Tuesday, December 30, 2014

2014 Cinema Round Up

Movies cost more to make and attend than ever.  Each of the six major studios crossed the billion dollar gross line but attendance slid to 1.2 billion admissions.  That's just above 1995 numbers.  3D upcharges, reboots, remakes, sequels, everything being based on something else, the so called rise of television, video games, no one will ever know what will please audiences.  Luckily I just like movies and saw dozens of them in the theater this year.  New ones, old ones, good ones, shitty ones, seeing a movie in the theater is still the best way to experience a film in my opinion as you have nothing to do but watch the movie.  Unless you're an asshole on a phone then I'm giving you to the count of 0.  Sometimes dealing with rude patrons is enough to make you not want to check out the cinema but being in Los Angeles where movies are such a key to the infrastructure, you tend to be able to get through most flicks without telling someone to go outside and seeing if their response is going to be compliance or getting into it.  I'm fine with either one.

In no order, some of the flicks I enjoyed this year:

Sabotage: "Look at you with your fucking 48% body fat!"
Arnold in a mature, raw, ridiculous action thriller.  David Ayer's street, bro-down style makes little sense but I loved it and told Sam Worthington so in person.

Snowpiercer: "I know what people taste like. I know that babies taste best." 
Crazy, sad, visual, violent, funny. Oh them Koreans and their post apocalyptic, 99% VS the 1% on a train tales. 

Frank: "Ginger crouton!"
Not so much a movie but more a sad/funny/weird experience about fitting in and mental health.  Michael Fassbender wearing a paper mache helmet for 95% of the running time shows you what kind of actor he is.

Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier: "It's real!"
Marvel again knocks it out of the park, giving audiences fun times without really challenging the genre and treating movies like television.

The Lego Movie: "Spaceship!"
One of the few kiddie movies I saw this year but uber cute, funny with a killer cast and interesting core message of everything being awesome.

Interstellar: "You don't believe we went to the moon?"
Something to be experienced and felt, in your heart from the emotions and your chest from the big ass sound system.  It's not a documentary so don't analyze it as such.  Otherwise I can punch holes in Guardians all day but since people had fun with it they don't think to nitpick it.

The Expendables 3: "I'll open up your meat shirt and show you your own heart."
Saw this thing 3 times in as many days.  Modern, sleek and entertaining it's less serious than I and not as weird goofy as II.  Gave up hope on a "good" Expendables movie after the first one and just went for the ride.  Wondering how it's failure will effect a potential fourth chapter.

Nightcrawler: "You're a lifetime too late!" and "Twerp."
One of the surprises of the year, funny, creepy and messed up Los Angeles movie about shock media and journalism.  Jake G is slowly turning me into a fan. Bill Paxton showing up always a plus.

Birdman: "I'm gonna crab up on your ass and choke you out!"
Beautiful, bizarre, Broadway.  Michael Keaton and Edward Norton are terrific.

Fury: "Best job I ever had."
David Ayer second appearance! Violent, brutal bromance of a World War II tank flick. Brad Pitt still has it.

The Almost Pacific Rim but Not Quite AwardEdge of Tomorrow
Tom Cruise has yet to make a bad movie and this big sci-fi, time leaping, alien invasion romp is a lot of fun if a little repetitive.  Bill Paxton again.

Whoda Thunk: Let's Be Cops
Actually quite funny buddy action comedy with consistent laughs on a low budget and expectations.  Those New Girl guys are good together.

Surprised People Liked It So Much: John Wick
The moody, violent action flick was a nice run from Keanu Reeves but I honestly can't believe people liked the hitman flick as much as they let on. 

Almost Good But Not Quite: Robocop & Godzilla
Samuel L. Jackson opened and closed the Robo remake with gusto but in between it was pretty uneven and Joel Kinnaman ain't no Peter Weller, bro.  His faux Detroit tough guy turned lobotomized cyborg did nothing for me while Godzilla was hardly in his own movie and we're left with uninteresting human characters doing uninteresting things.  Godzilla was probably the biggest let down of the year.

Just Didn't Get It:
The Raid 2 - Amazing action yet mean spirited, overlong with a simple story that doesn't justify the running time.  Cut it down from 130 to 90 minutes and I'm sure there's a classic inside.
Gone Girl - A big budget Lifetime movie where serious adult actors utter "cool girl".
Lucy- Along with 3 Days to Kill shows that Luc Besson and company have an interesting method to crafting would be action movies but become a little too abstract while not sticking to their own made up rules.
Into the Woods - Beautiful yet boring, maybe if you like musicals.

What the Chuck?! Fight or Die

This week I caught Walker, Texas Ranger as he goes undercover in a prison to expose a fight ring in 1999's 9th episode of the 8th season, Fight or Die!  Basically, evil entrepreneur Warden Kyle (Charles Napier) and his vicious lieutenant Traction (Marshall Teauge) run an inmate fight league that's broadcast to the internet from Arkansas' CopperHead prison.  Being from Texas, Walker, partner Trivette and Ranger Gage can go in with solid covers as cons and guards to uppercut the top off the whole thing after prisoners and another undercover cop have been killed during the brutal matches.  King of the prison circuit is Dirk Savage aka Hammer (Frank Shamrock) who's already bagged 5 bodies inside.  There's also mountain of a man Whitelaw Lundgren, (phew, sweet names in this episode) played by The Macho Man Randy Savage (Wrestle In Peace).  Walker goes in first and is immediately thrown into solitary confinement so the prison crew can check out his background.  The Chuck opens his shirt and starts shadow boxing, doing elbow out push ups (aw come on, Chuck!) and ab crunches for days until it's time to hit D Block where The Pit awaits.  Bunked up with fellow fighters Munger and Stout (Richard Norton and Tony Brubaker), Trivette as a guard and Gage as a cocky inmate show up and they begin to piece together their case.

Walker and Gage are thrown into the cage to battle it out with cons using Vasoline, slo-mo, jump spinning back kicks and arm bars on their way to a final showdown with Hammer.  The Total Gym must work as Chuck is looking pretty solid here pushing 60.  When Walker spares Lundgren's life, The Macho Man gives him his respect and some advice, don't take it easy on Hammer!  Large businessman King (Cliff Emmich) shows up and talks Warden Kyle into building up Walker and Gage so they can get more views and cash from the internets.  When the final fight is reached, it has to be to the death to appease the blood thirsty audience.  Hammer throws them for a loop when he wants to fight Gage and Walker on the same night which means someone has to die.  Gage goes down after a plethora of flying knees but Walker jumps in and punches, kicks and jiu-jitsu's Hammer.  With the authorities alerted and en route, Traction and Kyle figure on killing everybody and covering it with a riot story.  Lundgren saves Walker from getting deaded with a shotgun blast and then the inmates and guards melee in a hail of batons and full mount followed by punches to the face!

Oh man what a jacked and stacked episode, in front and behind the camera.  Series veteran Michael Preece had already directed blocks of Dallas, McGuyver and Hunter before helming Fight or Die on his way to 70 episodes.  Writer Gordon T. Dawson started off in the wardrobe department before graduating to writer, producer and second unit director under Sam Peckinpah on 5 consecutive films like The Wild Bunch and The Getaway.  Dawson would pen 25 episodes of Walker, Texas Ranger.  Guest villain Charles Napier is known to action fans for his portrayal of Murdock in Rambo: First Blood, Part II and has over 200 acting credits to his name while Marshall Teague played karate fighting henchman Billy in Road House ("I used to f*ck guys like you in prison!") and is a real life badass having served in the military, worked in law enforcement and was a kickboxing champ.  Teague would play several different characters on Walker over it's 10 season run and reunite with Chuck on the 2005 flick The Cutter.  Frank Shamrock is a pioneer of Mixed Martial Arts and a former UFC champion.  Always in great shape, I think he only had a shirt on for one scene in the episode and even that was a hoodie vest left open.  What can you say about wrestling legend, Slim Jim spokesman and rapper The Macho Man Randy Savage?  He's always fun to watch because remember, he's a chameleon!  Richard Norton was a karate champion turned stunt man and actor, appearing in several early Norris films and 11 eppies of Walker while Tony Brubaker has over 250 credits to his name and appeared in among other things, Action Jackson and attended Carl Weathers night!  As if that weren't enough, the slimy promoter played by Cliff Emmich looked familiar because he was in Best of the Best 2 in the bar scene with Dae Han (Simon Rhee) talking about Houston.

Con-Man: 2014 Wrap Up

It was a fun year of attending conventions this 2014 as we hit up no less than 9 shows in California, Utah, Washington and Calgary.  It will be pretty quiet around Southern California until February when the Long Beach Comic Expo returns for their one of two annual shows.  Let's take a look back at the year shall we?

March. Emerald City Comicon - This was our first year attending but I enjoy Seattle so it was nice to hit the town, see some friends and check out the show.  It's a big one, encapsulating nearly every floor and cranny of the giant downtown convention center on two sides of the street.  A huge exhibition floor along with a media area for panels and autographs, Lego display, Game of Thrones art gallery and much more kept us busy even if it was a little confusing to get around.  Off site theaters hosted podcasts and special screenings of fan favorites with cast in attendance.  People were very nice and our hotel rate was very swank with a nice con discount too boot.  A little sight seeing at the Pike, some sky high drinks at Rview (since closed) and lots and lots of rain.  We're going back in 2015 so that about sums it up.  Oh yeah, Michael Biehn and his wife Jennifer Blanc were on our flight up so that was cool.

April. Wonder Con - San Diego's sister show in Anaheim is always a blast, tickets are easy to come by and it's a large event stacked with programming.  We opted for a different hotel this year to ensure we had a refrigerator but boy was it not worth it as the place was kind of a dump. Better to stay at the connected Hilton and bring a cooler.  Unlike Emerald City, lots of great panels here about comics, writing, art, movie and television with guests like Bill Paxton and Jim Lee charming and educating the pants off us.  Really looking forward to this one again.

April. Calgary Expo - Another first for us and our inaugural trip outside the country for a convention.  Our plane was filled with guests for the show including Ricco Ross from Aliens.  Calgary was super weird in the sense that I had no idea it was so into oil and cowboy stuff so stetsons and big trucks were everywhere.  A beautiful city filled with polite folks, I was surprised at how bland the food was in Chinatown, at pubs and high end restaurants.  The show was held at a giant rodeo complex and was spread out over several structures of essentially a fairgrounds.  Access was not easy in and out so we stayed the entire day before going to a nighttime panel.  CE corralled cast and crew of The Hobbit films for a night of improv, story telling and demonstrations of fight choreography and make up.  The next night the entire main cast of Aliens was reunited on stage to discuss making a classic and reminding us that Michael Biehn and Bill Paxton should have a sitcom together.  A fun show but we don't have plans to return this year.  If you go, send me some dark chocolate Kit Kats because they are amazing and made from real chocolate.

June. BotCon - Held in gorgeous and idyllic downtown Pasadena, BotCon was one of the most interesting shows we attended this year as it wasn't about the all encompassing Popular/Nerd Culture but simply about The Transformers and their legacy of toys, comics, art and cartoons.  Just crowded enough with lots of exhibitors with all kinds of goodies for sale as well as voice actors from the shows and mother fucking rock and roller Stan Bush.  I actually kind of froze up when I saw him as his music has influenced my life for about 20 years.  Since BotCon changes locations every year, organizers set up tours of Los Angeles attendees could go on culminating in an awards show and concert.  The panel featuring voice actors was hilarious and inspirational.  I'd love to attend again if they come back to Southern California.

July. Anime Expo - Our first introduction to the wild and wooly world of Japanese animation was a doozy as the show packed in over 100,000 attendees in Downtown Los Angeles on a sweltering weekend.  Tickets sold out but there was free admission to the exhibit hall nightly.  It wasn't that different than a comic-con as anime is always a big factor at shows.  It was a nice warm up for San Diego as the place was so packed and B.O. was in the air.  A photographer friend took us around and showed us the cosplay backdrop area where costumed folks could pose in pre-made environments which was a unique touch.  Would definitely like to attend this year.  Better get back to Samurai Champloo and Attack on Titan...

July. San Diego Comic Con - The mother lode.  The mecca.  The place you lose yourself and find yourself, Patrick Swayze style.  From rooftop parties, reconnecting with old colleagues, walking the gigantic floor, hunting down exclusive swag (hello Expendables 3 poster and Batman Animated Series vinyl!), checking out six panels in a row, meeting Ernie Reyes, Jr., eating crappy convention center pizza and hot dogs, walking straight into Hall H and not camping out like a loon, volunteering at 6:00 AM, meeting a future moviebro, sky high dranking, it's just the best way to spend a few days.  Tickets and condo for next year already secured.

September. Salt Lake Comic Con.  Another first for a show and city.  Lines were out the door and just picking up badges was a fucking fiasco.  Really unimpressed with their organization after touting themselves as a challenger to San Diego, etc.  The actual show was fun, not a huge exhibition floor but big and varied enough to make for a nice half day of checking out.  Lots and lots of money gouging I mean autographs and photo opportunities for sale at this one so programming was pretty light.  Arcade set up was a nice touch and we met Danny Glover, who was awesome.  Salt Lake itself was quaint but weird, surprising amount of people living on the streets, built up and fancy one block, falling apart the next, bland food from a couple spots, we checked out a state liquor store and the surrounding area really seemed to be supporting the con which was cool.  They think they're as good a show as San Diego, they're not.  Would maybe come back in a few years once it builds up and gets organized.

September. Long Beach Comic Con -  Always a nice day out in Long Beach with easy access, a decent floor, okay programming and places to hang and check out across the street.  Feels like it used to be bigger with more going on but perhaps has plateaued and maybe on it's way down?  I hope I'm wrong and we'll be there for the next show.

November. Comikaze - Like Salt Lake, flaunts it's celebrity guests and show for fans by fans, grassroots sensibility.  Also like SL, feels the need to compare themselves to San Diego when they're not even in the same league.  Regressed from last year as entry took way longer than it should have considering it wasn't that crowded.  But as usual a nice sized floor, fun guests and light on programming. 

Sadly, we missed out on this year's inaugural Comics Arts Los Angeles show, hopefully it went well and a future event is in the works.  Also sad was He-Man and She-Ra centric attraction Power-Con attempted to move to New York from Torrance in an effort to expand it's audience but failed to sell enough tickets and had to cancel...This year sees Star Wars Celebration hitting Anaheim in April, a first for me and another notch on the ol' convention belt.  See ya at the show!

Friday, December 26, 2014

Ask Me a Question: The Interview

After all major theater chains decided not to screen The Interview due to potential cyber and physical terrorist attacks, independent owners pleaded with Sony to allow the film to play and let freedom reign.  Texas' Alamo Drafthouse chain reported sell outs at all of their 18 locations while The Downtown Independent, Cinefamily and The Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles all picked up the film.  Sony made the film available online for $5.99 Christmas Eve while co-star, writer and director Seth Rogen and partner Evan Goldberg appeared at a midnight screening.  The American Cinematheque and Beyond Fest teamed up to bring the film to audiences for the original intended Christmas Day release and did not disappoint.  The packed house was treated to a DJ dropping beautiful 80's tunes from Rod Stewart, Motley Crue and Van Halen while clips of essential America in the vein of Rocky IV, wrestling, monster trucks, hot dog eating, Rambo, Chuck Norris, Red Dawn and American Idol contestants singing God Bless the U.S.A. got the audience patriotically pumped up.

