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    Monday, 27 May 2013 22:37

    The Crow

    Written by

    the crow

    It was 1993 and I was just starting my film career.  An executive who I had met at a different production company and now worked at Paramount Films called me in to talk about an idea that I had pitched to her a few months previous.  Her plan was to use my pitch to capture the heart of an elusive actor named Brandon Lee who had done a few B-movie actioneers and was primed for takeoff to the A-List.  She thought my concept would help facilitate that ascension.

    Perhaps it would have but Brandon decided against my project and did "The Crow" instead.  Unfortunately.

    Brandon had undeniable charisma and talent.  He hadn't done much in the way of weighty dramatic roles but he lit up the screen when he was on it.  And his martial arts skills were real and unique.  He wasn't perhaps as talented as his amazing father, Bruce Lee, but he had a different focus in life that Bruce didn't necessarily have.

    To Brandon, serious acting was the goal.  He studied it, went to school for it.  He told me in our meeting that was just the two of us in the exec's Paramount office, that he wasn't interested in action roles anymore.  He wanted more from his acting.  He had already done several films and some TV and was hungry to prove to everyone that he needed to be taken seriously as an actor.  He wanted to be Robert Deniro.

    In person, he was gracious and funny - a guy you could really like despite all the trappings of his celebrity.  That was definitely part of his draw as an actor - he came across that same way on screen, even when he was playing a role. The meeting we had was quiet and personal - just two young men talking about a lot of things, film being only one of the subjects.  We chatted about martial arts, his father, literature - a lot that had nothing to do with the purpose of why we were given the exec's office to use.  He told me he wanted to do Hamlet.  That he hadn't even spoken English until he was eight and he considered the Bard to be a personal challenge.  He smiled broadly at that as if processing some internal joke.  It made me laugh to see him so amused, and even though he was basically saying no to my pitch, I was thrilled to sit and just talk to him. 

    "The Crow" made Brandon a posthumous superstar.  It showed that even though the Lee name was known for martial arts, Brandon had other skills.  The Crow's main character, Draven, and his tortured soul were a good showcase for Lee's acting abilities.  What a tragedy that he never lived to enjoy the fruits of that success.  He was killed on the set in a bizarre accident at the age of 28, eight days before filming was to wrap.

    Based on the comic book and series by James O'Barr, the film tells of metal rocker Eric Draven who is killed trying to stop his community-activist girlfriend from being raped and beaten by outlaws working for Top Dollar (Michael Wincott) a crooked (goth-like) developer.  Draven and his fiance are killed on Devil's Night, the night before Halloween where buildings are burned and hell is raised...

    In this case, almost literally.

    Draven's death leaves behind a mystery and a friendly cop played by Ernie Husdon who can't seem to solve it.  A street urchin named Sarah, (Rochelle Davis) whose mother is a junkie and who has no time or inclination to be a proper parent, is another mourner.  Draven and his fiance had taken Sarah under their care.  She is more than devastated by their deaths traveling the ugly, rat-infested streets on her skateboard, basically without a home.  She is also our narrator who opens and closes the film with her observations.the crow

    One year after Draven's death, on Devil's Night, his 'ghost' rises from the dead to seek revenge on the men who killed him and his future bride.  He's aided by a crow which gives him supernatural powers and at times acts as his eyes seeing into the darkness of the city streets.  Sarah narrates the concept in the beginning:  

    "People once believed that when someone dies, a crow carries their soul to the land of the dead. But sometimes, something so bad happens that a terrible sadness is carried with it and the soul can't rest. Then sometimes, just sometimes, the crow can bring that soul back to put the wrong things right."

    And so it goes as Draven walks the Earth again, reliving the painful past and taking great glee in making the murderers pay for their crimes in unique fashion.

    This film showcases a lot of what Lee was good at - his martial arts are fast and furious and his acrobatics show that he had the Lee Family skillset firmly in place.  Other films like "Rapid Fire" and "Showdown in Little Tokyo" have more and cleaner fight scenes but the few that you can see (this film is very dark both in tone and cinematography) are solid and fun.  

    Speaking of dark-themed, this film is ultra-violent and features challenging overlays like incest, drug addiction, mothers who'd rather do their junkie than their kid's laundry, etc. Directed by Alex Proyas I think it was one, if not the first, to take a video-game-like approach to story telling.  It's very stylish and stylized with leather outfits, cities that never have daytime, sunlight, or clement weather, and features an ax-wielding superhero - in this case, the ax being a guitar.

    Some of the set pieces in this film stay really with you.  There's a scene where Draven draws a crow-symbol in fire that's pretty cool and also a fight scene in a warehouse boardroom where all the lords of crime gather that is bloody violent and well-executed.  Plus, some of Lee's moments where he's by himself, living through the pain of his and his loved one's death, are wholly memorable.

    the crowHad Lee lived, no doubt this would have opened the floodgates for him.  He was rough in spots, dramatically, struggling perhaps with the arch material derived from the comic book, but there were moments when the actor he was and could be shown through clearly.  The quiet scenes with Sarah (the little girl) and with Ernie Hudson were terrific.  Not so good was the crappy dialogue he had to deliver when he was killing the individual members of the gang to satisfy the faux-ironic witticisms someone shoved in his character's mouth.

    The character who could actually make that sort of dialogue work was Top Dollar played by Wincott who makes his over-the-top personna as an incestuous, coke-sniffing ganglord fit like a Rodeo Drive, custom-designed t-shirt.  He is perhaps what makes those parts of "The Crow" sans Lee tolerable because he just works as this larger-than life character. 

    The stunt work and fight scenes were skillfully choreographed by the legendary Jeff Imada who was a friend of Lee's and studied Jeet Kun Do with him under Dan Inosanto.  Imada was recently the primary fight choreographer for the Bourne films - some really great movie fighting.  Imada has done nearly two hundred films as either a stuntman or fight/stunt coordinator.

    The Lee family

    To finish the film, the producers had to double Lee and I had always heard do some additional CGI of some of his scenes.  That perhaps excuses some of the awkward transitions and missing narrative.  A lot of what was supposed to be interaction between Lee and his fiance (actress Rochelle Davis) was to be shot at the end of the production, after all the action scenes, so Lee didn't have to wear makeup on the latter parts of the film.  His character looks a lot like The Joker in Batman and that white paint had to be a major pain to put on each day.  Those dramatic scenes went unfinished, even despite a double, because Davis left the production and went back to Hollywood after witnessing Lee's death on the set.

    There are varying stories about the accident but the one most consistently told is that a cartridge (primer loaded only) had lodged in a gun on the set on a previous day.  And when some blanks were loaded into a gun by a non-gun handler who didn't check the barrel as he was supposed to, the charge blew the jammed cartridge out and it hit Lee.  Also, according to reports, the gun wasn't fired directly at Lee but the shattered projectile curved toward him, lodging in his spine and killing him twelve hours later.  This, if true, almost gives credence to the supposed curse on the Lee family that allegedly killed Lee's father at the age of thirty-two and him at the age of twenty-eight.  If you're interested in any of this, there's the biopic "Dragon, The Bruce Lee Story" which details Bruce Lee's life (and the alledged curse) and also lots of documentary information to be found everywhere.  One of the sites that covers a lot of this information is here.

    brandon lee

    A piece of terrible serendipity (also fueling the curse scenario) is that Bruce Lee died just days before his film "Enter the Dragon" was released, the film that would have marked him as an American superstar; and his son dies on the set of the film that certainly would have guaranteed Brandon's superstardom.  As Dr. Tyrell says in the movie "Blade Runner" - the candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long.  The Lee's both burned so brightly but sadly, not long.
    The film is dedicated to Brandon and Eliza (Hutton,) Lee's fiance, who were to be married after the film wrapped - another bit of terrible fate since the Draven character was killed before his upcoming marriage.  Hutton and Lee's mother worked to get the film released and then she basically disappeared out of the spotlight.

    March 2013 marks twenty years since Brandon Lee's death.  Not much time goes by that I don't remember the nice guy with the great sense of humor who made me feel special while turning me down.  We had a good meeting and had promised to stay in touch.  Hell, we might have even worked in the future on the movie that transformed both our lives (not named "The Crow.")  Maybe I would have even baptized one of his children and been the uncle-friend who comes over for barbecue.  Who knows?   

    I was lucky to have met Brandon just months before his death. I do think of that meeting on occasion wishing  that he had done my film instead of "The Crow" for a lot of reasons but for one main reason - that he might still be alive today, no doubt by now having garnered several acting awards and continuing accolades as a Hollywood figure.  

    But perhaps the saddest part of this whole scenario is that there aren't ever enough nice people in Hollywood.  We can ill afford to ever lose someone with the open and joyous heart of a Brandon Lee. 

    As Sarah from the film puts it:

    Sarah: [voiceover] If the people we love are stolen from us, the way to have them live on is to never stop loving them. Buildings burn, people die, but real love is forever.

    We don't have Brandon anymore but we have his work and that superstar smile that could light up a movie screen or make a beginning screenwriter feel awfully good about himself even as he's being gently rejected.

    Word is, there is a re-boot of the movie in the works.  I'm sure it will be well-done but I probably won't see it.  

    I just couldn't picture anyone else but Brandon Lee in this role.  

    The one that defined him.  


    Tuesday, 21 May 2013 16:24

    Confessions of a Pit Fighter

    Written by

    confessions one sheetWhat is the heart of a martial arts film?  Is it the fighting?  The art, the skill set?  The stunts?  The (at times) brutal violence?  Yes, to a large extent the reasons we watch these films is because we are either a fan or a practitioner of the art and these movies come with their own set of rules and mythos that the genre demands.  And we seek out.

    Early films from American filmmakers revolved around almost comic book types of martial artists.  And I don't mean that in a disparaging way - they were fun, albeit unbelievable.  The main characters were more traditional in style and approach and rarely were these men the 'bad guy' - they most certainly were not street thugs who ended up in jail from beating a man to death like the central character in "Confessions of a Pit Fighter."  

