Tag Archives: John Lithgow

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Interstellar (2014) 3.7/5 (8)

 

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Rating: The Good – 71.5
Genre: Science Fiction, Adventure
Duration: 169 mins
Director: Christopher Nolan
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Michael Caine, Matt Damon

An elegantly directed sci-fi adventure considerably undermined by yet another painfully flat Nolan screenplay, Interstellar charts the epic attempts of a small group of scientists and astronauts to locate a planet capable of supporting the human race as its Earthly sustenance quickly dries up. Mathew McConaughey heads the cast as the mission’s pilot desperate to get back to the children he left behind before they age beyond the point where he can help them while Ann Hathaway’s stiffish scientist and a couple of nicely conceived robots keep him company on board the spacecraft. Back on Earth, Michael Caine is the brains behind the mission, Jessica Chastain is the grown up version of McConaughey’s equally clever daughter, and Casey Affleck is his son who, like the majority of remaining humans, is attempting to farm what’s left of their desertification-headed planet.

Regaining his 2008 Dark Knight directorial form, writer-director Christopher Nolan composes a quite beautiful and thrilling action thriller that achieves a perfect balance between mood and energy with no small help from Hans Zimmer’s sublime score. Making the deftest use of Hoyte Van Hoytema’s stark and striking cinematography, he avoids overplaying the CGI card keeping the story front and centre. The story isn’t bad either and, predictable as its key moments are, it serves Nolan’s grand ambitions for a Kubrickian like space epic. More the pity then that the screenplay does not. Bloated with expositional dialogue and artificial sentiment, it bungles its way towards a gargantuan mishandling of a straightforward (“save the world before it’s too late”) premise with the kind of overblown piece of psycho-physical drivel that plagued Inception. Co-penned with his more adept writer-brother (Jonathan sat Inception out), this script at least shows more restraint than that 2010 monument to tedium but not nearly enough to engender its protagonists nor their dilemmas with the depth and cadences that the premise deserved. The well conceived drama emerging from the astronauts ageing more slowly than their loved ones back home is an exception to this and proves to be the movie’s one successful appeal to the audience’s emotions.

Ultimately, the problem with Interstellar is yet again one of Nolan reaching beyond his capabilities by attempting to match the work of masters who simply operated at a level higher than his own (that’s not an insult Chris, most filmmakers toil in the shadows of Kubrick and Tarkovsky!). The innumerable references to 2001: A Space Odyssey eventually feel less like a homage and more like an attempt to disguise that failure, proving far more imitative than emulative. That said, the couple of HAL-inspired robots (the Bill Irwin-voiced “TARS” in particular) work fantastically within the confines of this story, coming alive in a whirl of mechanised motion during the best of the action sequences and adding most of the humour outside of them. And, thankfully, it’s these such lighter more grounded touches that sees Interstellar passing muster as a sci-fi thriller even while failing as an attempt at something more profound.

Cliffhanger (1993) 3.04/5 (7)

 

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Rating: The Ugly – 66.5
Genre: Action
Duration: 112 mins
Director: Renny Harlin
Stars: Sylvester Stallone, John Lithgow, Michael Rooker

A truly awful screenplay meets some of the hammiest acting straight on in this entertaining action romp about a group of mercenaries who co-opt a couple of mountain climbers into their attempt to locate briefcases full of money lost in a mountain wilderness. John Lithgow adds yet another impossibly over the top turn to his catalogue as the merciless leader of the bad guys, Stallone is actually a little better than usual as the burly yet modest climbing expert, Michael Rooker offers sound presence to the mix but Janine Turner is much too bland to matter. Where Cliffhanger succeeds is in giving us a veritable kaleidoscope of nastiness in the bad guy department. From Rex Linn’s crooked treasury agent and 24 carat asshole to Caroline Goodall’s murderous vixen and with a couple/three very punchable faces thrown in between, these guys are the best bunch of venom spitting henchmen since Die Hard. Alas, without much of a script to harness the interesting personalities which the actors bring to the party, that’s all they remain and whatever fun there is to be had, is at watching these world class bastards get their well deserved comeuppances.

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Pelican-Brief

The Pelican Brief (1993) 3.09/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 66.7
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 141 mins
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Stars: Julia Roberts, Denzel Washington, Sam Shepard

Alan J. Pakula’s adaptation of John Grisham’s novel is a somewhat ponderous tale of political intrigue concerning the assassination of two Supreme Court judges and the law student and journalist who uncover the plot. Julia Roberts plays the determined law student and Denzel Washington the hot shot journalist who compile and investigate the dangerously accurate theory of why the judges were killed while dodging bullets, car bombs, and anything else the assassins who are pursuing them can come up with.

