Movie Review ~ Clapboard Jungle: Surviving the Independent Film Business

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The Facts:  

Synopsis: Following five years in the life and career of an independent filmmaker, supported by dozens of interviews, posing one question: how does an indie filmmaker survive in the current film business? 

Stars:  Justin McConnell, Tim League, Guillermo del Toro, Michael Biehn, Jovanka Vuckovic, Sid Haig, Paul Schrader, Tom Savini, George A. Romero, Larry Fessenden, Lloyd Kaufman, Heather Buckley, Uwe Boll, Todd Brown, Jennifer Blanc, Zack Bernbaum, Justin Benson, Yazid Benfeghoul, Charles Band, Patricia Chica, Jessica Cameron, Larry Cohen, Dean Cundey, Elijah Drenner, John Fantasia, Avi Federgreen, Mitch Davis 

Director: Justin McConnell 

Rated: NR 

Running Length: 98 minutes 

TMMM Score: (5/10) 

Review:  Pulling back the curtain on the perils of the movie business isn’t anything new.  It’s been done in feature films such as The Player from 1992, Robert Altman’s scathing analysis of Hollywood wheeling and dealing and in real life tales of the struggle to get a production off the ground like 1999’s classic American Movie.  While most making-of docs included in the extras on your DVD/BluRay will detail how the film you’re watching was made, there’s still more to the whole process before the cameras roll that remains a fascinating (for the viewer) and frustrating (for the filmmaker) journey.  If you have the right subject, taking this trip is a no-brainer because you have someone to root for and would want to see get their golden ticket to success at the end.  Get saddled up on the wrong horse and you’ll become aware pretty quickly why they may be an undiscovered talent. 

For a filmmaker like Canadian Justin McConnell, there’s a bit of a dilemma. He’s both the director and subject of Clapboard Jungle: Surviving the Independent Film Business.  His IMDb credits read like a padded self-curated list of anytime his name has appeared associated with a film (two of this Thanks credits are for Indiegogo contributions) and most of his work has been as a cinematographer of unseen/little-seen short films and packaged interviews included as special features on home media releases.  The films he has spearheaded have made little waves, with the online reviews suggesting it’s more than the low budget that has sunk these small ships.  Self-producing a number of titles and always with an array of irons in the fire, McConnell, like many fledgling filmmakers, has ambitions of being in a higher class of directors and thinks opportunity is the only thing keeping him from getting there. 

What a viewer watching Clapboard Jungle gathers after watching the film which follows McConnell over five years is that while opportunity might play a factor some of the time, it’s McConnell’s projects themselves that are holding him back.  That and the impression given off from clips we’re shown that his work isn’t polished enough to inspire a producer to take a chance on him.  Listening in on several pitch meetings from McConnell, even as a dedicated horror fan I strained not only to follow his concept but muster much enthusiasm for seeing the finished product.  If an ordinary viewer was getting that vibe, what must a financier with deep (or even half full) pockets think?   

There’s something to be said for gumption though, and for all the apparent lack of self-reflection McConnell shows at times, you have to give it to the guy for pressing on even when thrown countless roadblocks on the way to securing the monies to make his movie.  Just when he thinks he’s got the green light, the tide changes and he’s back to square one.  Attending numerous networking events and festivals, attempting different approaches, McConnell is up for most anything to get himself in front of the right people.  This works up to a point, but you have to wonder if McConnell’s bullish attitude toward criticism doesn’t play a factor in some of this lack of forward momentum.  It’s more than hinted by his parents of all people that he takes feedback quite badly and instead of exploring that area further to dissect his limitations we’re plunged right back into the same rinse and repeat cycle of the festival networking circuit. 

