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Chasing Tarantino: An Interview with Con Christopoulos by Kent Hill

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What price do you put on a dream? How much do you give, day after lonely day, on the steady climb toward that magical vision that no one else can see . . . but you? The truth is we all started that way. Then you learn that if you dream in one hand and crap in the other – one fills much quicker. The chances you are given dictate some of your rise, while luck, that iconic variable which many still refuse to acknowledge as an important player in their ensemble equaling in triumph, can also see you cross the finish line just as effectively. Being in the right place, at the right time.

Yet, the main forces that drive those with an obsession to see their dreams realized on film are hunger . . . and heart. So, I give to you the story of Con Christopoulos – a man whose relentless courage, determination and passion was at once inspiring, gravitating and above all, infectious. Con’s drive – the sheer pleasure that emotes from his lips while talking about the victories and defeats he has known along the path to unleashing his cinematic voice upon the world is simply staggering. I have seldom met others like myself – those faced with impossible odds and uncertain conditions in the seas before us as our voyage continues – that has exhibited so completely all of the pure exuberance and discipline required to see the journey through to that glorious moment, when the house lights dip, and the screen fills with all you have. The grand total of a life spent loving movies.

I first encountered Con when I saw a Facebook post and a video entitled Chasing Tarantino. I sat and watched in amazement as the man on the clip boldly declared, most convincingly I might add, that he had a truly captivating story and was desperately seeking passage into the halls of power, where the mighty QT might be sitting, idly waiting, for the next big thing. As intrigued as I was curious, I contacted Con and asked to read his opus. It was then he told me that he had pitched the idea to Australian genre-film legend Roger Ward. Ward had apparently warmed to the concept and said if the film ever materialized, he would be on board. After hearing this and reading the material I automatically thought of the great Ozploitation director, Brian Trenchard-Smith. I told Con I would attempt to reach out to Brian with the hopes he might at least have a glance at the treatment and offer some feedback.

To my delight he did just that. He was critical but constructive, as Brian always is, and it does one good to have notes from the masters. You move forward with a new sense of purpose and a rejuvenating feeling coursing through your body, fortified a little more before again breaking camp, trying once more to reach the summit.

It’s hard not be romantic about dreamers. They, after all, are responsible for some for the scintillating, sublime and stupendous visions and stories, music and magic – the stuff that keeps the cycle perpetuating. An inspired individual realizes his dream and shows it to the world. One or more members of the audience are so moved to action, ignited from within, that they then, in turn, devote their lives to such a pursuit.

This is the story of one such dreamer…

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Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volume 2

Roger Ebert observed about Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volume 2 that although it takes place in a heightened reality that’s removed from the realism of our own, the human behaviour and emotions explored couldn’t be more real or more relatable. That insight is precisely why it is my favourite Tarantino film and in particular I think that the last half hour or so is the best, most thoughtful and intuitive thing he’s ever directed in a career that for the most part hasn’t dug that deep in such a way.

Every filmmaker must duck expectations and adapt or fall victim to self parody and repetition, and the guy understands this well. Volume 1 is a thrilling love letter to samurai films, peppered with sword fights, hectic editing and celebrates movement, choreography and synergistic expression. With this film though he moves inward, not just showing us the extreme actions of these characters, but why they’re doing them. The first film opens with the how, as Bill (David Carradine) tenderly puts a loaded gun to the temple of The Bride (Uma Thurman) and pulls the trigger. This film shows us what led to that, and the consequences yet to come, why indeed she feels the need to Kill Bill. It’s a beautiful story that’s acted to the nines by Thurman and Carradine, both giving their career best. The samurai vibe is somewhat present again but here the tone is that of a spaghetti western. Anyone who knows or loves this genre (pauses typing and raises hand) is familiar with the aesthetic: languidly paced shots, long glances lingered on by a camera that moves slowly, stolidly. Orchestral significance placed upon seemingly mundane or small gestures and measured, introspective performances. It’s all here, from the glorious wide shots of the California desert to the laconic inwardness of Michael Madsen’s Budd to the Morricone strains that Quentin loves to sample.

