Friday, September 28, 2012

"Fixing" A Hammer

Being a lifelong monster-movie fan, I have a huge love for Hammer Films, the British movie company that specialized in horror, science-fiction, and adventure films in the 1950s-70s. The company has recently been revitalized due to new ownership, and one of the projects the "new" Hammer has been working on is releasing some of their classic films on Blu-ray.

These Blu-rays are, unfortunately, for the British region, which means they won't play on North American Blu-ray players. I don't own a multi-region Blu-ray machine (if you'd like to send me money so I can buy one, please feel free). One assumes that eventually these versions will reach the American market.

Having the great color Hammer films remastered and in HD sounds wonderful, doesn't it? Well, I found out something this week that worries me. THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, one of Hammer's best, is coming out soon on Blu-ray, and it has...."enhanced" special effects.

What this means is that today's technology was used to make changes to the 1968 movie. I haven't seen the Blu-ray, so I can't tell you how much was changed, or how it affects the film. But the idea kind of scares me.

ANY horror or science-fiction film made forty-odd years ago might look quaint, or silly, to a 21st Century audience. The idea that a forty-year-old film can be "fixed"--without the input of the people who originally made the film--is somewhat arrogant. SFX alone does not make a movie great. I'm sure 20...heck, maybe even 10..years from now there will be people who think THE AVENGERS is old-fashioned.

What's even worse is the Blu-ray is just going to have this "enhanced" version...there will not be an original version of the film included. (The original THE DEVIL RIDES OUT is on DVD--but why not just put the original on the Blu-ray as well?)

I don't know why Hammer is doing this--cheap publicity? A way to boost sales by attracting the curious? I certainly hope this isn't the start of a new trend. I don't need to see Peter Cushing fighting CGI vampires.

But when you think about it, it IS part of a modern-day trend. What are all these remakes, re-boots, and updates, if nothing more than "enhancements"? Sure, "Hawaii Five-O" was a great TV show, but what if you set it in today's world? And added some hot-looking women? And TOTAL RECALL was pretty cheesy...we can make a way better version. And so on..and so on...

Maybe all these "fixers" should spend less time messing with someone else's body of work and come up with their own original body of work.

You can't enhance originality.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The case for JOHN CARTER

I'm pretty sure that if anyone sees the title of this post, their reaction will be, "JOHN CARTER??? That's one of the biggest bombs in Hollywood history!! It's a terrible movie!!"

Well...does a film's failure at the box office automatically make it terrible? I saw JOHN CARTER during it's theatrical release, and I liked it. I don't know how much the budget supposedly was, and I don't know (or care) how much money Disney lost on it. I'm not a Disney shareholder. I can only judge the film on what I see and feel personally. One of the unfortunate aspects of 21st Century cinema is that the mainstream media has an obsession over how much money a movie makes, or does not make. It's almost as if the box office receipts are a movie's "stats", like those on the back of a baseball card.

As soon as JOHN CARTER started it's theatrical run, the media went out of it's way to blast the film and gloat on how much of a financial bomb it was. From this blogger's perspective, it seemed the media had some personal issue against JOHN CARTER. What that could be is hard to figure out. JOHN CARTER is a well-made, entertaining, straightforward adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' "A Princess of Mars".

John Carter (played by Taylor Kitsch) is a Civil War veteran who is mysteriously transported to Mars, where he becomes involved in the wars between the various tribes and creatures who inhabit the planet. Carter falls in love with Martian Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins).

The film is a mixture of science-fiction, fantasy, and old-fashioned adventure. It sticks very close to Burroughs' work, with the exception of a scene that is supposed to "explain" John Carter. This scene is a flashback to how Carter lost his wife and child on Earth (in the Burroughs books John Carter never had an Earth family). The scene is rip-off from THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES and seems to be the result of the studio trying to "fix" the story.

JOHN CARTER will certainly be more enjoyable to those who have read the Burroughs books (like me), but one doesn't have to be familiar with the character to watch this film. Some critics said the movie was too confusing, but if one has an imagination and is willing to pay attention, it shouldn't be hard to follow the story. There are a number of action scenes, but the movie is not overly violent or gory. It's a film most families should be able to watch together.

So...why was JOHN CARTER not a financial success?

First off....the title--which, if you don't know who John Carter is, tells you nothing. It should have been JOHN CARTER OF MARS, or at least A PRINCESS OF MARS, the title of Burroughs' book.

