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Posts Tagged ‘Tom Skerritt’

For a film to become a genuine object of nostalgia, one important factor is that – ideally – it shouldn’t have any dodgy sequels dragging down its reputation in a sort of guilt-by-association way (or at least, no high-profile ones). Well, it’s an idea, anyway, and bearing it in mind it will be interesting to see if people’s attitudes to Top Gun change from this point forward. We have discussed in the past the notion of the Optimum Interval Before Sequel; if James Cameron is pushing it with a 13-year gap between the first and second Avatar films, what are we to make of the 36 year wait for a Top Gun film? But perhaps this is a discussion best saved for when that movie is the one in our crosshairs (the blog’s Anglo-Iranian affairs consultant is very keen to see it, hence the fact I’ve finally got around to watching the original).

Top Gun, released in 1986 and directed by Tony Scott, is remembered for many things, including its aerial photography, Tom Cruise’s teeth, Giorgio Moroder’s soundtrack, Tom Cruise’s underpants, the fact the US Navy treated it as the world’s most lavish recruitment video, and – possibly – a profoundly homo-erotic subtext. (It also established Cruise as a major star, if you really care about that sort of thing.) But it seems to be fairly overlooked as the film which really launched Tony Scott’s career as a director – his previous film The Hunger didn’t make much of an impression, and it was this one which paved the way for a successful (if not always critically popular) career turning out (for the most part) good-looking mainstream thrillers. (Scott never had quite the versatility of his brother Ridley.)

Certainly it’s the look of the film that strikes you from the start: jet fighters taxi about in silhouette, surrounded by support crew, the sky is a rich yellow-orange, it’s all very glossy and attractive. We eventually figure out we’re on an American aircraft carrier in the ‘present day’ (i.e. the depths of the Reagan Era) in the Indian Ocean, where those pesky Commies keep flying where they shouldn’t. A tense stand-off ensues between a flight of American jets and some (fictional) MiG-28s; unorthodox flying from pilot Maverick (Cruise) sees them off, but the squadron’s lead flier Cougar is severely rattled by the incident and needs coaxing down out of the sky.

A rather identikit scene follows in which Maverick and his sidekick Goose (Anthony Edwards in a wispy moustache) are dragged over the coals for their undisciplined behaviour by the commander, but, because the premise of the film is predicated on this, he is still obliged to send them off to Top Gun school, where the Navy’s elite fighter pilots receive advanced tuition.

Whatever shortcomings Maverick may have in terms of shortness, he makes up for them with an ego the size of an aircraft carrier, which does not initially endear him to either his classmates at the school (his most prominent rival is Iceman, played by Val Kilmer) or the instructors (the film is given a bit of heft by the presence of Tom Skerritt in a rather more luxuriant moustache and Michael Ironside, who is clean-shaven). Maverick, however, is more concerned with getting in the good books of civilian tutor Charlotte Blackwood (Kelly McGillis), even if she is a little bit older than him (what can I say, maybe Maverick’s former buddy isn’t the only cougar in the film). Can Maverick win the Top Gun prize and convince the Navy, not to mention the rest of the world, as to how brilliant he really is?

Well, yes, of course he can. One interpretation of Top Gun is that it’s essentially the story of a man who begins the film utterly convinced of his own brilliance and ends it with that confirmed and praised by everyone around him. Perhaps I’m just being very British but that kind of character arc is a bit of a hard sell for me: I’d find someone like Maverick very hard work to be around (then again I find quite a lot of people hard work to be around, and I’m sure they’d say the same about me).

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as all that: Maverick doesn’t have it all his own way, and experiences the requisite major wobble at the end of the second act of the film, at which point he duly contends with a bout of self-doubt. What is telling, however, is that he’s never really called upon to reflect on any flaws he may have in his own character – said wobble, even though it the results in the (inevitable and rather predictable) death of Goose, is not his fault; everyone goes out of their way to say as much. Any griping about Maverick could just be sour grapes or jealousy on the part of the gripers; the film is always on his side. The result of this is that some parts of the film feel a bit unpalatable nowadays, due to their boisterous jockishness – the sequence near the start, for instance, when Maverick takes a bet on whether or not he can have sex with McGillis on the premises of the bar where they first meet.

