Miércoles 18 de Mayo de 2005, Ip nº 109

Once More, With Feeling
Por Richard Corliss

Summer movies are all about ESCAPISM. But this year at least a dozen of the biggest retell stories we already love. Why do we adore repeats?

It's shorthand journalism to define each decade by a catchphrase--the Roaring Twenties, the swingin' '60s, the Me decade '70s. Five years into the 21st century, we're in trouble. The current decade doesn't even have a nickname (the zeros? the aughts? the uh-ohs?), let alone a cultural personality. And Hollywood isn't helping. The film industry, especially in the four-month peak-viewing period called summer, rarely tries squarely addressing Zeitgeist anxieties. Instead it ransacks its attic for sequels, spin-offs and, this year, remakes. You don't look forward to many of the new season's blockbuster hopefuls. You look backward.

For studios, of course, it's about the money. "The remake, the sequel of an established success, the something familiar," says Jason Squire, editor of The Movie Business Book, "is a way to more readily sell the movie to a global audience." But that global audience is us. Studios wouldn't spend so much money making and marketing these familiar products if we weren't buying. Summer has long been our most escapist season, when we kick sand in reality's sour face and swim in the fantasy that movie magic makes so persuasive. What has changed in the past few years is that instead of escaping into novelty (that shark! that spaceship! that dinosaur!), we now flee to the familiar. Perhaps it's because the repetition of a fairy tale--or one told from a different angle--validates an underlying message: that in a world full of knotty menace, someone who cares will always be there to tell us the same story and rock us into sweet dreams.

So here, this summer, come a dozen or more remakes. That word makes producers uneasy. They say an old film has been rethought or reimagined. We say if you're not exploiting the old brand name, give your film another title. Otherwise, it's a remake.

Front runner in the summer sweepstakes is War of the Worlds, for which Steven Spielberg has added his patented parent-and-imperiled-child theme to H.G. Wells' alien-invasion novel, memorably filmed in 1953. Tim Burton has imposed his lovable eccentricity on the Roald Dahl children's book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with Johnny Depp replacing Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka. In 1974, Burt Reynolds starred as the football-playing con in The Longest Yard; now he supports Adam Sandler and Chris Rock in their replay. And if your memory of Herbie, the Disney Love Bug, is as rusty as the fender of a '68 Volkswagen, strap yourself in (next to Lindsay Lohan) for Herbie: Fully Loaded.

Believing that people will pay $9 for what they used to get for free, moviemakers are updating and inflating old TV shows--from Bewitched (Nicole Kidman) to The Honeymooners, with Cedric the Entertainer in the Ralph Kramden role. "We try to stay true to the main theme," says Cedric, "which is this guy dreaming of a bigger life for his family and always doing it by some kind of get-rich-quick scheme." Want to see what Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have been doing onscreen? Catch them as rival government hit men in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, suggested by the 1996 CBS sitcom with Scott Bakula and Maria Bello. A remake of The Bad News Bears was nearly inevitable: that one was three movies and a TV series.

Marvel Comics' Fantastic Four, about a quartet of mutant superheroes, has been three TV series and a movie. Now Tim Story (Barbershop) tries to please both fans and civilians. The tricky thing about a comic-book franchise is that if you make a movie pure enough for the cultists, it may confuse Joe Multiplex. "I remember when the fans found out Spider-Man wasn't going to have web shooters," Story says. "It was like a march on Washington. But the spirit of Spider-Man was captured, and so they relinquished that fight. I'm kind of in the same boat. It's about trying to capture the spirit. I can't fit 40 years of comic books into two hours."

Then there's the resuscitating of the rumbustious rednecks in a new Dukes of Hazzard. Lest you think a big-screen Dukes has no social import, Bill Gerber, the film's producer, explains the project's inspirational gestation. "After 9/11," he says, "I wanted to come up with a real red-blooded Americana movie. And I thought, A movie about the Dukes of Hazzard is exactly what I'm talking about." Director Jay Chandrasekhar insisted that the film have "three things at its core. The car has got to fly. The Dukes had to be tough and rebellious. Daisy has got to be funny and look great in those shorts." So they Flubberized the car, cast two paragons of rudeness--Seann William (Stifler) Scott and Johnny (Jackass) Knoxville--as Bo and Luke Duke and poured Jessica Simpson into torn hot pants. Hell, that should rankle Osama bin Laden. The national healing begins Aug. 5.

An offshoot of the remake is the prequel, which takes a famous character and asks, How'd he get that way? George Lucas has traced his signature hero and villain back to their boyhoods--Indy with the Young Indiana Jones TV series, Darth Vader with three Star Wars episodes. But the megamovie template for a coming-of-age fantasy saga is the 2002 Spider-Man, which earned $800 million worldwide and spawned its own robust franchise. If the strategy works, it feeds Hollywood's itch to be endlessly self-derivative. First comes the remake--or, in mogul-speak, the reimagining--then the sequels. If it doesn't work, the result is The Hulk or Catwoman, two pricey flops for which their studios should issue not sequels but apologies. Or the 1994 film of The Fantastic Four, which has never been released in any format.

