A long time ago, we used to be friends…

ImageI have a long list of TV shows that finished too early for my liking. The nature of the industry is such that shows that display rare originality, strong characterisation, fully-developed worlds and compelling stories, often find themselves with the plug pulled and their narrative without a natural end.

Over the years, creators have tried to revive such shows in a variety of ways. Joss Whedon continued his short-lived Firefly as a movie and a comic series. Jericho managed to wring a second (ultimately stunted and disappointing) season out of the production company thanks to overwhelming fan support. Arrested Development makes its return later this year thanks to funding through Netflix. And now a new possible solution has been revealed as cult-favourite Veronica Mars succeeds in sourcing funding for a feature film through Kickstarter.

Kickstarter has always been an exciting propositon; what better way to fund art than by sourcing the capital upfront from the eventual consumers? Rob Thomas is one of those television creators who never seems to catch a break. Every show he has put together (including the fantastic Party Down) has been cancelled. For whatever reason, the masses don’t seem to take to his product.

But now his fans have spoken and Veronica Mars, the feisty teen detective, will live again. I remember been entirely gripped by the mystery-laden first two series of Veronica Mars, yet the third series left me a little cold. I’m not entirely convinced we need a movie, but I’m excited about what this means for television and creative media in general.

Kickstarter has been going strong for a while now and has plenty of success stories under its belt (I recently watched the first series of Video Game High School and was pleasantly surprised). Yet the Veronica Mars movie takes the possibilities to a whole new level. It raised a record-breaking $2 million and stands to become the highest-profile project the crowd-funding website has supported.

Naturally, this has lead to speculation about other moth-balled series that could be resurrected in this manner and television creators such as Joss Whedon and Bryan Fuller have weighed in with their thoughts.

This is definitely a development worth keeping an eye on – another step towards a world where consumers decide directly what is worth funding – and an interesting proposition for dedicated creators who witness their creations failing to realise their full potential.

Fringe: Gone but not forgotten

ImageFringe is one of those rare, rare creatures: a genre television show that gets to conclude its story on its own terms. For every Fringe, Lost or Battlestar Galactica, there are a dozen Fireflys, Dollhouses and Jerichos. Its unusual enough that a show displaying originality, strong characterisation and thoughful plot development comes along. Its even more unusual that the creators of such a show manage to maintain the ratings and creative control necessary to bring their story to a satisfying conclusion.

With Fringe, it looked unlikely for a while there that we would ever come this far. The conclusion of each season since the second has brought doubts over the show’s future. Many fans, myself included, had even resigned themselves to witnessing a premature death and an unsatisfying conclusion, given that the show was produced by the Fox Network, who were responsible for cancelling shows such as Firefly, Wonderfalls and Undeclared. Yet they stuck by Fringe.

Changing times

What started out largely as a procedural ‘monster of the week’ kind of show in a similar vein to The X-Files (but with crazy scientists instead of aliens) developed over the years into something much more compelling. The mythology – which included a parallel universe, semi-omnipotent time travelling beings, a drug capable of bestowing super-human powers and a futuristic dystopian society – was complex and engrossing, yet it never seemed at risk of collapsing under its own weight (see Lost).

As the show struggled to stay alive, the writers were driven to up the ante, taking advantage of whatever time they might have left. During the first two seasons, a casual viewer could tune in and enjoy a crazy, but generally self-contained, story. As the desire to draw these viewers became less of a factor, the compelling, idea-driven story lines quickly took over.

All good things

And so we came to the finale. I have to admit that, during the first half of the last season, I was beginning to have my doubts. Its not that it wasn’t enjoyable and compelling – it was (and I’m never one to complain about a good old-fashioned dystopian future). Yet I had my doubts as to whether they were moving towards a satisfying conclusion, and the near-total separation from previous story lines left me feeling like I was watching a different show.

