Monday, December 16, 2013

An Open Letter to Cass Warner, RE: Casablanca Sequel

Dear Ms. Warner
     By now it is almost common knowledge that the Warner Sisters shingle is developing the project Return to Casablanca. While many cinephiles the world over may be cringing at the very thought of a sequel to one of the most iconic films ever made, I have read with an open mind of the late Howard Koch’s concept and believe this project has no small degree of merit. I am thrilled at the prospect of discovering what happened to Rick, Ilsa, Victor and perhaps even Renault during, and after, the War. I also feel compelled convey to you a few thoughts towards the making of Return to Casablanca for you to take or leave as your producer’s instincts suggest:
1)  Since 1942, there has been a subtle un-asked, and un-answered, question regarding the ending of Casablanca. It was Rick who decided for Ilsa that she would get on the plane with Victor. No one ever asked Ilsa with whom she preferred to go. While the lady was certainly conflicted at the time, surely, she had a preference hidden deep in her heart. Who did Ilsa want to leave Casablanca with? In Return to Casablanca that question must be explored, and definitively answered once and for all. Even, especially, if that answer is one Ilsa might have regretted one day, and for the rest of her life; or equally, if the answer is one she has come to regret.
2)  As J.J. Abrams discovered in re-casting the classic crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise hiring actors to portray legendary characters is dicey at best. Digital resurrection is already with us, from the brief cameo of the late Sir Laurence Olivier in Kerry Conran’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow to the audacious, posthumous performance of Tupac Shakur at Coachella 2012. As long as your script does not demand too much from any late original cast members, I heartily recommend taking the chance and using modern technology to revive their performances. Of course purists will protest, but sooner or later such a perceived “travesty” will be done. It would be best, I think, to do break that ground in a project such as yours, with grace and respect for the original material and performers. The motion picture industry must set its standards and justifications extremely high for digital resurrection, and sooner rather than later, before they are set lower in some purely commercial production.
3)  I don’t know if Rick Blaine makes a return in the third act of Return to Casablanca but I almost hope he doesn’t. Referring to the above paragraph, I believe you could absolutely get away with a digitally resurrected Sidney Greenstreet, Claude Rains and even Ingrid Bergman, in brief cameos; but Humphrey Bogart? There’s a trick few might get on board with including myself, and re-casting Rick Blaine, well, again see above.
4)  A final thought on casting: I am at a loss for a young actor to play Richard, Rick & Ilsa’s son. I honestly cannot think of a single young American actor with the chops and cinematic gravitas to do the job. Richard shouldn’t be played by some flavor-of-the-month actor fresh out of some tv/film vampire franchise. As James Cameron did with DiCaprio in Titanic, you’ll need find a true talent for Richard, one that will continue to grow and develop a lifelong career.
5)  A few quick words on photography: I doubt I’m alone in thinking any sequel to Casablanca naturally needs to be filmed in black & white. The obvious romanticism of black and white aside, the style of the cinematography as well as the shot set-ups themselves should be evocative of this film’s setting in both time and place. Films of the French New Wave such as Godard’s Breathless and 1960’s American indies like John Cassavete’s Faces should be studied I think, but with the understanding that the goal in doing so is to emulate, not imitate.
6)  The success of Return to Casablanca will be judged not only at the box office, or by critics, or even devotees of the original Casablanca. This sequel’s success will be measured by whether or not it can follow in the auspicious footsteps its forerunner. This picture must find a way to discover the zeitgeist of today’s world while offering timeless, universal truths that will speak to generations to come. Perhaps this film could look at the post-war oil boom and the root causes of today’s troubles in the Middle East. Possibly explore culture clashes, indigenous culture’s rights vs. general human rights? Either must be done, however, while nevertheless reminding us that even those problems don’t amount to a hill of beans on a planet that we are all of us no more than caretakers of... And yet, neither Richard nor the film can be felt to be preachy or trying too hard; instead they must, like Rick Blaine, lead and even educate us by levelheaded example.
Return to Casablanca is a fascinating project and I wish you every conceivable success with it! You have a long road ahead, I think, but please don’t ever get discouraged and never surrender the vision. Remember that until it had been done no one ever would have dreamed that Peter Jackson, a nerdish, maker of gross-out films from New Zealand -- a filmmaker, mind you, who had had only moderate international success with The Frighteners –- would be handed hundreds of millions of dollars and a remarkable amount of creative control to bring J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy to life.
Good luck!
     Yours Very Sincerely,
     The Film Examiner, a.k.a. Film Dude

