Feature: Three Ways to Fix the Pirates of the Caribbean Franchise

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Originally published on Flickering Myth on 27/05/17.

Despite being one of Disney’s mainline franchises for nearly 15 years, building sequel after sequel into what is now a multi-billion dollar series, the old-timey, Johnny Depp-led Pirates of the Caribbean is in something of a tricky place.

Caught between different generations of fans and apparently now incapable of catering to all, the latest instalment, this week’s Salazar’s Revenge has seemingly confirmed what 2011’s On Stranger Tides quite seriously hinted towards: in terms of quality, Depp and co. are pretty much lost without a paddle.

There’s no denying that the Pirates movies are money-makers, and I’m sure good movie or bad, they’ll still be raking in the dough for many years to come (arguably the worst in the series ended up as the biggest cash draw overall). But there’s nothing that says the most profitable releases have to sacrifice clever storytelling (or, by this point, even just coherency) in order to make those big box office bucks.

So here’re a handful of suggestions on how to get Captain Jack back on track once and for all, whilst still keeping an eye on those all important market figures.

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1. Bring back the sword-fighting

It’s safe to say that the single most standout film in the series remains 2003’s original Curse of the Black Pearl, that rather lovingly set the scene with not only some extraordinarily clever (and hugely effective) character introductions, but also plenty of comedically-tinged action too. It’s something Gore Verbinski, director of that first trilogy, carried through to the slightly more jumbled, but still massively enjoyable initial sequels too. Everything from Captain Jack and Will Turner’s opening sword battle, to the totally bonkers water-wheel chase that closes out Dead Man’s Chest showed off just how important these huge-scale, but lovingly (and practically) choreographed sequences were to the series.

More recently though, with this latest effort being one of the biggest offenders here, the Pirates sequels have morphed into a barely-recognisable mess of CGI-heavy nonsense, that usually results in either all of the major characters running away, or a totally uninspired and forgettable 2-minute trade of blows. From a franchise that used to take our breath away with its action, it’s a sorry affair. Especially when there’s room in the series’ tone for something that could be as crazy as Fury Road on water.

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2. Start new legends, don’t constantly bother old ones

It didn’t come as much of a surprise when Disney pushed on with further sequels, even after Verbinski had closed out his original trilogy and put the stories of most of the main characters officially to bed. There was so much life and possibility left in the Pirates world, with so many avenues still left unexplored, that in many ways it even sort of made sense. It’s a shame then that time and time again, the studio and filmmakers involved have been pulled back into that same old story, with those same old, now fairly worn-out, characters. The cinematic equivalent of flogging a dead horse. In fact, in Will Turner’s case, quite literally so.

And whilst On Stranger Tides certainly tried (but ultimately didn’t help matters in this department), happily going rogue but failing to find any new or remotely satisfying ground; what’s happened with Salazar’s Revenge is totally despondent. At the centre of it all is actually a fairly fresh (if a little cliched) story, but one that ends up so overwhelmingly suffocated with past Pirates lore, with fan-favourite characters seemingly crowbarred in at every possible opportunity, that the whole thing just ends up sinking almost immediately on arrival. If the series is going to live on any further, it needs to head back to basics, ease its vice-like grip on what came before it and, maybe even *gulp* reboot itself. Which brings me cautiously onto the next point…

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3. Make Captain Jack relevant again (or ditch him altogether)

The series’ one consistent lead, and probably its biggest overall box office draw too, there’s no denying that Captain Jack Sparrow has quickly become one of this generation’s most iconic new creations. A charmingly selfish drunk-turned-supremely unlikely anti-hero, he’s a character whose legacy knows no bounds. It’s such a shame then that he’s never actually given anything even remotely interesting to do anymore.

The Jack of the early Pirates efforts was a difficult one to pin down, and that’s exactly what made him so fun to watch. A total wild-card, at any point the camera could spin round to find him ditching the heroes and high-tailing it across the seven-seas, saving, and looking out for, nobody but himself. He was courageous, daring, and fronted some of the series’ most thrilling action set-pieces, sometimes single-handedly. More recently though, Depp’s Sparrow has taken to just hanging around in the background of others’ adventures, offering up nothing more than drunken pointing and the occasional silly one-liner, more of a creepy uncle than a swashbuckling adventurer.

Some have put this down to Johnny Depp’s own furiously mounting star-power, taking himself out of any sequences that look particularly strenuous or could take longer than a handful of hours to film, but the real answer is most likely something a bit more straightforward: bad writing. Jack worked so well originally because his character was at total odds with Elizabeth and Will. He was the wonky third-wheel and now he’s stuck without any new fully-fleshed characters to bounce off of appropriately. He lacks relevance, sliding quietly into the background and coming dangerously close to turning himself into the franchise’s very own pirate-themed Jar Jar Binks.

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So while scrapping his character altogether and starting afresh Curse of the Black Pearl-style might seem a little drastic/hugely unlikely from a business point of view, there are still ways to get him back on track. Stronger characters, stronger relationships, and a more devoted Depp would certainly be a start.

