Archive for the ‘Kung-Fu’ Category

Raw Force (1982)

 

On the Norwegian Wikipedia page for the 1982 exploitation epic RAW FORCE — probably the only time I’ll ever start a sentence that way — we are informed that the movie was banned in Norway in 1984. That’s the most attention any kind of majority, political or otherwise, has paid this movie. RAW FORCE is made for almost no one, because it is apparently made for almost everyone. Nearly every convention or trope of genre movies from the first seventy or so years of the existence of film is expended in this one rickety heap of madness.

 

THIS IS THE RAW FORCE.

 

As I tried to describe on our latest podcast focusing on RAW FORCEdescribing this movie is like fighting a giant squid. Just when you’ve bested one wavy storytelling strand, another one snaps up and grabs you by the throat.

 

Here’s the trailer, which is maybe the most dishonest trailer I’ve ever seen:

 

_______________

That trailer literally sells a different movie. The clips are the same, but some of the character names and all of their backstories are totally different. The editors somehow cobbled together a cohesive story from several scenes that have no connection. This is the SHOGUN ASSASSIN of movie trailers. RAW FORCE is plenty of kinds of fun, but one adjective that does not apply is “cohesive.” This is the summary I gave on the podcast:

___________________

NOT THAT EDWARD MURPHY

_______________

First, a quote from Anton Chekhov:

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

Okay. So early on in RAW FORCE, when a plane lands on a remote island and a character mentions that the waters surrounding the island are infested with vicious piranha, you can bet you will see those fish by the end of the movie. And if that character is a white-suited human trafficker who looks and talks exactly like Adolf Hitler, you may fairly assume he’ll be the one to meet them.

 

EVERYBODY HATES HITLER

 

Otherwise, RAW FORCE, also known as KUNG FU CANNIBALS, completely ignores the principle of Chekhov’s gun. This movie operates under its own rules, and also it doesn’t have any rules. If you somehow managed to drink up all the movies and television shows of the 1970s and then you barfed them back up, the mess on the bathroom floor might look like this.

 

RIGHT IN THE TUMMY-BALLS

 

Saloon fights, graveyard fights, bazooka fights, hippies in warpaint, gratuitously naked ladies, karate-chopping hobbit bartenders, giggling monks who dine on human women, ninja zombies, a BOOGIE NIGHTS style group of protagonists calling themselves the Burbank Karate Club, an ornery sea captain, a kung fu chef, an extended riff on ‘Gilligan’s Island’, and the aforementioned worst person in human history: All this and more in RAW FORCE.

_______________

This was a fun episode even though I was delirious and feverish and congested and loopy. As always my co-hosts Joe and Freeman were terrific, engaging, and informative. You can subscribe and download the show on iTunes (please comment with feedback!) or you can

CLICK HERE!

_______________

Here are our previous episodes, in case you’d like to catch up. We’re recording a new episode this week! Stay tuned.

STREET WARS (1992)

STREET WARS (1992)

Vigilante Force

VIGILANTE FORCE (1976)

GHOSTHOUSE (1988)

GHOSTHOUSE (1988)

THRILLER: THEY CALL HER ONE EYE (1973)

THRILLER: A CRUEL PICTURE (1973)

Find me on Twitter:

@jonnyabomb

 

BYE I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU

 

 

RAW FORCE

 

LADIES

 

 

Journey to the West (2013)

 

JOURNEY TO THE WEST is now available to download on iTunes and to watch on demand. If you have access to New York City, it’s playing at Cinema Village. This is the brief rave I wrote about the movie when I put it in my top ten of 2013. It’s not much but I hope it makes clear how emphatically I recommend it.

 

Journey to the West

 

Journey to the West

 

The way I feel about Stephen Chow’s movies is the way you probably feel about Pixar’s movies. KUNG FU HUSTLE alone is literally perfection. JOURNEY TO THE WEST may not be his single best film, but it’s a, incredibly strong addition to a beautiful filmography.

 

BIG TROUBLE

 

Fleet, funny, broadly universal, and unexpectedly moving, JOURNEY TO THE WEST is the story of a young demon hunter named Tang Sanzang (Wen Zhang) who takes on a wild menagerie of monsters and villains, looking to get them to change their evil ways rather than simply killing them. He’s both aided and bedeviled along the way by a pretty demon hunter known as Miss Duan (Shu Qi) and her gang of killers (including the insanely cute Chrissie Chau), all of whom would prefer the more extreme option. For stone killers, they’re as adorable as it gets.

 

SMILES

 

The relationship between Tang Sanzang and Miss Duan is the through-line of the movie, which otherwise progresses from demon battle to demon battle. The characters voyage through a variety of exciting environments; some inviting, like the open-air river battle against a gigantic fish demon, and others far less inviting, like the hellish domain of the nightmarish pig demon.

 

BIG FISH

 

Most prominently featured is the Monkey King (Huang Bo), the most duplicitous of the creatures but also the most likable and enjoyable. He’s the reason for the movie’s dance sequence, is all I’m saying.

