Posts Tagged ‘Kurt Russell’

It’s easy to forget that, about three years ago, predicting the imminent failure and embarrassment of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy was a popular pastime amongst a wide range of respected and sensible industry commentators: Marvel couldn’t keep on making huge hits, after all, and this was a step into the unknown for the studio – a comedy SF adventure featuring quite possibly the most obscure group of Z-list superheroes ever committed to the big screen? With Vin Diesel playing a tree? Come on.

Of course, following critical acclaim and a box office take of nearly $775 million (not to mention a bunch of other substantial hits in the interim), no-one is saying the same kind of thing about Gunn’s sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: quite the opposite. Expectations have risen to a level that might give some folk pause. But not, it seems, Marvel Studios – the new movie has received the plum late-spring release date, even ahead of the new Spider-Man film, a considerable vote of confidence. But is this justified? Are people going to stroll out whistling the soundtrack, or not even stay for the first couple of post-credits sequences (there are a lot of these)?

James Gunn has never really been one to avoid unusual creative decisions, and the first of many in Vol. 2 is to explicitly set the film in 2014, even though the story has only the most marginal connection with anything happening on Earth. (All this achieved, really, was to make me wonder what the timeframe and chronology is as far as all the other Marvel films is concerned – do they take place in real time? On-screen evidence suggests otherwise. Drawing attention to this topic may be a mistake.) Anyway, that the new film is going to really be more of the same is indicated almost at once, as the opening credits showcase a dance routine to ELO, occurring in front of a backdrop the likes of which Jeff Lynne can surely never have dreamed.

Having been successful in their latest mercenary exploit, Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and the currently pot-plant-sized Groot (Vin Diesel, apparently, not that you can actually tell) head off, intent on turning Gamora’s insane sister Nebula (Karen Gillen) in for a substantial bounty. However, the kleptomaniac tendencies of one of their number land the Guardians in serious trouble, and result in their former associate Yondu (Michael Rooker) being hired to hunt them down.

Help of a sort arrives in the unexpected form of mysterious space entity Ego (Kurt Russell) and his assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff). Ego reveals he is actually Star-Lord’s long-estranged father, and whisks him off to his domain to explain his true heritage and tutor him in the use of his cosmic powers. However, Yondu and his band of ne’er-do-wells are closing in… but is all quite as it seems?

It does not take too much effort to interpret much of Vol. 2 as a resounding ‘Ha-HAH!’ from Gunn, directed at all those people smugly predicting the first film would be a disaster and that he was just not suited to directing mainstream movies. All the things that made the first film tonally distinctive, not to mention odd – the garish production designs, the 70s and 80 pop cultural references, the oddball, tongue-in-cheek humour – are here again, and more prominently than before.

However, one change which has not been much commented upon is the fact that Gunn has written and directed this film single-handed, whereas the script of the first volume was partly the work of Nicole Perlman. One of the reasons the first film worked so well was that all the weird stuff was built around a story with an absolutely rock-solid structure, and I am compelled to assume that most of this came from Perlman’s initial work, not least because (having seen Slither and Super) narrative discipline is not something I would necessarily associate with Gunn, and it’s certainly absent from long stretches of Vol. 2.

The film opens strongly, but relatively soon feels like it’s losing direction – there’s no sense of what the story is actually about, or where it’s heading. This is partly necessitated by the nature of the plot, I suspect, but perhaps that just suggests the plot itself is inherently flawed. Instead of a sense of progression in the narrative, the film proceeds through a succession of eye-catching directorial set-pieces, somewhat earnest character scenes, and outrageous comedy sketches.

Now, let’s not get confused about this: the film looks great, is filled with fine actors doing their stuff, and when it’s functioning as a pure comedy it is often very, very funny (though certainly not a film to take small children to see) – Vol. 2 doesn’t fail to entertain, distract, and amuse. However – and here’s the ironic thing – it feels more like a compilation tape than a movie in its own right. All the stuff you really enjoyed from the first one is here, and turned up to the max; but many of the less-noticeable elements that helped to make it function so well as a satisfying movie have been a bit skimped on.

