Monday, January 23, 2012

Doug Asks Patrick Questions About Movies

Patrick knows a lot about movies. Doug has seen Idle Hands dozens of times. In an effort to expand Doug's cinematic horizons, he'll be asking Patrick questions about movies in a column we're calling "Doug Asks Patrick Questions About Movies."

John Travolta: good actor, lucky, or both?

I guess some of both. My feeling is that John Travolta has often been a really good movie star more than a really good actor (both Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts also fall under this category), which is to say that his screen presence has as much to do with his charisma and likability as it does with his acting ability. He's awesome in a handful of movies -- Saturday Night Fever, Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty and especially Blow Out (his best performance and my favorite of his movies) -- but even when he's not, he's pretty watchable even in junk like Broken Arrow and Swordfish. Well, up until about eight or 10 years ago, that is -- anything pre-Wild Hogs/Hairspray/Old Dogs. Nowadays when Travolta shows up in a movie, it's pretty much a guarantee that it's not something I'll want to see. He might as well be Robin Williams at this point. I don't know if I have such a hard time watching him these days because he's turned into such a desperately toupeed caricature of a movie star, or because it's a sad reminder that he was once pretty cool and blew it. Twice.

I know children (myself included) don't always have the best taste when it comes to movies. Better judgment, of course, matures over time. What was the first movie you saw as a kid that made you think to yourself, "Man, that's just not good," and how old were you?

Hmmm. I remember being taken to the drive-in when I was very, very young to see Close Encounters of the Third Kind but spending most of the time trying to see the Dino DeLaurentis remake of King Kong on the next screen,  but that has less to do with my developing tastes than it does for my three-year old attention span and my innate affection for gigantic apes. I'm pretty sure there are earlier examples of this, but I definitely remember going to see The Jewel of the Nile in '85 (it was one of two outings to the movies as a family that year) and not liking it, which was only noteworthy because I had been taken to see Romancing the Stone (under protest) one year prior and fucking loved it. That meant that I wasn't just responding negatively to the actors or the tone or even the story, necessarily (it's not like they took me to see Out of Africa), because I had enjoyed this same combination of elements before. And, yet, something felt off about the follow-up, and even at 7 or 8 I understood the difference between a movie knowing the words and a movie knowing the music. I wasn't yet able to articulate what was wrong (that wouldn't happen until age 10, the year of Spaceballs and Harry and the Hendersons), but I knew I didn't really like it. When you only get to see one two (at most) movies a year, having one of them be bad is a major disappointment. Luckily, the other movie I saw that year was Back to the Future.

Who is your favorite foreign (i.e., not American) director, and what movie confirmed this?

Listen: there's almost no way to answer this without sounding like a douche, so I'm going to dive right in and douche like a douchey douche. I willingly admit that there is a whole lot of world cinema to which I have not yet been exposed (unless Jason Statham movies count, because British), so I'm far from an authority on the subject. But if I'm picking a favorite classic non-American director, it's pretty easily Francois Truffaut. Part of that is just because I dig on French New Wave movies, but unlike a lot of Godard (which sometimes feel like homework) or Melville movies (which are great, but mostly variations on the same gangster movie), Truffaut is one of the most humanistic filmmakers ever. His movies are so personal and authentic -- probably The 400 Blows more than any other. That was my introduction to Truffaut, and probably still my favorite of his movies, though on any given day it could just as easily be Jules and Jim or Shoot the Piano Player or Small Change.

These days, my favorite contemporary non-American filmmaker is Korean director Kim Jee-woon, which is interesting only because his movies (and many of the Korean movies I dig on) are almost the total opposite of Truffaut's. Unlike Truffaut's naturalistic approach, Kim Jee-Woon movies are all about crazy heightened emotion and over-the-top style. Also, everyone in them is Korean. I'm on record as really loving his last movie, I Saw the Devil, but both The Good, The Bad, The Weird and A Tale of Two Sisters are equally incredible but in very different ways (and if anyone has access to a legal copy of A Bittersweet Life that's Region free, email me at fthismoviepodcast(at) The fact that he's directing Arnold Schwarzenegger's comeback movie The Last Stand has me all bonered up.

2011's The Artist is getting major props from critics and fans alike. Some even think it may win the Academy Award for best picture. I haven't seen it yet. What are three essential silent films that will whet my appetite?

Wow. Foreign movies and silent film. Next time, ask me about the films of the cast of Friends so I can talk about some shit I know. I think if you're really looking to get into silent movies, it would be best to start with the comedies; they've aged the best, because funny is funny is funny, and because their very nature means that they don't necessarily depend on dialogue to work. They're maybe the most accessible genre of the silent era, and that's important so that you don't bail on all of silent cinema before even giving it a chance. With that in mind, I'd go with:
City Lights (Chaplin, 1931)
Safety Last (1923, starring Harold Lloyd)
Sherlock Jr. (Keaton, 1924)

The three best known silent comedians. Three very different styles of comedy. Three really great movies. Be warned: nobody talks.

Who was your first screen actress crush, and what movie was she in?

She was a TV actress, so I hope it counts, but my first boy/girl thing was for Nancy McKeon of The Facts of Life.

Who could resist?
She did a pair of TV movies in the early '80s, High School U.S.A. and Poison Ivy, which I couldn't have been more excited to see -- not just because she was in them, but because she was playing the romantic lead opposite Michael J. Fox, who I wanted to be as a kid. This was even before Back to the Future, too; it was based just on Family Ties. And maybe Midnight Madness, if I'm being honest with myself. When he used his retainer to kickstart that elevator, it confirmed what I already suspected: that Canadian fucker can do anything.


