Friday, January 30, 2015

Paneled Goods: The 80's Avengers

Starting on my stack of comics from this past weekend's CalComicCon, first up were some early 80's adventures with Marvel's The Avengers.  These bad boys hailed from 1982, '83 and an annual from '84.  Boy howdy did they not disappoint.  #224's from October of '82's cover proclaimed it to be "The most offbeat Avengers tale - Ever!" and hoo boy were they not lying.  If there's anything I enjoy, it's a super hero comic book issue focused on some romantic sub-plot.  Remember when Captain America aka Steve Rogers went on a date with Diamondback aka Rachel Leighton? Here, Dr. Hank Pym aka Ant-Man, Yellow Jacket and Goliath has been imprisoned, set up by the maniacal Egg Head to steal Adamantium from the government.  Former wife and current leader of The Avengers Janet Van Dyne aka The Wasp is now one of society's most popular bachelorettes hitting the social scene trying to forget about her bi-polar, abusive husband.  Apparently Avengers walk around in full costume all the time so Janet has no idea Iron Man is actually playboy billionaire inventor Tony Stark underneath and the two begin dating.  Stark doesn't know how to tell Janet that he's actually Iron Man and ya know, friend and partner to her incarcerated husband!  But the two hit the gala scene, play games at the fair, fly to Jamaica (Tony Stark is yoked!) and are all lovey dovey until Captain America tells Stark to stop messing with their bro's wife and if there's nothing wrong with moving on, why hasn't he told Janet his true identity?

Meanwhile, new Ant-Man Scott Lang tries to convince Pym to bust out with him but the good doctor won't have it and make things worse.  Back at Avengers HQ, Thor tells Stark it's OK to be cruel to Pym if he's bringing happiness to Janet.  But when Tony reveals his true identity, The Wasp wants nothing to do with him anymore.  Phew!  Brought to you by Jim Shooter, Alan Zelenetz, Mark Bright, Brett Breeding, janice Chiang, Christie Schelle and Mark Gruenwald.  February of '83's #228 sees Hank Pym on trial with Egghead further complicating things by enlisting villains Tiger Shark, Beetle, Moonstone, The Shocker and Radioactive Man to attack the courthouse and making it look like Pym is one of them.  I was shocked, SHOCKED, to see Tiger Shark hurl a racial slur at the Asian Radioactive Man but I guess we still weren't out of the "Slap a Jap" era that Superman lived in...30 years prior.  Of course the writers are smart enough to ensure that such a remark doesn't go unnoticed and Tiger Shark quickly backs down when Radioactive Man shows off his powers that would f@ck Tiger Shark's racist @$$ up!  Avengers She-Hulk, Hawkeye, Thor, Wasp and Captain America mix it up with the super powered foes but not before they abscond with Pym.  I'm always on the lookout for ads featuring Marvel Heroes like those great Hostess ones where Spider-Man and Cap outsmart crooks by tempting them with Twinkies and other fine treats.  This issue we get Spider-Man foiling some diamond thieves with the Magic Snake Puzzle, a green contraption that unfolds and has 23 trillion possible configurations!  Eh...not as cool as Fruit Pies or a branded backpack from a cheese company. Roger Stern, Al Milgrom, Brett Breeding, Jim Novak, Christie Scheele, Mark Gruenwald and Jim Shooter on the case here.

Lastly was Avengers Annual # 13 from '84 featuring Marvel maestros Steve Ditko & John Bryne on art!  After Captain America stops The Fixer from breaking into a government installation, The Avengers are put on guard patrol as the joint houses many a project Dr. Bruce Banner aka The Incredible Hulk was working on before he went bye-bye in Hulk #300.  Scientific minds Douglas Arthur Cartland, Henry "Hank" Pym, Hank McCoy aka The Beast and Reed Richards aka Mr. Fantastic are invited down to check out Banner's work.  But the world's foremost genetic engineer, Arnim Zola (and dude with a robot body and giant face on his chest), has other plans as he uses some pink gunk to turn a sample of the Hulk's purple pants into mindless but strong clones that descend on the complex!  While Cap, Thor, Beast, She-Hulk and Wasp battle the army of Hulks, Richards and Pym have been ensnared in Zola's organic blanket of "bio-construct".  The two minds figure a major systemic shock would loosen up the blob so Captain Marvel lays hands on Zola and delivers a bolt of pure electrical force to set them free.  What a crazy issue, just action and weird sh!t all day with plenty of cameos thus making the plus sized Annual worth the $1.00 cover price.  Stern still scripts with Joe Rosen lettering and K. Feduniewicz coloring.

Now on to some Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos!  Awwwooo!

Gotta Drank (& Laugh): Tim Allen @ The Laugh Factory

Three years ago this weekend we saw Tim Allen perform stand up at The Venetian in Las Vegas.  It was a funny, inappropriate and insightful showcase for the convicted felon turned sitcom dad and movie star.  Picking up stakes, he's moving to The Mirage and their 1,400 seat Terry Fator Theatre. We caught him in Los Angeles at The Laugh Factory last night as he warmed up.  I used to drive past the Laugh Factory on a daily basis but this was my first time attending.  There's plenty of signed memorabilia in the lobby of The Laugh from performers past like Rodney Dangerfield, Richard Pryor and of course, Tim Allen. Tickets were actually pretty cheap, $27 bucks for a VIP stub that meant no line and a guaranteed seat in the small club that has standing room in the back and balcony.  There's a two drink minimum but that could be a couple of over priced bottles of water and under $10 bucks.  Instead I opted for a Moscow Mule and it was actually pretty good. 

Growing up in Michigan and Colorado, Allen was part of a large family whose father died when he was just a boy.  Being too lazy to work, Allen got into drugs and then got caught at the airport with a large amount of cocaine.  After spending three years in prison, Allen cleaned up and embarked on a mission to land on the Johnny Carson show as a stand up.  Performing in Ohio for Rubbermaid executives, he honed his grunting, tool loving persona that led to the 8 year stint on ABC's Home Improvement.  During one week in 1994, Allen had the #1 show, book and movie in America.  Impressively, Allen walked away from a $50 million dollar deal for a 9th season of Improvement and then took 8 years to say yes to a sequel to The Santa Clause.

His stand up show was a non-stop hour of jokes, social and political observations and physical comedy.  Allen reminds you right away that he wasn't supposed to be famous with families or kids because he's an angry loud fuck.  He doesn't like his own kids, let alone yours so to be such an important part of Disney's history is baffling even to him.  Allen doesn't hold back on his views about Obama trying to make things fair, being conscious of social media being out there forever, the pussy-fication of society and being unapologetic for calling bullshit.  Even when it's at a studio premiere and Tom Cruise is in the audience.  Between rants Allen provides details of growing up in a big family, his father's expertise with explosives, going to jail and interacting with his wife and kids today.  While I laughed and was amused, the non-stop onslaught and growing temperature of the room just wore me out.  Show Vegas how it's done, Tool Man.

Grudgement Day: Whiplash

Being a movie lover people assume I follow the Oscars but I actually think they're kinda bullshit.  Why?  Because I don't have the tastes of a 70 year old white man, the presiding demographic in the Academy.  Of course their choices for Best Picture are usually easy to spot in the sense of a movie having some social merit, being based on a true story, being about stuffy British people or an underdog fighting for a cause.  Men lose weight or change their image to play against type and women get fat to ugly themselves up.  Blockbusters are usually left in the cold and if you want any chance of winning, you've got to hit the campaign trail attending special events, taking out ads and making sure there's suitable heat to your project.  In 2008, The Dark Knight made a mint at the box office and won critics over but the superhero film via Michael Mann's Heat was left without a 2009 Best Picture nomination.  Why?  Because it was about Batman and the Joker.  In a bid to make it look like they weren't entirely out of sync with the movie going public, The Academy opened up the number of Best Pic nominations from 5 to 10 in 2010.  While a movie about long established comic book heroes in costume wasn't celebrated, James Cameron's tall blue aliens would as Avatar picked up 9 nominations.  Go figure.

