John Lithgow

All That Jazz (1979, Bob Fosse)

There are few secrets in All That Jazz; the film immediately forecasts where it’s going, with clear shots of star Roy Scheider in the hospital amid the other quickly cut montage sequences. But these are flash forwards, as opposed to the present action and then we’re seeing flashback. Because we’re actually not even seeing “reality” yet. First we meet Jessica Lange, mysterious, magical, dressed in white, in Scheider’s head maybe. These sequences are—except when director Fosse and editor Alan Heim cut them to be so—disconnected from the main narrative. They’re even disconnected from Scheider’s eventual hospital bed hallucinations. They’re not in his imagination, not in his consciousness… maybe it’s his soul. Doesn’t really matter. Putting a noun to it doesn’t change how it functions, giving Fosse and co-writer Robert Alan Aurthur a way to do some show not tell exposition on Scheider’s history as well as give him an egoless outlet.

The film’s present action begins with Broadway director Scheider casting for his next production. Fosse goes through the introduction to Lange, then the quick cut montage sequence of Scheider gearing up for the day (Visine, Dexedrine, cigarettes, positive affirmations), and then gets to the first big dance number. The sequence—Scheider cutting auditioning dancers, then working with the ones who make it—is breathtaking. Set to a live performance (which adds a whole other layer) of George Benson covering “On Broadway,” it’s not just about Fosse’s composition, which showcases both the individual artistry of the dancers but also the scale of the audition as well as Scheider’s place in it, and he and Heim’s editing, which captures movement peerlessly, but also introducing the main supporting cast. Well, minus Ann Reinking. But we meet ex-wife Leland Palmer and daughter Erzsebet Foldi and then the show guys—producers William LeMassena and Robert Hitt, accountant David Margulies, song writer Anthony Holland—from all their various reactions, we get some grounding for Scheider. The show guys are able to tell his not show-minded interest in one of the dancers (Deborah Geffner), which Foldi and Palmer are able to pick up on as well, though they react differently. But Scheider’s not just doing the show, he’s also cutting together a movie, The Stand-Up, about a comedian (played by Cliff Gorman), and running the editing team ragged. It’s also causing Scheider’s contact guy with the studio—Max Wright—nuts.

It’s at the screening of the day’s cuts we meet Reinking, the girlfriend, which is just before we get to see what kind of womanizer everyone’s dealing with. Since leaving the auditions and editing his movie to exhaustion, Scheider’s also had time to ring up Geffner to make a date.

There’s a lot of humanity to Scheider already. The audition sequence, when he’s cutting people, there’s great care in the film to show his hesitations and sympathies. The scene between Scheider and Geffner is where we get to see how Scheider’s empathy has got a strange formula to it. He’s heartbreakingly rude to Geffner, absolutely piggish, but also aware of how his behavior plays out. The asides with Lange have set up Scheider’s convoluted, sorted sexual history with women—Keith Gordon plays him in the flashbacks to working as a young teen in burlesque theaters, where the dancers tease (and don’t tease)—and then we get to see the repercussions of his devout philandering play out with Reinking. Geffner is, apparently, to Reinking as Reinking was to Palmer. Only Palmer’s Scheider’s creative muse—he’s only doing the show so she can headline it—and Reinking’s clearly a good dancer. Geffner is not, adding further complications and giving us a chance to see how Scheider works with his dancers.

The only person Scheider can’t manage—though with Palmer, it’s more she lets him manage her—is Foldi. There’s this amazing scene where Scheider and Foldi dance, with her trying to talk to him about settling down and him workaholicing his way through it, and even though he’s in charge of choreographing the dance, everything she says takes him a little by surprise. The relationship between Scheider and Foldi—well, Foldi and everyone (Reinking and Palmer) have an amazing relationship. In the chaos Scheider drums up so he can control his creative efforts, Foldi’s the only other one able to weather it. Because, like Scheider, she’s native to it.

Scheider’s just cracked the show when the heart troubles go from giving him pause to requiring hospitalization. It’s approximately halfway through the movie. Then there’s the medical drama parts, which race by—once Scheider’s condition improves, Fosse does a lengthy montage sequence, cutting between various moments during Scheider’s hospital stay and some external factors—Foldi’s experience of her dad being hospitalized, the show guys trying to get another director (John Lithgow). Fosse will drop longer scenes in the montage, kind of taking a break before going back to spinning around, seeing all the various moments. It’s all fairly light. Lighter than anything else has been in the film to this point.

