Friday, April 28, 2017

Famous Director’s First Theatrical Movies, Part 14

Welcome to the fourteenth edition of Famous Director’s First Theatrical Movies.  Today we will be looking at the storied careers of Spike Jonze, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Brian de Palma.  All of these directors have received critical acclaim for their movies, and some of those movies have gone on to be nominated or win Academy Awards.  Let’s look the first theatrical movies of these famous directors. 
                Spike Jonze’s films include Adaptation, Where the Wild Things Are, and Her.  He is also a very successful commercial director and documentary short director, many of them featuring skateboarding.  Before he started directing movies, he also co-founded the short-lived magazine Dirt, aimed at young men.  In the mid-1990s, Charlie Kaufman wrote the Being John Malkovich script.  Francis Ford Coppola read the script and passed it on to his then son-in-law (he was married to Sophia Coppola at the time) Spike Jonze.  Jonze agreed to direct his first feature film in 1997.  Production began on July 20, 1998, and was filmed primarily in Los Angeles.  In Being John Malkovich, an unemployed puppeteer named Craig (John Cusack) doesn’t love his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz).  He gets a job as a file clerk on floor 7 ½ of the Martin-Flemmer building in New York City and is attracted to his co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener), who is not interested. Craig discovers a portal being a desk which puts Craig in the consciousness of John Malkovich for 20 minutes…from there follows the most bizarre love affair ever as Craig, Lotte and Maxine all experience being John Malkovich…who is also a participant with the three characters.  Being John Malkovich was made with a $13 million budget and was released on October 29, 1999.  It made $32.4 million at the Worldwide Box Office.
                Paul Thomas Anderson’s diverse films include Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood and The Master.  By the early 1990s, Anderson had directed two short films, the mockumentary The Dirk Digger Story (1988) and Coffee and Cigarettes (1993).  Coffee and Cigarettes was screened at the Sundance Film Festival in their Shorts Program.  Anderson received a feature film deal from Rysher Entertainment and Anderson used the deal to direct his first feature film, which at the time was called Sydney.  In Anderson’s movie, Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) is an aging gambler who runs into John (John C. Reilly), who needs money.  Sydney convinces John to teach him how to win money at gambling.  The gambling ploy paid off, and two years later John is still working with Sydney.  But then John meets a cocktail waitress and prostitute named Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow and they fall in love, leading to a dangerous situation for all three main characters.  When Anderson finished Sydney, Rysher Entertainment re-edited and re-titled the movie, now called Hard Eight.  Anderson was furious and submitted his work print to the Cannes Film Festival, where it was accepted in their Un Certain Regard category.  Rysher Entertainment ultimately allowed Anderson to finish his film – if he would front the $20,000 to complete it himself.  Anderson did with the help of several of the cast, and Hard Eight was released February 28, 1997, with a budget of $3 million.  Rysher Entertainment did not promote the film, and it made $222,559 total. 
                Brian de Palma was one of the “New Hollywood” directors that rose to prominence in the 1960s-1980s and among his most famous movies include Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Scarface, The Untouchable and the first Mission: Impossible movie.  In the 1960s, de Palma was enrolled in the theater program at Sarah Lawrence College.  He and his teacher Wilford Leach in 1963 decided to shoot their first feature, called The Wedding Party.  Starring Charles Pfluger as Charlie, a man who is about to be married and has to deal with his friends (one of them played by Robert De Niro), and his family and his bride-to-be (played by Jill Clayburgh) and her family as well on his family’s estate on Shelter Island.  Unfortunately, after the film was shot in 1963, nothing happened to the completed film for several years.  But in 1969, after De Niro was gaining more prominence as an actor, The Wedding Party was released on April 9, highlighting De Niro’s involvement (subsequent re-releases also played up De Niro’s role in the film), despite the fact that De Niro only plays a supporting role.
                All three of these directors were able to get their first movie made through connections.  Jonze made his film through his connection with Coppola, Anderson made his film through his connection with the Sundance Film Festival, and de Palma made his film through his connection with his teacher, Wilford Leach.  What you know as a filmmaker is very, very important, but sometimes it’s who you know as well. 

Friday, April 21, 2017

Famous Director's First Theatrical Movies, Part 13

Welcome back to one of the longest-running features of this blog.  For twenty parts, the first theatrical films of many famous directors were explored, showing the emerging talents of some of the most famous filmmakers.  In this post, the first theatrical films of F. Gary Gray, Zach Snyder, and Kathryn Bigelow will be explored. 
                F. Gary Grey is currently riding high on the success of The Fate of the Furious, the eighth installment in the Fast and the Furious franchise, which had the largest worldwide box office debut ever.  Other notable works by Grey include The Italian Job, The Negotiator, Straight Outta Compton, and the Friday series.  Grey’s first movie was actually Friday, released in 1995.  F. Gary Grey was an accomplished music video direct in the early 1990s, having directed videos for Ice Cube, Outkast, Dr. Dre, and Queen Latifah.  Ice Cube had written a film based on his own experiences of “life in the hood,” where he wanted to portray the lighter, more fun side of it, rather than darker side is seen in films like Boyz in the Hood.  Cube asked Grey, who at the time wanted to make his first short film and Grey accepted.  Cube asked Grey because Grey had a similar experience growing up.  The film Friday concerned one day in two friends’ lives, Craig Jones (Cube), who is recently unemployed, and Smoky, the latter of whom must find $200 for a drug dealer by midnight, with slice of life segments sprinkled throughout the day.  Friday was released April 26, 1995, with a budget of $3.5 million.  It was given a 77% score on Rotten Tomatoes and grossed $27.5 million at the box office.  The success of the movie spawned two sequels, Next Friday and Friday After Next, neither of which were directed by F. Gary Grey.
                Zach Snyder’s hyper-stylized movies bring in big money but divide critics.  His most famous films include 300, Watchmen, Man of Steel, and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.  Snyder had worked on music videos and other short subjects like commercials in the 1990s and early 2000s.  Snyder’s first movie was a remake of George A. Romero’s zombie movie Dawn of the Dead, due to be released in 2004.  Snyder’s most significant deviation from the original was to make the zombies fast and agile as opposed to slow and lumbering, seen in many zombie movies.  The first half of the movie was shot in chronological order in Thornhill, Ontario.  After test audiences complained about the sudden ending of the film, Snyder went to Universal Studio Hollywood to shoot more sequences on a boat and an “island.”  In this version of Dawn of the Dead, a group of people (starring Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, and Jake Weber) take refuge in a Midwestern Shopping Mall to get away from flesh-eating zombies.  Many fans of the original did object to Snyder’s take on the zombies.  Dawn of the Dead was released on March 19, 2004, with a budget of $26 million.  The movie was given generally positive reviews, with a 75% score on Rotten Tomatoes.  Dawn of the Dead grossed $102.4 million at the worldwide box office. 
                Kathryn Bigelow made a huge splash in 2010 when her movie, The Hurt Locker, won Best Picture at the 82nd Academy Awards.  Other notable works by Bigelow include Zero Dark Thirty, K-19: The Widowmaker, and Point Break.  In 1978, Bigelow had directed a short film titled The Set-Up.  From there, she made her first full-length movie, which had two other titles (US 17 and Breakdown) but is currently under the name The Loveless.  Bigelow used the Museum of Modern Art’s Film Study Center for help in developing the aesthetic of the film.  Production started on September 22nd and lasted 22 days.  Starring William Defoe in his first major role, he plays the leader of a biker gang which causes trouble when they enter a small town.  The Loveless was released in March 1982 in the US and was also seen in Canada, Sweden, and Switzerland.

                Grey and Snyder’s success came after years of hard work in music videos and other projects.  Bigelow’s first film likewise came after her short film was released.  All three utilized their first film as a springboard to bigger and better projects.   

Friday, April 14, 2017

Five Songs Written By Singers for Themselves -- But Found a Home with Someone Else

                While most fans of a particular artist may not realize it, there are many songs popularized by a particular artist, songs which were written by another.  Sometimes an artist may write a song, and while the song is by itself great, it has no place with the rest of the songs in the album.  Or perhaps the artist changes his, or her, or their mind about using the song themselves.  Here are some examples of songs written by other artists.
                In 2001 Avril Lavigne wrote “Breakaway” with Matthew Gerrard and Bridget Benenate.  The song was originally intended to be included on her debut album Let Go.  However, the song was declared unsuitable for her album.  The song was shopped to various artists until Kelly Clarkson agreed to record it as part of the soundtrack for The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement.  The song was such a hit that Clarkson included the song on her second album and named it Breakaway in honor of the song.
                In 2007 Ryan Tedder, a prolific singer-songwriter and frontman of One Republic, and Jesse McCartney wrote the song “Bleeding Love” for McCartney’s third album Departure.  However, McCartney’s record label disliked the song, but Tedder still felt that song was “massive.” Tedder saw Leona Lewis on the British show The X Factor and worked with Simon Cowell to arrange for Lewis to record “Bleeding Love,” which became a huge international hit.  McCartney was later able to record his version on the deluxe version of Departure.
                Pink wrote “Whataya Want from Me” for her album Funhouse,” along with Max Martin and Shellback.  However, it didn’t make the cut.  In November 2009, Adam Lambert announced that “Whataya Want from Me,” would be the second single from his debut album For Your Entertainment, which became a top 10 hit in thirteen different countries.  Pink later included the song in the International Edition of her album “Greatest Hits…So Far!!”
                Gloria Estefan wrote “Let’s Get Loud” for herself with Kike Santander…but after reviewing the song, she felt it was too similar to her other material.  She passed the song on to Jennifer Lopez.  Lopez recorded a Spanish version first, called “Vivir Sin Ti” before being convinced to record it in English.  “Let’s Get Loud” was released in 1999 and became a top ten hit in five European Countries and was nominated for best dance recording.
                Today, Chris Brown is a controversial figure, because of his conviction of domestic assault and other run-ins with the law.  However, before all that, back in 2007, Chris Brown was recording a song called “Disturbia” for the re-release of his second album Exclusive.  After finishing the song, he decided to go with the song “Forever” instead.  He passed the song on to Rihanna, who recorded the song as the re-release of her own album Good Girl Gone Bad, called Good Girl Gone Bad: Reloaded.  “Disturbia” became a number one hit in the US, Belgium and New Zealand, and was a top ten hit in eighteen other countries. 

