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Summer of ’86: Forget it, Jack, it’s Chinatown: Big Trouble in Little China, Take 2

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Summer of ‘86: Forget it, Jack, it’s Chinatown: Big Trouble in Little China, Take 2

If you’re my age and grew up in the New York City area, you are probably familiar with Channel 5’s Drive-in Movie. Coming on Saturdays at 3PM, Drive-In Movie presented badly dubbed kung fu movies from the ‘70s and ‘80s. The State Theater in Jersey City did a good job presenting uncut versions of several kung-fu classics throughout my childhood and adolescence, introducing me to Jackie Chan and the Shaw Brothers, but Drive-In Movie was much cheaper. My cousins and I, all students of one form of martial arts or another, would gather around the TV and watch endless repeats of Master of the Flying Guillotine and The Five Deadly Venoms. That latter picture holds an irreplaceable spot in my heart; catch me on a good day and I’ll gleefully recreate all five Venom styles for you.

God, I’m such a kung-fu movie geek, which makes me the wrong person to do a piece on Big Trouble in Little China. This is a flawed movie, with a script whose story is best described as garbage. The movie makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. I still can’t explain all the sorcery mumbo-jumbo or why the lead villain appears as both a decrepit old man and a ghost who can blind people with light from his mouth. I don’t understand how Kim Cattrall’s character is involved with its Chinatown heroes, nor how China’s main character, Jack Burton, is affiliated with Wang Chi, the character whose fiancée sends the film on its journey. Big Trouble in Little China is more than happy to lazily fall back on its special effects in lieu of anything coherent. With that said, there’s something about this movie…

Actually, there are several “somethings” about this movie that made revisiting it a pleasure, among them its 1940’s serial cliffhangers, wire-fu set pieces and art direction full of grungy sewers and magical palaces. Sandwiched in director John Carpenter’s oeuvre between the mainstream, Oscar nominated Starman and the unhinged WTF snoozer Prince of Darkness, Big Trouble in Little China welds together its director’s two biggest loves: Westerns and ghoulishness. In fact, the film started out as a Western, which would explain its John Wayne inspired hero, Jack Burton.

Played by Carpenter’s Robert De Niro, Kurt Russell (they made 5 films together), Burton has not only Wayne’s swagger but his exaggerated voice too. This loquacious truck driver opens the film rambling on about his life philosophy, referring to himself in the third person and splashing puddles of rain water on the camera lens with his truck tires. He is our hero, a slice of good ol’ boy American Apple Pie about to be thrust into an oven of exotic Asian mythology and magic. This being the ‘80s, audiences expected Jack Burton to be a take-no-prisoners tough guy. This runs counter to Big Trouble in Little China’s intentions. Jack Burton is the quintessential Ugly American; he’s John Wayne redesigned as an idiot, and Russell plays him with an infectious, unashamed cluelessness. Big Trouble in Little China flopped because folks came looking for Ah-nuld and wound up with a man whose machismo causes him to knock himself out in the middle of the film’s fight-filled climax. Burton’s cult status is well earned.

Though it has enough martial arts action to warrant a place on Channel 5’s Drive-In Movie, Big Trouble in Little China belongs in the same bucket as another unfairly maligned 1986 mythical fantasy with a bad script, The Golden Child. Child even shares two actors with this film, Victor Wong and James Hong, and has a hero whose humor is a defense mechanism brought about by his disbelief in the magical events surrounding him. In Big Trouble, Hong plays the villain, Lo Pan, and Wong plays Egg Shen, the world’s foremost authority on Lo Pan. How Samantha from Sex and the City is involved with Egg Shen is unknown by me (I think she’s his lawyer?) but Jack winds up in the battle between Egg and Lo when he accompanies his buddy Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) to SFO to pick up Wang’s fiancée Miao Yin. Miao Yin has green eyes, an unusual natural trait for an Asian, which makes her desirable to Lo Pan. She is kidnapped by some Chinese gang members at the airport. They bring her to Lo Pan so he can sacrifice her in exchange for a younger body than the 200-year old one he currently inhabits.

Jack Burton couldn’t give a shit about this jade-eyed hottie, but he’s forced to after he abandons his truck during an altercation with several different gang members and the ghostly form of Lo Pan. Ghostface Lo Pan temporarily blinds Burton with his Dragon Breath after Burton runs him over, and the chase is on. Wang Chi wants his girl back, Burton wants his truck back, and both are in the custody of Lo Pan’s gang. With Egg Shen’s help, Burton and company descend into Lo Pan’s netherworld to retrieve what is rightfully theirs.

Now that we know of Lo Pan’s green eye fetish, Cattrall’s Gracie Law character has a purpose in the movie. She too has green eyes, and it’s just a matter of time before she gets snatched by Lo Pan. The special effect that kidnaps her is a cross between a Halloween ape-creature mask and Gossamer from Looney Tunes. Meanwhile, Burton encounters other disturbing looking creatures, responding to each with the same “What the hell is that?!” reaction the audience is having. These include a flying mass of eyeballs that serves as Lo Pan’s otherworldly surveillance camera, three martial artists who have wicker chair-like hats on their heads and blue lightning shooting from their hands, and Lo Pan himself, whose ghost looks like a reject from Cirque du Soleil in a kimono.

Burton knows he’s clueless, but refuses to acknowledge it. He’s skilled enough to be quite dangerous, but his bone-headed personality keeps making him the comic foil. This is Big Trouble’s biggest charm. Burton is a quotable hero (“It’s all in the reflexes” is the line I’ll always remember), but unlike most action heroes, he’s also the audience’s stand-in. When faced with all this magic, he’s in the same boat we’re in. It’s his confidence that keeps him going, and makes him heroic when everything is on the line. Carpenter stays true to the John Wayne mythos even while poking fun at it. At film’s end, Burton doesn’t even kiss Gracie Law goodbye before riding off into the sunset. Russell convinces us that it’s not necessary.

Watching Big Trouble in Little China 25 years after I first saw it, I felt the same way I did as a kid sitting through movies like Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires on the old Zenith floor model TV my aunt had, the one that had pliers for a channel knob and a relative for an antenna (“move to the left…ok the picture’s back! Hold still!”). I can’t make heads or tails of those movies either, but I’ve always enjoyed watching them. As an added bonus, Big Trouble in Little China has yet another superb score by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth, which despite its synth-heavy ‘80s style, adds a layer of menace that nicely offsets the film’s comic intentions.

The Odienator prefers Snake Plissken to Jack Burton, and gets in Big Trouble at Big Media Vandalism and Tales of Odienary Madness.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Actress

Sometimes it’s important to just step back and pay your respects to a remarkable actress.

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Glenn Close
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Sometimes it’s important to just step back and pay your respects to a remarkable actress for having given a performance that, while not your, um, favourite nominated one, is still deserving of an Oscar victory lap. Now, if only others felt the same. Very early on in the awards season, there was already a sense that this award could become a career-achievement coronation for the six-time losing Glenn Close—and that people were going to have a problem squaring that with the fact that her Oscar would be tied to a film perceived to be a piffle. That’s not an inaccurate perception, but it’s difficult to remember a time when critics have used that as an excuse to not do their homework.

In short, have you seen The Wife? Indeed, until the awards-media system’s attention shifted full time into covering AMPAS’s A Series of Unfortunate Oscar Decisions, it seemed as if every day brought us a new article by some pundit about the Oscar race in which it strangely sounded as if the The Wife was still a blind spot for the writer. Which is shame, because Close gives good face throughout the film. Certainly, few Oscar-nominated films this year are as absurd as The Wife, but I’ll do battle with anyone who thinks Close is getting by on her legend alone. Close’s triumph is recognizing The Wife’s inherent ludicrousness and elevating it, and without condescension, with a kabuki-like verve that seeks to speak to the experiences of all women who’ve been oppressed by their men. It’s a turn worthy of Norma Desmond.

Today, the most reliable Oscar narrative is the overdue performer. And if you take stock in that narrative, then you’ll understand why I texted Eric, my fellow Oscar guru, the following on the morning of November 29: “I think Close is going to Still Alice at the Oscars.” After that morning, when the New York Film Critics Circle officially kick-started the Oscar season (and gave their award for best actress to Regina Hall in Support the Girls), no actress ran the table with the critics and guilds, but most of the cards that matter did fall into place for Close, and much as they did for Julianne Moore ahead of her winning the Oscar for Still Alice.

This was a done deal when Close won the Golden Globe, received a standing ovation, and gave the night’s most impassioned speech, immediately after which Eric conceded that my instincts had been right. Of course, that was no doubt easy for him to admit given that, by that point, the oxygen had already seeped out of A Star Is Born’s awards campaign, leaving only Olivia Colman in Close’s way. Colman has worked the campaign trail in spectacular ways, giving speeches that have been every bit as droll as this, but in the end, she doesn’t have the SAG, and as bold and subversive as her performance certainly is, it isn’t sufficiently big enough to convince enough AMPAS members that Close should continue waiting for Oscar.

Will Win: Glenn Close, The Wife

Could Win: Olivia Colman, The Favourite

Should Win: Olivia Colman, The Favourite

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Berlinale 2019: A Dog Called Money, Lemebel, & Searching Eva

Alongside fiction films depicting emerging voices, nine of the Panorma sidebar’s 45 features are documentaries about creative talents.

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A Dog Called Money
Photo: Berlinale

The ostensible goal of the Berlinale’s Panorama sidebar is to offer a 360-degree snapshot of the current state of world cinema, but this year its curators seem inordinately concerned with the pursuit of artistry. Alongside fiction films depicting emerging voices—Honor Swinton Byrne as a fledgling filmmaker in Joanna Hogg’s sublime The Souvenir, and Mei Kayama as a cartoonist with cerebral palsy in Hikari’s sweet-natured 37 Seconds—nine of the section’s 45 features are documentaries about creative talents.

Among these, A Dog Called Money is perhaps the most fascinating, albeit for all the wrong reasons. Directed by photographer Seamus Murphy, it charts the making of PJ Harvey’s 2016 album The Hope Six Demolition Project, which was directly inspired by trips the pair took to Afghanistan, Kosovo, and deprived neighborhoods of Washington, D.C. The famously publicity-shy Harvey then took the unlikely step of turning the recording process into an art installation, setting up a pop-up studio in London’s opulent Somerset House, and inviting members of the public to observe her at work through a one-way mirror.

Though the project appears to have been a noble attempt on Harvey’s part to broaden her political and cultural horizons, A Dog Called Money demystifies her creative process in a manner that proves extremely unflattering. Murphy presents the overseas excursions solely as material-gathering missions: We see Harvey exposed to human suffering in various guises, and hear her recite song lyrics that matter-of-factly recount her observations, but are offered no insight into her overarching aims for The Hope Six Demolition Project, and no sense of how these experiences may have affected her worldview.

There’s something strangely distasteful about the way Murphy juxtaposes haunting footage of Middle Eastern warzones and American ghettos with scenes of Harvey, safely cocooned in her sleek studio, joking around with her overwhelmingly white band as they endeavor to distill the world’s misery into a whimsical art project. And frustratingly, the film fails to address the controversy surrounding album opener “Community of Hope,” which describes Washington D.C.’s predominantly black Ward 7 as a “drug town” full of “zombies,” and which led to a local official ridiculously saying that Harvey is “to music what Piers Morgan is to cable news.”

Joanna Reposi Garibaldi’s Lemebel, which just won the Teddy Award for best queer-themed documentary, does a far better job of representing the aspirations and achievements of a politically motivated artist. The film explores the career of late Chilean writer and activist Pedro Lemebel, who spearheaded a public LGBT rights movement amid the hostile environment of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Weaving together evocative archive footage, intimate talking-head interviews, and grainy home movies, Garibaldi charts the formation of Lemebel’s provocative queer collective dubbed the Mares of the Apocalypse, his flair for attention-grabbing performance art, and his masterly manipulation of Chile’s mainstream media.

An erudite raconteur, Lemebel is fascinating when discussing the intersection of LGBT and working-class communities, and appears remarkably ahead of his time when explaining his rejection of the word “gay” and his reclamation of derogatory terms like “maricón.” Occasionally it seems that Garibaldi, who befriended Lemebel years before attempting to make the film, is a little too close to her subject to offer an objective portrait. She fails, for example, to interrogate Lemebel’s conspiratorial views about the origins of AIDS. But given the fearless, trailblazing nature of his work, a somewhat hagiographic approach can be forgiven.

Many would surely balk at the description of Eva Collè, an obscure twentysomething blogger and Instagrammer, as an “artist.” But her scattershot, disarmingly frank musings on Tumblr have inspired a formally ambitious documentary feature, Pia Hellenthal’s Searching Eva. The film delivers an impressionistic account of this nomadic young woman’s compellingly chaotic existence, encompassing her move from conservative small-town Italy to hedonistic Berlin, her professional experiences as a sex worker and fashion model, her embrace of sexual fluidity, and her struggles with drug use and mental illness.

To underscore the fact that Collè elects to live out her daily dramas before an enthralled online audience, the film is narrated by anonymous comments lifted directly from her blogs. But while said comments tend to be either blindly sycophantic or scathingly judgmental, Hellenthal delivers a refreshingly even-handed assessment of the benefits and drawbacks of online culture. Eva seems to derive much of her self-worth from the knowledge that she inspires others to be their authentic selves. And there’s a sense that the barrage of criticism she faces only strengthens her resolve to carve her own path through life.

Hellenthal’s perspective becomes much harder to fathom when she’s exploring Collè’s life philosophy, which seems to boil down to a flat rejection of any label you might try and attach to her. At one point, Eva states her intention never to work a conventional job, on the grounds that the working class must refuse to be defined primarily as a workforce in order to make its mark. But it’s unclear whether Hellenthal regards this as a bold political statement or the pseudointellectual ramblings of a self-involved millennial attempting to justify her decadent existence. Those who suspect the latter will likely have a hard time fully embracing Searching Eva, but its assured approach to nonlinear storytelling makes the journey worthwhile.

Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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Berlinale 2019: I Was at Home, But, So Long, My Son, and Ghost Town Anthology

These films depict in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting the dead’s presence in our lives.

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I Was Home, But
Photo: Berlinale

The dead haunt Berlin. The Martin-Gropius-Bau, the museum building in which the Berlinale’s European Film Market is hosted, is still pockmarked with bullet holes from the Battle of Berlin—as are many other buildings in the center of the city. A 10-minute walk north of Potsdamer Platz, the center of the film festival, is the powerful Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and a 10-minute walk in the opposite direction down Stresemannstraße and you’ll see the bombed-out façade of Anhalter Bahnhof, once one of Europe’s most resplendent train stations. And all over Berlin, you trip over Stolpersteine (or “stumble-stones”), small, square, brass plaques laid into the sidewalk bearing the names of former residents of that street, dispossessed and killed by the Nazis.

Like any city, Berlin is many things, and it’s certainly most known today for much more than its tragic past. But the history of the 20th century is in particular written across its face, and while it can be easy to turn your gaze away from the dead, they remain a part of life in Germany’s capital. Several of the best films up for the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale contemplate the persistence of the dead in the lives of the living, depicting in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting this presence in our lives.

Set in Berlin, Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But opens with an anomalous prologue that foreshadows the film’s equal-parts mix of despair and world weariness, of tragedy and banality. A dog excitedly chases a rabbit; the camera catches the rabbit initially running, and then seeming to give up, panting on a rock. In the next shot, the dog is greedily pulling apart the rabbit carcass in its den, a dilapidated building it appears to share with a donkey. It’s a potentially fruitful odd-couple scenario: You can almost read subdued exasperation in the donkey’s face as it ignores its roommate’s greedy consumption of a fellow herbivore.

What does this prologue have to do with the remainder of the film, which concerns a woman, Astrid (Maren Eggert), and her children’s flailing attempts to process the grief of losing their husband and father? This quietly masterful film never even comes close to connecting these threads for its audience, requiring us to make connections on our own. We’ll see a foot being bandaged, but not the event that caused the injury, and characters dancing to entertain someone in a hospital bed, but not the person in the bed. Elsewhere, a needlessly obstinate Astrid demands money back for a perfectly reparable bicycle she bought on the cheap, and middle-school kids perform Hamlet in the most neutral of ways.

These still, vignette-like scenes elliptically narrate Phillip’s (Jakob Lassalle) week-long disappearance and return. Infused with the profound pain of grief and with the consciousness that such pain is both inescapable and futile, a universal tragedy that has played out innumerable times, each scene in I Was at Home, But could stand on its own. Assembled together, they comprise a story told between the lines. When Astrid theatrically collapses in front of a headstone, lying silent and immobile like a stage corpse, we don’t need the camera to show us the name on the grave to let us know which tragedy she’s currently performing.

Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son is a pointed critique of China’s one-child policy, which was relaxed in 2013. Cutting between at least four different periods in the life of a couple, Liyun and Yaojun (Mei Yong and Wang Jingchun), whose family is shattered over and over again—first with a forced abortion, then with the drowning death of their biological son, and finally when their adopted son absconds from their home—the film is a stark condemnation of an inhuman measure undertaken for the sake of the ultimately abandoned dream of a workers’ utopia. Surprising for a film produced in a country with heavy censorship, the story is explicit in its political and ethical concerns, demonstrating how China’s strict rules in the 1980s imposed unjust sacrifices on the country’s people only so, as one shot set in today’s Beijing suggests, shopping malls could be erected behind statues of Mao Zedong.

Mixing around the story’s timeline, Wang opens with the death of Liyun and Yaojun’s son, and flashes forward to their adopted son, also named Xingxing, fleeing home, so that Liyun’s coerced abortion feels like a third loss, even though it actually comes first. This captures something of the temporality of regret: The abortion, which Liyun was pressured into having by Haiyan (Haiyan Li), a close friend and local communist party functionary, is the decisive tragedy of their lives. Having been denied the choice of having a second child, Yaojun and Liyun’s repressed grief and self-imposed exile away from the pain of their old relations has excluded them from sharing in the winnings wrought by China’s rise.

The unhappy accidents, betrayals, and suppressed resentment that make up the story could easily lend themselves to overwrought, melodramatic treatment, but Wang’s dedication to the details of Chinese working-class life grounds the film in a reality unmarked by melodrama’s hazy-eyed stylizations. Fine leading performances by Wang and Yong capture the simmering sadness of a life whose fulfillment was precluded by an overbearing ideology. So Long, My Son runs a bit long, piling a few too many poetic parallelisms into a protracted conclusion, but it’s a precisely constructed, deeply felt, and humane drama.

The wackiest of the competition’s films that contemplate loss is Denis Côté’s Ghost Town Anthology, which sees the Quebecois director returning to his favored rural Canadian terrain with an ensemble cast. Shot on grainy 16mm, and somewhat resembling a ‘70s-era drive-in cheapie, the film remixes the iconography of ghost stories and post-apocalyptic thrillers to narrate its characters’ collective confrontation with death.

A town of 215 residents somewhere in Francophone Canada is rocked by what their imperious mayor calls “our first death in a long time,” the presumed suicide-by-car-crash of the 21-year-old Simon Dubé. That Simon’s death is the first in a long time raises a couple of questions about the dreary and desolate village: Where are the old people and, for that matter, where are the children? Côté shows us some children, but they’re strange, impish creatures who wear clay masks and heavy ponchos, and they appear to live in the surrounding woods. When Simon’s car crashes, they play amid the wreckage; later, they chase the frightful, innocent Adele (Larissa Corriveau) into an abandoned garage, backed this time by a group of adults who stand silently behind them in the snow, simply staring forward.

It turns out that the dead are returning but not exactly back to life; this isn’t George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and the ghostly figures who begin sprouting from the snowy landscape don’t do much of anything but stand and blankly stare. The villagers, accustomed to a life close to outsiders—Côté makes his point clear when a hijab-draped official sent by the government to consult with the mayor elicits cool, suspicious stares from the denizens—are forced by the dead’s mere presence to confront what lies beyond their provincial life. “They’re like us, in a way,” one character muses toward the end of Ghost Town Anthology, a belated realization that the radical difference of death is also a commonality.

Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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