So when Scheider’s inability to control his urges hits again and he takes a turn for the worse, it’s time for the hallucination musical numbers. There are four of them, a showcase for Reinking, Palmer, Foldi, and then women in general. They’re all amazing. But whether or not they’re enough to keep Lange’s symbolic lips of Scheider’s….

The choreography of all the sequences is startling. None of them aren’t great. But then there’s how Fosse shoots them too. How Giuseppe Rotunno lights them. How Heim cuts them. It’s extraordinary work.

Scheider’s performance is great. Then Palmer. Then Foldi. Palmer doesn’t get any expository devices with angelic Jessica Langes to establish her character. She barely gets it in the script. She’s got to do it all with looks. She does it. And Foldi’s excellent. Everyone else is good… Reinking has to play a lot with a stone face and she does it well. The show guys are all good. They’re kind of the comic relief. Even as they cover their asses.

Lithgow’s fun.

The music, the dancing, the direction, the technicals… all of it is exceptional. Heim and Fosse’s editing—which is the subject of the movie in the movie subplot, so the editing is begging attention—is singular.

All That Jazz is a peerless motion picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Bob Fosse; written by Robert Alan Aurthur and Fosse; director of photography, Giuseppe Rotunno; edited by Alan Heim; music by Ralph Burns; production designer, Philip Rosenberg; costume designer, Albert Wolsky; produced by Aurthur; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Roy Scheider (Joe Gideon), Leland Palmer (Audrey Paris), Erzsebet Foldi (Michelle), Deborah Geffner (Victoria), Ann Reinking (Kate Jagger), William LeMassena (Jonesy Hecht), Anthony Holland (Paul Dann), Robert Hitt (Ted Christopher), David Margulies (Larry Goldie), Max Wright (Joshua Penn), Michael Tolan (Dr. Ballinger), John Lithgow (Lucas Sergeant), Cliff Gorman (Davis Newman), Ben Vereen (O’Connor Flood), Keith Gordon (Young Joe), and Jessica Lange (Angelique).


Footloose (1984, Herbert Ross)

Footloose isn’t so much awful as dumb and obvious. Some of it is awful–the scene where Kevin Bacon, fed up with the small town getting him down, just has to go to an abandoned mill and dance it out–that scene is awful. So are most of the courtship scenes between Bacon and Lori Singer.

But the relationship between Singer and father John Lithgow? While really obvious and thin, the actors do okay with it. Singer’s not good, but she’s convincingly angry. Lithgow’s the emotionally wounded reverend who tries to fix the world through his sermons, only to learn the townsfolk he’s trying to save are perverting his message. It’s just Footloose’s way not condemning the religious in the audience, just the ones who don’t like rock music. Though it does a really bad job of it.

Some of the problem is Dean Pitchford’s script. It’s dumb and often bad, but Pitchford really doesn’t shy away from difficult scenes. The ones between Lithgow and Singer, the ones between Lithgow, Singer and Dianne Wiest (as the quietly suffering preacher’s wife), they’re really good. But Pitchford doesn’t know how to work them. The most important conversation in the film–between Bacon and Lithgow–doesn’t even occur on screen.

It’s not like director Ross does much good. He probably can’t make Bacon look any younger and most of the performances are blandly acceptable, but the idiotic dance interludes are Ross’s fault.

Footloose is often marginally competent, but never any good.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Herbert Ross; written by Dean Pitchfork; director of photography, Ric Waite; edited by Paul Hirsch; production designer, Ron Hobbs; produced by Lewis J. Rachmil and Craig Zadan; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Kevin Bacon (Ren), Lori Singer (Ariel), John Lithgow (Rev. Shaw Moore), Dianne Wiest (Vi Moore), Chris Penn (Willard), Sarah Jessica Parker (Rusty), John Laughlin (Woody), Elizabeth Gorcey (Wendy Jo), Frances Lee McCain (Ethel McCormack) and Jim Youngs (Chuck Cranston).


