Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (2011)

Director: Alex Stapleton

SBS has been doing a string of schlock-cinema docos on Thursdays this month, and tonight’s was this survey of the work of a man who is actually kind of hurt by being called a “schlockmeister”, and says as much in a vintage interview with Tom Snyder near the end of the film. And yet, well, you can hardly blame people for calling him that, can you, I mean, just look at that filmography, and then look at some of the monsters in those films… can a large part of Corman’s oeuvre not be fairly described as “schlock”? Therein, of course, lies the problem, cos the doco also acknowledges that other, equally undeniable aspect of Corman’s career, where he clearly craved some sort of respect and had ambitions towards higher things, as manifested in things like The Intruder (infamously and allegedly the only film he ever lost money on) and the way he distributed films by Bergman, Kurosawa, Truffaut and the like in the 70s. As someone notes in the film, Corman in the flesh doesn’t seem like the sort of person who would make Corman’s films… Alex Stapleton has fashioned a pleasing overview of Corman’s career, fitting in probably about as much detail as could comfortably go into a 90-minute film, although I fear it does kind of imply that Corman fell into obscurity and out of the business in the 80s; the B-movie industry clearly was affected by the rise of the summer blockbuster in the 70s, and Corman did wind up selling New Worlds in 1983, but a quick squiz at his IMDB entry does show that more than half of his 400-odd producer credits post-date that time and that he’s never really stopped. As for him being an obscure figure, well, someone else wonders in the film why Corman himself never attained the mainstream success so many of his cast and crew would attain… and yet would mainstream success not have meant some degree of compromise? He’s quite appalled in that Tom Snyder clip by the idea of a film costing $40m, not even so much because he could make 20-30 films for that amount but because of how that $40m could’ve been used to actually improve people’s lives. I rather doubt Corman would’ve got on well in that sort of industry. The people these days who are into the sort of thing he did and does are not exactly a majority of film lovers, but among that crowd he’s always been a major figure. I suspect he’d be happier with that.

Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (2014)

Director: Mark Hartley

If nothing else, I now know why there were two Lambada movies back in the day, a mystery that hasn’t exactly taxed my imagination for a quarter of a century has now been solved… Anyway, this is Mark Hartley’s most recent venture into feature-length film documentary, this time narrowing his focus down from aspects of national industries to the adventures of a single company, Cannon Films. I was a bit apprehensive of this, cos when it comes to the crunch an awful lot of their product basically seems to have been dogshit. Was there going to be much of interest to this story? Well, yes, vastly more so than I’d thought there would be, and much of that interest lies in the frankly peculiar double act—cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus—that drove the studio; basically, the film charts (in initially somewhat breathless fashion) their rise through the Israeli film industry (which, in the 60s and 70s, seems to have mostly consisted of just them), then their move to Hollywood, where they bought a struggling business called Cannon (the pre-GoGo period of which is unfortunately only minimally dealt with), then their astounding rise and equally astounding collapse, ending in the cousins splitting and producing those rival Lambada films. And yeah, it’s pretty unabashed about how much of Cannon’s output was rubbish with barely any redeeming features, but the overall portrait is more complex… basically, the “bad news Jews” were guys who loved films but lacked the care or discipline to make them, you know, good, and yet, even though they were oddly old-school exploitation hucksters, they had aspirations to be an even more old-school “proper” studio, and a desire to be respected that saw them make films by John Cassavetes, Franco Zeffirelli (who called GoGo the best producers he ever worked with) and, most amazingly, Jean-Luc Godard. As someone says at one point in the film, if Cannon’s “prestige” products had come from anyone but them, those films would’ve been far better regarded, but the Cannon logo was like the kiss of death. There’s something weirdly admirable about Cannon’s rise and just as weirdly tragic about its fall, and Hartley charts this fascinating story well. However, amidst the many talking heads, there are two significant absences, i.e. Golan and Globus themselves… but their absence is explained in a brilliant end credit, which notes they declined to be interviewed and instead announced their own Cannon Films doco, which beat this one into release by some months. Golan died only a week after the first showing of Hartley’s film, and I daresay he wouldn’t have complained too much about that…

The Meaning of Life (1983)

Director(s): Terry Jones [& Terry Gilliam]

