|by Peter Sobczynski
In which your faithful critic reminds you that instead of watching DVDs this weekend, you should be preparing for the Chicago Bears to run roughshod over Indianapolis (a.k.a. Chicago Jr.) in the Super Bowl. If that doesn't interest you, and God help you if it doesn't, perhaps the long-awaited DVD release of one of the oddest action films ever made will pique your interest instead.
As anyone old enough to live through the 1980's in America can probably recall, it seemed like hardly a week or two went by without a new fad suddenly emerging to enthrall the population–everything from blasted denim and poofy hair to Iran-Contra and the solo career of Foreigner lead singer/Chess King spokesman Lou “Midnight Blue” Gramm. Some of these sensations disappeared quickly, such as films top-lining Andrew McCarthy or cowpunk (though my crush on Maria McKee continues on to this very day) while others, like slasher movies or crack cocaine, would prove to be surprisingly resilient to the passage of time. Of course, if we all had to name the one single fad that completely defined the era and who we were as a people–the kind that transcends mere popularity to become an instantly recognizable institution along the lines of Coca-Cola, Mickey Mouse or democracy itself–I am fairly certain that all of us would vote for the exact same thing.
For some of you younger readers, the notion that there was once a time in which gymkata did not exist must come as kind of a shock, so thoroughly has it dominated the culture. And yet, there was a time when the incredibly popular fusion of martial arts and gymnastics was unknown to most people. Once it took off, however, it become the instant object of devotion to anyone with access to a pommel horse and before long, America was essentially divided into two camps–those who practiced gymkata, not just as a sport but as a way of life, and those who wished they had the skills to practice gymkata. Sure, Lloyd Dobler, the character played by John Cusack in “Say Anything,” may have claimed that a mere pretender like kickboxing was going to be “the sport of the future” but if you looked closely into his eyes when he said those words, you could see the cold, dead stare of someone who knew that, try though he might, he just didn’t have the strength, character and intestinal fortitude to become a gymkata master like the rest of us.
Although gymkata surely would have taken off on its own in due time, the thing that fully launched it into the national consciousness was the release of the incredibly successful 1985 film classic “Gymkata.” Considering the importance of the subject matter, one might have assumed that the producers of the film would have utilized a documentary approach in order to show how gymkata benefitted millions of ordinary people on a daily basis. Instead, they decided to appeal to a broader audience by coming up with an adventure film along the lines of the Bruce Lee classic “Enter the Dragon,” right down to hiring the same director, Robert Clouse, to helm the project. And when I say “along the lines of the Bruce Lee classic ‘Enter the Dragon’,” I mean exactly like “Enter the Dragon.” In the mystical foreign land of Parmistan, we learn early on, there is a deadly contest known as “The Game”–basically an obstacle course where you try to get from point A to point B while dodging spears and trying to avoid homicidal maniacs from the local insane asylum–that no outsider has won in over 900 years. (Considering that virtually every Parmistan subject that we encounter seems to come from a different country, this is either more or less impressive than it sounds.) Since Parmistan has been determined to be the perfect strategic location for a new defense system, the U.S. government figures that if an American wins the contest, the country’s leader, the Kahn (Buck Kartalian), will be so impressed that they will be allowed to set up base there.
To this end, the government recruits Jonathan Cabot (Kurt Thomas), a top gymnast whose father was an operative who himself disappeared on a mission to Parmistan, to go over and win the contest. He is aided in the endeavor by the Kahn’s daughter, Princess Rubali (Tetchie Agbayani), who takes it upon herself to train Jonathan in the art of The Game. (Her method of training, by the way, consists of doing little more than occasionally trying to stab Jonathan as a way of illustrating the art of not trusting anybody.) Of course, there are many people who want to prevent Jonathan from surviving The Game and they attack once every few minutes. Happily, the warriors of Parmistan are well-versed in the etiquette of movie martial arts and they politely wait and attack one at a time instead of simply swarming him all at once. Imagine “Road House” with more gymnastics and you pretty much have “Gymkata” down pat.
Of course, one doesn’t watch a film like “Gymkata” for the intricate plotting–one watches it for the numerous instances of full-throttle gymkata action. In theory, it might seem as though it would be difficult for someone to fully apply a mixture of martial arts and gymnastics into an ordinary daily situation but as this film so amply displays, such an assumption would be incorrect. For example, there is a scene in which Jonathan is chased into an empty alley that just happens to feature a single parallel bar connecting the two walls that has no other reason to exist other than to provide our hero with something to swing on while kicking the bad guys. At another point, he finds himself amidst the enclave of homicidal loonies–in an area helpfully named “The Village of the Damned”–and just when all seems doomed, he discovers that the well in the middle of the town square just happens to bear enough of a resemblance to a pommel horse to allow him to successfully pommel his way to victory. Apparently Parmistan was the first and presumably only nation in the world to have all its city planning done by Vic Tanny.
