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Big Trouble in Little China (1986) starring Kurt Russell and created by John Carpenter. Give it a chance you won’t regret it.

I was scrolling though the Netflix on demand movies wondering what would be family appropriate and was happy to see the Big Trouble in Little China was available for the watching.  I remember this film from the 80’s and have always liked it.  Given that the movie is now considered a “cult classic” I feel vindicated that my perception of the film has some wider-spread acceptance than the Box Office numbers the movie failed to generate.

 

Few works of ’80s commercial cinema still seem as fresh as John Carpenter’s ninth feature, a rowdy, rocking hunk of fun that both fulfils and subverts many ideals of action filmmaking. Big Trouble has been described as ahead of its time, in that it anticipated, and still outclasses, the great wave of Asian-Hollywood fusion flicks that took over action cinema from the mid ’90s on, represented by The Matrix, Kill Bill, the American starring vehicles of Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-Fat and Jet Li, and sundry others martial-arts-infused movies. But in other, fundamental ways, it’s still unique. It was, in its own moment, a painful flop that effectively ended Carpenter’s rise up the rungs of Hollywood, in spite of it being his most stylistically confident and technically accomplished film; his next work, Prince of Darkness (1987), was a virtual bargain-basement affair. The reasons for Big Trouble’s failure are now practically lost in the mist of time, but its cult status today is undeniable and entirely deserved.

Big Trouble’s cheeky take on the genre template commences with the fact that Jack Burton, the hero Kurt Russell plays, isn’t really the hero at all. He’s a tough-talking truck driver, fond of broadcasting his personal mythology over the CB radio and coming on like John Wayne’s bastard son, but he’s not too far from the kinds of character Bob Hope and Don Adams played, a posturing clot with occasional moments of competence—a poke in the eye for what was then the cult of greased-up machismo represented by Stallone and Schwarzenegger. Jack is friend and veritable sidekick to Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), whose physical prowess as a brilliant martial artist and motivation to snatch back his true love from the forces of evil clearly mark him as the real protagonist.

 

Carpenter and Russell had previously worked together on the telemovie Elvis (1979), Escape from New York (1981)(also reviewed here), and The Thing, but Big Trouble was the true high point of that collaboration, at least in terms of the director’s intent and the actor’s capacities meshing. Few other young male movie stars have ever betrayed such a willingness to send themselves up as Russell did here. For example, Burton answers the question “Are you ready?” when venturing into any enemy lair with a swaggering “I was born ready!” Once there, however, he drops weapons, can’t work out how to let go of an opponent he’s holding prone, and looks momentarily shocked when he shoots someone, giving away his essential lack of experience as a tough guy.

Another thing that marked Carpenter out as a filmmaker, but which made him seem increasingly out of place in modern Hollywood, is his care in evoking a sense of milieu and situating his heroes as a part of an ordinary world. Often, they’re blue collar dudes and ladies, included by accident in greater machinations. Big Trouble commences with an opening that gives a fine sense of Burton as both a bit of a blowhard, ranting on the radio before cramming a giant hoagie in his mouth, but also as a cool guy. After delivering a load of produce to a market in San Francisco, he sits down to gamble with the mostly Asian porters and buyers, including his old friend Wang Chi, a self-made restaurateur. Carpenter doesn’t need a word of dialogue to show us who Burton, Wang, and the rest are: normal people doing real things and relaxing in a normal way, the sort of things nobody does in modern action blockbusters except in the most laboriously signposted fashions. The only remarkable moment is a challenge between Wang and Jack. Wang, who’s just lost all the money he’d saved up for a lavish welcome back from China for his fiancée, bets Jack double or nothing he can split a beer bottle in half with a meat cleaver. He fails, and Jack catches the bottle, which shoots across the table at him, proving he has brilliant reflexes. That’s a classic piece of establishing a hero’s gifts, but it’s a promise the film deliberately, hilariously delays fulfilling.

