Thursday, September 24, 2009

Culture Shock 09.24.09: After four bad sequels, 'Highlander' gets the reboot

What part of "There can be only one" is so difficult to understand?

I'm guessing it's the "only one" part, otherwise I wouldn't have read a press release Tuesday announcing a remake of "Highlander."

It was only a matter of time, I suppose. Just about every other movie series of the past 30 years has undergone some sort of reboot. Starting over from scratch is the next step after the sequels — and prequels — stop making money.

The studios behind the "Halloween," "Friday the 13th," "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "Star Trek" franchises cranked out movies until no one cared anymore. Then they hit the reset switch, with varying levels of success. A remake of the original "A Nightmare on Elm Street" is set to join the extreme makeover crowd next year, and Fox is looking to restart its "Fantastic Four" franchise after just two films, the first of which is only four years old. And I'm not even counting Universal's "Hulk" reboot, because the original version didn't spawn any sequels.

Granted, not all reboots turn out badly. "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight" are an improvement on the Joel Schumacher "Batman" films. And on television, the new "Battlestar Galactica" beats the frak out of the original. But when you remake a movie that has attained the status of cult classic, you're just asking for trouble. Rob Zombie's "Halloween" remake comes to mind.

The original "Highlander" is just the sort of cult classic that filmmakers would do well to leave alone. It's a film that shouldn't have worked in the first place. Yet, amazingly, it does.

And now, the plot of "Highlander" in 30 seconds: Connor MacLeod, a 450-year-old Immortal from Scotland, must battle other Immortals for a vaguely defined "Prize." Whatever the Prize is, it must not fall into the wrong hands. Immortals have been dueling with each other for the Prize since the dawn of time, and the only way to kill an Immortal is to cut off his head. Ultimately, when only a few Immortals remain, they will come together for a final battle called "The Gathering." As Sean Connery's character says, "In the end, there can be only one."

"Highlander" director Russell Mulcahy hasn't made a decent movie since, while the film's star, Christopher Lambert, has spent most of his post-"Highlander" career in one dreadful direct-to-video movie after another. Yet for one golden moment, Mulcahy seemed like a visual genius and Lambert was a rising star. It was a kind of magic. "Highlander" was perfect. Too perfect.

Even though "Highlander" didn't leave room for sequels, its unexpected success made them unavoidable. The first — and worst — was "Highlander 2: The Quickening."

The subsequent films ignore "Highlander 2" entirely, which is for the best. And as soon as the Food and Drug Administration approves the memory-erasing technology of "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," the rest of us will finally be able to forget "Highlander 2," too.

So, after a total of five movies, two television series, an animated cartoon and other sequels and tie-ins that I'm leaving out, "Highlander" has finally reached the reboot stage.

Like Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod, the "Highlander" franchise is immortal — at least until it loses its head.

Who wants to live forever, anyway?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Culture Shock 09.17.09: Swayze leaves behind legacy of classic movie moments

I learned a lot from Patrick Swayze, like "It's my way or the highway," "Pain don't hurt," "Be nice until it's time to not be nice" and, most importantly, "Nobody puts Baby in a corner."

During a career that spanned 30 years, Swayze did one of the best things any actor can do for an audience. He made a lot of otherwise unwatchable movies watchable. From "Red Dawn" and "Road House" to "Next of Kin" and "Point Break," Swayze did a lot of heavy lifting that too often went unappreciated.

He died Monday after a nearly two-year battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 57.

The question wasn't if, but when. Swayze had hoped for maybe five more years. He got just less than two. The one-year survival rate for the most common form of pancreatic cancer is just 20 percent, while the five-year survival rate is only 4 percent.

Yet Swayze faced his fate with courage and grace. He continued to work almost until the end, starring in the AMC television drama "The Beast" and appearing in the independent film "Powder Blue" opposite Jessica Biel and Forest Whitaker.

While his brave fight with cancer shouldn't be forgotten, Swayze will always be remembered most as a 1980s movie icon. I admit, I'm not much of a "Ghost" fan — it's the ultimate chick flick, with all that entails. But even I will concede that "Dirty Dancing" is a pretty good movie, carried largely by Swayze's performance as both an actor and a dancer.

