Tag Archive: John Travolta


Carrie (1976): Grade: A+

Carrie-1976-Movie-Poster

Is this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime? Carrie is available for rent via Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime.

Directed by: Brian De Palma

Written by: Lawrence D. Cohen

Starring: Sissy Spacek, John Travolta, Piper Laurie, Amy Irving, William Katt, Nancy Allen, Betty Buckley, P.J. Soles, Sydney Lassick

“They’re all going to laugh at you.”

The 1970’s is considered to be one of cinema’s golden ages and, according to film purists, the last decade where art dominated the business end of movie-making. Unlike today, the 70’s marked a time when studio executives respected and trusted the filmmaker’s vision to guide the final product that audiences would see. The decade also witnessed the emergence of a new generation of filmmakers that was film school-educated, counterculture-bred, and young. They were dubbed the New Hollywood and some of the most prominent names in film history belonged to this class: Woody Allen, Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola, Sam Peckinpah, Robert Altman, Roman Polanski, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Brian De Palma, the director of Carrie.

Carrie marked a first in a couple of ways. For one, the film was an adaptation of Stephen King’s first novel (published in 1974), which is still considered among his very best, even by the author himself. The film also marked Brian De Palma’s first big commercial success after he made a series of respected Hitchcock-influenced films (Obsession, Sisters). The unexpected success of Carrie further spawned an endless cascade of Stephen King adaptations to the screen (Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, John Carpenter’s Christine, and Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me and Misery). Film adaptations of King’s novels continue to this day as we are about to endure Kimberly Pierce’s needless and recent remake of Carrie.

Carrie is Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), a lonely high school adolescent who endures daily ridicule and cruelty at the hands of her high school classmates. However, Carrie is special – she possesses powerful telekinetic powers. Unfortunately, her power is viewed as a sign of the devil by her crazy, religious nut of a mother (Piper Laurie), who makes Carrie sit in a closet for hours praying for forgiveness for her sins. After one particularly horrible incident, Carrie’s tormentors are placed under suspension by their P.E. teacher (and Carrie’s protector), Miss Collins (Betty Buckley). One of the girls, Sue Snell (Amy Irving), feels horrible about what she did to Carrie so she convinces her boyfriend, the popular Tommy Ross (William Katt), to take Carrie to the prom instead of her. However, another one of the girls, Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen), is pissed that she has been suspended because of Carrie so she, along with her nimwit boyfriend (John Travolta), plots revenge against Carrie on the night of the prom.

Stephen King’s novel was perfectly matched with Brian De Palma’s bold visual sense. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote of De Palma: “De Palma’s Carrie is an absolutely spellbinding horror movie, with a shock at the end that’s the best thing along those lines since the shark leaped aboard in Jaws. It’s also (and this is what makes it so good) an observant human portrait. This girl Carrie isn’t another stereotyped product of the horror production line; she’s a shy, pretty, and complicated high school senior who’s a lot like kids we once knew.” Carrie opens with what is undoubtedly one of the most memorable and horrific openings in a film – the girl’s locker room scene. The scene is gorgeously shot (see picture below) as steam from the showers softens the image on screen, giving the whole sequence a sexual fantasy feel. The serenity contained in these scenes is wonderfully complemented by Pino Donaggio’s romantic music score. As we pan across the locker room and watch the camaraderie between the young women, the camera finally settles on Carrie, all by herself in the shower, relaxed and at complete peace. That is, until De Palma pulls his well-known bait-and-switch and transforms his scene from one that is full of sexual innocence into one of pure horror. Carrie starts to bleed from her period and, not knowing what is happening to her, she begs and pleads her classmates to help her. However, Carrie is only greeted with ridicule and scorn as her classmates laugh and throw tampons at her.

This opening perfectly sets the tone of the entire movie. Although since Carrie’s release, realistic portrayals of high school and adolescence have become commonplace in movies, Carrie was the first film to portray high school like it really is: a less violent, but no less competitive, harsh, and cruel version of Lord of the Flies. Carrie White is the weak link in this society, and like animals with a sixth sense, the other, stronger kids can sense it and prey upon Carrie. The teachers are generally oblivious to the dynamics of this adolescent society. Even Miss Collins, the P.E. teacher, doesn’t understand that despite all of her good intentions to help and protect Carrie from the bullies, Carrie has been permanently marked an outcast by her peers and Miss Collins’ protection actually hurts more than helps Carrie (by placing Chris Hargensen on detention, Miss Collins’ motivates Chris to eventually dump the pig’s blood on Carrie at the prom).

