Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Action Pack: Vanishing Son

As a kid I used to watch a lot of MY43 in Ohio, a local affiliate that showed all kinds of reruns and syndicated programming. In the 90's I recall a bit of fanfare for a series of Friday night TV movies dubbed The Action Pack, two of which I watched, Hercules and Vanishing Son. Of course Hercules became a long running action-fantasy series starring Kevin Sorbo, fresh off of losing to Dean Cain to play Clark Kent/Superman on ABC's Lois & Clark, that spawned fellow hit series Xena: Warrior Princess. I remember the commercials for the futuristic TekWar, based on a series of books by William Shatner starring My Two Dad's Greg Evigan as well as Midnight Run and Bandit but didn't actually tune in. Being an Asian youth, Vanishing Son (sponsored by KFC) caught my eye though and became taped off the tube staple for years before the internet age. The story of two martial arts trained brothers, Jian-Wa (Russell Wong) and Wago (Chi Muoi Lo) from China who flee to America after being involved in some riots with the Communist government. In the states, the brothers struggle being illegal immigrants with Jian-Wa believing hard work will give him or his kids or grand kids a chance at the American dream while Wago isn't interested in waiting and falls in with some gangsters.

Coming off Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, filmmaker Rob Cohen (who cameos as Jian's teacher) created Vanishing Son as a bit of an expanded mini-saga on the Lee mythos, oppression, martial arts and the pursuit of opportunity in the land of dreams. You see Jian-Wa as the golden child, tall, handsome, good at playing the violin but maybe more talented at fighting (Bloodsport & Dragon alumni John Cheung shows up as his sifu). Then shorter and chubbier little brother Wago who likes to fight and gets involved in protests against the government. Now targets of the state, their father forces them to flee to America to avoid execution. Vanishing Son debuted in January of 1995 and created quite a stir as Eurasian Russell Wong smoldered as the lead and shared multiple love scenes with Caucasian actress Rebecca Gayheart, hot from popular face cream commercials for Noxema. There's plenty of family, political, racial and relationship drama to go along with the fights as Jian-Wa and Wago battle police, thugs, exploitative employers and each other as they end up drifting apart. The martial arts action is terrific with prolonged back and forth fights that take place in jail cells, inside an apartment that spills out into the rest of the building and alley, in a parking lot, etc. Familiar faced stunt men like Jeff Imada, J.J. Perry, Phillip Tan, Roger and Ron Yuan and Hakim Alston pop up as hard kicking adversaries and stunt doubles. A former dancer, Wong trained for six intense weeks before shooting and showcases some excellent movement and high kicks along with leading man charisma.

Vanishing Son II picks up with Jian-Wa on the run after a gang war between Wago's newfound friends and established Chinese Triads explodes into the streets. Taking up with Vietnamese fishermen in Louisiana, Jian-Wa comes up against old boy racists and eventually the KKK as it seems impossible for the two factions to live in peace. Dustin Nguyen (21 Jump Street) shows up as an angry family member who befriends Jian-Wa while Ming-Na Wen (Agents of SHIELD), Kim Chan (Kung Fu), Dean Stockwell (Quantum Leap) and then popular singer/actor Jamie Walters (Beverly Hills, 90210) show up on both sides of the locals. Meanwhile Wago works his way up back in Los Angeles' crime scene and runs into top dog The General, played by Oscar winner Haing S. Ngor. Like the first chapter, the action is interspersed with drama and issues like the fallout of the Vietnam War and how immigrants are accepted into a fearful community. Even though their lives have taken different paths, brothers Jian-Wa and Wago are still tied together as younger brother shows up to lend some firepower during the final confrontation. Big brother can't talk little out of his life of crime and the two again go their separate ways. There's plenty of action and fights with Jian-Wa beginning his Kung-Fu like stance of not fighting if he doesn't need to but when pushed, spin kicks everybody who deserves it.

Part III finds Jian-Wa in Washington, D.C., living under a fake name and competing in a classical music competition where he runs into former flame Clair (Gayheart) and the two rekindle their romance only to be interrupted by the F.B.I. who want Jian-Wa to infiltrate Wago's gang so they can get to The General. Back in L.A., Jian-Wa gets close to Wago under the pretense of wanting to be back in his brothers life while trying to get him out. Things get tricky when family friend Lili (Vivian Wu) shows up after being thought dead as Wago wants her but she wants Jian-Wa. With the F.B.I. eager to crack the case, a deal goes bad, Wago gets killed and Jian-Wa is back on the run. Vanishing Son III benefits from the reunion between bros and there's some good fights between Jian-Wa and a room full of feds, against his brother in the rain and more. Part IV is basically a clip show and series pilot that finds Jian-Wa laid up and being cared for by E.T.'s Dee Wallace after a couple of college kids (Human Target's Mark Valley and Scream's Matt Lillard) hit him on a dark street. Wago appears as a ghost during Jian-Wa's fever dreams and beyond. There's probably only 30 minutes of original footage in IV but Russell Wong gets to ditch his shirt and handle a fight scene as usual.

