Sunday, 25 July 2010

The Madness of Guillermo

Guillermo del Toro made surprise appearance at this week's Comic-Con convention in San Diego announcing his involvement in Walt Disney's planned reboot of THE HAUNTED MANSION. THE HAUNTED MANSION reboot, like its 2003 Rob Minkoff directed predecessor, will be based on the Disney theme park attraction. In that sense it extends the studio's continued reliance on branded concept feature films (Pirates of the Caribbean, The Sorcerer's Apprentice). Minkoff's version of The Haunted Mansion cost $90 million and underwhelmed by attracting negative reviews and grossing less than it cost to produce. As we're living through a time where feature films in general are bereft of original ideas, it comes as no surprise Disney will be remaking THE HAUNTED MANSION only eight years after Minkoff's turgid interpretation. What is surprising is Guillermo del Toro's involvement with the feature as I have always thought him a cinematic trailblazer who would shun the prospect of making a movie that is so obviously an exercise in promoting Disney's sideshow ride, while also eschewing the risk of producing original works not based on preconceived gimmicks. Guillermo del Toro renounced the opportunity to direct THE HOBBIT, therefore (even though he hasn't yet signed on to direct THE HAUNTED MANSION reboot officially and may only just write and produce) it's bemusing he hasn't chosen to make a movie that's atypical of what's largely on offer in a conventional sense.

Guillermo del Toro is a hugely talented filmmaker who is equally inventive visually as he is thematically. His movies are rich with ideas and subtext, constantly pushing notions of what can be achieved through the medium of horror. A problem I find with the current Guillermo del Toro brand is the way in which he's become attached to a multiplicity of projects without seeing them through to fruition. An example of this is Guillermo del Toro's long gestating adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's 1931 novella AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS, which some people were hoping his surprise appearance at Comic-Con this week would finally confirm. It's a project the director has been developing since the 1990s, but remains merely a tantalising prospect than a tangible actuality. Guillermo del Toro said last month, "[AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS] is exactly the movie I would like to do; it would push buttons, and it's extreme in many areas. It's a hard R-rated, big production tentpole in the genre of horror." This statement alone makes me wonder why on earth Guillermo del Toro is wasting time on THE HAUNTED MANSION remake when he could try harder to get AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS rolling. I have talked in the past about how the horror genre has seriously lost its way with studios reluctant to greenlight horror projects as a result of tepid audience appetite for the slew of substandard products released over the last 5 years. Del Toro alludes to Hollywood's reluctance regarding the production of tentpole horror movies, the kind of which was big business in the 70s and 80s. Movies like The Exorcist, The Omen, Alien, The Shining and The Thing were expensive horror movies designed for adult consumption. They had sophisticated stories and presented mature characters in convincing ways; striving to negotiate the horror elements they're confronted with. The current understanding of commissioning executives in Hollywood is horror films are the realm of young audiences and that if the core demographic is shunning contemporary horror films then they're simply not worth making. That's a shame because the tentpole horror movies I've mentioned above were major releases and continue to be discussed for their creative brilliance.

The chance of AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS getting made is even slimmer now than what they were circa 1995 when Dreamworks acquired the project for Del Toro: although the director says, "[He]self-financed the designs and maquettes and everything [to do with the film]." It doesn't seem Universal Pictures, the new rights holders, were ever seriously interested in making AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS and was keener on a namesake association with Del Toro. It doesn't take a film genius to figure Guillermo Del Toro is a masterful director whose Spanish-language horror films like Cronos, The Devil's Backbones and Pan's Labyrinth demonstrates why Hollywood shouldn't shoehorn him into just manufacturing comic book/ fantasy fodder. If Hollywood really wants to revive its horror genre projects then they could do a lot worse than greenlighting AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS. Then again, perhaps Guillermo del Toro could help himself by not jumping from processed fantasy film to processed fantasy film.

NB- Since writing this post Universal and James Cameron, in a producing capacity, has announced they will be making AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS as Guillermo Del Toro next directorial feature. The movie will be shot in 3D. Guillermo's in talks with Tom Cruise for the lead role. Yes, it had everything to do with me.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Brothers in Arms

I've just got back from seeing Christopher Nolan's INCEPTION. I admired it more than actually loved it. It has a pretty complex plot and arcane themes to do with dreams, guilt and manipulation that are handled well. It's just there's nothing here that's not been done before in various films to with reality and simulacra. It's a shame you don't really give a shit about what's happening to the characters in INCEPTION because none of them are fleshed out, satisfactorily. There's no sense of emotional connectivity to it and that's primarily the fault of Christopher Nolan because he's far too cold a filmmaker to infuse an adequate sense of humanity to proceedings. (I saw TOY STORY 3 as well which has no problem with bringing a sense of heart to everything and is a damn near perfect experience.)

