Career Spotlight: Bruce Campbell

It is always interesting to me when watching films to pay attention to the supporting actors, the people in the background who can often give a much better performance than the leads. On the other hand, it’s also fun to watch actors who mostly star in cult movies and who may not be the most famous movie stars, but are often infinitely more entertaining. Bruce Campbell is such an actor. I have been a huge fan of Campbell as an actor for years, ever since I first watched the Evil Dead trilogy. He is a huge personality, and while he has not yet become a mainstream name, he has dedicated fan-base and is a nerd culture icon. I’m going to look at a selection of his best movies and explore what makes him, and them so damn entertaining.

The Evil Dead trilogy

Looking at the start of Campbell’s career, it is worth exploring the films that made him a name in cult cinema. The Evil Dead has a production history legendary to most film buffs. The film spent years in production, with shoots forced to halt several times as the director Sam Raimi tried to rustle up enough money to continue. Actor’s scenes were finished by stand ins, and even the most hardcore fan will admit that the effects were cheap. But the cheapness doesn’t detract from the visceral feeling those effects conjure. To this day the gooey, all too tangible makeup of the deadites is enough to make me squirm. And as many cult fans will tell you, cheap practical effects often add to the charm of a film if done correctly. There’s a fine line between crap and camp.

Bruce Campbell plays Ash, a young member of a group of friends who all get trapped within a cabin after accidentally reading from a strange book. It turns out to be a Necronomicon, a book of the dead, and summons evil creatures that take over the bodies of dead humans and wreak havoc on the living. As the movies progress, Ash grows from a scared young man in over his head into a hardened warrior, with enough ego and hilarious lines to please even a die-hard cynic. His character really comes into his own in Evil Dead 2. During the film, everything is thrown at him, as he first loses his girlfriend and then his hand to the forces of evil. Everything he experiences toughens him up, but it also turns him into an egomaniac, capable of making huge mistakes that only lend the growing comedy of the films. Evil Dead 2 is in my opinion, even better than the first film because it leans into the strengths of the star and director. Campbell is best when he is blending extreme physical comedy and action, and throwing out deadpan jokes that never fail to crack a smile on me. Ash has so many good lines, a mix of bad-ass and hilarious that feels like a natural response to the growing horror. Ash as a character feels like someone who has been forced to adapt fast and harden as a person. Oh, and did I mention the chainsaw hand? There’s a chainsaw hand.

 

Xena Warrior Princess (and Hercules)

Xena is a show that should collapse under the sheer weight of its own cheese. Being a swords and sandals adventure series set in the mythical days of ancient Greece, it somehow manages to manage its campiness and somehow deliver an engaging story. It has a lot of good fun action, and some awesome performances, especially from the wonderful Lucy Lawless. She gives off an effortless aura of bad-ass-ery (I know that isn’t a word) that makes her character really appealing. She has her share of great one-liners and dry wit, but the king of that style is of course, Mr Campbell.

Campbell plays the self-proclaimed King of Thieves, Autolycus. A character well suited to the actor’s style. In any other hands, this kind of character could be nothing more than a stereotype, the quippy master thief with a heart of gold. However, Campbell has spent a lot of his career honing that kind of character, and putting new spins on it. For Autolycus, he focuses on showing the heart behind the thief. He has a lot of arrogance and bluster, but plays it so that we can tell it is an act, a persona to keep up in order to keep people at a distance. Autolycus does have a massive ego mind you, one that gets him into bigger and bigger scrapes as he fails to recognise when he is in over his own head. But underneath it all we can see how he ultimately means well. It also helps that the writers give Campbell some fantastic one-liners, and a slew of great slapstick set-pieces. Autolycus shows up in both Xena and its sister show Hercules the Legendary Journeys, but I think he works best as a foil to the more stoic Xena. Campbell is clearly having a lot of fun with the role and it comes across onscreen. The character is a riot to watch, and has some surprisingly emotional moments to enjoy as well.  I thoroughly recommend checking Xena out.

 

Burn Notice

So we’ve seen Campbell in fantasy and cult horror, what about a crime procedural? Luckily, I have just the show for you. Burn Notice is a TV series about Michael Western, an ex-CIA agent played by Jeffrey Donovan. He has been “burned”, unjustly blacklisted from the CIA following mysterious circumstances. Now stuck in Miami, he must do small-time surveillance and spy work for cash in hand while trying to find out who burned him and why.

