Friday, August 31, 2012

Film Review: PURPLE RAIN (1984, Albert Magnoli)

Stars: 4.5 of 5.
Running Time: 111 minutes.
Tag-line: "Before he created the music he lived every bit of it"
Best one-liner:  "Let's have some action!  Let's have some asses wigglin'!  ...I want some perfection!"

The Purple'd Prince of Paisley Park demands your attention.  And until you give it to him, he's just gonna be over here, off to the side, quietly revving his Hondamatic and letting the fog machines do all the work.  If you leave him alone too long, though, he might pull out this guy:
this little conical puppet guy here, and then he'll start throwing his voice and weirding everybody out, so let's not let it come to that, okay?

Let's get down to business.  I'm not gonna lie to you– I'm not what you'd call a Prince fan or a Prince buff or a Prince aficionado.  I've never had a perm, never lived in Minnesota, never worn an asymmetrical purple leather jacket, never tromped down the thoroughfare with utter confidence in an anemically dapper mustache.  I just don't think I could pull it off.  As such, I'm not going to get as in depth as perhaps I ought to, but let me tell you this:  PURPLE RAIN is fantastic.  It's the best Cannon Film musical that Golan and Globus never made.  And I hope I don't offend any sensibilities by favorably comparing the (Oscar-winning!!!) soundtrack to the zany synths of Mr. T's BE SOMEBODY OR BE SOMEBODY'S FOOL.
Often the question is posed:  is Prince a silly 80s pop moppet, or a Serious and Important Artist?  There is no easy answer, but let's say he's a Serious Moppet with tremendous musicianship. And again, let's just take a moment to thank God for PURPLE RAIN.

The plot revolves around "The Kid," a purple-jacket wearing bad boy who lives with his parents and whose band "The Revolution" is the toast of the Minneapolis music scene.  He has an ongoing rivalry with zany non-actor Morris Day (who puts his own personal spin on the tired "Who's on first" routine) and his band "The Time," a rivalry that finds its heart in a battle over who can perpetuate the fiercest dance moves and the most bird-like stage cackles.  He fights to escape the shadow of an abusive musician father (the brilliant Clarence Williams III,  who is hands down the only capital-A Actor in the film):
Mom!  Dad!  Please, Dad, she's heard you!


 the purple aftermath

and he pursues a relationship with an aspiring singer named Apollonia, whom he treats badly in a number of ways– like trafficking in passive-aggressive self-esteem reduction strategies, stealing her jewelry for his personal use, and...well... smacking her in the face:
Purple Fury...

The stakes are raised, hookers are tossed in dumpsters, Prince glances furtively from behind comically oversized John Lennon sunglasses, he sighs, he cries, and strides about angrily in a purple huff.  Yeah, there's a lot going on here.  Sounds absolutely brutal, doesn't it?  Don't believe me? See some of it in action for yourself:

Whew.  That's rough stuff, and handled delicately.  Four and a half stars.

-Sean Gill

Monday, August 27, 2012

Film Review: THE QUEST (1996, Jean-Claude Van Damme)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 95 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew:  Jean-Claude Van Damme, Roger Moore (LIVE AND LET DIE, MOONRAKER), James Remar (THE WARRIORS, DEXTER, RENT-A-COP, 48 HRS.), Janet Gunn (SILK STALKINGS, CARNOSAUR 3), Jack McGee (BASIC INSTINCT, COOL AS ICE, THE FIGHTER), Aki Aleong (V: THE SERIES, FAREWELL TO THE KING), Ong Soo Han (KICKBOXER, BLOODSPORT 2), Abdel Qissi (LIONHEART, THE ORDER).  Story co-written by Frank Dux (supposedly BLOODSPORT is based on his life story).  Music by Randy Edelman (TWINS, KINDERGARTEN COP, V.I. WARSHAWSKI).  Cinematography by David Gribble (NOWHERE TO RUN, RUNNING ON EMPTY).
Tag-line: "Go the distance!"
Best one-liner:  "Hey clown boy! Get off my street!"

