Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

I’d only seen Big Trouble in Little China once before this, ages ago, and had largely forgotten about it. I’m not sure when it crossed my radar again, but it suddenly struck me that our son was certain to love it. The smooching is kept to a minimum, it’s just mayhem, magic, fight scenes and at least two characters who later got pilfered by the people who make video games. I was right; he enjoyed it very much and thought the video game comparison was apt. “Some of that,” he observed, “looked a lot like a ‘cut scene’,” as those things are called.

It shouldn’t be surprising to learn that John Carpenter’s film has inspired so many people who later worked in movies and games. I was absolutely at the right age for it when it was originally released, but I somehow missed it until it showed up on cable, and thought it was pretty good. It’s actually a little better than that. It’s a very clever and very fun film, and about the only complaint I can make is that the drum-machine music has aged really badly. Everything that Carpenter put on screen is really entertaining.

I especially like how Kurt Russell just effortlessly sells this. Jack Burton is one of the greatest action heroes from his day: resourceful, if not particularly intelligent, and loyal even when he is in way over his head and in the middle of other people’s problems. Dude just wants his truck back. I can get behind that. Support comes from the terrific James Hong as the main villain, along with Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun, and Al Leong. I like how there’s a surprise around every corner, and there’s no predicting what the villains can do or what grotesque creatures are going to show up next. I also like how nobody’s cleaned up any of the cobwebs and skeletons in Lo Pan’s fortress underneath the streets of San Francisco.

So our son was incredibly pleased with darn near everything in the movie, and wowed appreciably all the way through it. I think his favorite bit might have been Dennis Dun’s character having an aerial swordfight with one of the baddies, but pretty much everything that Kurt Russell did amused him. I was surprised to learn the movie was a box office flop, only earning back about half its budget, because I’d just assumed it was a hit because everybody loves it. That’s a shame, because the late eighties and early nineties could have used another two or three Jack Burton adventures. With some different music, of course.

Tales of the Gold Monkey 1.18 – Naka Jima Kill

As I’ve said before, I’m really not all that familiar with American TV of the eighties. I went from Saturday morning shows to monster movies to Doctor Who and then to whatever British programming our PBS stations picked up and missed the likes of The A-Team and Simon & Simon and Magnum PI entirely. I’ve never seen a minute of Riptide or Scarecrow & Mrs. King or Moonlighting. Maybe two episodes of Remington Steele.

Thanks to Marie, I’ve seen more of MacGyver than any American drama of the period, except for Hill Street Blues, which I came to in repeats in college. Around the same time, I picked up a fondness for drama and cop shows from the sixties and seventies thanks to A&E, which used to screen all kinds of interesting stuff, from Banacek to City of Angels, and of course the brilliant Columbo, but the TV of the eighties is largely a foreign country.

I’m a little more familiar with movies from the period, thanks to HBO, so I’ve seen several mainstream films from the day, and, as a young teenager who liked cute girls, quite a few dumb sex comedies. I’ve actually never seen Porky’s, but I saw a whole lot of the movies that came in its wake: Fast Times, the one with Betsy Russell, Just One of the Guys, that one with Betsy Russell a few more times, Up the Creek, and I don’t remember the name, but Betsy Russell was in it, and I was thirteen or fifteen and I remember her riding that horse really well.

And what I’m getting from my teenage memories, and from watching Tales of the Gold Monkey and rewatching Flash Gordon for the blog is that the eighties were a very, very weird time for depictions of sexuality in the media. It was a time when girls were constantly told that good girls were not supposed to like sex. Sex was, unless you were married or had swapped a promise ring or whatever, for bad girls. There was an additional thing in Flash Gordon that bothered me: Ming and his daughter, while played by actors from Sweden and Italy, were “yellow peril” baddies in the old comics and serials with sexual designs on our white heroes. And Princess Koji in Monkey is played by an actress from Panama, Marta Dubois, but the character is from Japan. And Koji is constantly taking her clothes off in this show. It’s 8 pm ABC 1983 nudity, but this is something like the fifth time in eighteen episodes that she’s had her servants get her ready for a bath in front of Stephen Collins.

Meanwhile, Dale Arden in Flash accepts the hero’s remarkably chaste proposal of marriage. He suggests telling their kids about their wild adventure and that’s what makes her swoon. Sarah in Gold Monkey is no better; her face twists all out of joint whenever Koji tells her underlings to take her and whoever else away so that she can have a few words with Jake… in private. That’s because she knows Jake’s about to see some boobs. In the previous episode, a traveling salesman has brought some naughty playing cards to Boragora. Now, I don’t know what naughty playing cards actually looked like in 1938, but what the program showed us was remarkably tame, and Sarah is so outraged that she loses the ability to form coherent sentences. Good girls don’t like sex.

This episode might have been okay, but geez, did they ever drop the ball. Kim Cattrall guest stars as Sarah’s old college roommate from Vassar, and she brings out the absolute worst in Sarah. The character is always shown as stuck up and grouchy, but now she’s jealous and whiny. When Cattrall’s character explains that she had regularly dated a professor at Vassar, at the same time that Koji has Jake stay behind for a striptease, that divide – everybody is having sex and having more fun than me! – shows up again. Good girls don’t like sex. What the hell, 1980s?

