Michael J Fox is coming back!

No news could make me happier than the announcement that Michael J Fox will be returning to television screens in his first regular role since 2001. During his absence we have glimpsed the man in various cameos and guest-starring roles, though nothing significant to truly satisfy those of us who miss him the most.

Fox announced to the world in 1998 that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. His final cinematic efforts – Mars Attacks and The Frightners (no, I don’t count the Stuart Little series) – were a few years prior to this and he finished his regular TV gig on Spin City a few years later.

Whilst I enjoyed Spin City and a number of his other films (the ones mentioned above, along with Doc Hollywood, Teenwolf and Casualties of War), it was his performance as Marty McFly in the Back to the Future series that cemented a very permanent place in my heart for Fox.

So it is fantastic news that he will be back on our television screens once more. According to Vulture, his new show may well be loosely based on Fox’s own life, which kind of makes sense. He has always been a prominent activist, working hard to raise awareness of his disease, so it stands to reason that he might be coaxed back into the public eye with the purpose of continuing his increase awareness of Parkinsons.

Anyone who has read Fox’s book, Lucky Man, knows that he can tackle this subject with honesty and wit. That he will get an opportunity (the show is virtually guaranteed to get a full series order thanks to Fox’s involvement) to apply this passion in a dramatic form is very, very exciting.

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.

Film documentaries

I don’t just love watching films, I have for a long time been very interested in all aspects of the subject, from how films are made to how they influence the people who watch them.

From the first audio commentary I heard (The Usual Suspects, when released on VHS, was available to purchase with a second video where the film was narrated by the director and stars) through to the rise of DVD, when I used to hope that my most anticipated releases would come with a bumper load of extras and documentaries, I have consumed information about my favourite films.

Recently I’ve been seeking out documentary films that could expand my knowledge of the movie industry, perhaps shedding light on the quirkier aspects of the industry or even informing me about aspects of film history that should have already been familiar to me.

What follows is an overview of some of the more interesting documentary films I have come across recently on this subject.


Corman’s World (2011)

Although the name of Roger Corman was already familiar to me, I didn’t really fully understand how influential this man has been and how he shaped (and perhaps foreshadowed) the trends of popular cinema, whilst somehow surviving almost entirely outside the Hollywood machine.

Corman’s World takes us on a journey through Corman’s back catalogue. Though it would be impossible to make a comprehensive study of all his films (he has produced more than 300), the documentary touches upon numerous career milestones, some of which I hadn’t even heard of.

Corman had a tumultuous career, constantly striving to maintain his independence and producing all manner of movies. Known to many as the king of B-movies and exploitation cinema, Corman is a softly-spoken and private guy, who’s true motivations (beyond the simple fact that he enjoys to make movies) are difficult to pin down.

Yet what this documentary effectively illustrates is that he was making movies for film geeks and modern (perhaps younger) audiences long before Jaws and Star Wars came on the scene. It is also clear that he was a great moulder of men. Without him it is likely we would not have seen films from directors such as Jonathan Demme, Curtis Hanson, Martin Scorcesse and Ron Howard.

His story weaves through the history of cinema from the 1950s forward, yet Corman’s World also shows us how he tried to touch upon real-life issues. Corman worked with budgets small enough to allow him to tackle subjects that were contemporary when studio films were unable to take such risks.

He made films for teenagers before anyone knew what a teenager was. He introduced subjects such as drug consumption, biker gangs and racism when such topics were not even an option for filmmakers working within the studio system.

Overnight (2003)

The sad story of Troy Duffy, a Los Angeles bartender whose personal belief and incredible drive led him to write, produce and direct The Boondock Saints. Ultimately a victim of his own huge ego, Duffy is deserted by Harvey Weinstein (who discovered Duffy and pushed him into the limelight), forcing him to try and make his film on his own.

Whilst The Boondock Saints ultimately became a cult favourite, Duffy never managed to work in Hollywood again. A fascinating look into the unpredictable world of movie production and the risks of believing the flattering things people tell you.

Best Worst Movie (2009)

Best Worst Movie charts the fall and rise of Troll 2, the film considered to be the worst ever made (at least according to The Internet Movie Database) and which holds a special place in the hearts of a few dedicated fans.

Directed by Michael Stephenson, who starred in Troll 2 as a child, this documentary is a study of the odd nature of movie-fandom, as well as an interesting look at how the stars of box office failures live their lives. In particular, George Hardy, who went on to operate a successful dental practice, proves himself to be a hugely likable and charismatic individual.