I actually thought it was a dick move of Sony to release the film online Wednesday before the actual intended release Thursday and taking theaters' exclusive window.  After all, big boys like Cinemark, AMC, Pacific and Regal dropped the film like it had a disease, 330 independent houses are the ones who stepped up and asked to show the film.  I already wanted to see the movie so whether it was was good or bad didn't matter anymore, you had to support it as a movie lover I figured.

Before the film played, George Washington and The Statue of Liberty (traveling buddy act Grant & Christian) welcomed the audience while Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and co-stars Randall Park and Lizzy Caplan showed up to talk about the crazy, fucked up road of events, the maybe hack by North Korea and thanking everyone for attending.  Lizzy Caplan claimed she's never felt patriotic in her life but was starting to feel the love and asked the audience to join her in singing the national anthem as we all stood up and belted about rockets red glare and the home of the brave.  After that, Budweiser, tee shirts and tumblers were tossed into the crowd.  James Franco and his grandma appeared via video to thank everyone for showing up and it was time to roll the flick. 

The Interview is the story of schlock journalist Dave Skylark (James Franco), his best friend/producer Aaron Rapaport (Rogen) and their hit tabloid style show, Skylark Tonight.  After 1000 episodes covering the cool, weird, glamorous and seedy lifestyles of the rich and shameless, Rapaport wants to do something pertaining to real journalism.  A connection to Kim Jong-Un (Randall Park) is made and soon the duo is headed to North Korea to interview the world's most vicious and manipulative dictator.  The pair are then recruited by C.I.A. agent Lacey (Caplan) to assassinate Un while they're there.  Honey potting, honey dicking, poison strips, Bengal Tigers, tanks, Lord of the Rings, Katy Perry, booze, boobs and bro'ing out hijinks ensue.  Like action or horror, comedy films are best experienced with a crowd.  Sitting at home watching it on TV or your laptop where you're easily distracted or sitting alone just doesn't work that well for the yuks to me.  I had a good time with The Interview, Franco and Rogen have a nice dynamic with the former playing half homosexual/half debauched soul as the flamboyant, dim witted TV personality who gets celebrities to open up to him and the former being the straight guy looking for a little credibility.  There's dick, fart and homosexual jokes galore but nothing too offensive and they're delivered with such zeal that you can't help but laugh.  Skylark's constant use of "Ain'ters gonna ain't" and "they hate us cause they ain't us" are sure to become this years "Don't be a don'ter, do be a doer" and "I'm a doer!" here on Dammaged Goods.

Surprisingly, there's some well shot action in the piece with a tank, helicopter, troops, etc so maybe we'll see Rogen and Goldberg being handed the reigns to a big budget action comedy someday.  The trailers give away many of the cameos but there's a great one at the start I had no idea was coming.  I was actually surprised at the lack of cameos given how many famous faces showed up in This Is The End but I guess there's not much you can do when half the film takes place in North Korea. 

While the situation with Sony is truly shitty and I'm eagerly awaiting to find out who really hacked them, it turned a regular night at the movies into one hell of a special event.  U-S-A!  U-S-A!

Gotta Drank! Jameson's Irish Pub

Christmas in California is weird.  Depending on where you go, most places are closed while in other pockets, it's just another day.  Before checking out a special screening of The Interview at The Egyptian, we ventured into Hollywood looking for Happy Hour.  Usual staples Boardner's, Micelli's and Pig & Whistle were all closed while The Rusty Mullet, some crazy Cantina joint and Jameson's Irish Pub on Hollywood Boulevard were all bustling.  Donning a Halloween Captain America shield to the movie to show my support for it and the country, security had to check with management to make sure I could bring it in.  With a promise not to shield bash anyone, we quickly got a table in the crowded, cluttered yet cozy spot.  Jameson's is probably a popular spot, not only are there televisions broadcasting the game and Home Alone everywhere, it's Hollywood so all the servers are young women AND they have 2-For-1 drinks Monday through Friday from 12:00 - 8:00PM.  We grabbed some Dublin Mules which were tasty if not a little strong on the lime juice.  Food wise they have Prime Rib and a small piece of it only set you back $10 bucks.  Bigger than that was a huge appetizer preztel that could have used about 3x the cheese sauce they provided.  Not sure I'd want to come here during a regular day of business and  Hollywood crowds but for Christmas it was just fine.

Biehn Scene: Adventure, Inc. & The Wave of the Future

After working with Gale Ann Hurd on The Terminator and Aliens, Michael Biehn would reunite with the prolific genre writer and producer 16 years later on Nickelodeon's time bending family adventure, Clockstoppers.  The mild success led to another collaboration with Fireworks and Tribune Entertainment's 2002 syndicated action series Adventure, Inc.  Based on the real life exploits of Barry Clifford, a renowned under water explorer who has embarked on multiple sea excursions and discovered many a sunken ship.  Promotions at San Diego Comic-Con and The Cannes Film Festival in France followed before the 22 episodes hit the air.  Filming in Canada, England and France, the show has quite the exotic yet low budget feel, rumored to be around $40 million for the series.  But since the show was pre-sold, I'm guessing that's an inflated number.

Michael Biehn stars as professional explorer Judson Cross, a treasure seeker always down to his last couple of bucks waiting for a big job.  He's joined by the beautiful Mackenzie Previn (Karen Cliche), a badass chick with a mysterious past and tech wizard Gabriel Patterson (Jesse Nilsson, View In Peace) as they trot the globe looking for artifacts and running into those who would sell them instead of putting them in a museum and those who wish for their lost cultural items to stay unearthed.  Watching a few episodes this week on DVD, number 16 of the first and only season, Wave of the Future caught my attention simply because Michael Biehn got to kick so much ass and talk so much shit in it.  After finding a Roman Plate during an Italian dive, Cross is immediately attacked by some random black market pirates but escapes.

Later, while handing the plate over to the local university museum and the sultry curator Stefi (Daniela Olivieri), he's attacked by three hoods dressed as priests(!) who steal the plate but not before The Biehn puts a whuppin' on them, slamming a head into a concrete wall, kicking one over it, etc.  Nobody steals from Judson Cross so a pissed off Biehn finds the pirate punk who stole his plate then beats his ass at a cafe.  Cross makes a deal to buy the plate back but Stefi doesn't think the risk is worth it as the plate is insured.  But nobody tells The Biehn what to do so armed with a bag of fake cash, goes to the meeting where he puts a hurting on yet another three dudes, this time using a net and oar!  Turns out the sweet Stefi was actually playing Judson and was behind the theft in the first place but ol' Biehn was too smart for her and arranges a safe escort for her, to prison!

Directed by TV veteran Chris Bould (Who's Line Is It Anyway ?, Relic Hunter) with a script by Gene O'Neil (Lois & Clark, Hercules, Spy Game(!)) and stunts by Lloyd Adams, Wave of the Future stands out as a fun episode that utilizes The Biehn Screen persona we all know and love; funny, wise ass, a ladies man and a guy ready to kick some ass.  While Hurd has had massive success with the recent zombie series The Walking Dead, Adventure, Inc. was her first foray into episodic television over 12 years ago.  Feeling that film was more of an actors and directors medium, Hurd figured TV would allow her ideas to breathe and build into something audiences would appreciate.  While Adventure, Inc. allowed Biehn and company to have some light hearted fun around the world and the series did well in the ratings, it was not picked up by enough buyers to warrant a 2nd season.  Sadly, co-star Jesse Nilsson died of complications from pneumonia in 2003.  Biehn would go on to co-star in NBC's short lived 2004 cop series Hawaii while Cliche would jump over to Fireworks and Tribune's sci-fi syndicated series Mutant X before landing on Flash Gordon.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Snow Screen: The Hobbit Battle of the Five Armies

It's been our tradition to see the new Hobbit movies at The Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, home of the largest capacity IMAX theater in the world allegedly with nearly 1,000 seats but the screen actually isn't a real IMAX screen.  With The Rave at Howard Hughes now converted into a Cinemark XD, the only true IMAX experience left in Los Angeles is the AMC at Universal City Walk.  Not that that really matters if the film isn't shot with IMAX technology, the giant square screen is so big that you have to move your head around to keep up and the seats at these original IMAX theaters are extremely squished in together to the point that a person couldn't cross in front of you.  Fortunately, The Chinese has spacious seats and aisles.  Sadly, there was no Hobbit set up outside in the courtyard or inside the theater lobby.  Usually there's some kind of faux statue or costumes but this year, nothing.

