February 14, 2012

Hollywood Increasingly Turning to Fairytales for Source Material

Since the early days of cinema, Hollywood has repeatedly looked to a variety of "proven" source material in favor of stories written directly for the screen. Many of the early silent-era classics, including Birth of a Nation (1915) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), were based on successful novels. But contemporary filmmakers now look beyond books for material on which to base what they hope will be their next blockbuster. Sources for highly-anticipated 2012 releases include Broadway plays (Rock of Ages), old TV shows (21 Jump Street), really old TV shows (Dark Shadows), comic books (The Amazing Spider Man, The Avengers), and even children's games (Battleship.)

Still, the source material of choice for Hollywood producers these days seems to be fairytales. It began in earnest in 2010 with the success of Tim Burton's adaptation of Alice in Wonderland and continued last year with the release of Red Riding Hood and Beastly (a modern day retelling of Beauty and the Beast.) Last fall saw the debut of two new TV series based on fairytales (Grimm and Once Upon a Time) and the trend seems to be peaking this year with not one, but TWO soon-to-be-released Snow White features -- the campy Mirror Mirror, and the darker, edgier Snow White and the Huntsman. (The spec screenplay for the latter sparked a bidding war in Hollywood and eventually sold for an astonishing $3 million, one of the highest figures ever paid for a movie script.) Both of the Snow White films are big budget productions starring Academy Award winners (Julia Roberts and Charlize Theron, respectively) and SWATH in particular is a summer release that's already being aggressively marketed, so the film's producers are clearly counting on it being a hit.

Also in the can and ready to go is Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (which like SWATH, adds a vigilante spin to the traditional fairy tale) and Warner Bothers' Jack the Giant Killer. Other fairy tale-based movies in various stages of production include Enchanted 2, Pan, which turns the tables and casts Peter Pan as a kidnapper and Captain Hook as a police officer on his trail; Beauty and the Beast directed by Guillermo del Toro and starring Harry Potter alum Emma Watson; and a new adaptation of Pinocchio with director Tim Burton and star Robert Downey Jr. attached. And just confirmed yesterday was Maleficent, a Sleeping Beauty retelling with Angelina Jolie in the title role as the evil queen.

You wonder what took Hollywood so long to begin what looks to be an exhaustive development of fairytale-based movies. Sure, they've been producing animated features for decades -- in Disney's case, for more than 70 years. But with a built in audience already familiar with the characters and stories, and with nearly all of literature's most well known fables and fairytales (including those by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson) now in the public domain (meaning producers are free to make movie versions without having to pay out licensing fees or royalties) it's surprising that Tinseltown hasn't begun pumping out live action versions in sooner than now.

February 8, 2012

Bruce Lee's 10 Most Memorable On-Screen Moments

With the new documentary I Am Bruce Lee about to hit theaters, it's a good time to recall Bruce Lee's 10 Most Memorable On-Screen Moments:

10. Bruce vs James Garner's office (Marlowe)

One of Bruce's celebrity students was screenwriter Sterling Silliphant. Silliphant, who won an Oscar for In the Heat of the Night, became good friends with Bruce and wrote a part for him in the 1969 film Marlowe. Bruce plays a heavy sent to warn private investigator Phillip Marlowe (James Garner) off a case. Bruce does this by demolishing the guy's office with a flurry of kicks and chops and a flying kick that takes out an overhead light. This scene was Bruce's first appearance in a feature-length Hollywood picture.

9. One on one against The Boy Wonder (Batman)

This one makes it purely on the novelty factor. The second season of the Batman TV series featured a crossover episode where the Green Hornet and Kato fought and later teamed up with the Batman and Robin (Burt Ward.) On the day this was filmed, Bruce (as a joke) pretended he was pissed off and intended to fight Ward for real. Ward repeatedly backed away from Bruce and tried to remind his opponent that it was “only a TV show”. Only after Bruce could no longer keep a straight face did he let the terrified Ward in on the gag.

8. Battling Chuck Norris in the Roman Colosseum (The Way of the Dragon aka The Return of the Dragon)

A classic fight against the world's second most famous martial artist, filmed in an incredibly unique and exotic location.

6. Nunchaku showdown against Dan Inosanto (Game of Death)

In Game of Death, Bruce plays a retired martial arts champion forced to infiltrate a heavily guarded pagoda. Bruce fights his way up the five-story structure, facing off against a different martial arts master on each level. Incredibly, Bruce never had extensive training with “nunchucks” and had only learned to use them a few years earlier.

5. 1965 screen test

Hollywood “discovered” Bruce at the 1964 Long Beach International Karate Championships, where a producer saw him performing his famous “one-inch punch” and two-finger push-ups. This eventually led to this famous screen test where Bruce charmingly converses with his director and then explains and demonstrates kung fu. (By the way, couldn't they have found someone under the age of 80 for Bruce to demonstrate his moves on?)

4. Taking on an entire Bushido school (Fist of Fury aka The Chinese Connection)

In Fist of Fury (previously known in the states as The Chinese Connection) Bruce seeks revenge against a Japanese school that has insulted his people and poisoned his master. Here, Bruce takes out every last student and their sensei. The victory despite overwhelming odds, as well as the overhead camera angles and intermittent dance-like choreography in this scene is emulated in The Bride vs The Crazy 88 battle in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Volume 1.