    As the martial arts in movies evolved so did the storytelling.  Inner journeys became more common.  Regret, though, in the form of a wasted life and the toll a life of brutality can take weren't foremost in those journeys.  Director, writer, producer, stunt coordinator and actor Art Camacho plays out that theme writ small and tight in the mean streets of East L.A. where the elegance of life is razor thin and violence in many forms is your daily reality.

    Hector Echavarria, a true martial arts master in many forms, plays Eddie Castillo, a  man who is almost an unbeatable street fighter with feet and fists that devastate and punish and a jaw that can take massive amounts of abuse.  These aren't the sanctioned fights of "Warrior" - they aren't even inside an underground fight club.  They take place wherever there's an empty lot and a ring demarcated by tricked out cars and motorcycles driven by men every bit as badass as the fighters they are betting on.  Castillo fights, wins, f*cks and goes home to a small apartment where he and his younger brother live.  

    During one fight, Echavarria's character kills a man with his bare fists and his younger brother (Ricardo Medina) witnesses it.  Unknown at the time, this has a major impact on younger bro.  Castillo goes to prison where he is beaten constantly by the guards until he fights for them, and brutalized further by the life style that's even worse than the mean streets he grew up on.

    But as bad as he has it, the younger brother Castillo left behind has it worse.  Only it doesn't seem that way because young bro is a street fighter now too - and he's good - very good.  He's charismatic, well-liked and has no fear of either the alleyways of East L.A. or his opponents.  What he doesn't realize is that the cycle of violence that created him will also destroy him.  But Little Brother is so unaware of the toll his life-style will take, he never once gives it a thought as he drinks and fights and f*cks his way through his life.  Just like his older brother who he worshipped.  Even though he sees how the life rewarded his brother, Little Brother never processes the possibility of similar consequences for himself.

    street fightingWhen Castillo gets out of jail, Little Brother is there to welcome him.  It's been seven years and the time has changed both men.  Castillo has learned a hard lesson - that in one hot moment, life can kick you so hard you never recover.  Little Brother won't hear this, however, because he's on a hot streak - life is good and the women flow like the L.A. spillage ditches on a rainy day.  Which really describes a lot of us, doesn't it?.  We are typically so happy to be among the trees, we don't ever see the forest.  The bigger picture of our actions escapes us in the day-to-day living we do.  Before we know it, the insidiousness of our decisions comes to fruition and we look around suddenly to realize we've locked ourselves into a bad place.  That is the truth in the tale here that Camacho wants to tell.  Actions have direct but also generational consequences.

    As Castillo tries to integrate back into the world that used to welcome him, he feels no longer a part of it.  He can't really go back to who he was and he isn't sure how to move forward in a world that's left him behind.   He's having a crises of identity.  

    Circumstances provide a terrible answer to his quandary.

    When Little Brother is killed by a fighter named Matador played by Quinton Rampage Jackson (who reminds me a little of the raging Mr-T character in the third "Rocky" film,) Castillo sets out to find out how and why.  In order to do that he will have to go back to pit fighting - something he's tried to learn to reject while in prison.  

    Initially, Castillo fights because his younger brother's girlfriend is pregnant and she needs money.  Then, he begins to realize that maybe his younger brother wasn't just killed accidentally in a pit fight but rather on purpose to further the ambitions of a crooked promoter.  This sets up the inevitable battle between the two men that will form the set piece of the last act.

    echavarrioArmand Assante plays the crooked promoter who deals in the shadowy world of bare-knuckle street fighting.  There's money to be made in betting on a sure thing in the form of Rampage Jackson's character.  Assante's character enlists the aid of Flava Flav who is much lower on the food chain of promoters but handles skilled and tough street fighters like Castillo who becomes one of Flav's fighters, and who he begins pushing up the ladder.  In short order, it's gonna be Assante's fighter, Matador, and Flav's fighter, Castillo, going head to head for all the marbles, uh, money.

    Camacho knows this material both from a martial arts standpoint ( he's a massively talented martial artist and fight coordinator) and from a street rat perspective.  Having grown up in East L.A. the rhythms of the dark streets run hot in his blood.  He was able to enlist real gangsters for his crowd scenes.  In one interview he tells of a situation where two rival gangs almost came to war on the set which would have meant guns blazing.  Camacho was able to calm the storm and finish the shoot but having filmed in the ugly parts of L.A. myself., I can tell you from experience you keep your head on a swivel and expect the worst to happen at any time.  It gets real, fast.

    I've always said the difference between a B-movie and an A-list film is the transitions between scenes.  You don't have the time or money to shoot everything you need so you cheat the transition scenes - don't need 'em.  Got the shot?  Move on to the next major scene - that's all we have time for.  It's a shame that Camacho didn't have the budget for this film that some of the A-listers do.  The ugly, dirty, at times horrible life-style choices that poverty imposes would have been pushed to limits that I don't think we've seen before.  

    The fights in this film are violent, brutal and no-holds barred.  There's very little "pretty" martial artistry here - except for Echavarria's spinning back kick.  You can almost taste the blood and dirt when these men pummel each other.  It's mano-a-mano with no quarter asked or given.  When you step forward you're hit in the mouth until you either hit back or go down.  Street rules meaning no rules at all.

    Assante plays a credible bad guy.  And Flava Flav is decent. Ricardo Medina who plays Little Brother is solid both acting and in martial arts.  Yvonne Arias is muy hot as Little Brother's GF, and Brazilian pop star Gizelle d'Cole who plays Assante's arm candy is a sexy, sultry presence. I also really loved her contribution to the soundtrack "Pegandu Fogu" which plays in the beginning of the film.

    This is a tough film in some ways to watch if you look below the surface and try to understand what is being said here.  It saddens and shocks me to see brutality this obvious - and I have no doubt it comes from a truth that only someone who lived it can muster.

    "Confessions of a Pit Fighter" is a B-movie but Camacho is a powerful and enduring filmmaker.  If someone ever gives him a real budget he may well rocket into the big time instantly because he feels and films deeply...maybe too deeply for most of our taste.  

    It makes those of us who haven't had to fight for every scrap of our existence profoundly uncomfortable. 

    And that's a good thing.

    Saturday, 18 May 2013 23:00

    Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior

    Written by

    ong bakSome actors are defined by a film; some define it.  "Ong Bak" would be nothing without Tony Jaa.  He definitely defines it - and in turn, it defined him in 2003 as the next BIG THING in martial arts actors.

    If you haven't seen Tony Jaa before prepare to be mindblown.  He is a marvel, at times appearing to be beyond human.  This 2003 film was his breakout film - it made him a superstar.

    He is probably the most incredible martial arts actors, perhaps ever.  His idol, Jackie Chan, is of course the standard by which all the rest of these lithe, leaping, kicking and punching amazeoids are measured, but Jaa has more raw power and tight skills and that gives him a slight edge on my scorecard.

    "Ong Bak" proves that Jaa is superhuman - especially since the entire film was done without wires or CGI - it's all sweat, muscle and training. The martial discipline, of course, is Muay Thai with a liberal dose of gymnastics, and although Jaa has other martial arts training (including Aikido) it's Muay Thai that his fighting most closely manifests.  In "Ong Bak" his magnificent skills are put to simply amazing extremes as action scene after action scene plays out - but let's not get too ahead of ourselves.

    Jaa, a man of few words whether because he's in character or because he chose to be that way, plays a Buddhist priest-candidate from a small village in Thailand.  In the insanely impressive opening scene, he is the one who reaches the top of this humongous tree, leaping from limb to limb like a Capuchin monkey, to claim the flag. This gives him a special blessing from Ong Bak, an ancient Buddha statue.  Why it's called that is never clear and really who cares?  Point is, it is the fountain of all blessing and good fortune for this poor village.  When a Bangkok lowlife steals the head thinking he can get some cash for it the village is devastated certain that bad fortune will continue to visit them.  Wells have dried, crops have failed and many of the young people have fled to the big city to survive.

    Jaa volunteers to go get the head to restore the village's luck, and that's how he becomes Ong Bak, Thai Warrior.

    Now something that with simple of a storyline would also imply that the movie itself would be.  Not so.  It is at times frustratingly simple-minded and clinched but in a lot of parts, the story narrative really soars.  Whoever was behind the production really elevated it beyond what most films of this type would be.  And there's a nice tone to it - not jokey and not so overly serious that you roll your eyes. There's good, tough, mean bad guys - a lot of them - and even better stunt people as Jaa fish-out-of-waters it in the big, bad city while trying to find the Buddha head and cope with the twisty ways of Bangkok.

    While in Bangkok, Jaa's character comes under the attention of a local crime lord who has a taste for gambling on illegal, no-holds-barred, pit fighting.  This guy is creepy and speaks through an electronic voice box which makes him even more sinister.  Jaa never willingly wants to use his warrior-priest skills but once he's forced to and he's spotted by said crime lord, the plot really thickens.  Now Jaa has to fight various opponents bent on destroying him while still searching for the Buddha head - and also trying to survive the conniving ways of a gambling cousin who had moved to Bangkok years before.

    tony jaa kicking

    The extended chase scenes as Jaa tries to avoid gangsters bent on killing him and his cousin are jaw-droppingly good as is the incredible hand-to-hand fighting that Jaa does at various times.  I LOVED the fact that we didn't have to put up with herky-jerky camera movements.  They set up, and Jaa went wild.  And, at times, you saw the same scene from a different angle - sort of like an instant replay which made it even more special.  Are you fight directors listening?  We don't want cameras poked into the fight and then spun around a room, then scooped into a set of flailing hands - we want to actually *see* the martial artist fighting.

    I don't think anyone in Hollywood - or anywhere - has ever done this stuff better.  The scenes are all well-crafted, fun at times, scary at times and feature some clever and creative set pieces.  In one, Jaa fights with his pants literally on fire.  In an interview he said he burned himself several times and singed his hair and eyebrows while shooting that scene.  There's also a 3-wheeled tuk-tuk chase scene that's a blast.  It's all balls-deep stunt work and nothing like anyone has ever done.