I guess this ended up being the "Summer of Van Damme" here at Junta Juleil.  I certainly never planned it that way, but I suppose some of the finest journeys, the finest quests in life are utterly spontaneous... and punctuated by prayers to Buddha and JCVD 'sad-eye.'

Where to begin with THE QUEST?  Van Damme stars, co-wrote, and– take a deep breath– directs. The result is basically BLOODSPORT meets WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY meets OLIVER TWIST meets INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM.  It is the tale of Christopher Dubois, who dreams of going to the Lost City and competing in the international fighting tournament called the Kumite 'Ghang-gheng' in order to win the fabled Golden Dragon and save an army of street urchins.  As he fights for his golden-ticket invitation, he befriends an array of assorted buddies, including con artist and pirate-man Roger Moore, washed-up heavyweight James Remar, moxie-filled reporter Janet Gunn, and sad-sack comic relief henchman Jack McGee.  In addition to being one of the finest films 1996 had to offer, it enchanted near-empty theaters, provided us with a poster whereupon JCVD can gaze across an endless expanse and into our very soul, and drove a rift between Jean-Claude and his friend Frank Dux (the supposed real-life inspiration for BLOODSPORT who claimed that it plagiarized his script THE KUMITE).  But that's not all: I'm about to crack open this dusty, leather-bound volume and shed some light on about fifteen reasons why THE QUEST is still a journey worth taking.

#15.  Jean-Claude Old Manne.

Yup, the hurried frame story briefly entreats us to an elderly Jean-Claude who beats up on a gang of multi-racial thugs (even employing some old man cane action) before we journey off on our titular...  QUEST.

#14.  There are no (true) splits, but that's okay.

There's a lot going on in this film.  True splits may have distracted viewers from the multi-layered plotting, or even worse, been buried amid zeppelin theft and kilted low-blows.  And besides, we get some pretty good extension during this particular mid-air kick.  

#13.  Jesus-Claude Van Bondage.

 "I'm sure the sharks will enjoy... you."  -Actual line of dialogue

It's not as overt as in CYBORG, but I don't see how it could be:

Amid the splits, the accent, the moxie-filled reporter girlfriends, the flexed right-side biceps, and the ass-cheek nudity, this Van Damme trope is often forgotten.  I shall not let you forget it.  Only Mel Gibson is tied up and tortured (á la the New Testament) more frequently.

#12.  He was trying for Oscar gold.

At a certain point, when we veer–ever so briefly– into Merchant-Ivory territory, I realized that Van Damme believed THE QUEST had a shot at the Academy Awards.  What is pictured above is Edwardian-era kiddie-orphan JCVD as a woman in black balls up (in slowed-frame rate bad slomo) an important letter in a plot detail that is never really returned to.  I love it.  Also, I must admit in all seriousness, that this is more deserving than the typical Oscar bait.  I mean, if THE ENGLISH PATIENT hadn't co-starred Willem Dafoe, this might have had a shot.  I mean, movies like INDEPENDENCE DAY and THE FIRST WIVES CLUB and DAYLIGHT and EVITA and ERASER were getting nominated that year.

#11.  Van Damme is trained on "Muay Thai Island."  Aficionados of martial arts and/or KICKBOXER will recognize the ridiculousness inherent in that statement.  It'd be like training on Kumite Boulevard or Kung Fu Alley or Karate Mountain.  Though I have to admit that those would likely be tremendous resume-builders. 
Supposedly there may or may not be a real Muay Thai island, but being too lazy to do any serious research, my gut tells me that it is a group of deluded people forever chasin' the tiger that is THE QUEST.

#10.  Abdel Qissi.

Every fighting tournament movie needs a baddie.  Here's it's the "Mongolian" fighter, played by Moroccan badass Abdel Qissi.  Here, he kinda looks like a croozin' Mongolian leather daddy.  Quick– name a famous Mongolian!  I'll give ya a second.


