It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)

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Nobody is flying the plane!  During a massive traffic jam in California caused by reckless  ex-convict (following a tuna factory robbery 15 years earlier) Smiler Grogan (Jimmy Durante), he crashes his car off twisting, mountainous State Highway 74 near Palm Desert. Five motorists stop to help him: dentist Melville Crump (Sid Caesar) and his wife Monica (Edie Adams); furniture mover Lennie Pike (Jonathan Winters); two guys on their way to Las Vegas, Ding Bell (Mickey Rooney) and Benjy Benjamin (Buddy Hackett); and Fresno entrepreneur J. Russell Finch (Milton Berle), his wife Emmeline (Dorothy Provine) and his loud mother-in-law Mrs Marcus (Ethel Merman). Just before he dies kicking a bucket, Grogan tells the men about $350,000 buried in Santa Rosita State Park near the border with Mexico under “… a big W”. The motorists set out across California to find the fortune, unaware that Captain T.G. Culpeper, Chief of Detectives of the Santa Rosita Police Department, has been patiently working on the Smiler Grogan case for years, hoping to someday solve it and retire. When he learns of the crash, he suspects Grogan may have tipped off the passersby, so he has them tracked by various police units. His suspicions are confirmed by their nutty behaviour but he may have ulterior motives for retrieving the loot  …  It’s a nice dream.  Lasted almost five minutes.  Earnest producer/director Stanley Kramer’s film may not in fact be the comedy to end all comedies as it was billed but it has most of the mid-century movie world’s best comic performers (and more besides) involved in incredibly engineered slapstick sequences, marvellously sustained as a lengthy madcap satirical farce, with some of the best colour cinematography you will ever see:  those reds and yellows and blues pop perfectly off the screen in staggering synchrony thanks to astonishing work by Ernest Laszlo. Written by William Rose and Tania Rose, it’s an epic ensemble endeavour with support and guest bits from a vast variety of mostly TV stars like Phil Silvers, Peter Falk, Jerry Lewis, Dick Shawn, Andy Devine, The Three Stooges, Edward Everett Horton and the great Buster Keaton, with Zasu Pitts in her final film,  and some lively dancing by Barrie Chase (screenwriter Borden Chase’s daughter and Robert Towne’s onetime girlfriend, previously married to Hollywood hairdresser Gene Shacove and therefore the inspiration for Shampoo!). We love Terry-Thomas (in a role intended for Peter Sellers, who asked for too much money – ironically) and his comments here about American obsessions provide the caustic witticisms that balance the narrative and characters’ unstoppable drive for money.  Sid Caesar inherited the role intended for the fabulous Ernie Kovacs following his death in a car crash driving home from Milton Berle’s baby shower (again, the irony…). A beautifully constructed gem that shows off California in precisely the way you would wish and after commencing with someone kicking the bucket in a cliffhanger opening, ends on an entirely apposite banana skin. Watching these legendary performers trying to steal scenes is a kick:  make America funny again! Beautifully restored.  Don’t call me baby

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Can You Ever Forgive Me?