There’s so much promise built into the Pirates world; it just needs a new set of pipes. An ambitious new team of filmmakers and writers who aren’t afraid to push the boat out with the film’s action, twinned with a fresh new story that actually makes sense, and the right amount of understanding and creative backing from the studio could set them up for a whole extra decade of new sequels. Just please, for the love of God, stop trying to do the same thing over and over again, it’s not getting any of us anywhere.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge is out in UK cinemas now. 

Feature: The 5 Cult TV Shows That Deserve A Reboot

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Originally published on Cultastic on 21/05/17 and on Flickering Myth on 26/05/17. 

Despite something of a critical bollocking, Dwayne Johnson’s tongue-in-cheek Baywatchreboot is set to take on a huge portion of the summer box office takings.

And considering that it’s very much following in the footsteps of similar cult TV reboot success stories like 21 Jump Street, it proves that there’s definitely a market for all those other giants of the small screen, quietly waiting in the wings, ready to take that final big leap into blockbuster territory. In fact, there’s so many of these already in active development, that this feature got more and more difficult to research as it went along, with all of the best ideas seemingly already snatched up.

So, from that other well-known Hasselhoff project, to some straight-up risky bids, here’s a collection of potential big money reboots that we could see happening just about any day now.

Knight Rider

Chances are, some executive somewhere is literally reading a script for a Hollywood reboot of this classic Hoff vehicle as we speak. There’s already been numerous follow-ons, from a post-apocalyptic mid-90s TV movie (set in the far-off dystopia of 2010), to the short-lived 2008 mini-series of the same name, but we’re still yet to see an update that does the cheesy 80s detective drama justice. And in a post-Baywatch movie world, why the hell not.

To those still somehow unaware of its set-up, Knight Rider saw a pre-beach body Hoff tackling the forces of evil alongside a hyper-intelligent (and practically indestructible) robot car called K.I.T.T., that, aside from pretty much doing most of the criminal-catching legwork, could speak and sling a one-liner faster than any able-bodied action hero could ever muster too.

If that’s not a great set-up for another self-mocking comedy right there, I don’t know what is. You could even cast Dwayne Johnson again and set up a whole Hasselhoff-centric cinematic universe. With the right script and voice talent, it could be the next big thing. 

Cagney & Lacey

On a totally different, much more progressive note – Cagney & Lacey is the ultimate reboot-waiting-to-happen. With plans already in place for a female-lead Jump Street spin-off, and news hitting even just this week of an apparent Rihanna/Lupita Nyong’o buddy movie, female-focussed cop dramas are inches away from becoming all the rage. So why not give a nod to the 80s TV show that arguably got the ball running all those years ago?

All it takes is the right pairing and a slightly more driven plot than the likes of the otherwise hugely successful The Heat, and we could be onto another winner. It will probably have to beat those other rival projects past the post though, so a quick development is key.

Xena: Warrior Princess

Because there’s only so many buddy cop-comedies the market can manage, why not give new life to a totally different beloved female icon of the 90s instead? No, not Buffy (one exceptional case of a cult TV reboot being a terrible idea). Originally a spin-off of the Sam Raimi-produced, live-action Hercules series, Xena: Warrior Princess developed a totally insane cult following of its own, running for 6 Emmy-award-winning seasons and even earning its star, Lucy Lawless, one of the most memorable Simpsons cameos to date.

Especially with Wonder Woman set to open the door for a totally new breed of female warrior, a Xena movie could be a clever move for a studio looking to find their own way into the new-look swords-and-sandals trend. The lacklustre performance of the last several Hercules movies probably won’t do it any good, but considering just how much the original show totally outshone its male counterpart, there’s nothing stopping the Hollywood movie equivalent doing the exact same.

Airwolf

Albeit a bit of a bold choice, one 80s TV “classic” that could benefit massively from even just a mid-budget movie update, is the bonkers sci-fi drama Airwolf. Starring Rick & Morty fan favourite Jan-Michael Vincent in the midst of his short-lived heyday, it’s very broadly about an expert pilot’s adventures with his ultra-advanced black ops helicopter, pulling off some of the most insane and unusual aerial manoeuvres and dogfights imaginable.

There’s no ignoring the fact that t’s super silly and there’d need to be a lot retooling to the old-school cheesy plotting, but the very basic central idea definitely has a lot of potential.

Fringe

And finally, an extremely recent piece of cult TV; Fringe was always so much bigger than the dwindling platform Fox gave it on the small-screen. Even though it only ended a handful of years ago in 2013, there’s so much room to give it a second-life (and hopefully an even more impressive run) at the movies.

Dealing with some of the densest and most exciting alternate-reality science-fiction, it not only had all the right characters, but all the right writers too, spearheaded by Hollywood hero J.J. Abrams and his then Bad Robot cohorts Alex Kurtzman (who directed the new Mummy) and Roberto Orci (who wrote Star Trek its sequel, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2).

