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.