July 3, 2012
As we celebrate this Independence Day, some might wonder why the Revolutionary War has been shortchanged by filmmakers. Other countries have made an industry out of their past. Shakespeare’s historical plays are filmed repeatedly in Great Britain, where filmmakers can borrow from old English epics like Beowulf and contemporary plays like A Man for All Seasons. Even potboilers like the Shakespeare conspiracy theory Anonymous, or The Libertine, with Johnny Depp as the second Earl of Rochester, are awash in details—costumes, weaponry, architecture—that bring their times to life.
Films like Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai or Kagemusha do the same for earlier Japanese culture. The Hong Kong film industry would not exist without its films and television shows set in the past, and mainland Chinese filmmakers often use period films to skirt present-day censorship restrictions.
In the golden age of the studio system, Western films provided more income and profit than many A-budget titles. And the Civil War has been the backdrop of some of the industry’s biggest films, like The Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind. But successful American films set in the Revolutionary period are hard to find. You’d think that filmmakers would jump at the chance to recreate our country’s origins.
Part of the problem is due to our general ignorance of the times. D.W. Griffith released The Birth of the Nation on the 50th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. Some moviegoers could remember the fighting, and many of the props in the film were still in general use. When Westerns first became popular, they were considered contemporary films because they took place in an identifiable present. Many of Gene Autry’s movies are set in a West that features cars and telephones.
Westerns were so popular that an infrastructure grew up around them, from horse wranglers to blacksmiths. Studios hoarded wagons, costumes, guns. Extras who could ride got a reliable income from B-movies.
That never happened for films set in the Revolutionary period. Designers had little experience with costumes and sets from eighteenth century America, and few collections to draw from. Screenwriters had trouble grappling with events and themes of the Revolution. A few incidents stood out: the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere’s midnight ride, the Minutemen. But how do you condense the Constitutional Congress to a feature-film format?
Still, some filmmakers tried, as you can see below:
America (1924)—The Birth of a Nation made D.W. Griffith one of the world’s most famous filmmakers, but it also put him in the position of trying to top himself. After directing movies big and small, Griffith found himself in financial trouble in the 1920s. When a project with Al Jolson about a mystery writer who dons blackface to solve a crime fell apart, the director turned to America. According to biographer Richard Schickel, the idea for the film came from the Daughters of the American Revolution via Will Hays, a former postmaster and censor for the film industry.
Griffith optioned The Reckoning, a novel by Robert W. Chambers about Indian raids in upstate New York. With the author he concocted a story that included Revere, the Minutemen, Washington at Valley Forge, and a last-minute rescue of the heroine and her father from an Indian attack. When he was finished, America was his longest film, although when the reviews came in Griffith quickly started cutting it down. Critics compared it unfavorably not only to The Birth of a Nation, but to work from a new generation of filmmakers like Douglas Fairbanks, Ernst Lubitsch, and James Cruze.
1776 (1972)—Turning the second Continental Congress into a Broadway musical may not seem like much of a money-making plan, but songwriter Sherman (“See You in September”) Edwards and librettist Peter Stone managed to parlay this idea into a Tony-winning hit that ran for three years before going on the road.
Edwards and Stone teamed for the film adaptation, directed in 1972 by Peter H. Hunt, who also directed the stage show. Many of the actors repeated their roles on screen, including William Daniels, Ken Howard, John Cullum and Howard Da Silva. The film received generally poor reviews. Vincent Canby at the New York Times complained about the “resolutely unmemorable” music, while Roger Ebert at the Chicago Sun-Times said the movie was an “insult.”
What strikes me, apart from the garish lighting scheme and phony settings, is its relentlessly optimistic, upbeat tone, even when delegates are arguing over slavery and other demanding issues. When the play opened many liberals thought it was commenting indirectly but favorably on the Vietnam War. On the advice of President Richard Nixon, producer Jack Warner had the song “Cool, Cool Considerate Men” cut from the film because it presented the delegates as elitists trying to protect their wealth.
Revolution (1985)—Not to be confused with the 1968 hippie epic with music by Mother Earth and the Steve Miller Band, this 1985 film starred Al Pacino as a New Yorker drawn unwillingly into fighting the British in order to protect his son. Blasted by critics on its release, the $28 million film reportedly earned less than $360,000 in the US.
This was the debut feature for director Hugh Hudson, who went on to helm the international smash Chariots of Fire. For the recent DVD and Blu-ray release, Hudson complained that the film was rushed into release before he could finish it. His new director’s cut adds a voice-over from Al Pacino that helps hide some of the production’s bigger flaws, like an inert performance from Nastassja Kinski and a laughable one from Annie Lennox, as well as a plethora of dubious accents.
In “Is Hugh Hudson’s Revolution a neglected masterpiece?” Telegraph writer Tim Robey is willing to give the film a second chance, commenting on Bernard Lutic’s gritty, handheld camerawork and the squalor on display in Assheton Gorton’s production design. But Revolution was so ill-conceived, so poorly written, and so indifferently acted that no amount of tinkering can rescue it. It remains in the words of Time Out London “an inconceivable disaster,” one that nearly destroyed Pacino’s movie career.
The Patriot (2000)—Mel Gibson has made a career out of his persecution complex, playing a martyr in everything from Mad Max to Braveheart. The success of Braveheart, which won a Best Picture Oscar, may have encouraged Gibson to make The Patriot, essentially the same plot with a Revolutionary setting. (With variations, that story engine also drives We Were Soldiers, The Passion of the Christ, Apocalypto, even his remake of Edge of Darkness.)
The Patriot was a big-budget film, with a cast that included rising star Heath Ledger, cinematography by Caleb Deschanel, and careful treatment from the directing and producing team of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin (Independence Day). Devlin even credited the Smithsonian for adding to the picture’s historical accuracy.
But the script reduced the Revolutionary War to a grudge match between Gibson’s plantation owner and a callous, cruel British colonel played by Jason Isaacs. Of course if the British murdered your son and burned down a church with the congregation inside you’d want to hack them to pieces with a tomahawk.
Northwest Passage (1940)—Yes, it’s the wrong war and the wrong enemy, and King Vidor’s film drops half of Kenneth Roberts’ best-selling novel set in the French and Indian War. But this account of Major Robert Rogers and his rangers is one of Hollywood’s better adventures. MGM spent three years on the project, going through over a dozen writers and a number of directors. Location filming in Idaho involved over 300 Indians from the Nez Perce reservation. By the time it was released in 1940, its budget had doubled.
Most of the action involves a trek by Rogers and his men up Lake George and Lake Champlain, ostensibly to rescue hostages but in reality to massacre an Indian encampment. Vidor and his crew capture the excruciating physical demands of dragging longboats over a mountain range and marching through miles of swamp, and also show the graphic effects of starvation. Spencer Tracy gives a bravura performance as Rogers, and he receives excellent support from Robert Young and Walter Brennan.