This year I enjoyed Birdman and The Imitation Game but one extremely undeserving Best Picture nominee really ruffled my feathers, the music drama Whiplash.  Made for a few million bucks by usual horror and genre label Blumhouse, Whip follows young wanna be drumming prodigy Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller) and his physically and emotionally abusive instructor Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons).  We see Neimann try to balance life, love and his drive for greatness as he's berated, slapped and pushed by Fletcher.  Pretty typical underdog stuff, right?  Suffice to say, I thought this movie was bullshit.  I didn't even want to finish it. First off, I don't understand the appeal of Teller.  Some compare him to a young John Cusack because they're white and have the same kind of chin but Cusack at least had a quirky likeability in Say Anything, Better Off Dead and later Con Air, Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity.  Teller just comes off as blank and forced to me.  Simmons, the likeable supporting actor from films like Juno, Spider-Man and I Love You, Man gets the showy role as the loud, abusive teacher.  He insults students for being fat, homosexual and stupid but strangely doesn't go racist.  If you're going to make him a total asshole why not have some balls and make him an asshole to EVERYONE?  Remember The Departed where all Boston cops and crooks were racist, homophobic and misogynist?  It won Best Picture.  Why exactly is playing an outright prick that impressive?  Because Simmons is usually a nice guy and here he plays an asshole?  That's notable?  Please.

Then don't get me started on how uneven this film is.  SPOILERS.  From Teller's character being this driven young man who practices long into the night, literally bleeding for his passion but then can't wake up on time for his big break.  Or the competition scene where he puts down the music folder to buy a drink and it gets stolen.  Who the fuck stole the folder?!  It's oh so convenient as it gives him the chance to step up but give me a fucking break.  At least show one of the other competing bands stealing it or reveal that Fletcher took it to teach someone a lesson.  But nope, nada.  Bullshit.  Then there's his uneven character who starts out as quiet, meek and awkward for the first act.  Then all of a sudden turns into The Social Network's Mark Zuckerberg and has a stinging one liner for everyone at the dinner table who minimizes his musical aspirations.  We never see that version of the character again.  How about the next competition where his bus gets delayed, he rents a car, forgets his stuff at the dealer, goes back then gets hits by a semi?!  Fletcher keeps harping about not letting the students fuck up his chances of winning competitions but he certainly puts them into compromising positions every chance he gets.  And how about that ending where Fletcher sets Neimann up during a prestigious show by giving him the wrong music, thus making the young drummer look foolish in front of an audience that could make or break his future career.  You're telling me that Fletcher is willing to risk the futures of the ENTIRE band to take his revenge on one kid?  Then of course Neimann picks himself up and goes into a show stopping drum solo that earns Fletcher's respect.  Just what the fuck man.  END SPOILERS.

I was quite surprised at the backlash Christopher Nolan's Interstellar received this year.  For some reason people thought it was going to be some kind of defining documentary on space travel when it's still a frigging movie that preserved the history of cinema and had ambition to spare.  Perhaps it reached too far and wasn't quite successful in blending the science and cinema but you had to admire the effort and the experience.  Did you see Nightcrawler?  What a terrific performance by Jake Gllynehaal as a creepy, funny and driven young man in the world of shock journalism.   Even that crazy Korean flick Snowpiercer was an unsettling, off the wall yet oddly charming observation of class told in a unique way.  With films like that overlooked for shit like Whiplash, it's just another reminder as to why I don't get into the Oscars.  Movies are supposed to be at their best entertaining, educational, emotional, enlightening, intriguing and/or inspirational.  I got none of those from this flick. Frustrating, man.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Van Dammage: American Man

Jean-Claude Van Damme is a citizen of the world.  Spending most of his time in Hong Kong followed by Vancouver, Belgium and Los Angeles, it's been a while since JCVD has been in America.  That all changed these last couple of weeks as he's been spotted around Los Angeles at Gold's gym, been viewing Kickboxer reboot dailies with star Alain Moussi and recently opened up an Instagram account talking to his fans through some hilarious videos.  With much chatter of all the kids leaving Facebook, Van Damme sat down at their Menlo Park headquarters for a quick Q&A that racked up a few thousand questions in less than 30 minutes.

While the Muscles didn't answer much, a few highlights:

"Why ask the question, when deep inside you know the truth?" On whether or not he could defeat Steven Seagal in a fight.

"I'm like Chuck Norris, my body repairs like a snake." On if he's ever been injured on set.

"Don't go too low, don't hurt yourself!" On a fan's picture of him emulating JCVD's famous split between two chairs from Bloodsport.

"I just met with the people of Facebook who are going to help me understand how to help even more." On bringing more attention to his work saving animals from the streets, especially dogs.

"Coming soon I will give some great tips which will become automatically lessons and also a way of life if you choose to."  On his current workouts.

"In fact, the first time I saw the movie at the Chinese theater in Hollywood I thought the movie was going to be a catastrophe. I left the theatre and I was so upset. But it worked!! And then I was so thrilled." On predicting Bloodsport's worldwide success and launching his career.

Mentions of next projects Pound of Flesh and Kickboxer and many Thank You to the fans as he wouldn't be where he is today without the audience.  And then he was gone, off to the airport to catch a flight to who knows where.  Even though he hasn't tried to stay in the public eye, Van Damme has amassed nearly 16 million Likes on Facebook, outpacing the King of Kings himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose official FB has over 12 million.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Con-Man Double Event: CalComicCon w/ Frank & Son

Sunday funday as we ventured east first to Yorba Linda for the California Comic Con before heading up to the City of Industry for weekly staple Frank & Son Collectible Show.  In this day and age of over hyped and over crowded cons with social media presence, CalComicCon is like taking a step back in time or maybe shopping at the farmer's market of comic book conventions.  Unlike say Comikaze, Wizard World or Salt Lake that tout celebrity guests, charge you to wait in line less and then push you to pay your favorite celebs $40 bucks to sign something for you, CCC is all about the comic books.  Is it small?  Yes.  Is it a nice change of pace?  Double yes.  Yorba Linda is a picturesque sprawl of suburbia with strip malls and greenery off the 57 and 91 freeways in Orange County.  The Community Center is just a few minutes off the 57 and is where CCC has called home since at least 2007.  With only comic book centric Marv Wolfman and Thomas Yeates as invited guests, this show isn't for casual fans; it's for comic book readers and collectors.

Walking up, the atmosphere was warm and inviting with a hot dog/taco stand outside, vendors on the patio selling .50 cent issues and a very friendly staff that welcomed us and explained the set up.  Parking was free with a $10 admission.  You got a raffle ticket upon entry and there were drawings every hour.  The show was being held in two separate rooms and on the patio.  While you could walk the space in just a few minutes, every vendor and table was full of books, comics, graphic novels and novels to flip through.  High end ones in the plastic cases and graded to 50% off trades and of course the .50 boxes outside.  I was only too pumped to grab a stack of 1980's Avengers comics along with a handful of Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos.  The seller told me I missed out as this was the last of his Sgt. Fury collection, drat!  From another table I picked up movie novelization of James Cameron and Gale Ann Hurd's The Terminator!  Now I get to see how Reese, the T-800 and Sarah Connor play out in print.  Being a small show, we only spent about an hour there but were very satisfied with our haul.  Now it was off to the City of Industry for Frank & Son...

