AGAINST THE ICE (2022) – Tale of 1909 Greenland Exploration is Satisfying Historical Drama

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AGAINST THE ICE (2022), a new Netflix movie which hails from Iceland and Denmark, is a solid, deliberately paced historical drama based on the true story of two men braving the icy wilderness of Greenland as they try to lay claim of the territory for Denmark.

It’s 1909, and explorer Ejnar Mikkelsen (Nikolaj Costner-Waldau) is leading an expedition into Greenland to disprove the United States’ claims that Greenland is not one piece of land, and that its northern tip is separated by a body of water. The Americans have been trying to claim this northern land as its own. If Mikkelsen can prove that this is not true, that it is only one large piece of land, then Greenland in its entirety would belong to Denmark.

His most trusted explorer injured, Captain Mikkelsen seeks a volunteer to accompany him on the treacherous journey to the north of Greenland, but the only crew member who is willing to do so is the inexperienced Iver Iversen (Joe Cole) who’s a mechanic by trade and not an explorer. With no other options, Mikkelsen and Iversen set out with two dog sleds and promise to return to the ice bound ship and its crew in six months.

It’s a harrowing journey, and the two men both rely on each other and learn from each other, as Mikkelsen provides the determined unrelenting leadership to keep them going, while Iversen proves adept at fixing things both mechanical and psychological, as his upbeat attitude and humor keeps things sane. And it’s a journey that becomes much longer than expected when they return to their ship and discover they have been abandoned.

AGAINST THE ICE is a solid, well-made movie that remains rooted in drama rather than adventure and thrills. Everything is rather low key, which works in a way, as the tone of the film captures the tone of the two men, especially Mikkelsen. Director Peter Flinth isn’t going to win any Oscars here. His direction is rather pedestrian, but it works. It’s never all that intense, and it’s definitely a PG-13 style movie rather than an R rated one. Things like the removal of frost-bitten toes, the execution of sled dogs for meat, and a vicious polar bear attack are all handled peripherally, and none of these sequences are as horrific as they could have been.

The icy scenery is beautiful to behold, and it helps that the film used minimal CGI effects and was largely shot on location in Iceland and Greenland. Forgive this horror writer, but when the movie opens and we see an ice bound ship in which the crew spies a mysterious stranger approaching on a dog sled from across the ice, I couldn’t help but think I was watching the opening to a new version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Likewise, with all the snow and ice blowing around, I half expected to see Kurt Russell and friends arrive from John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982)!

Nikolaj Costner-Waldau stars as Ejnar Mikkelsen, and he plays the explorer as a man who is both coldly determined yet responsible. He pushes the expedition to the limits, but he rarely puts Iverson’s life in danger. Costner-Waldau turns things up a notch later when Mikkelsen struggles to keep his mind together and begins to hallucinate about the woman he’s left behind. Costner-Waldau is known for his portrayal of Jaime Lannister on the TV series GAME OF THRONES (2011-2019).

Joe Cole is equally as good as Iver Iversen, the man who at the beginning of the movie talks about how he’d rather be working on the Titanic, an amazing new ship that will never sink. Of course, at that time, the Titanic hadn’t sunk yet, which sets up one of the more humorous lines in the movie, when after their ordeal, Iversen tells Mikkelsen that the Titanic went and sunk, meaning he made the right choice by joining the captain on his journey.

I enjoyed these two characters a lot, and aside from the topnotch snowy photography, the performances by Nikolaj Costner-Waldau and Joe Cole are the best parts of the movie.

The rest of the cast is fine. Charles Dance shows up briefly to add some distinguished authority as the Danish leader who wants to finance a rescue mission because he knows its value but continually resists the requests for one since the costs are so high. Incidentally, Dance played the father of Costner-Waldau’s character on GAME OF THRONES.

In addition to playing the lead role, Nikolaj Costner-Waldau also co-wrote the screenplay with Joe Derrick, based on a book by Ejnar Mikkelsen. So, yes, Mikkelsen was not only an explorer but also an author. The script is a good one. It tells its story without any frills, doesn’t sensationalize any of the proceedings, but also doesn’t strive to really draw in its audience in any other way than the straight telling of its narrative.

I enjoyed AGAINST THE ICE, but it definitely plays more like a TV movie than a theatrical release. Still, its story of two men’s journey into the icy wilderness of Greenland held my interest throughout, even if the most satisfying emotional moment in the story doesn’t come until the film’s final minutes.

All in all, AGAINST THE ICE is a satisfying historical drama that tells a worthwhile tale of determination and perseverance.

Just don’t be surprised if while watching it you find yourself reaching for that extra blanket and perhaps even a hat and gloves. Brr!

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LEADING LADIES: ADRIENNE BARBEAU

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Adrienne Barbeau in THE FOG (1980)

Welcome back to LEADING LADIES, that column where we look at lead actresses in the movies, especially horror movies.

Up today it’s Adrienne Barbeau, an actress whose long career continues through to this day as she is still actively making movies, but in her heyday, during the 1980s, she was on screen quite often in horror movies, especially those directed by John Carpenter. She and Carpenter were married from 1979 – 1984.

Here’s a partial look at her very impressive 152 screen credits:

MAUDE (1972- 1978) – Carol Trayner – The TV show on which Adrienne Barbeau became a household name, playing the adult daughter of main character Maude Findlay (Bea Arthur) in this Norman Lear spin-off from ALL IN THE FAMILY (1971-79). Maude is Edith Bunker’s cousin. Her liberal independent character was the complete opposite of bigot Archie Bunker. So, by the time Barbeau branched into movies, she was already well known to American audiences.

THE GREAT HOUDINI (1976) – Daisy White – Barbeau’s first movie screen credit was in this 1976 TV movie starring Paul Michael Glaser as Harry Houdini. I saw this one when it first aired, not just because I was a fan of STARSKY AND HUTCH (1975-79) the 70s cop show in which Glaser starred, but because in the cast I noticed was one Peter Cushing playing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle! It was Cushing’s first ever American TV movie, and he shot his scenes right after finishing work on STAR WARS (1977). THE GREAT HOUDINI is a really good movie, by the way, and features a very impressive cast. Besides Paul Michael Glaser, Adrienne Barbeau, and Peter Cushing, the film also starred Sally Struthers, Ruth Gordon, Vivian Vance, Bill Bixby, Nina Foch, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Geoffrey Lewis, Maureen O’Sullivan, and Clive Revill. Barbeau is excellent in a supporting role.

RED ALERT (1977) – Judy Wyche – TV movie thriller starring William Devane about a malfunction at a nuclear power plant. Pre-dates the more well-known THE CHINA SYNDROME (1979) by three years.

CRASH (1978) – Veronica Daniels – TV movie about the crash of Flight 401 into the Florida Everglades. Also starring William Shatner, Eddie Albert, Lorraine Gary, and Ron Glass, among others. Follows the formula of the AIRPORT movies, except this one is based on a true story.

SOMEONE’S WATCHING ME (1978) – Sophie – Another TV movie, this one written and directed by John Carpenter. In fact, it was on the set of this film that Carpenter and Barbeau first met. Long known as the “lost John Carpenter film,” as back in the day it never was released in the U.S. on VHS, and didn’t appear on DVD until 2007, this thriller centers on a woman played by Lauren Hutton being stalked and terrorized by an unknown male assailant. Barbeau plays the main character’s best friend.