June 20, 2012
With the release this Friday of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, this week’s most overhyped buzz word will be “mash-up.” In music, a mash-up combines two separate songs into a new work. On an episode of TV’s “Glee,” for example, Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” merges with Blondie’s “One Way or Another.” I cherish the 1961 single “Like Long Hair” by Paul Revere and the Raiders, which turns a theme from Rachmaninoff’s C Sharp Minor Prelude into a raunchy rock instrumental. Frank Zappa was expert at finding unexpected connections. At a Mothers of Invention concert he once promised, “We’re going to butcher two of your favorite songs,” then had his musicians play Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” and Them’s “Gloria” at the same time.
The most famous video mash-up may be Robocop vs Terminator by AMDS Films, which has been seen millions of times around the world. YouTube is the repository of choice for fan mash-ups, like the many Buffy vs. Twilight entries. (Buffy vs Edward: Twilight Remixed has been seen over 3 million times.) There you can also find examples of re-cut trailers like a version of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining by Robert Ryang that makes the horror film look like an upbeat family comedy.
Seth Grahame-Smith, a screenwriter and producer who grew up on Long Island and Connecticut, gets credit for initiating a cycle of mash-up novels with his 2009 work Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is the first of his novels to reach the screen, and it follows what has become the formula with the genre.
First, the all-important title. Like a “Wheel of Fortune” answer, it must combine two elements that are thought of as unrelated. Jane Austen and zombies, for example, or Lincoln and vampires. Tim Burton, director of Frankenweenie and Dark Shadows as well as a producer on this project, wanted to option the novel before Grahame-Smith had even finished it. “It sounded like the kind of movie I wanted to see,” Burton said in the film’s press notes.
Second, capitalize on popular trends, notably vampires. In fact almost all of the current crop of mash-up novels rely on horror elements, because who wants to read Abraham Lincoln: Geneticist or Abraham Lincoln: Financial Advisor?
Third, go downscale rather than highbrow. Reviewing Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, New York critic Sam Anderson noted that “the sea-monster subplots, considered independently, rarely rise above pulp clichés,” and that reading the original in tandem “sadly diminished” the mash-up.
This formula isn’t limited to mash-up adaptations. Snakes on a Plane relied on the same principles, and was even sent back for reshoots when executives determined the first cut wasn’t vulgar enough.
“Lincoln’s life story is an archetypal superhero origin story,” Grahame-Smith said in the film’s press notes. “He’s as close to an actual superhero as this country’s ever seen.” It’s hard to argue with the author’s approach, at least from a financial standpoint. Grahame-Smith is currently adapting Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and his 2012 novel about the Three Wise Men, Unholy Night, for the screen, and contributed to the screenplay for Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is directed by Timur Bekmambetov, who was born in the former Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. Bekmambetov made educational films and commercials before turning to features and television miniseries. His Night Watch (2004) and Day Watch (2006), based on a fantasy novel by Sergey Lukyanenko and released here by Fox Searchlight, depicted a battle between supernatural forces that took place in a contemporary version of Russia. In them Bekmambetov perfected a style of hyperkinetic action as illogical and pointless as it was exciting. (Production has not yet started on Twilight Watch, the third part of the trilogy.)
Mash-up films like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter—with a hero already known to virtually every United States citizen merged with consumer-approved horror elements—are a marketing department’s dream. So much so that you’d think someone would have tried it before. Which is why Fox publicists desperately hope no one mentions Cowboys and Aliens.
Oddly enough, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter isn’t even the first film to use bloodsuckers in the Civil War. In 1993′s Ghost Brigade, aka The Killing Box, aka Grey Knight, the North and South have to join forces to defeat zombies who are massacring the troops.
Here are some earlier films we might call mash-ups today:
Sherlock Holmes in Washington. Victorian-era sleuth Sherlock Holmes finds himself in the corridors of power searching for missing microfilm in this 1943 mystery. Universal released three Holmes films set in World War II, all starring Basil Rathbone and featuring anti-Nazi story lines. Would Abraham Lincoln have as much success fighting the Axis as he did with the undead?
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. A mash-up for the ages, this film came about because Universal had both the vaudeville comedians and a stable of monsters under contract. Costello reportedly said, “My five-year-old daughter can write something better than that” when he first saw the script, but he has some priceless jokes in a story about two baggage clerks who accidentally help Dracula revive the Frankenstein monster. When the lycanthrope Lawrence Talbot warns Costello that he will turn into a wolf when the moon rises, the comedian replies, “You and twenty million other guys.” The film was successful enough to lead to four more monster teamings.
Forbidden Planet. Filmmakers have always turned to Shakespeare, who knew a thing or two about repurposing older material, for inspiration. Anthony Mann’s Western The Man From Laramie used plot elements from King Lear, for example. The Oscar-winning West Side Story placed Romeo and Juliet on New York streets. The Boys From Syracuse reworked The Comedy of Errors, while Kiss Me Kate is a musical updating of The Taming of the Shrew. The MGM science-fiction classic Forbidden Planet was a pretty clever adaptation of The Tempest, a play that author Tony Howard argues is also the basis for the excellent 1948 Western Yellow Sky.
The Valley of the Gwangi. This 1969 Western with special effects by stop-motion expert Ray Harryhausen pits cowboys against dinosaurs some 40 years before Cowboys and Aliens. The film may not have the most credible plot line, but for a while it was an underground favorite on college campuses. Not to be confused with lower-budget efforts like Billy the Kid Vs. Dracula (1966) or Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966).
“Second City TV” I know, not a film per se, but the writers and performers on SCTV masterminded a series of brilliant mash-ups during their sketch comedy series. Among my favorites: “Play It Again, Bob,” in which Woody Allen (Rick Moranis) tries to persuade Bob Hope (Dave Thomas) to appear in his next film; “Bowery Boys in the Band,” in which Robin Williams tries to hide his alternative lifestyle from his fellow gang members; and a scene in which Floyd (Eugene Levy) from “The Andy Griffith Show” asks a favor from The Godfather (Joe Flaherty).
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
June 6, 2012
Upgraded to Blu-ray, the John Wayne Western Hondo has just been released by Paramount Home Media. Hondo sold over a million units when it was released on DVD in 2005, but the Blu-ray boasts a new 1080p high definition transfer as well as many extra features.
If you’re familiar with Wayne’s classic Westerns, like Stagecoach, Red River, and Fort Apache, Hondo may come across as a change of pace. Based on a Louis L’Amour short story (which the author later turned into a best-selling novelization), Hondo stars Wayne as a mysterious, at times menacing Civil War veteran and widower who becomes the sole protector of single mother Angie Lowe (Geraldine Page in her feature film debut) and her young son Johnny (Lee Aaker).
Set in the deserts of New Mexico, the film is surprisingly forward thinking in its attitude towards women, Native Americans, and the frontier in general. Filmed in color and 3D in Mexico, Hondo made excellent use of cutting-edge technology—even if cinematographers Robert Burks and Archie Stout were often ill-at-ease with 3D effects. (An excellent article by Bob Furmanek and Jack Theaston on the new 3-D Film Archive site shows how involved Wayne and studio head Jack Warner were in the technical side of the filming.)
Hondo features a number of actors and filmmakers familiar from Wayne’s Westerns, like the garrulous Ward Bond and screenwriter James Edward Grant, both of whom are profiled in Blu-ray extras. James Arness, later the star of TV’s “Gunsmoke,” has a small role.
Like many of his contemporaries, Wayne started taking more control over his career in the 1950s as the studio system faded. With his partner Robert Fellows, Wayne formed a production company that would evolve into Batjac. Director John Farrow, an Australian native, had worked for Wayne’s company earlier that year on the thriller Plunder of the Sun. (Farrow married actress Maureen O’Sullivan; their daughter Mia has enjoyed an extensive acting career, appearing as Christopher Walken’s wife in the upcoming Dark Horse. And as a bit of trivia, biographer Tad Gallagher wrote that John Ford directed two of the shots in Hondo.)
Choosing projects entailed a lot more risk than simply accepting studio assignments, but it also gave Wayne the chance to take on more nuanced characters than those he portrayed in some of his earlier films. Hondo is a suspicious, close-mouthed character, someone who doesn’t want to get involved in the problems surrounding him. His relationship with Angie is a difficult one—which Geraldine Page emphasizes in her performance.
Wayne’s son Michael took over Batjac in 1961. As well as producing movies, Michael oversaw the company’s complicated holdings, which included copyright and distribution rights to Hondo, The High and the Mighty, Islands in the Sky, and McLintock! I spoke with his widow Gretchen Wayne this week, and she went over the specifics of how zealously her husband protected the Batjac films. She also took over the responsibility of running Batjac after Michael died in 2004.
Gretchen Wayne oversaw the Blu-ray upgrade, as well as a complete restoration of the 3D version of Hondo, which she has screened at the Cannes Film Festival, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and other venues. She praised the new Blu-ray restoration. “Has it been on television? Yes,” she said. “Has it looked as good as it does now? Absolutely not. What you’re going to see here is a newer film, and you’ll see it in enhanced widescreen.”
She agrees that Hondo was an unusual role for Wayne. “It’s a little more intellectual than his other films. There are a lot more subtleties, more tension. And more respect for the Indian nation,” she said. “And then there’s some dialogue that the average woman today would shudder at, like when Geraldine Page says, ‘I know I’m a homely woman.’ But she’s so strong in that part—she got an Academy Award nomination for what was her first starring role.”
I wondered if John Wayne’s screen persona can still connect with an audience today. “Well, it’s interesting,” Mrs. Wayne replied. “I’ve got a 26-year-old granddaughter in the advertising business, and all her friends know who John Wayne is. They watch his films on their iPhones, which drives me crazy. You go to all the trouble to make a film that will look good in a theater and these kids are watching them on telephones!
“But they are connecting to him. His films are on all the time. Their fathers watched them, or their grandfathers. Or their mothers will talk about them. He’s a hero—just ask anyone in the military who John Wayne is. If writers or directors today want to give you a character with civility, honesty, and patriotism, they will give you someone like John Wayne.”
Mrs. Wayne met her future husband when she was fourteen, so she was intimately familiar with the Duke for several decades. She described him as a gentleman, someone respectful to women, and polite to the point of shyness. “He didn’t bound into a room all boisterous,” she said. “In front of me and my sisters-in-law, I never heard him say a vulgar word in all those years.”
What would get Wayne mad was a lack of professionalism on his movie sets. “My husband told me that when they went on location, the Duke was the first one there in the morning, and the last one away at night. He expected the same from everyone, particularly his own family. He meant it when he said, ‘Sun’s up, where are you?’ He couldn’t stand to waste time, it was like burning money.”
Wayne is an iconic figure, perhaps the most recognizable Western star and a potent cultural symbol. Growing up, it was easy for me and my friends to dismiss him as old-fashioned compared to anti-heroes like Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino. With hindsight, I recognize how difficult many of Wayne’s choices were, and how honorably he treated his audience.
Today many viewers tend to lump Wayne in with more straightforward action stars instead of giving him credit as an actor. In his best films Wayne shows many different personalities: the conflicted boxer in The Quiet Man; the bitter, aging rancher in Red River; the homesteader who sacrifices his happiness in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; and the grim, driven vigilante in The Searchers. It’s notable that in many of his films, like The Quiet Man and Angel and the Badman, Wayne plays men wary and suspicious of violence.
Mrs. Wayne singled out these films as favorites, as well as The Shootist, where “I thought he gave one of his best performances ever. It was touching to us, the family, more perhaps than to other people because we knew how sick he was.” Appropriately, The Shootist incorporates footage from Hondo to explain Wayne’s character’s background.
Mrs. Wayne pointed out that Angel and the Badman provided the template for the Harrison Ford vehicle Witness, and many of today’s action stars evoke Wayne, consciously or not. Hondo gives you the chance to see the real thing, one of the screen’s most memorable heroes at the height of his fame.
June 5, 2012
This weekend, Snow White and the Huntsman, a twist on the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale, hit theaters with a star-studded cast: Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron and the Twilight trilogy’s Kristen Stewart, among others. But, what would the Grimms think if they were around for the premiere? Smithsonian.com’s K. Annabelle Smith spoke with Jack Zipes, one of the most prolific authors in fairy tale and folklore studies, about the newest of the mainstream fairy tale adaptations.
There seem to be a lot of fairy-tale-themed television shows and movies coming out—“Once Upon a Time,” Mirror Mirror, Jack the Giant Killer, Snow White and the Huntsman—what’s your initial reaction to this influx?
First, it’s a mistake to say that there is a recent surge—there has been interest in fairy tales since the 1890s. All of this spectacular talk is not really a new interest in fairy tales, but a new way to exaggerate and embellish productions that cost millions of dollars. What’s new is the hyping—films that are just absolutely mindless can make it seem like you are going to be sent into a world that will astonish and delight you for a couple of hours while you eat your popcorn.
What’s your opinion on the adaptations that have come up over the years?
We have every right and should adapt tales because society changes. But the Grimms would flip over if they were alive today. They were better known during their time as scholarly writers; they were in the pursuit of the essence of story telling. By collecting different versions of every tale they published, they hoped to resuscitate the linguistic cultural tradition that keeps people together—stories that were shared with the common people. In these adaptations you can gain a good sense of whether artists are writing to make money or to celebrate themselves. As critics, we owe it to our culture to dismiss 95 percent of the stuff we see.
What from the original versions of fairy tales seems to remain?
We don’t really know when fairy tales originated. I’ve tried to show in my most recent book, the Irresistible Fairytale, that in order to talk about any genre, particularly what we call simple genre—a myth, a legend, an anecdote, a tall tale, and so on—we really have to understand something about the origin of stories all together. What the Greeks and Romans considered myths, we consider fairy tales. We can see how very clearly the myths, which emanated from all cultures, had a huge influence on the development of the modern fairy tale. These myths are not direct “Snow White” tales but already they have the motif of jealousy and envy of a woman that one character wants to kill. In any of the Greek myths that involve female goddesses, you see the same thing: Who’s more beautiful? Who is more powerful than the other? These themes—jealousy of the mother or stepmother regarding the beauty or power of a younger, mortal woman—are what drive “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
Fairy tales have changed a lot—so much so that if children heard the original versions today, they might be surprised. What might people find shocking about the originals?
The Grimm collections were never intended for children. Not because kids were excluded, but because the division we make today of children’s literature didn’t exist then. The idea of protecting children from tales with violence didn’t occur until the earlier part of the 19th century. In [the original] “Cinderella,” birds peck the stepsisters’ eyes out after the girls cut off their heels and toes to try to fit their feet into the glass slipper. In the 1812 and 1815 editions of “Children’s and Household Tales,” there is a story in which children pretend to be butchers and slaughter the child who plays the part of the pig. The Grimms didn’t eliminate sex and violence, but they sugar coated some of it in later editions. In the 20th century version of “Red Riding Hood”, for example, the wolf never gets to eat Grandmother. That would be considered indecent.
What about the Brothers Grimm? Why do you think their name has remained a staple in American storytelling?
The Grimm tales stick because they were good artists—consummate writers, even if they made [the stories] easier to digest over time. It’s not their sexism in “Snow White”, it’s the sexism of the time. The way children were beaten to adhere to moral guidelines, the way women are portrayed [in the fairy tales] were ideas that were a product of the era in which they were written. When the Grimms began gathering the first versions of “Snow White” before it was published, it was a tale about a mother who is jealous of her daughter and wants to have her killed. The Brothers Grimm went through seven revisions and by the second edition in 1819, Wilhelm Grimm began embroidering the story, making it more sexist. He has Snow White saying ‘I’ll be your good housekeeper’ to the dwarves; he changed the mother to a stepmother. It changes a lot.
What was your first reaction to Snow White and the Huntsman?
This movie represents a backlash to the feminist movement. “Once Upon a Time,” Mirror Mirror—those shows and films focus on women and their conflict with one another. What the heck is going on in contemporary fairy tales? Women are not dominating the world; they are not evil. Why are we redoing the Grimm tales in a retroactive way that doesn’t understand the complex problems women have today? These films have nothing to say to the world today.
What message do you think comes through with the female characters?
There is always a touch of faux feminism, or false feminism. Snow White becomes a warrior, but we still have this glorification of the virgin princess.
Why do you think these stories have stood the test of time?
Fairy tales in general stick because they are relevant to us in adapting to society. The tales help us understand complex topics like child abuse, rape, even sibling rivalry. They tend to offer a counter world to our perverse world where things are resolved or, at least, a sense of justice occurs. We come back to these tales because they help us navigate our way through the world. Almost all the modern fairy-tale films and prose fairy tales have strayed far from the originals, and hey, that’s all right. The question is whether the adapters make a new work of art that provokes us to think and dream and want to make the story our own.
May 30, 2012
News last week that Wanda, a real estate company based in China, purchased AMC Entertainment has raised concerns in some quarters over a foreign incursion into the U.S. film industry. Based in Kansas City, AMC is the country’s second-largest film chain, operating 5,034 theaters. Founded by billionaire Wang Jianlin, Wanda operates 730 screens in China, and is also involved in production and distribution.
In The New York Times, reporter David Barboza calls the deal “risky,” in part because of AMC’s heavy debt load, but also because of the challenges Wang faces in making the Wanda Group a global brand. (Wang had ties to disgraced politician Bo Xilai, but he told the Times that they had “a working relationship,” not a personal one.) The billionaire has not ruled out purchasing theaters in Europe, although the bulk of his real estate empire consists of commercial developments, hotels, and resorts.
Will AMC begin screening more Chinese films? Yes, but not because of the Wanda deal. DreamWorks Animation is building a production studio in Shanghai in a joint venture with China Media Capital and the Shanghai Media Group. As I wrote earlier, Walt Disney and Marvel Studios are producing Iron Man 3 in China. Two weeks ago, the News Corporation, which owns 20th Century Fox, bought 19.9% of Bona Film Group, a China-based film distributor. So it’s simply a matter of time before more Chinese co-productions start reaching screens here.
Barboza raised a more interesting question: will the Wanda deal impact what movies AMC screens? Wang is sticking with AMC’s current management for the time being, and told the Times that he would not interfere with its decisions. But what if AMC tries to show a documentary supporting uprisings in Tibet? Or Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Alison Klayman’s documentary about the activist artist that is currently making the rounds of film festivals? How would Martin Scorsese’s Kundun (1997), based on the life of the 14th Dalai Lama and a source of contention between Disney and Chinese authorities, have fared?
Some viewers here might worry about an influx of Chinese propaganda, like the recent films celebrating Sun Yat-Sen (including 1911, Beginning of the Great Revival, and Bodyguards and Assassins). But Chinese moviegoers enjoy the same types of films we do here—often the same titles. Top grossers include comedies, romances, animation, and blockbusters. Kung Fu Panda and Madagascar 2 were big hits, as were the Transformers and Harry Potter series.
Unfortunately, very few of the movies made in China reach American theaters. I hope to write about this in more detail, but for now let me list some recent Asian productions that are available here.
1. Let the Bullets Fly (2010). Set in the 1920s, this genre mash-up is the all-time top-grossing Chinese production. Directed by Jiang Wen, the film describes what happens when a notorious bandit (played by Jiang), a corrupt governor (Ge You), and the local crimelord (Chow Yun Fat) battle each other over impoverished Goose Town. Jiang uses action and comedy (and some serious filmmaking skills) to drive home his political points, and finds the time to reference everyone from Sergio Leone to Mozart. Check out the brilliantly choreographed train robbery that opens the film, the equal of many big-budget Hollywood productions. All three leads will be returning in Jiang’s sequel. Available from Well Go USA Entertainment.
2. Love in the Buff (2012). A sequel to 2010′s Love in a Puff, this romantic comedy follows a mismatched couple from Hong Kong to Beijing. Grappling with new jobs, Cherie (Miriam Yeung) and Jimmy (Shawn Yue) struggle to maintain their passion for each other in a city full of temptations. The two met over cigarettes in the original film, forming a skeptical bond over shared humor and the laws of physics. Anyone who likes romances will be engaged by director Pang Ho-Cheung’s grasp of how relationships evolve and fail. Falling in love is the easy part: what’s hard is dropping your guard and making a commitment. The film has a breezy, cosmopolitan style—Beijing seems filled with glamorous nightclubs, restaurants, and expensive apartments—and an assured grasp of a present of iPads and text messages. Available from China Lion Entertainment.
