Tag Archives: Bill Paxton

CAPSULE: SLIPSTREAM (1989)

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DIRECTED BY: Steven M. Lisberger

FEATURING: , Bob Peck, , Kitty Aldridge, Eleanor David

PLOT: In a future devastated by a geophysical catastrophe, a two-bit hood steals a bounty hunter’s prey in hopes of a big score.

Still from Slipstream (1989)

COMMENTS: There is an alternate universe wherein three of the biggest names in the cult of science fiction—Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz, TRON writer-director Steve Lisberger, and the legendary Mark Hamill himself—all found a renewed life in the cinema thanks to an out-of-nowhere box office smash about a future world where a steady round-the-world wind has upended human existence.

Yeah. Back in our universe, that movie was a flop that barely saw the light of day. Kurtz was bankrupted, Lisberger would never direct another feature, and Hamill would retreat into the world of voice work, rebuilding his reputation over the next three decades. The film itself (reportedly) slipped into the public domain, which does at least make it easier for us all to summon up a screening and see if we can figure out where all this potential went so wrong.

The story seems like a good place to start. The post-apocalypse summoned up by Tony Kayden’s screenplay doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Whatever disaster the shifting winds wreaked upon the planet left some people huddled in dusty hovels, to be sure. But why would planes thrive while cars (and even carts) have vanished? How are there diners? Compact discs? Keypad locks? Why is Bob Peck on the run in a suit that makes him look like a London stockbroker? Is it really a career option in the detritus of a wind-related apocalypse to dream of hanging up a shingle for your own hot air balloon agency? And that’s long before our heroes take an odd turn into a bunker/library/country club that just… is.

The casting doesn’t help, either. Mark Hamill—God love him—just isn’t made to play grizzled and hard-bitten, and his tough-guy dialogue sits uncomfortably in his mouth. Bill Paxton, sporting a Robert Plant hairdo, tries to portray a desperate mercenary while still exuding his signature goofy affability. (In fact, a whole lot of people in this movie are trying to do their best Han Solo impersonations and coming up short.) And then there are the cameos. Slipstream manages to land two of the decade’s Best Actor Academy Award winners—Ben Kingsley and F. Murray Abraham—and then fails to do anything with them in their allotted 3 minutes of screen time.

What’s most frustrating about Slipstream is that there is so much talent in service of a story that literally goes nowhere. (Lisberger is quoted as saying the film is essentially a road movie with planes, but the only destination is indeterminate and quickly jettisoned, so we’re just really wandering from cave to cave.) The film’s English and Turkish locations are suitably alien and intriguing, and they are captured with some lovely aerial cinematography. There’s Hamill’s genuinely cool-looking plane. And every now and then, the story stumbles across an idea—some people now worship the wind as a deity—or an image—a man strapped into a kite buffeted by terrifying gusts—that hints at something grander. But it never gets there. Instead, the few stakes there are feel listless and empty. And you can tell the filmmakers know it, because they’ve made the great Elmer Bernstein work overtime to provide some juice in the score that can’t be found on the screen. (When not trying to generate suspense, it pieces together elements borrowed from other Bernstein scores, from The Magnificent Seven to Heavy Metal to Ghostbusters.)

Time and again, we get a tantalizing glimpse of the inventive movie they thought they had. It’s like being invited on a treasure hunt, and your host shows you the cool map he found and the shiny doubloon that proves the treasure is real, and so you search and search, only to come up empty. That’s Slipstream. No treasure. Only hot air.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It never quite gels into a complete whole, but also never lacks for ambition…  There’s a lot of weird aerial imagery that’s much appreciated if too oft repeated… There’s a cheesy core to this film that shoots for awe and wonder more than action and doom.”–Ed Travis, Cinapse (DVD)

CAPSULE: BRAIN DEAD (1991)

DIRECTED BY: Adam Simon

FEATURING: , , , Patricia Charbonneau, Nicholas Pryor

PLOT: At the request of a pushy corporation, a neurologist performs experimental surgery on a paranoid mathematician, but when he starts having hallucinations he questions whether he may be the patient rather than the doctor.

Still from Brain Dead (1991)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s definitely within the weird genre, but held back by its budget and by subtext-free sensibilities that stay firmly nailed to the plot’s surface.

