Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Second Movie Syndrome: Five Follow Up Features That Died

To start with, I loved District 9. It was one of the best films of its year and one of the most original sci fi movies for some time. Its young South African director, Neill Blomkamp, established himself as one of the world’s most exciting film makers with one audacious stroke. Expectations for his follow up were high...

But I hated Elysium. Blomkamp’s long delayed second movie was muddled, illogical and bloated. And oddly plodding, considering how busy it was. I took a lot of residual goodwill into Elysium, but left very disappointed.

And so Elysium provided a fine example of 'Second Movie Syndrome,' where a lauded debut feature is followed by a turkey. Today’s list highlights 5 of these difficult follow ups:

5. John Singleton

1st Film – Boyz ‘n  the Hood

Follow Up – Poetic Justice

From this distant point in the future, it’s hard to remember the impact that director John Singleton’s first movie, Boyz ‘n the Hood, had. But this frank, bleak drama of young African American men struggling to cope with the violence inherent in their environment was one of the most talked about releases of its time. Roger Ebert called it ‘One of the best American films for many years’ and Empire magazine raved that it was ‘masterfully crafted and nothing short of amazing.’ This was the sort of movie that became part of the atmosphere; people discussed it earnestly over water coolers, and sketch comedy shows did ridiculous parodies of it in prime time. With one film, Singleton (who was only 26 when he wrote and directed Boyz) seemed to have established himself as a fresh new voice in African American cinema, like a West Coast version of Spike Lee.

Two years after Boyz he returned with Poetic Justice, a limp romantic drama largely notable for the novelty casting of Janet Jackson in the lead. 

Jackson plays Justice, a shut in single mother who also happens to be a poetry genius (the poems are supplied by Maya Angelou, so are either brilliant or a bit fruity, depending on your taste). She’s wooed by Tupac Shakur, who plays a tough postie with a heart of gold. Both have tragedies in their past, which are revealed to anyone who can survive more than an hour of this movie’s leaden pacing, and everyone learns a thing or two by the end. The contrast between the uncompromising approach of Boyz and the cliched scenarios of Justice could hardly be more pronounced.

4. Kevin Smith

1st Film – Clerks

Follow Up – Mallrats

In 1994 a schlub from Jersey maxed out a dozen credit cards and sold his comic book collection so he could make a feature film. The result was Clerks, an ultra low budget, crass, uninhibited comedy about a couple of dudes wasting their lives working McJobs in the service industry. The unexpected critical and commercial success of Clerks gifted Kevin Smith a directing career and, perhaps even more improbably, made a minor star out of Jason Mewes. This was one of the first movies I can remember seeing at an ‘art house’ cinema (the wonderful La Luna, in Leederville, Western Australia) and it was an instant favourite of mine, and everyone else I knew. People quoted this movie to each other at parties and you saw the poster on the walls of share houses. It was our lives on screen and it looked like any one of us could have made it. 

Seemingly only a minute later (actually the following year), Smith was back with Mallrats, a film with a similar conceit to Clerks but sporting a much bigger budget.

But where Clerks was witty and sharply observed, Rats was dumb and obvious. And where the satirical elements of the earlier film had balanced the dick and fart jokes, there were now… more dick and fart jokes, cranked to 11. The Clerks were likable if aimless slackers but the Rats were kids you’d probably want to run over if you thought you could get away with it. Despite a few laughs and some (Smith trademark) funny dialogue, Mallrats was as unlikable a follow up as you could imagine. A big comedown, in every respect.

3. Richard Kelly

1st Film – Donnie Darko

Follow Up – Southland Tales

Unlike the other first films on this list, Donnie Darko did not have an immediate impact. In fact, director Richard Kelly has stated that his metaphysical time travel funhouse was close to going straight to DVD, so puzzled were prospective distributors by what he’d produced. But Newmarket Films gave it a limited release in 2001 (after Drew Barrymore’s Flower Films had helped fund the production) and the films reputation began to grow; slowly, incrementally, by word of mouth. When this lead to a wider theatrical run, Darko caught fire in a way that has left an enduring imprint much larger than the modest film that spurred it. There were positive reviews, sure, but there are also Darko fansites, fan fiction, chatrooms, t-shirts, conventions, social network pages, clubs, acolytes and obsessives and a reproduction of the phony book (The Philosophy of Time Travel) that drives part of the plot available on Amazon. To say nothing of the graphic novels that the director himself helped produce, to flesh out the story's ideas. 26 year old Kelly was hailed as a visionary (Variety called him ‘a natural born film maker’) and when it was over he had not only created a cult phenomenon but his own private army of dedicated fans.

Following all this up was obviously going to be a tough task. In 2005Kelly wrote and directed Southland Tales; a post-apocalyptic, serio-comic satire with a multi-narrative structure and a three hour running time. 

