Saturday, June 20, 2015

Ten Movies That Need to Be Made

I don't know about you, but I'm a little fatigued by all of the sequels and series reboots we get year after year these days.  There's a bounty of characters, works, and topics that have either yet to see the silver screen or haven't seen it in quite some time.  Below are a selection of ten I'd love to see get picked up by a studio with the right script, director, and cast.

I'm discounting any source that I've seen recent announcement of it being developed into a film, so obvious choices like Sandman, Good OmensOld Man's War, Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, and The Lies of Locke Lamora are not included (even though chances are we'll never see most of them actually made).  I actually have a list of 20, but will save the other half for a later post.

1. Hawkman

What's it about?  Hawkman is a comic book character, so his history has changed through the years, because comic book publishers like to do that.  The version that I would suggest features the story of Khufu, a prince of ancient Egypt, who is betrayed and killed along with his consort Chay-Ara by his longtime rival, the priest Hath-Set.  Hath-Set sacrifices the pair in a ritual using a mystical dagger made of a mysterious substance called Nth Metal, which has many properties the ancient pharaohs found useful.  Khufu and Chay-Ara are reincarnated throughout the ages, but always meet an untimely demise at the hands of a reincarnated Hath-Set.  

Eventually, though, an American archaeologist named Carter Hall, who's curating an exhibit of Egyptian artifacts, touches the Nth Metal dagger and is enlightened with the knowledge that he's the latest incarnation of Khufu and that his girlfriend Shiera Saunders was once Chay-Ara.  Carter uses his recovered knowledge of Nth Metal to craft a belt that will let him fly, crafting a set of wings to allow him to control his flight.  Carter finds himself in adventures that get him dubbed the Hawkman by the media.  Eventually, Shiera gets her own belt and wings to become Hawkwoman.  They find they have to arm themselves quickly with weapons on hand at the museum to stop the evil machinations of scientist Anton Hastor, who they find out is the reincarnated Hath-Set.

Why it could work!  Hawkman can have some stunning flight visuals, is a fairly gritty character that lends himself well to the kind of dark storytelling that in particular Warner Brothers likes to tell, and has a relatively tidy self-contained mythos.  Plus, setting aside just how huge super-hero movies are these days, one has to consider that the reincarnation angle and the timeless love of Khufu/Carter and Chay-Ara/Shiera has a romantic drama element that few comic book properties can claim.  Imagine a final scene where Carter and Shiera, having just defeated Hastor and his plot, find themselves both mortally wounded and struggling to drag themselves to each other in the hopes of dying in each other's arms.  The film closes with them lying lifeless on a cold floor, their hands outstretched toward each other but not quite close enough to touch.  Played correctly, there's not a dry eye in the house.

But wait, what's this after the credits?  The camera zooms into space where we find the planet Thanagar, its denizens using winged suits and vehicles to navigate in floating cities high in the clouds.  There a woman is giving birth.  "I think we'll name him Katar," she tells her husband afterward.  The camera zooms into the baby's eye, and we're sure we're looking at the latest version of Khufu.  Sequel established!

2. Camelot 3000

What's it about?  Ancient prophecy states that King Arthur will return when England needs him the most.  In the year 3000 CE, England has need of him, as a race of aliens has invaded.  Arthur will need to retrieve Excalibur, regather the Knights of the Round Table (all reincarnated into the world of 3000 CE), and seek out Merlin if he's going to save England (and the rest of the world) from these aliens, who have a very familiar backer.

Why it could work!  It's King Arthur!  With a sword in one hand and a blaster in the other!  Fighting aliens!

Okay, a little more depth.  Camelot 3000 was surprisingly rich in story layers.  You have the Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot triangle, made that much more complicated by the fact that everyone remembers the original betrayal and consequences.  You have Sir Percival reincarnated as a lab-grown genetically manipulated giant worker drone.  You have famed lover Sir Tristan reincarnated as a woman and all the gender issues that allows one to explore.  You have Sir Gawain as the only family man among the group, always just wanting to get the job done so he can get back to the wife and kids.  And you have Sir Galahad reincarnated as a completely bad ass samurai of the future.  The story from the comic book maxi-series had Arthur and his Knights revisit practically every major story in the legend, from the Lady in the Lake to the Holy Grail, as part of the plot.  And all of this while fighting aliens.

