Wednesday, June 14, 2017

An Academy Tribute to Richard Donner

It was a go-go week with the opening of Wonder Woman, Austin for Russellmania II, back to Los Angeles for the premiere of Van Damme's Kill'em All then the next night it was off to Beverly Hills to the Academy theater on Wilshire for an amazing night, a tribute to Richard Donner! Known to his friends as Dick, Donner is one of the most influential and successful directors in history. From The Omen to Superman to Scrooged to The Goonies to Lethal Weapon, his work is filled with heart, humor and of course, terrific action! Truly unsung in the age of directors as brands or corporations unto themselves, like Steven Spielberg or Christopher Nolan, Donner worked every job in the film business before become a force in the 80's and 90's. His films set the mold and broke box office records, the former head of Warner Brothers joked that the Lethal Weapon films were huge hits but he had to give Donner a Range Rover to keep making them.

Things kicked off with two former Donner or wife Lauren Shuler employees turned DC and Marvel chiefs Geoff Johns and Kevin Fiege. The two paid tribute to the guy and gal who gave them their first unpaid then part time then full time jobs in the business and how Superman: The Movie will always be the gold standard for comic book adaptations. Film clips followed by heartfelt and hilarious anecdotes flowed through the evening as actors joked about Donner's big booming voice but even bigger heart. Chunk from The Goonies actor Jeff Cohen told of the years long tale of trying to transition out of acting and when it was time for college, asked for a letter of recommendation and instead got his tuition paid for by the generous couple. Corey Feldman was a last minute addition and shared that Dick Donner paid for his rehab and he's been sober ever since.

The highlight though was towards the end when Lethal Weapon stars Mel Gibson and Danny Glover took the podium and riffed effortlessly and hilariously off each other for nearly 10 minutes. Joking that Donner would tell Gibson to act better in dramatic scenes or that the actors would both get Oscars for Lethal Weapon 4 when it was really paying for the Donner's third vacation home. There needs to be a Lethal Weapon 5 or at least a sitcom for these guys, pronto! Co-star Rene Russo joined them and sang Donner's praises and then the man himself joined them on stage. Donner was funny but mostly flabbergasted at the turnout and kind praise. In the lobby were posters, slates, production displays and more on display. Truly a great night to one of my favorite directors. I was an intern there when I first moved to LA and got to chat with the down to earth Donner whenever he came in as he asked me about my workout habits as he was working with a trainer several times a week (before saying "yeah? fuck you"), my immigrant parents and calling me "kid" or "Rocky".

Tell Me a Question: Alexander Nevsky & The Black Rose

Today we chat with Russian bodybuilder turned actor and filmmaker Alexander Nevsky. Inspired by the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme, Nevsky became a champion natural bodybuilder and popular author. Seguing to television and film, Nevsky took control of his own destiny and moved to Los Angeles and has now starred, produced, written or directed a dozen films. His latest is Black Rose, a Los Angeles set thriller partnering a Russian police major with a local detective (Terminator 3's Kristanna Loken) as they track down a sadistic serial killer.

You're a champion bodybuilder and accomplished combat artist, what got you into both and what do you think helped contribute to your success? What is your training like now? 

I was a very skinny Moscow kid back in the 80's and started boxing after watching Rocky. I was an amateur boxer for several years but switched into bodybuilding because of Arnold in Conan The Destroyer. Bodybuilding was kind of illegal in USSR (it was called 'athletic gymnastic' and there were no official competitions at all at the time). Everything changed in the 90's and in 1993 Russian TV made a documentary about this new sport. I was chosen as a main star because I was 6'6" and 280 pounds already and I had a good story ('from zero to hero'). About 30 million people watched this documentary and suddenly I became famous overnight at just 21 years old. So you can credit classic Hollywood action movies for inspiring me a lot when I was a kid and Black Rose is my tribute to them. I'm still working out at least 5 times a week. I love bodybuilding and really think that I owe my success partly to this sport. My new book called Bodybuilding and Other Secrets of Success, half of it is autobiography and another half is my system of gaining muscles drug-free. It's my tenth book and it will be published in Russia/CIS this summer. I'm thinking about translating it into English as well.

You've written, produced and now directed films, how was the segue from Russia to America? What has been a key takeaway you perhaps didn't think of when first embarking on your cinematic journey? 

I become household name in Russia in 90s. I had my own TV show, I wrote hundreds of articles and several bestselling books, I was featured in Russian editions of GQ, Playboy, Men's Health, Muscle & Fitness and many others. Everything was great except one thing: movie business in ex-USSR collapsed completely. But I wanted to be in movies. That's why I moved to LA in 1999. I graduated from Moscow State University of Management (this education helped me later when I started to produce) but had to learn English and acting. I joined Lee Strasberg Acting Institute and went to English classes at UCLA Extension. It was tough to study it all at the same time in LA, I should've learn it in Moscow before. I made my brief Hollywood debut in 2001 (Walter Hill's Undisputed) and I did another film in 2002 (Red Serpent, co-starring the legendary Roy Scheider). In 2003 I wrote and produced Moscow Heat (co-starring the great Michael York), this film was a theatrical hit in Russia/CIS and was later sold to 30 countries including North America. Everything was easier after that.

I love that you have so many familiar faces in your films, Michael York, Robert Davi, Adrian Paul, Mattias Hues, a nice mix of acting class and genre faces. How do you go about casting your films? Any titles from the actors mentioned have an impact on your youth? 

You're absolutely right, I'm a fan of them all! I love The Three Musketeers movies with Michael York, Highlander TV series with Adrian Paul, Dark Angel/I Come In Peace and some martial arts classics with Matthias Hues, Die Hard and Predator 2 with Robert Davi. Regarding casting decisions: I always have to think how to market a future film and how to sell it. But just wait for Showdown in Manila - you'll see so many action stars, from Casper Van Dien and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa to Mark Dacascos and Don "The Dragon" Wilson!

