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Richard Donner - I Believed A Man Could Fly


Richard Donner did not fit the mold of the typical master directors discussed en masse by critics and academics, yet with his passing we can expect a massive outpouring of tributes to a director who made classics spanning all manner of genre and tone, having a massive impact on the shape of modern movies.

Many of these tributes will be from industry insiders, seeing as Donner was by all accounts a wonderful mentor and friend. Steven Spielberg epitomizes this beautifully: “Being in his circle was akin to hanging out with your favorite coach, smartest professor, fiercest motivator, most endearing friend, staunchest ally... He was all kid. All heart. All the time. I can't believe he's gone, but his husky, hearty laugh will stay with me always.”

Richard Donner began in television, directing for some of the best remembered shows of the '60s, including the all-timer Nightmare at 20,000 Feet for The Twilight Zone, starring William Shatner as an increasingly manic airline passenger, convinced he can see a creature dismantling the plane midflight. Working on a TV budget, confined largely to a single seat and a view from a window, the director was able to muster a string of distressing moments, blemishing the character's reliability as narrator and adding a moody element of texture to the view of the creature by injecting a torrential thunderstorm into the scenario. Claps of thunder briefly illuminate the frame of the creature, as do sparks from the machinery of the wing as it tears panels off. The episode contains a moment, as Shatner pulls aside the curtain slowly and then all at once, that is still, to this day, piercingly startling. Something about dark, dark eyes peering from closer than they were before; it just works.

After some minor film work, Donner's next classic production was similarly unsettling, although free from the constraints of TV he was able to create something truly disturbing: The Omen. The film acknowledges the fact that the reality assumed by fundamental protestants is terrifying, playing out the conclusions of premillennial dispensationalism through the lens of matter-of-fact horror. Damien, the young child discovered to be the literal reincarnation of the Anti-Christ, certainly seems to leave an unnerving impression on most everyone who sees the film. The Omen played on an increasingly disillusioned and secular audience, paradoxically in search for films which affirmed their paranoias about supernatural evil and religious fears. While suppressed in normal life, these fears were stoked in the cinema by the likes of The Omen and The Exorcist.

For such a morbid conclusion, it may be surprising to find that Donner's next film would be a bright and chipper superhero movie. It would also be his greatest legacy. One cannot overstate what Superman did for cinema. Along with Star Wars, for many, Superman restated for the public the fantastical and transportive nature of cinema in a way that had not been seen to such a degree since The Wizard of Oz. Beyond the importance of being the ‘first' in the long line of modern comic book films, it's also a joy to watch, full of wit, humour, spectacle and the inimitable talents of Christopher Reeve.

In a sense it was ‘dated' upon release in that Superman reflects an America so fantastically nostalgic that it could only be found in Norman Rockwell paintings, but the movie holds strong to its fundamentals, romance and heroics and pathetic mean-spirited bad guys and responsibility and, and and. These things don't age.

Beyond that, Superman was in fact made with an impressive degree of verisimilitude, considering the public attitude to comics at the time, leaving camp mostly aside without forgetting to have fun. It played up the caped crusader's Christian symbolism and cemented Superman not as just an adventurous fantasy but as a towering modern myth, worthy of escaping print and Saturday morning cartoons to achieve epic scope. Donner's vision foreshadowed our contemporary obsession with superheroes, the prevailing mythos of modern movie-going.

But he didn't forget to typify the prevailing genre blockbusters of his own tenure though. As kids ran wild in that most particular of the ‘80s subgenres (Stand By Me, The Sandlot, E.T: The Extra Terrestrial), Donner made the quintessential example: The Goonies. Whilst the movie has plenty of adventure, laughs, and general Spielbergian goodness (often being confused as one of Steven's movies), it's the chemistry of Donner's child cast, friends on the verge of being separated by foreclosure, that makes the fun-park style high-adventure work as well as it has for audiences over the years. (Quick side-note, how to tell if something was really a subgenre in the ‘80s or just a trope common to most film eras: Is it an element of Stranger Things? If so, yes.)

