Dame Judi Dench on Making M a Central Character in ‘Skyfall’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2012.

Skyfall” marks Dame Judi Dench’s seventh appearance as MI6 spy master M, and it gives the Oscar winning actress her biggest role yet in the James Bond franchise. Ever since her first appearance in “Goldeneye,” the same film which introduced Pierce Brosnan as 007, Dench has made the character a no-nonsense leader who considers the famous secret agent “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur” and “a relic of the Cold War.” M also shows no hesitation about sending Bond to his death if the situation calls for it, and this made the role all the more exciting for Dench to play.

“A man saying that to Bond is one thing, but a woman saying that to him was quite another,” says Dench.

Whereas M has typically remained on the periphery of the Bond movies, “Skyfall” has her playing a significant part in the film’s story. We come to learn more about M’s past as it catches up with her in the form of one of the nastiest Bond villains ever, Raoul Silva (played by Javier Bardem). Dench was understandably excited about her enlarged role in this particular 007 film as Bond struggles to protect M against Silva who has a very personal vendetta to settle with her.

“It’s very nice to be out from behind the desk,” Dench said. “It’s extremely nice to get a go in the field, as it were, and get a bit of the action. It made me feel very grown-up. It’s not just the fellas who are spinning about and shooting guns – I get a go.”

In talking about M’s backstory, Dench talked about the need for actors to create one for themselves even if it is not there in the script.

“You always have to make a backstory for yourself in order to know how to react to certain things,” Dench said. “I’ve had this backstory with two grown up daughters and everything. I knew her capabilities and I knew that she must have been through all sorts of things in order to get where she was and hold this job over a lot of chaps at MI6. So I knew her capabilities but I’m very glad they came to the fore.”

As for how she prepares for a role, especially this one which she has held onto for 18 years, Dench said it is no different from when she plays a character in the theatre.

“With M, she’s always slightly changed in each film,” Dench said. “In the first one (“Goldeneye”) naturally I would have thought out why and how this woman has gotten to this part and why she’s head of MI6. Each time you come to do it you actually learn a little bit more about her, and you supply a little bit more about her. So there’s a lot more of the relationship between her and Bond beforehand that goes into this one, but it adds a bit more because there’s more to tell.”

There’s a lot more which could be said about Dench’s role in “Skyfall,” but doing so would give away many of this film’s surprises (and there are several to discover throughout). What can be said about Dench is she will always be a tremendous acting talent we should all feel privileged to watch in anything she appears in. Perhaps the person who can sum Dench up best would be “Skyfall’s” director Sam Mendes who also had the fortune of directing her in a production of “The Cherry Orchard.”

“She was the first bona fide great actor I had ever worked with,” said Mendes. “I learned more from watching her, the way she worked, than I ever had before. She would never think of herself as a teacher. She has too much humility and too much grace to consider herself to be knowledgeable. But in fact, it wasn’t about what she said, it was about how she conducted herself, how she rehearsed, how she thought about the play, her dedication to the play and the audience, her work ethic.”

SOURCES:

Jake Coyle, “Judi Dench on ‘Skyfall’ & Her Reign as M (SPOILER INCLUDED),” The Huffington Post, November 9, 2012.

Daniel Fienberg, “‘Skyfall’ star Judi Dench enjoyed going to ‘the ammunition shed’ for the new James Bond adventure,” Hitfix, November 5, 2012.

Steve ‘Frosty’ Weintraub, “Dame Judi Dench Talks SKYFALL, Working with Roger Deakins, the Best Part of Playing M, Her Upcoming Stephen Frears Film, and More,” Collider, November 8, 2012.

Daniel Craig on Playing James Bond in ‘Skyfall’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written back in 2012.

They say third time’s the charm, and this could not be truer for actor Daniel Craig’s third go around as James Bond in “Skyfall.” Many are calling this latest 007 adventure one of the best ever, and by now there should be no doubt that Craig is the best actor to play Bond since Sean Connery. Craig goes on record about how he prepared to portray the iconic British spy this time around, and of the rules he and the filmmakers broke in this franchise.

At a recent press conference, Naomie Harris, who plays agent Eve, said Craig worked a 15-hour day on set, and then he spends another two hours doing physical training. Craig talked about how he trained for “Skyfall.”

