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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Captain Marvel – Review

Captain Marvel is pretty good. I could probably leave the review with that statement. It sums up mostly how I feel about the film. It has a good cast, a serviceable plot and some great action scenes. Brie Larson is playful and fun, yet serious when needed. Sam Jackson is a riot. playing a very different Nick Fury to the one we are familiar with. The colour and style are great fun, and there is even a cute cat.

The best part of the film by far is the part where Fury and Carol Danvers team up to hunt down the Skrulls together and find out parts of Danvers backstory. The two have good chemistry as a duo and Jackson has a lot of fun playing a younger and less battle worn fury, with more jokes and a much more relaxed attitude. The CGI used to make Jackson look 20 years younger is superb, and in fact, it might be the first time I have seen that effect look convincing rather than uncanny. The film starts a little slowly as most of the parts in the Kree home world are a little dull, but as soon as the film gets to Earth, the story picks up and maintains a decent pace until the end. The main weakness of the film is its surprise villain, (spoilers) Jude Law’s character Yon-Rogg.

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He is set up as Danvers’ mentor but turns out to have been behind her capture. His character felt very lacking to me. He spends much of the film telling Danvers to control her emotions which felt incredibly on the nose and lacking in subtlety. The most redeeming part of him as a villain is the way he is dealt with at the end. After beating her in hand to hand fights during their training together, he challenges Danvers to face him without her photon powers and see which one of them could win. Carol pulls an Indiana Jones and simply shoots him with a photon blast, because why the hell wouldn’t you? This was great character moment, and probably my favourite in the entire film, however it is a little anticlimactic after all we’ve been through. But this is really a nit-pick. While it has its weaknesses and I would still consider something like Wonderwoman a much better film, I had a lot of fun watching it, and that’s all I generally expect from Marvel films. Why am I reviewing it then? Truth be told I have an ulterior motive.

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When I went to see this with a friend, we missed the regular 2D screening and so I had to see it in 4DX. That involves sitting in a cinema with movable vibrating seats and air spraying into your face. It has smells and flashing lights, and of course, 3D. I avoided 4DX for a long time. Mostly this was because I don’t really value 3D, it always feels like a gimmick and adds little to a movie experience for me. But I was still curious as to whether or not 4DX improves immersion. It could be like VR, and I could have felt transported to the world of the film. Maybe moving in your seat during action and feeling the explosion blasted through air would add to the experience?

So, I caved, and paid a few extra quid to see it in 4DX with my friend. My hidden motive in this review is to comment on the 4DX experience I had, and how it impacted on the film. To start with, I don’t recommend paying extra for it. While it didn’t completely ruin the film for me, I think I certainly would’ve had more fun without all the distractions the effects caused. Far from immersion, the feeling of being thrust around in your seat during action makes it almost impossible to pay attention to what is going on, which meant that parts of the action passed me by. The seat vibrated at odd moments, not just when someone was hit or fell. Often when the music used bass notes it would vibrate as well, which felt very strange. The air spray just annoyed me, it made me feel cold and it seemed to go off just too late to actually feel as though it was part of the film.

There were upsides of course. The few moments when Captain Marvel or other characters fly were vastly more fun as the seat moved to simulate us flying alongside them, which was something you can only get at 4DX. The 3D wasn’t too intrusive, although I did still get a small headache from it. And the smells of the sea were very nice, and I was very grateful they didn’t use any less pleasant scents. But those few positives weren’t nearly enough to justify the extra cost to me. The whole experience was very interesting but it was one I don’t think I’d want to go through again. For me 4DX was not worth it, and I think I’ll need to watch Captain Marvel one more time to really enjoy all those action sequences I missed the first time. In summary, Captain Marvel was good fun, but see it in regular 2D.