    Jaa, like Chan and other masters, makes his work look effortless.  A tribute, no doubt, to the years of study and training he did/does.  From the age of ten he practiced doing moves like his heroes Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee and Jet Li.  Note the men he chose to hero-worship even at such a young age - all incredible and real, ground-breaking martial artists.  Jaa then demanded to be trained in Muay Thai and was given the go ahead by his father.  He's never stopped learning, discovering an ancient form of Muay Thai that does find its way into Ong Bak.  But honestly, I couldn't much tell the difference.  It all looked like flying elbows and knees to me and the times it wasn't I was too busy shaking my head in amazement to break it down.  I have honestly never seen a fighter so comfortable raining down punches while perched on top of an opponent's shoulders.  Jaa does it as if it's de rigueur and you're always supposed to do something like that when engaged in mortal combat.

    Some of Jaa's stuff is so Chan-like that you do think you are watching the master in action.  But, as mentioned, Jaa brings a smooth power to his moves that Chan doesn't show very often.  Jaa looks like he could easily knock you out cold - Chan more plays at the fighting and uses his incredible acrobatic skills to impress (although there is no 

    ong bak

    doubt that Chan is also an impressive and highly skilled martial artist.)  Jaa's flying knees and this one signature kick he does just astound.  And it never stops getting better which I was also amazed at.  As good as the last fight is, the next one is somehow better.  There's a move he does at the ending battle that I'm still wondering how he didn't blow out both knees doing.

    Jaa is an incredible athlete who did track and field in college.  He can still  jump over six feet.  He's demonstrated his leaping/kicking skills at American basketball games and when on tour.  That photo above-left is him about to spin into an upside-down kick and blow that soccer ball up.  You can find video of him doing that on YouTube.  Like Bruce Lee's famous chandelier kick, you see it but you just cannot believe it.  

    Besides being a world-class martial artist, Jaa is also a gifted athlete, physical educator, choreographer, stuntman, and director, and had spent some of his younger days  as a Buddhist monk.  

    Nearing 40-yrs-old, it's hard to imagine him being able to continue doing this work at his insane level much longer - which saddens a bit - but he has already left such a supremely rich legacy that even if he stops tomorrow, he will be talked about in awe for his expert control and skills.  That's saying something for a kid from the rural parts of Thailand who used to practice his skills in the family rice paddies.

    There's not a lot of character or story subtext in this film, especially from Jaa's character.  He is almost superhuman in skills and attitude.  He rejects a large fight purse in lieu of just the money that was stolen from him and he only engages anyone in Bangkok when it's a woman in danger or he needs to to find Ong Bak's head.  Some small bits of romance would have been nice (it's implied but never shown)  but they left some of that for the sequels I'm sure.

    On a minor note, I really enjoyed the scenery in this film as much as anything else - and by that I mean Bangkok.  It may be mean and ugly in parts but it also looks fun!  And it features some really gorgeous, uh, citizens - male and female to be sure, but honestly I only noticed the women.

    If you're a fan of martial arts films in general this one will be a pleasing surprise.  If you're a fan of hot action and/or Muay Thai in particular you can't get better than Jaa.  He defines and then redefines the art and the team around him facilitates that expertly.

    One of the reasons this film rocks the free world is because of uncredited exec producer Luc Besson ("La Femme Nikita" "The Professional" "Taken I/II.")  His movies are known for their kinetic, frenetic high-impact action.

    This film spawned two sequels (actually a prequel and a sequel to the prequel.)  I haven't seen them yet but I will and anything else I can find of Jaa's.  A video game had been planned but I can't find any information on if it had been released. 

    Jackie, your legacy is assured.  Tony Jaa inherits your massive Hong Kong crown by way of Thailand.

    Thursday, 02 May 2013 00:00

    NBFF 2013 / Un Plan Parfait (Fly Me To The Moon)

    Written by


    one sheetHow do say Occam’s Razor in French?

    If you don’t know what that means in English, I’ll give you the simplest of definitions:  It’s the simplest of solutions.

    Occam’s Razor is a principle of parsimony and economy.  It compels problem solvers to employ the easiest, most rational, reasonable solution.

    The “problem” or premise of “Fly Me to the Moon” is this:

    Isabelle, a beautiful, young, Parisian bride-to-be, played deftly by Diane Kruger (Inglorious Basterds), must somehow beat a family curse wherein first marriages end in disaster and the second is destined for eternal bliss.

    Isabelle’s eleventh-hour solution to this “problem” is to marry a shill in Denmark and divorce him the same day, thus beating the curse and living happily ever after with her young, dentist fiancé, Pierre (Robert Plagnol).

    When the shill is a no show, Isabelle latches onto a hapless travel writer, Jean-Yves played with great comic rhythm by Danny Boon (Welcome To The Sticks).  Jean-Yves is en-route from Paris to Kenya via Copenhagen.  That travel routing sums up the fictional world created by Director Pascal Chaumeil (Heartbreaker) in this film: screwball.

    When Isabelle buys a first class ticket to Kenya at the last minute so she can convince Jean-Yves to marry her, it’s hard to ask yourself why she doesn’t stay in Denmark, find another, local schmuck and pay him the money to complete her “perfect plan.”

    But then there’s no movie.  And in my view the basic premise or “log line” of a movie is something you know in advance.  So if you’re of a mind to say, “A curse on first marriages? How silly.  Running off to Denmark to create a paper marriage.  That’s a perfect plan?  How ridiculous.” Then don’t go into the theater in first place.

    If, on the other hand, you are willing to buy into a fictional world wherein a character will make a snap decision to woo a stranger on a plane, follow him to the ends of the Earth at great financial expense, all the while lying to her fiancé about her extended absence, then by all means go and see, “Fly Me To The Moon.”

    You’ll be glad you did.  Because it’s funny.  The dialogue is witty.  The characters are likeable.  And the wacky plot makes for good screwball comedy.  Does it rival, “Tootsie?”  No.  Not even close.  It’s too predictable, and marred by a weak opening filled with talky exposition around a Christmas dinner table. 

    The conversation among family members at this holiday dinner sets up the story, but it fails as a framing tool because it is not visual.  (The festival screening was marred further by a problem with subtitles that exacerbated and spotlighted the lack of visual story telling.  The non-French speakers in the audience were clueless for the first five minutes, and spent the rest of the movie trying to figure out exactly what was said in the opening sequence).

    Here’s the story in a nutshell: Isabelle flies of to Kenya with Jean-Yves who is amazed that this young hottie is throwing herself at him, but he doesn’t seem to wonder why.  (Eventually he asks her, but by then it’s a bit late and seemed a filmmaking convenience.)  Their adventures together, some of which are a bit cliché and some a tad over-the-top result in the germination of romantic feelings.  When the unlikely couple wander through the African wilderness and fortuitously fall upon a Maasai tribal wedding, Isabelle repeats the nuptial ritual thus marrying her “mark.”

    Back at the Paris airport, Isabelle hops in an elevator and dumps Jean-Yves, leaving no contact information.  Her plan is an apparent success, which makes for good screenplay structure.   But Jean-Yves, pulls the rug from under her by filing tribal proof of marriage, a goat-skin, with the local authorities, and that prevents Isabelle from purchasing her marriage license.  She must now obtain a signed divorce decree, so Isabelle jets off to Moscow determined to prove to Jean-Yves that’s she’s a wife-from-hell.

    Of course her plan continues to go awry, and that’s when you see Isabelle’s empathy and Jean-Yves’ vulnerability, and the humanity in both characters.   I won’t spoil it by continuing the narrative, because you already know what happens.

    And it doesn’t matter.  If you buy into this world, if you’ve been laughing along the way, you will root for these two and connect with what makes them likeable and human.  And if not, well then you’ve probably walked out already, and, frankly, you should not have bought a ticket in the first place. 

    Staying out of the theater is simplest solution to a problem with the log line of this film.

    Thursday, 02 May 2013 00:00

    NBFF 2013 / We've Got Balls

    Written by


    cherie kerrWhen Vivian Brechner (Toni Alexander), a female version of Donald Bren, decides to develop a Casino in the tiny town of Fountain Springs, she must bulldoze their bowling alley which is the, "Only thing we’ve got" scream the fifty-two residents of this California desert backwater.

    Brechner's dispatches her son, Alexander, (Tyler Strateman) to do her dirty work, and the town’s mayor, Dawson Dinwitty (Gary Austin) springs into action with the city council, which consists of one man, also the town’s bowling instructor, George Pandick, (Andrew Dickler).

    Both men must vote in favor of the new Casino, so Brechner tries to buy Dinwitty’s vote by wining, dining, and cajoling him from her office in Fashion Island and the Big Canyon golf course.

    Meanwhile, Alexander gets drunk with the “twin” sons of Fountain Bowl’s owner, Herman Pritzoff (Eric Halsz) and agrees to a bowling contest with a prize of $250,000, enough money for the Pritzoff’s to buy the land and save their bowling alley.


    This plot engine runs out of gas quickly because the second act has no real narrative. Instead random characters and events are mixed and matched in a way that makes we wonder if a real movie might have been left on the cutting room floor (or if nothing at all was left on that floor.)

    The result is a film filled with a lot of “shtick” that is sometimes funny, but more often tired and jaded.  You end up feeling like you watched a very long, Saturday Night Live skit, and that’s probably because writer, producer, director Cherie Kerr is founder of the Orange County Crazies comedy-improvisation troupe.

    But I must say that it takes a big set of what’s in the title of this movie to write, direct and produce a feature film, especially if you’ve never done any of those things before.  So I take my hat off to Ms. Kerr.  Kudos.   In the post screening Q and A, Ms. Kerr said there was very little improv, and she followed her own script.

    And that is where the problem rests.  This story lacks a distinct main character (mayor Dinwitty is the obvious choice) who goes through some kind of learning process, grows, finds his humanity, reaches a low point and in a dramatic, “be or flee” moment, does the right thing and forsakes greed to embrace the love of his friends and constituents after feeling the sting of their moral indignation and the loss he is imposing on them for selfish, egocentric reasons.  Instead Dinwitty is just another quirky character, who takes no real action and has no arc.