Alright, so my apologies if you picked Sukhbaatar or Subedei, but you probably said either Kublai or Genghis Khan.  Now, what do you suppose "The Mongolian" is called here?  It's "Khan," because anything else would simply have defeated that STREET FIGHTER 2 logic that we all know and love, and we couldn't have that.  Anyway, you may recognize him as the brother of Michel Qissi, who played "Tong Po," the primary villain of KICKBOXER.  Combined, the Qissi brothers have appeared in five Van Damme movies, which is a fun fact you can share with your friends next time you're watching LIONHEART.

Also, he gets a wonderful moment where he wipes (in slow motion) a cascading waterfall of sweat from a single eyebrow.

It's visual poetry worthy of Terrence Malick, who incidentally is a big fan of the Kumite (see #3).

#9.  Ong Soo Han!

Yes, the primary antagonist and shit-eating-grin master of 1996's BLOODSPORT 2 is competing in the Ghang-gheng.  He loses rather quickly and ignominiously, and you hardly even realize he's there, but, hell,  he still got to have a banner year in '96, and nobody can take BLOODSPORT 2 away from him.  I hold you in my heart, Ong Soo Han.

#8.  Stereotypes, stereotypes, stereotypes!
From ENTER THE DRAGON to BLOODSPORT to STREET FIGHTER to SATURDAY NIGHT SLAM MASTERS, fictionalized international fighting tournaments have relied heavily on ethnic and national stereotypes to fuel their particular fires.  Pictured above is the Spanish contender, who naturally fights in a "Flamenco" style and a ruffled shirt.  Now, what do you suppose the odds are that the Japanese contender is a Sumo wrestler?  Or that the German contender arrives in a zeppelin?  Or that the Scottish contender wears a kilt?  That Brazil's entrant is a capoeira master who looks like he crawled out of the rainforest ten minutes ago?  Well, the odds are damned high because all of that stuff happens.  Also, despite every country getting their own fighter, all of Africa gets only one man to represent them.  And his costume is nearly as tasteful as you'd imagine.  Either Sarah Palin is coordinating the Ghang-gheng's geography committee, or the wondrous shadow of Golan-Globus is simply inescapable.  On a similar note:

#7.  The Scotsman felled by a low-blow.  This is just one of a thousand of those rapid-fire absurdities that season your usual JCVD flick.  I only mention this one in particular so that I can continue to be the web's leading authority on brutal ball-squeezing.

And you gotta love the super-enthusiastic Scotch fan in a goddamned Tam o' Shanter who emits a horrified "Ooooooh!" when it happens.

#6.  Roger Moore is ridiculous.

I guess I haven't seen him in anything since I was a kid, and I always thought he was a kind of a bland James Bond in comparison to Sean Connery.  Obviously, I have some revisiting to do.

He's smarmy, he's sleazy, he's out of control.  At one point he sells Jean-Claude Van Damme into slavery.  Just think about that for a minute.  He's probably delivering the most self-aware performance in this film, but his British snottery reaches such stupendous levels that it his self-awareness actually amplifies the quality of his performance.  I'm also having a hard time imagining JCVD taking him aside and critiquing the nuances of his work.  Also, on a continued Roger Moore note:

#5.  Roger Moore Zeppelin/Lost City/Golden Dragon/Rube Goldberg theft.

As Junta Juleil regular Mike B. wrote previously,  THE QUEST is "a Van Damme film where Roger Moore steals treasure with a blimp, and yet that's only like the 5th most bizarre thing that happens."

I don't really have too much to add to that, other than that I really appreciate the Snidely Whiplash heights of glee that he achieves while doing it.

#4.  Jean-Clown Van Damme.

 "Hey, clown boy!  Get off my street!" says the evil gangster who just doesn't understand.  If he only knew how many mouths to feed Jean-Clown Van Damme had.  You see, he made a promise to an army of street urchins.  He's like Fagin, but with the personality of Mother Teresa.  And the leg extension of Jean-Claude Van Damme.

So the whole point of the movie is ostensibly that he fights in the Ghang-gheng to earn money to save the army of street urchins, but their fate is totally glossed over at the end.  After the tournament we quickly cut back to Jean-Claude Old Manne, who mumbles something about saving the kids before we cut to the credits.  How exactly did you save them?  Are you supposed to be an unreliable narrator?  Maybe that's the genius of THE QUEST– all these unanswered questions.  It really gets 'ya thinking.   