Then there's the ad campaign, which was pretty lousy, especially when you consider that this was made by Disney, of all people. It's almost as if they were embarrassed by the product. They shouldn't have been. JOHN CARTER is a lot better than most of the box office "winners" of the past few years.

Another problem is the leading man. Taylor Kitsch is okay, but the role of John Carter requires someone like Errol Flynn, or Tyrone Power...or even Kerwin Mathews. The romantic swashbuckler, the man who could hold a sword in his hand and not look foolish....that type of actor is extinct in today's Hollywood. (On the other hand, Lynn Collins is perfect as Dejah Thoris. She's the best thing in the film.)

There were also complaints that JOHN CARTER featured a number of elements that "have all been seen before". Some critics suggested that the film recycled work by Cameron, Lucas, Spielberg, etc. What these critics didn't understand was that Edgar Rice Burroughs created this saga in 1912. If anything, Cameron, Lucas, and Spielberg were influenced by John Carter.

And maybe that's the real reason JOHN CARTER did not become a big hit--it was made at the wrong time. The character of John Carter existed before Flash Gordon, Buck Rodgers, Robby the Robot, Mr. Spock, and Luke Skywalker. Just about every science-fiction and/or fantasy film of the last eighty or so years has been inspired by the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs. What some people see as a rip-off has actually been around the whole time.

JOHN CARTER is a swashbuckling, romantic, action-adventure story....the type of story that modern cinema does NOT make well. If this film had been made in the 50s or 60s, it would probably be looked at in the same way that we look at FORBIDDEN PLANET or THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD. JOHN CARTER, unfortunately, does not fit in the type of world we live in today.

In closing, if you haven't seen JOHN CARTER, I highly recommend you give it a try. Don't worry what the media says about it, or how much money it may have lost. JOHN CARTER deserves to be seen and appreciated by a wider audience.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Tod Browning's FAST WORKERS

This year the Warner Archives released FAST WORKERS on DVD-R. A 1933 melodrama made by MGM, the movie's main claim to fame is that it was directed by Tod Browning. Browning is of course known for films such as the Bela Lugosi version of DRACULA, FREAKS, and many collaborations with Lon Chaney.
There is not much written about FAST WORKERS, even in volumes dedicated to Browning's work. It is not a horror film, but it does have two stars who were genre legends: Robert Armstrong from KING KONG and Mae Clarke from FRANKENSTEIN. One would think that having those two in a film directed by Tod Browning would give FAST WORKERS more of a reputation.

The film's story concerns skyscraper construction workers Gunner (John Gilbert) and Bucker (Armstrong). The rougish Gunner and the naive nice chump Bucker are best friends who have a interesting way of "protecting" one another--they both make sure the other never becomes a sap and gets married. Gunner's way of showing respect for his friend is by humiliating him. Gunner is one of those smart-alec guys that the audience is supposed to be charmed by, but Gilbert just comes off as a jerk. If James Cagney or Clark Gable had played this role, it might have worked.
Armstrong fares a lot better in his part. The well-meaning Bucker winds up getting hoodwinked by grifter Mary (Clarke), who already has a relationship with Gunner. Mae Clarke is the real star of this movie. Her conniving Mary is a far cry from Clarke's prim Elizabeth in FRANKENSTEIN and her brittle Myra in WATERLOO BRIDGE. Sporting a chic hairstyle and a smart wardrobe, Mary is more than a match for both Gunner and Bucker.

It would seem that FAST WORKERS has nothing to do with the rest of Browning's film work. This film features high-rise building workers instead of Browning's usual collection of circus performers or criminal gangs. There are some similarities though. Just like the carnies and the crooks, the laborers are a band of eccentric individuals who specialize in unusual, high-risk occupations. Browning shows that Gunner, Bucker, and their co-workers have their own type of "code" and way of living, just like the groups in the circus or the criminal world.
There really isn't any "horror" moments in the film (unless you count the scene where one of the cast almost falls to his death). There IS a scene worthy of the macabre side of Browning. It's where Bucker sits at his kitchen table the morning after realizing he's been made a fool of by Gunner and Mary. He has no dialogue--Browning just shows a number of tight close-ups of Robert Armstrong's face, and we know that this worm is going to turn. Armstrong, in this scene, even kind of reminds you of....Lon Chaney.

FAST WORKERS isn't a great film, or even a great pre-code film. But it is of interest because of the cast and the director involved. Any one who is interested in the work of Tod Browning should see what is considered to be one of his few "normal" films.