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Yuletide Yarns: Nate’s Top Ten Christmas Films

Tis the season to check out Christmas in cinema! There’s a whole ton of festive films out there revolving around this time of year, ten of which I’ve picked out here as my cherished favourites! Oh and keep one thing in mind: A Christmas movie is a subjective thing and each individual is allowed to have whatever the hell they want in their Yuletide canon without a bunch of blockheads screaming “That’s not a Christmas movie” to the winds. Home Alone is a Christmas movie to many and perhaps to some The Mummy or Top Gun are also Christmas movies too for whatever personal reason or memory they hold dear. Anything you damn well please can be your “Christmas movie” and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Got it? Good! Enjoy my list 😉

10. John Frankenheimer’s Reindeer Games

An underrated one, to say the least. Pulpy, nihilistic and packed with ironically nasty energy substituting for holiday cheer, I love this ultra violent heist/revenge flick to bits. Ben Affleck, Charlize Theron and an off-the-chain Gary Sinise are various degenerate characters involved in a casino robbery and the ensuing aftermath, murder, betrayal and tough talk. They’re all having a blast and there’s great supporting work from Danny Trejo, Donal Logue, Isaac Hayes, James Frain, a scene stealing Clarence Williams III plus the late great Fennis Farina.

9. Bob Clark’s Black Christmas

A Christmas slasher yay!! This predates John Carpenter’s Halloween as the original genre prototype and is just such a fun, spooky old stalker flick with healthy doses of camp, plenty of creaky atmospheric portent and one of the freakiest villains the genre has to offer based on his voice alone. It’s Christmas break for a house of sorority girls in small town Ontario, which should mean rest, relaxation and good times. A deeply disturbed prank calling serial killer has other ideas though, tormenting them with perverse phone-calls and eventually outright hunting them through the drafty halls of the manor. Starring the beautiful, classy Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, John Saxon, Margot Kidder and Nick Mancuso as the killer’s terrifying phone voice, this is a holiday classic for me, it practically fills up your living room with atmosphere when you put it on.

8. Joe Dante’s Gremlins

This is one of those ones that kind of works at Halloween too because it’s so gooey and horror-centric, but the quaint small town Christmas vibe is so pleasant and wonderful, right from the joyous opening titles set to Phil Spector’s ‘Christmas.’ One young man’s Christmas present goes haywire when cryptozoological Mogwai Gizmo and his clan get right out of control and cause a bigger holiday riot than Boxing Day at the mall. It’s like a Christmas party gone ballistic in the best, most mischievous ways and the fun lies in seeing these little green monsters terrorize, blow off steam and run around town destroying everything in their wake.

7. Renny Harlin’s Die Hard 2

I know what you’re thinking, but I actually prefer this rambunctious sequel over the iconic first Die Hard film. Switching up the action from a skyscraper to hectic, bustling and heavily snowed in LAX on Christmas Eve is just such a cozier, more festive setting, not to mention ripe for so much action, villainy and comedic bits. Way more characters, tons of cool cameos, a blinding snowstorm to create atmosphere and so many gorgeous explosions.

6. Robert Zemeckis’s The Polar Express

What a majestic film. People rip on this for being way too elaborate and hectic when compared to the simple, direct timbre of its source children’s book, but I love how far they took it. It’s a thrillingly cinematic, highly immersive rollercoaster ride to the North Pole packed with Carols, stunning motion capture animation, Tom Hanks in like four different roles *including* Santa, breathtaking swoops over northern landscapes and a genuine sense of wonder.

5. Ted Demme’s The Ref

Christmas ain’t always a loving, cherished time of year as you’ll see in this acidic, cynical and jet black comedy of family dysfunction, misanthropy and petty crime. Denis Leary is one pissed off cat burglar who hides out from the law with a couple played by Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis who are basically the most unhappily married, hateful pair of grinches you could find in white suburbia. It’s a brilliantly satirical sendup of Christmas in the Midwest with terrific, off the wall performances from the three leads, a wicked sharp script and hilarious supporting work from J.K. Simmons, Christine Baranski, BD Wong and Raymond J. Barry.

4. Tim Burton’s Batman Returns

Christmas goes Gothic in my favourite of the initial four Burton/Schumacher Batman films. This is a seriously gorgeous gem of a film with Keaton at his moody best as Batman, Danny Devito creeping’ it up tons as the freaky weirdo Penguin, Christopher Walken embodying corporate evil like no other and Michelle Pfeiffer as the most absolutely sexy, dangerous, funny and commanding take on Catwoman ever. The film takes place over the holiday season in a Gotham highly reminiscent of bustling New York, all austere wintry edifices and decked out super malls.