 Also, did I mention that he gets to kick some ass... IN STILTS?!


#3.  James Remar, Cheer Leader.

James Remar's Maxie Devine is initially a mild antagonist

 who becomes a Ghang-gheng buddy on par with Jackson in BLOODSPORT.

On the SAT analogy section it would go something like this: 


So keep your eyes peeled for that question, kiddies.

Anyway, he realizes that Van Damme represents the new generation, and that he should step aside so he can have his shot

 and so spends the majority of the movie on the sidelines.  But does he waste his time there?  Hell, no!  He's James goddamned Remar

He gets a lot of great, subtle lines like "NEW YORK CITY!!!,"  "GET UP....GETTTT UPPPP!!!," and "YEAH!  YEAHHHHHHH!!!"  Did I mention that this movie is wonderful?

#2.  The return of 'earnest Van Damme grin!'

Last glimpsed in UNIVERSAL SOLDIER:

It's good to have 'ya back, 'earnest Van Damme grin.'  You possess such a childish sincerity that it almost makes me forget that James Remar is livin' large off to the left and Roger Moore is feigning happiness in return for a paycheck.

I don't think any of the 80s and 90s action greats are quite so sincere as Van Damme.  Bronson certainly is, but it's impossible to pigeonhole him to those decades.  Schwarzenegger occasionally is, but that doesn't quite count.  Look at that smile.  If the hopes and dreams of every human being rested on the sincerity of that smile, we'd all be livin' on Sugar Candy Mountain (or at least Kumite Boulevard) without a care in the world.  Alas.

#1.  Baffling Nipple Adjustment.  AKA, Senseless Nipple Tweaking.

After one of Van Damme's Muay Thai buddies is killed in the ring (yes, at least one person has to be killed in the ring in every fighting tournament movie), Van Damme storms the stage.  He whips Khan around, smacks him in the jiggling man-teat, and stares deeply into his eyes. 


Even better than the fact that this bizarro thing actually happened is the idea that JCVD was not only doing it, but then taking a step back, grabbing his megaphone, and directing the damn thing.  Was he adjusting the levels of sweat seepage and eye-lock intensity?  Was he demanding more takes than Stanley Kubrick?  Was he rehearsing and improvising as much as Mike Leigh?  Was he demanding attention to detail worthy of Erich von Stroheim?  Ah, to be a fly on the wall.

Four stars. 

Friday, August 3, 2012

Film Review: BLOODSPORT 2– THE NEXT KUMITE (1996, Alan Mehrez)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 90 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew:  The shadow of Jean-Claude Van Damme, Daniel Bernhardt (THE MATRIX RELOADED, BLOODSPORTS III & IV), Pat Morita (THE KARATE KID, MULAN), Donald Gibb (BLOODSPORT, REVENGE OF THE NERDS), James Hong (BLADE RUNNER, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA), Lori Lynn Dickerson (an episode of MEN BEHAVING BADLY, TERMINAL VELOCITY), Philip Tan (BATMAN, RETURN TO OZ), Ong Soo Han (DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE STORY, THE QUEST), Master Hee Il Cho (BEST OF THE BEST, BLOODSPORT III), Lisa McCullough (stunts on KILL BILL and CLIFFHANGER).
Tag-line: "The honor... the spirit... the sword... the ultimate fight."
Best one-liner:  "You got a Kumite to win!"

I don't care much for the Olympics.  Maybe because it pales in comparison to that other important international sporting event, the one full of sweaty, chanting men waving Hong Kong dollars around with reckless abandon: yes, The Kumite.  Well, I'm here today to discuss the cinematic wonderment that is BLOODSPORT 2: THE NEXT KUMITE, which notably received zero votes in this decade's newly-published Sight and Sound poll.  I expect that to change in 2022.

