Monday, July 4, 2016

ConMan: Anime Expo '16 Sunday

July is always a solid month for me. Independence Day gives a three day weekend, Anime Expo takes place downtown, it's my birthday and then San Diego Comic-Con, so always something to do. Anime Expo aka AX, has signed to stay in Los Angeles for five years and this is was our third year attending. Lines and crowds were crazy on Friday and Saturday so I'm glad we opted to check out the show on Sunday. A quick Uber to the Los Angeles Convention Center and fast badge pick up line later, we were walking the lobby. Oh but first, an aside. My con backpack is lined with various buttons with Captain America, Arnold as Sgt. Rock, Pacific Rim, Predator and one with Kurt Russell from Used Cars that a guy offered to buy off me at SDCC a few years ago. Anyways, after putting our programs in my bag and slinging it over my shoulder, I notice something is missing, my Used Cars button was gone! This was from a one of a kind event years ago at The Arclight so I was super bummed as we retraced our steps to no avail. It's just a trinket but it was not a great start to the day. Once inside the packed exhibit floor I looked down and wondered what was on my leg, lo and behold, my button had fallen off my bag but somehow ended up catching on the magnet of my money clip inside my shorts pocket, pin point facing out and all! The lady and I high fived as my Kurt Russell, Tango & Cash style charm continued!

The exhibition floor was full of vendors offering all the anime inspired toys, models, prints and more. A local seller had shirts about Ship where you'd flip up the bottom to see your favorite characters in near kiss. Lots of stuffed animals around, especially sloths. Funko, Lootcrate, Crunchy Roll, Bandai, Capcom and more had large sections of the floor as did Toei animation with cool Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z history exhibits. Zootopia cosplay was the latest craze while I've never seen so much cross play or people walking with their heads down looking at their phone. Of all the shows I've been to, I can't think of another where I politely shoved or moved so many people out of my way who were just randomly standing in an aisle or not watching where they were going. Artist alley had been moved downstairs to Kentia hall and it was as huge as it was packed. I had to yell for people to keep walking because again, goers were literally stopping in the middle of the aisle. If you want to stop and look at something, walk over to the table, don't stand in the middle of the walkway, ya dig? Table top and card gaming was downstairs as well but the AC was not pumping so we did a round and headed back upstairs.

We trekked over to West Hall where Cosplay sets, the arcade and pachinko machines were set up. Our Uber driver later told us about his ten years in Japan and how people would lose their mortgages at the crazy gambling machines that seem like a mix of slots and pinball with a TV show playing at the same time. In another new addition, there was a history of AX set up showing timelines of locations, milestones and attendance. There were also programs, shirts and the like from past shows which was pretty cool. We also ran into our friends at Concon, a new app for all your convention needs, check it out! After several hours of walking around, it was time for lunch as we headed to the dependable Yard House at L.A. Live where we found a seat at the bar immediately. We headed back to the show, checking out cosplay gatherings out front where hundreds descended for group shots. After that it was over to the randomly crowded for a Sunday but it was a holiday so, EightyTwo for dranks and catching up with friends. I've never been a huge fan of Street Fighter: Championship Edition and it really wasn't my day as I was defeated the two times I stepped up. Final Fight was a little more forgiving as I jabbed, crossed and spun kick as Guy through several levels of Metro City.

It's great to see Anime Expo continue to expand and I'm pumped to see what next year has in store. It was another fun time and ample warm up for SDCC. For 2017 we'll see about taking a stay-cation like WonderCon and get a room to stay in the heart of the animated action. Until then, I'll be catching up on Attack on Titan, One Piece, Free!, Gundam, Beserk, Naruto...I must say, the prospect of being able to download information is one aspect of the future I'm looking forward to so I can be caught up on all of these series.

