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Rants and Ravings

I was raised in a world without YouTube for many of my years, I lived in a time where you relied upon your VHS recording your film or tv show. These were also years in which access to a wealth of obscure films was not a click away. I’m fortunate to have a father who enjoyed watching quirky or cult films from way back when so whenever they were on television, he would stick a VHS cassette in the rickety player we had to watch the next day. This is how I came to see such classics as the remake of The Blob, Tremors, Mr Vampire, Meals on WheelsMurder by Death and so on. Whilst a lot of these films still resonate fondly with me, there is one in particular that stands out ahead of the rest.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when I first came into contact with John Carpenter’s “Big Trouble in Little China” as it feels like it’s always been a film in my life in some way. If I was to guess, I believe my dad played a VHS copy (recorded off of the TV with the ads included) to shut me up on a Saturday afternoon when I was about 4 or 5 years old. The film dazzled me from a young age and was the ultimate fantasy film for a kid obsessed with 70s Kung Fu films (thanks again, Dad) and Power Rangers. It was so action packed and fun from beginning to end that I fell in love with it.

A few years later, I got my own VHS player in my room (weirdly enough, this was in the 2000s when VHS was on it’s deathbed but I digress) and therefore proceeded to record a ton of my old favourites from the five channels. Soon I had a mountain of cult films at my disposal and the most treasured out of them all was Big Trouble in Little China (overwriting a previously recorded version of Mortal Kombat II, the label still stated that film). I watched it regularly and would have go-to bits if I couldn’t be bothered to watch in full. I was still obsessed as I was as a younger version of myself. Time passed and I eventually got the DVD which I watch at least once a year. For those who have never seen, heard or even got Big Trouble in Little China, let me bring you up to speed.

Big Trouble tells the story of Jack Burton, a free-wheeling trucker who seemingly talks to nobody over the truck radiowaves. Owed money by old friend Wang after winning several bets at the San Francisco docks, he accompanies Wang to the airport as his fiancé, Miao Yin. Out of nowhere, she is kidnapped by a mysterious gang and taken to Chinatown with the intent of being sold off as a sex slave. Whilst Jack and Wang are in pursuit of the gang to rescue Miao Yin, they encounter a mysterious and other-worldly figure known as Lo Pan who, along with his powerful henchmen known as the Three Storms, kidnap Miao to complete a sacred ritual. Jack and Wang race against time time to save Miao Yin and to avoid her death by stopping Lo Pan.

One of the key things with Big Trouble in Little China that has made the film so enduring to me is it’s lack of conforming to narrative norms. The best example of this is the fact that the main hero of the film Jack (played perfectly by Kurt Russell) is a inept fool who seems to be incapable of doing anything heroic. In the middle of a gun fight, Jack seems confused as to why no bullets have left his gun (the safety’s on) and seems even more startled when he finally kills someone. Whilst he may have the big talk and the quips, he’s as useful as a chocolate teapot when it comes to action. What made this funny was that the film was released at a time when cinemas were chock full of Arnie/Sly shoot’em ups with death counts hitting the near thousands. Jack Burton would struggle to hold a gun facing the right direction.

The casting of the film was pretty perfect with Kurt Russell as the aforementioned hapless hero Jack, Kim Cattrall at her most 80s as his love interest, Gracie Law. Veteran character actor James Hong plays the evil David Lo Pan in a rare main role and Victor Wong (aka that actor you cast when you need an eccentric Chinese character) as the eccentric Chinatown tour guide Egg Shen. Unfortunately, Dennis Dun who played Wang seemingly fell off the face of the Earth following the film which, given his fun performance as the film’s ‘real’ hero, is a pity.

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The mixture of shoot outs and Martial Arts action is a delight to the eyes and makes the fun just a fun experience to watch. The fight choreography is amazing as Carpenter and co throw everything at you at once;  men flying around, sword fights, flying sword fights, battles between magic and black magic, knife fights. The mass fight scenes are on par with many of the 70s Kung Fu films it takes inspiration from, especially the epic alley way fight.

I’ve briefly mentioned them previously, but the Three Seasons (Thunder, Lightening and Rain) prove to be terrifying and iconic foes in the film. They serve as Lo Pan’s most trusted guards and each of them possess extraordinary abilities; strength (Thunder), control of storms (Rain) and control of lightening (Erm, Lightening). They were always the coolest part of the film, especially Lightening who strikes a resemblance to an iconic video game character, at least to me anyways. Thunder is also (in)famous for a scene where he expands, a lot, to a brilliantly gory degree.

