Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Good, Tough & Deadly Week: No Retreat, No Surrender 2 & Back in Action

After reading reviews and interviews for hundreds of action and martial arts flicks theatrical and direct to video in The Good, the Tough & the Deadly, I had to dip my toe into some of the lesser known titles I passed in the aisles of Blockbuster, Hollywood Video, Video Star and Classic Family Video years ago. Author David J. Moore couldn't believe I'd never seen 1987's No Retreat, No Surrender 2 so I started with that and to give Loren Avedon a spin. The first film was regular viewing in my home, it helped launch Jean-Claude Van Damme but more than that, it's a crazy and hilarious flick that somehow blends Bruce Lee's ghost, the KBG taking over karate schools nationwide, break dancing and inspirational pop songs. Apparently original stars Kurt McKinney and JCVD ducked out of the sequel at the last minute, opening the door for relative newcomers Avedon, Cynthia Rothrock and Matthias Hues.

Made by Seasonal Films' usual suspects like Corey Yuen and Keith Strandberg, NRNS2 transports the action from Los Angeles to Cambodia where kickboxer Scott Wlyde (Avedon) is visiting his buddy Mac Jarvis (Max Thayer) and his lady then somehow gets involved with a kidnapping plot and Russian soldiers? There's action and flips galore with everyone showing off impressive kicks and acrobatics along with a few explosions. This is the first flick I've ever seen Avedon in and I must say, I was not impressed. Sure he can kick and move but he doesn't have much in terms of leading man charisma. Cynthia Rothrock has some entertaining spunk and Matthias Hues shows a bit of humorous posturing along with a muscular frame. The real ace here is Max Thayer as the Hawaiian shirt clad, cigar smoking, tail chasing ex-pat Mac, he's a cool dude. Yuen and company's goofy yet choreographed approach comes off cartoonish and not as endearing as the original's. Still, seeing so many physically talented actors pull off crazy fight scenes still impresses after all these years, especially in the era of hyper editing, stunt doubles and not seeing combatants actually make contact.

Moving on to1993's Back in Action starring Roddy Piper and Billy Blanks, I had a little more hope for a solid DTV flick as it came from Shapiro-Glickenhaus, who produced classic action thriller Shakedown. While Back in Action doesn't scale those theatrical heights of high octane action on the streets of New York, the Steve DiMarco and Paul Ziller from a Karl Schiffman script delivers the boom boom boom. Billy (Blanks) is trying to help out/protect his sister from mobsters but keeps running into hardened and sweaty cop Frank Rossi (Piper), or something like that. There's banter, rough and tumble fights and destruction pretty consistently throughout the 93 minutes. Blanks and Piper made a cool duo with the martial arts champion's muscular frame and 3 inch flat top juxtaposed with the professional wrestler's rough and gruff yet likeable demeanor. The two would team up nearly immediately for 1995's Tough and Deadly which I'll have to check out next.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Good, Tough & Deadly Week: Read It!

Two San Diego Comic-Con's ago, a guy stopped me and asked, "you're that Van Damme guy, right?", referring to the Los Angeles screenings of Bloodsport, Double Impact and Universal Soldier I had set up with the likes of Sheldon Lettich, Brian Thompson, Harrison Page, Joey Ansah, Craig Baumgarten, Darren Shahlavi and Dolph Lundgren in attendance. Answering in the affirmative, David J. Moore introduced himself and from there we have enjoyed a terrific #ActionMovieBro dynamic that has traversed meals, conventions, screenings and premieres. A prolific writer for magazines of all genres, Moore had just released his first book, World Gone Wild: A Survivor's Guide to Post-Apocalyptic Movies that encapsulated nearly 1,000 reviews and dozens of cast and crew interviews. Now deep into a one of a kind look at action movies and films, Moore recruited me to provide a few last minute reviews as well as my Q&A turned print interview with Carl Weathers.