COMMENTS: Brain Dead is like what would result if directed an unproduced script. (In fact, Roger’s wife Julie produced this for their Concorde/New Horizons B-movie outfit, and it came from an unproduced script by “Twilight Zone” scribe Charles Beaumont). That sounds like a recipe for fun, and to a large extent it is, although there is not as much senseless sex and violence as you might hope for.

Before it spins into hallucinatory tangents for its entire second half, the plot is relatively simple. Bill Pullman is Rex Martin, a brain scientist researching paranoia; old college buddy Bill Paxton is a corporate stooge for Eunice Corporation who needs a favor. Halsey (Bud Cort), a former Eunice employee and mathematical genius, killed his family and is now locked in a mental hospital believing himself to be an accountant for a mattress company, but he actually has crucial corporate secrets locked inside his schizophrenic brain. The deal: perform experimental brain surgery on him, or lose all your research funding. After a homeless man tries to seize a brain in a jar Dr. Martin is inexplicably taking home after work (“he’s got my brain!”), a car accident results in the paranoid schizophrenic’s grey matter being splattered on the asphalt (the one in the jar, not the one in the homeless guy). Soon after, Martin agrees to perform the procedure. It’s a success, but with a side effect: Martin is now seeing the white-coated, bloodstained figure Halsey claims killed his family.

After this setup, things get really wild as Martin loses grips on who he is. Is he really Halsey, under the delusion he’s Martin? Or has his mind been somehow tampered with by Eunice corporation so that he won’t be able to rat on them? Whatever the case, reality becomes plastic as Martin fights to keep his identity against the mounting evidence that he is not who he believes himself to be. He sees his wife murdered and is blamed for the killing; he’s incarcerated at the same hospital as Hawlsey and drugged; fleeing from orderlies, he ducks into a room inspired by Shock Corridor‘s nympho ward; he has an out-of-body experience and falls into Hawlsey’s brain (depicted as an ocean), and so on. There’s a sensible enough literal explanation at the end, for those who care for such things. The rest of us will wonder if David Lynch saw Brain Dead before deciding to cast Pullman in Lost Highway, and thought “I can do this better—and without the safety net.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Yep, it’s Bill Pullman and Bill Paxton in the very same (and rather weird) little sci-fi horror cheapie from producer Roger Corman and director Adam Simon… Notably better written than it is directed, Brain Dead isn’t any sort of hidden cult classic or B-movie masterpiece, but there’s something to be said for a twisted little science-fiction story that gets to the meat of the matter and doles out a generally tasty little meal.”–Scott Weinberg, DVD Talk (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “renwad,” who called it “a strange tale about a brain specialist who’s work is being manipulated by the large company he works for, or is it ? Starring Bill Pulman and Bill Paxton, i think this is a must for the certified weird movie list.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: EDGE OF TOMORROW (2014)

With his Napoleon complex, obsessiveness over religious fads, questionable treatment of wives, salary demands, and downright paranoia over maintaining his box office standing, Tom Cruise makes himself an easy target. However, occasionally this actor picks interesting roles and reveals genuine talent.

Still from Edge of Tomorrow (2014)Cruise started off roughly around the same time as , and early in their careers the contrast between the two could not have been more pronounced. If anyone was the patron saint of loud, dumb summer blockbusters, it was Cruise. He set the model with Top Gun (1986), and who could forget Cocktail (1988)? That box office bonanza, one of the worst movies of the last half century, is proof that the masses will buy just about any excrement if it is marketed right. Cruise went on to act in and produce Mission Impossible (1996). Despite having  in charge, it was not a good start to the franchise. Yet, the franchise dramatically improved, especially with Ghost Protocol (2011). Depp’s goals were more artistic, and he seemed ill-suited to the blockbuster mentality. However, the distinction between these two box office leviathans has blurred. Depp has become increasingly apathetic, even cartoonish as the star of his own blockbuster franchise, which started off bad and has only gotten worse. Despite a promising early body of work, Depp has gone into autopilot mode, while Cruise only works harder (sometimes too hard). Cruise’s fretting about securing his star status has, for the most part, reaped rewards, while he has expectedly proven his superiority in manning the blockbuster ship. Unexpectedly, Cruise continues to take startling risks at times, even if he does not inspire extended confidence with a planned Top Gun sequel, yet another Mission Impossible, or a here-we-go-again version of Van Helsing. Still, Cruise may merely be continuing a shrewdly cultivated balancing act and, in doing so, maintaining his ability to surprise.