For those of you who have not yet seen BLOODSPORT 2: THE NEXT KUMITE, I must note that while it is in fact a sequel to the Golan-Globus trashterpiece BLOODSPORT, it does not in fact star Jean-Claude Van Damme.  It stars a man named Daniel Bernhardt instead.  Now, I hear your audible sighs of frustration but fret not, kumite-goers!  I am about to quote you a magical sentence from one of the special features screens on the BLOODSPORT 2 DVD:

"Daniel Bernhardt discovered his calling as an actor after co-starring in a Versace Jeans promotion with Jean-Claude Van Damme."

I'll let you chew on that for a moment and draw whatever wonderful, bizarre, or sordid inferences you'd like.  Regardless, this is Jean-Claude-approved replacement Jean-Claude.  And what's okay with Jean-Claude is okay with me.  Bernhardt is great.  He's got a similar accent (he's Swiss, not Belgian), he makes the same sincerely gleeful facial expressions as Jean-Claude:

And he also does those patented "ohhh, no!" JCVD facial expressions, which are equally sincere:

He gets tortured, Jesus-style:

Has crazy "martial arts face":

Shit, the man even does the splits!

But don't ask me to explain what's going on in that photograph otherwise.

Truly fantastic.  Well, without further ado:  10 Reasons why BLOODSPORT 2: THE NEXT KUMITE proves itself worthy of the BLOODSPORT name despite the absence of Mr. JCVD himself:

#1.  I didn't check in advance to see what year this was made in.  About an hour into the film, I started thinking about it.  I knew BLOODSPORT 1 was 1988, but this movie– in fashion and music and tone– felt very 80s.  I hazarded a guess– 1991.  Then I looked it up and found that it was actually made in 1996!  It's a rare feat for a film so late in the 90s to capture the flavor of an 80s flick.  Bravo.

#2.  The wraparound story.  In the vein of THE PRINCESS BRIDE, BLOODSPORT 2 is told by an old man (BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA's James Hong) to a room of karate-kicking children who comment on the story throughout, keeping things postmodern and "fresh."  This is a spectacular storytelling choice for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that this is a BLOODSPORT sequel and not, in fact, THE NEVERENDING STORY PART V, or something similar.

Not to get too ahead of myself– they even comment on the finale:  a little girl asks if faux-Van Damme got to "kiss the girl at the end."  Hong says that he did, and we see Bernhardt kissing the girl as the end title comes up.

Of course, this raises the question of how in-depth Hong has been describing the violence and romance and such– does he dip into Cormac McCarthy-worthy prose when relating the violence of a Kumite match?  Does he veer wildly into Harlequin romance territory when telling of faux-Van Damme's romantic exploits?  We must know.

#3.  The impetus for Bernhardt joining the Kumite.  In BLOODSPORT 1, young Van Damme is schooled in the ways of martial arts as a form of penance for stealing his teacher's sword.  In BLOODSPORT 2, Bernhardt is a cat burglar/con man

(Note suavitude)

 who steals a sword that belongs to KARATE KID's Pat Morita and the Kumite, so he goes to prison

(Shirtless prison)

for it and then is trained in the ways of the Iron Hand by James Hong

while wearing pink pants at a temple, which I guess is inside the prison or something, so that he can retrieve the Kumite sword and give it back to the Kumite so that he can compete in the Kumite and win the Kumite and thus win the Kumite sword– honorably.  And James Hong knows about honor because he competed in a Kumite twenty-five years ago.  Whew.  Anyway, there's plenty of THIS:

Some of the better-educated among you will recognize this as Chuck Norris' "crotch-thrust maneuver," popularized in DELTA FORCE 2: THE COLUMBIAN CONNECTION.

lots of martial arts groaning, and the aforementioned splits, so it kinda works out.

#4.  This guy's pajama-kumite pants

which suddenly have made me realize that "Pajama Kumite" would be a pretty rad name for a band.