A big, challenging, ambitious film. The post production was lengthy and Kelly, unwisely, submitted a rough cut of Tales to the Cannes film festival in 2006. The critical response was ferocious; The Observer called Tales ‘one of the worst films ever presented in competition at Cannes,’ and’s critic dubbed it ‘the biggest, ugliest mess I’ve ever seen.’ On the back of this, the American release was delayed while the film was re-edited and new special effects added. Southland Tales eventually received a limited release late in 2007, having sat in post for more than two years, but there was no word of mouth to resuscitate the film this time. The critics remained almost universally hostile, and Tales recovered only a few hundred thousand of its $17 million dollar price tag.

2.  George A. Romero

1st Film – Night of the Living Dead

Follow Up – There’s Always Vanilla

In the zombie saturated era in which we live, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the living dead as we know them aren’t even 50 years old. In 1968, TV cameraman George Romero and his friends cobbled together enough money to make a feature length horror film, which introduced the world to the stumbling, flesh eating creatures we now know so well. Shot in classic DIY, underground film fashion (real locations, amateur actors, black and white) and utilising untold gallons of Bosco as fake blood, Romero’s seminal horror classic achieved a level of tense realism often missing from mainstream horror films. Audiences around the world were riveted and disgusted in equal measure, but the notoriety that soon sprang up around the film undoubtedly furthered its popularity, leading to a string of sequels, remakes and rip-offs. Romero had not just made a stunning first movie, but had invented an entire genre.

Many of NOTLD’s sequels would be directed by Romero himself and he quickly became identified as strictly a horror director. Less well known is that his follow up to his zombie classic was a film of an entirely different sort, a melodrama about a troubled love affair called There’s Always Vanilla. 

Chris is an aimless young man who hasn’t found any direction since he was discharged from the Army. Lynn is an older, but equally restless, woman who Chris meets by chance at a train station. They have an affair, Lynn falls pregnant and Chris ponders the meaning of things while his father tries to bully him into working in the family business. A film further removed from zombies attacking an isolated farmhouse is hard to imagine. Which was a deliberate move on the part of the film maker; Romero chose the project specifically to move away from horror in the hope of expanding his range. But ultimately he was disappointed with the result. In interviews he has described Vanilla as ‘his worst film’ and ‘a total mess.’ Barely released in 1971 and largely unseen for decades, the film has found some sort of an audience among Romero completists, and a copy of the movie is included as a bonus on a couple of his DVD packages.

1. Dennis Hopper

1st Film – Easy Rider

Follow Up – The Last Movie

Everyone involved was wary of putting Dennis Hopper in charge of Easy Rider. The bit part actor and wannabe film maker was notorious in Hollywood for his hard living and violent temper. Many of his contemporaries thought he was nuts. But, in a different way, giving Hopper control of this movie made perfect sense; who better to helm the ultimate counter-culture statement then someone whose very way of life was an affront to the establishment. The shoot was predictably chaotic; plentiful drug and alcohol consumption fueled a spontaneous style, minimal planning and a lot of improv, along with many fights, both verbal and physical. What emerged from this madness was, astonishingly, a bona fide classic; a funny, entertaining, even melancholy take on contemporary America. But words are almost inadequate to describe the effect this movie had on the film industry in the US; when it simply exploded at the box office (taking a then staggering $19 million in 1969 alone) the entire structure of Hollywood was turned on its head. The old way of making films was never going to produce something like Easy Rider so the old way was re-jigged. Long observed traditions were gone, overnight. Old rules were torn up. The era of the auteur and The New Hollywood had arrived.

It was inevitable that the unlikely instigator of all this would let his sudden status go to his head; after a decade of bit parts in negligible films, Hopper found himself lauded as an artist and a pioneer. 

He could have done anything for his follow up project, but decided to return to a complex idea he had hatched earlier in the 1960’s, and even pitched to the studios unsuccessfully, before Easy Rider hit big. With a working title of Chinchero, Hopper’s new film featured himself as a movie stuntman, attached to a shoot in South America that has a bizarre effect on the native population. Hopper took a million dollars of Universal's money (Easy Rider had cost about a third of this) and decamped to Peru with a wide circle of friends and acquaintances for an extended location shoot/party. After filming for nearly 12 months, Hopper then returned to his ranch in Mexico with thousands of feet of footage and began an obsessive editing process while in the grip of an alcohol and drug frenzy. It would be another 18 months before anyone saw the finished film, now prophetically titled The Last Movie. Then Universal Studios head Ned Tanen recalls his first viewing, 'We called it a catastrophe  Not a disaster, a catastrophe. This was a full blown earthquake on level nine. There was nowhere to run.' Hopper had produced not an Easy Rider sequel, but a difficult, abstract, non linear treatise on the nature of reality. Movie took the top prize at the Venice film festival but sunk without a trace in the States, ignored by audiences and patronised by critics. It lost so much money that it would be ten years before Hopper could get another directing gig, and 17 years before he was trusted to direct another script of his own.