Picking up where The Desolation of Smaug left off, you know, where the dwarves work really hard to douse the dragon with melted gold only to see the creature shake it off and take flight and that's the infuriating end to the film in this three movie cash grab?  Anywho, now Thorin Oakenshield and his dwarf homies along with Hobbit Bilbo Baggins are all holed up in the mountain castle that is filled with gold.  The humans of nearby Lake Town scramble to survive after Smaug flames the shit out of their crappy little village.  Thorin reneges on his promise to share the wealth and before you know it, orcs, elves, humans and dwarves are all ready to go to war over the riches inside the mountain and for it's strategic position in the landscape.

Battle of the Five Armies might just have been my favorite of the three entertaining if not overly memorable Hobbit films.  There's a simple story, set up, a few dramatic moments and of course, lots and lots of action of the dwarf on orc on elf on human on orc persuasion.  At under two and a half hours, it's also the shortest in the trilogy with everything more or less being wrapped up nicely and not suffering from the half dozen endings that Lord of the Rings' Return of the King suffered from.  I don't think we've seen another film in High Frame Rate outside this series and again, it's kind of weird to get used to as things look really real and clear, as if you were watching an extremely well designed play up close.  Instead of things slowing down when there's lots of action on screen, things tend to feel sped up and a little herky-jerky even.  LOTR suffered from fake, shiny and cartoon-ish looking CGI while Hobbit and Weta have improved technology leaps and bounds.  The immense battle scenes with creatures and animals of all sizes look less fake but still fake in a different kind of way.

Peter Jackson and company have to be commended for taking on such a Herculean task as I'm always amazed by the sheer scale of these films and their attention to detail with the F/X, make up, props, costumes, sets, etc.  One thing that still bugs me is the fact that we don't get any amusement park style 3D, you know, like shit flying at you or things flying in front of your face and people reach out to try and touch it?  I know James Cameron and others consider that cheap thrills but come on, I'm still not immersed in the world as I can see the person in front of me, the edges of the screen, etc.  Would it kill you to have some arrows flying at the audience or some of those falling rocks look like they might hit us?  In one quick scene you get a sense of foreground as dragon Smaug puts his claw on a house but that's about it.

It will be interesting to see where Peter Jackson goes from here.  Talk of a Tintin sequel has never quieted down despite the lukewarm reception Steven Spielberg's initial chapter received in the states.  Here's hoping he does something small and weird like his old horror work.  Maybe he'll follow Michael Bay's lead and we get Pain & Gain 2.

Workout of the Day: Mind, Body, Spirit w/ Frank Zane

Was hitting a bit of a slump with working out lately so went back to the book case for some inspiration.  Among the Frank Zane collection is probably his most unique work, an assemblage of workouts spanning his entire life and career as well as dozens of poems written by the man himself.  You see, Zane is one of those guys who defies the "meat head" label of bodybuilders.  Always a loner and self sufficient, young Zane grew up spending much of his time alone, exploring nature, taking up archery, lifting weights and working his way up to the level of Eagle Scout.  After a stint in Florida, Zane landed in California and was part of the emerging Muscle Beach era with luminaries of the sport like Dave Draper, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Robby Robinson, Franco Columbu, Ken Waller and more.  At 5'9" and under 200 pounds, Zane was always told to get bigger but instead he went for detail, shape, definition and symmetry.  Zane would win bodybuilding's top honor, The Mr. Olympia, 3 years straight from 1977-1979.  After making a living as a math and chemistry teacher, Zane would go on to achieve a master's degree in psychology as well.  His poems and writing cover workouts, diets, dreams, life, death, memories of his family and the power of positive speech in order to visualize success.

Modern day transistor mystic
practice right speech.
Problem today is
talk is cheap
but eventually
you will pay
for what you say.
It's always that way.

While I don't prescribe to Zane's methods of training Chest, Delts and Triceps together because it hurts my shoulders, I did decide to go old school basics with my workouts this past weekend.  That way I'd be sure to get a nice pump, keep up the breathless state with little rest in between exercises and focusing on my reps, making sure to control the movement.  For Chest and Biceps:
1) Incline DB Press/Face Down Incline DB Curl
2) Incline Fly/1-Arm Preacher Curl
3) DB Pullover/Concentration Curl
4) Dip/Cable Curls w/Rope
5) Incline Push Up/Reverse EZ Bar Curl

Only doing 2 sets of each Super Set let me give the muscles a nice variety while keeping me moving around the gym.  As you can see, each Super Set is designed to use the same equipment so you're not wasting time between movements.  Finished up with some rowing, 1000 meters in 5 minutes, abs, trunk twists and then 3 miles on the stationary bike.  I felt great afterwards and was excited to work Legs the next day.

Damme Words: The Gods of Mars

"Never have I been much of a ladies' man, being more concerned with fighting and kindred arts which have ever seemed to me more fitting a man than mooning over a scented glove four sizes too small for him, or kissing a dead flower that has begun to smell like a cabbage.  So I was quite at a loss as to what to do or say.  A thousand times rather face the wild hordes of the dead sea bottoms than meet the eyes of this beautiful young girl and tell her the thing that I must tell her."

- John Carter, a gentleman of Virgina and prince of Helium in The Gods of Mars

AKA Books!  Check'em out!  Into part two of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Martian Tales, The Gods of Mars, follow up to A Princess of Mars. I really dug Princess' mix of history, action, swashbuckling adventure, swordplay, monsters, flying crafts and unknown worlds with four-armed aliens and huge beasts.  After wandering into a cave in Arizona and being mysteriously transported to Mars aka Barsoom, former Confederate soldier and Earthman John Carter gets mixed up in human and alien politics.  Along the way he befriends four-armed warrior Tars Tarkas then rescues and marries princess Dejah Thoris.  In the sequel, he's back on Earth, desperately trying to get back to Barsoom and his beloved Thoris.  When he finally returns, he's caught up in a race war between aliens and humans in the planet's thought to be land of the afterlife.  Fighting pirates, creatures and slavers on the ground and aboard flying crafts, Carter saves the life of beautiful slave Thuvia, the young woman mistakes a giant crush on the studly Carter for love.  But Carter only has eyes for one and must rebuff Thuvia who then proceeds to throw a fit.

Originally published in 5 serial parts in 1913, The Gods of Mars was printed as a novel in 1918.  Burroughs of course was a prolific writer of action and adventure and in addition to 11 Mars adventures also created Tarzan the Ape man who lived on through 26 novels and various live action and animated adaptations.  At 35 years old, Burroughs scribbled drafts of Princess on pieces of leftover stationary from his brothers' company where he hoped to succeed in business before overcoming the notion that his work was childish and submitted it for publication.  If his success as an author wasn't enough, he dubbed a ranch outside Los Angeles Tarzana, the name stuck and it became a city in 1927.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Ask Me a Question: Die Hard 2 w/ Steven E. de Souza

Last night The Arclight Presents screened Die Hard 2: Die Harder at the flagship Hollywood location.  I'd talked to the programmer there about some possible movie nights before the Van Damme Triple Dip and the opportunity arose for me to host when I secured screenwriter and director Steven E. de Souza as guest.  de Souza of course is responsible for bolstering the careers of Nick Nolte, Eddie Murphy, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis through massive hits like 48 Hours, Commando and Die Hard 1 &2.  He also wrote and/or directed Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicles Judge Dredd, Street Fighter and Knock Off.  I knew he was an intelligent man with years of experience so stories we would not be lacking.  Mr. de Souza did not disappoint and we could have used an extra hour at least to dig deeper into his career.  Next time I guess...

