FictionMachine
“Everything I’ve done, I’ve done for you” | Labyrinth (1986)

“Everything I’ve done, I’ve done for you” | Labyrinth (1986)

July 3, 2015

A teenage girl obsessed with imagination and fantasy angrily wishes for her baby brother to be spirited away by goblins – only to discover goblins have done exactly as she asks. To rescue her brother she must make her way through an elaborate maze filled with bizarre creatures, and she must do it within thirteen hours if she wants to ever see her brother again.

Labyrinth is one of the most popular children’s films of all time. Since its release in 1986 it has become part of a select group of perennial favourites with audiences, re-discovered by one generation after another for its bold visual imagery, popular songs, and enchanting characters. The film itself marks a unique collision of talents between writers (including former Monty Python performer Terry Jones), director (Muppet creator Jim Henson), producer (Star Wars creator George Lucas) and stars (including iconic musician and actor David Bowie). The film tells a broadly familiar story, but it tells it in a comparatively unique and wonderful fashion.

You can read the full essay at the FictionMachine website here.

“We’re being kept here to die” | The Ruins (2008)

“We’re being kept here to die” | The Ruins (2008)

June 28, 2015

Ben Stiller is a noted writer, director and performer of Hollywood comedies, who has headlined such blockbuster hits as There’s Something About Mary (1998), Zoolander (2001) and Tropic Thunder (2008). He is not necessarily the first name to spring to mind when thinking about horror movies, yet in 2008 he and his business partner Stuart Cornfeld produced The Ruins, a rarely seen yet stunningly effective horror film. It is a film as relentless as it is bleak, filled with dread and constantly rising tension. It is a film that gets under your skin – in the case of its protagonists, quite literally so.

“You do it because you’re driven” | Speed Racer (2008)

“You do it because you’re driven” | Speed Racer (2008)

June 18, 2015

In May 2008 Warner Bros released the glossy and expensive action film Speed Racerinto cinemas around the world. Directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski, it was a live-action adaptation of a once-popular children’s cartoon made on a US$130 million dollar budget, blessed with wall-to-wall advertising and given a prime summer release date. It under-performed terribly, losing the studio tens of millions of dollars and failing to engage too many critics.

It’s not simply that the film wasn’t a commercial success; it seemed to be actively ignored. Here was an expensive, visual effects-driven blockbuster, written and directed by the siblings who created the phenomenally successful Matrix trilogy, featuring performances by quality actors like John Goodman, Susan Sarandon and Christina Ricci, based on a Japanese anime with enormous cult appeal, and it was as if one could hear crickets. Movies under-perform and flop all the time, but in the case of a visually distinctive, colourful film like Speed Racer there is usually the consolation of some kind of cult status. At the time of writing the film is eight years old, and that cult following still has not developed.

It’s a sad end for a movie that took Warner Bros 16 years and five directors to bring to the screen.

“Do I look like I give a damn?” | Casino Royale (2006)

“Do I look like I give a damn?” | Casino Royale (2006)

May 27, 2015

James Bond, the British MI6 agent created by author Ian Fleming, is the star of pretty much the world’s most commercially successful movie franchise. Since 1962 the character has headlined 23 feature films, not including two rogue productions in 1967 and 1983; at the time of writing a 24th is in production. The James Bond formula has served the franchise remarkably well over the decades; however it has always faced a regular creative dilemma. There is a pressure with each succeeding sequel to top its predecessor. As a result the franchise has regularly had to undergo a sort of ‘reset’ process.

The most significant resetting of the James Bond formula came with Casino Royale, a 2006 production – and the 21st in the series – that not only reset the style of the franchise but rebooted it entirely, returning Bond to the early days of his career and demonstrating how he became the suave yet cynical spy with whom audiences were familiar.

A complete text version of this essay is available at FictionMachine.

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“Trees and people used to be good friends” | My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

“Trees and people used to be good friends” | My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

April 9, 2015

Japanese animation turns 100 years old in 2017. The art form initially flourished in 1917, as animators including Oten Shimokawa and Seitarou Kitayama produced short comedic films that ran for only a few minutes each. While the vast majority of those early animated shorts are now lost – due variously to time, humidity, earthquakes and the American fire-bombing of Tokyo – Japan’s animation (or ‘anime’, to use the borrowed Japanese term) industry has continued to thrive ever since.