My favorite aspect of “Gymkata,” beyond the rampant gymkating, is without a doubt the character of the Kahn. For starters, even though Parmistan is, I think, supposed to be an Asian country, the Kahn is played by B-move veteran Buck Kartalian (best known in some decidedly unsavory circles for playing the lead in the pornographic “Little Shop of Horrors” rip-off “Please Don’t Eat My Mother”) who is about as Asian as Mickey Rooney. Looking like that ancient Russian guy from those old yogurt commercials, he wanders into scenes in a hat that resembles an entire yak resting upon his head and spouts off bits of gibberish in a manner that makes him look and sound like no one so much as that Yogurt character that Mel Brooks played in “Spaceballs.” Of course, he looks nothing like the woman playing his daughter (who is, if I am not mistaken, the only genuine Asian in this entire Yugoslavian-lensed film) but this minor discrepancy is explained away by having a minor character say “Interesting background–her mother was Indonesian” and then never speaking of it again–after all, with an Indonesian mother, no other details could possibly be required.
Despite its status as a landmark film along the lines of “Rules of the Game,” “La Dolce Vita” or “Crippled Masters,” the DVD for “Gymkata” is sadly not the overstuffed treasure that its fans have been yearning for–the only extra is the original theatrical trailer. Since Robert Clouse died in 1997, the lack of a director’s commentary is understandable but would it have killed Warners to recruit the actors to discuss their experiences. Who wouldn’t want to hear Kartalian talk about his wardrobe or the joys of whipping the extras into a frenzy with his oft-repeated Parmistanian war cry of “Yak Malla”? Who wouldn’t want to hear as Tetchie Agbayani channel her character by saying nothing on the commentary for the first half and then never shutting up for the rest? And come on, who wouldn’t want to hear Kurt Thomas himself discuss the ways in which his world changed forever after he became the international face of gymkata itself? If Warners wouldn’t or couldn’t pony up for such a feature, they could have at least had a little fun with it. For example, why not have a commentary track consisting entirely of someone explaining the film by simply stating “Interesting background–her mother was Indonesian” or a how-to guide to become a gymkata master within the confine of your own home (pommel horse not included)? By leaving off such seemingly obvious extras, Warner Home Video can be telling fans of “Gymkata” one thing–a special edition double-dip must be heading our way soon, probably right around the time that “Gymkata 2" hits theaters near you.
Written by Charles Robert Carner. (“Based on the novel ‘The Terrible Game’ by Dan Tyler Moore”–if any of you have a copy, please send it to me in care of this site.) Directed by Robert Clouse. Starring Kurt Thomas, Tetchie Agbayani, Richard Norton, Edward Bell and Buck Kartalian. 1985. Rated R. 90 minutes. A Warner Home Video release. $19.95.
NEW AND NOTABLE
THE ARRANGEMENT (Warner Home Video. $19.95): In one of the less impressive efforts in the career of overrated filmmaker/stool pigeon Elia Kazan, he adapted his own novel about a suicidal ad man (a woefully miscast Kirk Douglas) who spends 125 minutes loudly bemoaning the state of the world to his unhappy wife (Deborah Kerr), his mistress (Faye Dunaway) and anyone else he happens to run across into one of the most crushingly symbolic and ham-fisted melodramas to ever (dis)grace the silver screen.
CATCH A FIRE (Universal Home Video. $29.98): Although it was once clearly being positioned by Focus Features as a prime bit of Oscar bait, this true-life story of how the policies of apartheid in 1980's South Africa eventually drove one mild and apolitical man (Derek Luke) into violent rebellion never really took off with critics or audiences despite an intriguing subject and good performances from Luke and Tim Robbins (as the police officer on his trail).
THE CONFESSIONS TOUR–LIVE FROM LONDON (Warner Records. $24.99): The seemingly inexhaustible Madonna hits the stage in London for an glitzy and energetic performance combing tunes from her recent “Confessions on a Dance Floor” along with old favorites like “Ray of Light” and “Like a Virgin.” For those who caught the bowdlerized version of this special that aired on NBC last November, this is the full show without any of the numerous commercials and with the infamous crucifixion-themed rendition of “Live to Tell” that was deemed too offensive to air by the network that brought us “Fear Factor.” (This package also includes a CD of 13 of the 21 songs featured in the show.)