Memphis Belle (1990, Michael Caton-Jones)

Memphis Belle runs just around an hour and fifty minutes. It takes the film about a half hour before it’s even clear the titular plane is going to have a mission in the narrative. It opens with a masterful introduction to the characters and the situation (a bomber has one more mission before the crew completes their tour of duty). There are a lot of problems with Monte Merrick’s script, but his framing is great. He has the PR officer (played by John Lithgow) introduce everyone; it works beautifully in the narrative.

Caton-Jones’s composition is fantastic from the first shot. Too bad Merrick’s writing falls apart. First, it’s little things, like D.B. Sweeney—the only character to openly scared—having some lame dialogue. It’s not too damaging… but then Eric Stoltz’s part gets bigger. And Stoltz is truly awful. With so many principals, Merrick’s already resorting to caricature. He proceeds to give Stoltz, who’s laughable, too much attention.

But Merrick and Caton-Jones also awkwardly make the captain useless. Matthew Modine has the less to do than any other actor, including David Strathairn as the base commander. At least Strathairn has some real dialogue. Modine just gets to look scared.

There are some great performances though. Billy Zane gives the film’s best performance, but Reed Diamond and Tate Donovan are excellent as well.

The special effects are good. George Fenton’s music is lame. The sound design is great.

While it’s not terrible, it’s too bad Memphis Belle isn’t good.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Caton-Jones; written by Monte Merrick; director of photography, David Watkin; edited by Jim Clark; music by George Fenton; production designer, Stuart Craig; produced by David Puttnam and Catherine Wyler; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Matthew Modine (Capt. Dennis Dearborn), Eric Stoltz (Sgt. Danny Daly), Tate Donovan (1st Lt. Luke Sinclair), D.B. Sweeney (Lt. Phil Lowenthal), Billy Zane (Lt. Val Kozlowski), Sean Astin (Sgt. Richard Moore), Harry Connick Jr. (Sgt. Clay Busby), Reed Diamond (Sgt. Virgil Hoogesteger), Courtney Gains (Sgt. Eugene McVey), Neil Giuntoli (Sgt. Jack Bocci), David Strathairn (Col. Craig Harriman) and John Lithgow (Lt.Col. Bruce Derringer).


The Pelican Brief (1993, Alan J. Pakula)

If you’re ever stuck watching The Pelican Brief, you can amuse yourself wondering if the film would be better had Pakula shot it 1.85 as opposed to Panavision. Pakula shoots it empty Panavision, the right and left sides of the frame empty for easier pan-and-scanning. It’s an inexplicable choice from Pakula, but not as inexplicable as him doing a Grisham adaptation in the first place (wait, never mind… money). It’s the modern Hollywood version of his paranoia trilogy (which was seventies Hollywood and, therefore, quite different).

The film is a disastrous piece of garbage. It’s boring, it’s long, it’s stupid—James Horner is just recycling scores again. There’s nothing like a Julia Roberts movie with Star Trek II music.

It’s also not a real conspiracy thriller. All of Roberts’s fears are validated… ad nauseam. Of course, since it’s a Grisham movie, it’s unlikely, but uncertainty might’ve improved the film.

Roberts is terrible. She’s supposed to smart in Pelican Brief, which is hilarious. It’s absurd to think she might have even found the LSAT testing room.

Denzel Washington’s great, in Warner’s attempt to turn him into a marquee star. But John Lithgow (as his boss) is horrendous—and Lithgow’s constant concerns over a racial discrimination suit are painful.

The supporting casting is phenomenal. Robert Culp’s good as the stupidest president ever. John Heard’s good, Stanley Tucci’s wasted. James Sikking is good. William Atherton and Anthony Heald are wasted in small roles. Sam Shepard is slumming.

It’s a dreadful film.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Alan J. Pakula; screenplay by Pakula, based on the novel by John Grisham; director of photography, Stephen Goldblatt; edited by Tom Rolf and Trudy Ship; music by James Horner; production designer, Philip Rosenberg; produced by Pieter Jan Brugge and Pakula; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Julia Roberts (Darby Shaw), Denzel Washington (Gray Grantham), Sam Shepard (Thomas Callahan), John Heard (Gavin Vereek), Tony Goldwyn (Fletcher Coal), James Sikking (FBI Director Denton Voyles), William Atherton (Bob Gminski), Stanley Tucci (Khamel), Hume Cronyn (Justice Rosenberg), John Lithgow (Smith Keen), Anthony Heald (Marty Velmano), Nicholas Woodeson (Stump), Stanley Anderson (Edwin Sneller), John Finn (Matthew Barr), Cynthia Nixon (Alice Stark), Jake Weber (Garcia) and Robert Culp as the President of the United States.