THE DARKER SIDE OF TERROR (1979) – Margaret Corwin – Made for TV horror movie centering on clones. Also stars Robert Forster and Ray Milland.

THE FOG (1980) – Stevie Wayne – Barbeau’s first theatrical starring role is in this John Carpenter horror movie, which sadly, since it followed upon the heels of Carpenter’s breakthrough megahit HALLOWEEN (1978) was not well-received or treated kindly by critics at the time. I’ve always loved THE FOG, as it’s unique in that there aren’t too many other horror movies where fog and what arrives in it are the main menaces in the film. It’s an eerie ghost story, and the fog special effects are superior and when combined with Carpenter’s music, pretty much unforgettable. Curiously, one thing I’ve never liked about this movie, and it’s an unusual dislike for a John Carpenter film, is that in spite of a very impressive cast which includes Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh, Tom Atkins, Hal Holbrook, Nancy Loomis, Charles Cyphers, and John Houseman, there’s not a single character I like in this one. None of the characters come to life for me, nor are any of the performances memorable, with the possible exception of Charles Cyphers’ Dan the weatherman character, who also gets one of the the best scenes in the movie when he answers the door to his weather station in the fog. But it’s a small role. This is unusual, since in most John Carpenter films, you do have memorable characters and performances, whether it’s Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasence in HALLOWEEN, or Kurt Russell in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) and THE THING (1982) to name just a couple.

Adrienne Barbeau and Harry Dean Stanton in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981)

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) – Maggie -This is one of my favorite Adrienne Barbeau performances, in another genre film by John Carpenter. This futuristic science fiction actioner starring Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken, a hardened criminal sent into Manhattan which is now a maximum security prison in the “future” year of 1997 (!!!) by tough guy warden Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) to rescue the President (Donald Pleasence) from terrorists. Another John Carpenter classic. There’s a lot to love about this one even if believability is low throughout… Donald Pleasence as a U.S. President?… Great action scenes, another fantastic music score by Carpenter, and unlike in THE FOG, there are lots of memorable characters and fine performances, including Adrienne Barbeau as Maggie, the tough as nails unflappable girlfriend of super intelligent and resourceful Brain (Harry Dean Stanton), who both help Pliskin rescue the President from the villainous The Duke (Isaac Hayes).

SWAMP THING (1982) – Alice Cable – another theatrical horror/science fiction release, but this time not directed by John Carpenter, but by another classic horror movie director, Wes Craven. Not terribly well-received at the time, but I’ve always found this one mildly entertaining.

Hal Holbrook and Adrienne Barbeau in CREEPSHOW (1982)

CREEPSHOW (1982) – Wilma Northrup “The Crate” – this is another of my favorite Adrienne Barbeau performances. In fact, this one just might be my favorite, pure and simple. In this superior horror anthology movie, directed by George Romero and written by Stephen King, Barbeau appears in one my favorite segments, “The Crate” which is about a hideous man-eating creature living inside a crate. She plays the relentlessly harsh and belittling wife to Hal Holbrook’s meek Henry Northrup, so when his visibly shaken friend Dexter (Fritz Weaver) shows up at his door one night with a horrifying tale of a man-eating monster back at the college campus where they teach, it gives Henry one wild idea to help solve a nagging problem before he decides to help Dexter take care of his monster dilemma.

THE THING (1982) – Computer voice (uncredited) – back with husband John Carpenter again, this time providing the voice of a computer. Arguably Carpenter’s best movie, this classic remake which was also initially panned by critics is today on so many horror movie fans’ lists as the best horror movie ever made. Period.

THE NEXT ONE (1984) – Andrea – Intriguing science fiction film about a stranger from the future played by Keir Dullea who meets the widowed wife of an astronaut played by Barbeau and her son.

TERROR AT LONDON BRIDGE (1985) – Lynn Chandler – TV movie starring David Hasselhoff about Jack the Ripper committing murders in 1985 by the newly restored London Bridge in Arizona. Written by William F. Nolan, who also wrote the screenplays for such genre films as THE NORLISS TAPES (1973) and BURNT OFFERINGS (1976). Nolan just passed away days ago, on July 15, 2021.

OPEN HOUSE (1987)- Lisa Grant – horror movie about a serial killer targeting real estate agents!

TWO EVIL EYES (1990) – Jessica Valdemar – Horror anthology movie based on Edgar Allan Poe tales directed by George A. Romero and Dario Argento.

DEMOLITION MAN (1993)- Computer voice, uncredited – Barbeau once again provides her voice for a computer in this science fiction actioner starring Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes, and Sandra Bullock.

JUDGE DREDD (1995) – Central voice – another Sylvester Stallone science fiction action film, another opportunity for Barbeau to lend only her voice to a film.

BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES (1992-1995) – Catwoman/Selina Kyle/Martha Wayne – Barbeau provides voicework for this animated Batman TV show. Her voice work as Catwoman is arguably what she is most remembered for today.

THE NEW BATMAN ADVENTURES (1997-1998) – Catwoman/Selina Kyle- more voiceover work as Catwoman.

THE CONVENT (2000) – Adult Christine – Horror movie about demonic possession and a cursed convent.

GOTHAM GIRLS (2000-2002) – Catwoman/Selina Kyle – provides her voice yet again as the Catwoman in this animated TV series about female superheroes and female supervillains in Gotham City.

UNHOLY (2007) – Martha – Horror movie involving conspiracies, witches, Nazis, the occult, and secret government experiments. Should have been called UNBELIEVABLE.

WAR WOLVES (2009) – Gail Cash – Made for TV horror movie about werewolves, soldiers, and werewolf soldiers! Also starring John Saxon.

UNEARTH (2020) – Kathryn Dolan – Barbeau’s most recent theatrical film credit is in this horror movie about fracking.

Adrienne Barbeau in 2020.

While I jumped from 2009 to 2020, Barbeau was actively working during this decade, appearing in movies and on television nonstop during these years. And she has several projects in pre-production at present.

For me, Adrienne Barbeau will best be remembered as a leading lady from the 1980s in which she appeared in some of the decades biggest horror movies and contributed greatly to these films with her noteworthy performances. So there you have it. A brief partial look at the career of Adrienne Barbeau.

Hope you enjoyed the column and join me again next time when we look at the career of another leading lady.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

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THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES 2 (2020) – Disappointing Sequel Strictly for Kids

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Horror fans think fondly of Kurt Russell.

And with good reason. Russell starred in what many horror fans consider today to be their favorite horror movie of all time, John Carpenter’s remake of THE THING (1982). I don’t know if I would call THE THING my favorite horror movie of all time, but it is a favorite.

Russell also starred the year before in Carpenter’s ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981). Those back to back performances jettisoned Russell’s film career, and he never looked back with starring roles continuing all the way up to day. Of course, those of us of a certain age remember Russell as a young actor starring in some silly Disney comedies like THE BAREFOOT EXECUTIVE (1971) and THE STRONGEST MAN IN THE WORLD (1975).