FACING THE GIANTS (Sony Home Entertainment. $26.98): Faced with another losing season, the imminent loss of his job and his inability to be fruitful and multiply with the missus, the football coach at a Christian high school prays to God for help. While I will admit that I haven’t seen this independently financed melodrama, I’m guessing that everything starts going through the uprights (real and metaphorical) correctly by the time the end credits roll. Ah, if Tony Romo had seen this film before taking that final snap a few weeks ago.
FARCE OF THE PENGUINS (Velocity/ThinkFilm. $19.99): Proving that he will indeed do anything for a buck, Samuel L. Jackson narrates this allegedly wacky direct-to-video comedy in which documentary footage of everyone’s favorite well-dressed flightless waterfowl is overdubbed with dirty jokes spoken by the likes of Bob Saget (who also wrote and directed), Jason Alexander, Christina Applegate, Mo’Nique and Tracy Morgan. In other words, people got paid to do exactly what you and your buddies did during “March of the Penguins.”
THE FILMS OF LUC MOULLET: BRIGITTE AND BRIGITTE/UP AND DOWN (Facets Video. $39.95): Although largely an unknown quantity in America to all but the most dedicated cinephiles, Mollet, a member of the French New Wave, has been hailed in his own country for his absurdist wit (he has been compared to both Jacques Tati and Luis Bunuel) and these two films should serve as a good place for newcomers to his work to start. The former is a comedy about two women who meet up and decide to become instant film buffs (complete with cameos from the likes of Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and Sam Fuller) while the latter charts the misadventures of a group of cyclists in a grueling race through the Alps.
FLYBOYS (MGM Home Entertainment. $29.98): In one of last year’s bigger flops, James Franco leads a battalion of American pilots into a series of cheesy computer-generated dogfights meant to simulate aerial battles with the Germans in the days before America officially entered the war. Visually uninspired, dramatically unconvincing and ponderously overlong from director Tony Bill’s apparent desire to utilize every single war movie cliche in memory as well as a few you thought that everyone had forgotten about. If biplane battles are your thing, stick with the opening hour of “The Aviator.”
THE GATHERING (The Weinstein Company. $19.95): After sitting on a shelf for nearly five years, the British-made thriller with Christina Ricci is finally appearing on DVD, no doubt to cash in on some of the hype surrounding the imminent release of “Black Snake Moan.” In it, she plays an American tourist who, after being hit by a car and losing her memory, recuperates in a small English town and begins having visions involving the townspeople and a recently discovered 1st-century church bearing strange images of the crucifixion of Jesus.
THE HANNIBAL LECTER COLLECTION (MGM Home Entertainment. $39.98): In one of the less surprising bits of DVD news in recent memory, MGM has decided to use the release of the who-asked-for-it? prequel “Hannibal Rising” as an excuse to re-release their earlier Lecter-related films–Michael Mann’s brilliant “Manhunter” (1986), Jonathan Demme’s award-winning classic “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991) and Ridley Scott’s vastly underrated exercise in Grand Guignol excess “Hannibal” (2001)–for the three or four of you who may not already own them.
LOOKER (Warner Home Video. $19.95): In this barely-remembered techno-thriller from writer/director/global-warming enthusiast Michael Crichton, plastic surgeon Albert Finney investigates a series of deaths involving models that he worked on and uncovers a sinister plot involving a mysterious corporation (led by James Coburn) experimenting with subliminal advertising. This was pretty silly when it came out in 1981 and I suspect that the ensuing quarter-century of technological advances means that it hasn’t aged particularly well either.
MADAME CURIE (Warner Home Video. $19.95): In one of the stranger biopics of all time, Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon (who were previously paired up in “Mrs Miniver”) star as Marie Sklodowska and Pierre Curie, a pair of scientists whose romance blooms as they go about discovering radium. (Please insert your own “romantic chemistry” joke here.) Included on the DVD is the 1937 Pete Smith Specialties short “Romance of Radium.”
