Friday, December 28, 2007

Seagalogy


Being a cult movie fan and a librarian, I’m always on the lookout for great books relating to the subject. One of the items on my Christmas wish list this year, which thankfully found its way under the tree, was a recently published volume on the films of Steven Seagal (aptly titled Seagalogy). The book is written by Vern, a regular contributor to the Ain’t It Cool News Web site, and a fellow well-versed in all things Seagal. Essentially Seagology is an examination of Seagal’s films, and to a lesser extent his side projects (e.g. music albums, energy drinks, etc.). While I’m certainly not the expert that Vern is, I’ve always found Seagal to be a fascinating character, and his career arc has been incredibly interesting to watch. Now you’re probably saying to yourself the guy is no different than any other Hollywood action hero (e.g. Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Willis, Van Damme, etc.), but that is far from the case. (Note: Chuck Norris was left out of the above list for reasons related to my personal safety. Same goes for Kurt Thomas aka Jonathan Cabot). As Vern demonstrates through the course of the book, Seagal’s films are characterized by a unique voice and consistent thematic content, making his body of work something special. Is he right? Let’s take a closer look shall we . . .

My experience with Seagal began with his debut film Above the Law (1988). Seagal portrays Nico Toscani, a Chicago cop of Italian descent who also happens to be ex-CIA and an expert in aikido. This character profile will undergo numerous variations, and reappear in many Seagal outings. As Vern points out, Seagal has a fascination with martial arts/Eastern philosophy and government agency corruption, so these elements tend to find a place in most Seagal plots (regardless of how labored their insertion may be). In Above the Law, Seagal’s Toscani does battle with the great actor Henry Silva, a CIA operative who’s using drug money to finance guerrilla warfare. While the action scenes are thrilling, there is quite a bit of attention paid to highlighting the nefarious activities of government agencies and the lack of oversight employed to keep them in check. The film even wraps with Seagal addressing Congress on the abuses of these agencies. This focus on corruption clearly announces a cinematic agenda on the part of Seagal from the word go. Indeed the majority of his films will advance some sort of progressive cause (e.g. animal rights, environmental pollution, evils of big business, etc.) amidst numerous scenes of Seagal breaking the limbs of thugs (which he does so well).

While Above the Law has much that is familiar to action fans (e.g. shootouts, fist fights, car chases, etc.), it also stands out from the crowd due to the performance of Seagal. Firstly, his aikido style is quicker and more brutal than most martial arts seen on screen up to that point in time (and even now). It isn’t flashy like a lot of the kung fu one sees in movies, but rather all business. Secondly, Seagal has a presence that is entirely unique among action stars. He’s a bit of an enigma (wrapped in a riddle), and one can almost sense that the mystery he promulgates is a smokescreen for a fellow who’s a bit of a charlatan (with the exception of his marital arts skill). This gives his onscreen persona an unintentional hilarity, in that viewers come away thinking he’s full of hot air. Additionally, from the way he holds a gun to the way he runs, the man moves in a way that is unlike anything this reviewer has ever seen. His movement often appears awkward (with the exception of aikido), and comes off as both strange and amusing. Nevertheless, he makes it abundantly clear that you do not want to mess with him.

It also bears mentioning that the release of this film marked somewhat of a watershed moment in action film history. The 80’s had been largely dominated by four major action stars: Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Bronson (yes), and Norris (of course). Certainly all would continue to work in the 90’s, but their true heyday was largely over by the close of the 80’s. Indeed, the arrival of Seagal heralded a virtual free for all of new action hero wannabes, vying to ascend to the throne of Top Dog (veiled Chuck Norris reference). Surely you remember these names: Michael Dudikoff, Jeff Speakman, Olivier Gruner, Dolph Lundgren, Jean-Claude Van Damme (the horror), etc. All had varying measures of success (Van Damme unfortunately the most), but Seagal was the one who almost pulled it off. Now you might suggest that some of these folks arrived on the scene prior to Seagal. That may be technically accurate but, as Seagalogy illustrates, none arrived on the scene as a full-blown star. That’s right, Seagal not only had a leading role, his first film was a star vehicle. Even Schwarzenegger appeared in bit parts at the beginning! Not Seagal. He didn’t have time to waste on such things.

