Tag Archives: Michael J. Fox

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.

Bob Gale’s Interstate 60

How does a terrific film by an Oscar nominated writer/director with an all star cast end up going direct to video? Who knows, but I hope the persons responsible were tarred and feathered off the studio lot. On a must mention list of staggeringly overlooked films, Bob Gale’s Interstate 60 ranks pretty goddamn far up there for me, and how it slipped past both marketing fanfare and enduring notoriety is both beyond my comprehension and a full on crying shame. Gale also wrote a little flick you may have heard of called Back To The Future, which went on to gather a decent amount of steam, and if that story was packed with interesting ideas, wait until you see the kind of dense, highly philosophical and tantalizingly verbose scenarios he whips up here. Remember that old book The Phantom Tollbooth by “? If you do, you’ll remember it’s protagonist, a precocious kid named Milo and his grammatically scintillating descent into a world where meaning takes on a meaning of its own and every character he meets has a very specific thematic part to play. Well, Interstate 60 is kind of like if Milo grew up into James ‘Cyclops’ Marsden and continued his journey down the literary yellow brick road for a brand new, adult orientated set of adventures starring a whole host of Hollywood heavy hitters whose involvement still somehow couldn’t shake this piece out of sleeper-ville. Marsden is Neal, a young man at a crossroads in terms of jobs, relationships and his place in the world. After a bizarre accident puts him in the hospital, the mysterious duty doctor (Christopher Lloyd) gives him the keys to a sports car and sends him off on a strange odyssey along Interstate 60, a stretch of highway that doesn’t appear to exist on any maps. This is of course a journey of self discovery, with life lessons and painful truths blooming in thickets along the way like wildflowers on the roadside. He’s looking for answers, which he often finds but not in the way he thought or hoped, also searching for his dream girl, whom he finds in adorable Amy Smart but not without a deft test of character first. The cast is all out brilliant here: Chris Cooper is dangerously engaging as an unconventional bank robber, Kurt Russell painfully funny as the sheriff of a small county who has a cheerfully bohemian attitude towards narcotics, and a very important point to prove. Watch for a quick cameo from Marty McFly too. The episodic nature is fluidly soldered together by Gary Oldman’s recurring oddball O.W. Grant, a man with no genitals who grants everyone one wish by blowing green smoke out of his monkey shaped pipe. Such are the delightful eccentricities on display and more, but it’s never just about silliness and surrealities, there are important, enlightening ideas at play here, the script is almost too inspired to serve one film only, there’s so much going on. I wish this one would get picked up for re-distribution or something, it’s too great of a film to be exiled in obscurity the way it has been, there isn’t even a decent DVD out there. If you like your comedies smart, insightful and the right amount of weird, please go seek this one out. I mean, just look at that cast.

-Nate Hill

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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Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks


Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks is a spectacular howling good time, a 50’s inspired gumball machine packed with schlock, satire and more star studded send ups than you can shake a stick at. It’s so silly and overstuffed that one just has to give in to it’s fisher price brand of mayhem and just watch the wanton hilarity unfold. Martians are indeed attacking, and they’re evil little rapscallions with giant brains, buggy eyes and lethal ray guns. Humanity’s best are left to fight them, and let’s just say that’s not saying much with this bunch of morons. Jack Nicholson does a double shift as both the hysterically poised, rhetoric spewing US President and a sleazeball casino tycoon. Annette Bening is his hippy dippy wife, while Rod Steiger huffs and puffs as a war mongering potato head of a general. Over in Vegas, prizefighter Jim Brown and his estranged wife (Pam Grier) fight against hordes with little help from obnoxious gambler Danny Devito. Pierce Brosnan is a bumbling tv expert who sucks on a pipe that he apparently forgot to fill or light, a subtle yet precious running joke. The only people with sense are trailer dwelling youngster Lukas Haas and Natalie Portman as the President’s daughter, and the method they finally find to destroy these nasties has to be seen to be believed. The cast seems padded simply so we can watch famous people getting dispatched by slimy aliens, and also contains Tom Jones as himself, Lisa Marie, Jack Black, Paul Winfield, Michael J. Fox, Christina Applegate, Glenn Close, Joe Don Baker, Barber Schroeder, Sylvia Sydney, Martin Short and Sarah Jessica Parker’s head on the body of a chihuahua (don’t ask). There’s little story other than Martians attack and kill shitloads of obnoxious people, but therein lies the big joke, and it’s hilarious. Aaack !

