(On Cable TV, March 2018) I hadn’t seen Blow Out in at least thirty years, so it’s funny to see what sticks and what doesn’t—my childhood memories of seeing the film (in French, on broadcast TV “prestige” Saturday evening showing) included the ending shot and the “animated film” sequence but little else. I think I learned of the Chappaquiddick political scandal after watching the film, which is really weird in retrospect. Watching the film as a seasoned thriller fan, I was a bit more impressed by director Brian de Palma’s ability to create suspense and memorable sequences through directorial audacity. John Travolta is surprisingly good (and young!) as a sound-effect technician who ends up embroiled in a political assassination conspiracy—with no less than an even younger-looking John Lithgow as an effectively creepy antagonist. Blow Out moves quickly and doesn’t have too many dull moments. While some character motivations are suspect (as in; the protagonist seeing the heroine again for no other reason that she’s attractive) and the coincidences in the plot defy credibility, but de Palma knows what he’s doing (just watch that opening shot) and the look at exploitation filmmaking at the eve of the eighties is simply fascinating—the period feel of the era’s technology, complete with tapes and physical cutting, is now one of the film’s biggest strengths. The ending is a downer, but it’s almost entirely justifiable through the film’s atmosphere and thematic resonance. Blow Out remains a remarkable early-eighties suspense movie that clearly owes much to the conspiracy thrillers of the seventies.
(Second viewing, On DVD, March 2017) The trouble with re-watching classics is the tension of judging whether it’s still a classic. I first saw Pulp Fiction, like every twentysomething at the time, in the mid-nineties on VHS—a good friend had brought it home and took delight in seeing me react to specific moments in the movie, whether it was the infamous watch speech or the “Garçon!” time-fixing moment. I filed away Pulp Fiction as a great movie and didn’t think about it. Now that I’m consciously re-watching big hits of the nineties, though, the question was: Did Pulp Fiction hold up, once past more than twenty years of imitators, Tarantino’s evolution and popularization of what (non-linear storytelling, witty dialogues, etc.) made it so special back then? What I clearly had forgotten about the movie was how long it was—at more than two hours and a half, the film is a daunting prospect, and the non-linear structure means that there’s almost an entire unexpected act added to a normal running time. Pulp Fiction, admittedly, doesn’t have the impact of surprise: Tarantino’s shtick is a known quantity by now, and seeing his characters go off on lengthy tangents isn’t surprising, nor seeing full sequences play in nearly real-time. The fractured chronology is still effective—I guarantee that even twenty years later, you will remember a lot of the film’s individual highlights … but not necessarily in which order they’re placed. I had near-verbatim recall of much of the John Travolta storyline, quite a bit of Bruce Willis’s segment (how could I forget the taxi driver, though?) but not much of Samuel L Jackson’s act. Fortunately, the dialogue still works, the dark comedy still feels solid, the cinematic flourishes (from “square” to the dance sequence to Harvey Keitel) still work very well and the movie still impresses by the mastery of its execution. It’s daring, sure, but it’s more importantly put together nearly flawlessly. Pulp Fiction has been endlessly imitated over the years, but it remains a solid best-of-class representation of its own subgenre. It’s well worth a revisit, especially if it’s been a while and yet you’re sure you remember most of it.
(On TV, February 2017) Some movies are burdened with a bad reputation well before we can see a single frame of it, and so Staying Alive remains widely vilified as a terrible sequel to the quasi-classic Saturday Night Fever. But an appraisal nearly thirty-five years later may be more forgiving: While it’s nowhere near the dramatic intensity and off-beat maturity of its predecessor, Staying Alive has become a strangely interesting follow-up, steeped into eighties atmosphere like few others. Our hero has become a struggling Broadway dancer, and much of the movie avoids disco entirely to focus on nothing much more than a story of love and ambition set against the New York music theatre scene. John Travolta is, once again, very good from a purely physical performance point of view: he dances well even though the spotlight is seldom just on him. Finola Hughes is also remarkable as the film’s enigmatic temptress figure. Otherwise, though—it’s your standard romantic triangle, climbing-the-rungs-of-success kind of film. Under writer/director Sylvester Stallone, it plays like an underdog drama set on Broadway, with a finale that has the merit of not being purely triumphant. It’s, in other words, an average film that would be hazily remembered today if it wasn’t for its association with its predecessor. I can imagine the let-down in 1983 as fans of the first movie watched this follow-up and wondered what happened. Today, freed from some of those expectations, Staying Alive is merely ordinary, although the eighties atmosphere has now become an advantage for the film.