Screen Shot 2013-10-20 at 9.43.10 PM

Sissy Spacek embodies Carrie White so fully and perfectly, that even with Spacek’s impressive filmography, I still cannot watch Sissy Spacek and not think of her as Carrie White. This role will forever remain Spacek’s defining role (perhaps tied with her Oscar-winning performance in Coal Miner’s Daughter). It is a testament to Spacek’s talents that she was able to effectively portray Carrie as a sweet, innocent, and very sympathetic young woman and at the same time show her to be a rage-filled woman with a frightening supernatural force she uses to kill every person, friend and foe, who has been involved in her life. Carrie does not fall within the category of one-dimensional, evil creations such as Michael Myers, Jason, and Freddy Kreuger. Thanks in no small part to Stephen King’s gifted ability to create characters that are so alive that you must think they exist in real life, Carrie White is a complex, fully developed character. Because of this, Carrie transcends the typical tropes of the horror genre to the point that to categorize Carrie as a horror film would be to undermine those qualities that makes this film such a classic.

Equaling Sissy Spacek’s performance in this film is Piper Laurie, who plays Margaret White, Carrie’s unhinged, religious fundamentalist mother (by the way, both actresses were nominated for Academy Awards for their performances). Although Carrie White officially fills the role that Michael Myers, Jason, and Freddy Kreuger play in their movies, Margaret White more appropriately represents these singularly evil personas than Carrie does. Margaret views the world (and her daughter) as one giant test from God that continually throws new temptations at her and Carrie to test their faith. No amount of reasoning can shake her beliefs, especially her belief that her daughter is a spawn of the devil. Given how the film was released only a few years after the counterculture movement of the 1960’s, with its attendant hippie communes that gave rise to religious cults, Stephen King and Brian De Palma seem to have taken the folksy, sandal wearing-guitar playing 60’s variant of Christianity and combined it with gothic, Puritanical sensibilities to create Margaret White.

The remaining cast of characters in Carrie pull in solid performances and nicely capture Stephen King’s sensibilities. Nancy Allen’s (Robocop’s female partner) Chris Hargensen is Carrie’s other antagonist, but one that could not be more apart in values from Carrie’s mom than Chris is. Chris reminds me of a mean and less sophisticated version of Lolita. Like Margaret White, Chris is singularly focused on one thing, but rather than religion, she is obsessed with exacting revenge on Carrie. John Travolta has a small part in this movie and he basically plays Chris’ dumb hillbilly boyfriend who goes along with whatever she wants so long as he gets a blowjob at the end of the day. Amy Irving also doesn’t get to do much here, but apparently it was enough to land her a date with Steven Spielberg (she was supposed to have been cast as Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but she lost the role after breaking up with Spielberg), who she later married and then divorced.

The most substantive and important supporting role belongs to William Katt (Greatest American Hero TV series, House), who plays Tommy, the most popular guy at school, and the one who takes Carrie to the prom. Sporting the blond perm, Katt looked like the quintessential 1970’s high school heartthrob. Katt’s only job in this movie is to be as cool and likeable as possible in order to set up the horrific nature of Carrie’s final act at the end of the movie. A lingering question remains after the film as to whether or not Tommy genuinely liked Carrie. There is an indication that he does during the prom, but the film never clears up what Tommy really thinks of Carrie. Had he lived, would he have pursued Carrie White, or would he have returned to his real girlfriend?

Speaking of the final act in Carrie, I never believed that any modern remake of the movie would allow Carrie White to kill every person at the prom, especially Miss Collins and Tommy. Sure enough, although I have not seen the recent remake, I know that Miss Collins (or Miss Deskardin in the remake) escapes along with some other students. That is a real shame because it takes away from the horrific nature of Carrie’s action. What makes this final scene so haunting is not the fact that Carrie goes absolute apeshit on the whole prom and burns it to the ground, but that she indiscriminately kills even those who were trying to help her, like Tommy and Miss Collins.