  1. My first crush was also a TV actress, "Family's" Kristy McNichol. She was a fine good-looking teen that had an approachability and warmth that just won me over. The weekend she 'came out' as a lesbian this past January TCM-Underground (Fridays at 2AM) premiered McNichol's 1980 movie "Little Darlings," in which Kristy's character tries to lose her virginity to the ape-like townie summer camp counselor played by then-16 year old Matt Dillon. Coincidence, or did McNichol flashed back to being deflowered by Dillon and said 'the hell with men, I'm gay' after she rewatched "Little Darling"? We'll never know.

    I'd also recommend Doug check out two movies from Fritz Lang if he seriously (yeah right!) wants to 'get' silent cinema: 1927's "The Complete Metropolis" (on Kino DVD/BD and on TCM on a semi-regular basis) and 1931's "M" (Criterion DVD/BD). The former is the most famous and classic of all silent cinema spectacles, the 'summer blockbuster that bombed' of its time (before those terms were even thought of) that is re-discovered by audiences and survives decades of missing more than a third of its length through its influence on every movie/cartoon/media that came after it. Just the fact since 2010 we can watch an almost-complete version of it is a miracle. Thousands of cinephiles since the 1930's died wishing to see a more complete version of "Metropolis," and we're the generation that lucked out. "M" isn't a silent movie (it's one of Germany's and Fritz Lang's first 'talkie' movies) but the way the director plays with sound by choosing when and when not to use it makes for a playful and enjoyable (within the crime genre's rules) transition movie between talkie and silent. Plus it's a goddamn masterpiece, with Peter Lorre's finest (and creepiest) performance on film ever.

    Truffaut leaves me cold or hot depending on the movie, but when's hot ("Jules et Jim," "Day for Night," "400 Blows," etc.) he smokes his fellow New Wave French counterparts. I have Jean Constantine's soundtrack of "400 Blows" on my MP3 player, even the 'loop' music when Doinel is running from the menu screen of the Criterion DVD.

    Travolta is a lucky bastard who hasn't done anything that's interested me since long before "Wild Hogs." "Face Off" was the last great movie he starred in that was good, and as part of an ensemble he was OK in "The Thin Red Line." But those were director's movies (Woo and Malick, respectively). For every "Grease" or "Pulp Fiction" there are a dozen "General's Daughter" or "Battlefield Earth's" to contend with. Never seen "Blow Out" though, so maybe there's still one or two more 'good' Travolta performance left for me to eventually discover.

  2. I couldn't agree more with J.M.'s second paragraph (sorry, Family Ties was before my time, which sounds strange considering that I'm recommending silent films.) I'd also add "The Passion of Joan of Arc" to the essential silents list, as well as an under-seen comedy gem, "The Patsy." The latter isn't as stagy as, say, Keaton's "The General," but it holds up as one of the best written family comedies.

    I think Truffaut's always hot (um...what did I just type?) but J.M. and I of the same mind when it comes to which films are his best, "Day for Night," especially.

    I finally disagree that "Face/Off" was the last good Travolta movie. That honor belongs to "A Civil Action," though it's fair to say his performance was overshadowed by Robert Duvall, James Gandolfini, Harry Dean Stanton, John Lithgow...OK almost every other cast member. Hell, even It's Always Sunny's Rob McElhenney leaves more of an impression credited as the third "Teenager on Property." But, regardless, "Blow Out" is still cream of the crop in his filmography for sure.

  3. John Travolta is a movie star who can give very good performances but continually chooses bad material.

    Favorite foreign director : David Cronenberg (he's Canadian, natch). Film that confirmed this : Spider. Who else could turn a clinical study of an hebephrenic schizophrenic into an interesting film?

    If you want a foreign language filmmaker I'll go with Rainer Werner Fassbinder due to his prolifity and brazenness.

    As far as Truffaut goes I've only seen 4 of his films and loved them all except for Shoot The Piano Player which I couldn' get into.

    Silent Movie Primer : i have to agree with The Complete Metropolis, I'd add another German masterpiece : F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh and substitute City Lights with Modern Times.

    First screen actress crush: Also a t.v. related one. There were still reruns of the old Adam West Batman show when I was a kid and I had a huge crush on Catwoman (Julie Newmar). I've been a Batman fan ever since!

  4. Gonna go the superficial route and skip to on-screen crush. I don't know if it was my first or not, but it's the first that comes to mind:

    Jennifer Connelly in THE ROCKETEER. I

  5. Linda Carter! Wonder Woman!

  6. Woohoo, a Chaplin mention. From now on can I be Heath "Chaplin" Holland? Maybe it can just catch on like characters from a 70s TV show? Or like characters from GI Joe? So I'm Chaplin, and Patrick can be either "McFly" although "Goldie" would be more fun and ironic. And Doug can be "Spano." JB could perhaps be "Cornelius," given his Planet of the Apes affection. See how I've just boiled us all down to shallow, surface labels? And how I barely added anything to this conversation? Chaplin out.

  7. In the past week I've added Ben Hur, Bridge on the River Kwai and Vertigo to my list of old movies watched and loved but will have to delve into the silent stuff and see if my new-found appreciation for the classics extends that far back. Will also have to see if it extends to other countries...thanks for all the suggestions.

    Re John Travolta, I'd have to chalk most of his success up to luck as I don't think he's one of those GREAT actors that was destined for success - just a good actor (with a lot of charisma) who scored a couple plum roles that led to the Granddaddy of all plum roles in Pulp Fiction that led to a whole whack of mostly mediocre crap. And then there's the Scientology crap, of which this Dude does not abide.

    As far as screen-crushes go, I can't remember which came first: Alyssa Milano from "Who's The Boss" or Elizabeth Shue from "Adventures in Babysitting" - either way, bonus points for eventually getting to see their boobs! I will refrain from using the phrase "all bonered up" in this context as I believe it works better metaphorically than literally.