Hell, if a big-money movie follow-up seems like too weird an idea so soon, Abrams and his team could even just chop and change the show’s best bits and muddle them into their growing Cloverfield universe somewhere instead. Either way, it would be great to see more of Fringe, no matter the capacity. 

Feature: The 5 Weirdest Monster Movies Ever

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Originally published on Flickering Myth on 16/05/17 and on Cultastic on 28/05/17. 

With the Godzilla/King Kong universe getting a sudden resurgence, and Cloverfield taking things into franchise territory at long last, the monster movie is suddenly in something of an unexpected heyday as far as Hollywood is concerned.

Whether they’re human size or intergalactically huge, monsters of all shapes and origins are popping up all over the place, even recently, in an indie dramedy starring Anne Hathaway.

A coming-of-age style drama about a down-and-out party girl returning to her hometown (with added Kaiju), Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal finally takes its UK bow this week, taking the title of one of the weirdest monster placements in movie history. So we thought it only appropriate to round-up some similarly strange creature-features, from alcohol-fearing tentacle beasts, to a killer whale with a deadly vengeance.

Orca (1977)

Somewhat riding the wave of success that followed Steven Spielberg’s Jaws in the second half of the 1970s, Michael Anderson followed his seminal sci-fi classic Logan’s Run with this bizarre sea-set revenge story. Richard Harris stars as a sea-captain/hunter who quickly finds himself on the shit-list of the ocean’s other deadliest predator, following an unfortunate incident involving murder and said killer whale’s family. The thriller that follows is an unsurprisingly campy bloodbath that sees the orca in question tearing its way through everyone Harris’s captain has ever loved, known or even just spoken to, following every spectacular murder with a celebratory series of mocking flips/calls that stand as pretty much the ocean-creature equivalent to a well-meaning middle finger.

In many ways, it’s the anti-Blackfish, ending on one of the most unusual man vs. monster face-offs ever. Not quite what you’d expect from what started as a Jaws clone, Orca is infinitely more fun than a lot of the Spielberg-focussed sequels too.

Spring (2014)

Taking the whole monster movie spirit in a similar direction to the likes of Colossal, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead strip back a lot of the horror usually associated with the genre and focus more on a romance instead. A romance between a young American man ditching all of his stateside problems for a trip to Italy, and a beautiful local woman who’s secretly an immortal sea creature that frequently transforms into a tentacle-laden beast.

It’s a total rollercoaster of emotions, that’s far sweeter and understandably more sensitive than the usual creature-feature fare, with a hefty dose of creativity powering the whole thing along too. Still weird though. Very, very weird.

Matango (1963)

Following the stark raving success of quintessential monster hit Godzilla, the Japanese Kaiju king himself, Ishirô Honda, followed it up with a series of similarly silly sci-fi movies about everything from flying walruses, to intergalactic jellyfish.

The most bonkers of the lot though was arguably Matango, a shipwreck drama about a group of deserted islanders that find themselves taken over by an evil race of gigantic living… mushrooms. Taking the classic 60s “men in rubber suits” approach, it’s 100% as ridiculous as it sounds, and 100% as enjoyable too.

Grabbers (2012)

Tormented’s Jon Wright followed up his horror obsession with another darkly comic and mega gory hit, this time about bloodsucking aliens feeding on a rural Irish town with a penchant for drinking. Noticing that the monsters in question (faceless, tentacle-covered blobs) take a heavy disliking to the amount of booze in their prey’s blood, the heroes of the film start fighting the ongoing invasion the only way they know how: by getting as drunk as humanly possible.

Whilst it still holds on to quite a few of the expected genre mishaps, Grabbers is very much a unique stab at a standard formula and only ends up better, the weirder it gets.

Pterodactyl Woman From Beverly Hills (1997)

Last, and in many ways least, despite having the greatest title of the lot, this late-90s Troma comedy casts Vacation’s Beverly D’Angelo as the Beverly Hills woman of the title, who quickly finds herself cursed with turning into an ancient pterodactyl after her husband pisses off a shaman. Hilarity supposedly ensues, and although it comes from The Beast Within’s Philippe Mora, this one’s far from Troma’s best work.

It does however, stand as easily the weirdest plot on the list and is home to some of the strangest monster-related moments possibly in any film ever. The sub-Buffy season 1, half-woman, half-pterodactyl rubber suit must be seen to be believed.

Feature: Alien: The Best & The Worst Sequels, Prequels and Spin-offs

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Originally published on Flickering Myth on 06/05/17.

With the long-awaited Alien prequel/sequel Covenant very nearly upon us, it’s time to once again dig up one of sci-fi’s longest-running franchises, to finally, and definitively, separate the classic, from the garbage. Few expected a further forty years of movies when Ridley Scott first birthed H.R. Giger’s Xenomorph way back in 1979, let alone the idea that the very last filmmaker to take a stab at the decade-spanning nightmare fuel, would be Scott himself.

Yet here we are, no less than three direct sequels, two spin-offs and now a further two prequels later, with the original creator’s name at the helm once more. Not all are great, some are barely watchable, but among the trash and garbage that the series at some point became, there’s some real extra-terrestrial themed gems dotted throughout. Here’s your ultimate guide to all 7, from worst, to best.

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7. Alien vs. Predator: Requiem (2007)

This eventual big-screen versus match between two of the sci-fi genre’s all-time biggest monsters was inevitable, but should’ve really stayed between the pages of the fan-driven comic books that inspired it. Whilst not linked directly to the original Alien series (most simply call the AVP pair ‘spin-offs’), there’s simply too many easter-eggs here to ignore the connection (the existence of both Weyland and Yutani to name just two), even as directing duo the Brothers Strause totally tear apart everything that made either of the leading figures even the tiniest bit effective in the first place.

This is a shoddily-assembled and hugely brainless monster mash, more focussed on body-count than any sense of horror or story. And although R-rated and violent enough, it’s still marginally worse than its predecessor thanks to plenty of overly-dark fight sequences and one of the stupidest climaxes of any monster movie to date. Not to mention the Predalien, which is exactly what you think it is, and looks even sillier than you’d expect.

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6. Alien vs. Predator (2004)

But it must be said that a great deal of Requiem’s issues all span out of the major stupidity of the Paul W. S. Anderson-backed original. Despite rocking one of the most badass tag-lines in the entire franchise (“Whoever wins… we lose.”), Anderson’s post-Event Horizon, pre-Resident Evil stab at uniting two of the movie world’s fiercest monsters, goes tits-up incredibly quickly. First off, it’s the only PG-13-rated film on this entire list, so the action itself feels very peeled-back and tame; again it’s claiming not to be an Alien movie, then constantly pumps itself full of callbacks (here, AliensLance Henriksen as “Charles Bishop Weyland” – I mean come on) and lastly – and arguably worst of all – it doesn’t make any sense.

It’s set on Earth, over a hundred years before the first xenomorph was discovered in space; a Predator, created as a distinct nemesis of humans, teams up with the humans, and the whole thing is set in an as-yet undiscovered pyramid under the friggin’ antarctic. It’s a total mess that reduces both of the genre’s most badass monsters to cheap, world-less puppets and it would be a whole lot easier if both it and it’s sequel just never existed.

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5. Alien: Resurrection (1997)

The last in the original Alien sequel timeline, Resurrection comes courtesy of a lot of very talented individuals. With a script from Buffy’s Joss Whedon, direction from Delicatessen and Amelie’s Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and a cast that included everybody from Winona Ryder, to Ron Perlman and the return of franchise champion Signourney Weaver, on paper this should’ve been nothing short of a masterpiece. The result however, is about as far from the word as ever thought possible.

Nothing quite lines up: the playfulness of Whedon’s words get lost in overly-dark tonal shifts, each of the characters rarely play off of anything more than a single quirk, and Weaver’s Ripley trades badass heroine for super-touchy, wide-eyed clone, obsessed with feeling up absolutely everything in sight. Jeunet hasn’t made another Hollywood picture since, and it’s fairly obvious why: his off-the-wall, darkly comic style makes Resurrection feel at total odds with what the series is at heart. It’s not totally awful, and certainly has its moments, but is also far, far, far too silly to ever really work. 

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4. Alien 3 (1992)

Often hailed as the worst of the bunch, but really far from it, David Fincher’s feature debut is certainly troubled. Presented in two forms, original and ‘assembly’ cut, that differ rather wildly from each other in certain ways, Alien 3 certainly suffered from a tremendous amount of studio distrust, having already cost Fox millions of dollars in failed screenplay drafts and stalled production starts before the cameras had even started rolling. To this day, Fincher calls it “the worst thing that ever happened” to him, and the resulting movie, although messy, has its charm.

For one thing, it keeps to the original’s darker tone, using the xenomorphs sparingly and giving Weaver plenty of drama to play with. It makes huge waves with the franchise’s overall direction plot-wise, not being afraid to take big risks, and it never once feels like it’s just retreading what’s already been done like a great deal of more contemporary sequels. It’s definitely not the most entertaining, but often feels easily slated because it was the first in the series to be something of a step-down from its predecessor, and is easily worth a re-watch alongside the top three.   

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3. Prometheus (2012)

Ridley Scott’s first return to the Alien series, the first official prequel to his original, had a hugely mixed reception on its release. Promising everything from 3D effects-driven landscapes, to a ferocious new heroine for a new generation, and most appealingly of all, the very origins of the xenomorphs themselves, it was a huge void to fill. So it’s fairly understandable that Scott only managed half of what he set out to do. Between Noomi Rapace’s brilliantly-played scientist, Michael Fassbender’s retro-fitted android and decent nods here and there from the likes of Idris Elba, Charlize Theron and Rafe Spall, the cast were certainly in place for a runaway success. And with a mega-money price-tag, the effects were too.