Only 15 minutes up the 57, Frank & Son Collectible Show has it's own warehouse in an industrial complex near Walnut. Parking is free with two lots and street available.  No fee to get in either.  Usually the show only runs on Wednesday and Saturday but extended to Sunday this week as Stan "The Man" Lee was special guest.  I haven't been here in years and was very surprised to see how Con like this show was without the Con.  It was just rows and rows of stalls and vendors hocking toys, video games, cards, knives and trinkets.  All those booths you check out at conventions outside Artist Alley at any other show, that's this place, all the time!  While there were toys, toys and more toys to check out, I was surprised at the lack of comic books for sale.  There were a handful of big spreads selling issues new and old but I just didn't feel like skimming through boxes of unorganized comics hoping to find a gem.  I recognized several vendors from shows around town and everyone was very chill and polite.  A couple were a little overzealous in trying to sell stuff when all I wanted to do was see what they had but ah well.  Then we randomly started chatting with a vendor who ended up being writer and author Pat Jankiewicz.  Nice guy and a fellow #MovieBro, we rapped about flicks, actors and our favorite conventions. 

Seems like the Big Trouble In Little China Funko's haven't shipped yet so I had to be contented with picking up a Rocketeer ReAction figure along with a Funko mini-mystery figure where helmeted Cliff Secord runs 1 out of 72 and was already fetching a $50 price tag.  For $7 bucks, my luck held steady and I pulled out a 1 out of 12 Robocop. There's an exhibition hall in the middle where guests sign.  Frank & Son have a variety of actors and athletes come through for special events, reunions, etc.  Towards the back was a gaming and tournament area as well as a discount household goods store(?!) selling clothes, tools and supplies.  Going strong since 1988, Frank & Son is definitely the place to come to pick up your favorite swag but I think it's more fun to do that at in a convention setting where you can walk the floor, take in a panel, go back, etc.

That's all the Cons I got for January, see you in February for Long Beach!

Dolph Saturday

It was a randomly awesome Dolph Lundgren filled Saturday yesterday.  While watching The Director's Chair with Quentin Tarantino earlier in the morning, he mentions that before Reservoir Dogs, his only production experience was on Dolph's workout video Maximum Potential.  Then later while putting the lady through a timed workout I turned on MP for background noise, motivation and to take her mind off the grueling 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off blitz of Kettle Bell swings, jumping jacks, squats, mountain climbers and the like.  Of course you know how much I love Dolph and his workout video from 1986 as it's a solid workout and healthy lifestyle guide as well as a total time capsule from the 80's with two toned workout outfits, sweet synth and guitar soundtrack and Dolph being all tan and buff showing you how he does shit.

After returning home from seeing The Imitation Game (phenomenal: funny, entertaining and educational) I got a nice one-two punch of mail in the forms of my Dolph, I Will Break You shirt and a CD of 80's tunes from action #MovieBro David J. Moore featuring tracks from Rambo, Over the Top, Bloodsport, Best of the Best and so many more.  Perusing the Internets, there was some chatter regarding Thomas Jane talking in recent interviews about his work as Marvel's The Punisher in 2004's mild success and his love letter to the character in 2012's fan film Dirty Laundry.  Of course we couldn't talk about Thomas Jane's Mr. P. without discussing Dolph's take in the 1989 version directed by Mark Goldblatt written by Boaz Yakin and Robert Mark Kamen.  While the 2004 version has it's merits; Jane is solid as the character presented, there's some very clever scenes like the Popsicle interrogation and fight with giant hitman The Russian.  It also suffers from being uneven, trying to be a modern spaghetti western while smacking of melodrama and plenty of awkward one liners. Then the less said about 2008's War Zone, the better.  I honestly still don't know if I'm supposed to take that movie seriously with Ray Stevenson's bland interpretation of the Punisher, over the top villain Jigsaw and the ridiculous action.

Popping in the Artisan DVD, Dolph's version still remains my favorite of the cinematic attempts with it's down and dirty, straight forward action-karate motif.  After seeing Dolph blonde, coiffed, buff, positive and tan in Maximum Potential in the morning, watching his transformation into the pale, dirty, crazy and dark haired Frank Castle aka The Punisher actually says a lot about him as an actor.  From the opening minutes where we get stabbing, shooting, house explosions and car bombs, Mark Goldblatt and company really give you your action movie money's worth.  Don't forget that this was the late 80's and Richard Donner's Superman was still the only example of a successful cinematic super hero.  Batman would change the game in the same year but also had studio Warner Brothers behind it, a young, up and coming director and a budget 3-4 times The Punisher.  Coming from Roger Corman's New World Productions, the sub-$10million dollar production shot in Australia and told the tale of former cop Frank Castle who wages a one man war against the mob after his wife and kids are killed.  Said mob boss is now at odds with invading Yakuza gangsters and it's up to The Punisher to punish the guilty...and kill a whole lotta people, something like 89 individual deaths in as many minutes including explosions and mass killings.

Lou Gossett, Jr. shows up as Frank's former partner and gives the executioner a little background while trying to save his former friend.  Dolph's performance as a semi crazy vigilante who sits around naked in the sewer talking to God is admirable and not given enough credit.  Of course the action is great as you get oh so many scenes featuring shootouts, guys getting stabbed by katana swords through windshields, Dolph firing a crossbow bolt attached to a zip line through a guy then sliding down while firing an Uzi, shotguns, knives to the neck and heart as well as some gritty, rough and tumble karate fights with real life champions.  Dennis Dreith's orchestral score is big, memorable and almost out of place.  Since comic book films with costumed heroes was far from the norm as it is today, a last minute decision was made to not have Dolph don a spray painted white skull on his shirt for the final showdown.  While the skull remains on his knives and arguably on his face from the painted on beard, I think the film would be held in much higher regard today if they would have had the balls to put him in "costume".  While originally imagined to be competition to Batman, New World's financial woes saw The Punisher being released theatrically worldwide but going straight to video in the United States.  Here's hoping for a special features filled Blu Ray one day...

Workout of the Day: Sissy Squat

How's your new year lifting and working out going?  I'm still sticking with some Vince Gironda Rut Busting and it's a kicking my ass.  It's been just about a month since I started incorporating many of his methods such as 10,8,6,15 rep scheme, adding cream to my shakes and performing exercises like Wide Bar Dips, Bench Press to the Neck, Zottman Curls and today, Sissy and Frog Hack Squats.  I'd always done Sissy's as you don't need weight or much space to get a burn in your quads.  Today I tried out Gironda's 3 part style and phew, I seized up and started spasming after a couple sets!  To do these you'll need something to place under your heels.  If you've ever seen photos from old school bodybuilders from the 60's and 70's, you might have noticed them standing on wooden blocks.  Since most of us don't have 2x4's sitting around the house, just use a rolled up towel, some weight plates or a phone book to put your heels on.  Stand next to a doorway and so you can use one arm for balance as you master the movement.

With feet slightly less than shoulder width apart, heels elevated, simply drop down keeping your shoulders and hips straight until your butt is touching your ankles then press straight back up.  That's one phase.  Next phase is to lower but instead of straight down, push your hips and knees forward so your upper body leans back.  That's the second phase.  For the third, put it all together, drop down with hips and knees out then at the bottom tuck back in, press up and out then straighten out towards the end.  It's a little awkward so do a few reps of each kind as a set to get the feel.  Vince advocated holding a barbell across the collarbone in a clean position, if you can't do that, just hold a dumbbell and let it hang behind you.  Next was Frog Hack Squats, with these I got into the machine, stood straight up and put my feet under my hips and shoulders.  From there, turn your toes out and have your heels touch.  Now lower with your knees going out instead of straight ahead like a regular Hack.  Wow!  I did no weight for Sissy's and only put on a 25 and 10's for Hacks and my legs were screaming!