Friday, September 13, 2013

Five Ways J.J. Abrams Can (Still) Save Star Trek

I honestly don’t think J.J. Abrams could have created more controversy with Star Trek: Into Darkness if he had tried. In recent weeks, not only have the fans voted it the worst (period) Trek movie (period) ever (period) but the screenwriter, Roberto Orci, seems to have had a full scale online meltdown telling dissatisfied fans to “F—K OFF!”
In a recent Op-Ed piece for The Hollywood Reporter, Mark Hughes argued that Trek fans are wrong in their assessment of the new franchise. Hughes suggested that most disgruntled fans look back on the original series through rose colored glasses, ignoring the fact the 1960’s television series was first and foremost television with fist fights, starship battles, and scantily clad women. I couldn’t agree more, and as for those Trekkers who were shocked by Spock’s fury in his bout with Khan in ST:ID, I’d like to remind them that in the Original Series Spock not only beat the holy hell out of Kirk (Amok Time) but also cried on no less than three occasions.
Obviously the new Star Trek is not without issues, though in my opinion, J.J. Abrams’ decision to create an off-shoot timeline with the destruction of Vulcan was a masterstroke of genius. (It gave him not only a creative freedom to re-invent previous storylines, but to alter them in ways hitherto thought sacrilegious – such as pre-maturely resuscitating Khan Noonien Singh.) Unfortunately, hardcore Trekkers are calling for Abrams’ head these days louder than ever before. Those people, right or wrong, like it or not, are the ticket buyers and the dedicated soul of this franchise. Here are a few ways I believe J.J. Abrams can redeem Star Trek for the fans, and his save head, in the third film:

1.    Revisit Miri’s World
Remember Miri? Played by young guest star Kim Darby, Miri was the girl on a planet that was an exact replica of Earth, except that in that planet’s past germ warfare had wiped out all the grown-ups (grups) and left the children with remarkable long life. A fascinating science fiction concept, this world exemplifies potential for big screen treatment. Imagine transporting down to a planet exactly like Earth, but where everything was abandoned in 1965 and left to decay for three hundred years. Now populate this world with children who have devolved into some Lord of the Flies culture; unchecked childish immaturity could make any given day Christmas or someone’s birthday, and make a playground tussle a decades-long blood feud.
Miri’s World is only one of several planets visited by the U.S.S. Enterprise in the original series that could be expanded into a feature length motion picture. Abrams could return to the well of the original series, find a visited world and respectfully re-imagine it for a 21st century film-going audience.

2.    Welcome Back, Harry Mudd
Quite unlike Miri’s World, the inter-stellar charlatan and rogue Harcourt Fenton (“Harry”) Mudd probably could not carry an entire feature length film, but he absolutely would add something to one! Mudd (as portrayed by the late Roger C. Carmel) was so well-received that he not only appeared in two episodes of the original series but also made a guest appearance on the early-1970’s animated program as well. (If you listen closely to Star Trek: Into Darkness, Mudd is mentioned, I guess it was his ship they all took to Kronos.) Mudd could easily be an important supporting character in the next Star Trek film, drawing in theater-loads of outraged and/or enthralled Trekkers as well as fulfilling his true destiny by providing Roddenberry’s universe with a bit of comic relief. 
I’ve personally always thought funny man Jack Black had just the right screen persona to pull off a modern Harry Mudd. Besides being sci-fi adventure, a “Wagon Train to the Stars” as it were, Star Trek was also always a little fun; well, on the big screen fun doesn’t always mean big action set-pieces. Bring back Harry Mudd to Star Trek and bring back some simple fun, Abrams old boy!