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I was always afraid of being found out. I can’t specifically say that I regret my actions. I don’t. In New York City 1991 biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) is struggling financially and her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) can’t get her an advance for a book about Fanny Brice so she sells off a treasured possession – a letter to her from Katharine Hepburn – to bookseller Anna (Dolly Wells).  She hatches a scheme to forge letters by famous writers and sell them to bookstores and collectors. When the dealers start to catch on and she is tipped off about being blacklisted, Lee recruits an old sometime acquaintance, drug dealer Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) to help her continue her self-destructive cycle of trickery and deceit but then the FBI move in You can be an asshole if you’re famous. You can’t be unknown and be such a bitch, Lee. This is the biography of a biographer (from Israel’s own autobiography…) so you can draw out many ideas and inferences about life imitating art, writers imitating genius, literary theft on a large or small scale.  Writing in their subject’s voice is just one of the outcomes of one writer inhabiting another writer’s life.  I thoroughly enjoyed writing these letters, living in the world of Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward, pretending I was something I am not. In other words (as it were) it is a logical extrapolation that a writer of biographical works should on some level be themselves a liberator of other people’s ideas. You might say, it’s their job.  Enough of the meta fiction. The screenplay is by the marvellous Nicole Holofcener (with Jeff Whitty) who is no mean director herself and yes, she was supposed to helm this. So what happened? Apparently Julianne Moore and Holofcener had ‘creative differences’ and both of them dropped out – both of them! But were those differences with each other?! Apparently Moore was fired by Holofcener. Something about wanting to wear a fat suit and a prosthetic nose. And so, six days before production it all stopped. And Sam Rockwell who was due to play Hock disappeared somewhere along the line. Then Marielle Heller was deployed on directing duties.  Ben Falcone, McCarthy’s husband, stayed in the cast (as Alan Schmidt) and McCarthy joined. And her performance is towering.  I’m a 51-year-old who likes cats better than people. She’s a lonely alcoholic middle-aged mess and utterly believable as the writer on the outs, a kind of midlife crisis on acid with huge money problems and lacking the funds to even secure veterinary assistance to care for Jersey her beloved cat. But somehow she’s a compelling, likeable figure, something real amid the poseurs (like Tom Clancy, lampooned here. Him and his $3,000,000 advance). Irony is writ large. She imitates Bette Davis in The Little Foxes on TV, watching on her couch with Jersey. Then the TV set becomes a light box to improve the fake signatures. Grant and she make a fine double act – he’s the louche lounge lizard à la Withnail (referenced here) to her fiercely bedraggled Lesbian, conniving to her inventive. They are both prone to a bit of larceny. His double betrayal is horrible, his death weirdly apposite. It’s a beautifully constructed odd couple tragicomedy and looks and feels like the real thing – entirely without sentiment, appropriately, considering that it is all about life in the literary margins, a kind of palimpsest of an overachiever who’s no longer marketable as herself. It all happens as Manhattan alters from a kind of bohemian haven into impossibly uninhabitable real estate. Really quite wonderful. I was hiding behind these people, their names. Because if I’d actually put myself out there, done my own work, then I would be opening myself up to criticism. And I’m too much of a coward for all of that  MM#2400

Liz & Dick (2012) (TVM)

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He treated me like a queen and I loved his voice. God how I loved his voice.  Anyone who knows anything about Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton knows one thing above all else – they were never called Liz and Dick. Nobody would have dared. That aside, this is a gloriously kitschy exercise in flashback framed by an interview with them (that never happened in reality and culled from the many letters and notes Burton wrote to Taylor) in which they discuss their fatal attraction on the set of Cleopatra in 1962 , their subsequent adulterous relationship despite having children in their respective marriages, living together and making The VIPs and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf  (Taylor insisted), tricky divorces, their wedding, their peripatetic lifestyle and decision to live on a boat because of the living expenses of two families travelling from set to set and regular house moves in the middle of a never-ending international paparazzi hunt.  It’s all here, with the immensely welcome if odd presence of the great Theresa Russell as Taylor’s mother Sara. Surely some mistake. Punctuated by fabulous jewellery, newspaper headlines, make-ups and bust-ups, heavy drinking, Taylor’s weight gain, Burton’s jealousy of her Academy Awards, the need to make films to solve financial problems and finally Burton’s alleged affair with Nathalie Delon which drove Taylor to a supposed assignation with Aristotle Onassis – at the centre of the chaos and tantrums is a couple whose sexual attraction to one another is overwhelming and quite incomprehensible to other people (a truism for most couples – the only thing these icons ever shared with mere mortals). What we have outside of the relationship is the nature of celebrity as it simply didn’t exist prior to this scandalous duo whose newsworthy antics even attracted the ire of the Vatican (‘erotic vagrancy’). Hello Lumpy! Lohan was roundly criticised for her portrayal and it’s true she doesn’t actually sound, look or move like Taylor but boy does she revel in the lines, like, Elizabeth wants to play. Strangely, she convinces more as the older Taylor with the frightwig and makeup. Bowler is adequate as Burton (even without the disproportionately large head) and underplays him quite well, but what is essential is what surrounds them – glamour, beauty, incredible locations. They literally had a dream of a life. What is clear in this evocation of the Battling Burtons is their need for constant reassurance and the one-upmanship resulting from their shared drive to always do better to keep on an even keel. I will love you even if you get as fat as a hippo. Burton’s descent into full-blown alcoholism upon the death of his brother Ifor (David Hunt) following a desperate fall in their home in Switzerland is the pivot to the real conclusion of the famous relationship, a second short-lived marriage following one of Taylor’s serious illnesses notwithstanding. There are a lot of books about them but if you want to see something as crazy, turbulent and tragic as they seem to have been, watch this. It’s wonderfully made, completely daft and utterly compelling. Written by Christopher Monger and directed by Lloyd Kramer. I want more