The plot to the film has a classical edge to it in that it’s simple in essence but revolves around a number of parties. It unfolds in a way that adds colour to the story and keeps the audience guessing which is exactly what you want from a thriller. Pakula’s direction of the tenser moments is fine if a little underwhelming but his ability to build tension through pacing and framing works its usual magic in the earlier sequences. A scene introducing Stanley Tucci’s hit-man recalls some of the cloak and dagger intrigue of All the Presidents’ Men and the patient buildup of the assassinations echoes similar sequences in The Parallax View.

Moreover, what some might consider a weakness – the lack of a romantic relationship between the two central characters – is actually one of the movie’s strengths, adding, as it does, more interest and unspoken depth to their interchanges. A central platonic dynamic wasn’t decided upon for that reason, however, but  rather because Hollywood still had (had?) a problem with interracial romances back in the 90’s. Thankfully, that’s all changed…!

The problem with the movie emerges as it progresses. Roberts’ star was at its zenith around the time that this film was made and it leads to a peculiar problem. The movie seems to be caught between being a substantial thriller where plot comes first and a vehicle for its headline act. Thus, when the story needs to be pushed forward it often stands still for an unnecessarily long emotional scene in which Julia shows off her acting chops. This places a drag on the film’s momentum and affects the relevance of other characters, many of whom, are relegated to obscure cameos. Sam Shepard is more than capable in one of the more extended roles (Roberts’ law professor and secret lover) as is John Lithgow (Washington’s editor) but Tony Goldwyn (the president’s nefarious chief counsel) and particularly William Atherton (the Head of CIA) are wasted.

Though neither as popular nor respected as Roberts was at time time, Washington was himself arguably climbing rapidly towards the peak of his powers in the early-mid 90’s. Yet, he almost gets lost here. Not for a lack of talent of course but because the story seems to realign itself with Robert’s character at times when his character should be coming to the fore. Roberts, for her part, was never a bad actress and she had and continues to have huge presence. She’s quite good in the role of the frightened yet wilful young go-getter but her character’s whispering grief at key moments in the film can be a little irritating – like listening to someone in need of a good cough!

For hardened fans of intrigue and shadowy plot, The Pelican Brief will fall far short of those classics that gave its sub-genre and the film’s director its standing. Nonetheless, it remains a worthy stab at a Grisham legal thriller and there’s enough there to satisfy anyone looking for a couple of hours of engaging conspiracy drama.

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Blow Out (1981) 4.57/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 78
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 107 mins
Director: Brian De Palma
Stars: John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow

If Brian De Palma’s 1981 movie was made today by someone like Quentin Tarantino, it would be hailed as a masterpiece which defines the fresh playfulness of the modern cinematic era….and rightly so. However, this just goes to show how ahead of his time De Palma actually was (or how slow mainstream cinema was in catching up). John Travolta stars as a B-movie sound man who while out one night recording stock sounds, ends up recording a car accident from which he rescues a young woman (Nancy Allen). When he tells the police that the accident sounded like it was preceded by a gun shot he gets told to keep it quiet and when he tries to go about proving it with his recording he inadvertently puts the girl’s life in danger.

Blow Out opens with a delicious film-within-a-film vignette as Travolta and his on-screen director are watching the dailies of their latest slasher film – which is so well lit and staged that you wouldn’t mind seeing the full feature! This sets a tone to the movie that persists throughout as Travolta uses the tools of movie making to elucidate the crime that De Palma’s movie is built around. This gives the entire movie a kind of through-the-looking-glass feel as everything seems overtly cinematic and otherworldly. The lighting and production design are vividly captured and De Palma’s striking use of staging even in the quieter, more insignificant moments seems conspicuously relevant to the movie’s vibe. The characters too, in particular Allen’s ditsy female lead and John Lithgow’s creepy assassin, feel purposefully overblown.

As is typical with De Palma, there are a host of dazzling set pieces (arguably more here than in any of his other movies) the best of which surely being that ingeniously crafted night-time sound recording scene. Travolta is in top form and his relationship with Allen’s character is believable and interesting yet much different to the malevolent pairing they shared in Carrie. Lithgow is equally entertaining in a peculiar sort of way.

Blow Out is a movie-lover’s delight and required viewing for anyone who enjoys intelligent cinema. It’s dark, it’s suspenseful, and like all De Palma’s great work, it’s wonderfully dramatic.

