big_trouble_in_little_china_02There can be no question: this weekend’s pairing of John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China with W. D. Richter’s The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension is, literally and hyperbolically, the single greatest film event in the history of Minnesota. Do not miss either of these under any circumstances.

Review of Big Trouble in Little China by Aaron Vehling.

When John Carpenter and Kurt Russell came together to make films in the 80s and 90s, audiences would witness either a campy, genuine classic, like Escape from New York, or a campy car crash from which they could not remove their gaze. Big Trouble in Little China, falls in that second category. It’s a bizarre and cheesy martial arts fantasy film, but one you have to watch because it is a whole lot of fun.

There is an onslaught of martial arts gangs and hideous creatures polluting the streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown. There are exploits of practitioners of Chinese black magic and even some ostensible human trafficking–a 2,000 year old quasi-corporeal sorcerer steals a guy’s fiancee because he has to marry a green-eyed woman so he can become flesh again. But also in the air is a tale that contemplates the responsibility of power, the enduring influence of obsession and the redemptive quality of teamwork in the face of adversity.

Gluing all that together is some of the best dialogue this side of Shane Black.

Kurt Russell, playing the plebeian protagonist Jack Burton, waxes poetically into a CB radio in his  semi truck like someone’s drunk uncle at Thanksgiving: “Just remember what ol’ 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 ol’ storm right square in the eye and he says, ‘Give me your best shot, pal. I can take it.’”

The antagonist in this flick, the sorcerer Lo Pan (Minneapolis-born James Hong), often disguises himself as a withered old man when he isn’t walking through walls, expelling electrical pulses and kidnapping women to turn them into hookers. He appears to have his hand in some good old-fashioned political corruption, too. I mean, he must: His vast subterranean lair underneath Chinatown seems to have escaped the attention of the city’s public works department. What happens if they have to televise the water mains? What if those annoying pencil-pushers in the transit department decide to expand the Muni?

Jack is just as puzzled as we are: “All I know is, this Lo Pan character comes out of thin air in the middle of a goddamn alley while his buddies are flying around on wires cutting everybody to shreds, and he just stands there waiting for me to drive my truck straight through him with light coming out of his mouth!”

The only reason Jack was even pulled into this mess was because he won a bet. He and Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) are long-time pals (read: gambling buddies) who seem to engage in all-night benders with some other working-class dudes in Chinatown whenever Jack comes to town to make deliveries. Wang can’t pay him right away, but asks Jack to drive him to the airport to pick up his fiancee Miao Yin (Penthouse Pet Suzee Pai) coming in from China. Then he’ll pay him.

The problem is that when they get to the airport, Jack tries to be a hero. Lo Pan’s nasty Chinese gang tries to kidnap a woman to sell into sex slavery, but Jack intervenes. So they take Miao instead. Jack and Wang go after them, and end up in some back-alley funeral procession in Chinatown, where they get in the middle of an epic (and beautifully choreographed) battle between two rival gangs. Jack then hits Lo Pan with his semi, which only serves to make Lo Pan angry.

Jack’s truck is stolen and so starts the mystical adventure that will take Jack and Wang into the often glitzy underbelly of Chinatown, where they will encounter about 1,000 black belts, a hideous type of Sasquatch creature and a floating shit monster with scores of eyes, among other things. Joining them are Gracie (Kim Cattrall in green contacts), the friend of the original woman the gang wanted to kidnap, and a Chinese gang that practices good magic, including the amiable sorcerer Egg Shen (Victor Wong). Their adventure will culminate in amazing displays of cosmic comeuppance, desecration of sacred imagery and a rather sinister blend of misogyny and violations of state and federal labor laws.

Big Trouble bombed and was mostly panned when it hit theatres in 1986, but has in the last 28 years become a crucial part of the Carpenter catalogue. Russell, Hong, Dun and Wong all play the film for what it is, mainly a featherweight piece of enjoyment that never takes itself too seriously.

Russell certainly helps Carpenter with that. He has proven over the years he can excel in comedies. Big Trouble is playful, sure, but it’s also a blatant satire of the tropes in martial arts films, action films in general and the atmosphere of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning In America.” It is cheesy, ludicrous and brilliant all the same, just like America. Or, as Wang put it as he drank a magic potion (probably amphetamines) just before he and the crew set forth for the final battle, “Here’s to the Army and Navy and the battles they have won; here’s to America’s colors, the colors that never run.”

And here’s to Carpenter, that influential auteur who proves that art does not have to be a pained contemplation of the darkness inherent in humankind. Sometimes the audience just wants to have fun.

Aaron Vehling is a former journalist and current communications professional who loves the music of Johnny Jewel and the films of Lars von Trier. Though he’s from Longfellow, Minneapolis, he now lives in Harlem, New York, on the same block as the mansion from The Royal Tenenbaums.

Big Trouble in Little China screens Friday at 7:00, Saturday at 9:00, and Sunday at 7:00. Purchase tickets here. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai screens Friday at 9:00, Saturday at 7:00, and Sunday at 5:00. Purchase tickets here.


image002Imagine, if you will, the bastard child of the Defenders and Trash Film Debauchery and, well, honestly, if you can imagine that you’re beyond help. However, that’s what you’re gonna get Wednesday night, when Theaters at Mall of America programmer Chris Grap gets grilled on his choice by TFD’s Theresa Kay. What insane movie is it going to be? YOU’LL HAVE TO ATTEND TO FIND OUT!

