Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Diggstown (1992)

What is it about boxing that makes great films? Two men beating themselves senseless seems to take on a grander symbolism when put on film, and the struggle between the ropes can be seen to represent almost any larger conflict, even if it's the one inside the fighter him(or her)self. In Michael Ritchie's Diggstown the director forgoes much of the brutal metaphor of other films as the boxing matches serve to carry out the promise of a slow moving (though sweatily entertaining) first half.

James Woods stars as con man Gabriel Caine, who travels to Diggstown, Georgia (with his partner Fitz (the amazing Oliver Platt) to set up his biggest con yet. Diggstown, named after local boxing hero Charles Macom Diggs, loves its boxing, and Fitz convinces the town magnate John Gillon (a sublimely sleazy Bruce Dern) to bet $100,000 that he can provide a fighter that can beat any ten Diggstown men in one day. This fighter is the now 48-year old Honey Roy Palmer.(Louis Gossett Jr.), a former partner of Caines who is dragged back into the ring for one last shot at glory (and a big pay day). The wagers begin to increase as the stakes get personal (and violent) and there are more than a few twists before all is said and done.

A lot closer to The Sting than Raging Bull, Diggstown practically wallows in its trashiness. Woods, Platt and Dern seem to be having a contest to see who can be the seediest swindler, and I have to say that Dern absolutely walks away with the prize. John Gillon isn't handcuffed by being likable, and Durn is able to inhabit the character as a man who will do absolutely anything (including murder) to win. A pre-fight speech where Dern concocts a plan to basically cripple Palmer for life before gathering his fighters in a circle to pray "Dear Lord, please give us the strength and courage to tear this man from limb to limb." is a highlight, and Dern manages to walk a line of cartoonishness to create one of filmdom's most memorable villains.

Woods plays a grifter with a heart of gold, and he gets his share of good one-liners opportunities to display his trademark cockiness. His interplay with Gossett Jr. is inspired, and the two have some strong chemistry that provides a number of funny moments in the film's second half. Oliver Platt doesn't have as much to do, but he does it wonderfully though he sort of vanishes in the final act. Supporting roles are filled by the great Randall 'Tex' Cobb as Caine's prison buddy, and Heather Graham as the (thankfully not intolerable) love interest.

The film's biggest weakness is an inconsistency of tone, with it sometimes veering from broad comedy (say, when a boxer bails on his fight after being given laxatives) to serious drama. Ritchie effectively shows the high stakes involved in the bet, but things often turn a bit maudlin at inopportune moments. Also, while Ritchie does a serviceable job with the boxing scenes, it's fairly pedestrian compared to some of the famously staged boxing scenes in film, from Rocky to Raging Bull. To his credit, however, the matches always remain intelligible and are staged very effectively.

Once the climactic boxing match begins, the pace of the film speeds up considerably and doesn't calm down until the effectively twisty ending. For experienced viewers the outcome may never feel in question, but writer Steven McKay (working from a novel by Leonard Wise) throws a few well timed curve balls right at the film's climax.

The film is presented non-anamorphic in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The print is very dark and shows a significant amount of grain, particularly in the scenes where Honey Roy Palmer is jogging, though certainly a large improvement on my well worn VHS tape. Sound is perfectly adequate, and all of the bone crunching hits and fast talking come through clearly.

The DVD is bare bones and features no extras outside a theatrical trailer and the choice of English or French audio and subtitle tracks.

A highly entertaining and underrated film from the late director of Fletch, Diggstown deserves a better DVD treatment. If only so we can all get a better appreciation of Bruce Dern's ability to transform himself into a human-rodent hybrid. Worth digging out.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

TV Carnage Presents A Sore For Sighted Eyes (2005)

A DVD mix-tape of assorted oddities and weirdness, often edited together in an ironic way, the TV Carnage series is compiled in Toronto, Ontario by a gentleman named Derrick Beckles, and features what is essentially a time capsule collage of pop culture.