3. Tie: Owning Bob Wall (Enter the Dragon)...

In Enter the Dragon, Bruce warns his opponent, “Boards don't hit back.” Still I always feel bad for Bob Wall. He gets housed in several Bruce Lee movies but is particularly humiliated here. Look at him... face all cut up, kicked square in the nuts, can barely stand or defend himself, and then he gets stomped to death... Sheesh!

and Bruce vs Kareem (Game of Death)

Before he was “Roger Murdock” in Airplane, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was one of Bruce's students. When shooting wrapped on The Way of the Dragon, Bruce learned that Kareem was in Hong Kong and quickly arranged a meeting to film fight scenes for the yet to be scripted Game of Death. Bruce gave Kareem his first movie role playing the villainous Hakim, and from a physical standpoint alone, the fight between the 7' 2” Abdul-Jabbar and the 5' 7” Lee is astounding to watch. (You've gotta love that seated snap kick that leaves the giant footprint on Bruce's chest!)

The iconic yellow and black track suit Bruce wears has been replicated and paid homage to in everything from video games, to SpongeBob Squarepants cartoons, Sugar Ray's “When It's Over music video, and numerous films including Revenge of the Nerds, Kill Bill, and The Last Dragon.

2. "Be water my Friend" (Longstreet)

Bruce's friend screenwriter Sterling Silliphant was executive producer of the 1971 crime series Longstreet, about a blind insurance investigator played by James Franciscus. Silliphant got Bruce a recurring role on the show as Li Tsung, an antiques dealer and martial arts expert. Much of the dialogue in the scenes between Bruce and Franciscus incorporates the principles of Jeet Kune Do, a new, less formal, more eclectic and flexible approach to martial arts that Bruce had recently developed. The “Be water” quote from one of the Longstreet episodes was later recalled in this interview Bruce did with Canadian reporter Pierre Berton and is now considered central to Bruce's ideaology and philosophical legacy.

1. Final fight against Han (Enter the Dragon)

The slashes across the face and chest, tasting his own blood, and of course all those cool mirrored reflections... It's Bruce's signature scene and still one of the best in any martial arts movie.

Related Links
Bruce Lee on IMDB

February 2, 2012

The Psychology of Groundhog Day:
What the film says about us and our existence

“Okay, campers, rise and shine, and don't forget your booties 'cause it's coooold out there today!”

Those are the words Phil Connors (Bill Murray) wakes to each and every morning over the course of the 1993 film Groundhog Day. It's easy to recall the movie's eponymous title, Murray's lovably narcissistic character, and all the “I Got You Babe”, radio smashing comedy. But the real reason Groundhog Day is so memorable is because it's so very genuine. As Phil realizes he's reliving the same day over and and over, he reacts just the way any of us would. Phil handles (and eventually extricates himself from) this inexplicable and unique circumstance by going through five distinct changes of attitude. Phil journeys through confusion, contempt, selfishness, and despair, before undergoing a final transformation into a kind and compassionate human being.

It's what most of us aspire to be someday, but like Phil, we get sidetracked. Life throws curve balls at us (albeit nowhere close to the surreal experience Phil endures) and we get confused. Like Phil, we don't understand what's happening to us; our destiny becomes uncertain, and just as Phil repeatedly asks strangers on the street “What day is this?”, we desperately seek answers.

The next part of the movie features Murray at his finest, as he contemptuously delivers an on location weather report and mocks the citizens of Punxsutawney for their quaint Groundhog's Day traditions. What Phil is really dealing with here though, is his own fear and anxiety. He's coming to the realization that he's going to be stuck reliving the same day (perhaps forever) so he's lashing out.

Many of us (particularly those of us in mid-life) go through the same thing and respond the same way, deriding our jobs, our bosses and co-workers, and taking our frustrations out on the ones closest to us, all because we're stuck in a career we didn't choose, likely for the rest of our working lives.

Phil's anger eventually subsides and he deviously begins to exploit his predicament to satisfy his own desires. Once again, Murray's comic genius is on full display as Phil starts small. Knowing how the day's events will unfold allows him to impress a group of senior citizens with the correct answer to all the questions on Jeopardy. He then stakes out and executes an armored car robbery, and gains personal information about a sexy diner patron so he can seduce her.

This is perhaps the most authentic sequence in the entire movie. Who hasn't fantasized about having the winning lottery numbers, knowledge of which sports teams would win, or other unknowable information, and then using it for personal gain? In this case, Phil's actions speak to human beings' egotism, avarice, and carnality.

The seduction tricks Phil uses on the girl from the diner fail to work on the woman he's really interested in, Rita (Andie MacDowell), and the ultra-hedonistic, no consequences lifestyle he sinks into leaves him unfulfilled.

This part of the film emphasizes what many people of means have come to learn – that money can't buy happiness and all the indulgences in the world mean nothing without someone you care about to share them with.

So Phil sinks into depression. There are comical suicide attempts, with a deadpanning Murray leaping off a building and then electrocuting himself in the bathtub, only to once again wake up at 6:00 AM the next morning to the sound of Sonny and Cher.

Sadly, it's a reflection of the lives many have resigned themselves to. Like Phil, many of us wake to sound of the radio alarm and the inanity of the same morning deejay. Then we futilely trudge through our day, mistakenly believing that nothing we do or try will ever change our situation.

Like Phil, we feel we're no longer alive on the inside – so why go on?

Then at last, in the film's third act, Phil finds redemption. He chooses to stop living for himself; he accepts his fate and begins to use it to better both himself and the lives of those around him. Thus Phil perfectly positions himself to catch a small boy falling from a tree; he nurses a dying homeless man back to health, learns to speak French, takes piano lessons, and embraces the community and the local residents he'll seemingly be stuck with forever.

But a funny thing happens during this transformation. Phil makes new friends, gains the respect of colleagues, and the affections of Rita. Because he's focusing on others, rather than on resenting, exploiting and lamenting his own condition, Phil evolves from a pompous condescending ass into a benevolent, more complete and yes, happier person.

It's a good lesson for all of us. After 19 years, Groundhog Day and the psychological journey Bill Murray's character takes us on still speak to us. And it's the reason the movie is still so beloved and popular nearly two decades after its release.