Oh wow here we go! MOVIE DIARY 2018 is back and I've got Academy Award winner Christian Brown onboard to talk about one of my faves! I've also got a couple of trash movies, one of which I really enjoyed! It's the MOVIE DIARY 2018 you all know and love!
Escape From New York (1981)
SPECIAL GUEST WRITER: CHRISTIAN BROWN
OK first I want to apologize for accidentally selecting a movie for MOVIE DIARY 2018 that is actually very topical and Politically Relevant. I picked Escape From New York cause it’s a great movie with a great cast and lighting that doesn’t quit, and then five minutes in remembered that it’s about a lady DSA revolutionary highjacking the president and crashing him into an ICE black site. The first shot is of a refugee raft trying to escape a prison colony and getting blown up by a helicopter. Whoops???
The movie still bangs, obviously, even if the idea of “The United States Police Force” is a lot less funny than it was when I last watched it. A lot of nebulous threats of fascism and policing in this movie, including a president who’s trying to stop a world war and is 100% the villain, and spends the last scene getting a shave and a lot of makeup applied before he goes on TV. Like I said: too topical! Sorry! My bad!
Broad strokes: Kurt Russell is Snake Plissken, he’s a famous criminal who’s caught robbing the Federal Reserve, and gets sent into the only prison in America to rescue the president and bring him out. He doesn’t give a shit about your war OR your president, he’s unpatriotic as hell and he hates prisons, and he lets a lot of people die over the course of the movie.
But Snake Plisskin is one of those characters that is instantly and immediately iconic. An eye patch! Camo pants! A machine pistol with a silencer AND a scope that he is constantly using to like, open doors and walls! A giant tattoo of a snake that goes from his abs down to probably his dick! He’s an anti-hero, who exists somewhere between an old vigilante cowboy and Rambo (but like First Blood-era Rambo), who mostly distrusts the military and cops, and whose cynicism about America broadly and the carceral state specifically triggers a lot of “fuck yeah” that I really needed in These Modern Times. Plus he has a big fight with a hulking Ox Baker in an abandoned train station that basically plays like a Dark Souls boss fight. I love that shit!
Escape was made in 1981, before the crack epidemic and right on the blast-off period of the violent crime trends in the 80s, and it feels like it owes a lot to The Warriors borderline-hallucinogenic take on what, exactly, gangs are. Like there’s a group called “The Crazies” and they dress like mole men and live underground: very Warriors! And the way New York is shot, more like a sculpture than a set, with huge buildings stripped of their original purpose (and also mostly St. Louis or matte paintings) makes all the trash can fires and manhole-lurking Crazies and the Duke’s gang of sunglasses-wearing enforcers seem like they’ve been driven insane by the city and by power structures monumentally larger than they are and over which they have no control. (Like I said: sorry about it being Political, whoops!)
The thing I always talk too much about when I watch this movie is the way it’s shot. The lighting is all greens and blues and magentas, nothing looks real so much as it looks like a very elaborate stage set. Everything’s a matte painting, everything’s theatrical as hell, and there’s even a nice little musical revue in the middle where Ernest Borgnine bops along to a bunch of dudes in dresses singing about how New York is hell now. I always forget about that scene, because it’s unnecessary and gimmicky and fantastic. (I also always forget that I’m quoting it when I sing “this is hell, this is fate” whenever I don’t like something.)
Ernest Borgnine: fantastic, obviously, and I want his cabbie hat. He’s venal and cowardly and then dies like a hero, which is more than any of us deserve. Donald Pleasance: manages to thread the needle of being useless and political and incapable of saving himself, while still seeming JUST harmless enough that you can justify getting him out of New York so he can go back to being the president. Isaac Hayes: manages to be a villain who is less villainous than the good guys, which is most of what I want in a big action movie. All he wants is an end to the obviously dystopian prison island! Like, make The Duke the president and make the president stay in the giant prison colony, is my vote.
Every woman: whoops, sorry women, maybe uhhh The 80s could have been a bit less violent towards women. Something to think about in the future, The 80s! That said I think there’s a bit of value in dodging the “sociopath murderer hero falls in love” trope that a lot of 80s movies lean on. They never undersell how bad of a person Snake is - he’s just bad in a way that is less insincere than everyone else.
All of that is to say that it’s more than a little weird that this strange, hyper-specific 80s futurism where America is in permanent decline and everyone just gets thrown onto an island instead of fixing structural inequality is uhhhh now basically turning into real life. Do not watch if you do not want to think a lot about why prisons are all bad. Do watch if you want to see Kurt Russell trying to dismantle them.
Christian Brown is an animator and writer in Los Angeles who used to kind of have Kurt Russell's haircut. He stopped doing that a few years ago, but still does the writing thing. His tweets are good enough at @deepomega and his animation is better at www.ctbgraphics.com.
Role Models (2008)
It's the movie that put LARP-ing on the map! Was this an Apatow movie? I know David Wain directed it, but I feel like 2008 was like high time for Apatow to have some involvement in every studio comedy. Either way, I liked it and I very much appreciated it’s very un-Apatow runtime of under two hours. Comedies just shouldn’t run longer than two hours, it’s not fair to any of us.