I shouldn’t have worried. Fringe has a history of making game-changing alterations to its setting and story lines (shifting the action to an alternative universe or changing the timeline so a key character no longer exists) and has proven before that its characters and themes are strong enough to carry it through.

It was perhaps inevitable that the final series should focus to some degree on The Observers. They have always been there in the background; they are the show’s most enduring and unexplained mystery. Now I’m glad they were put front and centre in the Fringe team’s final conflict. Fringe toyed with plenty of ideas over the years, but the dangers of the abuse of science has been the most enduring of them all. The Observers represent the pinnacle of such misuse – what we might become should we forgo emotions entirely in our drive for scientific knowledge.

Thinking of the fans

I’m not going to argue that Fringe is a particularly important series because of its characters (though I did love the characters – Walter Bishop, in particular, will always have a place in my heart), its writing (often cheesy and overly-sentimental) or its story (wonderfully bizarre and unrestrained though it was). What is important is that it finished on its own terms. It wasn’t prematurely cancelled and it wasn’t stretched out beyond recognition to wring out as much profit as possible. It seemed as though the creators had the freedom to take their stories and characters where they thought they needed to go.

At the same time, Fringe displayed an endearing self-awareness. It knew what it was, what it did well and what the fans wanted to see. The final episodes paid tribute to the show in a number of pleasing ways – we saw Walter take acid one final time, we witnessed Olivia injected with Cortexiphan and visiting ‘the other side’ – a clear indication not only that the creators were confident in their knowledge of their own creation, but also that they understood that their fans loved Fringe for much the same reasons they did.  

Check out some Sundance 2013 shorts

I’ve been watching quite a few short films online of late, most of them thanks to the diligent work of Short of the Week, who keep my inbox well-stocked with an interesting and eclectic selection of oddities.

sundance_shorts_2013The 2013 Sundance Film Festival is already under way and it brings the usual frustrating revelations of interesting prospects that probably won’t be available to the general movie-going public for many months (or years) to come.

Now, thanks to the magic of the internet, we can feel in some way as privileged as those in attendance at Redford’s big indie love-in. The Sundance Institute has made a selection of twelve short films (of the 64 selected for screening at the festival) available through Youtube.

Highlights include Black Metal, an all-too brief study of how a family man reacts when his black metal band takes the blame for a gruesome murder, and Broken Night, a scary short about a mother and daughter’s ill-fated drive through the country that leaves much to the imagination. My personal favourite is Irish Folk Furnature, a pleasant film that employs pleasing animation techniques and is about – um – furniture restoration.

Click here for the full selection.

Future releases: Zombie time!

I love Zombies. I know that isn’t an unusual claim in our zombie-saturated pop-culture world, but its true. I suppose it is something to do with the post-apocalyptic connection – the arrival of zombies is rarely a positive event for the human race – but there is also something genuinely terrifying about them as a horror antagonist. Those who are currently watching series 3 of The Walking Dead will undoubtedly agree with me; after countless movies (not to mention comics and novels) somehow the slowly shuffling shadow of a zombie still gets my heart racing.

World War Z

2013 will see the arrival of two new zombie cinematic outings. One has been on my radar for quite some time, yet it is the less anticipated of the two. Click here to watch the trailer for World War Z.

The die-hard zombie fanatics amongst you have almost certainly already read Max Brook’s World War Z, an exhaustive account of a global zombie plague, encompassing the downfall of humanity and ultimately its fight for survival, that also manages to tell personal stories for a number of compelling characters.

The film version looks to be quite a bit different from the source material, which is a disappointment, but not an unexpected one – any adaption of the book would cost in excess of $100 million and a faithful adaption would never draw in sufficient audience numbers to justify that kind of cost.

So I remain quietly hopeful that the film will entertain on some level. Director Marc Forster has some strong films under his belt (in particular, Stranger than Fiction). Yet the production has been troubled (to put it lightly) and the trailer has started the internet horde braying about CGI-zombies. I have to say, the trailer doesn’t exactly fill me with hope, but I will keep an open mind and, fingers crossed, we’ll all be pleasantly surprised.