3.    Re-Introduce The Squire of Gothos (-or- The Q Continuum?)
Here is a concept somewhere between Miri’s World and Harry Mudd, and yet holds elements so unique that it deserves to stand alone. The child-like Trelane, omnipotent squire of the planet Gothos, like Mudd, might bring an element of humor to Star Trek. Unlike Mudd, Trelane’s obsessive, sinister character could easily carry an entire picture. Though considered apocryphal by Memory-Alpha (an online compendium of all things Trek) Peter David’s 1994 novel, Q-Squared, revealed Trelane as a member of the Q Continuum, the god-like non-corporeal species introduced in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Bringing Trelane back, as well as re-introducing the concept of “The Q”, on the surface might seem potentially humorous, but is also potentially dangerous to the Enterprise and her crew.
This move might arguably be a big step towards restoring Star Trek’s science fiction street cred. All Vulcans, Klingons and kidding aside, realistically, IF we ever meet another intelligent species in space that other civilization would either be thousands of years behind, or ahead of us. We might very easily appear to them much the way we do to Trelane and Q, as curious playthings (Like the song says: “We’ll make great pets”.) I know that intellectual optimists will suggest that any advanced society would have deeply held and intricate moral protocols when encountering a less-advanced species. Fair enough I suppose; however, if human history is any indicator, we’ll be lucky if that advanced culture doesn't haul us off as slaves or butcher us like cattle.

4.    Match of the 23rd Century: Spock vs. Spock
Spock is without doubt the most revered character in the Star Trek universe. Bringing Spock into conflict with himself and his people in a visceral yet thoughtful way could become a new, legendary moment in this venerable franchise.
With the Vulcan home world destroyed and the thousands of surviving Vulcans a displaced people, it stands to reason that those refuges sought and received from the Federation the right to claim another planet as New Vulcan. Aside from the prospective eye-popping visual effects (imagine the Vulcans “salvaging” remnants of their old home and lowering a chunk of sacred Mount Seleya down onto New Vulcan from orbit) suppose the hastily organized refuge was already occupied by an over-looked, evolving and sentient species. When the intelligent native species of New Vulcan is discovered the Federation could revoke the Vulcan’s claim to their new world, creating in the refuges a militant refusal to become homeless again. This volatile situation could place in Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) some real internal and external confliction, especially if the most vocal opponent to relinquishing New Vulcan is none other than Spock Prime (Leonard Nimoy).
A Spock vs. Spock storyline where younger Spock is in opposition to his older self, over the morality of colonizing a planet already inhabited, albeit even by just some small furry creature that displays sentient thought, could be brilliant. Perhaps Spock Prime needs to be reminded of his logical morality by his younger self? Perhaps young Spock has much to learn about the “real world” from his older self? Perhaps, even, there is a third option for reconciliation to the dilemma of New Vulcan, an option only a human, like James Kirk, Leonard McCoy or Nyota Uhura can see and offer to the warring Spocks?

5.    Go Boldly Where No One Has Gone Before!
I liked Star Trek: Into Darkness and despite what Trekkers recently voted in Las Vegas, I think it was the best Star Trek film since at least The Undiscovered Country. (The TNG movies all looked and felt like well-financed TV movies to me, sorry.) This last film, I felt, did everything a good sequel should – it built on past events and took its characters and their relationships into new territories. There was also lots of quality action and special effects, and the greatest Trek villain ever – Khan – made an appearance. All that said, though, there is one element I feel has been missing from Star Trek for some time: GOOD visionary science fiction. Yes, there have been epic action set-pieces, high adventure, genuine tension and all those goodies mentioned above, but where are the mind-challenging concepts of what could be out in space?
For many, many years now Star Trek has been primarily about action and adventure, understandable I suppose as the action/adventure genre is a money spinner. The “trek” was always about more than that, however, even as 1960’s television; it was about “boldly going where no man has gone before”. Lost is the sense of wonder and discovery as exemplified by such original series episodes as “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched The Sky” and “The Return of the Archons”. The notion of re-introducing strong science fiction is hardly unfriendly to big action and adventure, but it will demand more thought, from both the filmmakers and the audience.
I know many think Star Trek has been ruined by J.J. Abrams, well, that’s as may be. I believe this franchise’s future truly lies in going back to the well, not just for old ideas to skillfully re-package, but for a keener understanding of what it was about Gene Roddenberry’s vision that excited so many for so long.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Who Was She?

