DTV Action Item: An Interview with Director Jesse V. Johnson

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To make a thoughtful direct-to-video action movie is about as difficult as recovering from a meaty right hook to the jaw from Stone Cold Steve Austin. Working on shoestring budgets and two-week deadlines, most DTV product is a jumbled mess of plot holes and broken bones. So when a director is able to compose a coherent space and worldview out of such chaos, it’s a minor miracle. With The Package (2012), Jesse V. Johnson joins Isaac Florentine (Undisputed III) and John Hyams (Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning) in accomplishing this magic act. It is a simple story well told, of a mob muscleman (Austin) tasked to deliver a mysterious package to a gangster known only as “The German” (Dolph Lundgren). Its contents are sought by a third gang, and what was a simple job for Austin turns into a war. Johnson strips down dialogue and establishes character through fighting styles: Austin is a deliberate and quiet thinker, waiting slowly for an opening for his devastating punch, while the flamboyant Lundgren speaks in long winding monologues before springing for a quick and outrageous kill. Johnson shoots fights up close but in wide angles, so the need for cutting is minimized and blows register with traumatic impact. Jesse V. Johnson has been a stuntman (The Amazing Spider-Man), a writer (The Butcher, 2009) and a director, and he took some time out to speak to me about his varied career adventures. We discuss Dolph Lundgren’s working methods, the fun and frustrations of working in DTV, and the motivation behind his viral Wonder Woman fan trailer.

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Snapshots of the Fall: Part II

In my last post I provided a look behind the curtain for the first five weeks of film programming for my fall film calendar. This week we look at the remaining 24 titles that round out the schedule. It features everything from classics such as Vertigo to the state premiere of the latest uncompromising and visually arresting film by Bruno Dumont, Outside Satan (a scene of which is pictured above). [...MORE]

The Toshiro Mifune Blogathon: The Challenge (1982)

The collaboration between Toshiro Mifune and director Akira Kurosawa ended in 1965, following the release of Red Beard, their sixteenth and final film together. Having built up an international reputation thanks to his work with Kurosawa, Mifune looked West, receiving his first Hollywood paycheck playing against type as a Japanese industrialist in John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix (1966). He would jump back and forth between Japan and the U.S. through the early 80s, working mainly in stolid war dramas (MidwayInchon), but also getting to stretch out a bit with John Boorman (Hell in the Pacific) and Steven Spielberg (1941). In terms of viewership, his greatest success was playing opposite Richard Chamberlain in the TV mini-series of James Clavell’s Shogun (1980).Perhaps realizing that Hollywood would continue to shunt him into stereotyped Japanese roles in stuffy historical dramas, he spent the majority of his remaining career at home. For his final U.S. film in this period, he re-united with John Frankenheimer to shoot the entertainingly silly East-meets-West martial arts film, The Challenge (1982). Frankenheimer had similarly entered a low ebb in his career, resulting in these two dynamic talents making a mid-budget action film for CBS Films, to be distributed by the small Embassy Pictures studio.

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The Spring Lineup

Before delving into some highlights for my upcoming calendar film program, which has everything from singing cannibals and Robby the Robot to sex addicts and Pam Grier (in-person!)… I’d like to back-track a little. In my last post I wrote that the venues where I screen films were akin to a leaky rowboat. While this statement remains essentially true, especially when we are compared to any state-of-the-art dedicated film theater, I would like to amend the metaphor a bit. In retrospect, I feel it would be more accurate to say that the film series I program is more like the Orca boat commandeered by Robert Shaw in Jaws. It’s big enough to chase large game, but you still can’t help wishing you had a bigger boat – especially when you get a clear glimpse of the challenge ahead. When I previously said that we do a lot with very little, the “we” in that statement referred to the small crew that has kept this particular boat from becoming an artificial coral reef on the ocean floor, and this despite staying afloat long past its expiration date.  [...MORE]

The Top Twelve Genre Films of 2011

 

As the carcasses of prestige pics get picked over by awards committees and prognosticators, I like to distract myself from this pointless posturing by watching movies featuring actual corpses. After last year’s rundown of genre flicks received a good response, I return to the bloody well again, this time with twelve of my favorite action/horror/exploitation items released in the past year. Sure to be ignored by your local film critics circle, they are works of grim resourcefulness and ingenuity, deserving of more attention. I look forward to your criticisms, insults and recommendations in the comments. My picks are presented in alphabetical order, and if you’re interested in my overall top ten list, it’s posted here.