So the story is pretty slim and mostly about how great Tom Cruise (and/or Maverick) is. (The much-discussed gay subtext to Top Gun seems to me to be one of those things which is only there if you look for it: there are a lot of men in towels, and the love interest is called Charlie, but even so – it’s not as if all of the ‘evidence’ really stands up. The scene in which McGillis is supposedly dressed as a man and wearing a baseball cap looks the way it does because this was a reshoot done weeks later and the actress had different hair.) However, one must not underestimate just how appealing the general aesthetics of the film are, nor the fact that there are some decent character turns occurring amongst the supporting cast.

The element of Top Gun which everyone seems to agree about is the aerial photography, which is indeed highly impressive and often quite exciting. Anyone wanting to watch jets going back and forth very fast in the sunlight will have no cause for complaint here. What I would suggest is that Scott and his editors haven’t quite figured out a way to present an actual dogfight in cinematic turns – there are lots of cuts between planes whizzing about in different directions and the heads of the actors in the cockpits, but in order to know what’s actually going on you’re fairly dependent on following the dialogue (and even here it is more a question of tone than detail).

Nevertheless, I can see why this film did so well at the time, although I remain to be convinced that so many years on we really need a sequel to it. For the time being (a period we can now realistically measure in days) it remains a well-liked piece of superficial, cheesy, 80s kitsch, the closest thing to Dirty Dancing it’s acceptable for a man to like. I don’t think it’s a particularly good film, but I did sort of enjoy it.

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I look at the news today and it is stuffed to the gills with all sorts of goings on in Washington DC concerning the dismissed FBI director and the British nation holding its breath ahead of its second general election in three years. The embarassment of Trump is something to crack a smile over, I suppose, but I find I can muster little hope for the situation here in the UK. How to take one’s mind off such things? Back to the TV of the 1970s, I suppose; it can usually provide something appropriate to any situation.

It’s easy to demonise a certain type of politician as a heartless, soulless, callous, grasping, self-interested monster – so let’s get on with it. The Devil’s Platform is the seventh episode of the weekly Kolchak: The Night Stalker series, written by Donn Mullally (with, probably, help from David Chase of Sopranos fame), and directed by Allen Baron – the episode first aired in November 1974. Kolchak is a fairly obscure show these days, probably most famous for being the proto-X-Files: every week, old-school Chicago newspaper reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) stumbles upon a series of crimes (usually murders) carried out by an otherworldly or supernatural menace, and has to resolve the situation despite the hostility of the authorities and his own boss Vincenzo (played by Simon Oakland).

The episode opens with a senatorial race in full swing in Illinois, with the running being made by little-known newcomer Robert Palmer (Tom Skerritt, probably best known these days for playing Captain Dallas in the original Alien) – although Palmer’s cause has been helped by a string of mysterious deaths. Palmer’s campaign manager has managed to turn up some serious dirt on his man, and is so outraged that he is about to go to the police about it. Not notably concerned by this, it would seem, Palmer steps into an elevator with his soon-to-be-ex-manager – which then crashes thirteen floors to the bottom of the shaft, after a freak failure of the machinery.

Kolchak, as luck would have it, is on the scene to meet Palmer, and joins the first responders when the elevator is opened up. Everyone inside has been killed, but there’s no sign of Palmer – and also in the car is a huge black dog which forces its way past everyone on the scene, knocking over our hero in the process. Kolchak manages to grab the dog’s collar ornament off it, though, which has an interesting pentagram motif.

No-one can seem to find Palmer anywhere, and so Kolchak goes on about his day, unaware that his steps are (literally) being dogged by the chunky canine from the lift disaster. Eventually Vincenzo packs him off to the Palmer residence to try and get a new angle on the story, where he encounters Palmer’s supremely unhelpful wife in one of the episode’s funniest scenes (‘Expletive deleted,’ mutters Kolchak after she gives him the brush-off). On his way back to his car, he is attacked by the black dog, which only seems interested in ripping open his jacket and retrieving the pentagram amulet. Seconds later, Robert Palmer reappears, as unruffled as he was to begin with.

