‘Dolores Claiborne’ – A Stephen King Horror Tale of the Real-Life Kind

Dolores Claiborne” is, on the surface, not your typical Stephen King novel, and this is important to note before you begin watching this particular adaptation of his work. This cinematic treatment reunites him with the great Kathy Bates who won an Oscar for playing Annie Wilkes in “Misery,” but she’s not playing a deranged psycho this time around. Also, while much of King’s writings deal with terrifying supernatural powers and unspeakable terrors, the horror generated here comes from real life horrors no one should ever have to endure. In some ways, this makes it one of his more terrifying tales because it deals with the kind of horrible crimes we hope and pray never to experience first-hand. Having said this, it is clear how many of us can never be so lucky as to avoid the worst traumas humanity has to offer.

Bates plays the title character who, as “Dolores Claiborne” opens, is believed to have killed her rich employer Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt). This crime immediately reminds the town of Little Tall Island in Maine when Dolores’ husband, Joe (David Strathairn), died twenty years ago under mysterious circumstances, and the general consensus was that Dolores killed him. Detective John Mackey (Christopher Plummer), who had pursued the case against her back then is determined to put her behind bars this time and for good. Into this mix comes Dolores’ daughter, Selena St. George (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a big-time reporter who arrives to defend her mother despite the two of them having been estranged for over a decade.

The novel “Dolores Claiborne” was essentially one long monologue as the story was written entirely from the title character’s point of view. This makes the work director Taylor Hackford and screenwriter Tony Gilroy have done here all the more impressive. They have taken Dolores’ unsettling story and have stretched it out into a character driven motion picture filled with various characters who have been fleshed out in unforgettably compelling ways. None of these characters, even that drunken lout of a husband and father, are one-dimensional or throwaway caricatures. Each one is complex, and they take unexpected directions which might seem jarring at first, but eventually make sense in the large scheme of things.

The plot shifts back and forth in time as we flashback to when Dolores lived with her drunk and abusive husband and of the vicious abuse she took from him in his endlessly drunken state. Director of photography Gabriel Beristain shoots this hideous past with such vivid colors to where he gives the scenes an innocent look which is soon contrasted with horrible violence. It almost acts as a façade for how the past was seen as if it were some sort of Norman Rockwell painting, the kind made to cover up the severe family dysfunction many would like to pretend does not exist.

For the record, King said he wrote the character of Dolores Claiborne with Kathy Bates in mind, and it is very hard to think of another actress who could have inhabited this role. Stripped of any false glamour, Bates takes her character from being a victim to one who understandably takes matters into her own hands. Her acting here is flawless and compelling, and we root for her even though her actions have devastating moral implications.

When you look at her overall body of work, this movie almost seems like a walk in the park for Leigh. She has gone to great physical and emotional lengths to portray a character throughout her long career, but here it looks like she is taking it easy. However, her character of Selena is no less challenging to portray than the others listed on her vast resume. Selena is not easily likable, but she has to be empathetic because the viewer slowly starts to see how her innocence was irrevocably and unforgivably destroyed. Leigh matches Bates’ performance scene for scene by showing how much Selena wants to forget the past, but she comes to see how her most repressed memories cannot stay below the surface forever.

Special attention also needs to be paid to Ellen Muth who portrays Selena as a little girl. This is not the kind of role parents want their children to portray to as it deals with abuse and molestation among other things, but Muth proves to be utterly convincing in making the young Selena deeply distraught and confused by actions no child should ever have to be put through.

There’s also a bevy of excellent performances from the rest of the cast as well. Christopher Plummer, who is never bad in anything, is memorable as the relentless Detective John Mackey. This could have been a throwaway role, but Plummer makes Mackey a complex character to where you question whether his determination is based more on personal revenge than justice. Judy Parfitt is unbearably domineering as Dolores’ wealthy employer, Vera Donovan, and their relationship runs much deeper than we see at first glance. And David Strathairn manages to flesh out his despicable character of Joe St. George to where he’s just slightly more than your average mean drunk.

Most of King’s novels deal with the horror of supernatural elements or ghosts and demons which haunt our nightmares. But “Dolores Claiborne,” much like “Stand by Me,” deals with the horrors of real life which we are never quick to confront unless we are put in a position where the awful truth can no longer be ignored. Perhaps the unsettling nature of this particular work by King is what kept many from checking out this motion picture when it arrived in movie theatres back in 1995, but those of us who were willing to dive into the dark side of things like myself did not deny ourselves a journey to the horrors this film has to offer. But now, 25 years later, this film fits in perfectly with a time which includes the Time’s Up movement as we are forced to realize we have thoughtlessly ignored the worst abuses made against other human beings for far too long. As a result, this particular King cinematic adaption plays even better than it did back when it was released.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Coronavirus Quarantine Viewing: In the Line of Fire

In this time of quarantine due to the global pandemic known as Coronavirus (COVID-19), I have not stayed in my apartment all day long as I have no choice but to work. Still, getting my ass out of bed continues to be a struggle, and while I keep saying I have no time to watch any new releases, I do find myself watching whatever is playing on one of the various Starz cable channels. And I have to be honest, there is always a certain movie which captures my attention regardless if I already have the movie on DVD or Blu-ray.