    The second act of this film consists of Tyrone, one of the demolition workers slated to destroy the bowling alley, who shows up to check out the building.  He finds Karaoke wanna-be Craig Cramer attempting a Snoop Dog rap. Their friendship is a game changer in the bowling contest because Tyrone and his rapping buddies are bowling ringers. Along the way we meet Craig Cramer's dog, Leonard, Grandma Jean, who home-schools Tink, and also a sexy shoe clerk, Melanie who is the object of Alexander’s, George’s and the twins amorous affection.

    Alexander, our proxy villain, comes out and boldly states that he will win Melanie’s love in addition to the bowling contest.  And that’s plenty enough of a B story, but it’s lost in all the comic confusion that is not really organic to the plot.

    We've Got Balls bills itself as quirky and heartwarming.    I can buy quirky.  They also call their film a “dark comedy.” That I don’t see anywhere.  I see sketch comedy, and a lack of screenplay structure.  This is small budget film that produced a pretty big bang for the buck.  With all that talent, it’s too bad they picked up a spare when they might have bowled a strike.

    Thursday, 02 May 2013 11:06

    NBFF 2013 / And Now A Word From Our Sponsor

    Written by

    movie posterCan a one-liner become an entire movie?  The short answer is, no.   The audience only laughs once.  That’s the biggest flaw in Zack Birnbaum’s directorial debut, “And Now A Word From Our Sponsor,” which was screened for only the second time before a live audience yesterday at the Newport Beach film festival.

    The film has dramatic, heartfelt moments which are salvaged mainly by good acting on the park of Parker Posey who plays Karen Hillridge, a hospital charity administrator whose relationship with her daughter Megan (Allie MacDonald) is strained by the loss of the family’s patriarch two years prior.

    The story opens with heavy weight advertising icon Adan Kundle collapsing in front of a bank of televisions in an electronics store.  He awakens in a hospital, alert and functional, but he speaks only in advertising slogans.  When Adan opens the tray covering his hospital breakfast and sees a dry piece of toast and a single, hard boiled egg he remarks, “How do you handle a hungry man?”

    The film demands that the viewer assume Adan understands the world around him, indeed sees it more clearly than ever before, and that his chosen slogans represent great wisdom and insight gleaned from his decades of controlling the masses via slick marketing campaigns combined with some shadowy incident creating post traumatic stress disorder.  The combination creates a modern day messiah ala Chauncey Gardner whose guilt-driven mental illness creates some higher state of egoless, non-material consciousness.

    Karen, who coincidentally studied marketing in a seminar taught by Adan, offers to take him in her home for a week when the hospital needs his bed and Adan must wait for a spot to open at a ritzy mental heath facility.  Newly installed in Karen’s house, Adan’s snappy advertising slogans are immediately apropos to the strained relationship between Karen and Megan, whose highly sexual interest in her teenage boyfriend seems designed to spite her mother more than to satisfy any carnal lust of her own.

    The movie’s villain, Lucas Foster, played by Callum Blue, whose starched shirts and suspenders are a Gordon Gekko reinvention that he fails to evoke, runs the Ad Agency that Adan abandoned a year earlier when he simply “disappeared.”  Lucas tries to buy Adan out of the business (which makes no real-word sense since the company is controlled by a board of directors) and install himself as CEO of the big operation on a top floor of Chicago’s Hancock building.  But Adan, Christ-like in his denial of all things material, simply blurts out more slogans in response to the tempting offer.  So Lucas resolves to have Adan certified as mentally ill to clear his own path to the top.

    bruce greenwood

    Karen, now somehow fond of Adan, comes to his aide, rejects Lucas’s manipulative romantic advances and, busy with all this and her own work, leaves Megan to baby sit Adan.  She implores Megan not to let him watch television, but Megan takes a nap and Adan has a near seizure with flashbacks of the trauma that, we assume, precipitated his disappearance.   Alone again with Megan and her boyfriend, who gets a bit too aggressive, Adan dons a Clint Eastwood poncho and saves Megan from a pending date-rape.

    Suddenly the three are a family, and the ensuing day in the country leads to a bonding moment between Karen and Megan that is at the core of the movie, which demands thematic acknowledgement of the fact that one cannot simply “change channels” in this life.   Some realities must be faced, and even people we love and consider innocent cannot be spared from life’s cruelties because to shelter them from harm is to sell them a false image promulgating ever more harm.

    The film succeeds in delivering that message without seeming trite because of the chemistry between Posey and MacDonald.  When it comes to the bigger question of the relationship between image, advertising, greed, manipulation, and the human condition, any trite conclusion is avoided by simply not offering one.

    The ambiguous ending leaves Adan devoid of any real character arc.  The filmmakers seem content to let Adan exist as some magical figure without giving us any genuine insight into how the magic happens or why.  The result is a fictional world that doesn’t play by its own rules.

    Surely there is an advertising slogan penned in the post war era that Adan might use to sum up his re-invented self.  It’s never offered.

    How do you handle an audience hungry for meaning and consistency in your film?  You’ve got to butter their toast.

    Friday, 03 May 2013 09:45

    NBFF 2013 / Closing Night / The Way, Way Back

    Written by

    Stunning.  Final impression.

    I'll get to the movie that closed the 14th Annual Newport Beach Film Festival on Thursday night but first let me tell you what really impressed me: it was that my guests were knocked out by the ending festivities at the Regency Lido Theater.

    Scott McMenamin (VicePresident of Sales) and Alejandro Seri (IMDB) (Educational Marketing Director) from Final Draft (yes, that Final Draft) came down from L.A. to enjoy the festivities that started with a D.J. saying "Hit It!" as the sun went down and was still going strong when I left around 1:00am.

    Festival CEO Gregg Schwenk (who also teaches locally) and his staff and volunteers are to be congratulated on this year's festival in general which, as I've mentioned in a previous article, was smooth and impressive.  But Gregg and his people also know how to throw a party as was evidenced by the mouth-dropping, stunned look by my guests as they arrived at Lido Village.

    Scott, in his role as VP of Sales for Final Draft, has been to the film festival at Cannes and Sundance several times and Alejandro has traveled the world for the company that produces the seminal writing tool of all professional screenwriters. Both said they were "blown away" by the closing night ceremonies which featured a dozen or so food vendors, adult drink vendors, and a sound/light system that had to have awakened the dolphins in the bay.  I felt like I was at a really expensive rave and from the reactions of not only the people around us but Scott and Alejandro, that feeling was shared.

    I had known Alejandro before but met Scott that night.  Based on the quality of men (and women) working for this company, you know the company itself has to be great -  and it most certainly is. It was fantastic spending time with both these guys in a social situation although we also did talk quite a bit of business.  That is, when Alejandro wasn't calling his wife to gloat about how much fun the party was.  I know they made a connection with CEO Schwenk so hopefully we will see a more robust presence from FD at future festivals in The O.C.

    Full disclosure - and why wouldn't we want to? - Final Draft has been a first line sponsor of OC Screenwriters from the very beginning and we are unabashed fans of theirs.  I called them back in 2009, explained what I was doing, what I wanted, and they said yes immediately.  Since then, we have given away dozens of copies of this amazing writing program compliments of Final Draft, Inc.  Our continued thanks to them for their support. 

    final draft logo

    OC Screenwriters member LyLy Nugyen dropped in to laugh and network and OC Screenwriters Board Member Lorenzo Porricelli held court with dozens of people there as the crowd swelled to hundreds of tired but happy volunteers, festival goers and guests.  Going to any film event anywhere in the Southland with Larry is like being with POTUS.  He was stopped by dozens of well-wishers who always had a warm smile, handshake and/or hug for him.  It's remarkable accompanying Larry anywhere for any length of time actually since he knows and is loved by people seemingly everywhere.  If a man is measured by his positive impact on those he's been with, Larry certainly has had a massive impact on the lives of those he meets, even briefly.  I won't go into more detail than this - he made the evening for me and my guests almost impossibly great.

    The NBFF transformed the area around the Lido Theater into a walking, throbbing food and drink paradise.  I overheard people swearing because they had already eaten dinner before the closing film and were upset that they hadn't waited.  Tacos, pake, burritos, chili rellenos, raviolis and lasagne from Maggianos, donuts, went on and on as you walked from the front of the Lido Theater, down the Starbucks hallway, around the pharmacy, behind the former Vons, and finally around the corner down another long walkway filled with music, drinks and happy, happy people.

    What I loved most was the look of exhilaration on the faces of the young volunteers who no doubt have been spoiled for life by what was for some a first event of this type.  I know they don't realize how special it was and I'm sure every other event they will attend will be measured against this one.  Unfortunately for them, the rest will probably not live up to this incredible presentation - until next year!

    Huge props to The Newport Beach Film Festival 2013 - I'm sure it will be maddeningly hard to top this year's event in all capacities.

    the way way backThe Way, Way Back

    The movie that closed the festival was the premier of an indie film starring a slew of Hollywood stars.  Some were present for the screening on this the last night of this great event.  

    I was tempted to bug some of them (Steve Carell included) but refrained.  Instead I sat quietly and watched the movie that would eventually garner several festival awards for its thoughtful and at times, insightful look into teen loneliness and isolation.  This is particularly timely given the recent spate of violence that has involved disenfranchised youth.  Is the key to helping these teens understanding them?  Perhaps.  But at the very least we need to be more sensitive to the issues that are driving our current gen and movies make that understanding accessible.

    The plot (from Wikipedia) - 14-year-old Duncan's (Liam James) summer vacation with his mother, Pam (Toni Collette), her overbearing boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), and Trent's daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin) is not going well. Having a rough time fitting in, the introverted Duncan finds an unexpected friend in gregarious Owen (Sam Rockwell), manager of the Water Wizz water park. Through his funny, clandestine friendship with Owen, Duncan slowly opens up and begins to finally find his place in the world - all during a summer he will never forget.