But maybe the most endearing thing about the film is that it’s clearly of it’s time. It looks and sounds like a film made in the 1980s; Lo Pan’s wedding in his underground lair has more neon than a Michael Mann film and the special effects are pretty cheesy even by 1986 standards. I also said sounds because John Carpenter scored the film with a Moog heavy soundtrack that has a slight East Asian feel to it. He also needed a catchy song for the end credits which he once again made himself. The song “Big Trouble in Little China” by fake band The Coupe de Villes is both amazing and awful at the same time with Carpenter doing his best Jim Morrison impersonation to some fairly incredible music. I always knew of the song from the credits but it wasn’t until I got the DVD that I truly came to enjoy it. It is so cheesy that a commenter on YouTube correctly described it as “Eighties as fuck“. Truer words never spoken.

The film was not one of director John Carpenter’s biggest hits and didn’t make a massive dent on the box office making just over 50% of it’s 20 million dollar budget. Who would’ve thought a wild west/martial arts hybrid wouldn’t have been everyone’s cup of tea? It was also massacred by critics at the time, resulting in Carpenter moving further and further away from the mainstream Hollywood system and almost disappearing until the late 90s. The film, however, has developed a fairly die hard cult fanbase over time and is seen by many to be a VHS classic.

I guess my level of fandom made the recent news that Dwayne Johnson aka The Rock was interested in remaking Big Trouble in Little China. My initial reaction was that of disgust and confusion as to why anyone would go out of their way to remake a cult film. As much as I love the film, it was a money loser at the box office; I don’t see how this would really change with the remake. My other, more rational thought was simply this; why not try? If the film is faithful to the original then it’ll result in more people watching Carpenter’s version. If the film bombs, it can be derided and forgotten like Total Recall (2012) or Robocop (2014) and curious audience members can instead uncover the joys of the original. Either way, a sure fire win for all as the original with be view by more curious film fans.

So in closing, I implore all of you to seek out this classic and experience it for yourselves. Both hilarious and visually stunning, I guarantee you will not have a more entertaining 90 minutes watching a film and you have my word on that. I guess there’s no finer way of leaving you than with some sage advice from the greatest action hero of all time, Jack Burton.

You just listen to the old Pork Chop Express here now and take his advice on a dark and stormy night when the lightning’s crashin’ and the thunder’s rollin’ and the rain’s coming down in sheets thick as lead. Just remember what old Jack Burton does when the earth quakes, and the poison arrows fall from the sky, and the pillars of Heaven shake. Yeah, Jack Burton just looks that big old storm right square in the eye and he says, ‘Give me your best shot, pal. I can take it.’

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One of my earliest posts on this here blog was a Halloween post. It was pretty much a compilation of shows/films I thought would make ideal Halloween viewing and it’s still one of the more popular posts I made based on the views it still gets in 2014. I’m doing the same thing again this year, devoting individual posts to each entry. It’ll be fun, honest. 

jam

Chris Morris is, without question, my favourite comedian of all time. I still have vivid memories of watching the original 2001 broadcast of Brass Eye’s Paedophilia special at the age of 11 and being equally astounded and confused as to what I had just encountered. I’d never seen comedy so abrasive, controversial and gloriously unapologetic. After witnessing that 2001 special, I watched the whole show and it’s predecessor “The Day Today” which was equally as hilarious, if a little more tame with the constraints of the BBC. And then, I heard nothing for some time. Many years later, I heard something about another show Morris had created that I never even knew existed. It was called Jam.

Jam is the bleakest and most disturbing comedy series ever broadcast on mainstream British television. It was Morris unleashed and at his most abstract from both a production and humour standpoint. Using mostly audio from the radio version dubbed, episodes were 20 minutes long, featured no ad-breaks or credits, no overarching narratives and a surrealist editing style (aided by a brilliant Trip-Hop soundtrack) which created a truly unsettling atmosphere to the show.

With sketches focusing on an ex-husband’s bloody present to his ex-wife (hint: it includes a woodchipper), an unethical sale of a homes that involved repeated sexual encounters with the buyers and a plumber performing unnecessary ‘repairs’ to a baby, the laughs are not as immediate or as obvious as they are in Brass Eye and The Day Today. At points, you wouldn’t be alone if you didn’t suspect that you were watching an especially abstract David Lynch film from the 90s and not a comedy sketch show.