But the crux of it is that Prometheus struggles majorly in the story department. It’s packed full of incredibly tense and cleverly remastered moments that sit neatly beside the original. But the lack of a genuinely involving antagonist, with Scott replacing the tried-and-tested xenomorphs with doughy, statue-esque ‘Engineers’ – apparent Gods in a very weird and ham-fisted creation parable – really sinks this one hard. Rapace and Fassbender deserved a better, more horror-orientated movie, and from the looks of Covenant’s trailers, it’ll be something of a soft reboot of what fans were initially expecting from this one.

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2. Aliens (1986)

Including James Cameron’s 80s action masterpiece Aliens in the same list as a lot of those already covered just feels wrong. Deeply, and devoutly wrong. The space between second and third place here is almost astronomical; Cameron’s original and in many ways, unexpected sequel, not only stands among the finest follow-ups in movie history, but also as one of the most celebrated sci-fi films full stop. It’s an extremely basic idea – the addition of a single letter to an already simplistic title that tells you absolutely everything you need to know – but one that totally changes the game (and in many ways, the genre, too).

More of an action picture than anything else, Cameron stays true to Giger’s xenomorph designs, expanding where possible (the Alien Queen here might be the franchise’s greatest big bad) and really putting his own spin on an already beloved classic. After an entire generation grew up running away from what scared them, Cameron instead forced them to chase it themselves, head-on, turning Ripley from a free-thinking survivalist into a hard-edged, gun-toting action hero, lending a giant hand in the legacy that followed.

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1. Alien (1979)

But, it must be said that no matter how hard he tried, Cameron could never even come close to the frankly immortal reputation that Ridley Scott’s original space-set nightmare built for itself. Very much the quintessential horror film, born from the mind of John Carpenter’s college buddy, the great Dan O’Bannon, and helped along by a perfect storm of creative maestros; Alien married the tension of Jaws with the sci-fi driven creativity of Star Wars and draped the entire thing in the thickest black cloth money could buy.

To date, nearly forty-years on, it remains one of the most influential, forward-thinking and academically-rich movies ever, creating the ultimate antagonist: a snarling, body-invading emblem of pure fear. In shifting Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley into leading lady status, Scott and co. even kick-started a whole new wave of movie-driven feminism too (although Cameron’s later involvement in this simply cannot be ignored), and birthed an entire generation of thick-skinned, fast-talking female leads.

Whether they realise or not, every horror film to date owes some form of debt to the 1979 original Alien, and absolutely no amount of shoddily-designed sequels, prequels or spin-offs can take away from that genre-defining legacy.

Feature: The 5 Best Movies to Look Out for at Sundance London 2017

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Originally published on Flickering Myth on 05/05/17.

Storming back to London’s Picturehouse Central off the back of an incredibly successful rebrand last year, Sundance’s London branch is fast becoming one of the city’s go-to film festivals. And while Netflix and Amazon have already sunk their claws into some of the biggest titles from the flagship Utah fest back in January (both The Discovery and Grand Jury Prize winner I don’t feel at home in this world anymore are already available to stream), there’s still plenty to get excited about, theatrically speaking.

Sundance London is all about showcasing the best and brightest from the bigger Sundance banner  and this year’s selection has a helluva lot of originality. 

The Big Sick

One of the buzziest titles that premiered back in Utah in January was Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani’s semi-autobiographical rom-com The Big Sick, that charts the real-life couple’s own struggles with cultural differences in 21st century America. Written by the pair, and starring Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan (playing Gordon’s role), it’s already been hailed as one of the best comedies of the year, and opened endless doors for everyone involved. Not to mention the fact that it raked in one of the biggest distribution deals of the festival, and will be streaming on Amazon Prime from July, so this might be your last shot at seeing it on the big screen.

Bushwick

Fans of real-world action, Birdman-style one-shots, and Guardians of the Galaxy’s Dave Bautista gather round, because boy do we have the film for you. Set in an alternate modern-day America, where Texas has started a second civil war and is in the process of invading Brooklyn, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, Bushwick finds the abbed-up softy teaming up with Brittany Snow to escape the ongoing battle. Directed by Cooties’ Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott, and co-written by Stake Land’s Nick Damici, it’s about as visually ambitious as indie action flicks get, and certainly earns a spot as one of the most anticipated of Sundance’s genre releases.

A Ghost Story

Swiftly acquired by distribution top-dogs A24 way back in January, David Lowery’s low-rent passion project, made with the money he earned from calling the shots on last year’s Disney adventure Pete’s Dragon, is about as Sundancey as this year’s releases get. Described as a “singular exploration of legacy, love, loss, and the enormity of existence”, it follows a classic white-sheeted ghost (Casey Affleck) trying to reconnect with his mourning wife (Rooney Mara). And while it may look a little silly/pretentious on first glimpse, it’s clear that Lowery’s created something exceedingly unique with this one, which simply deserves to be seen to be believed.

