Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Review: Corman's World

Ever heard of Roger Corman? No?

Well, without him you may have never heard of Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron or Jonathan ‘Silence of the Lambs’ Demme, to name but a few.

Surely anyone in such illustrious company must have also made stellar films?

Well, that depends on your opinion; the best-known movies yielded by Corman’s prolific and lengthy career in film production include Death Race 2000, Targets, Battle Beyond the Stars, and a Vincent Price-starring series based on Edgar Allan Poe stories (which is highly regarded in horror circles.)

Corman was also responsible for such impressively-named productions as Night of the Cobra Woman, Galaxy of Terror and nine instalments of the Bloodfist series.

Exploitation is the name of Corman’s game, and Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (2011, trailer), is a documentary about his singular life and career, told by him and his numerous cohorts.

So what does Corman look like? Is he a pallid, greasy-haired pervert; or a coked-up, wild-eyed Tarantino-type?

Actually, he’s an erudite, presentable, almost priestly man with good enunciation and posture.

Oh look, it’s Grandpa Corman!

The contrast between his composed personality and his lurid projects makes it all the more amusing to hear him say things like:

‘We feel that the monster should kill somebody fairly early, and then at regular intervals through the picture. The first kill should be quite shocking; the other kills can be a little bit less shocking as we build up, and then, of course, [at] the climax everything goes, blood all over the screen.’

You’d think that Corman would be a Shyamalan-esque figure of ridicule, but he is a competent, finance-savvy director who knows exactly on what side his bread is buttered: ‘People come to my movies looking for camp. And I’m gonna give it to them.’

My Take

Corman’s World is an ebullient and inspiring chronicle. As Ron Howard says; ‘The way Disney movies bring out the child in all of us, so can exploitation’, and the glee and fondness expressed by the interviewed are testament to this.

My notes for this review ended up fourteen pages long, for all the one-liners (‘Roger always said you could make Lawrence of Arabia for half a million dollars, you just don’t leave the tent.’ – John Sayles) and haphazard, cartoonish stories:

 ‘At first I thought maybe some kind of electromagnetic field doesn’t allow the walkie-talkie service, but it turns out that we just [have] children’s walkie-talkies. This is full-on guerrilla-style filmmaking. We were running, gunning and stealing locations, and driving boats where they shouldn’t be driven…At one point they wanted somebody to get in this water to get attacked by something…well, it turns out there was actually things to get attacked by – not that this wasn’t obvious, there was a giant sign that said ‘Crocodiles.’’

The interviews in Corman’s World are loose, conversational and often profane. The filming style of director Alex Stapleton and DP Patrick Simpson is very off-the-cuff and evocative of the ‘guerrilla-style’ of Corman himself: Ron Howard addresses the camera while ambling down the street, Jack Nicholson while smoking on a couch, and Bruce Dern while having his hair cut.

Film has a notorious catch-22: if you want to work in the industry, you have to prove your ability; but you can’t prove your ability without first working in the industry. Getting a start is difficult because everyone is reluctant to give someone a first chance.

Enter Corman, whose dirt-cheap productions allowed him to give first chances at a low risk. Corman hired rookies with gusto, and the rookies in turn flocked to him - his independent, creative and industrious style provided valuable work experience.

Ron Howard says: ‘I had always dreamed of making a movie, and Roger let me make a movie. And not only did I make it, but I loved it more than I ever dreamed I might’. Back then, Howard was only known as a child- and teen-actor. Nowadays he no longer acts, but he still actively directs.

‘Roger’s the only guy who hired me for about ten years’, says Jack Nicholson - who, in an instance typical of Corman’s economy, starred in a second, hastily-scripted film when Corman learned that the sets and the actors’ contracts for one shoot were still available for the weekend afterwards.

The glut of horror and sci-fi films generated by Corman also allowed budding special-effects and makeup artists to ply their trade.

Jokes on the shoot of Dinoshark (not to be confused with Sharktopus, a later Corman production)

Not only did he grant wishes, but he also recognized potential. His wife and long-time producing partner Julie didn’t even see her first job as ‘producing’, only as ‘organizing.’ Roger sat with her ‘for about forty-five minutes’, then he trusted her enough with the work to leave her to it.

He also gave a young Jonathan Demme a scriptwriting job on the basis of ‘You can write press releases, do you think you could write a screenplay?’

The most intriguing thing I found about Corman’s World was the man’s relationship with film history, fame, obscurity and ‘taste’.

Corman has only ever written and personally produced one film. What is it, a flick called ‘Cannibal Orgy’, or something?

No, it was 1962's The Intruder, a political, ‘pro-integration’ film made while Civil Rights was a hot topic (To Kill a Mockingbird had only just been published two years prior.)

Unfortunately, it was derided for its controversial then-progressive message. Corman’s brother and Intruder producing partner remarks that it was ‘the only film I don’t think we ever made money off of.’

EDIT (27/08/13): Roger Corman confirmed at Comic-Con 2012 that The Intruder has finally broken even due to DVD sales.