In short, it’s a mightily self-indulgent beast, though forgiveably so for the most part – though new viewers (and even some casual ones) are likely to find it slightly baffling. Some of the characters seem to be here more because Gunn likes them than out of any necessity to the plot: here I’m looking particularly at Nebula, to be honest. Speaking of self-indulgence, as is not unusual in this sort of film, the final battle/climax seems to go on forever, and is followed by a lengthy and somewhat sentimental coda that I’m not sure the film works hard enough to justify. Then we’re off to all five of the post-credits sequences, if you can believe that.

There’s something not-unimpressive about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2‘s adamantium certainty that the audience is going to be utterly beguiled and swept along by it, but at the same time it does almost feel a little bit smug, especially given the lack of narrative impetus in that long middle section. This movie is by no means a failure, because it does function as a spectacle and a comedy (Dave Bautista is, by the way, consistently the funniest thing in it), and it’s by no means the weakest of the sequels that Marvel Studios have released. But it’s not in the front rank of the movies that they’ve released, by any means. Cut it a degree of slack and you’ll have a good time watching it – and rest assured that no matter how much slack you cut it, that’s still almost certainly less than the amount of slack it cuts itself. In the end, this is only a moderately awesome mix.

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Well, it’s time for another installment of our very irregular and even more pointless feature, New Cinema Review (that’s ‘new’ as in ‘new to me’, not as in ‘freshly constructed’). On this occasion, the venue in question is the Octagon Theatre, Market Harborough. As you may have surmised, this is not one of your actual cinema chain outlets but a legitimate theatre which occasionally puts on a film on a slow night. Well, it’s always nice to go somewhere where the bottom line of the refreshments stand doesn’t appear to be the sine qua non of the whole operation, and the fact this is a proper theatre guarantees a decent rake and line-of-sight to the screen. No adverts (yay), no trailers (boo), no BBFC certificate (hmmm), and some interesting films on their coming soon list (Mustang, Captain Fantastic, Elle, and Headhunters all due in the next few months) – I’ve been to worse places, that’s for sure.

On this occasion I had turned up to watch Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon, a film from last year which I didn’t bother going to see at the time, because, well, it looked like the whole thing had been in the trailer (not to mention on the rolling news back in 2010, though I missed it myself due to being incommunicado in Sri Lanka). This is a movie based on a fairly well-known event from the recent past, so I was a bit surprised to find myself being flapped and hissed at for predicting what we were in for, in the bar before the film: about forty-five minutes of all-American character-building and then an hour or so of stuff blowing up, quite possibly with a billowing US flag at some point. Does this really constitute a spoiler? It’s like being told off for revealing that the boat sinks at the end of Titanic.

Well, anyway. Chief point of audience identification is Mike (Mark Wahlberg), top electrical bloke on the Deepwater Horizon, an oil exploration rig in the Gulf of Mexico. (The name Deepwater Horizon is really a gift to film-makers, being exciting and ominous in just the right blend – I bet if they’d called the thing Riggy McRigface it would all have turned out very differently.) As things get going, Mike is about to head back to the rig for another tour of duty, leaving behind his lovely wife Felicia (played by Kate Hudson) and winsome young daughter (played by a winsome young child actor). As this is a mainstream movie not solely aimed at experts in oil extraction procedure, the winsome daughter gets a sequence where she explains what Mike does for a living in language a ten-year-old child could understand, which means most of the average cinema audience can probably cope with it too. This comes with visual aids, as well – never before has shaken-up cola frothing out of a can been such a portent of doom.

Mike flies off to the rig with his boss Mr Jimmy (Kurt Russell in a fine moustache) and co-worker Andrea (Gina Rodriguez). Needless to say, all is not well as they arrive, as visits by the camera to the sea bed beneath the rig make clear: ominous bubbles leak from around the drill head. It transpires that the preparation of the oil shaft for an actual extraction rig is far behind schedule, rather to the chagrin of the project’s paymasters at BP. They are pressuring the rig workers to accelerate their operations, even if this means cutting corners on things like safety.

