Big Trouble in Little China (1986). Following They Live in my exploration of ’80s John Carpenter movies, Big Trouble in Little China seems to have a big following amongst action kitsch lovers. Like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, though, I sense that a big chunk of the people who adore this film were impressionable young boys when they first viewed it. This jaded fortysomething didn’t get as much of a kick out it, but the movie is still fast-paced and fun with an over-the-top sensibility that the director and star Kurt Russel run with for all it’s worth. Although the story is nothing to write home about, I enjoyed the appealing cast, the fighting scenes, and the Asian weirdness of it all. When it comes down to it, however, real Asian action flicks are exponentially weirder (see below).
It’s Tough to Be Famous (1932). Intriguing early talkie supposedly inspired by the rise of Charles Lindbergh. Lanky and elegant Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. stars as Navy officer Scotty McClenahan. When his submarine is bombed, McClenahan gallantly chooses to save his crew over himself. Returning to land, he gets a hero’s welcome and becomes a national celebrity. This film covers ground similar to Crooner with David Manners; unlike that tale, however, this one treats fame with a healthy dose of cynicism. Fairbanks doesn’t want to be famous at all and resents that the adulation has changed his relationship with girlfriend (Mary Brian) and prevents the now-retired officer from getting a decent job. Although the film is a bit poky and unfocused, it’s interesting to watch in today’s celebrity craving climate.
Latitude Zero (1969). Wild and campy sci-fi action monster flick from Toho studios and Godzilla director Ishirô Honda. Actually, this plays a bit like a Godzilla flick, only with Joseph Cotten and a hammy Cesar Romero standing in for the big green scaly guy. In this film, a submarine containing three scientists loses its way and crash lands deep undersea. The vessel’s crew is rescued by an advanced sub piloted by well preserved 204 year-old scientist Cotten, a man who introduces them to his utopian underwater community (shades of Lost Horizon‘s Shangri-La) — a society whose peaceful existence is under threat from a maniacal geneticist (Romero) who lives on a nearby rocky island populated with giant rats. Yeah, I didn’t make that up. Don’t expect anything great here (not even cheesy great), but there are plenty of detailed miniature special effects, Austin Powers-esque silver and gold outfits, futuristic Op Art decor, and an international cast of youngsters and vets seemingly trying to out-ham each other. We watched the U.S. dubbed version, which conjured up memories of being a kid and watching monster movies every Saturday on our local outlet for cheesy old sci-fi, World Beyond broadcast on Phoenix’s KPHO (locals: remember that?). ’60s camp aficionados: don’t miss this!
Paris, je t’aime (2006). Twenty short films by a host of acclaimed directors, all relating to love and life in and around Paris. Some segments suffer from being too short (Gus Van Sant’s part, the only story involving gay men), too pointless (Alfonso Cuarón’s single take of Nick Nolte yammering away to a French dolly), or too weird (a courtship told in stylized mime). The good parts greatly outweigh the bad overall, however. The beauty of a film like this is that each viewer can come away with their own favorites to savor. My own were Alexander Payne’s segment, narrated by a plain looking middle aged American tourist, and the segment with two transplanted Nigerians whose paths cross in remarkable ways.
Surrogates (2009). Bruce Willis copes with a near future in which American society is populated with “surrogates,” lifelike robot avatars controlled by humans who have become too sedentary to experience fresh air and nice walks for themselves. This had a lot of potential to be an involving thriller with a deep message a la Spielberg’s Minority Report, but the end result is a disappointing mishmash with plot holes galore. It’s not horribly done, and entertaining in its own modest way. Whatever you do, don’t watch the previews, which give away too many essential plot points.
Swing Out Sister — Shapes and Patterns and Chris Isaak — Best of Chris Isaak. Swing Out Sister and Chris Isaak are two performers with deeply retro sensibilities and strangely durable careers; these releases also serve as interesting reminders of how record companies handle performers that don’t fit in one readily identified musical niche. 1997′s Shapes and Patterns was Mercury’s last-ditch attempt to market the sophisticated pop of Corrine Drewery and Andy Connell to the U.S. (the duo remains popular in Japan). By this time the duo had expanded their striking brand of Bacharach-esque pop to include bits of ’70s funk and even chilly electro (“Icy Cold As Winter”). It didn’t translate to big sales, but this album is still a pleasure to hear. Although the album doesn’t hit the peaks of ’89′s Kaleidoscope World (sheer perfection, in my opinion), this is a good vehicle for Drewery’s expressive but never show-offy voice and Connell’s candy sweet arrangements. Who’da thunk that these two would still be around today? I’ve also harbored a liking for Chris Isaak (and not just for his hot looks), but I’ve never actually gotten any of his stuff until recently coming across his best-of on eMusic. His schtick is a singer-songwriter’s take on ’50s/early ’60s Roy Orbison style crooning, but with a dose of modern grit that elevates it above mere retro pastiche. Listening to this collection, what strikes me most is how consistent his sound has been. The tracks range from “Dancin’” off his 1985 debut to a handful of 2006 tunes, all versed in laid back California cool with simple arrangements and echo-laden vocals. That sound is best epitomized on the sexy “Wicked Game” (his only top 10 hit), but just about everything he’s done is worth looking into.