Dina

The winner of this year’s Grand Jury Prize for Documentary feature, Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles’ portrait of a real world romance between autistic pair Dina and Scott has been described as ‘unconventional’ too many times to count. In fact, it even describes itself as ‘unconventional’ in its IMDb plot synopsis. But where this verite-style love story hits a note we’re all very familiar with is in just how much respect it holds for the very ideal of romance itself, crafting an unexpected, but apparently also delightfully charming drama, out of a world we’re often far too separated from in cinema.

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Dawn of the Deaf

Oddly enough though, the hottest ticket of this year’s festival for genre fans, actually comes from a short. Showing as part of the Sundance shorts showcase, Rob Savage’s total subversion of the outbreak genre is an absolute must, not just for horror fans, but for anyone with an eye for finding an original idea in a haystack of formulaic ones. Dawn of the Deaf follows the fallout of a mysterious sound that wipes out the entire world’s hearing population, cramming as much emotional weight and genuine ingenuity into its tiny 12 minute run time as possible. It’s not only beautifully written, shot, and acted, but also stands as a great introduction for Savage, who’s certainly one of the most exciting new homegrown talents around.

Surprise Film

For the first time ever this year, Sundance London will be playing against trend and screening a mystery film, the title of which will only be revealed when the opening credits roll. And sure, there’s plenty of other incredible-sounding titles already listed in the SFFL program, but there’s just as many leftover from January that apparently didn’t quite make the cut, and who doesn’t love a good old-fashioned surprise? With possibilities ranging all the way from Directing award winner Beach Rats, to Aubrey Plaza’s cult hit in the making Ingrid Goes West, to any of the festival’s other hugely-acclaimed titles, this one night only event definitely shouldn’t be missed.

Feature: Guardians of the Galaxy and its Exploitation Influences

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Originally published on Flickering Myth on 27/04/17.

Exploitation is a bit of a nasty word no matter the context, and in the movie world, it usually means something cheap and in many cases, derivative. It’s never properly been defined, and doing so here without page after page of background would prove tough, but the term, in a nutshell, is usually used to describe low-brow ‘B-movies’ that rip-off or ‘exploit’ mainstream heavy-hitters.

After Steven Spielberg’s Jaws there was Michael Anderson’s Orca, and Joe Dante’s Piranha. After The Italian Job there was everything from Death Race 2000 to Vanishing Point (that was in itself, lovingly rejigged for Tarantino’s 2007 exploitation send-up Death Proof). They make just enough from the cult crowd but very rarely breach the dominant markets. Unless, of course, the film’s name is something stupid enough to go viral, like Sharknado.

Disney and Marvel’s hugely innovative new spin on their own blockbuster formula, Guardians of the Galaxy is very obviously not an exploitation movie. It’s not even close. It was made for many millions and raked in even more at the worldwide box-office, starring huge Hollywood talent and crazy, expensive special effects. But, arguably a major part of its mainstream success is actually down to the influence of these old exploitation classics; not necessarily their style, but their spirit.

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No single movie is ever the work of just one person, but with Guardians, its off-beat tone and punkish nature – the key elements of the film we’re looking at here – have often been attributed to writer/director James Gunn. Originally the lead singer of unsigned rock band The Icons, Gunn got his start in the movieverse writing scripts and choreographing sex scenes at Troma Entertainment, a cult-favourite studio at the heart of the “cheap and nasty” exploitation boom, under the leadership of Toxic Avenger director and all-round lunatic Lloyd Kaufman. And whilst Gunn did eventually make the leap to “proper” Hollywood screenwriting, with credits on both the live-action Scooby-Doo movies and Zack Snyder’s weirdly good Dawn of the Dead remake, you only have to look as far back as his 2006 directorial debut Slither to know that the world of exploitation never really left him.

Slither was a monster movie in the same way that Troma’s Toxic Avenger was a superhero blockbuster, or Class of Nuke ‘Em High was a John Hughes teen comedy. Much like exploitation, it took elements of the monster genre and twisted/expanded them for pure entertainment sake, glazing over the social or political undercurrents of the likes of Godzilla and Jaws and revelling in the simplistic fun of excess. And Gunn’s second spin in the director’s chair, dark vigilante comedy Super,was similar in its influences, happily raising two middle-fingers to the superhero genre and its unrealistic revenge plots and consequence-free violence.

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In short, during his time working on Troma’s exploitation-style releases, Gunn learned not only how to manipulate mainstream genres, but also how to give them a real rebellious edge. Something which, by 2014, Marvel desperately needed. And so, it eventually seeped into the very foundations of their’s and Gunn’s new take on the niche comic series Guardians of the Galaxy.

Despite being a Marvel title, Guardians is much more of a space opera than a superhero picture, borrowing most of its most obvious influences from the likes of Star Wars and Mike Hodge’s 1980 adaptation of Flash Gordon. As their 10th release and the starting point for the comic giants’ ‘Cosmic’ wing (which now includes everything from the second Guardians to the latest Thor), it was an attempt by Marvel Studios and its chief creative producer Kevin Feige, to prove they were about much more than the, by then, fairly formulaic superhero adventures that they were known for. From its literally minded warrior aliens to its galaxy-hopping tree beasts, Guardians was about standing out for Marvel and telling their huge, ever-expanding audience direct that they were willing to break the mould and try something different.