Unrelenting dark whilst worryingly hilarious at points, Jam is well worth a look in this festive Halloween period.

crystal-castles

Tuesday was, unlike Ice Cube’s, a lousy day. I woke up late for work, forgot to take the rubbish out to be collected, I left my keys at home, I got shat on by the rain and had one of the blandest lunch time meals of my life. I almost wept.

This poor day was topped off by the moderately sad news that Crystal Castles’ vocalist Alice Glass was leaving due to various reasons, some of which personal. It [potentially] marks the end of a band that I was particularly fond of and who always produced interesting music over three very different albums. Here’s a quick look back and a few choice songs from each release.

I

Crystal Castles (or “I“) is an album very much embedded within the sound that was evident in 2008; it’s chiptune mixed with synthpunk and has a DIY feel to it (which was the in thing at that point of the decade). There were brief allusions of the darker sound they would later develop but on the whole, it was very much a glitchy chiptune riddled album. Whilst others like MSTRKRFT sound pretty horrid in 6 years later, the debut CC album is still a really good listen. I think notable standouts so many years later are “Alice Practice“, “Vanished” and “Tell Me What to Swallow” which is an oddly sombre number.

(II)

Where the band began to truly become something special was their second album known as “II“. The Chiptune sound was gone and the electronics became more polished and the music more aggressive at points. This was certainly the point where the band’s sound got progressively darker with Ethan Kath producing some really interesting music like “Celestica”, “Birds” and “Empathy“. The version of “Not In Love” is also probably the best thing relating to Crystal Castles.

It was at this point that I also went to go see them (twice) on their fairly extensive UK tour. As polished as they were on record, their live sets were fairly shambolic with Alice essentially screaming into the microphone and drinking straight out of a Jack Daniels bottle. The undeniable beauty of a song like “Celestica” was very much lost in a live environment which was a tough pill for me to swallow when I saw them on both occasions and it definitely dampened me on the band for some time. To this day, I will never forget that show I saw at the Leeds Metropolitan mainly because of the 45 minutes of screaming and feedback I witnessed and the amount of alcohol I consumed that rivalled Alice. The second time was just as chaotic and less audible when I saw them as part of the NME Shockwaves tour in 2011.

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After the disappointment of seeing them live both times, I was very much pleasantly surprised when their third album (III) was their best. Everything about “III” is dark. The horrifically depressing cover art of a Yemeni woman holding her tear gassed son, the names of the songs and the general mood of impending doom that looms over the tracks. Hell, what would you expect from an album where the key theme is oppression in it’s various forms?

I think a lot of people slept on this album and didn’t give it the credit it deserved, mainly because it didn’t have the crossover appeal single that the second album had with “Not In Love”. Instead, it was far more gothic with the bleak “Plague” “Wrath of God” and “Sad Eyes” as the choices for singles, which all sound glum from their names alone.

I loved “III” and thought it was their finest hour as a group. It’s a gloomy and an intoxicating listen that showed the progression the group had made. This was the point where the band’s music was the best it had ever been and for once, their lyrics were quite excellent behind the veils of distortion. With the band now seemingly a distant memory, I’m glad to say they left when they were creatively at their best. The album’s last song “Child I Will Hurt” you is probably the best thing they ever recorded. It’s hauntingly beautiful and is one of the few moments in the history of the group where you can almost see can somewhat glimpse at the vulnerability of Alice Glass.

Whether this is the end of Crystal Castles or merely the end of the band in it’s current form, we’ll have to see. Here are a few of my personal favourites from the 3 albums.

Stop Making Sense (1984, dir. Jonathan Demme)

Home – is where I want to be
But I guess I’m already there
I come home she lifted up her wings
I Guess that this must be the place
I can’t tell one from the other
Did I find you, or you find me?
There was a time Before we were born
If someone asks, this is where I’ll be . . . where I’ll be

There have been some great concert films over time; The Last Waltz that  followed the last ever show from The Band, Gimme Shelter that documented the tragic events of The Rolling Stones free concert at Altamont and the empowering Wattstax that covered the 1972 Stax concert in Watts (that features some excellent performances and also THAT Jesse Jackson speech). More often than not, these films would be time capsules for an important event in musical or history as a whole (with music being a tie in) that add some form of context to the film.

Despite lacking in historical significance or even a documenting a monumental gig (like LCD Soundsystem’s “Shut Up and Play the Hits” did for their last ever show), Jonathan Demme’s “Stop Making Sense” is without a doubt, the greatest Rock concert film ever made, even if (and lord knows why) you’re not a fan of Talking Heads.

The format and concept of the film is a thing of beauty. The show begins with lead singer David Byrne taking to a stark stage with a guitar and a cassette tape playing a click drum. As the show progresses and as each song passes, the show starts to come together; the rest of the band and backing band take the stage individually and the set is put together over time. It’s stunning to see these developments take place in front of your eyes as we’re accustom to an entire band taking to a stage together. Instead, we’re getting a progression and further layers of sound added over time.

Stop Making Sense is presented very much as a film. The footage is incredibly crisp and the choice of shots more focused on creating an enjoyable watch than you would expect. Take David Byrne’s freak-out near the end of “Psycho Killer” as it looks like stock footage from a film as opposed to something occurring in the middle of a live performance. Credit for that has to go to Demme and his quality of direction, something missing from the majority of concert films released.

What’s equally as interesting is the lack of crowd noise. Unlike many live recordings or concert films, there is very little audible crowd noise. Interestingly, it was David Byrne’s decision to mute the crowd noise as much as possible to allow the viewer/listener to make their own judgements on the performance and not to be swayed by the applause of a live crowd. Tied in with this is the severe lack of crowd shots of any kind with the cameras facing the band face on. Still, in place of relentless crowd shots, you get amazing close ups on the backing band at points, my favourite being the emphasis on the backing vocalists during “Slippery People” as they appear to be having the most amount of fun possible.

As innovative and visually stunning as the film is, what essentially matters is the music. Whilst not my favourite Talking Heads live performance (their other live compilation “The Name of this Band is Talking Heads” which is an absolute must have if you dig the band), the choice of mostly hit singles and a joyous appearance from Talking Heads side-project Tom Tom Club make it a really easy watch or listen. Even the songs you are less familiar with are still great, mainly due to the tremendous backing band, visuals and Byrne wearing a humongous suit at some point.

You also get a healthy dose of jamming and deviation from the original version of the songs performed. One of my absolute pet peeves of live music is hearing the song exactly as it was performed on record as it feels like it was a waste of money hearing a song you enjoyed performed just as you heard it. The band’s best remembered song “Once in a Lifetime” is far more enjoyable in this film with the backing vocals and wavy synths throughout. Another example is the outtake from the original film of “Big Business” and “I Zimbra” which are way more free-flowing live and way more experimental than the original recordings.

It’s thirty years old this summer and honestly, nothing has come quite close to it. Stop Making Sense is still the greatest Rock concert movie ever made and it will be some time before another film comes close.

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Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)

Blade Runner is probably the most awe-inspiring science fiction film ever conceived. There is no part of the film that isn’t utterly brilliant from it’s grim depiction of the future ruled by commercialisation to the unforgettable score provided by Vangelis that perfectly accompanied the onscreen events like no other soundtrack. The film is probably only rivalled by 2001: A Space Odyssey in regards to the claim of being the greatest sci-fi ever made.

Rick Deckard, a former blade runner, is persuaded to take up his previous role to find and ‘retire’ 4 replicants who have returned to Earth illegally, causing havoc. Replicants are androids who appear in most facets to be human minus the fact that their lifespan is a mere four years before they expire. The replicants who have arrived on Earth are nearing the end of their lives and have returned to find some way to prolong their lives. What ensues is a beautifully crafted and intense neo-noir tale with many twists. turns and questions thrown to you to interpret as no answers may be offered.

One of the more significant scenes within the film is the one I’ve chosen here. Roy Batty, the leader of the rogue replicants succeeds in his quest and tracks down the creator, Tyrell. It’s an interesting scene and one that sticks out to me mainly because it’s a strange scenario; coming face to face with your god and your maker of all that you know. The conversation between creation and creator is astounding in the sense that you have an erratic Roy questioning Tyrell on the various potential solutions to his impending death before Tyrell’s famous line “The light that burns twice as bright, burns half as long. And you have burned so very very brightly“.

Progressively, the scene gets more and more intense and it goes along and as the answers Roy had hoped for become like distant improbabilities. It’s one of the many moments within this masterpiece that stick with you and one where your reaction on the end may vary depending who you view as being the antagonists/protagonists of the narrative.

The following is a review I wrote some time ago after watching Second Glance in its entirety. I found a copy online and have now annoyingly broke the hard drive that I had it on. It’s a film that more people need to see for all the wrong reasons. Alas, enjoy my rant that I’ve somewhat edited to make it a little more palatable. That said, it’s still a little ranty and rugged. 

