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Thursday
Dec052013

WAITING FOR GADOT: WHO IS THE NEW WONDER WOMAN?

It has been the role to score amongst Hollywood’s young actress ranks. For the last three decades, it you are a starlet under 30 with a surprise hit or a model with the right dimensions, you were tested for the role of DC Comic’s iconic super-heroine, Wonder Woman - the one superhero franchise that the industry can’t seem to tap. Is an ex-Miss Israel with only 10 industry credits to her name the woman to carry the weight of the greatest female super-hero on her shoulders?

Zack Snyder’s Batman vs Superman has its Wonder Woman, in the form of Gal Gadot (pictured, top). The 28 year-old ingenue, mostly known for her role as Gisele in the The Fast and The Furious sequels, was born in the contemporary central Israeli enclave of Rosh Ha’Ayin. Gadot has been a star in her homeland since representing her nation at the 2004 Miss Universe pageant. Bit parts in TV series such as the supermodel soap-opera Bubot led to a top-tier Hollywood debut in 2009’s Fast & Furious followed by a single-episode spot on the series Entourage and a recurring role on The Beautiful Life. After walk-ons opposite Steve Carell in Date Night and Tom Cruise in Knight and Day, she reprised her ‘Gisele’ role before returning to Israel for much-touted guest spots on the home-grown series Asfur and Eretz Nehederet.

The alter-ego she will embody has endured a far more complex back-story.

Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman, debuted in 1941, replete with bondage imagery (author William Moulton Marston acknowledged the character’s S&M influence) and a ‘man-hating’ agenda (several commentators accused the character of 'lesbian' tendencies). It took until 1966 for Wonder Woman to begin her multi-media divergence; she debuted as an audio book in 1966, then was the subject of a failed TV pilot called ‘Who’s Afraid of Diana Prince?

Various kid-friendly incarnations followed (a guest spot on The Brady Kids; a co-starring slot in Super Friends; a dedicated episode of The Muppets) before Cathy Lee Crosby fronted a series pilot (that never progressed). In 1975, the part was recast with Lynda Carter (a Miss World USA contestant, no less) and the most iconic representation of the character was born. As recently as 2011, an expensive series pilot penned by David E Kelley and starring starring Adrianne Palicki (Gi Joe: Retaliation; Red Dawn) was lensed but shelved.

So, in a modern cinematic era where such meagre super-hero figures as Daredevil, Elektra and The Shadow get big-screen treatments, why has Wonder Woman taken so long to graduate to franchise status? (Editor’s note – While acknowledging that Hollywood studios have struggled to foster all but a handful of action-based female leads, this article will focus on other elements). Crucial factors include her costume (sexy and marketable but anachronistic and hard to take seriously) and origin story (hailing from an island of Amazonian warriors, as she does).

Stars have been attached over the years; Sandra Bullock, Rose McGowan, Emily Blunt, Megan Fox, Elodie Yung and Yvonne Strahovski were just a few of those tested but were passed over. Australian supermodel Megan Gale was announced as being cast, before George Miller’s Sydney-based production was shut down; genre experts David S Goyer (the Blade trilogy) and Joss Whedon (The Avengers) went after the project but pulled out. Director Snyder wanted Oblivion co-star Olga Kurylenko, but Warner’s held out for the super-hot Gadot, counting on her being relatively inexpensive now but with a career trajectory that feels legitimate.

It is arguably the casting announcement of the year. Warner Bros have a grand plan to spin off Justice League projects, in exactly the same way the Marvel Universe has proved a goldmine for competing majors, Universal and Disney. If all goes well for Gadot, she may be the biggest female star of the next decade. If all goes well…. 

Monday
Nov252013

IMAGINE THAT: THE SECRET STRUGGLE BETWEEN WALTER MITTY AND HOLLYWOOD.

For the peak 2013 Christmas holiday movie-going season, 20th Century Fox has gambled on a new adaptation of James Thurber’s short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Having debuted as an article in New Yorker magazine in 1939, the story of the daydreamer with a heart of gold was most famously adapted into Norman McLeod’s 1947 classic, starring Danny Kaye (pictured, below; with co-star, Virginia Mayo). But its modern retelling has bounced around within the Hollywood studio system for nearly three decades. SCREEN-SPACE takes a look at its troubled production history…

The property was adapted into various stage versions throughout the 1960’s and featured in the 1972 cult fantasy, Scarecrow in the Garden of Cucumber (with David Margulies in the role). But it would not be until 1994, when Samuel Goldwyn Jr, son of the legendary producer of the 1947 film, reignited interest in the Water Mitty story as a vehicle for the red-hot star of Ace Ventura Pet Detective, Jim Carrey. Imbued with a modern spin and leading man potential, the story of the innocent dreamer took on a new Hollywood life.

