August 30, 2013

Grappling with the Remake

Back in 2007, when this blog wasn’t yet a blog, but just a small mailing list of friends I would occasionally pester with movie-themed rants or punishingly detailed Oscar commentary, I vented a frustration about Hollywood’s unending parade of remakes. It’s a common enough complaint among movie geeks, to the point that ranting about it has grown a tad boring. Well…get ready to be bored.

That 2007 piece, which was eventually transferred to this blog for the reading pleasure of future generations, was inspired by news that John Carpenter’s Escape from New York was about to go under the remake knife. I had little good to say about the man sloppily wielding the blade: producer Neal Moritz, a stain on the landscape of contemporary cinema. Six years later, the remake train rolls ever on, and although Moritz’s planned Escape from New York hackjob never came to pass, the 1981 cult classic was on Hollywood’s lips again earlier this year, newly targeted for remaking…or to use a term that has gained credence since my initial piece, rebooting. Well, I’ve wanted to reboot this topic for a while, and recently there was a piece of news that prompted me to get on with it. But I’ll come back to that.

I concede that I have a knee-jerk reaction every time I hear about the latest remake plan, regardless of whether I’ve even seen the original film or have any affection for it. My immediate response is to get annoyed and defensive, bemoan Hollywood’s lack of originality, blah blah blah. But if I move past that initial irritation, I would admit a few truths. First, remakes — like sequels, comic books, popular novels, TV shows, etc. — enable studios to traffic in recognizable properties that have built-in fan bases. Hollywood is increasingly wary of rolling the dice on original ideas, especially big budget original ideas like Pacific Rim or Elysium, so with each passing year the studios cling more desperately to known quantities that feel safe and seem more likely to pay off. I’m not saying I like it, but that’s the reality of the business, and it’s a reality that is entirely indifferent to how people like me feel about it. Second, each project should be considered on its own merits. Hating the idea on principle doesn’t change the fact that some movies are good candidates for remaking. Third — and admitting this makes me feel dirty because of that whole principle thing — there are obviously a lot of remakes that are pretty goddamn great. The more exceptions you can make for an argument, the weaker that argument becomes, so it’s hard to completely rail against remakes when they include some of the great movies of all time. The Wizard of Oz was originally made as a silent movie in 1925. Charlton Heston’s Ben-Hur was also remade from a 1925 original. The Maltese Falcon was made as a low-budget picture ten years before the Humphrey Bogart version came along. And I only learned about a year ago that Some Like it Hot was a remake of a 1935 French film called Fanfare of Love. Contemporary classics like The Thing, Scarface, The Fly and Cape Fear are all worthy remakes. So the trend can’t be dismissed outright.

At the risk of descending too deep down the rabbit hole, a few of the movies I just named raise additional points that should be mentioned, and the first requires dialing the discussion back a century. In two recent posts — Movie Mixtape #1 and A New Breed of Sequel — I referenced a book called The Genius of the System, by UT Austin film professor Thomas Schatz. This is a book about the rise and fall of the Hollywood Studio System, which I read for a film class in college. I read it again recently because I knew I wanted to write some posts about sequels, remakes and other Hollywood habits that we tend to treat as current or recent developments, but are in fact practices that have been a part of Hollywood from the beginning. So drawing on Schatz’s book, here are a few facts. Even during the silent film era, studios remade their earlier films. And once sound was introduced, there was yet another opportunity to cash in on familiar titles by making versions with sound. Not only were such 1930’s classics as The Prisoner of Zenda and Gold Diggers of 1933 examples of talkies that were remade from silent films, but they were remakes of silent films that had already been remade at least once before the 30’s versions that are considered definitive. In fact, Gold Diggers was based on a play to begin with, making it not only a third remake, but an adaptation of previously existing material. The version preceding the 1933 release came out four years earlier. Anyone who rolled their eyes about last year’s The Amazing Spider-Man rebooting that franchise a mere five years after Spider-Man 3 (and that includes me) might be strangely comforted to know that this has been going on for nearly 100 years. Remember Gus Van Sant’s head-scratching 1998 remake of Psycho, in which he recreated Hitchcock’s original classic shot for shot? Also not a first. When David O. Selznick put Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman under contract, he introduced her to American audiences with the film Intermezzo, a remake of her Swedish film from a few years earlier. But not just a remake. Selznick’s Intermezzo retained the original film’s lighting, camera angles, framing, blocking…everything. It was as close to an exact reproduction as director Gregory Ratoff could manage.

Whoever said lack of originality was exclusive to today’s studio executives?

The other point to mention, stemming from my examples of good remakes, is my personal allowance that I’m generally okay with American (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say “English language”) remakes of foreign language films. Yes, I would prefer that more Americans would see movies in their native language, but we know that’s not happening anytime soon. Even I could do much better on that front. Most American audiences appear to live in mortal fear of subtitles, and will not expose themselves to foreign films. Given that reality, a well-mounted English-language remake seems like fair game to me in order to get a good story across. If the translation doesn’t work, then yes, you wind up with something that is not only a bad or mediocre movie on its own, but a bastardization of a more successful original (for example, the Nicolas Cage-Meg Ryan romantic drama City of Angels, adapted from Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire…although that film is partially in English). But you might wind up with a second classic, like The Magnificent Seven (based on Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai), or if not a classic exactly, then a respectable interpretation, like Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris, Mike Nichols’ The Birdcage or Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia.

(Full disclosure: my American-remake-of-foreign-film exception could well be nothing more than a way to justify my deep and intense love for The Departed — based on the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs — which absolutely goes in the contemporary classic category.)

So whether I like it or not, I need to adjust my attitude somewhat about the whole remake machine. Like with sequels, the solution is not to abandon remakes altogether, but for the studios to consider more carefully what movies to remake and what movies to leave the hell alone. Which brings me to the recent news that prompted me to return to this topic. A long-in-development remake of Poltergeist is moving forward, likely shooting this fall, and actors Rosemarie DeWitt and Sam Rockwell have signed on to play the lead roles originated by JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson. It’s salt on the wound when actors I love agree to take part in these examples of cinematic sacrilege. I know, I know; actors gotta eat too. DeWitt is an in-demand working actress, but she probably lacks the clout to pick and choose any project she wants. I’m sure that sometimes she has to take what fits her schedule at any given time in order to keep working. On the other hand, I’d be surprised if Rockwell doesn’t have the freedom to be more choosy, so his involvement is especially bothersome. In my perfect world, good actors would refuse to participate in remakes that are bad ideas, and so the projects would flame out.

And remaking Poltergeist is a bad idea. The 1982 original, produced and co-written by Steven Spielberg, remains perfectly effective – scary, creepy, exciting and emotionally rich. Even the visual effects still look great. The remake is being produced by Sam Raimi, written by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire and directed by Gil Kenan, an Oscar nominee for the 2006 animated feature Monster House. Do any of them actually think they can make a better movie than the original? Lindsay-Abaire says he loves the film and hopes to pay it tribute. That’s nice and all, but movies aren’t cheap. Millions of dollars will be spent to make this movie that has already been made and doesn’t stand to gain from being made again. So why bother? Among the many reasons to let the original stand is that it featured actors who had a specific presence that can’t be duplicated. Heather O’Rourke’s Carol Anne isn’t just a generic movie kid; she is the vocal and physical embodiment of some of modern cinema’s most iconic imagery and dialogue. And then there’s Zelda Rubenstein, the diminutive actress who played the psychic Tangina. Rubenstein was a one-of-a-kind personality who added immeasurably to the tone and mood of the film. Who’s going to compete with her? No attempt at a new version of Poltergeist can be anything more than a nostalgia grab and perhaps an excuse to push the envelope of frightening imagery. Even if I’m wrong, and they can make a good movie that has some value, can they make a better one than the 1982 version? I seriously doubt it. And that should be the launching point for any attempt at a remake. Can we do this better than it was done before?