Warm Bodies

The other zombie release is Warm Bodies, a zombie romantic comedy, or zom-rom-com (thanks Edgar et al)! Check it out here.

I’ve always enjoyed my horror with a touch of humour – after all, is it really possible to take the concept of the walking dead entirely seriously? Warm Bodies may appear on the surface to be appealing to the Twilight crowd, but I do think there will be more to it than that.

Its directed by Jonathan Levine, whose The Wackness and 50/50 I enjoyed quite a bit. Both his previous efforts play against expectations and hopefully Warm Bodies will too. Telling the story from the zombie’s perspective is a nice spin (I feel like it has been done elsewhere, but can’t quite remember where…) and the idea of a zombie falling for a apocalypse-hardened, yet still cute-as-a-button girl might just be ridiculous enough to work.

Plus its got Malkovich in it! Someone has managed to put Malkovich versus zombies on our screens and – frankly – it would be rude not to go see that.

Looking forward to Justice League

As the unwieldy juggernaut of a movie series now known as Marvel: Phase 1 drew to a close with the entertaining and epic The Avengers (a total success thanks, in no small part, to the efforts of director Joss Whedon) , attention has shifted to the comic book-giant’s main competitor, DC.

DC has experienced little in the way of cinematic success beyond the films about billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne and his alter-ego, Batman (and the Superman films of the late seventies and early eighties). As Christopher Nolan’s Batman series draws to a close, he has made it clear that The Dark Knight Rises marks the end of his involvement with Batman and the wider DC universe.

Which is perhaps not a bad thing. Nolan’s films certainly deserve a place amongst the pantheon of great superhero cinematic experiences, yet the trilogy is very much a character study. These films are about Bruce Wayne / Batman and, well portrayed as the other characters often are, these movies are a different beast to complex multi-character films like The Avengers.

Super-geekery

Now I’m not the biggest comic book superhero geek in the world (my experience of reading such comics stretches no further than Batman and The X-Men), yet I have enjoyed the surge in quality superhero movies we have been treated to over the last few years. Nolan’s Batman aside, I also enjoyed Iron Man (though felt quite let down by it’s sequel), the first two Spiderman films (the second, in particular) and Captain America: The First Avenger.

With the success of The Avengers, it looks like there will be no slowing Marvel down; they plan on releasing numerous films over the next few years (including – most excitingly – an Edgar Wright movie called Ant Man), culminating in in a second Avengers film.

Now that Joss Whedon has agreed to not only to direct the Avengers sequel, but also to oversee all Marvel-universe film efforts, I feel we might be entering a very exciting period. And since it looks like DC is also preparing to up it’s game, it could be doubly-exciting.

Will DC compete?

DC has enjoyed less success with their cinematic canon. Aside from the original Superman movies (Bryan Singer’s recent effort left audiences uninspired) and the steady stream of Batman films, few of their superhero’s have made the leap to big-screen stardom. The Green Lantern made a brief appearance last year. I enjoyed the film, though I may be in a minority there.

DC (and Warner Brothers) hopes to change their fortunes and emulate Marvel’s success with The Justice League, a movie featuring – presumably – Batman, Wonder Woman, The Green Lantern and Superman. Word has it that the movie will try to continue Batman’s gritty, realistic take on superheros, rather than trying to replicate Marvel’s slightly lighter, more comic-booky effort.

But are DC going to attempt to replicate Marvel’s grand phasing strategy (whereby they release a series of individual character-based films, leading up to an ensemble picture)? Variety reports here that plans for several DC character-based movies are in the works. These are largely in the early stages (though a script has been written for The Green Lantern sequel and the new Superman movie Man of Steel is close to being released and is starting to look promising).

What’s next?