Goldwyn Jr had launched Carrey’s leading man career in the vampire comedy, Once Bitten, and wanted to mould the actor into the Mitty role. The industry’s most respected comedy writing team, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (Splash, Vibes, Parenthood) were hired for the project and their longtime collaborator, Ron Howard, with his production company giant Imagine Entertainment in tow, became attached. But contemporising the story proved a sticking point.

Carrey (pictured, left) was determined to headline, at one point enlisting the director of his breakout hit The Mask, Chuck Russell, with Peter Tolan (Analyze This) working on rewrites. When Russell bailed (just shy of a 2000 production start-date), Carrey sought out Steven Spielberg, who had struck up a friendship with the comedian as producer of Dreamwork’s Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. Dreamwork’s distribution partner, Paramount Pictures, was high on the pairing and solidified it as a tentpole project (Goldwyn’s son, John, oversaw the studio’s motion picture group).

But the project imploded. A series of heated lawsuits between Goldwyn, Dreamworks and co-rights holder New Line Cinema saw the rights revert back to Goldwyn’s camp but by then, the principal players had moved on (Carrey and Spielberg were by then developing Meet the Parents).

Paramount’s management, backtracking from its December 2005 start date, began repackaging the project for the likes of scripter Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King; pictured, left), director Mark Waters (Mean Girls) and stars Owen Wilson, Will Ferrel and Scarlett Johansson, but it proved a cumbersome undertaking. The studio ultimately decided that the project was moribund and put it into turnaround (a term that notifies the industry that it’s no longer a goer with the current administration and is up for grabs). The top bidder was 20th Century Fox, who acquired the package in early 2007.

Despite the troubled history of the project, talent circled. Screenwriters Zach Helm (Stranger Than Fiction) and TV veteran Jay Kogen (The Simpsons) took on months of rewrite duties (Kogen’s version found favour with Mike Myers management, leading Myers to undertake a full rewrite that was ultimately disregarded).  In April 2010, 20th Century Fox structured …Walter Mitty as a follow-up vehicle for Sacha Baron Cohen in the wake of the studio’s hugely successful pick-up of Borat. It was announced Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski would direct the umpteenth version of the script, this one penned by The Pursuit of Happyness author, Steven Conrad (Verbinsk’s preferred leading man, Johnny Depp, was offered the part, but both departed for Disney’s The Lone Ranger).

It would fall to 20th Century Fox’s ‘golden boy’, Ben Stiller, star of the studio’s cash-cows There’s Something About Mary and the Night at the Museum films, to recapture the magic of Thurber’s short story. Industry buzz is still out on how successful Stiller has been with the tent-pole release (at time of press, it stands at 36% on the Rotten Tomatoes site). Worryingly, the Internet is littered with images of scenes that were cut from the final cut, including Stiller and co-star Kristen Wiig in old-age make-up and Wiig as a NYC policewoman; co-star Josh Charles, having shot scenes as Wiig’s romantic interest, has been excised from the film entirely.

Only time will tell if Samuel Goldwyn Jr.’s (pictured, right) passion to get his long-overdue reworking of Thurber’s story to the screen for the second time will honour his father’s vision.

Read the SCREEN-SPACE review of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty here.

Saturday
Nov022013

RIP HAL NEEDHAM

Ace stuntman and action-comedy auteur Hal Needham will never be spoken of in the same sentence as the Kubricks or the Godards of the film world. But nor would he want to be, it would seem; as he was famously quoted at the height of his career, ““Directing, it’s a snap.” His passing on October 25 at the age of 82 from cancer brought his life to an end but his legendary status grows stronger.

Born Harold Brett Needham on March 6, 1931, in America’s deep-south, Needham served his country as a paratrooper in the Korean War before settling on the west coast and drifting into rough’n’tumble bit parts in the booming TV industry (he doubled for Richard Boone in over 200 episodes of Have Gun, Will Travel).