Jack recompenses Wang by taking him to pick up said fiancée, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), from the airport, where Jack eyes Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), a civil rights lawyer. She’s trying to shepherd immigrant Tara (Min Luong) safely past a waiting coterie of thugs from a Chinatown street gang on the lookout for girls to kidnap and force into prostitution. When the goons snatch Tara, Jack confronts them, only to be quickly toppled; the thugs take Miao Yin instead. Jack and Wang chase them to Chinatown, where they’re caught in the middle of a battle between the evil Wing Kong triad, and the good-guy Chang Sing gang, who are having the funeral procession for a leader and are ambushed by their enemies. The Chang Sing’s retaliation proves effective until the intervention of the Three Storms—Thunder (Carter Wong), Lightning (James Pax), and Rain (Peter Kwong)—bizarre beings that seem to have supernatural powers. The Storms slaughter the Chang Sings where they stand. When Jack tries to escape this melee by driving his truck through it, he seems to run down a tall, regally dressed man whom Wang thinks might be David Lo Pan (James Hong), the legendary head of the Wing Kong. Lo Pan seems unhurt by Jack’s truck, and rays of blinding light shoot from his eyes and mouth.

 

Jack soon learns that he and Wang have stumbled into the middle of a metaphysical battle of good and evil. Working with Gracie, whose knowledge of Chinatown’s criminal dealings is great, Jack infiltrates the White Tiger, a brothel where sex slaves are bought and sold, to find Miao Yin. Unfortunately, she’s snatched away by the Three Storms and taken to the underground lair of Lo Pan. He proves to be a 2,000-year-old soldier and magician, cursed by the gods for his offences, who is really a fleshless spirit desperately in search of a girl with green eyes he can marry to end his curse. Miao Yin fits the bill. Jack and Wang’s efforts to find her in Lo Pan’s headquarters prove a comic disaster until they manage to escape and free a number of captive women. But Gracie is left in the hands of Lo Pan and when he proves that both she and Miao Yin can survive the rituals for testing his brides, he plans to marry both, sacrificing one and keeping the other to be his companion as he conquers the universe. Wang and Jack are aided in their quest by Gracie’s journalist friend Margo Lane (Kate Burton), Wang’s debonair maitre d’ Eddie (Donald Li), the Chang Sings, and general-purpose sorcerer and tour guide Egg Shen (Victor Wong).

 

The quality of Big Trouble that sets it apart from many similar ’80s films and makes it tantalizingly hard to describe is the fluent ease with which it shifts between genres and tones: a giddy succession of swerves from slapstick to melodrama; Howard Hawksian verbal byplay; Tsui Hark wire-fu shenanigans; comic book hoot; resonant, sexually and mystically mysterious epic. Carpenter’s shift into action-oriented fare after mostly making horror movies, in which control of mood, atmosphere, and story progression are key assets, saw him assay Big Trouble with a contiguous grace that eludes most physically dynamic movies where a motion rush becomes paramount. Big Trouble’s atmosphere is tangible, as the heroes perform the gleeful boyish fantasy of taking a turn down just the right side street and being plunged into an adventure.

 

Under the surface effervescence, another strength of Big Trouble is that unlike most subsequent fantasy and East-West fusions, Carpenter captures, and even builds upon, the mystical weirdness that infuses much wuxia filmmaking. This is clear in images like Lo Pan transforming from his flaccid old guise into young ghost and passing through walls, and when Jack and the Chang Sing warriors follow Egg Shen down a fire pole into a subterranean shadow world where monsters lurk and the “black blood of the Earth” flows. The references to Chinese mythology alternate wryness with wistful seriousness, and Carpenter’s music score communicates a spacey, almost haunting underpinning to the adventure – the fact that many Hong Kong films of the same period sported synthesizer-dominated scores like Carpenter’s increases the likeness.