That’s not even the most dated thing about the episode. The ostensibly female newsreel camera operator traveling with Cattrall’s journalist character is actually a male assassin, a master of disguise who fools everybody, especially Corky, who is sweet on her and is relieved they didn’t kiss, which is, sadly, not an unexpected reaction from either a character in 1938 or a production in 1983. There is absolutely no reason whatever why this character shouldn’t have been a woman, except to get a quick cheap laugh at the comic sidekick who nearly kissed a guy. The following year, one of those dumb sex comedies from the period, Bachelor Party, also went with a cheap laugh at the comic sidekick who nearly kissed a guy. What an obnoxious decade.

The Hardy Boys / Nancy Drew Mysteries 2.18 – Voodoo Doll (part two)

I’ve been giving Ray Milland a hard time for as long as I can remember, which may not be fair, but when you look at anything the actor did in the seventies, I don’t think you can blame me too much. At one time an Oscar-winning cinema icon, he spent the decade sleepwalking through projects, whether classy or not, speaking in precisely the same clipped, grouchy monotone. Absolutely none of his characters – and I don’t care whether you’re talking about a guest star role in a decent show like Ellery Queen or Columbo or The Hardy Boys, or a villain in Escape to Witch Mountain or Love Story, or in Elvira-level D-movie schlock like Frogs or The Thing With Two Heads – seem like characters at all. They seem like Ray Milland being pissed off that his agent can’t get him better work.

So I’ve often pretended to be incredibly impressed by Milland and acted like his biggest champion – he has a nickname that I won’t use in this family-oriented blog – and sung his praises, very loudly and very unconvincingly. To be fair, I think I’ve seen only one of his roles from his cinema heyday – Dial M For Murder, of course – and he’s not bad in that, but for being blustery and bored in everything else I’ve seen him in, I just think the guy was pure ham, and nothing in “Voodoo Doll” suggests I’m being unfair or unkind. Man, he’s annoying.

There wasn’t much about this one that I liked, apart from a genuinely weird moment where the Hardy Boys get the clerk of the nice hotel to unlock the missing Nancy Drew’s room to find the crazy, dirty, old fortune telling lady camped out on her bed and cackling. Everything wraps up in a predictably Scooby Doo way, but the villains’ motivation was so nebulous and odd that our son didn’t understand a lick of it, and his mother had to spend about five minutes trying to make sense of it.

Speaking of Elvira-level D-movie schlock, come back by in a few hours. I’m about to show our son something wonderful…

The Hardy Boys / Nancy Drew Mysteries 2.17 – Voodoo Doll (part one)

I continue to be more impressed by the complex production of The Hardy Boys than by the complex schemes devised by the show’s villains. “Voodoo Doll” recreates a big New Orleans Mardi Gras on the Universal backlot, with dozens and dozens of costumed extras and floats engaged for both daytime and night filming. This must have been a huge undertaking. But the villainous plot is downright idiotic.

I bet that it’s all going to eventually boil down to this: a criminal, posing as a stage magician, needs the fleabag hotel room where our heroes are staying in order to plant an assassin. But instead of just getting them another room in a nicer hotel, he arranges to have their wallets stolen and then tries spooking them out of town with voodoo and black magic. Dominating the screen as the magician, it’s Julius Smith, with Kim Cattrall as his not-entirely-willing accomplice, and Ray Milland as a British professor who tells our heroes very sternly that voodoo is nothing to laugh at, young man, I assure you.

Also in town, probably working the potential-assassination-of-the-ambassador angle, it’s Nancy Drew, now played by Janet Louise Johnson. Johnson only appeared in three storylines before the character was written out, and I hope that she has more to do in this story’s second half, because she doesn’t have anything of note to do in the first. She’s onscreen for so little time here that she barely has time to register as a new actress in the part at all. I wonder whether that was deliberate.

Logan’s Run 1.6 – Half Life

This is a pretty good episode. It was written by Shimon Wincelberg, toward the end of his very long writing career – he’s probably best known today for his scripts for Star Trek and Have Gun, Will Travel – and guest-starred Kim Cattrall, toward the beginning of her very long acting career. It’s clumsy and simplistic, and the idea of a machine that splits people into “good” and “evil” versions while simultaneously copying their clothes is pretty darn silly, but it was entertaining enough. I really enjoyed the goofy disco lava light special effects generated by the machine, and the crazy kaleidoscope of Heather Menzies’ face, which looked like a bad acid trip, man.

As nice as it always is to look at Kim Cattrall, the really interesting guest star is William Smith, who was between recurring parts on several episodes each of Rich Man, Poor Man and Hawaii Five-O at the time this was made. Smith gets to play the leader of the ostensibly “good” community and the leader of the outcast “evil” community, but of course it’s the good guy who’s the villain and the cast-out who’s trying to do the right thing. It’s a great pair of performances, and, sensibly, the script may be about a silly machine, but Wincelberg was an intelligent enough writer to not hammer that point home.

We joked about the likelihood of splitting our son into two people. In a weird little coincidence, we watched this the same day that he saw an episode of the Teen Titans Go! cartoon in which Cyborg and Beast Boy start making magic duplicates of themselves so they could be lazy. We concluded that just one version of our son will do.