My previous write-up included a list of 70’s and 80’s movies that I feared were in danger of being remade, and Poltergeist was one of them. In the six years since writing that piece, several of those titles have indeed been revisited, or at least targeted. The Karate Kid and Footloose have made it to the screen so far, while Carrie is due out in October. Police Academy, WarGames, and The Cannonball Run are in various stages of development. A Vacation remake/reboot was all set to go earlier this year, with Ed Helms as a grown Rusty Griswold, taking his own brood on a trip. (Because who wouldn’t want to expose their family to the kind of disastrous misadventures that forever scarred their childhood?) Christina Applegate was set to play Rusty’s wife, but the movie was put on hold due to creative differences between the studio and the filmmakers over whether to maintain the R-rated tone of the original or aim for a more inclusive PG-13. But again, here’s a case where the original should be left alone. Vacation remains a classic comedy that is no less funny for anyone watching today than it was for audiences in 1983. A new version would probably be a little more PC and, depending on which way the rating goes, a little more tame in the language and nudity departments. But I’ll bet it won’t be funnier.

The Carrie remake is a tougher call. On one hand, Brian De Palma’s 1976 original is a classic, and with its chilling third act, Oscar-nominated performances by Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, and rich subtext that has provided film theory classes with fodder for over three decades, many probably consider it untouchable. On the other hand, I watched it recently for the first time in years, and it does feel dated in some ways. Much of it is shot through a sort of soft-lens, dreamy haze – a deliberate aesthetic that De Palma was going for to serve his vision for the material, but one that runs the risk of feeling cheesy to newcomers looking at the movie for pure entertainment value. The style might not be an issue for budding film enthusiasts who are open-minded enough to appreciate films as artifacts of the time in which they were made (in other words, the kind of people who might first see Carrie in a college film class). But new generations of viewers who just want the pleasure of a good horror movie might have a hard time connecting with it, even though there is still plenty about it that holds up (Laurie’s performance as Carrie’s fanatical mother, for example, remains potent.) With Chloe Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore, the remake has two strong actresses to fill Spacek and Laurie’s shoes, plus Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Pierce could potentially bring an interesting new gender perspective to this female-centric story. So while my early thoughts were, “How dare they remake Carrie!,” the truth is that as remakes go, this one is arguably ripe for a new approach.

Still, if the new Carrie works, it will be among a minority of remakes that do. Other movies that weren’t on my 2007 list but have been remade in recent years include Fright Night, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Clash of the Titans, Red Dawn, Arthur and Conan the Barbarian – none of which needed to be remade. We’ve even entered the era of 90’s reboots with last year’s Total Recall (another Neal Moritz prize, another unnecessary revisitation). Of these movies, Clash of the Titans is the only one that did decent box office, but how many people really loved it? Or even liked it enough to keep it in their personal home viewing rotation? How many of these have taken root in the soil of pop culture? Nothing in the CGI-heavy Titans remake is as memorable or affecting as Ray Harryhausen’s frightening Medusa from the cheesy but charming original. When people talk about Arthur, they’ll be talking about the Dudley Moore version, not Russell Brand’s. When they think of Conan, they think of Arnold Schwarzenegger, not Jason Momoa. When they think of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Freddy Krueger, they think of Robert Englund, not Jackie Earle Haley (another actor who, like Rosemarie DeWitt and Sam Rockwell, should know better). When they think of Fright Night…well, I’m not sure anybody really ever thinks of Fright Night, but I bet those who do are children of the 80’s, and therefore think of the original.

In fact, Fright Night represents another problem with the remake machine. If the idea is that studios remake older movies from their back catalogs because there is built-in recognition, why do they remake so many movies that have so little relevance to contemporary audiences? A title like Fright Night probably meant nothing to most young viewers who would be the typical audience for that kind of movie. As for older audiences who remember the original with affection, are there enough of them to justify the investment of time and money in doing a remake that offers few differences from the original other than better production values? It’s a bit of a Catch-22. Studios target remakes to exploit recognizable properties, yet if the property remains recognizable, it’s likely because the original stands the test of time, thereby making the remake a pointless corruption. If the title isn’t recognizable to newer audiences, then where is the value in remaking it to begin with?

We see this over and over again. Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 thriller Straw Dogs, starring Dustin Hoffman, is considered an important work within the director’s oeuvre, but it was not particularly successful at the box office. So who exactly was the target audience for the 2011 remake starring James Marsden, Kate Bosworth and Alexander Skarsgard? What was to be gained by remaking that movie? It had no resonance with today’s audience, and apparently made little effort to distinguish itself or bring something new to the concept. Gavin Polone, producer of such fare as Gilmore Girls and Zombieland, penned an anti-remake article for Vulture in which he pointed out that the 2011 Straw Dogs did not credit the novel on which Peckinpah’s film was based, but instead credited the original film as the basis for the new screenplay, suggesting there were minimal differences between the two. He also cites the 2006 remake of the classic horror film The Omen, which gave screenplay credit to the original’s writer, David Seltzer…even though he didn’t work on the new film at all. When the 2011 remake of Arthur opened to lousy box office, Entertainment Weekly‘s critic Owen Gleiberman wrote a piece questioning the attempt to make a movie star out of Russell Brand. Near the beginning of that essay, he says, “It’s not just that the $12.5 million it made was significantly below the $18 million that had been predicted. It’s that the $18 million ‘expectation’ was itself a rather pathetic lowball figure, at least for a project that had the nostalgic pedigree, the built-in audience affection, and the ’80s-update curiosity factor that Arthur did.”

The whole idea of Hollywood’s obsession with remakes is that they are an easy and reliable source of income. But Gleiberman is right. If the best a studio could expect for an opening weekend gross was $18 million, then the obsession needs to be seriously reconsidered. Surely the projection was based on how the finished film was tracking; perhaps the studio had higher expectations when they greenlit the project months earlier. Still…how high could their expectations for a remake of Arthur (or of Fright Night or Straw Dogs) really have been? If the hopes are that the title will appeal more to fans of the original than to a new audience, then the insistence on remakes seems even more misguided. Columbia Pictures president Doug Belgrad told The Hollywood Reporter last year in regards to remakes that “…young people don’t know the original, older people have a nostalgia for it….” Yes. Young people don’t know the original, so where is the value in the title? And older people’s nostalgia is for the original, so why would they want to see a remake?  Maybe if a piece of material has truly outstanding potential to both connect with modern audiences and be superior to the original, it would make sense to proceed. But it doesn’t seem like the executives making these decisions are lending any serious thought to why a given movie should be revisited. They just see an old title and say, “Hey, it’s been 20 years since that came out. Let’s make it again!

Not that the entire remake machine is driven by the studios. Plenty of remakes come to pass because a producer, director or actor has an attachment to an older film and wants to bring it to a new audience (and has the clout to do it). I’m generally leery of this argument, as I think that anyone who has that much affection for a certain piece of work should respect it enough to leave it be. When Peter Jackson remade King Kong, I let it slide because he was coming off Lord of the Rings; if he wanted to make a snuff film, I probably would have been cool with it. Plus, I agreed with his argument that contemporary audiences and young viewers don’t want to watch old black and white movies – another fact that I’m not saying I like; just that it’s largely true. It’s kind of the same exception as the one for foreign films, though I’m less inclined to support remaking great old movies just because they’re old. The original King Kong still packs a punch today. I watched it for the first time on the big screen a couple of years before Jackson’s remake, and I was shocked, for example, at how violent the fights between Kong and the dinosaurs were. At one point, the giant ape kills an attacking beast by gruesomely prying back its jaws. And while the creature effects are primitive by today’s standards, there’s still something magical about them. Part of the joy of watching the movie was imagining how shocking and exciting it must have been to audiences in 1933.

Still, Jackson’s drive to remake King Kong was motivated by genuine passion and love, as opposed to cashing in on a title. I wish the same could be said for Neal Moritz, who I mentioned at the beginning…and at length in my previous post on this topic. Fucking Neal Moritz. When he renewed his production company’s deal with Columbia Pictures in 2011, Sony Pictures co-chairman Amy Pascal said, “He has a terrific taste for stories that excite the imagination of audiences everywhere,” while Columbia’s Belgrad said, “He knows what audiences want.” That must explain the complete lack of interest audiences everywhere had in his 2013 films Jack the Giant Slayer and R.I.P.D., as well as last year’s Total Recall remake that nobody gave a shit about (and which lacked all the fun and personality of the Schwarzenegger original). Luckily for him, his commitment to churning out Fast and the Furious sequels keeps his bank account full and his industry standing intact. But really, the only respectable projects he’s been connected to in the last couple of years are the surprisingly enjoyable Jonah Hill/Channing Tatum TV adaptation 21 Jump Street (which is getting a sequel, of course) and the recently wrapped Showtime series The Big C, with Laura Linney. Those titles go on a short list of quality pieces Moritz has delivered over the years…a list that should be much longer when you take into account how much work he’s put out. (His company is called Original Film, which I would assume has to be a deliberate use of irony considering that nearly everything he does is a shitty, bland interpretation of existing material, except that I don’t think Moritz is clever enough to name his company ironically.)

While Moritz may be one of Hollywood’s most egregious examples of creative bankruptcy, he’s far from alone. Michael Bay has a production company called Platinum Dunes which is dedicated to making low-budget horror movies, but which prefers to remake existing ones rather than exert the effort to develop new ideas. Of the ten films Platinum Dunes has released since its first in 2003, seven have been based on previous movies, including genre classics Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Amityville Horror and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Only three have managed to gross over $100 million worldwide, and just barely at that. But because they were made so inexpensively, they all turned a tidy profit, so I guess there’s no incentive to create something new. At one point, they were developing a remake of Rosemary’s Baby, about which company partner Brad Fuller said, “We certainly come to [the project] with trepidation because of how important [the original] film is. But we’re going to see if there’s a great way to tell that story.” At the time, I suspected the quote continued, “Once we realize there isn’t, we’re going to go ahead and do it anyway.” But for whatever reason, it doesn’t appear to be on their development slate any longer. Don’t worry, though…NBC recently announced they’re going to remake it as a primetime miniseries. I’m sure that will manage to erase all memories of Roman Polanski’s 1968 classic. Platinum Dunes, meanwhile, seems to be branching out to produce non-horror projects, but not necessarily more original ones. Their relaunch of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is coming next year.

It’s easy to dump on Michael Bay and Neal Moritz, but even great filmmakers aren’t immune to the forgettable or inferior remake. The Coen Brothers struck gold with True Grit, but they struck out when they tried to redo The Ladykillers. Among the less heralded work on Steven Spielberg’s filmography is 1989’s Always, a remake of the Spencer Tracy drama A Guy Named Joe. Sydney Pollack dared to mess with Billy Wilder’s Sabrina (sorry, but Julia Ormand is no Audrey Hepburn), while Sidney Lumet had a late career misfire with his take on John Cassavetes’ Gloria. I recall being outraged when Jonathan Demme remade The Manchurian Candidate in 2004, but I’m not sure what was worse: the offense of remaking such a brilliant movie, or the fact that the remake was apparently pretty good, earning favorable reviews and even BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations for Meryl Streep. Despite the positive reaction and presence of actors like Streep, Denzel Washington and Liev Schrieber, I still refuse to watch it. However the results turn out, I’m not quite sure why smart and talented directors like these would choose to spend their time mucking with someone else’s movie. Demme’s Manchurian Candidate seems to be the only one that actually tried to adapt its predecessor in an interesting way, yet with such a sensational original, it may also be the most blasphemous of these examples. So if it sounds like I’m saying that a filmmaker’s passion justifies a remake, I’m not. I don’t know whether the movies mentioned here were initiated by the directors or by the studios, but just because a good director loves an older film and wants to remake it for a new audience doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Even excellent filmmakers can easily get lost in their own nostalgic notions of paying tribute, too blinded by their reverence to see that they are suffocating the thing they purport to love.

Another problem with the culture of remakes, especially when the original movies are fairly recent, is the lack of respect to the filmmakers — usually still alive, and often still actively working — who made the movie in the first place. Maybe they find it flattering that someone would want to take their movie and try it again, and indeed, some even actively encourage it. Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, for example, produced this year’s remake of their influential cult classic Evil Dead. Go ahead and argue that Raimi’s barely budgeted original stood to benefit from better makeup and special effects. I counter that the whole reason Evil Dead remains popular is because it was marked by Raimi’s ingenuity as a director. He used the lack of funds to his advantage, and that prowling, trampling camera and the cheesy effects are exactly what lifted the movie above its simple premise and lent it a sense of fun and even charm, of which the remake seems entirely bereft. In fact, last year’s The Cabin in the Woods was almost an Evil Dead remake in spirit, following the same basic premise but then doing something incredibly fun and original with it. The new Evil Dead had no such creativity up its sleeve, serving no purpose other than delivering its scares in a slicker package and increasing the gore factor tenfold.

But who cares about a creative purpose when there’s money to be made.

Not all filmmakers share Raimi’s attitude toward their material being rebooted, but few have any power to prevent it, as the rights belong with the studios. (Though I’d bet that if Steven Spielberg wanted to stop Poltergeist from being remade, one phone call is all it would take.) Two years ago, there was an announcement that Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio and their Departed screenwriter William Monahan were remaking a 1974 James Caan movie called The Gambler. The original was written by James Toback, who learned about the new version along with the rest of the world, when the news was published on Deadline. He had not been approached by any of the principal filmmakers or by anyone at Paramount, and though legally none of them had any reason to discuss the remake with Toback, he was surprised and offended that no one had bothered to ask for his blessing. In a lengthy reaction piece which Deadline published a couple of days after the announcement, Toback — an old school Hollywood Man’s Man — recounted how the original movie came together, explaining that it was a highly personal and autobiographical story. He writes that although the movie was widely acclaimed, it is largely forgotten, having been released with little attention during a period of leadership transition at the studio. Who knows if this remake will even happen. Movies gets announced all the time and then never materialize. There hasn’t been any news on the project in a year, and those latest reports stated that Scorsese was no longer involved and that Todd Phillips might direct. (That sounds smart. The guy who directed Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and GoodFellas has moved on, so let’s get the guy who directed The Hangover, Road Trip and Due Date.) I wonder how Toback would have felt about his movie being remade even if the players had courted his blessing. In the end he would have no say one way or other, but considering how personal the movie is for him, and how mishandled it was in the first place, I can’t imagine he’d have been pleased with the idea.

But who cares about respecting artists when there’s money to be made.

I’m not remotely foolish enough to think Hollywood’s reliance on existing titles is going to change, but a little wishful thinking can be the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. My wish is that studios could find a way of getting audiences to see older movies instead of spending millions of dollars remaking them, less successfully in most cases. What if popular directors or actors — people like Christopher Nolan or Robert Downey Jr. — could be enticed to make a short film, which would be shown in front of an older movie, along with a brief interview in which they discuss the movie and why they love it? If the movie is old enough that it feels too far removed in tone, mood or style from what today’s audiences are used to, then someone like Nolan (or Scorsese or Fincher or Spielberg or Paul Thomas Anderson or so many others) could help illuminate its place in film history, its significance, and how it paved the way for contemporary movies that are more in an audience’s comfort zone.