A Sore For Sighted Eyes is the fifth in these series of DVDs (all of which are not for sale for copyright reasons, but can be ordered for free off the TV Carnage website), and the irony level is turned up to eleven as we're treated to clips of television preachers, Mr T, erotic exercise videos, Nickelback flogging for McDonalds, some of the worst music videos you'll ever see, and (my personal favorite) clips from the outrageously awful TV movie Riding On The Bus With My Sister (starring Rosie O Donnell) paired with an old John Ritter film. Things don't venture into mondo territory with this collection, and ample time has obviously gone into pairing clips together for maximum efficiency.

But, as with the best mix tapes, these clips are also collected to make a point. My favorite being the beforementioned Nickleback clip where a Muchmusic interviewer asks Chad Kroeger if he ever expected to be working for McDonalds and his denials are repeated again and again as clips of him posing with Ronald McDonald are interspersed. Ridiculous news clips abound as well, from politicians attempting to rap, to Colin Powell singing YMCA and breakdancers performing for the pope. The hour and half long program doesn't pause long enough for the viewer to get bored, as it's truly an assault on the senses.

As would be expected for a collection like this, the video and audio quality varies wildly. The sources of the clips seem to be very inconsistent, but everything is very watchable and the irratic video quality actually adds to the sense of the viewer seeing a pastiche from all over.

There's a full length commentary for the film included, and it's entertaining, though the choice to have the commentary at the same volume level of the clips can make things a little difficult to understand at times. The commentary is definitely jokey, though it's a lot more interesting when it takes some time to talk about the sources of the various clips.

There are a few interesting extras to round things off. Van Bush Barf is the infamous video of George Bush Sr. vomiting on the Japanese Prime Minister (in 1992) combined with Van Halen's "Hot For Teacher", Snake Explains features actor Stefan Brogren who played Archibald 'Archie' 'Snake' Simpson on Degrassi Junior High/Degrassi High/Degrassi: The Next Generation doing a commentary over his appearance on the 80s Canadian game show Talk About in an attempt to explain his embarrasing performance (an edited portion of which is included in the main feature).

Bush League features some clips of George Bush Jr., and finally The Greatest Song Ever treats the viewer to the full version of Jan Terri's song "Losing You". It really is just astoundingly bad, but still quite endearing in its own quirky way. Terri looks like a refugee from a John Waters film, and appears to have forgotten most of the lyrics as she desperately attempts to sing along.

The DVD was compiled in classic party-tape style, and would be a great thing to have in the background at a gathering of like-minded individuals. A Sore For Sighted Eyes might be a little much to take in one viewing, but Beckles has a keen eye for the ridiculous of our media age, and has put something together that is at once entertaining and somewhat thoughtful in its own twisted way.

A Sore For Sighted Eyes (and other TV Carnage DVDs) can be purchased through http://www.tvcarnage.com/.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Movie Cornucopia - Mongol (2007), Step Brothers (2008), WALL-E

Mongol (2007) - The early life (and love) of Genghis Khan is brought to life in this beautiful, though sometimes meandering, Russian film from director Sergei Bodrov. The film stars the great Tadanobu Asano (Ichi The Killer) as Temudjin, and the early scenes demonstrate what was a very difficult and violent upbringing, later to shape him into a fierce warrior on the battlefield. Everything about the film is epic, from the amazing scenery to the expansive storyline which only covers a fraction of the fascinating leaders life. The battle scenes are huge and vicious, though sometimes rely a little too heavily on CGI blood, and the performances are uniformally strong. The ending feels a little sudden, though this was designed as the first of a trilogy of films and it simply makes the viewer hungry to see what comes next.

Step Brothers (2008) - Ridiculous, though entertaining, film from the team behind Anchorman and Talladega Nights. Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly star as 40 year olds suffering from arrested development who find themselves unwilling roomates after their parents meet and get married. Most of the time is spent watching middle aged men act like 12 year olds, not that there's anything wrong with that. Ferrell and Reilly are strong as usual, but it's Richard Jenkins and Mary Steenburgen as the parents that hold things together. It's a surprisingly profane film, particulary compared to the previous Adam McKay/Will Ferrell films, and it runs out of steam around the 3/4 mark, but it has enough silliness to make it worth viewing.