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A New Film Roster

Today marks the last day of my Fall calendar film program. Now it’s time to roll up my sleeves and get working on the next one. My goal is to find 50 titles that provide repertory programming, community and academic outreach, festival favorites, cult oddities, challenging cinema, quality docs, along with enough arthouse money-makers and crowd-pleasers to keep the whole damn thing alive. The ideal mix honors the past, is grounded in the present, and has an eye for the future. Like a good friend, it needs to have the temerity to confront you with uncomfortable truths, take you to new places, introduce you to new talents, provide a window to other cultures, feed the mind, feed the soul, provide catharsis, tears, laughter, and a wide variety of surprises.  A few directors come to mind who try to do all those things in one film, but this at risk of making you nauseous. (I’m looking at you Takashi Miike!) What follows are some of my top-picks (so far) as I consider titles to include in my Spring calendar. [...MORE]

The New York Asian Film Festival & Japan Cuts

The New York Asian Film Festival (June 25th – July 8th) is more essential than ever. With distribution companies shutting their doors to Asian cinemas of all types,  there are very few outlets to watch the continent’s resourceful, often brilliant genre cinema on the big screen. For nine years programmer Grady Hendrix and his crew have been filling the void, and for the past few has joined forces with the Japan Cuts Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema (July 1 – 16th)  to provide the most eclectic and revelatory overview of Asian film in the U.S. It’s a heady mix of spectacle, grotesquerie, slapstick and resolute artistry. Every year you’ll see something you’d never seen the likes of before.

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Talking With Trina: An Interview with Trina Parks

Tomorrow night TCM Underground will be airing the surprisingly surreal and smart blaxploitation comedy, DARKTOWN STRUTTERS (1975). I hesitate to tag DARKTOWN STRUTTERS with a simplistic label like “blaxploitation” because it’s really a cult movie that deserves a category of its own. The film manages to combine just about every popular movie genre imaginable including classic westerns and musicals, biker films and revenge fantasies as well as science fiction into one of most unusual movies to come out of Hollywood in the early ‘70s. It lampoons stereotypical images of black Americans that populated earlier films but it’s still extremely relevant today.

DARKTOWN STRUTTERS was directed by William Witney and stars the beautiful and statuesque Trina Parks. In the film Trina plays the tough leader of a female biker gang who’s forced to save her mother and other prominent individuals in the black community when they become the victims of a creepy fast-food mogul and his Klan-like crew. Trina Parks only appeared in a handful of films during the ‘70s but she has continued to act, dance and sing on stage in various Broadway and off-Broadway shows and has appeared in popular Vegas productions. She’s currently working on a new one-woman show but she took some time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions about her acting career, including her work in DARKTOWN STRUTTERS and the popular James Bond film DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER.

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Fringe Benefits from the Decline of DVD

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According to a recent report from the research group Screen Digest, DVD sales declined by 4.7% in 2008, and that Blu-Ray “barely made a dent in the missing revenue”. They conclude that the new format won’t spur “minimal sector growth” until 2010. It’s rapidly becoming clear that VOD (video on demand) will eventually become the dominant form of home entertainment. In a Wall Street Journal article about Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, it claims he is “is quickly trying to shift Netflix’s business — seeking to make more videos available online and cutting deals with electronics makers so consumers can play those movies on television sets.” Hastings sees the DVD by mail business to start declining in four years, and hence his deals to stream movies on the XBox and other set-top devices, like the Roku. Packaged discs will not disappear entirely, but will likely lose a large percentage of their market share.

The benefit to consumers in the short term…sales! I recently talked about my cherry-picking of Battleground from the demise of the Virgin Megastores in NYC, but this new downer of a report spurred me to check out what was left of DVD retailers in Manhattan. I waltzed into a small reseller on 14th Street, which was having a massive sale where you could purchase 2 discs for 10 dollars. I ended up with Wilson Yip’s Kill Zone (aka SPL), John Woo’s Hard Boiled, The Buster Keaton Collection from Columbia, and Gremlins 2 (a personal favorite)…all for a total of $20.

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