It's that same talent for molding a pitch perfect dynamic between cast members that allowed Donner to elevate the '90s action buddy comedy, Lethal Weapon. His most acerbic film to date, the classic cop caper paired an aging straight-faced Danny Glover with suicidal loose-canon Mel Gibson. If you were unaware of Richard Donner's career and aren't yet impressed by the revolving door of diverse Hollywood classics he made in just over 10 years, you may want to keep revolving. Shortly before Lethal Weapon he directed Ladyhawke, a medieval dark fantasy, sandwiched between two comedies, one with Richard Pryor, the other with Bill Murray, which doubles as a Christmas film. A Western, science fiction, political and action thrillers, Donner didn't afford himself the time to settle down. He was all ready to direct the upcoming Lethal Weapon, reuniting the original trilogy's stars.

Richard Donner was a generous showman, he left a legacy filled with convivial gems vital both to the formation of the modern movie landscape, and the lives of so many movie lovers. If you're in the mood to laugh, to be scared or riveted, mollified with nostalgia or swept up in adventure; you could do worse.

 
The Jackie Chan Movie for YOU


Jackie Chan's massive backlog is a great well to draw on for comfort movies. They're all easy to understand, quick, and impressive, if sometimes only for the one thing that binds them together: Jackie himself. A martial arts master with comic sensibilities for charm and timing akin to the great silent stars, whether he's caught in a subpar production or not, you can always count on Jackie to bring it. Before you switch on one of his films, you know he'll be the underdog, a little out of his depth, forced to think on his feet, often not sticking the landing, but in the end, he'll kick ass in an explosive finish. It's a formula that's never really gotten stale, thanks to Chan and his collaborators' ceaseless imagination, always finding ways to top themselves, but, due to this blanket quality, most people probably end up seeing whatever Jackie Chan movie they come across, channel-surfing or combing through streaming libraries, without the time to find the perfect one for them. So let's interrogate, what are you looking for?

Fights

To be clear, this is not a ranking or ‘top however many' list, but if such a list were written, Drunken Master 2: Legend of the Drunken Master would probably take the cake. The premise should tantalize: Jackie is the folk hero Wong Fei-hung, who's skills in martial arts increase the more booze he downs. The fight choreography here is some of the best ever put on screen, and despite the fact that Chan is performing in the same real life ‘drunken' style as in the first Drunken Master, mimicking the movements of the inebriated, returning to the technique 16 years later means that as a seasoned performer he lends his signature fluidity and acrobatics to action so versatile and fast-paced, there's hardly time to groan at how painful the last drop onto hot coals looked before you're laughing at Chan dragging his opponents along for a handstand walk to launch them into a wall.

Stunts

Drunken Master 2 was a return to traditional style martial arts films, but what Jackie became best known for were spectacular action juggernauts, pitting his brawling expertise against people with guns, or tanks, or... mostly guns, incorporating more of what would become the inspiration for parkour. In these films, though Jackie insured there was no shortage of good fights, the real draw became his incredible and innovative stunt work. This swatch of films produced the first of his blooper reels, original just chronicling the difficulty and danger of his escapades. The best compiling of such stunts is in Police Story 3: Supercop, a truly bonkers action epic, where Chan and friends leap from car to car, drive motorcycles on top of trains, and dangle high above Hong Kong from the ladder of a helicopter (sticking a death-defying landing), all of these things moving of course, and crucially, all of them 100% real. And if you're a fan of Jackie's, the prospect of co-star Michelle Yeoh on top form should double your interest.

Hollywood

Alright, maybe some of this is a little too far off the deep end. We've spelunked too far into the Chaniverse too fast; keeping track of who's saying what in the terrible dubs or if you need to know who anyone left over from previous installments is, is a little too much for a Sunday watch. You need a more traditional, straightforward, Hollywood-style action comedy to really chill out. Well, Jackie hasn't had the best of luck with American directors, they tend to squander his talents, but the first Rush Hour is still pretty great. If you've somehow missed it, the film pairs up a motormouth underachieving American showboat with a penchant for screwing up his cases (Chris Tucker) with an inarticulate overachieving humble top cop with an absolute command of martial arts (guess who?). Look no further than the end credits blooper reel to see where the focus of the film lies; not so many flubbed stunts, and plenty of flubbed lines and fun interactions between Chan and Tucker.

Serious

If it's the comedy you don't like, firstly: you soulless dreck, and secondly: we've got you covered. Crime Story features a pretty serious take on actual events surrounding of the 1990 kidnapping of a Chinese businessman, wherein Chan, and inspector suffering from PTSD must track down the kidnapped whilst a mole from within the force works to undermine him. It's tense, intense and strives to be a little more emotional than the rest of these.

