revolutionary” fight makes sense as it is presented here. Having been cut off from those she loves and being exposed to a whole other set of people and ideas, what choice could she have had? Seriously, it’s not like she had much of a chance to escape. In the end, the SLA is basically a cult, and like all effective cults, they broke down Patty’s spirit until there was nothing left. Everything from her life up to that point was made to seem false, and she had no way of believing otherwise. Her captors offer her a choice of joining them, or to go home. But by going home, Patty interprets this as being killed or even worse, being buried alive.

From there, the movie shows Patty going from terrified hostage to being a soldier for the SLA. The moment where her blindfold is removed and she is finally given a chance to look at her captors is actually a beautiful moment as it is made to seem Patty is now surrounded by people who are more loving than they are threatening to her. It is also a relief for the audience as we too are now out of the claustrophobic state of mind to where our eyes are wide open. From there, we are with Patty every step of the way to even after she is arrested and incarcerated for her involvement.

What really powers “Patty Hearst” is the performance of Natasha Richardson which is nothing short of remarkable. She takes Patty from being a helpless and frightened hostage to a believer, and then she takes her to being a martyr where she is broken down but given a chance to build herself back up again. In spite of all the media coverage this case was given back in the 1970’s, Richardson gives us a Patty Hearst who can be seen as a person with a heart, and not just as a blip on the popular culture landscape. She nails every emotional moment of Patty’s evolution truthfully, and she is utterly fascinating to watch throughout. In the movie’s final shot, it is just her face we see as she seems at peace with herself and of what she needs to do to show the world the truth of what she has been through, and she gives this movie the exact note it needs to end on.

In addition, Richardson is surrounded by remarkable character actors who have since become better known following this movie’s release. Among them is Ving Rhames in a pre-“Pulp Fiction” performance as Cinque, the leader of the SLA. Ving makes Cinque an intimidating force which you believe can hold all his followers at bay with even a little bit of effort. In effect, Cinque is the glue which holds the SLA together.

Also in the movie is William Forsythe, a terrific character actor who plays Teko, a most faithful follower of the SLA who tries to hold the movement together when its leadership suddenly falls apart. Frances Fisher, who would later co-star in “Unforgiven” and “Titanic,” plays Yolanda who ends up in a power struggle with Teko over the direction in which the SLA is poised to take. Through these two performances, we see how easily a group can quickly disintegrate when there is no real leader to keep them focused and together as a whole.

But of my other favorite performances comes from Dana Delany whose role as Gelina is a lovely delight. Gelina’s thinking is clearly warped beyond repair, but she presents Patty with the only real kindness she gets during her captivity. As Gelina, Delany gives us a character as giddy as she is dangerous to those around her.

There is also Jodi Long who plays Wendy Yoshimura, an SLA member who becomes disillusioned with the movement and of what they are trying to accomplish. Seeing the damage done, she is now more prepared to give up rather than face a pointless fire fight with the “pigs.” I really liked Long’s take on the character, and she gives us a strong human being who does not bend easily to the threats made against her.

“Patty Hearst” also features one of the most unique film scores I have ever heard. Composed by Scott Johnson, it is a mixture of both electronic elements and woodwind instruments, and the score helps Schrader in creating a disorienting environment which we and Patty are forced to endure against our will. I cannot think of another film score I can compare this one to. It was Johnson’s first and only movie score ever, and it was out of print for years. In 2007, however, it was finally re-released through Tzadik Records.

This material is perfect ground for Schrader to cover as a filmmaker and a screenwriter. From Robert DeNiro in “Taxi Driver” to George C. Scott in “Hardcore” and to Nick Nolte in “Affliction,” Schrader has long since been endlessly fascinated by individuals who are so alienated from the world around them to where they have long since descended into madness. Patty Hearst, as Schrader shows her here, does not become alienated from the world by choice, but by force, and her dire circumstances of joining a movement she has no business being in makes us wonder what we would do under similar circumstances. We never get to see the world outside of Patty’s point of view, so when she is brought back into reality, we are made to feel as bad as she does when she is made into a martyr in everyone’s eyes.

The movie got a mixed reaction when it was released back in 1988. From watching the movie’s trailer, I imagine moviegoers may have been expecting something more action packed when they walked into the theater. But what “Patty Hearst” really proves to be is a character study, and an endlessly fascinating one as well. While some may find this movie dull, I loved how it got into the inner workings of the SLA, and it made sense of how someone could be forced to join a group they never would have in a sane state of mind. How you view this movie may very well depend on what you are expecting from it.

I really liked what Schrader did with the story and characters. Had this story been in the hands of another director, it may have come across as more exploitive than anything else. Schrader, however, has far more on his mind than playing with all the titillating facts of this case. Throughout, he explores the evolution of a person who goes from being a victim to becoming a participant who later became a pariah, and he gets under the skin of his subject in a way others were unable or unwilling to do.