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Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) 1.79/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Bad – 41.4
Genre: Science Fiction
Duration: 105 mins
Director: Rupert Wyatt
Stars: James Franco, Andy Serkis, Freida Pinto

There was a time when remakes, reboots, prequels, and to a lesser extent sequels were about reinterpretation (e.g., Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and re-imagining (e.g., Burton’s Batman) of classic films for a different age. Nowadays, there can be little doubt that the motive for such films is the lazy exploitation of an existing fan base and/or brand name and with absolutely no regard for the legacy of the classic they’re piggybacking. More often than not, these re-makes are so bad that they are widely acknowledged as such and so there’s no need to kick up a fuss. However, sometimes, even the bad remakes are lauded as worthy successors to the original classic. Rise of Planet of the Apes seems to be an example of the latter.

Set up as an origins movie, Rupert Wyatt’s movie attempts to shed light on how the apes became smart. James Franco plays a young scientist trying to discover a cure for Alzheimer’s by genetically enhancing some chimps. Cue a heavily contrived ape slaughtering sequence that forces him to raise the sole surviving ape in secret. An ape called Caesar (sigh!). From that point on, the film deteriorates into one of the dumbest movies in years. For instance, Franco’s character hooks up with a primatologist towards the end of the first act, right before the film accelerates five years into the future during which time we see vignettes of Caesar playing chess, solving puzzles, and perfectly holding conversations with Franco through sign language. The film stops accelerating and we find Franco, Caesar, and the primatologist in the woods where they are bringing Caesar for a walk, all the while Franco and Caesar are signing back and forth in full blown symbolic conversation. An incident occurs and Caeser and Franco agree (in front of her) to tell this trained primatologist that he’s not an ordinary ape! One wonders where she went to primatology school, given that she was in close proximity to this freak of nature for the previous five years and still needed to be told that! As if that wasn’t idiotic enough, Caesar is later sent to a primate enclosure where he strikes up a friendship with an orangutan who learned to sign in the circus and who proceeds to engage in full blown symbolic conversations with Caeser. Hang on a minute! Isn’t the whole point of the movie to explain how the apes took over the world and isn’t that explanation genetic engineering? If so, does the inclusion of an ape intelligent enough to sign full conversations simply because he was trained in a circus not invalidate the whole premise to your movie? Of course, the other (perhaps more pedantic) issue with that aspect to the story is that apes are completely incapable of holding conversations through sign language because 1) they rarely learn more than a 100 signs 2) they seem flat out incapable of generating three-word pairings the types of which, children master by the age of two and 3) there is no conclusive evidence they can spontaneously generate signs which would preclude the strong possibility their signs are simple stimulus response reactions to unconscious cues given off by their trainers.

Once you poke holes in the flimsy attempt to make this a “smart” science-based thriller, the movie simply becomes a vehicle for apes fighting humans and even in that baser attempt, it comes off as decidedly pedestrian. The tension is manipulated in the most crass and cliched ways – cue nasty zookeeper who likes to be mean to animals (yes, we get the symmetry with the original but that was to make a point by turning the norm on its head. Reversing it is only pointing back to the norm and what’s so special about that?). The emotions are manipulated with token references to Alzheimer’s in a superficial attempt to give Franco’s character a personal stake in his research – cue nauseating Hollywood earnestness. The action sequences are so uninspired and manically conceived that they resort to the old trick of building the largest of them around a landmark (in this case the Golden Gate Bridge….again) to make it in anyway memorable. Then on top of all that, there is the most cloy, predictable, and frankly ridiculous ending in years.

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2010: The Year We Made Contact (1984) 4.29/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 77
Genre: Science Fiction
Duration: 116 mins
Director: Peter Hyams
Stars: Roy Scheider, John Lithgow, Helen Mirren

Though on paper this counts as a sequel to Kubrick’s masterpiece, the film is better served if the audience treats it as a stand alone straight-shooting sci-fi. As the latter, this film stands up quite well compared to most space-based science-fiction. It tells a compelling story of a joint US-Soviet mission to Jupiter to investigate a strange mysterious monolith orbiting one of the planet’s moons that may or may not have caused a previous mission to fail and leave the derelict ship adrift. The fact that the new mission is taking place against a backdrop of political instability between the two super-powers strains diplomatic relations between the on-board astronauts and scientists resulting in a climate of distrust. Veteran sci-fi director Peter Hyams (he who gave us the excellent Outland) does a beautiful job with the look of the film (he also took on DP duties) and the special effects are striking even to this day. The acting is first rate with the always great Roy Scheider providing a strong lead and John Lithgow, Bob Balaban, and Helen Mirren all doing well in support. However, operating in the shadow of 2001: A Space Odyssey was never going to be easy and while Hyams is technically adept he (like everyone else) was never going to be able to match Kubrick in terms of his vision. His only real mistake was that he gave it a go and as a result we get a pretty ham-fisted message-laden ending which the film could’ve done without. Minus that ending, however, and this is an excellent film.

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