Two years ago, Russell made for a surprisingly charming and very funny Santa Claus in the above average Netflix movie THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES (2018). It was one of my favorite movies that year, and Russell’s performance was the main reason for that.

Now comes the sequel, THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES 2, and I wish I could say it is a worthy successor to the first film, but it’s not. And not even Kurt Russell’s presence can save this one.

Whereas the first film was a touching and pretty darn funny tale which placed Santa in the here and now and had a very flippant Russell interacting with lots of present day disbelievers, THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES 2 largely takes place at the North Pole and for the most part is a Christmas fantasy, filled with CGI special effects giving life to hordes of elves, reindeer, and various other creatures. Its target audience is largely chiildren. There’s not a whole lot here for the adults in the room to enjoy.

Kate (Darby Camp) the young girl in the first movie is a teenager now, and she is upset that she has been forced to spend Christmas on a tropical island with her brother and mother, and her mother’s new boyfriend and his young son Jack (Jahzir Bruno). Kate decides to run away and catch a flight on her own back to Boston.

But she is intercepted by the evil manipulative former elf Belsnickel (Julian Dennison) who whisks her and Jack to the North Pole so Santa Claus (Kurt Russell) can save them and inadvertanly let Belsnickel into the magical city where he can wreak havoc in an effort to get back at Santa and his wife Mrs. Claus (Goldie Hawn.)

The rest of the movie follows Mrs. Claus’ and Jack’s efforts to save Christmas town, while Santa and Kate pursue Belsnickel to retrieve the magical star he has stolen. If this sounds like fun for you, you might enjoy this movie. It wasn’t fun for me. At all. Mostly because Kurt Russell’s Santa performance was devoid of all the biting humor it possessed in the first movie.

THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES 2 was directed by Chris Columbus who years ago directed HOME ALONE (1990) and MRS. DOUBTFIRE (1993). He also directed the first two HARRY POTTER movies. More recently he directed the dreadful Adam Sandler vehicle PIXELS (2015). While THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES 2 isn’t as awful as PIXELS, it’s one of Columbus’s weaker movies.

The screenplay by Matt Lieberman, who co-wrote the first movie, and Chris Columbus, offers nothing for adults and remains on a child’s level throughout. If you’ve got young kids, they will probably like this one.

While it’s fun to see Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn on screen togeher again, they don’t actually do a whole lot together and spend most of the film separate from each other. Russell’s performance simply lacks the fun edge fromt the first movie.

The kids, Darby Camp and Jahzir Bruno are fine, but again, their performances are strictly for kids.

Malcolm McDowell does lend some nice voice over work in a brief scene.

The special effects are decent, and the film is bright, colorful, and Christmasy. Again, the little ones won’t be disapponted.

There is a brief neat time travel bit, but even that doesn’t really take this one to any worthwhile place.

So, to wrap thing up, you’re sure to love this one…. if you’re under the age of ten.

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ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD (2019) – Tarantino’s 9th Film Enters Fairy Tale Territory

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once_upon_a_time_in_hollywood

At first glance,  ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD (2019), the ninth film by Quentin Tarantino, seems to be an exercise in style over substance.

It takes place in Hollywood in 1969, and Tarantino masterfully captures the look, feel, and very essence of the time, with impeccable costumes, set design, and a killer soundtrack. Watching this movie, I really felt as if I had been transported via time machine back to 1969. The experience was that authentic.

Tarantino also gets top-notch performances from everyone involved, especially his two leads, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie.

The style, the filmmaking expertise, it’s all there.

But the substance? The story?

That’s harder to find because ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD takes its sweet time, and for most of its two-hour and forty-one minute running time, it’s not in a hurry to get anywhere, and so it tells its multiple stories with as much urgency as two guys sitting inside a saloon drinking whiskey. In short, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

And yet it’s told with an affection that clearly shows this time period and these characters and their stories were a labor of love by Tarantino. And it’s all light and funny, in spite of the fact that it’s built around one of the darkest chapters in Hollywood history, the brutal murder of a pregnant Sharon Tate and her friends by Charles Manson’s insane minions. There is a strong sense of dread throughout the movie, knowing what’s to come, and then— well, then Tarantino decides to have some fun at our expense.

ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD is mostly the story of two men, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).  Dalton is somewhat of a “has-been,” as his last major starring role in a western TV series was from a decade earlier. Now, he’s reduced to playing the villains on 1960s TV shows like MANNIX and THE FBI.

This is clearly wearing on Dalton and is one of the prevalent themes in the movie, of how quickly success can pass one by, and how artists of a certain age need to work harder and be open to reinventing themselves if they want to remain relevant. There’s a lot of truth to this part of the movie. As we age, we have to make adjustments. One of the ways Dalton eventually reinvents himself is by going to Italy to make “spaghetti westerns,” and so it’s easy to see here how Dalton’s story is inspired by the real life story of Clint Eastwood, who did the same thing in the 1960s.

Stuntman Cliff Booth’s best days are also behind him, but he’s taking it much better than Dalton, because, as he says, he was never a star to begin with and so as far as he is concerned he’s still living the dream. He enjoys being Dalton’s “gofer,” driving the actor wherever he needs to go, being a handyman around Dalton’s home, and just hanging out.

Dalton, who lives in a Hollywood mansion, is miserable, while Cliff, who lives in a trailer behind a drive-in movie theater, is happy, but this doesn’t stop the two men from being best friends. They truly like each other and care for each other, and the dynamic between DiCaprio and Pitt in these roles is a highlight of the movie.

And while Dalton and Cliff Booth are fictional characters, their famous neighbors, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, are not. They are real, and tragically, Sharon Tate’s life was cut short on August 9, 1969 by the insane groupies of Charles Manson.

So, ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD also tells the parallel story of Sharon Tate, and the film really allows its audience to get to know Tate as a person.

These parallel stories move forward until that fateful night in August 1969, and in spite of the comedic elements of this movie, there is a sense of dread throughout, that builds as the film reaches its conclusion, a conclusion that suddenly introduces a major plot twist allowing the film to keep its light tone. I have to admit, for me, this was a head scratcher.

As a result, I’m not so sure ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD works as a whole, but it does have a lot of little parts that work very well.

The best part by far are the two performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. They work really well together, but this isn’t a buddy movie, and so they’re just as good if not better in scenes where they are not together. Some of DiCaprio’s best scenes are when Rick Dalton is acting as the villain in a 60s TV western, trying to prove that he still has what it takes. DiCaprio also enjoys a couple of outstanding scenes with a child actor played by Julia Butters who at one point tells him sincerely that his performance with her was some of the best acting she had ever seen.

Pitt’s Cliff Booth is the livelier of the two characters and the one who is larger than life. Cliff, as we learn later, lives in a veil of infamous secrecy as rumor has it that he killed his wife and got away with it. Cliff also enjoys a fun scene in which he tangles with Bruce Lee, one of the more memorable sequences in the movie. 

Cliff is also one of the connections to the Manson family, as he befriends a young woman Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) who’s part of the Manson clan. And a quick shout-out to Margaret Qualley who steals the few scenes she is in with one of the most energetic performances in the movie. She’s terrific.

