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.