The Bride continues her quest stateside, taking on Madsen’s lowkey deadly cowboy, tussling with Daryl Hannah’s treacherous banshee Elle Driver, punching her way out of a sealed coffin six feet deep and even finding time to stop in for a quick visit with Michael Parks, sneakily playing a different role than Volume 1. Madsen is off the chain spectacular as Budd, a gruff, sadistic badass who has seen better days and seems done with life until she brings out the fire in him once again. His quiet scene with Carradine outside the rundown trailer is a showstopper, as is his priceless expression when chewed out by an asshole boss (Larry Bishop, providing the funniest moment in either of the two films). Tarantino brings out the best in Madsen and this is their finest collaboration, proving in tandem what creative forces both or them are.

This is the Uma and David show when it gets down to it though, their eventual confrontation is what we’ve been anticipating since the beginning, but he doesn’t quite give us what we expect. They meet at a quiet Mexican villa, she sees her daughter for the first time and the words spoken between them cut deeper than any of the physical blows, of which there are barely any. Both The Bride and Bill know exactly what their respective actions have done to them both individually and as a couple, and that there’s no going back from a betrayal like that. The fascinating thing, for me at least, is seeing how despite this anguish and hatred, they are still very obviously in love with each other, something that isn’t easy to get across without spelling out, but these actors nail it. I love the writing here, the body language, the time and attention spent on exploring the pathos, I think it’s Quentin’s showcase sequence and the one that dispels anyone from thinking of him only as ‘that guy who makes violent movies.’

He often works with his pal Robert Rodriguez and most people might immediately think of GrindHouse or Sin City but this is my favourite of their collaborations. Robert isn’t seen or present behind the camera but he composes an original score that is heartfelt, evocative of the western genre and altogether a brilliant composition, particularly the cues around Madsen. This is unique in the fact that it’s the only film Tarantino has made using a score in a career of distinctive soundtrack choices.

From the stunning opening sequence shot in dreamy black and white and aching with palpable yet guarded emotion to the intense, exhaustive training montages with warrior Pai Mai (Gordon Liu, also showing up in a different role) to the blood n’ dust takedown of Elle and Budd in the bone dry desolation out west to the final showdown and reconciliation of sorts with Bill, this is a fantastic story and one hell of a piece of filmmaking on every level. The two Volumes are so very different and I noticed the other day that although I’ve seen both probably hundreds of times, I’ve never watched them back to back. They are separate entities, two sides of the same coin. Bill tells The Bride that her side ‘always was a little lonely.’ The same goes for Volume two, there are less characters, more time spent on emotion and a slightly mournful feeling that the frenzy of Volume one just didn’t have time for. I love this portion of the story the most, I’ve always felt just a tiny bit more at home in Volume 2, and I will never have anything but absolute love for it.

-Nate Hill

Rob Schneider’s Big Stan

You’d hardly ever catch me giving praise to a Rob Schneider movie as he’s usually intolerable, but Big Stan deserves a shout out, both because it’s almost quality comedy and it has gotten less than half of the publicity given to other Rob flicks, which are all just terrible (remember The Hot Chick? Ew). Schneider is probably the least appealing, most irritating little mole rat out there, so you have to kind of grin and bear it here, but the comedy itself is kind of worth it. As Stan, Rob is a selfish, fraudulent little bastard real estate salesman who is busted selling faulty deals and given a three to five year in prison. When an ex-con bar patron (Dan ‘Grizzly Adams’ Haggarty looks like he can’t believe he agreed to say the dialogue in his script) scares him with tales of rampant rape in the joint, Stan sets out to become ‘un-rapeable’ before his sentence, with a little help from King fu guru The Master, played by a chain smoking, growly David Carradine in a parody of his former career. Armed with skills and sweet karate moves, Stan gets processed and pretty much almost incites a riot the first day, until the prisoners realize there’s no fighting him and he’s pretty much big boss. Abolishing prison rape, setting some new ground rules around violence and introducing salsa dancing are just a few of the changes brought on by him, and the prison sequences are the best of the film. Stan has a sidekick in Henry Gibson, locks horns with the obligatory evil Warden (the great Scott Wilson) and it all parades by with necessary silliness and some semblance of a life lesson that ultimately gets lost in aforementioned silliness. As you can probably surmise, it’s about the farthest thing from politically correct humour as well and very much milks its R rating, so put your thick skin on if you give it a go. Also starring the likes of Jennifer Morrison as Stan’s wife, M. Emmett Walsh as an enthusiastically crooked lawyer, Kevin ‘Waingro’ Gage as the head guard, Randy Couture and others, it’s surprisingly well casted for a such a small movie that almost feels like it was funded by Schneider himself, as he directed it too. Usually I’d be the first to just rip into this guy and his awful, near self destructive output (remember The Animal? Or the Deuce Bigelow sequel?? Fuck), but this one really isn’t all that pitiable, but you’ve been warned, it’s cheerfully in bad taste and if you’re easily offended by off colour humour, steer clear.