Miami Vice's John Nicolella directs all four films with aplomb from Rob Cohen and Robert Eisele's scripts. I have no clue how much these films cost but it's said that the Bandit films filmed over 72 days in North Carolina with a budget of $2.5 million each so I'm guessing Vanishing Son fell in the same ballpark even though Bandit had car chases compared to Son's hand to hand sequences. Of the five series of films, Hercules, TekWar and Vanishing Son would go to series. Son ran for 13 episodes in 1995 that seemed to play sporadically on my local station, usually late at night while Hercules got the more prime Saturday afternoon time slot. Shot mainly in San Diego, the series follows Jian-Wa as he travels city to city, The Fugitive style, trying to clear his name with feds on his tail, helping oppressed citizens, romancing the ladies, taking on bad guys of all shapes and sizes while still having conversations with the ghost of his dead brother. One episode reintroduces Dustin Nguyen's character from the second film while Hercules alumni Alexandra Tydings pops up along with a pre-JAG Catherine Bell in others.

While Hercules ran for six seasons, Vanishing Son was not picked up beyond it's initial 13. Rumors swirled that Son was canceled in favor of Xena: Warrior Princess as the syndication package could only take two shows. Xena and Hercules shared much of the same crew and locations, crossed over frequently and became cultural icons. Creator Cohen would continue to work with Universal, churning out DragonHeart, Daylight and the Skulls before hitting it big with The Fast and the Furious and re-teaming with Vin Diesel on XXX. Director Nicolella would graduate to features with 1997's Kull the Conqueror starring fellow Action Pack breakout star Kevin Sorbo for Son executive producer Raffaella De Laurentiis. Lo would go on to star, write, produce and direct Catfish in Black Bean Sauce with Sanaa Lathan (Alien VS Predator) and Paul Winfield (The Terminator). While Wong would co-star opposite Christopher Walken in The Prophecy II and battle Jet Li in Romeo Must Die before making history as the only Asian actor to headline two television series with the CW's short lived Black Sash.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Paneled Goods: Captain America Epic Collection Volume 12

How was your Thanksgiving? Hopefully you had time to kick back and relax. My original plans were to basically eat and drink a bunch while catching up on movies in the theater but I got sick like a loser. Instead of venturing out to Happy Hour or the multiplex, I spent most of my long weekend napping, reading and online shopping. I did manage to hit Pulp Fiction on Friday as they have a giant store filled with discount graphic novels and comics. Marvel has begun releasing Epic Collections, full color runs of their most iconic titles. While on my quick trip across America, I stopped into Des Moines, Iowa to see some friends who were holding my comic book collection from Ohio and sadly did not find my cache of Captain America! Maybe it's in some different boxes but I had a sizeable run from the 60's through the 2000's. I did find the Cap cache of toys and trinkets though. Anyways, coming back to California without my stack of comics, I wanted to see what Pulp Fiction had and ended up with Volume 12 from 1985-1986 with issues #302 through #317.

These Epic Collections are quite nice, full color with some supplemental material like Letters to the Editor, corresponding Annuals or sketches and concept art. Paul Neary does most of the art with clean pencils, detailed backgrounds and a kinetic style supplemented by a chipper pastiche of smiles while editor Mark Gruenwald officially takes over writing as he feels like he's got a grasp on our Star Spangled Avenger. We get some excellent character snapshots with staples like Jack Monroe's Nomad trying to get out of the shadow of Cap, fiance Bernie Rosenthal losing her job and questioning her future with Steve. Our boy is all over the place here, hard charging and idealistic. One issue he randomly goes to Britain after being hit with some crazy psychic bolt to team up with Captain Britain to fight a contemporary of Merlin, you know from King Arthur, like you does. In another he rails against his ad agency editor about advertising putting possessions over people. Which is good though because it leads him to drawing for Marvel Comics, on Captain America! In a bit of meta-hilarity, we learn that Avengers butler Jarvis provides basic stories to Marvel and signs off, another revenue stream and positive exposure, I guess. Thanks to Jarvis we also learn that Captain America's favorite post workout repast is a GRILLED AMERICAN CHEESE SAMMICH AND GLASS OF MILK. Holy shoot, time to get Captain America YOKED.

