Dr. Blurbenstein

(Originally published spring 1995 in The Gleaner of Rutgers University-Camden.)

The River Wild

***

Meryl Streep deserves a lot of credit for getting herself this plum role. Known for many, many years as a “high-brow” actress, a woman who was fine doing accents in haughty costume dramas, she has tackled a part like none other she has portrayed. Streep is Gail, an experienced ex-river guide who is on a mini-vacation with her family. Gail’s idea of a good, fun getaway is to maneuver a raft down some tricky white-water rapids. Seems she’s been doing this for the past three years to celebrate her son Rourke’s birthday. In each of the preceding years husband/dad Tom (David Strathairn) has declined to accompany his son and wife, using the time-honored excuse of work as a crutch. He’s even begged out this time, but has an inexplicable change of heart just as Gail and Rourke are about to embark on their journey.So the trio begins its expedition tied down with an excess of emotional baggage. Gail is convinced her marriage is nearly over, Rourke is starting to believe his dad doesn’t want to spend any time with him, and Tom is namby-pamby about being on the trip, but doesn’t want to irrevocably ruin his relationships with his son or his wife. Thus we already have a major pall hanging over the vacation.

The family meets three young men, led by Wade (Kevin Bacon), who are also making their way down the river. They’re friendly, outgoing types, happy to communicate their aquatic inabilities to Gail and her crew in loud, boisterous voices. Quickly enough, though, we find the true intent behind their masks of ebullience. Seems Wade and company have just performed a major robbery, and they need Gail to get them down the most treacherous part of the river — The Gauntlet.

“I need your wife to get me down the river. I need your son to support her. You,” Wade tells Tom, “are expendable.”

And Gail is therefore thrust into that most common of female action roles: the helpless victim. Or is she? Seems she’s strong enough, she’s smart enough, and, doggone it, the audience will root for her to overpower and basically beat the crap out of her captors.

Streep is magificent, very believable in such an out-of-place role for her. She skillfully plays the dual role of mother and hero with firebrand intensity and aplomb. Bacon is a whirling dervish of viciousness; like Streep, he tackles here a role usually suited to, say, Harvey Keitel. And Strathairn is excellent as always, effectively playing the nerdy husband who undergoes quite a personality change, making his character’s shift pleasently seamless and infinitely credible.

If you have a fear of water, stay away from The River Wild; there are plenty of H20 scenes to fill an ocean of bad deep-sea flicks. This is quite an actioner, with a reused plot (see Deliverance) supported by fine acting and superb photography.

Stargate

**1/2

It is the most primal and fascinating of science fiction plots. Is there life outside our planet? And, on a more terrestrial subject, who or what constructed the pyramids? Egyptologist James Spader thinks he’s got the answer to both questions — yes, and aliens. Specifically, Spader believes that, long ago, aliens descended upon Earth and began a colony consisting of pyramids as temples and houses. He’s been laughed at by his peers and the media, and resignedly studies the culture of ancient Egypt without stepping on too many toes.However, it seems a super-secret U.S. Goverment dig in Egpyt has unearthed quite an unusual find. Spader had long believed that the aliens had created a way of traveling across the galaxy in a moment. The secret dig has confirmed his fears — the Stargate. It is a huge circular object, made of unknown materials and adorned by strange markings — markings which Spader discovers are those of ancient Egypt. The officials in charge of the Stargate dig cannot translate the symbols, but they do know they are missing the final, crucial marking — which Spader conveniently locates for them early in the film, for plotting purposes.

Enter Kurt Russell, a square-jawed, crew-cutted loner of a military colonel who has been ordered to go into the Stargate, gather information on whatever may lie on the other side, and return to Earth. Naturally, the only person who is able to get Russell and his squadron of soldiers is Spader, so the team enters the gate, slowly, and without a little trepidation.

What appears to them on the gate’s other side may best be left to the talents of the eyes and ears. What starts out as Raiders of the Lost Ark quickly turns into Star Wars, or at least the six-o’clock news. The film carries its fanciful premise very well, with the ensuing special effects having one wonder if George Lucas didn’t actually lend a hand to the technical aspects of the movie. These effects are easily the prime attraction of Stargate, and possibly cost more to produce than Russell or Spader. Russell’s John Wayne jaw and Spader’s Robert Redford teeth are prominently displayed. And for added campiness, Jaye Davidson (The Crying Game) is along for the ride as the sun-god Ra. All of this makes for a fine sci-fi film, lacking perhaps in acting but nearly compensating with special effects.

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