3. Tim Burton/Henry Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas

A double edged sword that works wonders as both Christmas and Halloween film, this is just a classic, iconic festive singalong with the OG beautiful Burton/Selick stop-motion animation and a wonderful host of vocal/singing performances from Chris Sarandon, Catherine O’Hara, Glen Shadix, Paul Reubens and Danny Elfman.

2. Harold Ramis’s The Ice Harvest

Another counterintuitive one, this is an icy, sardonic black crime comedy about a mob lawyer (John Cusack), his untrustworthy associate (Billy Bob Thornton), a slinky stripper (Connie Nielsen) and a big city gangster (Randy Quaid). They’re all neck deep in an underworld embezzlement scheme on Christmas Eve, out to kill, deceive, screw over and get rich by the time midnight rolls around. I love this film, it’s a Yuletide noir with healthy doses of deadpan comedy, a mournful rumination on what it means to be a family member around this time of year and how morality plays into a life of crime. Plus positively everyone steals the show including the lovable Oliver Platt as Cusack’s drunken buddy.

1. Robert Zemeckis’s A Christmas Carol

The number of Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carols film adaptations is near infinity but for me this one tops them all. Dazzling motion capture animation gives larger than life vitality to the classic story of Scrooge, his three ghosts and Victorian London. Jim Carrey outdoes himself playing the old dude and *all three* spectres while the cast is filled with beloved performers like Gary Oldman, Robin Wright, Colin Firth, Fionnula Flanagan, Cary Elwes and the late great Bob Hoskins in multiple roles. Zemeckis’s sure hand with this dynamic style of animation gives the film an impressive aura of sweeping visual movement and immersion, the performances capturing the essence of each actor in various modes while the colour, carols and rousing action make this the best produced version of this story I’ve ever seen, I watch it once a year without fail.

-Nate Hill

Brothers in BLOOD by Kent Hill

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DRY BLOOD . . .  WOW! What a movie – minimal in construction, but ocean-deep in subtext . . . with a type of gleeful depravity.

The dynamic filmmaker duo of Clint Carney (writer/producer/actor/artist/musician) and Kelton Jones (the man who induced GOD to Mel Gibson/director/actor) have conjured with the combination of immense talents – and with the aid of a rich assortment of family and friends – a film that stays with you as the credits roll.

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The film is a tense, slow-boil of a horror picture that, when it explodes, you’re never quite ready. It is a journey into the tormented mind of character gripped by fear and self-loathing which overflows into a gruesome cesspool of vicious insanity, coupled with exciting, delicious, mischievous and frightening portrayals for Messrs Carney and Jones.

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DRY BLOOD has recently completed a very successful festival run, having received an astounding thirty award wins (including many for “Best Picture,” “Best Actor,” “Best Director,” and “Best Writer”), with another twenty-three nominations as well. Highlights from this festival run include “Best Feature Film” and “Best Actor” wins from the Bram Stoker International Film Festival in the UK, as well as the top spot at the Indie Film Playoffs, where DRY BLOOD swept the board (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Writer) in a competition against numerous films from multiple festivals.

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Clint Carney, who wrote, starred, and composed the score, says, “It’s been a long and exciting journey to go from writing the script almost four years ago, to now releasing DRY BLOOD to the world. We are beyond excited to work with Dread Presents. They already have number of great films in their catalog and we couldn’t be happier to be a part of their roster, and to be welcomed into the Dread family.”

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DRY BLOOD is directed by Kelton Jones, written by Clint Carney and starring Clint Carney, Jaymie Valentine, Kelton Jones, Robert V. Galluzzo, Graham Sheldon, Rin Ehlers, and Macy Johnson. 

“Clint and I set out to make our favorite horror movie,” remarks Kelton Jones, the film’s director. “We wanted to make a film that was true to the genre and lived up to the potential of what a great horror film could be. We knew this would be an ambitious task. We hold such a great love for the genre and the masters of cinema who had shaped our childhoods. We felt the best way to honor them was to pour our hearts and souls into making DRY BLOOD. We knew our toughest audience would be ourselves and we endeavored to make a film that we were truly proud of. I feel very grateful to have been able to be a part of such an amazing project, made with love, by people I love. I am beyond thrilled to be releasing this film with Dread Presents.We set out to make our favorite film; my hope is that it becomes your favorite film as well.”