One movie which has been playing on Starz a lot recently is “In the Line of Fire,” the 1993 political action thriller which was directed by Wolfgang Petersen and stars Clint Eastwood as the grizzled and cantankerous veteran Secret Service Agent Frank Horrigan.

I worked at a movie theater in my hometown, Crow Canyon Cinemas, which played it, and during my lunch breaks I would go and watch it to take in the excellent direction, brilliant acting and terrific action sequences.  It also provided me with one of my most frustrating moments while I worked there. While working a shift, an audience member came up to me and said the lights were still up inside the theater. I rushed in to see what was going on, and the lights were indeed still on as the movie opened up on Washington, D.C. and Ennio Morricone’s began playing. Another audience member yelled out, “ARE YOU GOING TO TURN THE LIGHTS OFF?!” This caused others in the audience to laugh, and I walked out of there inescapably pissed. Hey, if I was operating the film projector, I would have made certain the lights were turned off when the movie began. Please do not automatically assume it’s my fault! Do you even know who I am?! Do you know what us concession workers, ushers and box office personal are forced to deal with on a regular basis?!

Anyway, Frank Horrigan is a veteran Secret Service Agent who is busy breaking in a rookie named Al D’Andrea (Dylan McDermott) whom, as you will see, has a really bad first day at work. Upon arriving back at his apartment, Frank receives a call from a man who calls himself Booth, short for John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. Booth is later revealed to be Mitch Leary (John Malkovich), a disillusioned and deeply obsessed CIA assassin who is determined to assassinate the current President of the United States. From there on out, Frank becomes determined to stop Mitch from ever reaching his murderous goal.

Of course, Mitch has a special reason for telling Frank about his plan as he is the sole active agent remaining from the detail guarding President John F. Kennedy back in 1963 when he was assassinated. Mitch prods Frank into thinking he could have done more to keep Kennedy alive, and we see in Frank’s eyes why this is still a gaping wound which has aversely affected his life for far too long

What really fascinated me about “In the Line of Fire” was the relationship between Frank and Mitch as it worked on different levels. At first, it felt like Mitch was viciously deriding Frank for his failure in Dallas on that fateful day, but perhaps Mitch was taunting Frank in an effort to see if there was any government worker who was still worth believing in. Either that, or perhaps Mitch was eager for some competition as he had long since become such a skilled assassin to where this particular job was easier for him than it should have been. The screenplay by Jeff Maguire is not clear on the answer to this, but this is part of this movie’s charm.

“In the Line of Fire” was the first movie Eastwood had acted in following his Oscar winning triumph, “Unforgiven.” When I saw “Unforgiven,” it forever changed the way I looked at Eastwood as I figured he was just coasting on the success of “Dirty Harry” for far too many years to where he could easily phone in a performance before we realized it But when it came to “Unforgiven,” this movie made me realize he was a consummate artist both in front of and behind the camera. Watching him in “In the Line of Fire” made me see this all the more as, behind that famous glint of his, he succeeds in giving a wonderfully complex performance as Frank Horrigan. From start to finish, Eastwood makes Frank into a difficult, thoughtful, charming, guilt-ridden and stubborn human being, and it is a real shame he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for his performance.

The key scene for Eastwood comes when Frank reminisces about the day of Kennedy’s assassination with Agent Lilly Raines (the always terrific Rene Russo), and he paints a very vivid picture for the audience to where no flashbacks are needed to illustrate what he is talking about. It was also one of the few times back then where we got see Eastwood cry, and an image like this seemed unthinkable for so long. Still, watching this iconic star lose it over an American tragedy which has long since been burned into our collective memory is a beautiful moment. Some are forever trapped in a time and place they can never escape from, and the assassination of J.F.K. is one which still holds many in its grasp.

One actor who did score an Oscar nomination for their performance was John Malkovich. With his character of Mitch Leary, Malkovich created one of the most malevolent psychopaths the world of cinema has ever seen. But as demented as Malkovich makes Mitch (the scene where he puts Eastwood’s gun in his mouth was his idea), he also allows us to see this character has some form of empathy. When Mitch talks about how he doesn’t remember who he was before the CIA “sunk their claws” into him speaks volumes as he has long since become a former shell of his former self to where he has nothing left to live for except revenge. When it comes to Malkovich, you can always count on him to take any character he plays and mold him into something undeniably unique.

I also have to single out Rene Russo who is an absolute joy to watch here as Special Agent Lilly Raines. She made her film debut in “Major League,” but she really caught my eye after co-starring in “Lethal Weapon 3” as Lorna Cole, an internal affairs detective who beat up the bad guys every bit as effectively as Martin Riggs did. When we first saw her in “In the Line of the Fire,” we knew her character was not an agent to be easily messed with as she could kick ass with the best. Still, Russo shows a wonderful vulnerability throughout as Lilly confesses to Frank how she broke off a relationship because she would not give up her job for anyone. Russo does not even have to spell out in words why Lilly is hesitant to become involved with Frank as any potential relationship comes with a lot of baggage, and yet the chemistry between these two proves to be so strong to where we have one of the more hilarious love-making scenes in cinema history. As we see the various objects drop off them as they climb into bed, we can understand Frank’s frustration about having to put all of it back on.

