2013 First-Time Viewings: November Week 4+

Big Trouble In Little ChinaBig Trouble In Little China

Although John Carpenter is a name that has come to be predominantly associated with the horror genre, the filmmaker has occasionally stepped outside of his comfort zone throughout his career, most successfully with the sci-fi romance of Starman and the dystopian action of Escape From New York. But it’s this effort from 1986 that stands out as the true oddball in Carpenter’s oeuvre, a blending of martial arts action and old-school serial adventure that has its tongue planted firmly in cheek. Big Trouble In Little China is headlined by Kurt Russell, clearly having a lot of fun as the mullet-sporting trucker Jack Burton. For reasons too complicated to get into, Russell finds himself tagging along on an adventure to defeat a Chinese sorcerer, who seeks a woman with green eyes to dispel an ancient curse.  Despite his top billing, Russell doesn’t fill the role of the typical action hero. Instead, he’s more like the bumbling sidekick, constantly getting himself into trouble while his partner-in-action Dennis Dun (Wang Chi) handles all the real heroics. This is a smart decision by the filmmakers, allowing Russell to show off his considerable comic chops while also enforcing the film’s essentially light-hearted nature.

Carpenter’s film is thoroughly goofy, much more than I was expecting it to be. In fact, the surprise was so great that it took me some time to warm up to the film’s charms. There are similarities here with what Steven Spielberg brought to the screen in his Indiana Jones films, but while those films played their material with a certain degree of seriousness, this is unmistakably a comic adventure, one that delights in its flaunting of well-worn clichés with great success. The film does pile on the Eastern mysticism a little too much though; in any other situation it could be seen as offensive, but because the film is so high-energy and clearly isn’t meant to be taken seriously at any point, Carpenter gets away with it for the most part. If I had seen Big Trouble In Little China for the first time when I was ten, I would’ve thought it was the best movie ever. It has everything a little boy could ever want: martial arts action, physical comedy, memorably cheesy one-liners and admirably retro special effects. Fifteen years later, I’m a little removed from what I imagine to be the film’s primary audience, but I still found its youthful spirit to be quite infectious. 7/10.

Interstella 5555Interstella 5555

A rock band of blue aliens performs one more time in front of their adoring fans. Everyone is having a great time, until a group of sinister figures sweeps down in aerodynamic fashion and kidnaps the members of the band. Elsewhere, a rogue space captain daydreams by himself of making sweet digital love to the band’s female bassist, and when he learns of the kidnapping, he decides to play the rescuer. The kidnappers’ destination is revealed to be Earth, where the sleeping band members undergo a lengthy conditioning process to make them harder, better, faster, stronger, and most importantly, human. The lead kidnapper signs the hypnotized band members to a recording contract, and they gain worldwide popularity as the Crescendolls. Meanwhile, the space captain arrives on Earth and sees a night vision of the band performing on a large television screen. The band rises to a level of fame usually only occupied by superheroes…..

Ok, that’s enough. I’m not going to subject myself to that laborious exercise any longer. Let’s just get down to what I really think of Kazuhisa Takenouchi’s official film accompaniment to Daft Punk’s landmark 2001 album Discovery. Actually, to call Interstella 5555 (subtitled The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem) a film is probably not the most accurate; it functions more as a feature-length music video than anything else. So I guess the most important question to ask is whether or not it serves as a worthwhile complement to the original album. The list of these kinds of productions is not long, but there are a handful of memorable examples that have become almost inseparable from their original inspirations. For example, it’s tough to listen to The Who’s 1969 rock opera Tommy without thinking of Ken Russell’s 1975 film of the same name, with Ann-Margret flailing around in a sea of baked beans and Sir Elton John as the Pinball Wizard. Likewise, Pink Floyd’s 1979 double album The Wall will forever be linked to Gerald Scarfe’s amazing surrealist animation in Alan Parker’s 1982 film adaptation. Whatever your ultimate opinion of those films may be, they have the ability to leave a lasting impression on a viewer. I don’t think the same thing can be said for Interstella 5555, and for a production of this sort that’s as damning a statement as there is. 5/10.

