Grace Zabriskie

The Big Easy (1986, Jim McBride)

There’s not much script structure like The Big Easy’s script structure. It’s an exceptionally constructed screenplay. The film’s great, but it all hinges on how Daniel Petrie Jr.’s script works. As previously introduced (whether onscreen or off) come back into the film, expanding on their original impression, as the relationship–okay, hold on, I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Big Easy is about assistant district attorney Ellen Barkin trying to ferret out some bad cops. Possible bad cop Dennis Quaid is on hand not just to investigate–and hopefully dissuade Barkin about her impression of the New Orleans Police Department–but also to romance her. Romancing her quickly turns into this whirlwind love affair, with lots of sex (director McBride, cinematographer Affonso Beato, and editor Mia Goldman compose a wicked sex scene–no male gaze until after it’s all over), lots of working together (they’re supposed to be on the same side), and lots of general chemistry. The first act of Big Easy establishes Quaid and Barkin as a wonderful screen pairing.

Shame about Quaid maybe being a dirty cop, which then sends the narrative into an entirely different direction. But Petrie works so many plots and subplots in the film, it’s not until the third act everything is established. Barkin spent the first act as protagonist, with that focus moving more to Quaid (who always shared it to some degree), but in the third act, Petrie and McBride have ground situation revelations in store.

The other thing about the script is how quick it all moves. The film’s present action is maybe a couple weeks… maybe. There’s always time to relax though–as Quaid (and the title) reminds everyone, it’s The Big Easy, after all. McBride and Beato love the New Orleans locations, with Barkin’s recent transplant seeing everything fresh (for the viewer). It’s often delightful–funny, warm, beautiful–but it’s also very, very rough. McBride works wonders with the tone; Barkin and Quaid’s chemistry, regardless of what the narrative requires, always takes precedence. It’s what makes the film after all.

As far as lead acting goes, it’s hard to say who’s better. At first it seems like Barkin has a deeper character, albeit less flashy. The flashiness initially seems too much for Quaid, but once there’s a deep dive into his character, the performance becomes a lot fuller. It’s easiest to let them share the top spot; The Big Easy’s acting, how Quaid and Barkin deal with the script’s developments, how McBride frames them, is exceptional.

The supporting cast is all strong, starting with third-billed Ned Beatty. He’s Quaid’s boss and future step-father. Lisa Jane Persky’s Quaid’s girl Friday. She’s awesome in the part. It probably shouldn’t be a bigger part, since she’s just there for exposition and banter, but Persky could’ve easily run a spin-off herself. McBride’s tone for the rather serious film is often genial and welcoming. Persky and Beatty help a lot with it. John Goodman and Ebbe Roe Smith are funny as dumb cops. Grace Zabriskie is awesome as Quaid’s mom. And Charles Ludlam makes a great lawyer.

Great music, both incidental, soundtrack, and Brad Fiedel’s playful score. It’s technically outstanding–Beato excels at whatever he needs to be lighting and Goldman’s editing is strong from the start. McBride uses a variety of techniques–including actors looking directly into the camera, something I usually loathe–to facilitate performances. The second act, which is the least “pleasant” of the film, is the best directed.

The Big Easy is fantastic.



Directed by Jim McBride; written by Daniel Petrie Jr.; director of photography, Affonso Beato; edited by Mia Goldman; music by Brad Fiedel; production designer, Jeannine Oppewall; produced by Stephen J. Friedman; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Dennis Quaid (Remy McSwain), Ellen Barkin (Anne Osborne), Ned Beatty (Jack Kellom), Lisa Jane Persky (McCabe), Tom O’Brien (Bobby McSwain), John Goodman (DeSoto), Ebbe Roe Smith (Dodge), Charles Ludlam (Lamar Parmentel), and Grace Zabriskie (Mama McSwain).

Trancers: City of Lost Angels (1988, Charles Band)

Tracers: City of Lost Angels was originally intended to be part of an anthology film but it doesn’t feel much like a short subject. With the obviously limited budget, director Band treats it like a television production more than a film. Most of the action plays out in one or two of the sets. It’s all very constrained.