Oh Die Hard 2, oh late 80's and early 90's action cinema.  From the opening blue titles that punch you in the face, DH2 is a big, loud, violent, funny and profanity laced good time.  We find John McClane, the hero from the Nakatomi Plaza hostages incident in L.A., in Washington, D.C. at the airport trying to pick up his wife Holly.  Turns out a band of disillusioned veterans turned highly skilled, ruthless terrorists are taking over the airport to insure the safe landing of a military leader.  Of course their plans don't go as smoothly when McClane gets involved.  Faxes, Twinkies, airplane phones, tasers, fistfights, gunfights, snow mobile chases, naked tai chi, one liners, ejector seat to avoid grenades, head butts and huge explosions ensue.  I couldn't tell you the last time I sat down to watch DH2 but I've always enjoyed it and never understood why fans of the series seemed to rag on it.  Director Renny Harlin keeps things moving in a sleek and bloody fashion while writers de Souza and Doug Richardson flip events and characters we saw in the first film to give audiences a similar experience but a new story.  Watching it on the big screen it was semi shocking to hear the amount of cursing involved along with seeing McClane smoke indoors as well as deliver lines in a 90's, "go fuck yourself" tone throughout.  Good ol' fashioned squib hits explode from every gunshot and the flick was LOUD.

Unlike the next three films, Die Hard 2 maintains a semblance of McClane's everyman appeal.  In part one he's never been in a limo, gets jet lag, is going through tough times with his wife, etc.  In part two we meet him as he's getting his car towed and he's not trying to save the world, he's just trying to save his wife. There's also a terrific supporting cast involved with Bonnie Bedelia, William Atherton and Reginald VelJohnson reprising their roles from the first film as the wife, asshole journalist and supportive street cop. Familiar faces Franco Nero, William Sadler, John Amos, Dennis Franz, Art Evans, Fred Thompson are in the mix along with soon to be famous faces Robert Patrick, John Leguizamo and Colm Meaney in small parts. 

After the film, Mr. de Souza joined me for a Q&A that could have lasted several hours and I would have loved every minute of it:

- Been a professional writer since he was a senior in high school. Wrote pieces for magazines and newspapers then went to work at local TV station.
- Gave himself 90 days to make it in Los Angeles, armed with a sci-fi and a crime script, got them to an agent through a friend of a relative who returned them saying he was too busy to read them.
- In first week in L.A., got onto a game show, won a car and was listed in Variety, some kind of record.
- Importance of networking, never know who knows who or who sees what.
- Worked at Universal and Paramount on shows like Six Million Dollar Man & Knight Rider.
- Met Larry Gordon who liked his blend of action and comedy, cleaned up 48 Hours in three weeks.
- Writes for the actor, Nick Nolte was a slob and Eddie Murphy showed up to a meeting in a suit, put it in the movie instead of having Nolte get in shape like he was supposed to.
- No actor in mind, writes for classic stars like Spencer Tracy and Audrey Hepburn.
- Female actors loved to play characters with male names for some reason.
- Should be able to cover character name in a script and tell who is speaking, not just your own voice.
- Went to expensive lunch with agent who spurned him years earlier who was now trying to woo de Souza to join their company, de Souza waited until they paid the check and revealed the disparaging note.
- Larry Gordon working at Fox, studio head Barry Diller met Arnold Schwarzenegger and said he'd greenlight a $10 million dollar film on the spot.
- Found dust covered script for Commando, tailored it to Arnold, de Souza plotted it out like television, notes sent to production staff who started building sets.
- Arnold couldn't make a movie with his shirt on after the iconic Conan and Terminator so Commando was a welcome change.
- de Souza would run lines with neighbor Arnold who was taking singing lessons to learn the rhythm of native English speakers.  de Souza got so good at mimicking Arnold, some of his dubbed lines remain in final film.
- Jean-Claude Van Damme wouldn't run lines with de Souza, instead preferring to do so with his latest wife.  Would think he said "see you ladder" instead of "later" but actually said it correctly then would do it again and say the wrong word.  Called cut on his own movies even when someone else was directing.  Classic.
- Die Hard was another script lying around, McClane seen as wimpy because he was normal so Arnold, Stallone, James Caan, Burt Reynolds and Richard Gere passed.
- Willis had a deal with Fox so in desperation, was paid huge $5 million fee.
- de Souza and Willis are from same area in New Jersey and got along great, Yippie-Ki-Yay came from Roy Rogers show they both watched as kids.
- Monday after DH was released, got call that part 2 was a go.
- Again, found old script, 58 Minutes based on a novel and made it into Die Harder.
- Turned elements of first movie around so audiences wouldn't know what to expect.  The dick cop character becomes an ally, European terrorists become Americans, the Green Berets are actually bad guys...

It was a crazy Q&A and I didn't have to do much prodding as de Souza has stories for days from his 40 years as a professional writer.  We went from his high school years to the 90's and his peak of influence in 30 minutes.  de Souza was cool enough to hold court outside and answer questions.  I heard rumblings of Commando 2 not happening because Arnold got too expensive, Die Hard is NOT the sequel to Commando, The Running Man 2?  Sure, why not.

It was another great night, thanks to Justin and the staff at the Arclight and Zach from de Souza's team for making it happen and of course anyone who attended.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Demolition Man Weekend

aka Demolition Man-ia!  No?  Ok...I've always loved Demolition Man, I saw it on video at some point, had the VHS, a tee shirt but randomly none of the toys.  It's just a slick, funny and well produced flick with great performances from star Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes as the villain and Sandra Bullock as the sweet and sassy sidekick.  The flick opens in a destroyed and on fire Los Angeles where Detective John "The Demolition Man" Spartan (Stallone) assaults the inner city compound of drug dealing maniac Simon Phoenix (Snipes) to find some kidnapped hostages.  Things go wrong, Phoenix frames Spartan for the death of the hostages and in this version of 1996, prisoners are cryogenically frozen and rehabilitated.  Cut to 40 years later where Los Angeles and San Diego have merged into a crime free utopia dubbed San Angeles run by the benevolent Dr. Cocteau (Nigel Hawthorne) after a massive earthquake gives society a fresh start.  But there's a pesky, underground movement headed by Edgar Friendly (Dennis Leary) stirring up trouble so Cocteau thaws out Simon Phoenix to get rid of the activist.  There hasn't been an unsanctioned death in 20 years and the wussy cops don't know how to handle 90's violence.  How do you catch a maniac?  You send a maniac!  Spartan is thawed out, reinstated and teamed up with Officer Lenina Huxley (Bullock) to help find Phoenix and the two reignite their epic battle to kill each other.

The world of Demolition Man's future is fully realized with technology, self-driving cars, laser disks, virtual sex, molecular future guns, rat burgers and high end Taco Bell.  Anything not good for you is illegal so no red meat, salt, sex, guns, cursing, etc.  You even get fined a credit for violation of the verbal morality code when you curse in public.  Instead of toilet paper, there's a little shelf with three seashells on it.  Stallone is hilarious here as the hardass cop/fish out of water, Snipes is also hysterical as the menacing and dangerous villain and Bullock is perfect as the naive 20th century loving action junkie.  A terrific supporting cast includes Lethal Weapon Captain and Richard Donner's cousin Steve Kahan, Rob Schneider, Benjamin Bratt, then comedian Leary, The Shawshank Redemption's Bob Gunton and Beetlejuice's Glenn Shadix.  Random cameos include Predator's Jesse Ventura, bodybuilding trainer Charles Glass and bit parts from an unknown Jack Black, MTV host Dan Cortese as well as Tatsu from Ninja Turtles himself, Toshishiro Obata. Of course it's an action movie so you get lots of shootouts (the two have the worst aim in the world), jumping from helicopters, cars and buildings exploding, hand to hand combat, car chases and the like. 