But what makes “Patty Hearst” work so effectively is the mesmerizing performance of Natasha Richardson. With her entrancing beauty and natural talent, she makes us want to follow Patty to the end of her journey. Whether we agree or disagree with what Patty did, we empathize with her and are forced to look at ourselves and wonder what we would have done in similar circumstances.

Richardson was so great to watch here, and she makes me want to watch this movie again and again. It was so tragic that we lost her at the age of 45, and years later we are still mourning her death. She left us with a great volume of work which deserved even more chapters than it was given.

After all these years, we still miss you very much Natasha.

* * * * out of * * * *

Ray Liotta on ‘The Iceman’ and How He Does Not Just Play Villains

Ray Liotta in The Iceman

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written back in 2013.

While Ray Liotta has played a wide variety of roles throughout his long career, he is still best known for playing bad guys or characters on the wrong side of the law. The perception of him being typecast as a bad guy may continue with “The Iceman” in which he plays real life mob boss Roy DeMeo, the man who hired Richard Kuklinski (played by Michael Shannon) to kill dozens upon dozens of people. But while at “The Iceman” press day held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, Liotta reminded us there is way more to him than just playing evil characters in movies.

Critics and audiences see Roy DeMeo as the latest in a long of mob characters Liotta has played throughout his career, but that’s actually not true. Liotta was quick to point out DeMeo is only the second mob character he has ever played, and that Henry Hill (his character from “Goodfellas”) wasn’t even in the mob but was associated with it. But whether he’s playing a good or bad guy in a movie, his decision to take on a role is always based on one thing.

Ray Liotta: (It’s) the script, the story, what they’re saying, how they’re saying it. Henry in “Goodfellas” just beat one person up and the character I played in this (“The Iceman”) whacked people left and right, wasn’t afraid of anybody, where Henry was a little more timid. So, the script just dictated it to be different. It’s really the script, whatever the script tells you, and that’s why you have to make the right choice. If it seems too similar to something else then it’s better to stay away from it, unless you want to do something that’s similar.

During the roundtable interview, one person mentioned how he loved the Liotta’s work on the television show “Just Shoot Me.” Liotta actually made guest appearances on two episodes as himself, and he ended up falling for Laura San Giacomo’s character of Maya. Truth be told, he has appeared in many comedies over the years such as “Date Night,” “Observe and Report,” “Wild Hogs” and “Bee Movie.” When asked if he would like to do more comedy in the future, Liotta replied he certainly would.

RL: Yeah, I would like to. It’s just getting people to see it. I’ve got different scripts that I’ve been trying to do for years and it’s just really hard to get money, and everybody’s a creature of habit. I just did a movie with the Muppets, me and Danny Trejo, and we’re just singing and dancing with the Muppets and it was so much fun. I’ve done it. It just has to come along. It takes a while to change people’s opinions. I’ve done over 80 movies and there’s been a few where I’m funny and nice, but you can’t expect people to see everything.

So far, Liotta has had the opportunity to work with a lot of great directors like Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Joe Carnahan and Ridley Scott. Working with them has left him with many great memories and given him a strong idea of what he wants from a director which is a great passion for the work of making movies.

RL: It’s much better that way. The best directors that I’ve worked with have the most passion about make-believe situations, and I mean obsessively so. I remember in “Goodfellas,” Marty (Scorsese) every day would have to tie my tie because he wanted it to look a certain way. The best directors know top to bottom what’s going on. I’ve always been taught by what Da Vinci said, that he saw the Statue of David in the marble and chipped away the excess. You know what you’re going to do going in.

“The Iceman” takes place in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, and it is tempting to think doing a period piece like this is like time travel. We always hear about actors getting lost in the moment when they are on the set, and we like to think this happened here since the actors were all dressed in the clothes and driving the cars of that era. Liotta, however, was quick to shoot down this perception as he pointed out there was always something to remind everyone they were still existing in the present.

RL: You’re looking at that, you’re doing your scene, and then you turn around and there’s the crew with their beer bellies and shorts,” Liotta said. “So, you don’t get like that lost in it in terms of that.”

Liotta also made it clear he has no problem auditioning for a role, and that he is still asked to audition for parts from time to time. You would think an actor in his position wouldn’t have to audition anymore, but even he had to do so for the Brad Pitt movie “Killing Them Softly.” But like the smartest of actors, Liotta clearly sees the process of auditioning as a chance to perform.

RL: It didn’t bother me at all. If that’s what’s gonna take then fine. I don’t mind it all. I always liked it, and if I didn’t get something, I couldn’t wait for the next audition just to say, alright you’ll see! There are a few movies I have to do that for and I don’t care. If I want to be in that movie and if that’s what I have to do that then that’s what you’ve got to do… no matter how stupid it is.

Listening to Ray Liotta at “The Iceman” press day was a reminder of just how much he has accomplished as an actor after several decades in show business. His career continues to have a longevity many would love to have themselves, and while many may still yearn to see him play the bad guy in the next movie he does, Liotta is clearly not limited to playing just those kinds of roles. His range extends far beyond what he did in “Goodfellas” and “Unlawful Entry,” and this is something we should not have to be reminded of.