“I’m not a fighter. I pretend to be one. It’s bullshit boxing,” Craig said. “I had to do a lot of running in this movie, which I hate. I did a lot of sprinting and running. Bond doesn’t usually walk through a room. … On paper it looks very easy: it says Bond goes from A to B and he goes from B to C. But he goes from A to B at a lick. He runs down the stairs, he runs up the stairs, and you have to do 10 takes at a time.”

One big question people had for Craig was how many of his own stunts he did for “Skyfall.” He wasn’t about to fool anyone with his answer.

“I get a kick out of it,” Daniel said of the action scenes. “I don’t do all my stunts. I’d be lying if I said that. But I like the fact that occasionally that you’ll see on screen that it’s my face and it’s me. And I think audiences hopefully appreciate that. At least, I really hope they do.”

Craig, however, did participate in one hair raising stunt which takes place during the movie’s prologue which takes place in Turkey.

“My first day on the train was just about learning how to stand up. The train was going about 25 mph, but it’s not the speed that matters, it’s the side-to-side motion,” Craig said. “Then when we get over the bridge, it’s a 300-foot drop over this ravine. They all said, ‘Don’t look down!’ And I tried not to.”

With this particular 007 movie, Craig was determined this time to bring Bond back to the basics. In other words, it was time to bring back the gags and the gadgets audiences had been missing in the previous installments.

“I always had a plan in my head, however tenuous it was, that when we did ‘Casino Royale’ – that was the beginning – we had to set a tone. Then we finished the story in ‘Quantum of Solace’ and wrapped it all up. The third one would always be about bringing in the classic Bond,” Craig said. “The characters, the people that really make a Bond movie a Bond movie. That was my only desire.”

But there is one rule which Craig freely breaks in “Skyfall,” and it is showing Bond crying. Some will say it is an unbreakable commandment for 007 to shed tears over anybody, but ever since “Casino Royale,” the rules for how to make a Bond movie have been broken out of sheer necessity. Things needed to be reinvented in order for Ian Fleming’s famous secret agent to remain relevant in this day and age. Even when Craig jokes how Bond is seen sweating, he makes it clear how he and the filmmakers are looking to break the rules of the fifty-year-old franchise.

“Of course we did, that’s what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to mess around with it,” Craig said. “It’s interesting: You said he cries, other people I know said he doesn’t cry, it’s open. But it’s an emotional scene.”

There’s also no forgetting Mr. Fleming whose books gave life to this long series. As time goes on, the filmmakers and whoever plays Bond remain dedicated to portraying the character as closely to the books as they possibly can. At the same time, Bond is a complicated kind of secret agent.

“We always go back to Fleming when we sit and discuss, and if you look at the novels, he’s so conflicted,” Craig said. “Fleming tries to kill him off. He gets really pissed at him. And he’s a killer. He kills for a living. It’s a very dark place he goes to.”

Daniel Craig is contracted to do at least two more movies as James Bond, and he is not about to part with the role. Here’s hoping he lasts even longer as he is the best actor to inhabit this iconic role since Connery.

SOURCES:

Jay Stone, “Daniel Craig on playing Skyfall’s ‘complicated’ Bond,” Canada.com, November 5, 2012.

John Boone, “James Bond in Action, in Love and…in Tears?! Everything You Want to Know About ‘Skyfall,’” E! Online, November 9, 2012.

Stephen Galloway, “‘Skyfall’ Star Daniel Craig Reveals the Downside of Being James Bond (Q&A;),” The Hollywood Reporter, November 8, 2012.

Hollie McKay, “Bond Turns 50: Daniel Craig says ‘Skyfall’ is ‘classic Bond,’ wishes next 007 ‘good luck,‘” Fox News, October 24, 2012.

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘When a Stranger Calls’ (1979)

The original “When a Stranger Calls” from 1979 is a horror movie I am tempted to say I have seen many times already. This is because the scenes with Carol Kane playing a babysitter who is menaced by an anonymous caller who taunts her endlessly as he constantly asks if she has checked on the kids are scenes I have watched from time to time. It’s those scenes which keep getting presented on shows which celebrate the scariest horror movie moments, and it was featured in the documentary “Terror in the Aisles.” Even Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson paid homage to it in the “Scream” movies, and they did to such a powerful effect. Those scenes were enough to frighten me to my very core as being alone in the house was always deeply frightening to me when I was young, and the sound of silence can make things seem even more unnerving as it can get punctured at any given second.