The 10th VictimThe 10th Victim

In a future society, men and women participate in a violent sport called the Big Hunt. where they alternate between roles as hunters and victims. It is the job of the hunter to track down their assigned victim and execute them. The victim, meanwhile, does not know the identity of their hunter, and it is their job to be ready to defend themselves against their pursuer. But if a victim mistakes an innocent person for a hunter and kills them, they are sentenced to 30 years in prison. Each participant needs to survive ten rounds to win, five as a hunter and five as a victim, and those who stay alive to the very end attain both celebrity status and substantial fortune. Ursula Andress plays a participant who has just survived her ninth round as a victim. In her final round she will assume the role of the hunter, and Marcello Mastroianni will be her tenth victim.

If that description sounds like a solid framework for a serious slice of dystopian science fiction, you probably need to adjust your expectations slightly. This 1965 film from director Elio Petri is a much more jaunty affair, a sharp satire that keeps the tone mostly light throughout, even when people are losing their lives. At times it even plays like an off-kilter romance, with Andress and Mastroianni becoming attracted to each other, even when they both know their roles in the deadly game they’re playing. The best bit of satire comes in the film’s use of corporate sponsorship, with the participants of the Big Hunt earning some extra funds on the side by hawking products after their kills. Sure, it’s a little ridiculous, but also not too far off from the way corporations treat people today. With the upbeat score from Piero Piccioni and the gaudy set decorations/wardrobe selections, The 10th Victim does have a certain kitschiness to its action. But with the exception of the final few minutes, which gets a little too silly for its own good, the film manages to remain compelling without becoming too ridiculous. Petri’s film is a nice example of how to raise serious and thought-provoking ideas while still having a good deal of fun in the process.  8/10.

OldboyOldboy (2013)

The Hollywood remake has long since become the standard scapegoat to point to as evidence of the creatively bankrupt state of the modern film industry. Oftentimes for good reason too; exceptions to the rule are certainly available, but in general I think it would be safe to say most remakes have a hard time justifying their existence. Still, I find remakes strangely and uniquely fascinating, not just to compare and contrast to their originals but also to ponder about the reasons behind their existence. Which brings us to this Spike Lee-directed remake of Park Chan-wook’s twisted 2003 revenge thriller Oldboy (and it is a remake of the film, as the opening credits make absolutely clear). The film is an especially odd case; even after seeing it, I’m still struggling to comprehend why anyone thought it would be a good idea. Fans of the original film are just going to look at this new incarnation and shake their hands disapprovingly, while those who are unaware of the original film’s existence are more than likely not the kind of people who will enjoy its abrasive approach and harsh subject matter.

For the record, I have never been a great fan of the original Oldboy, particularly the flamboyant excesses that come to the forefront in the film’s final third. But even with my reservations, if given the choice between the original film and a remake that is the textbook definition of perfunctory, I’ll choose the original every time.  Lee’s film is essentially a straight retelling with only a few noticeable changes, but it’s sorely lacking in the distinctive energy that has given the original film so much staying power. Some of the violence seems more extreme, but two of the original’s  most shocking and memorable moments are bizarrely omitted (I won’t go into specifics, but anyone who has seen the 2003 film can probably discern the two moments to which I’m referring). Without those moments, the film ends up feeling more generic, which only magnifies the problems inherent in the material. Like the walking script contrivance that is the Elizabeth Olsen character. Or the fact that once the main villain walks onscreen, the film flies off the rails into complete ludicrousness (Sharlto Copley’s performance is amazingly over-the-top, but also weirdly appropriate; he seems to be the only one in the film who recognizes just how silly everything is). Honestly, very little about this incarnation of Oldboy warrants any interest, even for someone like myself who usually won’t dismiss remakes entirely out of hand. Judging by the almost complete lack of interest the film has received since its opening, most people seem to have similar feelings. 4/10.