Where the film finds a wealth of value are the numerous interviews McConnell has conducted with other indie filmmakers, producers, actors, and distributors that are either one step removed from where he is or far advanced in their career and willing to sit down with an up and comer.  At times, the advice given in the interviews seems to contradict with how McConnell is trying to get ahead and it’s never clear if this is meant show some dark irony or not.  If the documentary was helmed by an outsider that could be objective, I would say yes but with McConnell as director he never makes a definitive stance if he’s trying to find humor in the situation or not.  Several of the subjects even boil McConnell’s main problem down perfectly without him even knowing it.  Legendary low-budget schlock-meister Charles Band points out that anyone can point and shoot a film, copy it onto hundreds of discs, design a great cover, and have it distributed it to the masses.  People still need to see the film and like it, though.  That’s where McConnell still hasn’t found the right path yet – creating a high-quality product. 

Including a section that discusses critics and how much or little their opinions should be valued is a tricky wire to walk, especially as you prepare to release your film to a wider audience.  It’s just another way that McConnell doesn’t wind up being that compelling of a subject to watch during Clapboard Jungle’s span of time.  At one point near the conclusion, he says “You may hate everything I do but it doesn’t really matter, because I’m doing it.”  I get what he’s saying because we all know you can’t please everyone but on the other hand you don’t instantly earn the credit just by picking up a camera and doing the work.  That’s why the business is hard, why films take forever to develop, why certain people rise to the top, and others flounder. It is indeed a jungle out there so it’s best to come prepared for whatever is thrown your way and be ready to adapt.    

 

Clapboard Jungle is available to rent On Demand or you can purchase a copy of the BluRay at ArrowVideo.

The BluRay is packed with a wealth of extras, including numerous short films from McConnell, commentary tracks, and FIVE HOURS of extended interviews with the various artists McConnell met with, a number of whom didn’t appear in the final film.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Stuff

The Facts:

Synopsis: A delicious mysterious goo that oozes from the Earth is marketed as the newest dessert sensation. But the sugary treat rots more than teeth when zombie-like snackers begin infesting the world.

Stars: Michael Moriarty, Andrea Marcovicci, Garrett Morris, Paul Sorvino, Scott Bloom, Danny Aiello

Director: Larry Cohen

Rated: R

Running Length: 86 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: When schlock director Larry Cohen passed away in March of 2019, he left behind a legacy of campy horror films that ran the gamut in tone and style.  He was comfortable with tightly paced Hollywood fare like Cellular and Phone Booth, likely because he was used to filming quick and fast having cut his teeth in low-budget horror films It’s Alive and God Told Me To.  Though his movies were amusing in a throwback sort of way (I dare you not to watch the ‘80s monster movie Q: The Winged Serpent and not have just a little bit of fun) they often were one joke/concepts that didn’t always have a resolution to their rather fantastical set-ups.  Good starts, bad endings.

Never is that more apparent than in The Stuff, Cohen’s 1985 sci-fi horror satire about a tasty substance that becomes everyone’s favorite snack.  Obviously commenting on the yogurt craze that was happening around that period of time, Cohen spends the first half hour or so of the film nicely structuring a framework of a society eager to jump on the bandwagon of the latest craze.  Marketed as The Stuff, every supermarket has a healthy stock and nearly all American households have one or more cartons in their refrigerators waiting to be consumed.  The advertising parodies Cohen has dreamed up are a riot, with commercials and jingles for The Stuff providing some decent laughs in their ridiculous earnestness.

There’s something bad about The Stuff, though, and we know it early on.  Suburban boy Jason (Scott Bloom) wakes in the middle of the night looking for a midnight treat and when he opens the fridge he sees The Stuff moving…crawling back into its carton.  His parents and brother don’t believe him, likely because they have been eating The Stuff on the regular and soon are trying to get him to eat it as well.  At the same time, a private investigator (Michael Moriarty) is hired by a rival corporation interested in stealing The Stuff’s formula and he begins to suspect the food may not exactly have the full support of the FDA.  Teaming up with an ad exec (Andrea Marcovicci) who had been working on The Stuff’s campaign, the investigator uncovers more than he bargained for and is soon on the run with Jason joining their ranks.  Can they stop the spread of The Stuff?