With Black Rose and the upcoming Showdown in Manila, we get a welcome 80's throwback vibe with the mismatched partners and men on a mission motifs, what is your approach to old school stories in the modern age? 

I'm a big fan of classic 'old school' Hollywood action films. Black Rose was my directorial debut and I decided to mix some of my favorite genres in one movie (action, suspense, horror and even some comedy moments). It wasn't easy and I should thank my Director of photography Rudy Harbon, all cast and crew for the great job and support! I created the original story for Black Rose but the actual script was written by professional and experienced writers Brent Huff and George Saunders. My approach was to make a film that I want to watch myself. I was heavily involved in preproduction, production, postproduction, sales strategies/decisions, etc. and didn't have free time for months. But don't get me wrong - it was still really enjoyable all the way!

Sheldon Lettich Executive Produced Black Rose so you've clearly done your homework, which other filmmakers and actors would you like to work with in the future? 

Sheldon Lettich is a great guy and he's very good director, I love his classic films with JCVD (Double Impact especially) and hope we'll make another movie together. I'll be happy to work with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Wesley Snipes. I also would like to make a film with my friend and bodybuilding idol Ralf Moeller (he was great in Gladiator and Conan TV series). By the way, my beautiful Black Rose co-star Kristanna Loken was amazing and very supportive. Me and her should definitely work together again, don't you think?

And there you have it, a classic example of the Dammaged Goods ideal, pushing yourself and taking action! Thanks again to Mr. Nevsky for taking the time to talk with Dammaged Goods.

Keep up with all things Nevsky on his Twitter: @NevskyAlexandr and Instagram: @realalexnevsky

Monday, June 12, 2017

Premiere! Kill'em All

Last Tuesday night, director Peter Malota and producers Richard Salvatore and Rafael Primorac hosted the premiere of Jean-Claude Van Damme's latest film, Kill'em All. Held at the Harmony Gold Theater on Sunset, the same spot of the stacked Robocop charity screening years back. There was a crowd outside the theater and inside was a small red carpet set up. Frequent JCVD collaborator and friend Sheldon Lettich was on hand, one of the first things he said was that JC was not going to show after originally planning to attend. Classic Van Damme, the man remains a true enigma. Martial artist and usual Van Damme training partner at Gold's James Bennett seemed to be running the room while I caught up with several other folks I've met at other JC-centric events. Co-star Daniel Bernhardt, and star of the VD-less Bloodsport sequels, was on hand along with female lead Autumn Reeser. Josef Cannon from the still unreleased Full Love was in the lobby as well.

Peter Malota has been a long time Van Damme cohort, providing fight choreography for films like The Quest and The Order while appearing as a high kicking, spur wearing baddie in Double Impact. Here he's given his first shot at directing the Jesse Cilio, Brian Smolenskey and Craig Stewart written script. We meet Van Damme's security expert/bodyguard Philip being brought into the emergency room with a big slash on his arm and a possible concussion. Nurse Suzanne (Reeser) tends to him when a host of black clad bad guys show up, lead by Radovan (Daniel Bernhardt) and start shooting peeps. Slickly shot and produced with a surprising amount of beautiful establishing shots, Kill'em All is also all over the place. Every character walks in slow motion then gets a full on flashback introduction. Not simply a "one man takes on the bad guys" in a single location kinda deal, KEA has a surprising amount of geopolitical, Cold War, end of Communism and ensuing difficulties in Europe story filler, delivered by Peter Stormare along with Maria Conchita Alonso in what was probably a couple days of shooting in an office to get some names in the film.

Son Kris shows up as a high kicking killer who likes knives while Daniel delivers some nice leg work as well. There's gunfights, grappling and fisticuffs galore with Van Damme throwing some hard round houses and hammer fists to the dome. Surprisingly, Reeser's Suzanne gets to kick quite a bit of ass and is far from a damsel in distress waiting for Van Damme to save her. Like Pound of Flesh, he's supposed to be in pain most of the time so his face is usually drained of color and sweaty so it's not exactly a vanity project. While it's not full on sad Van Damme, it's close. Philip's part doesn't have a juicy arc or dialog so it's not on par with say Wake of Death or Until Death from the 2000's. All in the film isn't as action driven as I imagined but it also wasn't as small in scope either. We'll see where Black Water, a reteaming with Dolph Lundgren, goes from here.

Summer Cinema: Wonder Woman

We checked out DC's latest flick, Wonder Woman, on opening Thursday a couple of weeks ago. Decades in the making, Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman was a highlight of the uneven Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and will have a key role in the upcoming ensemble Justice League. And compared to Man of Steel, BvS and Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman is the most effective, even tempered and exciting film yet for DC's burgeoning cinematic universe. We start off on an island of female Amazonians that is separate from the world we live in and meet young princess Diana. Her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) objects to Diana becoming a warrior but soon daughter defies mother and trains with her aunt, the greatest warrior on the island, Antiope (Robin Wright). In her teens, Diana discovers that she has the latent powers of a god, thanks to her absentee father Zeus. Soon, the sins of man invade their peaceful existence when pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crosses the dimensional threshold along with a pack of pursuing Germans from the Great War happening next door. Diana travels to the world of men to find and kill Ares, the god of war that Diana believes has infected mankind. A sweet yet dramatic fish out of water story ensues as Diana joins Steve as he heads to the front to face the evil Ludendorff and Dr. Maru.

Going in with no real expectations, the Patty Jenkins directed, Allan Heinberg, Zack Snyder and Jason Fuchs scripted Wonder Woman was an excellent time at the movies. A nice mix of fantasy, action and war film with some terrific production values, a great cast and well done action sequences with all the slow motion jump spinning you can shake a sword at. The film does remind you of other things though, with the beach locales and armored warriors at the start evoking a bit of Troy, then getting Captain America with the war setting and some men on a mission, Sgt. Rock vibes from the ragtag crew Steve rounds up to go on their mission. The film is doing gangbusters, having already grossed over $435 million worldwide in two weeks with one of the smallest week to week drops at the U.S. box office for the genre. The success is well deserved for such a wholly satisfying flick, bring on the sequel!

