Archive for John Travolta

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.

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Damn You, Television!

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , on March 10, 2016 by dcairns

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Now we’re hooked on American Crime Story, AND we have a new series of Better Call Saul to contend with.

Sensibly diverging from the American Horror Story format, ACS benefits from a tighter focus — nothing is permitted which doesn’t further the basic story of the OJ Simpson trial, though as judge and jury discovered to their cost, that means that almost anything happening in twentieth century America can be ruled relevant. Even the future is included, since head writers Larry Karaszewski & Scott Alexander manage to shoehorn the Kardashian family in on the pretext that their dad was OJ’s friends and one of his lawyers. The kids’ glee at their fathers’ meaningless and distressing fame is either the Secret Origin of the Kardashian Family — how they learned the wrong lessons at a damagingly early age, or else it’s proof that the tendency to regard celebrity as equivalent to sainthood was already engendered. O.J.’s acquittal for murdering their mother’s friend would thus seem like ultimate proof of this value system, so that Kim K. can this week dismiss a thoughtful comment by Chloe Grace Moretz with the devastating rejoinder “nobody has heard of you.”

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It’s interesting to me how the show has seamlessly maintained a high standard of writing even when the head writers hand over duties to the B-team (The Knick was also good at this), though I do find the direction slightly more variable. Ryan Murphy favours propulsion, his vigorous camera movements rushing the story onwards. Anthony Hemingway, known for The Wire and whose RED TAILS I thought was really terrible, has a tendency towards slightly meaningless show-off shots, but I found by his second episode I was even enjoying these, The contrast in style between this and his feature film suggests he was really being heavily sat on by George Lucas and his cohorts. And then John Singleton contributes one episode executed in a slick, almost classical manner that looks admirably restrained by comparison.

The idea of cinematic TV is interesting — I wonder if any of these guys would find a natural home on the big screen. Singleton has had the most distinguished career, but it’s been very erratic. The tighter discipline of TV, where the director is more like a studio employee in the old days, choices confined to guiding the actors and placing the camera, may suit such filmmakers better than a medium where they’d be responsible for everything. Although not having George Lucas sitting on you must help too.

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The ensemble here is too good to pick favourites. John Travolta has taken some flack for his expressionist perf, and for looking “like haunted spam,” but I find his choices both bold and amusing. It’s true, he doesn’t quite look human anymore, and maybe he’s adapted to looking like an artfully-chewed pencil eraser by developing a manner of acting — all precise, prissy gestures and words bitten off delicately like umbilici — to suit his new, biomechanical instrument. We will see more of such post-human performances as the twenty-first century nears its apocalyptic climax, an event which will no doubt be documented by American Crime Story around about season 5.

The Influence of Anxiety

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 21, 2015 by dcairns

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Fiona was WILDLY enthusiastic about Richard Ayoade’s THE DOUBLE. I wasn’t quite sure if I was or not. I really like his first feature, SUBMARINE. But, just as the overt HAROLD AND MAUDE stylistic references in that film, while appropriate, don’t really help it secure its own standalone identity, the complex filmography of influences that make up THE DOUBLE sometimes made it seem to me like it was Frankenstein’s quilt or something.

BRAZIL hangs heavy over the film, although Ayoade and his team haven’t really borrowed anything specific — office cubicles are now such a universal workplace phenomenon as to be inescapable. The dystopian vision of bureaucracy comes straight from Dostoevsky’s literary source, and the only point of connection is that Ayoade and co-writer Avi Korine have chosen to set their film neither in 19th century Russia nor modern Britain, but in a non-geographic fantasy conurbation mingling British and American (and Australian) accents, with a muted colour palette and a lot of retro stylings. Once you accept this similarity of approach, you won’t find many particular points of connection.

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The movie manages to fold both Wilder’s THE APARTMENT and Polanski’s THE TENANT into its narrative. The titles of those films suggest an affinity, but they are in fact pretty different. The latter choice is intriguing because Polanski tried to adapt THE DOUBLE himself, only for star John Travolta to pull out over qualms about nudity — Steve Martin quickly stepped in as a replacement, at which point leading lady Isabelle Adjani (who was also in THE TENANT) fled, and the whole house of cards collapsed. Ayoade definitely isn’t setting out to make the film Polanski would have aimed for, but a recurring death leap, viewed from an opposing window, seems to have been transplanted almost intact from Polanski.

There’s business with an apartment key used to facilitate sexual liaisons — this is the APARTMENT connection. Ironic given Billy Wilder’s crude put-down — asked if he was going to see ROSEMARY’S BABY, he replied, “I wouldn’t touch it with a five-foot Pole.”

In resolving the story, a bit of FIGHT CLUB seems to have crept in — not anything specific, just a sense of “How can we make this dark yet somehow upbeat?”

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Fiona howled at this shot, though: “It’s his signature image — a woman staring balefully over food! It gets me every time!”

The casting is great, if possibly too on-the-nose? Jesse Eisenberg can embody a hapless nerd in his sleep, after all. It’s when he shows up as his nasty doppelganger that the film lifts off, with a new kind of energy powering it. The horror of the completely confident man. The trouble is, this is a Zuckerberg cut in two, so both the lovelorn nebbish and the blank-eyed sociopath are slightly familiar perfs.

Mia Wasiskowski can do no wrong. It’s lovely seeing Craig Roberts and Yasmin Page (and indeed Noah Taylor), the stars of SUBMARINE again. Wallace Shawn is a bit typecast, James Fox is a big tease, it’s interesting seeing comedy people Chris Morris and Tim Key, though there’s the risk of Guest Star Syndrome setting in. But both justify their appearances by being remarkable. And Cathy Moriarty!

The Japanese pop songs are the one rogue element — you can’t pin down any specific reference that’s being made — they just add to the alien atmosphere and provide something jaunty amid the bleakness. I liked them all and would like to own the soundtrack.

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Also, the film is brilliantly cut. The images sizzle against one another. This isn’t just a technical compliment, as in, “The editor has a good sense of timing/drama/comedy.” The shots are designed beautifully so that they smack together in a way that feels striking and genuinely original. Based on this alone, I’m prepared to call Ayoade one of our best and most exciting filmmakers, even if I can’t quite decide what I think of this film, a hesitation that would surely disqualify me from broadsheet film reviewing (although I get the impression some of those guys didn’t know what to make of THE DOUBLE either).

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Sidenote: I recently asked Richard Ayoade to be in a film I plan to make and he was nice, considered it, and then respectfully declined. Now his agency is helping us find an alternative. Am I resentful of Ayoade for spurning me? Am I grateful to him for considering me? Which version of Jesse Eisenberg am I behaving like? Who am I?