3. Life Without Principle (2011). Without the infrastructure of Hollywood studios, producers in China can be more nimble, responding to events that can take years to work their way through Hollywood development hell. The great Hong Kong director Johnnie To built this drama around the Greek debt crisis. To examines the financial repercussions to a bank employee (Denise Ho), a minor crook (Lau Ching-wan), and an underpaid cop (Richie Jen), among others, weaving their stories into a world of greed and anxiety. The director draws out a scene in which Ho talks a retired widow into investing her savings in a risky stock until the suspense is unbearable. No release has been set yet for the U.S., but DVDs are available.
4. A Simple Life (2011). Directed by veteran filmmaker Ann Hui, and loosely based on producer Roger Lee’s life, A Simple Life explores the relationship between an upper-class accountant (Andy Lau) and a servant (Deanie Ip) who has devoted her life to his family. A blend of tears and humor, of memory and loss, the film details Ah Tao’s (Ip) decline after a stroke. She moves into an assisted living home, where Hui documents her inevitable decline with humor and sensitivity. Lau, one of the superstars in Asian culture, and Ip, his real-life godmother, work wonderfully together in a story that is both poignant and honest. Available from China Lion.
5. I Wish (2011). A ringer of sorts, I Wish is the latest film from the Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-Eda. In it two young brothers vow to meet overlooking a railway line where bullet trains passing in opposite directions meet—supposedly the point where wishes will come true. Kore-Eda is an excellent writer and editor, but his real skill is with actors. The two brothers here, Koki and Ohshiro Maeda, give remarkable performances, but so do the rest of the performers. Simple, funny, and heartbreaking, I Wish is an unforgettable coming of age story. Available from Magnolia Pictures.
May 23, 2012
Memorial Day weekend used to mark the start of the summer movie season, although just like baseball the industry keeps stretching out its schedule. The record-breaking opening for Marvel’s The Avengers brought Hollywood a palpable sense of relief that even a lackluster Battleship opening couldn’t dim. The Avengers has done remarkably well, but so have movies in general this year. A Wall Street Journal report on Monday noted that box-office receipts are up 15.7% over last year, and if the trend continues, movies could earn close to $5 billion this summer.
With Friday’s opening of Men in Black 3, the blockbuster season is officially here. Snow White and the Huntsman opens June 1; Prometheus and Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, June 8; Brave, June 22; G.I. Joe: Retaliation, June 29; The Amazing Spider-Man, July 6; Ice Age: Continental Drift, July 13; and the summer’s 800-pound gorilla, The Dark Knight Rises, on July 20.
Notice anything unusual about the schedule? That’s right, apart from Pixar’s Brave, every single title is a sequel, reboot, or, in the case of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, an unofficial prequel. Even The Avengers can be seen as a sequel of sorts to Marvel features like Iron Man and Thor. Throw in some August remakes and updates like The Bourne Legacy, The Expendables 2, Sparkle, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, and Total Recall, and it seems as if Hollywood has turned its back on original projects.
A look at the all-time top-ten grossing films will show you why:
3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
4. Marvel’s The Avengers
5. Transformers: Dark of the Moon
6. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
7. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
8. Toy Story 3
9. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
10. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
According to Box Office Mojo’s list of worldwide grosses, only two of these top ten movies—Avatar and Titanic—are stand-alone titles, and not part of a series. And six of the remaining eight titles were adapted from another medium: books, comic books, toys and amusement park rides.
Cause for alarm? Or simply business as usual? Take the five top-grossing films of the 1990s. Three of them—Terminator 2, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York and Batman Returns—were sequels, and a fourth was adapted from the best-selling novel Jurassic Park. (The fifth was the original Home Alone.) How about the 1970s? Jaws, The Exorcist and The Godfather were all best-selling books; Grease was a hit stage play; and all spawned at least one sequel. 1977′s Star Wars became its own media empire.
The truth is, Hollywood’s biggest hits have almost always been based on well-known properties: Gone With the Wind, The Sound of Music, The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, etc. On one level filmmakers are following sound business principles by working from material that has already succeeded in the marketplace, with a pre-existing audience. Today, no studio executive wants to invest hundreds of millions of dollars on a project with no name recognition, no built-in audience and no way to cross-promote.
Filmmakers knew the value of adaptations and tie-ins right from the start. Take The Kiss from 1896, based on a scene from the play The Widow Jones. When it opened, an enterprising customer could see the movie, attend the play and read about both in the Sunday World all in the same day.
Artists have always faced the dilemma of telling something new, yet making it seem familiar. Painters like Dürer and Rembrandt revisited the same subjects throughout their careers. Shakespeare wrote sequels, and under royal pressure dragged characters like Falstaff back onto the stage in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Due to demands from the public, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote over fifty Sherlock Holmes short stories and four novels—even after killing off the detective in 1893. Jimmie Rodgers’ recording of “Blue Yodel” in 1927 was so popular that he made twelve additional versions, up to 1933′s “Jimmie Rodgers’ Last Blue Yodel.”
In movie serials and comic strips, which matured at roughly the same time, artists perfected the trick of telling a story in which things kept happening but nothing ever changed. Viewers came back to episodes of The Perils of Pauline and Flash Gordon because they could sense that no matter how bad things got, Pauline and Flash would somehow survive. The same holds true today in television series like “CSI” and “Law and Order” and even “The Big Bang Theory.” Week after week, viewers return to see the characters they like doing roughly the same thing—only different. Gradual change is fine. Characters can fall in and out of love, and when agents insist and contracts fail can even be killed off, reassigned or move to their own series. In The Thin Man movies, the characters played by William Powell and Myrna Loy eventually went from newlyweds to parents. But change too much and the public will turn away, as Sylvester Stallone found out when he gave up Rocky and Rambo for Rhinestone and Stop! or My Mom Will Shoot.
But it’s still not easy selling the public a story it already knows, which makes achievements like Aliens or The Godfather Part 2 that much more remarkable. In his first sequel to Men in Black, director Barry Sonnenfeld managed to give the plot enough tricks and variations to win back moviegoers who enjoyed the original. But there was a sense that the characters were biding their time, that the jokes seemed forced.
Men in Black 3 may be Sonnenfeld’s canniest work yet: it doesn’t just tell the same story as the earlier movies, it expands upon them, revealing just enough about the backgrounds of Agents J and K to add real emotional heft to their characters. All while delivering the monsters, jokes, action, subsidiary characters and narrative twists that viewers expect. And while adding a rueful, melancholy tone that once the ending is revealed makes perfect sense.
It’s an accomplished balancing act, one I hope doesn’t get lost among the more obvious, less nuanced blockbusters that surround it.
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
May 4, 2012
The highest-grossing film of all time, Avatar, has started to make its way through the cable television universe. I saw a few minutes of it this week on FX, and was surprised by how different the film seemed than when I saw it in a theater. On TV it looked smaller, less distinctive, more ordinary, harder to tell apart from the sci-fi films and shows surrounding it. Avatar is a movie you can only truly appreciate in a theater setting—something director James Cameron understands as well as anyone in the business. He makes movies for theaters, not homes.