Corman also used his creative freedom to capitalize on then-topical subjects like LSD (The Trip) and the Hell's Angels (The Wild Angels), both of which were lucrative at the time but for whatever reason didn’t become classics.

While Corman’s own films have never been considered tasteful, he did use his own distribution company to bring America foreign films by such names as Fellini, Truffaut, Kurosawa and Bergman, at a time when ‘the majors’ did not want to buy them.

Corman even invested his own money in this endeavor: ‘The money is secondary, because I believe these films should get to a larger audience than they do.’

While Corman’s autonomy and creative freedom were brilliant, his frugality held him back: his unwillingness to pay Jack Nicholson more than scale (minimum wage) meant that Easy Rider was passed on to Columbia Pictures – where it became a huge hit and cultural phenomenon.

Likewise, the limitations imposed by Corman’s exploitative tactics may have also harmed his cachet: Corman was willing to develop a Scorsese pitch with the proviso that he use an all-black cast, to take advantage of the blaxploitation craze.

Because of his idea’s focus on Italian-Americans, Scorsese refused. He then found his own backers, and made the now-classic Mean Streets - which he managed through the use of hardy Corman crewmembers.

Nascent blockbusters Star Wars and Jaws were undoubtedly informed by Corman's body of work, but rather than being known as a venerable inspiration, Corman is better known for ripping them off to make Battle Beyond the Stars and Piranha. (Incidentally, Piranha and Piranha II: The Spawning were the respective directorial debuts of Joe 'Gremlins' Dante and James Cameron.)

Corman considered spending millions on films ‘obscene’, but as blockbuster producer Gale Ann Hurd says, ‘The summer and Christmas tentpoles could have been done by Roger Corman…those are the films now that are attracting the top filmmakers and the biggest budgets.’

Cowboys and Aliens could be a title straight out of Corman’s catalogue, and although his plots were outrageous, blockbusters nowadays are about men with magic hats chasing Matt Damon and Bruce Willis shooting at children. Even underneath all its complexity, Silence of the Lambs is just about a cannibal named Hannibal.

I feel I should mention that, although it seems like a no-brainer for Corman to make blockbusters, technically Corman’s business tactics make sense - even though he makes his pictures for peanuts, he has probably earned more profit than most blockbuster filmmakers. The rule of thumb is that a $100 million movie also spends around that much on marketing, meaning that it takes $200m in box office to break even. In the end, studios risk losing money on even the most lavish, crowd-pleasing releases.

EDIT (02/07/13): According to an article I read in The Sunday Times: CULTURE, the studios and cinemas each take half of the box office money, which means that it's actually twice as hard to break even: 'A film costing $250m in production and marketing costs has to make upwards of half a billion dollars to show a profit.' (italics mine.) Your only hope for making all that back lies in a global release, and even then, it's a risky gamble. Citation below.

On a side note, the famously effects-intensive Matrix ‘only’ cost $63m ($95m in today's dollars); I have no idea how some films end up costing over 200.

Maybe in another life Corman could have been a blockbuster legend, or at least have had a phenomenon or two under his belt, like the Easy Rider guys did. Perhaps The Intruder would have been a notable in film history had Corman’s name and reputation not been attached to it. As it is, the extent of his films’ prestige is in cult followings.

This is all how Corman has come to have such a great legacy without having made any ‘great’ movies. This dichotomy underlies Corman’s World’s ending, in which the man is bestowed an Oscar in 2009. Not for a new film, but an Honorary for lifetime achievement. The less flashy, but more 'Corman' award. The prize may be lesser-known and the ceremony may have fewer attendees than the ‘big’ awards, but all those present beam with pride.

 ‘Everybody grab for it!’ l-r: Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard, Allan Arkush, Roger Corman, Quentin Tarantino and Joe Dante.


Further Reading

For more documentaries, you can see my post about Marwencol.

For more documentaries about filmmaking, see my post about Corman's World.

'Edit' citation: Goodwin, Christopher. "Blockbusted." The Sunday Times: CULTURE 30 June 2013: 6-8. Print.
Screengrabs: Corman's World was produced by A&E IndieFilms, Far Hills Pictures, Stick N Stone Productions, in association with Gallant Films. The UK DVD was distributed by Anchor Bay Entertainment.
© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Review: The Brothers Bloom

Orphaned brothers Stephen and Bloom spend their childhoods shuffling from one foster family to another, and are always the odd outsiders.

Noticing his younger brother’s yearning to connect with others, Stephen concocts a larcenous swindle wherein Bloom infiltrates a group of kids and claims to know of a hermit who, in turn, knows of a cave of treasure marked by a will-o’-the-wisp. The hermit, he tells them, will only divulge the location of the cave for thirty dollars, or two per kid.

Stephen rigs an illusion with a flashlight’s beam reflected in a puddle at the mouth of a cave, and the kids get so excited that they don’t care that there isn’t any treasure.

‘In the end’, a proud Stephen says while leafing through his cash, ‘the perfect con is where each one involved gets just the thing they wanted’. An uncertain Bloom can only say 'I guess so.'

Twenty-five years later, Mark Ruffalo is Stephen, and Adrien Brody is Bloom.

 Adrien Brody and his eternal sad puppy face.