Why am I so excited about the prospect of a whole new series of superhero movies? Because I love that rare, rare beast – the good blockbuster. This new trend of putting responsible directors with vision, such as Nolan or Whedon, in charge of big-budget productions is pleasing. These are fun movies and the trend seems to be to look beyond explosions and set-pieces to create well-rounded movies that might just stand the test of time.

The Avengers was on a scale that – when usually attempted in Hollywood – fails to deliver because the special effects smother all the other elements (character, script, art direction, etc.) you might expect from a well-rounded film. The climax of The Avengers provided something that has been lacking from the majority of blockbusters for some time – an over-the-top, effects-driven finale that I managed to engage with and care about.

So let’s see what DC have in store for us. I’m already pretty excited about the new Superman film (unusal in itself since I rarely find myself interested in that particular character) and hope that Warner Brothers will find success for the DC canon that has so far only been intermittently represented on the big screen.

Watch, repeat

I’m not sure why, but I used to watch certain films obsessively when I was in my teens. More so than any time since, I would identify these films as ‘the films for me’ and watch them. A lot.

Perhaps it was because they were simpler times, when there was not such a huge mass of available media. When I was growing up, if we wanted to watch any movies (other than the recent releases) I only had a few ways of getting hold of them. I could watch one of  the four television channels we had (Sky was a mere fantasy) or buy or rent a video.

However, the majority of the films from this list (yes, fine, it’s a list) are from the former two camps, since films recorded from television or bought on VHS could be watched numerous times over many weekends without repeatedly renting them out.

These films have all been seared into my brain. Some of them have stayed with me, becoming films I now recognise as classics. Others, I would probably no longer watch, but for the sake of curiosity. Those that fall into the later group might still have a place in my heart, and just the memory of a key line of dialogue (‘It can’t rain all the time.’) will make me feel nostalgic.

The Lost Boys

This cult horror staple has stayed with me throughout my life. I saw it most recently at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in 2006. When I arrived in Melbourne, alone and in a new country for the first time, and saw that The Lost Boys was playing, I was delighted to have a movie so familiar to go and see.

The story of Santa Carla’s Vampires and the boys determined to take them down is witty and comically violent. There’s something quite child-like about this movie, despite the it’s graphic content. It’s a kind of childhood-adulthood transitional film, as if the filmmakers set out to make a horror film for teenagers.

As a kid, I would have loved to have friends as fearless and unpredictable as the Frog Brothers, self-confessed vampire hunters (when they aren’t working in their parents comic book store). I love the pure eighties vibe, the comic-book violence of the vampire deaths and, of course, there is one of the greatest last lines in the history of cinema.

Ace Ventura: Pet Detective

Ace Ventura was my introduction to Jim Carrey, the funny man with the elastic face, who would become an near-obsession for me in my teens. I bought every movie he was in on VHS the day it was released (up until Liar Liar).

The film has dated a little and does look like a TV movie, but the laughs are still there as are the catchphrases, many of which have stuck with me until today (Alrighty then!). The story is a little wierd and the other characters are incidental. Really, its all just a showcase for Carrey’s brand of rediculous humour and that’s fine by me.

The Crow

This is a film I haven’t watch since my teens, yet I remember how intensely cool I thought it was. The film follows a man who returns from the dead, self-stylises himself as a scary clown / crow man and goes about taking down those who were responsible for for his murder and that of his girlfriend.

The subject matter seemed grown-up and the violence graphic (but not morbidly so). As a quiet and non-violent teenager, taking revenge on the people who messed with you seemed very appealing somehow. Add in the fascination of the lead actor, Brandon Lee, dying during the shoot, and film was a sure-fire winner.

Oddly, I haven’t watched it more than ten years, so I couldn’t say whether it holds up now.

Evil Dead 2

I haven’t seen it in ages, but I know in my heart that I still love Evil Dead 2. I’ve always been a bit of a wuss when it comes to horror movies. Certainly there are horror movies I have enjoyed, but I’m not a big fan of gore and scares for their own sake. When I discovered Evil Dead 2, I was pleasantly suprised to discover that horror movies could be funny as well as scary.