The scene where Cliff drives Pussycat back to the ranch where the Manson family resides is a perfect microcosm for the entire movie. Cliff brings Pussycat to the ranch, a place he worked at years earlier. Concerned that this group of hippies may be taking advantage of the ranch’s elderly owner, George Spahn (Bruce Dern), Cliff wants to make sure the man is all right.

In an extremely long and meandering sequence, a lot like the entire movie, Cliff gradually makes his way through the various members of the clan, learning where George is supposed to be “napping.” He eventually makes his way to George’s room, and in a scene where you fully expect George to be dead, it turns out he is only napping, and what follows is a highly comedic banter between Brad Pitt and Bruce Dern, which is the route the film ultimately takes.

Which brings us to Sharon Tate. As I said, Margot Robbie is excellent in the role. On the surface, Robbie makes less of an impact than DiCaprio and Pitt because she has far less screen time than they do, but underneath the comedy and the drama Tate’s quiet spirit drives things along, and Robbie’s performance makes this happen.

Unfortunately, people can be defined by their deaths, especially if they were murdered. Tarantino seems to be pushing back against this notion with Sharon Tate. In ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD, Tarantino lovingly crafts Sharon Tate as a real person and not just as a footnote to the Manson murders. The film paints a portrait of Tate as a beautiful person, and really allows that persona to sink into its audience. I liked this. A lot. However, I would have liked it even more had Margot Robbie been given more screen time as Tate. She largely plays second fiddle to main characters Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth.

The entire cast is wonderful. I’ve already mentioned Bruce Dern and Margaret Qualley, but the film also has key contributions from Kurt Russell and Timothy Olyphant.  Also present are Dakota Fanning and Al Pacino, and look fast for Maya Hawke who is currently starring in Season 3 of Netflix’ STRANGER THINGS.

So, you have this meandering movie, which looks terrific and features powerhouse performances by lots of talented actors, with a fairly funny script, although the dialogue is somewhat subdued from the usual Quentin Tarantino fare, and it’s taking its sweet time, taking its audience for a pleasant ride with the knowledge that tragedy awaits. All of this, I didn’t mind and mostly enjoyed.

But it’s the ending of ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD that I find most problematic and is the part of the movie that is the least effective. To avoid spoilers, I will not get into details, but what happens here is the film enters into the realm of alternate reality, and once it does that, well, all that came before must now be looked at with a different lens, and a new question arises, which is, why did we just watch all this? 

In other words, for me, one of the reasons the movie had worked so well up until the ending was it was a piece of historical fiction. Fictional characters were appearing in a real setting (1969 Hollywood) with a canvas of real events in the background. Once these events are changed, the film enters the world of fantasy, of historical reimagining, and once this is done, I don’t think the film possesses the same impact.

In short, to turn this tragic story into a comedy, even with the best intentions, is something I’m not sure entirely works.

At times, ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD seems to be a love letter to Sharon Tate. I liked this part.

At other times, most in fact, it’s a take-no- prisoners shoot-em-up dramedy about an aging movie/TV star and his laid back infallible stunt man. I liked this part, too.

But the last part, the punch line, seems to be Quentin Tarantino’s desire to do what he did to the Nazis in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) to Charles Manson and his “family.” It’s this last part that, while good for some laughs, seems the most out-of-place.  While there are hints in the film that this is where this story is going to go, it still feels jarring to watch the events unfold, events that change history, and thrust the movie head first into fairy tale territory, appropriate I guess for a movie entitled ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD.

—END—

 

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GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, VOL. 2 (2017) – Less of an Awesome Mix

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guardians2-poster

I loved the first GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014), and it instantly ranked as one of my favorite Marvel superhero movies.  As such, I was really looking forward to VOL. 2, and I fully expected to like it.

I did not.

As GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 (2017) opens, old friends Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and newly born Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) are busy saving the galaxy from bad guys, in particular taking on a giant monster in order to protect a civilization’s valuable commodity, batteries.  They’re also busy arguing with each other, and their banter is certainly one of the more enjoyable parts of the movie.

When Rocket steals some of the batteries they were supposed to be protecting, Queen Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) sends an armada of ships in hot pursuit to get the batteries back.  Our friendly neighborhood galaxy guardians are rescued by Ego (Kurt Russell) who claims to be Quill’s long-lost father.  He’s also all-powerful and invites Quill and his friends to his own personal planet which he made himself to show his son what a wonderful life he had been missing.

Meanwhile, Yondu (Michael Rooker) has been shamed by his fellow traders because he had taken part in the buying and selling of children.  Yondu decides it’s time he makes amends, and he seeks out Quill, one of those former children.  And the Guardians will need his help because things are not what they seem with Quill’s dad, Ego.

The biggest problem I had with GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 is its story.  The Guardians of the galaxy are a fun group of wise-cracking, in-fighting misfit superheroes, but in this movie their main adversary is Ego, and for most of the movie, they don’t even know he’s an adversary.  Instead, they spend most of their time dealing with Ayesha, who really isn’t that interesting a character.

Another subplot has Gamora contending with her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), another story that isn’t all that interesting.  Then there’s the cutesiness of Baby Groot.  Now, I had fun watching Baby Groot, but I thought the film went overboard with all the cute stuff.

In short, I love the main characters, the guardians, and I still had fun watching them.  But they’re stuck in a story here that absolutely bored me.  And once more, as if it’s a mandatory part of the Marvel movie formula, there isn’t an intriguing or worthwhile villain to be found anywhere in the galaxy.

Chris Pratt returns as Star-Lord, and he’s as handsomely charming as ever, but he’s in this flat story with his dad Ego, and the character suffers for it.   Likewise, while I really enjoyed  Zoe Saldana as Gamora once again, she too is hindered by her main story, the ongoing rift with her sister Nebula.

Dave Bautista probably fares the best in his return as Drax, as he has some of the funnier lines in the film.  But in terms of action, Drax doesn’t do a whole lot.  Bradley Cooper is enjoyable again voicing Rocket, and then there’s Baby Groot.  I have no problems with Baby Groot, but if the main story of this one had been stronger, I wouldn’t have found the cutesiness here with Baby Groot so grating.

Probably my favorite performance in the whole movie belongs to Michael Rooker as Yondu, in the largest supporting role in the movie.  Yondu was in the first film as well, and the character is further developed this time around, and Rooker is more than up to the task of fleshing out this bright blue character.

Karen Gillan gets more screen time as Nebula as well, and a new character Mantis (Pom Klementieff) gets to enjoy some fine moments, mostly when interacting with Drax.

But the villains fall completely flat here.  I had been excited about Kurt Russell playing Ego in this movie, and there’s nothing wrong with Russell’s performance, but I found the character boring.  Likewise, Elizabeth Debicki did nothing for me as Ayesha.  The biggest knock on these villains is their agendas are dull.  Ayesha is just chasing down stolen batteries and looking for payback, and Ego is all about what his name implies.  All this evil power, and nothing to do with it.  What’s a villain to do?

Sylvester Stallone shows up for about five seconds as Stakar Ogord, in a role that’s clearly a set-up for a future movie.