-Nate Hill

Neveldine/Taylor’s Crank 2: High Voltage

If you took Grand Theft Auto, The Looney Toons, bath salts, nitroglycerin, raw adrenaline, a bucket of piss, a spoonful of vinegar and a few ounces of C4 and chucked them all in a blender, you’d have something almost as utterly fucked as Neveldine/Taylor’s Crank 2: High Voltage, a sequel that leaves the first film somewhat in the dust, and if you’ve seen their initial Crank effort, you can imagine what a sheer feat that is. Cheerfully racist, unapologetically sexist, hedonistic in heaps and fully committed to being as mean, sleazy and batshit as movies can get, it turns an action movie into something truly out there. Jason Statham is the invincible Chev Chelios, a contract killer who gets put through the wringer when pretty much the entire organized crime faction in Los Angeles decides they want him dead. In the first film it was adrenaline that kept him going and here it’s electricity. Saddled with a weird synthetic heart, he’s on a mad roadrunner odyssey to get his original ticker back from legions of gangsters who want to sell it on the black market or transplant into the body of a weird old goat of a Triad boss called Poon Dong, played by David ‘do anything for a paycheque’ Carradine. Statham is a trooper, getting every part of his body fully zapped by all kinds of dangerous objects, engaging in shameless public sex once again with his spunky girlfriend (Amy Smart), this time in the middle of a horse racetrack. Explaining the plot is pointless because things just sort of… happen, in their own madcap way and it’s really hard to keep up with the kind of deranged marathon this thing runs. A frenzied strip club owner (the late Corey Haim) a thoroughly psychotic Asian hooker (Bai Ling), Chev’s ever loyal off-the-books Doctor (Dwight Yoakam) and all manner of punks, freaks, mafiosos and maladjusted urban monsters make appearances. Clifton Collins Jr. is equal parts terrifying and hilarious as El Huron, a flamboyant Cholo boss hellbent on killing Chev, but not before a few sadistic sideshow games first. The real heroes here are Neveldine and Taylor, two hyperkinetic ringmasters who aren’t afraid to get absolutely mental in their filmmaking process, injecting every bit of madness, mayhem and debauchery they can stuff into the script. Strippers getting shot in the tits and leaking silicone everywhere, a Mexican vato slicing off parts of a Chinese rival gang member and gleefully saying “check it out.. sushi!”, a severed head kept alive in a fish tank and a Godzilla inspired animated interlude are all but a taste of the bizarre pitstops this film makes on its hyper-violent, coked out flight path towards breaking the sound barrier. It’s either your thing or it isn’t, I mean I wouldn’t show it to my grandparents, it’d be a monumental exercise in tolerance for anyone with views that verge on conservatism. But fuck if it ain’t impressive for just for how far past the stratosphere it goes though, it’s like the first Crank film fell asleep, had a fever dream about itself and then this thing was birthed from that vision out of the death of a neutron star, mid explosion. I’ll stop because I’m running out of adjectives for ‘crazy’.

