Filmism.net Dispatch November 7, 2019

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This one goes out to the freaks and outliers, the movies that shouldn't have worked and looked terrible on paper but just captured some kind of magic.

The best director and cast for the right material, some transcendent performance, magnetic chemistry between the actors or just a ton of heart. The time travel adventure with an incest subplot, the thriller where highly trained criminals make their way through lucid dreams, a remake of an 80s Robin Williams comedy where Dwayne Johnson and Jack Black find themselves in a video game.

The best example is also the biggest. In the mid to late 1970s cinema was somewhere for grown ups interested in grey moral areas, antiheroes and dark tales of secrecy and paranoia. We were suspicious of governments and the cops and big cities were squalid hotbeds of crime and vice. If there was any fun to be had in popular entertainment it was in the burgeoning disco movement.

A story inspired by black and white matinee serials that combined the ray guns and spaceships of Flash Gordon, the motifs and characters from Westerns and the kinetic energy of aerial battle footage from World War II movies by the guy who'd made American Graffiti sounded simply awful.

We all know how that turned out. America (from where the world got its moviegoing tastes at the time, no different than now) was actually tired of being miserable and scared because of a depressed economy, oil shocks and inept leadership, and a no nonsense good and evil tale with swashbuckling romance, thrills and spectacle to spare was exactly what everybody needed.

The reason I want to toast those films that never should have worked is because of the number of films I've been thinking about lately on the other side of that fence. Movies that seemed to have everything going for them.

Simon Kinberg has been the creative steward of 20th Century Fox's X-Men universe much the same way Kevin Fiege is for Marvel's movie outings, the producer behind the various series directors like Bryan Singer.

After a notoriously patchy franchise it seemed like Kinberg taking the reigns as director would give the X-Men a swansong worth the best of them in X-Men: Dark Phoenix. That's especially the case when the storyline was one of the most interesting subplots in the best X-Men movie of the whole crop, 2003's X2. Instead, Fox and Kinberg pulled an epic dud, the film flopping hard and getting a mauling from critics. How could it have gone so wrong?

Here's another one. For as long as there's been an institution called Hollywood, it's been mauling, sanitising and de-fanging great literature in the pursuit of dumbed-down thrills. A lot of beloved movies have been made out of Philip K Dick's work (Blade Runner, Total Recall , A Scanner Darkly), but just as many (Paycheck, The Adjustment Bureau) have sucked pretty hard.

Another sci-fi writer who looms large over pop culture is William Gibson, whose 1984 book Neuromancer has informed and inspired aspects of everything from The Crow to The Matrix after it cemented the concept we all now know as cyberpunk. After studios had spent decades cherry picking Gibson's ideas for visual style against a series of pat thrillers, what could be better than Gibson himself writing the script to one of his iconic stories, Johnny Mnemonic?

Even with Keanu Reeves as the high tech courier who carries top secret data in his head for clients, something was amiss. The Matrix was a few years off and Reeves with a bit of a non-entity in movies, not yet appropriately breathtaking. The director was a painter and sculptor who'd never directed a feature film before (or has since). The movie just failed to generate any zing, and what should have been a shoe-in barely scraped back a $26m budget and got a crushingly low Rotten Tomatoes score.

Coming off Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the title of King of Hollywood was Spielberg's to lose, which he momentarily did with the shambolic, free-wheeling (not in a good way) 1941. Hard to believe now but it left Spielberg bereft, poised to lose his career before it really started. He needed a hit, he needed to deliver a film on time and budget, and when friend George Lucas presented him with the idea for Raiders of the Lost Ark, he got his chance.

Another writer whose ideas and influence the film industry routinely butchers is Cormac McCarthy. Possibly sick of being misrepresented, McCarthy turned in the script for a neo-noir fable full of shady dealings and characters and Ridley Scott directed it with a stellar cast. What the hell happened to The Counselor after that?

Brad Pitt in a ridiculous ten gallon stetson hat mumbling an ongoing fairy story about animals, Javier Bardem in a wig that made him look like he'd stuck his finger in a power socket, Cameron Diaz shagging a car windscreen (and Bardem describing it in very non-complimentary terms later), the most depressing bad-guys-winning ending ever... The only high point was the most inventive method of murder you ever (motorcycle, blinding spotlight, taut wire).

Then there was The Spirit. Since 1989 comics writer Frank Miller (along with contemporary Alan Moore) had cast a long shadow over comic book movies before we even realised they were a thing with Tim Burton's Batman, his influence felt wherever graphic novels and cinema met. The notion of him actually directing a movie must have felt like the second coming of Jesus to many comic geeks. Instead, Miller proved in 2008 that although he was many things, a screenwriter and director he wasn't, his story about an undead cop in a noir fable visually ugly, narratively ill judged and dramatically inert.

I've spoken the words of the late great William Goldman in the Filmism.net Dispatch countless times before, but they've perhaps never applied more so to the above; 'nobody knows anything'.

Among my recent film viewings were a smart, sassy screwball classic from the Golden Age, Adam's Rib. Who'd have thought the 1940s were so feminist, under the stewardship of the sublime pairing of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy? I also dived deep into Tarantino's latest effort Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood and found it slightly wanting.

Among small scale releases, I really enjoyed found footage (yew, there are still gems using this very overused device) paranormal thriller The Atticus Institute, and thoroughly recommend an inventive look at the Ted Bundy story in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.

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