James Hong as Lo Pan is an evergreen surprise. Generally known for playing gaunt, cagey ciphers, a la his role as the guardian of dark secrets in Chinatown, Hong presents Lo Pan as alternately the dirtiest of old men when he’s in his corporeal shell of withered leathery flesh, swearing and teasing Gracie with insidious delight, and a weirdly beautiful supernatural master in his classical garb and make-up, appealing to the unconscious Miao Yin with poetic cadence and quivering with frustrated desire. Such flourishes makes Lo Pan a far deeper kind of villain than the usual run, and Hong’s intuitively perfect performance struck such a deep chord with the actor that he directed a film, The Vineyard (1989), that reiterates aspects of this film’s plot. Lo Pan gets his comeuppance, eventually, but that’s really the throwaway end to a grandiose fight. Carpenter even makes fun of the usually epic deaths of supernatural villains by having Lo Pan succumb to the simplest of implements, with his great collection of plaster buddhas spontaneously collapsing like dominos, as if the gods are marking the passing of a great if evil force. Carpenter’s filming of the preceding fight is a source of constant delight to me, with a comic-book-like clarity of action displayed in the way Carpenter offers frames that are cut in half by swords or crisscrossed by battling opponents swooping from one edge to the other. Such stylistic rigor, light years away from the happenstance gibberish seen in so many recent action films, gives a sense of the physical space, combined with the rapidity of the editing and the dynamism of the stuntmen, in what is still a master class for this sort of thing. Whatever Big Trouble’s failures as a revenue earner, it was a big triumph as entertainment, and I still love it.

 
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Posted by on July 23, 2014 in Movie Reviews

 

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My Name is Bruce (2007)—and I don’t mean Bruce Lee.

The second film in our series is “My Name Is Bruce,” the 2007 comedy-horror-spoof-film, directed, co-produced and starring the “B” (or C+ if you listen to some people) movie great Bruce Campbell.  As you know we just took a look at Army of Darkness (by far my favorite Campbell film); this time around we are discussing a movie about Bruce Campbell playing Bruce Campbell.  Unlike unintentional actors who are not really acting on screen, like when Chazz Palminteri plays Chazz Palminteri in every film, Campbell parades his status as cult B-movie genre megastar and makes a film that pokes fun at his acting career.  My guess is that most Hollywood “stars” have too big of an ego to make something with this sort of self-deprecating humor in it.

 

In his film, Campbell exaggerates all possible perceptions of what life is like being Bruce Campbell.  Portraying himself as a gone to hell, ruined by the devil’s nectar, divorced, making wretched sequels to already awful movies and living a trailer with an alcoholic dog, being Bruce means at best you are a proud loser barely maintaining a toehold on the “C” list of celebrity parties.

 

Somehow believing that Bruce is the hero he portrays in movies, Jeff, a fan and the sole surviving member of a group of Goth-like teens attacked by an ancient oriental evil demon that protects the souls of dead Chinese and bean curd, decides to kidnap Bruce and take him to his small town in the Heartland.  There, Bruce erroneously assumes his agent has set the stage for his birthday present (which was actually a hooker) by setting him up for yet another horror film shot in reality-style with an all-amateur cast.

 

Bruce is a little slow on the uptake in realizing that this Midwest jerk water burg of Gold Lick is under actual peril from an ancient, white-bearded God of War set on avenging the lives of 100 “Chinaman” workers lost in a mining disaster 100 years earlier.  Nevertheless, Jeff has sold him as the town’s savior, and like in Army of Darkness, takes up a “Hail to the King Baby” lifestyle.

 

After visiting Goldlick’s gun shop, Bruce and many amateur-actor citizens of Goldlick follow Bruce to take on Guan-Di, which Bruce thinks is just part of the movie.  When he finds out that it’s a real demon, he gets the hell out of Dodge, disappointing his female love interest Kelly and upsetting Jeff as well as the entire town of Goldlick.  When Bruce returns to his trailer home, he finds that everyone, including his junkie dog, hates him.  He has a restraining order placed upon him by his ex-wife, Cheryl who also wants more alimony, and finds that his “surprise birthday present” from Mills was just a singing prostitute.  Bruce is then called by Jeff, who informs him that he’s going to take on Guan-Di alone in spite of Bruce’s embarrassing retreat.