Universal Soldier Saturday: The Return & Regeneration

After revisiting 1992's fantastic Universal Soldier a couple of weeks ago to prepare for Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin's Independence Day: Resurgence, I had the hankering to check out the further adventures of Luc Deveraux and Andrew Scott in what is one of the most unlikely franchises in film. Jean-Claude Van Damme has probably spawned the most number of sequels that he does not appear in of any star in history. Bloodsport, Kickboxer, Universal Soldier and Timecop have produced 11 further chapters not featuring the Belgian. Of course the original Unisol is a classic example of it's time and studio as the 90's were the golden age of big screen muscles, machine guns, martial arts and one liners. Carolco, the studio behind action blockbusters Rambo: First Blood, Part II and Terminator 2: Judgement Day, gave Jean-Claude Van Damme his first studio push with his biggest budget to date and a prime summer release date. Emmerich and Devlin crafted a handsomely produced chase flick with big stunts, guys, action and explosions. Both JCVD and Dolph get to shine as Van Damme's innocent yet wounded inner strength shines and Dolph's crazed Sgt. Scott is arguably his best performance to date. Released in July of 1992, Unisol would give Van Damme his largest opening up to that time and gross over $100 million worldwide.

In August of 1999, the high school version of myself went to see Universal Soldier: The Return, contributing to a weak $4.6 million opening weekend on it's way to a tepid $10.6 million total, about what the first film opened with 7 years earlier. It would ultimately be Van Damme's final headlining theatrical release. Upon re-watching, The Return comes off cheap, low brow, hokey and near chauvinistic with women being tied up, their boobs leered at, strip club fight scenes and the like. Bad heavy metal music accompanies every action scene and there's just not much class throughout. Story wise not a lot makes total sense as Luc is now a human after being an original Unisol, training a new army of them that are bigger, faster and stronger but not quite under control. Oh and he has a daughter. But for everything that doesn't compare to the original film, The Return manages to be an exciting flick with top notch action. Legendary stuntman Mic Rodgers directs for the first time and fills the 83 minute running time with flying jet skis, exploding trucks, huge guns, lots of scraps and plenty of Van Damme kicking. The Muscles From Brussels looks good and healthy here, brawny and muscular while still athletic as he jump kicks villains Bill Goldberg and Michael Jai White. His performance isn't quite as emotional or nuanced as the first film with a lot more flailing and mugging. While the original Unisol had a tacked on guitar heavy yet lyrics challenged credits song by Ice T's led Body Count complete with a video featuring Van Damme and Dolph, The Return sees Van Damme hanging out with Megadeth for their track Crush'Em.

Ten years later, Sony released Universal Soldier: Regeneration, an anomaly of the Direct To Video factory that stood out as a hands down excellent film. Rising from the ashes of jettisoned project The Smashing Machine, Van Damme returns in a reduced role as rehabilitated Universal Solider Luc. The main story involves the Unisol program going rogue with New Generation Units being used to kidnap the kids of local politicians and threatening to blow up Chernobyl. Whereas The Return lined up entertaining athletes like Goldberg and fitness model Kiana Tom along with martial arts expert Michael Jai White, Regeneration recruits MMA fighters Andrei Arlovski and Mike Pyle. John Hyams directs the unnerving affair filled with havoc, great action, stunts, explosions and a level of brutality that still shocks years later. Shot digitally, it's a bit muted and kind of blurry at times but using an abandoned steel mill in Bulgaria, Regeneration oozes a gritty real world authenticity. The flick ain't as fun or goofy as the first two films but instead is a dark and haunting affair. Van Damme, his face haggard and eyes tired, continues to show he can act with his expressions and emotional availability. Dolph turns up late in the film as a clone and gets some very heavy scenes that call back to his excellent and dramatic work in the first film. There's an eerie, John Carpenter-esque vibe to everything down to a low key, synth based score. I'd be interested to see what Hyams could do with a decent budget and strong script.

Next up, the most recent chapter in the series, 2012's Day of Reckoning. I wonder if the Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren-less Showtime TV films are on YouTube...

Workout of the Day: Weekend Warrior

For anyone who has ever fought for what they believed in or for a cause larger than themselves, Happy Independence Day. I'm fortunate enough to be able to relax for the three day weekend. With only a couple weeks until my Train with Zane session and then San Diego Comic-Con, I'm resolving to get in six workout sessions a week for three weeks straight. So far, so good. But my eating could use a little cleaning up as happy hour, fast food and the like are still prevalent...