Although the box office is trending higher in recent months, National Association of Theatre Owners records indicate that movie attendance is at a 20-year low. Receipts have fallen a half-billion dollars. Facing a growing number of rival entertainments, the film industry needs to find a way to bring viewers back to theaters.
Hollywood faced these problems before, with the spread of radio in the late 1920s, and the rise of television some 30 years later. To fight TV, the industry turned to widescreen processes, more color (as opposed to B&W), the first sustained attempts at 3D, and a plague of religious epics that descended on theaters in the 1950s.
More recently, filmmakers have been resorting to similar tactics to differentiate the movie-going experience from TV, YouTube, and games: bigger budgets, louder soundtracks, 3D, and stories whose visual scope can’t be contained on iPads and other handheld devices. Weirdly, these tactics happen to converge with movies derived from comic books.
The industry has always relied on comics and cartoons for inspiration. In a sense movies and comics grew up together, and each helped the other to thrive. The Edison Manufacturing Co. released The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog in 1905, capitalizing on a popular series of lithographs. A year later Edison put out Dream of a Rarebit Fiend, based on Winsor McCay’s comic strip. McCay animated another of his strips for what is now known as Little Nemo (1911). (The film was actually released as Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and His Moving Comics.)
McCay did more than anyone to turn both comic strips and screen animation into art forms. He helped free artists from a visual style based on stage performances, with action occurring on a flat plane behind a proscenium. McCay opened up a world with depth, with shifting horizons, and his influence can still be seen today in cross-cutting techniques and in the angled compositions found in X-Men or Transformers.
In following years stories moved from comics to film and back again. Blondie, Dennis the Menace, The Addams Family, Jungle Jim, Li’l Abner, Popeye, Dick Tracy, and many others worked in both comics and movies. A star of radio and screen, Gene Autry had his own comic book as well. (So did his rival Roy Rogers.) Universal made so much money from a serial derived from the comic strip Tailspin Tommy that it made a deal with King Features Syndicate to develop other comic-strip-based movies. Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and Secret Agent X-9 (written by Dashiell Hammett) followed quickly. Based on Alex Raymond’s comic strip, Flash Gordon was so popular that theater owners showed episodes at night on top of matinee screenings for kids. (The serial was later re-edited into a feature version.)
Before he was impersonated by Christian Bale, George Clooney, and Michael Keaton, even before he had his own television series, Batman starred in a 1943 Columbia Pictures serial. Superman started out in a cartoon series for Paramount before starring in a TV series and then making the jump to features in the 1970s and again in 2006′s Superman Returns. Both superheroes are part of the DC Comics stable, now owned by Warner Bros. (The latest Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, will be released on July 20.)
DC rival Marvel Comics approached film warily at first. Republic Pictures produced a serial of Captain America in 1944, and Cannon Pictures released a ludicrous, low-budget Captain America in 1990. But it wasn’t until recently that Marvel Studios began aggressively developing its characters—including Spider-Man, X-Men, The Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Thor, and The Avengers. (Starring Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, The Amazing Spider-Man will open on July 3.)
Despite works from filmmakers as renowned as Steven Spielberg (The Adventures of Tin-Tin) and Martin Scorsese (Hugo, based on Brian Selznick’s illustrated novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret), some critics worry that comic book adaptations are destroying cinema as an art form. Reviewing Green Lantern, New Yorker critic David Denby asked, “Do these movies really satisfy anyone except kids and overgrown boys?”
Or take today’s lukewarm review of The Avengers by New York Times critic A.O. Scott, who called the film “a giant A.T.M. for Marvel and its new studio overlords, the Walt Disney Company.” When he isn’t giving away the film’s best jokes, or identifying with The Hulk, Scott is busy lambasting “the grinding, hectic emptiness, the bloated cynicism that is less a shortcoming of this particular film than a feature of the genre.”
I attended the same screening Scott did, and felt that the audience was much more enthusiastic about the film. Yes, it’s big, and so loud that its explosions were positively percussive. But I also found it nimble, clever, funny, and fast—equivalent to any action film of the year so far. Scott arrived late and had to sit in the front rows and to the side of the screen, which may have colored his experience. (Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal sat through the first half-hour of the film with defective 3D glasses, but at least he acknowledged that in his review: “The technical screw-up was so upsetting that it may have skewed my judgment about the movie as a whole.”)
The Times critic has never been a fan of action blockbusters, so it shouldn’t be much of a surprise when he refers huffily to “overblown, skull-assaulting action sequences”—the precise reason why many viewers love the comic books. What has raised eyebrows is the reaction on Twitter by Samuel J. Jackson (S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury in the film), who fumed that “Scott needs new job!”
Predictably, several critics defended Scott, if not his opinions. But I’m on Jackson’s side here. If you need to cite a 1959 Howard Hawks film, the Rat Pack, and an irrelevant TV role from the 1960s, you have placed yourself pretty definitively outside the demographic The Avengers is targeting. And if the best you can say about the comic book genre is that it’s “entered a phase of imaginative decadence,” you can just ignore all the elements that make The Avengers so enjoyable.
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
April 6, 2012
April 15 marks the centennial of the sinking of the Titanic, a milestone that has received generous coverage at Smithsonian. Filmmaker and deep-sea explorer James Cameron jumped the gun a bit by re-releasing a 3D version of his epic Titanic to selected theaters on Wednesday, April 4. Early box-office returns look promising.
Titanic is a movie that buffs love to hate, perhaps because it was such a blockbuster hit. I saw it when it first opened and was astonished by Cameron’s vision, grasp of detail, and sheer tenacity. It was a film that bulled its way to the top despite all the obstacles against it, earning respect if not admiration.
Cameron didn’t change much for the 3D upgrade (according to this article by Frank Lovece, the only new shot is a corrected map of the night sky), but the film now seems even more impressive. The 3D effects are minimal—most effective for me when the weight of water burst rivets from a buckled hull—but they have the paradoxical effect of making Titanic seem bigger and more intimate.
What’s clearer now, some 14 years after the film’s original release, is just how astute Cameron’s storytelling was. Titanic could have been just another disaster film, a period Poseidon Adventure in which we wait to see which cast member will die next. Instead, Cameron found a way to personalize this horrific incident through a romance as unlikely as it was compelling. The characters played by Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet are conceived so well that viewers want them to survive, to beat the odds, just as they want their love affair to take hold despite family and class obstacles. The fact that their romance played out during a disaster gave added urgency to the unfolding events.
Titanic has its flaws, including over-the-top villains, too many water-sloshed corridors, and that grating pop song over the credits. But focused screenwriting, majestic imagery, crisp editing, and, now, 3D enhancements help make it an unforgettable moviegoing experience. The film’s sheer size and emotional pull work best in theaters, where viewers can share in a sort of communal catharsis.
For several years now, Luke McKernan’s blog The Bioscope has been a first-rate source of research into the world of early cinema. (He also edits an excellent early cinema aggregator on Scoop.It.) His latest piece, And the ship sails on, seems to me to be the definitive take on Titanic footage, real and faked. He also includes a clip of the recent British Pathé re-edit of the only genuine extant footage of the ship.
What I find fascinating is that filmmaker William H. Harbeck was a Titanic passenger, and may have shot footage during the fateful voyage. That film would be something to see. Mr. McKernan will cover this and more on April 15 at London’s The Cinema Museum when he delivers a talk on The Titanic Centenary, Featuring “The Ill-Fated Titantic.”
Unfortunately, as Mr. McKernan points out, the Titanic clip has been edited down from the original ten-minute Gaumont short.
Closer to home, Serge Bromberg will be hosting a night of screenings at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Monday, April 9. Mr. Bromberg was one of the key figures behind the recent restoration of A Trip to the Moon, which I wrote about last year. In addition to the Méliès film, Bromberg is showing a new restoration of Buster Keaton’s The Boat and A Trip Down Market Street, a film of hypnotic beauty that was featured on a “60 Minutes” segment. Bromberg is a performer as well as an archivist and preservationist, and it’s always a treat to hear him play piano and provide backgrounds to the screenings. Plus he usually has a surprise film or two up his sleeve.
The Eighth Orphan Film Symposium starts on April 11 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. I wrote about the Seventh Symposium, which featured little-known films by Orson Welles and Henri Cartier-Bresson, among others. The Symposium is an opportunity for archivists from all over the world to share their work, giving attendees sneak peaks at films that may become more accessible later. It’s where I first saw A Trip Down Market Street, for example. This year’s films include When the Organ Played “O Promise Me,” an Auroratone short starring Bing Crosby, and The Jungle, a 1967 drama about Philadelphia inner-city gangs made by the 12th and Oxford Street Film Makers.
On the West Coast, the TCM Classic Film Festival starts on April 12. A celebration of more mainstream films (Cabaret, Black Narcissus, Charade) that takes place in a number of Los Angeles theaters, the festival can be pricey, with passes running as high as $1199. The perks include the chance to mingle with stars like Mel Brooks, Kim Novak, and Debbie Reynolds, and TCM host Robert Osborne.
In a related note, Hugh Neely is asking for your help with the Mary Pickford Foundation’s funding of the Mary Pickford Institute for Film Education. You can sign a petition to insure that the institute’s work continues.
Finally, my editor pointed out this video by filmmaker Jeff Desom. Using Photoshop and After Effects, Desom took the wide shots in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and condensed them into a three-minute time-lapse shot that covers the entire film. As Desom explained in this interview, the original project turned the film into a continuous, 20 minute loop.
Read Reel Culture posts every Wednesday and Friday. Follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy
March 29, 2012
Opening Friday, Wrath of the Titans is the latest in the somewhat puzzling genre of movies fashioned from Greek mythology. A sequel to the surprise box-office hit Clash of the Titans, Wrath of the Titans boasts upgraded computer graphics and 3D technology while hewing to its predecessor’s formula: modern versions of stories thousands of years old.
Most recent films set in ancient times—like 300, Troy, Alexander, and Gladiator—are largely excuses to show gigantic battles on screen. The two Titans movies fall into a sort of fantasy subgenre popularized in large part by stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen. In fact, the 2010 Clash of the Titans was a remake of a 1981 MGM film for which Harryhausen oversaw the special effects.
Stop motion is one of the first special effect processes perfected in cinema, one I’m sure came about by accident. You achieve it by filming a scene, stopping the camera, and then changing something within the scene before starting to film again. For Edison films like The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (August, 1895) and The Great Train Robbery (1903), dummies would be substituted for actors when it came time to portray their deaths. In scores of films, Georges Méliès made characters appear and disappear with the same effect, often using a cloud of smoke to disguise the switches.
Edison rivals J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith took the process a step further by making it seem as if inanimate objects could move in The Humpty Dumpty Circus (1897). They did this by shooting a single frame at a time, shifting objects before the camera a little after each frame. Pieces of furniture, letters of the alphabet, in fact almost anything that could be filmed could be moved as well. A film like The Thieving Hand (Vitagraph, 1908) shows how quickly stop-motion techniques advanced.
In stop-motion animation, filmmakers build models which they move frame by frame. These tend to be miniatures because they’re easier to control, but the process is still incredibly time consuming, requiring obsessive attention to details like lighting and surfacing. Films like The Ant and the Grasshopper (1911) and The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912) by Ladislas Starevich (also known as Wladyslaw Starewicz) show just what could be accomplished with insects, matchboxes, and tiny costumes.
Willis O’Brien, a cowboy, guide, boxer, sculptor, and cartoonist, began working in stop-motion animation in 1915. His fascination with dinosaurs led to several films in which he developed ways to combine animation with live action, and to make models more lifelike with latex, armatures, bladders, and gel for “saliva.” Based on the Arthur Conan Doyle novel, The Lost World (1925) featured some fifty dinosaurs, stunning audiences worldwide.
O’Brien set to work on Creation for RKO, but it was cancelled by studio head David O. Selznick after some 20 minutes had been completed. Merian C. Cooper, who would later replace Selznick as head at the studio, brought O’Brien onto a new project about a giant ape terrorizing New York City. King Kong (1933) would become one of the touchstones in cinema, due in no small part to O’Brien’s meticulous animation.
At times O’Brien was moving his models as little as an eighth of an inch per frame. A mistake meant starting over from the beginning of the shot. Fur on the Kong models was impossible to control completely. (Watching the film you can see the ape’s fur change shape from frame to frame.) But to viewers then and today, Kong became a living, breathing figure of terror, perhaps the greatest single achievement in stop-motion technology.
O’Brien worked on both Son of Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949). For the latter, he hired Ray Harryhausen, an animator whose life had been changed by seeing King Kong. “You know it is not real, but it looks real. It’s like a nightmare of something in a dream,” he said later.
Born in 1925, Harryhausen modeled his own creatures from old clothes and clay before working on George Pal’s stop-motion Puppetoons at Paramount. Enlisting at the start of World War II, he worked in the Signal Corps making movies like How to Bridge a Gorge (1942). After the war, with O’Brien as friend and mentor, Harryhausen made shorts adapted from Mother Goose stories.
Animating The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953) led to work on It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), where Harryhausen met producer and partner-to-be Charles Schneer. The animator had been working for years on a project “based purely on Greek mythology” called The Lost City. With Schneer’s help, Harryhausen ended up with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.
Schneer sold the idea to Columbia for a budget of $650,000, little of which went to the cast (contract player Kermit Mathews, future Mrs. Bing Crosby Kathryn Grant) or for location shoots. Filming in Spain was cheaper and offered stark beach, mountain and desert scenery with landmarks like the Alhambra Palace to back up Harryhausen’s animation.