MANIAC/VIGILANTE (Blue Underground. $19.95 each): Two low-budget exploitation classics from filmmaker William Lustig get the re-release treatment under the auspices of Lustig’s own company. The former is the controversial 1980 film about an insane man (the late Joe Spinell) who is driven by the horrific demons of his past to kill indiscriminately while the latter is a 1987 work in which an ordinary man (Robert Forster) is driven to kill discriminately when the thugs who killed his wife and child slip through the legal system unscathed. Both are better than they sound, thanks mostly to the strong lead performances from Spinell and Forster (in one of his better pre-“Jackie Brown” roles) and Lustig’s strong, sure direction. A word of warning about “Maniac”–although it may look like a standard early-1980's slasher film (right down to the Tom Savini makeup effects), those looking for a silly gorefest may be put off by its incredibly dark and discomforting tone.
THE MARINE (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.99): In this big, dumb and noisy throwback to big, dumb and noisy 1980's action films, a group of diamond thieves steal some priceless gems, kidnap a sexy blonde to ensure their getaway and leave her husband for dead. Unfortunately for them, she is the wife of the recently discharged title character (rassler John Cena) and he pursues them through the swamps of South Carolina in order to indulge in the kicking of ass and the chewing of bubble gum. Although the film is slightly stupider than anything you have ever seen before in your life, it is a fun kind of stupid and Robert Patrick, as the scenery-chewing lead bad guy, is clearly having as much fun appearing in the film as you will have in watching him.
MOVE OVER, DARLING (Fox Home Entertainment. $19.99): In this wacky 1963 comedy, James Garner plays a widower who marries Polly Bergen five years after first wife Doris Day disappeared at sea after a plane crash. On the day of the wedding, however, Day turns up (having spent the time on a desert island) and plans to win back her husband from his new love. About the most interesting thing about this bit of froth is its backstory–originally, Fox tried to produce this a couple of years earlier under the title “Something’s Gotta Give” until filming was shut down after the firing of original star Marilyn Monroe.
ONE NIGHT WITH THE KING (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.99): No, this isn’t a tell-all film about a sordid evening of deep-fried passion between Elvis Presley and a groupie. Instead, this Biblical near-epic chronicles the life of Hadassah (Tiffany DuPont), a young Jewish girl who would eventually save her people as Esther, Queen of Persia. Co-starrring Omar Sharif as “Prince Memucan,” Peter O’Toole as “Samuel, the Prophet” and Tiny Lister as “Hegai, the Royal Eunuch.”
OPEN SEASON (Sony Home Entertainment. $28.99): Yes, there are bears. Yes, there are woods. Yes, it is shit. Any questions?
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (Fox Home Entertainment. $26.99): When Mel Gibson’s Biblical snuff film first appeared on DVD in 2004, the bare-bones disc left many assuming that a second coming, or at least a double-dip, was on its way. It has finally risen in this 2-disc set that includes two cuts of the film (the original theatrical release and the less-popular recut with most of the overt violence removed), several commentary tracks (including Gibson), deleted scenes and a documentary chronicling the production. Alas, no record of Gibson’s thoughts of having his film being released on the same day and by the same company handling “One Night With the King.”
PREY (The Weinstein Company. $19.95): Well, since Tom Brady doesn’t have any pressing business this weekend, perhaps he will slip in this DVD in which former girlfriend Bridget Moynahan stars as a young woman whose safari adventure with her new stepchildren goes horribly wrong when they are besieged by hungry lions. Come on, would it have killed the folks at the Weinstein Company to dump the nondescript title and rename it “Lion Vs. Coyote”?
UNKNOWN (The Weinstein Company. $19.95): In this silly and barely-released attempt to fuse together the most marketable aspects of “Reservoir Dogs” and “Saw,” a group of five strangers (Greg Kinnear, Jim Caviezel, Jeremy Sisto, Joe Pantoliano and Barry Pepper) wake up in a warehouse with no memory of who they are or how they got there. When they discover they are all involved in a kidnapping plot, they struggle to recall who among them are the kidnappers and who are the kidnappees. Bridget Moynahan also makes an appearance as well so since Tom Brady has nothing better to do on Sunday, he can put it on after “Prey” while the rest of us watch the Bears stomp their way to victory.
VIVA PEDRO! (Sony Home Entertainment. $117.95): Originally released in theaters last fall as a prelude to Pedro Almodovar’s brilliant “Volver,” this set consists of eight earlier (and in my eyes inferior) films–“Matador” (1986), “Law of Desire” (1987), “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” (1988), “The Flower Of My Secret” (1995), “Live Flesh” (1997), “All About My Mother” (1999), “Talk to Her” (2002) and “Bad Education” (2004)–along with a ninth disc consisting of interviews and the trailer for “Volver” (which is due on DVD itself later this spring).
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=2064
originally posted: 02/02/07 16:20:23
last updated: 03/01/07 20:25:03