For the weekend it's been a mix of weights and cardio to keep the muscles pumped as well as burn some extra calories. On Saturday it was Shoulders and Arms at the complex gym:

1) Dumbbell Press/Cheat Curls/Pullover & Press
2) Rear DB Raise/Reverse Incline DB Curl/Cable Kickback
3) DB Upright Row/Concentration Curl/DB Side Extension
4) Lying Side Raise/Reverse Curl/Cable Pushdown

Each Tri-Set repeated for three sets between 8-12 reps, non-stop. Followed by intervals on the Elliptical machine interspersed with Frog Crunches. On Sunday it was off to the gym for Legs:

1) Parallel Grip Deadlift/Leg Press
2) Leg Extensions/Leg Curls
3) Seated Calf Raise

Each superset I repeated 5 times, increasing weight and decreasing reps each set. Afterwards I rowed 400 meters followed by trunk twists 5 times.

Today I felt like getting in a little more cardio so I popped on Bas Rutten's shadow boxing CD, shadow striking for 2 minutes followed by 100 jump rope skips. After 2 rounds of moving around the room, it was 5 rounds with the 16 oz gloves on the bag. Dripping a sweat, I wrapped up with a few more minutes of jump roping and called it a day.

Summer Cinema: The Legend of Tarzan

In a summer of sequel-itis and many titles lacking that "must see" factor, The Legend of Tarzan was not very high on my list. I haven't seen much of Alexander Skarsgard's work and the first trailer was beyond meh with CGI apes and blah blah blah. But I'm a fan of author Edgar Rice Burroughs, Skarsgard's late show promotional appearances have been endearing and word of mouth has been surprisingly positive. So on Saturday night we took in a 3D Extreme Digital screening next door along with a few adult beverages. The film puts Skarsgard's John Clayton/Tarzan in aristocratic England ten years after after leaving the jungle, being invited back to the Congo for some political, promotional something or other. Along for the ride is American southerner George Washington Williams (a scene stealing Samuel L. Jackson), Margot Robbie as the not quite helpless damsel in distress Jane, Christolph Waltz is the baddie Leon Rom while Djimon Hounsou pops up as Chief Mbonga.

Overall, I quite enjoyed The Legend of Tarzan as a big adventure flick with a surprising amount of humor and excellent chemistry between Skarsgard and Jackson. Jackson has the best and most random line of the film when he describes the trek to the Congo as being a guaranteed political and personal home run as "ham sandwich, easily". Add that one to the ol' Dammaged Goods response library...The CGI is obvious but somehow works as elements are put together in layers versus just watching a hyper and shiny video game. The apes don't look too shabby and sequences running on branches and swinging from vines are exciting. There's a sense of The Mummy in the flick, as in being an old fashioned and enjoyable adventure tale with decent amounts of character depth juxtaposed with big action sequences where animals charge, boats sink and the like. Skarsgard is solid as the brooding Englishman who strips off his shirt to rekindle the inner beast when his beloved Jane is put in danger. Robbie infuses her performance with warmth and spunk while looking like a new age Jamie Pressley.

The allegedly $180 million movie has been in development for some time but I feel the advertising campaign from Warner Brothers left a lot to be desired. I can't recall seeing much for the film before the first trailer and opening weekend was tracking for a soft $30 some million opening. Luckily the picture received an A- CinemaScore and is over performing, taking in $45 million for the holiday weekend. I don't think this will warrant a sequel but I'm glad the film found an audience and will probably do well overseas. Skarsgard put in 9 months of eating and training to be Tarzan ready and while watching I thought he'd make an excellent He-Man in the film that will never get made.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Good, Tough & Deadly Week: Release!

Since starting this ol' online journal I've produced live events, interviewed some of my favorite actors and filmmakers, met most of my idols, organized movie premieres, put together and moderated a convention panel and had my work splashed around in the L.A. Times, magazines and a book. Last Sunday was yet another first, a book signing! David J. Moore's The Good, the Tough & the Deadly was already #1 on Amazon's New Releases and this past Sunday, Dark Delicacies in Burbank hosted a star and guest packed signing. First off, DD is an awesome store, it specializes in horror and genre books with DVD's, action figures, posters and the like for sale. Del and company have had the shop for 21 years in the picturesque strip of Magnolia where many a store are surprisingly closed on Sundays.