Later on Cap runs into the Serpent Society who have formed an organized mercenary squad to carry out all your criminal or murder-centric needs. Our favorite flying head MODOK is sadly their quarry and is taken out. Later, Steve ends up with a million bucks from Army back pay and instead of using it on himself or his lady, decides to start up his national hotline. Through and through we see his relationship with Bernie deteriorating because come on, Cap's gotta fight the good fight, but it's still sad when she up and leaves him for law school, putting their engagement in limbo (psst, they don't make it). It's great to have the issues in full color but I miss seeing the ads from regular issues so you can get a context of the era. There's a funny inclusion of readers writing in, freaking out about a panel where Cap's nose is missing a line so it looks like he doesn't have one? I honestly didn't notice it and thought the schnoz was outlined plenty but whatever.

In addition to Gruenwald and Neary, these issues would not be possible without the contributions of Michael Carlin, Roger Stern, Frank Miller, Josef Rubinstein, Dennis Janke, Al Williamson, Jim Massara, Howard Mackie, Michael Higgins, Lynn Varley, Ken Feduniewicz, Al Milgrom, Jim Novak and Diana Albers.

Gotta Go! Universal Studios & Islands of Adventure Orlando

After spending a mad dash time at Disney World, we ventured to Universal Studios & Islands of Adventure the next day. There's two separate parks so again we opted for a Hopper that would get us into both. Like Los Angeles, there's a vibrant scene of restaurants and shops before the park. Unlike Disney World, these two parks were more or less connected so you didn't need to hop on a 15 minute shuttle bus ride. Right away you walk into a section of Beverly Hills streets and there's the Terminator 2 3D show Battle Across Time. This has closed in LA but was still packing them in at Orlando. It's been a couple years since I saw the show and I was impressed by how much pageantry and set up there is between the Cyberdyne waiting room with host, warm up video and pre-show in the theater with actors, pyrotechnics, giant props and the like. The finale fills the theater with fog and then your seats drop, it was truly shocking. Masters of the Universe director and theme park attraction specialist Gary Goddard worked closely with James Cameron to produce the immersive show that transports you to the Future War to take on a T-1 Million. Arnold, Edward Furlong and Linda Hamilton all reprise their roles from the 1991 summer blockbuster for a 12 minute short film that cost an alleged $24 million!

Walking around there were plenty of other movie and TV tie-ins like The Simpsons Land, a Men In Black ride along with the flying train and Delorean from Back to the Future III! The big noise however was for the recently opened Harry Potter land. There's a London looking facade but walk through the doors and you're transported to Diagon Alley, an intricate reproduction of one of the films' major settings. You had sweet shops, gift shops, wand shops and stands selling Butter Beer which was surprisingly tasty and not too sweet. There's a couple rides, a fire breathing dragon perched atop a building and you can take the Hogwart's Express to the other park but it was a long wait.

Between the parks was a Hard Rock Cafe which offered double Jameson's for just $3 bucks more next to a giant steampunk chocolate factory and restaurant. Straight out of Willy Wonka, it was a truly unique establishment even if I couldn't figure out the theme of the food. I'd long heard about Island of Adventure from Wizard Magazine as in the 90's they had a Marvel restaurant with props and suits way before any studio backed film had come out. Right away we hit Marvel land which had a Hulk roller coaster, a Spider-Man 3D ride, gift shops and a Captain America diner! Cyclops, Cap and Wolverine were strolling the streets and buildings had giant images of Captain America fighting MODAK! These were truly my people. Walking further and further in there were more lands with old school comics and cartoons like Flash Gordon, the Phantom and Blondie then there was Jurassic Park and a new attraction based on Kong: Skull Island. In the back was another Harry Potter land with snow capped buildings, more gifts and several more rides. The one we went on was kind of crazy, it's a car on a track but you're in a seat hoisted by hydraulics with giant video screens taking you through various locales in the HP canon. While we didn't spring for it, Universal offers a Front of the Line pass, it's not cheap but you can also basically walk onto any ride so it would be worth it if you wanted to save half a day.