George and Michael bring the cast back together and are present as Troll 2 experiences an unexpected turnaround in its popularity. Best Worst Movie is, at its heart, a study of how a truly shitty movie still manages to effect people’s lives. Its a surprisingly feel-good film.

Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography

This documentary is a great introduction to the world of cinematography. Always playing second fiddle to the director, the cinematographer and his role on the movie set is perhaps not well understood. Yet their impact on individual films and the art form as a whole cannot be understated.

Visions of Light seeks expand out knowledge of this field and to shed light on the achievements of various cinematographers and how their creativity is affected by the technology available to them, and how their art has affected the legacy of cinema.

The film provides a potted history of cinematography’s impact on movies, touching upon classics with an important visual style, such as On the Waterfront (1954), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Citizen Kane (1941), The Graduate (1967) and Raging Bull (1980).

What are your favourite film / cinema-related documentaries? Please comment below with any recommendations.

Just Watched: The Raid: Redemption

The Raid: Redemption, or Serbuan Maut in the original Indonesian, is a film that comes with high expectations. In the months prior to viewing, I had heard rumblings in the online community – people were talking about a new action film that was blowing a lot of minds.

Well, I’m happy to confirm that they were not exaggerating. Somehow a Welsh film student has directed the most compelling and entertaining action film of recent memory. It seems like a bizarre twist of fate, but we should be thankful that Gareth Evans found himself in Indonesia, where he discovered Pencak Silat, the Indonesian martial art, and the martial artist Iko Uwais, a phone deliveryman who he would cast as the star of The Raid.

The plot is slight and the setup is satisfying in its economy. Jakartian crimelord Tama Riyadi runs his empire from the top of a virtually impenetrable apartment block, considered untouchable by rival gangsters and the police. An elite SWAT team is tasked with breaking through Riyadi’s defenses and removing him from power.

The scene is quickly set for some of the most frenetic, perhaps even excessive, violence committed to screen. Roger Ebert lambasted the film for its lack of character depth and what he saw as ‘senseless carnage’. There is certainly something to be said for his comments – the characters do lack depth (though the acting is strong, especially if the actor’s lack of experience is taken into consideration) and the violence often verges on mindless. Some fight scenes, beautifully choreographed though they may be, go on for so long that my brain simply stopped being able to process the action.

Yet this shouldn’t detract from Evan’s accomplished direction (is this really only his second feature?) and the tightly-plotted script. You might think this is a dumb movie, but it is put together by intelligent people and Evan’s desire to make this more than just a kill-fest is apparent is every scene.

That said, it would be a shame not to finish by praising The Raid for some of the most spectacular fight (and gun fight) sequences of recent times. Iko Uwais and the other actors use the space to create intense fights of jaw-dropping intensity. In particular, the final throw-down between Rama, Andi and Mad Dog (the later is a truly terrifying character capable of taking a beat that would undoubtedly kill any human) rises to levels of intensity that I suspect have not been seen before.

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.

A glimmer of hope for a future classic

Lizzie and Sarah was one of those rare beasts, a genuinely originally British comedy show. Created by and starring Julia Davis (Nighty Night, Gavin and Stacey) and Jessica Hynes (Spaced), Lizzie and Sarah tells the story of two down-trodden suburban housewives who take extreme measures to escape the drugery of their daily lives.

The show was awarded a pilot episode despite the unusally dark subject matter. Unfortunately, the BBC panicked at the last minute and consigned their excellent-but-potentially-controversial show to a late night premier. It was duly ignore by the majority of the public (thanks to the time slot and the near-complete lack of advertising).

As a result, Lizzie and Sarah was never awarded a full series. For those of us who were lucky enough to stumble upon this little-seen gem, it was a tragedy that a full series was never commissioned.

Yet there is a glimmer of hope. Julia Davis is reportedly still very keen to get the series made;‘I’d happily explore more,’ she said. ‘We have a lot more ideas and I would love to work with Sarah again.’

Although I haven’t seen it, Davis has just finished work on a show called Hunderby with Sky Atlantic, a channel fast developing a reputation for giving comic artists the freedom to create original material. Atlantic recently commissioned a TV-version of Adam Buxton’s BUG (search Youtube).

British television comedy is something I have fallen out of love with recently. Not since the golden age (well, my golden age, at least) of shows such as Black Books, Spaced, Big Train and Red Dwarf, has a show come along that has inspired me as much as Lizzie and Sarah. Nothing would make me happier than seeing a show this hilarious and shocking given an opportunity in this TV-comedy wasteland.

Thanks for the heads up, Chortle.