Whatever my minor grievances with INCEPTION are, the American movie going public went crazy for it and it scored a dynamic $60.4 million over the weekend at the US box-office. The UK was as eagerly enthusiastic for INCEPTION and it grossed a mighty £6 million over the weekend. INCEPTION reportedly cost $160 million to produce (although it is claimed it actually cost in excess of $200 million) and according to the LA Times has a marketing budget of $100 million-plus. Having seen INCEPTION, it's debateable if the movie will recoup its wholesale budget, but as always, I could be wrong. What is in no doubt is Warner Bros. commitment to Nolan and his filmmaking talents. Nolan first directed Insomnia for Warner Bros. in 2002 and followed it with Batman Begins, The Prestige and The Dark Knight; all for the same studio. Nolan originally pitched INCEPTION to Warner Bros. 10 years ago and had originally envisaged it on a much smaller scale but as his track-record became more established and The Dark Knight generated more than $1 billion in revenue, Warner Bros. were more than willing to take a chance on Nolan's complex celluloid conception. After all, the studio is desperate for Nolan to sign on for BATMAN 3 and has done the right thing in bankrolling any project he wants to do, especially considering how much he's made for them. What this highlights is the filmmaker-friendly outlook of Warner Bros.

In 2009, Warner Bros. became the first studio in history to gross more than $2 billion domestically in a single year. It has a great history of being home to legendary filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick who made all his post-2001 A Space Odyssey films at Warner Bros. Directors like Clint Eastwood and Wolfgang Peterson have made the bulk of their movies with Warner Bros. and their commitment is assured. There's a new generation of visionary directors like Zack Snyder who has made his last three movies at Warner's and will release SUCKER PUNCH (described as Alice in Wonderland with guns) through them next year. Todd Phillips made last year's record-breaking comedy The Hangover with Warner Bros. and has stayed with the studio for DUE DATE which will come out this Autumn.

Although Warner Bros. are risk takers, their current success is derived mainly from fanboy fare. In 2007, Jeff Robinov- Warner Bros. President of Production- stated, "We are no longer doing movies with women in the lead". Thomas Tull is the founder of Legendary Pictures and ponies up 50% of the budget for all the movies he partners up with Warner Bros. in return for 50% of the profits. With Tull's help, Warner Bros. revived both Batman and Superman franchises and look set to score very big with upcoming projects like a reboot of GODZILLA, CLASH OF THE TITANS 2, JACK THE GIANT KILLER, THE SPOOKS APPRENTICE, WORLD OF WARCRAFT and AKIRA. In short, these movies are high-concept bloke orientated fare designed to dazzle male minds, though perhaps not emotionally engage them. The times when Warner Bros. and Tull have attempted to make softer films like We are Marshall, Lady in the Water and Where the Wild Things Are, the profits were lacklustre while costs were huge. Warner Bros. has a well-heeled companion in Tull and through its Legendary Pictures partnership has produced 17 movies that have earned more than $4 billion combined. But the duos aversion to drama pictures is disappointing. Nevertheless, Warner Bros. is a movie juggernaut and through its boutique affiliations with production companies like Alcon has produced female-skewing hits like The Blindside, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, The Lake House and P.S. I Love You.

Warner Bros. is a movie industry in itself. It believes that almost every great movie comes from a singular vision so lets directors run with their creative ideas, even if that means letting films be dark in tone or R-rated when they need to be. They make exceptional commercial films that many other studios wouldn't dare to. Their film development arm will option books like mud to throw against a wall to see if it'll stick and then attach exceptional talent to bring them to completion. Not many studios would have given Christopher Nolan such creative breadth even with his unblemished record, but Warner Bros. has and will no doubt continue to. Let's just hope their creative and financial decisions remain more omnivorous than what Robinov will have you believe.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

I Spit on this Film

Film critic Roger Ebert was never a fan of the original I Spit on your Grave: a cult exploitation movie concerning the graphic serial gang-rape of a hapless young woman and the subsequent revenge on her attackers. In his review for the Chicago Sun-Times dated 16th July 1980, Ebert talks of how he watched the film at a seemingly respectable Chicago cinema but was taken aback by the shocking content of the film and appalled by the reaction of a middle-aged, white-haired man two seats down from him who after the first rape scene shouted: "That was a good one!". After the second rape scene the same man screamed: "That'll show her!" After the third rape he proclaimed: "I've seen some good ones, but this is the best." It's no surprise Ebert summed up his review of I Spit on your Grave by calling it a, "vile bag of garbage."