Cohen wastes no time diving headfirst into the action.  Literally, within the first moments of the film we see the goo bubbling out of the ground where an old man finds it, samples it, and thinks it could be something the entire world would want.  This all in the span of, oh, twenty seconds.  The first half of the movie is so front loaded with information and action that Cohen runs of interesting developments before the film has reached the sixty-minute mark.  That’s when he brings in Paul Sorvino (The Gambler) who has been waiting in the wings and, let me tell you, he is hungry to nosh on some scenery.  Sorvino’s military figure battling The Stuff like he’s going to war with the communists is a tired old cliché and only shows you how little the finale was truly thought out.

The concept of The Stuff is intriguing but Cohen did not fill the rest of the movie with anyone we remotely want to root for.  As Jason, Bloom is a total dud lacking conviction in any of his line readings and Marcovicci might have made for an interesting female lead playing a powerful businesswoman of the ‘80s…if Cohen didn’t have her jump into bed with Moriarty immediately when she thought he was a headhunter for another account she wanted.  As for Moriarty, he’s the lead and is truly, truly, atrocious.  A longtime Cohen favorite, Moriarty is going for some slick kind of character with, I’m guessing from his accent, some kind of bayou roots but winds up giving a bad performance for the history books.  Sporting a hideous toupee and laughing at the material almost as much as the audience is laughing at how bad he is in the movie, Moriarty pretty much ruins the movie.

When The Stuff starts to take on a life of its own, there are some decent special effects but it too often reminded me of The Blob (the original and the fun ‘80s remake), reminding me it had been a while since I’d fired one of those films up.  When you spend more time thinking of when you can start another movie you know the one you’re watching isn’t filling you up.  The Stuff isn’t a feast, just an interesting first taste.

31 Days to Scare ~ Body Snatchers (1993)

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tumblr_l4pdcgklxb1qc8b0ao1_540The Facts:

Synopsis: A teenage girl and her father discover alien clones are replacing humans on a remote U.S. military base in Alabama.

Stars: Gabrielle Anwar, Meg Tilly, Forest Whitaker, Terry Kinney, Billy Wirth, R. Lee Ermey

Director: Abel Ferrara

Rated: R

Running Length: 87

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Jack Finney’s 1955 novel, The Body Snatchers had already made it to the screen twice before.  The original 1956 version is a certified classic and, though some may say otherwise, so was its 1978 remake.  Both films managed to be timely and seemed to have a reasonable justification for existing.  In 1993, yet another take on the story was brought to the screen and while the results aren’t totally at the level of its two previous incarnations, there are a few memorable moments to keep this one apart from other retooling’s of sacred material.

To start off with, Body Snatchers had a director famous for his controversial independent features.  Abel Ferrara was hot off of Bad Lieutenant and King of New York when he signed up for this far more commercial endeavor.  Aided by a script from no less than 5 contributors, the action is moved from the small town of the original and the swinging ‘70s setting of the first remake to a military base where Steve Malone (Terry Kinney, Promised Land) has moved his family.  Stepmom Carol (Meg Tilly, The Big Chill, Psycho II) is still adjusting as the new member of the Malone tribe and isn’t helped much by Steve’s daughter Marti (Gabrielle Anwar).

Marti in particular has it out for Carol and being uprooted from her previous life is, understandably, causing the teen to be quite the rebellious hellion.  Though Marti makes fast friends on the base, her half-brother Andy (Reilly Murphy) has a rougher go of it.  When he runs way, Marti meets cute helicopter pilot Tim (Billy Wirth, The Lost Boys) and proceeds in making goo-goo eyes at him.  All is not all well, though, and the Malone’s aren’t even there a fortnight when Marti stumbles across a plot involving mysterious pods and a possible alien conspiracy.

Fans of the previous films may recoil at this horror flick aimed squarely at teenagers but in all honesty it works better than it should.  At a trim 87 minutes, it feels like it suffered some major studio edits after the fact but I’ve a feeling it was for the best.  Ferrara is remarkably restrained here, only letting loose during the finale and building up some solid unease for the first 2/3 of the film.  The cast also makes a good impression with Tilly in particular delivering memorably in one dynamite scene.

Yet another remake (The Invasion) was released in 2007 starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig but even that star wattage couldn’t salvage what turned into an incoherent mess.  If anything, it cemented the law of diminishing returns where these pod people pics were concerned.