Brian De Palma is well known among cinephiles for his slavish devotion to Alfred Hitchcock. His films, especially his early ones from the 1970’s and 80’s, shared similar themes to Hitckcock’s films (Obsession, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out) and he paid generous homage to the master of suspense in many of his movies. In Carrie, Margaret White chases her daughter with a big ass knife that is reminiscent of Psycho. More tribute is paid to Psycho at the beginning of the Carrie, when we see the titular character in the shower, and we see that Carrie’s high school is named Bates High School, after the motel in Psycho. Carrie also features what has become Brian De Palma’s signature technique: the split screen (see picture below).

1976 Carrie Brian De Palma

Carrie gives a huge middle finger to a society that ultimately does not accept her despite every effort that Carrie White makes to fit in. Rather than end the story on a hopeful note in which Carrie perhaps finds love or new friends, she gets fed up and decides to burn it all to hell. This is what makes Carrie so memorable, haunting, and easily one of the best film adaptations of a Stephen King novel.

ImageThe Punisher is one of Marvel Comics’ most popular characters. Introduced in 1974, the Punisher was unlike the Marvel and DC superheroes of that time. An antihero vigilante, the Punisher uses murder and torture to dispose of his enemies, methods that most superheroes are against using. In the world of comic books, the Punisher was unique for a long time before the publishers decided to capitalize on his popularity and reimagine other superheroes such as Batman as more dark and violent. However, in the world of Hollywood, characters like the Punisher are a cliche. This type of character has existed since the days of Charles Bronson’s DEATHWISH and Clint Eastwood’s DIRTY HARRY films. Successfully translating the Punisher cinematically is very difficult to pull off because his origin story doesn’t stand out among the countless tough guy action movies that littered our cinematic landscape in the 80’s and 90’s. To complicate things further, the Punisher’s popularity in the comic books has significantly declined since the early 2000’s. At one time, the Punisher was just as popular as Spider-Man, X-Men and Wolverine. That is no longer true today and so his property value is a shell of what it once was.

In 1989, New World Pictures made a loose adaptation of the Punisher. It starred Dolph Lundgren and not surprisingly, it was an atrocity. After Avi Arad took control of the bankrupt Marvel Entertainment, a whole slew of film adaptations of Marvel’s superheroes came out. This included 2004’s THE PUNISHER, with Thomas Jane this time playing the vigilante. In the film, Frank Castle (The Punisher) is an undercover FBI agent that retires after stopping an illegal arms deal resulting in the killing of Howard Saint’s (John Travolta) son. Saint wants revenge against Castle for the death of his son and so he finds Castle’s whereabouts and sends a goon squad to kill Castle’s entire family, including his wife (Samantha Mathis) and son. Castle barely survives the massacre and reemerges as The Punisher, a vigilante seeking the death of Saint and his family for what Saint did to his own family.

The strange thing about the casting choice of Thomas Jane to play the Punisher is that I was more convinced of his portrayal of the Punisher in DIRTY LAUNDRY, a short film made in 2012 that can be seen here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bWpK0wsnitc, than I was of his portrayal in the 2004 film. Its not that Jane is a bad actor or that he does a poor job portraying the anti-hero. My issue is that I think there were much better casting choices to play Frank Castle than Jane. Frank Castle should look a little less Anglo-Saxon, more beefy, and less of a pretty boy than Thomas Jane. Someone like Jon Hamm. I thought Ray Winstone was a better looking Punisher in PUNISHER WAR ZONE than Thomas Jane, but I have not seen that film so I can’t attest to Winstone’s performance. All in all, Thomas Jane does a decent job playing the Punisher, but I always felt like someone better could have been found. Had we gotten Thomas Jane’s Punisher in DIRTY LAUNDRY, we would not be having this conversation and in light of this, I would be open to seeing Jane reprise his role in another Punisher film.

Another big issue with THE PUNISHER is the fact that the film is set in Tampa, Florida. The city was chosen for budgetary reasons after the film’s budget was reportedly slashed to a fraction of what the filmmakers were initially promised. That is all fine and good, but I cannot imagine the Punisher operating in a tropical/sunny environment. The Punisher has to be set in New York City. He is from there and his family was killed in Central Park. NYC has always been his base of operations and considering that most of the villains he goes up against are mobsters, there isn’t a better location than the grimy, urban jungle that NYC offers.