Cliffhanger (1993, Renny Harlin)

Oh, Trevor Jones did the music. I was going to say it sounded like some really good Hans Zimmer (with some plagiarism of Alan Silvestri’s Predator score), but Jones does good work so I guess it’s not a surprise.

Cliffhanger is such a technical marvel it’s hard to get upset about the problems (writing and acting). Harlin’s got a lot of composite shots here and Alex Thomson shooting or not, the technology simply isn’t there for them to look right. But the concepts are all great. Outside the composites, everything is perfect. There’s some astounding stunt work in the film.

Frank J. Urioste’s editing is great, as is John Vallone’s production design.

So what’s wrong with it?

It’s stupid. It’s really, really stupid and it has constantly laughable dialogue.

The best actors in the movie are barely in it (Paul Winfield and Zach Grenier) and even Stallone–who can manage this kind of tripe–gets overshadowed by the villains. John Lithgow plays the lead villain, with a terrible British accent, and basically does an Anthony Hopkins impersonation. However, given Cliffhanger‘s release date, it’s like Hopkins saw the film and just started mimicking Lithgow’s turn in this one.

Janine Turner and Vyto Ruginis have such bad dialogue it’s impossible to gauge their performances. Villains Rex Linn, Leon and Craig Fairbrass are all atrocious. I suppose Caroline Goodall almost gives an okay bad performance.

It’s a shame Cliffhanger has to be so bad, just for all the technical pluses… but it’s inane.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Renny Harlin; screenplay by Michael France and Sylvester Stallone, based on a story by France and a premise by John Long; director of photography, Alex Thomson; edited by Frank J. Urioste; music by Trevor Jones; production designer, John Vallone; produced by Harlin and Alan Marshall; released by Tri-Star Pictures.

Starring Sylvester Stallone (Gabe Walker), John Lithgow (Eric Qualen), Michael Rooker (Hal Tucker), Janine Turner (Jessie Deighan), Rex Linn (Richard Travers), Caroline Goodall (Kristel), Leon (Kynette), Craig Fairbrass (Delmar), Gregory Scott Cummins (Ryan), Denis Forest (Heldon), Michelle Joyner (Sarah), Max Perlich (Evan), Paul Winfield (Walter Wright), Ralph Waite (Frank), Trey Brownell (Brett), Zach Grenier (Davis) and Vyto Ruginis (Matheson).


The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984, W.D. Richter)

Buckaroo Banzai‘s greatest contribution to cinema–well, if it didn’t get Peter Weller the Robocop role at least–is as a warning against trying to adapt authors like Thomas Pynchon to motion pictures. Banzai goes out of its way–the Pynchon references are well-known, to the point Pynchon even referenced Banzai in a novel (Vineland)–and it’s not hard to imagine the film as a novel being a lot better. If the novelist were good, anyway.

But as a film, it’s mostly an example with what’s… maybe not wrong, but what’s lacking in the medium. Richter and writer Rauch are enthusiastic to a fault and do a good job–unintentionally, I assume, but maybe it’s another joke–making Banzai feel like there’s something else going on… when in truth, there’s not.

The film’s absence of subtext or genuine human conflict doesn’t work with Richter’s otherwise fine direction. Richter painstakingly tries not to let it get absurd, when absurd is about all you can do with a New Wave Doc Savage retread.

The script doesn’t allow for much in the way of performances. Weller’s solid in the lead, but nothing spectacular. Ellen Barkin is wasted as the almost always offscreen love interest, same goes for John Lithgow’s alien Mussolini. Jeff Goldblum and Christopher Lloyd have nothing to do–the film’s only really impressive performance is from Lewis Smith.

Even Clancy Brown disappoints.