Soon graduating to stuntman status, it was during this period that he pulled off what many consider to be one of his greatest stunts. For the series You Asked For It, he leapt from a single-engine airplane and tackled a horseback rider to the ground (pictured, right). In a 2011 interview to coincide with the release of his autobiography, ‘Stuntman!’, he recalls, "The rate of speed that we closed on that horse was unbelievable. That plane was doing about 58 mph. I had to jump 15 to 20 feet before I even got to him and I had to catch him, not the horse."

He was soon co-ordinating and performing stunts on such films as How The West Was Won, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Bridge at Remagen, Major Dundee, The Great Race, McLintock!, McQ and The War Lord. In 1970, he devised and performed a groundbreaking horse-stunt for Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man, in which he climbs on the back of harnessed stage-coach horses at full gallop. “We worked with the horses for six months to get them ready,” he says, “(and) it took us two days to shoot the damn thing. And we made a lot of money, but it was scary. If you didn't make it, you'd have six horses and a 4500-pound stagecoach running you over."

His career took a fateful turn when he was cast as stunt double for a young Hollywood up-and-comer named Burt Reynolds on the set of the series, Riverboat – a gig which led to steady TV work with the actor in Gunsmoke and Dan August. Over the next dozen years, Needham and Reynolds (himself, an ex-fallguy) became close friends, working on films such as White Lightning, Lucky Lady, The End, Nickelodeon and The Longest Yard. On 1976’s Gator, a stunt involving a rolling pick-up truck was a near-miss. “That fender only missed me by 18 inches,” Needham remembers. “Had the truck gone straight and not turned over, it would have landed right on top me."

Having shot 2nd Unit work on several of Reynolds films, Needham was keen to step into the director’s chair. When the star brought him a script about a free-wheelin’ bootlegger evading dimwitted cops across America’s heartland, Needham took it on as his directorial debut. 1977’s Smokey and The Bandit would become a blockbuster hit and solidify one of the most profitable actor-director partnerships in movie history. Hooper, Smokey and The Bandit II, The Cannonball Run (pictured, below right; Needham and Reynolds with co-star Dom DeLuise) and its sequel and Stroker Ace were hugely popular with mainstream audiences, if never with the critical community. (Needham famously took out trade ads, featuring quotes from his bad reviews behind a wheelbarrow of cash, wryly rubbing his financial success in the nose of his detractors).

Though he can take a lot of credit for introducing the profitable charms of Arnold Schwarzennegger to moviegoers, having directed him in 1979’s Cactus Jack (aka, The Villain), Needham began to fall out of favour with young Hollywood executives when his big-budget fantasy Megaforce, BMX adventure Rad and broad wrestling comedy Body Slam all flopped in the 1980s (though all, it should be noted, have achieved VHS-fuelled cult status).

Needham had no pretensions as to his standing in the industry. He once said, ““I know one thing; I’ll never win an Academy Award. But I'll be a rich son of bitch.” He was proven wrong in November of 2012, when he was awarded with an honorary Oscar at the Governor’s Awards. 

Thursday
Oct172013

RIP ED LAUTER

Ed Lauter, one of Hollywood’s greatest ever below-the-line players, passed away on October 16 at the age of 74, succumbing to the asbestos-related cancer mesothelioma. Over his 42-year career, the New York native played a lot of characters prefixed by ‘Sheriff’ or ‘Sargeant’ or ‘Colonel’ or ‘General’ or ‘Major’. Such titles suitably surmise his standing amongst the casting directors, actors and filmmakers who have worked with him over the last four decades.

Lauter’s distinctively ambiguous facial features (a trademark of all the great bit players) could convey warmth or menace, fear or affection with the cock of a brow. Amongst the 204 roles against his name were scores of TV guest-spots, from his 1971 acting debut in Mannix to his six episode arc on ER; he wisely, even effortlessly, picked scene-stealing parts in a plethora of B-movies (The Chicken Chronicles, 1977; Extreme Justice, 1993; Nobody Knows Anything, 2003).