One such surprise is in the summer sci-fi outing, Edge of Tomorrow (2014). The unoriginal title is hardly promising, nor is the much bandied-about description “Groundhog Day Meets Independence Day.” The clever tagline “Live. Die. Repeat.” suggests a video game. Numerous critics have made the comparison, but director Doug Liman and a trio of writers (Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Christopher McQuarrie) take a self-conscious, witty approach in  spirit of Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s novella “All You Need Is Kill,” on which the screenplay is based.

As soldier Cage, Cruse abandons his normal poster boy persona with relish. He is a coward and reluctant hero, mercilessly bullied by his Master Sergeant Farell (, impressing again). Predictably, Cage manages to get himself killed in war with the alien Mimics. Only, these extraterrestrial neo-Fascists revive him time and again, in an attempt to study the battle techniques of humans. As in a video game, even death is not a finality; and while under normal circumstances comparing a movie to something out of Nintendo is no compliment, here it is that looping, arcade-styled aesthetic the filmmakers first mimic, then cleverly divert from.

Cruise’s Cage is nearly matched by Emily Blunt’s Rita. It is a rarity for Cruise to have a vital female lead and, like her character, Blunt inspires him into something transformative. Almost as surprising as Cruise is in an atypical role, Blunt is equally so, even though her part is still secondary. It may be a minuscule quibble, given the excellent work of the two leads. Cruise has securely returned to his torch-carrying, old-fashioned move star mold. It is a welcome return. An unsatisfactory third act almost threatens to dismantle the film, but, thankfully, fails.

The sublime Groundhog Day was awash in romantic spirituality and originality. Edge of Tomorrow takes a more visceral route, aided considerably by Don Beebe’s cinematography which consciously pays homage to Spielberg’s WWII opus Saving Private Ryan. This does not mean that Edge Of Tomorrow is brainless. Alas, it might have been more profitable if it had been. American audiences, who rarely can form syllables or go beyond spoon fed formula, have mostly stayed away and Edge of Tomorrow is expected to be a box office flop, having been quashed by Disney’s umpteenth retelling of “Sleeping Beauty.”

As the saying goes: one will never go broke underestimating the intelligence (or taste) of the American public.

46. THE DARK BACKWARD (1991)

“The script was original, it had this carny/circus thing which I’ve always associated with Hollywood.  Let’s face it, it’s a freakshow out here, it’s a circus, we’re all on the merry-go-round.  And this cartoonish, kind of weird sensibility this film had, it was almost like a weird childhood memory of these local television shows I remember watching as a kid…”–Bill Paxton on why he was attracted to the script of The Dark Backward

DIRECTED BY: Adam Rifkin

FEATURING: Judd Nelson, , Wayne Newton, ,

PLOT: Marty Malt is a garbageman and aspiring stand-up comic with no talent and no confidence.  One day, a third arm begins to spontaneously grow out of his back.  Although his act hasn’t improved, the gimmick is enough so that greasy agent Jackie Chrome takes interest in him and his accordion-playing, garbage-eating buddy Gus.

Still from The Dark Backward (1991)
BACKGROUND:

  • The Dark Backward was the first script written by Adam Rifkin, who was only 19 years old at the time.  He would direct the film six years later at age 25.
  • The title was selected by opening the complete works of Shakespeare to a random page (the quote comes from “The Tempest,” Act I, Scene II: “How is it/That this lives in thy mind? What seest thou else/In the dark backward and abysm of time?”
  • James Caan reportedly agreed to appear in the film only after an insistent Rifkin called him at the Playboy Mansion.
  • Judd Nelson auditioned for the role by performing Marty Malt’s comedy routines, in disguise, at open-mike nights in Los Angeles.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Probably, one of the many images of Marty’s third arm, whether he displays it to the audience by mechanically spinning around after delivering another lame joke, or as doctor James Caan examines the embryonic fingers sprouting from the his back.  Individual viewers’ mileage may vary, however; you may be indelibly grossed out by the orgy with three morbidly obese women, or by Gus’ nauseating midnight snack of rotting chicken.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The premise alone—the world’s worst stand-up comic becomes a success after he sprouts a third arm from his back—immediately qualifies as weird.  For better and worse, director Rifkin doesn’t shy away from going whole hog into grotesquerie, churning out a first feature that looks like a technically polished version of an early John Waters film.

Clip from The Dark Backward

COMMENTS: If a therapist laid The Dark Backward down on a couch and psychoanalyzed Continue reading 46. THE DARK BACKWARD (1991)