Moore recruited contributors Dustin, Michael, Corey, Jason and Vern along with interview subjects Jino Kang, Julian Lee, Robert Chapin, Don Wilson, Ernie Barbarash, Sheldon Lettich, Steve Latshaw, James Bruner and Keith Batcheller. While we set up it was great to check in with so many legends in the field. Latshaw gave me more of the story how he worked with Jean-Claude Van Damme to rework In Hell for Warner Brothers to create a Bloodsport meets The Shawshank Redemption theatrical comeback while Bruner brought a giant The Delta Force display Menahem Golan gave him a the 1987 premiere! It's always awesome to chat with Sheldon as he had recently returned from the G.I. Film Festival in Washington, D.C. Ernie filled me in on his current projects and gave me a broader picture of being a working filmmaker in this day and age when financing just isn't what it used to be. Had a nice quick chat with martial arts expert and filmmaker Jino Kang, who I'll be interviewing soon so be on the look out for that.

A queue had formed and we were off to the races, signing books and chatting with attendees. I asked each person who stopped at our table who their favorite action star was and usual suspects like Bruce Lee, Arnold and JCVD reigned while one surprise answer was Lance Henriksen and 70's icon of macho Charles Bronson came up multiple times. A few peeps had been to some of my events and I heard my online moniker "VienDammage" being muttered in line, which was cool. I was shocked at some of the folks show just showed up to get a book signed like Cannon Films documentary, Electric Boogaloo filmmaker Mark Hartley who told me how development on the doc had kind of stalled and he randomly received word from Brett Ratner who wanted to produce it as he had a deal through Netflix. Movie gunsmith Mike has worked with just about everyone in the action world, he was rocking a The Purge shirt as he worked on both and I asked about Frank Grillo to which Mike said he was a nice guy. Towards the end, director Jesse V. Johnson, who is currently shooting Savage Dog with Scott Adkins and Cung Le, strolled in and picked up a copy. Johnson makes films with awesome action as well as heart and as usual has a stellar cast lined up so I'm excited to see the results.

Best of the Best's James Lew showed up into the signing looking fit and trim while being a very nice guy. I asked him if the shot of him and Simon Rhee in Inception was an unspoken nod to BotB or just a pure coincidence since they were both working on the film. He laughed and didn't think it was intentional and recalled how he and Rhee had appeared in several films together, including the Rush Hour flicks where they play different characters in each film. About halfway through, the one and only Michael Jai White strolled in. I don't think he quite knew what the event was and seemed a little surprised when fans and guests alike began to ask him to sign their copies and grab photos. But as he caught up with Wilson, Sheldon and Ernie, he made the rounds and was a chill guy. He's also definitely not a small man, phew!

Two hours in we were alerted every copy the store had in stock had sold so David dug into his reserves. Not too shabby! It was a terrific afternoon but also crazy and exhausting. I can only imagine what celebs go through at conventions for days at a time. Big thanks to Moore for inviting me to the action movie party, Dark Delicacies for hosting and all of the fantastic guests for attending. Until San Diego Comic-Con, keep laughing and lifting! Or as James Lew and I coincidentally both signed, keep kicking!

Con-Man: CatCon Los Angeles

Last weekend was a new convention in a familiar spot, CatCon LA at The Reef downtown. I had no idea what to expect from a show for cats where you weren't supposed to actually bring them but it was two days on two floors with programming featuring the likes of social media famous felines and Julie Newmar, you know the original Catwoman from the Batman TV series. Right away we could tell this was a popular event as the parking lot across the street was backed up at the entrance. As usual though I found street parking, cause I'm charmed! Outside were several food trucks and wristband pick up moved pretty quickly inside. A tote bag and guide book in hand we walked downstairs to the first exhibitor area and it was pretty packed. Pusheen had a large booth right in the middle of the action while local artists hawked custom art, trinkets, chew toys, prints, mugs, postcards and the like. It was basically like any comic-con Artist Alley only instead of TV/movie/comic book characters, it was cats.

