'80s action films, action-adventure, action-comedies, Africa, art films, arthouse film, B-movies, Big Trouble in Little China, But I'm a Cheerleader, cheerleaders, Chinatown, cinema, comedies, conversion therapy, drama, Escape From New York, F.W. Murnau, fantasy, Film auteurs, films, flashbacks, foreign films, gay and lesbian films, high school angst, Jamie Babbit, John Carpenter, John Waters, Kim Cattrall, Kurt Russell, Miguel Gomes, Mink Stole, Movies, Natasha Lyonne, Richard Moll, romance, Rupaul, social commentary, sorcerers, Tabu, They Live
My (seemingly) never-ending quest to catch my blog up with my viewing habits continue. We’re still in the past (last Friday, to be specific) but we’re getting closer all the time. Journey with me now as we get a little goofy, a little arty and a little funny.
Pound for pound, I don’t think that there’s been a more successful writer/director from the glory days of ’70s horror than John Carpenter. He’ll always exist in the minds of horror fans for his iconic Halloween (still one of the best films ever, in my little opinion, horror or not) but the rest of his filmography ain’t too shabby, either: The Thing, Assault on Precinct 13th, Escape From New York, They Live, The Fog and the horribly under-rated In the Mouth of Madness are all classics, any one of which a lesser filmmaker would be proud to stake their careers on. There have also, of course, been a few missteps along the way (Ghosts of Mars is a fascinating failure, a movie so tone-deaf that it almost achieves a kind of transcendence and Vampires and his remake of Village of the Damned are mostly gloss and no filler. Compare this ratio to someone like Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven or Sean Cunningham, however, and it’s pretty clear that Carpenter had the more consistent career.
While Carpenter’s name is synonymous with horror, thanks to the invincible Halloween, his films actually tend more towards pulpy, B-actioners, the kinds of films that feature sarcastic anti-heroes chewing gum and kicking ass. In fact, Assault on Precinct 13, Escape From New York, They Live, Escape From L.A., Vampires and Ghosts of Mars could almost be seen to take place in the same universe, relatively speaking, along with another Carpenter film: Big Trouble in Little China.
Like many people (I’m assuming), I was first drawn to BTILC thanks to the colorful box art. Just take a gander at that smiling, machine-pistol-bedecked Kurt Russell, looming over Chinatown like some kind of jolly ass-kicking giant, all manner of crazy shit going down in the background. That, ladies and gentlemen, was entertainment in the VHS age: hook us with some amazing artwork and see if the movie could keep up. They rarely could but BTILC almost does.
Russell plays a wisecracking (could there be any other kind?) truck-driver who must help his friend rescue his fiancée from the clutches of a wicked Chinatown sorcerer (the always esteemable James Hong). In the process, he’ll fight monsters, gangsters and lightning-wielding sorcerers. He might even get his truck back.
As a film, BTILC doesn’t always work and rarely makes much sense. Exposition (what little there is) is usually delivered in large data dumps that go something like: “Lo Pan? Let me tell you all about who he is, where he comes from and what he wants, in great detail.” The dialogue can be exceedingly clunky, even from Russell, which is kind of surprising. The numerous fight sequences have a tendency to keep piling on silly elements (in one over-the-top scene, a gunfight turns into a karate battle which turns into a fight with lightning-wielding warrior sorcerers that fly through the air like human dragonflies) and sometimes come across as no more than martial arts showcases: please stand there patiently while I demonstrate some moves in close proximity to your face, after which you may feel free to shoot me. Thank you.
But do all of these things make BTILC a bad film? Not in the slightest. This is certainly not a GOOD film, mind you, but it shares a pretty similar aesthetic to They Live, which is a good film. It’s always a pleasure watching Russell ham it up, especially during his golden age in the ’80s. Kim “Sex in the City” Cattrall is absolutely awful but this somehow works to her favor. Hong makes a great villain, even if he does get stuck behind a pound of eye-liner and foot-long fingernails: he even gets a pretty cool transformation scene where his skull glows from the inside-out. There’s a pretty decent shaggy monster-thing that Russell battles and an even decenter floating-eyeball-thingy that reminded me of something from my Dungeons & Dragons days. There’s also lots and lots (and lots) of ’80s lightning effects, which get old pretty quickly but are (briefly) rather charming.
In short, if you’re a fan of the more action-oriented side of Carpenter, Big Trouble in Little China should scratch that itch. It’s no Assault on Precinct 13 but it’s a helluva lot better than Vampire in Brooklyn.
I had originally intended to give Tabu its own separate post, since there’s a whole lot going on in this film. Due to my desire to keep us moving forward, however, I decided to see if we could fit this into the rest of that Friday’s viewings. Would it be possible to get any of this across in a shorter format? Let’s see if I’m up for the challenge.
First off, let’s address the elephant in the room: the title. Yes, that is a reference to F.W. Murnau’s final film, the Pacific-Island adventure Tabu. And yes, there’s actually more of a spiritual connection than just the obvious stylistic/plot connections would suggest. In the most obvious example, Murnau’s Tabu is separated into two chapters: Paradise and Paradise Lost. Miguel Gomes’ Tabu is also separated into two chapters: A Lost Paradise and Paradise. There are other, specific, similarities but I would daresay that the biggest connectors are more spiritual and thematic than anything. Suffice to say that you need not be familiar with the original Tabu, or even F.W. Murnau, for that matter, to enjoy this film.
In a nutshell, Tabu is about several acquaintances/friends and their interactions with each other. Pilar (ostensibly the film’s protagonist and moral center) lives next door to Aurora and her maid/assistant Santa in an apartment complex in Portugal. Aurora is just on the good side of senility, when the film starts, and is a bit of a handful: she routinely accuses poor Santa of witchcraft and sees conspiracies around every corner. She also gambles her money away one night after having a dream about a fortune-telling slot machine: she wakes up from the dream and just has to find out if its real. Spoiler alert: it’s not.
As Aurora’s health begins to decline, she asks Pilar to locate someone for her, a Mr. Ventura. This leads Pilar on a minorly epic journey about the city, as she finally tracks the elusive Mr. Ventura to a nursing home. His appearance in the film prompts a flashback to the past, explaining the lovely but tragic relationship that he shared with a young Aurora while they both lived in Africa. This leads to some of the film’s best moments, as the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography really comes alive on the African plains.
In certain ways, Tabu is the epitome and (perhaps) stereotype of independent art-house cinema. The film is shot in black-and-white, in a style that instantly calls to mind Italian neo-realism or Guy Maddin films. It’s slow and elegiac, although prone to bursts of strange whimsy, similar to a Jeunet film (one nonsensical subplot about a house-guest of Pilar’s that never shows up is a particular head-scratcher). Even the music reminded me of various foreign art films that I watched in college. That being said, there’s a lot of beauty in Tabu (especially in the wonderful, heartbreaking opening, which is almost a micro-short by itself) and I found myself genuinely caring about the characters. I won’t pretend that I understood everything (what the hell was the deal with the absent Polish house-guest?) but I was frequently fascinated and always ready for what might come around the corner.
Besides, how can you not like a black-and-white art film that features a garden-party scene where a rich, crazy old man fires a gun into the air, prompting his normal-looking but batshit crazy son to begin kick-boxing and punching invisible enemies? In any other film, that would be a centerpiece. In Tabu, it’s just another day at the office.
Sometimes, you don’t really appreciate a film when you first see it. This was certainly the case when I first saw But I’m a Cheerleader in the theater. I was (and am) a big Natasha Lyonne fan and was really excited to see what she would do after the previous year’s Slums of Beverly Hills. I remember enjoying But I’m a Cheerleader and laughing quite a bit but, ultimately, I never gave the movie much thought after that point.
Nastasha Lyonne plays Megan, a perfectly normal high school cheerleader who just might be, you know…gay. At least her parents, peers and teachers seem to think so, although poor Megan isn’t quite so sure. In order to “fix her,” Megan is shipped away to a conversion therapy program where she learns that sometimes, you’re just fine the way you are and the rest of the world just needs to learn to deal with it.
After re-watching the film, I find that my original impression still holds: I still enjoyed it and laughed quite a bit. This time around, however, I think I noticed a little more, particularly how sharp and cutting some of the dialogue and ideas are. I also noticed Rupaul, who I absolutely do not remember the first time around. Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen so many episodes of Drag Race but I found myself inordinately excited when he appeared, looking as masculine as possible, as a “pray the gay away” type camp counselor.
Stylistically (and thematically), But I’m a Cheerleader is like a less scuzzy, friendlier version of a John Waters film (or a slightly dirtier version of Pretty Baby, depending on your perspective) and even features Waters’ mainstays Bud Cort and Mink Stole in small roles. The production design is extremely bright and vibrant, tending towards lots of pinks, pastels and primary colors. There might be some notion that this is lazy symbolism but writer/director Jamie Babbit has a little more up her sleeve than that.
Looking at Babbit’s filmography, it becomes pretty apparent that she tends to focus on women, whether it be in her films (But I’m a Cheerleader, The Quiet, Itty Bitty Titty Committee, Breaking the Girls) or her TV work (Alias, Ugly Betty, Gilmour Girls, Gossip Girl, The L Word, United States of Tara, Girls), although it seems that her resume definitely leans more towards the small screen than the big one. Although there are some stereotypes floating around the film (especially once we get to the conversion therapy camp), there’s also a lot of genuine emotion and some nicely made points. By the time we get to the film’s point, that opening up your mind and accepting/loving everyone is the best way to live, it’s pretty hard to argue with it. Here’s hoping that Babbit finds the time and/or support to bring something else to a theater near you sometime in the near future.