-Nate Hill

THE ‘SHOWDOWN’ TRIPLE FEATURE by Kent Hill

This film might not seem like a big deal to you. It could merely appear as another throwaway action flick on your regular streaming service – one that you glance at out of curiosity, and then move on. But I really loved SHOWDOWN IN MANILA, and here’s the reason why . . .

Once, a long time ago, in the age of wonder, they were these glorious palaces that we called, Video Stores. They were a veritable treasure trove for cineastes of all ages to come and get their movie-fix. They housed the cinema of the ages and best of all, there would be movies you could find there, that hadn’t played at a cinema near you.

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These were the titles that were made specifically for this new medium of VHS. Like the drive-in before it, these stores needed product. Thus a new genre was born, and it was called Straight-to-Video. What arose were glorious movies, some of which, sadly,  died along with their era. Awesome were the sci-fi, the horror, and specifically speaking now, the action movies that would appear on the shelves. And such action. Real, intense, dynamic and always in frequent supply. It was good versus evil in all its glory – the villains wore dark shades and the heroes carried big guns. So, it was while watching SHOWDOWN that I was hit by this wave of nostalgia, engulfed by memories of the golden age of home entertainment.

The plot of the film is simple. But isn’t that true of the best action flicks? The package is a beautiful cocktail of old and new, peppered with filmmakers wishing to deliver a splendid throwback, mixed with the stars that climbed to the dizzying heights of VHS stardom.

For those who know what I’m talking about, and even those that don’t, I say, go check out this little gem that is cut from the past, and at the same time, is polishing by the future. So, here now, I present a trio of interviews with the film’s stars Alexander Nevsky (The man on the rise), Matthias Hues (The action legend), and the man responsible for that important seed from which all great cinema grows, the script, Craig Hamman (the veteran screenwriter).

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Alexander Nevsky is a Russian bodybuilder, actor, writer, producer. His life changed when he saw Arnold Schwarzenegger in Pumping Iron and that spark would light the fire which continues to burn bright. In 1994 Nevsky graduated from State Academy of Management (Moscow). In 1999 he moved to California. He studied English at UCLA and acting at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute. He has risen from a bit-part-player to an international action star the cannot be ignored. With his imposing intensity, versatility and personal drive, Alex, I believe, is poised to enter the arena of formidable action superstars – its only a matter of when.

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Matthias Hues is a German-born actor and martial artist as well as being an action movie icon. He came to L.A. not knowing how to act or even speak English. The fateful moment would come when he joined Gold’s Gym and the establishment’s manager received a call from a producer who had just lost Jean-Claude Van Damme for his movie and needed a replacement. Matthias tested for the role, and he managed to convince the producers to give him the part despite having no prior acting experience. The movie, No Retreat, No Surrender 2, was a moderate success, but it opened the door. He is, of course, most recognized for Dark Angel, but has also played everything from a gladiator turned private investigator in Age of Treason to an aging hit-man in Finding Interest to a bumbling idiot trying to kidnap a rich kid in Alone in the Woods to a dancing lion tamer in Big Top Pee-wee. He’s even played a Klingon general in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

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Craig Hamann came up alongside another young aspiring filmmaker whose work would go on to define a generation. When he and Quentin Tarantino embarked upon the journey to make their own movie, My Best Friend’s Birthday, there was no telling then, where the road would lead. Well we all know where Quentin ended up, but Craig too has enjoyed a long and prosperous career that has been anything but ordinary. He’s a writer, former actor, that has watched the industry ebb and flow. He’s directed Boogie Boys, had encounters with Demonic Toys and of course, of late, he’s been a part of an action-thriller in Manila. Craig has other projects in the works, and with the company he keeps, these efforts are, I’m sure, set to explode and entertain. Yet he remains a humble gentleman with a passion for his work and a dedication that has seen him endure as a great veteran of the movie business.

