Book review: Selling The Movie: The Art of the Film Poster

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Book review: Selling The Movie: The Art of the Film Poster by Ian Haydn Smith. Published by: White Lion. Out: now.

Perhaps surprisingly in the era of 3D, Blu-ray and leaked online trailers, the role of the movie poster is still vital to any film’s marketing. This large, attractive coffee table read, tells the story of cinema, not just through reproductions of the posters themselves but through a compelling narrative history of the medium.

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To be honest, I’m not sure the cover image for this book (reproduced above the West Side Story image above) really does the best job of “selling” its excellent contents, so please find below some excellent examples of posters from cinema’s past and present to whet your appetite.

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Book review: Tim Burton The Iconic Filmmaker and his Work by Ian Nathan

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This is a story about a little boy called Tim.

He was born nearly sixty years ago in California. He grew up, a bit nervous and a bit strange, and looked a little like his own later creation Edward Scissorhands except without the scissory hands. And perhaps not quite as pale.  He basically looked the same for his entire life and later had long relationships with Helena Bonham Carter, the English star of A Room With A View and Fight Club amongst other people. But this book’s not really about that sort of thing. It is about his films.

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After an unhappy spell at Disney working on boring films like The Fox and the Hound, Tim Burton made the first film Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985). The star, Pee Wee Herman (Paul Reubens) a children’s entertainer of the time, later got in trouble when he got caught publicly “misbehaving”  in an adult cinema. But the mass debate over this came later. Tim’s career had been launched.

Since then, he has made nearly twenty films. Most have contained a fantasy element. Some were animated (such as The Corpse Bride). Some were blockbusters (Batman, Batman Returns). Some were black and white (Ed Wood). Eight have Johnny Depp in. All but one have music provided by Danny Elfman who did The Simpsons theme. Some were magical (Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice), some  divided opinion (Mars Attacks!) Very few were actually awful (Planet of the Apes).

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All have been interesting in some way as this attractively illustrated coffee table book reminds us. Burton’s career proves that it is possible to be both offbeat, unconventional and interesting and still be commercially successful. And live happily ever after.

Tim Burton: The Iconic Filmmaker and His Work. Unofficial and Unauthorised by Ian Nathan. Published: Aurum Press, 2016

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Book Review: Gilliamesque by Terry Gilliam

For more on Terry Gilliam, see my feature The Imaginarium of Terry Gilliam in issue 14 of Geeky Monkey magazine.

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Gilliamesque: A Pre-Posthumous Memoir by Terry Gilliam, published by Canongate, 2016

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Terry Gilliam has always stood out from the crowd.

Even when in Monty Python, he stood out somewhat as the one American. Slightly odd looking, he mostly remained off screen at first, producing instead the celebrated animated sequences (for example, during the series’ opening titles) for which he became famous. Nearly fifty years on, this book, his memoir is illustrated throughout in a similarly unique style.

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Like many people called Terry (Terry Pratchett, Terry Brooks, fellow Python Terry Jones, er, Terry Scott?). Gilliam found himself drawn to the fantasy genre. His directing career began awkwardly with Gilliam co-directing Python ventures with Terry Jones. Although mostly good films in the end, they were tough shoots with Jones and Gilliam gently wrestling for overall control and the likes of Cleese and Palin losing patience with the American who they felt treated them like they were bits of animated card.

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Gilliam really came into his own in the first half of the Eighties with brilliantly imaginative fantasies like Time Bandits and Brazil. He’s had many fine moments since – notably The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys and has undeniably developed a unique visual style. Despite this, he has never developed a reputation for being a safe pair of hands, largely due to high profile flops like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) and The Adventures of Don Quixote which never even completed filming.

Though he sometimes adopts an overly defensive tone when discussing his own films, Gilliam makes for an engaging likeable narrator on his own life. The world of cinema would certainly have been poorer without him.

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Underrated: Rob Reiner

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Rob Reiner has directed some of the best loved films ever made.

He has mastered different genres to such an extent that you might not have realised that some of his films were even made by the same person. Who would, after all, assume A Few Good Men was linked to This is Spinal Tap? Or that Misery had anything to do with The Princess Bride? Or even that When Harry Met Sally was directed by the same man as Stand By Me?

Reiner directed them all.

Reiner has a long background in comedy. His father Carl Reiner was a noted US comedy star (now in his nineties) and directed the Steve Martin classic The Man With Two Brains. And like Ron Howard, Rob Reiner was a familiar face to US TV audiences long before he became a director. He was a regular on the long-running Seventies US comedy show, All In The Family. This is reflected in the fact that a good number of Reiner’s films have been comedies.

