Tag Archives: John Lithgow

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).


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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.).


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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).


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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).


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