Alita: Battle Angel – Review

I have to be honest, I wasn’t excited to see Alita: Battle Angel. My apathy to this film started from the moment I saw the first trailer. It looked like a very interesting idea, with a lot of potential, but I couldn’t help but notice that none of the dialogue grabbed me. Not one of the characters stood out as memorable. I finally saw it this week, and unfortunately, it seems on this occasion that first impressions were pretty much spot on. I am not saying that this film isn’t good, it’s no way near bad, but it isn’t fantastic either. It is just fine. And that’s part of my problem with it.

One of the things that can make or break a film is character and dialogue. Sometimes I forgive films with minimal budget and/or lacklustre visuals simply because it has engaging characters and a good script. For example, I love the show Buffy the Vampire slayer in spite of frequent budget constraints making the effects look dated and cheesy. Why? Because of the characters. Joss Whedon is brilliant at creating scripts with very relatable, frustratingly human characters. I grow to love almost every character he has written and as such, I love the show despite its flaws. However, a film can have incredible visuals and top-notch action, but if the characters don’t feel fleshed out to me, I’m just not going to care what happens to them. Sadly, this is the case for Alita.

Alita is brought to life with a lot of vulnerability and innocence by Rosa Salazar, but she is given little to work with. The weird big eyes she is given in post make it hard to empathise with her, especially because no other characters have them. I realise this was adapted from a traditional Japanese anime, in which all the characters have huge eyes, but then why don’t all the characters have this? The eyes are distracting, but beyond that we know nothing about Alita as a character. We see her do a lot of stuff, and we know she’s impulsive and good at fighting. But what else? Other than a generic sense of justice she doesn’t particularly stand out. But then none of the others do. Christoph Waltz seems fatherly one moment and sinister the next, but at least he has a little personality. Keean Johnson doesn’t even manage to make Hugo, Alita’s love interest, seem like a real person at all. The extent of his character is that he wants to improve his station in life, and he likes Alita, for no obvious reason. Even the villains, played by great actors like Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connolly, barely get enough screen time, and have no depth to them.

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The problem is that the script seems to have had so many potentially humanising moments cut down or left out altogether. The dialogue is so matter of fact and blatant that it becomes funny at the wrong moments. Alita calls people evil and declares that she must fight evil, with a straight face. Potentially interesting conversations last a few seconds at most, like when Alita asks Doctor Ido if humans can love Cyborgs, to which he simply says “Yes”. Most of the dialogue just feels very generic and I struggle to remember any of it, even though I watched the film yesterday at time of writing. This lack of compelling conversations and too fast pacing means that I never feel I have enough time to get know or even particularly like any of the characters, so when any of them die, the moment feels empty. I don’t care what happens to any of them, because the film won’t let me.

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I think the film suffers from trying to create broad appeal. Anime typically has a very specific style, and watering that down with so much generic dialogue makes for a weak experience overall. Robert Rodriquez is great at creating stylistic films, and the Spy Kids films have shown that he can make very distinct characters, but I just felt a little disappointed this time. Don’t get me wrong, he remains great at memorable action, Alita’s fighting style is certainly unique, and there is a lot of fun in watching a small cute looking cyborg destroy a bunch of big and tough ones, but it just isn’t enough for me to care about what’s going on, and I want to care.

The visuals are incredibly impressive, although like Ready Player One, it’s over-reliance on CGI to create background and characters gets a little annoying. Computer generated imagery can be breath-taking, but using it for both background art and most of the characters smacks of complacency. It would’ve felt more impactful if the characters were only partly animated, and used actual physical costumes. But like I say, the visuals are good. The action is also fun. It was surprisingly visceral and gory, considering that this is a PG-13 film, but it was a welcome surprise. Personally, I think they could have gone further and made this R-rated, or at least a 15, then it could have really taken advantage of the brutal setting. But that’s really just a nit-pick.