WALL-E (2008) - The strongest Pixar film yet, and one of the best films of the year so far. It borrows liberally from 70s Sci-fi and E.T., but the result is some astounding animation and what are some truly ballsy creative decisions. Children might squirm during the first half hour (which contains nearly no dialogue), but the film rapidly picks up speed when the main characters leave earth. Some might read it as a slick environmentalist meditation, but it really just carries on the best science fiction tradition of showing us a vision of the future that works as a commentary on the present.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Jjakpae aka The City of Violence (2006)

Have you ever been in one of those situations where you absolutely wanted to unconditionally love something, but couldn't bring yourself to do it? Well, last Wednesday was one of those times for me.

I picked up a copy of The City of Violence while I was home visiting family over the July 4th weekend. When I returned to Michigan, the DVD went on my shelf while I went on a four week bender of Cherry Coke and Grand Theft Auto IV.

Last Saturday I finally helped Jimmy the Peg achieve room temperature and decided it was time to sit down and watch the movies I should've watched a month ago. The City of Violence was the first DVD I picked up...

I should've watched Shadowless Sword first, but not because The City of Violence was an awful film. The City of Violence just proved that movie buffs like myself are probably more susceptible to internet hype than we like to think we are.

The City of Violence spins the fairly familiar yarn of the tragedy that comes with the realization that the familiar stomping grounds of your idyllic youth have been engulfed by a vortex of corruption.

Where is there left to go when you find that you can't go back home?

Top Seoul detective, Tae-su (Du-hong Jeong), returns to his hometown to attend his high school friend, Wang-jae's, (Kil-Kang Ahn) funeral. Flashbacks to the past reveal Tae-su's strong bonds with his high school friends along with promises of unconditional camaraderie.

These visions collide violently with the crushing reality of the present as Tae-su discovers gradually discovers that his chilhood friend, Pil-ho (Beom-su Lee), has been consumed by greed and has used less than admirable means to broker a land deal with the South Korean government in order to build a casino.

Means that include murder, extortion, blackmail, and the collection of the most amusing set of street gangs known to man.

Sound like the bastard child of The Warriors and Romeo Must Die? We'll you're probably right.

As a matter of fact, The City of Violence "pays homage" to so many films that it forgets to be its own film. If you pay close enough attention, you'll note parallels to everything from Kill Bill, to Walking Tall, to the fantastic 2001 Korean gangster epic, Friend.

The dramatic interludes harmonize about as well with the action scenes as the Georgian infantry harmonizes with Russian tanks. When people aren't getting maimed, the pacing of The City of Violence really does grind down.

But when this movie decides to live up to its title... Oh, boy...

The fights in this film are really well done. You may wrinkle your nose a bit if you're not fond of urban wuxia, but just about every brawl in this movie is balls to the wall. Du-hong Jeong and company get to showcase a lot of star quality Tae Kwon Do.

There is so much wonderful mayhem that nitpicky points of argumental logic tend to go by the wayside when bad guys are being cut to ribbons or getting kicked repeatedly in the jaw.

(ie. Why do so many people carry knives and swords in this movie and only one guy has a firearm? What is this? The 1300's?)

When there is that much satifying havoc going on in such a short period of time who really cares?

The final showdown between good and evil is as bloody as you might hope it would be, and it is surprisingly unforgiving.

As with Renaissance, my ultimate disappointment with The City of Violence stems from the notion that there is probably a really outstanding film somewhere in the script, but it never shows its face.

The City of Violence appears to be destined to be "that movie." You know, the one that is overpimped by the resident asiaphiles on the iMDB message boards as the greatest thing ever, yet doesn't quite live up to expectations.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Contamination (1980)

Contamination (aka Alien Contamination aka Toxic Spawn) is a ridiculous wholesale rip-off of Ridley Scott's Alien that oddly chooses to emulate that film's chestburster scene again and again rather than copy any of the tension or character development that made the original film so successful. In fact, while director Luigi Cozzi rails against budget limitations on the special features, the film's biggest flaw is its lame script (by Cozzi himself) which handicaps any sort of momentum the film might pick up from its gory special effects.