Numerous directors have been and gone over the decades, and the industry has expanded and contracted. If we were to highlight a single filmmaker as the best artist anime has produced over that time, it’s a fairly safe bet that the majority of fans, critics and observers will cite Hayao Miyazaki. Furthermore if we were to highlight the very best film Miyazaki had directed, I suspect the majority would cite his 1988 fantasy My Neighbor Totoro.

“Something new can come into this world” | John Carter (2012)

“Something new can come into this world” | John Carter (2012)

March 7, 2015

Mention the name Edgar Rice Burroughs to many people and they’ll immediately recognise him as the creator of Tarzan, the popular pulp hero of novels and film who endured throughout the 20th century as one of the world’s most popular fictional characters. Less well known that Tarzan, however, is John Carter. This Virginian Civil War veteran travelled to the planet Mars in a string of pulp adventures, all written by Burroughs.

While the Tarzan books were adapted to cinema as early as 1918 (in Tarzan of the Apes and The Romance of Tarzan), John Carter’s road to the cinema took almost exactly 100 years, three movie studios, six directors and countless writers, artists and designers along the way.

“This is true love” | The Princess Bride (1987)

“This is true love” | The Princess Bride (1987)

February 12, 2015

‘As a writer,’ said William Goldman, ‘the only book I really like is The Princess Bride.'

Goldman’s original take on the classical fairy tale was first published in 1973. The book in itself is a literary classic, and wonderful to read. It is eclipsed these days, however, by its motion picture adaptation. Despite all of the strengths of the original novel, in 1987 director Rob Reiner took The Princess Bride and somehow adapted a fantastic book into an even better film. Its fans have included both United States President Bill Clinton and Pope John Paul II. It really is one of the most broadly enjoyable movies ever produced.

Here's a story about how they made it.

“Its a thousand years to Christmas” | Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

“Its a thousand years to Christmas” | Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

January 23, 2015

In the late 1970s Walt Disney Studios entered one of their most unusual periods, eschewing their standard family films for darker and more risky projects. The period saw the company experiment with science fiction in The Black Hole and Tron, dark fantasy in Dragonslayer and Return to Oz, and even light horror with The Watcher in the Woods. Generally speaking, these films were not commercially successful – although many of them have developed strong cult audiences over the following decades. It should be noted that these were all generally high quality, entertaining films. It simply seems that for the movie-going audience the dissonance between the wholesome Walt Disney brand and the strange, dark content was too great with which to cope. The company’s live-action fortunes did not recover until the release of Ron Howard’s Splash in 1984.

Of the 17 live-action features released by Disney between The Black Hole in 1979 and Return to Oz in 1985, far and away the best film is Something Wicked This Way Comes. It is not a lightly creepy supernatural story for children, like the company’s earlier film The Watcher in the Woods (1980). It is a genuine horror movie; the first such film produced by Disney and the last until the walking corpses boarded the Black Pearl in Pirates of the Caribbean (2003).

“Well of course we talk, don’t everybody?” | Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

“Well of course we talk, don’t everybody?” | Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

January 11, 2015

It would seem that good musicals require good partnerships to succeed, and if that is true then the best partnership of all time is arguably that of Gene Kelly, co-director Stanley Donen, and producer Arthur Freed. In one combination or another these filmmakers collaborated at Metro-Goldwyn Mayer on some of the most extraordinary feature films ever made. Of their films, Singin’ in the Rain (1952) is the most popular and almost certainly the best.

I don’t really ascribe to the idea that there can be a singular best anything in the world but when pressed to name ‘the best movie ever made’, in the absence of a more definitive choice, I generally pick Singin’ in the Rain.

This is the audio version of an essay first published at www.fictionmachine.com.

“A fuzzy blue Charles Dickens” | The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

“A fuzzy blue Charles Dickens” | The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

December 23, 2014

A Christmas Carol has remained popular since publication, and has subsequently been adapted for theatre, opera, television and, of course, motion pictures. The first film adaptation was Scrooge, or, Marley’s Ghost, a short film produced in London in 1901. It was followed by further short and feature treatments: at least 20 different direct adaptations between 1908 and 2009, not to mention further related films and parodies over the decades. Despite a wide variety of Christmas Carol films to choose from, one of the best – and surprisingly most accurate – is Brian Henson’s 1992 film The Muppet Christmas Carol, in which most of the cast are played by puppets.

This is the podcast version of the FictionMachine essay "A fuzzy blue Charles Dickens". To read the entire essay, head to the FictionMachine website.

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