Saturday, May 31, 2014

Ask Me a (Hero Complex) Question: The Terminator w/ James Cameron

This weekend marks the Los Angeles Times' 5th annual Hero Complex Film Festival, 3 days of genre films and special guests.  In years past I've seen Robocop w/ Peter Weller, Serenity w/ Nathan Fillion, Dick Tracy w/ Warren Beatty and The Mist w/ Frank Darabont and Thomas Jane among others.  I must have missed Year One...Taking place again at the Hollywood Chinese Theatre, this year is James Cameron centric with a double bill of The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day tonight followed by Ridley Scott's Alien and Cameron's Aliens tomorrow with star Sigourney Weaver in attendance.  Tonight's Terminator double bill with Cameron appearing for Q&A sold out quick in spite of the ticket price increase to accommodate two double features.  For the fan willing to shell out extra, two rows of couches were added to the front of the theater for an up close look at special guests.

Like last years genre festivities at Cape Town and Hero Complex, TNT's Falling Skies sponsored the event with posters, patches and promos on display.  After a quick introduction, it was time for 1984's The Terminator.  If you're keeping track, this is the 5th time I've seen it on the big screen and arguably the most pristine showcase, no doubt at Cameron's request.  I'm guessing this is a cleaned up Digital Print as the image was gorgeous and the sound was terrific letting me notice things I never had in a theater or at home (blue and red police like lights on the Hunter-Killers, Henriksen's cop with leaked ink on his shirt pocket?!).  If you've never seen The Terminator but still read this then stop what you're doing and get yourself a copy, watch it, lock it in a box for a week then watch it again and repeat until you bow down to the gritty, B-Movie, Tech-Noir masterpiece that is James Cameron's first full directing effort.  Real quick: The Terminator is the story of a seemingly unstoppable cyborg sent back to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor, a young woman whose son will have tremendous future influence against computer defense network Skynet.  Lone soldier Kyle Reese is sent back to protect Sarah from the machine and hopefully save humanity in the process.  It was a bit of a subdued crowed with no applause for Arnold's title card but we got it going for Biehn, reminding the audience that we're all here to watch a 30 year old movie we love, so let's have some fun and make a great atmosphere full of energy and nostalgia, shall we?

Watching it again, the film's unrelenting pace was in full effect with the mystery of who The Terminator aka the T-800 aka Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kyle Reese aka The Father of the Future aka Michael Biehn really are and their implications on the life and future of Sarah Connor aka Linda Hamilton.  Foot chases, shootouts, car chases, crashes and explosions on the dirty streets of Los Angeles to Brad Fidel's pulsing, powerful crescendo filled soundtrack had the hairs on the back of my neck tingling.  Of course being one of my favorite movies, I had a smile on my face for most of the duration as there's just so much to love and remember in this movie from Arnold and Biehn's naked entries into our time, Bill Paxton and Brian Thompson as hilariously outfitted punks to the 80's hairdos, phenomenal post-apocalyptic Future War action sequences, Nike Vandals product placement, Rick Rossovich's pervy-funny boyfriend, Lance Henriksen and Paul Winfield's quirky cops, shotgun blasting, UZI spraying club shootout, doomed yet beautiful love story and plastique for dinner!

Post film, writer and director James Cameron took the stage for a smooth 45 minute Q&A with time for questions from the audience.  Strangely, the discussion topics were generally broad with much of Cameron's time devoted to talking about technology and his 3 Avatar sequels even though he said he was there to talk about Terminator.

- Arnold was submitted for Reese, Cameron went to lunch with The Oak intending not to like him but found him charming and intelligent and saw him as The Terminator
- Cameron had just watched Terminator and it's sequel recently with his 10 year old son to head off the boy seeing the R rated affairs without his consent
- Had no idea Linda Hamilton would be able to make the change, physically and dramatically, for the character of Sarah Conner in the sequel which finds her hardened by life and preparation for war

- Movie was shot for $6.5 million, proudly in the style of Roger Corman's low budget features using every trick in the book and Cameron thinks it looks like a movie with twice the budget
- Special effects budget for the first film was a slim $1 million bucks for all make up, opticals etc
- Told his story and for a brief moment in the 90's contemplated bringing Terminator to Fox but had moved on after Titanic
- Approached Aliens as a fan of Alien, carrying on what Ridley Scott set up and Ripley as lone survivor versus killing her off and doing his own version.  Loves David Fincher but didn't like that Alien3 killed off majority of characters built up in Aliens.  Hicks lives!
- New producers approached him but says his involvement is uncredited, behind the curtain stuff, just giving his thoughts on what could be and how Arnold's character can evolve
- Loved Spider-Man as a kid and wrote a long script-ment but Carolco went bankrupt and he didn't pursue the rights
- Says the L.A. Times erroneously stated that The Abyss was most expensive film ever made but his next film, T2, was.
- Uncharted waters on Abyss and T2 as the glimmering, water tentacle f/x were cutting edge using an optical printer on Abyss then taken further on T2 for the T-1000's liquid metal man's 42 digital shots
- Wouldn't re-release Terminator in 3D but has considered Judgement Day for conversion
- Thinks technology has already taken over and cites the overabundance of people looking at their phones at any given time as an example
- Personally would like to see a niche movie watching experience utilizing Virtual Reality that lets the viewer decide how the movie plays out
- Writing 3 Avatar sequels with 3 separate co-writers, sat down for a year and pumped out 1500 pages of notes to build the story and world
- Avatar Land at Disney World is going to be something special, complete with floating mountains and animatronic figures with 60 some points of articulation where many have 12 today
- Wrote Sarah Connor as an Everywoman who is tapped on the shoulder and faced with a great task
- Stripped away Connor's support system; friends, cops, Reese, ability to run, to make her strong
- For sequel, gave Arnold script on plane to Cannes film festival, at breakfast Arnold couldn't believe his Terminator character didn't kill anyone but he trusted Cameron and went along

Cameron was eloquent, funny, informative and casually brilliant throughout.  Like I said, it was a bit of a general conversation with technology and Avatar being primary topics and I could have used more anecdotes about the films themselves or just stories of working with Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen and Bill Paxton.  Because let's face it, Biehn, Henriksen and Paxton are fucking awesome and a big part of that reason is because of Cameron using them multiple times in his films.  Of course much more was discussed but hey, you had to be there.  Which won't be totally true since I'm sure a video will hit the internets soon enough.  Since we just saw Judgement Day, we opted not to stay and while waiting for the elevator, received quite a surprise when the doors opened and Cameron was there with his handlers and security.  Hopefully he saw the shocked expressions on our faces as I wanted to yell "Put Biehn in Avatar 2!"

See ya tomorrow night for more Biehn and Henriksen on the big screen!

Friday, May 30, 2014

Chief Goods: Birthday Bashing

“This guy came up to me from some band and he said that ‘Man, I’d hate to be you right now, no privacy at all’ and I was thinking, ‘Sure thing man, I have a fucking Rolls Royce, a million dollars in the bank, a fucking mansion and my own jet and you think you’d feel sorry for me? What are you? I’d hate to be you, broke as hell living in the dole.’”  - Noel Gallagher

I don't know how I missed it but yesterday was Noel Gallagher's 47th birthday.  A former roadie turned chief writer and co-singer in gargantuan Brit-pop band OASIS, brothers Noel and Liam helped change the U.K. music landscape with their catchy anthems best heard in a stadium and their hilarious sense of self that either alienated listeners or turned them into lifelong fans.  Over 7 studio albums spanning 14 years, OASIS won multiple awards while amassing 22 top 10 hits, selling 70 million albums worldwide and being dubbed the Most Successful Act in the UK between 1995 and 2005.  After years of brotherly friction, OASIS imploded backstage at a show in France in 2009.