The first couple of seasons have some very dated editing and pacing that is slightly annoying, but it is more than made up for by the other strengths of the series. The best thing about this show to me is the scale of it. Western doesn’t take on the entire CIA or perform huge world saving spy missions. Instead he helps out local people caught up in legal matters they can’t deal with themselves. He frequently uses the only resources available to him, a small team of people with unique skills and connections. He also makes surveillance equipment out of random tech he buys in shops. On top of this rather unique concept, the acting is stellar across the board, and all the cast have great chemistry together.

The cast is rounded out by some great side characters, and of course, the one played by Bruce Campbell. Sam Axe, an ex-Navy Seal who gets by in Miami doing freelance work and helping out Michael. He is an over the hill veteran who takes every opportunity to booze it up, steal Michael’s yoghurt and casually deliver some of the show’s best lines. I love how Campbell tones his performance in the show. It being a fast paced traditional procedural, it wouldn’t make sense to go as over-the-top as Campbell is capable of, so he tones it down and keeps Axe very mellow. Axe tends to provide comedy most of all, but he is still very useful in the missions, helping get contacts that Western no longer has access to, along with using alter egos in order to gain information, which is always extremely entertaining. Despite the humour, this could be considered one of Campbell’s more serious characters and it shows that despite mainly starring in tongue in cheek cult films, Bruce is more than capable of doing some smashing acting when required.

(Apologies for the loud music)

 

My Name is Bruce

Campbell has directed and starred in many films that refuse to be defined. He directed a film called the Man with the Screaming Brain and starred in a film called Buba Hotep, which is about a secretly alive Elvis living in a retirement home until he must fight an undead mummy. The latter is considered some of his best work. But one of the strangest and yet most charming films he has made is one called My Name is Bruce. This is a film starring cult actor Bruce Campbell, playing cult actor Bruce Campbell. The entire film is something of a commentary on the actor’s career and it is equal parts bizarre and bonkers fun.

In the film, Campbell (the character) is brought to the town of Gold Lick by a fan of his movies, who wants him to fight an ancient evil that has terrorised the town. If this is sounding incredibly meta-textual, that’s because it is. The character Campbell is disappointed with his career, as he stars in B-movies with cheap effects, which isn’t too far away from the truth. Through the character of Jeff, we get to see the interesting relationship that Campbell has with his fans and how that can lead to unrealistic expectations. It also gives Bruce a chance to play a hilariously cartoon version of his own public persona, with even more cheesy one-liners, acting like a total coward, and somehow still kicking all kinds of arse. It isn’t a particularly nuanced or high budget film, but given the main character, that works just fine. This type of film is an acquired taste, as to enjoy it you need to know the actor’s career well and also enjoy campy B-movie comedies. Fortunately, I love all those things, and if you do to, I cannot recommend it enough.

 

Bruce Campbell is a unique performer. He has spent his career cultivating a certain persona, a blend of arrogance, quips and self-deprecation that makes him endlessly entertaining. He may not have mainstream success, but he has a loyal fan-base and a definitive niche that no-one else can touch. His movies may not all be high-art, but who cares? He makes fun films. I think he has an interesting legacy in cult film and his willingness to embrace this side of film-making is what has made him such a success in it. If you have been interested by any of the TV shows or films I’ve explored, then give them a watch and see what all the fuss is about.

Advertisements

Game of Thrones – Season eight review

Spoilers for eight seasons of television.

A lot of people didn’t like season seven of Game of Thrones. I was not one of them. For many the sped-up pace and seemingly too fast travel made everything feel less realistic, and because quite a few plot-lines were streamlined and wrapped up it felt to many like the show was rushing. I however defended this choice. To me it was simply the ramping up of pace that the penultimate season needed. I could forgive cutting out journeys and other unnecessary scenes in order to focus on the important stuff. In retrospect, I should probably have spotted the warning signs; the willingness to rush to plot points. But season seven was giving me so many moments I had longed for: Daenerys meeting Jon Snow, Dragons in battle for the first time, the Dothraki fighting in an open field, Jon Snow as king in the north. Having so many brilliant scenes completely won over my inner fanboy.

Image result for game of thrones season 7

Don’t mistake me, I still think that season seven was a good series of television. It has flaws, but they are outweighed, at least to me by the fantastic production. However, if I had looked a little harder I might have seen a bad trend in the writing. A tendency towards sacrificing logic and set up in order to surprise the audience, or make sure characters headed a certain way. I was more than happy not to notice when the writers were making great scenes that pleased me as a fan, but now that those flaws have come home to roost, I’m forced to admit that the problems with the final season of Game of Thrones come from the last few seasons just as much.

