Archive for John Lithgow

War Stars

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 10, 2021 by dcairns

Then There Were Giants is a thing I picked up back when the charity shops were open. I was attracted to it because the director is Joseph Sargent and I like his THE FORBIN PROJECT and THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 a lot. It’s also shot by John A. Alonso (CHINATOWN) and I was certainly intrigued by the casting of John Lithgow, Bob Hoskins and Michael Caine as Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin.

The disc presents itself as a film, but is really a miniseries originally called World War II: When Lions Roared, an equally bad title.

It’s a product I guess of the reckless early days of HD video. It’s extremely cheap-looking. The impulse is to give a history lesson disguised as drama, with famous actors playing famous leaders, with a lot of stock footage to fill in the blanks. Splitscreen is used wildly to link the action occurring in Washington, London and Moscow. I don’t hate splitscreen but it combines with that cheap video look to create something you really can’t watch — like THE HOBBIT in Higher Frame Rate. Well, you can watch it, but only in the same way that you can gnaw your own leg off.

Lithgow is delightful as always but the show’s hagiographic approach, broadly winked at in both titles, robs Franklin D. of some useful humanity. Bob Hoskins tries hard at being Churchillian and does better than you might expect, but not well enough to make you stop seeing and hearing Bob Hoskins, and Michael Caine has never been exactly a man of a thousand voices…

He proves to be a ludicrous Stalin, I regret to say. Since Uncle Joe would have been speaking Russian, doing him in English with a Russian accent is a silly approach, but doing him Cockney would have been, I guess, unacceptable. So he tries his hand at something vaguely Russian, which blends with his undisguisable and familiar tones to summon up the shade of an East End immigrant from Sir Michael’s dim youth, and suggests that it would be lovely to see Caine play such a character, but not Stalin, whose spirit remains stubbornly unchanneled.

Sargent and Caine also did JAWS: THE REVENGE together so maybe their collaboration was jinxed. Maybe if Caine had played “Hoagie” in the JAWS sequel as Stalin, and vice versa, it would have worked better. I assure you it couldn’t be any worse.

The worst of it is, everybody’s THOUGHT about this thing. Stalin is introduced silently, to allow you to get used to the idea. Caine has noted the impassive affect Stalin presents in film footage, and mimics it accurately, his face becoming a mask, as inexpressive as his moustache. Alonso has attempted to subtly differentiate the different continents with lighting. All the good choices look bad and make the bad choices look worse. Blame it on HD, miscasting, and Rio.

The solution for this show would be at the same time easy and impossible — claw back some of the budget by hiring cheaper, less famous actors (maybe Ed Begley Jr and Jan Triska could be promoted). Spend it on celluloid and better sets: don’t waste it on stock footage, unless you have a plan as weird as HOW I WON THE WAR’s to integrate it. Go for stylisation rather than unsuccessfully attempts at authenticity (the House of Commons is basically some tables in this one). I guess they ARE attempting to achieve stylisation with the splitscreen and stock footage, but what they’re achieving is just cheapness.

Play it on empty, black sets.

Stay in closeup as much as possible. Embrace the televisual!

But the makers of this piece probably had to cast big, inappropriate actors in order to get the thing made. After all, I picked up the disc because I recognised the star names.

They Go Boom #2

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 1, 2018 by dcairns

The second film in our accidental Vilmos Zsigmond/Nancy Allen double feature, theone actually shot by Vilmos, was, of course, Brian De Palma’s BLOW OUT, which is one of his NON-Hitchcockian thrillers. It meshes BLOW UP and THE CONVERSATION, Chappaquiddick and the JFK assassination, a few good ideas and some great execution with a lot of stupid ideas and a little stupid execution… as a political thriller it’s missed the bus to Pakulaville, but it does sport a charming and unaffected performance from John Travolta. I like some of his affected perfs too (American Crime Story!) but it’s interesting to see him looking and sounding human. He does have one terrible bit though…

We open with a film-within-a-film —  a slasher movie which we’re meant to find cheesy, yet De Palma can’t resist serving up long, bravura steadicam shots which kind of confuse the issue — parody cheese or real cheese? Also, this is the only bit where Pino Donaggio’s score works at all — it’s a kind of imitation Morricone/Goblin sound, again making the exploitation nonsense seem more distinguished than we’re meant to find it. From here on, EVERY TIME Donaggio crashes the soundtrack, it’s ruinous. I love love love his DON’T LOOK NOW music, but everything he did for BDP is noxious, especially the PSYCHO strings in CARRIE. Come to think of it, CASUALTIES OF WAR is a defensible film until the final scene where Morricone destroys it with syrup. De Palma has great taste in composers but lousy taste in music, it seems.The bit where Travolta is recording wind sounds at night is just gorgeous — ridiculous splitscreen/diopter shots, macros closeups of recording kit, rich sound design and a stunning location. The fatal “accident” outcome of this scene — a car’s tyre explodes and it crashes into the river, drowning a political hopeful and nearly killing his girl-of-the-moment — is the least interesting thing about it, but that’s OK.

From here on in, the film is in big trouble. BDP has written a nitwit role for his wife and, credit where it’s due, Nancy Allen totally commits to playing it to the hilt. She has concussion/shock when we first meet her, but when she recovers she just gets worse. Travolta’s solicitude for her character is endearing, but inexplicable, and this is going to kill the film’s ending.De Palma hasn’t got half enough story to make a feature film, so he pads it out two ways — he inserts an irrelevant flashback of Travolta working as a sound man for the cops, and he shows his baddie, John Lithgow (yay!), killing a couple of women, once as a case of mistaken identity when stalking Allen, once to suggest the action of a serial killer so that when he eventually does kill Allen, the investigators will be confused. Obviously, killing three women is riskier than killing one or two, as Lithgow eventually learns, but we can’t ask for De Palma thrillers to make sense.