30 years on it seems feminism in movies is backtracking as Anchor Bay Films gets ready to unleash a pointless remake of an already pointless film. It seems the all new I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE reboot will land in American cinemas in October 2010 but with a certain caveat: the film will be released in theatres without certification. It turns out the MPPA balked at what they saw and instructed the producers to make 110 cuts in order grant a Restricted rating. Anchor Bay Films decided not to hinder the 'integrity' of their remake and have opted to meet with cinema owners directly in effort to get around the ratings system. They will have a fight on their hands and will probably lose, but their remake is apparently budgeted at a mere $1.5 million so their chance of profiting through various ancillary media seems fairly good.

My problem with I Spit on Your Grave (the original one as I haven't seen the remake) is that it's nothing more than violent porn designed to titillate. Fans defend it by extolling the empowering character arc of the rape victim who pirouettes from oppressed to oppressor by cutting off the cocks and bollocks of men who attacked her. She does this by utilising her sexuality in order to coax and then torture them. It's a fairly simplistic treatment of a hugely complex and humiliating experience and the new remake is said to replicate the same beats of the old narrative. Truth be told, the new I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE is not a feminist discourse concerning the horrors of rape, but is essentially an excuse for guys to get a hard-on by watching a woman get gangbanged. The coda of revenge is simply an addendum to nullify true criticisms directed at the film. You only have to look at the poster for proof of what I mean.

Universal released their remake of Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left last year, which was a similar tale of rape and revenge. Although the rape scene in that film was terribly uncomfortable to watch, it was aided by a compelling story and rather good acting. It was also made on a larger budget than the remake of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE. It went on to earn $33 million at the US box office, which may have made the prospect of remaking I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE all the more feasible. For all my problems with The Last House on the Left, I can accept that it attempts to be a morality tale about vengeance. That's an argument I find hard applying to I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE as I just ventured on to a popular film message board where one reader writes, "Are the rape scenes hot?" It seems the witless middle-aged, white-haired man who sat two seats down from Ebert is still very much alive and active on the internet.

Friday, 2 July 2010

The Sound of Movies

THE TWILIGHT SAGA: ECLIPSE will tear through UK cinemas next week in much the same way it's doing in US picture houses right now. British director David Slade is set to score the biggest hit of his moviemaking career having made the critically respected indie thriller Hard Candy and studio horror flick 30 Days of Night. But why did Summit Entertainment give Slade such a high-profile gig after just a couple of edgy films? It may have something to do with his previous career as an excellent music video director.

David Slade directed one of my all time favourite videos for Aphex Twin called Donkey
Rhubarb ( and has made videos for massive Alt-Rock bands like Muse, The Killers and Stone Temple Pilots. Slade is just one of countless music video directors moonlighting as feature filmmakers. Francis Lawrence and Zack Snyder are the latest crop of former music video directors who've helmed innovative blockbusters like I Am Legend and 300 respectively. Tarsem Singh, David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Jonathan Glazer are super successful music video directors who've fruitfully made the transition into movies. While some may have patchy film directing records, David Fincher is perhaps the most esteemed youngish Hollywood movie director of now. Spike Jonze is also another dude who can open a movie just on name-recognition. In turn, both Fincher and Jonze are Academy Award favourites: their films garnering many nominations.