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Tough Guy Cinema: Russellmania II

A couple of years ago I visited Austin for the first time to attend a special screening of Lionheart and Only the Strong with writer and director Sheldon Lettich. Local Alamo Drafthouse programmer and editor Greg is a huge action movie fan, putting on marathons for the likes of Jean-Claude Van Damme, Sylvester Stallone and Nicolas Cage (who attended the recent 4th edition). Russellmania was a celebration of the Saint of Being Charmed Kurt Russell and we attended the sequel a couple of weeks ago as a long weekend getaway. Luckily the lady is a huge Kurt Russell fan and spent some time in Austin growing up so everything just lined up. Five mystery films, a themed menu and a few surprises seemed like the perfect way to spend a Sunday.

Starting at 11:30 AM, the Ritz on Sixth was already packed and there were plenty of Jack Burton tee shirts and tanks in the crowd. The 200 person theater sold out in a day and each patron was greeted with a special menu for the day along with buttons with Russell's visage from The Thing, Tombstone, Used Cars and so many more. Random and hilarious clips from Russell's vast filmography, from roles as a child actor in Disney flicks to providing voice over for DMV spoofs played along with trailers before each film. Greg welcomed the crowd and shared that Kurt Russell would not be attending but he was able to talk to the man and send him the line up. Russell and long time partner Goldie Hawn had both just finished whirlwind PR tours for Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 and Snatched, and it was time for a trip to unwind.

Big Trouble In Little China, I was a little disappointed this kicked things off as it played in the first Russellmania and of course we saw it at Beyond Fest with Russell in attendance last fall. But it doesn't take you long to fall back into the film as it's one of my favorite movies of all time and one of Russell's best roles/performances. Greg debated showing it again but when he proposed it to Russell, the response was "if you have Freebird, play Freebird", fair enough.

Overboard, this was a title I thought would play since Russell and Hawn had films this summer and received side by side stars on the Walk of Fame. It's still a fun flick with questionable morals but nothing you can't come back from. Plus you begin to notice Russell's beautiful hair and penchant for tank tops. It was a nice treat for the lady because she grew up watching the flick with her family.

Backdraft, this was one I didn't quite expect but should have since it was Russell's first big budget headlining film. Ron Howard does an excellent job crafting a solid drama with intense action sequences with real fire in the pre-CGI 90's. Sure it's a bit 90's cheese with William Baldwin and Iron Eagle's Jason Gedrick as part of the random montage that shows the danger of fire fighting along with the mundane day to day. Robert De Niro does his De Niro thing aka repeats himself to glorious effect. Awesome supporting cast here too with Scott Glenn, J.T. Walsh, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rebecca DeMornay and Donald Sutherland. The lady was not a fan of William Baldwin though. Short hair this time out but tank top? Check.

Tango & Cash, this was the wildcard title but I thought it should play because Stallone and Russell were both in Guardians 2. I could tell it was T&C from the opening Warner Brothers logo and gave out a big holler to express my excitement. Just the most random (delivery guy leaving with pizza? Russell's Gabriel Cash is really upset a bad guy shot his shirt that cost nine bucks), patriotic (don't let a limey jerk off cut your head off, let an American!), homoerotic (multiple men ask each other if marriage jokes are proposals, Cash dresses as a woman to escape police, he and Tango get to prison and immediately shower together) but fucking awesome 80's flick you could ask for. Between Backdraft and Tango, I realized that Russell is one of cinema's greatest screamers. He just goes into "scream mode" and you totally believe it and it makes you laugh. See Swing Shift "you want it pal, come get it!", Tombstone "Hell's coming with me you hear?!", Dark Blue "because they built it with bullets!", Death Proof "you really gotta be sitting in my seat!", etc. for more examples.

The Thing wound things down but I was pretty tired as I'd been fighting a cold for a couple of weeks and while John Carpenter's film classic, it's a movie I've seen on the big screen more than once. Greg and the staff made for a great day as there's full service food and booze you can order any time. We went for Jameson and Ginger Beers, a burger, a Tombstone themed pizza, popcorn and a cookie trio a la mode. There's still so many more films for a Russellmania 3 but sounds like Keanu Reeves might be the next star to get an Alamo marathon.

Workout of the Day: On the Road Again

Over the last two weeks I spent a few days in hotels, one was your typical hotel gym set up with a rack of weights and a few pieces of cardio equipment. I've changed up my routine recently, doing more total or upper body circuits where I'd work alternate muscle groups versus the more traditional bodybuilding style where I was hitting one muscle group in a row with several exercises. With nary a chin up bar in sight, I improvised by using the front side of a treadmill where I'd grasp the back of the top display and with my body in an L, put my feet on the sides of the tread. You can also slide down and grab the handle to do some impromptu rows. To up the cardio, I bought a Gold's Gym branded speed rope from the local Wal-Mart. But at 9' it was a bit long as usually you want the handles to reach your armpits when you stand in the middle. The rope at the handles wasn't meant to be shortened so I just tied a knot on each side to shore up a few inches of slack, works perfectly.

- Dumbbell Swing/Treadmill Chin/Incline Push Up/Goblet Squat/Incline DB Curl/Lying DB Extensions/Shoulder Raises x 3 along with some standing DB calf raises

The next hotel gym had one room for cardio and another for weights. Unfortunately the weight room was missing all of it's dumbbells from 5-25 which meant I stuck to exercises I could handle the poundage right away. The spot also had a Bodywedge 21, a foam triangle you could lay or step on to perform 21 different exercises. My first thought that this was a rebranded sex pillow so the manufacturer could cash in twice. It worked alright though.