Truth is, I never watched “When a Stranger Calls” until now. I finally took the time to watch it when I found it was available to stream on Amazon Prime. Like many movies I watch on this particular streaming service, I figured I would just watch it for a few minutes and then turn it off, perhaps hoping to watch the rest of it later. But in the end, I found myself watching it to its brutal conclusion, and this proved to be for better and, especially, for worse.

“When a Stranger Calls” starts off with Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) arriving at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Mandrakis (Carmen Argenziano and Rutanya Alda) to babysit their children while they are at a party. Everything starts off fine with Jill relaxing at the residence and speaking with her friend about the latest gossip at school. But while working on school assignments, she starts receiving phone calls from a man who keeps asking her if she has checked on the children. As the calls keep coming at her with the volume of each ring getting increasingly louder, Jill hears the man saying he wants her blood all over his body. To her credit, she does the smart thing by calling the police who attempt to trace these calls to their source. Of course, then they discover that the caller is actually inside the house…

The opening 12 minutes of “When a Stranger Calls” have long since become iconic as it does provide audiences with one of the most terrifying scenes in a horror film, and it does so without any blood or gore. Director Fred Walton does a brilliant job of setting up this babysitter in a normal home environment which is no different from the ones we have lived in, and the silence of them when the stereo isn’t on and playing the top 40 hits proves to be quite deafening. With scenes like these, we are reminded of how what we don’t see proves to be more infinitely terrifying than what we do.

But therein lies the problem with this film, it peaks too soon. Once Jill’s horrifying predicament comes to an end as she runs straight into private investigator John Clifford (Charles Durning), the story then moves to a number of years later when John is obsessively pursuing the man on the other end of the phone line, Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley) who has just escaped the insane asylum he was committed to. What results from there is frustratingly dull as “When a Stranger Calls” wastes fine actors in a movie which looked to promise so much more than it ends up giving.

It really sucks to say this as this film features a very talented cast who do give the material their all despite it being so lackluster. Durning gives us a fully realized character who is ever so obsessed about capturing the man who laid waste to a family in the worst way possible. Beckley, who died six months after the film’s premiere, does a strong job of inhabiting such an insane and unstable character in Curt to where I never caught him overacting. We also have Colleen Dewhurst on board as Tracy Fuller, a person who comes into contact with Curt in a rather ambivalent fashion, but once she does, things become far too predictable.

“When a Stranger Calls” does eventually return to Jill’s life years later when she is married and has children of her own, and this does result in a much-needed increase in suspense and tension as we are reminded of the hell she went through. We even get one highly effective jump scare, but it all leads to a conclusion which proved to be deeply unsatisfying.

When it comes to Kane, she is the best thing this movie has to offer. She has long since proven to be a tremendous comedic talent in movies like “Annie Hall” and “The Princess Bride, the TV shows “Taxi” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” and she was fearless in her portrayal of one of John Munch’s ex-wives on “Homicide: Life on the Street.” Here, she goes from playing a young student and babysitter to a woman still dealing with the trauma and guilt over a horrific event. Kane looks like an ordinary person here which helps to make her terrifying ordeal feel even more real, and she inhabits Jill with an unshakeable fear as the phone rings louder and louder and the calls get more and more threatening. Her performance is tremendous as she made me feel Jill’s fear and desperation throughout.

Now as much as I try to view a movie for what it’s trying to be instead of what I want it to be, I cannot help but think of how much better it could have been. Frankly, I think it should have focused more on Jill and how she deals with all she has been through. It could have been something along the lines of David Gordon Green’s “Halloween” reboot which catches up with Laurie Strode 40 years after her near-death encounter with Michael Myers. This would have been more enthralling as Kane is so good here, and watching her trying to process all she has been through is far more interesting than following a cop obsessed with catching a killer.

It also would have helped if Curt had been kept in the shadows, like the alien in “Alien,” the thought of him proves to be more haunting than his appearance. Some people want to see the monster right away, but like the anonymous truck driver in “Joy Ride,” a strange voice can be far more unnerving. The fact the filmmakers give Curt a face within the first half hour just killed much of the suspense and terror they thought this movie would have.

Having finally watched the original “When a Stranger Calls,” I can see why it still resonates strongly with horror fans, as those first 12 minutes are truly terrifying. While the rest of it doesn’t hold up, the opening has long since enshrined the movie as a classic scary flick in the eyes of many. It even got a sequel, albeit a made for cable one, in 1993 with “When a Stranger Calls Back,” and both Kane and Durning returned to reprise their roles. And yes, there was an inevitable remake of it back in 2006, but judging from its trailers, the thing looks like a Noxzema commercial disguised as a horror flick.  