The surveillance flashback is a way for De Palma to exorcise the memory of PRINCE OF THE CITY, which he was all set to direct before for some reason getting kicked off it and replaced by Sidney Lumet. But then Lumet got kicked off SCARFACE and DePalma took over that one, so they’re even. (See also: William Goldman was pissed about Bryan Forbes redrafting his work on THE STEPFORD WIVES, but got to doctor Forbes’ script for CHAPLIN in revenge.) The only effect of this backstory is it makes the police reluctant to help, a device BDP had already used for Jennifer Salt’s journalist in SISTERS. At this point, he’s not so much recycling Hitchcock as himself.

The movie further stretches credulity by having Travolta rephotograph frame enlargements of a Zapruder-type film printed in a news magazine, which shows the “accident,” and rephotograph the pics on an animation rostrum, creating a new film which magically syncs with his sound recording (using the crashing car’s impact with the water as sync plop). None of this is technically very plausible, but it’s accomplished largely without words, and is fun to watch.In Mark Cousins’ Scene by Scene interview with Kirk Douglas, the crumbling legend is shown a scene from BDP’s THE FURY, and briefly covers his eyes. Asked about it afterwards, he says “I don’t like my face” — not, I think, an expression of modesty or self-loathing, just an honest response to his director making him look silly in slomo. Similarly, Travolta’s excellent work is marred horribly by 100fps shots of him HUFFING — puffing out his cheeks and expelling air from his lips, making them ripple like thick wet carpets being shaken. A hideous and preposterous sight at what is meant to be the movie’s emotional climax.

But, you know, there are great bits, as there usually are with De Palma.

Beyond that which is known to man…

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 13, 2017 by dcairns

The Twilight Zone episode Nightmare at 20,000 Feet is one I felt I knew really well, except I don’t know that I’d ever watched it all — I’d seen clips and I’d seen George Miller’s reworking of it in TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, but had I actually watched the whole thing?

Putting the two versions side by side is instructive — for once, two versions of the same story make radically different choices and both are successful. Or maybe that’s NOT instructive, maybe that sets up a false idea that you can do whatever you like in TV/movies, it’s all good. It clearly ISN’T all good, but these two episodes are.

Leaving aside the contrast in directorial technique between the hyperkinetic Miller and the more sober Richard Donner (plus whoever replaced him after he was fired for falling behind schedule), it’s fascinating how different the main character is in each story, even though Richard Matheson scripted both.

In both versions, a passenger on a plane sees a demonic figure on the wing of a plane, tampering with the engine, and can’t get anyone else to believe him.

In the original, the hero is fresh from a six-month stay in a sanatorium after a nervous breakdown that struck during a plane flight. Now his wife is taking him home.

In the Miller film version, the lead character an apparently stable and sober professor, but he’s travelling alone.

The first version benefits from the suspicion that our man may be losing his marbles all over again — how else to explain the fact that nobody else ever sees the “gremlin” (styled by make-up maestro William Tuttle very much along the lines of his DR LAO yeti)? I don’t know how many 1963 audiences thought that way, though — after all, WE see the creature. The hero’s past instability is probably more a device to make us sympathetic, and to account for his wife not believing him.

(One thing where the remake is measurably superior is the creature, created, if I read the credits aright, by Craig Reardon and Michael McCracken. By not being in a kind of furry romper suit, it’s allowed to look properly WET, which adds lustre and ick to its rubbery visage. Maybe the artist’s personality always comes through in monsters: Tuttle beasts always have a tragic look, whereas Reardon’s look… naughty?)

In the remake, the hero starts stable but rapidly and amusingly unravels, and the fact that he’s alone means he can only turn to strangers for support.

Man 1 is William Shatner, man 2 is John Lithgow. One thing that works is that both are sort of cast against type — Shatner being less associated with neurotic parts, Lithgow never being cast as ordinary Joes. A more obvious and less interesting approach would be to time-travel Lithgow back to ’63 and rejuvenate Shatner in ’83.

Shatner’s leading man attributes really work in his favour, since he LOOKS manly and self-reliant. Shatner really conveys his humiliation at having shown weakness. Of course, he gets his manhood back by firing a gun in the end, which seems quite 1963. The remake takes a more ironic view of everything, and though the gun is instrumental in stopping the gremlin, it takes the time to grab our hero’s face and wag a finger at him (while Jerry Goldsmith’s score riffs on Danse Macabre).

But though the Donner-Shatner episode may be less progressive, what bowled me over is its sheer effectiveness — right from the start I felt strong tension, the combination of my own slight fear of flying, the excitement of the building storm, Shatner’s nervy, sweaty perf. The casual sauntering gait of the ludicrous shaggy beast on the left wing of the jet is amusing but just right, somehow — the important quality is not a convincing mime of clinging on in spite of the impossible air currents, but a sense that the nameless thingy feels it has a perfect right to be there.

(The wing man is played by Burt Lancaster’s former wingman, in THE CRIMSON PIRATE and THE FLAME AND THE ARROW, diminutive acrobat Nick Cravat, who didn’t really need a full mask…)

Having creeped us out with the slow approach, the gremlin is then well-placed — after a prolonged, hammy but genuinely tense build-up by Shatner, steeling himself endlessly — to make a shock appearance in close-up, nose pressed against the glass. And he has the kind of nose that always looks as if it’s pressed against glass anyway.

The wrap-up is more satisfying (and benign) in the TV version, and really, after being put through the ringer like that, we deserve a happy ending, don’t we?

On a related note ~