Movies Till Dawn: Big Trouble

Big Trouble in Little China” (1988, Shout! Factory) Trucker Kurt Russell discovers that his big-mouth-and-big-gun approach might not help pal Dennis Dun reclaim his fiancée (Suzee Pai) from an ancient Chinese sorcerer (James Hong) living under the streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Popcorn thrill-ride from John Carpenter (and a script rewrite by W.D. Richter) mixes ’80s-style action with Shaw Brothers-influenced fantasy-adventure (veteran Hong Kong star Carter Wong plays one of the magician’s super-charged enforcers); though it failed to find an audience until years after its release, “Big Trouble” is far more entertaining and imaginative than many of the decade’s crash-bang efforts, including the first two “Raiders” sequels, which earned better returns with more leaden takes on international-flavored action. Shout! Factory’s two-disc Blu-ray bundles vintage extras – a rollicking commentary track with Carpenter and Russell, deleted scenes, interviews and a making-of featurette – with new material, including commentaries by producer Larry J. Franco and special effects artist Steve Johnson and new interviews with Hong, Dun and others.

Blue Collar” (1978, Kino Lorber) A never-ending cycle of abuse free their bosses, union leaders, local mobsters and the federal government drives Detroit auto workers Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto to seek compensation by robbing their local union post. Since this is a film by Paul Schrader – making his feature directorial debut here and co-writing with brother Leonard – things end badly and violently, with little chance for redemption or salvation for all. What saves the film from being a royal downer (though understandably so: working in America is still a brutal slog) is the assured direction by Schrader, who folds elements of his genre favorites (noir and Italian neo-realism) into his little-guy-gets-screwed tale, and the performances by the three leads (who reportedly loathed each other) and especially Pryor, who shows a talent for drama that went untapped in his lifetime. Score by Jack Nitzsche and songs by Captain Beefheart, Ike & Tina, J.B. Hutto, and Lynyrd Skynyrd; Kino’s Special Edition Blu-ray includes commentary by Schrader, who details the film’s origins and dealing with his combative cast.

The Far Country” (1955, Arrow Video) Taciturn rancher James Stewart drives his cattle from Wyoming to Alaska, where he runs afoul of John McIntire, a self-appointed hanging judge and entrepreneur whose smiling façade obscures his brutal nature. Last of six collaborations between maverick Western/noir director Anthony Mann and Stewart (and third with scripter Borden Chase), who upended horse opera tropes with an unlikable hero and seemingly friendly, civic-minded heel; “Country” also presages “Deadwood” and “Once Upon a Time in America” by dramatizing America’s transformation from a country run by rugged individuals to one overseen by business/corporate entities. Arrow’s two-disc Blu-ray includes presentations in both widescreen and 2:1, and bundles them with commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin, explorations of Mann’s work (by Kim Newman) and in particular, at Universal, and galleries of production and promotional art.

The World, the Flesh, and the Devil” (1959, Warner Archives Collection) Even the end of the world can’t prevent the last three people on Earth – African-American Harry Belafonte and whites Inger Stevens and Mel Ferrer – from repeating the same racial and sexual tensions that plagued them before the disaster. Writer-director Ranald MacDougall‘s black-and-white drama requires no special effects or violence to present an arresting take on humanity’s innate capacity for connection and division, even under the worst circumstances; the scenes between Belafonte (who co-produced) and Stevens, and later, Ferrer, also deliver heat and urgency without physical connection (though MGM’s edict against on-screen interracial romance wouldn’t have allowed it, much to Belafonte’s apparent dismay). The quality of the performances, script and direction put “World” on par with other mature doomsday titles as “On the Beach,” “The War Game” and the very similar “Z for Zachariah“; Warner Archives’ Blu-ray includes the theatrical trailer.

Thank you to Warner Archives Collection for providing this Blu-ray free for this review.

Journey to the Beginning of Time” (1955, Second Run DVD) Inspired by the discovery of a fossilized trilobite, four Czech boys travel down a “river of time” to take a closer look at animal and dinosaur life during various prehistoric time periods. Impressive mix of live-action, stop-motion miniature work, and full-size models by animator/filmmaker Karel Zeman, an inspiration for Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam and the Quay Brothers who drew on the art of countryman Zdenek Burian for his menagerie of saurians, early mammals and assorted fauna; though not “Jurassic Park”-level, Zeman’s remarkable creations and scholarly tone (emphasizing observation over action, though there is a gnarly fight between a Stegosaurus and Ceratosaurus) is still capable of inspiring awe among the dinosaur faithful. Second Run’s all-region Blu-ray includes a 4K restoration of the film, as well as the American version of the film (with alternate credits and English dubbing) that wowed many a Monster Kid; an appreciation from “Kung Fu Panda” director John Stevenson, making-of and restoration featurettes, and a detailed booklet round out the set.

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and The Fix, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for Amazon.com from 1998 to 2014. He has interviewed countless entertainment figures from both the A and Z lists, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury and George Newall, who created both Schoolhouse Rock and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson, and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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