For all the merits of getting music video directors to helm movies, the risks for any studio are big. One of the reasons why studios are attracted to music video directors is noticeably due to superficial motivations to do with youth and image. What studios fail to recognise is that music video directing is essentially about putting images to sound while film directing is about putting images to story. Telling a story through film is not easy and that's why many music video directors struggle. A good music video director may be able to mount fantastic visual style, but their inability to carry character and story may flounder efforts and result in a movie that provides little emotional connectivity. Music video directors like Hype Williams, Dave Meyers, Joseph Kahn, McG and Jonas Ã…kerlund are shit-hot visualists who can construct gorgeous looking vignettes, but demonstrate a complete lack of ability when it comes to executing engaging narratives. Their film efforts are steeped frenetic visuals that aim to mask an absence of substance. The same criticism can be applied to Tarsem Singh's movie efforts, but at least he manages to meld intoxicating imagery with atypical narrative conventions, thus in turn creating a cinematic experience that's hard to come by. The Cell and The Fall (and hopefully next year's Greek mythological epic THE IMMORTALS) exemplify this and his music videos for REM and Deep Forest are nothing short of masterful (

The worst part of this discussion is focussing on music video directors who you'd think are capable of greatness but end up delivering utter shite. This is best illustrated by Samuel Bayer whose remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street was nothing short of disastrous. Bayer helmed Nirvana's seminal music video Smells Like Teen Spirit. His music video record is wondrous and Hollywood studios have been tapping on his door for the last 20 years to make the transition into motion pictures. He's declined many offers; that is until Michael Bay (another former music video director) talked him into directing a superfluous remake of a classic horror movie that Bayer brought nothing new to. The eventual product was shunned by audiences and critics alike.

Maybe I'm being too hard on Samuel Bayer. After all, David Fincher's first film was Alien 3 and look at where he is now. What's strange is those music videos directors may not be as cursory they first appear and what they really want to do is direct psychologically epic stories. Mark Romanek directed Michael Jackson's Scream, which still remains the most expensive music video ever. His breathtaking videos for Nine Inch Nails, Beck and Sonic Youth prove he's more than capable of handling fantastical imagery; yet he's chosen to make smaller stories like One Hour Photo and the upcoming British drama NEVER LET ME GO. Likewise, Red Hot Chili Peppers' and the Smashing Pumpkins' regular video directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris made their feature film debut with Little Miss Sunshine, which was essentially a self-financed indie film about an eccentric middle-American family on a road journey. Floria Sigismondi, who directed classic videos for Marilyn Manson and David Bowie, made her feature debut earlier this year with indie-rock biopic THE RUNAWAYS which hardly made good use of here insanely weird artistry. It seems that music video directors feel they've already been pigeonholed enough and are intent on making film projects that affect them on an emotive level. While they may have become millionaires through creating extended adverts for pop musicians, they don't want their film careers to be tarnished with a comparable 'hollowness'. Mark Pellington has directed more spiritually charged music videos like Jeremy for Pearl Jam and One for U2. Pellington's film output may be slim (Arlington Road, The Mothman Prophecies, Henry Poole is Here), but it seems to compliment the sensitivity of his exemplary music videos. It's a balance that's hard to achieve but Pellington, like Tarsem Singh, seems to have almost managed it.

There are film auteurs like Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson who have tried their hand at music videos, but that's always seemed like a favour to a friend than any serious interest in classic music video making. Additionally, there are music video directors like Walter Stern, Nick Goffey & Dominic Hawley, Chris Cunningham, Dawn Shadforth and Sophie Muller who I'd love to see try their hand at feature films but have so far been reluctant. There are former music video directors like Marc Webb who seem to demonstrate great skill with narrative and perhaps that's why Sony have entrusted him with their lucrative SPIDERMAN reboot.

Dare I say it; I would even love to see what James Sutton (aka: Jam Sutton) would do with a feature film, but that's only because I wish the real world looked like a James Sutton music video. Sutton may be a paragon of vacuity but his sun-kissed aesthetics always manage to win me over (

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Let Me In

It must be a rush to remind us Halloween is merely four months away, but Hammer Films (yes the same Hammer that made classic British horror/fantasy/ soft-sex films) have released a trailer for LET ME IN, which is the remake of Tomas Alfredson's 2008 Swedish film Let the Right One In. It's the second horror film to be trailed this week (see post on PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 to read up on the first) and looks pretty decent. It's directed by Matt Reeves who made Cloverfield and seems similar in tone and style to its Swedish predecessor, albeit kind of of darker. I love the fact it's an American horror film told from the POV of kids- not teenagers- but kids. Alfredson's film sparked a bidding war and many UK production companies were also looking to score remake rights. Alas, Overture Films in the US partnered with Hammer and the rest is history. No UK release has been announced but the film will come out in America 1st October 2010.