But seriously folks, 12 great minutes does not a good movie make, and this one had the potential to much better than it was. The more I think about “When a Stranger Calls,” the more a certain question comes to mind; Is this film a cinematic example of premature ejaculation? Seriously, I’m asking for a friend.

* * out of * * * *  

Jason Reitman Talks With Luke Wilson About ‘Bottle Rocket’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2011.

Jason Reitman completed his guest programming at New Beverly Cinema with a screening of Wes Anderson’s directorial debut, “Bottle Rocket.” This film also marked the movie debuts of Luke and Owen Wilson, the latter who co-wrote the screenplay with Anderson. Before seeing this movie, Reitman admitted he was actually scared of becoming a filmmaker especially because he was the son of a famous one (Ivan Reitman). He did see all the great movies of the 1990’s like “Clerks,” “Slacker,” and he checked out all of Quentin Tarantino’s movies, but he said none of them had the same effect on him as “Bottle Rocket” did. For Reitman, this was the movie which made him want to direct films. And of discovering Anderson, he said, “This is the voice that I am going to follow forever.”

Joining Reitman for this special screening was actor Luke Wilson, and it was nice to see him take a break from all those AT&T Wireless commercials he has been doing endlessly. Ironically, the movie Reitman showed the same evening before it was “Breaking Away,” and Wilson said he is actually good friends with one of that movie’s stars, Dennis Quaid. Quaid was away in Hawaii so he was unable to attend the screening with fellow co-stars Dennis Christopher and Daniel Stern. This coincidence did, however, allow Wilson to talk about how Randy Quaid told Dennis he already made the family name and suggested he change his. Dennis ended up asking his brother, “How about McQuaid?”

Anyway, Luke told the audience Wes and Owen originally wanted to shoot “Bottle Rocket” guerilla style so they could shoot it cheaply as Richard Linklater had done the same thing with “Slacker.” However, they ended up meeting a producer who told them about the Sundance Film Festival and advised them to start off by making a short film they could take there. So they made the short and got it entered into Sundance, but nothing happened and they didn’t win anything for it. Despite that, they managed luckily to get hooked up with a producer named Polly Platt who had worked on such movies as “The Last Picture Show” and “Terms of Endearment” among others.

The project went on from there as Platt brought the Wilson brothers and Anderson to the attention of famed writer/producer/director James L. Brooks. Anderson ended up getting everyone to do a read thru of the script at some office in Texas during the summer. Turns out the air conditioning there wasn’t working all that well, and they were reading a screenplay which was two hundred pages long. Luke said he ended up sweating profusely throughout the whole read, and this made Owen glare at him as if to say, what the hell are you doing?

Luke also took some time to talk about Brooks who became one of the chief supporters of “Bottle Rocket,” and he described him as being very nice. However, he also said Brooks can immediately “cut to the truth and be painfully funny.” Of course, Brooks was going through problems of his own. While working on “Bottle Rocket,” he was also busy with his film musical “I’ll Do Anything” with Nick Nolte. For those who remember, it ended up getting released without any of the music as the movie tested poorly (and that’s being polite).

Reitman went on to talk about how he related to the voice of the film and how it had a “strange innocence” to it. Luke replied the film’s voice came from Anderson and Owen, but he said he never got the feeling he was working on anything special. Columbia Pictures, which distributed the movie, wanted to make “Bottle Rocket” but with different actors. When it was all shot and in the can, the studio didn’t like or knew what to make of it. Looking back, Luke said bluntly he was “stunned that the movie got made.”

When it finally came to making “Bottle Rocket” as a feature length film, Luke remarked Wes knew exactly how movies were made. He and Owen, on the other hand, did not. They didn’t understand certain jobs the crew on set had like the boom mike guy. Luke said he and Owen wondered out loud, “How can that guy just stand around like that?”

Also, Anderson did not want the actors to watch dallies of the day’s work, but this didn’t matter much because neither Owen nor Luke wanted to watch them anyway. Luke says he still doesn’t understand what compels actors to watch dallies as he feels it will likely mess you up in terms of how you go about developing your character.