- 1 Leg DB Deadlift/DB Squat/Leg Curl/Leg Extension/Goblet Sissy Squat followed by seated calf raises with DB's on my knees

Whether you're on the road for personal or professional reasons, I think it's a good idea to pack some gym clothes so you can break a sweat and fight all the trials of travel like water retention, convenient versus healthy food options, sleeping in a different time zone and generally not being able to fulfill your own routine. But getting a pump is getting a pump anywhere you go.

Gotta Eat & Drank! Austin

I've been to Austin, the live music capital of the world, the weirdest spot in Texas, on and on, four times. Twice for work and twice for Tough Guy Cinema events at the Alamo Drafthouse. The lady went to school at the University of Texas so we took a few days to see the ever changing city, an entire day of Kurt Russell movies and walk the campus. Summed up, Austin is a weird spot, you've got a mish mash of big city high rises, outdoor food joints made up of trailers and picnic tables, new construction, historic neighborhoods and the like. While Culver City in Los Angeles faces restaurant-pocalypse due to an abundance of establishments and only so many customers, Austin is literally full of bars. Most of them serve queso, booze is cheap (two Jamesons for $14?!) and there's beards, bums and bachelorette parties galore.

We walked over to Easy Tiger and the Dirty Sixth area, home of lots of youngins and a grungy, college feel. Over on West Sixth you've got the new Kung-Fu Saloon, a spot for arcade games (mainstream fare like Street Fighter and The Simpsons) and Steampunk Saloon among others along with those beer cruisers you pedal and drink on. Lastly it was over to Rainey Street, a formerly not great neighborhood now transformed into new apartments and houses turned bars. Kinda like the Venice of Austin. Uber and Lyft had left the city a year ago over background checks and percentages but the former had just began services again. I still use local apps like Wingz and Fasten though, they treat the drivers better apparently.

It's been a while since I've been on a college campus, haven't been to the one I graduated from since I left in 2004, but UT was pretty nice. Lots of nice architecture, a turtle pond and a Wendy's in the student union. Several restaurants across from campus were closed which is a shock considering the high amount of foot traffic. The Ransom Center has free exhibits open the public with materials for James Joyce's Ulysses, one of the only public copies of The Gutenberg Bible (one of the first mass produced books using movable metal type) and several pieces from Taxi Driver. Apparently there's a Robert De Niro collection housed there, who knew?

Catch Carl: Chicago Justice & Beyond

After appearing on season one of USA's Colony, Dammaged Goods favorite Carl Weathers signed up for prolific producer Dick Wolf's Chicago Justice. The Law & Order creator kicked off another cottage industry of procedural dramas with Chicago Fire, Med, P.D. and most recently the legal focused Justice which follows the State's Attorney's office. Hot shot Assistant State's Attorney Peter Stone (Phillip Winchester) never loses in the courtroom and apparently is the son of a character from the original Law & Order. Carl plays the always well dressed, stoic and devil's advocate State's Attorney, Mark Jeffries. Now I've never seen an episode of any of the multiple Law & Order or Chicago series. But Winchester acquitted himself well in Cinemax's action series Strike Back along with NBC's short lived The Player with Wesley Snipes. Throw in the Weathers and it was an easy sell to tune in. Beyond the marquee names, I must say I quite enjoyed tuning into Chicago Justice weekly on the NBC app (we cut the cord a few months ago). There's always something deeper than the weekly murder or cover up and watching Stone and crew make the breakthrough that lets them triumph. Although there is a high rate of people getting pissed then admitting they did it. Sadly, the show performed decently if not spectacularly, garnering roughly 8-9 million viewers between broadcast and DVR in it's first 13 episodes and has not been picked up for season 2 by NBC.

A few weeks ago, I received an invite to Catch Carl in person for a SAG-AFTRA Career Retrospective and we were happy to attend what turned out to be a near 2.5 hour discussion of his background and life philosophies. Weathers talked about his upbringing in New Orleans, getting into theater, college then professional football and pursuing acting after that. Encounters with the likes of Woody Strode, Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman and more inspired him to keep pushing and make his mark in an industry that does not always showcase black males in a positive light. Weathers kept it real, believing that if you wanted something and worked at it, things would happen. Maybe you wouldn't be a lead or a super star but you'd work. A story of not being able to perform a layup on the basketball court but practicing all weekend until he awkwardly could, was a takeaway for the rest of his life. Of all of his action related roles, Rocky I-IV, Predator, Action Jackson, etc., it was surprising to hear Weathers mention he was seriously injured performing a blind fall going backwards out of a window on Happy Gilmore. Years later he learned that he'd fractured two vertebrae and the bones had started to calcify.

This summer, Mr. Weathers returns to directing for a production of Danny and the Deep Blue Sea at the Edgemar Center of the Arts in Santa Monica. Set in a rundown bar in the Bronx, Tanna Frederick and Robert Standley play two emotionally damaged strangers who strike up a conversation that could lead to something more. Tony Award winning scribe John Patrick Shanley has written forty-one plays and won an Oscar for Moonstruck. The play starts July 1st and runs through September 10th with tickets on sale now.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Damme Words: The Untold, In-Depth, Outrageously True Story of Shapiro Glickenhaus Entertainment

About ten years ago I was going through Peter Weller's filmography and came across underrated classic Shakedown. Co-starring Sam Elliott, the New York set thriller follows a lawyer and his high school buddy turned cop as they fight crooked police officers and powerful drug dealers. Writer-director James Glickenhaus and company created an atmospheric, entertaining and exciting 97 minutes that has infinite rewatchability. Shot on the grimy streets of NYC and boasting impressively practical stunts, the film oozes authenticity. Press and interviews on Glickenhaus always seemed a little light, he was from a well off family and liked expensive cars, made a series of flicks like The Exterminator, The Soldier with Ken Wahl, The Protector with Jackie Chan and McBain with Christopher Walken among others before seemingly retiring from the film business.