Why not ask Disney, Pixar, Warner Brothers, and other animation companies to produce new shorts that could also be shown in advance of the feature presentation? Or acquire existing shorts from independent animators whose work is never seen by wide audiences? (Those Oscar nominated Best Animated Shorts that no one has ever heard of are coming from somewhere.) The studios could re-release deserving movies surrounded by all of this new content that, taken together, would create a fresh experience (not to mention providing more bang for your buck, considering how expensive it has become to have a night out at the movies). The returns would be smaller, but the investment would be too, and there will still be plenty of money to make from other tent-pole movies that have become the studios’ bread and butter.

Even if older movies could actually get this kind of lavish treatment, it wouldn’t mean the end of remakes, but it might mean that studios could start being more selective with the targeted titles. I said earlier that the guiding question when considering a remake should be, “Can we do this better than it was done before?” But maybe I should amend that to say that it’s not a matter of better, but of whether a new version can genuinely offer something interesting that the original didn’t have. The problem is that in most cases, the filmmakers convince themselves — and then try to convince audiences — that they can. But rarely is that the case. One reason that Scorsese’s Cape Fear stands out as a success is that he gave the victimized family a more fractured and complex dynamic than societal norms allowed in 1962, the year of the original film. By placing flawed, complicated characters into the situation which the original film presented, Scorsese added a moral ambiguity to the story that justified revisting it, and distinguished itself successfully. If more remakes were approached with the same thoughtfulness, perhaps there would be a weeding out process resulting in fewer of them, and those that we got would be better. Remakes shouldn’t be made because studios see dollar signs in an older title, or merely because an old title is sitting around. They should be made because a filmmaker with a vision sees a genuinely creative opportunity to deliver a fresh take on a familiar story. And even then it should be done sparingly. Remakes, like sequels, have always been part of the Hollywood tradition, and that’s not going to change. What needs to change is the lack of thought, care and artistic integrity that results in an ever-growing pile of rotten reboots, reimaginings, and revamps.

Coming Soon: A look at some remakes currently in development, with an assessment of how bad an idea each one is.

May 24, 2013

Who You Gonna Call? Sorry, That Number is Not in Service

When a movie makes $230 million dollars and becomes the second highest grossing movie of the year, a sequel is practically guaranteed. That’s just science. So it came as no surprise that the team behind 1984’s Ghostbusters reunited five years later for Ghostbusters 2. It did come as a surprise that the follow-up lacked so much of the charm that made the first film work. But maybe it shouldn’t have been so surprising. I touched on this when praising Bill Murray’s performance last year: Ghostbusters is a weird movie. Think about it. The premise is strange, the humor is dry, the tone is offbeat…the fact that it was such an enormous hit was kind of a fluke. It could easily have missed the mainstream and landed, at best, in the cult classic bin alongside titles like Time Bandits, Buckaroo Banzai and Remo Williams. But somehow, against the odds, the public embraced it and the movie took on legendary status and became a cultural touchstone.

Whatever had worked so well about Ghostbusters, the sequel failed to recapture it. Even with Ivan Reitman directing again, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis back on script duty and the entire principal cast onboard, Ghostbusters 2 didn’t have the ease of its predecessor. It wasn’t entirely devoid of laughs; Bill Murray was still pretty great and had some choice moments, while new cast member Peter MacNicol stole the show as Sigourney Weaver’s heavily accented boss who becomes possessed by an evil spirit. And it should be noted: the movie wasn’t a flop. It earned over $100 million and was the seventh highest grossing movie of 1989. But fans were disappointed and the movie is largely forgotten.

Which explains why, nearly 25 years later, after little-to-no clamoring from fans, we may finally be “treated” to Ghostbusters 3, talk of which has persisted — mostly courtesy of Dan Aykroyd — for the past few years, at least. For a while, it was just talk. “We’re trying to make it happen;” “We’re working on a script;” etc. But the talk seems increasingly likely to translate into action. Apparently there is a finished script, initially written by The Office scribes Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky, now recently rewritten by Etan Cohen, whose credits include Tropic Thunder, Idiocracy and Men in Black 3. Ivan Reitman is returning to direct, and Aykroyd says the film will find the original Ghostbusters passing the torch to a new generation, making this both a sequel and a reboot.

This is a bad idea.

If you’re fuzzy on the whole good/bad thing, let me elaborate. First of all, Bill Murray is not returning. Do we even need a second of all? Murray’s involvement has long been in doubt, and while discussing his friend’s reluctance with Dennis Miller in 2011, Aykroyd said, “What we have to remember is that Ghostbusters is bigger than any one component, although Billy was absolutely the lead and contributive to it in a massive way, as was the director and Harold [Ramis], myself and Sigourney [Weaver]. The concept is much larger than any individual role and the promise of Ghostbusters 3 is that we get to hand the equipment and the franchise down to new blood.”

That may be true, to an extent. I would never say that Ghostbusters only works because of Bill Murray. But I will say without hesitation that it absolutely does not work without Bill Murray. He’s the key. As I said above, he was one of the few bright spots in Ghostbusters 2, and without him…c’mon. Anyone who thinks a third movie can work sans Murray is delusional. When I was finding clips to include in my Roger Ebert tribute, I watched Ebert and Gene Siskel review Ghostbusters. When Ebert says at the end that these characters could go on to star in a series of similar adventures, Siskel adds that it is Bill Murray who would make that work. And he’s right.

Now it’s one thing for me to say, as a fan of the movie, that Murray’s presence is invaluable, or for a couple of critics to say the same, but his contribution can actually be quantified. In December, Oscar nominated director/screenwriter Jason Reitman — son of Ivan — staged a reading of the Ghostbusters script as part of his immensely popular LACMA Live Read series. In preparing for the event, he discovered that much of Murray’s dialogue was improvised, and through access to his father’s materials, he put together a script for the live read that combined the actual shooting script and the stuff that Murray came up with on the set.

Strangely, when addressing the possibility of involvement from Rick Moranis, who has been retired from acting for years, Aykroyd said, “If we can get the script to Ghostbusters 3 right, then it would definitely have Moranis as a major component. None of us would want to do the movie without having him as a participant.” So…he would make the movie without Bill Murray, its star, but not without supporting player Rick Moranis? And what if Moranis  — who couldn’t even be lured into providing voice work for the 2009 Ghostbusters video game (something Murray did) — says no? Will Aykroyd be true to his word and put the kibosh on this ill-advised threequel? Speaking about the project’s slow progress this past December in Esquire, Aykroyd insisted that he has plenty going on in his life without this movie. “If it does not happen, the life of Dan Aykroyd and his family and friends will be quite full without Ghostbusters 3.” If that’s the case, then why not let it go? Is there really a groundswell of fan demand for a new Ghostbusters movie? I’m sure there are people who would like to see it happen — the comment sections of some of these linked articles support as much — but we’re not exactly talking about a movement here. And Aykroyd, of all people, should know better than to revisit hallowed ground years later, without the involvement of an original star, having subjected the world to the offense against cinema that was Blues Brothers 2000. Aykroyd spoke to The Telegraph in February 2012 and commented on Murray’s lack of interest, and while he sounded disappointed, he said he respects Murray’s decision and remains committed to the movie nonetheless…though I’m surprised that a studio would be willing to invest millions of dollars in a Ghostbusters movie that lacks the series’ MVP.

For Murray’s part, I have to applaud an actor who has the integrity to recognize that the magic has passed and that even the massive paycheck he would likely earn is not worth pissing on the legacy of a beloved movie. Or so I’m assuming; to my knowledge, Murray hasn’t actually clarified why he doesn’t want to be involved, so I’m choosing to call it integrity and good sense. When asked about Ghostbusters 3 during a GQ interview in 2010, he merely seemed skeptical that it would even happen, and unenthused about participating if it did. (The whole interview is worth a read; Murray is as dryly hilarious as ever.)