Yes, in case you forgot, Swayze was a dancer before he was a movie star, and it was his skill on the dance floor that helped land him his first movie role as bad boy Ace in 1979's now all-but-forgotten disco flick "Skatetown, U.S.A."

By 1983, Swayze was appearing in major motion pictures like "The Outsiders," director Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation of S.E. Hinton's novel.

The next year, Swayze starred in the film that would help cement his presence on cable television for the next decade, "Red Dawn," writer/director John Milius' tale of teenagers fending off a Soviet invasion.

"Dirty Dancing" and "Ghost" made Swayze a romantic lead (and People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive"), while "Road House" — another cable-TV mainstay — made Swayze an action star, a role he followed up with 1991's "Point Break."

And just when you thought you had seen everything, he played a drag queen in "To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar."

Swayze never won any acting awards, although he did receive Golden Globe nominations for "Dirty Dancing," "Ghost" and "To Wong Foo." But along the way, he left behind plenty of classic moments, from his "Unchained Melody" scene at the pottery wheel with Demi Moore in "Ghost" to his Chippendales dance number with Chris Farley on "Saturday Night Live."

That's a legacy most entertainers would kill for.

Some of Patrick Swayze's most memorable moments:
His first film, "Skatetown, U.S.A."
"It's my way or the highway" speech from "Road House."
Final dance from "Dirty Dancing."
"Patrick Swayze Christmas" sketch from "Mystery Science Theater 3000."
"Saturday Night Live" Chippendales sketch.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Culture Shock 09.10.09: Stuntman meets rock band, band does magic tricks, things go boom

You can't get better truth in labeling than "Stunt Rock."

An Australian stuntman comes to Los Angeles and meets a rock band. Lots of stunts and rock ensue. And yes, things blow up.

In a way, "Stunt Rock" seems like the perfect summer blockbuster, except unlike "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" and "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra," "Stunt Rock" doesn't annoy you with a plot.

But "Stunt Rock" is about as far from a blockbuster as you can get. When it originally opened in 1978, you were lucky if you could catch it playing at the local drive-in or at one of the seedy 24-hour theaters that then lined New York City's infamous 42nd Street.

Since then, however, "Stunt Rock" has gained a cult following, fueled by the film's death-defying stunts and cheesy '70s metal soundtrack, which ranges from entertainingly addictive (the title song, "Stuntrocker") to addictively awful.

The man behind "Stunt Rock" is rogue Australian filmmaker Brian Trenchard-Smith, who came up with the idea while in the shower. Trenchard-Smith also directed "The Man from Hong Kong," featuring temperamental Hong Kong star Yu Wang and George Lazenby, otherwise known as the James Bond whom time forgot ("On Her Majesty's Secret Service"). Unsurprisingly, Trenchard-Smith is a favorite of exploitation auteur Quentin Tarantino.

A DVD release of "Stunt Rock" was long overdue, and fortunately Code Red DVD has obliged with an extras-packed, two-disc edition that gives this film the sort of love and respect usually reserved for Hollywood blockbusters.

"Stunt Rock" is seat-of-your-pants filmmaking. In order to obtain financing, Trenchard-Smith had to appease his Dutch backers by casting rising Dutch actress Monique van de Ven, who made her film debut in 1973 opposite Rutger Hauer ("Blade Runner") in one of Paul Verhoeven's early films, "Turkish Delight." Needless to say, it's obvious that English isn't her first language.

Then, when he couldn't get known musicians, Trenchard-Smith had to find a band within five days or else his backers would shut the film down.

As Trenchard-Smith recalls, Sorcery is the type of band you find within five days. Yet despite being unknown and, frankly, not particularly good, Sorcery was perfect for "Stunt Rock." Sorcery's theatrical stage show included two magicians, one dressed in an outlandish wizard costume, who performed during the songs. The magicians' pyrotechnics, fire tricks and escape artistry couldn't have been a better fit.

But the real star of the film is Australian stuntman Grant Page, who set himself on fire and jumped backward off a cliff in "Mad Dog Morgan" starring Dennis Hopper, played an assassin in "The Man from Hong Kong" and later served as stunt coordinator and Mel Gibson's stunt double in "Mad Max."