From his big-screen debut in 1972’s The Magnificent Seven Ride! to his most recent appearance opposite long-time friend Clint Eastwood in Trouble With The Curve, not a single decade has passed since the 1970s that hasn’t featured a memorable character role for the late, great Ed Lauter…

The 1970’s:
Lauter became the must-have support player very early on in his career, with no less than four roles in 1972 – The New Centurions (opposite George C Scott, who would direct him that same year in Rage);the Bill Cosby vehicle, Hickey & Boggs; and, most significantly, Robert Benton’s ground-breaking western Bad Company, starring Jeff Bridges. In 1973, he solidified his reputation as the hot-wired ‘Hawk Feather’ in Richard C Sarafian’s Lolly-Madonna XXX (pictured, right), leading to several years of steady work in such commercial fare as The Last American Hero (1973), The Longest Yard (1974), The French Connection 2 (1975) and Breakheart Pass (1975). The decade culminated in two of his most memorable roles – as the hot-wired ‘Maloney’ in Alfred Hitchcock’s final film, Family Plot (1976); and, as ‘Duke’, holding his own against an unhinged Anthony Hopkins in Richard Attenborough’s Magic (1978). 

The 1980’s:
Lauter kicked off the new decade by indulging his unforeseen comedic skills in Ira Miller’s fake-trailer anthology Loose Shoes (co-starring a pre-stardom Bill Murray), before delving back into the action-thriller genre parts with Death Hunt (1981), opposite Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin, and The Amateur (1981), starring John Savage. He side-tracked into arthouse cinema with Nicholas Roeg’s Eureka (1983) in the same year that he took on the role of Joe Camber in Lewis Teague’s Cujo (pictured, left), a short but compelling performance that many consider amongst his finest parts. Hollywood responded; in quick succession, he was cast in the Tom Selleck vehicle Lassiter and director Richard Lester’s all-star farce Finders Keepers (both 1984), the studio comedies Real Genius and Girls Just Wanna Have Fun (both 1985) and such star vehicles as Rob Lowe’s Youngblood and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Raw Deal (both 1986). Deeply appreciative of Lauter’s talent. the A-list directors soon came calling; before the end of the decade, he would feature in Roland Joffe’s Fat Man and Little Boy and Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July (both 1989). 

The 1990’s:
The booming home video market and the expansion of cable-TV provided Lauter with a bottomless pit of character parts (he did guest spots in The X-Files, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Highlander and Walker, Texas Ranger). But by this stage of Lauter’s career, the casting agents of influence knew his worth. The last decade of the old millennium was a busy time, with Lauter securing major roles opposite Steve Martin in Herbert Ross’ My Blue Heaven (1990); Jennifer Connelly in Joe Johnston’s The Rocketeer (1991; pictured, right); Brendan Fraser (and a young Matt Damon) in Robert Mandel’s School Ties (1992); Oscar-winner Nicholas Cage in Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas (1995); and, Nick Nolte in Lee Tamahori’s Mulholland Falls (1995). 

The 2000’s:
Lauter focussed to a greater extent on TV commitments in his final decade, but film roles would come his way that personified the rock-solid professionalism and industry standing he had etched out over his career. A pivotal role in Roger Donaldson’s Cuban missile drama, Thirteen Days (2000); the provider of well-executed cheap laughs as ‘The Coach’ in Joel Gallen’s parody, Not Another Teen Movie (2001); solid if smaller roles in Seabiscuit (2003), Seraphim Falls (2006) and The Number 23 (2007). Finally, Oscar recognition attached itself to Lauter when he co-starred as the faithful butler to Berenice Bejo’s Peppy in the Best Picture winner, The Artist (2011).

The late Ed Lauter has four films ‘in the can’ awaiting release, amongst them Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s much-anticipated remake of The Town That Dreaded Sundown. All to appropriately, he plays a sheriff; of the remainding films, his character names are ‘Pastor’, ‘Mr’ and, ignominiously, ‘Snub Nose’. They will be played to perfection, no matter how small, bolstering the work of everyone around him. It is what Ed Lauter, and all the truly great character actors, did best.

Wednesday
Sep112013

TIFF AUDIENCES STILL WARM TO THE BIG CHILL

There is a bittersweet irony that the Toronto theatre that hosted the premiere of The Big Chill three decades ago has been converted into a Pottery Barn homewares store. But the demise of an old movie palace to make way for a soulless franchise can’t dilute the love that the town’s film festival goers have for director Lawrence Kasdan’s tale of idealism, friendship and change. Many of those original audience members turned out for a 30th anniversary screening and cast-and-crew Q&A session earlier this week.