One thing I learned while writing this, which I had not known about and which saddened me to hear, is that Murray and Harold Ramis don’t really talk anymore, having apparently fallen out during the making of their classic Groundhog Day. In 2004, The New Yorker profiled Ramis while he was in production on his film The Ice Harvest, and a few pages of that article (starting at the bottom of this one) are devoted to his history with Murray and, vaguely, what happened between them. When The A.V. Club asked about progress on Ghostbusters 3 in 2009, Ramis offered a few additional comments about Murray. He seems sad that they don’t talk anymore, and perhaps their distance is one of the reasons Murray is reluctant to be involved. I hope they patch things up some day. I also hope it doesn’t take Ghostbusters 3 to make that happen.

But Murray or not, the movie seems close to getting made, and its fate may be determined within the next several months. As of last October, the script was approved and production was slated to begin this summer. About two weeks later, production was delayed until the fall, “at earliest.” This stall is what likely prompted Ackroyd’s wearied comments in the Esquire link above. Yet still he remains confident, offering a cryptic clue to the plot just this week. In the meantime, Reitman is now in production on the promising football drama Draft Day, which will likely occupy his time at least through the summer, if not beyond. Next year marks the 30th anniversary of Ghostbusters, so if the parties involved are going to move forward, sooner would make more sense than later….though given the film’s likely visual effects requirements, a 2014 release is unlikely to happen if production doesn’t begin by September or October. Considering Reitman’s commitment to Draft Day, that seems impossible.

Take it as a sign, boys. The delays, the Murray refusal, the tight timeline…the universe is trying to tell you not to make this movie. Some things should just be left alone. The popularity of Ghostbusters endures thanks to its original fans passing on their enthusiasm to new generations, but that doesn’t equal demand for a new chapter. I’m sure that for Aykroyd, reasons to revisit the phenomenon range from the sentimental to the financial, but this is a recipe for disaster (not necessarily of the biblical, human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together ilk, but still). If you couldn’t recapture the magic five years after the original, when you were all still in your glory days, what makes you think you can do it 25 years later, without Murray and Moranis around to contribute their unique brands of funny? Looking through the articles linked here and seeing comments not just from Murray, but even from Ramis and Reitman, it seems clear that nobody other than Aykroyd is all that enthusiastic about doing another movie. (Add Sigourney Weaver to that list. She seems willing to be involved, but sounds perfectly fine to let it go.)

On the chance that the sort of telekinetic energies that the Ghostbusters might investigate in the real world actually exist, please join me in sending thoughtwaves to the executives at Sony to let them know that because we love Ghostbusters so much, we want them to pass on this third movie. Proceeding would be like crossing the streams, only we’re all more likely to wind up doused in foul excrement than delightful marshmallow.

February 8, 2013

Bringing Back That Love and Feeling

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 12:22 pm
Tags: , , ,

The effort on the part of Hollywood’s major studios to convince us that our moviegoing experience has been incomplete without the addition of a third dimension marches on, and today brings its most curious example yet: the 3D-converted re-release of Tom Cruise’s 1986 blockbuster Top Gun. In IMAX, no less! It’s not the first older film to be transferred to 3D and brought back to theaters, but there is something different about this one. The previous efforts have been animated or family movies like The Lion King, Finding Nemo and Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, part of a massively popular franchise. Then there was Titanic, the second most successful movie of all time…from the same director as the movie that displaced it while also ushering in this new age of tri-dimensional madness.

Top Gun doesn’t fit the mold. It’s not a family movie, and while it was a big hit, it was not a Titanic-sized hit. I don’t know if it will be the best test of audiences’ interest in seeing older movies re-released in 3D. Will the fans who grew up with it flock to see it again? Do people who grew up after it have any interest? Are the speeding jets enough of a draw for today’s teens and twentysomethings?

Paramount isn’t allowing much time to find out. The re-release is a special engagement, in theaters for only six days. I’m not sure what kind of business sense that makes. Even if it does well, can it do well enough in six days to justify the cost of the 3D conversion, the marketing (not that I’ve seen much, which doesn’t seem any way to help its chances) and the distribution? And if it does poorly, well…those costs could still go uncovered. Then again, if they let it play for a longer period, I doubt it would do robust business. It will be available on 3D Blu-Ray a few days after the theatrical run, but the percentage of homes with a 3D Blu-Ray player is tiny, so I can’t imagine those sales will add much to the tally.

Those of us who saw the movie in our youth may still enjoy it, but we also recognize its silliness and cheesiness. Still, whatever your feelings for Top Gun are today, and whether or not this re-release will be a hit, its legacy can’t be denied. It stands as one of the defining movies of the 1980’s. The Cold War may have been in its final years, but tensions remained high between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1986, and the movie’s portrait of American supremacy and heroism – however corny – was catnip to the masses of patriotic, Reagan-era moviegoers. It was the highest grossing film of its year, it made Tom Cruise a superstar, and spawned a hugely successful soundtrack that included Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” and Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away,” which won the Academy Award for Best Original Song. (When I was in 8th or 9th grade in the early 90s, I learned “Take My Breath Away” on the piano in an effort to impress a girl who was all about Top Gun. It didn’t work.) Also, we have to acknowledge that the movie gave us such classic lines as…

I feel the need…the need…for speed.

Son, your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash.

Hey Goose, you big STUD!

and of course, the eminently quotable…

I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.” (This is common enough that I suppose it could have originated elsewhere, but as far as I know we have Top Gun to thank for introducing it to the masses.)

In addition, the movie provided some of the earliest memorable appearances by Tim Robbins, Meg Ryan and Adrian Pasdar. And perhaps most importantly, without Top Gun there would be no Hot Shots!

When is that underrated gem getting a 3D re-release?

Prior to his shocking and untimely death last year, director Tony Scott was pursuing a sequel to the movie that would detail what happened to guys like Maverick and Iceman when the military’s fighter jet program evolved from pilots actually flying missions to kids raised on video games sitting at a simulator and controlling drones. Cruise was on board with the concept, and he and Scott were scouting locations shortly before Scott died. The project fizzled in the aftermath of his death, though producer Jerry Bruckheimer says he’s still trying to figure a way to do it. (For what it’s worth, Scott supervised the 3D conversion before he died, so this re-release bears his seal of approval.)

I haven’t even mentioned one of the most oft discussed elements of Top Gun: its undercurrent of homoeroticism. Sorry, did I say “undercurrent?” I meant front and center, unmistakable, volleyballtastic depiction of guys whose machismo ain’t foolin’ nobody. Allow Quentin Tarantino to explain, in this scene from the 1994 indie flick Sleep With Me.

This re-release should have included some George Lucasesque alterations where Maverick, Ice, Slider and the others (except for that married big stud, Goose) openly and unabashedly embraced their homosexuality instead of trying to keep it in the cockpit, so to speak. It may have been tough to get away with in 1986, but today’s audiences would embrace it without a second thought. Then again, a more open depiction would take some of the fun out of a movie that is so quintessentially 80’s.

So if you take this opportunity to revisit Top Gun, enjoy its campy closetedness, its bitchin’ dialogue, its rockin’ soundtrack, its performance by Tom Cruise early in his prime, and of course its extra dimension of high-fivin’, Russkie-fightin’, jet-flyin’ action. America, fuck yeah!