This happened to be on TV tonight, so, despite it having always been my least favourite of the Python films I watched it. And it’s still my least favourite Python film, nothing’s changed on rewatching, except that where I previously thought the “supporting feature”—Gilliam’s Crimson Permanent Assurance—was the best thing about the film, I kind of rediscovered tonight just how much better it is than the rest of the film. Conceptually ingenious and screamingly funny in a way the rest of Meaning of Life isn’t. The “feature presentation” itself is watchable (well, maybe not the Mr Creosote business), and bits of it are kind of tremendous (particularly some of Eric Idle’s songs), but… I don’t know. Certainly it was something of a step back from the previous two films, back to the sketch-based structure of the TV series and away from the continuous narrative of Holy Grail and Life of Brian (which they very rarely attempted on TV)… but it doesn’t work the same here, part of which is that the film doesn’t really use Gilliam’s animation skills like the TV series did, and part of it is that most of these sketches wouldn’t have been allowed to crap on at this length on TV. And, of course, part of that is because most of this wouldn’t have been allowed on TV at all… yet the Python team’s avowed delight at not being restricted by television constraints somehow didn’t really transfer into the sort of thing it could’ve been, there’s something calculated and sniggering and a bit juvenile about the offensiveness on show that stops it from being as really dark as they seemed to think it was. Still, like I said, bits of it are good—even if it can’t quite live up to its opening, some of the earlier scenes are fun—and it did remind me that being chased off the top of a cliff to one’s death by a horde of attractive women wearing nothing but roller derby helmets and pads isn’t exactly the worst way you could check out from this vale of tears…

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

Director: Nicholas Meyer

And now here I boldly go, cos hitherto Final Frontier was the most recent Trek film I’ve seen… hence why I actually chose to watch my own copy of it cos SBS2 were running it and the sixth film together, so I thought I’d better get this write-up out of the way before sitting down with the next film. Anyway, again, Memory Alpha has a wealth of detail on the production nightmare; to be honest, I vaguely recall being surprised at the time that this film was made at all, cos I knew the fifth film was generally considered something of a tanker, but it seems Paramount thought the old crew deserved a better final hurrah than Final Frontier. However, they also decreed that film number six absolutely must not cost so much as a dollar more than number five had done, and things apparently only got worse from there… Anyway, the finished film takes us back into M-rated territory (I presume the remarkable zero-gravity gore played some part in that), and also into fairly old-fashioned noir thriller territory too; the Klingons are suing for peace at last but Kirk—still not exactly over the murder of his son at Klingon hands—is accused of murdering the Klingon Chancellor. Gene Roddenberry saw the film two days before he died, and was reportedly unhappy with the racism towards the Klingons, but surely that’s actually a large part of the point of the film, Kirk realising the misguidedness of his prejudice against them (and Spock realising his own prejudice in favour of one of his own people)… Whatever, I enjoyed it immensely; a terrific and honourable send-off for the original crew which kindly allows the viewer to forget Final Frontier ever happened. And “not everyone keeps their genitals in the same place” may well be the single best line in the entire franchise…

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)

Director: William Shatner

In which the Trek creative team managed to pretty much squander the goodwill the series had managed to build up so far. What went wrong? Well, the Star Trek wiki Memory Alpha offers a number of possibilities, including the mediocre response to the Next Generation TV series (which had started in between films) and various behind the scenes issues including a threat of legal action from Gene Roddenberry—the series creator who’d been increasingly sidelined by the studio since the initial film and had been unhappy with all the others made after it—plus studio interference (Shatner wanted a fairly dark film, Paramount wanted it kept light like the previous film) and inadequate budget (which harmed FX and pre-production). And, frankly, the fact that the crew were getting visibly older (Kelley & Doohan both pushing 70 by then) probably didn’t help much. However you break down the blame, in any case it’s hard to argue that this film is a marked step down in overall quality from the films that came before it, though I would argue it’s still not as bad as the first one (I’d much rather rewatch this over the first film). Basically, the primary issue is that it’s just kind of flat overall, and the attempts at humour are particularly weak; the basic story (Enterprise is hijacked by Spock’s religious fanatic brother to go in search of God) actually isn’t bad—though the similarity between it and a never-made Roddenberry script seems to have been what triggered the putative lawsuit—but the execution leaves something to be desired. The end result has been somewhat written out of Trek history after Roddenberry huffily declared it “apocryphal”; it apparently went straight to video in some countries and earned a few Razzies as well. I’m… not 100% convinced it’s that terrible—Sybok’s confrontation with Kirk, Spock & McCoy and their “pain” is, I think, really well done, much the best thing about the film—and, like I said, I still think it’s better than the first film, not least because it’s half an hour shorter…

