Tag Archives: John Candy

It’s hard to know who to trust, isn’t it, Jack? : Remembering Cocoon with Tom Benedek by Kent Hill

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What’s strange is, for the longest time, I had only ever seen the final scenes of Cocoon. A sea covered in mist, a young boy in the water, a boat loaded with elderly people being chased. Then the sky above lights up. The clouds part majestically as James Horner takes over and the ship ascends into a gigantic spacecraft. Wow, I thought. Cool. Have to see that rest of that! It would be a few days later, but, at last, the whole story was mine to experience.

To talk about films like Cocoon, you need to go back to a different age in cinema. Before most of the popular films were adaptations of characters from the funny papers and franchises and cinematic universes were lined up, as far as the eye can see. It was a time of great risk and invention. When a person with a great idea was king, and the power of Hollywood could make such visions sing.

The era of high concept brought us many of the enduring classics which now appear, in many ways, to be timeless. A young Ron Howard would helm the picture, taking control after another icon of the times, Robert Zemeckis, decided to go off and romance a stone, before heading back in time. Howard had already delivered a fascinating modern day fairy-tale with his magical, romantic, comedy-adventure, Splash. In hindsight this was a fortuitous match, one which would propel Howard’s career to new heights, eventually seeing him become the ideal fit for another 80’s fantasy masterpiece, Willow.cocoon-54a0436aebccd

The men who had produced JAWS, Richard Zanuck and David Brown, brought together a group of impeccable professionals to join Howard behind the camera – at the same time they assembled an extraordinary group of acclaimed Hollywood veterans, cast to fill out the leading roles of the members of a retirement community on the verge of a close encounter of the third kind. Wilford Brimely, Hume Cronyn, Don Ameche, Jack Gilford, Jessica Tandy, Maureen Stapleton, together with brilliant performances by Brian Dennehy, Steve Guttenberg, Barret Oliver and Tahnee Welch are our guides through a story about youth, and how we find things in life that allow us to hold on to that vital part of our spirit – so that we may live richly, even as the years decline.

This phrase has become a cliché with me, but long have I waited to chat with someone connected with this movie – one of the fantastical cinematic staples of my youth. My guest Tom Benedek was the man tasked with taking an unpublished novel and turning it into a story for us all. A story of how sometimes it takes a stranger to show us what those we share our lives with fail to point out, a story about the wondrous mysteries and possibilities that dance in the sky so full of stars above our heads, and a story about our grandparents and the lessons, indeed the wisdom they try to send us . . . and how when their time comes, how hard it is to let them go.

So, as it has happened so many times for me while writing for PTS, my dreams have come true. I now have a glimpse, and not a mere EPK look behind the scenes. I have my story of the creation of a science fiction and fantasy film-making high water mark, from the man who brought it to life on the humble script page.

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Comedic Wizard, Hollywood Warrior: An Interview with Walter Olkewicz by Kent Hill

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Growing up I was a huge sword & sorcery fan . . . still am. The older one gets, you find yourself using the phrase, “they don’t make ’em like they used to,” more and more. In the case of sword & sorcery it is all too clear why it is sad, in some ways, to reminisce. But I can’t fully transmit to you in words, just how much the show Wizards & Warriors was then, and would later become, an integral influence. It took something with reasonably defined staples and subverted them in the best possible way.

This was part of the reason the more recent effort, Your Highness, was such a dismal failure. I admit I was hopeful all the way up to until I finally set eyes on the picture. Yes, it dealt irreverently with the source influences. But, ultimately forgot what made them so glorious in the first place. While Wizards & Warriors, on the other hand,  was so ahead of its time it’s ridiculous. Subverted genre work is more prevalent today, but back then, it was a bold choice. I soaked it up, and it quickly became the stuff of which permeated my dreams, dominated my day-long make-believe adventures and of course was a the well from which I have many times gone back to with my own works like Deathmaster, Sword Dude, and the like.

So you can, possibly, only imagine the joyous moment when I finally was able to chat with Prince Greystone’s faithful vassal Marko, played by the supremely talented Walter Olkewicz .

