Tag Archives: Joe Pesci

The STUNTWOMAN: An Interview with Cheryl Wheeler by Kent Hill

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It was an absolute thrill to sit and chat with Cheryl Wheeler, legendary stunt woman, stunt double, and stunt driver of the movie industry. She has been the stunt double for Rene Russo, Kathleen Turner, and Goldie Hawn.

Cheryl began studying Yoshukai Karate at 15 – coming from a family of mostly boys; she was forced to learn to hold her own. She started kickboxing when her instructor commenced training an amateur team. She has also studied Judo, Aikido, and grappling and trained for a while with kickboxer and actor Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson, and is a three-time WKA World Kickboxing Champion

Beginning work in the film industry in 1987, Cheryl’s extensive filmography of stunt work in such films as Back to the Future Part II, Bird on a Wire, Die Hard 2, Lethal Weapon III & IV, Demolition Man, The Thomas Crown Affair and Charlie’s Angels. She was inducted into Black Belt Magazine’s Hall of Fame as 1996 Woman of the Year. She appeared on the cover and in a feature article in Black Belt Magazine in July 1997, and also received a Stunt Award for “Best Stunt Sequence” in the 2000 film of Charlie’s Angels.

I could honestly have spoken to Cheryl for hours – slowly traversing and delighting in the stories from all of the films she has participated in. We also chat about her involvement in The Martial Arts Kid 2 which she comes to as a producer with her long-time friends Don Wilson and Cynthia Rothrock.

It was a true pleasure, and I trust you will enjoy this fascinating interview with an awesome Hollywood veteran. Ladies and Gentlemen . . . Cheryl Wheeler.

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Nicolas Roeg’s Eureka

Nicolas Roeg’s Eureka is one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen, and I mean that in more of a disturbing way as opposed to a compliment. It’s a story that could have been given the straight n’ narrow Hollywood biopic treatment, and instead plays like the loudest, most disconcerting fever dream you’ve ever had, and you find yourself wondering how such a straightforward story can just seem so *odd*. A lurid meditation on greed and a balls-out cautionary tale for people who think that money can buy happiness, most of it focuses on Gene Hackman’s stubborn prospector Jack McCann, who after striking gold in a melodramatic Yukon set prologue, retires to his own Caribbean island to languish in riches. Life is anything but happy for him though, as his troublesome daughter (Theresa Russell) has brought along her scheming boyfriend (Rutger Hauer), who clashes with McCann right off the bat. Hauer is a no good schmooze with his hands in a bunch of dirty pies, Russell is headstrong and belligerent, and soon McCann becomes paranoid, angry, volatile and wrapped up in his own deluded mind. It also doesn’t help that a crime syndicate from Miami wants to build a casino on his island, an idea he abhors. They’re headed up by Joe Pesci and Mickey Rourke, two memorable faces who are ultimately eclipsed by the volcanically intense and overbearing performances from our three leads. This is an ugly, brutal picture of human beings at their utter nadir of social interaction and mental well being, a swirling maelstrom of malcontent that circles the toilet boil and plummets down the drain to a graphically violent conclusion from which there is no respite or glimmer of catharsis. I kind of get what Roeg was going for, but he’s so tonally off kilter and tries to hammer it home with such pulverizing, unnecessary force that we feel too shellshocked to get any sort of real message from the thing. The acting is quite impressive though, credit where credit is due. Hackman has never been more terrifying, Hauer is sleaze served a la flambé and Russell has a staggering courtroom monologue that should be in record books for most lines memorized in a single take, not to mention be up for acting awards all over the board. Bring a strong set of nerves to this one, and be prepared for little payoff after you sit through the depravity it has to offer.