Second Glance (1992, dir. Rich Christiano)
Running Time: 50 minutes

“Hey Dan! the Bible’s coming alive to me, I just can’t get enough of it!!”

Religious films are interesting things to view from an Atheist, Agnostic or purely outsider perspective. There is a constant pattern within Religious films for there to be a great divide between those who are ‘believers’ and those who are ‘non-believers’ which seems to be the consistent crux in the narratives. This can take the form of the rapture films or, in the case of Second Glance, a zany teen film about not being cool or ever getting “the girl”.

Second Glance tells the story of Danny; a tragically unhip, zany young man who has “the hots” for a young girl called Tamra at his high school. The only problem is that he’s a “nice guy” which is carny for being Christian. After a failed attempt at asking her out and being suspended from school for being mistaken for cheating in an exam, Danny utters the words “I wish I was never a believer!” and throws the copy of the Bible he was intently reading before going to sleep.

Well, Danny gets his wish and wakes up the next day in a room strewn with beer cans and empty pizza boxes inexplicably wearing a backwards neon cap (standard décor for Atheists). He then lives a day in the life of a non-believer and realises that maybe being a believer wasn’t that bad after he takes “second glance” (yep).

The whole film is made of 50 minutes designed to make you believe that Christians are incredibly uncool and lame individuals, whilst non-believers are really popular and live a life full of sin (or “fun”). Even though Danny is instantly uncool with his wretched 90s fashion, it’s not like the non-believers he knows are remotely any cooler just because they drink beer and disregard authority of any kind.

The portrayal of non-Christians is borderline offensive on the level of casting a black person who merely eats chicken and watermelon. Danny’s parents divorce because he didn’t prey to keep them together resulting in his dad moving to LA (naturally) and his mum getting on anything that has a penis. As a result of Danny not being there to show him the light, his friend Scotty COMMITS SUICIDE because he wasn’t provided with the guidance of the lord. Oh yeah, and non-Christian girls seem to be devious, promiscuous bitches out to scale the social ladder by sleeping with the “cool” guys.

The comedy in the film is also another level of shitty. David White (who plays Danny) has the comedic timing of a stool. The highlight of his comedic capabilities is seen when his devious sister (Jenny) turns his alarm clock radio up high resulting his him falling out of bed due to shock. It’s the kind of lame humour that’s best left in lame sitcoms that everyone’s hopefully forgotten about.

One of my favourite scenes is where Danny tries to get his non-believing friends to come see a [religious] film on Saturday. Mullet brandishing Doug initially scoffs at the idea and refuses, but Danny asks him again and then gets kind of aggressive about it as he gets in Doug’s face and say “MAKE THE TIME…it‘s got the answers, man”. The whole interaction sums up the whole feel of the film’s idea that there is really only one way to live and that the Christian idea of God is the only true answer.

What Else Makes The Film So Bad?

The Production – Terrible beyond belief. You know a film made in the 90s is bad when your opening credits shake in a totally amateurish way. That said, the final freeze-frame with Danny uttering the famous (and it is famous) line “Hey Scotty! Jesus Man!!”

The Acting – Yeah, it’s a Christian film so the talent pool is a little more scarce, but the acting is dire. The only really decent performance is David White’s as he is a genuinely believable conflicted Christian teen. By comparison to the rest of the wooden cast, he’s Sidney Poitier.

The Score – It’s bad, but I kind of enjoy the Seinfeld-esque basslines that start the film off. I refuse to believe that, outside of the Seinfeld theme, this kind of music was ever, ever cool.

The TRAILERS (Dear God, the trailers!) – On the copy I found online, you get trailers for upcoming releases, all of which look hideous. The worst of which is Time Changer; a film that looks a little bit like a Christian reverse-Back to the Future (did you ever wonder why nobody else did that?)

BONUS:- Time Changer (trailer)

 

Whilst this remake will probably be pretty awful (losing all the underlying religious themes of the original) and whilst it may lose a lot of the charm the original had, there is no denying that the new poster for the IMAX release of Robocop is bad ass.

The retro 80s futuristic aesthetic of the poster almost got my hopes up for the film itself. Unfortunately, watching the trailer again made me realise that the film probably will be just as bad as I initially thought when it was announced. Still, it’s a much better poster than the original film’s poster (see here) so at least there’s that. Whether it retains the tongue in cheek nature of the original and it’s insanely over the top violence (as it’s a 12a, it sure as shit won’t) remains to be seen.