FacesFaces

Watching this 1968 film from John Cassavetes is the cinematic equivalent of being the only sober person in a room full of miserable drunks. Everyone has already started drowning their sorrows together, and all you can do is breathe in the desperation in the air. Apart from being a very down-to-earth martial drama, providing a window into the crumbling marriage between businessman Richard Frost (John Marley) and dissatisfied wife Maria (Lynn Carlin), Cassavetes’ film also takes on the general malaise of 1960s upper middle class socialites. For most of the film, Richard and Maria spend their time apart and in the company of others, the former with a sympathetic prostitute (Gena Rowlands), the latter with her vapid friends and eventually a freewheeling swinger type (Seymour Cassel, the film’s liveliest element). All this involves a good deal of booze, but of course, the intoxicated merriment on display in Faces is all just a guise, as the frivolity masks an overwhelming sense of dissatisfaction and a fear of confronting reality.

For better and for worse, you don’t see too many films like this made anymore, films that take such an aggressive and abrasive approach to their subject matter. Faces is 130 minutes long, and most of that time is made up of irritating conversations between heavily-intoxicated people. At times, it feels like Cassavetes is daring you to actively dislike the film; there’s even an odd, post-modern pre-title sequence which informs the viewer that, hey, the film coming up is probably not like what you usually watch. That opening sequence also hints at a lot of the intentional artificiality that is to follow. So much of the drama is about the different faces we put on for different situations and people, faces to mislead others from our true selves. A crucial scene late in the film between Marley and Rowlands serves as a final statement of sorts. After spending all of their time joking and laughing with each other, the two spend the night together and their conversations turn serious in the morning. This becomes too much for both of them to handle though, and it isn’t long before they revert back to their carefree personas. The moments when the characters’ facades crack open to reveal the inner desperation beneath are the ones that I found to be the most striking, but by the time they start to happen, I’ve already taken up that dare from Cassavetes. Faces undoubtedly has a great deal of merit and truth to it, but holy Hell is it a tremendous slog to sit through. 5/10.

The Tale Of Zatoichi ContinuesThe Tale Of Zatoichi Continues

Released in 1962, this is the second film in the famed Zatoichi series. As the title indicates, it is a direct sequel to The Tale Of Zatoichi, taking place around one year after the events of that introductory film. The blind swordsman and masseur Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu) is making his way back to the town where the events of that first film took place. While on the way, however, he is hired to give a massage to an important politician. During his massage, he inadvertently discovers a secret concerning the politician that his aides do not want revealed. Instead of just asking Zatoichi to keep quiet, the aides decide to send men to kill him. There is also the matter of the armless samurai (Tomisaburo Wakayama, Katsu’s real-life brother) who seems to share a past connection with the blind swordsman. The action culminates in the setting as the first film, where Zatoichi discovers that former alliances are not engraved in stone.

At just 72 minutes, this film doesn’t waste much time before getting down to business (although Zatoichi does reveal himself to be a ladies’ man and sets aside some time for pleasure). The short running length, as well as the many ties back to the original film, gives The Tale Of Zatoichi Continues the slight feel of an extended epilogue, existing mainly to tie up loose threads. But unlike, say, Quantum Of Solace, to bring in another epilogue entry from a different long-running series, this film enhances rather than sullies the merits of its predecessor, bringing back old elements in a satisfying way while throwing new curveballs into the narrative. Having not yet seen any of the entries in the Zatoichi series beyond this one, I can’t say for sure whether or not they continue the kind of direct story continuity on display here. My guess though is that they mostly stand by themselves, which makes this film a somewhat different entry into the canon. Those who are already familiar with the characters and situations from the first film, particularly Zatoichi’s brief, ill-fated friendship with the sickly samurai Hanji, will get the most out of what this sequel has to offer. Lined up together, the two films form a truly epic samurai tale, and because both of them are so brisk, the best way to go would be to view them back-to-back in one sitting. 7/10.

Top five first-time viewings in November 2013:

Scenes From A Marriage

Late Spring

The Hill

12 Years A Slave

La Guerre Est Finie

Trailers/Excerpts:

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About Andrew Alan Ramseyer

I am a Phoenix resident and I graduated from Arizona State University in 2011 with a Bachelors degree in Film and Media Studies, and from Northern Arizona University in 2013 with an English Masters degree and an emphasis on Professional Writing. The real world made sure that I would need to continue schooling in other areas, but I still love watching films and writing about films. Maybe someday I'll be able to do something film-related on a professional level, but for now I'm content with writing for myself and for others, who hopefully find my thoughts worthwhile.
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