Since then little brother Liam's reassembled OASIS sans Noel, Beady Eye has released 2 albums.  I quite dug their 2011 release Different Gear, Still Speeding with it's hard charging, guitar and piano fueled riffs but their 2013 album BE left me cold and disappointed with it's glacier paced, meandering style.  Noel's solo effort, The High Flying Birds sounds more like OASIS because, well, he wrote 98% of the songs the band was known for.  Catchy, melodic and uptempo, the debut album sold better and received more critical accolades.  I got to see them in concert when they did two nights at UCLA's Royce Hall a couple years ago and it was a solid show with Noel's live vocals holding up much better than his hard partying little brothers.

Both brothers are equal parts hilarious and brilliant in totally different ways with Noel being more clever and thoughtful while Liam's view of the world and himself is amusing and quite inspiring in this day and age of political correctness and popularity contests.

I know you think you deserve an explanation on the meaning of life:

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Workout of the Day: Class Dumbbell

It was a busy Memorial Day weekend but that didn't stop me from getting in two quick workouts on Saturday before I helped a friend move, meaning I technically got in three training sessions in one day for shits and giggles since I knew it was going to be a gluttonous few days.  Upon rising I decided to do a Shoulder and Arms workout but only using Dumbbells for Giant Sets.  That way I could move between exercises quickly and not get bored changing equipment or weights while getting in a nice pump.

Giant Set # 1:
1) Arnold Press - To work the front and side delts and for size
2) Bent over Spider Curl - To take the delts out of the movement, bend at the waist and lock your elbows to the sides of your knees and curl
3) Lying DB Extension - My Tennis Elbow subsiding, slowly lowered DB's out and to the sides of my head, to control my form, I would do these one arm at a time alternating left to right

Giant Set # 2:
1) DB Upright Row - Pulling up and out to chin height
2) Hammer Curl - Alternating curling straight up and one arm at a time crossing the body
3) Lying DB Side Extension - Another elbow friendly movement, you can do these with two DB's at the same time and lower to your chest or one arm at a time and lower to the side of your face

I started with 20 pounds and added 5 until I got to 40, giving me 5 circuits of 6 exercises for a total of 30 sets starting with 10-12 reps then working my way down to 5-6.  Then it was a protein shake and off to start my day.

Use control to get swole:

Kickstart My Heart: Reading Rainbow

*WARNING: This post contains harsh language, what?!  Come on!*

If you were ever familiar with Reading Rainbow as a child, I'm sure you heard about LeVar Burton's Kickstarter campaign to bring back the popular public access show in the form of an expanded App and online classroom.  Running from 1983 to 2009, RR was a part of many a child's path to reading and education with it's field trips, creative projects and book readings.  In 2009, Reading Rainbow was canceled when PBS and the production company thought it was no longer viable.  Burton obtained the rights to the show and launched a tablet application to bring the magic of RR into the new, digital age.  Cut to today and the campaign has already raised nearly $2 million dollars of it's $1 million goal with 34 days left to go.  The end goal is to expand the RR website, build online classrooms and deliver content to schools around the country.  There are plenty of detractors to the campaign, some saying it's just supporting a for profit company and others using it as an example to highlight how dammaged the education system is that it takes celebrity and nostalgia to shine a light on the fact that today, allegedly 1 in 4 children will grow up illiterate.  Donations start at $5 and go all the way to $10,000 with prizes including a special thanks on the website to the chance to have a personal dinner with Burton and wear his goggles from Star Trek:  The Next Generation.  I watched Reading Rainbow regularly as a kid and it helped me become a leisure reader instead of viewing it as a chore.  It also helped form my inner food lover because the two episodes I remember most are Burton's trip to a cheese factory showing how it's made and then the time he made a pizza at home but it was too big to fit into his oven...

More nostalgia mixed with harsh language:

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

(Not) Love Actually: Street Fighter

Christmas, 1994.  My mom took me to see Street Fighter at the same local theater where she had taken me to see Masters of the Universe 7 years earlier.  While SF wouldn't have the lasting impact on me as Masters did, I enjoyed the flick then and still do.  So what better way to cap off my weekend where I watched, read, played and wrote about Street Fighter than to take in the hugely hyped adaptation starring none other than The Real JC...VD, Jean-Claude Van Damme?  Much like the comic book adaptation craze we're currently experiencing, the early days of video games to cinema screens has been fraught with disappointments and failed expectations.  Street Fighter was one of the first of it's kind following the financial and critical debacle of Super Mario Brothers in 1993.  Having already boasted $1.5 billion dollars worth of quarters fueled revenue from arcade and home console gaming, Capcom was ready to take their next step: a big budget, Hollywood epic.  Independent producer Edward R. Pressman (Badlands, Conan, Masters, Wall Street) obtained the rights and immediately began accepting pitches as Capcom wanted the film released at Christmas of 1994.

Steven E. de Souza, a billion dollar writer with Die Hard, Commando, 48 Hours and many more titles to his credit landed a meeting with Pressman on the condition that he could direct as well as script.  Pressman acquiesced and de Souza went on a writing frenzy to finish his pitch in time to meet with Capcom executives.  Seeing the video game as simply fighting with no backstory, de Souza envisioned the film as a war story meets James Bond movie.  For the lead, Capcom had done a worldwide poll of gamers to determine who they wanted to play Guile, the American Air Force fighter known for his Sonic Boom and Flash Kick.  Jean-Claude Van Damme, the high kicking martial arts action hero hot off the success of inspiration for the game Bloodsport, Universal Soldier and Hard Target was the clear favorite.  de Souza and Pressman hit the studio trail to find a home and were quickly turned down by everyone in town due to Super Mario Brothers' lackluster performance.  Tom Pollack, long a Jean-Claude Van Damme supporter, brought Street Fighter to Universal and along with Capcom, financed and released the $35 million dollar production.  Scheduled for a 69 day shoot in Australia and Thailand, world kickboxing champion Benny "The Jet" Urquidez was brought in to train the actors, putting them through 3 workouts a day training cardio, martial arts and weights.  Legendary stuntman and 2nd Unit Director Charles Picerni would help train the cast and handle the big action sequences while 6-time Academy Award nominated cinematographer William A. Fraker would be on hand to assist the novice director. 

Van Damme was just finishing the time traveling action and romantic thriller Timecop for Universal and was about to move on to Sudden Death, a take on the Die Hard formula where a lone man takes on a group of terrorists, only this time in a hockey arena.  To fit Street Fighter into his tight scheduling window, Van Damme walked away with $7.2 million bucks, double his Timecop salary for just 6 weeks work in Thailand and Australia.  Raul Julia was the said first choice for mad warlord and dictator M. Bison while Mina-Na Wen was recruited to play revenge seeking journalist Chun-Li and The Last of the Mohican's Wes Studi came in to play gun runner Sagat.  Former actress and pop singer Kylie Minogue was a last minute addition to the cast, playing Guile's right hand woman, Cammy.  Young and fresh faced actors Byron Mann and Damian Chapa landed the roles of Ryu and Ken, the karate fighting stars of the video game, here turned into low rent operators that become spies for Guile's network.  The supporting cast of Dhalsim, Balrog, E. Honda, Vega, Zangief, T. Hawk, Blanka and Dee Jay were filled by the established and newcomer likes of Roshan Seth, Grand L. Bush, Peter Navy Tuiasosopo, Jay Tavare, Andrew Bryniarski, Gregg Rainwater, Miguel A. Nunez Jr. and Robert Mammone.  If you're keeping track, that's 15 characters from the video game appearing in the film.  The only character left out was movie star and Bruce Lee knock off/homage Fei Long.  Instead, a new character, Captain Sawada was introduced played by Capcom favorite Kenya Sawada.