So Above the Law was a triumph, and Seagal went on to appear in a string of successful films. I remember back in those days that every time a Seagal film was released, it automatically went to the top of the weekend box office. This went on for years! Can you even fathom such a thing? One aspect of Seagalogy I particularly like is that Vern divides up the Seagal filmography into eras:

The Golden Era: Above the Law, Hard to Kill, Marked For Death, Out For Justice

The Silver Era: Under Siege, On Deadly Ground, Under Siege 2, Executive Decision, The Glimmer Man, Fire Down Below, The Patriot, Exit Wounds, Ticker, Half Past Dead

DTV (Direct-To-Video) Era: Everything Else

This is a spot-on division of Seagal’s output, particularly with respect to Vern’s decision to place Under Siege in the Silver Era. Golden Era Seagal really is a heady period. The films flow one to the next, with Seagal laying out hard-hitting justice to corrupt officials and drug lords. Most importantly, justice is largely dispensed via aikido and limited gunplay (beginning with Under Siege aikido takes a back seat to bullets and explosives). Out For Justice is quite a capper to this period, as it represents the grittiest and most accomplished of the four films, and is also arguably Seagal’s best film. Under Siege then marks a turning point for Seagal. It was his first (and only) true blockbuster, and catapulted him to the level of mainstream superstar for a brief moment in time. As Vern identifies, this represented an opportunity for him to capitalize on his hard won clout and take his place as America’s favorite action hero. What he chose to do with his new power was perhaps ill-advised, but without question daring. Three words friends: On Deadly Ground.

On Deadly Ground saw Seagal unleashed. As mentioned previously, Seagal always managed to incorporate some kind of message into his films. Usually it dealt with government corruption of some sort, but more often than not the action was prominent enough to make the underlying theme almost subliminal. With On Deadly Ground, Seagal had full directorial control and input into the script. As such, the film is loaded with messages ranging from animal rights to the evils of big business. The real showstopper though is the finale in which Seagal gives a lengthy speech on man’s abuse of the environment. Not since the closing minutes of Above the Law (which by comparison was just a warm up) had Seagal so clearly enunciated his progressive views. Unfortunately, while the message may have been heartfelt and somewhat accurate, it was a bitter pill to swallow in a cheesy action movie headlined by a fellow whose greatest talent was the variety of ways he can break a limb. Consequently, the movie bombed with action fans and activists, sending Seagal down the slow decline to home video. Despite its financial failure however, On Deadly Ground is still quite a spectacle and more than just an action film. As such, it serves to add to the mystique of Seagal which separates him from the pack. It may not be a masterpiece, but it’s head and shoulders above the generic action movies that were coming out left and right at the time . . . and now.

Although he toned things down after the failure of On Deadly Ground, fans just didn’t connect with him after that. The mainstream public likely became convinced he was a joke, whereas the faithful probably felt he had abandoned his hardcore action roots. No matter the reason, his box office power gradually eroded to a point where he was no longer a sought after commodity. To make matters worse, his physical appearance echoed his career decline, leading to films in which Seagal was clearly doubled by other actors rather than performing his own fight/stunt work. Ultimately, he has been relegated to direct-to-video features (churning out as many as four a year!), which for the most part are barely watchable. You still find the messages and themes typical of Seagal, but they are sandwiched into films that are neither visually interesting nor exciting. In fact, Seagal is in them very little. As mentioned, he is frequently doubled and often dubbed(!) by other actors. If you want to see a horrendous example of a DTV Seagal feature, check out Out For A Kill (available at the Chesapeake Public Library : ) Funny and sad.

