Monday, January 23, 2012
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)gmail.com). 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?