 

DANCE FEVER

 

 

Like all of Stephen Chow’s best-known movies, JOURNEY TO THE WEST reaches heights of joy few movies can match, but it also comes packaged with moments of heartbreak. It’s an epic adventure stuffed with comedy and romance that ends up having agreeably spiritual resonance, based as it is on a classical work of literature dating back to the Ming Dynasty. But then again it also has a giant gorilla. This really does have everything you need from a movie.

 

@jonnyabomb

 

 

Xi you xiang mo pian

Manborg

The bad news is that sometime in the near future, the armies of Hell are coming to Earth.  Mankind simply does not currently have the resources to withstand their necro-technological might.  The seas will run with the blood of billions and the SuperBowl will presumably be cancelled.

The good news is MANBORG.

A soldier who is mutilated and left for dead by the ravenous hordes of Hell, the hero who will be come to be known as Manborg is reconstituted and outfitted with a cybernetic weapons system powerful enough to turn the tide.  He is re-captured by the Hell armies and forced to fight in an arena alongside a trio of super-powered martial artists — #1 Man, Mina, and her brother Justice — who will become his new friends and help him combat the overwhelming forces of Count Draculon, and at this point I admit I kind of lost the plot, but who cares?  MANBORG is so silly it’s beautiful.

This is a real movie I’m describing. I’ve seen it.  (Three times now!)  It wasn’t a dream.  I’m awake, and stone-sober.  MANBORG is an actual thing that exists.  You can experience it too, and I highly suggest that you do.  I can’t answer all of the questions you will probably have.  For one thing, the origins of the film remain hazy to me, as if shrouded by Hell-fog or the smoldering fires of an infernal battlefield.  IMDb lists the film’s creation date as 2011.  It traveled the festival circuit in 2012.  It appeared in stores on DVD in 2013, where I grabbed it immediately.  Could you resist that poster artwork?

MANBORG was made by a Canadian filmmaking collective known as Astron-6. They’re a bunch of guys who make movies on the cheap, pitching in on each others’ projects in every function including stepping in front of the camera.  The director of this particular outing is Steven Kostanski, who shows an impressive command of genre-cinema film-checking.  The movie, like Manborg himself, is a lumbering patchwork Frankenstein’s monster of other movies: ARENA, HARDWAREROBOCOP, TERMINATOR, TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY, MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME, RETURN OF THE JEDI, HOWARD THE DUCK, ROBOT JOX, DR. STRANGELOVE, THE FIFTH ELEMENT, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, MORTAL KOMBAT, G.I. JOE, and TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE.  To name only a few.  If you, like me, spent countless sugar-fueled late nights in front of a TV screen mainlining action movies, you will be in hog heaven with this flick.  It’s not quite accurate to say that MANBORG is a snug fit on a shelf with some of the more esteemed films on that list, but it would be absolutely true to maintain that MANBORG completely captures the giddy rhythms of euphoric movie-love.  The way you felt when you were talking about these movies, the way you still may feel when talking about them; that’s the spirit in which MANBORG was made.

Another thing about the making of this movie:  The production budget for MANBORG was somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,000.  That probably wouldn’t even cover the price of the yellow tarp for a Scientology tent on a Tom Cruise movie.  It’s hardly any money when you’re talking about mainstream filmmaking.  However:  In absolute sincerity, I insist that this is incredibly impressive work for that budget.  Sure, it’s goofy-looking, but that’s intrinsic to the charm of the thing.  It says a lot about these filmmakers that they could stretch the money as far as they do.  It suggests that they have a future in so-called serious movies, if that’s what they want, although I kind of hope they don’t.  I want to see more movies like this one, although I’m fine with re-watching this one until then.

There’s something fantastically charming about this movie, the way it simultaneously feels like a bunch of film-fanatic friends getting together to make a movie and still invites just enough suspension of disbelief to enjoy as a somewhat corny, bizarrely sincere addition to the ranks of bizarro action movies.  In other words:  Even as you know it’s a goof, you still feel like going with it.  Because it’s just more fun that way.  And I don’t know, man — there’s even something touching to me about the fact that I could walk into Best Buy and see MANBORG sitting on the shelf.  Right in between MAGNUM FORCE and MARS ATTACKS!  This is one for us.  The weird kids.  The movie freaks.  The up-all-nighters.  We made it!  Feels like home.

 

P.S.  Be sure to stay through the credits for the trailer for… BIO-COP!

 

Read more about MANBORG at the official MANBORG site: http://www.astron-6.com/manborg.html

 

Listen to Brian Wiacek’s authentically-radical score here:  http://manborg.bandcamp.com/

 

 

And say hi to me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

 

 

 

 

manborg  ManborgTeaser_Mina Scorpius

lilguy   Baron

I can’t stand repetition.  I certainly don’t like to repeat myself.  But I put a lot of work into my thoughts on THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS, and I know that some people who follow me on Demon’s Resume might like to have alerts on when I write elsewhere, so I wanted y’all to know about my piece for Daily Grindhouse.  I tried hard to make it worth your time!