Walking past a booth set up for an Instagram cat, I asked my lady if the animal was famous. One of the workers overheard me and replied, "real famous". Well ok, then. On the second floor, there were more vendors but with items like food and litter of the high end variety. Rachel Ray even has a brand of cat food. There were organizations set up for adoptions and was the only area where you saw a live cat, through a window, no less. Guess nobody wants to risk an allergic reaction, eh? Walking around I couldn't help but think why there wasn't any Thundercats tie in, the opportunity was right there. But the 80's were represented as I was wearing a Jean-Claude Van Damme emblazoned Bloodsport shirt since we were headed to an action movie event after and received several compliments. But that's the next post...

Friday, July 1, 2016

Gotta Eat! Burger King's Mac n' Cheetos

After First Blood, Q&A and catching up with my Dammaged Goods folks, I was a starving Marvin. My Uber driver Dimitry was from Russia proper and told me how popular Stallone and Arnold were in his home country. And on top of being a huge action movie fan, Dmitry's first film in a theater (an illegal one at that) was Stallone's Cobra! Along with action movies, apparently rock n' roll and jeans did more than anything else to help westernize the east. Already after 11:00 PM but I hadn't eaten since about 3:00 so threw training and clean living out the window as I pulled up to Burger King. I gotta tell you, BK has it going on right now. 2 for $5 sammiches, 2 Whopper Meals for $10, $1.49 chicken nuggets and their latest piece of ammunition in the fast food wars, Mac n' Cheeto's! Basically it's just fried macaroni and cheese dusted with Cheeto's orange cheesey goodness. And I gotta say, they were delicious. Way better than 7-11's Dorito covered bites as well as McDonald's mozzarella sticks. Crispy on the outside, soft on the inside but surprisingly not overwhelmingly cheesy.

Ask Me a Question: First Blood w/ Ted Kotcheff

The American Cinematheque's Aero Theatre hosted a retrospective of writer and director Ted Kotcheff, concluding with 1982's classic First Blood. While Sylvester Stallone's John Rambo would go on to be remembered for the muscles, red head band, machine guns and mayhem, it's easy to forget just how solid First Blood is. Based on David Morrell's novel, the film takes place in Hope, a small northwestern town surrounded by mountains and forest. Vietnam veteran John Rambo comes to town looking for an old friend but gets harassed by local police chief Teasle (Brian Dennehy). After being mistreated by an overzealous deputy, Rambo escapes and soon a manhunt and war you won't believe besieges Hope. I've always defended First Blood as a drama as that's exactly what it is. There's some great action in it but it's not simply an action film.

Watching it on the big screen a few thoughts ran though my head. First off, the production is beautiful. In an age when a film can arguably be deemed "good" by the fact it was shot in nature and was a hard shoot, First Blood highlights British Columbia's majestic beauty as well as Mother Nature's harsh conditions. I mean Leo got to wear a giant bear rug while he was in the snow and water but here's Stallone in jeans and a tank top in the cold, riding a motorcycle, climbing mountain faces and running through frigid water. Second, this was my first time viewing the film on the big screen and the character parts really stood out. Teasle isn't a bad guy per se, he's just trying to protect his town, gets in over his head, messes up but now can't stand back and has to go all in. His deputies played by the likes of Jack Starett, Chris Mulkey and David Caruso add another layer of humanity and surprisingly effective light comedy to the shebang. Third, Stallone is and always has been an excellent actor. I didn't realize he only speaks in about three sections of the film, each of them haunting and sincere. His end monologue about losing his friends in Vietnam and coming home to a country that rejected him makes you want to shed a tear while applauding the performance. Like Spartacus or The Great Escape, I don't find the ending sad as there's beauty in the struggle of personal glory, even if that means sacrifice.

After the film, director Kotcheff took to the stage to a standing ovation. He was intelligent, passionate and a very interesting guy:

- Grew up a musician and compares all art to music. Generally aims for sonata where everything builds up and climaxes into a big finish.
- Warner Brothers hired him to work on the project, went off and rewrote in 3 months then WB said there was no audience for Vietnam movies.
- Kotcheff was very vocal about how poorly Vietnam vets were treated. They didn't ask to go, they were drafted. Whereas World War II and Korean War veterans were hailed as conquering heroes, Vietnam vets were protested, spit on and called baby killers upon return.
- Into the 1980's, 300 Vietnam Veterans committed suicide a month.
- One story of a young man who did his two years and on his penultimate day of duty, base attacked, he was only survivor and then sent home next day. No time to readjust or deal with emotional trauma.
- Knew producers Andrew Vajna and Mario Kassar causally and when pair kick started Carolco, asked Kotcheff what he wanted to direct, who said First Blood. Producers spent a year getting the rights from Warner Brothers.
- Stallone was always first choice even though the Rocky star had suffered failure after failure outside of the boxing franchise. But Kotcheff liked his inner and outer strength and knew he'd do a good job.
- Went to see Kirk Douglas in San Francisco where the acting legend was doing a play with Burt Lancaster. Douglas loved the script and reported to set. But once there, wanted multiple script changes that Kotcheff and crew tried to appease but ultimately gave him a final script. Douglas soon took a flight back to Los Angeles and Richard Crenna was brought in over a weekend.
- Enormous respect for Sylvester, who impacted two major parts of the story and character. One was having Rambo not kill any of the lesser trained weekend warriors and second, not dying at the end after having character go through so much and show death being only way out.
- Dubbed the film a "suicide mission", as when Rambo is on the bridge, he turns back as he has nothing to lose, no friends left and going head on with the Sheriff.
- No reservations on doing Uncommon Valor as next film and revisiting Vietnam War. Says veterans groups have thanked him profusely for making the films.
- Considered having Rambo be silent through film but realized he needed to speak at key moments.
- Loved composer Jerry Goldsmith and did several films together.
- Stallone was being paid millions and Kotcheff made him earn it by dumping live rats on him.

It was a great night and gave me a deeper appreciation of the film, Stallone, Kotcheff, the Vietnam War and it's veterans who went through so much for so little acknowledgement.

Summer Cinema: Independence Day Resurgence

Last Friday night we checked out Cinemark's Reserve Seating, where you sit in the top of the theater with reclining seats along with food and drink service. Or their version of AMC Dine-In or say Alamo Drafthouse. Unlike those other brands, at Cinemark, they want your orders in and done by the time the film starts which means no in-film refreshment refills. While the idea of eating and dranking during a flick seems like a solid notion, the execution across the board at any establishment has not been perfected. AMC's is awkward as you're paying the check during the film and there's no easy way to have your Stubs membership updated in the dark. But their menu is pretty big and food tasty enough with decent lighting so you can see what you're doing and still be in a movie. Alamo is a little more low tech in the sense of you write down what you want and a person runs by and picks it up. Cinemark was probably the worst of these dine-in experiences because it was so freaking dark it was difficult to eat/drink.

Anyways, 20 years later, Independence Day: Resurgence comes to us from original creators Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin. After making their Hollywood splash with Carolco's Universal Soldier starring our guys Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, the duo would go on to bigger budgets and successes with 1994's Stargate and 96's mammoth hit Independence Day where Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman and crew defeated an alien invasion. Two decades on the film drops us into the new world of alien fused technology where man works on the moon and there's flying vehicles galore. With Will Smith not returning we get a trio of new young characters played by the likes of Liam Hemsworth, Jessie T. Usher and Maika Monroe are faced with a new invasion threat, bigger and badder than the last. Alas the writing and their improv skills are no match for Will Smith's original charm or chemistry with Jeff Goldblum.

Visually interesting and a little too fast paced for it's own good, Emmerich and Devlin blend the light disaster flick ensemble with all out sci-fi warfare. While the first relished in practical f/x composited with computer images, Resurgence looks great when it's on set and indoors but horrible when the action moves outside and everything is CGI. I also can't stand the fact that films no longer shoot outside. Whether it's ID4:R or Captain America: Civil War, it's glaringly obvious outdoor scenes are shot on greenscreen. It's nice to see Pullman back in the mix as the scarred former President but Brent Spiner's Dr. Okun, a kooky highlight of the first film, is near annoying comic relief this time out. The end is pretty open and indicates intergalactic war, so hey, sign me up for third. Resurgence isn't a great film but it has it's moments. Less fun than this summer's X-Men: Apocalypse but way more enjoyable and less frustrating than Warcraft. After a ho-hum $41 million opening weekend, the $165 million flick made up ground overseas and is nearing $200 million globally so only time will tell if we get that part 3.