3. Justice, Inc. (aka The Avenger)

What's it about?  Richard Henry Benson is essentially The Most Interesting Man in the World, trotting the globe from adventure to adventure.  His wife and child are killed during one of his trips, and the shock renders his face paralyzed and highly malleable, his skin and hair turned completely white.  Benson vows to avenge the loss of his family, taking advantage of his fortune, his legion of skills, and his new ability as a master of disguise to right wrongs along the way.  To aid him, he gathers a team of assistants, and together they are Justice, Inc.

Why it could work!  Surprisingly, despite spawning off 42 original stories and novels, several follow-up books, multiple comic book series, and a radio show, The Avenger and Justice, Inc. has never been the subject of a film adaptation.  This strikes me odd, as the concept could be set in almost any time period post-1920.  And the cast is ready-made for a modern film, with a diversity unheard of among Justice, Inc.'s pulp brethren.  Among the team are Nellie Gray, who was Emma Peel 20 years before Emma Peel was invented.  Also on the team are Josh and Rosabel Newton, an African-American couple who would often go undercover to gather more information for The Avenger.  Add to them Mac the chemist, Smitty the electronics expert, and Cole the junior adventurer, and you have a well-rounded cast that can surround a strong leading character.  Imagine a movie that's part Mission: Impossible, part Fast and the Furious, and part Nolan's Batman, and you basically have Justice, Inc.

4. The Muppets Get Rebooted

What's it about?  This is a story line of my own devising, but a timely one and, in my opinion, perfect for The Muppets brand of satire.  The idea is relatively straight forward: after the Muppets' new show... inevitably cancelled (whether after one season or after a longer run), Disney decides to reboot the franchise, because that's what everyone does these days.  They decide to replace Miss Piggy with a thinner model, of course (great shades of Amanda Waller).

And they get The Roots to replace Dr. Teeth and Electric Mayhem (they do have to honor Animal's lifetime contract, though).

Chris Pine plays the new Kermit, of course.

The only one not replaced is Gonzo, because no one can figure out what he is or how to get a new one.  The original Muppets, of course, don't take this lying down and hatch a plot to get their old jobs back and reclaim their legacy.  High jinks ensue.

Why it could work!  First off, it's a Muppets movie, and those tend to be great.  Second, it's riffing on an overused trend in Hollywood, something that is dying to be made fun of.  And the Muppets, working on their 61st year of existence (40th if you only count back to the first episodes of The Muppet Show), would be perfect to take on the subject.  Yes, this ground was tilled lightly in The Muppets given Fozzie's Reno performances with The Moopets, but that was lampooning a different phenomenon altogether.  It's timely, it's a good fit for the Muppets in particular, and it would be refreshing for a studio (Disney in particular) to poke fun at itself rather than continue to navel-gaze.

5. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (Remake)

What's it about?  It's 1942, and Captain Ted Lawson is a U.S. Army Air Forces bomber pilot, and he and his crew is picked to participate in what would become famously known as the Doolittle Raid.  Lawson and his fellow B-25 pilots train extensively to take off from an aircraft carrier (which is difficult and dangerous, given that the bombers aren't designed for short takeoffs and carriers aren't designed to hold bombers) so that they can take part in a Hail Mary response to Pearl Harbor, an aerial attack on the Japanese homeland itself.  In all, 16 bombers, including Lawson's Ruptured Duck, take off from the deck of USS Hornet, bomb targets in Tokyo and a few other industrial cities, then crash into or off the coast of Japanese-occupied China, where the Chinese resistance attempts to shelter them and spirit them out of the country.  The downed crews face the never-ending threat of capture and/or execution while navigating an escape while many of them face life threatening injuries themselves.

Why it could work!  Lawson's memoir is a riveting read -- I checked it out from our library annually while in elementary school and middle school.  It spawned off a solid 1944 film starring Van Johnson and Spencer Tracy, but needs significant updating, in particular when bringing a modern, decades-removed perspective on the mission.  The laughably inaccurate Pearl Harbor attempted to show the Doolittle Raid but did so in laughably inaccurate ways.  This story, featuring warfighters facing severe risks and knowingly moving forward anyway, deserves a strong retelling.