After that it was some basic stuff like Leg Curls, Seated Calf Raises, some abs and cardio consisting of the elliptical and the bike.  Gironda figured lifting weights and a solid nutrition plan was enough to keep you trim but I love my fast food and doing 10-15 minutes of interval cardio after a weight session just makes me feel lighter on my feet and tighter in my waist.

Keep lifting!  All the New Year's Resolution Don'ters will be clearing out soon.  Getting in shape isn't hard, it just takes a little knowledge and planning.  Read up on people with physiques you admire, it will lead you to plenty of others in the exercise and nutrition fields.  Van Damme wasn't built in a day and neither will you be so just keep going!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Call Me Snake: Sideshow Sixth Scale Figure

Oh man just got a knock on the door and opened up my Sideshow Collectibles Sixth Scale figure of mother fucking Escape From New York's Snake Plissken.  Brought to life by Kurt Russell in John Carpenter's 1981 classic futuristic action thriller, Snake and Escape set the tone for the "cool asshole who doesn't give a fuck" anti-hero and action flicks for a generation.  A less well received sequel was produced in 1996 with comic books carrying on the Plissken name as a video game and anime stalled out in the mid 2000's after the death of producer Debra Sand.  A remake has been in the works for years with Fox picking up the rights just last week with plans for a new trilogy.

Sideshow Collectibles is a specialty manufacturer of movie and comic book figures designed for the high end market.  I pre-ordered the Snake figure last spring and more or less forgot about it until recently when notices about shipping started going out.  This is my first purchase from Sideshow and probably my last.  That's not to say it's not a quality product, I just don't know what else to do with things like this besides add them to my shelf of awesome swag and figures.  The box(es) are beautiful with an excellent painted mural of Snake kicking back being the most striking.  Inside were layers of toy goodness with trays holding multiple sets of hands and oh so many accessories.  You literally get everything Snake has in the movie from the leather jacket, silenced Uzi, revolver, tracker, wrist timer, cigarette, throwing stars, walkie talkie and extra ammo magazines.  A stand is included to hold Snake up at the crotch.  Even though the product images show him standing on his own power, the figure's boots are too stiff for that in real life.

Messing with the figure took me back to playing with Barbie dolls at my babysitter's house in 1st grade.  So many joints in the arms and shoulders but his real cloth pants are too tight to move his legs much.  Surprisingly Snake bends at the waist for easy sitting.  Hands come off quick and easy so you can hold a cigarette, a gun, point at something or just have a balled fist. The detail is immense, from veins and finger nails to the revolver having a movable chamber with 6 easy to lose bullets and a Velcro fly on his camouflage pants.

The Way We Weren't: Michael Biehn and The Expendables

Ah the Expendables, remember them?  After three films and nearly $800 million dollars at the world wide box office, talk of a 4th chapter has cooled after part 3's tepid response.  While just about every notable action hero from the 80's and 90's has appeared including Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Wesley Snipes, Harrison Ford, Dolph Lundgren, Chuck Norris and Mel Gibson. By my estimation the only "era" icons missing were Steven Seagal, Jackie Chan and Kurt Russell.  Allegedly Seagal couldn't come to terms with series producer Avi Lerner, Jackie Chan wanted a substantial part alongside Stallone versus a cameo and Russell just wasn't interested in the throwback ensemble.  Of course many a name pops up when fans are asked who they'd like to see added to the cast with guys like Carl Weathers and Michael Biehn coming up frequently.

Weathers seemed like an obvious choice given his relationship with Stallone from the 4 Rocky films and his roles in 80's classics Predator alongside Arnold, Jesse Ventura and Sonny Landham as well as starring vehicle Action Jackson from Craig Baxley and Joel Silver.  While Stallone would drop plenty of wish list names from Ben Kingsley, Sandra Bullock, Clint Eastwood to...Ryan Seacrest? Weathers never came up.  Rumors of a rift between the two men dates back to 2006's Rocky Balboa regarding Weathers' ultimate non-involvement in the successful franchise chapter that saw archive footage of opponents Mr. T and Dolph Lundgren but not Weathers' seminal Apollo Creed.  Being around Stallone's age it would have been great to see Weathers come in as some kind of liaison or ally in a key scene and saddled with most of the dialog as we know he's got charisma and the acting chops.  Thus leaving the running, grunting and shooting to back up Expendables staples Dolph, Randy Couture and Terry Crews.

Biehn is known to action and genre fans thanks to his work in James Cameron's The Terminator and Aliens which saw him running around with a shotgun in hand before cementing his action chops with flicks like Navy Seals, Tombstone and The Rock.  In a 2011 interview, Stallone mulled over Michaels Biehn and Pare, citing them as guys who had their moment but fallen on hard times and deserved another shot.  Biehn quickly responded on Facebook stating he didn't need Stallone to revive his career as he had producer Ross Dinerstein.  At the time, there was no follow up on to what elicited Biehn's seemingly terse response and neither Biehn nor Pare ended up in The Expendables II.  Biehn has kept busy going into business with wife Jennifer Blanc as they've successfully produced a staggering 14 low budget genre films in the last 4 years.  Dinerstein has also kept prolific with his name on no less than a dozen films since working with Biehn on 2011's The Divide.  With Biehn being in his 50's, he could have easily opted for a "suit" role as some kind of government agent, evil businessman or been thrown a machine gun and gone to work.

Thanks to 2014's Emerald City Comicon, we can shed a little more light on what could have been a great addition to The Expendables franchise.  When asked about his possible involvement, Biehn responded with a flat "no".  First referring to Inferno, the making of The Expendables which follows the highs and lows of the action film that saw Stallone writing, directing and starring while also doing his own stunts, getting shingles, injuring his thumb, detaching a tendon in his shoulder and having his neck broken thus earning Biehn's respect forever.  But being financially stable and citing a lack of character development, Biehn saw no reason to take a role running and yelling while firing a gun as much of the ever growing cast had been relegated to doing.  Although The Biehn would love to meet Stallone, being away from his family (series has filmed in Brazil and Bulgaria) to make a few bucks for a lackluster part just wasn't that enticing. 

D'You Know What I Mean 2015: Con-Man

Busy week for all things comic conventions as WonderCon tickets went on sale and once again, chatter about the future of San Diego's mother show came into question.  After starting off in a small room 40 years ago with a few hundred fans, San Diego Comic-Con International has become the premiere destination for all things popular arts.  Don't let any of the social media hype from New York, Salt Lake or Comikaze fool you, San Diego is the real deal.  A once in a lifetime opportunity that happens once a year.  Nothing else comes close in terms of events, panels, programming, guests etc as San Diego takes over the convention center, surrounding hotels and downtown district.  As a non-profit, their purpose isn't to suck the money out of show goers with ticket upgrades, celebrity photos, autographs or meet and greet sessions. With attendance capped at 130,000, organizers do their very best to ensure each attendee has a unique and kick ass time.  Crowds and lines are the new normal but that hasn't stopped me from checking out and picking up tons of swag and comics, attending half a dozen panels and still going out to drink, party and mingle with my fellow fans afterwards on a daily basis.  CCI has an agreement with San Diego that expires in 2016 so proposals from the likes of Anaheim, Los Angeles and Las Vegas are all in the works.