It’s a nicely put together opening act, somewhat more subtle than is usually Kolchak‘s wont, but still managing to put across its main idea effectively – Palmer is a bad ‘un, with the ability to transform himself into an indestructible hellhound, provided he has access to his amulet. Without the amulet, he’s stuck as the dog, hence his not turning up for TV election debates (well, ‘I can’t debate you as I transformed into a dog and unexpectedly can’t change back’ is not the worst excuse for refusing to engage in a debate that we’ve heard recently, is it).

The rest of the episode isn’t quite up to the same standard, and it does struggle to find things that to fill up its middle act with – Palmer ends up doing another couple of murders while Kolchak is trying to persuade Vincenzo to run his story (‘Why does our political expose have to have a dog in it?!?’ wails Vincenzo) and generally figure out what’s going on.

Naturally, Kolchak works it out just in time to confront Palmer within the fifty minute duration of a network drama show: the candidate is, of course, a warlock who has sold his soul to Satan in return for various interesting faculties – as well as being able to turn into the hellhound, he seems able to cause disastrous accidents, and also to have a degree of clairvoyance. Now he is intent on rising to the very top of American politics, where he will no doubt impose his own brand of strong and stable leadership. Or am I getting my nightmarish real-world dystopias jumbled up again? Hmmm.

Few TV shows are quite as formulaic and thinly characterised as Kolchak: The Night Stalker – if anyone started behaving like a real human beingĀ it would instantly expose how preposterous the format of this series is – but this is probably the best episode of the weekly series, not least because it departs further from the format than most. The fact that no-one but Kolchak is aware that the deaths are anything other than a series of accidents means the episode omits the routine stuff with Kolchak getting on the nerves of the cop investigating the case, while the scene where Kolchak engages in some cross-talk with a local expert in order to get the information he needs to kill the monster is also missing – he just looks it all up in a book.

More significantly, I think, this is one of the very few Kolchaks to escape the pitfalls of building the story to climax with a tussle between McGavin and some guy in an unconvincing monster suit. The black dog is unsurprisingly quite convincing, given it is realised using (you guessed it) a black dog, and Tom Skerritt underplays Palmer rather effectively – and, by the way, absolutely straight. (One thing Kolchak is normally pretty good at is shifting back and forth between comedy and horror.) The moment when Palmer attempts to recruit Kolchak to his cause, drily listing Carl’s various ambitions and foibles and offering the assistance of his, er, patron, is genuinely creepy and as close to a moment of actual character drama as the series ever gets – Kolchak almost seems swayed for a moment.

Of course, it’s Kolchak, so it’s never going to be perfect – there’s the mid-story muddle I mentioned, plus the resolution of the plot is telegraphed very early on when one of Kolchak and Vincenzo’s co-workers returns from a trip to Rome with a bottle of holy water. There’s also something funny going on with the climax – having had his offer turned down, Palmer decides Kolchak is prime human sacrifice material and goes for him with a dagger – but the sequence appears to have fallen foul of network censors, for it’s been bafflingly edited to the point of incoherence.

Still, it all concludes with the forces of darkness vanquished, and the election left open for a politician with a soul to win. Yeah, the past is a different country, isn’t it? Pass the holy water.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published November 29th 2001:

A long time ago (well, the late 1970s), in a galaxy not that far away, the film studio 20th Century Fox had had a big hit with a movie called Star Wars (you may have heard of it). The Fox suits decided they could use a bit more of this spaceship stuff, seeing as it was so popular, and rang round the junior suits who did all the work. ‘Any scripts with spaceships in them knocking about?’ And they were brought the script for Battlestar Galactica, which they promptly sent away again, because even suits have standards. Finally a script called Star Beast appeared, which even sounded a bit like Star Wars, and they decided to make it as a sort of low-budget exploitation film. Unfortunately they forgot to tell this to Mr Ridley Scott, the director, with peculiar results…