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Enter James Gunn, and his already proven ability to embrace a common genre, here the space opera (that Marvel just knew would sell thanks to a little known franchise called Star Wars), whilst still very lovingly ripping it apart. Feige and co. wanted something that audiences would be familiar with, but that would also be loud and different; something far and away from box office disasters like John Carter. They needed a film that made audiences feel like they were experiencing something totally new, even though they weren’t, and Gunn filled that gap beautifully.

As much as the original exploitation boom was about low-rent studios cashing in on big-money ideas, it was too a move by a great number of punk-minded directors to offer their wilder, more aggressive send-ups of popular Hollywood templates. Exploitation may have had its roots in a get-rich-quick scheme for film investors, but became so much more; an entire counter movement in itself. With Guardians, Gunn was offering Marvel fans and wider audiences a slice of this rebel culture; a chance to point and laugh at all of the films they hold dear, whilst still quietly revelling in exactly what made them great.

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Gone was the grand orchestral scoring synonymous with the space battles of Star Trek and Wars, replaced with the hard-nosed rock of that original 70s counter-culture. The loveable, mute, non-human sidekick was switched up with a trash-talking raccoon, and the explosively bright colour wheel of the less critically-safe stargazers, from 1968’s Barbarella to the aforementioned early-80s Flash Gordon, was well and truly turned up to eleven. With Guardians, Gunn gave the space opera the punk treatment, much in the same way that a lot of exploitation classics did way back when, and audiences sick of seeing the same morally sound characters on their morally sound quests time and time again, flocked in their masses.

But what does this mean for the rest of the Marvel roster moving forward? Thor: Ragnarok already got a bit of an indirect kicking for including both a 70s rock song and some loud colouring in its first trailer and thus making it too “Guardians-esque” (Asgardians of the Galaxy anyone?) but for the most part, Marvel have pretty much stuck to their guns with their other superhero-driven movies and TV shows. Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, opening this week to rave reviews (read ours here), is obviously more of the same, so it seems wise that the studio aren’t over-diluting their slate with the punk idea, keeping it contained and allowing their leading roster of Avengers to continue to play the hits, whilst this totally separate, merry band of misfit ‘A-holes’ offer something louder, sillier, but significantly more free.

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At the very tip-top of a multi-billion-dollar industry, run on socially-sound, family-friendly and morally-pure entertainment, James Gunn took, in essence, a two-fingered, fuck-you salute, and made it one of the most marketable things around, selling it back to the very industry gods it was originally intended to enrage. If that’s not punk rock, I don’t know what is.

Feature: Phantasm: A Beginner’s Guide

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Originally published on Flickering Myth on 23/04/17 and on Cultastic on 07/05/17.

One of cult fandom’s most dearly loved horror franchises has finally been given the blu-ray upgrade it deserves this year, off the back of not just a brand new sequel, but also a J.J. Abrams-backed 4K restoration of the original.

Spanning five movies, countless casting back and forths, and nearly 40 years of production woes and seriously devoted fan conventions, the Phantasm series has finally, at long last, pulled to a close.

And whilst it might not be quite as expansive (or as widely known) as a lot of the genre’s other heavy-hitters like Friday the 13th, Halloween or A Nightmare on Elm Street, Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm movies hold a special place in horror lore, as not just one of the only long-running franchises to be consistently owned and controlled by the same person, but also as one of the most devoted to its own bonkers storylines.

So without much further ado, here’s a who’s-who of the exceptionally twisted Phantasm-verse, film-by-film, to keep any and all beginners in the loop as to what’s essential, what’s watchable and ultimately, what the hell is actually going on.

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Phantasm (1979)

The whole thing started in the late 1970s with an ultra low-budget horror (somewhere in the region of $300,000) based on a script Coscarelli had scrounged together from a mixture of Ray Bradbury’s novel Something Wicked This Way Comes and a bizarre dream Coscarelli himself had about a giant, flying silver ball that killed people. The result is a seriously mixed-up, though genuinely unsettling nightmarish horror about two brothers, Mike and Jody, and their friend/local ice cream man Reggie, investigating a series of mysterious deaths in sleepy middle-American suburbia, that remains even to this day, frighteningly original.

Angus Scrimm’s now iconic Tall Man is still very much an imposing presence throughout, a grave robbing undertaker with obnoxiously large hands and eyes as dark as sin, and Coscarelli’s off-the-wall, and often mind-bending editing choices (most likely a symptom of the lacklustre budget) really set Phantasm aside from any horror film of its generation. It’s pulled together with the same sort of fire and cheap/nasty work ethic that made the likes of The Evil Dead and its other low-rent, DIY cohorts such huge genre hits around the same time, so fans of Raimi and co. should definitely give it a look.