                While some original artists’ versions of their songs do exist, like Jesse McCartney’s “Bleeding Love” or Pink’s “Whataya Want from Me,” the other three originals may never officially see the light of day.  Sometimes the record label may pass on the original artist’s version, but sometimes the artist themselves can see the potential of another artist singing their words. Check out these five singles written by artists for themselves that became massive hits for other singers.  

Friday, April 7, 2017

After MST3K: Three Shows Done by Original Cast and Crew

                Mystery Science Theater 3000, the most popular show about riffing on bad movies, began in 1988 on local TV station KTMA in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  It ended after 7 seasons on Comedy Central and 3 seasons on the Sci-Fi Channel.  Of course, MST3K is getting a lot of press right now for being renewed on Netflix after a successful Kickstarter campaign.  But before that, the original cast and writers utilized their talents together for three additional projects outside of the official MST3K franchise. 
                In the mid-2000s, after MST3K was canceled, original cast members Michael J. Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy formed the comedic group The Film Crew.  At first, the comedic group was seen introducing movies on movie channels like American Movie Classics, Sundance Channel, and Encore.  But then, the group decided to move into providing commentary tracks on B-Movies, and in 2006 produced the 4 initial episodes (to be released on DVD) in association with Rhino Entertainment, who held the rights to MST3K at the time.  The premise was that the three men worked in a basement reviewing bad movies for their insane boss, Bob Rhino.  Unfortunately, Jim Mallon, a producer on the original series who also held the rights the show, thought the new idea was too similar to the original MST3k and threatened to pull the original series, and the DVDs were never released with Rhino.  Fortunately, Shout! Factory agreed to release the DVDs (which were looped for the boss to be Bob “Honcho” instead of “Rhino").  However, due to the delay in between the production of the show (sets destroyed, cast moving on to RiffTrax) and release, the short-lived show will probably never be revived.
                Mike Nelson created RiffTrax in 2006 in collaboration with Legend Films, a company which at the time specialized in restoration and colorization of films.  Nelson came up the idea of making commentaries for movies separately from the movie itself on the website RiffTrax, after realizing that releasing DVDs with the commentary would get him sued.  Of course, that meant that the viewers would have to provide the movie themselves, but that didn’t stop Nelson.  RiffTrax turned out to be a success, and soon Nelson was joined by Corbett and Murphy again many times with a guest performer.  They were also able to release public domain shorts with commentary because there were no legal repercussions.  In 2008, two significant changes happened to RiffTrax.  The first was the introduction of live shows, which continue to this day, where the three men comment on a film live in front of a studio audience.  The second was giving the ability for anyone to make a commentary track, called IRiffs.  After several years of Riffing on B-Movies in live shows like Plan 9 from Outer Space, Reefer Madness and Night of the Living Dead, RiffTrax started the first of several successful Kickstarter campaigns to do more live shows.  RiffTrax continues to release content online, for B-Movie Riffs, Short Riffs and separate commentary for popular movies and continues to do live shows.
                Cinematic Titanic was created by Joel Hodgson in 2007, the original creator of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and utilized fellow cast members Trace Beaulieu, J. Elvis Weinstein, Frank Conniff, and Mary Jo Pehl.  Done both as a live show and as DVD releases, Cinematic Titanic shows B-Movies with the actors riffing from silhouettes on either bottom corner of the screen, just like MST3K.  The idea is that some unknown organization is making the actors, playing themselves, watch B-Movies just like in MST3K.  The organization has a powerful military force, which keeps that cast from rebelling.  Cinematic Titanic folded in 2013, due to the fact that each of the cast members lived in different cities.  Twelve physical DVDs were made of B-Movies with Cinematic Titanic and many live shows from 2007 to 2013 some of which were released on DVD.  Following the end of Cinematic Titanic, Hodgson is now working on the new season of MST3K.

                Mystery Science Theater 3000 may be the best and most well known of the “riffing on movies” concept, but the cast members can tweak the format to their own successes.  Check out these post-MST3K projects by MST3K cast members.