 

The hooker takes Bruce back to Goldlick, where he is treated with contempt but is determined to rescue Jeff.  He drives to the old cemetery where they planted dynamite at the mausoleum and try to lure Guan-Di inside with a cardboard cut-out of Bruce, which Guan-Di doesn’t fall for.  Displaying his machismo, Bruce decides to sacrifice himself using bean curd to luring Guan-Di and the dynamite is blown up.  He emerges from the debris alive, and hangs the medallion back on the mausoleum wall soothing the spirit.  Guan-Di then also comes back to life, and at the very last minute, it turns out the whole story was a movie being screened by the principals at the studio.  Bruce argues with Ted Raimi about the timeworn ending and turns it into a “happy ending,” which involves Bruce and Kelly married, living in a nice house, white picket fence and their son, Jeff, who is accepted into Harvard.  After the movie ends, Bruce asks, “What could be a better ending than that?” after which Guan-Di appears and attacks Bruce.

 

I must admit I was a little surprised with this film, I didn’t know what to expect—there are not too many movies where one satirizes one’s own career.  Fans of Bruce Campbell and the genera he represents I am sure were delighted by this film.  Though I am generally not a “B” horror movie fan (I enjoy many other “B” movie types) this film was not a cheap horror at all; instead it was a unique (and funny) look through the lens of the world of cheap horror movies.  It was better than I thought it would be and it needs to be watched more than once before catching all of the hidden humor; and anyone looking to kill a couple hours could do much worse than watching My Name is Bruce.  I will say this, while researching this review I looked at Bruce Campbell’s filmography and I would be willing to bet dollars to doughnuts that all but the most elite actors would give their right arm for the professional opportunities he has had.  Not bad for someone relegated to the seedy underworld of “B” horror movies—according to the site Celebrity Net Worth his is estimated at six million—I don’t know about you but that is a hell of a lot more than me.

 
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Posted by on June 28, 2012 in Movie Reviews

 

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Part II of MacFarlane vs Judge—you be the judge.

In our last post we began comparing what I believe are the two leading contemporary satirists each at the top of their game:  Seth MacFarlane, the creator of the Family Guy and American Dad, and Mike Judge, the creator of Office Space, Idiocracy and King of the Hill. 

Judge, born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, grew up in Albuquerque and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in physics (who would have thought?) from the University of California, San Diego.  In my opinion he is best known for Office Space, Idiocracy and King of the Hill.  Interestingly enough, both Office Space and Idiocracy were not by any means box office hits.

Office Space

Office Space had a cost of $10,000,000 and grossed $10,800,000.  However, like MacFarlane’s Family Guy, Office Space had massive home video sales topping six million by 2006 and by 2003 Comedy Central had run the movie 35 times.  Judge even made a cameo appearance in the film as Stan (complete with hairpiece and fake mustache), the manager of Chotchkie’s, a fictionalized parody of chain restaurants like Applebee’s and TGI Friday’s, but was credited as William King.  In my research for this post I came across some interesting facts about Office Space:

Initech is real.

At least 5 different companies named Initech have been founded since the film’s release.

The original Office Space was a series called “Milton.”

The film was based on a series of animated shorts by Judge titled “Milton.” Fox Studios wanted the film to be based solely on the “Milton” character, but Judge wanted to have an ensemble cast.

Judge’s inspiration came from working in an office filing TPS reports.

While at work filing real TPS reports, Judge met a lonely co-worker who would rant about his bosses and how they constantly moved his desk.  Judge went home and animated what would become “Milton.”  Which raises the question, does art imitate life or does life imitate art?

Office Space gave birth to the red Swingline stapler.

Many people believe this, but it is not exactly true.  The red Swingline stapler Milton used was made by Swingline decades ago but production had long since ceased.  However, the movie’s  prop department had one specially made for the film.  Three years after the release of the movie, requests for the stapler were so overwhelming that Swingline put the Rio Red 747 Business Stapler into production.