 

Rocketman (2019)

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You have to kill the person you were meant to be in order to become the person you want to be. A troubled Elton John (Taron Egerton) flounces offstage in full costume to attend an Alcoholics’ Anonymous meeting in 1990 to finally tackle his prodigious appetite for drink, drugs, sex, food and shopping. We revisit his life in flashbacks to his lonely childhood in post-war suburban Middlesex as Reggie Dwight with a desperately mismatched mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) and a grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones) who encourages the young prodigy. He plays with a band called Bluesology supporting visiting US acts and gets picked up by A&R man Ray Williams (Charlie Rowe) to write for producer Dick James (Stephen Graham) and is teamed with teenage lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) whose words spark an astonishing array of songs in the young composer. They are sent to premiere the renamed ‘Elton John’ to perform at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles where he literally takes off overnight but the pressures of performing and an encounter with personal manager John Reid (Richard Madden) leads to a life of unhappiness and addiction … Do you know how disappointing it is to be your mother? The Elton John biopic that has been in the work for decades finally hits the ground running trailing tantrums, tiaras and all the sequinned flamboyance that the man has on his rider. It’s more than a jukebox musical – it’s a freewheeling fantasy that uses some of the best songs John and Taupin have written to explore the astronomical fame that exploded when they went to the US as soon as they created Your Song. Lee Hall’s script is sometimes too on the nose (if you show you don’t also tell, natch) but for the most part director Dexter Fletcher’s approach is wildly inventive, epic and oddly appropriate even when the time-travelling back and forth is anachronistic in terms of the songs themselves so it might confuse those expecting a more logical biography. It bucks convention and Fletcher has clearly watched the oeuvre of Ken Russell (appropriately enough considering John’s role in Tommy, referenced here), understanding fundamentally the possibilities of narrative playfulness, the sung-through sub-genre and of course the necessities of the backstage form. As brilliantly evoked as the concerts are, the high points take place in a livingroom in Pinner. The monstrousness of his parents is to the fore even if we don’t get into the horrors of his mother hiring an Elton John tribute act to appear at her 90th birthday party since the 1990 addiction therapy is as far as it goes chronologically.  The children who play the young Reggie should get a big shoutout because they are quite extraordinary – Matthew Illesley and especially Kit Connor – and there is a nice touch for Irish viewers with The Stripes (the band that got away from John’s record company and split last year, sob) appearing as members of Bluesology, the group he had before his breakthrough. Egerton lacks the nuance for tragedy but he has some fantastic moments principally as the beloved stage performer:  perhaps that’s enough – those lows are sequenced well in montages and anything resembling the sordid reality might be too tough for this high wire act to bear. Dramatically though it’s the relationships John has with Taupin and his grandmother that make the emotions land. Tate Donovan revels in his outrageousness as Doug Weston, the proprietor of LA’s Troubadour;  while Madden is a horror as the man who took John to the cleaners and stole his heart. Quite the morality tale in terms of his excesses (we never get to see him actually enjoy all those drugs) but the sheer wit and imagination on display is peculiarly apt when it comes to amplifying the content of all those great songs. A delightful evening at the cinema that simply bursts with all the zest a musical can muster and much better than Fletcher’s job on Bohemian Rhapsody but somehow it’s a tad less enjoyable. Go figure. Oh, just write the fucking songs, Bernie. Let me handle the rest!

