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Friday
Dec202013

THE 10 BETTER-THAN-EXPECTED MOVIES OF 2013

We have all perused those Best Of… and Worst Of… lists over the years, and in 2013 the web is flooded with them. But what about those movies that fall in between; the films that weren’t quite good enough to make the grade but were far better than anyone had any right expect. SCREEN-SPACE slaps the backs of ten movies that were never serious contenders for the end-of-year honour lists, but were a whole lot better than any of us thought they would be…

PAIN AND GAIN
Michael Bay’s oeuvre encapsulates muscle-headed tributes to all-American machismo (Bad Boys; Armageddon; Pearl Harbour; the Transformers trilogy). Who would have thought that he had within himself a smart, scathing satire of that very mindset? That he wrangled dimwitted action-movie poster-boys Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson (pictured, above) to sell the gag is as inspired as the conceit itself. Sort of Get Shorty crossed with Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

EVIL DEAD
“Don’t touch it,” screamed the holier-than-thou webheads who rose up in defiance of Fede Alvarez’s remake of Sam Raimi’s low-budget horror classic. “F*** you!” said Alvarez, who delivered an R-rated, high-octane splatterfest gem that both honours the anarchic energy of the original and the expectations of the fan base who hold the series in such high regard. 

DARK SKIES
Scott Stewart’s slow-burn, small-scale, suburban-set alien invasion-meets-haunted house thriller bombed (it went straight to DVD in most territories). Yet this expertly-crafted story of a terrorised family and the phenomenon that befalls them is a goose-pimply joyride that rewards the patient viewer; The Conjuring wooed the ticket buyers, but Dark Skies is a better film. Keri Russell channels Poltergeist’s Jobeth Williams as the every-mom coping with unwanted intruders.

WARM BODIES
The Gen-Y cynicism of director Jonathan Levine (All The Boys Love Mandy Lane; The Wackness; 50/50) meets the romantic warmth of author Isaac Marion; the result is Romeo-&-Juliet for The Walking Dead generation. Scary, funny and sweet in equal measure, Warm Bodies preaches ‘love the one you’re with’ to a movie-going demographic that that seeks out both thrills and truths.

CLOUD ATLAS
It proved impenetrably dense for the mainstream mindset (the US box office topped out at US$27million), but the Wachowski’s weren’t pandering to the multiplex mentality; how they convinced Warner Bros to back this project is anyone’s guess. The upshot is that the sibling’s extraordinary vision of David Mitchell’s novel now exists in that rarefied realm that includes Brazil and Waterworld; expansive, ambitious visions that with a derisive repuatation yet have established a fierce following. 

WHITE REINDEER
Zach Clark’s pitch-black Christmas tale is dark Yule-tide classic; sort of an ‘It’s a Not So Wonderful Life’. As real-estate agent/Donna Reed wannabe Suzanne Barrington, Anna Margaret Hollyman should get Oscar attention, but won’t; her journey from WASP princess to drugged-up orgy participant to fully rounded self-fulfiller is 2013’s strongest character arc.

THE HISTORY OF FUTURE FOLK
A nutty narrative about an alien invasion that fails because ‘they’ fall in love with our capacity for love and music draws you in; the soundtrack provides the greatest toe-tapping moments in 2013. The most wonderfully engaging comedy this year.

MADRAS CAFÉ:
US cinema had Argo, Ben Affleck’s zippy, giddy cinematic poltical thriller. International cinema had Shoojit Sircar’s volatile Madras Café , a work that blends fictional construct and factual background to form a deeply humanistic take on regional conflict. John Abraham is a great lead, mixing action-hero muscle with conflicted moral foil.

YOU’RE NEXT
The best Australian actress on screen this year was Sharni Vinson. As the ‘final-girl’ archetype at the heart of Adam Wingard’s home-invasion bloodbath, Vinson resurrected the ballsy action-heroine lead character that once belonged to Sigourney Weaver. This gory, funny, terrifying film didn’t start as her star-making vehicle, but by the final frame, she emerged every bit the next decade’s Jamie Lee-Curtis.  

THE SPECTACULAR NOW
Director James Ponsoldt’s adaptation of Tim Tharp’s novel is as potent a study of alcoholism as Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas. But it also encompasses teenage alienation, first love anxiety and familial discourse; why is this stunning work not an Oscar front-runner? Leading man Miles Teller is this generation’s Tom Hanks; Shailene Woodley outdoes her Oscar-nominated turn in The Descendants.

Saturday
Dec142013

DISMISSING THE BUTLER: THOUGHTS ON THE HFPA SNUB

Lee Daniels’ The Butler emerged as the breakout hit of 2013’s American box office season. A word-of-mouth sleeper that would bank US$116million and featuring a cast strewn with Oscar winners, it was considered an awards season front-runner. But when nominations for the 2013 Golden Globes were announced this week, it was nowhere to be seen. It doesn’t take much to impress the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), the brilliant minds behind the Globes’ judging process. So why didn’t The Butler walk away with any mention come Hollywood’s second biggest awards evening? Or did the global press representatives get it exactly right?

1. It is The Foreign Press Association:
According to the Box Office Mojo site, nearly 72% of The Butler’s worldwide gross was domestic; a headline-grabbing hit at home, it only crept to an ok US$46million from the 28 territories in which it ran theatrically. That is the antithesis of the current industry mantra, ‘Domestic covers costs; foreign reaps the profit’. Overseas print and web outlets weren’t clamouring for content about The Butler, so the film was not high on the list amongst the roster of journos who provide coverage – and determine Globe worthiness.

2. Overseas critics didn’t follow their US peers:
Those ultimate purveyors of ‘event picture’ marketing, Bob and Harvey Weinstein (pictured, right), got word out early on the film, ensuring US critics saw The Butler as ‘an important work’. Offshore, their influence is far less potent and many critics drilled down on the film’s soft focus sentiment and simple-minded politics. The Financial Times said, “The Butler is like some bonkers Advent calendar of American history”, while The Globe and Mail opined, “…the White House feels like comic relief, with a parade of presidential caricatures.” The Rotten Tomatoes site has The Butler at 74%, undeniably at the low end of award season contenders. The HFPA have to work with these people and were clearly swayed by their colleague’s editorial.

3. But they nominated 12 Years A Slave and The Help:
Yes, they did, but look closer. 12 Years A Slave is a British director (Steve McQueen) and two British stars (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender), with global box office golden boy Brad Pitt on board as producer. The Help featured Hollywood’s It-Girl of the day, Emma Stone, playing an idealistic journalist (!) who comes to the rescue of downtrodden Mississippi maids. Let’s not forget they bestowed 5 nominations/2 trophies on Tarantino’s cartoonish slave-era revenge-fantasy Django Unchained just last year, so African American-themed stories aren’t off their radar… 

4. …or are they?:
Despite closing in on US$100million at the homegrown box office, Brian Helgeland’s 42 (pictured, left) saw no love from the HFPA either. The racially-charged biopic of baseball legend Jackie Robinson featured much buzzed-about performances from Chadwick Boseman in the lead role and an against-type Harrison Ford as his mentor. But it has barely been seen in overseas markets, where sports pics and black history themes struggle – and where HFPA members earn their keep. The nominations shut-out of Ryan Coogler’s much-hyped urban-set drama Fruitvale Station, a Cannes winner and festival hit, adds weight to this argument. It took an Oscar-winning turn from Sandra Bullock for The Blind Side to get noticed and it still only took US$53million offshore, a meagre 17% of its worldwide gross; tellingly, she was the film’s only Golden Globe contender. 

5. The HFPA are just calling it like it is:
The Butler hasn’t featured heavily in the awards season preamble. With several of the major critics groups having already handed out their gongs, The Butler has managed notices from second-tier ceremonies like the Satellites (3 nominations), Camerimage (a nomination for DOP Andrew Dunn) and The People’s Choice (1 nomination), with its only silverware from the Hollywood and Hamptons film festivals. If AMPAS honours Lee Daniel’s drama with a bevy of nominations come January 16, it might be seen as a shot across the bow of the Golden Globes growing popularity. Should the film be similarly ignored by Academy members…well, maybe the overseas scribes, the very same who deemed starlet Pia Zadora worthy of its highest honour in 1982's biggest industry scandal, will eventually be credited with some level-headed wisdom.

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.