Entertainment Weekly could not decide if it loved or hated the film.

Entertainment Weekly gave Office Space a C-rating but named it one of the “The 100 best films from 1983 to 2008.”

 Idiocracy

We have already reviewed Office Space here at JPFMovies as well as Idiocracy.  But the tale of Idiocracy is much like that of Office Space.  Unsure of how to market the film after disastrous test screenings, Fox sat on the film for over a year, before finally giving it an unusually trivial release in only 6 markets (skipping over major markets such as New York City) — by comparison a full blown promotional release covers 600 markets.  Fox’s lack of marketing showed as the movie took in only $400,000 on its opening weekend, but the film has made a strong comeback in home DVD sales.  In an interview Judge speculated that (in addition to Fox’s incompetent marketing department) the studio figured Idiocracy would be received like Office Space, not a money maker at the theaters but profitable in the DVD market, so why would they waste time and money promoting the movie when they could obtain the same result without spending it?  To a certain extent they were right; Idiocracy has gained a cult like following similar to that of Office Space.

King of the Hill. 

This weekly animated series lasted for 13 seasons that ran from January 12, 1997, to May 6, 2010, on FOX.  The show centers on the Hills, a working-class family in the fictional small town of Arlen, Texas.  Judge and Daniels conceived the series after a run with Judge’s Beavis and Butt-head on MTV, and the series debuted on FOX as a midseason replacement on January 12, 1997, quickly becoming a hit. The show’s popularity led worldwide syndication and episodes run every night on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim.  The show became one of Fox’s longest-running series, and at the time of its cancellation the second longest-running American animated series.

Hank Hill is an old fashioned, hardworking, beer-drinking man who is trying to live in a modern Texas world. His wife is opinionated, his son is a disappointment, his friends are losers, and his Father is oppressive.  The show is unpretentious, following an average family and average family man Hank Hill who “sells propane and propane accessories” as the assistant manager of Strickland Propane.

When he is not selling propane, Hank mows his lawn, drinks beer, watches football games, and just stands in the alley with his friends.  The Souphanousinphones are his conceited Laotian neighbors who refer to him and his family as “hillbillies” or “rednecks.”  His son Bobby is in love with their daughter Connie.  Bobby is arguably the funniest of the show’s characters—but another contender, in my opinion, is Dale Gribble.  Bill Dauterive, Dale Gribble, and Boomhauer are Hank’s closest friends and are usually found drinking Alamo Beer in their sacred alley.

Bill Dauterive is a lonely divorced man who is not the brightest of the group. Dale is a man who suffers from paranoia due to theories of conspiracies.  Boomhauer is a man who usually talks very quickly; so quickly it is difficult to understand what he is saying, though the guys can understand him quite well.  Throughout the years, Hank has faced many problems caused by them pushing the limits of their friendship.

Hank’s wife Peggy claims to be extremely bright, but that is a running gag. For instance she claims that she knows Spanish, but she pronounces the words the wrong way (such as espanol instead of español).  She is a three time substitute teacher of the year award recipient (and she never lets you forget it) and when she is not at school she tries to show her (non-existent) intelligence by doing things like starting a business or selling real estate, all of which flop.

There are other characters who deserve recognition but I would be writing for a week if I mentioned them all.  Needless to say, I am a King of the Hill fan and have collected all 13 seasons either electronically or on DVD.

Where does this leave us?  Well, in my opinion, there is a clear winner:  Mike Judge.  Between the cult classics of Office Space and Idiocracy and a 13 season animated series he clearly comes out ahead.  He exhibits versatility by writing and directing films and TV shows as well as being an excellent animator.  This guy with a physics degree really has a sharp satirical edge making his work a cut above MacFarlane’s—and I am a connoisseur of satire.  I invite your thoughts on the question.  Now you know where I come down on this question: Judge.

 
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Posted by on October 21, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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