Street Fighter starts quick, delving right into the world of the film with a nice use of the Universal logo turning into the movie title card.  Immediately we're thrown into a wall of international news broadcasts telling us about M. Bison, the self styled warlord of Shadaloo who has kidnapped a group of Aid workers and is holding them for a $20 BILLION dollar ransom.  Allied Nations Commander Colonel William Guile (Van Damme, with blonde hair and guttural "American" accent) has a personal vendetta to squash Bison as the warlord is a murderer and has now inadvertently kidnapped his buddy Charlie.  News reporter Chun-Li and her camera crew of Balrog and Honda are on the case, trying to get close to Bison while Ryu and Ken get caught selling toy guns to crime boss Sagat and his cohort Vega.  Sagat, Vega, Ryu and Ken all get picked up in an AN sweep at an underground street fight.  Guile learns that Sagat is running guns to Bison and hatches a plan to infiltrate Ryu and Ken into his gang, thus leading them to Bison's secret base.  With the location discovered and time running out, Guile and his troops stage a massive, seaside assault on Bison's fortress.  There's guns and rockets galore topside while below the surface, one on one bouts break out between Honda and Zangief, Ryu and Ken versus Vega and Sagat and finally, Guile comes face to face with Bison.  Oh, and Dhalsim is running genetic and psychological experiments on Charlie, turning him into man-beast Blanka.  Got all that?

To hype the film, Capcom digitized all of the cast to be part of Street Fighter III, which would use actors on green screen a la Mortal Kombat instead of the traditional, animated programming of the games up to that point.  Hasbro released a line of Street Fighter toys (repainted G.I. Joes) and there were trading card tie-ins, magazines, comic books and more.  Being Van Damme's first PG-13 rating, expectations were huge and it looked like Van Damme might break through to the next level of action hero appeal, joining the likes of Steven Seagal, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone.  Hitting theaters on Friday, 12.23 on 1,671 screens, Street Fighter opened up at # 3 behind 2nd week champ Dumb and Dumber and 7 week old release The Santa Clause, earning $6.8 million on it's way to a $33 million dollar gross.  It was a crowded holiday weekend as Street Fighter topped 5 additional wide releases including Richie Rich, Little Women and The Jungle Book, which would all end up having more stamina and out grossing SF.  Domestically, SF lost the momentum of Van Damme's previous effort, the September released Timecop but grossed more than starring vehicles Double Impact, Hard Target and Nowhere to Run.  Internationally, the film would make it to $100 million, further solidifying Van Damme's global appeal.  However, the film was ravaged by critics and gamers alike who saw it as a botched interpretation of the game with it's straying from the core concept of street fighting, it's tongue in cheek humor and differences in appearance between characters in the game and movie.

Me?  I enjoy the flick.  It's big, fun and doesn't take itself too seriously.  Honestly, I think it was ahead of it's time.  I always say that this isn't a Street Fighter movie but it is the best G.I. Joe movie ever made.  If you look at the costumed army hordes of Hydra in Captain America or the Cobra troopers in G.I. Joe's two movies, you can see how Street Fighter did it first 20 years ago.  But being first out of the gate is always rough so Street Fighter was cast off as a piece of cheesy garbage that further proved you can't make a good movie from a video game.  Sure there's a lot going on but de Souza handles the multitude of characters pretty well.  X-Men 3 and Origins: Wolverine suffered from too many cameos and unnecessary characters whereas Street Fighter cleverly used the compressed availability of it's star to give the other roles more light.  Ryu and Ken get the most fight scenes in the flick while grouping Cammy and Tee Hawk with Guile, Bison with Zangief and Dee Jay, Sagat with Vega then Chun-Li with Balrog and E. Honda keeps them all fresh in our minds for the most part.  Sure, the use of Dhalsim and Blanka is a little thin but hey, there's 15 characters to keep track of here and to keep things running lean and mean, certain character building scenes had to be cut.  Action wise, there's a nice variety throughout with rough and tumble fist and feet fights, crashing trucks, gun fights, shootouts, explosions, destruction, military invading and the like.

Production values are still pretty impressive thanks to William Creber's (Planet of the Apes, Towering Inferno) design with huge sets for Bison's lair showcasing a wall of video monitors, a training facility and hostage pit while the exterior is a big, Thai style temple giving the film a vast, James Bond feeling.  The attention to detail is solid as well with Bison and AN logos posted everywhere, news casts playing in the background and random radio DJ and robot announcer telling us jokes and factoids throughout.  Graeme Revell's score gives the film a big, driving feel while the crammed in hip-hop infused soundtrack features a team up for the ages:  M.C. Hammer and Deion Sanders!  The bad troops are decked out in red tinged armored outfits with G.I. Joe style mask/helmets while the AN forces look sharp in their blue toned camouflage fatigues and old school metal helmets.  In this day and age where fanboys get upset nobody is in their comic book costume, Street Fighter should be applauded for getting EVERYONE into their video game duds by the end of the flick.  Guile and Ken's hair might not be spot on translations but come on, a big ol' flatop and Fabio style locks wouldn't have worked either.  Along with the costumes, many of the special moves from the game are included as well as dialog straight from the arcade console.  The film's sense of humor might have turned off some viewers but I think there's a nice balance between the laughs and action.  It keeps the tone light and the pace lithe as it's only 40 minutes into the movie and we're already prepping the invasion for the climax and conclusion.  Van Damme plays Guile tough yet amusing and makes jokes at his own expense, further showing his sense of self and even gets to deliver a rousing, pre-attack speech inspired by the D-Day invasion anniversary during filming and his families own struggles during World War II.  Raul Julia eats up the scenery in a fun performance as the power mad dictator while everyone on board does a good job of inhabiting their characters, even when some are written more absurdly than others.

While the film wasn't a huge success or failure, I'm sure it didn't live up to expectations from the studios.  Street Fighter marked the beginning of Van Damme's career slide as he fought with drug, alcohol and marital woes along with weak scripts and lack of professional focus.  Raul Julia was fighting stomach cancer during production and sadly passed away shortly after filming completed.  Steven E. de Souza would not be handed the reins to another big budget picture again and his writing efforts gave us the mangled Judge Dredd adaptation starring Sylvester Stallone (I'm a supporter though) and Van Damme's gonzo, Hong Kong action flick Knock Off.  Wes Studi still had Heat, Mystery Men and Avatar in his future while Byron Mann would work alongside the likes of Mark Dacascos, Richard Gere, Chow-Yun Fat, Mark Wahlberg, Steven Seagal and Halle Berry in film and TV roles.  Damian Chapa would become his own movie making factory, pumping out low budget DTV flicks.  Ming-Na Wen is one of the most recognizable Asian actresses in the game thanks to stints on E.R., Two and a Half Men and Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. while Kylie Minogue has sold something like 70 million records worldwide.

Cut to today and recent video game adaptation Need For Speed did middling business upon release while Mark Wahlberg, The Rock, Jake Gyllenhal and Jason Statham have all struck out in bringing video games to life.  Financially, the only series to make the successful leap to film has been Capcom's own Resident Evil but even that was derided for not being faithful to it's source material.  The man behind it, Paul W.S. Anderson, was also responsible for arguably the best video game adaptation movie, Mortal Kombat.  Released the summer after Street Fighter, MK stuck to it's simple formula of a fighting tournament with supernatural aspects and delivered a fast, fun and entertaining martial arts flick.  The sequel became a nonsensical, visual translation of the game and did half the business of the original.  Same thing with Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider where part I wasn't great and the sequel was released to little interest and less box office.  As for Street Fighter, a big budget reboot, The Legend of Chun-Li, was released in 2009 to poor reviews and an embarrassing box office take of $8.7 million clams.  Game over, indeed.

Hey Arnold: Sequelitis

"I won't be doing sequels to Total Recall, Commando, Predator or Twins.  I was contacted about doing a sequel to Commando, but I had no interest; it was the same with Predator.  A Twins sequel was never a thought in anybody's mind, and neither was a sequel to Red was been the same routine with just about every movie I've ever done...there's so little time to do all the things I want to do that I can't see any reason to get bogged down in sequels."
- Arnold Schwarzenegger, 1991

23 years later and Arnold has kept his word although a sequel to Twins is in the works that would add Eddie Murphy to the long lost, genetically altered siblings hilarity for the proposed Triplets.  While Arnie might not have been hot to revisit the roles of Hauser, John Matrix, Dutch Schaeffer or Ivan Danko, he doesn't have any current problems revisiting certain iconic and lucrative franchises.  Terminator 5 is currently in production, a sequel to Conan is in the works and he's about to pop up for his 3rd mission with The Expendables.  Once upon a time, a sequel to 1994's "boring husband who's actually a spy" thriller True Lies was in the works but at a certain point, middle eastern terrorists were no longer funny and the project was abandoned.  But try telling that to co-star Tom Arnold who is still holding out hope.  In the mid 90's, young Robert Rodriguez wrote a Predator sequel that would have followed Arnold on the alien hunters' home planet while recruiting fellow cinematic tough guy Jean-Claude Van Damme but the expensive script languished.  Years later, the concept was dusted off and rewritten to make Predators and included a cameo for The Oak which didn't happen.  Fox and WWE Studios have teamed up for an Arnold-less sequel to 1996's "dads fighting crowds, each other, racism and capitalism at Christmas" comedy Jingle All the Way which is due out in 2015.