Just take a look at this list of Reiner’s incredible output between 1984 and 1996. Chances are, at least one of your favourite movies will be here:

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

Reiner himself plays interviewer/director Marty DiBergi in this celebrated rock documentary parody about a fictional English band famed for their punctuality and their tendency to lose drummers: one spontaneously combusts on stage. Another chokes to death on vomit (somebody else’s vomit).

Nigel: “It really puts perspective on things though, doesn’t it?”
David: “Too much. There’s too much fucking perspective now”.

The Sure Thing (1985)

A lesser spotted Reiner but still very much a cult favourite, this stars John Cusack and future ER actor, Anthony Edwards and centres round a college road trip.

Stand By Me (1986)

Funny, poignant and moving, this coming of age drama based on a Stephen King novella (The Body), actually improves on its source material in its depiction of four boys embarking on a macabre camping expedition into the woods to see the body of a local boy in the 1950s. With great performances from its young cast and a number of classic scenes, this is Reiner’s greatest film.

“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesusdoes anyone?”

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The Princess Bride (1987)

Inconceivable! But true. Rob Reiner also directed this hilarious and wonderful fairy tale which features everyone from Robin Wright, Peter Cook, Billy Crystal, Mel Smith, Andre the Giant to Peter Falk.

“Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die”.

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When Harry Met Sally (1989)

Famous for launching Meg Ryan’s decade of stardom and for “that scene” (Reiner’s late mother is the one who says “I’ll have what she’s having”), this Woody Allen-esque romantic comedy is endlessly watchable.

“When I buy a new book, I always read the last page first. That way, in case I die before I finish, I know how it ends. That, my friend, is a dark side.”

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Misery (1990)

Reiner’s second crack at Stephen King features a chilling Oscar winning turn by Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes the “Number One fan” of unfortunate writer and captive Paul Sheldon (James Caan). By my reckoning, two of the four best Stephen King adaptations are by Reiner (the others would be Frank Darabont’s Shawshank Redemption and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining). Which isn’t bad going.

“I thought you were good Paul… but you’re not good. You’re just another lying ol’ dirty birdy”.

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A Few Good Men (1992)

Courtroom drama starring Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and an Aaron Sorkin script. Reiner’s biggest ever box office hit.

Col. Jessup: You want answers?

Kaffee: I think I’m entitled to.

Col. Jessep: You want answers?

Kaffee: I WANT THE TRUTH!

Col. Jessup: YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!

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North (1994)

The big exception during this period, this all star comedy was a total flop and is often rated as one of the worst films ever. Reiner, arguably, has never fully recovered from this. The critic Roger Ebert famously opined: “I hated this movie. Hated, hated, hated, hated, hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.”

The American President (1996)

Aaron Sorkin again with a film that effectively launched Michael J. Fox’s late Nineties Spin City TV comeback and foreshadowed Sorkin’s huge TV hit The West Wing. US president and widower Michael Douglas woos lobbyist Annette Bening. Fairly unambiguously aimed at helping President Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign, this is still a good, if perhaps not great film.

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Even ignoring North, it’s an incredible record. I make that six iconic great films in the space of a decade (Spinal Tap, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery and A Few Good Men). Compare this to James Cameron who directed four iconic films over the same period (the two Terminators, Aliens and if you’re feeling generous, True Lies).  Fellow ex-sitcom star Ron Howard directed Splash in 1984 and then ten other movies over the same period up to 1996. Only one of these, Apollo 13, could conceivably described as “great”. So Reiner did very well indeed.

Why then is Rob Reiner not held in higher regard?

There are several reasons:

  1. He has genuinely gone off the boil since the mid-Nineties: there’s no denying this. With the possible exceptions of The Bucket List in 2008 (which is only okay), Ghosts of Mississippi, The Story Of Us, Rumor Has It… Alex & Emma and The Magic of Belle Isle were all total duds.
  2. The fact that his films are so different from each other is to Reiner’s credit. However, his successes have been so diverse that he has probably suffered from the fact that he is hard to pin down. What is a typical Rob Reiner film? This is difficult to say.
  3. His politics may have harmed him. South Park ridiculed him for his anti-smoking stance. He has campaigned for Al Gore, Howard Dean and still campaigns for Hillary Clinton. None of these presidential campaigns was successful.
  4. Even his successes were not always huge box office smashes. Even Spinal Tap and The Princess Bride were only modest hits at the time.
  5. Unusually, Reiner’s screenwriters – Nora Ephron, Aaron Sorkin and William Goldman have often received more credit for his films than he has. All were admittedly great.

But credit where credit’s due, Rob Reiner: six great films. That’s six more than most directors manage in a lifetime.

Total Recall: can remakes be better?

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Why are so many remakes made in Hollywood?

Lack of creativity is often blamed but perhaps a bigger factor is the name recognition advantage a remade TV or film automatically has. Nick Love has, after all, made several crime dramas. But do the names The Business or Outlaw resonate as much as The Sweeney? And why bother promoting a brand new supernatural comedy when most people already know Ghostbusters?

Remakes come in different shapes and sizes:

Remakes that attempt to follow the original exactly: This sounds like a flawless strategy. But as Gus Van Sant’s pointless 1999 remake of Psycho demonstrated, the results are at worst bad (Vince Vaughn going through his “serious” phase as Norman Bates??) at best, pointless. See also: Peter Jackson’s King Kong.

Remakes that are nothing like the original: The Italian Job (2003) really isn’t a bad film at all. But aside from minis, crime and Italy, it bears no resemblance to the original whatsoever. No comedy clifhangers, self preservation society, no bloody doors blown off. Nothing. But if the film hadn’t technically been a remake, I wouldn’t be discussing it now.

Remakes of non-English language films:  A bit silly, of course, as most people can read subtitles. However, with the exception of The Vanishing, the record here isn’t too bad. Let Me In (a remake of the recent Swedish vampire classic Let The Right One In) and David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo were all very close to being as good as the original, if not as good. Even The Birdcage (La Cage aux Folles) was pretty decent. But people do get snobby about this sort of thing.

Remakes/sequels which attempt to improve upon a flawed original: Perhaps the best argument for remaking anything. Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk was close to being a sequel to Ang Lee’s Hulk but with a different cast. The recent Dredd was also an improvement on the terrible Judge Dredd (1995) starring Sylvester Stallone. But none of these remakes were great either. And why the remake of The Amazing Spider Man (2012) so soon after Spider Man (2002)? Was the new film good? Yes. Did the new cast work well? Yes. Was there anything wrong with the original? No. this was a remake when a sequel would have worked just as well. Did we really need to see how Peter Parker became Spiderman again? I can see the argument for remaking the flaccid Superman Returns (2006)as Man of Steel though. Most people have forgotten it already.

Remakes that are so terrible they shame the memory of the original: Get Carter. Alfie. Fame. Shaft.  The Fog. The Stepford Wives. Poseidon. A Nightmare on Elm Street. Halloween. Rollerball. The Ladykillers.  Straw Dogs. The Time Machine. Sadly this is by far the biggest category. Even when a good director attempts to put a new spin on a classic as with Neil La Bute’s The Wicker Man or Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes, the result is still often appalling.

Remakes which surpass the original: Yes, this does sometimes happen! True Grit, Ocean’s Eleven or Total Recall. The trick seems to be to try to remake something that wasn’t great in the first place. David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) or John Carpenter’s The Thing are also solid examples.

Did Arnie really seem convincing as an ordinary construction worker at the start of Total Recall? No. Colin Farrell is less good with the catchy pay offs but much more convincing as a real man. And thank God there was no more of that “suffocating in the Martian atmosphere” bollocks. But yes, the original score was better.

Here are some films that are ripe for the remake treatment:

  1. Network (1976): A news network exploits one of its anchorman after he goes bonkers on air. By no means a bad film but flawed by an unnecessary voiceover. Could be redone well provided it doesn’t veer to close to comedy. Anchorman II is already being made after all. (Also: Broadcast News).
  2. Time After Time (1979): HG Wells travels in his own time machine to the present. No. it wasn’t very good in reality but the idea is a good one.
  3. Sleeper (1973): A man (Woody Allen) wakes up in the 22rd century after a spell in suspended animation. The original’s a hoot but who watches it now? It also introduced the Orgasmatron to the world.
  4. Barbarella (1968) Fairly pervy space opera with Jane Fonda. It could work. Jessica Alba? Kate Beckinsale? Anyone you fancy.
  5. Dune (1984). A truly great science fiction novel. Neither the David Lynch film or the TV series did it justice.
  6. Slaughterhouse Five (1972) Brilliant time travel novel. The film has not been watched by anyone since an old man watched it in 1995. He died shortly afterwards. So it goes.
  7. Duel (1971) Spielberg’s lorry themed debut.
  8. The Day of the Triffids: Neither TV or film have served John Wyndham’s classic plant takeover sci-fi well.
  9. Westworld (1973) Robots go berserk in a theme park. As parodied on The Simpsons.
  10. Village of the Damned (1960). Alien children take over a village. This John Wyndham classic (yes, I like him!) The Midwich Cuckoos has already been remade by John Carpenter. Badly. As revenge, Carpenter has since seen two terrible remakes of his own early works (Halloween, The Fog).

Why Obama must end the USA’s gun law madness

Even before Friday’s appalling massacre in Aurora, Denver, one thing was already apparent: the United States had a very serious problem with guns. Although terrible, the shooting was only the worst such incident to occur since the slaughter at Virginia Tech College in 2007. The cinema shooting also occurred within seventeen miles away from the Columbine High School, scene of the 1999 mass shooting. In the US, such incidents have become depressingly commonplace.

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