A seemingly empty vessel floats into New York Harbor, and an investigation finds the captain and crew mutilated and a cargo full of strange green eggs. An unfortunate fellow decides to pick one up, and soon the contents of his stomach have sprayed all over the screen. The surviving New York cop (Marino Masé) is quarantined, and soon joins with Colonel Stella Holmes (Louise Marleau) in investigating who was responsible for sending the ship to New York (aka Italy). Things take a turn for the bizarre as Stella remembers that a disgraced astronaut (Ian McCulloch from Lucio Fulci's Zombie) spoke of green eggs after returning from a trip to Mars, and decides to pay him a visit. Soon the whole crew is off to South America to check out a coffee company that just might be a front for an alien invasion. The climax treats us to the best awful looking alien this side of an Outer Limits episode.

Let's start with the positive. We get a really fun score from Goblin, though it's more Dawn Of The Dead than Suspiria, which elevates a few slow scenes. The gore is messy and plentiful, but always goofy enough to remain enjoyable. And I thought some of the performances were actually pretty decent, particularly McCulloch who is probably a bit too good to be in this film. Or Zombie. Or Dr. Butcher MD.

Cozzi is a capable schlock director, and helmed the campy Star Wars rip-off Starcrash (starring David Hasselhoff!) before this film, but his flat film-making style brings the pacing to a crawl between scenes of entrails being spewed forth. Admittedly he's not helped by the dubbing of the international cast, a necessary evil of a lot of Italian exploitation, that sometimes makes the whole mess resemble a bad kung-fu movie. However, the initial scene where the police are investigating the boat actually manages to raise some tension and is really the closest the film ever gets to being a successful horror film. It's just too bad that's in the first ten minutes.

After the first half hour the film starts to get ponderous, with many extraneous driving scenes obviously padding out the film's running time. Cozzi complains about the producers making some unreasonable demands in the extras, in particular wanting the climax to resemble a James Bond picture, and these influences start to reflect in the uneven tone in the film's second half. The whole thing ends with a thud, as the bad guy's viscera gets blown out in comical slow motion and the eggs are all destroyed. Or ARE they? Dun dun DUN!

Whatever complaints I have about the film, it's tough to criticize the great job Blue Underground has done with the DVD. Shown in its original 1.85:1 ratio, the image quality is inconsistent but is by far the best the film has ever looked on a home format. The audio is presented in English only with DTS 6.1 ES, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX, Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround, and Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono options available. I watched this on a dinky little screen, so I can't tell you the difference between any of those, but it certainly sounds impressive.

We're also treated to a nice array of special features, the best being the 18 Minute Alien Arrives On Earth, which is a nice modern (subtitled) interview with Luigi Cozzi about the making of the film. His love for the sci-fi genre is obvious, though the homages he references are a tad spurious. He also calls Louise Marleau ugly, and doesn't seem to understand why the film received an R rating, despite the fact that its main selling point is exploding guts.

We also get a 23 minute making of featurette created at the time of the film's release. The image quality is quite low, and it seems to have been made from the perspective that film-goers have no idea how films are made, but it's a nice treat. We're also treated to a poster/still gallery, some conceptual photos, and the film's trailer.

Finally, we're treated to some DVD-Rom content in the form of a comic book adaptation of the entire film. It's absolutely terrible, and since it's based on the original script it features some freaky moments (and nudity), but is worth reading if only for the fact that such an oddity even exists.

I first saw Contamination as a teenager, having rented it from the local video store to watch with my cousin. At the time I enjoyed it as a splatter fest, and for a particular scene where a mouse is injected with the contents of one of the eggs and proceeds to explode all over the inside of a glass cage. Age (and possible wisdom) have muted my enthusiasm for what is really a derivative, flat piece of exploitation not really worthy of the treatment given here. Stick with Alien, or the many, many better rip-offs that are out there.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Spirits Of Bruce Lee (1973)


Chang Chen-Wai (Wai-Man Chan) travels to Thailand to find his brother, a jade dealer who vanished the year before. While searching for information on his brothers disappearance, Chang Chen-Wai befriends a Chinese family who own a restaurant, and who reveal that his brother was found murdered nearby. Filled with rage, he takes his revenge on local criminals while tracking down information on who was responsible for his brother's death. He also meets a police officer named Li Pai-Yu who is working undercover to take down the gangster Ming Pan-Tin. The whole thing culminates in a big ol' fight, where two Japanese guys (one with a WHIP!) show up for no good reason.