-Nate Hill

Man On Fire (1987)

You’d have to dig a bit to discover that Man On Fire with Denzel Washington is actually a remake, or rather another version of a book that’s out there somewhere, but there is indeed film from 87’ bearing the same title and basic plot outline, albeit with a heavy dose of melodrama. Swap out Denzel and Chris Walken for Scott Glenn and Joe Pesci, Mexico City for Italy and Tony Scott’s neo-punk visual aesthetic for a more stone-faced, straightforward approach and you’ll have some idea. It’s a passable film, but instantly pales with any comparison to Scott’s outing, which is a masterpiece and one of the best films of the century. Glenn is Creasy, a mopey ex CIA soldier who gets a job from buddy Pesci protecting a wealthy businessman (Jonathan Pryce) and his family, mostly driving their precocious young daughter (Jade Malle) around. The two are rocky at first, begin to bond, she’s kidnaped and Creasy wages war on the criminals who took her with an arsenal of firepower provided by Pesci. At ninety minutes it’s a little too short for any of this to be developed properly, or proportionately so to other elements, but it works well enough. The strongest bits are the early scenes where they make friends, brought to life by Glenn’s warm smile and Malle’s emotional curiosity. The final act of revenge feels oddly rushed, awkward and too overblown to justify the lack of action we get, it should have been more hot blooded and sustained. It’s still a decent piece though, with the distinct cast doing fine work, especially Pesci who is volatile and unpredictable, almost stealing the film from Glenn. Nothing compared to Scott’s version, but worth a look.

-Nate Hill

JFK – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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The assassination of American President John F. Kennedy is a watershed event in American history and one that has provoked people to question their own beliefs and those of their government. Yet, for such a highly publicized affair there are still many uncertainties that surround the actual incident. Countless works of fiction and non-fiction have been created concerning the subject, but have done little in aiding our understanding of the assassination and the events surrounding it. Oliver Stone’s film, JFK (1991) depicts the events leading up to and after the assassination like a densely constructed puzzle complete with jump cuts and multiple perspectives. Stone’s film presents the assassination as a powerful event constructed by its conspirators to create confusion with its contradictory evidence, to then bury this evidence in the Warren Commission Report, which in turn manifests multiple interpretations of key figures like Lee Harvey Oswald. JFK offers a more structured examination of the conspiracy from one person’s point of view where everything fits together to reveal a larger, more frightening picture implicating the most powerful people in the United States government.

JFK presents the assassination of Kennedy as a powerful event constructed by its conspirators to create confusion with its contradictory evidence and then theorizes that the evidence was buried deep in the Warren Commission Report. Stone’s film filters a structured examination of two conspiracies, one to kill the President and one to cover it up, from one person’s point of view — Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) — who then assembles all of the evidence at his disposal to reveal a larger, more frightening picture that implicates the most powerful people in the United States government. Stone saw his movie consisting of several separate films: Garrison in New Orleans against Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones), Oswald’s (Gary Oldman) backstory, the recreation of Dealey Plaza, and the deep background in Washington, D.C.

While attending the Latin American Film Festival in Havana, Cuba, Stone met Sheridan Square Press publisher Ellen Ray on an elevator. She had published Jim Garrison’s book On the Trail of the Assassins. Ray had gone to New Orleans and worked with Garrison in 1967. She gave Stone a copy of Garrison’s book and told him to read it. He did and quickly bought the film rights with his own money. The Kennedy assassination had always had a profound effect on his life and eventually met Garrison, grilling him with a variety of questions for three hours. The man stood up to Stone’s questioning and then got up and left. His hubris impressed the director.

Stone was not interested in making a film about Garrison’s life but rather the story behind the conspiracy to kill Kennedy. To this end, he also bought the film rights to Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy by Jim Marrs. When Stone set out to write the screenplay, he asked Sklar to co-write it with him and distill the Garrison book, the Marrs book and all the research he and others conducted into a script that would resemble what he called “a great detective movie.” Stone told Sklar his vision of the movie: “I see the models as Z (1969) and Rashomon (1950), I see the event in Dealey Plaza taking place in the first reel, and again in the eighth reel, and again later, and each time we’re going to see it differently and with more illumination.”

Sklar worked on the Garrison side of the story while Stone added the Oswald story, the events at Dealey Plaza and the “Mr. X” character. To tell as much of the story as they could, Stone and Sklar used composite characters, a technique that would be criticized in the press, most notably the “Mr. X” character played by Donald Sutherland and who was a mix of several witnesses and retired Air Force colonel L. Fletcher Prouty, an adviser for the film.

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Stone ambitiously wanted to recreate the Kennedy assassination in Dealey Plaza and his producers had to pay the Dallas City Council a substantial amount of money to hire police to reroute traffic and close streets for three weeks. He only had ten days to shoot all of the footage. Getting permission to shoot in the Texas School Book Depository was more difficult. They had to pay $50,000 to put someone in the window that Lee Harvey Oswald was supposed to have shot Kennedy from. They were allowed to film in that location only between certain hours with only five people on the floor at one time: the camera crew, an actor, and Stone. Co-producer Clayton Townsend has said that the hardest part was getting the permission to restore the building to the way it looked back in 1963. It took five months of negotiation.