30 some years later and people still want to pay you to do it again:

Monday, May 26, 2014

Street Fighter Sunday: Assassin's Fist

This whole Street Fighter weekend kicked off because web series Assassin's Fist dropped all 12 episodes onto YouTube Friday.  2010's fan film, Street Fighter: Legacy was an effort from SF super fan, martial artist and filmmaker Joey Ansah to make a faithful adaptation of the worldwide phenomenon following two less than well received big screen attempts.  4 years and 5 million views later, Ansah and company have completed their follow up, a 12 part prequel of sorts to the Street Fighter II storyline featuring video game stalwarts Ken and Ryu as well as their karate fighting, fireball throwing, dragon punching predecessors Gouken and Goki.  The short and series were given the blessing of Capcom, the company behind the Street Fighter franchise as well as games like Mega Man, Resident Evil, Final Fight, Devil May Cry and StriderAssassin's Fist attempted to go the crowd fundraising route via Kickstarter but private investors stepped in to finance the shindig.  Shooting in Bulgaria in the Summer of 2013, Assassin's Fist is being streamed online via Machinima with plans to combine the 12 episodes into 6 for television then re-edited into a television movie and finally a full, uncut version for DVD/Blu-Ray.  Phew!

Assassin's Fist comes on the heels of rival fighting franchise Mortal Kombat going the web series route after director Kevin Tancharoen made a purported $7,500.00 short film over a weekend to sell his idea to Warner Brothers.  A feature film was never greenlit but Tancharoen and company have produced 2 seasons and 26 episodes of Mortal Kombat for the internet and gaming audience while garnering 10's of millions of views. I don't think Street Fighter is going to reach those heights as Assassin's Fist is a noble effort and will be appreciated by hardcore fans but there might not be enough here to keep casual fans coming back.  Director, writer and co-star Ansah got his start as a martial artist/stuntman/fight choreographer best known for a fight scene with Matt Damon in The Bourne Ultimatum.  Teaming up with Christian Howard, a fellow with the same interests and fringe movie making credits, the duo set out to make the ultimate Street Fighter adaptation drawn from the lore of the video games and comic books.  While their intentions, passion and attention to detail are to be commended, I think they stuck a little too close to the games and comics and didn't let the concept breathe in order to be translated to another medium.

The story follows Ken (Howard) and Ryu (Mike Moh taking over for Legacy's John Foo), teenagers training karate in the remote hills and mountains of Japan.  Ryu was found wandering the woods as a child and is adopted by Gouken and taught the ways of the warrior and Ansatsuken (Assassin's Fist) style.  Ken's father knows Gouken somehow and following the loss of his wife, sends Ken to Gouken to straighten out while he fixes the family business.  I'm not sure if they go back to school in the fall a la 3 Ninjas but cut to 10 years later and the duo are strapping teenagers (played by 30 year olds) and ready to take their training to the next level.  The only problem is, the last guys who did Ansatsuken were Gouken, his rival Goki and their sensei, Gotetsu.  We learn that Goki tapped into the dark hado (spiritual energy or ki) and was consumed with harnessing it's power and becoming the lone master of Ansatsuken which transforms him into video game villain Akuma (Ansah with Lou Ferrigno Hulk like prosthetics and a red wig).  While Ken and Ryu are learning to use hado for their famous fireballs aka Hadoken, Ryu unknowingly taps into the dark side.

It's these two parallel story lines that make Assassin's Fist something special as well as alienating.  For fans of the video game or Mortal Kombat series, there is a distinct lack of familiar characters from the franchise involved.  Ken, Ryu and Akuma are staples of the SF franchise while Gouken and Gotetsu get their histories illuminated in the comic series.  There's a mention of future playable characters Gen and Dan but that's about it.  Surprisingly, much of the drama unfolds in the past with Gouken, Goki, Gotetsu (geez, like G's much, Capcom?) and the coming of Akuma.  These segments are all in Japanese with subtitles and if the lackluster performance of The Raid 2 has taught us anything, American's don't exactly love their action flicks with subtitles.  Especially ones who are most likely going to have this playing in a small window on their larger computer display as background noise.

Also, for a series called Street Fighter, there's not a lot of actual fighting going on.  Sure there's plenty of training scenes, quiet kata performances and introspection happening but the namesake action of the show seems to have been replaced by Batman Begins like needing to explain where everybody and everything came from.  Even when the two sneak into a local bar and participate in a street fight, we see Ryu dispatching one opponent with a kick in a distant long shot so it's a bit of a wasted opportunity.  I did appreciate Ken's casual outfit straight out of the Udon comics though.  The appearances of the characters are all derived straight from the comics and games which makes it seem like a bit of a live action cartoon.  I wondered how Ken and Akuma could fight with all the hair in their face.  Moh and Howard aren't exactly in the prime of their acting careers so performances are a little wooden at times but Moh does a good job of playing quiet, scared and uncertain as Ryu while Howard's Ken is likeable but arrogant.  Ruggedly handsome stuntman/actor Mark Killeen shows up as Ken's dad for two brief scenes.  At first I wondered if they considered B-movie action/martial arts hero Gary Daniels for the role but Killeen does a nice job of being imposing yet paternal while doing some boxing training in business attire.

When the fights do happen, all of the actors' martial arts prowess are put on full display with some nice punch combos and kicks of all heights and varieties being thrown.  Ansah could have cooled it on the slow motion though and just let shit fly.  Special moves like the fireball, hurricane kick and dragon punch all get their moments but lack a certain OOMPH and impact for some reason.  Maybe it's because the series tries so hard to be like the video game and cartoons but doesn't change it's style to accommodate live action where close ups, make up, slow motion and sound effects can be used to make audiences cringe and feel the impact of the violence happening on screen.  That knowing nod to it's source material helps keep the tone light when necessary and I cracked up when they were lifting weights to the 80's sounding synth electronic video game score and when the duo can't train one day because Ken receives a copy of Mega Man 2 for the NES from his dad.

Congratulations to Ansah, Howard, producer Jacqueline Quella and everyone involved for bringing their passion project to life.  Hopefully we get to a second season where they're provided more resources and a chance to have a little more fun.

Gotta Drank! EightyTwo

Tucked away downtown near the American Apparel factory and grocery direct wholesalers is a surprisingly happening pocket of night life.  I tried to go to the Wurstkuche next door years ago but the line was just ridiculous.  It's nice to see Downtown Los Angeles coming up a bit and I've been there more lately than I have in the last 10 years of living in California.  We got there around 8:00PM and the joint was already busy.  It's a nice set up; pinball on one side, a courtyard in the middle then arcade games, the bar and DJ on the other.  While waiting at the bar, Street Fighter: Championship Edition was projected on the walls.  They have a cocktail menu with video game inspired names like n00b and Zangief and tacos being slung out back.  By 9:00, my friends were telling me they were standing in line outside so this place was more than a barcade, it was like a club!  Complete with some random woman walking by saying it wasn't that great inside.  It's a little loud and a lot crowded inside so if you want to play a game you gotta go old school and put your quarter on the machine to call next.  There's a nice selection with Street Fighter, Double Dragon, Space Invaders, NBA Jam, The Simpsons, Gauntlet and the cockpit Star Wars game among many more.  I tried my hand at SF and whupped two random dudes' asses before having mine handed to me by a guy I had seen playing earlier who must spend a lot of time there.  I now realize I have a thing for sky-high dining and barcades as this is my 3rd visit to an establishment designed to bring in kids my age for drinking and socializing.  While it's the closest to me, I'd have to say it ranks behind Des Moines' Up-Down and Portland's Ground Kontrol.