James Gunn, who wrote and directed the first GUARDIANS movie, is back doing both here in the sequel.  He scores better behind the camera than at the keyboard.  I thought the film looked great.  I saw it in 2D, and it looked fine, although I wouldn’t have minded seeing it in 3D, but the times didn’t work out for me.  The visuals are eye-poppingly colorful and cinematic.

The action scenes are so-so.  While fun and lively, none of the action scenes here blew me away.  Some went on too long and made me yawn.

Again, the biggest knock on this one is its screenplay, by director James Gunn.  The story did nothing for me, and the villains were disappointing.  Ego has all this power and ability and he seems to know nothing about what to do with it.  Boring.

And the film’s theme, that they are more than friends, that they are family, has been done to death already and didn’t add anything fresh to this sequel.

As expected, the film does have another awesome mix as a soundtrack, so there are no complaints here.

Like other Marvel movies, there is an after credits scene. No, wait, that’s not quite accurate.  There are several after credit scenes, so you if you want to see them all, you have to wait till the very end of the movie.  That being said, to be honest, I didn’t like any of these after-credit scenes.  It’s a case where more doesn’t mean better, which is a nice microcosm of the entire movie.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 brings our entertaining squabbling guardians back to the big screen, and they are certainly fun to watch, but they’re stuck in a dull storyline that doesn’t do them justice.

The awesome mix volume 2 simply isn’t quite as awesome the second time around.

–END—

 

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

Memorable Movie Quotes: THE THING (1982)

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the-thing-1982-poster

Welcome to another edition of MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES, the column where we look at fun quotes from some pretty cool movies.

Up today a movie that makes the short list on almost every horror fan’s “Best of” lists.  In fact, this gem— which was  a flop upon its initial release— is often listed as the number 1 all-time favorite horror movie by horror fans.  I’m talking about John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982).

A remake of the classic THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951) starring James Arness as one of the creepiest scariest alien monsters from outer space ever, this John Carpenter version was truer to the original source material, the short story “Who Goes There?” by  John W. Campbell, Jr.  Yet that didn’t seem to matter back in 1982.  Critics slammed the film because of its excessive gore and outlandish special effects.  The complaint was the film didn’t contain the same creative directing Carpenter displayed on his break-out hit, HALLOWEEN (1978).

But fans felt otherwise.  The year 1982 was the dawn of the VHS/VCR age, and I remember when this movie was released on video, it suddenly started gaining momentum and word of mouth spread rapidly.  And like I said, today John Carpenter’s THE THING is heralded as a horror movie classic, and rightly so.

The screenplay by Bill Lancaster contains lots of memorable lines.  Let’s have a look:

Even though the film is loaded with gory special effects, it still generates a sense of mystery and creepiness early on, like here when Blair (Wilford Brimley) explains his findings after his autopsy on the slaughtered dogs:

BLAIR:  You see, what we’re talking about here is an organism that imitates other life forms, and it imitates them perfectly. When this thing attacked our dogs it tried to digest them… absorb them, and in the process shape its own cells to imitate them. This for instance. That’s not dog. It’s imitation. We got to it before it had time to finish.

NORRIS:  Finish what?

BLAIR:  Finish imitating these dogs.

 

And again, later when Fuchs asks to speak with MacReady (Kurt Russell) privately to read him Blair’s notes and to tell him his fears about what’s really going on inside the camp.  At this point in the movie, neither the characters nor the audience knows yet what the Thing is, and so these scenes of dialogue set the groundwork for introducing the horror which is yet to come.

FUCHS:  There’s something wrong with Blair. He’s locked himself in his room and he won’t answer the door, so I took one of his notebooks from the lab.

MACREADY:   Yeah?

FUCHS: Listen: (Reading from Blair’s notes)  “It could have imitated a million life forms on a million planets. It could change into any one of them at any time. Now, it wants life forms on Earth.”

MACREADY:  It’s getting cold in here, Fuchs, and I haven’t slept for two days.

FUCHS:  Wait a minute, Mac, wait a minute.  “It needs to be alone and in close proximity with the life form to be absorbed. The chameleon strikes in the dark.”

MACREADY:  So is Blair cracking up or what?

FUCHS:  Damn it, MacReady!  “There is still cellular activity in these burned remains. They’re not dead yet!

 

Kurt Russell’s MacReady gets a lot of the good lines in the movie, especially later on as his character emerges as the natural leader among the camp and the most promising opponent of the Thing.  But first he has to deal with his own men, as they suspect him of being the Thing.  In this scene, he holds off his men with some dynamite, something that Childs (Keith David) scoffs at:

CHILDS:   You’re gonna have to sleep sometime, MacReady.

MACREADY:  I’m a real light sleeper, Childs.

thing-frozen-macready

“I’m a real light sleeper, Childs.”

Later, Macready devises a test to reveal the identity of the Thing, in one of the movie’s best scenes.  Let’s listen:

MACREADY:  I know I’m human. And if you were all these things, then you’d just attack me right now, so some of you are still human. This thing doesn’t want to show itself, it wants to hide inside an imitation. It’ll fight if it has to, but it’s vulnerable out in the open. If it takes us over, then it has no more enemies, nobody left to kill it. And then it’s won.

We’re gonna draw a little bit of everybody’s blood… ’cause we’re gonna find out who’s The Thing. Watching Norris in there gave me the idea that… maybe every part of him was a whole, every little piece was an individual animal with a built-in desire to protect its own life. You see, when a man bleeds, it’s just tissue, but blood from one of you Things won’t obey when it’s attacked. It’ll try and survive… crawl away from a hot needle, say.

 

Later, when they try to restore power to their camp, Garry (Donald Moffat)  makes a grim discovery and in this scene tells MacReady the bad news:

GARRY: The generator’s gone.

MACREADY:  Any way we can we fix it?

GARRY:  It’s gone, MacReady.

Meaning it is no longer physically there.  Yikes!

 

Two of the best lines from THE THING come from two of the supporting characters.  Donald Moffat’s Garry has one of them.  In the scene where MacReady performs his test to learn the Thing’s identity, Garry is one of the men he trusts the least at the time, and so he had Garry tied to a couch along with two other men.  One of the men turns out to be the Thing in one of the movie’s most exciting sequences.  After it’s done, and both the characters and audience breathe a sigh of relief, Garry still finds himself tied to the couch.  And after a moment’s pause, he says:

GARRY:  I know you gentlemen have been through a lot, but when you find the time, I’d rather not spend the rest of this winter TIED TO THIS F—-ING COUCH!

the-thing-garry

Get me off this couch, please.

But hands down, the best line in the movie and certainly the most memorable line in the movie, belongs to Palmer (David Clennon).  After an intense battle with the Thing, the severed head of one of its victims sprouts legs and crawls away like a giant spider.  Palmer, wide-eyed and incredulous, sees this spectacle and says,

PALMER:  You gotta be f—in’ kidding.

the-thing-palmer

Well, I hope  you enjoyed this look at memorable quotes from John Carpenter’s THE THING, screenplay by Bill Lancaster, a true masterpiece of horror movie cinema.