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

Director: Leonard Nimoy

Now, I did say that Khan was widely considered the best Trek film, but there is also a school of thought which says this one—the first one I’ve seen on the big screen (must’ve been the 1986/87 school holiday), and hitherto the only one I’ve seen on the big screen—is the best of the bunch. I don’t know for sure if I’d agree with that, but it is a terrific way to wrap up the saga the previous two films started—the three films do make a very pleasing trilogy—boldly going where no Trek film had gone before into regions of culture-clash comedy (not to mention hammer-handed ecological themes and something approximating to romance). Voyage reprises the plot of the first film, i.e. alien probe heads for Earth to make contact with someone (or, rather, something) that isn’t there to talk to them, except this time the solution is somewhat more complicated and involves travelling back in time about 300 years… Wherein comes the clash of cultures, of course, with the crew of the Enterprise having to deal with their ancestors’ different ways, their colourful metaphors and all that (the scene with the punk on the bus is one of the best things in the film). It makes for a generally light and jolly adventure romp, an awful lot of fun though, as I said, I’m not quite convinced it’s better than Khan; but it certainly is a satisfying wrap-up of the events of the previous two films.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)

Director: Leonard Nimoy

So SBS ran this and Khan as an entirely logical double bill tonight, hence we’re going straight on… I know the theory says that the Trek series tends to go odd-numbered films bad, even ones good, but this one arguably throws that theory into question; it’s a great follow-up to the previous film. It’s also markedly more melodramatic than its predecessors, too, which is something I don’t think I really appreciated before tonight (really, that is some fucking bravura scenery-chewing coming from Christopher Lloyd as the Klingon commander; Shatner almost matches him during their climactic fight, though), but then that’s kind of unavoidable given the story, which is basically summed up in the subtitle there… Robin Curtis struck me as less effective somehow as Saavik than Kirstie Alley in the previous film (the recasting seems to have come about because Alley was asking too much money to reprise the role) but everyone else is fine, which is good, cos this really is more about the characters than anything. I mean, yeah, you’ve got the whole business about the frankly catastrophic fuck-up behind the Genesis project (and oh LORD could that planet setting have looked any more studio-bound—something else I don’t think I fully appreciated until tonight’s rewatch), but the film is about what the subtitle says, i.e. the lengths Kirk and the Enterprise crew will go to in order to save a fallen comrade, and it culminates in a really marvellous end scene which is still hugely satisfying emotionally (Nimoy really did reserve one of the best parts of the film for himself). So yeah, that theory I mentioned about the odd vs the even-numbered films? Not this time. Enjoyed immensely.

Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Director: Nicholas Meyer

Ah, now this is more like the thing. Fortunately the first Trek film did sufficiently good box office business to warrant making a sequel—originally to be a TV film but upgraded to theatrical early on—which was what really got the film series going… Right from the off, Khan improves on its predecessor by the sheer act of Doing Stuff; you cannot accuse it of being inert at all. Plotwise, it obviously revisits an old episode of the original series, “Space Seed”, though you don’t need to have seen that (I actually didn’t see it myself until maybe just a couple of years ago), the situation is clearly enough laid out… revenge plots are always a good hook, and Meyer handles it well; Khan doesn’t feel like a blown-up TV episode like the first one did, and there is a noticeably greater emphasis on character, which is to the film’s considerable advantage. Still, plenty of other action and effects work to look at, too, if you want that from your Trek, all of which adds up to what I presume is still generally considered the best of the film series (probably the best for casual fans, which is, after all, what I am myself; I’m not a full-blown Trekkie like some of my friends). It should go without saying, though, that the film reserves its best trick for last; if the revenge plot is a good narrative hook, then the death of Spock was not only a fairly bold move but also an excellent hook for the next film (and also showed considerable faith that a third Trek film would go ahead). Speaking of which, let’s move on…