Gotta (not) Eat! Peaches' Smokehouse and Southern Kitchen

Before kicking off the long weekend, it was time for trying another food truck at the building.  Through the weeks it's been pitas, lobster rolls, Asian Fusion, burgers and bowls.  Today?  Barbeque.  Backyard barbeques are synonymous with the Memorial Day weekend as it's an easy way to enjoy the company of your loved ones while raising a glass to the men and women who have died in service to protect this great country.  Sadly, Peaches' is far from a prime example of a tribute on wheels.  If you look at the photo, you can barely see the Country Fried Steak on my sandwich, and that's after I pulled the bun back.  While it all looks pretty Damme good, the CFS was tiny, literally pounded to maybe 1/8" thickness.  I don't know how much it weighed but it couldn't have been much.  The waffle fries were fine, crispy but a little heavy while I opted for Kale Salad as well to get my greens in.  Unfortunately they doused it in vinegar based dressing and I could barely eat it.  I guess they're pretty vinegar happy as my friends said the same thing about their Pulled Pork sandwiches.  Apparently, vinegar based sauce is popular in North Carolina, so I will not be raising up and pulling my shirt off and spinning it round my head like a helicopter.  At $18 bones for a sandwich with barely any meat, decent fries, a sour ass salad and a can of pop, Peaches gets filed under #NeverAgain.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Street Fighter Saturday: Animated Goods

After whetting my Street Fighter appetite with comics, it was time to revisit some of the animated efforts.  Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie is one of the only Anime's I ever got into because it's just so fucking badass.  From the opening credits that take place during a dark and stormy night where Ryu and Sagat face off in a fantastic and fierce battle in the middle of a field, you know you're in for a treat.  Riding high on the success of the billion dollar video game franchise, Street Fighter was ready to take on all aspects of the pre-transmedia world.  The Jean-Claude Van Damme starring movie adaptation was expected to be his latest break through role (it wasn't) and all things Street Fighter were hitting the market.  I distinctly recall going to my local pharmacy/video store, Phar-Mor (Where you got Phar more but paid Phar less, get it?!) to pick up a copy of SF on VHS.  I have no idea how I would know it's release date back then as the internet was barely in it's infancy and not quite into it's heyday of AOL CD's in the mail and Instant Messenger.

SFII is the story of Ryu, a vagabond martial artist searching for his next great fight.  As a teen he trained and became friends with the blonde haired American Ken who would go on to become a world champion.  Meanwhile, M. Bison and his Shadowlaw organization are traversing the world, searching for the world's best fighters in order to turn them into terrorists.  For example, New Challenger Cammy is brainwashed and sent to kill a prominent government official.  Bison employs monitor cyborgs (!) to study fighters and send their stats back to home base.  Hot on Bison's trail is Captain Guile from the Air Force, a super buff and gruff tough guy who sports a giant, gravity defying blonde brush cut and no eyebrows.  Interpol's sexy Chun-Li is sent to team up with the American to find Bison but has her own agenda as she's on the hunt for revenge as Bison threw her dad down an elevator shaft.  In this iteration we get to see a little more of Ken and Ryu's past through quick flashbacks of their training as youths in Japan.  Years later, Ryu is still the only person to be able to defeat Ken in a fight.  Ryu walks the Earth and encounters familiar faces like movie star Fei Long, E. Honda and Dhalsim in street bouts while Ken runs into T. Hawk randomly one night and has to put the big guy down.  Bison's bosses Sagat and Vega are nearby to handle the dirty work while Balrog is used as an enforcer in Vegas where a freak, underground match pits Russian wrestler Zangief versus the mysterious man-beast from Brazil, Blanka.

All paths intersect in a violent showdown as Bison has brainwashed Ken and sics him against his former best friend.  It's fights galore as Ryu mixes it up with Fei-Long, random jerks, an unforgiving striking post and finally his confused friend Ken and then M. Bison.  Chun-Li gets a nice fight post animated shower scene (complete with nudity in some countries) with assassin Vega where she kicks him through a wall and he plunges to his death.  The fights in Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie are some of the greatest I've ever seen, animated or not.  They're fast, brutal and fucking magnificent with back and forth hand to hand combat animated so fluidly that real life almost can't compare to the impact felt here.  The dubbed English version has some hilarious line readings while like the comics, E. Honda provides some yuks as just being a big, loud, happy guy.  Directed by Gisaburo Sugii, the pace is brisk and we get a sense of each of the main characters. Recognizable faces pop up for scenes but are sent on their way to avoid overcrowding and serve some story purpose versus a simple cameo to remind you you're watching Street Fighter.  For the American version, a great, hard rock score is employed to give the fights and scenes punch.  Silverchair, Alice In Chains, KMFDM and Korn are all used to spectacular effect and get you amped.

Sugii would soon return to the Street Fighter franchise with an animated series, Victory, which ran in Japan in 1995 before being brought to America during the Manga/Anime boom of the late 90's and early 2000's.  Serving as a sort of prequel to the Animated Movie, Victory catches Ken and Ryu at 17, 2 years since they finished their training together.  Ryu is working as a lumberjack while Ken is a playboy in America thanks to his dad's riches.  Ken invites Ryu to America so he leaves his job and the bosses daughter who is lusting after him.  Upon arrival, the duo get into trouble as they wade into an Air Force bar and beat up some locals.  Guile arrives and puts the hurting on Ryu.  Ken steps up to avenge his friend but just earns some lumps.  This inspires the two to hit the road, finding more fighters to challenge their skill set so they can become the greatest in the world.  It's a fun show with great macho and homoerotic goings on.  Ken's always macking on chicks but the first thing he and Ryu do upon checking into a $20,000.00 a night hotel in Hong Kong is strip naked and go swimming together.  Stuff like that.  Again, the action here is fast, fluid and furiously violent.  Being a cartoon, every man is jacked to the max while the females are bombshells.

With Ken and Ryu being younger, other characters are altered to match.  Chun-Li is 15 and a tour guide while Fei-Long is a young Hong Kong movie star in the making.  The duo run into other characters from the video game mythology as friends, foes and mentors.  While we get random Akuma cameos in the background, the makers of Victory don't force EVERY Street Fighter character down our throats which is a surprise considering it ran for 26 episodes.  But mainstays like E. Honda, Blanka and Dee Jay are nowhere to be found.  The show employs a great theme song but with credits, recap and end credits, each episode only contains about 18 minutes of content.  Being translated from Japanese gives the show a funny bent as you get show titles like "Trap Prison and the Scream of Truth" and the awesome tagline, "Gonna burn some muscle!".

Following the release of the live action film, a Street Fighter Animated Series debuted on USA in 1995.  Like the movie, Guile is the lead character with Blanka and Chun-Li at his side while video game stars Ken and Ryu play supporting characters.  Playing like a bad version of G.I. Joe, SFAS follows Guile and his team of street fighters as they fight M. Bison around the world and basically suck ass.  Seriously, I tried watching a couple episodes of this and had no clue what was going on.  It was just cheesy which means a lot coming from me because I'm into some cheesy shit... and who the crap thought Blanka was a good choice for a sidekick?