    That summary does little to speak to the warmth  of this satisfying story co-written and co-directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.  Released by Fox Searchlight Films (one of the studio (20th Century Fox) boutique shops still operating) this indie pleaser had everyone engaged and emotionally involved.  All I heard after the screening (and before the closing party started) was people telling others how great the film was.  Agreed.

    This film is also closing the L.A. Film Festival - it has to be this year's indie darling - for good reason.

    The film opens July 5th wide. 

    In Closing... 

    I've gushed unabashedly about this year's festival.  In my opinion, 2013 will go down as one of the best.  The festival has already put Orange County on the map but this year has proven that we can hang with the best of the best.  Cannes and Sundance may get bigger names walking around, but no one can top this amazing gathering of talent and industry savvy.

    Get your tickets early for next year!

    Special thanks to Stephanie Ferrer for her help and patience.

    Thursday, 02 May 2013 10:37

    NBFF 2013 / OCC Shorts / Who Framed Roger Rabbit

    Written by

    nbff 2013Newport Beach Film Festival, 2013

    Alive and thriving.  I'm sure that's the message the Newport Beach Film Festival would love to hear shouted from the rooftops of The O.C.  After a few dicey years with administration woes, venue problems, and less-than-wonderful film offerings, I found the festival this year to be robust and packed with films that mean something both critically and commercially.

    Having expanded to The Triangle, the renovated Triangle Square in Costa Mesa, the buzz there where I picked up my press pass was incredible.  The festival initially went there out of desperation last year because The Islands Theater in Newport Beach was undergoing a renovation and they needed a venue with a multiplex and some food options that was at least close to Newport Beach.  This year, The Islands is back but The Triangle is also in its glory after several new shops and food places have transformed it into a truly great entertainment destination.

    I was only able to attend my first event this year on Sunday and I chose to go to one of my favorite theaters, The Regency Lido, which is a single-venue theater with an actual balcony.  The Lido is such a grand, old girl, the outside looking like a throwback to the days when theaters were edifices and not strip malls, but inside she's spanking new with a new screen, digital sound and digital projection that made the screenings pop.

    Beside being my favorite venue to see anything, there were two other reasons I started my festival tour at The Lido:  One, OCC (Orange Coast College) was doing its student films there, followed by the 25th Anniversary of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," and two, Regency theater manager Lorenzo Porricelli.  

    Larry is old school.  He makes you feel a part of any event even if if you're just walking around.  When I arrived, he was passing out programs for the showing of the student films like some carny barker.  He personally greeted dozens of people, many of whom he knew and who knew him.  If the NBFF put him in charge of the whole show, this dynamic force of nature would probably  increase attendance by 75% on his own!  

    OCC Shorts, 2013

    The OCC student shorts get better each year.  The equipment alone that student filmmakers can use is astounding.  Nothing like this digital technology existed ten, even five years ago.  

    The awareness of this equipment and the software to run it creates filmmakers from practically the cradle.

    Shown were: 

    • Lemonade by Steve Guzman, Will Gabriel, Rachel Gist
    • Froghouse by Gustav Sandegard
    • In For the Kill by Nathan 
    • Shortcut by Gabriela Penunuri, Steve Guzman, Josh Lang
    • Condemned by Josh Lang, Natalia Wong
    • Out of Bounds by Nick Ybarra
    • Uncaged by Juan Alvarez and Matt Rodgers

    The Facebook page for this year's group is here:

    A nice little video report is here:

    All were terrific.  If I had any criticism of these shorts, it would be the same one I had last year - story.  The technical aspects are fine.  My feeling is the stories needed to be tweaked by a faculty member or professional writer just a bit more.  But that's minor - they are student work and just getting them to the big screen is a massive accomplishment.

    Kudos to Bob Lazarus, Scott Broberg and the entire faculty of the Arts Dept at OCC for nurturing this fantastic program.

    who framed roger rabbitSomeone Framed Roger 25 Years Ago?  Seems Impossible!

    "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" came on after the OCC Shorts.  I could have not been happier.  Or more entertained.  It's still one of the more innovative and joyful films to watch.  Done twenty-five years ago, all with non-digital, traditional animation techniques, the movie soars on the basis of so many factors.  

    The send-up of both film noir and the joyful world of animation takes no prisoners as it tears down walls (literally in the film) between the "real world" and the world of "Toons."

    If you can see this film on a big screen do it.  It's one of those 'event' films that must be seen big to appreciate.  As mentioned, The Regency Lido with its classic spine and still-intact balcony was the prefect venue.  It's new guts - digital projection, a new screen and a sound system that allowed you to hear every squeak and whimper from the hundreds of Toons that grace the film, was so right for this immaculately-told tale

    I'd forgotten how much crossover there was between Warner and Disney and all the animation houses whose characters were represented in the film.  Daffy Duck and Donald Duck have a piano and mayhem duel; Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse meet in a sky falling sequence; Betty Boop (having fallen on hard times) is one of the waitresses in a club; those incredible, early cartoon characters from Tex Avery were everywhere.  So many hundreds of different Toons inhabited the world of Roger Rabbit it's impossible to name them all - but I bet someone has somewhere (Actually, HERE.)  The Academy-award winning short "Logorama" certainly was inspired conceptually by this seminal film to tell its visual story.

    What a great concept and truly incredible execution.toons

    The producer who was there for the Q&A after the movie (Don Hahn) credits Steven Spielberg for getting the rights and cooperation of the competitors mentioning that probably only someone of Spielberg's stature could have gotten all the animation houses to agree to use of their characters.  Probably so.  Hahn ran the Q&A expertly and had a few great stories of his own.

    Also present to delight was the hilarious Charles Fleischer, the voice of Roger Rabbit and several other Toons, Joanna Cassidy, who played Bob Hoskins' character's girlfriend, and two animators who worked on the film using only "pencil and ink."  This is one of the last great animated features to be done by hand.

    We all laughed and soared during the movie and afterward with the wonderful Q&A.  It was truly a treat of incomparable magnitude and kudos to the NBFF for getting this great film and the terrific people behind it.

    I'm kicking myself, however, for also not attending the event after Roger Rabbit because it featured a truly amazing superstar songwriter.

    Richard Sherman with his brother Robert Sherman were responsible for so many of the songs of this era and our youth.  

    Here's a (partial) list from Wikipedia:

    They also composed the insanely stickable "It's A Small World" that haunts your brain long after you leave the Small World exhibit in the Disney Parks.

    OCSWA board member, Larry Porricelli, reports on this event:

    NBFF: Disney Rarities by Larry Porricelli

    lorenzo porricelliAs if it wasn't enough to see "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and meet the voice of Roger, and as if it wasn't enough to meet the voice of Goofy, and as if it wasn't enough to see clips from songs and films of stars that didn't make the final cut, including Mel Gibson singing a ballad in the film, "Pocahontas," and as if it wasn't enough to be taken on a Disney screen journey by director Don Hahn, of "Lion King" and so many other films fame, I suppose it wasn't enough.

    But Disney brought out the NBFF showstopper to create a moment in film history, so memorable and stunning, the packed house at the Regency Lido Theatre in Newport Beach applauded for what seemed forever, and it still wasn't enough. There wasn't a dry eye in the house at the end of the night because of Disney music legend and winner of two Oscars Richard Sherman's appearance and concert of his greatest works at a piano.

    Sherman just didn't play everything from "Chim-chim-cheree" to "Supercalifragalisticexpialadocious" to "A Spoonful of Sugar," and so many more, he shared the story behind each song, and shared conversations about movies and the songs had with Walt Disney and how Disney would inspire each song.

    The topper came when he shared that Disney had called him to "fix this mess, and quick," of a song for a show to display kids of the world getting together. When Sherman

    listened to what they had, he said it was a mess - kids from different countries singing their national anthems, and no one could understand anything. 

    Disney said to him that the world was becoming smaller and we want to show that connection, and that was all Sherman needed, with the result being,"It's a Small World," which he played just as he did for Disney the first time after he wrote it. Then he played it and everyone sang along with it, for who doesn't know that song!

    Sherman, who is 84, still works daily for Disney, and was going to Chicago this week to supervise music for a future Broadway musical, "The Jungle Book," from which he played several songs. 

    Sherman regaled the audience with many wonderful stories of films and people, and it was a moment in film history, right here in Newport Beach, at the Regency Lido Theatre.

    And finally...

    Screenwriter/OC Screenwriters member LyLy Nguyen reports from the festival:

    lyly nguyenI saw the movie Stuck in Love tonight.  I loved it.  It was funny, witty, heartfelt, characters were well defined and a story about  a family's struggle with love.  

    The writer/director, Josh Boone and supporting actress, Liana Liberato were there for the Q & A.  I learned a few interesting bits of information to share with everyone.  This is Josh's first script as writer/director.  50% of the story was from Josh's parent's divorce  I asked Josh if what is his background in writing and how many scripts did he write before this one.  He was vague about any  formal "training" in writing other than that he loves to write.  He wrote 17 scripts before this one.  He spent 5 to 6 months making notes of the story for this script.  When he finally got the story down, writing time was one month.

    After writing the script, Josh sent his script to every producer that could send to by emails, etc.  He finally captured Judy Cairo's attention, who agreed to produce the movie.  
    From when Judy agreed to produce Josh's script to production is one year and one month later.  The movie was shot in 20 days.  
    It will be released in theatres on June 14.  LINK
    Thanks, Lyly, for that concise report!

    I will attending a few more events but this one magical night was really almost enough for me - that's how rich this year's festival is.