Surely everyone reading this knows the plot of Alien, the movie Star Beast turned into? All right, just in brief… Most of the movie occurs on the Nostromo, an interstellar tug with a crew of seven (plus one pet cat – all great horror movies should have animals in them). The crew spend most of the time asleep in fridges, which makes you wonder why they’re there at all, especially as the plot establishes that a sophisticated android workforce is available. However, they’re rudely awakened by an alien signal emanating from a blasted rockball, and their contracts insist they go and investigate. Down on the planet three of the crew find a huge alien vessel and luckless First Officer Kane (a fairly pre-stardom John Hurt) has a close encounter of an intimate and rather icky kind with the occupant of an alien egg. Despite the concerns of Third Officer Ripley (a definitely pre-stardom Sigourney Weaver, here in her signature role), the landing party are let back on board by twitchy Science Officer Ash (a pre-Baggins Ian Holm). The alien parasite seems to die and Kane recovers. However the ship’s supply of indigestion tablets is insufficient to stop him rudely bursting open in the middle of the crew’s supper, and a metallic-dentured alien emerges and does a runner (or the equivalent) for the bowels of the ship. The rest of the crew are forced to engage in a battle to survive, or else the franchise will never get going and The Terminator will never have any competition for the title of James Cameron’s best film…

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Fox may have wanted another Star Wars, but this ain’t it. It’s a weird clash of several different styles of film-making, and arguably the wrong style wins. I’ve never been able to force myself to believe all the hype about Alien, and here’s why…

Style number one is indeed Star Wars influenced: there are frequent loving flybys of bloomin’ big spaceships, and the technology of the Nostromo has a dirty, used look to it, rather like the Millenium Falcon et al. It looks sort of convincing as a working starship. This flows rather neatly into style number two – a naturalistic, almost docudrama approach to the crew mooching about, all talking at the same time over their meals, and complaining about their pay. It’s an effect that reminds me most strongly of a Howard Hawks movie. Hawks was a director and producer of many genres, active from the 1930s to the 50s, and amongst his films was the original Thing From Another World. The Thing was one of the best 50s SF scare movies, and clearly an ancestor of Alien, right down to the traitor in the human camp. Alien was conceived of and pitched as an updated scare movie, a suspense-thriller-horror movie – the haunted house in space.

But the most important name for the Alien saga at this point in time was not Ripley but Ridley – Scott, that is, the director. Here I go into a minority of one, but I’ve never been hugely impressed by a Ridley Scott film. His visual sense is undeniably superb, and his movies are nearly all stunningly beautiful to look at. But it always seems to me that he’s much more interested in filling the screen with pretty pictures than with engaging the audience with the characters or even telling the story.

The next time you see Alien just look at how much of the time is filled with languid sequences where the camera roams around actionless, silent sets, simply showing off how beautiful the production designs are. This drains the film of a lot of the nervous energy it should have, particularly as a suspense horror. Sure, there are ‘jump’ moments, such as when the facehugger falls on Ripley’s shoulder or the Alien appears with Dallas in the air duct – but anyone can contrive that sort of thing. Creating and sustaining true tension is much more difficult and, for me, Alien rarely manages it for long – I just don’t feel drawn into the story.

This isn’t a bad film – of course it isn’t. HR Giger’s creations are incredible and iconic, the rest of the sets equally good. There’s a good ensemble performance by the cast, and it’s interesting that it isn’t until very late on that Ripley emerges as the survivor/heroine figure. Also noteworthy is Ian Holm’s peculiar, nervy performance as Ash – a performance that seems even more peculiar on repeated viewings of the movie.

But for me, Alien is fatally flawed: written and designed as a nerve-jangling horror movie in space, it’s actually directed like an arthouse film, with beautiful compositions and visual effects taking precedence over effective storytelling. The very beauty which makes it so exceptional also deprives it of truly working as it was intended to.

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