Street Fighter Saturday: Paneled Goods

It's been a Street Fighter filled weekend, partly by coincidence, mainly by choice.  First off, the live action web series Assassin's Fist debuted on YouTube via Machinima and fans could binge watch all 12 installments.  The weekend also included a birthday party at a newly opened barcade (bar/arcade) downtown where you guessed it, Street Fighter: Championship Edition was waiting for some button mashing.  I'm not a huge video game person but have always loved Street Fighter.  At it's core, it is the tale of the world warrior and a tournament designed to find the greatest fighter in the world.  Boxing, karate, sumo, thai boxing, etc are all represented by a cast of eclectic characters from around the globe.  I remember playing Street Fighter II at the local mall(s) along with stuff like Final Fight, the X-Men 6 person game, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Avengers, The Simpsons, Mortal Kombat, the G.I. Joe run and gun game and so many more in the early 90's.  As a Jean-Claude Van Damme fan and young martial arts enthusiast, SF was just the brand for me.  Mortal Kombat with it's ripped off story line, cheap play and added violence for attention just seemed like the game for poseurs and trendy fad types.  Street Fighter was classic, stoic and the original institution for fighting games.

In 1994, I would go to Electronics Boutique, (remember that place?!) to check out the latest games for the Super Nintendo.  They also sold a comic book I couldn't find in my local shop, an adaptation of Street Fighter from renowned Japanese artist and writer Masaomi Kanzaki.  Originally printed as a black and white Manga (little graphic novels read back to front), Street Fighter II was translated into English, colorized and rearranged to make a typical American style comic book.  The story of an artificial island dubbed Shad, a project of leading world economies working in harmony to produce a metropolitan power that fails under harsh financial woes.  Falling into disrepair, Shad becomes home to M. Bison and an annual grand tournament to find the world's best fighter.  Bison uses the island and tournament to sell a new drug called Doll which basically makes people into violent psychos and easily mind controlled.  Yeah, it's not exactly the deepest or most logical story that could go with a street fighting tournament.

We meet Ryu, a happy go lucky karate fighter with a huge appetite as he arrives in Shad looking to win the big tournament who can conjure up his energy and spirit and throw it at you in the form of a fireball known as a Hadouken.  Immediately befriending the struggling and grieving Po-Lin and her little brother Wong at their family restaurant, Ryu becomes their benefactor and protector from the city's local organized crime element.  We soon meet other fighters with their own reasons for being in Shad and fighting in the tournament.  There's female law enforcement officer Chun-Li, whose father was investigating Doll and killed by Bison.  More revenge fueled fighting comes from American Air Force pilot Guile, who's out to avenge the death of his best friend and unit due to Doll use.  Guile can conjure up pure energy by breaking the sound barrier and throwing it at you as a Sonic Boom.  Then we have Dhalsim from India who uses his winnings from the bouts to feed the hungry children in his country and can breathe fire.  Former sumo wrestling champion E. Honda is just looking for a new challenge (and ladies) while Bison employs former boxing phenomenon Balrog, the claw wielding, mask wearing, vain matador/ninja Vega and Muy Thai boxing giant Sagat as his ring of champions/assassins.

As our motley crew fights through the tournament and we learn more about them, we're later introduced to Ken, a blonde haired karate master that used to train with Ryu and knew Po-Lin's fiance, Cho, who has something to do with Doll then gets a knife to the chest from Vega.  Only now Ken is under the control of Bison and tries to kill Ryu by dumping a truck load of wet cement on him.  Yeesh, I thought we were friends!  In the comic we meet Ken and Ryu's teacher, Gouken, who gets his ass kicked by Bison in a flashback where Bison, Sagat and Vega are hunting down Cho and end up at the dojo.  Here, Ryu faces off with Sagat and hits him with the Sho-Ryu-Ken aka Dragon Punch and scars him for life.

Reading the comics again was a trip down memory lane.  First because I bought them as an 11 year old 20 years ago and because I'd just plain forgotten how convoluted the Street Fighter mythos is.  You wouldn't think a fighting tournament would need to have root in drug dealing crime syndicates but anytime the history is expanded upon, there's Shad, Shadowlaw, Shadaloo, etc to explain Bison's position of power.  Then there's the whole back story of Ken and Ryu being friends and rivals since childhood then the added vengeance stories of Chun-Li and Guile.  The comics read fast, like real fast and I breezed through all 8 issues in no time.  The art is an interesting mix of painted like texture, big visual battles with their mystical powers and cartoonish big eyes and expressions.  I laughed at some of the broad comedy in the pages like Ryu's penchant for eating and E. Honda being a pervert during his fight with the lovely Chun-Li.  While the story might not quite add up, Street Fighter II is a nice piece of the lore and helped expand the brand beyond arcade and video games.  Toys, posters, key chains, animated movies and shows, live action features and much more were on the way.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Ask Me a Question: X-Men: Days of Future Past

After cinematic go rounds with Spider-Man and Godzilla, it was time to get even bigger.  X-Men: Days of Future Past is allegedly Fox's biggest greenlit film in history behind Avatar.  Why?  Because the filmmakers decided to make a huge summer tent pole action film that involved time travel, a period setting and two casts.  Two casts?  Yup.  If you've kept up with the X franchise since 2000's X-Men, 2003's X2: X-Men United, 2006's The Last Stand, 2009's Origins: Wolverine, 2011's First Class and 2013's The Wolverine, you know that the merry mutants call for a huge entourage of guys and gals with wondrous and freakish abilities who fight on the side of good and evil.  First Class served as a prequel with James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender taking over roles previously played by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan.  Days of Future Past blends the new and original cast while introducing yet even more new characters.  What could have descended into overcrowded camp a la Batman and Robin (which is still an enjoyable romp, what?!), Days does a surprisingly effective job of utilizing both casts to tell a grand tale ripped from the panels of the comic books.

Continuity has always been an issue in the X-Men franchise because the original was a difficult production that studio Fox didn't quite believe in.  When it was a success, it was more about getting to the next film than it was maintaining a cohesive timeline.  In The Wolverine, we saw Hugh Jackman's gruff, adamantium metal fitted bones and clawed anti-hero hanging out in Japan.  Upon return he's greeted by friends-enemies-friends Professor Xavier (Stewart) and Erik Lehnsherr aka Magneto (McKellan) who have put their differences aside to face a larger threat and need Wolverine's help.  From there we jump right into Days of Future Past with a small contingent of X-Men; Kitty Pryde, Iceman, Colossus, Bishop, War Path, Sunspot and Blink as they continuously evade seemingly unstoppable mutant hunting machines, The Sentinels.  I think it's Warpath who can sense them coming then Kitty transfers the consciousness of Bishop to his body a few days prior to warn his comrades so they can escape death.  Xavier, Magneto, Wolverine and old standby Storm catch up with the crew and think they can change the present by altering the past.  With Logan's healing factor and slow aging, he's the perfect candidate to go back 50 years to 1973 to help stop an assassination that will cause the Sentinel program to take root.

We then switch settings and casts for the 1974 scenes which sees Professor Xavier a shell of his former self after destructive results of First Class 10 years prior.  Logan, Xavier and Hank McCoy aka Beast recruit the super fast mutant Peter (Pietro in the comics) Maximoff (Evan Peters) to help break young Magneto (Fassbender) out of the Pentagon so they can stop the shape shifting Raven aka Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from taking out weapons and Sentinel designer Bolivar Trask (Game of Thrones' Peter Dinklage).  His death will trigger even more anti-mutant fervor while cementing the need for the Sentinel program.  The flick starts off well enough, just diving right in without much set up or explanation.  Even as a fan of the movies and comics, I was a little confused though as The Sentinel program seemed to come out of nowhere.  I suppose it could have all happened in the 7 year gap between Last Stand and Days but a little clarification would have been nice. 

Early scenes show the young X-Men using their powers to battle the Sentinels with Iceman finally flying around on ice bridges and slides.  Initial scenes with young Xavier and Magneto are very powerful with excellent performances from McAvoy and Fassbender. The 70's vibe provides some laughs with the fashion, water beds, etc.  Hugh Jackman looks swoler and striated as ever in his surprisingly lone shirtless scene but he does get in a heinie shot which I think is a first for the X-Flicks and does his usual likable loner act.  Going into the flick, everything we had seen of Quicksilver looked hokey and ridiculous.  His appearance seemed to be derived from Doc Brown from Back to the Future and the Carl's Jr ad of him eating a burger in super speed/slow motion was just awkward.  But in the film, it all works marvelously and he's one of the most memorable characters in the flick with arguably the greatest scene in the picture as he uses his super speed and mischievous sense of humor to break Magneto out.  In the comics, Mags is his father and there's a throwaway line alluding to it.