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It’s a great little gem of a horror movie that shows us a glimpse of the evil that lurks within us all, but as a production, it showcases what a group of like-minded, talented, and hungry filmmakers can do when they pool their resources. And it is my pleasure to present them to you now…

KELTON JONES

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Director Kelton Jones’s love of cinema began as a child in the seventies. His mother owned a quaint flower shop that shared a wall with the singular movie theater on the rural main street of Buffalo, Texas. Kelton would spend his afternoons watching and rewatching the afternoon showings as he waited for his mother to finish the day’s work. When the rare feature film would be shot on location in a nearby town, Kelton would find a way to the set so that he could watch from the sidelines, as the filmmakers would spin their magic. Finally, at age 16, Kelton’s first feature in front of the camera gave him the chance to ask the crew if he could join them after he finished his work as an actor. From that very first film, Kelton has permeated the boundaries between actor and filmmaker craftsman. DRY BLOOD is the culmination of a lifetime spent studying film, working on sets, writing scripts, and acting. While on set, it was not unusual to see him in full character wardrobe setting a light, operating a camera or pushing a dolly as he directed the scene. Though this marks his first feature film as director, he has worked every other crew position on set of previous films, ranging from small independent pictures, to huge Hollywood productions. Ultimately, his choice of projects has always been driven by a deep love of the medium, a passion for a great story, and the opportunity to learn and push his own boundaries.

CLINT CARNEY

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Clint Carney is a well-known Los Angeles-based musician, artist, writer, and filmmaker. His musical work first came into the spotlight in 2004 when he released his first official album under the name SYSTEM SYN. To date, SYSTEM SYN has released seven albums and multiple singles, and performed all over the world. Throughout the years, Clint has also served as a keyboard player and back-up vocalist for the bands Imperative Reaction and God Module. As a fine artist, he is best known for his graphic and disturbing oil paintings. His artwork has been shown in galleries and private collections worldwide and has been featured on magazine covers, clothing lines, and musical albums. His work can also be seen in many major motion pictures, television shows, commercials, and music videos. Clint has created iconic imagery through artwork and props for films by such directors as J.J. Abrams (Star Trek Into Darkness), David Fincher (Gone Girl), Oliver Stone (Savages), Wes Craven (Scream 4), Cameron Crowe (We Bought a Zoo), and more. In recent years, Clint has turned his focus toward film making, working on many different projects as a director, producer, screenwriter, editor, and actor.DRY BLOOD marks his first feature as a producer, writer, and actor.  Clint is currently in development on his feature length directorial debut.

Eternity’s Music, Faint and Far: Nate’s Top Ten Time Travel Films

I love a good time travel film. There’s something so purely exciting about opening up your story’s narrative to the possibility, and once you do the potential is almost endless. From the mind stretching nature of paradoxically puzzling storylines to the sheer delight of seeing someone stranded in an era not their own and adjusting to the radical development, it’s a sub-genre that always has me first in line to buy tickets. Here are my personal top ten favourites:

10. Nicholas Meyer’s Time After Time

How’s this for a concept: H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) chases Jack The Ripper (David Warner) around 1800’s London, through a time machine and all over 1970’s San Francisco. This is a brilliant little picture because as sensational as this high concept is, the filmmakers approach the story from a place of character and emotion rather than big style SciFi spectacle or action. McDowell plays Wells as a compassionate, non violent fellow while Warner’s Jack relishes in the ultra-violent nature of the time period. This is also the film where McDowell met Mary Steenburgen and shortly after they were married.

9. Rian Johnson’s Looper

Time travel gets monopolized by the mafia in this stunning futuristic tale that is so specifically high concept it requires a near constant expository voiceover from Joseph Gordon Levitt so we can keep up. Playing an assassin hunting his future self (Bruce Willis), this has a vaguely steam punk feel to it, an uncommonly intelligent and surprisingly emotional script as well as scene stealing work from Emily Blunt, Pierce Gagnon, Paul Dano and a scruffy Jeff Daniels.

8. Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits

A young boy tags along on one hell of a epic adventure with a band of time travelling dwarves on the run from both the Devil (David Warner for the second time on this list, how nice) and God himself (Ralph Richardson). This is an exhilarating, lush example of what can be done with practical effects, from a giant walking out of the ocean to a Lego castle somewhere beyond time and space to a recreation of the Titanic. Not to mention the cast, which includes cameos from Gilliam’s Monty Python troupe regulars as well as Ian Holm, Shelley Duvall, Jim Broadbent and Sean Connery in several sly roles.