With 2014's celebration bringing in towards $177 million to the local economy, San Diego has tried to appease the organizers by attempting to expand the convention center.  As it stands San Diego has over 600,000 square feet of exhibition space but events spill out into the hotels next door and outside the hall is a mess with only two major crosswalks going in.  Their efforts failed as the $520 million plan was shot down by a state appeals court over who could decide on tax raises to finance it, hotels or voters.  Apparently attendees account for 60,000 room nights from it's 11,000 rooms within walking distance.  To me, Anaheim is the best option.  With it's proximity and infrastructure set up by Disneyland, the convention center is designed to handle crowds.  There are 13,000 hotel rooms within a mile of the center with Downtown Disney, The Garden Walk and other dining/entertainment options nearby.  It wouldn't be as obviously convenient as the Gaslamp district but let's face it, with an extra couple of hundred thousand people walking around, it's not convenient during Comic-Con either.  Anaheim's convention center boasts 800,000 square feet of exhibition space with another 200,000 on the way.  Plus they're adding free wi-fi!  If that weren't enough, nine new hotels equaling 1,500 additional rooms are under construction.

Los Angeles would be next but it's not a great idea.  Sure it housed Anime Expo and it's 100,000 plus attendees but there's really not that much around the convention center.  Neighboring entertainment complex L.A. Live would quickly be overrun and there's only so many food trucks you can bring out.  Worst of all is the fact that there's less than 5,000 hotel rooms within a mile of the center.  And the absolute worst option is Las Vegas if only because it would be so, so hot in July.  Woof!

This weekend we'll be hitting two conventions on Sunday, the California Comic Convention in Orange County's Yorba Linda as well as the weekly Frank & Son Collectible Show in the City of Industry.  I'm pumped for CalComicCon as it's a comic book based show with no media guests so here's hoping for a huge room full of back issues ready for plucking.  From there we'll head up to Frank's, a weekly show held on Wednesday and Saturday that touts free admission and parking as well as guests ranging from athletes to actors to comic book figures.  This weekend is a special two day event as Stan Lee will be attending and I'll be on the look out for the new Big Trouble In Little China Funko's and a Rocketeer mini figure.

(Pre) Ask Me a Question: Only the Strong & Lionheart w/ Sheldon Lettich

Any Texans out there?  The Alamo Drafthouse's Greg MacLennan and series Tough Guy Cinema are bringing two Sheldon Lettich cinematic classics to the big screen with 35mm presentations of Only the Strong and Lionheart with Mr. Lettich in attendance for Q&A!  The martial arts mayhem all goes down on Sunday, February 8th at the Austin Ritz location.  Yours truly will be here so please drop me a line if you will too.  As if you could ever forget, Sheldon was my first real guest for a Dammaged Goods Presents night as The New Beverly hosted three nights of Double Impact and BloodsportLionheart co-stars Harrison Page and Brian Thompson showed up, the audiences were awesome, great stories were told and we plain had a Van-tastic time.  I met Greg at an anniversary screening of The Terminator here in Los Angeles where we instantly bonded over our love of action films and his admirable attempt to hold a screening of Predator in the woods before being rained out.  After telling him how Universal didn't have a print of Lionheart, Greg explained he had found a print and screened it in the past.

A true action movie lover, he's responsible for many a macho movie marathon starring the likes of Van Damme, Seagal, Bronson, Russell and more.  This past weekend at the Alamo's Yonkers, New York location a mystery day of Van Damme fare included Sudden Death, Lionheart, Knock Off and Hard Target.  Using the power of #MovieBro's I introduced Greg and Sheldon and now here they are, doing the Damme thing.  I've never been to an Alamo or Austin so I'm pumped to see how they kick ass.

First up is Only the Strong, 1993's capoeira VS Miami street thugs flick starring a yoked Mark Dacascos and Geoffrey Lewis.  The D plays a former special forces soldier who learned the Brazilian, dance based martial art while on assignment.  Upon returning to hometown Miami he finds his former high school overcrowded and full of drugs and gang bangers.  Teaming up with old friends and flames, Dacascos sets about to straighten out the worst kids in the school and dealing with their local crime lord relatives.  With kicks, flips and ba-na-na-way chant music.  Lettich directs and co-wrote the script with Luis Esteban.

Then it's time for 1990's pseudo update of Charles Bronson's street fighting man tale Hard Times starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, Harrison Page and Brian Thompson in Lionheart.  JCVD is Leon, a French Foreign Legionnaire who finds out his brother has been killed by drug dealers on the mean streets of Los Angeles.  Going A.W.O.L., Leon lands in LA and scrambling for cash, ends up fighting in a street match organized by Joshua (Page), whups some dude's ass with his "foreign shit" and is dubbed the Lion, king of the jungle.  In an interesting story twist, Leon doesn't spend any time searching for the guys who killed his brother (they were believed caught by police) and sets out to help bro's widow and young daughter.  By fighting.  In a parking garage, racquet ball court, empty pool, a converted tennis court and anywhere with a little open space.  Lettich directs and co-wrote with Van Damme himself in this surprisingly dramatic fight flick that contains the most heart of any JCVD flick outside mockumentary JCVD.

In March, Sheldon and Harrison Page head to Germany for a Lionheart blu-ray release event where a European cut of the film has been cleaned up and digitized for a special features packed release.

You got a lot of heart, Lionheart!

D'You Know What I Mean 2015: Noel Gallagher

Holy jeez, January is slipping away from me!  So where were we?  Oh yeah, Noel Gallagher is ramping up another banner year for 2015 following 2011's mega success a a solo artist with his High Flying Birds.  Lots of festivals, a world tour, a well received album and The Chief was off and running.  After a quick break, NG went back to the studio and latest album Chasing Yesterday is due to drop on March 2nd.  Released tracks In the Heat of the Moment, Ballad Of the Mighty I and B-Side Do the Damage are all escalating uptempo tracks in the grand Noel G tradition that demand repeat listening.  A North American tour kicks off in Toronto starting May 3rd.  While I tried to snag tix to the downtown Los Angeles show via the fan presale, the shit didn't work.  Regular tickets go on sale today via Ticketmaster with only a few balcony seats remaining.  But Ticketmaster is a bullshit monopoly so I guess I'll sit this one out.

Of course it wouldn't be Noel Gallagher without a mention of Oasis right?  On the possibility of a reunion, Noel has always contended it wouldn't be happening anytime soon with friend/mentor/music legend Paul Weller threatening physical harm if it did.  Weller has stayed amicable with both Gallagher brothers as he lent his face and name to Liam's clothing line Pretty Green.  While little brother Liam recently disbanded Beady Eye, don't expect him to stay quiet for long.  His fashion label seems to be doing well with sights set on America with the opening of a New York showroom.

Here's to a wave of hilarious interviews where Noel tells it like it is because he's the god Dammed boss:

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Train In Peace: Darren Shahlavi

I woke up to shocking news this morning: martial artist, stuntman and actor Darren Shahlavi passed away at age 42.  Born in Stockport, Cheshire, England, Shahlavi began training in martial arts at the age of 7.  By the early 90's, he found himself in Hong Kong finding work as thugs, gangsters, bodyguards and as a stunt man in films like Angel on Fire, Hero's Blood and Tai Chi II.  Working with Hong Kong staples like Bey Logan, Mike Leeder, Yuen Woo Ping and Sammo Hung; Shahlavi would eventually land the villain role in Donnie Yen's Ip Man 2 in 2010.  This would mark an upswing towards more high profile fare like the Mortal Kombat: Legacy webseries, Steven Seagal's True Justice, the pilot of Arrow, Metal Hurlant Chronicles and action flicks starring Steve Austin, Michael Jai White and Dolph Lundgren.  His final credits include the unreleased Jean-Claude Van Damme action thriller Pound of Flesh, a role in the Kickboxer remake and Disney's big budget Tomorrowland starring George Clooney.

While Shahlavi worked hard to create an impressive physique, could pull off flashy kicks and had a natural "bad guy" look, he was nothing but kind in the quick interactions I had with him.  After the Q&A at Dolph Lundgren night, I was making the rounds in the lobby only to be stopped by the sight of Shahlavi hanging out with fellow martial artist turned actor Joey Ansah, who had just released the Street Fighter: Assassin's Fist web series to much acclaim and millions of views.  Quickly introducing myself, Shahlavi just seemed like a nice guy and was smiling the whole time as we chit chatted about Universal Soldier, the Mortal Kombat series and if either of them liked Van Damme's Street Fighter movie.  For a guy 10 years older than me, he somehow looked younger, jerk.

Details of Shahlavi's death are scarce at the moment.  His brother posted a Facebook message simply stating Darren had passed away.  A follow up comment stated he died peacefully in his sleep.  Collaborators Jesse Johnson and Mike Leeder have posted personal and on set photos in remembrance as the news spreads.  Best wishes, condolences, positive thoughts go out to his family and friends. 

Saturday, January 17, 2015

D'You Know What I Mean 2015: Weathers, Carpenter & Jane Weekly Round Up

We're mid way through the first month of 2015, how's it going?  I'm feverishly working on the next Dammaged Goods Presents event, children of the 80's and 90's will be super excited.  While hanging around the interwebs between e-mails and phone calls I came across:

I set this up! Victory!
Happy Birthday Carl Weathers!  The likeable former professional football player known for his roles in Rocky I-IV, Predator, Action Jackson, Happy Gilmore, Toy Story of Terror and Arrested Development celebrated the big 6-7 this past 14th.  That puts him right under co-stars Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.  With an acting career dating back to 1975, Weathers' film and television output has slowed in recent years as he focuses on screen writing and lending his famous face to charities; playing in celebrity poker tournaments, raising awareness for cancer, bringing water to west Africa, campaigning for film tax incentives across the country as well as being a finalist in the newly formed Fictitious Athlete Hall of Fame for his portrayal of Apollo Creed in the Rocky films.  Speaking of Creed, a new film featuring the grand son of the legendary character has just begun production with rising star Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone starring in the 7th film of the series.  Even though Apollo died in 1985's Rocky IV, it would be great to have Weathers reprise the role in some kind of voice over or flashback to pay respect to all the work he put into making the character so memorable.

Only two days later, another titan of cinema celebrated his 67th birthday, writer/director/composer John Carpenter!  The man behind such B-movie genre classics as Escape From New York, They Live, The Thing and Big Trouble From Little China has also slowed down in the filmmaking world but has kept busy through writing comic books, releasing a new album of "lost themes" and playing video games.  With four of his films already remade, it was just announced this week that Fox has acquired the rights to reboot Escape From New York and Carpenter will act as a consultant.  Multiple parties have held the rights in recent years from New Line Cinema, Joel Silver and most recently Studio Canal.  Rumors of a prequel starring Gerard Butler to begin a new trilogy never materialized.  Let's see if Fox can put together something special that can replicate the experience of the films while moving it in a new direction.

Last but certainly not least, the trailer for SyFy's 10 part "future noir" series The Expanse dropped during this week's Television Critics Association's press tour.  Based on a series of novels, The Expanse is set 200 years in the future and follows a detective (Thomas Jane) as he crosses the solar system searching for a missing woman and uncovers a conspiracy in the process.  Being touted as SyFy's most ambitious project to date, cast and crew began production in Toronto in November occupying most of the stages at Toronto's Pinewood Studios.  The trailer shows off sleek production design, zero gravity sex and The Jane looking very slim, trim and stylish in a fedora and some kind of half shaved, half long hair cut.

Jane participated in a Redditt Ask Me Anything session yesterday to hype his new film with Bruce Willis, Vice, that hits theaters and VOD this weekend.  Nothing too crazy which is kind of disappointing as Jane is the king of WeirdCool.  Jane mentions never watching his films after they're completed, sneaking out of premieres, fans wanting to wrestle him, has never seen Game of Thrones, his love for making baseball picture 61*, almost drowning on Deep Blue Sea,  taking name Jane from Indian religion Jain while shooting a Bollywood feature at 16, how the studio would have given The Mist a bigger budget if they'd change the ending, not being very good in comedy The Sweetest Thing, shooting Vice in Mobile, Alabama being great, Bruce Willis being the guy you see on screen, his favorite horror film is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and that Lawrence Kasdan likes his actors to be on set whether or not they're working.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Damme Words: I Am Spartacus!

I ever tell you about the time I kind of met Kirk Douglas?  The Chinese Theatre was celebrating it's 85th anniversary and charging admission prices of decades past, .25 cents.  So for a couple of months patrons could check out classics like Shanghai Express, The King and I as well as my my personal favorite, Spartacus!  The inspired by true events epic of a slave turned gladiator turned leader who inspired a rebellion against the Romans starred Hollywood heavyweights Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov and Tony Curtis.  Director Anthony Mann was fired just weeks into filming and replaced by a barely 30 year old Stanley Kubrick.  To celebrate, Kirk Douglas attended a re-dedication ceremony of his hand and foot prints from 1962 as his 10th book, I Am Spartacus: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist was made available.  It was a pretty busy 2012 for the then 95 year old as he would also attend a special event celebrating the figure of Spartacus, made popular again by the Starz television show, introduce an Academy screening and be bar mitzahed for the third time, a world record.

It was a mad house outside the theater as Douglas spoke to the crowd about his book that tackled the fear mongering witch hunts of 1950's Hollywood, McCarthyism, Communism and the blacklist.  While in the lobby buying a copy of the book, Mr. Douglas himself ambled over and stood right next to me, telling the staff to make sure they were charging full price.  I could only smile and try to ask the living legend to sign my book before some idiot lady crowded us and tried to take a picture with her iPad but she couldn't figure it out before Mr. Douglas was whisked away by security.  The film, of course is a magnificent epic of Hollywood proportions as we meet uneducated, feral laborer Spartacus.  He attacks a guard and is then thrown into a school for gladiators where he quickly becomes leader of the pack and stages a revolt against the cruel owners and task masters.  With a small army at his side, Spartacus finds love and meaning to his life when he continuously defeats and embarrasses the well organized and armed Roman forces.  The title of the book comes from a pivotal scene where the Romans offer mercy on the captured slave army if Spartacus gives himself up.  Before the man himself can do it, others stand up and claim to be Spartacus until they're all on their feet chanting, "I'm Spartacus!" as a big F you to the Romans.  Unlike today's happy ending blockbusters, Spartacus like other true to life epics such as The Great Escape, ends on a seemingly down note with many of our protagonists dead or imprisoned.  Yet there's still the unquenchable feeling of hope that these characters risked it all and lost so much for the greater good so there's no sadness.