Thanks to action movie aficionado david j. moore, I discovered an entire treasure trove devoted to Glickenhaus, his business partner Alan Shapiro and their adventures in the film business during the go-go, foreign sales, film market, VHS, genre fueled 80's and 90's. Marco Siedelmann, Nadia Bruce-Rawlings and Stephen A. Roberts pull together the people who made it happen and lived through the era to provide a time capsule and first hand account of a revolutionary time. Through a series of interviews long and short (where did Joseph Zito have to run to?) along with photos of posters, actors, parties and legal documents, we're taken back to the time when you could make a movie for a certain price as long as the poster looked good. You hear from producers, lawyers, assistants, financiers (lending is better than investing) and actors who mainly reminisce about the familial feeling and overall fun the company had. Long hours were a no brainer but staff were provided gym memberships to keep in shape and pulled in to help out wherever necessary.

I didn't realize Shapiro-Glickenhaus touched so many films whether by financing, distributing or producing. The team rented a space above Hollywood Boulevard to watch people line up for Dolph Lundgren's big budget Red Scorpion but instead saw everyone going to Pet Cemetery instead. While not a box office smash, the film's initial VHS orders topped 100,000 copies at $50-$60 a pop! Smaller fare like Maniac Cop and Frankenhooker would live on as action and horror were the fare everyone in the states and around the world wanted to buy. There's a funny story about how a certain film had to have at least one boob, not even a pair, every 7 minutes. With the exploding VHS market and global demand for product, Shapiro-Glickenhaus became a key player at The American Film Market and Cannes, always throwing big and attention grabbing parties. If a film needed a name to attract more buyers, someone like Danny Aiello would show up for a day and collect 50 grand.

There's detours to the 90's direct to video golden age with interviews from the likes of Jalal Merhi and Cynthia Rothrock, making movies to take advantage of Canadian tax breaks and the like. Merhi recounts a screening where everyone started to leave early, not because they didn't like it but because they wanted to buy the rights immediately. As for Shakedown, it's painted as the company's shot at the big time as Universal had come in to distribute. Needing a product to release by a specific date, the $10 million film was semi-rushed but was a big success for the company. Surprisingly, Sam Elliott gets a couple of mentions for being not the nicest guy around.

The book is full of photos but with no captions there isn't a lot of context. You kind of glean what you need to from the following interview. Since the book is purely interviews, topics come and go and I wish there was a little more focus on each title than we're provided. But for anyone who grew up on 80's and 90's action or horror flicks, is a fan of Cannon, Carolco or Nu-Image, this book is for you.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

M. Night Shyamalan Retrospective

Back in the 90's I'm sitting at a friends house watching The Sixth Sense, 40 minutes in I tell them I know what the twist is and they say, "oh you don't need to watch the rest then!" and we promptly went and did something else. I'm sure I've watched the film since then but it's definitely the least viewed M. Night Shyamalan flick that I own. With all the talk of a Split sequel happening in the same universe as Unbreakable and a sequel merging the two films, we randomly started revisiting M. Night's work on DVD and HBO NOW:

The Happening: Mark Wahlberg being super sincere in a film about plants killing humans because they f*cked up the planet? And made people super violent or killed themselves. I dunno I wasn't really paying attention.

Unbreakable: I saw this in theaters upon release and was puzzled and slightly miffed at it's comic book movie but not being a comic book movie motif. All these years later it's still a somber affair but an effective origin story that I'm excited to see a sequel to. Bruce Willis does excellent work as invulnerable David Dunn, a simple guy who comes to realize he has extraordinary gifts. The film performed well but wasn't a blockbuster yet has experienced a recent resurgence in part to Quentin Tarantino being a fan.

The Visit: After big budget, non-personal projects The Last Airbender and After Earth met with mixed critical and commercial reception, M. Night made the $5 million flick for Blumhouse and we stayed up late watching the creepy flick about estranged grandchildren who visit grammy and pop pop. At first I thought the older folks would turn out to be cannibals but I was wrong. Excellent rebound flick for the Night.

Lady in the Water: I had never seen this film and half watching it on HBO and boy was it not very compelling. Something about a mermaid and another universe? Basically, Stranger Things owes this film a creative debt, methinks.

The Village: Saw this flick in theaters as well and enjoyed it. The twist might have turned some people off but it kept me guessing throughout. Were they time travelers? Looking back today at such a stacked cast, I totally forgot Adrian Brody played the lovelorn handicapped guy and that Joaquin Phoenix was even in it.

Split: We missed this in theaters but thought the trailers looked great. Amazon Video has it for a $6 bucks and the tale of three abducted teens by a maintenance man with 24 personalities is pretty effective. James McAvoy is solid as each manifested personality whether it be a child, woman or angry dude. Will be cool to see how Unbreakable's David Dunn faces off with the off kilter baddie working with or against Samuel L. Jackson's Mr. Glass.

Signs: Loved this flick in 2002 and is hands down the M. Night movie I rewatch the most. It's weird to think how young Mel Gibson looks in the film from 15 years ago let alone something like Lethal Weapon or Mad Max from the 80's, he's just been kicking ass that long. The family dynamic and farm/faith life against a potential alien invasion is a terrific and satisfying slow burner. Anybody who doesn't like the water twist should go try and drink out of the oceans taking up 75% of our planet and shut up.

Looking back I feel like M. Night is the semi-precursor to Denis Villevneuve, a guy who makes classy flicks out of simple stories a la Sicario, Prisoners and Arrival. M. Night backed himself into a bit of a corner as the "twist" guy but all of his films are well made, look great, usually have solid casts and deliver in the end. Glad to see him coming back.

Sherman Oaks Saturday: Books, Movies, Video Games, Oh My!