(On Cable TV, January 2017) Disco was such an instantly dated phenomenon that it would be easy to assume that any movie made about it during its heyday would be a disposable fluff piece, celebrating disco and featuring the music at the expense of everything else. But that’s not what Saturday Night Fever actually is—daringly using disco as a window into the inner struggles of a young man trying to figure himself. It arguably starts where lesser disco movies would end—with our protagonist mitigating his humdrum family life and low-end job with wild nights at the discotheque where he is the king of the dance floor. But that, of course, is not the end of the story. Despite the gleeful disco scenes at the beginning of the film (and this is a film that features its most exhilarating moments early on), Saturday Night Fever gradually delves into darker and more dramatic material, as our protagonist meets a woman out of his class and becomes aware that he’s got a lot of growing up to do. Issues of lost faith, dangerously strong yearnings to be loved, unwarranted success, young people trapped in untenable situations are discussed, taking us far beyond what we’d expect from a disco movie. (Although, as noted elsewhere, most disco-themed movies do usually delve deep into darkness.) The ending is particularly bittersweet, stabilizing our protagonist’s situation after a few crushing losses. It’s almost hard to reconcile just a multilayered dramatic film with its all-hits soundtrack (you can have the “Staying Alive” opener, I’ll keep the “A Fifth of Beethoven” club entrance sequence) and reputation as a major cultural milestone. A very young John Travolta turns in a terrific performance, not only as a dramatic actor but as an impressive dancer as well. It all amounts to a far more satisfying film than expected, and a captivating period film about the disco era that feels more finely aged than hopelessly dated. I’m told that there’s a sequel and that it’s to be avoided… [February 2017: There is a sequel, Staying Alive, but it’s merely ordinary.]
(On Cable TV, November 2016) As I slowly digest the results of the 2016 American Presidential election (albeit not without a few gastric refluxes along the way), I thought that a fictional take on the 1992 Clinton campaign would soothe my nerves. Alas, no such luck: After the sheer weirdness of 2016, Primary Colors seems positively sedate even in its stew of political corruption, adultery, dirty tricks and dark secrets. People in 1998 still obviously cared about moral flaws, which is more than seems to be the case in these dark days of November 2016. Adapted from a roman à clé penned as “Anonymous” by political journalist Joe Klein, Primary Colors purports to talk about the Clinton campaign, albeit with many details scrubbed and others pushed well past the point of fiction. John Travolta shows up with a full-on Bill Clinton impersonation, even though there isn’t as clear a Hillary analogue in Emma Thompson’s character. The protagonist of the story is a young political operative who (as with seemingly every political operative drama since, from The Ides of March to Knife Fight to Our Brand is Crisis) has a crisis of conscience after discovering his candidate’s darkest secret. It’s handled decently enough, with twists and turns that justify the fiction moniker. Characters and actors of note are Kathy Bates as an unexpectedly idealistic battle-axe, Larry Hagman as a veteran politician, Billy Bob Thornton as a redneck strategist (compare his character with the one he plays in Our Brand is Crisis) and Adrian Lester as the overshadowed protagonist … among many other notable names in smaller performances. As a fictionalized look in the primary campaign process, Primary Colors is not bad—and even after nearly twenty years remains just as interesting. But it may not be as effective right now, as I look at the headlines and wonder when we veered off in this absurd alternate reality. Hopefully it’ll look a bit wilder in four years.
(On Cable TV, September 2015) Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney takes on the church of Scientology in Going Clear, and the result is as fascinating as any of his other movies. Adapted from Lawrence Wright’s book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, it’s a highly critical look at the inner workings of Scientology, featuring a number of disillusioned former high-ranking members of the organization. After a look at the colorful life of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, Going Clear spends time detailing the recent and current activities of the organization and the reasons why several of its former members have left it. Along the way, the relationship between Scientology and its star members John Travolta and Tom Cruise is detailed in ways to make us understand how they all benefit from the association. It’s a slick documentary, although the “dramatic recreation” segments meant to illustrate some of the material is overdone: the interview alone are compelling enough. Going Clear is builds to a highly critical portrait of Scientology, packaging together a lot of material that has been available for years but seldom presented in such a self-contained form. Read the film’s Wikipedia article for more details on the ensuing controversy.