I Am Spartacus is a quick and entertaining read.  I've consumed several of Douglas' other books and they're all a nice mix of anecdotes, history, humor, inside stories and his own subconscious feelings on being an insecure, angry, passionate and horny guy who became a superstar.  In hindsight, Douglas' role in bestowing writer Dalton Trumbo credit on the film is viewed as a landmark in Hollywood history as it helped to break the blacklist.  By the late 1930's, the American Communist Party had lost steam  but the House Committee on Un-American Activities declared that the party still had roots deep in Hollywood.  The Hollywood Reporter released names of supposed Communists and sympathizers which became the first blacklist.  HUAC hearings found several  Hollywood professionals in contempt of Congress for not declaring their political affiliations.  Dalton Trumbo being one of them.  After being named on the blacklist and serving time in prison, Trumbo could only find work as a ghost writer and never be credited.  Trumbo would end up with 17 non-credits over a decade.

The book chronicles the making of Spartacus, from Douglas' first encounter with the source novel by Howard Fast (also blacklisted) and trying to turn it into a big, Hollywood movie.  Author Fast was not a screenwriter and struggled as Douglas enlisted Trumbo to secretly writer another draft.  Trumbo was an expert at dialog, story and could write quickly.  Unfortunately for producer Douglas, The Gladiators starring Yul Brynner, Anthony Quinn and directed by Martin Ritt was already in pre-production thus leaving little interest for Spartacus.  Talent agent Lew Wasserman was in the midst of buying Universal Studios and suggested Douglas take it there.  Priced at $5 million the film would end up costing around $12, shot for over a year and took three years to premiere.  The book goes into some great detail on the era surrounding the blacklist, how the cast shaped up, the conflicts between styles, Trumbo's secret involvement, Kubrick not changing his clothes, Douglas' wife Anne being a genius and a saint, his best friend and manager stealing his money and much, much more.  There's a great line from Douglas during a story meeting at Trumbo's home that sums up the hectic period, "I'm retiring...from sobriety" followed by the pouring and downing of a vodka.

Pressure in Hollywood mounted over the open use of blacklisted talent with one high profile case seeing Frank Sinatra folding and telling Kirk to kick them in the balls for everyone else.  In several bold moves, Douglas left studio passes for Dalton Trumbo at the gate, brought him to lunch on the lot for all to see and then gave him credit under his real name. Off screen drama aside, Universal was concerned with the film's political message, sexual undertones, violence and use of the word "damn" and made many cuts, 42 significant ones by Douglas' count.  The flick was finally released to rave reviews, boffo box office and received a half dozen nominations from the Golden Globes and Academy Awards each.  Newly inaugurated president John F. Kennedy even ventured out during a snow storm, crossed picket lines and sat down for the film, declaring it a great movie.  Coupled with the fact that Trumbo received credit on not one but two films in 1960, it seemed like the blacklist had come to an end.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Ask Me a Question: Conan the Destroyer

I hadn't been to the New Beverly since the Van Damme Double then Triple Dip in May.  Shortly after, the longstanding repertory cinema house went through some management changes and a much needed face lift.  Since reopening, owner and now more hands on manager Quentin Tarantino has been programming some very unique double features from kung-fu classics to grindhouse flicks and tributes to actors like Steve McQueen and directors like this month's Richard Fleischer.  Now all shows are touted in 35 or 16 mm with nary a digital print in sight.  I figured on checking out the Fleischer directed Charles Bronson vehicle Mr. Majestyk at the end of the month but action #MovieBro and author David J. Moore wanted to check out Conan the Destroyer.  I wouldn't have gone to see that but hey, why not?

Walking up to the box office I was only too pleased to see Mr. Michael Torgan back behind the window after taking a much deserved break in the action from running the joint while the New Bev figured out their next phase.  The place looked great, spiffy and shined up with printed calendars everywhere for the taking, over sized framed posters on the walls, even a Japanese Destroyer one sheet in the lobby.  A cash only institution for as long as I've been coming, they now take credit cards!  The concession stand now sells hot dogs and White Castle burgers, can't beat that.  Anyways, if it weren't for Michael generously agreeing to screen Double Impact and Bloodsport, Dammaged Goods Presents would still be an unrealized pipe dream and I wouldn't have met so many great movie lovers along with all the luminaries and professionals who attended the Van Damme, Dolph, Carl Weathers and Die Hard nights.  The top half of the double bill was Fleischer's slave turned bare knuckle boxer turned partial Django Unchained inspiration Mandingo from 1975.  I've never seen the flick and honestly have no real desire to so we hit up Elite Cuisine next door for some dinner and catching up.  This is an establishment that serves you chips and salsa while offering Jewish comfort food, Italian dishes, American sammiches and Chinese food?!  That's Los Angeles baby, just go with it.

I was really interested to see what kind of folks turned out for Conan the Destroyer on a Wednesday night.  The Man Clu was holding it down in the front row as usual, one of the staff members was rocking a Conan tee shirt and there were maybe three women in the audience.  Also in the crowd was co-writer and prolific comic book scribe Gerry Conway! A talented jerk like Steven E. de Souza, Conway sold his first work as a teenager then went to both Marvel and DC Comics.  At only 19, Conway worked on The Amazing Spider-Man where he scripted the Death of Gwen Stacy storyline and many others over a several year run.  While at the House of Ideas, Conway co-created The Punisher and wrote for The Fantastic Four, Captain America, The Incredible Hulk and more.  Moving to DC Comics, Conway co-created Firestorm and worked on Superman, Justice League of America and Detective Comics among others.  If that weren't enough, in the 80's Conway jumped into film, television and animation with credits on G.I. Joe, Transformers, Batman: The Animated Series, Diagnosis Murder and Law & Order.

Conway quickly introduced Conan the Destroyer, recalling how Conan the Barbarian producer Edward R. Pressman sold his share of the rights to mogul Dino De Laurentiis. Conway and comics writing partner Roy Thomas worked on the script for about a year pumping out 10 drafts.  During that time, it seemed like only the writers and Arnold were attached to the project.  Word came down that Richard Fleischer was hired to direct, an excellent choice in Conway's eyes as he loved the director's Norsemen saga, The Vikings, starring KIRK DOUGLAS, Tony Curtis, Ernest Borgnine and Janet Leigh.  The writers met with Fleischer, thought he was a very nice man and immediately after were told they were fired!  Thus ending Conway's involvement with tonight's feature on which he receives a Story By credit and attended the premiere in 1984.

Conan the Destroyer is not a good movie.  It's a fun movie, it's crazy and intentionally and unintentionally hilarious.  Starting with credits over the a dusty landscape and Mako's wonderful narration of an age "between the time the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryas", days of high adventure set to Basil Poledouris' iconic score.  We find Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) praying for his lost love Valeria while thief homeboy Malak (Tracey Walter) counts stolen booty before they're attacked by Queen Taramis (Sarah Douglas). Taramis wishes to recruit the barbarian thief on a mission to retrieve a treasured horn that will bring back dreaming god Dagoth.  For his service, Taramis promises to resurrect Valeria.  At the palace of Shadizar, Taramis and Captain of the Guard Bombaata (Wilt Chamberlain) explain their plot to use Conan to retrieve the horn, that only virgin niece Jehnna (Olivia d'Abo) can collect, then kill the barbarian and sacrifice the niece in order to appease Dagoth.

Feeling that a sword can't match up to sorcery, Conan stops off to pick up Wizard of the Mounds Akiro (Mako) before the motley crew runs into Zula (Grace Jones), a fierce warrior stranded in a village after an unsuccessful raid.  To get the horn, they have to find a jewel which is housed in an ice and crystal castle on a lake where wizard Toth-Amon (Pat Roach) resides.  From there it's off to a temple where Jehnna places the jewel and walks through fire to collect the horn.  Bombaata seemingly seals Conan and his crew in a tunnel and escapes with Jehnna and the horn.  Back at the palace, things don't go too smoothly as Jehnna's botched sacrifice turns Dagoth into a horrific monster that a rescuing Conan must hack the shit out of with a battle ax and his trusty broadsword.  The film looked great on the big screen, the print was in terrific shape as was Arnold, holy geez was he yoked in this!  I believe director John Milius told Arnold to tone down his workouts for the first Conan as a specimen built from hard living and physical labor wouldn't look like a polished bodybuilder while in the sequel Arnold is equal parts huge and shredded with his signature huge chest, big arms and a slim tapered waist.  Being shirtless for many a scene I wondered if he was severely dehydrated and underfed for the duration of filming.