In Walter’s tales from his illustrious career I uncovered the story of an effortless performer, a loyal friend, a devoted family man, and a true inspiration to all those who have the dream of being a player of many parts.

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His credits speak for themselves, and I found it most intriguing, that a man who has known such heights could remain, I believe, as he has ever been – the salt of the earth. Walter has though, of late, been suffering with medical issues. It is comforting to hear however, that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Please do take a moment, if you can, to support his recovery, so that Walter can get back to doing what he does best. (Please follow this link: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/help-walter-save-his-leg#/ )

Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m proud to present, Walter Olkewicz.

 

JACK DETH IS BACK . . . AND HE’S NEVER BEEN HERE BEFORE: An Interview with Tim Thomerson by Kent Hill

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I was mid-way through my interview with C. Courtney Joyner when Tim Thomerson’s name came up. Joyner of course, had directed Tim in Trancers 3, and cooler still, he had just had him round for breakfast earlier that day. You might call it an imposition, but I mentioned that if there was even a remote possibility that he could put me in touch with Tim, I would be forever grateful. Courtney told me he was seeing Tim again on the weekend and would put forward my proposition. Soon after, I received a message with a phone number.

Now, I’m usually in the habit of arranging an appropriate time and day to call, but Courtney had left it open. I remember for the first time, in a long time, being nervous to make the call. After all this was Tim Thomerson who was going to be picking up the phone; a guy, a legend that I had watched for years. So I summoned my moxy and dialled the number. The familiar international ring-cycle began and then . . . “Thomerson,” the voice on the other end of the line said.

I’m going to come off as an idiot here, but I.D.G.A.R.A. “Damn,” I remember thinking. “He sounds exactly like he does in the movies.” Stupid, I’m well aware. But the moment was profound, and I was instantly transported to that time when I sat in the theatre watching Metalstorm, and that glorious afternoon I first sat down to watch Future Cop (aka Trancers). Here was Jack Deth now, on the end of the line and talking to me like we had been buddies since forever.

I did kinda wish we could have jumped into our chat right there. Tim was at once disarming, candid and as cool as i had expected him to be. He was off to his retreat in the desert to do “old man shit” as he put it, and, while I realize he is an aged gentleman now, that voice, the larger than life character that he is still packed all of the vitality, swagger and youthful exuberance that very much belies his years.

I didn’t have to wait long before we would talk again, and when we did, the conversation picked up right where it left off. I would take a significant amount of time to go through the length and breadth of his career, so I restricted myself to personal favourites among his credits. We talked about his beginnings, his great friendships, his bumping into Mel Gibson at the doctor’s office, him working with his idols, Australian Cinema and his meeting with the legend that was Sam Peckinpah.

For those of you who regularly check out my stuff here on the site (God bless you), I fear I might be starting to sound like a cracked record. A number of times in the past I have found myself gushing about the opportunities I have enjoyed whilst writing for PTS, and how humbled and indeed awe-struck I have been as a result of these encounters with the folks who make the movies. Sadly I’m now going to do it again. Tim Thomerson is a hero of mine and it was at once spellbinding and an indescribable treasure to have had the chance to shoot the breeze with an actor I have long held in high regard . . .

. . . and an equal pleasure it is, to now share it with you.

Enjoy.

STRIPES – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

stripesWatching Stripes (1981) again after all these years makes me nostalgic for the early comedies of the first generation of Saturday Night Live cast members: Animal House (1978), Caddyshack (1980), Fletch (1984), and so on. They were goofy and silly but they also had an engaging, anarchistic attitude that is so much fun to watch. This is definitely the case with Stripes, a film that pits a “lost and restless generation,” as the film’s main protagonist puts it at one point, against rigid authority that is only interested in producing, lean, mean, killing machines, to paraphrase another character. Much of the film’s humor comes from the clash of these two ideologies.

After losing his job, his girlfriend, and his apartment all in one morning (“You still have your health,” deadpans his best friend), John Winger (Bill Murray) decides to enlist in the Army and straighten out his life. He convinces his best friend Russell Zisky (Harold Ramis) to enlist as well (“If I get killed, my blood is on your hands,” he says, to which John replies, “Just don’t get it on my shoes.”). Once they arrive at the base and meet their no-nonsense drill instructor, Sergeant Hulka (the perfectly cast Warren Oates), John and Russell realize that it’s not going to be as easy as they imagined.