Click here to read about >>> THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS <<< !!!

And all challenges may be directed to me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

And now here are pictures of Jamie Chung:

R.I.P. Leo O’Brien.  He played “Richie Green” in THE LAST DRAGON, maybe the best character in the movie.  Definitely the one with all the best lines.

I don’t do irony well.  I tend to take the movies I like in the spirit they were intended.  If a movie feels genuine to me, then my affection for it is genuine.  THE LAST DRAGON is a kid’s movie, but one of the few I will still watch from time to time because it’s guaranteed to lift my mood.  If I’m being completely honest, I love this movie way more than I love most conventionally accepted “classic films.”  Given the choice, I’d opt without hesitation to watch this movie over CITIZEN KANE, CASABLANCA, and even THE GODFATHER. There, it’s out.  I said it.

I accept that no one will ever let me call this a good movie, but the rest of the world is going to have to accept my insistence that this is a one-of-a- kind genre occurrence, and for that alone it deserves respect.  There aren’t two like it.  As the story of young Leroy “Bruce Leroy” Green (Taimak) and his mission to defend popular VJ Laura Charles (Vanity) against evil arcade owner Eddie Arkadian (Chris Murney) and local bully The Shogun Of Harlem (Julius J. Carry III), THE LAST DRAGON stands alone in its genre — it’s the first, last, and only Motown-kung fu-action-romantic-comedy musical.  There’s so much genuine goodness about THE LAST DRAGON.  It encourages the mild-mannered to stand up for themselves.  It teaches kids about Eastern philosophy.  It teaches kids about Bruce Lee.  It gave early-career employment to legendary character-actors Mike Starr, Chazz Palminteri, and William H. Macy.  It has music from Willie Hutch, Stevie Wonder, and Vanity.  It has a kid (Leo O’Brien) who’s been tied up by bad guys escaping capture by break-dancing out of the ropes.

This movie is a positive force for the universe.  I watch it and I smile.  It’s one of my few nostalgic indulgences – but it’s still fun to watch as an adult.  I fear the potential remake, despite the involvement of Sam Jackson and the RZA and despite the personal assurance I’ve received from Taimak himself (!).  THE LAST DRAGON was lightning in a bottle, and let’s face it, it’s not actually possible to catch lightning in a bottle… unless a genuine miracle is involved.

This post originally appeared on Rupert Pupkin Speaks.  Give ’em a visit!

Follow Taimak on Twitter:  @iamtaimak

Don’t let the title above get me wrong: The A.V. Club’s recently-completed list of the 50 Best Films Of The ’90s is as close to a definitive consensus as anyone could ever hope for.  It’s a terrific list.  Barring the inclusion of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (I understand why they felt they needed to include it, but it’s a bad movie), there isn’t anything I could even begin to object to — in fact, most of their choices would have been mine.  But since the 1990s are the decade in which I [sort of] came of age, I thought up 50 more that could have been included.  In my opinion.  There.  Disclaimed.

Here are some of my favorite 1990s movies, any of which I could make a strong case for as the decade’s best, grouped by year NOT by numerical rank:

Incredible imagery from a true master of cinema.

Even the people who already love this movie probably don’t even fathom the full extent of its excellence.  Read my dissertation at Daily Grindhouse!

All three leads are brilliant in this con-man crime film written by Donald Westlake and directed by the hugely-underrated-even-by-film-geeks-who-should-know-better Stephen Frears.

Look at the upper left side of that poster.  There’s no better vote of confidence on the planet.

This is one of the best of the decade based on the music alone.

Known to true Bill Murray fans as the most underrated Bill Murray movie, this one was actually co-directed by our hero, and it’s an expert farce and one of the better New York movies ever.  Read more from me on this one here!

A radio shock jock (Jeff Bridges) and a homeless man (Robin Williams) cross paths in another underrated New York movie, this one from the genius visual wizard Terry Gilliam.

This choice comes down to whichever definition of “best” you’re personally using at the time in regards to movies.  Are there more culturally resonant and artistically sophisticated movies than this one?  Sure.  Am I more likely to put one of those on at the end of a long day over this one?  Nope.

What does “best” mean?  Maybe I equivocate too much.  I’m an action guy, and this fits the term “best” under any definition.  John Woo is an artisan of cinematic mayhem and this is arguably the pinnacle of his career.

Because nobody else ever before or since made a movie like this one.  More from me here.

One of the few movies that genuinely emotionally moves me every time I see it.  A high point for Jeff Bridges, who has had a ton of high points.  Rosie Perez is wonderful also.

It’s not exactly that Robert De Niro and Bill Murray trade personas here.  This movie isn’t a stunt.  It’s something way more sensitive and thoughtful than that.  But De Niro does play the meek, mild-mannered police photographer and Murray the unpredicably-violent gangster who dreams of being a stand-up.  And it was written by the great Richard Price and directed by the man who made HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER.