On Tuesday I received a copy of The Good, the Tough & the Deadly: Action Movies & Stars 1960- Present, from Schiffer Publishing. Published author could now be checked off my imaginary list of life accomplishments and/or goals. What struck me immediately was the size and heft of the tome that includes around 1,500 reviews and 80 some interviews. The hardcover art is gorgeous and inside are glossy pages and color photos galore. Moore's introduction sets up the parameters of the book, this being a guide of action stars who came from an athletic or professional background. So Arnold from bodybuilding, Jean-Claude Van Damme from karate, Carl Weathers, Jim Brown and Fred Williamson from football and Steven Seagal from Aikido, etc. Or actors generally identified by the action genre a la Charles Bronson and Sylvester Stallone. That means titles from the likes of big screen favorites Bruce Willis, Kurt Russell and Mel Gibson are not included. Moreover, I saw it as a study of the new type of action hero that emerged from the 1980's where Arnold and Sly were kings with JCVD and Seagal their eager successors. The type of larger than life hero who cut through red tape, took on an army of bad guys and got the job done. Usually while branding a machine gun, tossing a one liner or using their hands and feet to dispatch all enemies in bone breaking or face mashing fashion. While acting talent and charisma would be fairly overlooked in favor of muscular and hyper developed physicality.

In the 80's and 90's, Cannon Films and Carolco helped usher in the age of international box office while capitalizing on burgeoning home video revenue. While the four kings of action ruled theaters, less expensive alternatives, many from the worlds of kickboxing, bodybuilding and martial arts like Don "The Dragon" Wilson, Michael Dudikoff, Roddy Piper, David Bradley and Oliver Gruner could have their names above titles and faces brandished across posters and VHS boxes around the world. Good, Tough and Deadly is a study of these films; the muscles, machine guns and VHS era. Along for the ride with Moore are half a dozen contributors who produced nearly 1,500 reviews and conducted 80 interviews. Subjects range from golden age stars like Weathers, Lundgren and Wesley Snipes to writer/directors including Sheldon Lettich (Double Impact, Rambo III) and Craig Baxley (Action Jackson, Stone Cold) to PM Entertainment's once prolific Joseph Merhi. Modern age filmmakers like John Hyams, Jesse Johnson and Isaac Florentine along with stars Scott Adkins, Tony Jaa and Michael Jai White also get their light.

As a total 80's and 90's kid, I can certainly recall seeing VHS covers with Billy Blanks, Jeff Wincott, Gruner and more but never taking the plunge since I was catching up on JCVD or Seagal titles I couldn't see in a theater. And let's be honest, there's a reason why talent rises, they've got the IT factor Hollywood can't produce but loves to exploit. Don Wilson might be a more accomplished kickboxer than Van Damme but he's sure not as interesting to watch. So reading reviews and the thoughts of so many B-level stars without much knowledge of their work was interesting. No Retreat, No Surrender 2's Loren Avedon comes off as a bit egotistical, even when talking about being broke by 2000, eating crow and going from headlining low budget martial arts flicks to doing stunts anywhere he could. Or Gruner, a French Special Forces soldier and champion kickboxer turned low rent movie-star in the likes of Angel Town and Nemesis, thinking he should have been in The Expendables along with half a dozen stars who actually had theatrical careers.

Moore's style of interview gets subjects to open up about the triumphs of becoming a working actor and action star, the harsh realities of the business and what happens when your shelf life expires. Creative control and lack thereof is a constant cause of retiring, along with the fact that the video market simply dried up so there was no use in denying it. Bruce Lee is a frequent inspiration and for the younger guys, it's Jean-Claude Van Damme. Experiences with, observations of and basic example being elevates JCVD to enigma status and rightfully so, he's a force of nature. Reviews are generally two paragraphs, one to set up the story and cast and the other to state opinion. Some of my contributions were for Bruce Lee's The Chinese Connection and Van Damme's Timecop. After an off and on marathon of skimming reviews and reading interviews, I finished The Good, the Tough and the Deadly, cover to cover, late into last night. I'm extremely happy and proud to have been invited to the party and contribute. Thank you, David. I'm also excited that it was the #1 New Release on Amazon for Film/TV books! Keep laughing and lifting, or alternatively, keep punching and pumping.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Sneak Cinema: The Neon Demon w/ Nicolas Winding Refn