(Video on Demand, June 2015) Anyone would be forgiven for thinking, upon reading The Forger’s plot summary (“Ex-con forger does one last job”) that this would be a heist crime thriller. But the film itself is a bit more nuanced; it’s got a lot more family drama than criminal action as a convicted forger voluntarily agrees to a dangerous heist in order to spend time with his dying son. There’s a lot of family bonding, some heart-breaking sequences (such as when the son’s estranged mom, hopelessly addicted to drugs, manages to hold it together and pass herself off for normal during a one-day reunion), considerations on how to forge a painting, and a lot of John Travolta brooding on-screen as the titular protagonist. In other words, The Forger is its own kind of movie, heavier on drama than thrills, the likes of which doesn’t fit in today’s all-spectacular theatrical ecosystem. Travolta does pretty good work in a role far less flashy and far more brooding than he’s usually asked to play. The film itself feels a bit dull and unfocused (the heist itself feels like an afterthought), but that may just be a reflection of how today’s audiences have been conditioned to accept more flash and a consistent tone throughout an entire film. For a similar experience in selecting a genre picture that turns out to be a drama, also see Mark Wahlberg’s The Gambler.
(On Cable TV, February 2014) There is, admittedly, some interest in seeing Robert de Niro going head-to-head with John Travolta in a no-holds-barred brawl through the Appalachians. But the interest in seeing Killing Season pretty much stops at its concept, because the film turns out to be a far duller and gorier in its execution than it should have been. Never mind the dull prologue, the interminable setup or the pretentious dialogues that drown the rest of the film’s quick-and-violent aims: Killing Season seems flawed from the beginning, from casting to the uneasy mixture of art-house bon mots with grind-house blood. While the violent match-up between John Travolta and Robert de Niro isn’t without interest, it’s hard to shake the feeling that neither of those actors are right for their respective roles. Travolta gets to indulge into fancy facial hair and an even fancier accent, but doesn’t have the gravitas required for playing a Serbian soldier with a murderous grudge. Meanwhile, de Niro seems out of place as a cranky ex-soldier: he’s too old to play the character (especially given the action sequences in the film), and his established persona is far more social/urban than being holed up in a cabin. For two people who, by mid-film, are pretty dead set on killing each other, the film drags on, and on, with an escalating number of scenes where the characters get graphically mauled or tortured. The gore increases the contrast between the exploitation roots of the premise and the talky themes it attempts to explore along the way: while action thrillers can certainly use action explore weightier themes, Killing Season simply seems to stop dead in-between its action beats as it talks and talks about the horrors of war and the way veterans never truly re-integrate peaceful society. Then there’s the weight of the film’s stars: While the film could have been an interesting discovery had it featured quasi-unknowns, it begs for more in featuring Travolta and de Niro. Anyone seeing it on cable TV listings may watch it thinking that it’s a bigger and better film than it is… and disappointment will ensue.
(On-demand Video, November 2012) Oliver Stone certainly knows how to handle criminal mayhem, and if Savages isn’t as good overall as some of its strongest individual moments may suggest, it’s a fairly strong entry in the “California noir” thriller sub-genre. Strikingly contemporary with references to legal marijuana, omnipresent technology (including criminal IT teams) and America’s latest two wars, this efficient adaptation of Don Winslow’s hard-hitting novel is a colorful blend of upstanding criminals of all stripes. Central to the tale is the happy ménage-à-trois between two dedicated drug entrepreneurs and the woman who loves them both, but Savages’ best moments come from the peripheral players: A completely corrupt DEA agent played by John Travolta, a merciless enforcer incarnated by Benicio del Toro and a powerful drug baron handled with icy grace by Salma Hayek. All of them seem to be enjoying their turn to the dark side, so much so that the nominal protagonists of the film seem to fade away. What doesn’t fade, fortunately, is Stone’s attempt to translate the energy of the novel onto film, with self-assured choices, a colorful palette and plenty of narrative forward rhythm despite Savages’ 140-minutes running time. Alas, he also chooses to end on a double-triggered ending that gives unfortunate credence to the stereotype that every ending is happier in Hollywood, ruining a perfectly adequate conclusion with one that may unsettle even happy-ending fans. (Yes, it’s sort-of-prefigured with some narrative warnings at the very beginning of the film. No, it’s still not all that effective –a more powerful film may have been produced by flipping the endings.) Also unfortunate: Blake Lively’s inert voiceovers that seem to be taken from laborious readings of trite material, and the way some subplots seem abandoned mid-way through. Still, there’s a lot to like in the way those modern criminals try to gain advantage over each other, various methods and tricks all eventually leading to a desert confrontation. It’s a bit of a treat for thriller fans looking for something a bit more ambitious than the usual straight-to-video suspense film. Stone may have trouble focusing, but despite significant missteps, Savages frequently clicks when other thrillers chug along, and that’s enough of a distinction to warrant a look.