The two are now professional con artists known as The Brothers Bloom (2008, trailer), which I guess makes Bloom’s full name Bloom Bloom (either that or he only has one name, McLovin-style).

Bloom is unsatisfied with the brothers’ life of constant pretence and wants out, but Stephen convinces him to stick around for one last job. The mark is Penelope (Rachel Weisz), a lonely, billionaire heiress.

The brothers have their con-cohort, ‘The Curator’ (Robbie Coltrane) surreptitiously inform her that he has an 'eighth-century prayer book,’ which he intends to sell to smugglers for 1 million dollars. Also, he tells her ‘The Argentine’ will be willing to purchase it from them for 2.5. Penelope jumps at the chance to escape her uneventful life, put up the cash, and become a smuggler.

The brothers then come up with further exciting adventures (what she wants) in order to siphon away more of her money (what they want.)

My Take

If the seminal con man movies like The Sting stylize real con men, The Brothers Bloom is a confused and even more stylized take on this stylized take. 

Its aesthetic is an anachronistic hodgepodge, apparently cobbled together from what looks cool in the movies: the action is pursued by a soundtrack of trumpet-y swing music, messages are sent by telegraph, and the Blooms wear old-school suits with waistcoats and bowler hats. However, the characters also take trans-Atlantic flights, and Penelope drives a modern-day Lamborghini.

Normally, con movies establish their dramatic tension between reality and the tenuous fiction that the grifters must fabricate and present to their marks. In the case of Bloom, the eclectic timelessness of its setting makes ‘reality’ difficult to determine - especially when it is populated by weird, fantastical characters such as the cycloptic Diamond Dog.

Yes, Diamond Dog.

Since the reality of the story is so unpredictable, I can't ascertain the boundary for what is possible, and therefore the extent of the brothers' ability to deceive. Their world is so crazy that I'd think they could conceive of any ridiculous fiction and anyone would believe it.

Bloom, our protagonist, is relentlessly miserable. He constantly moans about his desire for a ‘real’, authentic life, but we never learn what he wants in life, and so his character becomes defined solely by his sullen complaining.

At the beginning Bloom abandons Stephen and the con life and is left to his own devices. Three months later, Stephen tracks him down to a hovel in Montenegro where Bloom is passed-out, drunk and alone. When Stephen brings him back to America for their last con, Bloom tries to get out of it: ‘No. I’ll be in Montenegro, drinking.’

What a sorry bastard. Who cares about him? I’d rather see the solo adventures of Stephen, at least he has fun.

The character of Penelope is childishly naïve and prone to making cloyingly wacky, profane pronouncements:

'I think you're constipated, in your fucking soul... I think you might have a really big load of grumpy, petrified poop up your soul's ass.'

She’s a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the archetypal fantasy love interest whose impulsiveness, vitality (and invariable sexiness) infuses angst-ridden male protagonists’ lives with a newfound sense of meaning. Zooey Deschanel has built her acting career on such roles, and ditto Ben Stiller with the complementary broody leading man roles.

Penelope is such a perfectly-tuned antidote to Bloom's cynicism that I at one point thought she was a plant of Stephen's in some larger plot to con Bloom somehow.

Speaking of bizarre, exaggerated characters, the brothers are always accompanied by a Japanese woman named Bang Bang (Norwegian WoodRinko Kikuchi) who, surprisingly, specializes in blowing things up.

She's also mute, and her screen time is comprised of explosion-related visual gags and sarcastic, eye-rolling reaction shots. 

So, she's more or less a human Garfield.

The Brothers Bloom is brimming with ‘stuff’, by which I mean visual bells and whistles which densely pack each sequence and occupy the viewer’s attention: As the brothers stand in front of Penelope’s massive estate contemplating their mark, they see her crash her Lamborghini into a statue. As we see Bloom and Stephen share a dialogue a minute later, an identical replacement appears in the background on a truck approaching the house.

Later, while Penelope sits at a table with Bloom and talks about her unhappy childhood, an unbroken shot of her hands shows her perform an elaborate disappearing-card trick, the steps of which are punctuated by the rhythm of her speech.

The story gallivants to such far-flung places as Mexico, Greece and St. Petersburg, but it might as well only have one location, since the same characters keep popping up (including Diamond Dog.)

Shootouts, explosions, escaped zoo animals, the aforementioned madcap score, the entire character of Bang Bang… it all seems to me to be so very superfluous, as if the activity, scenery and ‘stuff’, coupled with a decent cast, is all a trick to make me watch it the whole way through.

Ooh… hang on, maybe that’s the perfect con…

Further Reading

For a thorough definition of the 'manic pixie dream girl' and an explanation of why it is an unhealthy fantasy, you can see the video entitled Tropes vs. Women: #1 The Manic Pixie Dream Girl by Feminist's Anita Sarkeesian.

For more about con man movies, see my post about Nine Queens.

Screengrabs: The Brothers Bloom was produced by Endgame Entertainment, Ram Bergman Productions, and the Weinstein Company. The UK DVD was distributed by Optimum Home Entertainment. 
© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this weblog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.