Nothing like starting the week off with a trip to Santa Monica's historic Aero Theatre for an early screening of The Neon Demon! Directed and co-written by Nicolas Winding Refn of The Pusher, Bronson and Drive fame, The Neon Demon has to be the most "what the f*ck" movie I've seen in a long time but is very interesting to watch and gorgeously shot. It's also got the best soundtrack I've heard in a while courtesy of Drive and Only God Forgives composer Cliff Martinez who provides a synth laced The Thing meets Blade Runner blend of creepiness and vast atmosphere. Since the flick hasn't hit theaters yet, I'll just say that TND is a bit of a fairy tale meets nightmare take on the young woman moving to Los Angeles to find fame and fortune gone weird, violent and freaky. Elle Fanning plays Jesse, an aspiring model who quickly becomes the favorite of several revered figures in the industry, much to the chagrin of local talent vying for their big break. As he did with Drive, Refn shoots Los Angeles in ways you've never seen, showing off scenic view points, seedy motels and classic dives throughout. Jena Malone, Christina Hendricks, Abbey Lee, Alessandro Nivola and a funny yet sh!t bag Keanu Reeves round out the cast. The Neon Demon definitely isn't for everyone but if you're into weird, experimental flicks or Refn in general, I think you'll like it.

After the film, Refn and his frequent collaborator Martinez took to the stage, spoiler free:

- Refn wanted to tell a tale of beauty and narcissism, fleshed out the script with female playwrights well known and not Mary Laws and Polly Stenham.
- Shoots chronologically for most part. Gave script to James Bond writers Robert Wade and Neal Purvis for suggestions.
- Props to Jena Malone for going to great depths to find her character early on which changed arc later on.
- Elle Fanning impressed him but he was hesitant since she was so young. Some people are just born with it, believes Fanning and Gosling are of the ilk.
- Makes movies very inexpensively to tell the stories he wants. Shoots quickly and uses familiar locations in new ways to save time and money.
- Sees Hollywood studios as a well oiled machine that is redundant but the machine pays well, pays for 90% of the industry and for films like his.
- Views directing as inspiring others while taking credit.
- Martinez jokes that Refn shoots totally different movies than are scripted, usually taking out lots of dialog. He's waiting for the day Refn makes a silent film.
- Martinez recalls many 3:00 AM Skype calls with a chipper and coffee sipping Refn.
- Amazon Studios got involved after an associate from Drive wanted to see the film, flew to Copenhagen for a screening and made lucrative offer after.
- Theatrical is still a big part of the film experience but streaming will let movies live on forever.
- Sees digital as the revolution that lets people create.

More was talked about but hey, see the movie and we'll chat more. Until then, queue the soundtrack.

Con-Man: June Los Angeles Comic Book & Science Fiction Convention

After Saturday's Power-Con in Torrance, we trekked to Downtown Sunday for the LA-BI-MON-SCI-FI-COM-CON aka the Los Angeles Comic Book & Science Fiction Convention at The Reef. I guess this used to be the show at The Shrine by USC but they've upgraded and held several shows downtown with special guests ranging from the cast of Aliens like Michael Biehn and Lance Henriksen to comic creators and this week welcomed the punks from Back to the Future II that included Jason Scott Lee (Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Soldier, The Jungle Book). I've never had a problem finding street parking and at $12 bucks, it's a deal to get in. Plus they always have posters and giveaways along with a very kind staff. We got there a little later than usual and most of the celeb guests were packing up. Caught a glimpse of Lee who looks great and extremely svelte. We also chatted with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action double Nick Palma from Secret of the Ooze who had props of the combat coldcuts and orange yo-yo! Palma was really cool and brightened up our day before enlisting us for a high-three and "cowabunga"!

What's nice about these kinds of shows is that you'll get a few different vendors each time, so last time it was the magazines guy, this time it was the couple liquidating loose action figures or the guy selling DVD's for cheap. I ended up picking up three Arnold flicks I didn't own on the format, Red Heat: Special Edition, Last Action Hero and Raw Deal. We caught up with a few con-rades who were vending, talking about their upcoming shows, why Comic-Con should stay in San Diego or go to Anaheim and why Las Vegas and Downtown, Los Angeles would be horrible options due to scheduling, logistics, traffic and whatnot. As if I needed more graphic novels but I'm a sucker for discount tables and grabbed some John Bryne Namor, Red Hulk and a Howling Commandos story. With Anime Expo downtown and then San Diego in July, the LA show is taking a break until August it looks like so we shall be back!