The plotting’s all over the place, there’s three too-many twists and the now legendary trio of A. Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury and Reggie Bannister were no-more talented in their younger years as they are today (as you’ll soon see, Bannister aside, they weren’t by any means born to act), but Phantasm is nevertheless a landmark of cheap genre cinema.

Verdict: If you only watch one of these, it almost goes without saying but, make it this original.

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Phantasm II (1988)

Almost ten years later, compelled by pressure from fans and a generous budget of $3 million from Universal Studios of all places, Coscarelli set about making a very, very different sequel. With mainstream studio backing came several new conditions, including an all-out ban on dream sequences and on Baldwin’s return, and so the resulting Phantasm II is about as accessible to a mainstream audience as the series gets.

Much more of an action picture than the original moody horror, Coscarelli’s 80s sequel is essentially just a fun buddy movie with some incredibly neat weapon upgrades (and featuring special effects courtesy of practical effects wizards Greg Nicotero and Robert Kurtzman no less). Reggie joins forces with the now much older (and recast) Mike to hunt down the Tall Man all over again, donning everything from quad-barrelled shotguns to homemade flamethrowers to dispatch an even wider array of ball-shaped weaponry (one even has lasers) and, as it goes, learn a whole lot more about the Tall Man’s background.

Even if you found Phantasm’s initial dreaminess a little hard to bear, this first sequel is actually still worth a spin, taking all of the most tangible and creative aspects of the original, and turning them well and truly up to eleven.

Verdict: There are a few mainstream-y additions crowbarred in, like a fairly limp romance element and the occasional overly serious exposition dump, but on the whole Phantasm II is a vastly different, but seriously fun follow-up that should, at the very least, wildly entertain (chainsaw fight, anyone?).

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Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994)

And it’s around here that things take a little turn for the cult. Despite still coughing up a half decent, multi-million dollar budget, Lord of the Dead feels noticeably cheaper, and its straight-to-video fate  could only really be expected. There are a number of worthwhile series retcons, like the return of original leads Bill Thornbury and A. Michael Baldwin (yes, Mike gets recast again), and the rather hilariously handled abolishment of the second movie’s love story, but on the whole it’s around this point in the series that non-genre devotees and horror tourists are recommended to sit the rest out.

For everyone else, there’s just about enough here to keep things interesting though. Dodgy digital effects aside, there’s some decent new characters, Scrimm is still very much the height of creepy, and Coscarelli finds a neat way to marry the dreamy tones of the original with the action-heavy plot of the first sequel which makes Lord of the Dead feel a lot more connected to the overall Phantasm canon.

Verdict: Nowhere near the same league as the earlier efforts, but this threequel is entertaining enough.

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Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998)

Coscarelli’s fourth dip in the series is about as TV Movie as they come, bouncing off of the third’s rather clever ending by attempting to replace a lot of that expensive entertaining action, with just a whole bunch of world-building instead. Back down to a shoestring budget, a lot of Oblivion’s main plot line is padded out with unused archive footage shot for the first movie (which originally clocked in at nearly 3 hours thanks to some additional subplots that were later cut), and whilst it’s a fairly resourceful way to widen the series’ backstory, it also makes the returning trio, now twenty years on from their first performances, look really quite old and dated in comparison.

A few of the more overzealous flashbacks can be distracting (they go as far back as the Civil War at one, totally baffling stage), and Oblivion really doesn’t have much of a plot of its own, beyond expanding on the original, which can make the whole thing feel a bit empty. But it does just so happen to feature one of the most darkly funny deaths of the whole franchise, meaning…

Verdict: For fans of what came before it, it’s a watchable 90 minutes, even if watchable is just about all it is.

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Phantasm: Ravager (2016)

The fifth and apparently/hopefully final entry of the whole series was oddly enough wrapped up just last year, though it must be said that it’s above-and-beyond the weakest of the set. Pulled together from the leftovers of what was once a web series, and only co-written by Coscarelli himself (the main directing duties were handled by franchise fan and kids animation helmer David Hartman), Ravager suffers a lot from YouTube-level cinematography and some seriously dicey digital effects.

Everything from the blood, to the landscapes, to the menacing silver balls that stretch all the way back to the original, are all entirely CGI; the three leads struggle even more so and the finale-style, world-ending plot-line ends up as a real mishmash of broken realities, as Coscarelli and Hartman attempt to solve the mysteries of the Tall Man’s world-hopping once and for all, with little success.

Overall, Ravager just feels like a very ambitious fan film, and sadly due to his eventual death in January 2016, at the ripe old age of 89, Tall Man legend Angus Scrimm is barely a presence at all.

Verdict: If you made it this far, it’s probably worth rounding things out and giving it a watch, but it’s a real far cry from the original’s spookiness, or even any of the ultimate badassery that followed.

Final call: Phantasm is a definitive must-see and Phantasm II almost equally so, but Lord of the Dead and Oblivion are really just for die-hard series fans, and Ravager is barely even that.