#5.  Jackson.  Wait– WHAT?!!  JACKSON!  
He's back!  One of the finest facets of the gem that is BLOODSPORT is back!  Now he's kind of like a "Kumite bouncer" or "Kumite entry level employee" or something, but goddamn it, Jackson is back!  It's like seeing an old friend.  God bless Donald Gibb.  The man ought to be enshrined as a national treasure.  Sure, he's not competing here, but he provides Bernhardt with a lot of comic relief:
Ohhhh boy!

and Kumite buddy support:
He's full of infectious, good-natured energy and clad in Salvation-Army-donation-bin tee-shirts and says things like "Hey, man– let's get back– you've got a Kumite to win!"  My only regret is that neither he nor anyone else refers to the Kumite as "full-contact" in this movie.  Also, there's the whole "Jackson romance subplot–"

#6.  "WHU-WHU-WAIT.  Did you say Jackson Romance subplot?!" is the question that you probably just asked.  And the answer is:  "well, yes– yes, I did."  You see, there's a woman competing in the Kumite this year for the first time ever (played by the wonderfully earnest Lori Lynn Dickerson), and suffice it to say that Jackson is in possession of some... amorous intentions.  For your viewing pleasure, I have strung together all of the scenes that involve Jackson's Kumite Romance, which hopefully is a forthcoming grocery-line romance novel...
All I can say is...may the uncensored fanfiction begin!

#7.  And in case you were wondering what that was all about at the end with the Dolph-Lundgren-esque behemoth named "Demon," may I cordially present Ong Soo Han as: "Demon."
Sure, he's not quite Bolo Yeung, but then again, no one is.  He starts off as a guard at the pink pants/shirtless prison we were at earlier, and ends up as the primary villain of the Kumite.  
His only acting choice is wave his arms in challenge and to flash a shit-eating grin, 24/7, non-stop.  And it's a good grin.  He must've had a lot of time to perfect it.  He even does the tango with the grin and Jackson's girl-friend (which leads to the riot you just witnessed in the clip above).

#8.  The clown-makeup Kumite guy.

I don't know what his deal is, but I sorta like it.

#9.  When "The Dude" fights at the Kumite.
Two years before the Coens made a movie about him, The Dude apparently competed in the Kumite.  You can watch the blow by blow, below:

#10.  I guess there is no #10.  You see, I was hoping that we'd get to hear Stan Bush's "Fight to Survive" from BLOODSPORT 1, you know, the song that features a chorus of large, presumably sweaty men incessantly chanting "KUMI-TE, KUMI-TE, KUMI-TE, KUMI-TE!"  Well, it's not here. And that's too bad.  I only wish there was some sort of song here that could be a worthy successor... some kind of musical achievement that 'gets' what a Kumite is all about...
To quote the final sentence of ULYSSES,  "yes I said yes I will YES!!!!"  This is phenomenal.  And, as you can see, I've subtitled it for your viewing pleasure.  First, we have a song in the background that sounds sort of like the stock start-up screen to a bad NES martial arts beat-em-up game.  On top of that, there is a profusion of random utterances, most of which relate– at least tangentially– to the subject matter of BLOODSPORT 2.  But they fire away at random.  It's almost as if they had this background track, and then a sound board filled with Kumite-related bytes which were then randomly hammered out on the console by an eight-year old, hopped up on sugar and smack.  Steve Edward's song is called "The Rhythm of the Kumite," and that phrase certainly gets a workout, but there's a fair amount of "IM-PACT!"  "KICK THE BEAT"  "I THINK THEY TREAT ME LIKE THIS" and other such wonders as well.  There's a man who erupts forth with the word "BLOOOOODSPORT," in a line-reading which truly carries the strain of constipation.  There's a soulful guy whose eyes are obviously closed and whose fingertips are held gently against his headphones as he croons "Ohhhh-whoa-whoaaa!"  There's an army of men who scream in unison, "KUMMI-TAY!" with the high energy but secret derision of corporate chain waiters who are being paid less-than-handsomely to do so.   A digital voice reports, "KICK-BOX-ZING" in that wonderfully stilted way that only a robot can.  A woman (or a young boy?) announces "SLAMMMMMIT," and that's an order, dammit!   Somebody else reminds us that "THIS BEAT IS NONNNN-STOPPP," as if we didn't already know that this irresistible beat was nonstop.  It's like visiting a museum, and each exhibit is precious, each exhibit is special; each objet d'art makes you feel a different way, conjures a separate emotion.   Thanks, BLOODSPORT 2!

-Sean Gill