Movie Review ~ Clapboard Jungle: Surviving the Independent Film Business


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 Fan (1981)


The Facts:

Synopsis: An obsessive fan of actress Sally Ross strikes out at her and her loved ones when his fan letters are rejected.

Stars: Lauren Bacall, James Garner, Maureen Stapleton, Hector Elizondo, Michael Biehn, Anna Maria Horsford

Director: Ed Bianchi

Rated: R

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: I don’t think the words ‘tacky’ and ‘Lauren Bacall’ have ever been used in the same sentence…until now. Yes, the legendary star really slummed it up with this misguided effort from 1981 that unfortunately was released several weeks after the murder of John Lennon outside of his apartment building in New York.  Also set in the Big Apple, The Fan suffered not only from bad timing but a general lack of good taste, turning what Bacall thought would be a stylish thriller into a gruesome slasher film.

So why does it pop up in my 31 Days to Scare?  Well, because for all of its wrong-headedness it has some decent passages and winds up being a helluva good showcase for Bacall (Murder on the Orient Express).  The luminous screen siren doesn’t just elevate the screen adaptation of Bob Randall’s novel, she sets a fuse under it and lets it rocket up to the heavens.  It’s total trash but in the hands of its leading lady it’s classy trash.

Sally Ross has a fan and he’s different than the rest.  Over a prolonged credit sequence ominously scored by Pino Donaggio (Carrie) that feels like director Ed Bianchi was auditioning to direct the opening of Masterpiece Theater, Douglas (Michael Biehn, The Abyss) narrates his letter to Sally as he types.  He’s her biggest fan but wants nothing from her…except for a new picture autographed to him.  When he feels like Sally’s secretary (Maureen Stapleton, Heartburn) isn’t giving him the attention he deserves by forwarding his correspondence to his admired star, he becomes increasingly unhinged.  If she won’t respond to his letters, maybe she’ll respond to his violent actions against her friends and co-workers on the new Broadway musical she’s rehearsing.

Working with a straight razor, Douglas slices his way through a lot of people until setting his sights on the star herself.  There’s some pretty ghastly violence toward women and a stomach turning killing of a gay man Biehn picks up as part of his plan, all apparently added without Bacall’s knowledge. Whatever tension could have been built is dried up by the time the finale rolls around, with Bacall and Biehn acting out a scene that feels inspired by Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in a darkened theater.

Bacall makes mincemeat out of anyone that dares to share the frame with her.  Second billed James Garner (Maverick) shows up in a glorified cameo as her ex-husband that still has feelings for her and Hector Elizondo (Pretty Woman) is the policeman assigned to her case that screenwriters Priscilla Chapman and John Hartwell awkwardly try to make a romantic rival for Garner’s attentions.  Biehn was criticized for being less than threatening but his good looks and internal rage ready to boil over actually works well for his psycho patron.

The scariest thing about the movie are the musical numbers staged by Arlene Phillips with music by Oscar-winner Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics from Tim Rice.  Bacall had triumphed on Broadway ten years earlier with Applause, a musical version of All About Eve and was currently finishing up a run in Woman of the Year in NYC so she’s more than comfortable with the singing (even though you may not be) but man, is this music bad.  The climax of the movie comes when Bacall warbles Hamlisch and Rice’s ‘Hearts, Not Diamonds’ to an opening night crowd while her biggest fan (arriving late…why would he miss the first act?) stalks her from the audience.  The music, the dancing, the singing, the costumes, the set…it’s surreally terrible.

The memory we’re left with is Bacall, who wouldn’t appear in another movie for almost a decade after The Fan bombed at the box office and was trounced by critics. Essentially playing a version of herself, it was a rare chance to see an honest to goodness movie star that went to Broadway playing an honest to goodness movie star on Broadway.  Wisely not letting Stapleton steal too much screen time from her (Stapleton would win an Oscar for Reds the same year), Bacall owns the film and unfortunately shouldered the blame for its failure.

See The Fan for her performance but remember you were warned.