On Saturday we trekked up the 405 to quaint yet happening Sherman Oaks. We hit up a surprisingly dense library sale with books, CD's and DVD's up for grabs for rock bottom prices. Hardback tomes and paperback novels were aplenty and only set you back a buck or less. The lady found a copy of Moneyball by Michael Lewis for me and I grabbed multiple flicks on DVD, some that weren't even opened! After that it was off to the mall for a little walking around and checking out what Spring/Summer fashion entailed. Newsflash, it's about the same as every year but with more bright pastels...

Then it was on to Ventura Boulevard for old standby The One-Up for brunch (chicken and waffles seemed like a good idea but were WAY too sweet), some cocktails and arcade madness. Newly added Time Crisis and a new two-player, stand up cabinet where we played some The Punisher side scroller. Next door is Von Eaton Animation Galleries which had some general cartoon cels up including Johnny Quest and stacks of cels from the likes of X-Men and The Little Mermaid. Then a nice used book store had an entire American West section with titles on Doc Holliday and Johnny Ringo and I grabbed the former. Looking forward to the dime store or actual story of one of the west's most intriguing characters.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Blast Off Weekend: Burbank and the Endless Comic Shops

Saturday was Free Comic Book Day where stores purchase specially solicited issues to help bring in new readers and give them out for free. It gets people in the door and makes decades of comic book lore a non-issue for new readers. Nearby store The Comic Bug did two big events on Saturday and Sunday with dozens of guests, food trucks and signings. Pulp Fiction had special guests and if you donated to the Los Angeles Food Bank, you got more free issues. We weren't really interested in any free comics and perused the shelves for good reading in general. The lady picked up a short stack of graphic novels and got me The Infinity Aftermath following the events of The Infinity Gauntlet where Adam Warlock and several others now hold the powerful gems.

On Sunday it was off to a G.I. Joe and estate sale before we randomly visited FOUR additional comic book/geek themed establishments in the area. I'm not sure why Burbank is the place for all things creative arts but hey, it was fun to see the different set ups and offerings at each. Emerald Knights has a pretty industrial facade with no windows and I wasn't quite sure they were open until I pushed the door in. The staff was nice and chatty while the space is equal parts comics and gaming with tables upstairs for tournament and group play. I grabbed an awesomely random lead figure of Wildcats gunman Grifter for the shelf. Down the street was Geeky Teas, a board game cafe that had space for events along with swag for fandoms like Doctor Who and Back to the Future. Further along still is Creature Features which is a movie lovers paradise with oh so much memorabilia like magazines, soundtracks, promotional items and more. CF hosts art galleries and special guests, today it was a tribute to Dave Stevens' THE ROCKETEER as well as a signing with composer Charles Fox. There was an abundance of Hard Target and Batman Returns buttons as well as a couple Demolition Man, San Angeles Police Department pins! Our final Burbank comic stop was The Perky Nerd, a super clean comic and games shop with a small event space and cold brew coffee.

Blast Off Weekend Rewind '99: Blast From the Past

Was just watching Police Academy the other day, which was directed by Hugh Wilson. Then we randomly turned on Blast From the Past Saturday night, also directed by Hugh Wilson. Surprisingly, Renny Harlin produced the time spanning, romantic comedy PG affair, maybe he was lined up to direct at one point to do something without guns? I saw this in theaters back in '99 and found it funny and cute. We meet neurotic inventor Calvin (Christopher Walken), his loving wife Helen (Sissy Spacek) and the fallout shelter he builds underground during the Cuban missile crisis. When a plane crashes on their house, locks are set for 35 years and their son Adam (Brendan Fraser) is born and goes out into the world to gather supplies and check out the would be radioactive wasteland. Adam runs into Eve (Alicia Silverstone) as he naively navigates the 90's while looking for love.

The film is still sweet and I was impressed by the fallout shelter set. Walken is kooky likeable while Fraser is fresh faced and funny. 90's queen Silverstone is her usual mix of awkward and cute while you get a pre-fame Nathan Fillon as a douche bag ex-boyfriend. The 90's-ness isn't too retro or laughable as Wilson and Bill Kelly's script is pretty straightforward and not too broad or slapsticky. Reportedly budgeted at a healthy $35 million bucks, Blast From the Past took in just under $30 million at the box office, not doing much for anyone involved. Fraser had already made a splash with Encino Man and headlined ensembles School Ties and With Honors to mixed box office results. Mega hits George of the Jungle, The Mummy films and Journey to the Center of the Earth would be evened out by big budget non-starters like Looney Toons: Back in Action, Dudley Do-Right and Inkheart.

After breaking into pop culture co-starring with Liv Tyler in multiple Aerosmith videos, Silverstone headlined seminal 90's hit Clueless but was a weak link in Batman & Robin and producing effort Excess Baggage didn't go far. Fraser and Silverstone have found regular work in television lately while Wilson hasn't directed a feature since 2004.

Blast Off Weekend: Stars Wars Day & Guardians of the Galaxy Double Feature

Space opera fans had much to celebrate as Thursday was May the Fourth Be With You and Friday was Revenge of the Fifth. At the office I had the films playing in random order, themed menu items and restrooms were decorated with Luke, Leia, Finn and Rey. We watched The Force Awakens at home and picked up a Poe Dameron figure on sale at the local Disney store. Now I have the hankering to watch Ex Machina... The Han Solo movie is currently in production and Episode VIII: The Last Jedi hits theaters in December.

Thursday also saw the summer movie season take off with the release of Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2. We ended up taking in a double feature at the nearby Arclight Cinema. Part one still plays quite well as an entertaining, space trotting thrill ride even if it doesn't hold up to much deep thinking or scrutiny. Written and directed by James Gunn, Volume 2 starts off with a big and funny action sequence but surprisingly goes into character depth mode with Chris Pratt's Star-Lord being found by his dad (KURT RUSSELL), Zoe Saldana's Gamora tries to reconcile with sister who tried to kill her last movie Nebula (Karen Gillan), Dave Bautista makes a would be lady friend then Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Yondu (Michael Rooker) bicker because they're afraid to lose their adopted families. While things seemed to move quickly, the character beats and humor work but it felt like nothing really happened. Kurt Russell is great as the manifestation of an entire planet but badass assassin Gamora gets little to do. Sylvester Stallone shows up in a small role opposite Rooker for a nice Cliffhanger reunion even if we don't get a Tango & Cash or Tombstone one. All in I probably liked the film an extra 20% because of Russell and Stallone.