7. Robert Zemeckis’s Back To The Future

“Great Scott!!!!” Man, who doesn’t just love this film. It’s practically it’s own visual aesthetic these days, and spawned two fun sequels that couldn’t quite capture the enchantment found here. From scrappy antihero Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) to demented genius Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) this just hits all the right notes and gets a little taboo in the process as we see what would happen if someone ended up in the past and got hit on by their own mom. Yikes!

6. The Spierig Brothers’s Predestination

The less you know about this tantalizing, twisty flick going in the better, except to know that it will fuck your mind into submission with its narrative. Ethan Hawke plays a rogue temporal agent who’s been pursuing a relentless terrorist through time since he can remember, and finally has a plan he think will work to end the chase. Featuring Noah ‘exposition in every other SciFi film’ Taylor and the sensational new talent Sarah Snook, this is not one to miss and you’ll need a few viewings to appreciate it fully .

5. Tony Scott’s Déjà Vu

Scott’s trademark visual aesthetic blesses this kinetic, elliptical story of secret FBI technology used by keen ATF agent Denzel Washington to find and stop a mad bomber (Jim Caviesel) who has already slaughtered hundreds in a riverboat explosion. Adam Goldberg and Val Kilmer are welcome as agency tech experts but the real heart of this film lies in Washington’s relationship to a survivor of the incidents (Paula Patton) and how that plays into the fascinating central premise that doesn’t start *out* as actual time travel but gradually becomes apparent.

4. Gregory Hoblit’s Frequency

A father son relationship is the beating heart of this tale of cop Jim Caviesel (again!) and his firefighter dad Dennis Quaid. They are able to communicate across a thirty year gulf of time and the barriers of death itself via a miraculous HAM radio and some pseudo science involving the aurora borealis. This provides an exciting, involving and heartbreaking dual experience as the son races to find ways to save his dad from several different grim fates and take down a nasty serial killer while he’s at it. This film has aged so well mostly due to the genuine emotion felt between the family including mom Elizabeth Mitchell. The yearning to escape perimeters of linear time and reconnect with passed loved ones is especially prescient for me nowadays days based on my own recent experiences and as such the film holds extra weight now. A classic.

3. James Cameron’s The Terminator

Artificial intelligence works out time travel for itself in Cameron’s ballistic gong show of an action classic that sees freedom fighter Michael Biehn, civilian turned survivor Linda Hamilton, homicidal cyborg Arnold Schwarzenegger and a few hundred short lived cops engaged in a bloody, brutal fight for the future. I picked this over the sequel because the notion of time travel in the saga overall feels freshest and most well worked out here, despite my love for T2 being just a smidge higher on the gauge. Perhaps it’s also because the excellent Biehn makes damn believable work of convincing us that he’s a weary, distraught soldier from a different era, and sells the concept with his beautiful performance.

2. John Maybury’s The Jacket

Hazy, experimental, haunting and atmospheric, this was not a critical hit and it’s chilly vibe is evidence of that, but beneath that there’s a heartfelt story of confused gulf war vet Jack Starks (Adrien Brody) trying to make sense of his shattered psyche while surviving a gnarly mental institution run by a madman with a god complex (Kris Kristofferson). Somewhere along the way he discovers he can jump through time and uses the phenomena to investigate his own death and prevent others from happening. Featuring a low key, emotional turn from Keira Knightley and fantastic supporting work from Daniel Craig, Kelly Lynch and Jennifer Jason Leigh, this is a harrowing psychological thriller that gradually reveals itself as a meditation on life, death and the realms in between.

1. Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys

Gilliam gets two on this list, lucky him! He deserves it though, this is a curious film with unbelievable production design, a deeply felt performance from Bruce Willis and one from Brad Pitt that kind of defies description and erases doubts of his immense talent from anyone’s mind. Willis is a convict sent back in time from a bleak future to discover how and why a deadly virus wiped out most of earth’s population and sent the rest into subterranean caves. It’s not the film you’d expect and the sad, eerie resolution at the end is something that will stick with you for a long time.

Once again thanks for reading! There’s many that didn’t make the list as it’s tough to just pick ten, but I’d love to hear some of your favourite time travel films!