The Punisher came to be as a result of his family’s massacre. For this film to succeed, we should empathize with Castle’s loss after his family is murdered. In order to do that, we must see Castle interact with his family and basically show him to be a family man. For a 2+ hour movie, not much is shown of Frank Castle interacting with his family. Sure, there is a long scene family reunion sequence that takes place in Puerto Rico where Castle briefly interacts with his wife and son. Furthermore, Castle’s family’s massacre is brutal, especially given how not just his wife and son are murdered, but also his parents and other relatives. The sequence effectively makes you hate the villains and makes you want to see them killed. However, we don’t feel for Castle’s loss as much as we should because not enough time is spent where we see Castle spending time with his family.

Despite the brutal disposal of Castle’s family, John Travolta’s Howard Saint fails to live up to being a compelling villain. Travolta clearly showed up to collect his paycheck, look good in front of the camera wearing expensive suits, and leave. Where is the Travolta from FACE OFF and BROKEN ARROW? Better yet, where is the better actor that should have been cast and the better writer that should have developed a more interesting character? Like I stated before, THE PUNISHER needed to be set in NYC and Castle should have gone up against an entire mob organization. Here, the stakes and challenge don’t feel big enough. Howard Saint’s successful murder of Castle’s family seems to be something he got lucky in getting away with, but once Castle turns into the Punisher, there is no doubting that Castle will handily dispose of him, his family, and henchmen. I wish we could have instead seen the Punisher take on an entire organization like the Mafia or the Yakuza.

One of the bright spots in the film are the supporting characters that live in Frank Castle’s ghetto apartment building. Rebecca Romijn plays Joan, a waitress with a dark past, Ben Foster plays Spacker Dave, a crack addict-looking slacker, and John Pinette is Bumpo, some fat guy who likes to eat and cook. They provide some comic relief in an otherwise bleak film. In the Punisher comic books, the Punisher has an assistant who specializes in high-tech gadgetry, sort of like James Bond’s Q. Here, the Punisher sort of has a helper who works for Saint. The other named characters don’t provide that sort of assistance, but they do provide Castle with emotional support.

THE PUNISHER is the film that could have been. It appears to have been cursed from the very beginning with a mediocre director (Jonathan Hensleigh), a mediocre screenplay (by Hensleigh and Michael France), a low budget, poor casting, and even bad cinematography (from Conrad W. Hall, the son of the legendary and wonderful DP, the late Conrad Hall). Whatever high points THE PUNISHER had for me came from the nostalgia of seeing a favorite comic book character on the big screen, but that was nowhere enough to save this dreck of a film. For anyone else, once you remove his signature skull shirt, THE PUNISHER is virtually indistinguishable from any other B-action movie.

Given my interest in cinema, it comes as no surprise that my favorite topic of interest for a screenplay is the film industry itself. Tinseltown’s unique blend of commerce and art, its insular nature, the big personalities that run the studios and star in their films, and the never-ending scandals and secrets that pervade the industry together makes for fascinating fodder for a screenplay. There have been a number of excellent films about the film industry, namely The Player, Sunset Boulevard, Ed Wood, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? In 1995, another noteworthy movie about the movie industry was released, Get Shorty. An adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel of the same name, it was released with much fanfare due to its big cast (John Travolta, Gene Hackman, Danny Devito, and Rene Russo), big name director (Barry Sonnenfeld), and Travolta’s massive resurgence from the previous year’s Pulp Fiction. I have to admit that I didn’t care for the movie initially. I felt it tried too hard to be like Pulp Fiction, especially with John Travolta being cast as a gangster, which is what he played in Pulp Fiction. However, upon multiple subsequent viewings, I grew a deep respect for the film and I now I consider it one of the best films about Hollywood.

In true pulp novel fashion, Get Shorty has a convoluted plot that requires close attention or else you will easily get lost and not enjoy the movie (as I did the first time I saw it). Its basically about a Miami shylock (Travolta) who works for the mob. He’s very good at what he does, but he doesn’t enjoy it. His dream has always been to work in the movie business. One day, he gets assigned to go out to Vegas and track down a “client” (David Paymer) who owes the mob $300K. Travolta goes out there and is then asked by a casino owner if he would go out to L.A. and collect on yet another debt that’s owed to the casino owner. The debtor is a B-movie film producer (Hackman), which peaks Travolta’s interest. This is finally his chance to go to L.A. and get into the movie business. Travolta goes to L.A. and meets with Hackman, who listens to Travolta’s pitch for a movie. Hackman is interested and he gets Travolta in on a secret screenplay he has that he hopes to produce. The problem is that Hackman doesn’t have the money to buy the screenplay so Travolta helps him out. Involved in all of this is a crooked investor (Delroy Lindo) who has invested in Hackman’s films and he finds out about Hackman’s secret script. There is also a rival gangster from Miami who arrives in L.A. to find Travolta. Finally, we also have Danny Devito, who plays a huge movie star that Rene Russo and Travolta are trying to get to star in Hackman’s movie.

