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John Travolta

Review: Primary Colors

[Originally written for Mr. Showbiz, March 20, 1998]

Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for years.

It will be fascinating to see what Primary Colors, Mike Nichols’s smart, creepy, scrupulously ambivalent movie inspired by a certain 1992 campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination, plays like in two months. And six months. And next year. Likewise, it wouldn’t have seemed quite the same movie if it had been released two months ago, before l’affaire Lewinsky. And surely it’s not quite the same film that Nichols, screenwriter Elaine May, et al. thought they were going to make after buying the screen rights to the 1996 roman à clef by veteran political reporter Joe Klein—even if it’s still, word for word and shot for shot, the movie they envisioned at the time.

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Review: The Thin Red Line (SAx)

[Originally written for Seattle Weekly, January 6, 1999]

Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for years.

Terrence Malick’s breathlessly anticipated return to the director’s chair The Thin Red Line rewrites the World War II platoon genre much the same way his directorial debut, Badlands, drove the ‘outlaw couple road film’ onto rarely explored backroads of the American unconscious. As the second ambitious war epic to emerge in the last year it’s bound to comparisons with Steven Spielberg’s much-lauded Saving Private Ryan, which plunged audiences into the overwhelming carnage of D-Day before settling into a platoon film narrative.

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Review: The Thin Red Line (RTJ)

[Originally written for Mr. Showbiz, December 25, 1998]

Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for years.

Few films have aroused higher expectations than The Thin Red Line, the first movie written and directed by Terrence Malick since he unveiled Days of Heaven twenty years ago. Days of Heaven contained some of the most rapturous and mysterious images ever to shimmer on-screen. What people have tended to forget is that it also featured characters who hovered between the inchoate and the opaque, and a narrative in which cause and effect were sometimes elusive even within the minimal plot. Those virtues and liabilities are both on abundant display in Malick’s latest.

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Review: Carrie

[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]

For the past 16 years I’ve been unable to step into a shower without thinking of Psycho. For the next 16, Carrie will have the same effect on me. The film’s opening credits sequence is the most audacious voyeuristic fantasy Brian De Palma has yet given us. In Sisters, an apparently blind woman mistook the men’s dressing room for the women’s, walked in and started to undress as we watched. In Carrie, in a sort of National Lampoon–ish low camp, De Palma takes his camera into a high school girls’ lockerroom just after gym class. But even more quickly than it does in Sisters, the adolescent leering turns to painfully mature shock and horror. In the locker room scene and throughout the film that follows, De Palma has captured the uniquely abominable cruelty of which adolescents are capable (a side of high school that’s been conveniently overlooked in recent TV and movie high school nostalgia); and, though it may be a bit overstated here, it’s a chillingly universal basis on which to build a monumental film of emotional and spiritual horror.

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Blow Out: De Palma, Down to Earth in Conspiracyland

Blow Out (Criterion)

Is it too sweeping to call Jack Terry, the B-movie soundman of Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, John Travolta’s best performance ever? So be it. Who knew that De Palma—a director still more often than not dismissed as a technician with a Hitchcock obsession, a facility for bravura camerawork and a penchant for split screens—would be the director to best showcase Travolta’s talents? Or that Travolta would help bring out the best in De Palma? Fresh off the success of his psycho-sexual dream cinema of Dressed to Kill, Blow Out takes us out of the sleek, stylish, rarified worlds of the affluent and drops us into the working class and street culture of urban Philadelphia, where the flag-waving bash surrounding the Liberty Bell Bicentennial comes off like a small town civic celebration blown up by a big city budget.

John Travolta as soundman Jack Terry with the tool of his trade

Blow Out arrived in 1981 as the end of the seventies run of political conspiracy thrillers like an aftershock. Critics were quick to jump on the connections to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (it’s not like the title or the premise made it hard to come to that conclusion) and the echoes of Chappaquiddick, Watergate and various political assassinations of recent history. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation was brought up far less frequently, though it’s easily as important a wellspring for De Palma’s transformative work, and Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, perhaps not so much an inspiration as a fellow traveler in the underside of conspiracy cinema, not at all

De Palma’s story is built on Jack Terry, the B-movie soundman played with easy amiability and modest professionalism by John Travolta. Front and center is the actor’s easy likability and screen warmth, a regular guy in the right place at the wrong time as an earwitness to a car accident and a gunshot. What was to be a humiliating scandal involving a political candidate veered into assassination, with our hero saving a hooker (Nancy Allen) from a drowning car and the police hushing the entire incident up. Not out of knowing complicity, mind you, simply playing ball to protect a political reputation in death. At first it galls Jack, and then, as evidence is destroyed and witnesses murdered, it scares him. He’s the blue collar everyman, less an idealistic champion of justice than a guy tired of being lied to. Plus, as long as the truth is buried, he’s a target of the self-styled “Liberty Bell Killer,” the façade our sinister and unstable political operative (a slim, unsettlingly non-descript John Lithgow) appropriates to cover up his real endgame.

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Review: Saturday Night Fever

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

In intent and intensity, Saturday Night Fever falls somewhere between West Side Story and Mean Streets. The former film is specifically evoked by the dwelling on Romeo and Juliet. When disco king Tony Manero takes his prospective dance-contest partner Stephanie Mangano out to tea, she plays a humiliation game with him, saying that though their origins are the same, she is now of a different kind, and implying that she is too good for him. The lovers aren’t exactly star-crossed, but they have their share of differences to overcome; and contrary to what Stephanie would like to believe, the inadequacies aren’t all on Tony’s side. After all, wondering why Romeo was so quick to take the poison is a valid response to Romeo and Juliet—much more so than her tossed-off response that “That’s the way they did it in those days.”

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