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Director: Robert Wise

So, since the new Star Wars film is due out, SBS2 are countering it with the first 9 Star Trek films. I, obviously, watched the first one tonight, though out of sheer perversity I watched my own copy of it rather than the TV broadcast…though to be sure I suspect the lack of ad breaks was the only real advantage of doing so. Then again, this IS Star Trek: The Motion Picture we’re talking about, an ad break would’ve been something actually happening… Indeed, there seems to have been far more action off-screen than on it; years of trying to get a film going, then the studio opting for a new TV series, then changing their minds again after the success of Close Encounters, months of shooting, gigantic budget blowout… and all for some fairly average reviews at best. And, frankly, the ho-hum reception of the film wasn’t exactly unjust, cos it’s not really very good. The film’s problem is that, ultimately, it was blown up somewhat from the proposed new TV series pilot for big screen treatment, and “big screen treatment” seemed to mean taking it with the seriousness of 2001 or Solaris. Basically, it’s a lot less fun than it probably would’ve been as a TV episode, and also more than twice the length (the network would’ve insisted upon it moving on at more of a clip). On the plus side, a stupid amount of money—even the original budget was, I think, far more than was ever spent on the entire original series—was thrown into the production and you do see the benefit of that on the screen; if nothing else the effects work is still pretty marvellous to behold. It’s just unfortunate that this isn’t the case with the rest of the film (the main actors were largely unhappy with the script’s ho-hum characterisation and their, frankly, kind of awful uniforms—goddamn but THOSE haven’t worn well). There’s nothing actually wrong with the plot; a space probe returning to Earth centuries after checking out the rest of space isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Maybe it would’ve fared better as the TV episode it was originally meant to be.

Return of the Jedi (1983)

Director: Richard Marquand

I should probably that I actually did watch this just a few weeks ago, as Ch. 7 showed it before re-running the whole series on 7mate. But I only channel-surfed onto it by accident and missed the first half of the film… Still, rewatching it pretty much inspired me to do the whole series when 7mate showed it, which, as I mentioned earlier, I hadn’t exactly been planning to do and hadn’t really been looking forward to either. I enjoyed that second half of Return a few weeks ago, and I enjoyed both halves again tonight.

That said, I still think it’s probably the least of the original trilogy, although, that also said, it struck me on this revisit that I’ve probably underrated it in the past. It’s not actually a particularly weak film on its own terms, it just has the somewhat difficult task of tying everything up, you know, both trilogies if, like me, you watch the whole thing in “episode order”… of course, 32 years ago it only had to finish the work begun in two other films, but that was going to be hard enough. Still, it does the job it has to do in pretty entertaining fashion, and on rewatching all the films in close proximity like this, I think I’ve realised the real strength of this film, i.e. the real sense of how much the characters have changed. I mean, obviously the performers aren’t quite as young here as they were in 1976, but that also kind of translates into the characters too. Han isn’t quite so abrasive as in the first two films, Luke is all grown-up and no longer the boy from the old desert farm, Leia is, well, not quite who we thought she was at first, and as for Vader… yeah, that’s kind of the biggest character development here.

And then there’s the Ewoks. I like the Ewoks. Fuck the haters.

I still can’t imagine David Lynch directing this. Remember he was originally supposed to. Don’t know much about Richard Marquand, other than he seems to have mainly worked on British TV in the previous decades, and his film career was cut short just a few years later by his early death. And apparently he was really enthusiastic even then about the possibility of Lucas producing prequels (more so than Lucas himself was by that time) and would’ve been happy to make one. There’s a “what if” for you… Anyway—my continuing reservations about the prequels notwithstanding, it’s been kind of nice coming back to Star Wars after spending so many years wanting nothing to do with it; maybe I’ve just spent the right amount of time away from the series, I don’t know. And, of course, with the latest film in the saga due to arrive next month, it’ll be interesting to see exactly where the series goes over the next few years, especially now that George Lucas is no longer running the show.

As a final thought, I’m sure I’m not the only person who has trouble watching the end of this film without also thinking of this video

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