Gotta Eat! The Jolly Oyster

Growing up in the mid-east of America, I used to love driving. The open highways, truck stops, road snacks, traveling tunes and friendly conversation while watching the country whip by and the sun set was a simple pleasure. But for about the last five years I haven't had much of a commute and most of my car time beyond 30 minutes means we're headed to Hollywood once a week, Disneyland once a month or San Diego once a year. So this past Saturday, cruising up to Ventura for a shindig caught me by surprise as it took an hour and a half! Plus it was raining in LA and I saw three accidents in 20 minutes so it just seemed like a day meant for lounging on the couch. But alas we had already committed and just north of Los Angeles the skies cleared. Driving past Simi Valley then Santa Clarita and finally into the quaint suburb-esque areas outside Calabasas and Ventura, we made it to a state park where a sustainable seafood establishment is mere footsteps from the beach. The Jolly Oyster is comprised of a food truck that cooks oysters and clams to order and a permanent looking stall where you can get them raw and do with you as you like.

The picnic area wasn't huge but was packed by 1:00 PM with families and celebrations. It's been a while since I've tried to BBQ and boy is my game not up to par. Luckily a friend is an expert as he threw some clams into a pot with butter, minced garlic and white wine. I've never had good luck with raw oysters so I couldn't channel my inner James Coburn from Hard Times but had a couple cooked ones that were delectable. Instead I opted for some steamed clams and fried oysters from the food truck which were pretty tasty and the remote joint took credit cards so that's a plus. The park was pretty big with several celebrations going on and cost a not terrible $10 bones to enter/park. The Jolly Oyster has an interesting method of dispensing shells, you just toss them onto a pile of a makeshift wall around the picnic area. All in a fun day at a hidden gem outside Los Angeles.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Summer Cinema: Warcraft

This past Thursday we went into Warcraft with no real expectations. I'd played the original game and part 2 as a youth, dabbled in part 3 but never checked out online giant World of Warcraft. Directed by Duncan Jones with a co-writing assist from Charles Leavitt and Chris Metzen, the first trailers did not look good. Just your typical bad CGI with live action mash up. But hey, I'm a sucker for large scale, fantasy world set, sword swinging action flicks like Lord of the Rings, Willow, Dragonheart, Clash of the Titans, Conan the Barbarian, Masters of the Universe and the recent Gods of Egypt. Sadly, even with no expectations, Warcraft failed to deliver. It just wasn't very exciting or compelling. I felt so bad for my lady that halfway through the film I ran out to get her another glass of wine so she wouldn't be too bored. And I was several whiskey gingers in yet still not enjoying the flick.

We're thrown into a world of orcs, knights, mages and griffins with magic portals, ornate armor and lightning spells. But no real set up so like Hunger Games, I didn't get transported in or believe what I was seeing. The humans feel threatened by the orcs, the orcs are just trying to save their clan, there's some family and character moments but most of it falls flat. As Jones and crew fail to set up the alternate world, they also try to ground it in reality with all the character bits but end of the day you don't care about anyone in the film or if they live or die. Add to that the fact everything looks fake, from the CGI orcs next to a green painted Paula Patton to the well designed yet still manufactured looking armor and false looking sets, there's just nothing to grasp to. There's swords, war hammers and axes galore but not a single duel if I recall correctly. Lots of implied violence and cutting to black but no sword clashing or choreography. Battle scenes come off as a lot of frantic activity with no actual fighting. I just don't get it.

Budgeted at an estimated $160 million, Warcraft was supposedly aimed at the Chinese audience which has eaten the film up, breaking records and grossing a shattering $140+ million in only a few days. Yet there's one Asian character in the film and he doesn't have a line. Although American born Daniel Wu is a performance capture villain. Opening in the states this weekend, Warcraft grossed a not great $24 million amidst poor reviews and will struggle to hit $75 million I'm guessing. My hopes for a Pacific Rim or Edge of Tomorrow surprise were certainly dashed and I can't imagine any amount of foreign box office will greenlight a WC sequel any time soon. Look at Terminator: Genisys, it didn't hit $100 million in America but ended up grossing $440 million globally with so-so word of mouth, prompting Paramount to promptly pump the brakes on two proposed sequels. Leaving the film I felt weirdly frustrated, this is the kind of movie I should like and I was hoping it would succeed as the underdog but as it stands, Warcraft is the worst and most disappointing movie I've seen this summer if not the year. Oh, plus there was no Leeroy Jenkins reference...

Damme Words: The Filthy Truth

After Dice ended it's 6 episode run on Showtime, I was still hankering for the Andrew Dice Clay fix so I picked up his recent autobiography The Filthy Truth and polished it off in just a few weeks. Co-written by David Ritz, it's not overly long and generally pretty entertaining. Dice came to prominence in the late 80's and early 90's with his vulgar, angry and sex filled opinions on life. The book dives into his childhood and family growing up in New York, being a natural drummer, getting into trouble and honing a showbiz persona that at first was an act where he'd go from goofy Jerry Lewis to slicked back cool guy John Travolta in Grease. Ending up in Los Angeles and crafting his Dice Man character for over 10 years, Clay's comedy would be branded the kind of thing you think but never say. But putting it out there worked wonders for Clay as his albums went Platinum, he was the first comic to sell out Madison Square Garden two nights in a row and was signed to a three picture deal with Fox studios among other achievements.

Along the way, Dice discusses his professional ups and downs, trying to stick to his guns, how his manager father might not have had his son's best interests in mind after the money started coming in, brushes with the mafia and oh so many sex stories, most of them about blowjobs or pleasuring women. Dice mentions the likes of Mickey Rourke and Sylvester Stallone as two 80's allies, even working out with Stallone's long time trainer for years. There's a funny yet ridiculous story about super producer Joel Silver calling Dice in for an emergency meeting in regards to The Adventures of Ford Fairlane and berating the comic for not taking the movie seriously as he was caught eating pizza. Silver would not make a film with a fat star so Dice went on some Hollywood cleanse before filming started.

Of course what goes up, must come down and Dice's career hit the skids after being labeled a misogynist and homophobic while his personal life crumbled with failed marriages and a near death experience. But always the fighter, and what's old is new again, Dice managed to parlay a guest stint on Entourage into a new comedy special, the book, a Woody Allen movie appearance, the Showtime series and working for Martin Scorsese. Keep it coming, Dice Man. Oh!

Workout of the Day: Leg Living

The other day I felt like my legs needed a little bit of a pump but I was too lazy to hit the gym or even the downstairs room. Legs, like any body part, can be trained any time, any where, you just need a little inspiration and motivation. So before ordering dinner, I got in:

Body Squat/Mountain Climbers/Lunges/Knee In Crunch/Step Ups

I repeated the circuit 6 times, keeping squat reps in the 15 range with feet wide or shoulder width, did 50 mountain climbers per set, 20 lunges, 30 crunches and 20 step ups. If lunges hurt your knees, you can try placing your back leg on a sturdy chair and simply lower yourself down. Then you can use that same chair for step ups. Even though you can train any body part without weight, doing calf raises without resistance doesn't do a whole lot in my mind so I had my lady sit on my back for several sets of Donkey Calf Raises. You ever do those? It's kind of like doing a calf raise on a leg press machine I guess and when I trained at Gold's in West Hollywood years ago, they had a Donkey machine where you'd stand on a block with your lower back against a pad. Frank Zane, Arnold and the 70's bunch were always doing Donkey's with giant calves and entertaining photos being the proof. After all that, I went ahead and biked 5 miles to make myself feel better about the meal of tacos and fries in my immediate future.

Gotta Play! Button Mash

Another day, another Los Angeles based barcade. As a child of the 80's and 90's, I grew up pumping quarters into machines at my local malls, mashing buttons to Street Fighter, Final Fight, X-Men and the like. One more recent addition to the LA scene is Echo Park's Asian fusion restaurant with a bar and arcade Button Mash. Just up the street from Union Station in downtown, Button Mash is located in a curious strip mall that holds a tropical fish store and a Domino's among other businesses. There's a small parking lot and plenty of curb side parking around the area. They were supposed to open at 4:00 PM but were actually in the midst of shooting a TV show, movie or online series whatever. Surprisingly, many an older person patron was waiting to get in as well and when I say older, I mean retirement age. I wonder what games they came to play.