When Bruce Lee died in 1973, the search for his successor began almost immediately. However, for some enterprising kung fu movie producers, Lee's name (or, a close facsimile) would continue to have value for years to come. The Bruceploitation genre of films was soon born, starring Bruce clones like Bruce Li, Bruce Le and Dragon Lee; many of whom were talented in their own right but lacked the charisma or ability of the man they were imitating. These films duped many a unsuspecting kung-fu fan, particularly as the films often referenced Bruce Lee's more famous work (The Dragon Lives, The Chinese Connection 2), or pretended to be biography (The Bruce Lee Story, The Secret Of Bruce Lee). Some of these films are entertaining and many have their own exploitive charm.

I mention the Bruceploitation genre because Spirits Of Bruce Lee is the worst sort of Bruceploitation film: one that neither has a Bruce Lee imitator, nor attempts to recreate a Bruce Lee classic or document his life story. The only mention of Bruce Lee you will find here is in the title, as the lead has no particular resemblence and makes no attempt to ape his fighting style (a.k.a. he doesn't howl with every punch). I'm guessing the title was just a cash-in attempt following Lee's death.

The movie itself is a slow moving affair, with infrequent bursts of badly choreographed kung-fu before going back to a murky revenge story. We get the requisite love interest, an abbreviated training scene, and a fat guy doing some bizarre comic relief. There's also a short (ha!) appearance by a midget that brightened my spirits briefly, but sadly he soon vanished and I had to pay attention to the plot again.

Wai-Man Chan is reasonably charismatic in the lead, but the actor playing the Thai police officer seems to have stronger charisma and fighting skills. That being said, there are opportunities for both men to show off their abilities, particularly in an early fight scene where the two fight off some would-be rapists.

The Thai location could actually be an interesting setting for a kung-fu film, but this is a long way from Ong Bak. There are a few flashes of interesting Thai fighting styles from the Thai stuntmen, but they move so slowly compared to the Chinese actors that it's jarring to see them. The late appearance by two Japanese fighters is bizarre, but actually offered a bit of color to what was generally a very bland film.

The photography is awfully dark, and night scenes become very difficult to follow (particularly the opening scene). The dubbing is absolutely atrocious, and there are a few scenes where characters fall into awkward silence as the dubbing actor runs out of dialogue. The full frame presentation is ugly, but mostly watchable.

A confusing plot, combined with lackluster martial arts, means that Spirits Of Bruce Lee is best avoided. An interesting location, and some talented actors, can't make up for the bland stew of nothingness that ends up on screen.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Renaissance (2006)

Whether it be the outrageously proportioned women in the 1981 geek love classic, Heavy Metal, or the breathtaking mother of all anime, AKIRA, I think that it is pretty much understood that not all cartoons are for kids these days. I find it refreshing that a generation always manages to drag the trappings they feel most comfortable with along with it as it progresses, despite the insistance of the previous generation that such trappings are "childish."

I find it equally refreshing that when this occurs, it means that said generation hasn't forgotten the importance of having fun.

For my parents, those trappings were board games and soul music. For me, it is cartoons and video games.

When I first heard about the film, Renaissance, about a year ago, I was immediately excited. Not only was this a cutting edge animated film, but it featured the voice of Daniel Craig (Layer Cake, Casino Royale) and drew some rather blatant parallels to one of my all time favorite dystopian science fiction movies, Blade Runner.

Then I heard that this was made by the French... Yikes....

Or not, since one of the greatest treasures that the France has given to the world was neither Statue of Liberty nor the Eiffel Tower.

It was a man by the name of Luc Besson..

Hell, either Cyril Raffaelli, David Belle, or Jean Reno could single handedly redeem the entire French population, so my initial fears that French involvement could ruin this production were put to rest for the time being.