Mr. Grap, according to his own bio, can trace everything in his professional career back to the night he first saw “Chopping Mall.” It’s safe to say b-movies got him where he is today. He has worked on over 50 features ranging from big budget to no budget, and he currently works in business development at Mall of America and programs content for Theatres at Mall of America with his movie nerd friends (perhaps most notably the incredible Trailer Trash series.) Half of Wednesday’s Defenders proceeds will go to Chris’s charity: Minnesota Pit Bull Rescue.

The Defenders: Chris Grap (hosted by Theresa Kay) will screen Wednesday, and Wednesday only, at 7:00. Purchase tickets here.


tumblr_md7afyxsz01qd88ijo1_1280The underrated On Dangerous Ground continues our Nicholas Ray: Inside the Outsider series this month.

Here we see one Jim Wilson, a Los Angeles police detective who has taken the word “embittered” and made it his personal philosophy–when we first see him here, he is in his apartment, alone, cleaning his weapon, his face locked in a rictus of ill will toward his fellow man. Ray loved showing how interior space reflects a person’s inner self–compare this desolate apartment, with its crucifix and its tarnished boxing trophies, with James Mason’s home that is wallpapered with maps  in Bigger Than Life, or Joan Crawford’s saloon partially built of rock in Johnny Guitar. Ryan’s detective lacks human warmth, warped as he is by the “scum” of the city, one of whom he nearly beats to death, lamenting out loud, “I always make you punks talk! Why do you make me do it?”

As critic David Thomson observed of Ryan’s Jim Wilson: “[A] tall man always having to look down, but as if some burden weighed on his spine.”

Wilson is forced to take a break from working in L.A., handed an assignment out in the California mountains, to help the local force hunt down the killer of a young girl. And here we see yet another man warped by circumstances, Ward Bond’s Walter Brent, the father of the murdered girl. But redemption comes in the form of the blind Mary Malden (Ida Lupino), who is connected closely with the case.

Ray’s tormented heroes go through such incredible emotional turmoil that it helps that the director usually gives us an (earned) happy ending leavened with life’s bitterness. On Dangerous Ground presents one of Robert Ryan’s finest performances, allowing him to dive deep into his (too often exposed) dark half, while also allowing us to witness the kindness within as well. At once a brutal noir, On Dangerous Ground is also a brilliant examination of personal redemption.

On Dangerous Ground screens Monday and Tuesday night at 7:00 & 8:45. Purchase tickets here.


Johnny Guitar review by Trylon volunteer Geoffrey Stueven.

This month we’re celebrating director Nicholas Ray as an outsider, and his 1954 Western Johnny Guitar gives us a title character who looks, at least in the opening minutes, like a worthy stand-in for the director. There goes Johnny (Sterling Hayden) on his horse, fresh from Albuquerqu (no “e”), drifting across a rocky outcrop of Nowhere, N.M., ignoring a stagecoach robbery, a guitar strapped to his back where a rifle should be. But soon he arrives at the saloon owned by Joan Crawford’s Vienna and backstory unfurls with the weight and velocity of a classic noir. When Johnny and Vienna talk about their romantic past and exchange a series of supposes (“What do you suppose would happen if this man came back?” Johnny asks, referring to himself—I fully expect him to tear off a mask and reveal Fred MacMurray or Humphrey Bogart), all this makes us wonder briefly if Ray isn’t just giving us a noir dressed up as a Western. But, no, the point here is that even in the lawless, empty West, no one stays an outsider for long, or even arrives as one.

A mob, still working its way up to Ox-Bow Incident levels of hysteria, shows up at Vienna’s, making accusations concerning that earlier stagecoach robbery, and Johnny enters a situation he naively thought he could avoid. What follows is a magnificent, complicated, and very long interior scene that takes in a huge number of characters and gradually exits them, revealing their alignments and setting up conflicts, line by line and gesture by gesture. The way Johnny, still an unknown quantity, embeds himself in the scene by catching a falling shot glass is only the most potent example of Ray’s subtle handling of the material. Imagine this scene reshot by Sergio Leone and that shot glass might fall for minutes, but the weight of every movement and word, in Ray’s hands, registers no less.

Upon Johnny’s announcement of himself, we learn he has an itchy trigger finger but he’s traded his gun for a guitar, i.e., the safer distance of art? And if he knew what becomes of cowboys by the time Kirk Douglas makes one final, tragic pass through Albuquerque in 1962’s masterful Lonely Are the Brave, he’d keep his peace, his art. But sadly he’s got history, specifically with Vienna, who, if I didn’t already mention it, is played by the awesome Joan Crawford in an amazing sequence of brightly colored outfits.

She’s the misplaced star of this movie, whose weirdly inappropriate title heightens rather than hides its real subject and interest: the way an actual outsider (a woman) might exert influence in a hostile world. Vienna would prefer not to divulge this lurid history (“we exchanged confidences”; “luck had nothing to do with it”), and the movie remains fairly pessimistic on the subject of women and power, even as it features, with a total absence of the camp appeal I vaguely remember it containing, two astonishing and fearsome performances by women: Crawford and, as her arch nemesis Emma, the delightfully cruel Mercedes McCambridge. You see, there’s only room for one, if even. It’s a dispiriting message, one that causes Vienna to intone, to Johnny, “It must be a great comfort to you to be a man.” Yes, and at the end Peggy Lee will sing “Johnny Guitar (Love Theme)”.

Geoffrey Stueven recently returned from Albuquerque to his troubled Minneapolis backstory. He writes about music at The Big Takeover and enjoys a good movie from time to time.

Johnny Guitar screens Monday and Tuesday at 7:00 & 9:15. Purchase tickets here.