            “She was more or less forgotten by the industry she helped create,” Martin Scorsese said in 2011, while presenting a remarkable lady a Director’s Guild of America tribute posthumously. Scorsese went on to praise her as “more than just a talented business woman, she was a filmmaker of rare sensitivity, a remarkably poetic eye, and an extraordinary feel for locations.” I graduated from film school and spent much time studying the first filmmakers, not only for coursework but for my own curiosity and yet, until only a few weeks ago, I had never heard of Alice Guy-Blaché.
Little did Alice Guy imagine, when hired by French film legend Léon Gaumont in 1894 as a secretary, that she’d become a driving force behind a new industry. When the still-photography company where the two worked closed, Gaumont bought the operations inventory and went into the budding field of motion picture making, taking Mlle. Guy to be his head of production. With Gaumont, Alice Guy thrived, and from 1896 to 1906, she wrote, produced and directed some of the earliest narrative films. Along the way, she helped to develop the “language of film”: those visual conventions we now take for granted in cinematic storytelling. She actually pioneered early special effects and even experimented with sync-sound. In the 1890’s, the rules hadn’t been written yet, and Mlle. Guy embraced the new world of moving pictures with a kind of creative passion that is the hallmark of a true artist.
1906’s The Birth, The Life and Death of Christ is Guy’s most notable achievement during her years with Gaumont; a “tent-pole” production for its day, requiring over 300 extras.
In 1907, Mlle. Guy married Herbert Blaché and shortly thereafter, the two expanded the Gaumont Film Company to the United States. Less than three years after moving to the U.S., Alice & Herbert formed their own company, Solax, and Guy-Blaché got back behind the camera. All totaled, it is believed Alice Guy-Blaché made roughly 1000 films, though less than 150 survive today. (Some are available on YouTube – I recommend 1907’s “La Glu”, very funny.)
            It is hard to imagine how such a revolutionary force behind the cinema should be so easily forgotten. Perhaps, Alice Guy-Blaché was simply written out of the history books at the behest of historical and financial giants such as Thomas Edison. Perhaps, she is all but forgotten because she was woman working at a time when it truly was a “man’s world”. Perhaps, she missed the boat (or rather, the train) to Southern California when other film companies were finding the East Coast too costly and restrictive for their business. Most likely, it was some sad combination of all three.
Thankfully Mme. Guy-Blaché was never completely forgotten, and the memory of her work is soon to be brought to the forefront of our collective memory. Inspired by a short television segment, Pamela Green enlisted the aid of friend and business partner, Jarik van Sluijs, and the two have developed a documentary on this all but forgotten filmmaker. This project, titled Be Natural – after the message on a large sign, which Mme. Guy-Blaché had at her New Jersey Solax studios - has been endorsed by Robert Redford as well as dozens of other filmmakers and actors, both male and female. Jodie Foster has even recorded the film’s narration.
Not content to create a run-of-the-mill documentary on such an intriguing person, Green and van Sluijs conceived an approach befitting their subject and message. Everything from the way they conducted their research to the recreation of Alice Guy-Blaché's world (using 3D modeling, compositing, and animation), and even the manner in which they intend to edit the film has been designed to put their audience in Alice Guy-Blaché's shoes.
Unfortunately, this important project telling the untold history of a legitimate ground-breaker is short on funds and has turned to crowd funding in the hopes of securing $200K for its completion. Please do help if you can, here is a link to Be Natural’s Kickstarter campaign page:

“I’m The First Female Film Director – Who Am I?” is the question posed by Be Natural’s flyers. Her name was Alice Guy-Blaché, and she was more than just the first woman filmmaker; she was one of cinema’s earliest innovators. A visionary, this amazingly talented individual deserves a place of honor in film’s history alongside the Lumiere brothers, Georges Melies and Cecil B. DeMille.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Five GREAT Books The Deserve To Be On Film

The relationship between the film industry and the book publishing business has a history dating back to the dawn of cinema. From Gone with the Wind to The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (and including, of course, the recent dearth of superhero tent poles), many, if not most, of the best films ever made have been drawn from the printed page. Now, I respect the innumerable unproduced spec scripts floating around; I myself am author of several! There are, however, a number of novels that deserve adaptation to the big screen. Here are five I believe deserve cinematic treatment:

1.  One Hand Clapping (by Anthony Burgess)
Author of the legendary A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess explores the themes of money and corruption in this tale of a young, working class couple in the UK who experience a sudden financial windfall. The slow-witted husband is gifted with a photographic memory which helps him on a game show, but also somehow allows him to parlay their winnings into a small fortune betting on horse races. The previously loving wife, and the story’s humble narrator, is suddenly given the chance to have it all, but decides “it all” simply isn’t enough.  I’ve heard that Francis Ford Coppola owns the rights to this book. If so, he needs to either make the film or surrender the rights to someone who will. Kept small and put in the hands of a visually innovative UK up-and-coming filmmaker (perhaps with Emma Watson and Rupert Grint as the young couple?), One Hand Clapping could easily become a fiendishly fun indie success story.