You know what happens next: ambiguous results on safety tests are interpreted by the money-grubbing BP suits in the most optimistic manner, things go creak, things go bubble, things go whoosh, and then things – a lot of things – go boom (honestly, the really impressive takeaway from this movie is not the spectacle of this rig exploding, but the fact that these things don’t go bang more often). Mike, Jimmy, and Andrea find themselves initially trying to get the situation aboard the stricken rig under control, before eventually realising it’s all basically terminal and their main concern should be getting off in one piece…

I don’t mean to be especially glib or flippant about what happened to the Deepwater Black, not least because eleven men died in horrible circumstances. That’s a tragedy, a dreadful loss – no question about it, no argument from me. But given it’s such a tragedy, the question must always be, what are we doing making drama-entertainment films about it? Are we not just complicit in satisfying our own suspect urges, in the same way that we do when we rubberneck at a road accident? With, of course, the complicity of the film-makers, who are fully aware of this, but happy because it allows them to use all their pyrotechnical virtuosity in a film the critics are virtually obliged to treat respectfully, as it is about Real Life Heroism – in other words, they get to blow things up but still be taken seriously!

I rather suspect we have a case to answer, because Deepwater Horizon is structured just a bit too much like a crowd-pleasing thriller for comfort. The technical details of what specifically went wrong on the rig are never really gone into, and the first half of the film does feel more like the opening of a disaster movie than anything else – characters are established, warning signs overlooked, the experience and instincts of decent working men is ignored by contemptible guys in suits, and so on. We are told that virtually every scene in this movie is based on eyewitness testimony, which at least allows for some moments you wouldn’t accept in an actual piece of fiction – Mr Jimmy receives an award for his outstanding safety record about an hour before his oil rig literally explodes – but, even so, the film has clearly delineated good guys and bad guys in a way real life generally doesn’t. Chief bad guy is a BP exec played by John Malkovich, who is in form which I can only describe as very John Malkovich. It’s an idiosyncratic turn quite at odds with the studied naturalism of everyone else, but I did enjoy it, as much as you can honestly enjoy any part of this film in a guilt-free way.

Technically, this is a very proficient film, and the performances are fine, too – Wahlberg can play this kind of Everyman in his sleep – and the big bangs and flashes, when they come, are as accomplished as you might expect. You could argue that a lot of the dialogue is unintelligible, not least because it’s technical drilling jargon, but you don’t need to understand every note to grasp the tune on this occasion. It’s all very capably done and exciting, and yet come the end you are still reading a list of the names of real people who died, and seeing their photos, and how are you supposed to handle the cognitive dissonance there?

I suppose you could make the same argument about many other ‘based on true events’ type movies, some of which I have said quite positive things about in the past – Everest leaps to mind as one, and I’m sure there are others. Perhaps it’s simply the approach that Deepwater Horizon takes – it’s a lot less interested in why it happened (and what happened next) than it is in how big the explosions were, and who a convenient scapegoat might be. On a technical level it is impressive, but I think the memory of those lost in the disaster might have been better served by a less simplistic film.

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Our look at the shape of Things gone by continues as we look, with some degree of inevitability, at John Carpenter’s 1982 version of the famous story. This is a movie which was a fairly spectacular flop on its original release, marking the end of Carpenter’s time in the top flight of Hollywood directors, but the years and word-of-mouth have been very kind to it and these days it can boast an enviable reputation.

Certainly, when I was but a lad, The Thing was the subject of much awed discussion around school – said discussions mainly revolving around whether you were hard enough to watch it all the way through without crying or being sick. ‘What about that bit where it comes out of the dog!’ was a commonly-heard utterance, spoken in a tone of awed disbelief.

Lacking in physical, moral, or intellectual courage, this sort of thing put me off a bit and I managed to avoid seeing the film all the way through until many years later – although a TV documentary on the history of special make-up effects helpfully introduced me to most of the key sequences. And then when I did see it, it was a hacked-about TV edit that really did the coherence of the movie no favours.

What I’m really trying to say here is that I’ve always had a slightly ambivalent attitude towards this film and wasn’t particularly impressed when I eventually caught up with it. If it weren’t for the release of the 2011 remake I probably wouldn’t have gone back to it at all. However, more than once in the past it was only on the second viewing that I really understood when a film was coming from. And in this case…?

Hmmm. Winter, 1982, and the personnel at a US research outpost in Antarctica (quite what they are researching is never made clear, but they are well-provisioned with flamethrowers, dynamite, roller-skates and Stevie Wonder tapes) are surprised to find their camp receiving an unscheduled visit from some Norwegians from down the way. The Norwegians are frantically shooting and lobbing bombs at a dog, for reasons which are not immediately apparent, and not being especially good at this sort of thing it does not end well for them: one of them blows himself up and the other is shot dead by one of the Americans on health and safety grounds.