Anyway, Role Models! I saw this in college and it’s still pretty funny! There’s a lot of stuff about talking about women that doesn’t really hold up but other than that, it’s mostly pretty solid. It’s kind of weird and fun to see Paul Rudd playing an over it curmudgeon. I feel like he’s mostly cast as an affable goof, but in this one he’s just mostly hateful which is pretty fun to see. Sean William Scott’s the same character he’s been playing since American Pie (1999) but it’s nine years later so he’s really had time to hone his “horny bro who just wants to be your friend” character. It’s kind of masterful, in the same way that kids belching the alphabet is kind of masterful. The rest of the cast is filled with a bunch of “hey it’s that guy” improv people who’ve been making the rounds in these sorts of things since even before Wet Hot American Summer (2001), which is to say they’re basically family or friends from your hometown. It’s nice to see them every now and then, and I’m glad they’re doing well.
You know who really rules in this movie, though? Jane Lynch! I mean, yeah, oh wow surprise surprise Jane Lynch is hilarious in yet another thing, but really, she’s so good in this movie! She plays Paul Rudd and Sean William Scott’s supervisor at the outreach program that they’re working for, and she’s incredible at fleshing out the whole complicated backstory of this character without ever really doing something as obvious as going into her whole complicated backstory. By the end of it you really get a full sense of who this character is as a person and she’s only in the movie for a handful of scenes, I was amazed! I feel like maybe we all take Jane Lynch for granted!
Kind of a garbage movie that doesn’t really “get” what Rollerball (1975) was about, but it is interesting in how hard it leans into the excesses that Rollerball (1975) was calling out. The close relationship this movie has to the professional wrestling of its era (Paul Heyman plays the Rollerball announcer, Shane McMahon makes an extended cameo) is totally indicative of this. It’s a fun, winking parallel that’s being established, but honestly, Rollerball (2002) fucking wishes it could do what professional wrestling has accomplished. The movie bets pretty big on thinking that you’re going to enjoy watching a lot of the made up gibberish sport of Rollerball, which I think is misguided. There is honestly too much Rollerball here and it all looks the same. There’s a hasty description of how it all works in the beginning, but none of it matters, which would be fine but each of these scenes of an actual rollerball match go on for like fifteen minutes, and the other scenes in between are supposed to give us reasons to care about these characters, but really all I was getting was bored. There’s about twenty minutes of this movie where it’s shot in grainy nightvision and it’s so ugly and unnecessary. One of our main characters dies during this sequence and it’s tough to even see what’s happening because the actual action is shot from the point of view of these faraway nightvision binoculars. It’s an action movie and one of the main characters is dying in a blaze of glory, use a regular camera with actually dynamic lighting and GET IN THERE. This movie was directed by John McTiernan, the guy who did Die Hard (1988)! What the fuck?? The characters are all pretty one-dimensional, just pieces to move around from plot point to plot point. LL Cool J is the very confident, yet responsible older brother type who’s there to keep our unconvincingly hot-headed Chris Klein on track, Rebecca Romijn is the mysterious love interest who’s there to inspire our hero by default to greatness by being placed in danger. It all just feels so textbook, which really is only a big deal for me in an action movie if it comes off as lifeless as this.
Great Rob Zombie needle drops, though. Also Slipknot and P!NK are in this?? The early aughts were so weird.
Deep Rising (1998)
This movie was wild! Treat Williams is a roguish swashbuckler (who looks a little too old to be a roguish swashbuckler) who captains a boat for hire, and he’s shuttling a group of international bad guys led by Wes Studi to a big, state of the art cruise ship where they plan to rob all those rich fucks who thought it’d be a good idea to go on a cruise over a part of the ocean where boats mysteriously disappear. Famke Janssen is on the cruise too and she’s also a thief, but she’s got no connection to these other bad guys, she’s just doing this on her own. It’s already kind of a mess and but then things get extra messy when the cruise ship gets attacked by a giant sea monster that looks like what would happen if you gave an octopus’ tentacles the teeth of the bad guy from Blade II (2002).
Deep Rising was directed by Stephen Sommers, and this definitely feels like a predecessor to his fun B-movie style that he works with in the Brendan Fraser Mummy movies and the GI Joe movies. The difference between this and his other movies is really mostly a matter of budget, but I think it ends up being kind of a good thing in this case. It’s actually better for Deep Rising to look kind of shitty, it keeps with the spirit of its B-movie monster plot. There’s this great part where the tentacle monster first appears and it spits out some gut that it was eating, and the guy is still alive but half of his body has been dissolved and he’s just kind of screaming and lumbering towards our crew of characters and it’s just so weird and ugly and disgusting— a perfect B-movie moment. Then it’s followed up by all of the characters wildly shooting their giant guns in the air at the conspicuously CGI tentacles as they scream in terror, it’s so over the top and hilarious and it’s not done in that too clever, winking way that a lot of action movies lately seem to like to do. I mean, I think Stephen Sommers knows what he’s doing, but there’s a sincerity to it, like he’s not trying to draw any extra attention to how ridiculous this is, he’s not trying to elevate it, he’s just having fun with this dumb little genre.