6. Old Ironsides (Remake)

What's it about?  Almost ten years after a debt-ridden United States disbanded the Continental Navy and sold off the last of its warships, increasing piracy by Algerian ships on the Atlantic Ocean causes President George Washington to request the creation of a United States Navy.  The result is six frigates, one of whom, USS Constitution, would go on to achieve fame and glory in the Quasi-War, the war against the Barbary Pirates, and the War of 1812.  During a famed battle against HMS Guerriere, shot after shot bounced off her thick planked hull, causing someone to remark that her sides were made of iron.  Throughout her most active years, Constitution and her crew experienced several close shaves and epic battles.  At one point, she is chased by a squadron of five British warships into calm seas, only escaping after a 57 hour chase in which her captain sent out rowboats to manually drag the ship forward and sacrificing much of the ship's drinking water in the blazing July heat to lighten the ship for faster towing.  Attempts to scrap her years later were thwarted by a groundswell of public support for the ship, and Constitution remains the oldest active ship in the U.S. Navy.

Why it could work!  Surprisingly, there's not been a remake of Old Ironsides since a silent film premiered in 1926.  I could discuss in detail about how high seas adventures are severely lacking in modern cinema or how American could use its own version of Master and Commander (which stole heavily from Constitution's history), but I think I'll let Oliver Wendell Holmes make the case for me in his protest against decommissioning and forgetting her:
Aye tear her tattered ensign down
Long has it waved on high,
And many an eye has danced to see
That banner in the sky;
Beneath it rung the battle shout,
And burst the cannon's roar;--
The meteor of the ocean air
Shall sweep the clouds no more.

Her deck, once red with heroes' blood,
Where knelt the vanquished foe,
When winds were hurrying o'er the flood,
And waves were white below,
No more shall feel the victor's tread,
Or know the conquered knee;--
The harpies of the shore shall pluck
The eagle of the sea!

Oh, better that her shattered hulk
Should sink beneath the wave;
Her thunders shook the mighty deep,
And there should be her grave;
Nail to the mast her holy flag,
Set every threadbare sail,
And give her to the god of storms,
The lightning and the gale!'

7. Undaunted Courage

What's it about?  It's 1803 and the U.S. has just purchased a whole bunch of land from France.  President Thomas Jefferson wants to know what's out there, particularly whether there's a passable water-based route across the continent.  After several months of preparation, an expedition by the U.S. Army, led by friends Captain Meriwether Lewis and 2nd Lieutenant William Clark, sets out from St. Charles, Missouri.  Along the way to the Pacific, they struggle through sickness, near-starvation, and the natural hazards of the terrain.  They encounter dozens of Native American tribes, most very helpful, some difficult or outright hostile.  Their journey established an American presence on the Pacific Coast, verified there was no all-water route across the U.S., and increased by many times America's knowledge of the western half of the continent, including its native inhabitants.

Why it could work!  Surprisingly, there hasn't been a major film on the Lewis and Clark Expedition since Fred MacMurray and Charlton Heston (along with Donna Reed as -- ahem -- Sacagawea) made a 1955 Hollywood version of the journey in The Far Horizons.  Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage is a riveting read on the expedition, and adapting it to film would be a natural fit.  It's an important part of American history, and an era that is little understood in this day and age.  And the expedition's travel across the continent and back went through some of the most beautiful terrain in the world.  A skilled cinematographer could make a majestic film in the process.

8. A Real Dungeons and Dragons Movie

What's it about?  Imagine Lord of the Rings except with periodic cutaways to a framing narrative a la The Princess Bride or Forget Paris.  In the game world, our adventurers are busy navigating mysterious dungeons and dangerous terrain, fighting monsters, evildoers, undead, and maybe even a dragon.  In the real world, the players who control those adventurers in their exploits squabble over rules with the dungeon master, work through personal issues, and have knock down, drag-out fights over what toppings to order on the pizza.