It’s also rather intelligently handled. Without any budget, the story mostly involves Tim Thomerson’s problems with girlfriend Helen Hunt. He’s from the future, living in his ancestor’s body, she has to be the breadwinner–it’s a difficult situation all around. Thomerson and Hunt (who’s basically just cameoing) are both wonderful. Writers Paul De Meo and Danny Bilson frequently surprise with the character developments.

Lost Angels is a fine effort. The sincerity and the concept–spoofing hard-boiled detectives, but without drawing too much attention to the absurdities–work out surprisingly well (awkward plotting aside, of course).



Produced and directed by Charles Band; written by Paul De Meo and Danny Bilson; director of photography, Mac Ahlberg; music by Mark Ryder and Phil Davies; production designer, Giovanni Natalucci; released by Full Moon Features.

Starring Tim Thomerson (Jack Deth), Helen Hunt (Leena), Art LaFleur (McNulty), Telma Hopkins (Engineer Raines), Alyson Croft (Baby McNulty), Grace Zabriskie (Warden) and Velvet Rhodes (Edlin Shock).

Child’s Play 2 (1990, John Lafia)

When George Miller made the third Mad Max, he got someone else to direct the kids. John Lafia had directed one movie prior to Child’s Play 2—maybe someone should have made a similar suggestion. Under Lafia’s direction, ten-year old Alex Vincent’s performance is an abject disaster. The performance is so terrible, it isn’t even amusing. Lafia manages to suck the “so bad it’s good” right out from it.

I’ve seen some of Child’s Play 2 before. Years ago, it used to play a lot on some channel and I know I caught the end at least twice. The end is probably the best part of the movie, if only because the lapses in logic aren’t as pronounced and at least it’s going to be over soon. There are so many plot holes, one would have to watch the movie with a pen and paper ready. They’re usually just the stupid ones—like why does Christine Elise McCarthy, with the killer doll on her bumper, run into a pole when there’s a wall (the impact would crush the doll) about six feet away. Or, my personal favorite, how come no one ever discovers the murder victims? There are at least two who should be discovered—they have jobs, people will miss them—and nothing. It’s like Don Mancini couldn’t be bothered with any logic.

If I hadn’t seen the first one, I’d probably dismiss this movie as a failed concept, something without any possibilities. But the first one’s well-done so this sequel obviously has problems. Lafia’s probably the biggest. Well, no. I suppose the lack of budget is the biggest problem.

But Lafia can’t direct Vincent or McCarthy or Jenny Agutter or anyone else. He can’t even direct cinematographer Stefan Czapsky. The whole thing’s shot with this distorting lens—to show the world from Vincent’s perspective perhaps—and it’s silly. Czapsky can do the shot, but Lafia doesn’t seem to understand why he asked for it.

There’s lots of special acting too. Jenny Agutter’s performance is horrid. Grace Zabriskie is bad too. Greg Germann approaches all right in a small role. Gerrit Graham is good. McCarthy is bad but likable enough. She’s fine, compared to the rest of the cast.

Writer Mancini’s approach to the killer doll is different here. He’s more of a central character, but there’s no suspense. The movie completely fails to frighten, which instead leaves one to concentrate on the characters’ fear. Except none of the characters are smart enough to be afraid.

I’m real mad Agutter’s death scene was off screen. I think if they’d left it in, the experience would be rather cathartic. Besides her, the only character I really wished harm would befall is Vincent. The kid’s obnoxious and the role’s a writing disaster. However, Lafia doesn’t deliver. It’s weird to watch the deserving killer doll in trouble—Brad Dourif does a fine job with the voice work—and feel bad because it isn’t the innocent little kid.

And Graeme Revell’s music is okay too. Oh, and the big reveal when McCarthy discovers the doll is alive is well done.



Directed by John Lafia; written by Don Mancini; director of photography, Stefan Czapsky; edited by Edward Warschilka; music by Graeme Ravell; production designer, Ivo Cristante; produced by David Kirschner; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Alex Vincent (Andy Barclay), Jenny Agutter (Joanne Simpson), Gerrit Graham (Phil Simpson), Christine Elise McCarthy (Kyle), Brad Dourif (Chucky), Grace Zabriskie (Grace Poole), Peter Haskell (Sullivan), Beth Grant (Miss Kettlewell) and Greg Germann (Mattson).

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