El Dorado (1966)

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Too mad to be scared and too sick to be worried about it.  Heartless tycoon Bart Jason (Edward Asner) hires a group of thugs to force the MacDonald family out of El Dorado so he can claim their land. J.P. Harrah (Robert Mitchum) the town’s sheriff, is too deep in the throes of alcoholism to help the family. When Harrah’s friend, noble elder gunfighter Cole Thorton (John Wayne), learns of the predicament, he travels to El Dorado with his upstart friend young gambler Mississippi (James Caan), to help Harrah clean up in time for a shootout against Jason’s men and hole up in the local jail with the assistance of an ageing Indian Bull Harris (Arthur Hunnicutt) and the regular attendance of local medic Miller (Paul Fix)You made better sense when you were drinking. People forget that part of producer/director Howard Hawks’ uniqueness in the American canon is just that – he was American. So his choice of subjects and his treatment of them is particular to him but also emblematic of the State of the Union itself. His re-union with screenwriter Leigh Brackett (and what a thrill it was to discover this gifted author was a woman!) adapting Harry Brown’s 1960 novel The Stars in Their Courses years after their first collaboration on The Big Sleep (they also did Rio Bravo and Hatari!) sees him at seemingly his most relaxed in a smoothly entertaining meditation on ageing, friendship, loyalty and good old-fashioned decency, detonating notions of heroism with ideas of fellowship and community. With all that, there are two shots worthy of a Hitchcock suspenser; a great showcase for both up and coming Caan and some mighty women (Michele Carey as ‘Joey’ MacDonald, Charlene Holt as the saloon owner Maudie whom both Thornton and Harrah love); and a demonstration that there is nothing like great star performances to make a good screenplay work. Wayne even plays a character named after his favourite Fordian hero and falls in a door during the climactic shootout, done for. Would that we had their like nowadays. Biker movie fans will enjoy seeing Adam Roarke as one of the MacDonald brothers. With a score by Nelson Riddle and wonderful title paintings by Olaf Wieghorst (who appears as Swede Larsen) this is so perfect you’ll believe you’ve downed a fine wine. You’re too good to give a chance to

Hotel Artemis (2018)

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No killing the other patients – rule number one.  How many times do I gotta say it?  Rioting rocks a dystopic drought-ridden Los Angeles in 2028 and disgruntled thieves Waikiki/Sherman (Sterling K. Moss) and Lev (Brian Tyree Henry) make their way  following a heist to Hotel Artemis – a 13-storey, members-only hospital for criminals run by ageing Nurse/Jean Davis (Jodie Foster) a no-nonsense, hard-drinking, high-tech healer who already has her hands full with a French assassin Nice (Sofia Boutella) who’s injured herself to gain entry to carry out a job for Detroit; Acapulco (Charlie Day) an obnoxious arms dealer; when an injured cop Morgan (Jenny Slate) who knew Jean’s late son begs for help. As the violence continues outside, the Nurse must decide whether to break her own rules as she gets the call that Malibu Mob boss the Wolf King (Jeff Goldblum) is on his way in for treatment in the care of his son and heir Crosby (Zachary Quinto) Twenty years we’ve never let anyone in who wasn’t a member. Now you wanna let in a cop? Decisions decisions! Harder than ever to make in the dark as the power keeps cutting out and the production keeps the lighting budget low to try and highlight Foster’s performance as a crew of uglies decide how to best kill each other while she discovers the truth behind her son’s OD death. A kind of pointless vision of future shock since it’s already here and John Carpenter and Ridley Scott did it all thirty-five years ago. All that’s new is Dave Bautista minus his usual superhero makeup as Nurse’s sidekick. If you want to see Father John Misty (who wrote the song Gilded Cage for the movie) you had better bring a torch. Written and directed by Drew Pearce and produced by the sons of John le Carré, if you can believe it. Cops kill poor people, poor people kill cops. Circle of life

Under the Volcano (1984)