Why it could work!  There have been several Dungeons and Dragons movies, all of varying levels of embarrassing quality, over the years.  But none of them truly capture the magic (pardon the pun) of playing a role-playing game, including the all-important story outside the story that the players go through.  Some web comics have done a spectacular job of capturing this dynamic, but aside from some horrendously awful videos on YouTube (I'll spare you the link), no one seems to have attempted this on film.  In the hands of the right scriptwriter, such a movie could be a lot of fun to watch, both by gamers and nongamers alike.  There's even a plethora of perfectly good movie titles out there to use, from Roll Initiative! to d20.

9. Maus

What's it about?  A Pulitzer-winning graphic novel, Maus tells the story of Art Spiegelman's interviews with his father Vladek, a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor.  Vladek describes his stint as a draftee into the Polish army prior to the German invasion, his subsequent stint as a prisoner of war, and his release.  Vladek then tells his son of the actions the Nazi occupiers took against the Jews in Poland, starting with forced moves into ghettos and then round ups to take them to concentration camps.  Both Vladek and members of his extended family went to great lengths to hide from and/or escape the Gestapo, but ultimately Vladek is captured and sent to Auschwitz, where the prisoners suffer greatly, many of them dead from the conditions or executed, then on to Dachau, where he fortunately survived to see the war's end and his rescue.  Throughout, Spiegelman symbolizes the players in the story in animal form, the Jews taking the form of mice, the Nazis cats, and the gentile Poles pigs.  The story frequently cuts to Art and Vladek and their interactions throughout the interviews.

Why it could work!  There's a reason why this became the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer.  It is powerful, not only for the tragic firsthand account of the horrors experienced by millions during the Holocaust, but also for the interactions between father Vladek and son Art, who has trouble at times relating with his Old World father and realizing how much both of them hurt from the suicide years prior by Art's mother.  Art, as he portrays himself, is highly neurotic, an angry man who has difficulty relating to his father even as his father tells him his story of suffering at the hands of the Nazis.  Vladek has been deeply scarred by his experiences, as one would imagine, and is unsure if dredging up such painful memories and publishing them is the right thing to do.  It's a complex dynamic that those of us who have had strained, distant relationships with parents will find all too familiar.

When I told some friends about my thoughts on how Maus should become a movie, they cautioned that it can't just be made by anyone.  They're right.  Maus will require a scriptwriter and director for whom this will be a labor of love, where devotion to the source material trumps any ego or desires to attempt to "fix" anything.  I personally think that the style of art in the book would translate spectacularly to animation on the screen if there is a conscious decision to style the movie visually after the book's art style (like how Warner Bros. Animation styled the Justice League: The New Frontier animation after the art of Darwyn Cooke, below).  It's just waiting for someone with the right amount of passion to bring it to life (as opposed to adapting it).  It's far too important a story not to put into motion.

10. Domesticity

What's it about?  Bob Shacochis is an award winning author and journalist who also for many a year wrote the Dining In column for Esquire.  Domesticity is a collection of his columns, almost all reflecting in some way on his decades-long relationship with his common law wife, Miss F, before launching into a recipe for an evening's meal.  Shacochis talks about the adventures he and Miss F have had, the troubled times, and the ties between both food and love as well as food and sex.

Why it could work!  On the face of it, this seems like a very odd selection to try to make a movie from.  To that I'd point out that they managed to take a blog in which a self-pitying woman attempted to make all of the dishes in Julia Child's cookbook into a film that earned Meryl Streep an Oscar nomination (though I guess that's not that hard to do).  But the real reason I suggest this as a movie is that I spent a year in the acquaintance of the actual Miss F, and she is quite frankly the most amazing woman I've ever met.  Whether regaling stories of her time spent fueling boats in a marina she ran, offhandedly commenting on the weekend she'd just spent with her friends the Hemingways, or using her lawyerly wiles to raise the blood pressure of legislators, Miss F was a force: a female answer to The Most Interesting Man in the World.  And Bob is no slouch himself.  In the hands of the right director and cast (for some reason, David O. Russell and the pair of Christian Bale and Amy Adams comes to mind), this could be a sweet tale of love and adventure between two intellectual adventurers.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Two Films of Note Have Hit Cable

Two very good films that hit just below the Oscar line in 2014 have made it into the movie channel rotations this month.  I thought I'd take a moment to mention them.