That’s it for now.  Join me again next time when we look at more memorable quotes from another cool movie.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

DEEPWATER HORIZON (2016) Struggles to Stay Afloat

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deepwater-horizon

There’s a fine line between having a compelling story to tell, and telling a compelling story.

The recent movie SULLY (2016) is a perfect example of the latter.  It had a compelling story to tell, and director Clint Eastwood knew how to tell it.

DEEPWATER HORIZON (2016), on the other hand, tells the story of the 2010 explosion on the offshore drilling rig Deepwater Horizon, an event that led to the worst oil spill in U.S. history.  It’s a memorable story, but the movie struggles to tell it.

The film opens with Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) at home with his family, getting ready to say farewell to them for a few weeks while he returns to work on the Deepwater Horizon.  He’s enjoying time with his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) and their daughter, and if you’ve seen the film’s trailer, you’ve seen the cute conversation they all share over their breakfast table.  It actually made for a very effective trailer, but here in the film it only adds to a rather slow beginning.

The purpose of these early family scenes is to personalize the story.  Rather than follow the lives of many people on the rig, the film chooses to follow mostly Mike, and to juxtapose his scenes with those of the panicked Felicia back home.  This really isn’t all that effective, and sadly reduces Kate Hudson to being in a series of reaction shots where she doesn’t do much more than look worried.

So Mike goes off to work and meets up with his boss Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell) and co-worker Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez).  Once on the rig, Jimmy immediately butts heads with members of the company that owns Deepwater Horizon led by a man named Vidrine (John Malkovich) who has been cutting costs by skimping on routine safety checks because he believes the Deepwater Horizon will work fine without them.  Jimmy, of course, is protective of his crew and refuses to proceed without the necessary precautionary tests.

Unfortunately, Jimmy’s tests are too little too late, as the company had let things slide so badly, that in the middle of one of the tests, the equipment is compromised and there is a gush of mud which overheats the engines and leads to a catastrophic explosion.

DEEPWATER HORIZON gets off to a sluggish start, and even though I was interested in this story, because I knew what it was about, the film didn’t grab my attention.  The early scenes with Mike and his family were okay, and the ensuing arguments between Jimmy and the company were certainly interesting, but there’s a whole rig full of people, and we don’t really get to know many of the characters at all.  Before the explosion, most of the exposition was simple and dull.

Once the explosion occurs, things pick up, but that being said, for a disaster movie, none of the scenes really wowed me.  Most of the action occurs at a rapid fire pace, and the camera is in close, making it very difficult to see what’s going on.  It also doesn’t help that the only character we’ve really gotten to know is Mike, so when the camera is on him, things are captivating, but whenever the action follows someone else, it’s like following a random red shirt on an episode of STAR TREK.

Director Peter Berg does an undistinguished job capturing the action.  The film is begging for an establishing shot, seeing the scene unfold from a distance so we can have a sense of the scope of the tragedy.  While there are some shots of Deepwater Horizon burning, for the bulk of the action, the camera is in way too close and it’s difficult to discern just what exactly is happening.  There’s plenty of mud shooting around, plenty of men slipping and sliding, explosions, fire everywhere, people scrambling, but left out of the whole thing were my emotions.  I didn’t know the people in this tragedy, and the movie suffered for it.

The film also does little with the actual Coast Guard rescue of these folks.  We hardly see what happens at all.  In SULLY, the rescue was one of the movie’s high points.  Not so here.

The screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand was meh.  I didn’t really like the background story of Mike and his family, as it didn’t add anything here.  Again, to compare to SULLY, in that film, Tom Hanks’ character converses with his worried wife over the phone on several occasions, but those conversations moved the plot forward, as they gave Hanks’ character opportunities to question his actions.  The scenes here between Mike and his wife Felicia do not move the plot forward.  They only stall the story.

The dialogue was flat and uninspiring, very generic, except for the one sequence where Mike gets in Andrea’s face and really lays it on her as to why they are going to survive.  It’s also Wahlberg’s best moment in the movie.  The best dialogue belongs to Kurt Russell’s Jimmy, but once the explosion hits, Jimmy takes a back seat to Mike in the story.

Matthew Michael Carnahan was also one of the screenwriters on WORLD WAR Z (2013), a film I liked a bit more than DEEPWATER HORIZON.

Mark Wahlberg is fine here as Mike.  It’s the type of role Wahlberg can play in his sleep, at this point.  His performance is good enough to carry this movie, except that he really doesn’t have a lot of potent scenes in this one.  His best scene comes near the end when he pushes the panicked Andrea to survive.

Actually, my favorite performance in the movie belonged to Kurt Russell as Jimmy.  He really brings Jimmy to life, and you feel from the get-go that Jimmy takes his job seriously and that he will not compromise the lives of his crew.  We’ve been seeing more of Russell in the movies lately, and I hope this trend continues.  The only drawback is that most of Russell’s screen time here occurs before the explosion.

Kate Hudson is largely wasted in a throwaway role as Mike’s wife Felicia.  John Malkovich is okay as one of the cost-cutting meanies from the company, but he’s not really in this one a whole lot.

On the contrary, Gina Rodriguez is very good as Andrea Fleytas, the woman who helms the controls on Deepwater Horizon.  The rest of the cast are little more than interchangeable cardboard cutouts.

The strongest thing DEEPWATER HORIZON has to offer is the true story on which it is based.  This is reiterated during the movie’s end credits, when we see the names and photographs of the men killed during the explosion.

But source material alone isn’t enough to make a powerful movie.  A film needs a strong storytelling component, generated by creative directing and a sharp script. DEEPWATER HORIZON has neither.

As such, in spite of its gripping story, it struggles to stay afloat.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986)

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BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986) marked the fourth time director John Carpenter worked with actor Kurt Russell,  following  ELVIS (1979), ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981), and THE THING (1982).

Whereas time has been kind to both ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and THE THING—THE THING is often ranked #1 on horror fans’ “Favorite Horror Movie” lists— when they first came out, neither film was a hit.  In fact, THE THING was a box office bomb.

Kurt Russell wasn’t faring much better in 1986.  He had just come off a string of films that had performed very poorly at the box office, and the story goes that he was so worried about his box office slump that he told Carpenter to get someone else to star in BIG TROUBLE, but Carpenter told him not to worry, that he wanted him to star in the movie.

I wish I could say that BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA was a huge hit and rejuvenated the careers of both these artists, but that’s not what happened.  Like their previous few films, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA also tanked at the box office.

But like ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and THE THING, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA has enjoyed a resurgence.  Fans nowadays like this movie.   I saw it when it first came out, and I did not like it.  I liked it so little that I never bothered to watch it again.

Until now.

And that’s because I’ve been hearing fans say good things about the movie, and I thought it was high time I gave it a second viewing.

BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is a strange movie.  It’s an action adventure that takes place in Chinatown, San Francisco and involves Chinese mysticism, which gives the film a supernatural element.  It’s also a comedy, meaning that the entire thing is played for laughs.

Truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) and his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) go to the airport to pick up Wang’s girlfriend, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai).  While there, Jack flirts with a woman named Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) which provides him with a few minutes of fun before a Chinese gang shows up and kidnaps Miao.

Jack and Wang give chase, but the gang eludes them and gets away with Miao.  Wang vows to get her back, and Jack agrees to help him.  I guess no one thought to call the police. Anyway, Gracie Law shows up at their doorstep and reveals that she’s a lawyer who knows all about the Chinese mystical underworld, and she wants to help Jack and Wang as well.  They also receive help from Egg Shen (Victor Wong), a bus driver who’s also an expert on Chinese sorcery.

They need all this help because Miao has been kidnapped by David Lo Pan (James Hong), a two thousand year-old sorcerer who’s cursed to walk the earth without his physical body.  To lift the curse, he has to marry a girl with green eyes, which is why he kidnapped Miao, because she has green eyes.  It turns out that Gracie Law also has green eyes.  Suddenly Lo Pan has more choices than he knows what to do with.  Life is good.  For a while, anyway, as soon Jack and Wang show up, and they’re all about taking down Lo Pan and his supernatural army.  Good luck with that!

As I said, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is played for laughs.  There isn’t a serious bone in this one’s body.

At first, I was really enjoying this one, and during the movie’s first half, I thought my opinion of it would change.  What wasn’t to like?  It was full of 1980s nostalgia, it had Kurt Russell, lots of colorful martial art action scenes, monsters, supernatural goings on, and a neat music score by John Carpenter.

But midway through, the movie runs out of gas, and I remembered why I didn’t really like this one back in 1986.  The martial arts action scenes start to get repetitive, and a major reason why is they’re simply not very good.

The script by Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein also fizzles.  Early on, things are mysterious, and the dialogue is rapid fire funny, but later, once you know Lo Pan’s story, it’s pretty ridiculous, even it if is played for laughs.  I’ve seen more believable plots on SCOOBY DOO.  And the humor definitely loses its edge, mostly because after a while it’s simply Jack and Wang dealing with one unbelivable situation after another.

The film definitely gets goofier as it goes along, becoming flat our silly rather than focusing on the action and the adventure.  Had this one had more of an edge to it, and kept the humor in the background, it would have worked better.

Kurt Russell based Jack Burton on John Wayne, and it’s apparent right from the get-go. Russell is fun to watch here because he really does capture the Duke’s onscreen persona. Similarly, Russell based Snake Plissken in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK on Clint Eastwood, which is also clearly apparent.

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Kurt Russell as Jack Burton in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986)

Things would change for Russell with his next movie, the hit comedy OVERBOARD (1987) in which he starred with Goldie Hawn.  And a series of hits would follow Russell over the next five years.

While Russell is entetaining in BIG TROUBLE, Dennis Dun is just OK as Wang Chi.  He lacks Russell’s charisma and larger than life qualities, which is too bad because one of the movie’s jokes is that Jack thinks he’s the hero, yet he’s constantly messing things up, and it’s Wang who’s the true hero in the movie, but at times, Dun doesn’t make this notion all that believable.

Kim Cattrall is the epitome of 1980s actresses, and she fits right in here.  She’s got the 80s hairstyle, and she plays Gracie Law with a mixture of strength and ditziness.  She could easily walk into the CHEERS bar for a drink.

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Kim Cattrall as Gracie Law in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986).

Victor Wong is sufficiently knowledgable as Egg Shen, but James Hong is rather ineffective as main baddie David Lo Pan.  He spends most of the time behind make-up and special effects.

The special effects are OK.  They run hot and cold, and they’re really cheesy.  I guess that’s part of the charm for some people.

So, after my second viewing, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA remains not one of my favorite John Carpenter movies. Sadly, Carpenter would follow this up with the even worse PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987).  It would be a little while before Carpenter would find his stride again, and that would be with IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1995).

BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA means well.  It’s got tons of energy, and everyone looks like they’re having a grand old time.  But as the action becomes flat out goofy, the story doesn’t hold up, and the script doesn’t match the film’s inanity, as the dialogue and situations are never that funny, it all becomes rather tedious long before the end credits roll.

The trouble in Little China just isn’t all that big.

—END—

THE HORROR JAR: JOHN CARPENTER/KURT RUSSELL MOVIES

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Welcome back to THE HORROR JAR, that column where we look at lists about horror movies.  Up today:  John Carpenter/Kurt Russell movies.  Yup, a look at the movies in which horror master John Carpenter directed former child star turned action hero Kurt Russell.

escape from new york poster

ELVIS (1979)

Directed:  John Carpenter

Screenplay:  Anthony Lawrence

Elvis Presley:  Kurt Russell

Gladys Presley:  Shelley Winters

Vernon Presley:  Bing Russell

Priscilla Presley:  Season Hubley

Music:  Joe Renzetti

Running Time:  150 minutes

Yup, the first time Carpenter and Russell worked together was on the made-for-TV movie about the life of Elvis Presley.  Pretty good bio pic, and Russell makes for a very good Elvis.  Interestingly, Elvis’ father Vernon Presley is played by Russell’s real life dad Bing Russell, and Elvis’ wife Priscilla Presley was played by Russell’s real life wife at the time, Season Hubley.  All in the family, I guess.

 

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981)

Director:  John Carpenter

Screenplay:  John Carpenter and Nick Castle

Snake Plissken: Kurt Russell

Hauk:  Lee Van Cleef

Cabbie:  Ernest Borgnine

Maggie:  Adrienne Barbeau

Brain:  Harry Dean Stanton

The Duke:  Isaac Hayes

President: Donald Pleasence

Music:  John Carpenter and Alan Howarth

Running Time:  99 minutes

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Carpenter’s next movie after his horror hits HALLOWEEN (1978) and THE FOG (1980).  Not really well received upon its initial release, this dark action thriller has nonetheless aged well.  Actually, looking back, Carpenter clearly was a victim of his own success.  After his megahit and masterpiece HALLOWEEN, Carpenter made three straight quality films:  THE FOG (1980), ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) and THE THING (1982).  All three were panned by critics at the time, yet today they are regarded as some of the finest genre films of the past 40 years. In fact, for some, his version of THE THING is the best horror movie ever.

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK was a milestone film for Kurt Russell, pretty much the movie that broke him out of his previous persona as being a teen actor in Disney movies.  Carpenter wrote the role of Snake Plissken for Clint Eastwood, and when Russell got the part, he played the role with Eastwood in mind.

Fun film, with yet another quality music score by director Carpenter.  It’s nearly as good as his HALLOWEEN score.

 

THE THING (1982)

Director:  John Carpenter

Screenplay:  Bill Lancaster, based on the story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, Jr.

Macready:  Kurt Russell

Blair:  Wilford Brimley

Childs:  Keith David

Nauls:  T.K. Carter

Palmer:  David Clennon

Dr. Copper:  Richard Dysart

Garry:  Donald Moffat

Music:  Ennio Morricone

Running Time:  109 minutes

Critically panned when it first came out in 1982, Carpenter’s THE THING is now regarded as a horror/science fiction classic.  For many horror film buffs it’s their favorite horror movie of all time.  A flop at the box office, it left my local theater within a week and I was not able to see it.  I caught it several months later when it appeared on something called a”VHS cassette.”  Yes, it was 1983 and the VHS age was just beginning.  I wasn’t the only one who saw it on home video.  Suddenly everyone I knew was talking about THE THING, and it’s a film that since then has never looked back.

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Kurt Russell is excellent as Macready, in effect reprising his Snake Plissken tough guy persona, this time going up against a deadly alien monster from outer space.  Very scary flick, with gross-out special effects that were considered unspeakably over-the-top and tasteless back in 1982.  Now they’re regarded as some of the best effects of their time.

Curious, Carpenter did not provide the music for this one, as that honor went to composer Ennio Morricone, who’s responsible for the chilling score for this shocker.

 

BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986)

Director:  John Carpenter

Screenplay:  Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein

Jack Burton:  Kurt Russell

Gracie Law:  Kim Cattrall

Music:  John Carpenter and Alan Howarth

Running Time:  99 minutes

Silly action adventure has its fans.  I’m not one of them.  Kurt Russell and Kim Cattrall run afoul of Chinese gangs, martial arts, and the supernatural.  Mostly played for laughs.

 

ESCAPE FROM L.A. (1996)

Director:  John Carpenter

Screenplay:  John Carpenter, Debra Hill, and Kurt Russell

Snake Plissken:  Kurt Russell

Map To The Stars Eddie:  Steve Buscemi

Pipeline:  Peter Fonda

President:  Cliff Robertson

Cmmdr. Malloy:  Stacy Keach

Music:  John Carpenter and Shirley Walker

Running Time:  101 minutes

Forgettable sequel to ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK finds Snake Plissken this time getting into trouble in L.A. in an effort to once again help the U.S. government which once more seems to be the last thing Plissken really wants to be doing.

There you have it, the list of movies pairing director John Carpenter and actor Kurt Russell.  My two favorites are clearly ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) and THE THING (1982).

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981)

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Here’s my latest IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column, published in the April 2015 edition of the HWA Newsletter, on John Carpenter’s science fiction action thriller ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK.

Enjoy!escape-from-new-york poster

—Michael

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT

BY

MICHAEL ARRUDA

John Carpenter’s movies, especially his early ones, are defined by a distinctive directorial style that makes his films more creative than most, and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981), his futuristic science fiction thriller, just might be his most imaginative film of all.

The epitome of John Carpenter’s work of course is his masterpiece, HALLOWEEN (1978), but his early films were all very good.  You can’t go wrong with DARK STAR (1974), ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976), HALLOWEEN (1978), THE FOG (1980), ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981), or THE THING (1982).  Carpenter would continue to make decent quality movies, some better than others, but it was these early films which defined Carpenter’s work for me.

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) is classic John Carpenter.  Chock full of style, its story of the island of Manhattan serving as a maximum security prison is about as far-fetched at you can get, which comes as no surprise since believable plots have never been a John Carpenter strong point.  But Carpenter’s signature touches are all over this one, and as such, it’s one of my favorite John Carpenter movies.

The story takes place in the “future” in the year 1997— gee, that went by fast!— and Manhattan is a maximum security prison with one simple rule:  once you go in, you never come out.  The President of the United States (Donald Pleasence) is on his way to an important summit to meet with the leaders of China and the Soviet Union (which of course would cease to exist before 1997, but to be fair to Carpenter, who in 1981 saw that coming?) when his Air Force One jet is hijacked and forced down into the streets of Manhattan.

Police Commissioner Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) decides to send in notorious convict Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) to rescue the president since he can move about unnoticed— unlike the police— although I’ve always wondered what happened to their undercover officers?— and he can get the job done.  Hauk promises Snake a full pardon if he rescues the president.  To cement the deal, Hauk implants poison capsules into Snake’s neck.  If he makes it back in time with the president, he’ll be given an antidote.  If not, it’s sayonara Snake!

Snake pilots a glider into New York and lands on top of the World Trade Center.  As he searches for the president, he learns from Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine) that the man holding the president is The Duke (Isaac Hayes), the most powerful man in the Manhattan prison.  In order to save his own life, Snake will have to rescue the president from the Duke, and together, they’ll have to escape from New York.

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is one of John Carpenter’s most stylish films.  I absolutely love the look of this movie, as Carpenter nails the futuristic vision of New York City.  There’s something exceedingly animated about the look of this film, the vibrant colors, the brooding camerawork, and the artistic photography.  It reminds me a lot of what Tim Burton would do with Gotham City in BATMAN (1989).  There’s a lot of Carpenter’s ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK in that film.

Carpenter embraces a lot of horror elements in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, including the “Crazies,” people who live underground and come out at night to wreak havoc.  One of the more memorable scenes in the film is when Snake meets a woman (Season Hubley) in a Chock Full of Nuts store, and the Crazies break in from underneath the floor and drag the screaming woman down with them.

The fight between Snake and the muscular giant (Ox Baker) is also notable, and the race across the mined bridge at the end of the film is one of the more suspenseful sequences.

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK also enjoys one of the deeper casts in a John Carpenter movie.  Snake Plisskin became the role which would define the second half of Kurt Russell’s career, as he made the jump from teen star in Walt Disney movies in the 1960s and 70s to full-fledged mainstream actor.  This role combined with Russell’s work in Carpenter’s next movie THE THING also cemented Russell’s place in the horror/science fiction genre.

Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken.

Kurt Russell as Snake Plisskin.

Kurt Russell almost didn’t get the part, because the producers were concerned he wasn’t right for the role because of his Disney background.  Russell based his interpretation of Snake Plisskin on Clint Eastwood, and Eastwood was one of the actors John Carpenter originally wanted for the role, but he turned it down.  Tommy Lee Jones, Nick Nolte, Jeff Bridges, and even Charles Bronson were all considered for the role before it went to Russell.

Had Eastwood taken the role, it would have been an interesting bit of casting as it would have reunited Eastwood with Lee Van Cleef, his co-star in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965) and THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (1966).  In ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, Van Cleef is excellent as Hauk and makes a perfect foil for Russell’s Snake Plisskin.  Van Cleef was 56 when he made ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and he still looked like he could kick the stuffing out of everyone in the movie.

Lee Van Cleef gives Kurt Russell all he can handle in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK.

Lee Van Cleef gives Kurt Russell all he can handle in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK.

Donald Pleasence with his British accent is strangely cast as the President of the United States.  As much as I like Pleasence, he’s not very convincing in this role.  Harry Dean Stanton stands out as Brain, the brilliant right hand man to The Duke, who always seems to know that one bit of information that makes his life valuable.  The cast also includes Adrienne Barbeau, Ernest Borgnine, Tom Atkins, Charles Cyphers, and Isaac Hayes as The Duke.

The screenplay by John Carpenter and Nick Castle isn’t going to win any awards for the most realistic tale ever told, but the film as a whole works well.  It also features some memorable dialogue.

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK also has one of John Carpenter’s best music scores.  Better even than his HALLOWEEN score?  I don’t know about that, but other than his music for HALLOWEEN, his score for ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is my favorite.

John Carpenter is famous for his horror movies, specifically HALLOWEEN and THE THING, but his futuristic action tale ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is one of his finest films.  With his inspired direction, a strong cast led by Kurt Russell in a career-changing role, and a superior music score, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is dark escapism at its best.

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