Stripes settles into a classic fish-out-of-water formula as John and his misfit platoon (with the likes of John Candy and Judge Reinhold) gradually become efficient soldiers despite their complete ineptitude and perchance for breaking all the rules. The gang of misfits fulfills all the requisite stereotypes: “Cruiser” (John Diehl) is the dumb guy, “Ox” (John Candy) is the lovable oversized oaf, “Psycho” (Conrad Dunn) is the crazy guy, and, of course, John is the group joker and self-proclaimed leader. Other conventions include casual nudity (Ox wrestles three strippers in a mud wrestling contest) and the obligatory love interests as John and Russell get involved with two cute, female MPs (P.J. Soles and Sean Young). This template would prove to be so successful that it was exploited in films like Police Academy (1984), PCU (1994) and countless others.

On his way to the premiere of Meatballs (1979), director Ivan Reitman thought up the idea for a film: “Cheech and Chong join the Army.” At the premiere, he pitched it to Paramount Pictures and, incredibly, they greenlit the project that day. Len Blum and Dan Goldberg wrote the screenplay in Toronto and would read it to Reitman (who was in Los Angeles) over the phone. He would, in turn, give them notes. Reitman gave the script to Cheech and Chong’s manager and he read it and thought it was very funny. He gave it to the comedians but they wanted complete control. Reitman then suggested to Goldberg that they change the two main characters to ones suited for Bill Murray and Harold Ramis, figuring that if they could get Ramis interested in it and let him tailor the script for the two of them that Murray would be interested in doing the film. It worked and Murray signed on to do the film.

Ramis had already co-written Animal House and Meatballs but was unknown as an actor. He screen-tested for Columbia Pictures, who hated his audition but Reitman told the studio that he was hiring him anyway. Judge Reinhold’s character, Elmo, ended up with a collection of all the best jokes from the Cheech and Chong version of the film. Before filming he thought that he had a handle on his character but once filming started, he was “petrified” because this was his first big studio film. The casting agent picked Sean Young based on how she looked and P.J. Soles tested with Ramis and they got along very well together. John Diehl had never auditioned before and this was his first paying acting job. Goldberg knew John Candy from Toronto and told Reitman that he should be in the film. He didn’t even have to audition.

One of the reasons why Stripes is my favorite Bill Murray comedy are the little touches that he adds to a scene that makes it that much funnier. For example, in the first scene where John goes to pay a guy after getting a shoe shine, Murray turns his back to the man so that he won’t see how much of a tip he’s going to give him. It’s an odd, idiosyncratic choice that no one else would’ve thought to make but it enriches the scene ever so slightly. The next scene demonstrates Murray’s gift for physical comedy when he loads a snotty rich lady’s luggage into the trunk of his cab and accidentally bags himself. It’s an obvious gag to be sure but Murray still makes it funny.

John continues to antagonize the lady (Fran Ryan) during the ride to the airport but in a deadpan, sardonic way. At one point she says, “I’ve never gone this way before,” to which he replies, “I’m sure there’s a lot of ways that I’ve gone that you haven’t.,” implying that she’s square and conservative while he’s hip and liberated, thereby establishing a clear generational gap. The rich lady insults John and so instead of getting angry at her he decides to mess with her, including one memorable bit where he starts driving fast. Suddenly alarmed, she says, “Aren’t you going too fast?” He replies, intentionally slurring his words, “Oh, it’s not the speed, really so much, I just wish I hadn’t drunk all that cough syrup.” John proceeds to give the lady a little scare but when she calls him a bum, he’s had enough and quits right in the middle of a bridge, throwing his car keys in a river and leaving her stranded.