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He on whose heart the dust of Mexico has lain, will find no peace in any other land. A day in the life of a man in 1938. Geoffrey Firmin (Albert Finney) is an alcoholic former British consul living in Quauhnahuac, a small Mexican town. As the local Day of the Dead celebration gets underway, Geoffrey drowns himself in the bottle, having cut himself off from his family, friends and job. When he goes missing, his ex-wife, actress Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset), who has returned from the US in the hopes of resurrecting their relationship, convinces his half-brother Hugh (Anthony Andrews) to conduct a last-ditch search for him, hoping that Hugh might be able to rescue her self-destructing husband… How, unless you drink as I do, can you hope to understand the beauty of an old Indian woman playing dominoes with a chicken? Adapted by Guy Gallo (his only screenplay to date) from Malcolm Lowry’s 1947 masterpiece, this late John Huston film (and he rejected over 20 versions of the screenplay over the decades) is a powerhouse film: brilliantly interpreted by everyone concerned. Reunited with his director following Annie, Finney offers one of his great performances, committed and charismatic, as the dissolute man who nonetheless has a core of humanity. Huston said of it, I think it’s the finest performance I have ever witnessed, let alone directed.  Huston had lived in Puerto Vallarta for a period and shot The Night of the Iguana there as well of course as having made one of his other films in Mexico – maybe his best ever, full stop – The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Clearly the country brought something special to his aesthetic – and vice versa. There is nothing more real than magic. Here the various elements churn and dissect a life, symbolised in the wonderful titles sequence. It’s marvellous to see Katy Jurado as Senora Gregoria, a key supporting character in this drama that constantly threatens us with being on the brink of something – death? Truth? War? It was originally written by Lowry in 1936 but underwent many rewrites. It’s so special it’s the subject of two documentaries including the Oscar-nominated Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry, in which Lowry’s words are read by Richard Burton, who Huston had hoped to cast as the lead right after they shot Iguana. Quite, quite the film then, with a legacy all its own. Hell is my natural habitat

That Hamilton Woman (1941)

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Aka Lady Hamilton/The Enchantress.  They told us of your victories but not of the price you paid!  When small-town courtesan Emma Hart (Vivien Leigh) finds herself married off by her indebted uncle to British Ambassador to Naples, elderly widower Sir William Hamilton (Alan Mowbray), her world is turned upside down. Just as Emma is finally settling into her new life as Lady Hamilton, she meets British naval hero Horatio Nelson (Laurence Olivier) who vociferously opposes Napoleon’s growing empire and the two fall madly in love. However, their forbidden romance is soon threatened by the ever-growing shadow of the Napoleonic Wars... What a century it’s been: Marlborough rode to war, and Washington crossed the Delaware. Louis XVI, and Marie Antoinette. The last of the Stuarts. Peter the Great. Voltaire. Clive of India. Bonaparte. The framing story of this famous propaganda work created by producer/directorAlexander Korda is that of Emma Hamilton ensconced in debtor’s prison in France, regaling her incredulous fellow prisoners with her incredible life story and her grand romance. That this involved once notorious real-life lovers, then married couple, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier (reunited by Korda from Fire Over England), must have been catnip to audiences. Indeed the film’s tagline boasted,  The Year’s Most Exciting Team of Screen Lovers! Its role in attracting the US into a total war nobody wanted is debatable. In fact Korda was accused of espionage, a charge he only escaped because his hearing coincided with Pearl Harbour:  special relationship?! There are always men, who for the sake of their insane ambition, want to destroy what other people build. The screenplay by Walter Reisch and R.C. Sheriff (with two of Nelson’s speeches contributed by Winston Churchill) condenses a lot of historical material and Olivier is perhaps a bit too slow but this is compensated for with the range of emotions Leigh explores to charismatic effect. Shot in the US, it looks gorgeous courtesy of Rudolph Maté’s intricate cinematography and the sumptuous design by Vincent Korda and Lyle Wheeler, with beautiful costuming by René Hubert,  while the romantic score is composed by Miklós Rózsa. There is no ‘then’. There is no ‘after’

The French Connection (1971)