Directed by first timer Marco Brambilla from a script by Daniel Waters, Robert Reneau and Peter M. Lenkov, Demolition Man is extremely underrated as it's very clever, has some great quotable dialog (Schwarzenegger was President!) and of course, pulse pounding action.  I do recall the marketing being everywhere on MTV with Stallone, Snipes and Bullock on hand to demolish a Las Vegas casino and being handed Louisville Slugger baseball bats. Elaborate media promo packages were said to have contained bomber jackets, CD's with Sting's oddly chosen title track and a hard hat.  Taco Bell offered the Demo Deal. Reviews weren't kind for the Joel Silver produced spectacle but DM would gross a then record breaking $14.2 million in it's first weekend on it's way to a $58 million total and another $100 million worldwide.  That would be good enough for #18 on highest grossers for year behind Stallone's own Cliffhanger at #10.  His next film, the bomb expert, Miami set The Specialist would open in the same October weekend in 1994 and do near identical business.  A talented commercial director who landed the gig after impressive spots for Nike and Pepsi caught Silver's eye, Brambilla would only go on to direct the Benecio Del Toro/Alicia Silverstone kidnapping flick Excess Baggage in 1997 and episodes of 2002's Dinotopia.  Silver would hit and miss with horror titles and action flicks like Demon Knight and Executive Decision before the one-two success of Lethal Weapon 4 and The Matrix in the later 90's.  Snipes was riding a wave of action, drama and comedy in hits like New Jack City, White Men Can't Jump and Rising SunDemolition Man put him into action mode where he had a huge hit as vampire slayer Blade and of course, reunited with Stallone for 2014's The Expendables III.  Bullock starred in Speed the next summer and has since become one of Hollywood's most bankable actors.

Over the years, Demolition Man has grown into a cult film with it's unique vision of the future and quirky sense of humor.  The three seashells seems to be the one of the most remembered aspects as it's never actually explained.  Years later Stallone said it was told to him that you were supposed to use two shells to wipe away and one to clean up while writer Waters only recently said the idea came to him from a friend who was going to the bathroom and had a jar of seashells on the counter.  Bullock has also humorously evaded the question and just shows you that some things are better left unexplained.  A commentary from Brambilla and Silver sticks mostly to technical issues while referring to the scope and tight schedule but Brambilla comments the film was well received and made money.  Behind the scenes stories ran rampant around Hollywood, though.  Before shooting began, several writers fought for credit and Monster Squad helmer Fred Dekker contributed a draft as well. Originally designed as a starring vehicle for Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme but the Belgian butt kicker objected to playing the villain.  While that would have been a great pairing, Stallone and Snipes are just too good in the film to imagine anybody else in the roles.  Stallone had flopped twice in comedies so a return to action but with humor was just what the doctor ordered.  Snipes turned down the film but producer Silver visited him on the set of Rising Sun and convinced the actor to join.

Originally set to be a 72 day shoot with a $45 million dollar budget, the production was quickly bogged down by Brambilla's feature film inexperience and the nature of a big budget action film containing concept cars, giant sets and huge action pieces.  Five Assistant Directors were hired and fired, Stallone missed nine days of shooting from a pinched nerve, original Lenina Huxley actress Lori Petty filmed one scene and was replaced, etc.  The shoot began in February then stretched into August as 72 days become 110 and the budget reportedly ended up in the near $60 million range.  Famed editor and clean up guy Stuart Baird cut the film through production to make it's 10.8.93 release.  Former military demolitions expert turned professional wrestler and actor Jesse Ventura was supposed to have a huge fight scene with Stallone but footage has never been released.

Watching it as a drinking game this weekend where the rules are simple, drink anytime you hear "John Spartan", "Simon Phoenix" or see/hear the Verbal Morality Violations and three seashells.  An hour in, you want to stop drinking because it's nearly nonstop. It's also fun to spot the locations around Los Angeles like the Design Center on Melrose, interior of the Los Angeles convention center downtown (which hadn't opened yet), the convention center in San Diego and what I thought was the Variety plaza by the Tar Pits on La Brea but is actually located in Irvine.  Must be the same architect.  Until next time, be well!

Gotta Drank! Downtown

With a friend from out of state visiting this weekend, we descended upon downtown Los Angeles to show him around.  There's beautiful architecture on every street, like the turquoise Eastern Building that was used in Predator 2!  He got to sit in random traffic like a Los Angeles native as we chugged along the 10 freeway towards the convention center in our super charged Uber.  Just a week ago, a huge blaze tore through an under construction apartment complex, shutting down the 110 freeway and melting signs.  Luckily, no injuries or deaths have been reported so far.  Explaining that downtown is on the fast up and up thanks to projects like L.A. Live and gentrification through hipsters, it's sad to know that Los Angeles has the last true Skid Row in America.  Now you'll have fancy apartments and coffee shops right next to some of the most derelict parts of the city.

Our first stop of the night was Beelman's Pub, a super cool and chill gastropub that had lots of crazy crap on the walls like album sleeves and a Wonka Golden Ticket.  The bar served up house cocktails like Moscow Mules complete with copper cups so you know we had to have those.  The Mules were excellent, light and effervescent with a ginger kick from the syrup instead of beer and a piece of it candied thrown in. Food was hit and miss, the meat and cheese board was uber fancy but not exactly overflowing with eats while the steak and fries were absolutely delicious.  A jukebox offered up classic rock and pop albums including What's the Story? Morning Glory from OASIS.  It must not have been turned on though as our songs never came on while others repeated so I'm guessing a radio or iPod was at work.  Great spot though and we'll be back.

Walking to our next stop, we noticed a lot of people dressed in Santa outfits, must have been a theme party going on somewhere or some weird, downtown theme night like Dapper Day at Disneyland.  We walked past Pershing Square where ice skating was set up and palm trees were glowing red, blue, yellow and green.  Hidden away in a random building is Perch, billed as an intimate and non-pretentious lounge with a French bistro inspiration.  Taking an elevator up to the 13th floor to transfer, we opted to take the stairs, bypassing the lounge and heading straight to the roof where you get a solid, 15th floor view of the city.  You know I'm a sucker for drinks with a view but 15 floors?  Come on, I'm used to being on the 30th.  Being a little lower is nice though, you see more details around the city, the people on the ice skating, etc.  It was time for another Moscow Mule but sans copper cup sadly.  Very tasty though.  It wasn't too crowded and there were fire pits every few feet but the breeze up there was still a touch chilly.  Good times and I'll be sure to take any out of town visitors there to check out the view.

From there we walked around a bit, picking up supplies like Carl's Jr. and I couldn't help but be a little surprised at how rundown much of downtown looks.  There were people out and about, young and old, doing well and not so much so it wasn't a safety issue per se, just a lot of old establishments never given an facelift or deep cleaning.  I could only think of 1984's The Terminator when Kyle Reese (Ya know, The Biehn?) arrives and fights with bums and police on the grimy, gray streets of downtown that still look pretty much the same.

Cue the synth and Nike Vandals...