Of course a great deal of the fascination comes down to Bruce Cambell’s mesmirising, gurning turn as Ash, a role reprised from the orginal film (of which this is a kind of remake). He truly sells the absurd situation in which his character finds himself. When he does battle with his own severed hand, it really does feel like a fight for survival as well as being hilarious at the same time.

And the ending is awesome too.

Withnail and I

When I discovered Withnail & I, I watched it countless times. There was something wonderfully subversive about Richard E. Grant’s Withnail; he was living on the edge of society. He appeared to be quite possibly permanently cracked and yet he didn’t seem to care.

The simple story of two out-of-work actors who go for a much-needed holiday in the country sees very little happen. Yet it is populated by wonderfully memorable characters and grounded by a bleakly hilarious script. Thinking of certain scenes will still bring a smile to my face, especially Withnail, when faced with a large pub bully, breaking down into tears and sobbing…’I have a heart condition…if you hit me its murder….my wife is having a baby…’

Stand By Me

Another film that I still regard as a geniune classic. Four kids in fifties small-town America hear a rumour about a dead body and set out on a journey to witness this gruesome curiosity for themselves.

The central group are an odd mish-mash of personalities. They seem thrown together, yet comfortable with each others quirks. Their friendships are the kind that can only form in childhood; fleeting, but meaningful and important in their time.

My English teacher showed us this film when we were fourteen or fifteen (along with To Kill a Mockingbird) and it has stuck with me ever since. Its a brilliantly funny and imaginative film, whose characters are grounded in real-life, yet still capable of using their imaginations and having an adventures.

The Flight of the Navigator

During my teenage years, I certainly wasn’t beyond watching films deemed to be targeted at kids (nor am I now). The Flight of the Navigator is representative of the children’s films that bled through to my teenage years (see also Labrynth and The Goonies).

The movie concerns itself with a boy who is abducted by a charistmatic alien, who takes him on an adventure around the world in his super-cool spaceship. This movie had enough adventure and wit to keep me returning time and time again.

Just watched: The Secret World of Arrietty

If you were selling the rights for a beloved children’s story for big screen animated adaption, surely there is only one place you could go and be sure that your story would be treated with the love and the attention it deserves. Studio Ghibli have carved an enviable niche for themselves, producing well-crafted, traditionally animated feature films. Whilst their films are usually originally conceived naratives, The Secret World of Arriety is a clear indication that they are equally adept adept at adapting other material.

Whilst the western world has been distracted by the bright colours and simplistic stories of recent CGI creations, Tokyo-based Ghibli has continued (they have been releasing films since the mid-eighties) to steadfastly work with traditional animation methods. Not only that, they have continued to use those methods to put characters and stories first.

The Secret World of Arrietty is an adaption of The Borrowers by Mary Norton. This reassuringly old-fashioned story of the little people who live in the walls of the houses of us big people, borrowing that which they need without us noticing, is complimented perfectly by the Gibhli animation style. The house where Arrietty, a borrower girl venturing out into the big house for the first time, and her family live is well-realised and sufficiently daunting in scale.

The story is sensibly kept quite simple. Where other producers might have chosen to draw on the book’s sequels to lend the film a greater sense of scale and adventure, here we are treated to a small (no pun intended) story, which still manages to feel big thanks to Ghibli’s commitment to fully realising this world and the characters that live within it.

The Secret World of Arrietty has a timeless quality to it. In a marketplace crowded with gaudy CGI extravaganzas, its reassuring that such a finely-crafted, small-scale animated film can still be made. It may not be as flashy as Madagascar 3 or The Lorax but somehow it feels like it has been produced with greater confidence in the story it tells and, ultimately, feels more charming and magical because of the traditional methods employed.