The outpost’s chopper pilot, MacReady (Kurt Russell), wisely attempts to discover what the Norwegians were up to, while the rest of the camp, unwisely, adopts the dog. MacReady visits the Norwegians’ own base and find it in ruins, uninhabited except for a team of researchers making notes for the prequel. He also discovers videotapes of the Scandinavians re-enacting scenes from the 1951 version of the story.

The Norwegians discovered an alien ship entombed in the ice, and the frozen remains of an occupant not far away. The alien, it appears, thawed out and wreaked terrible havoc before being incinerated. But why were the last two survivors so fixated on shooting the dog…?

Well, once again I must put my hand up: whether you view this film as an account of a terrifying incursion by a hostile extraterrestrial life-form, or simply an unfortunate misunderstanding between an innocent alien missionary and some limited and ignorant Terran bipeds, this is a film which demands to be taken seriously.

One can kind of see why the film was so negatively reviewed on its original release – I can barely imagine the effect watching it would have if you went in completely unsuspecting what awaited you. Famously, it came out on the same weekend as E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial – now that’s what I call providing consumer choice! – and there’s no question as to which film has wider appeal: all The Thing wants to do is freak you out and mess you up, offering only the faintest grace notes of humour and hope throughout its running time.

The most striking aspect of The Thing is the creature itself. The sequences where it physically manifests are, to put it mildly, memorable – although there are only a handful of these moments in the film, they brand themselves into your memory and you come away thinking there are far more than is actually the case. It’s the inventiveness of their conception as much as their visceral goriness which make them work as well as they do – even after multiple viewings, the defibrilator moment and its aftermath is still an astounding feat of film-making.

Even this, though, is made possible by the concept of the Thing itself – a form of life so utterly alien and different that it almost defies description. The Thing operates like a viral infection more than a traditional in-the-flesh monster, and it’s this that makes it so frightening. The film strongly suggests that individuals infected/replicated by the entity aren’t even aware of the fact – even that its powers of mimicry extend to features such as psychological flaws and weak hearts. Is the Thing even conscious, as we understand the idea? Does it have an agenda of any kind? Quite properly, we are left to ponder.

However, The Thing is an 109-minute film, and – although I haven’t got my stopwatch out – I would be surprised if the entity itself is doing its spectacularly disgusting thing on-screen for a tenth of that time. The gore freak-outs are really just punctuation points in a story which for much of its running time relies on atmosphere and character to keep the audience gripped.

Kurt Russell gives the performance of his career as MacReady, but there’s a terrific ensemble performance from everyone involved – Keith David gives an eye-catching turn, and there’s solid support from veterans like Wilford Brimley and Richard Dysart. The developing narrative of the film, and with it the increasing distrust and paranoia between the members of the team, is relentless – as it surely had to be – and very tightly focussed.

For most of its length, this is an intensely economical film – another reason why the pyrotechnic excesses of the special effects are so striking. Even Ennio Morricone’s score eschews lavish arrangements for a very spare theme which, to be honest, strongly suggests the great man is pastiching the style of John Carpenter’s own compositions!

One thing that The Thing doesn’t do is try too hard to ape the 1951 version of the story – the full-body burn sequence from the original is recreated, and the Norwegians’ home video shows them repeating a key scene, but that’s really it. The conflict between the military and scientific philosophies and the close camaraderie of the human characters are both completely absent. I say this not as a criticism, because I think every film’s first objective should be to work on its own terms, and surely one of the reasons why The Thing works as well as it does is because it isn’t afraid to follow its own path.

Well, no matter what the quality of the new Thing is, it has at least made me come back and look again at this version, and I’m very glad I did. This still isn’t my favourite John Carpenter movie – for which, see 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13 – but it seems positively perverse that such an accomplished and impressive movie was so badly received that it effectively crippled his career. And as to whether it’s better than The Thing from Another World… I don’t know. I have such a fondness for that movie, and the two are so different. But the next time someone tells me that The Thing is a classic of both horror and SF film-making, I will happily agree with them.

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