With the two casts jockeying for screen time, I was slightly astonished that much of the film takes place in the 70's with the First Class cast and Wolverine in a bit of a supporting role.  I figured it would jump between time lines with conflicts reflecting each other a la Inception but for the most part, the present day cast is confined to what seemed like only a handful of meaty scenes which don't really utilize or showcase characters like Kitty Pryde, Iceman and Bishop or the actors who play them.  That's actually a departure for this series that has always been so Wolverine centric and then gave Storm a boost at the expense of Cyclops when Halle Berry won an Oscar.  There are some great cameos throughout and the film ends on a high note that gets you pumped for future installments.  If you're going to see this, forgo the post-conversion 3D as it adds nothing to the experience.  NOTHING.  The Arclight's glasses are incredibly heavy and uncomfortable and they're battery operated so you get power flickers too boot.

After the film, producer Lauren Schuler Donner and Quicksilver, Iceman and Bishop actors Evan Peters, Shawn Ashmore and Omar Sy participated in a Q&A that was streamed out to each Arclight location around California.  Some quick bites:

- Project was brought to Donner's attention by former development exec, she read Wolverine's bio in a series bible and loved him.
- X-Men was most difficult because they didn't know what direction to go, she shrugs off part 3
- Story hammered out by Bryan Singer, Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Simon Kinberg then bounced off of Donner and then Kinberg went off to write script.
-X2 writers Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris did a few tweaks and are coming back for X-Men: Apocalypse which is still in story development mode.
- Had a subplot where present day Magneto, Professor X and Iceman go to the Mansion to rescue Rogue (Anna Paquin) but was cut due to time restraints.  Will be finished and scored and included in DVD release.
- It was kind of a low key affair but Omar Sy was visibly excited to be there and won the audience with his love for the franchise, gratitude for the opportunity and French man charm.
- Evan Peters was offered the role flat while Ashmore had to audition 5 times back in 2000 and was cast as a different character before taking over Bobby Drake.
- Shooting the movie was like a family reunion and Sy's first day was working with Professor X, Magneto, Storm and Wolverine which also meant Patrick, McKellan, Berry and Jackman.
- James McAvoy is a practical joker and cut the cheese in the middle of a scene
- Scheduling nightmare as Jackman was promoting Wolverine, Ashmore on The Following, Paquin on True Blood, Patrick and McKellan starring in a play together, etc.

I don't quite understand all the loathe for X-Men 3.  Part of it stems from the casting off of director Brett Ratner as a talentless hack but they guy knows how to make movies look good, always has great casts and has made fun flicks like Rush Hour and Rush Hour 2 with enjoyable mass market efforts like The Family Man, After the Sunset and Tower HeistX3 isn't perfect, there's too many characters crammed in, Cyclops gets killed off after 4 minutes of screen time, blah blah but the same people who made Days, made The Last Stand and had no problem singing it's praises on the DVD features and commentaries.  After director Matthew Vaughn jumped ship thinking he couldn't do what he wanted to do in the limited time frame, Ratner came in with little prep and made a perfectly fine X-Men movie because let's face it, X-Men isn't a masterpiece and Origins: Wolverine is downright crap with it's shoddy f/x, nonsensical mutant cameos, poor production values and unfulfilled potential.  While people go see Marvel marathons, I seriously doubt you'd get too many people willing to sit down for a triple feature of X-Men movies.

The Arclight does stuff like this all the time I feel but this just felt underwhelming.  From the eh moderating to the volume of the microphones being barely audible to the 20 minutes to get out of the parking garage, it was just like all the energy and goodwill from the film had been sucked out.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Dolph Month: Maximum Start

The first movie I ever saw in a theater was Cannon Films' adaptation of Mattel's toy line Masters of the Universe.  Since then I've been a lifelong Dolph Lundgren fan with his intimidating physique, sometime crazy character portrayals, martial arts prowess and general stoic Dolph-ness.  While he never reached the career heights of Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal or the man most directly responsible for his career, Sylvester Stallone, Lundgren has carved a nice spot out for himself and in recent years has only gotten more recognizable.  Taking a cue from Clint Eastwood and Stallone, Dolph has directed 6 films in his long list of credits in a bid to challenge himself and take control of his fate.  Recently, Lundgren has taken on a real world threat and put it into the movies with his written and produced effort, Skin Trade, which focuses on the horrible world of human trafficking.  Recruiting Tony Jaa, Ron Perlman, Peter Weller and Michael Jai White, Skin Trade looks to be the best type of film, one that is born out of passion and carried through with the objective to entertain and illuminate.

Rewinding a few years and Dolph was a self described skinny wimp at age 16 with asthma.  Taking up full contact Kyokushin Karate and by his late teens was a heavy weight champion competing in his homeland of Sweden and traveling to the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom.  Of course karate wasn't exactly a career back then so Dolph took after his brother and father and studied Chemical Engineering at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm as well as Washington State University.  In the early 80's, Lundgren received a Fulbright scholarship to M.I.T. but had 6 months off in New York before classes started.  He then met singer Grace Jones and traveled with her to the set of James Bond picture A View to a Kill where he was given a walk on role and history was about to be made.  Delaying his further studies, Dolph went in for a cattle call audition that ended up being for Rambo II and Rocky IV.  Originally being dismissed for being too tall (6'5"!), Lundgren had a friend snap some photographs of him in boxing gear and sent them off to the casting agency.  Months later he received a call to test for the role of Ivan Drago, a seemingly unbeatable, scientifically enhanced boxer from the Soviet Union.

With 3 months to prepare, Dolph began to work on gaining weight to play the formidable heavyweight destroyer.  As an athlete, overly developed muscles would waste his bodies natural system as whether you're 100 or 400 pounds, you have the same amount of blood flowing through your veins and aerobic capacity.  Upping his time in the weight room and scaling back on cardio, Dolph began a high protein, low carb diet that he really had no idea how to go about.  By the time the screen test arrived, Lundgren was a solid 248 lbs while the two other actors auditioning were heavier and smoother.  Dolph maintained a quiet persona a la Clint Eastwood while the other candidates screamed and went over the top.  A call the next day from Stallone himself confirmed Lundgren had the role.  Now it was time to get in cinema shape.  Working out for hours with Stallone, the two built up their bodies and muscles that boxers generally don't have.  With 5 months until shooting, the duo started off lifting heavy for 2 hours to put on mass on a 3 day split of Chest/Back/Shoulders, Arms and Legs with 2 hours of boxing daily.  By the end of prep, their lifting time decreased dramatically and boxing work was upped to 4 hours daily.

The result was two of the most sculpted physiques in film history depicted as old versus new school training in the film.  But that is for our next post...

Gotta Eat! Alta California Fonda

Was in the mood for Mexican but didn't want overpriced honkey style in Beverly Hills or trek over to West Hollywood to fight crowds and valet parking.  Found Alta California Fonda on Yelp and made the short drive over.  You could easily miss this place because their sign is shared with the neighboring business which is floors or laminate or something.  But Alta California Fonda was a great, no hassle experience with easy street parking and a quaint and relaxing environment as you can sit inside at their diner style counter or outside on the covered patio.  From the sound of it, it's a family business and they're working hard to succeed.  The menu is American with your usual breakfast and lunch options then Mexican entrees.  I had 4 different kinds of tacos and was very happy with the taste, price and speed of service.  Now they just need to add booze and it'll be a party.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Cinema Swole: The Expendables 3

Proving that muscles still rule the world and movies, the cast of The Expendables III invaded the Cannes film festival and stole the spotlight as the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dolph Lundgren, Jason Statham, Randy Couture and new additions Antonio Banderas, Wesley Snipes, Harrison Ford, Kellan Lutz and Mel Gibson became their own traveling movie star parade.  The sight of so many famous faces has garnered much attention and validates Stallone's business acumen as the tough guy reunion series is his 3rd franchise and allegedly netted him $15 million this go round.  Stallone has long wanted to pull off a huge premiere stunt like landing a plane on the Las Vegas strip but until now has been unable to accomplish such a feat.  Lionsgate pulled out all the stops here spending "Super Bowl" commercial money to arrange the event.  In France, the cast rode on two military vehicles, not quite tanks, but still big, mean and armored.  Footage was shown and at a stacked press conference, Stallone dropped the bomb that this supposed final outing is going to be rated PG-13.  PG-13?  What the fuck?!  This immediately reminded viewers of the hubbub caused by part 2's Chuck Norris alleged mentioning of a possible less than R rating which of course, turned out not to be true.  The Expendables II wasn't a hard R but still featured tons of carnage, gunfire, riddled bodies, knives piercing flesh, CGI blood, Jean-Claude Van Damme kicking a knife into the chest of Liam Hemsworth and Stallone chopping off VD's head and carrying it in a dripping sack.  However, Stallone and Arnold's recent R-rated solo outings in The Last Stand, Bullet to the Head and Sabotage all failed to find audiences.