It’s not until almost eight minutes into the film that Elmer Bernstein’s first musical cue appears and it is a slightly sad, whimsical tune. The scene where John’s girlfriend Anita (Roberta Leighton) leaves him is interesting because it straddles the line between comedy and drama. She is clearly unhappy with their relationship and he tries to deflect her complaints with humor before half-heartedly saying, “I’m part of a lost and restless generation,” and follows this up asking her a rhetorical question, “What do you want me to do, run for the Senate?” This scene underlines John’s dilemma – he lacks direction and any kind of motivation. Interestingly, no music plays during this scene so that the gravitas of it, if you will, is not undermined by manipulative music. Bernstein’s whimsical score only returns when Russell arrives and the two banter back and forth about John’s sorry state of affairs.

The chemistry between Bill Murray and Harold Ramis is excellent. Ramis is the perfect straight man to Murray’s smart-ass slacker. They had been friends and worked together for some years and play well off each other as evident in the scene where Russell bets John that he can’t do five push-ups. It is in this scene that John realizes that he’s in crap physical shape and that the army is his only hope in turning his life around. Every scene had some element of improvisation and this was due in large part to Murray and Ramis who suggested things for him to say and this spread to the other cast members. Stripes is quite possibly Murray’s best comedy. He was on his way to becoming a big movie star (he had already conquered T.V. with SNL and a scene-stealing turn in Caddyshack) and applied the comedic chops he honed on T.V. to this role. Murray has a way of delivering dialogue and being able to give certain lines a sarcastic delivery or add a look or a facial expression that makes what he says so funny.

Reitman was a fan of westerns that Warren Oates had been in and wanted someone who was strong and that everyone respected to control the misfit platoon. Reinhold said that during filming, Oates would tell everyone stories about working on films like The Wild Bunch (1969) and they would be enthralled. The casting of Oates, the veteran of many Sam Peckinpah films, gives Stripes a dose of gravitas and provides a certain amount of tension in some of the scenes he has with Murray. Sgt. Hulka is the ideal antagonist for the anti-authoritative John and their scene together in the barracks’ washroom, where Hulka finally asserts his authority, is filled with a palpable tension — unusual for a comedy but it works. Reitman wanted “a little bit of weight in the center,” and have a real argument between Hulka and Winger. It wasn’t played for laughs and allowed Murray to do something he hadn’t done before.

However, the improvisational nature of Reitman and some of the cast did not impress an old school actor like Oates. During one of the days of filming the obstacle course scenes, Reitman told the actors to grab Oates and drag him into the mud without telling the veteran actor about it in order to see what would happen in the hopes of getting a genuine reaction. Oates’ chipped his front tooth and was understandably pissed at Reitman, yelling at the director for what he did.

The film’s not-so secret weapon and scene stealer is John Candy as the lovable Ox. For example, the scene where he introduces himself to the rest of the platoon is quite funny. Candy portrays Ox as an earnest guy who wants to lose weight while Russell, in the background, reacts hilariously to what he’s saying. Candy also excelled at physical comedy as evident in the scene where Ox mud wrestles several scantily-clad women. At first, they get the upper hand on him and he’s afraid to hurt them, but after a pep talk from Winger and invoking the spirit of Curly from the Three Stooges, Ox bests six women at once! Initially, Candy wasn’t sure he wanted to do the film. “The original character didn’t look like much but Ivan said we could change it and I could do some writing. Everything fell together and we realized it could be a lot of fun.”

If Stripes has any weaknesses it is in the last third of the film where the platoon, fresh from a successful graduation parade, is trapped in an Eastern Bloc country (remember, the Cold War was still in full swing at this point) looking for John and Russell after they took off with the army’s top secret armored recreational vehicle (the uber Winnebago). This part of the movie feels forced and tacked on. It just isn’t as strong or as funny as everything that came before it. However, the first two thirds of the film are so good that not even this hurts the picture all that much.

Only during a time when the United States wasn’t at war with anyone (unless you count the Cold War), does joining the army to improve your life seem like an option if you’re reasonably educated as John and Russell are in Stripes. One gets the feeling that they could have easily had a productive life in almost any walk of life if they only applied themselves. Joining the army on a whim doesn’t seem that funny in our current climate which does date the film somewhat. Regardless, the script is filled with tons of witty dialogue and funny gags, the cast is uniformly excellent, and Murray and Ramis have never been better. At the risk of falling back on an old cliché, they just don’t make comedies like this anymore.