I’m curious if they acknowledged they were trying to sell America a science hero–America hates smart guys.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by W.D. Richter; written by Earl Mac Rauch; director of photography, Fred J. Koenekamp; edited by George Bowers and Richard Marks; music by Michael Boddicker; production designer, J. Michael Riva; produced by Neil Canton and Richter; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Peter Weller (Buckaroo Banzai), John Lithgow (Lord John Whorfin), Ellen Barkin (Penny Priddy), Jeff Goldblum (New Jersey), Christopher Lloyd (John Bigboote), Lewis Smith (Perfect Tommy), Rosalind Cash (John Emdall), Robert Ito (Professor Hikita), Pepe Serna (Reno Nevada), Clancy Brown (Rawhide), William Traylor (General Catburd), Carl Lumbly (John Parker), Vincent Schiavelli (John O’Connor) and Dan Hedaya (John Gomez).


Harry and the Hendersons (1987, William Dear)

Harry and the Hendersons has to be one of the most emotionally manipulative movies ever made. Amblin produced it (though Spielberg’s name isn’t on the credits anywhere) and it comes off as the finale part of the E.T. and Gremlins trilogy. Except in this one, it isn’t about a boy and his Bigfoot, it’s about John Lithgow and his Bigfoot, with Lithgow the hunter realizing maybe he shouldn’t be killing animals for the fun of it. (The movie’s on a lot firmer ground, reality-wise, than its predecessors). Maybe that message, the anti-hunting one, the humanization of animals one, is what makes the movie so damn effective.

It’s good it’s effective, no matter what the means, because it’s a really cheap movie. For instance, Lithgow’s only a hunting nut because his father never encouraged his drawing and continues to berate him for even having the interest. The movie’s also a narrative nightmare, with the family playing an important part at the beginning, but then falling off for the middle–when the movie’s mostly about non-speaking extras chasing Harry. Not to mention the son who goes from being important to not between the first and second acts.

The acting is all decent. David Suchet and Don Ameche are both wonderful and participants in two of the film’s three most emotionally manipulative scenes… the one with Ameche actually might not be a manipulation. John Lithgow is mostly okay. He’s believable as the sensitive guy, but not as the gun nut. Melinda Dillon’s unfortunately wasted. Joshua Rudoy’s somewhat irritating as the son. As Harry, Kevin Peter Hall does a great job–though I’m not sure what the puppeteers controlled.

Bruce Broughton’s score sounds almost exactly like the cute parts of Gremlins, which strengthens the informal bond. The technical aspects of the movie are unremarkable, with Allen Daviau’s photography, especially his outdoor photography, being an exception. As for William Dear’s direction… he has some good moments and some not so good ones. Actually, the good ones–when he fits the four family members in frame with Harry–are sometimes excellent.

But the realism, which provides the movie’s easily discernible message, is problematic. It’s just real enough for it not to make sense… it isn’t the existence of the Bigfoot, it’s–first–the reaction of the family (particularly the constantly unbelievable reactions of the daughter) and, second, the ensuing public panic. It just doesn’t make any sense after a certain point… much like the conclusion, which has a big fake ending followed by another set piece. With no real bridge between the two, it’s just another example of the cheapness.

The movie also makes the mistake of dumbing down for kids a little too much, but the positive elements make up for quite a lot.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by William Dear; written by Dear, Bill Martin and Ezra D. Rappaport; director of photography, Allen Daviau; edited by Donn Cambern; music by Bruce Broughton; production designer, James Bissell; produced by Richard Vane and Dear; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring John Lithgow (George Henderson), Melinda Dillon (Nancy Henderson), Margaret Langrick (Sarah Henderson), Joshua Rudoy (Ernie Henderson), Kevin Peter Hall (Harry), Lainie Kazan (Irene Moffat), Don Ameche (Dr. Wallace Wrightwood) and M. Emmet Walsh (George Henderson Sr.).


The Big Fix (1978, Jeremy Kagan)

The Big Fix is a fundamentally different detective movie. While there are some elements updating it to time period, a lot of it is still a detective investigating in LA, meeting all sorts of people all around town and so on. It’s still Raymond Chandler to some degree–with Dreyfuss playing his (marginally) goofy, but caring standard and the setting changing from film noir to plastique (the exploration of America post-1960s) but the film makes an even severer change. Richard Dreyfuss’s detective is not defined by being a detective, the genre norm. Instead, Dreyfuss is a guy who happens to be a detective and finds himself in this whole mess, but the character’s truest moments are when he’s with his kids, when he’s trying not to fight with his ex-wife, when he’s getting excited about a date. These are not detective movie norms.