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You still picking your feet in Poughkeepsie? When wealthy Marseilles heroin smuggler Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) has an undercover cop murdered by hitman Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi) he reveals his plans to smuggle $32 million worth of pure heroin into the United States by hiding it in the car of his friend, French TV personality Henri Devereaux, who is traveling to New York by ship. In NYC narcotics detectives Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy ‘Cloudy’ Russo (Roy Scheider) are on undercover stakeout in Brooklyn. After seeing a drug transaction take place in a bar, Cloudy goes in to make an arrest. After a short pursuit, the detectives interrogate the man, who reveals his drug connection and the biggest drug bust in American history looms … All right, Popeye’s here! Get your hands on your heads, get off the bar, and get on the wall!  What an extraordinary film this is:  a display of a singular, muscular, arresting, narrative vision with masterful control and seemingly effortless storytelling. It’s a version of a true early 1960s crime but bears none of the burdens of historicism. The shifting camerawork, changing locales, tone-perfect performances and the obsessive pursuit of an imperturbable French crime kingpin chime perfectly with director William Friedkin’s realistic style. The chase involving the 1971 Pontiac Le Mans and the elevated train is one of the most famous action scenes in film history, undercranked by the ingenious cinematographer Owen Roizman to make everything look faster. Apparently, Friedkin was goaded into doing it by Howard Hawks, who said, Make a good chase. Make one better than anyone’s done.  Hackman is peerless as the alcoholic bigot with a bee in his bonnet but Rey and Scheider are fantastic too and Tony Lo Bianco as Sal, the NYC connection, gets a great, physical showcase. The jagged jazz score by the preternaturally gifted Don Ellis is one of the great film soundtracks and Jimmy Webb wrote an original song performed by The Three Degrees at the Copacabana. A breathtaking film, complex, violent and well-managed, a specific articulation of the urban landscape told in an economical 99 minutes, it won a slew of Oscars – for editor Gerald B. Greenberg, Hackman’s performance, Best Film, Best Director and writer Ernest Tidyman who adapted the book by Robin Moore. Stunning. That son of a bitch is here. I saw him. I’m gonna get him

 

An Actor Prepares (2018)

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Maybe it would be a good idea to do some bonding. When he suffers a heart attack, hard-living movie actor Atticus Smith (Jeremy Irons) is forced to travel across the United States to his favourite child Annabel’s (Mamie Gummer) wedding with his estranged son Adam (Jack Huston) as he’s not fit to fly before cardiac surgery. Adam is a failing film lecturer and documentary maker whose painfully sincere work is sporadic and his health is problematic hence his frequent visits to a urologist. Girlfriend Clemmie (Megalyn Echikunwoke) is in London finishing up a project and bugging him on the phone. Atticus’ studio get a Hell’s Angel to take the pair across the country in an RV to ensure he’ll be in shape for their next movie but Atticus soon dispatches the guy. The father and son go to their holiday cabin, load up his vintage car and take off, meeting friends new and old along the way, including a former lover (Colby Minifie) of Atticus who’s now married to a preacher (Frankie Faison) … I’m a documentarian. I make documentaries about women in film. This starts out in rather clichéd fashion with a trajectory somehow familiar from Absolutely Fabulous but with balls (literally and metaphorically, since one cataclysm has to do with potential testicular cancer, another with baseball). No observation is too trite, nothing too on the nose for this narrative but some lines are pretty funny and hit home:  Live in the world not in your bloody head all the time. The father-son rivalry extends from penis envy (Atticus is a little too proud of his pecker) back to 15 years earlier to the divorce when Adam gave evidence against his father in court. Huston doesn’t have too many colours in his acting palette so for the most part Irons eats up every scene, with relish. When he watches contemporary porn on Adam’s iPad he comments, Too clean. This is like basketball.  It’s quite funny to see him working on his next part (God) while his son just keeps driving. Adam finally gets a turning point after some extraordinarily irritating phonecalls with his girlfriend Clemmie (pronounced Clammie, maybe pointedly) and even quotes one of his father’s roles but never shaves what Atticus calls his Osama bin Laden nutball beard, sadly. Occasionally however his character is permitted to surprise Atticus, who is named perhaps for Finch, to remind us that deep down he’s probably an okay guy despite his penchant for whisky and women and his tales of living it large with Richard Harris. Like all road movies, this is an emotional journey (yawn) but it gets better as it goes along and – ta da! – gets there in the end. There are nice small roles for Matthew Modine and Will Patton but this is all about Irons. Written by director Steve Clark and Thomas Moffett. The studio gives me stuntman work. Do you have any fucking idea how much that pays in residuals?