The place is split up into a restaurant on one side and the arcade on the other. It's strictly beer and wine at the moment but there are several kinds of cider for people like me. Food wise you had a double hamburger next to chicken wings and tofu balls, all in, not too shabby. Then your check comes in a 90's area paperback which was a nice touch, if you ever see Governor Schwarzenegger, Party of Four, scrawled in one, that was me. Game wise it's token based and the selection is quite solid with the full X-Men, Street Fighter II: Championship Edition, Mortal Kombat II, WWF, Super Contra, pinball and more. The more I play, the more I find myself craving the Street Fighter Alpha series with it's faster action and ability to pull off super combos. But so far, that's only located at Shatto 39 not here, Eighty-Two, Blipsy's or my local burger joint that has games in it. I'm sure The One-Up has all of them on their beautiful emulator cabinet but it's not quite the same thing.

Playing MK II was a trip back down memory lane as I could not recall ANY of the moves but was quickly reminded how cheap a game it is as you can seriously just trip someone over and over again until they die. We looked up moves and before you knew it, it was all about Johnny Cage and the splits to nut punch. I'm not saying Jean-Claude Van Damme invented the move in Bloodsport but can you name me a precursor example that had as much impact? And for a place called button mash, it could use a lot more brawlers. But overall a cool joint I'd check out again.

Con-Man: The Return of Power-Con

Last Saturday marked the return of Power-Con, the fan run He-Man and She-Ra gathering down in Torrance. After a few solid years, PC looked to expand the show by moving it to New York but logistical issues sadly stopped it from happening. After a brief sabbatical, the team is back and strong as ever this year. Held at the Redondo Beach Marriott across from the Del Amo Fashion Center, Power-Con takes over a wing of the joint with a modest but packed exhibitor room and another space for panels. Walking in the energy was great, lots of people hanging out by the bar and cafe, then outside the main hall as well. Inside there were vendors of all kinds slinging toys, promotional items, artwork, custom figures and more. A few cosplayers had tables as well as toy makers The Four Horsemen but surprisingly, no Mattel on hand with their terrific toy displays, cut outs and 15' He-Man statue.

Since I put together a He-Man event last September in Power-Con's absence, it was nice to see several people from the community and chit chat. The guys from Cape and Cowl were on hand along with several vendors who have become con-rades since we see them so often. I was surprised and happy that the hall was pretty crowded with each booth a little hard to get in and look around. Besides the multitude of toys you had as a kid from Masters of the Universe, G.I. Joe, Thundercats and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I was taken and impressed by the amount of custom figures on display. One in particular of He-Man as a Ghostbuster made me laugh but my photo didn't turn out...One booth had an array of great buttons and pins from the 70's Lord of the Rings animated film along with some Asterix! You know, the French comic about magic potion enhanced warriors from Gaul? I snatched up a pin featuring Asterix, Obelix and Dogmatix and was very tempted to pick up a Blade or Gwildor figure but alas didn't pull the trigger. Each year of Power-Con has been a little different, one added Ninja Turtles programming, one had Thundercats, this year's programming was totally He-Man and She-Ra focused though, covering voice acting, design, Mattel, mini-comics, origins, podcasts and whatnot. Sadly there was no panel on the classic 1987 flick!

We popped into the packed panel room for the voice actors showcase where Alan Oppenheimer, Melendy Britt, Gage Khouth and Brian Dobson held hilarious court. Talking about how they got into the industry, Skeletor himself Oppenheimer chimed in that he was doing impressions of people at a young age and it just kind of went from there. Another thing that impressed me about Power-Con was that they had more or less back to back programming all day so if you're a hardcore fan and were staying all day, you'd have something to check out from 10:30 AM through 1:00 AM. Next year I'll definitely have to stick around and embrace the Eternian shenanigans.

Ready for some late lunch we hopped over to the currently under renovation Del Amo Fashion Center that was one part shiny upscale shopping center, one part 80's mall with random stores and all totally confusing layout. We did however run into a random shop filled with old movies, video games, appliances and books. Kind of like an eBay store only you know, in real life. I picked up several bad movies on the cheap like Battlefield Earth, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li and the Director's Cut of Spawn.

It was a fantastic day, welcome back Power-Con, can't wait to see what you have in store next year!