The big mystery is sufficiently convoluted enough for the genre. It’s a little simpler then Chandler–and the anti-establishment air of Chandler is present here, sort of finally finding the perfect fit of tone and setting–but it’s a good mystery. The ending, even if some of the details are perceivable, is a surprise. But the ending–the mystery’s ending, the supposed a-plot’s ending–is lackluster. It’s quiet and subdued, something Dreyfuss rarely is during the film. Then the close comes and the close is where The Big Fix becomes something else entirely. There were the moments throughout where it broke from the genre, but it always got back on track with a car chase or a gun cleaning. The close erupts from genre constraints and then, once it’s genre-less, takes it a little higher. Kagan–who I’ve never heard of before this film–closes off the mystery and the film on an appropriately humorous plane… but then he does something else, something I never would have seen coming. It’s kind of forward, but only in its simplicity. For a detective movie, with the comedy, with the socially relevant updating, it’s stunning. Kagan just lets the viewer see the characters for a bit, totally free of story or character establishing. It’s beautiful.

The acting in the film is generally excellent. Dreyfuss is bombastic when he needs to be and touching when he needs to be, it’s one of his most sure-footed performances and he’s great. He plays it with a fortified vulnerability. Susan Anspach and John Lithgow are both okay, effective at times, not so much at others. Bonnie Bedelia is great as Dreyfuss’s ex-wife. The second tier supporting cast, Ron Rifkin as Bedelia’s boyfriend and F. Murray Abraham, are fantastic. Abraham’s performance is unexpected; it’s so long before he nosedived, he still has enthusiasm and, given his character’s one of the plot’s enigmas, he surpasses expectation. Rita Karin is also particularly wonderful as Dreyfuss’s senior center revolutionary.

The Big Fix is important for a couple reasons. First (and easier), it’s about the aftereffects of the 1960s, an important period consigned to–and not even anymore–big network miniseries. It occurred to me, watching the film, even with all the film footage from the period, all the books, it’s going to be forgotten… even though the protestors’ billboards say a lot of the same things as, well, the banners on liberal blogs today and the politicians are still talking about identity cards. The second and more important thing is, obviously, that genre-bust at the end. The Big Fix isn’t out on DVD anywhere. It never even came out widescreen on laserdisc. It’s forgotten and it shouldn’t be.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jeremy Kagan; screenplay by Roger L. Simon, based on his novel; director of photography, Frank Stanley; edited by Patrick Kennedy; music by Bill Conti; production designer, Robert F. Boyle; produced by Carl Borack and Richard Dreyfuss; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Richard Dreyfuss (Moses Wine), Susan Anspach (Lila Shay), Bonnie Bedelia (Suzanne), John Lithgow (Sam Sebastian), Ofelia Medina (Alora), Nicolas Coster (Spitzer), F. Murray Abraham (Eppis), Fritz Weaver (Oscar Procari Sr.), Jorge Cervera Jr. (Jorge), Michael Hershewe (Jacob), Rita Karin (Aunt Sonya) and Ron Rifkin (Randy).


Blow Out (1981, Brian De Palma)

If one were to, empirically, examine the films of the 1990s and onward to the present, he or she might be inclined to not believe in Blow Out. Literally, not believe such a film could exist. Not only does Brian De Palma’s remake of Blowup work, it succeeds… partially because of De Palma’s script (here’s one of those unbelievable elements), particularly the spectacular dialogue–delivered by (here’s the other unbelievable part) a fantastic John Travolta. Travolta’s obviously picked up standard mannerisms from “successful” performances and they’re all so neon, seeing him without them is startling. How De Palma went from the compositional genius of Blow Out–his shots here, beautifully photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond, are viscerally unmatched. Describing De Palma’s success in terms of direction is not impossible, but it’s too bothersome for me to do here… It’s somehow singular, even taking in to account the frequent Hitchcock references (which De Palma uses differently here, relying on Pino Donaggio’s score to make the connection more than any visual cues… except maybe in terms of the settings).

De Palma’s script, probably the last thing I expected to start a paragraph admiring, creates this wonderful character for Travolta. Blow Out’s a tragedy about selfish people who try not to be selfish, mostly for the wrong reasons. Kind of. It’s also got these great moments–Travolta arrives at a train station to meet Nancy Allen and, thanks to De Palma’s composition, the simple scene is magnificent–or the lengthy flashback sequence, which is totally out of place in the film, but in place for the character. De Palma’s able to visualize Travolta’s exposition to Allen… a narrated flashback… and doesn’t just make it work, but he makes it great.