In the hands of a lesser writer, making a film noir comedy about mobsters and Hollywood but without the dark atmospheric undertones of a typical film noir is likely to be a recipe for disaster. Your task is to take a large number of subplots and tie them together in a coherent and interesting fashion without sacrificing the comedy or character development (and without losing your audience). In a novel, this is easier to accomplish because you can spend as much time as you want to unspool your story and develop your characters. However, in the roughly 2 hour time frame of a movie, this is a tall order and you must be extremely efficient with each minute. Scott Frank (Minority Report, Out of Sight, Marley & Me), the screenwriter, does a remarkable job in adapting Elmore Leonard’s novel. Whats more, he didn’t even need 2 hours to tell the story as the movie clips along at a brisk 1 hour 44 minutes.

Again, if you follow the movie closely and don’t get lost, you will find yourself completely engaged by the plot and the characters. The mobsters and Hollywood types are clichés, but they’re supposed to be. The film purposely plays up all the stereotypes of the movie industry and gangsters. Travolta’s character as the shylock is cool, composed, and he’s always 1 step ahead of the game. Hackman is the cheesy B-movie horror film producer who longs for respect but can’t get any. Russo is the scream queen actress, long jaded by the industry. Dennis Farina, in a great career-making role, plays a Miami mobster who seems to come straight out of a Martin Scorsese movie. Danny Devito is the self-absorbed mega movie star who does shit like order off the restaurant menu because he can. And so on. However, unlike a film like The Player where you need to be familiar with the movie industry to better appreciate the film, Get Shorty’s plot holds up on its own. If you get the inside industry jokes, you’ll enjoy it more, but its not necessary to get involved in the film.

Travolta is clearly cashing in on his Vincent character from Pulp Fiction, which is not a bad thing. After Pulp Fiction, American audiences couldn’t seem to get enough of Travolta, especially in roles where he played a cool acting character. His Chili Palmer character here is the closest thing to his Pulp Fiction’s Vincent Vega character. I like that his character isn’t a totally nice guy. He’s got a bit of the asshole in him and that makes for a more complex and interesting character.

I really miss seeing Hackman in the movies (his last role was in 2004 in a forgettable film called Welcome to Mooseport). Talk about a chameleon! How many actors do you know who can go from playing a low-class B-movie horror producer to a stern submarine captain (Crimson Tide) to a conservative Senator (The Birdcage) in 1 year? You don’t know whether to despise his character here, feel sorry for him, or like him. He’s an opportunist in which his only loyalty lies in whatever his next project is. He’s willing to screw over anyone to get his project made. Hackman didn’t make a lot of comedies, but in the ones he did, he was absolutely great in them.

Danny Devito is the shortest non-midget I know. Because of this, he’s very effective as a comedian because he’s vulgar and a swearing short man is hilarious. Along with Hackman’s character, Devito’s parody of your typical movie star is spot on. Its great to know that Devito is self-effacing enough to be willing to poke fun at himself.

Rene Russo is another actor who I don’t see much of these days and its too bad because she seemed to be emerging in Hollywood as the next Kathleen Turner. In Get Shorty, she doesn’t play sultry, but she’s sexy in her own right and her performance just seems so effortless that you wonder whether she’s really just playing herself.

The cast is rounded out by wonderful performances by Delroy Lindo (who is one of the scariest gangsters I know in movies), Dennis Farina (an ex-Chicago cop in real life who ironically plays a gangster here), David Paymer (who plays his signature loser here), and a pre-Sopranos James Gandolfini.

Get Shorty is a funny parody of the interaction between the mob and Hollywood that ranks among the best films about the movie industry. A sequel of sorts was made 10 years later where Chili Palmer decides to go into the music business. I can’t speak for the novel it was based on, but the film was one of the worst films of 2005. Get Shorty, on the other hand, holds up great and its one of Travolta’s finest performances.