Archive for the ‘Martial Arts’ Category

 

Finally gonna see THE RAID 2 this week! Been waiting two long years for this thing — can you feel my excitement buzzing like a swarm of cicadas on a summer day? The action in the first movie was all-out peanut-butter-and-bananas, and the events of that one were confined to one building. In this new one they go outside! Oh my god. Imagine these maniacs in cars. I can’t wait. Anyway, here’s what I wrote about the first one when I listed it in my 2012 year-end top-ten.

 

THE RAID

 


If I were an action-movie hero (and who’s to say I’m not?), I’d be on the phone to writer/director/editor Gareth Evans yesterday.  He has made,  by a wide margin, the best action movie of the year, displaying all of the most integral virtues of the field. THE RAID starts from the most basic plot – a small group of cops are cornered in a high-rise packed with murderous thugs – and uses only a fraction — $1 million – of the means most action movies have in the pocket.  None of the guys in THE RAID look to be over five feet tall and ninety pounds, and the lead actor (Iko Uwais) looks a bit like Halle Berry circa STRICTLY BUSINESS, yet somehow hey all turn out to be the kind of fearsome, fearless shitkickers who make all fifty-two Expendables look like a Mad Magazine parody.  That’s due to the fact that these are all incredible athletes, of course, but also due to filmmaker Gareth Evans and his ferocious camerawork and ginsu-blade cutting style.

 

THE RAID

 

This isn’t just the best action film of 2012 – it’s pure cinema.  Great film-making isn’t only about storytelling and style, though THE RAID has that too.  It’s about using the tools of cinema to most effectively get a story across, with style as a garnish.  What Gareth Evans does here is present the kinetic ass-kicking doled out by his stars in a way that maximizes its impact.  The choreography of both the battles and of the camerawork that captures them has an uncommon clarity.  The violence is tactile – you can practically feel it.  This cumulative effect is also achieved by brilliantly-chosen and –rendered sound design – whether it be the sound of bullets rolling around in a wooden drawer, or that of a chambered clip, or of a machete scraping the underside of a table, or the face of a stone wall.  While everyone else was name-checking Bruce Lee and John Woo in their reviews of this movie, I was oddly enough reminded most of Martin Scorsese’s short film “The Big Shave.”  That’s the level of clever, innovative, forward-thinking filmmaking on display in THE RAID. I’m talking craft, not content.  That said: Will Gareth Evans one day make his own TAXI DRIVER or GOODFELLAS?  I would not bet against it.

 

@jonnyabomb

 

 

 

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.

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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

In recommending Black Dynamite, the temptation is to get caught up in the spirit and get silly.  Let me go another way, keep it relatively serious, and promise that this is the funniest movie currently playing in any movie theater – that is, unless you’re heading to the multiplex this weekend to make fun of the Michael Jackson people.  In that case, you got me. [Note: This piece was originally written the weekend This Was It was released.]

But Black Dynamite is just so consistently funny throughout its running time that I feel compelled to get the word out.  I loved this movie.  It’s true that my viewing history has somehow been steeped in blaxploitation movies from Shaft to Coffy to Truck Turner to Black Belt Jones, right back to Shaft’s Big Score! and Shaft In Africa – but I don’t think you need a doctorate in blaxploitation to get the jokes here.  However, you probably do need an R-rated sense of humor, but you’ll figure that one out pretty quickly, since the first three sets of titties make their collective open-air appearance in the first ten minutes.

As if you needed a story, Black Dynamite is the tale of a real black kung-fu superhero named Black Dynamite (“Dyn-O-mite! Dyn-O-mite!”), created and played brilliantly by underrated action-movie presence Michael Jai White who deserves a skull-crushing franchise and a long career of shitkicking on the merits of this movie alone.  Credit also goes to his co-writers Scott Sanders (who directed) and Byron Minns (who also plays Black Dynamite’s sidekick Bullhorn) and to the entire cast and crew who always keep the tricky tone balanced just right.
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Black Dynamite is by far the best blaxploitation parody/recreation since I’m Gonna Git You Sucka – appropriately, it finds a welcome return and a chest-burstingly funny role for In Living Color comedian Tommy Davidson as the elevator-shoes-wearing pimp Cream Corn – and it’s the best spoof of inept filmmaking that I can remember seeing.

For the record, though: Not all blaxploitation was as shoddily constructed and acted as Black Dynamite might lead you to believe – sure there were plenty of laughable mis-steps but the genre was often a training ground for some true talents.  The jokes in Black Dynamite are funny enough, though, that it’s hardly good form to complain.