2.  PT 109 (by Robert J. Donovan)
WWII movies may be on the downswing after their powerful resurgence in the wake of Spielberg’s Saving Pvt. Ryan (1998), but I’m of the opinion that true tales of resilience and survival never go out of style. In August of 1943, the P.T. 109 was struck and ran over by the Japanese destroyer, Amagiri. John F. Kennedy and the other survivors became castaways in enemy territory; burnt, broken, without food or any means of communication for days. Kennedy’s adventure as the young captain of the US Navy patrol torpedo boat 109 in the Solomon Islands is a story ripe for re-telling. Yes, a forgettable film version exists; it was made in 1963 with Cliff Robertson as JFK. Unfortunately, it has descended into obscurity, much like the 1964 production of The Thin Red Line. With solid studio funding and a respect for the source material -- two things that rarely go hand-in-hand -- a PT 109 remake could easily amount to Oscar gold, as well as a solid career boost for the young actor chosen to play the 35th President of the United States in his youthful Navy days.

3.  Breakfast At Tiffany’s (by Truman Capote)
Okay, Coppola, here’s the pitch: Lay down your claim to One Hand Clapping and pick up the rights to Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, then give those rights to your daughter, Sofia, for Christmas. Deal? Done! Yes, it would be yet another remake, but the 1961 film was terribly compromised by the restrictive mores of its day; consequently, a serious film of Capote’s tragic New York party girl, Holly Golightly, has yet to be done. There are plenty of fine young actors these days who could capably take up the roles of Holly Golightly, and the homosexual writer, Paul Varjak (yes, in the novel he’s gay), the only man with whom Holly has a genuine, caring relationship. Honestly, I can think of no other writer/director better suited to take on this project than Sofia Coppola. From The Virgin Suicides to The Bling Ring, Ms. Coppola has made a career out of lensing stories of young women in turmoil, so this project would fit well into her filmography. As a long-time fan of her work, I know she has at least one magnum opus in her; perhaps Breakfast at Tiffany’s is the next major success.

4.  Stranger In A Strange Land (by Robert A. Heinlein)
If there was ever a cult-classic science fiction novel demanding to be put on the big screen, it must be Heinlein’s 1961 groundbreaker, Stranger in a Strange Land. The book chronicles the life of Valentine Michael Smith, a human orphan raised on Mars with the alien Martians’ philosophy, as he feels his way toward an understanding of Earth’s materialistic and spiritually corrupt, human culture. Given this book’s curious sexuality and irreverent themes, I can see why most, if not all, major studios might balk at giving this project the $100-$200 Million likely required to adequately achieve Heinlein’s vision on screen.  At best, this film would demand an “R” rating from the MPAA, but the book is a work of genius that has truly left its mark on not only the science fiction genre, but American literature as a whole. My only hope is that there’s at least one brave soul in LA with the cojones to say: “To hell with losing the tween-ager ticket sales! We’re making this picture the way it deserves to be made! I KNOW we’ll reap the benefits at the box office -- and at the Oscars!” Yeah, well, I grok hope springs eternal.

5.  Gerald’s Game (by Stephen King)

I have heard that there was an attempt in the 1990’s to get this disturbing and introspective work of Stephen King’s on film. The deal breaker was that no bankable actress was willing to play this story’s protagonist: a woman handcuffed, topless no less, to a bed for 90% of her screen time. The story focuses on Jessie Burlingame, the woman secured to a bed when her husband dies of a heart attack in the midst of bondage play. Trapped on the bed of their secluded vacation house for many days (and nights), Jessie finds herself terrorized -- not only by a stray dog that gets into the house, or the creepily enigmatic “Space Cowboy,” but also the recollections of her childhood’s incestuous incident with her father. Like Stranger in a Strange Land, this novel explores themes that will likely make most LA studio heads more than little bit nervous. Fortunately, unlike Heinlein’s book, Gerald’s Game could easily be a small independent film that could achieve both critical and financial success. Filmed in Black & White, Jessie turns from a topless woman on a bed into the symbolic ghost of her own inner – and outer - demons.