The PG-13 rating comes as a bit of a shock but not a surprise as Millennium Film's producer Avi Lerner is a business man and after several not cheap clunkers like The Legend of Hercules and Conan the Barbarian died at the box office, he's got to protect his investments.  2010's The Expendables was a surprise hit and grossed $275 million worldwide.  2012's part 2 upped the ante by adding 80's and 90's favorites Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme to the mix as well as fresh face from The Hunger Games Liam Hemsworth.  Grosses in America were down but the film made up for it overseas and pulled in $300 million.  Now, moving into part III, Stallone claims it's time to hit the widest audience possible and let the younger generation in a la The Fast and the Furious and Transformers saga of violence without blood, PG-13 setting.  It's kind of like when Die Hard IV was given a not R and ended up being the highest grosser number wise in the series.  When part 5 went back to the Restricted rating, it grossed $80 million less but that could be from franchise fatigue, poor word of mouth, etc.

On the tanks and at the press conference, Messrs.' Dolph Lundgren, Mel Gibson (sporting a sweet beard) and Arnold Schwarzenegger were looking particularly swole as they sported short sleeves.  Lundgren will also be shopping his human trafficking action flick Skin Trade, co-starring Tony Jaa, Peter Weller and Michael-Jai White at the festival.  Gibson was linked to a Jackie Chan period action flick, Dragon Blade but it's revenge thriller Blood Father that's for sale at the fest while Arnie is taking a hiatus from the in production Terminator: Genesis to do what he does best: sell his image and charm throngs of hungry journalists and fans.  The Expendables were everywhere: on daytime talk shows, riding on tanks in the streets then all dolled up later before a screening.  In an interview alongside Harrison Ford, Stallone was very complimentary of the fellow 90's superstar and described the two as being actors whose action movies were about ordinary men triumphing over extraordinary odds;  they weren't super heroes with powers beyond passion and commitment.

At it's core, Cannes is a marketplace where studios buy up films completed and not to distribute in their countries.  Guys like Stallone, Arnold, Ford, Gibson, Lundgren etc command a certain value on the international market and two producers who played the pre-sale game incredible well were Cannon Films' Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus.  The two were famous for their go-go development in the 80's and paying top dollar for sure bets like Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris.  Golan had the script for Over the Top, the father/son driving cross country/arm wrestling adventure and wanted Stallone to star in it.  Sly's manager informed Golan that his client made a massive $6 million bucks a picture, thinking it would dissuade the mini-major exploitation mogul but Golan shocked everyone when he said he wanted to pay Stallone $10 million to star in the film.  History was made and Stallone became the highest paid actor in Hollywood at the time.  Stallone commented that he loved guys like Cannon as they were pioneers and had the guts to just go out and do it, not thinking about the mathematical, scientific approach that is prevalent today among the conglomerate owned, non risk taking, easily digestible gruel producing studios of the now.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Summer Cinema: Godzilla

Godzilla.  What does that name mean to you?  For me, it brings back memories of catching parts of the various 28 cinematic chapters on TBS as a kid, guys in suits stomping on miniatures, early special f/x, his little kid Godzilla trying to blow blue fire breath and of course, the all famous Godzilla roar.  At the time of his release in Toho's 1954's Godzilla, the King of Monsters was seen as a metaphor for nuclear weapons like the ones dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.  Since then, The Big Green has defended and terrorized the population of Japan fighting against and alongside the likes of Jet Jaguar, King Kong, Megalon and Mothra.  While Godzilla mean "gorilla" and "whale", his appearance and history has always come from the prehistoric age and mixes Tyrannosaurus, Stegosaurus, alligator, etc.  In 1998, then kings of the special f/x driven disaster/sci-fi flick Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin brought Godzilla to America proper but the results were less than legendary.  Cut to 16 years later and Legendary Pictures has brought Godzilla back to America with a big budget, summer tent pole that will crush nearly $100 million opening weekend.

Following The Amazing Spider-Man 2 as 2014's latest action packed spectacle of the sequel/reboot/revamp variety, Godzilla employs another young director not accustomed to huge Hollywood budgets, Gareth Edwards.  Fresh from the success of his under $1-million dollar indie flick Monsters, Edwards does a great job making the leap to studio fare.  The film starts in Japan where engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) has discovered a strange, earthquake like phenomenon occurring near a nuclear reactor.  Something beneath the surface awakens and the reactor is destroyed and the area turned into a quarantined zone.  Cut to 15 years later and Brody's now grown up son Ford (Aaron-Taylor Johnson) has to go bail pops out of prison because he's been lurking around the Q Zone for the last 15 years trying to figure out what happened.  We find out that the cause of the nuclear reactor destruction all those years ago was from the reawakening of a giant, mantis like creature dubbed Muto that has survived from the prehistoric era when the Earth was radioactive.  As the surface leveled out, Muto and others like him retreated to the depths of the sea to be closer to the Earth's radioactive core.  But the rise of manmade radioactive hot spots has drawn him to the surface.  Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) has been following these creatures for decades, one in particular, Godzilla.  Big Green arises from the ocean to hunt and take on Muto to give the world balance once again.

Edwards and writers David MacCallum and Max Borenstien approach new Godzilla with an old school touch like a disaster film where we follow a few protagonists on their journeys to safety and family reunion.  There's only a few human characters to keep track of so we don't have to delve too deeply into the backstory of a dozen characters a la The Towering Inferno or Independence Day.  But the approach sadly back fires to a degree as the characters are thinly sketched and not overly interesting or compelling, we don't root for them, we're not concerned with their safety, they're all just there to let us know what's going on.  Sure there's carnage, destruction and monster on monster crime galore but the film takes so long to build up to it that by the time it happens it's a little underwhelming.  The choice to delay Godzilla's appearance is a smart one but once he shows up to take care of business, the film cuts away to some human issue right before a monster mash is about to go down and that happens several times.  Don't get me wrong, there's some great stuff in the film from the Incredible Hulk like opening of news clippings and footage of nuclear tests and the rise of the mysterious beasts and cover ups, Godzilla's amazing appearance and movement, fluid action scenes, iconic shots of the monster, a flaming French kiss, nods to the original series, a nice pace, a trim 2 hour runtime and a penchant for actual sets and props VS total CGI environments. There's a familiar, low-watt, movie star free but capable cast involved who all do fine jobs no matter how brief their appearance.  In the end, it's not that Godzilla is boring or ponderous, it's just not very exciting, sadly.  And it's no Pacific Rim.  Elbow Rocket!

We saw the flick in 3D at The Chinese Theatre in Hollywood on their fake IMAX screen.  There's a great statue in the courtyard of the big beast as well as posters in the lobby etc.  If you haven't been to the Chinese IMAX, it's quite a nice place, beautifully decorated and of course a huge screen and giant speakers.  I can't say I noticed too much 3D difference but then I usually never do because it's a sham.  Just have stuff hurtling at the audience already so we know we're getting our money's worth!  I can't be totally immersed in the movie when I can see the edges of the screen and the tops of everybody's heads.