Season eight has been baffling to watch. I was looking forward to it, honestly more than Avengers Endgame, as I am a much bigger fan of fantasy than comic books. I was confident that the writers would have some brilliant last-minute plot to throw at us before the conclusion. And as creators David Benioff & Dan Weiss had met with G.R.R Martin to discuss the ending, I was sure it would at least be broadly satisfying, even if there might be differences. Things started off very well. The first two episodes Winterfell and A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms were fantastic pieces of television, artfully reintroducing us to the predicament of all these characters after the long hiatus. They gave each character a lot of good interactions with one another that developed many of them in interesting ways. There were some really good moments in the build up to the assault from the White Walkers, romances coming together after years, reunions and emotional conclusions to long time characters arcs. There was also some great set up for Jon Snow in particular, finally revealing to him his true parentage, something fans have been waiting for ever since it was little more than a theory.

Image result for game of thrones the long night

And then, The Long Night happened. When I first saw it, I couldn’t help but feel a little cheated. It was a very exciting battle, but with a sudden and overly simple ending. The fact that Arya came out of nowhere to stab the Night King should have felt amazing, but the show simply hadn’t earned it. The fact that they introduced the idea that the entire army of the dead could be killed by destroying the leader was something I worried about last season when it was brought up. They found this out by killing a white walker general, which killed the wights around him. At the time I hoped this was a red herring because writing in a fail-safe where all the enemy forces are destroyed by killing the leader is a tired cliché at this point. It felt really anticlimactic after so many seasons of build-up, not to mention that this happens halfway through the season. It also robbed Jon Snow of anything to do for the entire season. He mostly just stood around while other people drove the plot on.

So, I ended the third episode slightly nervous about what could be in the finale, if the main antagonist had been destroyed three episodes early. It turns out, not much happened. Cersei barely put up a fight, and many of the characters we know and love are given lame endings. Daenerys turns evil, which was always set up as a possibility, but struck me as a poor move, especially as it basically just repeats what happened with her father. Jon doesn’t become king, but kills Dany and re-joins the Nights Watch, essentially meaning that his whole story ends up nowhere. It also renders the big twist of his parentage basically meaningless, not to mention the slightly sexist trope of a women going mad with power and a man being forced to kill her. Bran becomes king, which is even cheaper when you consider that he did nothing for the last two seasons of the show. Some of the characters end the show in a positive way, Sansa becomes queen in the north, Arya goes west to explore, and Tyrion becomes Hand of the King yet again. But for me, after the battle at Winterfell, everything that happened next felt like a let-down. Nothing felt momentous or important, I felt like I was just wading through the rest of the show to get some closure that never came.

Image result for daenerys grumpy

The finale was not the worst piece of TV I have ever watched. There are shows that jump the shark far worse than Game of Thrones. Dexter is almost unrecognisable after season four. But for a show which has received such acclaim to finish with such a lacklustre finale is a shame. There was so much potential in the show, much more potential plot to use and yet it felt like the writers were rushing all the way through the final season. They tried to subvert everyone’s expectations at every turn, but didn’t stop to think if that would make a compelling story. Not everything has to be unpredictable. Sometimes people want to see a show end how they expect, as long as it is satisfying. Game of Thrones managed neither. There were so many elements set up and foreshadowed in earlier seasons that don’t pay off now, and it makes me wonder what the point of them all was. Not all foreshadowing needs to turn out true, but if none of it does, why was it even there?

At the end of the day, this show was still an amazing ride, and one that I’m glad I followed from start to finish. But I won’t be able to summon the same level of enthusiasm for it again, sadly. The final season of Game of Thrones is like watching a chef cook a fantastic smelling meal, adding vibrant ingredients one by one while you look on with anticipation, only to realise once you finally eat it that a lot of them don’t go together, it tastes quite bland and the chef wasn’t actually following a recipe at all.

Endgame – Review

A broad strokes finale that achieves a satisfactory ending, but no way near the experience of Infinity War.

Vague Spoilers ahead.

I was nervous about Endgame. Endings are very hard to do in a satisfactory way, especially when concluding multiple stories in the same film. I was very worried about how all of the plot threads dangling in the MCU after Antman and the Wasp and Infinity War would be tied up. After having seen it I can happily say that Endgame manages to wrap things up nicely, and I would say that overall I very much enjoyed my experience. However, this film did not measure up to Infinity War, which is quite a shame.