-Nate Hill

BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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In the late 1980s, Michael J. Fox attempted to break out of the typecasted roles he found himself stuck in – light, breezy comedies like Teen Wolf (1985) and The Secret of My Success (1987). He also didn’t want to be known just for his role as the ultra-conservative Alex P. Keaton on the hit television sitcom Family Ties. To this end, he tried his hand at three dramatic departures: the gritty, blue collar Paul Schrader film Light of Day (1987), playing a musician in a bar band; a naive American foot soldier faced with a tough moral dilemma in Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War (1989); and a cocaine-addicted fact checker whose life is falling apart in Bright Lights, Big City (1988). You can argue the merits of each film but clearly the mainstream movie-going public was not interested in seeing Fox’s serious side and all three films failed to set the box office on fire. The critics were just as unforgiving and the films received mixed reactions at best, or outright savaging at worst.

Out of these three films, I find Bright Lights, Big City to be the most interesting one, especially in terms of Fox’s acting. The film is an adaptation of Jay McInerney’s best-selling novel of the same name and the production was plagued by all kinds of problems, which makes the fact that the finished product is as coherent as it is that much more impressive. For all of its flaws, the constant is Fox’s excellent performance as a struggling New York writer trying to figure out why his wife Amanda (Phoebe Cates) left him and why his life is a mess.

“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning, but here you are…”

And with these words both the book and the film begin with Jamie Conway (Fox) drunk and coked to the gills on what he calls “Bolivian Marching Powder.” With McInerney adapting his own book, he is able to preserve its distinctive second person narrative, which only reinforces Jamie’s self-absorbed state of mind. For example, there are several shots of Jamie looking at himself in various mirrors as he recognizes less and less of the person staring back at him. He works as a fact checker for Gotham magazine, a fictionalized version of The New Yorker. What he really wants is to be working in the fiction department. It’s interesting to see all the grunt work Jamie has to do at his job in the days before the proliferation of computers and the omnipresence of the Internet. At home, he works on his novel on a clunky old typewriter. It is these things that date Bright Lights, Big City in a wonderful way, especially for those of us who can remember these things.

The film’s most glaring flaws include an ill-conceived dream sequence involving “the coma baby,” the story of an unborn child trapped in a woman in a coma as documented on a daily basis by The New York Post. In the dream, Jamie sees the baby through the mother’s transparent belly. Not only does the baby look obviously fake, Fox does its voice as well. I guess the selfish child is supposed to be him or something like that. This sequence always takes me out of the film temporarily. Then, there’s the scene where Jamie and his best friend Tad Allagash (Kiefer Sutherland) break into the Gotham offices to plant a live ferret in his ex-boss’ office. Naturally, all hell breaks loose and the film’s tone veers dangerously close to slapstick as the understandably freaked out animal bites Jamie’s hand and almost tears off Allagash’s balls. They are caught in the act by Alex (Jason Robards), the veteran staff member who spends most of his time drunk, rambling on about working with the likes of William Faulkner and Dorothy Parker. Alex is almost taken out by a suit of armor in a kind of goofy moment. This scene isn’t quite as bad as the coma baby dream sequence but both could easily be removed from the film and no one would miss them. Interestingly, both of these scenes are in the novel but some stuff just doesn’t translate as well on the big screen as it does on the page where your imagination can create its own images.

Michael J. Fox does a really good job showing the gradual spiraling of his character, like when Jamie shows up to a fashion show featuring his wife (Phoebe Cates) as one of the runway models. He arrives a sweaty, disheveled mess, bribes the bartender (a then-unknown David Hyde Pierce) to pour him a couple of drinks even though the bar is closed, and then tops it all off by trying to get his wife’s attention by attempting to climb up onto the catwalk only to get ejected for his troubles. During this scene, Fox has a glazed look in his eyes of someone clearly not fully in control of their faculties. If that wasn’t bad enough, when spotted on the street by his brother (Charlie Schlatter), Jamie runs away, sprinting through the streets like a madman until he loses his sibling on the subway. The end of this perfect day comes when Jamie has dinner with a kind, former co-worker (Swoosie Kurtz) and proceeds to get drunk and make a clumsy advance towards her that is intentionally awkward and uncomfortable to watch. What a shock these three sequences must’ve been for fans of Fox’s squeaky clean roles on T.V. and in film.