(Second Viewing, on DVD, February 2011) I hadn’t seen Broken Arrow since its opening weekend in theatres, but I’m not really surprised to see that it has held up so well as an action film. The mid-to-late nineties had some fantastic examples of the form (Speed, The Rock, Face/Off, etc.) and Broken Arrow still holds the distinction of being one of John Woo’s better American features. Structured around a script by Graham Yost, Broken Arrow features a pleasant mixture of military technology, criminal activity and all-out action indulgence. Christian Slater is forgettable as the hero and baby-faced Samatha Matthis looks completely lost as an action heroine, but John Travolta steals the show as a charismatic scenery-chewing villain, coolly charming as a killer with the best dialogue in the entire film. (From the seminal “Ain’t it cool?” (dot-com) to the clenched-teeth “Would you mind not shooting at the thermonuclear weapons?”) Planes, helicopters, trucks and trains are all destroyed along the way, but the clarity of the film’s action sequences still holds up as a fine example of the genre, especially after the erosion of action filmmaking during the last overly-edited decade. Here, every shot seems meaningful, and we get to appreciate both pending dangers and minute developments. A few of the night-time effect shots look dated, but the rest is still technically impressive. Broken Arrow doesn’t make too much sense and definitely feels contrived, but it still carries an action-packed charge with a smile and presents B-grade action films as they should be more often. The 2010 DVD re-release, sadly, is not even enhanced for widescreen TVs and offers no other features than the trailer –a real shame considering the documentary material available to a logistics-heavy action film.
(In theatres, February 2010) Action comedies are tough to screw up, but leave it to Luc Besson to do his best. Besson’s not know for his subtlety, after all, and whenever he starts writing scripts, one can expect the worst. At first glance, From Paris With Love seems idiot-proof: Match a young bookish secret agent (Jonathan Rhys-Meyer) with a older, wilder operative (John Travolta), add a little bit of terrorism, shoot up everything in Paris and voilà. For a while, it even works: it doesn’t matter if the plot makes no sense from the start: This is an action comedy, and it’s not supposed to. As Travolta grins shoots his way through restaurants without a single care for consequences, it’s almost fun. The occasional meaningless drug interlude aside, From Paris With Love starts as a competent B-grade action buddy comedy. Director Pierre Morel does fine with the action sequences. The film is nothing spectacular, nothing particularly achieved, but well enough to pass the time. But then, and it’s hard to be specific without spoilers, the film truly sours once the third act gets underway: Suddenly, a big pile of drama lands into the film, and no one seems to know what to do with it: it breaks the flow, and sends the plot in another direction. That direction ends up more problematic than anyone could expect, as it lays bare the film’s overall misogyny and makes a repulsive mess out of the conclusion. By the time our two protagonists are back on the airport tarmac laughing and comparing the size of their guns (this isn’t a metaphor, but it could be), it’s hard to avoid thinking that something has gone horribly wrong in the writing stages. From Paris With Love wishes it could get away with just being a forgettable entry in the action/comedy sub-genre. Instead, it’s saddled with elements that go out of its core mission, and a remarkably obnoxious attitude towards women. Can someone stop Besson from writing without adult supervision ever again?
(In theaters, June 1997) The best action movies always have an extra layer of… depth to them. Die Hard, Aliens, Terminator 2, even The Rock all had a strong cast of character to give meaning to the action so the bullets weren’t flying around for nothing. Face/Off succeeds so well in this regard that it would have been interesting even without the superior actions sequences that pepper the script. The story begins where most other action movies end: Bad Psycho Terrorist (Nicolas Cage) is arrested by Good Straight Policeman (John Travolta) But soon, cop has terrorist’s face and vice-versa and we’re set for a fascinating exploration of the mind/body duality (and a few explosions on the side.) Both leads are just great, as is director Woo. Despite many impossibilities, the script works very well and even offers a few moments of genuine emotion. Even better, the female characters are strong, and not limited to the helpless hostage role. Face/Off holds together better than most of the recent action movies in memory: satisfying, solid entertainment.
(Second viewing, On VHS, May 2000) This holds up well three years later, mostly because director John Woo knew where to build on a better-than-average action script to produce a film closer to his own themes. Nicolas Cage and John Travolta bring considerable credence to a tale that might otherwise have seemed utterly preposterous. The directing is clean, stylish and exciting and the action set-pieces don’t disappoint. Definitely worth a second viewing.