Sunday, December 14, 2014

What the Chuck?! Walker, Texas Ranger VS The Black Dragons

Speaking of TV reunions, a random episode of Walker, Texas Ranger was Chuck full of them this week. I'm always surprised when people don't know Chuck Norris was a movie star before becoming a TV staple and internet hero.  As a Karate Man I was always aware of Norris' show Walker, Texas Ranger but never really watched it regularly while it was on.  I knew it was popular, had 2 spin offs and ran for a solid 8 years.  Today, reruns are on a couple different channels and I'm catching up.  While people claim this is the golden age of television, all I see are a bunch of sad sack looking mother f*ckers, talking heads and story lines that should only take up 1 episode stretched out to 10 and still not resolving jack sh*t.  In 5 minutes of one episode of Walker there were Hummers, shootouts, trucks chasing a plane, a fight inside the plane, a guy thrown out of the plane with no parachute, Walker rescuing the guy in midair and then landing with a smile and bro-hug.  No wonder I find much of today's television boooooring.

Black Dragons, episode 18 of 2000's final season (weird, I was just talking about episode 18 from The Flash...), is the tale of P.K. Song (Street Fighter & American Dragons' Byron Mann), a vicious heroin dealer who threatens any that would oppose him and assaults Ranger Francis Gage (Judson Mills) when he tries to intervene in a heated argument.  Mann is a solid actor with quiet charisma and a scary villainous side honed from playing a ruthless and violent assassin in Dragons and as a violent and ruthless gangster in the Chow Yun-Fat/Mark Wahlberg flick The Corrupter.  Turns out P.K.'s father Edward is a diplomat (mutha fudging Mako! View In Peace) so the bad guy has immunity.  Mako actually played a completely different role 3 years earlier on the show and co-starred opposite Norris in 1981's An Eye For An Eye and 1992's SIDEKICKS!  We learn that P.K. is working for The Black Dragons, a hardcore sect of the Chinese Triad who set up drug smuggling during The Vietnam War and are still bringing product in through Dallas.  Does this sound like an awesome TV mash up of Lethal Weapon 1&2 to anyone else?!  Then we get a Mortal Kombat connection as Shang TSung himself, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa shows up as P.K.'s drug smuggling boss Master Ko and yoked out Deron McBee (Motaro from MK: Annihilation & Malibu from American Gladiators) as pre-Dog the Bounty Hunter looking local dealer Luke.  If that weren't enough, Magnum P.I.'s Larry Manetti shows up as a low level street crook and informant while Enter the Dragon villain and Karate Hall of Famer Bob Wall gets his neck twisted as a security guard.  Phew!  Oh and the dude who breaks his own neck from Showdown In Little Tokyo plays P.K.'s homeboy driver.  Damme!

Walker and partner Jimmy Trivette (Die Hard's Clarence Gilyard, Jr.) along with Gage and female ranger Sydney Cooke (Nia Peeples) figure out P.K.'s racket and dad Edward relents, removing his son's immunity and letting the law do it's thing.  Of course much karate fighting is involved and we get not one, not two, not even three, but FOUR final showdowns of hand to hand combat.  Norris and Tagawa mix it up in a living room with lots of wrist locks and sweeps while Gage and P.K. duke it out in the grassy back yard with punches and kicks, Trivette and Luke smash up the kitchen while Cooke wrecks some random ass dude who isn't in a bunch of action movies outside in the driveway.  We all know that Norris is a badass and a true martial artist but there's a lot of stunt man work in the fight scenes here.  Angles from behind are always a dead giveaway as are the super fast high kicks.  Byron Mann's double looks shorter and a lot wider taking the falls of the grassy bout.  We get lots of kicks of the front, hook and jump spinning back variety and ya know, nobody gets shot too boot.

The Flash: 90's Reunion

What is it about the good ol' 90's and special Christmas episodes of TV shows that just make you feel good?  On this week's The Flash, fans of the original 1990 show were treated to a bit of nostalgia as stars of the former CBS series John Wesley Shipp and Amanda Pays both made appearances.  This is hot on the heels of news that Mark Hamill, who played the memorable Trickster on the former show will be appearing as an older version on the 2014 series.  If that weren't enough nostalgia, this week's installment was directed by Ralph Hemecker, a veteran of TV shows like Renegade and Silk Stalkings and helmer of one of Michael Biehn's greatest Direct to Video flicks, American Dragons (aka Double Edge depending on country of release).  The Biehn himself was in Phoenix, Arizona this week for a convention that yours truly was supposed to attend as press but instead played tour guide to a visiting friend from out of town.  You can still check out Biehn talking about Tombstone, Terminator and loads of other cool things with this video.

So far, 2014 The Flash has been a hit with viewers and critics alike while I've been tuning in each week as well.  It's a fun show dripping with comic book references, thanks in no small part I'm sure to writer and DC dude extraordinaire Geoff Johns.  Johns wrote some of the best Flash tales in recent years and along with Jim Lee is helping to spearhead DC's vast library of comic book character's penetration into pop culture via animation, TV, video games, etc.  Up to this point, young Barry Allen has struggled with the knowledge that some strange "yellow blur" killed his mother but his father was sent to prison for the crime.  After a freak accident involving lightening and a particle accelerator at STAR labs, Barry becomes the crimson streak aka The Flash, taking out crooks and other "meta-humans"; individuals given power from the science charged explosion.  I'm surprisingly ok with this "freak of the week" approach more so than I was with Smallville as at least The Flash comes right out and says it's a superhero show and everyone draws their powers from a similar source as our protagonist.  Unlike Smalls where the mandate was "no flight, no tights" because they were ashamed of the source material or didn't want to compete with any big screen versions.  To be fair, the superhero genre on film and television has come a long way since 2000, for better and for worse.

I had just gotten finished re-watching a handful of 1990 episodes where Barry Allen (John Wesley Shipp) and STAR labs scientist Tina McGee (Amanday Pays) fight the likes of Captain Cold, The Deadly Nightshade and Mirror Master.  With a nice mix of action, drama, humor and super heroics set in an art-deco pulp world with a big, moody, orchestral soundtrack, it's easy to see that The Flash was truly ahead of it's time.  Episode 18 features former The Partridge Family crooner David Cassidy as Mirror Master, a crook who has gotten his hands on a set of batteries that project lifelike holograms to confuse and terrify people with images of snakes, cowboys and hostile police officers.  During a botched sting/meeting, Barry poses as the eccentric criminal mastermind Professor Zoom, alleged creator of The Flash in a random nod to the comics villain.

Cut to this week's episode of the new series and Amanda Pays shows up as Tina McGee only now working for MERCURY labs, a competitor of STAR's with $500 billion in funding and some nifty new tech.  It's nice to see Pays looking so regal 24 years later and her distinctive voice still lends her performance a memorable quality.  Meanwhile, Shipp has been playing Henry Allen, father to new Barry (Gustin Grant) and all we know about him is that he seemingly loves his son and is sent to prison for the murder of his wife after mumbling about a man in a crazy whirlwind of lightening actually doing it.  There's been no indication that Shipp would be revealed as a former Flash himself and it was kind of meta-confusing to know that Pays was playing her former character yet Shipp was not. Or is he? A visit to dad in prison along with an ambiguous performance from Shipp had me wondering if he was going to turn up as Professor Zoom somehow even though it's alluded to and then confirmed that Barry's mentor Dr. Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanuagh) is actually the villain.  At the end of the episode it's revealed that young Barry actually saw two super high speed beings doing battle over his mother.  Which, along with Mark Hamill's Trickster being brought back, can only lead me to believe that Shipp will actually be the former Flash which will then lead to me throwing my arms up into the air, cheering and knowing that I've always had good taste.  It just took the world 24 years to catch up.