Renaissance takes place in Paris, France in the year 2054 and follows French-Algerian detective, Barthélémy Karas (Craig), as he investigates the kidnapping of a beautiful and brilliant geneticist named Ilona Tasuiev (Romola Garai). In the course of the investigation, our intrepid hero naturally runs afoul of evil corporate dickhead, Paul Dellenbach (Jonathan Pryce), and eventually hooks up with Bislane Tasuiev (Catherine McCormack), the sister of the kidnapped scientist.

Rather predictably, Renaissance attempts to run the gambit between noirish action and moral relevance much like her predecessor, Blade Runner, did over two decades ago but was much better at it. The odd thing about this production is that even though the everything is done in black and white, the visuals are still very stark.

The Paris of 2054 worked better than I expected it to as far as dystopian settings go. It reminded me quite a bit of (what I assumed to be) the future London of Terry Gilliam's, Brazil: a city where you can't help but marvel at the complexity and still feel a chill run down your spine because you knew that somewhere, someplace... evil was hard at work..

What ultimately disheartens me about Renaissance is that it is a film that has only learned part of the lessons taught by similarly themed works.

Like Brazil or Blade Runner, the film relies heavily on visuals that bring big dividends. The film's innovative rotoscopy techniques and stylized illustration keep your attention fairly effortlessly. Renaissance accomplishes quite a bit through mere pacing and action, and does a great job of convincing you that the black and white lens through which you view this world is just as important to the story as the plot itself.

I would argue that if there is a project that really does successfully capture that intangible, surreal touch we all expect in comic book films these days then this is the one, even though Renaissance isn't based on any past or present illustrated hard copy.

As you watch this, you really get the sense that you're actually settling down with your favorite graphic novel, or kicking back with your ancient stack of Heavy Metal or Epic Illustrated magazines and losing yourself in those sci-fi alternities that Juan Giménez, Masamune Shirow, and Moebius created so long ago where women were hot and problems were solved properly via liberal use of small arms fire from cool looking automatic weapons.

I enjoyed savoring the irony of Renaissance as it presented a dysfuntional place where the lens of the world literally registers black and white, yet the spectrum of morality dwells in familiar shades of grey. Renaissance gives you a glimpse into a backdrop where absolute power does indeed corrupt absolutely, where purity and honor are ideals to be admired even if they do seem like liabilities, and where sometimes you have to do a terrible thing in order to preserve the greater good.

However unlike Brazil, Blade Runner, or even AKIRA, Renaissance does not take the time to build a foreboding sense of dread. The villains are acceptably threatening but Karas is such a badass that you're certain that he'll will eventually triumph over the sinister mega-corporate forces that dare to play God with the rest of humanity. For a dystopian work, Renaissance is hardly subtle.

There are a couple of very clever plot twists, but not enough tangible menace to fill a viewer's heart with any doubt that good will win in the end. That is a cardinal sin when it comes to dystopian literature.

In a despotic future society where things aren't as they seem, the worst thing you can inject into the plot is a feeling of positive surety. Whether it be the insurmountable bureaucratic power of Big Brother found in in Orwell's 1984 or Terry Gilliam's Brazil or the state-sanctioned mind control used by The Grammaton in the 2002 woefully underloved cinematic offering, Equilibrium, there always has to be something overwhelming and malevolent lurking just beyond the mind's eye that tests the protagonist's perseverance to the breaking point, if it doesn't grind him into dust first.

Overcoming nearly impossible odds is what makes dystopian plotlines so interesting in my opinion. The amount of hardship the hero has to overcome is so monumental that it makes even the most mundane victories memorable, and makes complete triumph truly remarkable.

Director Christian Volckman doesn't keep the narrative as tight as he should nor does he seem to trust the story enough to let the plot do its work. This disappointed me a bit because I've seen this movie twice now and after every viewing, I always get the feeling that something wonderous will literally jump out of the screen and force its way into my subconcious.

There is a film for the ages somewhere in the script of Christian Volckman's Renaissance, but sadly you will just have to settle for a popcorn muncher that is a tad too smart for its own good.