Filming was going smoothly until several attacks on the film and Stone began to surface in the mainstream media including the Chicago Tribune, published while the film was only in its first weeks of shooting. Five days later, the Washington Post ran a scathing article by national security correspondent George Lardner entitled, “On the Set: Dallas in Wonderland” that used the first draft of the JFK screenplay to blast it for “the absurdities and palpable untruths in Garrison’s book and Stone’s rendition of it.” The article pointed out that Garrison lost his case against Clay Shaw and claimed that he inflated his case by trying to use Shaw’s homosexual relationships to prove guilt by association. Other attacks in the media soon followed. However, the Lardner Post piece stung the most because he had stolen a copy of the script. Stone recalls, “He had the first draft, and I went through probably six or seven drafts.”

The film depicts the events leading up to and after the assassination as a densely constructed story complete with jump cuts, multiple perspectives, a variety of film stocks and the blending of actual archival footage with staged scenes dramatized by a stellar cast of actors. This blurring of reality and fiction by mixing real footage with staged footage makes it difficult to discern what really happened and what is merely speculation. Stone does this in order to create what he calls “a countermyth to the myth of the Warren Commission because a lot of the original facts were lost in a very shoddy investigation” and simulate the confusing quagmire of events as they are depicted in The Warren Commission Report. Stone creates different points of views or “layers” through the extensive use of flashbacks within flashbacks. Stone has said that he “wanted to the film on two or three levels — sound and picture would take us back, and we’d go from one flashback to another, and then that flashback would go inside another flashback . . . I wanted multiple layers because reading the Warren Commission Report is like drowning.” This technique conveys the notion of confusion and conflict within evidence.

Kevin Costner acts as the perfect mouthpiece for Stone’s theories. The auteur’s infamously forceful directorial approach to his actors pays off here as he reins in the actor’s usual tics and mannerisms. Stone was no dummy — he knew that by populating his film with many famous faces, he could make the potentially bitter pill that was his film, that much more palatable to the mainstream movie-going public. The rest of the cast is phenomenal. Gary Oldman’s delivers an eerily authentic portrayal of the enigmatic Lee Harvey Oswald. Tommy Lee Jones is note-perfect as the refined, self-confident businessman, Clay Shaw. Even minor roles are filled by such name actors as Vincent D’Onofrio, Kevin Bacon, Jack Lemmon, and Walter Matthau.

The film throws many characters at us and it is easier to keep track of them by identifying them with the famous person that portrays them. Stone was evidently inspired by the casting model of a documentary epic he had admired as a child: “Darryl Zanuck’s The Longest Day (1962) was one of my favorite films as a kid. It was realistic, but it had a lot of stars…the supporting cast provides a map of the American psyche: familiar, comfortable faces that walk you through a winding path in the dark woods.” Future biopics with sprawling casts, like The Insider (1999), and Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), and The Good Shepherd (2006) would use this same approach.

Seeing JFK now, one is reminded that first and foremost, it is a top notch thriller. There are so many fantastic scenes of sheer exposition that would normally come across as dry and boring but are transformed into riveting scenes in the hands of this talented cast. For example, the famous scene between Garrison and X (Sutherland) where the mysterious man lays out all the reasons why Kennedy was killed and how is not only a marvel of writing but also of acting as the veteran actor gets to deliver what is surely one of the best monologues ever committed to film.

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JFK is an important film in the sense that it accurately portrays the assassination of Kennedy as a complex public event surrounded by chaos and confusion. It presents a main protagonist who exposes the conspiracy to be an intricately constructed coup d’état. Stone paints his canvas with broad brushstrokes and powerful images. JFK takes a larger, confrontational stance by boldly implicating the government in the conspiracy and the mainstream media in conspiring to cover it up. Stone is using the persuasive power of film to reach the largest number of people he can in order to wake them up and to reveal how they have been deceived by higher powers. There is no mistaking the importance of the assassination of Kennedy in American culture. Based on the excitement that surrounded Stone’s film, the American public is still greatly interested in the event with more and more people believing in a plot to kill Kennedy.