The only significant problem with De Palma’s script is how interested it is with John Lithgow’s bad guy. De Palma goes overboard with the attention Lithgow, who goes from a good villain to a cartoon one, gets at the expense of Travolta and Allen.

Allen’s performance is the strangest element in the film. She’s incredibly annoying–playing a complete ditz–and it takes a long time to warm to her (about the same time Travolta develops deeper feelings for her on screen). Lithgow’s fine, not too much with his villainy (another post-1990s impossibility, given Cliffhanger) and Dennis Franz shows up for a small role. Franz is a lot of fun here, establishing his image.

Some of Blow Out’s success–and it’s notability for film school grads (which is how I discovered it ten years ago)–is its fetishistic approach to film editing. The film’s beautifully edited, sure, but it’s also about a sound editor who edits on screen… seeing the machines work is a lot more enthralling than watching me cut something together in iMovie. There’s an energy of physical creation and discovery in those scenes (much like in Blowup) and seeing the process carry out is as thrilling as any chase scene.

I hadn’t seen Blow Out in eight or nine years. Given how invigorating an experience–what a genuine thrill for the cinematic storytelling process it left me with–I hope it isn’t as long again.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Brian De Palma; director of photography, Vilmos Zsigmond; edited by Paul Hirsch; music by Pino Donaggio; produced by George Litto; released by Filmways Pictures.

Starring John Travolta (Jack Terry), Nancy Allen (Sally), John Lithgow (Burke), Dennis Franz (Manny Karp), Peter Boyden (Sam), Curt May (Donahue), John Aquino (Det. Mackey) and John McMartin (Lawrence Henry).


A Good Man in Africa (1994, Bruce Beresford)

A Good Man in Africa is about the British practicing a modified form of the age-old British diplomacy in Africa (duh) in modernity. As such, when I saw John Lithgow’s name in the credits, I did not expect him to be playing a Brit. However, Lithgow does play one and he does so quite poorly. Lithgow doesn’t really create a character in Good Man, he just creates a posture. He’s annoying but not really in the film often enough to hurt it. Unfortunately, the film’s made with the same approach. Colin Friels’s philandering, hard-drinking assistant to the diplomat (Lithgow) is not a likable character, certainly not one the audience can identify with. Friels’s performance is likable–and good–but it’s a losing battle. Watching A Good Man in Africa is like watching a long, drawn-out error. It misfires immediately and never recovers, nor makes any attempt to do so.

The film’s based on a novel and the novelist wrote the film. I’m not a fan of such behavior because it usually doesn’t work right. I have no idea if A Good Man in Africa is a good novel, but after seeing the movie, I’ll never know. The film toys with having Friels narrate it, but appears to have inserted that narration as an afterthought. If it were going the whole way through, it might work better. Friels is barely the film’s protagonist, since all of the scenes are about other people.

As for the other people, while Lithgow is easily the worst, Joanne Whalley-Kilmer is pretty awful too. The titular Good Man is actually Sean Connery, who gives a better performance than usual, but again, it’s certainly not anything of note. The film’s most underused resource was Diana Rigg and I spent the last act wishing she and Friels would run off together so I’d at least get to see fifteen minutes of good acting and chemistry.

I only watch Good Man because of Friels and knew, given Bruce Beresford directed it, the film would be severely lacking. Maybe that lack of any expectation dulled me to the film’s more obvious deficiencies. Or maybe they were just too dull to care about.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Bruce Beresford; screenplay by William Boyd, based on his novel; director of photography, Andrezj Bartkowiak; edited by Jim Clark; music by John du Prez; production designer, Herbert Pinter; produced by John Fiedler and Mark Tarlov; released by Gramercy Pictures.

Starring Colin Friels (Leafy), Sean Connery (Murray), John Lithgow (Fanshawe), Diana Rigg (Chloe Fanshawe), Sarah-Jane Fenton (Priscilla Fanshawe), Louis Gossett Jr. (Adekunle), Maynard Eziashi (Friday) and Joanne Whalley (Celia).


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