Keep runnin':

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Straight Netflix'ing: Drive Hard

Screeching it's way to Netflix this past Tuesday is a flick I've been curious to see for quite some time, the Thomas Jane and John Cusack buddy-action-driving-comedy in Australia, Drive Hard.  Directed by native low budget, big concept master Brian Trenchard-Smith, Drive Hard introduces us to Peter Roberts (The Jane) as he dreams of his previous life as a successful race car driver.  After being woken up by his cute and sassy daughter, Peter hits the weights before getting into yet another argument with his lawyer wife who wants him to get a real job instead of chasing the pipe dream of opening a racing school.  Making ends meet as a driving instructor, Peter's first client of the day is fellow American Simon Keller (permanently clad in black baseball cap and dark glasses John Cusack) who seems to know all about Peter's former adrenaline filled life.  Turns out that Keller is about to rob a bank of bonds and needs a getaway driver so what better candidate than an unknowing citizen and former professional?  The two then hit the Gold Coast eluding the banks armed mercenaries, police and federal agents while bickering, fighting and bonding amidst car chases, shootouts, old lady choke holds, rubber bullets and learning to respect oneself.

Based on a screenplay by Chad and Evan Law, director Smith and co-writer Brigette Jean Allen craft a quirky, funny and decently exciting piece of low watt direct to video fun.  I was impressed by the opening CGI credits moving through an engine, as it was a sign of Drive Hard being more than your typical, shot in a couple weeks around Los Angeles action flick.  Jane plays Peter as a goofy, lovable loser and has a nice, quick, funny yet tense back and forth dynamic with Cusack's intelligent professional thief with a grudge Keller.  There's some solid car chase shenanigans post bank robbery with lots of real looking gags around the streets of Australia and some clever bits to show off Peter's driving skills.  Things slow down a bit in the middle when the duo leave the luxurious and metropolitan coast line and head into the country.  An unexpected and amusing run in with some crazy old people leads up to a final showdown with bikers hired by the bank to recover the stolen bonds.  Of course by the end the two are semi buddy buddy and Peter has regained his daredevil flare that was put on hold to start a family.  At times, Drive Hard plays like a piece of marketing for the department of tourism as there's lot of shots showing off the gorgeous beaches and glistening buildings then later the serene green and lush of the country.  Jane and Cusack both get to shine as likeable and amusing characters while Trenchard-Smith's blend of off color humor and action suits the lightweight 95 minute romp.

Workout of the Day: Leg Man

Too many times people neglect their legs when lifting weights.  It's much easier to focus on the beach and Hollywood muscles like chest, abs and biceps.  Basically, whatever you can see in the mirror.  But training your legs strengthens your entire body, boosts testosterone, releases growth hormone and keeps you from looking like a hard boiled egg on toothpicks.  Squats were a regular part of my high school and college routine but as you get older, the ol' internal shock absorbers start to wear out so you have to train smarter, not harder.  Vince Gironda didn't allow regular squats at his gym as he thought they just gave you a big ass.  Instead he was a proponent of Front and Sissy Squats where you couldn't hulk as much weight but kept tension in your quads to make them shaped and ripped.  Frank Zane invented the Leg Blaster to relieve stress on the knees and lower back after years of heavy squats wreaked havoc on his body.

With all that in mind, I got in an early morning session of:

Front Squat - With a barbell in the rack, a little awkward with the bar in your neck but a great move
Leg Curls - To work those hamstrings and glutes (your butt)
Squat Press - On a Free Motion machine where I could load on some weight and work outer thigh
Standing Calf Raises - On Smith Machine instead of those pads digging into your shoulders on a machine

After that I followed up with 3 circuits of Weight Sled, Jump Rope, Rowing and Battling Ropes to give myself a quick upper body and cardio pump.

I felt extremely refreshed afterwards and went on to have a fantastically productive day.  Thanks, legs!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

What the Chuck?! Lone Wolf McQuade

Chuck Norris.  A real American hero.  While the 80's and 90's gave us the golden age of the "one-man" army a la Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme;  Bruce Lee and later Norris kick started a cottage industry of action films featuring fit, fierce and furious fighters who took on the world and triumphed with their indomitable mix of will and skill.  But Norris gets my vote for being the All American Man/Action Hero.  Born Carlos Ray in Oklahoma, "Chuck" grew up in California and joined the Air Force where he served in South Korea.  There, he took up Tang Soo Do and soon would be practicing martial arts religiously.  Upon returning from service, Norris became an undefeated kickboxing champion while opening a chain of karate schools that would eventually be mismanaged.  Facing financial straits and having already appeared in films in bit parts and opposite friend Bruce Lee in 1972's Way of the Dragon; Norris took the advice of friend, student and acting superstar Steve McQueen and enrolled in acting classes.  But McQueen's biggest suggestion to Norris was to let others do the talking and him do the doing.  For Chuck Norris, doing meant kicking ass.

His first headlining film, 1977's Breaker! Breaker! was a low budget flick that combined karate with truckers and CB radios.  The film was a hit and Norris wrote his next vehicle, Good Guys Wear Black which he then shopped to producers.  It was another box office hit and by the early 1980's, Norris was established as a formidable on screen karate man who didn't take revenge but got even instead, with extreme karate prejudice.  He hit a mainstream breakthrough with 1983's Lone Wolf McQuade, the first in our study of What the Chuck?!  An Appreciation of the Real American Action Hero.  Set near the Mexican border, Lone Wolf McQuade introduces us to badass, non-team playing Texas Ranger J.J. McQuade as he single-handedly takes on a gang of mean motor scooters.  He uses guns of all sizes as well as his fists and feet when lethal force isn't necessary.  He drinks Pearl beer and only Pearl beer, sports a sweet beard, a huge rodeo style belt buckle, has a pet wolf and drives a super charged Dodge truck.  While the new, PR seeking, wuss-ified Rangers respect McQuade's record, they don't appreciate his tactics and want him to cool it with the violent heroics.

The only problem is, a ruthless arms dealer and mean sum'bitch by the name of Rawley Wilkes shows up (a post Kung-Fu David Carradine) and messes with McQuade's daughter and her fiance after an interrupted hijacking of military weapons.  The fiance is gunned down, the daughter's car pushed into a ravine and McQuade's mentor is killed.  Now, pissed off and out for blood, McQuade teams up with a fresh faced State Trooper and an in the know federal agent to deliver some hard justice, Texas-Mexico style.  One blood wet burrito, coming up!  Storming Wilkes' hacienda using machine guns, six-shooters and a bulldozer among other things, hero and villain drop their guns and go head to head for a final showdown.  Clad in a white and argyle sweater with black slacks, Wilkes uses some fancy, swaying, kung-fu style hand motions while McQuade's military vest with no shirt underneath to reveal a hairy chest goes for a simpler, put up your dukes, karate style.  Carradine moves fluidly and throws lots of jump kicks, seemingly getting the better of Chuck until McQuade's daughter tries to intervene and gets back hand punched, in slow motion, which calls down the Texas Thunder and we get Norris trademarks like the jump flying sidekick, front leg hook kick and spinning back kick.  McQuade then dodges bullets from a Mac-10 uzi and says bye bye to Wilkes by way of a grenade blowing up the shit out of an ammunition filled shack.

Literally a modern day Spaghetti Western, Lone Wolf McQuade unfolds in long shots, close ups and dramatic music.  Directed by Steve Carver with a script from B.J. Nelson and H. Kaye Dyal, Lone Wolf McQuade manages to mix the modern western motif with some light hearted comedy and karate action.  Norris' character is a little more well rounded here than his previous, straight karate movies and the bits about his preference for beer, talking trash to just about everyone around him and being a softie in regards to his daughter are nice touches.  As is the scene where he's shot and buried in his truck only to wake up, pour a beer on his head, take a sip, spit it out then turbo boost out with his super charged engine.

Produced for an estimated $5 million bucks, Lone Wolf McQuade would gross 3 times as much and be given a 3.5 star review by a younger Roger Ebert.  The film and role would be one of Norris' most iconic and given the team up with familiar to martial arts audiences face David Carradine, it's easy to see why.  His hit show Walker, Texas Ranger would have been called McQuade, Texas Ranger if anyone had asked MGM for the rights.  When Norris popped up in 2012's The Expendables 2 for his meta soaked cameo, he's dubbed "The Lone Wolf".