-Nate Hill

City of Dark Angels: Nate’s Top Ten LA Noir films

Los Angeles is a place of bright sunny daydreams, hopeful aspirations of fame and fortune and the ever present hum of the Hollywood industry. It’s a fascinating arena to watch a film noir unfold but between the palms, roaming the hilly outskirts and permeating the cityscape is often a deep, sleazy corruption and sense of danger at every turn, apparent in many films that explore the dark, noirish side of town. Vice cops on the take, starlets on the run from powerfully evil forces, mobsters running the show from behind the scenes and grisly serial murderers that inspire films of their own, it’s all there and more. Here are my top ten in this sexy, beautiful and often hilarious sub-genre.. Oh one more thing! Please keep in mind I’m still a young’in and haven’t seen pretty much any of the old LA crime films dating back to black and white days of the 40’s and 50’s.. one day we’ll get to those, but for now these are my favourite one from a more contemporary scope of vision.. Enjoy!

10. Carl Franklin’s Devil In A Blue Dress

Denzel Washington sniffs out corruption most foul in this sweaty potboiler that includes a mysterious femme fatale (Jennifer Beals), a politician (the late Maury Chaykin) with some disturbing skeletons in his closet and a scary rogue cop (Tom Sizemore). The narrative is reliably serpentine, Denzel pulls off a smooth performance and the atmosphere is all grit, shadows and smoked out jazz clubs.

9. Lee Tamahori’s Mulholland Falls

In this vision of 40’s LA, corruption has to stand up to Nick Nolte’s Max Hoover, an off the book vigilante cop who doles out brutal frontier style justice on gangsters along with his equally ruthless crew (Michael Madsen, Chris Penn and Chazz Palminteri). This one has a bad rep but it’s fantastic, the scope of the central mystery spans to the outskirts of town and includes a mysterious songbird (Jennifer Connolly), a weirdo Air Force colonel (John Malkovich) and more. It’s a positively star studded piece of work with cameos buried like hidden treasure throughout, a spectacular sense of time and place thanks to lavish production design and a hard edged, angry lead performance from Nolte at his most battered and distraught.

8. Shane Black’s The Nice Guys

The buddy comedy gets a royal workout in this balls out pairing between Russell Crowe’s aloof thug for hire and Ryan Gosling’s moronic private eye. The plot here is almost impenetrable but it’s no matter, most of the fun is in the colourful, detailed 1970’s production design and Black’s trademark deadpan dialogue which we get in spades. Ooo, and an icily sexy turn from Kim Basinger as the city’s most corrupt government official, a deliberate callback to another film later on this list.

7. Robert Zemeckis’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Combining elements of classic noir with the zany cartoon aesthetic and using stunning technology to do so, this miracle of a film parades around pretty much every animated character you can think of in a tale of humans living alongside ‘Toons’ in an alternate reality Los Angeles. A trip to Toon Town, the sultry femme fatale Jessica Rabbit (Kathleen Turner) a truly terrifying villain (Christopher Lloyd), an intrepid private eye (Bob Hoskins) and so much more can be found in this timeless, visually dazzling classic.

6. Curtis Hanson’s LA Confidential

A sprawling, diabolical tale of police corruption, this brilliant, galvanizing piece of crime cinema launched the international careers of both Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, both providing solid, brawny tough guy turns. Kim Basinger gives arguably her best performance as a blonde bombshell starlet, Kevin Spacey is splendid as a headline hogging super cop who reeks of self loathing and James Cromwell makes for one terrifying villain as the last guy you want as a Police Commissioner. The real star here is the script, a labyrinthine tale that takes its time imparting revelations and ends with several dark secrets and a bang-up shootout. Oh, and remember Rollo Tomassi.

5. DJ Caruso’s The Salton Sea

Val Kilmer explores the duality of man as both a nocturnal meth-head and a mournful trumpet player in this curious, dreamy and altogether captivating piece of pulp bliss. Populated by eccentric actors like Danny Trejo, R. Lee Ermey, Meat Loaf and Vincent D’Onofrio in a bizarre encore as a drug kingpin called Pooh Bear, this is one of the most distinctive and memorable crime flicks out there. From it’s haunting trumpet solos set against the sunset on the shores of the titular waters to the feverish late night shenanigans of Kilmer and his band of druggie freaks to a slow burn revenge subplot that creeps up from behind, this is a brilliant picture.

4. HBO’s True Detective: Season 2

This might be a controversial pick a) because it’s a season of television and not a feature film and b) because this season isn’t regarded as quality content in some circles. Well… with these lists I envision a world of blogging where film and TV occupy the same realm and also I will defend this incredible story to the grave. Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, Taylor Kitsch and Vince Vaughn play lost souls in a fictional California county who begin to uncover a dense, decades old trend of conspiracy and corruption in their midst. It’s bleak, fatalistic and hyper stylized but the truth of each character and the season’s dark themes overall shine through wonderfully. It’s one of my favourite seasons of television ever produced and simply undeserving of any dislike thrown its way.