December 15, 2012

The De Niro Dilemma

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. No, not because of Christmas; because ’tis the season of movie awards! The Oscar nominations are less than a month away (begin to mentally prepare yourself for my usual, agonizingly deep immersion into that), but in the meantime, national and regional film critics groups are rolling out their accolades. This week saw nomination announcements for the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild Awards and Broadcast Film Critics Awards. And among the Best Supporting Actor nominees put forth by two of those three groups (the Globes denied a hat-trick) was Robert De Niro, for his performance as Bradley Cooper’s superstitious, football-obsessed father in Silver Linings Playbook.

In an acting career spanning 47 years, more than 80 films, six Oscar nominations, two wins, the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award, a Kennedy Center Honor and countless other awards and nominations, De Niro is rightly regarded as one of the greatest actors of all time. But it’s been a while since he’s been on the awards circuit. Because the hard truth we all know is that Robert De Niro has been lost. For the past 13 years or so, he has been wandering in a desert of bad movies and half-hearted performances, a shadow of the actor he once was. (It’s too bad he isn’t Jewish; perhaps ancestral instinct might have kicked in after a few years and helped him course correct.) So what happened? Good intentions that just didn’t pay off? Laziness? Lack of interest?

Look at the movies he made between 1973 and 1999, and the directors he worked with.

Bang the Drum Slowly (John D. Hancock)
Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese)

The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola)

1900 (Bernardo Bertolucci)
The Last Tycoon (Elia Kazan)
Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese)

New York, New York (Martin Scorsese)

The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino)

Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese)

True Confessions (Ulu Grosbard)

The King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese)

Falling in Love (Ulu Grosbard)
Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone)

Brazil (Terry Gilliam)

The Mission (Roland Joffé)

Angel Heart (Alan Parker)
The Untouchables (Brian DePalma)

Midnight Run (Martin Brest)

Jackknife (David Hugh Jones)
Stanley & Iris (Martin Ritt)
We’re No Angels (Neil Jordan)

Awakenings (Penny Marshall)
Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese)

Backdraft (Ron Howard)
Cape Fear (Martin Scorsese)
Guilty By Suspicion (Irwin Winkler)

Mistress (Barry Primus)
Night and the City (Irwin Winkler)

A Bronx Tale (Robert De Niro)
This Boy’s Life (Michael Caton-Jones)
Mad Dog and Glory (John McNaughton)

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh)

Casino (Martin Scorsese)
Heat (Michael Mann)

The Fan (Tony Scott)
Marvin’s Room (Jerry Zaks)
Sleepers (Barry Levinson)

CopLand (James Mangold)
Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino)
Wag the Dog (Barry Levinson)

Great Expectations (Alfonso Cuaron)
Ronin (John Frankenheimer)

Analyze This (Harold Ramis)
Flawless (Joel Schumacher)

Obviously there are some all-time classics in that era, and it’s an overall impressive filmography filled with strong, memorable, in some cases legendary performances and plenty of gifted directors. Not every film there is well-known, and not every one is a keeper, but by and large it’s a list that justifies De Niro’s status as one of the greats.

Now let’s look at what happens when we enter the new millennium.

The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle (Des McAnuff)
Meet the Parents (Jay Roach)
Men of Honor (George Tillman, Jr.)

15 Minutes (John Herzfeld)
The Score (Frank Oz)

Analyze That (Harold Ramis)
City By the Sea (Michael Caton-Jones)
Showtime (Tom Dey)

The Bridge of San Luis Rey (Mary McGuckian)
Godsend (Nick Hamm)
Meet the Fockers (Jay Roach)
Shark Tale (Bibo Bergeron, Vicky Jenson, Rob Letterman) – Animated

Hide and Seek (John Polson)

The Good Shepherd (Robert De Niro)

Stardust (Matthew Vaughn)

Righteous Kill (Jon Avnet)
What Just Happened (Barry Levinson)

Everybody’s Fine (Kirk Jones)

Little Fockers (Paul Weitz)
Machete (Robert Rodriguez)
Stone (John Curran)

The Ages of Love (Giovanni Veronesi)
Killer Elite (Gary McKendry)
Limitless (Neil Burger)
New Year’s Eve (Garry Marshall)

Being Flynn (Paul Weitz)
Red Lights (Rodrigo Cortés)
Freelancers (Jessy Terrero)
Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell)

Well, the man certainly keeps busy. That’s a long list of movies to consider. But a few things can be quickly gleaned.

1973-1999: Lots of intense drama. Lots of smart comedies. Lots of classics. Lots of strong, established directors. Lots of Martin Scorsese.

2000-2012: Lots of tepid drama. Lots of broad comedies. Lots of duds. Lots of undistinguished directors. No Martin Scorsese.

Now to be fair, I’ll say this. First, I have not seen a lot of the movies from the 2000-2012 span. Second, just because some of those movies weren’t big box office hits doesn’t mean they weren’t good. Third, just because critics may have had low opinions of many of those movies doesn’t mean they’re right. Fourth, just because many of the directors are less well-known doesn’t make them untalented.

But…when the reviews are bad, and the movies don’t connect with audiences, and they don’t go on to develop enduring reputations for being good, it’s not unfair to draw certain conclusions. And of the films I have seen from that era, few feature De Niro anywhere near his best. The performances are uninspired. He appears to have a lack of energy or interest. He doesn’t look engaged. Could it be that a bout with cancer took a toll on him? De Niro was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2003, but the disease was caught early and he went on to beat it (probably with a baseball bat). Maybe the cancer affected the energy he brought to his performances, but the problems began well before his diagnosis, and have continued well after he received a clean bill of health.

It’s reasonable to think that as actors get older, some of their intensity and passion will subside or burn out. But if we look at some of De Niro’s key contemporaries, who were also considered the best actors of their day – Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman and Robert Duvall – we see actors that are still delivering excellent work, if not quite as consistently as in their early days. Yeah, Pacino has had his duds over the past few decades, and has veered toward overacting at times, but he’s also shown that he’s still got the magic, in HBO movies like Angels in America, You Don’t Know Jack, and even as the bad guy in Ocean’s Thirteen. He’s also continued to do impressive work on stage. Hoffman doesn’t do a lot of leading man work anymore, but has shined in supporting roles in films like I ♥ Huckabees, Finding Neverland, Confidence, Barney’s Version and Stranger Than Fiction. He also headlined this year’s short-lived HBO series Luck, delivering a quietly cutting, laser-focused performance as a recently paroled gangster out for revenge. Duvall has also continued to do excellent work in roles large (Open Range, Get Low) and small (Crazy Heart, Thank You For Smoking). He had a tiny part in the 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and with about five minutes of screen time managed to give one of the best performances of that entire year. And what about Meryl Streep? Defying the oft stated problem that no good roles exist for older women, Streep is in the most successful stage of her career, turning character driven comedies into box office hits, still slam dunking dramatic roles and winning her third Oscar earlier this year. I’d like to think that if these actors are still capable of delivering top-notch work, De Niro is too.

In fact, I know he is…because I’ve seen Silver Linings Playbook, and he’s great in it. He does his best work in years. His character is just a regular guy with a few idiosyncracies, but not every part needs to be Jake LaMotta or Travis Bickle to give an actor something special to do. His performance isn’t astonishing or transformative, but it’s vigorous and fully energized. The role gives him something to work with, and you can see him having a blast with it. I don’t think that anyone expects him to pull another LaMotta or Bickle out of his hat at this point in his life, but earlier in his career he could turn even ordinary parts into something special. Consider the fire inspector he played in Backdraft. It was a fairly small role, and there’s nothing dynamic about the character on paper. But even though he’s just “a guy,” De Niro gave him an appealing dry humor and a short fuse that kept things interesting. He does the same sort of thing in Silver Linings Playbook, and that’s why he once again finds himself in the conversation for awards. If he gets nominated for an Oscar, it will be his first in 21 years. While accepting an honor in October for Supporting Actor of the Year at the Hollywood Film Awards, De Niro joked that he had become much more accustomed to presenting awards than receiving them. Well take a look at your filmography Bobby, and it’s not hard to see why your trophy shelf hasn’t had many new additions of late.