This movie is just so full of performances, dialogue, and gags that I completely love – from the pimp summit full of recognizable faces (oh, and “Captain Kangaroo Pimp”), to the secret origin of my favorite restaurant in all of Los Angeles, Roscoe’s Chicken & Waffles, to the final kung fu fight with a anti-beloved national icon, to the delivery of this line: “But Black Dynamite, I sell drugs to the community”, and right back to those titties – that I could recount it for pages and pages and not get bored.  But this is such an impressively-crafted, thoroughly enjoyable movie that I’d rather just stamp it with my highest possible recommendation to see with a crowd, and leave you with the trailer:

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And yes, the rest of the movie really is just as good as that trailer promises, if not even better.

http://www.blackdynamitemovie.com/


 

Story Of Ricky 1991

Story of Ricky is a rarely-screened Hong Kong kung fu movie, based on a super-violent comic series called Riki-Oh.  The movie was first released in 1991 but I didn’t see it for the first time until 2008.  After seeing it, I had four immediate thoughts:

1. Is…um… everybody okay over there?!?

2. It would be pretty damn interesting to see what Sam Raimi would do with a kung fu movie.

3. Isn’t it a little sad that my idea of expanding my cultural frame of reference tends more often towards midnight movies like Story of Ricky rather than acknowledged classics like Harakiri or Tokyo Story?  (Seen ’em both; both of them have far fewer exploding heads for one thing.)

4. Seriously, back to Thought #1:  Asian cinema is capable of so much more transcendent weirdness than any of its Western counterparts could ever hope to touch.  (Except maybe those creepy Germans and some of the unholy stuff they’re into.  No offense meant.  Okay, a little offense meant.)

Story of Ricky is about a young hero who is thrown into a maximum-security prison for reasons to be uncovered throughout the film.  Yes, it’s the Shawshank Redemption of Hong Kong gore comedies.  The story is set in the far-future of 2001, but none of that is the point.

The point is that Ricky has super-human strength [never explained] as part of his kung fu repertoire, so when the corrupt warden and the assistant warden and their henchmen — the super-powered boss prisoners — mess with Ricky, he can punch their guts out.

I mean literally, punch their guts out.

Not for the squeamish, this one ain’t.  It’s so over-the-top and unrealistically cartoony that in my opinion it’s hardly upsetting, but when violence happens in this movie, it’s more violent than the entire run of Scorsese gangster movies put together.  I haven’t seen a movie this gleefully gory since maybe Evil Dead 2.

Also, I haven’t seen a protagonist this androgynous in a movie since Corey Feldman in Dream A Little Dream

Remember that movie?  It was a late-’80s body-switch comedy co-starring (somewhat inexplicably) the great Jason Robards.  Right?  Remember Corey Feldman’s slightly disturbing Michael Jackson phase?  Remember how cute Meredith Salenger was in that movie?

I’m getting off-topic again.

The point I was making is, half the hilarity of Story of Ricky is the fact that the absurdly muscular Ricky who can punch people’s heads off also looks exactly like a pouty-lipped girl. That’s cool with me. It makes the movie either more progressive, or more inadvertently hysterical.

 

The movie follows absolutely none of the tenuously-established rules of screenwriting, but probably more than a few of the non-existent rules of video games.  Character allegiances and audience sympathies come and go as if on iPod shuffle setting.  There is absolutely no moral or meaning.  In short, this can’t be argued as a traditionally “good” movie, but would I rather watch this than anything Meryl Streep’s ever done in her life (excluding only Adaptation)?  Yeah man.

You watch this thing, which is hysterically funny, and you wonder, how much of that humor is intentional.  It’s dubbed over in English, and the dialogue that’s said is at least as funny and insane as what’s happening on screen, so it’s possible that this was once a straight-faced effort since been given the Mystery Science Theater treatment.  I haven’t done any research on the thing so I don’t know.  But I kind of doubt it.  I wondered over this question almost the entire running time, until the warden does what he does and turns into what he turns into, and then the answer became clear.  But I won’t go into that, because I hold out hope that you all get the chance to see this if you haven’t already, hopefully fresh like I did.

But again, be forewarned, and it bears repeating:  This movie is violent.  I’m talking about such relatively tame examples as the scene where Ricky faces the mighty Oscar, and Oscar cuts open his own stomach and tries to choke Ricky with his intestines.  Then he wounds Ricky in the arm, and Ricky has to make a tourniquet with his own vein.  That kind of violence.  If you don’t think you can handle that, stay far, far away.  (I hear Meryl Streep has a movie coming out soon… You lily-livered flowerpot you.)

Story Of Riki is screening just in time for its twentieth anniversary, as part of this year’s wonderful New York Asian Film FestivalIt’s playing at midnight the evening of Friday, July 8th, at the Walter Reade Theater.  That’s right, Story Of Ricky is playing at Lincoln Center.   If you’ve got a funnier match of movie to venue, I’d love to hear it.

@jonnyabomb

Addendum:

Daily Show fans: This movie is apparently the source of that exploding head clip that appeared under the credits for years.  You know, this one: