Monday, March 26, 2012

Film Review: THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987, Brian de Palma)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 119 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Kevin Costner, Robert De Niro, Sean Connery, Charles Martin Smith (AMERICAN GRAFFITI, STARMAN), Andy Garcia (THE GODFATHER PART III, BLACK RAIN), Billy Drago (TREMORS 4, DELTA FORCE 2), Patricia Clarkson (THE GREEN MILE, THE WOODS), Jack Kehoe (SERPICO, MIDNIGHT RUN), Don Harvey (CREEPSHOW 2, DIE HARD 2). Screenplay by David Mamet, music by Ennio Morricone, cinematography by Stephen H. Burum (CARLITO'S WAY, RAISING CAIN, ARTHUR 2: ON THE ROCKS).
Tagline: "AL CAPONE. He ruled Chicago with absolute power. No one could touch him. No one could stop him. - Until Eliot Ness and a small force of men swore they'd bring him down."
Best one-liner: "Isn't that just like a wop? Brings a knife to a gun fight." (said in Sean Connery's Scottish brogue)

THE UNTOUCHABLES is a pretty solid flick. I saw it when I was rather young, and I remember it making quite an impression. Part buddy cop movie, part mobster epic, part Peckinpah-style shoot-'em-'up, part courtroom drama, part police procedural, part Sergei Eisenstein meets John Woo– it pretty much had it all. Initially I saw it because INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE had recently come out and it had launched a Sean Connery kick for me that never really did end, now that I think about it. I believe it may have been my first exposure to Brian de Palma and David Mamet, too. In the years hence, I know that Mamet has written works with greater depth and resonance than this, and I know that De Palma has made movies that are artsier and even more ludicrous, but it's nice to return to THE UNTOUCHABLES, like an old friend– an old friend with a reverb-heavy, kickass 80's Morricone soundtrack who luvs slo-mo squib action and disguising split-screen shots as ridiculous deep-focus shots.

Anyway, others, such as J.D. at Radiator Heaven, John Kenneth Muir, and Mr. Peel's Sardine Liqueur have pretty much said what needs to be said about the film in the realms of historical context, profundity, and classiness, so I suppose that instead of covering ground that's already been covered, I'll do what I am wont to do: leap headlong into the absurdity and minutiae of THE UNTOUCHABLES!

As such, I'll divide my observations into two parts: Drago-related, and non-Drago-related. The non-Drago-related section is gonna be pretty small, actually.

Non-Drago-Related Observations:

#1. Don Harvey.

Hey, look, guys– it's Don Harvey, handing Kevin Costner an axe! You remember Don Harvey, don't you? From DIE HARD 2 and CREEPSHOW 2? I've described him as proto-Peter Weller meets proto-Kevin Bacon, and hey– I like the guy. Nice to see you, Don.

#2. TENEBRE homage.

Oh, De Palma, I love ya. During a notable scene when Sean Connery is being stalked at his home, the camera shifts forward and backward, tracking across the exterior architecture, catching voyeuristic glimpses of Connery, and ending with a first-person P.O.V. of hands breaking into a window, just like the legendary crane shot in TENEBRE (which has nearly the exact same visuals, and ends with black-gloved hands wielding bolt-cutters to gain entrance to a window). Sure, it doesn't matter much in the long run, but it makes me kinda tingly when Argento gets a well-deserved salute. Unless said salute is being delivered by Diablo Cody. Or to Diablo Cody. Eh. Anyway, TENEBRE is notably referenced in RAISING CAIN, too.

#3. Connery's booze stash.

Throughout the film, my girlfriend was remarking that "there's no way Connery is sober during this," and I, not having seen the film in a dozen years or so, was saying "he's fighting alcohol bootleggers, let 'im total his tea." Anyway, during the sequence referenced in #2, Connery pulls a bottle o' contraband hooch out of his oven and has a snort. Also of note: Connery is apparently playing an Irish American with a Scottish accent, just as he played a Spaniard with a Scottish accent, and in the future would go on to play a Russian with a Scottish accent. A versatile fellow, he.


Drago-Related Observations:


Who is that terrifying, cheek-boney, crazy-eyed, thin white duke lurking in the shadows, there? Wait a minute, wait a minute... a sense memory is kicking in... could it be...

Holy shit, now the wheels are turning, ladies and gentlemen! "Smooth Criminal" was on BAD, released in late August 1987. THE UNTOUCHABLES was early June 1987. Could it be? Could the inspiration for "Smooth Criminal" be none other than ....BILLY DRAGO???


"As he came into the window, it was the sound of a crescendo"

"He left the bloodstains on the carpet"

"You've been hit by, you've been hit by, a smooth criminal"

And then, it turns out that Drago later appeared, in 2001, in a Michael Jackson video called "You Rock My World!" Is it possible that all of Jackson's surgeries involved wanting to be more like Billy Drago? Is MOONWALKER indirectly the result of Billy Drago's acting brilliance? Who is Annie? And more importantly, is she okay? So many unanswered questions.

But I believe I may have put the cart before the horse. Let me back up for a moment. Billy Drago, long beloved by this site, plays "Frank Nitti," the white-suit-clad doer of Al Capone's dirty-work. He blows up children, he skulks in the dark, he kills beloved characters, he makes thinly veiled threats and dons a devilish grin.


And he does it with style. That's Drago for ya. The man is one of a kind. Make no mistake about that. I may have alluded to other celebrities with "thin white duke," or "smooth criminal," or, hell, once I even called him "Scary Dean Stanton," but my point is this: you believe Drago, every step of the way. Here is an actor who connects with the material, brings it alive, even when he's bringing alive an attempted Chuck Norris makeout session. And by the time THE UNTOUCHABLES is over: you will believe a Drago can fly– (which again, returning to DELTA FORCE 2, appears to be a recurring career theme!)

...Amen.


-Sean Gill

Friday, March 23, 2012

This Sunday: BATSHIT CRAZY BLOWOUT!

This Sunday, in our continuing series as artists-in-residence at the Bowery Poetry Club, Junta Juleil and the Psycho Space Laboratory proudly present what may be the final show of the series (for a while, at least): BATSHIT CRAZY BLOWOUT!

Hosted by Jillaine Gill, featuring live performances by Kerryn Feehan, Lisa D., Jessie Richardson, Dave Marcus, Sean Gill, Katie Hayes, Don DiPaolo, Natalie Green, and a few films by Sean Gill, including a couple of surprises.

It's this Sunday, March 25th at 9:30 p.m. (doors open at 9) at the Bowery Poetry Club (308 Bowery between Houston and Bleecker, take the F train to 2nd Ave, or the 6 to Bleecker). Doors around 9 pm, event starts at 9:30, 10 dollars cash at the door.

It's a live ride!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Film Review: KICKBOXER (1989, Mark DiSalle & David Worth)

Stars: 4.5 of 5.
Running Time: 97 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Jean-Claude Van Damme (BLOODSPORT, CYBORG, DOUBLE IMPACT), Dennis Alexio (PICASSO TRIGGER), Dennis Chan (KICKBOXER 2, KICKBOXER 3), Michael Qissi (LIONHEART, BLOODSPORT), Haskell V. Anderson (A CIVIL ACTION, THIS CHRISTMAS), Rochelle Ashana (FRIGHT NIGHT PART 2, BLADE). Music by Paul Herztog (HOLLYWOOD ZAP, BLOODSPORT). Directed by Mark DiSalle (THE PERFECT WEAPON, co-producer of BLOODSPORT) and David Worth (POOR PRETTY EDDIE, SHARK ATTACK 3, CHAIN OF COMMAND). Written by Worth, Van Damme, and Glenn A. Bruce (ASSAULTED NUTS, BAYWATCH, CYBORG COP).
Tagline: "If your enemy refuses to be humbled...Destroy Him!"
Best one-liner: "I want Tong Po! GIVE ME TONG PO!"

Brought to you by many of the luminaries who gave birth to BLOODSPORT (which I have amply discussed HERE) and distributed by those heroes of the 1980s, Cannon Films, KICKBOXER is another seminal film which devotes the majority of its run-time to astounding and delighting its audience with the ecstatic visual poetry of toes being jammed into bloodied faces:

and homoerotic leg stretch exercises courtesy of the Splitmaestro himself:

Perhaps this sounds an awful lot like BLOODSPORT to you. You couldn't be more wrong. KICKBOXER stands on its own. Er, rather, it kneels on its own as it prepares to erupt with a forthcoming low-blow. I mean, let's compare random screengrabs from BLOODSPORT and KICKBOXER, and then I'll contrast them to illustrate my point.

SCREEN GRAB A


SCREEN GRAB B

Grab A is clearly from BLOODSPORT. Those blurry background spectators are clearly watching a Kumite, while in Grab B, they're clearly watching a Muay Thai match. I suppose I could see how the uninitiated might find differences to be a bit subtle, but it's all in the levels of crowd enthusiasm, and in BLOODSPORT they're waving around Hong Kong money, and in KICKBOXER it's Thai currency. And then, look at the lighting– BLOODSPORT is photographed like a sporting event you'd see on TV. KICKBOXER is much more influenced by Italian chiaroscuro woodcuts of the Seventeenth Century. Not to mention that the loincloths are completely unalike. I could go on, but I won't. Instead, I'll regale you with my Lucky 13 Favorite Facets of the Gem that is KICKBOXER:

#1. As if it wasn't already unfortunate enough that Thailand is often reductively associated with just Pad Thai and child prostitution, within the first three minutes of KICKBOXER, Jean-Claude is delightedly taking photographs of naked Thai children.


And wait– is that a sleeveless jeans jacket? And the lyrics to this schweet n' synthy song go "Cruisin' down the streets in Si-am/Every-body loves a winner!" Hold up one sec–

Sorry, I'm always mixing up these DVDs, and I seem to have mislaid the disc for CAN'T STOP THE MUSIC inside the KICKBOXER case.


Er, wait– no, that's KICKBOXER, alright. Try not to strain anything, guys!

#2. The devastating opening match whereupon Van Damme's brother is paralyzed by Tong Po and he must swear revenge. WATCH Van Damme literally throw in the towel, only to have it KICKED back by the completely evil Tong Po who has zero respect for Van Damme's particular brand of Belgian-American sincerity.

The 'ole Back-Breaker is executed as Van Damme screams from the sidelines in abject misery:

NO!

And then the weight of it all sinks it: Van Damme is a broken man, and he lets the sensation of loss wash over him. Brando may have trained with Lee Strasberg, but Van Damme trained with Golan and Globus. Each have achieved their own particular emotional heights and depths in the annals of film history, but only Van Damme can do it inside or outside a Muay Thai ring with equal mastery.

Outside the ring emotion:


Eventual inside the ring emotion:


#3. Haskell V. Anderson, and exposition, exposition, exposition.

JCVD always needs some sidekicks, and a pretty damned notable one here is Haskell V. Anderson, photographed here relaxing against a wood-beaded seat cover. (Whatever happened to those, anyway?) Haskell plays a sleazy ex-Special Forces 'Nam vet who just might have a heart of gold under that mercenary, strip-club frequenting, heavy boozing, toothpick-gnawing exterior. The screenplay of KICKBOXER wastes no time with subtlety, and within moments of meeting him, he's saying things like "By the way, my name's Taylor, Special Forces." And shortly after that, things like "I had a buddy in 'Nam. He needed me once, and I could have saved him, but I froze." Instant character! It just flows forth from their mouths. I like that. It's like those pill-shaped "Instant Animals" I had as a kid; you stuck 'em in a glass of water, and they grew into miniature foam creatures overnight. That's what the supporting characters are like in a JCVD flick– just add water, and all of a sudden they're growin'– spouting exposition and character development and deep-seated secrets! I love it.

Also of note: it's revealed later that Taylor is well-known for his specialty quiches.

#4. Underwater Kung Fu or Tai Chi or Muay Thai, or whatever he's supposed to be doing.

Because you're just not going to see this sort of thing anywhere else.

#5. This particular training montage, which involves dropping gourds from great heights onto JCVD's abs. Note the impeccable comic timing.


#6. The training method which involves tying raw meat to JCVD's leg as he attempts to outrun a dog.

The close-up reveals that he's wearing community theater "urchin" shorts, carefully scissored immediately prior to this take for that authentic, "well-worn" look.

Also, he becomes friends with the dog later, and they speak at length.


#7. Paul Hertzog's soundtrack, which echoes, but does not copy, his masterful work on BLOODSPORT. "Fight for Love" is excellent, as is the aforementioned "Cruisin' in Siam."

#8. The fact that they actually filmed on location in Thailand. It lends the film an actual touch of class. Today they'd just green-screen it, but here they're actually training at ancient temples.

It's described by a character as "like Shangri-La meets Alice in Wonderland," and ya know what, they're right.

#9. This eagle.

This eagle ends up being a main character, and delivers one of the most stoic, nuanced performances in the film. Let me repeat that: this eagle becomes a main character.

#10. This scene of pure brilliance which is probably the artistic centerpiece of the film. JCVD, who plays a tee-totaler throughout, is told by his master to drink a beverage entitled the "Kiss of Death" and then hit the dance floor to groove with some local ladies. A brawl ensues, splits are involved, and, well, just watch the damn thing:

Now here's my hypothetical question: why did the men attack? Your hypothetical answer is probably "because they were put up to it by the local Muay Thai-organizing crime syndicate." But allow me to float a different, bolder answer: perhaps is it because he was ignoring the local croozin' dudes and dancing with the hags at the village gay bar? Ah, but who can say.

#11. The stakes, which are raised hilariously and exponentially throughout. JCVD isn't just fighting to avenge his paraplegic brother. He's fighting to keep him alive, after he's been kidnapped by the local Muay Thai syndicate who say they'll kill him if he doesn't A., Throw the fight, and B., Go the distance! And he's also fighting to avenge his girlfriend's honor after she's been raped and beaten by Tong Po! You're left wondering if perhaps Tong Po is about to fly to Belgium to push Jean-Claude's grandmother down some stairs before the big fight, too. Alas, it doesn't pan out.

#12. Ass-kickin' paraplegia.

On a related note, Taylor, JCVD's mentor Xian Chow, and his paralyzed bro Eric team up to kill the syndicate captors in a fight which runs concurrently with the final kickboxing match.

A henchman takes a meat-hook to the balls, which merits a thumbs-up:

And only now does it occur to me that Van Damme bro Eric (Dennis Alexio) bears an incredible resemblance to SAVED BY THE BELL's A.C. Slater! How 'bout that?

#13. The final duel, which is as full of broken-glass-licking, sweaty, asscheek-revealing, low-blow action as you'd expect.



And I like this snake sculpture, possibly papier-mâchéd by interns ten minutes ago.

And this guy, who, upon being splashed in the face with JCVD's blood, savors and licks it in a display of masculinity and subtle homoeroticism.

And when Van Damme starts winning, the crowd begins to chant something approximating "NUK SU COW! NUK SU COW! NUK SU COW!" This reminded me of "KUMI-TE! KUMI-TE! KUMI-TE!" and subsequently warmed my heart.

Well, JCVD, you've done it again. I can't say that KICKBOXER can equal the incredible majesty of BLOODSPORT (I'm not sure ANYTHING can), but it certainly fits my definition of "a grand old time." See you on the dancefloor.

-Sean Gill

Friday, March 9, 2012

GIANT OSCAR MESS: Best Puppet

In my continuing coverage of GIANT OSCAR MESS (best described HERE), I present to you the nominees for final category: BEST PUPPET IN A MOTION PICTURE

And the winner was...

...Lorenzo Lamas, a win made all the more shocking because he wasn't even nominated. Mr. Lamas himself (impersonator Eric Schmalenberger) even accepted the award, in character. It's a live ride!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

GIANT OSCAR MESS: Best Dance of Seduction

In my continuing coverage of GIANT OSCAR MESS (best described HERE), I present to you the nominees for BEST DANCE OF SEDUCTION IN A MOTION PICTURE.

And the winners were...

....Deborah Reed and David McConnell in TROLL 2, for obvious reasons.

(to be continued...)

Saturday, March 3, 2012

GIANT OSCAR MESS: Best Spazzified Solo Dance

In my continuing coverage of GIANT OSCAR MESS (best described HERE), I present to you the nominees for BEST SPAZZIFIED SOLO DANCE IN A MOTION PICTURE.


And the winner was...

....Mark Patton in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2, for special achievement in multi-tasking between doing a spazzified solo dance and completing his housework.

(to be continued...)