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River Phoenix
by Karma Waltonen

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The other day, I chanced upon a reshowing of SNEAKERS and was reminded of a great talent we lost too soon.

River Phoenix was a rising star and a friend to many—tons of songs have been written about him, albums and films have been dedicated to him—and his movies endure.

Come with me, back in time, as we revisit my favorite River Phoenix films.

INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE. He's not in it for very long, but River Phoenix is the only young Indiana there could ever be. Harrison Ford suggested that Phoenix be offered the role (he felt there was great similarity in looks). Phoenix confessed that he modeled his role on Ford rather than "Indiana Jones." His portrayal captures what is best about the INDIANA JONES franchise—whimsy. We also get to see when Indiana got his scar, his fear of snakes, and his whip. Sean Connery's rounding out of the cast makes this the best of the JONES's movies.

SNEAKERS. I doubt many people even remember this movie, but I've always thought it great. Besides Phoenix, the cast includes Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, Dan Aykroyd, James Earl Jones, Mary McDonnell, and (Sir) Ben Kingsley. Of course, a movie from 1992 about computers and cryptography is going to be dated now in terms of technology (so snobby
I love this movie to death

I love this movie to death
geeks should stay away), but those of us who can remember a time before the "interwebs" can see this film as ahead of its time.

The movie is technically a thriller; it's about espionage and government/corporate plots. It's amazingly funny, though, filled with nice one-liners like, "You know I could have been in the NSA, but they found out my parents were married." It's about a group of nerdy, hacker misfits who just make it by doing "legal" jobs, until they get blackmailed to do a different kind of work. Phoenix plays the youngest of the group—the one who still believes in love enough to be obsessed with it.

I LOVE YOU TO DEATH. This is a dark comedy loosely based on a true story—a woman and her friends poisoned and shot her adulterous husband (he was like Rasputin, though—he survived). Kevin Kline is the husband, Tracey Ullman is the broken-hearted wife, Joan Plowright is wonderful as the wife's mother. William Hurt and Keanu Reeves play two spacey drug-addicts hired to finish the husband off after other attempts have failed. River Phoenix is adorable as the teenager with unrequited love for the wife. He's so besotted that he's willing to aid in a murder, though he knows he doesn't have a chance with his love, anyway. It's a bit over
I love this movie to death
the top, but it's one of the most fun movies you may ever see.

A NIGHT IN THE LIFE OF JIMMY REARDON. I actually remember people talking about this in middle school—it was risqué, so risqué that I wasn't allowed to see it. In fact, I only saw it for the first time a few years ago. Although I think it would have been better if I saw it for the first time in high school, it's still worth a watch.

Most teenage movies are better if they're only focused on one night (or day). Think FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF, NICK AND NORAH'S INFINITE PLAYLIST, THE BREAKFAST CLUB, ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING, etc. I'm not sure if it's because we just couldn't take anymore angst, if it's because their lives are so repetitively whiney, or if it's because when something monumental does actually happen in a teenager's life, it happens oddly fast. Remember that?

Jimmy Reardon's night of odd sex (while trying to convince his girl that's he's faithful and thus worthy of her attention) is the focus, but his troubled relationship to his father is equally important. Reardon's problems are those of a spoiled young man, but any teenager can relate to the problem of not being sure how to reconcile your own desires with the expectations parents can put onto you.

I love this movie to death
PRIVATE IDAHO. This was perhaps River Phoenix's (and Keanu Reeves's) bravest film. In 1991, playing a gay hustler could be a career-killer (depending on the career, it could still be). Homophobia was so much more rampant in America then that the American video covers for this film had the men embracing women, in an attempt to market the film as "straight." What most people don't know about this film is that the father-son conflict part of the plot comes from Shakespeare's HENRY IV, part I & II.

RUNNING ON EMPTY. Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti play River Phoenix's parents in this film—fugitives, they must keep moving. Phoenix's character has to struggle between his dedication to his family and his desire to have a more normal life for himself.

Of course, many will always hold River Phoenix in their hearts solely for STAND BY ME. It's a spectacular film and Phoenix is spectacular in it. Hell, even Wil Wheaton is good. But I hope this column has given you a reminder that Phoenix had a lot of films under his belt. I'll leave you with one last image—Phoenix was supposed to play the young reporter in INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE. Of course, the role went to Christian Slater after Phoenix's death, but just take a moment to envision what would have been . . .

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Comedies with Dr. Karma
Every other Wednesday

Dr. Karma discusses all things comic, from the classics to what may become classics. Laugh with, but not at, her, please.

Other Columns
Other columns by Karma Waltonen:

Goodbye -- Dr. Karma

The Dictator and Dark Shadows

Pirates and Whedon Movies: In Theatres Now!

A Touch of Cult

Our Random Favorites

All Columns

Karma Waltonen
Dr. Karma is a silly, nerdy know-it-all, but in a good way. She brings all her overeducation to discuss that which truly matters: comedy. As some famous guy once said: “And if I laugh at any mortal thing, ‘tis that I may not weep.” Or something like that.

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Karma Waltonen by clicking here.

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