Gotta Go! Walt Disney World Orlando

This past November we made a quick trip to Orlando, Florida, home to Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World. I was immediately impressed with the sheer size of the city and the amount of construction going on. Walt was on to something when he started picking up acres upon acres of swamp land back in the 1960's. Apparently Disney owns, designs and built the entire resort which houses something like 30 hotels and owns 24 of them. Unlike Disneyland where you can stay on property or in the resort and simply walk over, at Disney World we took an Uber to a parking lot then a ferry to the gate, no half day, in and out trips for this place. Driving around you see grass and bodies of water everywhere, apparently a swamp is a piece of land with lots of vegetation while ponds are just bodies of water? There's some general signage but you really can't see much of the parks at all from the road. There's four parks total, Magic Kingdom, Epcot Center, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom. We opted for a Hopper pass and hit up three of the four parks in a single day, phew!

Magic Kingdom is basically like Disneyland with the castle and the main street and your different lands. In a nice touch you can set up your first three Fast Passes online once you buy tickets and there's cool spots like Gaston's Tavern and a Snow White mine car ride. Hollywood Studios houses shows and roller coasters along with one of the last Planet Hollywood's in the world, it's not even a restaurant though, just a gift shop with some 90's era photos of Stallone and life sized Arnold Terminator 2 prop. The Turner Classic Movie ride was a nice throwback to Hollywood but lines were insane for the Aerosmith coaster and Tower of Terror. Epcot has that giant golf ball looking thing and several science attractions along with beautifully designed sections of the world complete with people from those countries to work there. It was Food & Wine Fest time so it was PACKED. Tooling around Orlando was fun, most of our Uber drivers were from New York or Jersey and had just had enough of the cold weather. Target didn't sell hard booze but there was a liquor store next door so it worked out. Nearly every restaurant we went to asked if you wanted to make it a double for $2-3 bucks more, we couldn't afford not to!

All in it would be pretty easy to spend a few days or even a week in town as there was plenty to Disney and Orlando in general we didn't get to see. With so many hotel options prices were considerably less than in Anaheim, California. There's also an interesting trend of seafood offering buffets we didn't get to nosh at so next time it will be lobster-pocalypse.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Brawl Fall 1996: Steven Seagal

Since seeing Kurt Russell at Beyond Fest a couple months ago I've been revisiting his vast body of work like Tombstone, Captain Ron, Stargate, Big Trouble In Little China, Unlawful Entry, Miracle, Sky High and the 1996 classic action thriller Executive Decision. I'd nearly forgotten that Steven Seagal gets high billing but is killed off in the film's first act. Remember when I told you my theory that Dammaged Goods style action movies died in 1996? The kind starring charismatic, physical heroes who took care of the job with machine guns, muscles, martial arts and one liners? To refresh your memory, check out my piece on Sylvester Stallone, who along with Arnold Schwarzenegger, ushered in a cottage brand of action flick in the 80's and paved the way for lesser cinematic icons Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme. While no other action star would reach the heights of the two kings, mysterious Aikido expert and would be CIA agent Seagal nearly got there after bursting onto the scene with 1988's Warner Brothers starring vehicle Above the Law with no prior acting experience. The sub-$10 million flick grossed nearly $20 million.

Before that, Seagal had the distinction of allegedly being the first non-Japanese to open his own Aikido studio in the mother land. Working in Hollywood it's rumored that he broke Sean Connery's wrist while training the James Bond star for Never Say Never Again and impressed uber agent Michael Ovitz who got Seagal in with Warner Brothers. While Jean-Claude Van Damme toiled with low budget filmmakers, independent studios, first time directors, no name casts and $1 million budgets, Seagal had a major studio behind him and familiar faces beside him his first time out. Follow up Hard to Kill more than doubled Law's take and audiences were hooked on the tall, often pony tailed hero who spoke in whispers and took out dozens without ever taking a punch with painful looking joint locks and throws. Fight scenes in Seagal movies always elicited real groans and winces as it looked like people really got slammed into the floor or through a table. Seagal's "aura of invincibility" went with his mysterious past as a martial arts instructor in Japan coupled with his own hints of working with or for the CIA.

By 1992, Warner Brothers had already produced or distributed three of Seagal's four titles and backed Under Siege, a reported $35 million, Die Hard style actioner set on a battle ship. Above the Law director Andrew Davis had already lent a bit of class to Chuck Norris with Code of Silence before doing the same for Seagal on Law and was recruited for a second run. As former Navy S.E.A.L. turned cook Casey Ryback, Seagal fights, shoots, stabs and sabotages his way through a terrorist takeover lead by more than capable actors like Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Busey. A true action classic, Under Siege would open to $15 million opening weekend, good enough for the 9th largest of the year on it's way to an $83 million U.S. take and $156 million worldwide. Now on top of the world, Seagal would exercise his spirit and ego on his next film, the ecological themed On Deadly Ground, which he would also produce and direct. The $50 million Alaska set film takes on oil cartels and Inuit treatment head on while ending with a monologue by the star discussing how the world is dying. A noble endeavor but the film would gross less than half of Under Siege and earn few critical marks.

With success always comes controversy and rumors of Seagal's prickly attitude and unbelievable ego on and off set began to surface. A dispute with writers on Marked for Death, kicking Gary Busey off the sequel to Under Siege, thinking he could easily deliver an Academy Award winning performance if Hollywood hadn't pigeonholed him, taking potshots at JCVD on late night TV, misrepresenting the tribal nations people of Alaska, being accused of sexual harassment, Seagal's quick rise to the top was now catching up to him. Warner's had signed him to a four picture deal but pumped the brakes on Ground as the budget swelled to reevaluate. They also wanted any budget overages on 1995's $50-60 million Under Siege 2: Dark Territory to come out of the leading man's $10 million salary. Territory would hardly recapture the spirit, scale or excitement of the original but would still gross a solid $100 million worldwide.

But 1996's Executive Decision marked the beginning of the end. Long had Seagal carried a film as a super badass who never got hurt but now in Decision, he was making room for the guy who couldn't fight or shoot, the glasses wearing, tuxedo sporting analyst Kurt Russell. We see Seagal and his commando team slashing throats and taking out bad guys right away but it's Russell's smarts that save the day and stop a plane full of nerve agent from crashing into Washington D.C. While Seagal sacrifices himself for the mission and dies 40 minutes in, his career would never be the same. Warner Brothers fully backed Executive Decision with a reported $55 million budget, in house super producer Joel Silver (Die Hard, Lethal Weapon) was behind the scenes and legendary company editor Stuart Baird (Superman, Gorillas in the Mist) was making his directorial debut. I'm sure it was a shock in 1996 to see THE Steven Seagal get killed in the film but by the end you kind of forget he was even in it.

1996 follow up The Glimmer Man, a $45 million buddy picture with Keenan Ivory Wayans that he starred, produced and wrote music for, would gross a paltry $20 million compared to Decision's $69 million. 1997's  Fire Down Below, another big budget action movie with an environmental message, would only bring in $16 million, $3 million less than Above the Law had nearly 10 years earlier but with $40 million more budget. By 1998 the party was truly over as The Patriot went Direct to Video. Joel Silver would provide some career juice with 2001's Exit Wounds that was part of a short stint of martial artists paired with rappers that also gave us Jet Li's Romeo Must Die and Cradle 2 the Grave. From there it mainly DTV fare with Seagal gaining more and more weight but appearing in the films less and less with filmmakers not caring if the audience could tell they were using a double or not. Seagal would crank out 2-3 films a year and still command a $5 million fee while dealing with FBI investigations, private investigators and very public lawsuits from former associates that hinted at mafia involvement.

As the home video market fell out in the 2000's, Seagal's output stayed steady as budgets got smaller and schedules shorter. A stint on reality TV followed with the short lived Steven Seagal: Lawman as the fully commissioned deputy performed his civic duty for the Sheriff's office in Louisiana. A villainous turn in Robert Rodriguez's Machete marked a return to cinemas after a near 9 year layoff. Seagal hasn't lacked for work though as he's released SIX films in 2016 alone. His latest, Contract to Kill comes out this weekend and features none other than Dammaged Goods favorite Russell Wong so it will be the first Seagal flick I've actively watched in years. Now "put your hands up!".


Sunday, December 4, 2016

Con-Man: Comikaze aka Stan Lee's Los Angeles Comic Con

Los Angeles' homegrown con Comikaze underwent a name change this year to Stan Lee's Los Angeles Comic Con. It was a bit confusing but also made sense and putting the man's branding in the title didn't hurt either. With an estimated 70,000 attendees last year, SLLACC(?) welcomed guests Lee, Rob Liefeld, Alan Tudyk and Mike Colter along with hundreds of vendors and artists over a rainy weekend. After being split up into two halls last year, Comikaze was back in the main hall with the Hot Topic stage anchoring one side where speakers and contests rolled out. Across the floor you had Funko, Loot Crate and Nerdist along with a noticeable presence from Legion M, a crowd funded entertainment outfit dedicated to creating genre friendly content where you could pitch your ideas.

Toys and comics aplenty, I picked up a few graphic novels featuring Captain America Duke from G.I. Joe along with some tee shirts but sadly saw no one hocking old issues of Cinefantastique. We ran into our usual con-rades at their booth selling action figures and talked how nice it was being back in one hall after having to walk back and forth last year. There was a full size Power Loader from Aliens with cast members signing at tables not far away. After the massive success of Deadpool it was no surprise that Rob Liefeld had a huge line while we spotted Casper Van Dien, Lee and Adam West at their respective tables. Nostalgia hit hard seeing some old G.I. Joe vehicles including the massive Aircraft Carrier U.S.S. Flagg in a display case. Nerdist had some nifty converted pinball machines via coffee tables that ran several grand. Artist Alley was packed to the gills and we were too late to grab the metallic Funko of Colossus from Hot Topic or the funny Pokemon themed shirt from the merch booth.

Cosplay wise there was lots of Star Wars and a surprising amount of Ghostbusters. Neegan from Walking Dead was EVERYWHERE, including on children which is kinda weird if you think about it. There was one Jack Frost, multiple folks in onesie/kigurumi's and a badass duo in full Spawn and Violator outfits. Makes me want to watch the movie and see if the unrated version is any less clunky than what I saw in theaters in the 90's. All in a fun day downtown and great to have the show all in one area again. It seems like the family business is doing well with crossover nights at Dodger Stadium, movie theaters and dance clubs becoming more and more frequent so here's to next year's Stan Lee's Los Angeles Comic Con proper.


Beyond Fest 2016: Big Trouble In Little China w/ Kurt Russell & James Gunn

The first film to sell out at Beyond Fest this year was a repertory screening of 1986's John Carpenter classic Big Trouble In Little China. I was honored to provide the write up on the BF website for one of my favorite films as one of my favorite actors, Kurt Russell, would be appearing for a post film conversation with Guardians of the Galaxy filmmaker James Gunn. Big Trouble sold out in less than a day and of course my most anticipated evening of the festival. I had no idea Russell would be attending the film and as a Russell film naming contest took place to introduce the night, I ran to the bathroom and saw the man standing in a hallway seemingly by himself. Caught by surprise I locked eyes with the film icon, inexplicably pointed at him and fist pumped as he smiled and waved. This would be the third time seeing Russell live and I'd actual met the guy briefly a while back and he was just as cool and funny as you'd want him to be.

Big Trouble In Little China holds up now better than ever, it's irreverent sense of humor mixed with mysticism soaked action, big sets, crazy costumes, whip fast banter and perfect cast is a one of a kind crowd pleaser. Russell and Gunn sat and watched the film and came down after where Russell was only too happy to view the film after such a long time with an audience who appreciated it. He looked back with nothing but fond memories, recalling that everyday on set was something cool to see, something cool to do and cool people to be around. The leading man gave director John Carpenter total credit for the esteem Escape From New York, The Thing, Big Trouble, et al are held in and shared that neither he nor Dwayne Johnson brought up the proposed remake The Rock is looking to produce and star in while the two worked together on Furious 8. Russell saw Jack Burton as a mix of himself, Jack Nicholson, John Wayne and the kind of guy you didn't ask for his opinion but shared it anyway. Russell shared several stories of being a young actor and how Fox executives didn't know what to do with the film, fools! Russell also dropped gems like "ifs, and's and Peter Pan's" aknd the classic "that guy knows what fucking time it is".

Beyond Fest 2016: Dog Eat Dog w/ Paul Schrader & Nicolas Cage

Now in it's fourth year, Beyond Fest has become America's largest genre film festival with 10,000 plus attendees and more than 30 films screening, many making their west coast premiere at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. Writer and director Paul Schrader's violently funny crime flick Dog Eat Dog kicked things off with a sold out night and Q&A with the legendary filmmaker along with star Nicolas Cage. The scribe of The Yakuza, Taxi Driver, Rolling Thunder, Raging Bull, Bringing Out the Dead and many more was insightful and amusing speaking about how Dog Eat Dog came to life after working with Cage on The Dying of the Light, a film taken away from the filmmakers with a released version the director and star were not proud of. DED follows three crooks in Ohio as they plot a kidnapping job to set them up financially for a while. Of course things go bad, people get dead, Cage effects a Humphrey Bogart accent, drugs are taken and Willem Dafoe shows he's still one of our greatest actors working today as a scuzzy yet likeable con.

After the film, Schrader spoke about how making the film quickly and cheaply created a kinetic energy compared to the old days where having more time and money just meant sitting in a trailer doing drugs. Schrader also had some interesting views on film history, speaking about people who made the rules, those that challenged them, those who broke them then filmmakers today who don't have any rules and can have a scene influenced by Kurosawa, Hitchcock, Spielberg, Tarantino or Bay in a single film. Originally a film critic, Schrader used writing as a form of therapy and after four outings with Martin Scorsese, had the guts to walk away and not become "his writer". Cage chimed in, always being a Schrader fan and used Andy Warhol as a metaphor for his acting. As in if an artist can present versions of a can of soup or celebrity, why can't Cage as an actor channel Elvis, Adam West or Bogart for a performance? A little subdued and not trying to take the light, Cage still came off intelligent and funny and would do well with a one man show, methinks.

Ask Me a Question: Heat w/ Mann, Pacino, DeNiro & Nolan

As you know, Heat is one of my all time favorite movies. So I was absolutely heartbroken to see that an Academy anniversary screening premiere of a new 4K restoration with writer/director Michael Mann and stars Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro attending came out of nowhere and sold out instantly. As someone who has attended so many awesome screenings and now put on my own special events, missing this seemed like a punch in the gut. A near meeting Jean-Claude Van Damme level of VienDammage influence. Not enough of a punch to go line up hours ahead of time to try and stand by but you know what I mean. But some eagle eyed #MovieBros alerted me that a block of tickets had gone back on sale, probably from Academy members who had to cancel. I quickly swooped up a pair for a cool $10 bucks, informed my other Heat loving friends and before you knew it, we had near front row seats at the Academy's theater in Beverly Hills.

The evening's program exploded with names added to the night like Val Kilmer, Diane Venora, Mykelti Williamson, editor William Goldenberg, producer Art Linson, director of photography Dante Spinottie and many more. I think there were 12-15 guests on stage by the end of the night. The movie, about highly skilled and experienced thieves and detectives still plays incredibly. At 3 hours long we get all the twists and turns of both professional crews yet I could keep watching another 3 hours. Everyone in the cast is immaculate but it's Pacino's quiet then screaming Detective Hanna that is just so Damme memorable. During the Q&A, Pacino shared that it was a secret that his character chipped cocaine which lead to some of his hilarious outbursts. Christopher Nolan is an open worshiper of the film, just watch The Dark Knight if you need evidence, and more or less fanboy'd out as moderator talking technical aspects with Mann, who in turn rattled off the exact number of shooting days and locations with no hesitation.

This is the second time we've seen Pacino and he was a riot as usual but he needed a little warming up. DeNiro didn't help as he literally is his cold and quiet onscreen persona and just shrugged about getting involved with the film basically thinking it would be great based off Mann's script and previous work. After a bit of reminiscing from the rest of the panel, Pacino started to remember more and in one story, he and Mann thought Williamson, hot off of Forest Gump should have won an Oscar but didn't, so they paid out of pocket to get him in their film. Pacino also delivered the greatest line of the night and possibly of the quarter when he summed up getting involved with the film as "it's New Year's Eve, I want to get into something...". Val Kilmer was a surprise, after years of battling throat cancer rumors and weight loss, he looks slim but in good spirits but when he started talking, it sounded like he was doing a Marlon Brando impression as he was fighting a swollen tongue. Walking out I spotted co-star William Fichter and chit chatted with Danny Trejo and wondered where Tom Sizemore was. A movie magical night.

Gotta Go! Houston

 
Earlier this summer I spent a week in Houston, Texas for work. I'd never been to the 4th most populated city in the country but prepared in true Dammaged Goods fashion by viewing locally shot films Sidekicks and I Come In Peace! The Jonathan Brandis-Chuck Norris flick Sidekicks was funded by a local furniture magnate and really shows off the city's skyline and parks while Dolph Lundgren fighting an alien drug dealer I Come In Peace gives you grittier look at strip clubs and abandoned factories. Being later in the summer it wasn't too hot but it was still pretty steamy. As in I walked outside after a morning workout and my glasses fogged over steamy.

 
I was impressed with the sheer size of the city and the big skies were absolutely beautiful. Being so large you had different sections like Uptown, Downtown and popular suburbs Oak Forest, Pearland and Katy. Everything is named twice with Goode Company BBQ across from a Goode Company Seafood, or two Westin's by the Galleria mall on the same street. Food wise nearly every place we went to served something chicken fried like steak or bacon and with country gravy on top! Which was awesome. There was the fantastic Whataburger chain along with a new spot for me, Cane's Chicken Fingers which was also delicious. We found several dive bars nearby like The Railyard, Revolver Bourbon Social who had mules and chicken fried bacon and Ron's Pub, which offered free chili dogs randomly, they were tasty though and I had a nice conversation with a local patron who had served in Vietnam.


We got out early one day and headed a quick 30 minutes out to NASA! The original mission control still stands, complete with viewing room with ash trays on the viewing room seats containing decades old ashes. Staff said that Ron Howard's production crew took a massive amount of photos and measured EVERYTHING. The tour includes stops at old computer command centers and a look at one of the Saturn rockets! Then back at home base you can check out dozens of suits, photos, exhibits and hands on experiments. All in I was quite the good time in Houston and if it wasn't so hot, maybe I'd consider living there!

Monday, November 21, 2016

Gotta Go! Austin

Earlier this summer I headed to Austin for work, it's no secret that the Weird capital of Texas has become a bit of a scene in the last years. With 100 + folks moving there a day in addition to a giant college nearby, being the live music capital of the world and huge festivals celebrating movies and tunes like South By SouthWest and Fantastic Fest, it's the premiere middle stop between Los Angeles and New York. I'd been there once before, literally for a day, last year for screenings of Lionheart and Only the Strong with Sheldon Lettich. The Alamo Drafthouse on Sixth seemed a little college grody to me but I learned that's what the area, dubbed Dirty Sixth, is all about. Bachelor-ette parties, bums and university kids line the closed off streets on weekend nights while there's a little bit older and calmer demographic on Rainey Street and a mix of both over on West Sixth.

Staying downtown at the half hotel, half office complex the Omni, I had a nice view of the city from their rooftop pool, construction and homeless shelter alike. I got to see a bit of the city with my co-workers and sample some tasty grub ranging from burgers to seafood to pizza. On my own I ventured over to Pinballz, a local establishment with arcade games and pinball machines that was BYOB! Walking around the selection was pretty varied with old school 80's games like Donkey Kong and Mario as well as a nice selection of driving ones like Batman or shooting with personal favorite Time Crisis. Lots of pinball with new to me Twister and Demolition Man being highlights. There was a small row of fighting games and after going on a tear in Time Crisis, my joystick jiu-jitsu continued as I won six matches straight on X-Men VS Street Fighter on one credit. In the end I took on Magneto and beat the game as Ken with a cute ending of him hanging out with his kid.

It was a fun trip and I'm glad I got to see more of Austin's eclectic mix of new modern sleekness, vintage architecture and random, slapped together looking houses and business surrounded by grass and gravel. I can't say I'd like to move there but it's a great place to visit with some nice folks. Plus I saw an old co-worker who had moved to Austin from LA, taking my copy of Hard Target with him and finally returning it.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Damme Words: All Those Moments

Speaking of books, over the summer I picked up a copy of Rutger Hauer's autobiography All Those Moments from an awesome garage sale for a buck. The hosts must have worked at nearby Sony as they had tons of memorabilia in forms of posters, shirts, books and promotional items. I also grabbed a bitching Escape Plan shirt that's super soft and excellent for wearing to the gym. Anyways, All Those Moments is a brief overview of iconic genre actor Rutger Hauer's career. Most know him from Blade Runner but he was also great in the likes of Ladyhawke, Blind Fury and Nighthawks, worked with Robocop's Paul Verhoeven, a fellow Dutchman, several times and showed up in varied fare like The Hitcher, Batman Begins, Sin City, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and so many more.

The book is a breezy read, never getting too detailed and skipping over a lot of his filmography. We get a picture of Hauer's poor upbringing to poor acting parents and how he was on the first Dutch television show, directed by Verhoeven. They'd work together multiple times with Hauer always having to ask and never being invited as Verhoeven was always looking for someone new. Hauer describes traveling to America and loving being here while working with Stallone on Nighthawks was a little more challenging as the Rocky star was clearly in control leading to a butting of heads. A funny side of Hauer is revealed as the actor drove a giant truck/RV deal around to sets in Europe leading Dick Donner to yell at him in disbelief when he showed up on the set of Ladyhawke. I could have used an entire book on the making of Blind Fury but it does get a chapter so I'll take what I can get.