Shot in Mexico, Destroyer takes advantage of the dusty desert as well as lush forest locations.  The sets were quite impressive as you had a huge marbled palace, a castle made from crystals and ice, a chamber full of mirrors, an underground temple, etc.  Being an early 80's flick there was a nice blend of miniatures, animation, forced perspective, matte paintings and a little obvious rear screen projection.  While the script by Stanley Mann is a pretty straightforward adventure/mission flick, Fleischer's directing is a little clunky here and could have used some extra editing.  Not surprising as this was towards the tail end of his long career.  Fight scenes are nice with bloody squib slashes, severed heads and impalement's galore but for all the sword, spear, mace and knife fighting, they could have used a little more choreography instead of just clanging weapons a couple times before being run through. Being a fantasy film you get magic, sorcery, wizards, crazy costumes and monsters.  During the mirror chamber, Arnold throws down with Toth-Amon in his reptilian/man-ape form and gets body slammed and windmilled around the room in a goofy fight scene.  The monstrous Dagoth was played by an uncredited Andre the Giant in a full, aquatic monster inspired suit, who slaps Arnold around before getting his horn ripped out and stabbed dead.

Of course with such an eclectic assortment of actors including a bodybuilder, a singer and an NBA star, performances and expressions are laughable and priceless at times.  Arnold playing drunk is great as is his punching of a horse and hammer fisting a camel early on.  Mako is terrific as the ragged wizard who can move things with his mind and start a fire out of nothing.  Tracey Walter plays the comedic sidekick/thief just fine in a role that would probably be designated to Rob Schneider if this was made in the 90's.  Future Bond girl and Dolph Lundgren girlfriend Grace Jones is strong and terrifying while Olivia D'Abo is cute as can be as the naive virgin always showing skin in aerated gowns.  Wilt Chamberlain is tall as shit and gives Bombaata some nice gravitas.  While Conan the Destroyer is by far no masterpiece, it still stands as a solid if unspectacular entry in the sword and sorcery, action-fantasy genre if only because there aren't enough comparable titles and is perfect for lazy day viewing.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

What the Chuck?! Forced Vengeance

On the back end of Turner Classic Movies' Underground programming of Miami Connection was another 80's martial arts opus, Forced Vengeance from 1982.  The flick opens with a stylized fight scene between the silhouette of Chuck Norris and an unknown attacker in front of a giant neon sign with Chinese characters complete with blaring music but no sound.  We have no context whatsoever and it immediately reminded me of future action flicks that would do the same thing, mainly Best of the Best 2 where it adds a little mystique to the credits and Dolph Lundgren's Direct Action where it pads out the runtime.  From there we meet Josh Randall (Norris) as he collects a debt from a Los Angeles scum bag and beats up a would be enforcer in the process.  There's humor right away as Randall's favorite cowboy hat is stomped on and there's a close up of him curling his fist before dishing up some pain.  Cut to Hong Kong, "a slap in the face that feels good" where you "make money as fast as you can" with an opening shot out of Enter the Dragon or reused by Bloodsport.  We meet Randall's benevolent, tai chi practicing businessman of Jewish heritage boss Sam (David Opatoshu) and his son David (Frank Michael Liu).  The duo run honest casino Lucky Dragon in HK where Randall is head of security.

Unfortunately David has made some bad business decisions and evil casino overlord Stan Raimondi (Michael Cavanugh) is about to swallow up their small potatoes establishment.  When Sam refuses to sell, father and son are gunned down leaving Randall the prime suspect and on the run.  With Sam and David dead, daughter Joy (Camila Griggs) becomes the sole heir to the Lucky Dragon and target of a citywide manhunt.  Randall grabs the young woman and along with his spunky ladyfriend, Claire (Mary Louise Weller) go into hiding with Vietnam buddy LeRoy Nicely (Bob Minor).  With the cops and the mob after them, Randall sets off to squash Raimondi's hold on the city.

Cleanly directed by James Fargo, Forced Vengeance is a pretty solid karate thriller with some surprisingly exploitative traits.  There's lots of fist and feeticuffs in the Chuck Norris karate tradition: big punches, low knee, high foot roundhouse kicks, a flying sidekick off the side of a building, slow motion jumping off furniture tackle, pulling the slide of a handgun back next to the side of a guy's head to intimidate him and a death by falling glass in the throat.  A unique touch was Randall using pressure points to subdue attackers, pressing on forearms and necks.  There's also a surprising amount of laughs in Franklin Thompson and Fargo's script.  From Randall always drinking a beer, having his cowboy hat damaged and telling his chick to throw a blanket on him so he can nap, Vengeance definitely has a sense of humor and Norris gets to throw out lots of one liners and funny/awesome quips like "Your son made me an offer...before he died" cause Chuck killed him in the last scene, get it?!  Or when an Organized Task Force agent tells Randall he's a real litterer, cause of all the dead bodies, ska-doosh!

It's also a product of it's time and has a scuzzy feel with many a lady being slapped, flaming homosexual depictions and a surprisingly brutal end to Claire's life at the hands of a giant Chinese brute.  Composer William Goldstein provides a distinctive yet overly melodramatic score with soothing pianos and grating laser sounds alike.  The Hong Kong setting is a nice touch and you feel like you're back watching Lee, Roper and Williams leave for Han's Island in Enter the Dragon or planting the seeds for Jean-Claude Van Damme's jokey foot chase through the shadowy narrow corridors in Bloodsport, it's truly a distinct cityscape.  Running and fighting his way through the streets, Randall comes across a Bruce Lee imitator with nunchucks and whooping strange noises.  You know how movies today seem like rehashes of other movies?  Well Forced Vengeance was like watching movies that didn't even exist yet.  When a guy slaps a woman and Chuck slaps him, asking, "hurts, don't it?", I went to Tombstone.  When the Chinese brute told Chuck his girl was "very good", I thought of Kickboxer.  At one point someone mutters, "Randall, Randall, Randall" and Arnold Vosloo from Hard Target popped into my mind.  I'm sure many of these were coincidences but it just kept happening!

Even though Norris got a career boost from student, friend and global superstar Steve McQueen, Forced Vengeance owes much of it's crew to another action hero, Clint Eastwood.  Director Fargo had previously worked on Clint flicks like Joe Kidd, High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales and Every Which Way But Loose as an Assistant Director before graduating to the helmer's chair himself.  Villain Michael Cavanuagh had also appeared in three Eastwood vehicles before starring in Vengeance.  Stuntman extraordinaire Bob Minor plays the funny, cool and swole buddy, much like Steve James would later to Michael Dudikoff and Norris in American Ninja and The Hero and the Terror.   Released on July 30th, 1982, Forced Vengeance would gross $6.6 million at the box office from 576 theaters ranking it ahead of movies like The Soldier, Megaforce and Eastwood's Honky Tonk Man but way behind action fare Rocky III, First Blood, Firefox, Conan the Barbarian and The Road Warrior.  Norris' next film would be a step up, the iconic Lone Wolf McQuade before embarking on his lucrative partnership with Cannon Films.