The cast and crew also had the fortune of working with James Caan who had a bit role in “Bottle Rocket,” and Luke recalled he was going through a rough patch at the time, but that he did warm up to the rest of the cast during shooting. At one point Luke, Owen and Wes asked Caan what it was like working with the late Marlon Brando on “The Godfather.” To this Caan replied, “It’s like you guys working with me.”

“Bottle Rocket” did go through the rather unnecessary realm of test screenings. For a movie like this, it must have felt like a waste of time because this is not one which just sells itself to mainstream audiences, but the studio executives decreed that Anderson screen the movie for focus groups nonetheless. So, there was a test screening done in Santa Monica, and out of a crowd of 250 people, 75 walked out. The ones who stayed through the whole thing, as Luke remembered it, wrote nothing but shit about the movie. To date, it remains the one movie with the worst test screenings in the history of Columbia Pictures. Luke said he, Owen and Anderson were convinced they would never get to make another movie ever again.

Despite all that, “Bottle Rocket” did get discovered by audiences through cable, video and DVD. Luke says he still sees it on cable every once in a while, and Reitman remarked it became the “touchstone for those who want to make movies.” Martin Scorsese ended up naming it as one of the best movies of the 1990’s. Still, everyone involved with this little film had a hard time getting over it feeling like a failure. But when these guys got around to making the brilliant “Rushmore,” they found themselves re-energized and have since gone on to make one great movie after another.

‘Dolores Claiborne’ – 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 * * * *

‘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 * * * *

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 * * * *

How Taxi Driver Forever Changed The Way I View Movies

While “Goodfellas” introduced me to the filmmaking brilliance of Martin Scorsese and became my all-time favorite movie, it was “Taxi Driver” which really shaped the way I view movies today. Before seeing it, I always tried to avoid those movies which would make me sad or were too dark. This was a result of my parents having to carry me out of “Star Trek II” and “E.T.,” both of which I cried so hard over to where others wondered if I was okay. I promised myself I would never put my family through such embarrassing situations ever again, and this was especially the case with my brother who was constantly annoyed at my emotional outbursts.

Unlike “Goodfellas” which was immensely entertaining and had great comedic moments, “Taxi Driver” is dark, dark, dark. There is nothing the least bit glamorous to see here as we watch the main character of Travis Bickle (played by Robert De Niro) get continually sucked into a corrupted environment he deeply despises. I kept hoping for him to achieve sort of redemption and maybe, just maybe, have another chance with Cybil Shepherd’s character of Betsy whom he had a memorable first date with. But as we reach the movie’s bloody conclusion, I realized there was nowhere for Travis to go but down. While the reaction to his actions may have been surprising, we all know the truth about Travis and realize something will set him off again before we know it.

Once the end credits went up, my dad asked me what I thought about “Taxi Driver.” My initial reaction was it was not exactly enjoyable. My dad’s response to this has always stayed with me, “Not all movies are meant to be enjoyed. Some are meant to be experienced.”

Looking back, I see what he meant. Look, there are a lot of reasons to not make a movie about someone like Travis Bickle; he’s seriously nuts, not a good date if you want to go to the movies, and watching him lose his mind is painful. But the thing about “Taxi Driver” is people like Travis exist, and turning a blind eye to their existence does us no good. We need to understand why people do the things they do. It’s like what Roger Ebert said in his review of the film:

“Scorsese wanted to look away from Travis’s rejection; we almost want to look away from his life. But he’s there, all right, and he’s suffering.”

With “Taxi Driver,” I came to see how you need these kinds of movies just as much as you need the average escapist entertainment. Some movies need to shine a light on the darker parts of human nature to remind us we need to acknowledge we have a dark side and realize we have more in common with Travis Bickle than we would ever care to think or admit.

Since watching “Taxi Driver,” I have become completely open to movies which disturb me or take me on a journey I would not necessarily want to endure in real life. I can’t stand to watch films in a passive manner. I want to be moved by what I see, be disturbed and shaken, and even weep. Movies are too powerful an art form to be made just for the sake of entertainment. There are so many things about the human existence which deserve to be captured on celluloid, and I believe audiences crave these kind of cinematic experiences as they do the next Marvel movie.

“Taxi Driver” is my second favorite movie of all time, right behind “Goodfellas.” It is a movie I admire above so many others, and I still watch it from time to time. There are many I get sick of watching, but this is one I will never tire of sitting through.

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.