Michael Shannon on Playing the Notorious Richard Kuklinski in ‘The Iceman’

Michael Shannon in The Iceman

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written back in 2013.

Thanks to his unforgettable performances in “Bug,” “Revolutionary Road,” “The Runaways” and “Take Shelter,” Michael Shannon has long since become one of the best character actors working in movies today. It’s fascinating to watch him go from playing one kind of role to another which is completely different from the last, and his range as an actor has kept him from getting easily typecast in ways most actors cannot help but fall victim to. Now he takes on perhaps his most challenging role yet as the cold-blooded killer Richard Kuklinski in Ariel Vromen’s “The Iceman.”

Based on, yes, a true story, Kuklinski was convicted in 1986 of murdering 100 men for different crime organizations in the New York area. At the same time, the movie shows him to be a loving husband to his wife Deborah Pellicotti (Winona Ryder) and their children. We would later learn of his crimes in more detail in Anthony Bruno’s book “The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer” as well as in James Thebaut’s documentary “The Iceman Tapes: Conversations with a Killer.” The documentary is especially interesting to talk about as Kuklinski described his various crimes without a hint of remorse. His only true regret was the irreparable damage he did to his own family, and it is this confession which ends up bringing him to tears.

Shannon was at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, California for “The Iceman” press day, and he took the time to talk with me and several others about his experience making this particular film. He described the role as being very frightening, came to make some discoveries about the character which he didn’t see coming, and he admitted a truth about Kuklinski we are understandably hesitant to say out loud.

Michael Shannon: This is a very intimidating part to play. This character is so far removed from my own personal experience, and to try to play the part with any authenticity was a very daunting challenge. Sometimes I think I’m alone in this regard, but then sometimes I think maybe other people feel the same way and they’re just afraid to say it, but I actually kind of like the guy when I was watching the interviews. I think people are very adamant about, he’s a psycho, he’s a cold-blooded killer, he’s remorseless and so on. The fact of the matter is when you’re watching him in those interviews, he’s been arrested, he’s been caught, he’s not going to kill anybody else, his entire life has been ruined and he’s going to rot in jail until he dies. What good is it going to do him to cry on camera? It’s really none of our business, and in a way we’re all being peeping toms on this guy’s pretty cruddy life at this point. I looked at him as a pretty empathetic figure. If you look at his childhood at least as it’s described in the books that I read, it was absolute torture. He was tortured and it was very sad. So, these poor unfortunate parents created this monster, and he didn’t know how to… He wanted to be something other than he was. He even says it in the interview, he says it in the movie. He says, “This would not be me. This would not be me.” So, for all the people who say that he’s cold-blooded, why would he be saying that then? I found him a very sad, lonely person, and I felt like he deserved some sort of exploration into why he wound up the way he wound up.

Indeed, it’s hard to completely hate Kuklinski as he is presented in “The Iceman” as a devoted family man, and life had dealt him a bad hand which left him little in the way of skills to make a normal career out of. He did have a set of rules he set down for himself which dictated he did not kill women or children, and most of the people he killed were criminals and degenerates who weren’t doing society any favors. At the same time, it was not lost on Shannon or any of us that Kuklinski needed to be arrested and brought to justice for the murders he committed, but to dismiss him as some one-dimensional bad guy is to miss the bigger picture.

MS: This enterprise of making movies about people seems to be in service of trying to understand them, and that’s what I tried to do. He dropped out of school and he had a very low opinion of himself. I don’t think he thought he was a great person, and I think he was fighting lot of demons.

Shannon said he never talked to Kuklinski’s wife or any of the family members in preparation to play him, but this is understandable considering the subject matter. To ask them to participate in the production of “The Iceman” would be like asking them to relive a nightmare they may still be trying to wake up from. In terms of research, Shannon ended up relying on other resources.

MS: I did talk briefly to (Anthony) Bruno, the author who interviewed him. He talked with me for ten minutes and he told me the story of the first time he went to interview him and how just horrifying it was to be in the same room with him. He made the interviewer sit with his back to the door and Kuklinski would sit and look through the window, so Kuklinski knew when there was somebody out there like a guard or whatever and the interviewer didn’t. There was nobody that knew him that wanted to be involved with this I don’t think.

In the end, “The Iceman” is not out to change anyone’s mind about Kuklinski as a person. People have long since made up their minds about this man who murdered so many, but there is no denying Michael Shannon is a fantastic actor who continues to give one great performance after another. As Kuklinski, he allows us to peek inside this man’s twisted psyche to see the human being underneath all the notoriety, and it makes for a truly compelling portrait of a man whose name will forever live in infamy. Up next for Shannon is “Man of Steel” in which he will play Superman’s nemesis, General Zod. Like all of you, I can’t wait to see him in that superhero flick.