3. Ethan & Joel Coen’s The Big Lebowski

What do marmots, nihilists, White Russians, bowling, sarsaparilla, interpretive dance, dirty undies and the sheriff of Malibu have in common? It’ll take a couple of viewings to completely string together the Coen’s farcical cult classic and distill it to a point of cohesion, but is that really the point anyways? This film has sort of spawned a subculture and taken on a life all its own. A purebred masterpiece of screwball elements, abstract dream sequences, stoned out tomfoolery and the bad guy from Roadhouse playing a pornographer who likes to draw dicks… what more do we need?

2. Michael Mann’s Collateral

There’s a point in this film where a lone coyote ambles across the LA interstate while Jamie Foxx’s introverted cab driver and Tom Cruise’s philosophical hitman look on in dreamy bemusement to the tune of Groove Armada’s haunting ‘Hands Of Time’ in the background. It’s striking for a few different reasons.. it serves the plot none other than to highlight both the savage, jungle law nature of Los Angeles and to remind us that the colour of this beast’s coat mirrors that of Cruise’s hair and leaves us to wonder if that is deliberate or just us making conjecture. Mann’s brilliant crime thriller is full of moments like these, subtle instances, eerie coincidences and mood setting interludes that make it something more than just your average cat and mouse thriller, something deep, meditative and primal.

1. Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

As a once aspiring actor I’ve always had this fantasy of becoming casted by accident and catapulted into the LA scene by sheer happenstance, and that’s exactly what happens to hapless Robert Downey Jr in this hilariously meta send up of noir in general. Of course the lucky break isn’t without strings attached, the main one being Val Kilmer’s scene stealing private detective Gay Perry. The two of them bicker their way down a rabbit hole involving an aspiring actress (Michelle Monaghan, luminous), a shady tycoon (Corbin Bernsen) and numerous other lowlifes and weirdos the great city has to offer. Downey and Kilmer win the day with their utterly hilarious and touching characterizations, spurred by Black’s winning dialogue and an overall sense that everyone involved has a deep love for all things Hollywood.

Thanks for reading!! What are some of your favourite LA Noirs?

-Nate Hill

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.

Robert Zemeckis’s Contact

Robert Zemeckis’s Contact is a periodically good film that suffers from over-length, clutter and sideshow syndrome, as in it doesn’t trust itself to stick to the effective core story without throwing in all sorts of other hoo-hah just for for the sheer hell of it. At two and a half hours it feels more stretched than Bilbo did before leaving the Shire, and would have been way better off slicing out a good half hour to streamline. What does work is really captivating though, especially a fantastic Jodie Foster in a performance of striking determination as a woman who never loses the sense of wonder she had as a child, and strives to make contact with anyone that may be out there in the vast universe. Of course her efforts meet budget cuts, skepticism and sneers from the government and fellow colleagues like Tom Skeritt’s prestigious researcher, a sadly one note character whose allegiance turns on a dime when she actually receives a message from a faraway galaxy. Speaking of one note characters, get a load of chest puffing James Woods as an obnoxious NSA prick with all the depth a kitchen sink has to offer. John Hurt fares better as an eccentric billionaire who offers Foster funding and support, as does always terrific David Morse as her father. Matthew McConaughey is sorely miscast as a spiritual man and love interest, William Fichtner is excellent as her loyal colleague and friend, Jena Malone great as nine year old Jodie Foster, while Jake Busey, Angela Bassett and a whole armada of unnecessary tabloid celebrity cameos show up too, leading right up to Bill Clinton, who I’m convinced is an alien himself. The thing is, so much of the film is just commotion and nonsense, geared towards wowing audiences instead of trusting the fact that they’ll be at ease with just Foster’s story, which is the connective tissue. The elaborate and drawn construction of a machine based on alien blueprints, pesky religious extremists, theological fanfare that falls flat and incessant faux tv newsreel footage that buzzes around like unwanted house flies and kills the atmosphere, there’s too much in the way. My favourite scene of the film takes place somewhere deep in the universe Foster has travelled to through a wormhole, in which a mysterious being tells her that “human beings are capable of such beautiful dreams, and such terrible nightmares”, a sentiment that parts the clouds and gives the story clarity, as does her arc, relationship with her father and desire to know what’s out there, who we are as a race and where we came from, and it’s in that wonder that the film finds its strength. Much of the rest is just lame earthbound noise.

-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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