Yes, he's the unknown stuntman who makes Gibson look so fine.

Page climbs buildings, sets himself on fire, bursts through windshields, rides on top of speeding cars and catapults himself across a bay on the Australian coast. He can even act a little — well enough, at least, not to embarrass himself, which can't be said of the rest of the cast.

The plot is virtually nonexistent, which is a plus, actually, and what little there is exists merely to link the stunts and concert footage. The dialogue is terrible. The acting is worse. And the music is what it is. But the stunts are fun to watch and a pleasant reminder of what filmmaking was like before computers took the danger out of it.

As a whole, "Stunt Rock" is — often despite itself — an entertaining artifact of an era when men of questionable sanity, armed with more imagination than money, gave teenagers something to watch at the drive-in when they needed a breather from making out.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Culture Shock 09.03.09: Meet Spider-Man's new boss: Mickey Mouse

I awakened Monday morning to a great disturbance, as if millions of fanboys cried out in terror and were suddenly making their displeasure known on a thousand Internet message boards.

That's when I went online and saw the news: Disney had purchased Marvel Entertainment, the parent company of Marvel Comics, for $4 billion.

No, it's not a dream, and it's not an imaginary story. The company that gave the world Spider-Man, Iron Man and the X-Men is, pending the obligatory paperwork, now a part of Uncle Walt's multimedia empire. Doomsday has arrived, but Doctor Doom isn't responsible. Mickey Mouse is.

The nightmare scenarios are endless. Tony Stark retires and gives his armor to Mickey, who becomes the invincible Iron Mouse. Goofy turns out to be a mutant (I knew it!) and joins the X-Men. Donald Duck and Howard the Duck are revealed to be long-lost brothers. Hannah Montana develops super powers and becomes an Avenger. And Wolverine takes singing lessons and joins the cast of "X-Men Origins: High School Musical."

Sure, you laugh, but remember that Hugh Jackman got his start singing in a stage production of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast." That's synergy, and no corporation on Earth can resist synergy.

Actually, the Disney/Marvel merger probably won't be as bad as all that. But it's too soon to tell how it will actually play out. Disney's other acquisitions, however, have had somewhat mixed results.

When The Walt Disney Co. purchased Pixar Animation Studios in 2006, Disney gave Pixar Chief Executive Officer John Lasseter the keys to the Magic Kingdom. Now Lasseter doesn't just run Pixar, he runs Disney's in-house animation unit, too, and helps design Disney's theme park attractions.

Pixar had the advantage of having produced, at the time, four of Disney's most successful animated films, including "Toy Story." That gave Pixar the upper hand in negotiations.

Disney has also had a good run with its prestige film unit, Miramax. But the road here has, at times, been a little bumpy. After several high-profile disputes with former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, Miramax founders Harvey and Bob Weinstein left to form The Weinstein Co., taking with them Miramax's Dimension Films label. Dimension primarily produces horror and action films.

Quentin Tarantino, whose previous films were all Miramax releases, followed the Weinsteins, and The Weinstein Co. released his latest hit, "Inglourious Basterds."

Still, even without Bob and Harvey, Miramax has continued to produce award-winning films, including "There Will Be Blood" and "Doubt."

Disney's experience with the Muppets, however, has been far less successful. Disney purchased the Muppets from The Jim Henson Co. in 2004, but so far Disney hasn't figured out what to do with Kermit the Frog and friends. But to be fair, no one has really known what to do with the Muppets since Jim Henson died in 1990.

The upsides for both Disney and Marvel are obvious. As Marvel's existing licensing agreements expire, Disney will gain access to Marvel's characters for everything from movies and video games to toys and theme-park attractions. Marvel, meanwhile, gets greater exposure and easier access to funding for its in-house movie productions.

Another bonus for Marvel is that Disney's current CEO, Bob Iger, is not the micromanager Eisner was.

And that increases the likelihood that Marvel will enjoy something more akin to Pixar's semi-autonomy than Miramax's public feuds. Hopefully, Iger knows that with great power comes great responsibility.

But for better or worse, Marvel Comics has come a long way from its anarchic early days, when Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and the rest toiled in the publisher's famous bullpen.