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What it takes to morph from TV series to film

Turning a popular television series into a successful movie isn't as easy as it looks. For every The Fugitive, there's a Car 54 Where Are You? Getting the right tone is crucial.

Two examples arrived this week on Blu-ray: Wild Wild West (1999) and Maverick (1994). The second performed better at the box office than the first, but, in the spirit of contrariness, I'll mount a defence of director Barry Sonnenfeld's version of what, on TV from 1965 to 1969, was called The Wild, Wild West.

Sonnenfeld shook things up. Where James West had been white (Robert Conrad) in the TV western, the movie role went to Will Smith, so West was now a black U.S. Army special officer in 1869, scant years after the Civil War. On a commentary track, Sonnenfeld (who had directed Smith in Men in Black) says he thought "it would be a hip, smart, interesting thing to do."

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So, in a scene with the evil genius Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh affecting a broad southern accent), we get a dogged exchange of double entendres about West's race and Loveless's lack of legs (a computer-generated effect). Smith and Branagh earned their money that day.

In the movie's most ridiculous scene, Smith disguises himself as a veiled exotic dancer to get close to Loveless. There's no chance he could have pulled that off, even in a fantasy. Sonnenfeld says co-producer Jon Peters simply wanted Smith to wear a dress, just as he wanted co-star Kevin Kline, as West's sidekick Artemus Gordon, to wear one in an earlier scene (he did). "It sort of frightens me a little bit how much Jon wants to see men in dresses, but that's his taste." Power trumps sense.

Yet the good outweighs the bad. Smith, Kline and Branagh pitch their performances perfectly to a confection like this. The fight scenes and computer effects don't swamp the quieter moments. The production design makes even an 80-foot, steam-powered tarantula believable. Salma Hayek looks fetching, even if she has little to do.

And, crucially, the tone is right. The characters get into increasingly bizarre scrapes from which they extricate themselves by glibness or spontaneous invention, and the villain smiles as he plots to take over the world.

Wild Wild West had company. A year earlier, The Avengers had channelled the spirit of the 1960s series. Unfortunately, co-stars Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman had no chemistry. A year later, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle would pull off an entertaining live-action homage to the comic anarchy of the animated series, in spite of the weakness of the fun-deficient FBI agent played by Piper Perabo.

That film was directed by Des McAnuff, in the news lately for his work with Christopher Plummer at Stratford and his direction of the musical Jersey Boys. He did the moose and squirrel proud. And he got Robert De Niro, as Fearless Leader, to parody his "You talkin' to me?" speech from Taxi Driver. ("I had a good time in Rocky and Bullwinkle," De Niro said in 2007.) Well done, sir.

Maverick took its cue from the 1957-62 series starring James Garner as gambler Bret Maverick, a role assumed in the film by Mel Gibson. The show was heavy on charm and light on plot, as screenwriter William Goldman discovered after signing on to write the movie. He thought he could crib his story from one of the episodes. "There was almost no plot at all," he later wrote. "I essentially had to write, sob, another original."

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What makes Maverick special now is its vision of those sunny days before Gibson was felled by alcohol-fuelled rants and slurs. Jodie Foster, who has remained loyal to Gibson and was his director and co-star in The Beaver, plays a card sharp in Maverick, a part she landed after Meg Ryan dropped out.

She glows. He grins. Their romantic chemistry is effortless. Happier times.


Public Speaking (2011)

Small wonder Martin Scorsese directed this invigorating made-for-HBO special about writer-performer Fran Lebowitz. He finally found someone who speaks as quickly as he does. Whether she's riffing on topics in a restaurant booth or fielding questions on stage, she's an aphorism machine, a witty contrarian and someone who just loves talking. On books: Too many are being written, and they're terrible, and "it's because you have been taught to have self-esteem. And apparently you have so much self-esteem that you think: 'You know what? I shouldn't keep these thoughts to myself. I should share them with the world.'"

All Good Things (2010)

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This is where home video has an edge. The drama is based on the life of Robert Durst, renamed David Marks for the movie and played by Ryan Gosling. Marks, who is under the thumb of an overbearing, wealthy father (Frank Langella), falls for Katie (Kirsten Dunst). After their love crumbles, she disappears. Marks is suspected of involvement, but is never charged. He is charged with a later killing but convicted only of dismembering the body. And the DVD edge? A feature-length commentary by director Andrew Jarecki and the real Durst. Expect shivers.

Gnomeo & Juliet (2011)

Reimagining Romeo and Juliet with computer-animated garden gnomes isn't as limiting as it might seem, since these feuding red and blue gnomes can perform pretty well any improbable feat without shattering. Executive producer Elton John supplies a few songs. Expect less tragedy than in the Bard's original.

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