 

 

 

Walter Hill’s The Long Riders

◦ I’m pretty sure that Walter Hill’s The Long Riders does something that no film had done before or after, least to that extent: pull off the biggest sibling stunt casting session in history. Based on the rowdy, violent exploits of the James Younger gang in the old west, Hill casts real life brothers as the troupe, a choice which could have been south of silly in any old director’s hands, but works like gold here. James and Stacy Keach play Frank and Jesse James, David Robert and Keith Carradine are the Younger clan, while Randy and a very mean, very young Dennis Quaid fill the boots of the Millers. It’s fairly brilliant, well organized and pays off nicely, especially if you’re a fan of any of these guys, which I am and then some. Now, the film. Most westerns about these hotshot outlaws take a quippy, cavalier standpoint and go for sterling silver charm. Not Hill, a notorious trend shirker and trailblazer whose tactics in casting, music, editing and tone have never followed the Hollywood grain. The film is downbeat, somber and mostly a series of vignettes that topple against each other like dominoes. The gang shuffles from robbery to holdup almost reluctantly, like it’s written in the stars and they have no choice but to commit crimes. They clash royally with the ruthless Pinkerton agency, who cause more than a few casualties on their side. The shootouts here are no sanitized 50’s Lone Ranger fluff, they’re brutal, bloody and amped up to extreme violence, which is always to be expected from Hill. The life of an outlaw is not glamorized here either, a choice rarely, if ever made in the western department. These are hard men resigned to their rough lives, not fast talking hot-doggin prince charmings like insufferable Young Guns type crap. There’s scattershot subplot about the brother’s lives, but mostly the focus is rooted in their exploits and run ins with the law. David Carradine’s Cole Younger has a cool knife fight sequence up against half breed injun Sam Starr (Hill favourite James Remar) over the favour of pretty hooker Pamela Reed. The actors are all gritty and grizzled, from James Keach’s long-faced, Moody Jesse James to Dennis Quaid’s volatile psychopath Ed Miller. Hill’s go to music guru Ry Cooder provides another achingly gorgeous score with echoes of his composition on Southern Comfort a few years later, a melancholic tune stripped bare of any action sequence swells or orchestral hoo-hah. Pretty damn underrated as far as big screen westerns go, with a tone and look that seems somehow far more genuine than many others in the genre.

-Nate Hill

It’s good to be the King: An interview with Larry Cohen by Kent Hill

There is a quote attributed to Robert Rodriguez (another independent maverick filmmaker) that states:

“If you are doing it because you love it you can succeed because you will work harder than anyone else around you, take on challenges no one else would dare take, and come up with methods no one else would discover, especially when their prime drive is fame and fortune. All that will follow later if you really love what you do. Because the work will speak for itself.”

It is the always interesting, ever-changing, always inventive, ever professional life and work of Larry Cohen that really personifies the above quotation. King Cohen has been out there in one form or another in an impressive career spanning multiple decades. He has been the director of cult classics; he has been the writer of hot scripts that have incited Hollywood bidding wars. His work has been remade, imitated, venerated.

These are the hallmarks of a man and his movies whose personal voice rings out loud and clear, high above the commercial ocean of mainstream cinema that carries, beneath its shiny surface, schools of biodegradable blockbusters that are usually forgotten about only moments after having left the cinema.

This is not true of the films of Larry Cohen. For his work is the stuff (pardon the pun) that came before, the stuff the imitators latch on to, the stuff from which remakes and re-imaginations are conceived. This is the fate of the masters. The innovators come and bring forth art through trial and error. They are followed by the masters who take the lessons learned from the innovators and make them, shape them by sheer force of will. But, then there comes the imitators who stand on the shoulders of these giants and take home the glory.

Still, when there is an artist that is in equal parts innovator and master; this causes the imitators to stand baffled.

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Rather than accepting my humble oration, I urge you to seek out Steve Mitchell’s most excellent documentary KING COHEN. Watch it, marvel, rejoice, and remember that there are great filmmakers out there. They may not be coming soon to a theatre near you, but they did once, and their work still stands, silently, waiting to be discovered.

Until you get to see KING COHEN please, feel free to bask in my little chat with the king himself, Larry Cohen, a gentleman of many parts, many stories and of course . . . many movies.

Ladies and Gentlemen . . . Larry Cohen.

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