While it’s great to see him back in the game with this new movie, I worry that it may be only a brief return to form. His upcoming projects look to be mostly of the same ilk he’s been turning out for years now. Commercial, broad, maybe kind of fun, but not worthy of his talent:

The Big Wedding, a comedy that boasts some fine actors like Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon, Topher Grace and Robin Williams, but sounds like generic, madcap fluff.

Last Vegas, with De Niro, Kevin Kline, Michael Douglas and Morgan Freeman as four buddies who go to Vegas for a bachelor party when one finally decides to get married. Great cast, and these guys will surely play nicely off each other, but you can almost see the script being assembled by a studio marketing team.

Grudge Match, a comedy with De Niro and his CopLand co-star Sylvester Stallone as two ex-boxers who come out of retirement for one last fight. Kinda fun to think about Rocky Balboa and Jake LaMotta squaring off…but again, you know this is just going to be a middle-of-the-road exercise that might offer some amusement before it’s forgotten.

There are a few others listed on IMdb.com, but only two sound like they have some potential to be interesting: Malavita, a crime drama directed by Luc Besson and co-starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones and Glee‘s Dianna Agron, about a mafia family who enter witness protection in France and struggle with the adjustment; and The Comedian, which I don’t think is even an officially greenlit project yet, but would be directed by Sean Penn and star De Niro (alongside Kristin Wiig, intriguingly) as an aging, Don Rickles-like insult comic.

Those movies could prove to be bright spots, but otherwise De Niro’s current line-up doesn’t inspire much hope. Maybe he made those deals a while ago, and the experience of making Silver Linings Playbook, along with the acclaim he’s receiving for it, will reawaken whatever passion or desire for quality material has been lying dormant for so long. What De Niro really needs to do is hook up with HBO. As I mentioned before, the cable network has provided great material for Hoffman and Pacino. The latter will be back on the air in 2013 playing music producer-turned-murder suspect Phil Spector in a film written and directed by David Mamet. How great would it be to see De Niro topline a series with the kind of rich storytelling and writing that HBO consistently offers? Maybe he can dip his toes in those waters slowly, with a nice season-long arc on Boardwalk Empire? C’mon Scorsese, you’re a producer on that show! Make it happen! Or hell, put the guy in one of your movies again. Just because Leonardo DiCaprio is your new De Niro doesn’t mean De Niro can’t be your old De Niro. Give the guy a juicy co-starring role! I know, I know…De Niro was supposed to be in The Departed, in the role eventually played by Martin Sheen, but couldn’t do it because of his schedule directing The Good Shepherd. But what about the other projects over the last several years that were going to see you two reunite? Haven’t you been attached to a gangster film called The Irishman for years now? What’s the holdup? Marty, help us out. We want De Niro back in top form, and we need you to help get him there.

Only time will tell if Silver Linings Playbook is a turning point for De Niro, setting him on a path back to the kind of quality roles and impassioned performances on which he built his reputation. Nothing can take away from the momentous work that marked his early career, but it’s sad and frustrating to see such talent squandered on dumb comedies and flat dramas. Silver Linings Playbook is a much-needed reminder that Robert De Niro is capable of better. Here’s hoping some talented writers and directors can steadily provide him with the material to match his skills, and that he’s ready to bring his A-game when those scripts arrive at his door.

September 25, 2012

Westley: Lover, Fighter aaand…Kind of a Dick

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 9:00 am
Tags: , , , ,

Inconceivable as it may seem, today marks the 25th anniversary of The Princess Bride‘s theatrical release.

Twenty. Five. Years.

This little movie, which grossed only about $30 million at the box office, ranking 41st on the list of 1987’s highest grossers, has built up a following that bursts beyond the parameters of cult to become one of the most beloved movies of all time.

Yes, I’m saying of all time.

No, I don’t think this is hyperbole. People’s affection for The Princess Bride transcends mere love to achieve true love, which doesn’t happen every day. Not only is it exceedingly rare, but with the exception of a nice, perky M.L.T., where the mutton is nice and lean and the tomatoes are ripe, it’s the greatest thing in the world.

Now, stay with me here: I do want to take issue with one small aspect of The Princess Bride that I’ve thought about many times over the years that I’ve been enjoying and revisiting the movie. But first I must make it crystal, face-shining-in-polished-horse-saddle clear that this is one of my all-time favorites, a movie that came to me at that time in my life – as I’ve pointed out in various posts this year – when movies were overcoming my imagination. I remember seeing a short behind-the-scenes piece on HBO and being immediately interested. In fact, I can pinpoint the exact scene that made me want to see the movie. It was that moment during the sword fight between Inigo and the Man in Black, when the former asks the latter his identity, the Man in Black declines to reveal himself, and Inigo – having pressed the issue – just shrugs and gets on with the duel. I loved that. I loved the timing, the rhythm, the delivery. I knew I had to see this movie. It didn’t hurt that the cast included Andre the Giant, seeing as I was a huge World Wrestling Federation fan. I probably hadn’t quite accepted yet that wrestling was fake, so the premise of WWF bad guy Andre the Giant playing a good guy in a comedic fairy tale intrigued me. Only the second movie I ever went to see with just a friend – no parental accompaniment, which was a big deal – The Princess Bride didn’t disappoint. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it since, but there are scenes – like the Man in Black’s showdown with Vizzini, or the encounter with Miracle Max – that I know by heart. Not just the words, but the pauses, the inflections…I sometimes run through the scenes out loud, the way you sing a song in the shower or while making dinner.

I highly doubt I’m unique in either my ability to accurately quote whole passages, or the frequent act of actually doing so.

I read William Goldman’s source novel a year or two after the movie came out, and was surprised to see the humor came straight off the page, right down to the Impressive Clergyman’s speech impediment and Miracle Max’s personality, both of which I assumed at the time came directly from Peter Cook and Billy Crystal, respectively. Goldman’s book is interesting, in that he writes it as though he has abridged it from a longer version by the original author, S. Morgenstern. He frequently interrupts the narrative to add comments about things he deleted from the complete text, and why he made his decisions. It was a device that he and director Rob Reiner adapted to film by having The Grandfather read the book to The Grandson, which is also part of Goldman’s own story contained within the book – that his love for Morgenstern’s novel came from his own father reading it to him when he was a child, and that the first time he heard it, he kept interrupting his father with questions and comments. (The line in the movie when The Grandson says of Prince Humperdinck, “You mean he wins? Jesus, Grandpa, what did you read me this thing for?!?” is taken almost verbatim from the book.) Many of the film’s best lines, in fact, come right from the book…no surprise, since Goldman adapted his own novel for the screen. If you call yourself a Princess Bride fan but have never read the novel, stop reading this meandering post right now and go to a bookstore or a library, or log onto Amazon. The movie is a faithful adaptation of the book, but as always, the book offers more than the film can squeeze in, including detailed backstories for Fezzik and Inigo, and a much more elaborate alternative to the Pit of Despair – a five-level descent known as the Zoo of Death.