Location, Location, Location

Maybe to you, Jackie brings the goods every time, and it's not so much what he does, as where and how he does it. Well, if you're looking for variety of setting, so that you don't sit through more than 20 minutes without a change of scenery, try First Strike (a.k.a. Police Story 4) . Watch Jackie on a globetrotting mission as he skis snowy slopes, hikes along horrifying high-rises, crashes a colossal carnival, shatters a shopping centre and swims with sharks.

Chopsocky

And finally; chopsocky are the kung-fu movies from the '60s and '70s stoned college kids put on for a laugh. They are the classic, no-budget, all fighting messes that rely completely on their performer's gifts. Terribly dubbed, crawling with training montages, snap-zooms and whipping wind sounds when fighters wave their arms, Snake in the Eagle's Shadow is *the* typical chopsocky movie, and a fine one at that. While the other fighters have comparatively minimal polish, this was Chan's first pivot towards what is his recognizably quirky style today, meaning that as when any of us discover something we're good at, he turns it up to a ridiculous degree. This is a silly movie.

Earlier in this article a comparison was drawn between Chan and the best of the silent clowns; he's equated with Buster Keaton particularly often. It's an apt comparison, especially on the level of their underdog personas as well as their meticulous and perfectly judged stunt-work. But, while Keaton's charm was in his trademark ‘stone face', Jackie is manifestly warm and welcoming, a gift to all of his films, and making him one of our most beloved and universal stars.

 
Year of the Prestige Musical


Blockbuster musicals have been few and far between for some time now. Excluding jukebox musicals, your Mamma Mias and Bohemian Rhapsodys, proper musicals appear rarely. More like one or two a year, but that's still a far cry from the hay-day of the hit-parade that was the musical in the '60s (Look at 1964: A Hard Day's Night, Muscle Beach Party, Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Viva Las Vegas, one of THREE Elvis Presley musicals that year). It seems audiences can only stomach so much whimsy every twelve months. Then, the question is, with 2021 packed a little tighter with high profile musicals than usual, due to coincidence and pandemic-related belated schedule changes in equal measure, who will be the one with all the figgy pudding? Will it be Annette, In The Heights, Tick… Tick…Boom, or West Side Story?

year of the prestige musical

Well, we can already count out one of our contestants, as In The Heights is in its second week of release, and things are looking downright disastrous. Despite a massive marketing push and a spirited reception from critics and the 7 or 8 people who've gone to see it in theatres, it looks like the Lin-Manuel Miranda penned Broadway adaptation did not have the appeal to draw audiences to theatres, opening in third place at an already weak box office and dropping 63% in its second week. This is a real shame, because, small releases notwithstanding, In The Heights is the best film in theatres right now and, small releases withstanding, the best film to see only in a theatre, on the big screen, out now.

The cast is a spotless collection of triple threat talents, an ensemble of characters so charismatic, captivating and kind that the conflict almost exclusively arises from characters having misunderstandings over wanting the best for each other, and while, yes, it has a strong streak of cheesiness to it, In The Heights is full of infectious joy and is very obviously a labor of love and pride from a supremely talented cast and crew. There is no time to touch on the virtuoso choreography and imaginative musical sequences, but it is important to note that unlike much of its kind these days, In The Heights is packed nearly end-to-end with MUSIC. Here's about 8 minutes from film.

Next, Annette. Let's not beat around the bush here, this one is not going to be the box office champion for reasons that should become clear further on, but there is a good chance it may end up being the best of these musicals. Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard star as a couple whose baby daughter has a “surprising gift”, in what in likelihood will be a pretty strange movie, directed by Leos Carax, a French director with a penchant for experimentation, and music from the nutjob absurdist pop duo Sparks (nutjob being a term of endearment around these parts). With a solid shot at being the most unpredictable entry here, it will be exciting to track the fallout from its premiere at the upcoming Cannes film festival, seeing as it's recently been picked up for distribution by Amazon Prime. We've had very limited look at Adam Driver's singing capabilities at the end of 2019's Marriage Story before, but to be honest, if Sparks are handling the soundtrack, we're in for a treat.