Yes, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is ostensibly derived from The Arabian Nights, but Harryhausen would return to similar monsters and situations for the rest of his career. Sinbad’s swordfight with a skeleton shows up in an expanded form in Jason and the Argonauts (1963), for example. With their elemental, larger-than-life narratives and outsized monsters, Greek myths were perfect for Harryhausen’s methods.
Harryhausen learned from O’Brien how important it is to develop personalities for his characters—like a Cyclops who pulls over a bench so he can watch his dinner cooking in Sinbad, or the skeletons’ feral grins in Jason. Harryhausen’s figures, with their awkward lurches and puzzled gestures, have a charming, lifelike quality that is often seems to be missing from today’s CGI.
Stop-motion animation continues today in work by Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline), Jan Švankmajer (Alice, Faust), the Brothers Quay (The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes), and Nick Park (who won an Oscar for Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit). Upcoming stop-motion features include The Pirates! Band of Misfits from Park’s Aardman Animation and Frankenweenie, directed by Tim Burton.
If you think that filmmakers don’t reach back to the past, you can spot very funny Thieving Hand references in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and the upcoming The Cabin in the Woods.
Read Reel Culture posts every Wednesday and Friday. Follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy
March 23, 2012
If you’ve somehow avoided the marketing juggernaut behind The Hunger Games, the film version of Suzanne Collins’ novel is poised to become the first box-office blockbuster of 2012. Opening today, the movie has already broken the first-day sales record on Fandango, topping the previous leader, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse. Should it match that title’s receipts, The Hunger Game could top $150 million within days.
Despite muted reviews from old-line media like Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, The New York Times, and Time, The Hunger Games has already helped to boost the stock price of distributor Lionsgate by over 80% in the past three months. So you can count on Hunger Games sequels in the near future. Three more episodes are currently planned (the last book will be split into two parts, like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.)
With almost 25 millions copies in print, Collins’ series of young adult novels are a phenomenon in their own right. Set in a dystopian future, the premise features televised Olympics-style battles to the death among 24 teenagers selected from the 12 colonies that had rebelled against the ruling class. Personally, I am uncomfortable with how children are used in The Hunger Games, and even more uncomfortable with one of its immediate predecessors, Battle Royale. A 1999 novel by Koushun Takami that was adapted into a 2000 film directed by Kinji Fukasaku, Battle Royale is far more violent and morally ambiguous than The Hunger Games. In it, high school students are sent to a remote island in a rigged fight to the death. Collins has stated that she was unaware of Battle Royale when working on The Hunger Games. The stories still share a surprising number of plot elements. Although Quentin Tarantino professed it a favorite, Battle Royale has never received a legitimate release in the U.S.
Call me a hypocrite, but I’m generally fine with other forms of screen mayhem. The upcoming Jason Statham vehicle Safe has a body count in the dozens, as well as a young protagonist who directly causes the deaths of several villains. But director Boaz Yakin never pretends that Safe is anything but escapist entertainment, and he doesn’t dwell on how the movie’s victims die.
Just as Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels popularized vampire and werewolf themes for a young-adult audience—making a fortune for Warner Bros. and Little, Brown in the process—The Hunger Games takes a premise that has been around for decades and refashions it for a new audience. Here are five other films in which humans hunt each other to the death.
5. The Running Man. Based on a novel by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman), this 1987 film starred two future governors: Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura. Schwarzenegger, at the height of his popularity as an actor, plays a contestant in a televised duel-to-the-death hosted by smarmy emcee Richard Dawson. Arnold simultaneously must defeat the corrupt regime ruling a post-apocalyptic United States. Directed by Paul Michael Glaser, the original Starsky in TV’s “Starsky and Hutch.” Both novel and film borrow from an influential 1958 short story by Robert Scheckley, “The Prize of Peril.”
4. The Naked Prey. Directed by and starring Cornel Wilde, this 1966 adventure finds Wilde chased across the South African veldt (actually Zimbabwe) by tribesmen who have already murdered the other members of his safari. Considered shockingly brutal for its time, the film is more notable today for its exceptional location photography (by H.A.R. Thomson) and Roger Cherill’s lean, incisive editing. The screenplay, by Clint Johnston and Don Peters, was nominated for an Academy Award. The Criterion Collection DVD release includes the original inspiration for the movie: a 1913 short story “John Colter’s Escape,” about a trapper fleeing Blackfoot Indian pursuers. According to this website, Joel and Ethan Coen remade the film on Super 8.
3. The 10th Victim. This 1965 sci-fi adventure by Elio Petri features screen icons Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress in another televised death match, this one called “The Big Hunt.” Anyone who survives five attacks and commits five assassinations wins a million dollars. With its “modernistic” decor, disaffected characters, and parody TV ads, the film predicted today’s cynical take on violence and celebrity. The 10th Victim was based on a Richard Scheckley short story, “The Seventh Victim.” Director Petri would later win an Oscar for his satirical 1970 police procedural, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion.
2. Spartacus. It may seem a stretch to connect a 1960 gladiator epic, directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Kirk Douglas, to The Hunger Games. But there are odd parallels. As their unlikely lead characters, both stories feature impoverished outcasts. In both, these innocents are forced to perform in a deadly ritual for a corrupt ruling class. Both undergo rigorous training in a decadent capitol. In order to survive, both turn into reluctant killers. And both are drawn into political intrigues. I’ll end the comparison by noting that Spartacus doesn’t have the happiest of endings.
1. The Most Dangerous Game. My favorite in the human prey genre, this 1932 film was based on a 1924 short story by Richard Connell in which survivors of a shipwreck come face to face with the infamous Count Zaroff. (Read the original story.) With no way off Zaroff’s tropical island, the guests must play along with his deadly demands. More a horror film than an adventure, The Most Dangerous Game was filmed at the same time, and on the same sets, as the RKO classic King Kong. (Ernest B. Schoedsack was co-director of both films.) It also featured a mesmerizing score by Max Steiner, one of Hollywood’s premier composers. Starring a young Joel McCrea (still a few years from his success as a leading man at Paramount) and Fay Wray (at the time the screen’s reigning scream queen), The Most Dangerous Game has the inexorable logic of a nightmare, and the gloomy, swampy locations to match.
The Most Dangerous Game has been overshadowed by King Kong, but filmmakers (and other artists) really took to its premise. In A Game of Death (1945), Zaroff’s villain became a Nazi; the film was directed by Robert Wise, who also helmed The Sound of Music. Run for the Sun (1956), directed by Roy Boulting and starring Richard Widmark, took place in Central America. Orson Welles appeared in a radio version in 1945. The Most Dangerous Game has an amusing cameo in Zodiac (2007), David Fincher’s drama about the San Francisco-area serial killer.
The Criterion Collection released an excellent edition of The Most Dangerous Game that is available on Hulu Plus. You can also find an edition from Legend Films that includes a colorized version overseen by special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen. (In honor of Wrath of the Titans, I will be writing about Harryhausen and stop-motion animation next week.)
Or you can view The Most Dangerous Game online, at the Internet Archive or on YouTube: