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HOLLYWOOD NOTES JUNE 2005 – MUSICALS, MURDERS AND MIAMI VICE

Nick Roddick does the international rounds of some of the new films being made, from the musical version of Rent to the story of the so called Blue Dahlia murder and a movie version of Miami Vice, starring Chinese superdoll, Gong Li.

RENT IS DUE REAL SOON 
Director Chris Columbus may have handed over the Harry Potter reins to a series of successors - Alfonso Cuarón for The Prisoner of Azkaban; Mike Newell for The Goblet of Fire, which is due out in November; and David Yates for the fifth (and possibly last) in the series, The Order of the Phoenix, scheduled to hit our screens in June 2007 - but he hasn’t quite hung up his directing wand. In fact, he has just started work on the much-discussed movie version of the Broadway musical, Rent, which has begun filming in New York and San Francisco.

Columbus - who began his Hollywood career as a writer, penning the two Gremlins movies, then made his name as a director with the first two Home Alone films and stuck with comedy until he checked in to Hogwarts - has spent most of the post-Potter period producing, a role he retains for the remaining Potter movies as well. Rent not only marks his first directing stint since Chamber of Secrets: it will also be his debut musical.

This is probably going to be a somewhat different approach to the late Jonathan Larson’s rock musical (which is based - although I saw it on stage without realising this - on Puccini’s La Bohème) than the one that might have been taken by the last director to have his name attached to a film version of Rent: Spike Lee. This would have been a Miramax project, going into production as the final touches were being put to Miramax’s first musical, Chicago. But the world - or at any rate Hollywood - is a different place these days, and the new version is being made at Joe Roth’s Revolution Studios, with Columbia due to release the completed film in time for Thanksgiving this year.

That’s right, this year - which doesn’t give Columbus much time to put the movie together, since shooting didn’t start until March. One thing that should keep production on track, though, is that the cinema version of Rent features many of those who starred in the original Broadway production nine years ago, including Taye Diggs - the only cast member to have gone on to Hollywood stardom - as Bennie. Others include Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Jesse L Martin, Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp. Joining the cast from the Hollywood side of things is Rosario Dawson (The 25th Hour, Shattered Glass) as Mimi Marquez.

MURDER (FAR) EAST OF LA 

There have been various books about the murder of Beth Short, a Hollywood wannabe whose naked body was discovered, cut in half and drained of blood, in the Crenshaw district of LA early on the morning of January 15, 1947. At least one of those books was likely to be filmed, suggested Variety a couple of years ago, because a Hollywood bidding war was going on.

Well, peace must have been declared, since none of the books has (so far) been made into a film. But shooting has started on a movie version of the most famous fictionalised account of Short’s murder: James Ellroy’s The Blue Dahlia. Ellroy had a particular interest in the story, since his own mother was murdered around the same time, possibly by the same person who killed Short.

The new film is recreating forties Los Angeles in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, after Berlin’s Babelsberg and Rome’s Cinecittà - not to mention Los Angeles itself - proved too expensive. Josh Hartnett plays Bucky, an LA cop investigating the murder who comes to realise that his girlfriend Kay (Scarlett Johansson), is somehow connected to the case. Brian de Palma is directing and shooting began at the end of March.

Hartnett, incidentally, has just finished Lucky Number Slevin for director Paul McGuigan (with whom he also did Wicker Park) and is attached to the film version of Hunter S Thompson’s The Rum Diaries, with Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro and Nick Nolte.

MANN GETS HIS GONG 
She may long have been one of the faces of L’Oréal. But Gong Li, the first Chinese actress to gain international star status, has been edged somewhat out of the limelight recently by athletic newcomer Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The House of Flying Daggers), who has just completed playing the title character in Memoirs of a Geisha (no matter that the geisha in question is Japanese and Zhang is from Beijing).

Gong is actually in that movie, too, playing the head geisha, Hatsumomo, who is insanely jealous of Chiyo, Zhang’s character. But the older actress (she is now a flawless 40) will be moving onto something much more mainstream - and much more American - for her next film: the big-screen version of Michael Mann’s cult eighties TV series, Miami Vice, which he will direct for Universal, from a screenplay by Anthony Yerkovich, who created the original series.

In point of fact, Vice is only Gong’s second US movie, and she plays the Chinese-Cuban wife of a crime syndicate boss, whose activities attract the attention of detectives Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Tubbs (Jamie Foxx). The film is currently in pre-production but already has its release date set: July 28, 2006. It’ll be Mann’s second film in a row with Foxx, whose performance in Collateral won him an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor. Any disappointment he may have felt at not winning will, however, have been at least partly offset by the fact that he was named Best Actor for Ray. Gong, meanwhile, was on screens around the world at the end of last year in Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046, and may also, if you’re very lucky, be seen in Wong’s deliciously stylish contribution to the otherwise flaccid three-parter, Eros.

The original stars of the TV Vice followed somewhat different career paths after the series finally went off air in 1989. Don Johnson (Crockett) starred in a few disappointing movies, then re-emerged stylishly in TV series Nash Bridges. Philip Michael Thomas (Tubbs), on the other hand, never really escaped the small screen, and even there failed to get anywhere near the success of Vice. He may currently be heard as the voice of Lance Vance in one of the Grand Theft Auto games.

SNOW BUSINESS 
Canada’s winter landscapes play a major role in two films which should just about be wrapping. The first, which stars Alan Rickman, Sigourney Weaver and Carrie-Anne Moss, is called Snow Cake and is about a tight-lipped Englishman (Rickman) who ends up transforming - and being transformed by - the small Northern Ontario town of Wawa. He ends up there after the young hitchhiker to whom he has given a ride dies in an accident. Weaver plays the girl’s mother and Moss an independently minded neighbour.

The film, which is a co-production between Canada’s Rhombus Media and the UK’s Revolution Films, is directed by Marc Evans, whose previous movies - Resurrection Man, My Little Eye and Trauma - have been a lot less gentle in tone.

A good deal further north, meanwhile, Igloolik Isuma Productions, the makers of that surprise hit Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner - which won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes in 2001 - are nearing completion on their follow-up film, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen. The film is set in the twenties of the last century, and is about the struggle of the Inuit people and their last great shaman against the encroachments of civilisation. The process is seen through the eyes of a party of Danish ethnographers led by the title character. Most of the cast is made up of people from the community of Igloolik, although some actors and crew members - and a fair chunk of the money - come from Denmark, with Greenland (whose Ministry of Culture is also a contributor) likewise involved.

Meanwhile, Revolution Films’ most famous partner, Michael Winterbottom, has just completed production on A Cock and Bull Story, his adaptation of Laurence Stern’s mould-breaking 18th-century novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, starring Steve Coogan, Stephen Fry and Jeremy Northam.

Published 16/6/2005

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