It was great to see Russell doing so much press for the flick and Stallone did his fair share as well. Russell and long time partner Goldie Hawn were honored with Stars on the Walk of Fame this week as Hawn has Snatched with Amy Schumer opening next week. Since taking a bit of a hiatus from filmmaking in 2006 to make wine, it's been awesome to see Russell return with Quentin Tarantino, Peter Berg, the Fast and Furious movies and now Marvel. Located past the Pantages theater, we checked out the shiny new stars and did the Tango & Cash high five over them. Now we just need Jean-Claude Van Damme to work with Spielberg, Nolan, Marvel or DC to get his honor.

Blast Off Weekend: Steven Seagal's On Deadly Ground

A busy weekend started on Wednesday night with a bro, bbq and Steven Seagal's sole directorial effort, On Deadly Ground on HBO. There's quite a few flicks from Seagal, Stallone and Eastwood on the premium outlet but only one each from Van Damme and Arnold's. It's been a while since I've seen the Alaska set, oil company man sells out then sides with the locals to fight the shady corporation eco-action-thriller and it actually holds up pretty well. Of course it's totally ridiculous with Seagal being some clean up specialist for an evil oil company, blowing up wells to shut them off when faulty equipment causes a blaze or keeping ticked off Inuit people away from billionaire scumbag Michael Caine (here with dark hair for maybe the first time I've ever seen). When roughnecks mess with the local tribal people, Seagal's Forrest Taft beats the shit out of all of them while asking "what does it take to change the essence of a man?"

The Alaskan locales are beautifully shot, there's plenty of bone breaking hand to hand combat, gunplay, giant explosions and terribly hilarious dialog like "my nuts!". At the end of the film, Seagal delivers a surprisingly effective speech on how the environment is suffering due to cars, oil drilling, pollution, etc. that seems especially true today let alone in 1994. The Aikido man was hot off the success of $150 million grossing Under Siege and Warner Brothers handed him the directorial reigns in exchange for a Siege follow up. An excellent supporting cast joins Caine (who reportedly replaced Jeremy Irons), a high strung and screaming John C. McGinley (The Rock, Scrubs), Joan Chen (The Hunted), R. Lee Emery (Full Metal Jacket), a chubby and funny Billy Bob Thornton along with Arnold buddy Sven-Ole Thorsen.

The budget pushed $50 million but On Deadly Ground would gross under $40 million, less than half of Under Siege. Seagal's box office mojo would quickly dwindle with Under Siege 2 rebounding a bit before getting killed off in 1996's Executive Decision. Three films later, Seagal went straight to video. Michael Caine would reflect kindly in his memoirs on Seagal and crew while hating the location.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Support This! Stories From the Trenches: Official Sam Firstenberg Book

Between The Expendables, Stranger Things, barcades, endless Transformers and Alien sequels and synthwave soundtracks everywhere, the 2010's have been very 80's centric. VHS remains a collector's niche and Cannon Film fans were treated to terrific documentary Electric Boogaloo. Cannon and Nu Image staple Sam Firstenberg is now the subject of proposed book Stories From the Trenches that will dig into his colorful history of breaking into the film business, working with independent film luminaries and genre stars. Firstenberg directed American Ninja, sequel The Confrontation as well as Breakin' 2, Avenging Force, Revenge of the Ninja, Ninja III and many more. His films were filled with the likes of Michael Dudikoff, Steve James, Kirstie Alley, Sho Kosugi, John Rhys-Davies, David Bradley, Mark Dacascos, Eric Roberts, Michael Madsen and Robert Vaughn.

Spearheaded by Marco Siedelmann, a journalist and author who has conducted hours of interviews with Firstenberg and his colleagues. Siedelmann has already provided genre fans with The Untold, In-Depth, Outrageously True Story about Shapiro Glickenhaus Entertainment, a deep dive into the foreign pre-sale, VHS fueled exploitation fun of the 80's and 90's that gave us Maniac Cop, Frankenhooker, Shakedown and other favorites. I'm currently halfway through that entertaining and educational tome of a bygone, go-go era and am looking forward to tales from some of my youth shaping flicks.

Stories From the Trenches has nearly reached it's Kickstarter fund raising goal so donate if you can before Monday, May 15th!

Gotta Hear! Piece of the Action Podcast: The Return

Hello there! I hope you're enjoying your Saturday! Here in the States it's been a big week for all things genre with May the 4th and Revenge of the 5th celebrating Star Wars, Marvel's space opera Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 hits theaters and today is Free Comic Book Day! A couple of weeks ago I caught up with #MovieBro Eoin Friel for another hard hitting edition of The Action Elite's Piece of the Action Podcast! We talk (at length) about movies we're looking forward to, Vin Diesel VS Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and upcoming films from the likes of Scott Adkins, Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme! Enjoy and we'll be back soon with another session!

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Malibu Weekend!

We spent Easter weekend with some out of town friends in beautiful Malibu. Only 20 some miles north of Santa Monica, the winding trip of the PCH into calm and dusty beach living feels like a different world. The house we stayed at was a working sustainable farm with fruit, turkeys and chickens! We were far enough away that you couldn't hear them much at 5:00 AM though. The house came with a beautiful pool and hot tub that overlooked the Pacific Ocean across the highway. Not waiting for the heater to do it's job, I took a frigid swim at 6:00 AM and did some aqua-karate, Kickboxer style, to start the day. The house sat on multiple acres and a short hike to the top of a hill lead us to a beautiful gazebo/patio area overlooking the ocean and green covered hills. A horse farm was visible next door and I wondered who lived in the palatial estates higher up the sides.

My friends didn't realize downtown was not close to Malibu and bought tickets to see Sigur Ros with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Disney Concert Hall. We'd never been there for a show and while beautiful, it went on for nearly 3 hours! It was extremely dark up there and I drove past the driveway multiple times. A nearby complex had a cafe, bank, grocery and shops where you saw an eclectic mix of surfers and posh types. All in, Malibu is kinda weird, man. With people living in beautiful remote isolation, I kind of wondered if they just stocked up on food and booze and laid around all weekend.

We headed up to a few beaches for a walk and ended up discovering Neptune's Net by chance. A well known biker bar and seafood joint, the spot is a popular filming location as well. Unlike Malibu Seafood down the road, if you wanted steamed seafood you had to go to the other side. I ended up with a giant platter of fried goodness with shrimp, calamari, fish, scallops and fries but after a while it's all just the same crunchy texture without much flavor. It's kind of like BBQ, I seem to crave seafood but when I get it, I'm kind of disappointed. No Sam Elliot sighting this time either as he lives in the north end of Malibu somewheres.

Is That a Joke? The Circle

Sometimes you'll see a movie that pisses you off like Alien Vs Predator: Requiem, which apes the best parts of two franchises without adding anything to the mix. Or one that infuriates you like Whiplash (who stole the folder?!) or makes you want to slam your head on a table like Nocturnal Animals (rich white people are sad too!). Then sometimes you run into a film that is just dumb. That's what happened with The Circle, a would be tech thriller from director James Ponsoldt and co-written by novelist Dave Eggers. You have Emma Watson as Mae, a struggling millennial working at a crappy temp job. Her parents (BILL PAXTON & Dick Tracey's Glenne Headly) are sweet but struggling with illness and she has a not quite realized love with childhood friend Mercer (Ellar Coltrane). But that all changes when she gets a job at THE CIRCLE, a bay area tech firm headed by Tom Hanks and Patton Oswalt that is banking on new portable technology which allows you to watch and listen to anyone/anywhere with minimal fuss. But of course things aren't what they seem as Mae isn't so sure the tech life is for her as the cost of doing business is high.

I figured this would be your typical cinematic thriller where a young, optimistic idealist gets swept up into the machine with an enigmatic mentor who turns out to be a bad guy a la Breach, The Firm, The Devil's Advocate, whatever.  But no, I actually wasn't sure if The Circle was meant to be taken seriously or was some extreme farcical commentary on where we are in the world and where we're headed. Or basically what someone thinks it's like working at a tech company that's never actually visited one. I've been working at tech and social media companies for ten years and I couldn't help but roll my eyes at the over the top depiction and how hollow it all felt. It's kind of like how people think government buildings are all shiny pneumatic doors and top secret this and that but they're actually kinda rundown and people keep walking right up to the White House doors past security.

For all the smart folks that are supposed to work at The Circle, they're shown doing really dumb stuff so you're not exactly invested in their journey. Mae thinks it's a good idea to take a midnight kayak ride out past the breakers, Circle Jerkers despise Mercer for making art from deer antlers (You make that phone, dude? You eat breakfast today, bro? You drive a car or wear shoes, bruh?), John Boyega plays a Circle co-founder who doesn't like what the company is doing and goes off the grid but openly attends every social and company function, etc. Watson, hot off of Beauty and the Beast, has a weird habit of half laughing as she delivers dialog, Tom Hanks doesn't get a ton to do, it would have been more interesting to see him as a menacing or maniacal antagonist and while it's nice to see Bill Paxton one more time, it's also kind of sad because his character is dealing with MS.

The film shot outside my old office at the beautiful Campus at Playa Vista so it was fun to see 90% of exteriors take place at the old stomping grounds. But that quickly wore off as the film drags on and there's no "take down the house of cards" or "pull the plug" ending. Rumor is that the film started production back in 2015 and I must have witnessed reshoots last year. You can definitely feel that in the film as it seems like scenes are missing and we get from A to G without anything in between. Just a waste of talent all around and you wonder what pulled everyone to it in the first place.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Extreme Panels: Prophet

One of the terrific and unexpected buys from Big Red Comics' Extreme 25th Anniversary signing was a vintage copy of Rob Liefeld's "immortal warrior traveling through time" Prophet, collecting the first 7 issues of 1994's visual and violent series. Liefeld created and wrote the series with Dan Panosian handling art for the first 4 issues and Stephen Platt coming in for number 5. I had recently picked up a remastered Youngblood hardcover where John Prophet, a former homeless man turned into a super soldier that goes into suspended animation, wakes up in the modern age with a passion for God, wielding two swords, purple tights and headgear you're not sure the purpose of. Now starring in his own series, we catch up with Prophet and his little gun toting, doesn't wear a shirt but has shoulder holster straps everywhere, Kirby, as they try to reestablish contact with D.O.C.C. (Direct Orbiting Command Center). Somehow the source of Prophet's info and power, while lots of government types want to get Prophet under their control.

There's a lot of violent nightmares and flashbacks along with ol' John constantly quoting the bible. You get a run in/crossover with Bloodstrike and peeps from Prophet's past thought long dead. Dan Panosian's art is pretty clean with muscles galore along with two page action spreads aplenty. But things get knocked up a notch when Stephen Platt takes over with much more mayhem (guys get machine gunned in half) and little details like shell casings or lots of little sinewy lines EVERYWHERE. Platt's work is quite grand in scope and the era's abundance of ear antennae, shoulder pads and giant guns never looked better. The series would go on for another 4 issues before being relaunched several times through today. It was recently revealed that Liefeld bought Platt a car to lure him from Marvel's Moon Knight and paid him $40,000 an issue. But deadlines were always missed with Platt giving everything he had making for dynamic pages if not a release schedule you could set a clock to. Years on, Platt distances himself from Liefeld while the Rob has no issue explaining that it was entirely the artist's fault.