I’ll start with the things I enjoyed most. The acting was top notch from everyone in the film, with Robert Downey Jr getting a few moments that were downright haunting. For example, once he arrives back on earth, broken from his fight with Thanos and losing Peter Parker, Tony launches into a tirade at Steve Rodgers, lashing out in his pain. It’s a hard moment to watch as this character we all love loses himself to despair. The acting across the board is well done and suitably dramatic. My only caveat would be that at a certain funeral, none of the characters appear to be nearly as sad as they should be considering.

The action is decent and the battle near the end has enough great moments to make it memorable, including the four-way fight between the original Avengers and Thanos. The costume design is varied and strikes a good balance between campy and functional. And on a more personal and subjective note, I appreciated all the moments that catered directly to fans, such as when Captain America finally wielded Thor’s hammer. Yes, these moments were pandering and obvious, but after over a decade of films, I think that it was inevitable. You can’t conclude that much plot without crafting call-backs and winks to the fans. I am also a bit of a sucker for those moments.

Now we come to the stuff that frustrated me. None of these things were enough to make me hate the film or think it wasn’t fun, but they did temper my enthusiasm a little and left me a bit less interested in the MCU going forward. First of all, the pacing is wonky. One of the best things about Infinity War was just how tight it was as a film. No scene felt unnecessary to me, and all the important moments of the story felt weighty, but not too long or bloated. Group battle scenes didn’t drag on; they were all paced just right. The story went along at a decent speed, but nothing was rushed. The problem with Endgame is that the five-year time jump and time heist take way too much of the film up. Did we really need to travel to four different parts of history? Who honestly wanted a lengthy flashback to Thor the Dark World, arguably the worst marvel film? And these scenes can be entertaining but since we all can guess the outcome, that they will get the gems back to their time for the climax, then it begins to feel bloated. There are one or two great scenes, such as when Tony meets his father and finally gets closure at his death, but they come at the expense of other moments later on. The film didn’t need to be three hours. It could have been two and a half, and still included most of the important parts. Many scenes carry on minutes more than they need to and this just all adds up.

Speaking of the time jump at the beginning, it cheapened the character development for me. It’s always tricky jumping forward in time for a story. Normally I think it works best when starting a new story in the same universe, rather than halfway through an ongoing one. It leaves us wondering how the following films will work, now that they are all set in the future, and it skips important character growth. For Tony, it means that he goes from a complete breakdown to having a young child and living happily in a few minutes. it is tonally jarring and undermines what has come before. Not to mention that in between the jump he appears to have completely forgiven Steve Rodgers for lying to him about Bucky, something that absolutely should have been included. It robs the audience of potential catharsis as they make up off screen.

This also affects Thor and Hulk. Before the time skip, Banner is struggling to balance his Hulk persona and himself. He had just spent two years as the Hulk, before suddenly Hulk refused to come out during Infinity War. This was very interesting and could have led to a lot of fun interactions between the two personalities as they struggle to live together. All of that is gone. Now Banner is the only personality and he lives in the Hulk form. This comes out of nowhere and just doesn’t feel earned or set up. It feels cheap. Thor gains weight and becomes depressed, although his transformation feels less cheap, as his story is not quite finished yet.

The story suffers from the introduction of time travel. The problem is that time travel never makes sense, even in the best films, and so it’s injection into the story opens up a ton of plot holes. How does Captain America return to his own timeline, then come back without using the suit to jump? In general, the conclusion of the characters arcs feels satisfying as it wraps stuff up, but doesn’t excel. Tony gets a great send off, but Black Widow’s departure feels a little arbitrary and not very well executed, especially considering that she is one of the first Avengers.

The music and direction are fine. It is a visually appealing film though not to the same degree as Infinity War. A couple of moments in the final battle come close but again, the pacing means that the shots become very similar as we spend too much time in one place. The MCU has a lot of good musical leitmotifs that I feel they do not use nearly enough. The whole film feels just slightly like an obligation to be honest. Many of the scenes feel less meaningful than what has come before. But none of this is a deal breaker. I have watched far worse films and as hard as it is to conclude a story like the avengers, I think the Russo brothers gave it a fair shot. It would have been impossible to deliver the same subversive ending as Infinity War, although I think with better pacing this would be much closer in quality to that film. In the end, this is a film that I was happy to see, and I may see it again someday. It is a fitting conclusion, however clumsy it might be in places.