“In the Line of Fire” was directed by Wolfgang Petersen, the same man who gave us the greatest submarine movie ever made, “Das Boot.” Petersen directs this movie in a way which makes it clear to us how character means more to him than spectacle. Whether or not the stunts are the best you have ever seen, they are exciting as hell because we are rooting for the characters from start to finish. As the story heads to a most thrilling climax, I could not take my eyes off the screen for a second.

This movie also has one of my favorite film scores ever by the great Ennio Morricone as he nails every single moment for all its emotional worth. Whether it’s the main theme which is filled with a hard-fought for patriotism, the romantic themes which illustrate the growing relationship between Frank and Lilly, or the themes which add to the taut action sequences, there is not a single false note to be found here.

It is nice to revisit “In the Line of Fire” after all these years, and it still holds up in this day and age. It is a top-notch thriller and the kind of character driven motion picture we do not see enough of these days. It also makes you respect the secret service in a way we always should have. They have to defend the President of the United States regardless of how they feel about him or her as a person. I mean, heaven forbid we have another President serve as a martyr for this great country the way John F. Kennedy did. I bring this up because this is especially the case when we are forced to deal with an infinitely unpopular President, and I will just leave it at that.

* * * * out of * * * *

Billy Crystal Talks About Working with Jack Palance on City Slickers

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

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

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

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

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

Billy Crystal Looks Back at the Making of City Slickers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The Polar Express’ Deserves More Respect Than Most Christmas Movies Get

The Polar Express movie poster

The Polar Express” was directed by Steven Spielberg’s protégée Robert Zemeckis, and it is based on a book by Chris Van Allsburg which Tom Hanks was a big fan of when he was kid. It involves a boy who is selected along with many other kids to take a train ride to the North Pole and visit Santa Claus and see his intricate operation of present giving. This voyage will have this boy meeting other kids on their way as well as many other characters, most of who are played by Hanks.

That’s right, Hanks plays six different parts in “The Polar Express,” and it has me wondering if this was done to save money on what must have been a very expensive production. Among the parts he plays includes a hobo who may not actually be real, Scrooge, and Santa Claus himself. But the most prominent role he plays in this movie is the Conductor of the Polar Express itself. He’s a man who is constantly running the train on what he says is a “tight schedule,” and he cannot help but be occasionally convinced one of these kids is determined to keep the train from reaching its final destination. He also has this wonderful talent for punching out your tickets to form certain words in them. I mean really! He does it so fast! How does he do it?

The big thing about “The Polar Express” is it is an animated movie by the way of motion capture. This has become a popular way of making movies in an animated fashion as actors where these suits and have these tiny white balls glued to their face and bodies. With the help of computers, which at this point we cannot live without, they can be captured on film and manipulated to look like they are in a place too expensive to build as a set. It is remarkable stuff however, and it could serve as further proof of how actors will never be replaced by technology because we need them to make the technology work effectively. I cannot begin to tell you how relieved this makes me feel.

I was surprised at how much I liked “The Polar Express.” It’s not a perfect movie, but it does have a heart and emotions which are far more genuine than other Christmas movies. It is also exciting as we see the train and its main characters struggle to stay on board as it goes through many treacherous parts in a journey to one of the coldest places on the planet. Seeing it in 3D is a major plus as well because the effects seem so real to where the kids in the audience were literally trying to grasp at the snowflakes falling from the screen. Heck, I even found myself doing this a couple of times.

This is the one thing I want to mention; the audience was full of kids there with their families, and this initially was a problem for me. I saw “Cars” at the El Capitan in Los Angeles when it was released, and it was full of parents completely incapable of keeping their kids quiet throughout the entire movie. Here I am trying to watch one of the weaker movies from the Pixar catalogue, and there’s a little boy right in front of me who cannot get himself to sit down and kept asking his mother for more candy. If you can’t shut your kids up, don’t take them to the movies! Stay at home and watch “Finding Nemo” on DVD. My niece has already seen it hundreds of times to where her parents can recite every line (not that they want to).

But at the same time, seeing these kids get totally sucked into the magic of the movie with the 3D technology was really special. Hearing them talk back to the screen, especially my niece, brought a smile to my face as they got completely caught up in the journey “The Polar Express” took them on. This is the kind of movie you want your kids to see. When it first came out, many found the technology disturbing and scary, but that’s really ridiculous. While it doesn’t look like typical animated movies they loved from their past, it does aim to continue to preserve the innocence none of us are quick to lose.

If there is anything which takes away from the experience of watching “The Polar Express,” it’s the lame ass Glen Ballard song some of the characters sing in one scene which you hear again during the end credits. I am sick and tired of crappy love songs sung and written by white guys. They reek of lameness, and this movie is not even a musical!

Don’t worry about parents telling you about how creepy it is. This one is fine for the whole family. Those who disagree have long since lost the mindset of a child, and that’s just tragic.

* * * ½ out of * * * *