Wednesday, April 17, 2013

John Carpenter: Big Trouble in Little China

Note: This is going to be a bit of an odd entry into this retrospective; I am going to focus more on Kurt Russell and what an action hero was in the 1980s than on Carpenter. For a better review of the film and a more comprehensive look at its production, check out J.D.’s fantastic post on the film from his Carpenter blog-a-thon a couple of years ago.

John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China is a lively, funny, and energetic; the exact kind of follow-up he needed to remedy the effect his previous film — the prosaic friendly alien film Starman — left on viewers. Big Trouble in Little China is a movie that never fails to make smile — a joyful mix between old school Oater and Indiana Jones; it’s the type of film that is always good for whatever ails me in the way that Raiders of the Lost Ark or Die Hard or Lethal Weapon seem to always cheer me up. Nostalgia naturally plays a role in this — I grew up watching these types of action movies, and the aforementioned triad were some of my very favorites — but there is something about these types of action films that acts as the perfect remedy for a bad day or week. Whether it’s Nazis trying to steal the Ark of the Covenant, Germans taking a high rise hostage, or mystical Chinese bad guys running things from a lair beneath Chinatown, these are films that elicit genuine glee despite their ridiculous premises. They’re all filled with great setpieces, memorable dialogue, a wacky premise that makes you smile, and, most importantly, a great hero that the action revolves around. I think Big Trouble in Little China works (along with the aforementioned films) so well as this kind of “antidote movie” the characters (and the filmmakers) take all that ridiculousness very seriously — and so the laughs and the smiles and the thrills are all feel earned.

Monday, April 8, 2013

John Carpenter: Starman

Starman is not a good movie. And let me be clear from the onset: it’s not that the film doesn’t work simply because John Carpenter decided to make a love story, nor is it because he decided to make a blood/horror free science-fiction film. And it certainly isn’t because of Jeff Bridges. No, the acting is light years better than Carpenter’s previous film, Christine, but it’s just, well, banal. The whole thing chugs along its familiar “road movie” path towards its inevitable ending that feels like nothing more than another studio trying to make its own E.T. (hey, at least it’s better than Mac and Me). I admire Bridges' performance and Carpenter’s desire to make a non-genre film (although I’m sure he’d be the first to admit that even though he got into the business to be a studio filmmaker in Hollywood, he really just made Starman for the money), but Starman ultimately is as forgettable as Christine: a movie with a handful of elements that get the viewer through the experience unscathed but will evaporate from one's mind by day’s end. In fact, the experience I had watching Carpenter's two films post-The Thing reminded me of a popular Truffaut quote: “I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not at all interested in anything in between.” Boy, are Christine and Starman two films smack-dab "in between."

Thursday, April 4, 2013

In Memoriam: Roger Ebert

Some jumbled memories of one of my heroes:

Everything I know and love about movies, I owe to Roger Ebert. I remember being in seventh grade and typing up my own Ebert-esque reviews. I penciled in my own star ratings next to his in his annual movie yearbooks. I have my 1997 copy sitting next to me right now, and I see that I gave Eraser 4 stars to Ebert’s 3, and that makes me smile (oh, 15 year-old Kevin). I could always count on these books to show up under the Christmas tree every year; my parents knew I loved those books, filled with those reviews and brilliant essays. that much. Reading his reviews either in these yearbooks, rushing first thing to the computer when he began posting reviews online, or staying up past midnight to watch “Siskel and Ebert,” his thoughts on movies were, and continue to be, a kind of Daily Office for me.

Monday, April 1, 2013

John Carpenter: Christine

Due to the critical (and somewhat financial) shellacking Carpenter’s previous film, The Thing, took in 1982, it’s easy to see why the auteur would distance himself as much as possible from the material of his next film. After failing to get the opportunity to direct the Stephen King adaptation that really interested him (Firestarter), Carpenter was essentially a director for hire on his next two films — Christine and Starman. And it’s no surprise that these two films mark what was — at that point in his career — his worst stretch of films (and really, what an amazing thing it is that the streak ends at two). So, off of one King adaptation and onto another, Carpenter was asked to make Christine, the story of a killer car that King had published earlier in the same year the movie was released. That kind of expediency makes my brain hurt, and it’s probably one of the reasons why the film doesn't feel complete, reeks of an apathetic director just doing one for a paycheck, and is a chore to get through. 

White Elephant Blogathon: Space Truckers

Paul of Silly Hats Only is once again hosting the White Elephant Blogathon. I've missed the last couple of year, but I'm glad to be a participant again. You can check out the links to all of the entries over at Paul's blog. Thankfully, I received a title that resulted in a surprisingly pleasant viewing experience. 

With a title like Space Truckers, you know you’re in for a wacky time, and Stuart Gordon’s film doesn’t disappoint. In fact, Space Truckers is exactly the kind of movie one wishes for during a blogathon such as this, and it almost makes me feel bad that I picked something for someone else to watch that is infinitely more of a depressing time than Space Truckers. Yes, I have written the title of the film (that’s Space Truckers) four times now, for it is one of the primary things about Gordon’s film that makes me smile. Just try it. Stop reading this for a moment and say aloud the title of the film (Space Truckers). It makes you happy, no?  Okay, seriously, though, Space Truckers is an odd experience. There’s enough self-awareness here to keep Space Truckers from being something like Space Mutiny bad — the film’s worst scenes seem clearly to have tongue placed firmly in cheek — but it doesn’t always work. This is, after all, the movie where Norm from “Cheers” gets shot ass first through a porthole, a half man half robot gets his “electrical wang pulse” started by pulling on a chord like he’s starting a lawnmower, and where Dennis Hopper and Stephen Dorff struggle with some truly awful banter.  Still, it’s breezy and fun and kind of charming in its B-movie ways.