Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Crisis on Infinite Film Schedules

There isn’t a great deal that can be offered positively in the defence of what Hollywood and the mainstream American movie industry are somewhat blindly ejaculating into cinemas at present. If you’ve seen one film this summer then you’ve almost certainly seen them all. A shame really, when one considers the creativity that permeates the industry and on occasion does manage to shine through - despite the energy sapping efforts of the studios, spineless financial backers, marketing agencies and other soulless collectives.

It might be said correctly that at times there is most certainly too much money diverting, readjusting and wounding the creative process in film making, not just in America, but worldwide. The more funding required for a project the more ideas and opinions are added to the creative soup. The vision of a writer and/or director is then diluted so much that only an independently financed project or efforts of a maverick or genius can then skip through the oceans of red tape and malaise that the studios are happy to stew in. Too many cooks do indeed spoil the broth. It’s that blind flailing about which Hollywood does so well that has seen it become heavily engrossed in mining a rich but seldom used vein of material.

Graphic novels (for those with an inferiority complex about the use of the term “comic books”) have a long history in Hollywood and in cross media pollenisation. The film industry has flirted with a number of comic book properties in an ignorant and condescending manner ever since the days of Captain Marvel (1941), The Phantom (1943) and Batman (1943). Indeed it is the film industry that unwittingly ensured the popularity and longevity of many of the worlds most loved and occasionally loathed characters (Yes it is they whom you can blame for the recent resurgence in Ninja Turtle popularity).

2008 has seen a number of new comic book properties launched onto the silver screen, hot on the financial successes of Marvel’s Spiderman and X-Men franchises and DC’s revitalised Batman franchise. Those successes lead to The Dark Knight (the second instalment to the Batman series), Iron Man, a second attempt at the Incredible Hulk, and soon Comic Book land’s most eagerly awaited adaptation – Alan Moore’s Watchmen (if it ever gets through the legal wrangling clouding its release).

Marvel is leading the way having formed its own studio, allowing the company to take the reigns in how its properties are presented. In effect Marvel will be able to transfer multiple properties to the big screen and allow its “Marvel Universe” to take shape in film, offering stand alone stories in the context of a greater web of stories and possibilities. Other Marvel properties scheduled for release in 2009/10 are Punisher War Zone, Wolverine, Venom and Thor.

DC Comics are well in the race to push their wares, but they have some way to go in catching up to Marvel. Until now there has been no definite strategy at DC in how to present their properties, and much of this is owed to the fact that DC is generally perceived to be an insignificant division of Time Warner Inc. The studios generally had little interest in having a comic book company give significant input into the development of a film(s) despite the comic company being home to the involved characters and their writers. This is set to change – or at least that is what has been suggested recently by DC. Batman works and Superman is being rebooted. The Justice League is still a maybe and so are Wonder Woman and Green Lantern.

Given that comic books offer an almost inexhaustible resource of new and exciting stories that work well on film when executed with intelligence and respect, what properties would be ideal candidates for studios to look at? Well, that’s a tough question and one that every comic fan can argue and then add to a pile of diverse and wide ranging opinions with no joy as a result. Perhaps it might then be a more intelligent stroke that studios look to hire the comic creative instead? Allan Moore has had successes already with League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, V for Vendetta, From Hell, and almost certainly the upcoming Watchmen. Neil Gaiman has had limited successes with Mirrormask and Stardust and Frank Miller whilst seen in some quarters of the comic industry as a legend, and a fool by others has also had successes with Sin City and 300 (let us try to forget Robocop 2). If the studios wanted to up the ante they need only look to the hottest writers in the business, in the form of Geoff Johns, Gail Simone and Grant Morrison, although I’m not quite sure that the film industry is ready for what Morrison might be capable of in such a medium!

Personally, I’d love to see film versions of the Doom Patrol (which inspired the creation of the X-Men), The Spirit (directed by anyone other than Frank Miller) or practically anything Gail Simone has ever touched.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Fear & Loathing on the Silver Screen

With The Rum Diary tentatively scheduled for a release sometime in 2009, now would seem as good a time as any to take a look back at the two prior film releases that were inspired by the weird wanderings and words of Hunter S. Thompson.

Hunter Stockton Thompson (1937-2005) was an American journalist, would-be politician and author, most famous for his novels Hells Angels and Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, his work in Rolling Stone Magazine and posthumously having his ashes fired out of a cannon, across his fortified property 'Owl Farm' in Woody Creek, Colorado.

Heavily influenced by recreational drug use and its promotion, a keen wit and an appreciation of the written word, along with a devotion to handguns and other incendiary devices, Thompson dragged his readers into a perspective and way of life that would form the crux of what would eventually become known as gonzo journalism - a subjective form of journalism that raids the imagination, plunders reality and feeds the public a sublime blend of truth and exaggeration for effect.

It was inevitable that the public at large would eventually catch on to the adrenaline rush that gonzo and the good Dr. Thompson were offering in high-grade, non-diluted quantity, but that’s not to say that Hollywood immediately got things right.

Where the Buffalo Roams (1980)
Often overlooked and generally forgotten, this film is perhaps a better introduction and rough overview to the world of Hunter S. Thompson than the later Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. Bill Murray plays the role of Hunter S. Thompson, and does so rather admirably. Murray managed to capture the spirit, mannerisms and vigour of Thompson, after having observed and shared time with the man over the space of several months, which it is said culminated in Murray being tied to a chair and thrown into a swimming pool, blindfolded.

Having the role nailed, Murray’s efforts and that of his co-star Peter Boyle (as Carl Lazlo) sadly weren’t enough to save this film from sinking into obscurity shortly after its release – a failure owed to an over ambitious script. Tempting to any writer perhaps, the smorgasbord of ideas that could be mined from Thompson’s works was myriad, and certainly over indulged upon. Including as much of Thompson’s adventures as possible in the space of a 96-minute feature was folly, for as they say – sometimes less is more.

Where the Buffalo Roams plays out like a weird staccato take on a buddy film, focusing more on the relationship between Thompson and Lazlo, which is utilized as a means to bridge various unrelated articles and books from throughout Thompson’s career up until 1980.

The film has its moments, and is one that no Thompson collection should be without, but its value is as either an introduction for the novice or as an addendum to those well versed in the subject matter.
Rating 2/5

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
Driven by the exceptional acting talent that is Johnny Depp in the role of Hunter S. Thompson, this film succeeds Where the Buffalo Roams packed up and then collapsed into a heaping mass of random ideas and a lack of linear progression.

Like Murray before him, Johnny Depp was able to explore Thompson’s character and mannerisms over a number of months spent with him in Colorado. A period that was undoubtedly helped by the fact that Thompson and Depp had already formed a strong bond and friendship from previous meetings.

The film itself benefits from the synergy between the two in the form of a brilliant portrayal of Thompson by Depp, whose acting talents shine across the board.

The plot escapes the pitfalls generated in Buffalo by taking Thompson’s best known work and developing it without diluting its essence or mangling it for the sake of covering more ground. The story is strong, plays out well and is also further reinforced by fine casting and the ability of Benicio Del Toro as Dr. Gonzo to play both a bane and foil to Depp’s Thompson / Raoul Duke.

Whilst the film is more fantasy and Gonzo heavy than the earlier Murray vehicle, it is true to Thompson’s writing, his nature and his intention. It is both a quality film and tribute to a man who had become a legend in his own lifetime.
Rating 4/5

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Francis the Mule

When I was a kid there were few things that I enjoyed more than a lazy Sunday afternoon, indoors out of the summer heat, enjoying a movie matinee and an occasional National Geographic documentary. Ma & Pa Kettle, Don Knotts, Jerry Lewis & Dean Martin and one-off gems such as Mad Monster Party, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Forbidden Planet, Elvis movies, and It’s a Mad, Mad World, were all among my favourites.

However, by far the most enjoyable treat among the delights that I was exposed to, was Francis the Talking Mule.

Francis was the brainchild of David Stern III, a writer and newspaper publisher who adapted his own novel about a talking US Army mule for the screen when Universal Studios purchased the development rights in 1949.

Francis appeared in six films, voiced by veteran actor Chill Wills and co-starring Donald O’Connor as Peter Sterling, the young army solider whom Francis befriends. Starting with the 1950 production Francis, the series follows the pairs adventures through various branches of the US military and entanglements, all the result of the fact that Francis would only speak to Peter; thus when Peter would confess to others of his conversations with a talking mule, he would on each occasion be sent off to the psyche ward to develop his basket weaving skills.

An original concept, and an enjoyable one at that, Francis has been copied a number of times, no more notably and shamelessly than in the television series Mr. Ed, which featured the adventures of a somewhat irritating talking horse with a voice that would grate the barnacles from even the most ancient of hulls. Perhaps the best adaptation of the concept, taking the idea to another level, was the 1955 Warner Bros. cartoon One Froggy Evening, featuring the famous singing Michigan J. Frog.

During the run of 6 films, O’Connor suggested that he was uncomfortable with his role, despite top billing, as the mule always did receive more fan mail than he did. For whatever reason, O’Connor and Wills chose not to continue into a seventh film, despite the franchise’s continued success.

A seventh and final Francis feature, Francis in the Haunted House, was produced and starred Mickey Rooney and featured the voice of Paul Frees as Francis. The change was not well received, bringing an end to Francis in film. He would continue in popularity only in comic books and today is enjoyed by new generations only in re-runs and the home movie market.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

There are no bad films, only shitty ideas

With a new title comes a renewed interest in the keeping of this blog, and developing it into what it should be – a money spinning Mecca for film freaks and enthusiasts and a means for meeting loose women.

Whilst none of the above may actually happen without the aid of chloroform, using the site to sell my alcohol soaked organs, or a sizeable readership, I will trudge on regardless.

So with that in mind, allow me to introduce you to John’s top 5 shitty films:

Maniac Nurses Find Ecstasy (1990)
What more could you possibly want to bypass, than a film featuring a horde of gun-toting sociopathic lesbian nurses, whose sexually depraved lifestyle has lead them into a rut? Perhaps one where said sociopaths find new sexual thrills in soaking their hands in the carcasses of their victims and all in name of their newly born messiah – a baby featuring a highly defined birthmark, resembling the face of Elvis Presley!

This cracked gem with dung filled centre comes to you from those purveyors of twisted taste at the house of Troma. It is a monument to bad taste, insane and drug aided writers everywhere, and the pursuit of ugly.

Maniac Nurses Find Ecstasy is an odd film indeed and a masterpiece in both cult and unhinged ridiculousness.

Rating 0.5/5

of the Flies (1990)
I struggle with this piece of rubbish, I truly do. Unlike Maniac Nurses, this bad boy actually makes me ill. Not just an uncomfortable pang; no I mean that I want to throw my head between my legs and shout a liquid brainbow onto the floor in protest at this particular bastard of a flick.

Golding wrote a tremendous piece in the examination of unchecked human nature and emotion in Lord of the Flies. Prior film treatments of the book have latched onto the psychological ride that Golding produced, and gave it life in a new medium with subtle changes. This flick however twists intention and skews result, producing an ectopic film birth of horrific proportions. The characters are underdeveloped, poorly directed and the story serves only to extract a horrified, repulsed or irritated responses from the viewer. Piggy’s role and the conclusion of the film are perhaps the most irritating elements of all.

Viewing this film is akin to paying to ride a ghost train, only that instead of a few laughs and maybe slight shocks (if any), you instead are sprayed with tepid sickness, spit and verbal abuse before being beaten on your way out the door.
Rating 0/5

Love Story (1970)
Do you like TV movies? How about those ones that seem to pop up all the time, mid-week, where a child is dying, has gone missing, fallen down a well, lovers find they are siblings or two sets of parents find that their 10 year old children were accidentally switched at birth?

If you answered yes, you need to CLICK HERE

If you answered no, read on..

Love Story is a film geared toward tearing at the heart strings and turning you into a blubbering marionette, wanting to be fucked, loved and kept in a little cage forever and ever. Love, loss, more loss and an overbearing slice of melodramatic, aurally raping theme music are all here and in quantity. Ryan O’Neil and Ali MacGraw (no relation to the horse) are mere saccharine pawns playing out a modified and heavily diluted Shakespearian tragedy where as you know – who dares, gets screwed.

A lot of people love this film. A lot of people should consider swimming in chummed water.
Rating 0.5/5

Game of Death (1978)
Bruce Lee was an amazing individual, whose creativity and intelligence matched his physical prowess. If ever an individual was deserving of the label of polymath, Lee was it. Writer, dancer, author, martial arts genius, choreographer, director, philosopher, the list went on and on, unlike the man himself.

Released following Lee’s death, this posthumous title is an abhorrent butchering of art, which was rushed into cinemas to cash in on the death of a legend.

The original premise for Game of Death was a simple one. Lee would make his way to the top of a pagoda, fighting a different guardian at each level, each trained in a different fighting discipline, before ultimately confronting the ultimate challenge at the top.

The first release of this film had none of that. Only a few brief scenes that were shot for Game of Death by Bruce Lee made their way into this first edition, with those supplemented by stock footage and a stand in with a propensity for poorly developed mimicry. The film is unrecognisable from that which was originally intended. Do yourself a favour, and watch the original footage as it was intended, and not as part of this monstrosity.
Rating 0.2/5

Passion in the Desert (1997)
If you’ve ever wanted to watch a French soldier during the Napoleonic campaign in Egypt, grooming a lioness ever so passionately, with his tongue - here’s your chance. I’ve never read the original story by Balzac, but one would hope that it made more sense than this film did. I’m not sure that even the most avid fan of bestiality or French desert escapades would enjoy this. But hey, if you’re a Francophile/zoophile and have an opinion here, by all means tell someone else!
Rating 0.2/5

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Men Escaping From Shit

Yes, that is the technical term. As mentioned in my previous post, ‘Men Escaping From Shit’ is my favourite genre and one that is laden with some of the greatest films of all time. Which is a tad surprising when one considers that the companion – ‘Women Escaping From Shit’ is one of the worst facets of cinema to ever be conceived, unless of course your perspective differs in that you’re a sexploitation freak and fan of the irresistibly bad.

The attraction to this particular genre is no mystery. Every creature great and small craves at least a certain level of freedom. For some of us that might mean we need to live a thousand miles away from our parents, whilst for others it might mean only that we need a comfortable cage with enough room to stretch our legs. But the choice has to be ours to make. Taking from a person their right to choose is perhaps the most challenging aspect of what it means to be human, above and beyond the challenges of love, loss, hatred, rivalry and other basic emotional plot thickeners.

You can throw a guy in prison, have him wash up on an island alone or born into a society that challenges his beliefs and ideals, and in each case you will find a stage that amplifies raw human emotion like no other. We might not all find a particular joke funny, or think an action film is enjoyable, but if written well there are very few people who will fail to identify with a man whose basic right to freedom has been taken away.

So here I give you in no particular order, my top 10 films in the genre:

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
A man wrongly imprisoned shows that whilst the body might end up behind bars, the mind can still soar, ultimately allowing for redemption. (I know, I can’t believe I just wrote that sappy sounding shit either). Like any good escape or prison movie, the selling point is how prisoners deal with their lack of freedom, rather than the reward of release.

Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Freedom comes in bite-sized portions sometimes. This film shows that it’s better to relish those and fight for more, no matter how high the obstacles or the price to be paid. With quality work like this, one has to wonder what was so attractive to Paul Newman that he found more enjoyment in the salad dressing industry.

The Razor’s Edge (1984)
The tale of a man on a journey, trapped in his own mind, roaming the world and seeking freedom, love and an understanding. Starring Bill Murray in a dramatic role, this is a remake of an old Tyrone Power flick, and based upon the book of the same name, by Somerset Maugham.

Escape from Alcatraz (1979)
A traditional prison escape film starring Clint Eastwood and Fred Ward, this one re-enacts the famous and possibly successful Alcatraz escape attempt by Frank Morris and co.

Papillon (1973)
Mental anguish, psychological trauma and perhaps Dustin Hoffman’s finest ever work. What more could you possibly want?

The Great Escape (1963)
Action, comedy and tragedy rolled into one, this film is another based on a true prison breakout. The escape attempt by motorcycle goes down as one of the most memorable scenes in film history.

Stalag 17 (1953)
The inspiration for Hogan’s Heroes, this film is more about the fight by prisoners to keep their mind occupied and from going insane than any real focus on escape. Like the Shawshank Redemption this film lives more on the interplay between William Holden and the strong supporting cast.

Runaway Train (1985)
An escape from one prison and into another - Genius! Jon Voight’s best work is shown here, as he examines the ugly side of human nature whilst hurtling along a snow-covered track and without brakes. Strong performances also come from Rebecca De Mornay and the usually ham Eric Roberts.

Cast Away (2000)
Tom Hanks far away from Hollywood and with only volleyball for company. Some might say that say that’s freedom, but not me. After all, I am one of the few who forgive Tom for making The Ladykillers.

Escape From Absolom a.k.a No Escape (1994)
It was a choice between this film and Fortress. Absolom won because it did manage to have a little more substance to it in re-examining the whole Lord of the Flies v Society scenario. Both are enjoyable films, but primarily in the manner that Rambo and wrestling are. Even on Absolom, I still can’t get past Ray Liotta as the Christmas loving self parody on Just Shoot Me.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Scientifically Authentic

I do love Sci-Fi. Not so much the SFX laden crap so often spewed forth today, but the imagination filled, concept driven, low budget restricted product of the 1950's-60's. Sure, everyone knows about The Day the Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet, The Fly and War of the Worlds, but what about the lesser known classics of a similar ilk?

One of my favourite films in the genre and one that I consider to be somewhat under appreciated is Robinson Crusoe on Mars. I discovered this particular gem during the occasional Sundays spent indoors during my childhood, watching afternoon matinees in an attempt to escape from the energy sapping sting of the typical Aussie summer.

From the discomfort of a non air conditioned Northern NSW home, it was very easy to imagine and empathise with the characters on my TV and the hardships they faced in their efforts to stay alive for my viewing pleasure. Yes, this is less sci-fi and more a part of my truly favourite genre: Men escaping from shit (more on that later).

Starring Barney the Monkey as "Mona" (don't ask and I won't either), Paul Mantee and Adam West in his pre-Batman days, Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a low budget attempt to present a rough estimation of what life on our red neighbour might be like for a marooned astronaut monkey and his pet human. In fairness to the film, it was made 5 years prior to the Apollo moon landing (alleged, for all you tinfoil hat wearers) and very little at the time of production was known about the planet. Temperature, vegetation, oxygen content of the atmosphere and the availability of water were all matters for conjecture that made for an entertaining but terribly inaccurate piece of cinema. But damn, do I ever love inaccurate cinema!

The story sticks closely to the original Crusoe tale: man finds island, man hates island because island rejects him, island takes pity and falls for man, man secretly falls for some escaped Tongan dude, island feeling scorned releases both men) only that I can't quite recall the part where alien spaceships mined for minerals on the island that the original Crusoe called home. Perhaps Defoe only put that in the uncut version of his novel along with the deleted sex scenes.

Whilst not a great film, or anywhere close to accurate (breathing on Mars with only occasional aid of oxygen filled rocks) and is rather slowly paced, I still enjoy this movie as a quasi-adult, just like I did when I was 7. It's escapist fun and is not the sort of entertainment to be offered to anyone who lacks in imagination or humour. If you're the type of sick weirdo to point out the glaring inaccuracies to your friends when watching this type of film just DON'T! There is no need for that - just read the disclaimer from the original lobby card and inhale deeply. "This film is SCIENTIFICALLY AUTHENTIC is only one step of present reality." Compelling stuff, right?