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), then known as ‘The Festival of Festivals’, was seven years old when it hosted the World Premiere of The Big Chill. TIFF was a well-liked, generally well-attended event that was on the cusp of being one of the world’s leading festivals. Similarly, the film’s cast were respected actors but not marquee draws and director Kasdan had scripts for Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back to his name but only one directorial effort, the decidedly unsentimental (though critically-acclaimed) Body Heat. There was a sense of synergism about the pairing.  

““I was at that screening as a member of the public, so I do remember what it felt like,” says Piers Handling, Director and CEO of TIFF (pictured, right). “In addition to helping its stars break through and its influence on cinema generally, The Big Chill represents a landmark in TIFF’s own history. It showcased the Festival’s ability to seek out and attract up-and-coming contemporary classics and helped the Festival move to the forefront of the international landscape.”

Attendees at the premiere went wild for the tale of baby-boomer pals gathering at the funeral of the most idealistic member of their college clique, who has committed suicide (played by Kevin Costner, his flashback scenes entirely excised from the final cut). The chemistry between cast members, amongst them William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Glenn Close, Meg Tilly, Tom Berenger, Mary Kay Place, Jobeth Williams and a scene-stealing Jeff Goldblum, was entirely infectious; the film would win the People’s Choice Award at TIFF that year.

"The film had something to do with friendship,” Kasdan told reporters on the red carpet ahead of the September 5 retrospective screening. “It's not a particularly rose-colored version of it; it's what really happens. People rub each other wrong, but the friendship survives and helps you deal with the world." Kasdan and screenwriter Barbara Benedek spent a great deal of time fine-tuning the personalities of their characters. “"We thought that maybe if we were specific enough there'd be some universality", he said. "The characters came from studies of people we knew. These were real people on the screen".

The launch provided by the Toronto’s enthusiastic audience fuelled the film’s marketing and subsequent box office success, almost in spite of studio ambivalence. Kasdan (pictured, left; l-r, Berenger, the director, Goldblum, Kline and Hurt) recalls, “[The studio] said, 'How can there be seven protagonists? It's impossible’. The subject matter also wasn't exactly in their wheelhouse. The head of Columbia Pictures said to me, after the first test screening, 'I didn't know it was a comedy.'" On the back of three Oscar nominations (Picture, Original Screenplay and Supporting Actress for Glenn Close) and a blockbuster soundtrack of classic 60’s hits, The Big Chill took US$56.4million domestically (a staggering US$143.4million in 2013 currency).

As was to be expected, the 30th anniversary screening took on a celebratory mood. Audience participation was encouraged, with spontaneous dancing breaking out in the aisles and classic quotes (“It’s just good investigative journalism”) echoed verbatim. Kasdan, Benedek and producers Michael Shamberg and Marcia Nasatir accompanied the cast (excluding Goldblum and Hurt, through work commitments, and the late Dan Galloway) on the Prince of Wales Theatre stage following the screening (the film restored to 4k clarity by the studio archivists). Variety’s senior film critic, Scott Foundas, had the enviable task of moderating.

“This movie's been available in your living room for 30 years, and yet you all came out tonight. I really appreciate it," Kasdan told the sold-out audience, adding for comic effect, "You'll have no trouble recognizing the cast. They haven't changed a bit.” (Pictured, right: l-r, Gleen Close, Mary Kay Place, Kevin Kline, Meg Tilly, Tom Berenger and Jobeth Williams)

"It was an extraordinary experience to have challenging work that also made you laugh,” said Mary Kay Place, (who played the maternal Meg) “and then to have as much fun during the day working as you did at night dancing and playing charades and singing Broadway show tunes at a piano at Jeff's and Kevin's." Tom Berenger, cast as TV actor Sam Weber, recalls his stunt-leap into the front seat of a convertible as pretty tame action-hero stuff. “Anybody could have done it,” he says, “that was a pretty low car.”

Canadian native Meg Tilly, so memorable as the beatific Chloe (pictured, right) and who had all but retired from acting, perhaps best sums up the love shared by both the film and the festival audience. “It was one of the cosiest sets I’ve been on,” she said. “We all rented condos on the beach and Friday nights we’d get together and have parties and dancing and food.” The reuniting of the cast was a special moment for the actress. "I'm so happy they had the idea to bring us all together to do this," she said. "It's such a gift, I get to see everybody again and I haven't seen everybody in so long. To see their happy smiling faces, that was such a blessing. I'm really grateful."