Enthusiasm for this movie seems to have dimmed, as has much appreciation for director Jonathan Demme (people are a little too much “What have you done for me lately?”, but this movie represents a key moment in the cultural mainstreaming of things that needed to be made mainstream at the time.  Honestly it’s been a while so I don’t know how much it all holds up, but to my memory, it was a thoughtful, character-based film about the big issues.  Terrific soundtrack also.

Well I said a bunch here and here.  This movie is a switchblade-arsenal of terrific actors, showcased with bombastic direction from Tony Scott working in concert with the unconquerably individualistic Quentin Tarantino script.  It’s kind of a nexus of everything that became important and trendy in 1990s crime and action films.

This wouldn’t make a personal top 50 or 100 or maybe not even a top 200, but it’s impeccable Disney entertaining for the widest possible audience and believe me, it still works as hugely as it did nearly twenty years ago.  (You’re old.)

C0-written by David Peoples (UNFORGIVEN), which makes it important right there.  But again, Terry Gilliam, this time challenging Bruce Willis into another great performance (Bruce always seems to do best with the most individualistic filmmakers).  Madeline Stowe is great.  And character-actor Brad Pitt beats leading-man Brad Pitt six out of seven days a week.

Super-serious great movies are easy.  Great comedies are hard.  This is one of the funniest of the decade.

Yeah, I get it.  Some of you think it’s too much.  I think it’s opera.  I think Michael Mann is criminally underappreciated by the listmakers and the award-givers.  I think it’s one of the few movies more than two hours that I can watch over and over without getting bored.  This movie got in my soul the first time I saw it, and it’s still there.

This came toward the end of John Carpenter’s remarkable run of horror and action classics, but it still has moments of colossal inspiration, and a truly memorable lead performance by the great Sam Neill.

I’ll admit it’s probably a stretch to call this one of the best movies of the 1990s, but it’s one of my favorite filmmakers, Sam Raimi, taking on one of my favorite genres, the “spaghetti” Western, and supercharging it with his anarchic cartoony innovations.  There’s more energy in this movie than in most of the Best Picture winners of the decade.

All I’m saying is, I’ve seen this one more times than I’ve seen RUSHMORE and THE ROYAL TENNENBAUMS combined.

Some people maintain that this remains Paul Thomas Anderson’s best movie.  Some days I can see what they mean.  It’s certainly his tightest, most controlled, most focus, most conventional.  And it’s the Rosetta Stone where many of his later musical cues, character names, themes, and company players were first established.  For me, it’s a treat to see Robert Elswit’s camera roam around Nevada — Elswit is the (until-recently) unsung hero of Anderson’s oevre (until recently.  I also like this movie because it makes me feel like an asshole.  It was released when Anderson was 26.  You should have seen what I was doing at 26.  Feeling like an asshole is good, though — it motivates me.

This is a black, black comedy.  You gotta give these guys credit — they did not take the easy road after DUMB & DUMBER kick-started their careers.  Even THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY goes to some daring places (it’s a romantic comedy about stalking, after all), but it’s nowhere near as nasty as this one.  And once again, Bill Murray, comedy’s supreme ninja master, comes in for a few scenes and completely destroys throughout every single moment he appears.

Chris Rock’s favorite Tim Burton movie.  I don’t have a favorite Tim Burton movie — impossible for me to choose — but this one is up there.  It’s pure anarchy on film.  Somebody gave the creepy kid down the street complete access to fireworks and all the best toys — expensive sets, costumes, huge movie stars — and he went to work blowing them all up with demented glee.  (Demented Glee is my favorite Fox TV show, by the way.)  It was a stroke of inspiration to reframe the alien invasion movie as a 1970s-style disaster movie, and to make the whole thing a comedy.  This weirded out a country more interested in the more straightforward INDEPENDENCE DAY, but I’m with the weird kid.

Because as much credit as Eddie Murphy and Rick Baker get for their brilliance, it still isn’t enough.

A case could be made for THE TRUMAN SHOW as the best Jim Carrey movie of the 1990s (maybe ever, barring ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND), but I’m a fan of the big weird risk and the sudden detour and the critical and popular underdog.  THE CABLE GUY is even weirder than you may remember, and in retrospect it paved the way for enduring cult comedies to follow like ZOOLANDER and ANCHORMAN.

Best-of lists always go heavy on lauding the director and the actors, but how about the screenwriters?  You know, the guys and gals without whom the entire movie would not exist in the first place?  Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski are the kings of the gonzo biopics of the 1990s, with ED WOOD, MAN ON THE MOON, and this, the story of Hustler founder Larry Flynt.  Woody Harrelson is incredible in the role, and the whole thing, under the stewardship of the mighty Milos Forman, is a raunchy, raucous, searing, and sad affair.

Leon Gast’s film is one of THE essential sports documentaries ever made.  It’s the story of Muhammad Ali’s match against George Foreman for the title of heavyweight champion of the world.  The ‘Rumble In The Jungle’ took place in Africa in 1974, and the movie is supercharged with electric history.

In my local paper at the time, the shoddy film critic referred to this movie with a cheap shot: “Lifeless, Ordinary.”  It’s anything but.  It’s everything but.  The follow-up to TRAINSPOTTING from the team of Danny Boyle, John Hodge, and Andrew McDonald is a deranged, delirious trip through America.  It’s colorful and kinetic and enthusiastically acted and it sounds like a million bucks.  (Why not?)  It’s boistrous and unruly and maybe a little too self-indulgent, but it’s my kind of self-indulgent — the boldly original kind — so the complainers can go screw.  Expanded thoughts on this movie here.

In 1997, Kevin Smith was still a filmmaker who led with his heart and inspired an entire generation of creatively-inclined young’uns to write with honesty and candor.  Smith’s first four movies were sloppily-made but felt incredibly personal, and CHASING AMY was maybe the rawest of them all.  I’m not sure I could revisit it now any more than I’d like to look at a high school yearbook, but I’m grateful for that long-ago validation the success of CHASING AMY gave me and a ton of more-famous, more influential up-and-comers. As for Smith, he made an encouraging return to form with the flawed but fiery RED STATE. Unfortunately, he seems to be more interested in everything BUT filmmaking nowadays. Too bad.

There’s over-the-top pulp, and then there’s JOHN WOO over-the-top pulp.  This is the most gloriously operatic and unrestrained of any of John Woo’s Hollywood movies, and both of its stars seem to have been stuck in that mode ever since.

As an undergraduate, I wrote a seventeen-page paper on GROSSE POINTE BLANK, so convinced was I about how great it is. I still love it, but I’ll try to be more brief here.

GROSSE POINTE BLANK has a brilliant one-liner comedy concept – contract killer accepts invitation to high school reunion due to its proximity to his latest contract – and a brilliant fit of a leading man in John Cusack. Cusack and his co-writers fine-tuned Tom Jankewicz’s original script and got the movie made under the direction of George Armitage, a filmmaker who works way too infrequently, having made the underrated MIAMI BLUES and the even more underrated HIT MAN with Bernie Casey and Pam Grier.  Armitage nails the unusual tone of GROSSE POINTE BLANK, a very dark comedy about a paid murderer who is lovable mostly because he’s played by that guy who everyone loved in BETTER OFF DEAD and SAY ANYTHING.
The score is by Joe Strummer of The Clash. Pretty epic. The soundtrack is stacked with killer songs from the late ‘70s and ‘80s. The supporting cast is deadly – Dan Aykroyd deftly playing against type as an insane hitman and rival of Cusack’s Martin Blank. Alan Arkin as Blank’s traumatized psychologist, who begs him to stop coming back. Joan Cusack as Blank’s secretary, equally traumatized. MAGNUM FORCE’s Mitch Ryan as the dad of Blank’s high school sweetheart (Minnie Driver). Jeremy Piven’s original hairline in an extended cameo. And many more.
In retrospect, GROSSE POINTE BLANK is less successful in its action-movie moments as it is anytime it’s being a hyper-verbal, deep dark and truly bizarre character study. But boy, it’s not like we ever get too many of those. I mean, technically this is a romantic comedy where plenty of people get shot dead.  My kind of movie entirely.  And in case you were ever wondering where the name of my site ‘DEMON’S RESUME’ comes from… now you know!

Most people would argue that PULP FICTION is Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece.  A lesser number would argue for this one.  I tend to favor JACKIE BROWN, largely because I love Pam Grier and Robert Forster so much and this movie is a highlight for both of them.  It’s interesting that almost everybody favors either PULP FICTION or JACKIE BROWN — these are the only Tarantino-directed films where his recognizable and dominant authorial voice has ever been ameliorated by second writers.  PULP FICTION drew on material by Tarantino’s one-time collaborator Roger Avary, while JACKIE BROWN is of course based on a novel by Elmore Leonard.  I’m not saying that’s good or bad or necessary or even interesting — it just is what it is.  But until DJANGO UNCHAINED, I never loved a Tarantino movie as much as I loved JACKIE BROWN.  JACKIE BROWN started from a great place (the book RUM PUNCH) and is stocked entirely with maybe the greatest Tarantino cast ever, with one of the greatest Tarantino soundtracks.  It’s pretty glorious.

Here’s what I wrote about this movie for a list of Underrated Horror films:

As far as strict classifications go, LOST HIGHWAY is more of an elliptical art film (which goes heavy on the L.A. noir elements) than a horror movie.  Try telling me that in 1997, when friends and I saw it twice in theaters just because it was so goddamned freaky, or when I creeped myself out listening to the soundtrack while driving down a dark highway.  When my friends and I were younger we reveled in absurdities – the less sense something made, the more invigorating it seemed to be.  Then you become a film major and you start looking to ascribe meaning to everything. I don’t know that you can make sense out of a movie like LOST HIGHWAY.  It seems to be the story of a jazz musician (Bill Pullman) who is arrested for killing his wife (Patricia Arquette) and then has a psychotic break, wherein he imagines himself as a younger man (Baltazar Getty) being mentored by a violent gangster (Robert Loggia), only to fall in love with the gangster’s girl (Patricia Arquette).  In both storylines the protagonist is haunted by a Mystery Man (Robert Blake in ghostly pale makeup) who seems to know everything and be everywhere.

But is that what happens?  Beats me.  Every time you think you’ve teased out a cohesive narrative, you remember one out-of-place element and the theory unravels.  Best to stop thinking so hard and just experience LOST HIGHWAY as David Lynch’s nightmare vision of Los Angeles, presaging the equally creepy MULHOLLAND DRIVE  in 2001.  What adds to the hellish landscape of LOST HIGHWAY is its proximity to disturbing real-life elements, such as the cameo from a once-vibrant and now clearly-ill Richard Pryor, to the presence of Michael Massee, a terrific character actor unfortunately best known for being on the set of THE CROW when Brandon Lee was killed, to most upsetting of all, the recurring specter of Robert Blake,the one-time child actor who ended up on trial for allegedly killing his wife.  Which, you’ll notice, puts us right back inside the plot of LOST HIGHWAY.  We can’t escape.

Been a Howard Stern fan for a long time, regardless of what anybody has to say against me for it.  This movie is pretty unassailably good, regardless of your feelings on a lifelong flashpoint of controversy like Howard.  It’s a super-smart, efficient, fast-moving, and very funny flick, a sterling example of the biopic format.  Really, it’s THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT with a happier ending.

Yeah, I can’t look at that poster without laughing.  First of all, even the title is funny, WAITING FOR GUFFMAN, which, as the story of a small-town theater company eagerly anticipating the visit of a big-city critic, is obviously a play on Samuel Beckett’s WAITING FOR GODOT.  Then you have Christopher Guest’s bowl-cut, Kriss-Kross ensemble, and beatific smile.  His character’s name is Corky St. Clair.  I’m now making tons of typos because I’m laughing while I pound this out.  The sincerity and the naïveté of the cast of this movie, played by a roster of comedic ringers including Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey, Larry Miller, Bob Balaban, Brian Doyle-Murray, and the great Fred Willard, is simply astounding.  It’s probably not accurate to say you watch this movie and laugh with these characters — you’re most definitely laughing at them, but somehow loving them sincerely at the same time.  Pillory me for a non-consensus opinion, but I like this movie way better than THIS IS SPINAL TAP.

Sam Raimi made his name on a trio of uniquely comic horror films and a superhero movie that felt like a Universal horror film, but in the 1990s, he branched out and made a Western, a baseball picture, and a Southern Gothic drama, and this, a grim suspense thriller about two small-town brothers who find a downed plane in a remote snowbank.  The plane has a dead body inside, and also a huge sum of money.  A SIMPLE PLAN was based on an excellent novel by Scott Smith and if anything, Raimi’s horror expertise adds to the creeping dread of what could be very dry and formulaic in another director’s hands.  All of the performances are uncommonly good and unexpectedly moving and/or upsetting.  Raimi’s cross-genre experiments in the 1990s turned out to be a proving ground for his mega-budget blockbuster career, and I do love his SPIDER-MAN movies, but if we’re going to be getting stuff like that OZ movie from here on out, I’ll be over here praying that Raimi goes back to these smaller-budgeted treasures instead.

The first BABE is pure sweetness and you should definitely see it too, but this is the one directed by George Miller, of MAD MAX fame.  It’s wilder, sadder, scarier, and even more bizarre.  It’s great.  George Miller doesn’t work nearly enough.

Normally I hate long, indulgent movies; however, this one I adore. With good reason. It’s like a symphony.

This is Tim Burton’s tribute to the old Hammer horror pictures.  Some people think it isn’t serious enough, seeing the great potential lost when frights are swapped out for comedy’s sake.  Honestly I agree, but not to the point where I can’t enjoy the movie Burton did make.  After all, it could be way worse.  The greatest cinematic treatment of Washington Irving’s eternal tale of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman continues to be the 1949 Disney cartoon version.  But this one has its fair share of great moments.

Michael Mann again.  This is his most high-minded movie, and there’s no reason it should be remotely as watchable and rewatchable as it is.  It’s about network TV, journalism, and big tobacco, and yet it’s suspenseful, moving, and entertaining as all hell.  So much of that comes from the dynamic, unusual directing choices of Mann, working with his DP from HEAT, Dante Spinotti.  The musical selection, both of score and soundtrack, is impeccable and distinctive as it ever is with Mann, and the editing style is somewhat hypnotic.  Of course the script by Mann and Eric Roth is impeccable, and then you have a roster of some of the world’s greatest actors, led by Al Pacino in maybe his last truly excellent role, and Russell Crowe, who was so ridiculously incredible in his transformative role that the Oscars realized they fucked up by not giving him Best Actor for this movie and corrected it the next year.

Still the best Superman movie since Richard Donner was making ’em.

Look, I’ve had it up to here with M. Night Shyamalan too, but no one, not even Shyamalan himself, can strike this one from the win column.  It’s a very solid script accompanied by thoughftul direction, with an unusually soft-spoken and gentle performance from Bruce.

This movie came on like a revelation from director David O. Russell, who had made two small movies at that point and no one could have expected him to make an action-comedy/war movie with an eclectic ensemble cast (including director Spike Jonze!) with raucous energy and actual formal innovations (with bleached-out cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel).  It’s like KELLY’S HEROES but with more of a social conscience.  This is one of the reasons people think of 1999 as a banner year for American film.

A bizarre and beautiful chimera that is a perfectly-modulated melding of the sensibilities of Jim Jarmusch and The RZA.  Contains what is probably the last of the great wackadoo Henry Silva performances.

______________________________

Am I missing any?  Is it possible?  Find me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

Today we celebrate a great American.  Oh totally, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but also: John Carpenter, one of my very favorite filmmakers of all time.  Here’s something I wrote on February 11th, 2009: 

I recently received in the mail the limited edition 2-disc score album for John Carpenter’s Big Trouble In Little China.  It’s a limited pressing:  There are only 3000 of them.  That means that, if you want one of your own, you had better get on it, and come back to read the rest of this essay afterwards.

Now to the remaining readers:  What does my revelation that I now own this artifact mean?

Well, it means that I am a person who cares to own the soundtrack to Big Trouble In Little China, which will tell you either of two things:  that I am a super-hip underground electronic music artist (to whom Carpenter’s scores are hugely, weirdly influential), or that I am just a person who loves the movie Big Trouble In Little China THAT much.

I won’t leave you hanging.  It’s because I love the movie a lot.  I get the sense that I’m not alone in the realm of the internet.  I could qualify that love; I could add a postscript that I like to write to movie scores and instrumental music, or go on and on about the importance of John Carpenter’s work on the landscape of popular culture, but look, none of that is going to get me laid in time for Valentine’s Day Weekend.  It’s what it is, and so shall it ever be.

John Carpenter’s most acknowledged classics are Halloween and The Thing, and possibly Escape From New York.  Beyond that, the idea of where the rest of Carpenter’s movies fit within the realm of canon seems to be debated.  Not by me, mind you – I firmly believe that the man’s filmmaking mojo was untouchable from at least the release of Assault On Precinct 13 (1976) to that of They Live (1988).  That’s one hell of a run!

It hardly seems arguable to me that, as long as there is an auteur theory, John Carpenter should get his rightful due from the highbrow film establishment as one of the luminaries of the last thirty years.  The reasons why he doesn’t get revered in the way that contemporaries like Spielberg and Scorsese do is because, like Michael Mann, Carpenter’s best-known work came a little later than theirs, and, unlike all of them, all of Carpenter’s work is in the less reputable genres of horror, action, and science fiction.  Of course, the auteur theory is generally a flawed one:  Carpenter’s films wouldn’t be what they are without the contributions of many writers, co-writers, actors, cinematographers, even other composers.  All the same, here’s the test:  Pick up on any sequence – even a single shot – from a John Carpenter film at random, and odds are it wouldn’t take long to identify it as a John Carpenter film.  His films are united by a look, a sound, a vibe, that other movies could never have.

Of course, this perspective didn’t spring on me immediately.  I was to formulate that grandiose opinion much later on in my movie-watching development.  To follow a director that closely, you have to start with one movie, and for me, at first, there was Big Trouble In Little China.  It started out as a “big brother” movie – you know, the ones you’re not supposed to watch as a kid, but finally get to anyway, when the right influence relents.  My friend Jay Roberts and I slipped into the basement den where his older brother and his buddies were watching it, and we hid behind his chair, until he noticed us there, and actually let us watch the rest.  I was ten.  That was huge.

Carpenter has called the movie “an action-adventure-comedy Kung Fu ghost story monster movie,” which is not only accurate, but everything a ten-year-old boy with a big imagination wants from a movie.  Also, its main character is a trucker, which is what I wanted to grow up to be.  (Weird, true fact.)  It’s the definition of a cult film – no one will ever classify or study Big Trouble In Little China as an important movie (yours truly excepted), but when pressed, many would admit that this is the kind of joint they’d much rather be watching on a Friday night.

Okay, so real quick for the few who haven’t yet had the pleasure:

Jack Burton (played by Kurt Russell, the DeNiro to Carpenter’s Scorsese, this time out doing a hit-and-miss John Wayne impersonation) is a trucker who is owed some gambling money by his old friend, San Francisco Chinatown restaurateur Wang Chi (played by Dennis Dun, very likable).  Before paying up, Wang asks Jack if he will accompany him to the airport, where he is picking up his fiancée.  At the airport, the girl is kidnapped by street thugs, since she is the rare Chinese girl who has green eyes.  To rescue the girl, Jack and Wang have to venture into the Chinatownunderworld, and to face its overlord, David Lo Pan, played by the busy character actor James Hong in a seriously immortal performance.  I’m not kidding, it’s unforgettable.  If for no other reason, watch the movie for this guy.

 

Lindsay Lo Pan

 

In a shocking dual role, Lo Pan is a wizened old husk of a man, but also a hundreds-year-old ghost warlord demon who is cursed and who can only become flesh-and-blood again by marrying the girl with green eyes.  In addition to a small army of fake cops, cheesy gang members, and kung fu warriors, Lo Pan has three supernatural enforcers, The Three Storms (Thunder, Rain, and Lightning), who will look familiar to anyone lucky enough to have seen Shogun Assassin.  And he has a couple monsters too – The Guardian, which is a floating blob covered with eyeballs, and The Wild Man, which is basically a werewolf, only Asian (and therefore probably my favorite character in the entire movie).  Wang brings in some allies too, best of all being the excellently named local wizard Egg Shen — played by Victor Wong, in the film’s other legendary performance.  A post-Porky’s, pre-Sex In The City Kim Cattrall is in the movie too, but mostly just to run rapid neo-Hawks dialogue with Kurt Russell in a gratifyingly anti-romantic subplot.  No kid wants to see Jack Burton ride off at the end with some lady riding shotgun in the Porkchop Express.

It’s a kitchen sink kind of a movie, obviously – or more accurately, a Chinese buffet of a movie.  Which is some of the most fun you can have.  Twenty-some years later, I can surely see where the corniness lives, most obviously in the unfortunate sculpting of most of the haircuts present.  But overall, it still works for me, almost as much as it did when I was ten.  I’m still struck by the energy of the thing.  If I wanted to be halfway pretentious about it, I might make the assertion that Big Trouble In Little China was the first action movie of the video-game era (either that or its studiomate from 1986, the much better-received Aliens).  It’s even structured like a video game, with the way the characters descend through several levels to meet their objective, squaring off with increasingly more dangerous enemies as they go.  And there’s even a “reset” or a “do-over” – when they don’t rescue the girl on the initial try, they go back with more allies and bigger guns.

This is also an example of what could be called the cinema of escalation:  A fantastical story that leads an audience towards buying into its most fantastical elements by starting out in the “real world”, and methodically ramping up the crazy situations and characters while never losing track, always healthily maintaining the suspension of disbelief.  In that way, the closest cousin to Big Trouble In Little China that I can think of at the moment is probably Ghostbusters, which is never a bad comparison to be drawn.  Hey, after all, Big Trouble In Little China has ghosts too.  (Also it shares a visual effects supervisor, Richard Edlund.)

Now about that soundtrack, composed by John Carpenter “in association with” Alan Howarth.

The score is of a piece with the movie, which is to say that it’s incredibly entertaining, sometimes corny, extremely insane, and most importantly – propulsive.  The score matches the editing, and it MOVES.  It’s functional, which is frankly an unsung virtue of a good score.  It also smartly delineates character, with its darkly regal Lo Pan orchestrations, its varying strains recurring during the appearances of the Storms, its eerie themes suggesting the ancient pseudo-mythology of the movie and even the driving rhythms under several of the action scenes which resemble nothing so much as an 18-wheeler idling, apropos for Jack Burton’s profession.

Like most of the scores from Carpenter’s movies, the music is almost entirely done on synthesizers.  In the liner notes, Carpenter and Howarth discuss how much fidelity they paid to authentic Chinese music, which is to say, none.  They went after sounds and themes that sounded Chinese to them, rather than working arduously to replicate realism.  I actually respect this approach.  I’m not sure it would’ve helped the movie to have that much attention to detail.  Big Trouble In Little China is a tribute to the kung fu B-epics of the 1970s – it’s very Shaw Brothers.  Reality is not this film’s ultimate aim.  Some might say that such musical guesswork is the methodology of the Ugly American, but personally I’m more irritated by cultural imitations.  Carpenter and Howarth are owning up to their lack of authoritative expertise in all things Chinese, and giving it a shot anyway, and in its own way, that’s charming.  Besides, Dennis Dun’s character is more the traditional hero of Big Trouble In Little China.  He’s the young, clean-cut lead out to rescue his lady love.  Conversely, Kurt Russell’s character is the ultimate Ugly American (John Wayne bluster and all) – therefore, these cultural concerns are actually structured into the film.  It’s all just a little bit subversive, though of course, not at all Important with the capital vowel bolded.  It’s difficult to call racism or even exploitation (though some apparently tried, during the initial theatrical run) when the film in question is so silly, or more to the point, when the two most charismatic performances in the entire movie are from two elderly Chinese men.  What other big-studio American action picture has given us that?

That’s the basic conclusion I’m drawing here, by talking about the score in specific and the movie overall – Big Trouble In Little China is an anomaly, a curiosity, and a legitimate original.  This is why a cult has grown around this movie, and the cult is not giving signs of going away.  Almost makes me wonder what else I was right about at ten years old.  Cheers!

Get at me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb