Movie Review: Kurt Russell Retrospective

Kurt Russellby Brandon & Susan Blackmoor

 

Kurt Russell is one of the most talented, most versatile actors of our era. He convincingly portrays everything from good-hearted buffoons to hardened lawmen with equal aplomb. Russell’s early career had him cast as the all-American nice boy in such Disney fare as The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969) and The Strongest Man In The World (1975), but he is one of the few child actors who succeeded in making the transition to adult roles. The last twenty years have showcased Russell in a number of films where his range as an actor has placed him in a league above that of action stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Steven Seagal. Interspersed with comedies like Captain Ron (1992) and Overboard (1987), and psychological dramas like Breakdown (1997) and the recently released Dark Blue (2003), Russell has starred in an array of action films that have endeared him to science fiction fans. Lucky for us, most of them are available on DVD.

“I heard you were dead.”

Escape From New York (1981) is one of the best examples of the late twentieth century’s visionary dystopian films (a genre which includes such SF masterpieces as Blade Runner, Road Warrior, and The Terminator). In 1997, the island of Manhattan has been turned into a maximum security prison. When Air Force One is hijacked and crashed on the island in an act of protest, the United States Police Force recruits former war hero Snake Plissken to infiltrate the island and rescue the President.

Russell is spot-on as the intense and cynical Plissken. He is quick with a quip, deadly cool under pressure, and at least as violent as the world that he lives in. Many films have featured an ex-military antihero since Russell’s grizzled gunslinger, but none have matched the sheer cool of Snake Plissken.

“Why don’t we just wait here a while… see what happens.”

Unlike the darkly humorous Escape From New York, John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) is a completely serious film: the story of an Antarctic scientific outpost which encounters a shape-changing extraterrestrial. While The Thing is a classic horror film—on par with classics like Alien and The Fly—and the groundbreaking special effects have aged remarkably well, the main themes of the film are isolation and paranoia.

The tension in The Thing doesn’t come from clumsy jolts or the menace of a stalking madman. What makes The Thing so frightening is the unknown: who is human? Who can we trust? Is the man next to me a man, or a monster? If I were the monster… would I know?

The Thing features Russell as helicopter pilot MacReady, a man who likes chess, whisky, and solitude. MacReady is a loner among loners, even more reclusive than the other men who have come to the end of the world to find peace. Russell is at his best as the reticent MacReady: he is the everyman, the person we would like to think we would be if placed in an impossible situation. He does not have Snake Plissken’s grace under fire or wise-cracking cynicism, but he does the best he can to keep things from falling apart as it becomes clear that the extraterrestrial poses a threat not only to the men at the research station, but to all of humanity. He is a likeable, believable character, and the fact that Russell makes it look so easy is a testament to his skill as an actor.

“There are many mysteries, many unanswerable questions, even in a life as short as yours.”

Equally likeable but far less believable is the fabulous Jack Burton, the adventurous truck driver who runs afoul of the Chinese underworld in Big Trouble In Little China (1986). Jack Burton is fearless and unashamedly brash no matter what he’s facing. An ancient Chinese sorcerer? Bring him on! Vicious slack-jawed trolls? No problem! High-jumping, lightning-throwing martial artists? Make it three!

When the fiancée of a friend is kidnapped by Chinese gangsters, Jack Burton vows to help rescue her (and rescue his truck, the Pork Chop Express). Little does he suspect that it’s all part of an ancient sorcerer’s plan to regain a material body. But does that slow him down? Hell, no. Give him a machine pistol, a magic potion, and a six-demon bag, and he’s ready to rock and roll. Besides, he never drives faster than he can see.

Big Trouble In Little China is as slapstick as The Thing is serious, which is probably the only thing that keeps it from being painfully bad. Just when the story is in danger of going over the top, the director John Carpenter raises the top! And Russell is with it every step of the way. Truly a great film, and an excellent example of Russell’s comedic skills.

“I’m going to kill them all, sir.”

Soldier (1998) is one of Russell’s least-appreciated roles, and possibly the last action role that Russell intends to play. A soldier trained from birth to be the perfect killing machine, Todd 3465 is eventually replaced by a more advanced model, and discarded. He is dumped upon a garbage planet and left for dead, but he revives and manages to befriend (just barely) a settlement of refugees who crashed on the world several years earlier. How does a man who has known only war fit into a community once his role as a warrior is taken away?

As the stoic Todd 3465, Russell has relatively little dialog, making it difficult to develop the character. Almost everything we know about Todd is conveyed through his actions, his facial expressions, and sometimes just his eyes. Despite this limitation, Russell manages to create a complex character with whom we not only sympathize, but also empathize. Russell’s portrayal of Todd 3465 is subtly nuanced, and far surpasses similar efforts by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator films or Jean-Claude Van Damme in his Universal Soldier films. Few actors can so convincingly evoke the humanity of a man who is as machine-like as the military could make him, and precious few actors of such skill deign to make action films. More’s the pity.

 

Movie Review: Scooby Doo

Scooby-Doo_posterby Brandon & Susan Blackmoor

 

Scooby Doo, How Could You? 
(or, Scooby Doo as Modern Myth)

Scooby Doo is the King Arthur of our generation: a tale retold countless times, interpreted and re-interpreted according to the whims and prejudices of the storyteller. We have explored the branches of Scooby Doo’s evidently inbred family tree (his brother Howdy Doo, and his cousins Scooby Dum, Scooby Dee, Whoopsy Doo, and Dooby Doo, just to name a few), we have seen the Scooby gang miniaturized into small-bodied large-headed versions of themselves, and we have seen the Mystery Machine gang play host to such luminaries as Don Knotts, Phyllis Diller, the Addams Family, and Davy Jones.

The myth of Scooby Doo has inspired scenes in movies like Wayne’s World and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. The characters have become role-models to generations of young people who find themselves arrayed against possibly-supernatural mysteries. Curious and open-minded teenagers have discovered the joys of alternate lifestyles through the regularly-abducted example of Bondage-Prone Daphne, and the patron saint of Cannabis sativa, Shaggy, has gently shepherded his flock through the terrible ravages of sloth, cowardice, and the munchies.

The most recent addition to the Scooby Doo myth cycle is a worthy effort. For the first time, human actors are cast in the roles of the beloved Mystery Machine gang as they meddle in yet another mystery. By and large, they do a surprisingly good job of portraying their animated counterparts. The best of these is Matthew Lillard’s poignant evocation of Shaggy. We are shown a deeper, more meaningful Shaggy. Yes, he eats anything that isn’t nailed down, and yes, he’s every bit the coward we have come to know and love, but there is more to him. He is the soul of the group, the conscience and moral center. Lillard also pegs the voice and mannerisms of the animated Shaggy with preternatural accuracy.

Linda Cardellini deserves mention, as well: she breathes life into Velma, and for a brief moment we know the true Velma, the Velma under the thick glasses and the thicker turtleneck sweater. Sadly, Sarah Michelle Gellar doesn’t quite make us believe the role of Daphne. Is she too cute? Insufficiently glamorous? It’s difficult to say. She tries, and perhaps she does the best with the part that she can, but it just rings false. Not as false, however, as the grievously mis-cast Freddie Prinze, Jr. as Fred. Does Prinze look like Fred? Not really. Does he give off Fred’s latent homosexual vibe? No (at least not to me). Does he have Fred’s trademark topheavy build? Nope. So what explains his inexplicable casting as the foppish hunk? Could it be because he was romantically involved with Sarah Michelle Gellar, who can single-handedly attract millions of dollars of financing to a movie project? But perhaps it’s better that we not speculate. Besides, they’re married now, so we should be kind—the romance won’t last much longer. The important thing is that the cast, on the whole, does a fine job, and better than one might expect.

But what of the story? Does it live up to the greatest of the Scooby Doo stories: The Spooky Space Kook, Which Witch is Which, or Foul Play in Funland? Almost! The story concerns a rich amusement park owner who calls in the gang to investigate peculiar behavior of the park’s patrons. It’s a simple story, and it’s fairly transparent, but it works. The creeps are creepy, the sets are marvelous, and the amusement park owner is played by the pleasantly goofy Rowan Atkinson—and as we all know from the underrated farce Rat Race, Rowan Atkinson can be entertaining even while falling asleep.

This isn’t to say that the movie couldn’t be improved. There were several scenes left upon the cutting room floor that would have made the film more entertaining to its adult audience, such as the kiss between Daphne and Velma, or Shag and Scoob trading hits on a Scooby-sized bong. Some of these will hopefully find their way to the Scooby Doo “Special Edition” DVD (which should see heavy promotion in the months before Scooby Doo 2 is released in theatres in 2004). There’s also the small matter of the Scooby Doo character itself. It’s no Jar-Jar Binks, but it’s no Velociraptor, either. If you want to see a funny talking dog, see Men in Black 2. Let’s hope that the animation is better in the Scooby sequel (and that there aren’t any more Star Wars movies).

But is Scooby Doo watchable and fun? I think so. So add it to your Netflix queue, stoke up the hookah, and kick back with some Scooby Snacks.

 

Movie Review: Spider Baby

SpiderBabyby Brandon & Susan Blackmoor

 

A movie you probably won’t find anywhere but Netflix is Jack Hill’s Spider Baby (1964). It’s a genuinely creepy romp through the final days of the Merrye family, complete with cannibalism and homicidal jailbait (how sweet it is). The plot is fairly straightforward: family chauffeur Bruno (Lon Chaney, Jr. in one of his last and best roles) has taken on the guardianship of a trio of deranged “children.” He tries to protect his wards from their own psychotic tendencies, and from the grasping relatives who try to make a profit from the children’s tragic dementia, but ultimately it proves too much for him. It’s a wickedly delightful film, full of surprises.

The movie has developed its own cult following in recent years and has a fantastic online fansite.

 

Movie Review: Rollerball

Rollerballby Brandon & Susan Blackmoor

 

Remakes nearly always fall into one of two categories: bad remakes of classic movies, and bad remakes of crappy movies. John McTiernan’s Rollerball (2002, PG-13) is both: it’s a bad remake of a classic crappy movie.

In the original Rollerball (1975, R), James Caan is a star player of the eponymous roller-derby/demolition-derby sport. It’s not Brazil, but the dystopian vision of the film is a convincing one that still stands up reasonably well today. James Caan, a talented character actor who combines the meanness of James Coburn with James Garner’s easygoing charm, was perfectly cast as Jonathan E., and the endlessly imitated John Houseman does a stunning job as the vile corporate mouthpiece. It’s a bit talky by today’s standards, but the original Rollerball is still a fine evening’s entertainment.

In contrast, McTiernan’s Rollerball is far less talky, but what dialogue there is makes little sense. Creative subtitling would probably improve it, although that might rob it of some of its unintentional humor. The scenes of the Rollerball game itself are, incredibly, even more frenetic than those in the original, which means that the action is impossible to follow rather than merely difficult. Jonathan Cross, played with mayonnaisian blandness by the inexplicably popular Chris Klein, makes no impression at all. Even L.L. Cool J. (Deep Blue Sea), Rebecca Romijn-Stamos (X-Men), and Jean Reno (The Professional) can’t combine their powers to overcome the monumentally stupid script and choppy editing.

Don’t pay to see Rollerball in the theatre: wait for it to come to video, and then rent something else.

 

Movie Review: Queen of the Damned

Queen of the Damnedby Brandon & Susan Blackmoor

 

Michael Rymer’s Queen of the Damned (2002, R) is a movie that needs to be seen in a theatre to be fully appreciated. A loose film adaptation of a novel by Anne Rice, Queen of the Damned will doubtlessly be reviled by Anne Rice fans for daring to veer from the holy text of the matriarch (the same sort of people who decried the treatment of Farmer Maggot in Lord of the Rings). Film aficionados will be more concerned with the huge, gaping plot holes. But let’s be frank: it’s a vampire movie, of course there are plot holes (Blade, anyone?). We don’t go to a vampire movie for intricate plots or a complex emotional landscape, we go to a vampire movie for cool costumes, sexy protagonists, and some spooky cinematography. Queen of the Damned delivers these in spades.

The late R&B singer Aaliyah plays the title role of Akasha, who is awakened by a disturbingly Crow-like Lestat (played by Stuart Townsend) and proceeds to run amok. Arrayed against her are a number of fashion-plate vampires who happen to like the status quo. For the next couple of hours, they pose and stare with a pleasantly goth-pop soundtrack. Aaliyah is simply delicious as Akasha, and Stuart Townsend does as good a job as the infamous Lestat as any mortal man is likely to. Classic cinema? No: it’s a vampire movie, with all of the silliness and melodrama that entails. But Queen of the Damned is a fun “date movie” (if your date isn’t a film student or an obsessed Anne Rice fan), and the costumes and cinematography are good enough to warrant repeat viewings.

Pay to see Queen of the Damned in the theatre. When it comes to video, see it again with Blade and really treat yourself.