MARTIN SCORSESE’S RAGING BULL — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Raging Bull features one of the greatest performances that the screen has ever contained. It also happens to be a definitive American masterpiece, the sort of film that is unimpeachable in terms of overall quality and its standing in the pantheon of great cinema. This is a pulverizing film – emotionally, aesthetically, and narratively – and it leaves bruises, intentionally, while frequently stirring the soul. Martin Scorsese’s showy, studied, and totally commanding direction is a text book example of cinematic showmanship.  Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin’s intimate screenplay allowed for any number of moments – both big and small – to become immediate cinematic touchstones. Robert De Niro’s work as Jake La Motta will be rightfully revered until the final days of this planet; it’s a force of nature piece of acting in a film that makes the ground under your feet feel as if it’s moving. The stellar ensemble cast all gracefully dance around the edges of this tremendous motion picture, with Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty providing blistering support, with a stacked roster of faces and character actors coming and going, providing the film with a terrific sense of place and atmosphere. The combination of Michael Chapman’s electrifying black and white cinematography, which was stylistically heightened to suggest the intense speed and ferocity of the bouts in the ring, and Thelma Schoonmaker’s dynamic and propulsive editing, went a long way in providing the movie with such an urgent sense of violence, both during the numerous bloody bouts and the verbally explosive fights between La Motta and all of the people within his personal orbit. What more, at this point, can be said about Raging Bull that hasn’t been said? It’s one of those timeless classics that ages like a fine wine, and a true reminder of the galvanic force that De Niro possessed during his remarkable run in the vintage years.

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MARTIN SCORSESE’S CASINO — 20th ANNIVERSARY REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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It’s crazy to think that later this month, Casino will be turning 20 years old. I’ve seen this film roughly 5,380 times and I’ll likely see it another 5,380 times more. It’s a fabulously engrossing saga of Las Vegas sin and sleaze from the very first masterful frame all the way until the last. Some have called it Goodfellas Gone West, and that’s not far off, but stylistically, the two films are very different, while of course sharing some similar traits. Casino is epic, where Goodfellas stressed the intimate, and it’s the smart way that Scorsese and his writers pulled all of the small and big pieces together that they were able to concoct a packed narrative that still remained coherent. Cinematographer Robert Richardson was in full-on flamboyant mode here, with massive crane shots, huge camera-arm movements, with as dynamic of a sense of how to shoot in widescreen that can possibly be referenced. The film is truly massive in both visual scope and story structure, with one element complimenting the other, as Scorsese ladled on the blood, profanity, and gangster tropes that everyone would expect from the master of this particular milieu.

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There’s a journalistic sweep that encompasses much of Casino, with Richardson’s always-searching camera gliding over the action, covering the various back-room deals and violent confrontations with extreme, flashy style. Scorsese was obsessive in the details both large and small during Casino, which allowed Richardson the chance to gaze his camera upon the glitz and glamour that Las Vegas exudes. There’s a mind-boggling amount of three to five minute long stedicam shots in this film, which gives off an observational quality from moment to moment. It’s sort of ridiculous to be honest. Richardson lit Sharon Stone like a goddess in this film, always showing off her eclectic wardrobe and sexy make-up to maximum effect; do you think she had 10,000 costume changes? Everyone in the cast was just perfect, with De Niro and Pesci doing their best “one-two” with each other, while Richardson and Scorsese caught all of the sly moments from these two supreme actors which helps make this film what it is – an obsessive study of excess and greed and power. There’s even a Smothers Brother in this film!

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There’s a level of verisimilitude that Richardson and his crew brought to this film, from the practical locations to the fully decked out sets to all of the character actors and “faces around the tables” that help to produce a tableaux effect – it’s a perfect distillation of a bygone era. And then there’s also the freewheeling sense of visual flamboyance (this is Vegas after all!) that Casino possesses, which separates it from other genre entries, and it felt like the next logical step for Scorsese in terms of his fascination with this subject matter. This was one of those movies that blew the doors off my cinema-mind 20 years ago, an example of what I’d like to call bravura filmmaking. Casino is akin to an out of control but still somehow in control locomotive that just never wants to stop moving. “An equal amount of blueberries in each muffin” POWER.

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