As I said, Seagal’s career trajectory is truly fascinating, and his early/middle work is something special. If you’re a Seagal fan or just curious, you really should pick up a copy of Seagalogy. It’s a fun read, and it does a great job of capturing what makes Seagal an atypical action hero, worthy of analysis. It has inspired me to go back and revisit some of those early works, and I’m a better person as a result . . . or something. On a parting note, the book also features the best quotes from Seagal’s films. One that stands out as defining the man, particularly in light of his unwillingness to give up on filmmaking and embracing of Zen-like principles, comes from 1990’s Hard To Kill: “We're outgunned and undermanned. But you know sumpin'? We're gonna win. You know why? Superior attitude. Superior state of mind.” What wisdom. Of course he also said the following in the same movie: “I'm gonna take you to the bank, Senator Trent. To the blood bank!” Pure genius.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

An Embarrassment of Riches



The reigning DVD set in my collection was until this past Tuesday the Planet of the Apes Ultimate Collection (which is housed in a bust of Caesar from Conquest of the Planet of the Apes). Well, Warner Bros. has now upped the ante in the outrageous collector's edition department with their recent release of the Blade Runner Ultimate Collector's Edition. This 5-disc set comes with five versions of the film (including the fabled workprint), a 3 1/2 hour documentary, over an hour of unused scenes and footage, lots of featurettes, trailers, and more. To top it off, it's housed in a replica of Deckard's briefcase which includes a folio of art, toy Spinner, origami unicorn, and a lenticular film scene. Truly, this set is unbelievable.

What blows my mind is how far the collectible video market has come. I can remember in the early 90's purchasing a Criterion laserdisc of the International Cut of the film for $100 (one of these days I'll have to do a whole thing on the laserdisc era)! That disc just had a passable widescreen transfer, a brief section of "fan notes," and some artwork. $100! I walked out of the store with this ultimate set for $35 (with some discounts). Good grief. This thing is so packed, it's daunting to even the most hardcore fan to plow through all the information. Having said that, you will find things in this that will leave you in awe. Unused voiceover narration (complete with Harrison Ford complaining about its quality), tons of deleted material (most of which is fascinating), screen tests (including actors who didn't make the cut), etc. Even if you aren't a fan, you will likely find this stuff interesting as the making-of was apparently quite a drama itself.

Sets like this make one wonder what will come out next. Of course it bears mentioning that folks in foreign countries get even more of this kind of special edition packaging than we in the U.S. do. If you happen to have the capability of playing Region 2 discs, you could enjoy the entire Phantasm series housed in a silver sphere, the Alien series housed in an Alien head, or Event Horizon (yes, Event Horizon) in what else but a model of the Event Horizon ship! Insanity! My wish for the next year is that Gymkata will finally be released in a 10-disc set, encased in a pommel horse : )

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Episode 33: Hammer Time!

Our New Year show is just around the corner and, given that we’ve been all over the map recently, we’ll be returning to our personal favorite . . . classic horror! It’s been a little while since we’ve visited the Hammer library, so we thought we’d pull a couple of titles from there since you can never go wrong with Hammer : )

First off, we’ll be screening a major title in the form of Dracula Has Risen From the Grave. This is the third entry in the Dracula series starring the legendary Christopher Lee, and picks up right where the previous installment left off. Having been frozen in ice at the base of his castle, the Prince of Darkness has been out of commission for a while. Not wise enough to leave things alone, a couple of holy men go to bless the castle and inadvertently awaken the Count, who not surprisingly goes on a rampage! This installment is one of the high points of the series and features all of the quality you would expect from 60’s era Hammer.

Second up is one of Team Fantasmo’s favorite Hammer films, Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter! This one is sort of an odd feature, in that it was meant to launch an ongoing series of films. Unfortunately it was somewhat mishandled, and didn’t fare too well upon release. As a result, a second installment never materialized. The plot involves the heroic Captain Kronos responding to a call for help from an old friend, who believes there is evil afoot in his small village. Kronos quickly discovers that vampires are at work, and commences to laying waste to the responsible parties. Part adventure, part horror, this is one-of-a-kind in the Hammer library, and an experience not to be missed!

Here are your details, for this sure to be celebrated episode:

When: Friday, January 4

Where: Chesapeake Central Library

Films:

8:00 p.m.: Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (Rated G)

10:00 p.m.: Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (Rated R)

So here is your chance to start honoring your New Year’s resolutions right off the bat, by a) not missing a single Fantasmo, and b) seeing these two Hammer classics on the big screen, as they were meant to be seen! All this plus more details on the next year of Fantasmo, inspired commentary, and a veritable feast of snacks and prizes! See you there!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

You'd Better Watch Out!

Well Superfans, another holiday show has come and gone, and sadly (depending on your point of view) this means it will be another whole year until Can’t Stop the Music returns. For some this will no doubt be a cause to rejoice, but I must confess I am amazed at how much this film continues to entertain upon repeat viewings. Truly, I laughed just as hard this time as I did the first. Furthermore, I always manage to discover new information with each viewing. As an example, this is the first time I was paying attention at the beginning when the ad exec explains that they are planning a campaign to advertise milk. I had always been puzzled as to the origin of the Milkshake dance sequence, and now understand it is tied back to a fleeting scene at the beginning of the film. Up until this viewing I just assumed it was part of the random insanity that is so much a part of CSTM!

On a related note, when checking my email this morning I was notified of a new post by Fantasmo All-Star Craig. The post started as follows: “Just saw this tonight, and I admit that it was a very hard film to watch. I agree that the very real horror of this film . . . “. Up until the word film, I thought he was talking about CSTM : ) Turns out, he’d just seen The Mist! That being said, having heard Craig’s review of CSTM, I’m sure he would start out a post reviewing the Village People epic in much the same way. In any event , as long as you keep demanding it, we’ll keep showing it at the holiday show. Who knows what plot points I will discover next year!

Speaking of the holidays, Fantasmo regular (and founding member of Klaxar’s Focus Group) George Booker recently dropped me a message asking about ideas for “alternative” Christmas films. You know the kind of film we’re talking about here. The film may involve Christmas or be set at Christmas, but is not a Christmas film in the traditional sense (e.g. It’s a Wonderful Life). It was such a great question, I thought it might be fun to share my answer on the blog. So here’s a list (in no particular order) for those of you who need an escape from the likes of Miracle on 34th Street, White Christmas, A Christmas Carol, etc. . . .

1 – Better Off Dead (1985): Set during Christmas, this 80’s cult comedy finds John Cusack trying a number creative ways to kill himself after his high school sweetheart dumps him. An infinitely quotable film, worth seeing for the evil paperboy alone!

2 – Die Hard (1988): An action classic that needs no introduction. Bruce Willis delivers the holiday gift of hot lead to a team of terrorists who take over a skyscraper on Christmas Eve.

3 – Lethal Weapon (1987): Mel Gibson stars as a suicidal policeman coping with the loss of his wife during the “silly season.” Luckily he has Gary Busey to distract him. (Look for a cameo by Fantasmo favorite Tom “The Man” Atkins).

4 – Gremlins (1984): Zach Galligan (Waxwork) receives a mogwai for Christmas and makes the unfortunate mistake of feeding it after midnight. Luckily he has Phoebe Cates to distract him.

5 – Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984): This one caused a major stir in the early 80’s, and is probably the most notorious alternative Christmas film. A young boy witnesses a killer dressed as Santa murder his parents, goes insane, and repeats the crime when he grows up. Not a great film, but certainly the best in this series. (See also: Silent Night, Deadly Night 2-5).

6 – Christmas Evil (1980): Probably the best entry in the “evil Santa” sweepstakes, this one follows another fellow obsessed with Santa. When folks doubt his authenticity, he goes off the deep end. This one plays up the dark humor over the grisly kills (e.g. Silent Night, Deadly Night) and is better off for it.

7 – Black Christmas (1974): One of the first, most effective slasher films out of the gate. Directed by Bob Clark (who ironically would later go on to do A Christmas Story), Black Christmas has a psychotic killer stalking sorority sisters at their largely deserted dormitory over Christmas break. Also features a great cult cast including Margot Kidder (Superman), Keir Dullea (2001: A Space Odyssey), and the one and only John Saxon (Enter the Dragon)! Christmas + John Saxon = Holiday Magic!

8 – Brazil (1985): Terry Gilliam’s futuristic, dark comedy follows Jonathan Pryce as a hopeless dreamer struggling to survive in a dystopian nightmare. The film is set primarily at Christmas, and features some truly inspired gift-giving!

9 – Eyes Wide Shut (1999): Stanley Kubrick’s final film features Tom Cruise undertaking a dangerous odyssey on the streets of New York after an argument with then-spouse Nicole Kidman. Ultimately he lands square in the middle of a cult ceremony that could spell his doom! All during the height of the holiday season!

10 – Tales From the Crypt (1972): Great anthology film with a standout segment featuring Joan Collins being stalked by who else but a deranged Santa! Be sure to stick around for the rest of the movie, it’s terrific!

So there are 10 great cult holiday gems to get you started on your own marathon. Please feel free to post others here on the blog, and share the joy of the season with your Team Fantasmo and fellow Superfans! Also, final details will be coming soon for our New Year episode, which will feature a return to horror movies!!

Happy Holidays!!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

You Can't Stop It . . . Don't Even Try!

As our annual Can’t Stop the Music screening fast approaches, I thought I’d say a few words . . .

What is it about this movie that has struck such a chord with your Team Fantasmo, and you the Fantasmo audience? I’m sure you all have your own answers, having surely given the question long hours of intense thought (which it absolutely deserves). For me personally, there is just some sort of alchemy at work in this film that makes it not only memorable, but downright enjoyable. As I’ve said before I’m no real fan of musicals (only a select few), but this one really stands out. The obvious component to chalk this up to is The Village People. No doubt many see them as an outrageous and kitschy reminder of the 80’s. To tell you the truth though, that’s not the case. Their music is actually pretty catchy here and, although the story is supposedly about their formation, they really take a back seat to the other goings on.

While I haven’t done any sort of in-depth study, I’m fairly certain if one clocked it they would find the bulk of the film is spent on Valerie Perrine, Bruce Jenner, and Steve Guttenberg. The greatest attention is given to the antics surrounding the relationship that develops between Perrine and Jenner, as well as Guttenberg’s gutsy attempt to become a successful music producer. What’s so incredible is that the film manages to keep one drawn in despite the fact that these plot strands are defiantly uninteresting. How is this feat managed? Through the sheer awfulness of the performances . . . particularly Jenner and Guttenberg. To be fair, Jenner wasn’t an actor to begin with. He was merely capitalizing on his athletic success to launch a film career. Sometimes this works (e.g. Jim Brown), and sometimes it doesn’t (e.g. Brian Bozworth). In this case, one quickly realizes that Jenner would do best in cameo types of roles that require no greater reaction from the audience than “gee, there’s Bruce Jenner!” And I’ve said it before, but Guttenberg looks like his head is about to explode with each line delivery. This film should have destroyed his career, and had it not been for the wild success of Police Academy it probably would have.

Even though these performances are mesmerizing in their way, on their own they would not be enough to make Can’t Stop the Music special. That’s where the Village People come in. Just when you’ve had almost too much of the Perrine/Jenner/Guttenberg troika, director Nancy Walker wisely throws in a musical interlude (all of which give new meaning to over-the-top). With this back and forth recipe of disastrous performances and outlandish musical numbers, the movie never gives the audience time to catch their breath. Furthermore, at a running time of over two hours the film incredibly never overstays its welcome. The show-stopping finale featuring the title song leaves the audience indeed not wanting the music to stop (if this were an actual concert an encore would be demanded)! The ensemble number which assembles practically the entire cast (save for the rascally Paul Sand), truly serves as a melodious exclamation point declaring that try as one might, both the music and this brilliant film cannot be stopped!

So in summary, the reasons you should be on hand this Friday for Can’t Stop the Music:

1 – You can’t stop the music.

2 – Valerie Perrine.

3 – Bruce Jenner.

4 – Steve Guttenberg.

5 – The Village People.

6 – Team Fantasmo (shameless plug).

7 – See #1.

The magic begins promptly at 8:00 p.m., so don’t be late!! All this and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band!! And please, feel free to post your excuses (er, reasons that is) for loving this film as much as we do. We'd like to hear them . . . we really would : )