Not to get too far off track, but for several years – up until just a couple of months ago – I was under the impression that Goldman had written a sequel, called Buttercup’s Baby. It turns out this isn’t exactly true. In 1998, the year the book turned 25, a new hardcover edition was published, which included the first chapter of a sequel, once again abridged by Goldman from Morgenstern’s original text. I thought this was done as a legitimate teaser for a full sequel, but it was just part of Goldman’s game. He never wrote – as of yet, anyway – the full Buttercup’s Baby. Instead, that first chapter which came in the anniversary edition of the book was preceded by a lengthy story from Goldman about how, after years of lawsuits from Morgenstern’s estate concerning his original abridgement, the rights to the sequel were given to Stephen King. Having a cordial relationship with King stemming from writing the screenplay for Misery, Goldman approached him and requested that King pass and allow him to do the project. King, for reasons Goldman explains, refused…but did allow Goldman to adapt the first chapter. (Keep in mind…none of this actually happened. It’s all part of Goldman’s elaborate fiction.) So what we get is 50 pages that include the immediate aftermath of the escape from Prince Humperdinck, a backstory detailing a romance for Inigo and a fragmented tease involving Fezzik’s attempt to rescue Buttercup and Westley’s daughter from a devious kidnapper. Again, any Princess Bride fan owes it a read just for the sake of being a completest, if nothing else. But no, don’t expect a full sequel…to the book or the movie.

Really though, who needs a sequel? The book, and especially the movie, are just about perfect as they are.

So here we are, 25 years after the release of this modest little movie which is just as popular and relevant as ever. Last December, director Jason Reitman staged a one-night only, unrecorded, live-reading of the script as part of a benefit series he’s been doing for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (Reitman’s amazing, It’s-Times-Like-These-I-Wish-I-Lived-In-Los Angeles LACMA series has also included readings of The Apartment, Reservoir Dogs, The Big Lebowski, Shampoo, The Breakfast Club and just a couple of weeks ago at the Toronto Film Festival, American Beauty).

In February, the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin held a Valentine’s Day screening and dinner with a Princess Bride-inspired menu.

There have already been a few special edition DVDs of the movie, and yet another version – with new special features – will be released on October 2 to commemorate the 25th anniversary.

The same day, Reiner and cast members will attend a screening of the film as part of the prestigious New York Film Festival.

Around this time last year, Entertainment Weekly reconvened most of the cast for a photo shoot and oral history as part of their annual Reunions issue. (Here are some video interviews from the shoot. It’s so great to see in this, and in the DVD extras that have come along, how much the cast still love the movie and how proud they are to be a part of something that has affected so many people so profoundly.)

And who could count the ways that individual fans around the world choose to honor the movie in their own lives. Surely The Princess Bride has been incorporated into many a wedding these last 25 years. Several years back, a friend of mine hosted a screening of the movie at her house that included a game of Princess Bride bingo. She made these great bingo cards (I still have mine) with quotes from the movie, and as we watched, we marked off when a quote came up. ‘Twas good fun.

In the oral history, Goldman and the Princess Bride herself, Robin Wright, talk briefly about the long casting process that was required to find the perfect Buttercup, but their comments barely scratch the surface. The search for Buttercup was a trying ordeal for casting directors Jane Jenkins and Janet Hirshenson, which they recount in their terrific book, A Star Is Found. I wish I could reprint the entire tale here, because it’s so well-told, but the short version is that Jenkins, who was handling casting for the film, saw dozens of beautiful young actresses who, for one reason or another, could not convey the right mix of qualities necessary for Buttercup. It was only out of desperation that she agreed to see Wright, who she remembered from a not-great audition a few years earlier. Yet when Wright arrived, Jenkins saw a more mature young woman than the one she’d met last time around. Now she saw someone who had come into her own, and who proceeded to give the reading that every previous auditioner had been unable to deliver. The exuberance Jenkins describes upon realizing she’d found her girl, and then conveying the news to Reiner over the phone, is palpable. She really makes you appreciate the difficulty of the search, and the rewarding feeling of finding the right match between actor and role. Jenkins and Hirshenson’s book is a great read for anyone interested in how casting works and how stars have been discovered, but the 14 page section about finding Buttercup alone merits picking it up.

Alright, I can’t put it off any longer…I was supposed to get to that one thing…the dark element of The Princess Bride that no one ever seems to talk about: that Westley is…I’m afraid it has to be said…kind of a dick.

Has this occurred to anyone else? Consider. When his dogged pursuit of Buttercup and her kidnappers pays off with Vizzini’s death, leaving them alone together and safe at last, what does he do? Does he rip off the mask to reveal himself and take her in his arms? No. He keeps his identity a secret, and treats her roughly, with condescension. As they flee across the rocky landscape, tracked by Prince Humperdinck, his contemptuous treatment only intensifies. At one point, he nearly slaps her across the face. (In the corresponding scene from the novel, he does strike her. He’s a little meaner, a little more insulting in the book.) While taking a breather, he admits to being the Dread Pirate Roberts, which leads to this exchange.

Having already sorrowfully described Westley as “poor and perfect, with eyes like the sea after a storm”, and after plainly admitting that she does not love Humperdinck, Buttercup’s feelings for Westley should be quite clear. Her sadness is evident. Yet still in that scene above, he attacks her, calling her faithfulness into question and accusing her of quickly and callously forgetting her love and moving on to Humperdinck. And he means it. He’s not putting on an act. He seems to regard her as a woman who discarded her love for him and went on with her life, just like that. So…where is he headed with his ruse? What if she hadn’t pushed him down that hill? What if they had continued running, gone around the Fire Swamp, made it back to Roberts’ ship Revenge and sailed away from Florin? How long would he have played his game? When would he have unmasked himself? And what would he expect when he did? Obviously when he falls down the hill and cries out “As you wish”, the game is up; she follows him down, lands nearby and at last they have their romantic reunion. His anger is forgotten, his behavior forgiven. But would it have gone so smoothly if he waited until he had her on his ship as a prisoner? Somehow I doubt it. What are his intentions? To punish her for as long as possible? To go on humiliating her until he feels like she’s suffered enough, then unmask himself and say, “Haha, just kidding. It’s me. I’m alive. Yay, true love! Kiss?” Is this how you treat the woman you love? It’s the uncomfortable truth tucked into Westley and Buttercup’s true romance that no one wants to acknowledge, but it’s right there, plain as day.

Perhaps we forgive this because we know that when it comes down to it, Westley really does love Buttercup and he really will always come for her. He will die for her. He does die for her. But so too does he come for her. That, along with knowing that she would kill herself rather than live life without him (and with that rotten Humperdinck), allows us to focus on their true love and, you know, forget that he treats her with extreme misogynistic hostility on the way to their happily ever after, and might have gone on doing so for a while had she not shoved his ass down a steep hill. But Westley is a charmer – so skilled and so smart that we overlook he can also be a bit smug and perhaps more than a little bit cruel. (Not to mention that he’s sailing around the seas in the guise of the most feared pirate there is, murdering people and stealing from them. But fine, I’ll let it go…)

So there’s that.

Now back to loving it anyway. Which its legions of fans do, as much as ever. Just as The Grandfather explains to The Grandson of S. Morgenstern’s book – that his father used to read it to him when he was boy and he used to read it to his son – those of us who grew up with the movie pass it on to the next generation. This is true of any movie people love, of course. They want to share it with their kids, nephews, nieces, etc. But there are a few that people seem particularly eager to bequeath, and I have to think that The Princess Bride is pretty damn close to Star Wars at the top of that list. Its timeless quality helps; other than the outdated video game The Grandson is playing in the first scene (which I remember had me thinking I must be in the wrong movie, even though it immediately followed the title card), there’s nothing whatsoever to date it or attach it to a specific period. In making a movie that satirizes fairy tales, Reiner succeeded completely in making one…and one that would live on with the best of them. So here’s to another 25 years of enjoying The Princess Bride. The humor still kills, the performances remain indelible and even Westley’s questionable behavior can’t stop the sweep of the love story. It’s a movie that is deservedly adored by everyone who’s seen it.

Whether or not they want a peanut.

Art By: Adam Juresko, Chad Trutt, Purple Cactus Design, Phantom City Creative, Mark Welser, Tom

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