Whilst Lin-Manuel Miranda's In The Heights, a project he oversaw much of the story and song writing for, seems to be floundering, he's got another musical lined up later in the year. Tick… Tick… Boom! is his first directorial effort, adapting Jonathan Larson's (of Broadway favorite Rent fame) semi-autobiographical musical about a struggling playwright in 1990s New York, from an adapted screenplay by Steven Levenson. Suffice it to say, there are a few Tony's and Pulitzer prizes floating around this bunch, and that's before we get to the big draw; Andrew Garfield, who's been descending into ever more eccentric roles as of late. The teaser trailer dropped recently and there's more Garfield to go around than in your average funny pages. This is a Netflix release, so theatrical distribution will be sparse, but Tick… Tick… Boom! has a shot at drawing at least more eyeballs than Heights and Annette through the ease of streaming services. Despite this, Netflix will be showing the film in a limited theatrical run, meaning they're probably hopeful enough that it will garner some nominations to give it a qualifying run.

And finally, the most likely Academy hopeful, the remake of the unassailable classic West Side Story, a legacy title for both prestige musicals themselves, and its director; Steven Spielberg. One could scarcely attempt to write a more awards-baity sentence, but the question remains: Will it draw audiences? Well, there's a fair chance, the studio has been putting its weight behind the film in promotion for ages now, and with the return of Ansel Elgort, after a brief and let's say regrettable hiatus, it seems telegraphed that this will be the film that lands best. Spielberg's reverence for the material means the adaptation probably won't stray far from the original West Side Story, this being backed up by the trailer, which very obviously harkens solely to elements from the original musical.

So, all in all, the film that will make the biggest splash? Probably West Side Story, but then again, what's popular and what's not has been terribly unpredictable since theatres first reopened. One thing is for sure; if every musical to release this year bombs, as Disney rakes in what remains of the box office, we'll all end up worse off for it.

 
Get Spling's Insights for Your Creative Project


Spling has been a film critic since 2007. Over the years, he's reviewed a few thousand films here, via his Talking Movies show on Fine Music Radio, through his weekly 2Oceansvibe.com feature and on other outlets. Having over a decade of review experience, forcing him to see films from a viewer's perspective as well as trying to unpack the filmmaker's journey, he's developed some fine-tuned skills when it comes to analysis and comprehension.

His insightful reviews have led a number of directors to come to rely on his advice from the pitching process to first edit. Getting a film review and criticism of your work can be tough when you've dedicated so much time and effort into your production. The audience sees the final product and isn't privy to the hard work behind-the-scenes, the insurmountable problems, budget issues and even dealing with difficult cast or crew members. What ends up on screen is often a labour of love, exacerbated by things that couldn't be avoided.

Reviewmyscript.com

What's most frustrating for directors is to read a review with insights or information that could have improved their product when they still had a chance to make changes. Spling has been called in to consult on a number of projects. Offering his valuable insights before the screenplay was finalised or the final cut was locked and loaded, this has helped filmmakers polish their film, enrich their vision and reach the production's full potential.

Sometimes a small shift of perspective can make a huge difference. When you're so invested in a project, you can toil with it so much that you get too close to make objective decisions that can be best for the overall film. Getting an independent and trusted advisor to make suggestions or offer constructive criticism can unlock character or story problems. Having a film professional like Spling to provide these insights means you're essentially getting a review before critics have a chance to heap praise or shred your movie.

This is what launched reviewmyscript.com, a screenplay consultancy that provides screenwriters and filmmakers valuable insights and feedback from experienced film people. Having someone to identify key issues, discuss possible changes with and offer a level of guidance can turn average into good and good into great.

Reviewmyscript.com grapples with the screenwriter's journey at any stage of development. Reading the screenplay as if watching the production, you can get a review of your screenplay as if it was a full-fledged production. This can prove to be invaluable in the pitching process, being able to reference a review and possibly help financiers get a proper handle on what you're actually asking them to create.

Besides a review, we can help prepare marketing materials to combine with your pitch, offer consultation services, do script walk discussions over a coffee, perform a Three Wells analysis, create a radio play version of your screenplay or meet for more in-depth analysis. Reviewmyscript.com may be a small consultancy but this means we can offer personal service. The company has only been around for 2 years but has already advised on a film that was submitted for selection in 'Best International Feature' category of the Academy Awards.

While Spling's focus and expertise is in film, the medium is comprised of many different disciplines. Spling has advertising industry experience and has advised on an array of copy and creative media projects. Whether you're writing a novel, preparing to shoot a music video or crafting a media campaign... why not get in touch to see how Spling can help you reach your full potential.

 
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