Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Remakes hot and cold

Why a remake? Usually enough time has gone by so that the original film no longer has the kind of commercial heft that might justify a sequel. Yet the original film may still have residual audience goodwill, or it may have an irresistible and universal story element. A filmmaker might wish to change a single aspect of the story which in turn changes all of the story, as in the gender change from The Front Page to His Girl Friday. (Gender changes seem to be one of the most consistent elements in remakes.) Social or technological change may have clouded the earlier film, and a filmmaker may undertake a remake in order to reveal the basic qualities, now clouded by time, to a new audience. (You've Got Mail updated The Shop Around The Corner by converting snail mail to e-mail, and changing a leather goods store to a bookstore.)

The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 (2009) and Brothers (2009) represent a couple of different approaches and rationales for remakes. The 1974 version of Pelham, the story of an "impossible" subway hijacking, was a solid commercial performer, but not a blockbuster. Nonetheless, it inspires affection from people in and out of the industry. At its center was a cat-and-mouse game between two dead solid perfect performers, craggy crusty old Walter Matthau, and elegant edgy Robert Shaw, who managed to put himself into two of the blockbusters of the decade, The Sting and Jaws. New York was near rock bottom in those days, and the film reeks of those smelly, decayed old days. There are fistfuls of great New York character actors like Hector Elizondo, Jerry Stiller, Dick O'Neill, Tom Pedi, James Broderick and Martin Balsam. In its day, the film felt relentless and pounding, emphasized by the percussive music. The best term for it is "a wild ride."

Wild rides have not gone out of fashion and it is not surprising that someone decided to take this one again, 35 years later. They have addressed one of the flaws of the earlier film, and put the two antagonists in the same frame together for a few brief sequences, although none of them has as much impact as the initial over-the-radio encounters. The characters have been complicated. Whereas Walter Matthau merely seemed annoyed that someone was screwing up his subways, Denzel now plays a character in disgrace, with a reason to seek out heroism. Where Robert Shaw just wanted a million bucks, John Travolta doesn't need the cash, because he has shorted the entire market, which is panicked by the hijacking. Now there are cell phones and laptops to be accounted for, but much else remains the same. In fact all the character complications come to naught, and new holes have been inadvertently introduced into the story. Where the mayor was stuck in bed with the flu all through the first, in the new film, Mayor James Gandolfini walks around being rude to everyone. The car crashes are bigger and there is a big above-ground chase, but all of it comes to naught. Sometimes the value in a story with a compressed setting comes directly from the compression, and while the new Pelham is fun until its soft ending (the original ended on a very sly bit of sleuthing), the second it is over you will start poking holes in it until all the air has gone out of it.

[Side note--can we retire the over-hyped opening and title sequences, with shots ramping up and ramping down, titles flying around and frames sliding around laterally. It is such a tired way to simulate excitement at the beginning of a film when there is none inherent in the film yet. I think Zombieland ought to make anyone else ashamed of doing funny animated titles anymore.]

Fact is, the original Pelham thrived on the joke of a few bureaucrats tried to get one small corner of a broken city to work, and now that NYC is functional, a lot of the fun has fled.

Brothers is similarly handcuffed by its need to follow the original film's blueprint. In this case, the original was a 2004 Danish film. One brother is thought to have died in war; his ex-con brother is attracted to his wife. From all reports (and I am planning to verify this myself), the original film is heartfelt and organic, and focuses more on the sense of betrayal within family than on the question of sexual jealousy. I don't know what changes were introduced by the Americanization, but the film collapses simply because its action rests entirely on two unprepared-for and therefore implausible story points.

First, the scapegrace brother, played by Jake Gyllenhall, obviously feels some comfort and respite in his sister-in-law's house, with his adorable nieces. He decides to do something decent and generous and rebuilds her kitchen. When they get the erroneous news that big brother played by Tobey Maguire is dead (and this is also not plausible, because the US military doesn't usually tell people their relatives are dead until they know for sure), they commiserate a bit, start to talk of high school days and then, suddenly, Jake kisses the wife (played by Natalie Portman). And one's response is...Wha? Where did that come from? Perhaps it is simply that these two actors cannot portray being attracted to each other.

Then later, when Tobey shows up at home, having turned out not to be dead, his young daughter tells him that she and her sister prefer their uncle. This is not a baby or a toddler, but a girl old enough to remember her dead before he went away. I'm just not buying this, no matter how weird or crazy Tobey is compared to Jake. Children do not turn away from their parents because they are weird and crazy--I can tell you that from personal experience.

In both cases, one cannot escape the conclusion that these developments arise simply because it was time for them to happen according to the template inherited from the earlier film. A pity, because director Jim Sheridan has done superb work, including My Left Foot, In The Name of the Father and In America. This feels like journeyman work, a job picked up to please a development executive, and despite a level of professionalism, not enough heart to make it ring true or have any personal resonance.

Strangely, a good remake takes at least as much passion and commitment as a good original. Maybe more, because of the perceived need to improve on the original.

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