    Wednesday, 01 May 2013 10:54


    Written by

    pixar“The essence of how Pixar started was in let’s figure it out and try something different.” – Jerome Ranft, Pixar Animation Studios

    In the summer of 2012, I was invited to Pixar Animation Studios for a meeting regarding my employment possibilities in their story department.  As I walked through the front doors, I was greeted by their glass case filled with their numerous Academy Awards.  The entire day I spent at Pixar was a dream come true since I am a big fan of their work and believe in the magic they bring to the screen.  What this paper seeks to do is to summarize how Ed Catmull, Steve Jobs, and John Lasseter revolutionized the entire animation industry with the creation of Pixar.  
    It is impossible to discuss the history of Pixar without talking about John Lasseter. Before Lasseter pioneered an entire art form, he was a teenager growing up in a middle class Los Angeles suburb called Whittier.  While in high school, Lasseter discovered a book called The Art of Animation.  It donned on him that people make cartoons for a living and that’s what he wanted to do.  He applied to California Institute of the Arts in 1975, which was an animation school founded by Walt Disney himself in 1961.  John was accepted into the first program that taught Disney style character animation and notable filmmakers such as Tim Burton, John Musker, and Brad Bird were his classmates.  CalArts was the perfect place for Lasseter to develop his skills since the original animators from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), known as “the old men,” were his teachers.  Lasseter was such a believer in Disney that one summer Lasseter landed a job as a sweeper in Tomorrowland in Disneyland and was soon promoted to ride operator on The Jungle Cruise.  
    Lasseter animated two short films at CalArts: Lady and a Lamp (1979) and Nitemare (1980).  Both films won impressive back-to-back student academy awards.  Lasseter landed a job at Walt Disney Studios after graduating in 1980.  In 1981, Lasseter was appointed to handle the climatic fight sequence in The Fox and the Hound (1981) but budget cuts severely hurt the movie.  One day, a film combining live action with computer animation called Tron (1982) was screened for employees at the studio.  Lasseter was amazed by the potential of computer animation while other animators became afraid, thinking computers would render their jobs obsolete.  Lasseter wanted to direct his first feature film and got approval from Disney to develop The Brave Little Toaster (1987).  During the production of the film, studio executives saw that Lasseter was a born director and his passion excelled what the studio was doing.  After the film was completed, animation administrator Ed Hansen called Lasseter into his office.  Lasseter was terminated from Walt Disney Studios, the company he dreamt of working for.  
    The University of Utah was the only institution researching computer graphics during the 1960s.  Ed Catmull was right at the frontier of the new technology and as Jerome Ranft stated “[Catmull was a] creative computer genius1.”  Catmull made a break through with computer animation by creating 3D images of his left hand, essentially the first step in creating curved surfaces in a computer-generated world.  By 1974, New York Institute of Technology was the only place that wanted to develop computer graphics.  Alex Shuer from NYIT hired Catmull to develop art and animation using computers.  Catmull developed a software package called Tweed that allowed artists to draw and paint directly into the computer, but his ultimate goal was to create the first ever computer-animated feature film.  
    Catmull’s work eventually led him to work for George Lucas.  The application of Catmull’s developments led Lucas Films to the next level of computer animation in live action filmmaking.  At LucasFilms, Catmull formed a rebel group for computer animation that was an abbreviation for ‘pixel art’ called Pixar.  Lucas’s special effects division, Industrial Light and Magic, couldn’t get a shot on a film using their current techniques so Pixar stepped and executed what ILM couldn’t.  Catmull knew the next step was to do character animation.  
    pixar moviesIn 1983, Lasseter attended to a computer conference at the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California.  Lasseter ran into Catmull there and told him about his falling out with Disney.  Catmull needed an animator and hired Lasseter into LucasFilms as an interface designer.  Lucas challenged Lasseter to do computer-animated characters and Lasseter created characters using basic geometric shapes, much like the original Mickey Mouse.  The collaboration between Catmull and Lasseter broke ground in computer animation.  Catmull created new software allowing Lasseter the ability to create realistic effects never before seen, such as a scene in Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) where a stained glass man comes to life.  The visual effects for the film were nominated for an Academy Award and industry professionals were baffled by how they created such a life like effect.  Catmull’s team developed the Pixar image computer, which was the most advanced graphics computer its day, but Lucas was no longer interested in Pixar since it was hard to make a business out of what they were doing.  
    Pixar separated from Lucas Films and spent over a year looking for financial backing. Computer scientist Alan Kay knew of Pixar and told his friend Steve Jobs about what they were doing.  Jobs, by 30-years-old, was already a multimillionaire from his pioneering of Apple Computers and decided to visit Pixar.  Catmull told Jobs about his dream of creating the first computer animated feature length film.  Jobs bought into the dream and invested $10 million to launch Pixar.  Jobs believed in the passion and vision of Pixar and as Jerome Ranft remembers, “[Jobs was] a creative businessman.”
    Catmull wanted to do an animated short film as a calling card to the world as to who they were.  One day, Lasseter saw a lamp on his desk and decided to move it around like it was alive.  This inspired him to create the short animated film Luxo, Jr. (1987).  It was a pure little story and the new medium allowed Lasseter to bring a new character to life.  It became the first computer-animated film to be nominated for an Academy Award and the hopping Luxo lamp became the symbol of Pixar.  Red’s Dream (1987) was their next short film about a lonely unicycle that wanted to be in the circus.  It wasn’t until their third short film, Tin Toy (1988), that they took home their first Academy Award, the first Academy Award for a computer-animated film.  In 1990, Pixar began making animated commercials for Tropicana and Trident.  Lasseter decided to expand his animation team and brought in his buddies from CalArts: Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton, and Joe Ranft.  
    Pixar began collaborating with the new Disney under the leadership of Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Frank Welles.  Pixar was commissioned to create the title sequences for Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Rescuers Down Under (1990) using their new caption system.  Even though Pixar’s software, Renderman, was getting acclaim as the new standard for 3D software, Pixar was dealing with huge financial issues.  Their research and development was costing more money than what the company was bringing in.  Jobs had lost an average of $1 million a year for five continuous years.  
    With the survival of the company at stake, Lasseter pitched a television Christmas special based on his short film Tin Toy (1988) to Disney, but Disney was more interested in luring him back to the studio to direct a feature.  Lasseter came up with the idea of doing a story from a toy’s point of view.  From the pitch, Disney wanted in on Pixar’s dream of creating the first computer-animated feature.  Joe Ranft said of the time, “[there was] so much excitement and enthusiasm2.”  Pixar wanted to work with Disney because there was so much they could learn from Disney, but Lasseter wanted to be different and didn’t want to do musical numbers or fairy tales.  
    jobsThere was a desire at Disney to make Toy Story (1995) edgy.  Katzenberg would pitch for edge during story meetings.  Joe Ranft said, “[we were] working our butts off and addressing every note for [the] first year2.”  In 1993, Lasseter and Joe Ranft flew to Disney to present the completed story outline.  To their dismay, nothing was working as could be seen by the protagonist, Woody, being repelling and using insult humor.  Katzenberg asked why it was so bad and they knew it was because it wasn’t their movie anymore.  Disney forced them to lay people off but they refused.  Lasseter and his story team decided to redo the film from scratch.  So within 2-3 weeks of hard reworking, Lasseter and his story team turned a potential disaster into the movie they wanted to make.  They presented their new story to Disney and were given the green light. 
    Both Pixar and Disney were blown away with the finished project and thought it would be a success, but they didn’t know how big.  Toy Story (1995) was produced on a shoestring budget and opened on Thanksgiving weekend.  It earned $350 million at the box office and paved the way for future computer-animated films.  Kids loved it, critics loved, and animators loved it.  Even Lucas was amazed by how entertaining the film was.  Pixar hit their stride and this is what they were destined to do.  The Academy of Motion Pictures honored Lasseter with a special achievement Academy Award for directing the first computer-animated feature film.  
    Pixar was a small company going up against giants.  As successful as Toy Story (1995) was, most of the profit and merchandising revenue went to Disney.  Jobs decided that Pixar had to become a studio instead of a production company to protect their financial future.  Jobs decided to go public and a week after Toy Story’s release; Pixar became the highest IPO that year.  From Job’s original $10 million investment, he was able to raise $132 million for the company.  Disney came back to Pixar and wanted to extend their contract.  Jobs would only agree to extend with Disney if they were 50/50 partners; Disney agreed to his terms.  
    The success of Pixar created an air of infectious enthusiasm.  Jobs was afraid of the company falling into second product syndrome, like he had done so himself at Apple.  Jobs experienced this when his freshman product, the Apple II, enjoyed success but his sophomore product, the Apple III, became a dud.  Joe Ranft became the head of story on Pixar’s second film, A Bug’s Life (1998), and learned that tricks that worked on the last movie won’t work on every following movie.  Joe Ranft commented, “It’s like getting back into kindergarten2.”  A Bug’s Life (1998) provided new challenges to the filmmakers since it had a bigger story and scope than Toy Story (1995).  The characters were organic and it was the first computer-animated widescreen movie.  A Bug’s Life (1998) was released in 1998 and became the highest grossing animated feature film of the year.  
    With the success of A Bug’s Life (1998), Lasseter took a much-needed break since it was his second feature film in a row as director.  A secondary team at Pixar began making a direct-to-video sequel of Toy Story (1995).  It was to be the first project without Lasseter as the director.  Toy Story 2 (1999) began having troubles in development and Disney decided they wanted to release it theatrically.  Lasseter came into the studio, saw what was done so far and wanted to redo the film from scratch, but Disney said it was good enough for a release.  Lasseter refused to deliver the film the way it was, so he decided to jump in and take over the movie as director. 
    Over a single weekend, Lasseter and original Toy Story (1995) team redid the entire story, nine months before it was scheduled for release.  The animators were pushed to their limits and created visual effects that rivaled feature films.  Composer Randy Newman thought it was really brave of Lasseter to do a three-minute montage for Jesse’s scene, a scene so powerful it moved both actors Tom Hanks and Tim Allen to tears.  Joe Ranft commented on the scene, “[You’re] trying to find what you hope the audience will feel when they watch this movie.”  Toy Story 2 (1999) debuted on Thanksgiving and was the greatest sense of accomplishment in Lasseter’s life.  To him, it was a pivotal moment for the company because it defined who they were.  
    Jobs was a firm believer that the most important thing is not the idea; it’s the people.  Jobs saw that their business depended on collaboration and certain factions and pactsbirds had broken off within the company.  Jobs wanted to put a stop to this succession and force collaboration, so his plan was to put everyone under one roof.   He bought a studio in Emeryville and expanded the studio so they could release a movie a year while consistently working on overlapping projects.  This workflow gave longtime story members the opportunity to direct.  Pete Docter was up to direct their next film – Monsters, Inc. (2001).  Docter had a fundamental idea, children were telling the truth whenever they said there were monsters in their closets or under their beds.  Even though Docter was thrown into the lion’s den in the footsteps left by Lasseter, he emerged as a great director.  Monsters, Inc. (2001) became the highest grossing animated film released to that date.  
    In 1992, Andrew Stanton went to Marine World after the birth of his son and saw a shark exhibit.  He was thinking then of the possibilities of capturing this world in computer animation.  Stanton was up to direct next and his project was Finding Nemo (2003).  It became an epic journey all over the ocean and each set piece had to look different.  Stanton thought of it as essentially the same challenge as Toy Story (1995) – making a good movie.  They spent the first two and a half years just working on the story.  Jerome Ranft commented, “A lot of people don’t beat story to death the way we do.  Story makes or breaks the audiences’ experience.  The story must be compelling and must have characters you want to follow1.”  Finding Nemo (2003) became the highest grossing animated film to that date and Stanton won the Academy Award for best-animated feature that year.  
    Lasseter brought in his old CalArts classmate, Brad Bird, to direct Pixar’s next film.  This was the first time a non-Pixar member was set to direct.  Bird had made The Iron Giant (1999), a film the people at Pixar absolutely adored.  Bird pitched The Incredibles (2004) to Lasseter and Lasseter fell in love with the family story.  Bird stated, “Any company with four hits in a row wouldn’t want to change but Pixar was the opposite.  Pixar is an anomaly2.”  Bird brought in his people from Iron Giant (1999) and this gave the Pixar team the opportunity to learn all over again.  The Incredibles (2004) marked the sixth hit in a row for Pixar and Bird won the Academy Award for best-animated feature.  
    Pixar and Disney’s mutually beneficial relationship could only last so long.  In 2004, Pixar and Disney begin clashing over contracts.  Disney was primarily concerned with incrediblesmaking short-term financial gains, so they wanted to make direct-to-video sequels of Pixar’s intellectual properties without Pixar’s involvement.  Disney had handled Pixar’s distribution and marketing but the conflict forced Jobs to begin discussions with other studios.  Pixar feared a merger with another entity would injure their independent spirit.  In 2005, a corporate shake up at Disney led to Bob Iger replacing Michael Eisner as CEO.  Iger understood in order for Disney to be successful, it had to return to the glory days of animation, and Pixar had more of the right people than anywhere else in the world.  Iger wished to repair the broken relationship with Pixar so he began a long period of discussions with Jobs.  Iger had understood Pixar, respected their talent and culture and Jobs decided it was wise to sell Pixar to Disney.  Jerome Ranft commented of the decision, “We had to grow as a company.1” The $7.4 billion acquisition deal put Jobs on the board of Disney and made Lasseter chief creative officer. 
    Lasseter was set to return as director with his long-time collaborator Joe Ranft as co-director on Pixar’s seventh feature film – Cars (2006).  Lasseter was inspired for the idea of the film by a cross-country road trip with his family in 1999.  Lasseter’s personal love of cars and the racing world inspired a new level of computer animation.  Cars (2006) became Pixar’s seventh hit in a row, but the victory was marred by tragedy when Joe Ranft passed away in an auto accident in San Mateo, a few months after the release.  
    Catmull and Lasseter both look towards the future and the challenge of operating two studios.  Jobs passed away from pancreatic cancer in October 2011 leaving Jim Morris to take over as the president of Pixar.  Lasseter currently oversees all of Disney parks and attractions, not bad for someone who started at Disney as a sweeper many years ago.  Legendary animator Joe Grant once said, “[that Walt] Disney knew everything ahead of time.  Lasseter is an image of Walt.”  In my opinion, Pixar is the best working studio in the industry today.  Pixar makes films with visionary directors that they can be proud of for rest of their lives.  
    Pixar revolutionized the animation industry and there are more working animators today than ever before.  I asked Jerome Ranft what is the secret behind the Pixar magic and he replied, “Work.  Hard work.  A lot of hard work.”
    Monday, 29 April 2013 09:53

    Ninja Assassin

    Written by

    ninja assassinBlood.  In amazing amounts and frequency.  

    That's one of the lasting impressions of this movie penned by Matthew Sand and J. Michael Straczynski, produced by Joel Silver, and the Wachowskis, and directed by James McTeigue.

    Starring Korean pop star Rain, this story of a ninja turned against his adopted martial family (Ozunu clan) and actively working to stop his fellow ninjas from committing assassination for 100 pounds of gold (a holdover from ancient times) this movie starts in massive amounts of blood, decapitation and amputation, and ends in rivers of blood, decapitation and amputation with a lot of the same in-between.  

    Video game.    That's your second thought and impression. With all the good and bad that engenders.

    Ultra-violent and dark.  In all ways including a lot of barely-seen fights that are too dark to appreciate properly, and hand-held cameras that jerk the action from one black shadow to another.

    And then finally, well-executed and impressive in spots with fight scenes every bit as good as anything ever filmed.

    Rain, the lead actor, would remind you of an Asian version Justin Bieber.  A huge pop star in Korea, like Bieber he seems too slight and ethereal to play an assassin.  But even as preternaturally beautiful as he is for a man, underneath that slight-looking frame he is buffed and cut to within a microslice of human body perfection.  This and his real martial arts training allows him to be totally believable as Raizo, who as a young boy is kidnapped and brutally trained to be the best of the best in ninja assassination.  

    Because of a situation with a fellow (female) trainee Raizo turns on his ninja family and begins to actively try to stop them.  His journey takes him to actress Naomie Harris who is a CIA/NSA/Europol/does it really mattter? analyst who thinks she sees a pattern in some recent assassinations that involve an ancient group of ninjas.  The worlds collide, the two bond and fall in love (sorta - not really much chemistry there) and the action comes almost non-stop, fast and furious.  


    Ozunu, the evil patriarch of the clan who dispatches familial pride and punishment in equal measure, is played to good effect by legendary martial artist/actor Sho Kosugi who is trained in shindo jinen-ryu, kendo, judo, aikido (to mention a few)rain and although he doesn't do much until the end in the way of fighting, he is wholly capable and believable as a ninja who cannot be defeated.  He is Raizo's Darth Vader and is determined at any cost to exact a price from Raizo for his betrayal, for turning away from the Dark Side.

    Ninjas come with a mythology like vampires and werewolves (and mean-ass high school girls (joking).)  In the movies "Underworld" and "Twilight" the standard mythologies were expanded and changed to good effect.  Same here with "NInja Assassin."  Although the basic, standard stuff is still in place (black outfits, throwing stars, etc.) other interesting bits were added.  There's a training scene reminiscent of the TV series "Kung Fu" where a young Raizo has to walk a path without disturbing a spring-loaded plank.  When he does, he's whipped on the the soles of his feet until he bleeds to show that even the slightest mistake has consequences.  Also, some training sequences show the young ninjas being blindfolded while they fight to be able to extend their senses when necessary.  And, in the very beginning, ninjas attack a Yakusa headquarters but first send an envelope of black sand to tell the gangsters that they have been targeted.  It's a cool moment when the man doing tattoos on these thugs recognizes the sand and shows his wound that should have penetrated his heart.  Except that his heart is on the other side of his chest and he lives to tell the tale - at least for a few more minutes until the ninjas attack and like the ghosts they represent, kill all the gangsters in a bloodbath of severed limbs and decapitations.  Scenes and moments like this keep the mythos intact but attempt to expand it to some cooler ideas of how to deal with the character of ninjas.  Doing this also increases the awesomeness of Raizo who we know has the same skills.

    Speaking of skills, the martial art most used in the film is ninjitsu (I think) which features a lot of weapons including traditional ninja weaponry like throwing stars and katanas.  Also used (impressively) quite a bit is the kyoketsu-shoge (basically a dual-edged knife on a rope/chain) that is wielded by Rain's character and the other ninjas to slice and dice through opponents.

    The fight scenes are extended and terribly well-choreographed for the most part.  A great one happens as the bloody action spills out from a secret government location and into the street while Rain is being chased and chases ninjas through rainy traffic.  The leaping, killing and dying ninjas are like otherwordly demons and the heart-stopping traffic zooming by Rain and his adoptive (evil) ninja brother (Rick Yune) while they battle is insanely shot and just spectacular.  It reminded me again how the Hong Kong influence has made these films so much better.

    What didn't always work was the way the fight scenes were shot and this is a personal thing mostly.  The camera jerks so much and the scenes are so cut up that you never really get a sense of the fighters.  An interspersing of less frenetic Steadi-Cam moments would have been nice.  Also, since ninjas are most-effective in the dark, there was a lot you just couldn't see and that made the scenes frustrating to watch at times.  One scene in particular in Naoemi Harris' apartment was only illuminated by a handheld flashlight and was ridiculous at best for most of it because you never really got a sense of what was happening. 

    ninja assassinLike "Speed Racer" - the Wachowskis previous film to this, and "The Raven" McTeigue's film after this, not a lot of people loved this film.  It was a box office disappointment.  Too dark, too violent, not enough story, inconsistent story narrative, inconsistent ninja mythology...all contribute to varying degrees of un-involvement with characters and storyline.  I found it a bit silly that seemingly every character had to have his (or her) limbs severed to be dispatched. I've never seen so much mutilation in anything short of a...well, yes, a video game.  They could have cut (ahem) 90% of it out and still made the fight scenes interesting and spectacular.

    Rain is honestly fantastic both physically and emotionally - but even he struggles at times with inconsistencies with his character.  Perhaps it was because there were two writers, four producers (actually fifteen but only four that wielded creative control) and a lot of muddling and changing of this storyline that this film felt like there were parts that didn't match tonally with other parts and left you grappling with your commitment to story and character.    Raizo, for example, seems to change quite a bit once he begins his adventure with Mika.  And he does something so stupid at one point that it was hard to process given who he is and who he is fighting.  Some could argue that it was the influence of Mika, Naoemi Harris' character, that began to change him.  I would tend to disagree since she was only a part of his life for a brief time.  The tonal change is apparent - the reasons why aren't.

    J. Michael Straczynski told the OC Screenwriters when he spoke in 2012 that he had basically a weekend to "fix" the script.  He didn't get into a lot of detail about his contributions so it's not easy to say what was changed.  But the fact that it was shows that there were enough perceived problems for the producers to ask for a last minute rewrite.

    ninja assassinI think it failed to garner an audience mainly because of the ending which feature so many climactic battles that you grow weary of watching Rain (Raizo) fight one supernatural, unbeatable opponent after another. And on that note, supernatural is another problem.  Raizo suddenly takes on these ninja powers of superspeed and stamina that seem to come out of nowhere.  He looks like comic book hero The Flash with a katana.  Yeah, he is shown with some amazing powers in the form of the ability to take insane abuse and punishment, appear from nowhere, and also completely heal a kidney-to-kidney belly wound in a matter of hours but he defeats his adoptive father by using a skill that has never really been explored in the earlier parts of the film.  It feels tacked on and because of this, contributes to an ending that leaves you wanting.

    The cardinal sin of any film is blowing the ending because that is last impression that the audience has and it had better not be negative.  This one unfortunately is to large degree.  Blood is blood when it's flowing in (and out) of your veins and symbolically in the form of familial loyalty; the final confrontation between Rain and the man who shaped him leaves you with a lot less emotional involvement than it should.  It's also flat considering that the love interest (Naoemi Harris) gets stabbed through the heart in the process of Raizo defeating the bad guy.  There's a twist to this but I won't spoil it.  It actually redeems the ending a bit.  Also, the coda, as Raizo climbs a wall that he was forbidden to when he was younger (and has some emotional charge to it) works.  But somehow these small moments are not enough to make you feel good about the ending as a whole.

    The film is replete with breathtaking, heart-stopping action in many forms.  It has a decent, serviceable story with good, dramatic moments in it, and the acting is solid for a film of this type.  Rain, as expressed, is fantastic - a true star for both his martial arts skills, believability, and his quiet and powerful acting.

    If you put aside the unnecessary oceans of blood, the brutal and at-times silly violence, the jerky, dark cameras, and occasionally inconsistent story narrative then you should find this movie entertaining as hell...

    Despite its flaws, I did.

    Wednesday, 24 April 2013 12:47

    The Octagon: Fine Aged Cheese or Rancid Velveeta?

    Written by

    the octagonNo one would confuse "The Octagon" with say, "The Godfather."  It is what it is.  A "B-movie" from the 80's starring a martial-artist turned actor.  It features decent action, some decent themes and a horrible voice over that supposedly conveys the main character's internal thoughts.

    It's too easy to dismiss these films as being just expired, stinky cheese - relics of a film milieu that we have hopefully left behind us as we move into the brave new worlds of Uncanny Valley CGI and 3D over-the-top actioneers that look like giant, gorgeously executed video games.

    Of course, there are those die-hard fans who see no disconnect in these films and rabidly declare them as revolutionary - which to some extent they were.  At the time, there wasn't anything like "The Octagon" gracing American movie screens and big action was nascent at best in any form let alone martial arts.  

    I try not to go to either end of the spectrum.  I do laugh inadvertently at the bad dialog, plot devices or action but I also realize that it was 30+ years ago and these movies are going to look creaky no matter what, even as they were also creating legends like Chuck Norris. I mean, put any 1980 Buick on the screen and you're suddenly wondering how anything that big ever functioned (the term 'bulgemobile' comes to mind.)  Nevermind that the fashion, haircuts, and insanely tight pants they all wore including our hero, Mr. Chuck Norris, looks like something from a bad porn film.  As expressed, it is what it is.

    Norris' movie career took off with his villainous appearance in Bruce Lee's "Way Of The Dragon."  Lee liked to pit two different styles against each other and in Way it's basically Korean/American-style karate vs Chinese Kung Fu.  The opponents couldn't have looked any different with the slight (but ripped) Lee rocking his black Chinese button-up outfit and the burly, red-haired (and hairy!) Norris in a traditional white gi.  After the epic nine minute battle, Norris is defeated and Lee heads away, dusting his black jacket off as if it was another day at the office and not this incredible fight to the death.  The scene furthered Lee's legend and created a new one in Norris.

    Norris was (is) the real deal.  A student of Korean martial arts called Tang Soo Do, which become Tae Kwon Do in a Korean martial arts unification attempt, he was a champion of several real-world tournaments.  He got involved in martial arts when he served in the Air Force as an Air Policeman in Korea.  A lot of military people and cops seem to come to martial arts as a way to supplement their on-the-street skills.  Since they are likely to face some form of violence every day, it just makes a lot of sense.  Norris became a star pupil, a sensei who started his own style (Chun Kuk Do - "The Universal Way")and eventually his skills brought him to the attention of Hollywood via the Hong Kong film world.

    Norris did two movies as the lead after Way started his fame, but "The Octagon" was unique in that it featured mostly martial arts underpinnings.  Norris' character's half-brother is Japanese (and a bad guy) (Tadashi Yamashita) and Norris has to face him in the Octagon in the final battle.  Even though the bad guys are mercenaries, they are being trained by ninjas which includes Yamashita as a co-founder of the school for terrorists.  Yes, terrorists who were on the minds of our culture even back then.  Ninjas (a fairly unknown concept at the time)  run through the entire film and there's a masked, mystery ninja in red (played by legendary Australian stunt man/martial artist Richard Norton) who constantly shows up to inflict ninja-type punishment on people who cross his evil bosses.  There were many legit martial artists in the film including the legendary Gerald Okamura who played the brutal trainer and who is a fifth degree black belt in Kung Fu San Soo. His IMDB page features over 55 feature films that he has either starred in or worked in as an actor and/or a martial arts coordinator as recently as this year.

    Norris' character has grown up with the same ninja training (shown in flashback)  but has rejected using it unless absolutely necessary.  He's forced into a confrontation only at the end of the film because there is no other way to stay alive.

    the octagon sceneThe fight sequences are just fine and stand the test of time.  Some of the ninja stuff like them climbing a building with nothing but their hands or the hiding they do in plain sight is still really cool.  And they did it for reals, yo, since there was no CGI (computer generated imagery.)

    The rest of the film is varying degrees of so-so, sad, or just plain laughable like when hottie Karen Carlsen, dripping sexuality, openly invites Norris to come and see her and he says "Fair Enough."

    Uh? Huh?    

    A serviceable plot, characters and theme are really only redeemed by Norris' exquisite kicking and fast hands.  Here is a man in his prime with skills that make you wish you had spent more time at whatever you were trying to accomplish because you knew he did. It was overly obvious that Norris had mad skilz at the time and knew how to both throw and take a punch.

    This also made Octagon unique because unlike "Billy Jack" which featured an actor with some Hapkido training (but was stunt-doubled by his sensei for most of the kicking scenes,) or "Kung Fu" which featured an actor with dance training, "The Octagon" starred a real martial artist who was already legendary in martial arts before he became an actor.  Norris was first and foremost a black belt - acting, as was proven to the dismay of film critics many times in many films, was a distant second in importance in his film career.

    As an aside, since Norris kicked butt and took names in so many films and for so many years, he was transformed into a meme similar to the Jack Bauer character in the TV series "24."   I think some of them are truly funny but they also tell a tale of an actor whose films never let him be less than the hero who struggles mightily, but always comes out on top.

    Some funny ones are:

    • When the Boogeyman goes to sleep every night, he checks his closet for Chuck Norris.
    • Chuck Norris is so bad he can light a fire by rubbing two ice-cubes together.
    • Fear of spiders is arachnophobia, fear of tight spaces is claustrophobia, fear of Chuck Norris is called Logical.
    • Chuck Norris has a grizzly bear carpet in his room. The bear isn't dead it is just afraid to move.
    • When Chuck Norris does a pushup, he isn't lifting himself up, he's pushing the Earth down.
    • There used to be a street named after Chuck Norris, but it was changed because nobody crosses Chuck Norris and lives.
    • Chuck Norris doesn't call the wrong number. You answer the wrong phone.
    To close, I'm going to include a Zen parable.  It is the "pointing at the moon" reference that Bruce Lee makes in his "Enter The Dragon" film.  The full parable explains the Lee reference and forms the conclusion of my article about a movie that most relegate to the dustbin of B-movie history.
    The nun Wu Jincang asked the Sixth Patriach Huineng, "I have studied the Mahaparinirvana sutra for many years, yet there are many areas I do not quite understand. Please enlighten me."
    The patriach responded, "I am illiterate. Please read out the characters to me and perhaps I will be able to explain the meaning."
    Said the nun, "You cannot even recognize the characters. How are you able then to understand the meaning?"
    "Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?"
    So, the finger is the films of this generation,  Movies that we look at now and think "That is just crap."  Even more today, given the way movies are created and put together, the old fellows appear ridiculous and just plain stupid.  These films are guilty pleasures at best.
    However, the moon is what these films accomplished.  Because these films existed, we now are able to see the moon in all its heavenly glory which is the amazing artistry that has been inherited and supremely refined.  Watch any film with the incredible Donnie Yen ("Ip Man")  and you can see Norris' influence.  "Matrix," "Underworld," James Bond films - they all owe to the fingers that pointed the way.  These films also started a nationwide interest in martial arts that exploded and continues to grow, including into the exciting world of MMA (mixed martial arts.)  
    The films of 30 years ago still point unerringly and true.
    But to stare only at the finger (and judge it as mundane) is to miss the glory that it ultimately illuminates.

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