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Despite all I have said, I don’t mean to imply that this film is worthless. It is entertaining and visually fun, and not too long. It had a lot of good production design, and the world it creates is interesting. But for me, it was kept from being truly engaging by the mediocre dialogue and lacklustre characterisation. I realise a lot of these complaints come from the script, and that really is what drags the film down for me. There is a lot to enjoy here, and if you can look past the script’s failings, you’ll have fun, but sadly for me, I couldn’t. I’m not sorry I saw it, but I’ll probably forget it very quickly.

Why I don’t watch the Oscars…

Well, the nominations have been officially released, and now begins the long build up to Oscar season. The Academy Awards are a curious thing. People are frequently very surprised when I mention that I don’t really keep up with them anymore. Some of them say that as a film graduate, I should care a lot more about the films that win or are at least nominated for awards, especially ones so prestigious as the Academy, and I can see their point. Certainly, when a film that I like wins an award, I’m very pleased and proud of the filmmakers. And I do keep an eye on popular films, I love expanding my taste so it pays to look out for films people recommend. But I just don’t value the Academy awards as a way of rating films anymore.

The Oscars is a very old and celebrated yearly event. If a film or individual wins an award, they can expect a huge amount of respect and a significant career boost. Marketing campaigns for films cannot shy away from displaying their Oscar pedigree on all the posters and trailers, but to me, it doesn’t really mean as much. Obviously, a lot of the films that win the awards are really good. But the system is so skewed that this almost feels more like a coincidence than careful selection. To even be considered for nomination, film producers must sink money into “for your consideration” campaigns. These are designed to essentially bribe voters into picking the film for nomination. This is covered in more detail on the show Adam Ruins Everything, and I highly recommend watching it to find out just how broken the voting system really is.

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On top of this, in spite of improvement, the Oscars is still predominantly white, and not very representative. Sure, Moonlight won last year which was great, but the majority of the attendants are still white. The majority of Voters are still rich old white men. Not that I hate that sort of person, but how can they accurately decide the best actor or film of the year? Their tastes are not going to reflect what film say, a young Hispanic woman would enjoy most.

The ceremony is hard to watch. Whenever I tried, I couldn’t get away from the incredibly vain atmosphere the show gives off. This is a televised award show, all about the upper crust, the elite of Hollywood all slapping each other on the back and feeling very pleased with themselves. That just fails to appeal to me.

But that wasn’t the worst part. The show is just tedious. It’s a dry dull drawn out slog of going through categories. You can get the same enjoyment hearing the results the next day. When I went to my graduation ceremony, there was at least the anticipation of receiving my degree at the end to keep me going through the boring parts. Why are we even watching strangers win awards? Or, if we are going to, it would be nice to have a few indie award shows, to give people lower on the rung some much needed exposure. Let’s face it, Bradley Cooper doesn’t need exposure, or a career boost.

The worst part of the whole night though, is the animation. The voters are not particularly interested in animated films, and that comes across in the extreme. Look back on previous years lists; they’re short on variety or genuinely artistic films. Most of the nominations can be predicted ahead of time. Pixar will always be nominated, because everyone watches Pixar. Studio Ghibli or another well known artsy anime film will be on the list, although very rarely actually win. There might be one actually worthwhile creative animated movie, and then a mediocre but popular CG film that the voters probably saw with their kids.

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Admittedly, I’m probably sounding snobby, but isn’t that the point of the Academy? To be a little discerning? The Boss Baby doesn’t need or deserve an award. Wreck-it-Ralph 2 certainly doesn’t, and if the voters just put a little effort into picking a genuine variety of unique animated films, I might pay more attention when they declare who wins. As it is though I look elsewhere for the years’ top animated features.

So, I don’t watch the Oscars. This isn’t a protest or some sort of statement. I’m not trying to prove a point, I simply have very little interest in them, and my taste in films isn’t impacted much by which films win. I like what I find most entertaining and artistic, and I trust my friends’ recommendations more than what some group of middle-aged rich men from another country decide is the best. I’m fine picking my own best films of the year thanks.