First is Begin Again, a film about music -- about how it brings us together, about how it can be used as a form of self-expression and self-exploration, and about how it can be turned into crass commercialism.

Though for a movie that decries commercialism, there's an awful lot of Apple products on display.
Begin Again stars Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, whose chemistry keeps the movie flowing forward nicely, even in quiet moments.  They're backed up by a very solid cast of Adam Levine, James Corden, Catherine Keener, Hailee Steinfeld, Mos Def, and a couple of cameo moments from CeeLo Green.

When the film opens, both Knightley's and Ruffalo's are hitting rock bottom.  Knightley's just broken up with her boyfriend and songwriting partner Levine, who's becoming a pop star and enjoying the fruits of that success, so she ends up on Corden's couch with no real purpose in life.  Ruffalo is estranged from his wife Keener and daughter Steinfeld, and he's just been fired from the record label he helped found by his old partner (Mos Def).  Fortunately for them both, they find each other, as a songwriter whose works have soul and melodic potential and a producer with a gift of seeing the possibilities in the music he hears is a match made in heaven.  The relationship they build together throughout the film is complicated and not quite the traditional leading man-leading woman kind of pairing, and it makes the film worth watching.

The connection between Ruffalo and Knightley is palpable.
Ruffalo's producer decides to help Knightley's songwriter make an album of her own, recruiting a number of "bored musicians" willing to work essentially for just the chance to do something different (and a promise of a backend deal).  They record the album guerrilla style on the streets of New York, which is very evocative of the Playing for Change recordings.

Complete with backing vocals from street urchins.
Throughout, the characters reflect on the meaning and value of music.  Knightley and Ruffalo wander nighttime Manhattan listening to each others' playlists and reflecting on the beauty of a life spent with a soundtrack.  Knightley criticizes Levine for turning her deep, meaningful song into a Maroon 5 pop track.  Corden throws a party and challenges everyone not to dance.  Steinfeld and Ruffalo bond over musicianship.  Knightley skewers Mos Def with questions about the value of a record label in the 21st century.  Begin Again is a film that must be appreciated with the ears as well as the eyes.

The Good Lie makes an odd pairing with Begin Again, but it's no less worthwhile.  Sacrificing name recognition for earnestness, Reese Witherspoon provides the only star power to the film, and she's just a supporting actress.

Though you'd never know it from the advertising.
The Good Lie is about a group of children among the Lost Boys of Sudan whose villages are destroyed by civil war and must survive death squads, attempted forced recruitment into death squads, and the native dangers of the African wild as they attempt to find a new home.  Their journey, which takes up the first half of the film, brings them refugee camps and eventually the United States, where they attempt to form a new life that they're ill prepared for.

Not everyone makes it to America, though.
That's where Witherspoon comes in, as she has the responsibility to help three of the now-grown men find jobs, which is not an easy task considering most jobs require some familiarity with the American way of life and these guys have just spent most their lives as refugees in Africa.  Without intending to, Witherspoon and her boss (Corey Stoll) become personally invested in the lives of the men they're charged with finding employment for.

That investment involves both laughter and tears.
Given that structure, it would be easy for The Good Lie to fall into the trap of becoming just another "white people come and rescue the dark skinned victims" kind of a story, but thankfully, each of the Lost Boy characters are fully realized.  Mamere is ostensibly the leader of the group and wants to become a doctor after showing aptitude in the refugee camp infirmary, but he's wracked with guilt over the members of his family that he's lost in Africa, especially his brother.  Jeremiah is the thoughtful, quiet strength of the family, as well as its spiritual leader.  Paul is gifted with his hands, but suffers from PTSD from his experiences as a refugee, especially the loss of his brother to a lion attack.

The struggle by these three, as well as other refugees, to push past their scarred pasts and make a future for themselves in a foreign land provides the drama for the second half of the film.  I can't go into details of this part of the film or its ties to the movie's title without introducing significant spoilers, but suffice to say that it wraps together nicely both from a structural and thematic perspective.  The leaps ahead the characters make in their lives and the bonds they form provide the viewer with hope (and hope is sorely needed after that first half of the film). The result is a cinematic journey that I believe most in the audience will find worthwhile to have taken by film's end.