Fox is excellent playing someone in denial that their life is falling apart. He just keeps piling on more alcohol and drugs in an attempt to deaden the pain or to forget about the reality of his situation. As the film progresses, you keep wondering when is Jamie going to hit rock bottom? It’s hard to say if he ever does but there is a scene late in the film where he finally acknowledges the reality of his situation. Whether he will finally be able to straighten out his life is left rather open-ended but there is a suggestion that he has come out on the other side of a pretty dark place and lived to tell the tale, just like the coma baby.

I’ve always admired Kiefer Sutherland’s courage to play unlikable characters that are interesting to watch. With his leading man good looks it would’ve been so easy for him to play one-dimensional romantic leads or flawless heroes but he has stubbornly refused to do so time and time again. Just think of some of his signature roles. In Stand By Me (1986), he played a vicious bully that terrorizes the film’s three teenage protagonists; in The Lost Boys (1987), he played the leader of a pack of vampires that delight in feeding off the riff raff at a California beach community; and in Flatliners (1990), he played a gloryhound medical student willing to kill and then resuscitate his classmates in order to prove life after death. In two of these three films he plays out and out villains and in the other one he plays a deeply flawed protagonist and yet we kinda like all of these characters because of Sutherland’s natural charisma. As an actor, he’s just so damn interesting to watch.

In Bright Lights, Big City, he plays Fox’s best friend Tad Allagash, the kind of Yuppie slimeball character that James Spader perfected during the ‘80s (I guess he was busy doing another film when this one was cast). On the surface, Allagash seems like a good friend to Jamie. After work, Allagash takes Jamie out clubbing and introduces him to several beautiful women in an attempt to help his friend forget about his disintegrating marriage and thankless day job. However, they really have a toxic relationship. He only pretends to listen to Jamie’s problems and always seems to be hitting him up for drugs. With the exception of a clandestine visit to Jamie’s workplace after hours, Allagash only seems interested in taking Jamie to nightclubs and parties. Sutherland uses his natural charisma to show why someone like Jamie would hang out with a guy like Allagash. He’s the kind of guy that is hard to say no to, especially when he’s offering you drugs, alcohol and women.

In 1984, Jay McInerney’s semi-autobiographical novel Bright Lights, Big City became a hot commodity. Brat packer Emilio Estevez wanted to option it and adapt it into a film. He met with the author who was working on his own screenplay version. However, it was Robert Lawrence, vice president at Columbia Pictures, who ponied up the money for the option and championed the novel despite resistance from older executives who saw it as “subversive and unconventional.” Lawrence saw it as his generation’s The Graduate (1967) with “a little bit of Lost Weekend in there.” Columbia agreed to make it with Jerry Weintraub producing and Joel Schumacher, hot off St. Elmo’s Fire (1985), directing. Soon after McInerney started writing the screenplay, Schumacher started rewriting it. Considered for the role of Allagash were the likes of Judd Nelson, Estevez and Rob Lowe. Tom Cruise was all set to play Jamie Conway and even took a tour of the New York City night life with McInerney and Schumacher.

A year later, when Weintraub became the chief executive at United Artists, he took the project with him. Now Bright Lights, Big City needed a new producer and so Sydney Pollack and his partner Mark Rosenberg agreed to come on board. They hired Julie Hickson to write the script. Schumacher lost interest and Cruise got tired of waiting. They left and Weintraub also exited, leaving the studio. The project was tied up in a complicated settlement until late 1986 when the studio decided to start from scratch with the notion of casting a relative unknown like Charlie Sheen (pre-Platoon) as Jamie. Tom Cole, who adapted a Joyce Carol Oates story into the screenplay for Smooth Talk (1985), was hired to adapt McInerney’s novel. His wife Joyce Chopra had directed that film and her high-powered agent not only got her involved in Bright Lights but also sent the novel to another of his clients, Michael J. Fox.

Initially, Pollack and Rosenberg weren’t too crazy about the idea of Fox starring in Bright Lights but then they got worried that mainstream audiences wouldn’t relate to a selfish Yuppie like Jamie. Pollack reasoned, “There is something in the persona of Michael that makes you care what happens to him, no matter how bad the character is.” However, with the casting of Fox, Bright Lights changed from a modestly budgeted film to a major commercial feature shot on location in New York City with a top box-office movie star. Fox used his clout to request Kiefer Sutherland play the part of Tad Allagash.

The producers surrounded Chopra with a crew that had worked with Pollack and were loyal to him. To make matters even more interesting, she brought James Glennon, her cinematographer on Smooth Talk, on board, thereby drawing sides with her, Glennon and Cole against the rest of the Pollack-loyal crew. To complicate matters, a Directors Guild of America strike was predicted to start early in July 1987 (that ended up never happening). Fox had to resume work in Los Angeles on Family Ties by mid-July giving Chopra ten weeks to finish her film.

Principal photography barely started and already studio executives were not happy with Chopra’s working methods. Some felt that she relied too much on Cole and Glennon and took too much time setting up shots. The director claimed that she “kept insisting that we take time each day to give the actors a chance to find their way,” and worked “collaboratively” with Glennon. Clearly, this slow, methodical approach was not going to work for the time crunch that the production was working under and something had to give. Executives did not like the footage Chopra was getting and a week into principal photography the chairman of United Artists and the president of production flew in from L.A. to New York. They had rushed the film into production without reading Cole’s script which diverged significantly from the novel. McInerney felt that Cole “was writing out all the drugs.” In his defense, Cole claimed that Pollack instructed him to do that because the producer was worried about tarnishing Fox’s squeaky clean public image.

Officially, Chopra was fired over creative differences with the studio. Fox cheekily referred to the month that Chopra was in charge as “a rehearsal period, though it wasn’t meant to be.” On the short list of replacements were Ulu Grosbard, Bruce Beresford and James Bridges. On a Friday, Bridges received a phone call from his agent telling him that Bright Lights, Big City was in trouble. He read the novel that night, flew to New York on Sunday and saw the footage Chopra shot. He agreed to take over only if he could start from scratch. Bridges was known for box office hits like The China Syndrome (1979) and Urban Cowboy (1980) but was coming into Bright Lights with back-to-back flops of Mike’s Murder (1984) and Perfect (1985).

On Monday, Bridges contacted legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis who agreed to sign on to the production. In a week, Bridges wrote a new draft of the script that had Jamie’s mother’s death as the emotional core of the film. He brought McInerney back into the fold and fired six actors, replacing them with Jason Robards, John Houseman, Swoosie Kurtz, Frances Sternhagen, Tracy Pollan, and Charlie Schlatter. They all read the novel because the script wasn’t ready. Bridges wisely kept Kiefer Sutherland and Dianne Wiest as Allagash and Jamie’s mother respectively. Before each day of shooting, Bridges worked on rewrites of his script and on weekends worked on it with McInerney. Bridges brought a much needed stability to the production and the film was shot in six weeks.

vlcsnap-2014-02-08-15h56m40s45Shooting on location in New York City gives Bright Lights, Big City a real authenticity and serves as a snapshot of a city that looks and feels quite different now. In the ‘80s, it was quite a hedonistic time with materialistic Yuppies snorting cocaine in nightclub bathrooms while holding down jobs in the publishing industry or on Wall Street. I always felt that Bright Lights was the east coast answer to Less Than Zero (1987), also a flawed adaptation of a best-selling novel about affluent twentysomethings mired in drug addiction. Bright Lights is more successful because it doesn’t soften the edges of its protagonist as much as in Less Than Zero, which feels more compromised and less faithful to its source material. It’s really a shame that audiences and critics didn’t respond more favorably to Bright Lights. I would’ve liked to have seen Fox take more chances like he did with this film. Instead, he retreated back to safe comedies like Doc Hollywood (1991). It’s a rather unfortunate case of what could have been.