Thursday, December 2, 2010

Bubblegum Bang For Your Buck - 10 Big Budget Pop Art Adaptations

Last week, around a Thanksgiving dinner that grew more and more tense by the moment, I was engaged in some seriously heated conversation with my friend's new boyfriend's brother. Let's just called him Jack for short. So Jack and I were destined to meet according to my friend. Seems Jack is a big movie nerd, like yours truly. The night got off to a pretty good start, talking about the films of Whit Stilman, why he thinks they're superior to the work of Wes Anderson (a target favored even more passionately by his brother), the things that got us into cinema, blah, blah, blah. Jack is pretty fidgety, but seems in general to be pretty knowledgable and affable. Then things take a turn.

Somehow, I don't know at what point, but the topics become much more heated, people begin to get into the kind of unforgivable hyperbole that always makes me a little uneasy, and I immediately realize that what started as a friendly conversation between all parties has turned into an us vs. them scenario. Some of these things seem just slightly ridiculous. Jack believes David Lynch is an underrated director. Okay. This dude must not know a lot of other film nerds. Fine. Jack says he doesn't think any female directors have made any meaningful films. Okay, now we're getting into crazy town territory, but he later retracted that statement and started making amendments to his thesis. Whatever. This sounds like a lot of the same male-dominated, insular boy's club mentality about what makes for great art, but I'm sure it won't be the last time I hear it.

Then it all bottoms out. Through a very roundabout way, mostly stemming from the fact that both brothers hate Donnie Darko for reasons I just cannot reconcile, we get to the topic of Drew Barrymore. I hate having to stick up for her. She gets way too much shit to start with, but I had also just gone through having to hear this guy berate women's role in films already, so I had to come out guns blazing. Long story short (too late), my defnese of Charlie's Angels as a masterpiece of pop art cinema came to the forefront, for which I was immediatelty lashed by all around, even my friends who like the movie. I had to put it all out there and, as can happen when you drop your guard like that, I was punished for doing so. I even brought up other films that I thought matched that film's pop art impact, most of which they agree were worthy of their admiration, but Charlie's Angels was thrown under the bus time and again.

Thinking about this brought me back to another topic I had recently gotten into over at Badass Digest, one that won me a copy of the new Scott Pilgrim Blu-Ray (yay for me!). The topic was mainly about what you did to get people to watch Scott Pilgrim, but also films you feel like you've had to defend or drag people kicking and screaming to. Scott Pilgrim definitely felt that way for some, but it just reminded me of quite a few films I liked, all films that I think fall into the pop art category, that most people just can't get into for one reason or another. So, that idea, combined with the CA debate, got me thinking about films that I love, that I think are pinnacles of pop art, most of which are adaptations of some kind, and that I'll probably go to my grave fighting for. Here it goes, starting with two obvious, aforementioned titles:

Charlie's Angels - Say what you will about most TV-to-movie adaptations, including this film's tired, bloated sequel, but this is the one time (with the exception of The Fugitive, which took its adaptation as serious as cancer) that a film adaptation of a TV show really nailed a tone that was as celebratory as it it was mocking of the source material. Playful, winking and thrilling, the cast was perfect, McG's wild music video-style staging was blingy and apropos for the film's action set-pieces, and the art design was the right blend of gaudy and girl-power. In short, it gets its own joke and that makes all the difference. For proof, look no further than the fun both Sam Rockwell and Crispin Glover are having in this film.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World - Itself an adaptation of a comic book that flaunted pop art style, Edgar Wright's movie heightens the original comic's vision with Wright's own stream-of-consciousness, go-for-broke storytelling style. Both the film and the comic use in-world references to pop culture as a way to discuss how pop culture unites us and defines us in an age when all we really have is movies, music, comics, video games, etc. It is a love story about growing up that is told structurally in the style of the comics and video games that rule the lives of the characters at the heart of the film. The best movie of 2010.

Batman: The Movie (1966) - The granddaddy of all the pop art movies. While most people laugh at this flick now as some kind of idiotic relic of a time when people didn't get how "serious" comic books were, this film is actuality a brilliant blend of absurdist, Dadaist humor and surreal, colorful design. Again the jokes are right there, clearly the intention on the part of the filmatists from the word go. There isn't a better film that could be a kid's gateway drug to the world of Warhol and pop art.

Barbarella / Danger: Diabolik / Flash Gordon - The holy triumvirate of pop art adaptations of comic books and serials produced by the mighty Dino De Laurentiis. As I stated in my memorial piece earlier last month, De Laurentiis will be remembered most for his audacious and ambitious spectacles, something that was seemingly verboten for years, but which has now become the norm. Likewise, before American producers would start throwing budget at name directors, De Laurentiis banked his risky adpatations on directors like Bava, Vadim and Hodges, all directors with idiosyncratic styles that were going to leave their own stamps on the projects. We're all the better for it; the worlds these directors created are some of the most vibrant and unforgettable in the history of cinema.

The Boyfriend - Almost all of Ken Russell's films can be looked at as brilliant and audacious fusions of low and high culture. If you want to see a truly garish, over the top horror film, look no further than his adaptation of Lair of the White Worm. But before he got into his perverse streak of 80s films, Russell would give UK model Twiggy her starring debut in this satirical, stylized version of Sandy Wilson's Broadway classic. Though many would argue that Tommy and Lisztomania are the ultimate in Russell's pop-art musicals it all starts here.

Creepshow / Crank - Okay both of these are cheats, in a manner of speaking. Neither of them are necessarily big-budget and they aren't adpatations of other pieces of art or literature. However, both of them were well-financed films that have taken a very specific medium (EC horror comics in Creepshow, video games in Crank) and tried to make films that are both in the vein of those previous universes, while also commenting on the structure and style of said universes. In Creepshow, Romero and King have created the ultimate EC comics movie, while foregoing any direct story lifting or title manipulation. In essence, it is an EC comic come to life. Crank does the same thing for the recent spate of uber-violent video games, a la Grand Theft Auto. By skipping a literal adaptation of GTA, Neveldine/Taylor are allowed to create a world that is evocative of the experience of playing a game in that series, without suffering the anemic staging and pacing of a traditional video game.

Speed Racer - I'm closing out with another film of whose admmiration is guaranteed to get me forty lashes of a wet noodle. Like Charlie's Angels, Speed Racer is a big, bold cartoon of a movie made by filmatists that fanboys tend to hate. Unlike CA, Speed Racer was a gigantic flop. It was released in the summer of 2008, going up against films like Iron Man and The Drak Knight, while also forced to endure the repercussion of the unfortunete (and rather unnecessary) Matrix trilogy backlash. which is too bad, becuase I think it is still my summer movie of 2008. While I loved TDK and IM, neither one could hold a candle to the exhilirating universe the Wachowski thrust you into in SR. Honestly, that last race's climax is transcendental, utilizing the right combination of visual, music, sound and performance to give you a first person view of how Speed views the race track when he goes beyond being just another driver and becomes something otherworldly. One of the best experiences I've ever had in a theater.


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