Studios will try anything new--like putting an indie-minded director on a big project--as long as it has been done before. Sony Pictures hit it big pairing Spider-Man with Sam Raimi and then hit the fan when it mated The Hulk with Ang Lee. Now Christopher Nolan, best known for his twisty art thriller Memento, gets a shot with Batman Begins. He says all he borrowed from the franchise was Batman himself, and even this Batman will be a mystery to fans. "I saw a small gap in pop-culture movie history," Nolan says, "the film where Batman explains his origin, the definitive account of his journey from Bruce Wayne to Batman. It's a unique opportunity to make a film about a character the audience knows and loves while doing a story that has never been told before and to do it your own way."

So, everything old is new again? In Hollywood, it always has been. In the dream factory's prime, when the major companies cranked out 40 to 50 movies a year and there were no TV or video markets to extend a movie's shelf life, studios briskly recycled many of their properties. RKO filmed Raymond Chandler's novel Farewell, My Lovely as an episode of the low-budget Falcon series in 1942 and then remade it as an A picture (Murder, My Sweet) two years later. In predigital days, directors like Cecil B. DeMille, Leo McCarey and Alfred Hitchcock didn't go back and "improve" their old movies, as Lucas did with Star Wars or Spielberg with E.T. They simply remade them 15 or 20 years later.

The difference between then and now is that moviemakers used to rely on other media--novels and plays--for most of their stories. These days, when few novels or plays are filmed, Hollywood must gaze into its past, big screen and small. Or raid the vaults of some other national cinema. Currently it's Japan's, with Shall We Dance, The Ring, The Grudge and this summer's Jennifer Connelly deep-creepie, Dark Water.

It could be said that nostalgia drives modern Hollywood. Middle-aged directors and moguls look back at the icons of their youth and think the next best thing to reliving their youth is remaking it. "Movie people these days are people who were very influenced by pop culture," says Hazzard producer Gerber. "And our tastes gravitate toward what I call comfort programming. It's why sometimes you want to go to A&W root beer. Starsky and Hutch? The Lord of the Rings? These things, if you were born in the '50s and '60s, are very relevant. If I could make a Beatles movie, I'd make a Beatles movie."

But comfort programming can make studio accountants uncomfortable. Starsky and Hutch did O.K. as a Ben Stiller--Owen Wilson romp last year, but many TV blowups--like The Mod Squad, My Favorite Martian and Steve Martin's Sgt. Bilko--tanked. (Then again, Martin bringing his spin to Inspector Clouseau in this summer's remake of The Pink Panther--that has us smiling already.)

A sweet memory for a film executive may be prehistoric to the kids Hollywood wants to woo. As Chris Rock says about The Longest Yard, "It's a 30-year-old movie. The young movie audience doesn't know it even existed. For those people, [the new one] is just its own movie." Besides, he asks, what's wrong with a remake? "[Plenty of] Hendrix songs are remakes, and the first couple of Beatles albums had a lot of somebody else's songs."

Nothing's wrong with a remake--if it's a reimagining, a re-vision. But often the real motive behind these big projects is asset covering. "Executives who green-light a movie today may be at the highest levels of their divisions, but their divisions are within a complex array of other divisions in a global media empire," says Squire. "For the most expensive movies, there is a rush to security and the built-in audience of a branded title." In other words, when the stakes are high, make a safe bet--at least one that looks safe to the bosses of your conglomerate.

Maybe that's why, with the DNA of all these Jurassic projects being scrambled to create new movie monsters (and, in the case of War of the Worlds, monster movies), the film we can't wait for is 3001, a comedy-fantasy by Mike Judge (King of the Hill, Office Space), due out in August. It stars Luke Wilson as a present-day dim bulb who is put to sleep for 1,000 years and wakes up to discover he is the brightest man in an incredibly--but plausibly--dumbed-down future. Could it be that, over a millennium, people saw too many remakes, too many sequels and prequels that weren't ever equals? The only unfunny thing about Judge's premise is that it might become true.

Or not. Sometimes a remake can be as fresh as any "original" film. Burton's two Batman films had a dark, loopy grandeur, and David Cronenberg's The Fly turned a routine science-fiction film into a parable of a man facing disintegration (into cancer, AIDS, madness) and fighting for his humanity. Some of Hollywood's all-time terrific films--His Girl Friday, Some Like It Hot, the Bogart Maltese Falcon--were remakes of earlier films. So, let's all go to the movies this summer. We may pay to see the familiar and--guess what?--be astonished. --



Batman Begins

Based on The 1939 DC Comics superhero who has been constantly refashioned for TV (with Adam West and Burt Ward, above, in the ’60s) and movies

Updating technique This Batman is barely older than a boy. The movie traces teenager Bruce Wayne’s journey to Caped Crusader, perhaps to wipe audiences’ minds clear of that nipple suit

Stunt casting It’s supposed to be a classy, dark Batman, so the movie is chock-full of Oscar nominees (Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, Ken Watanabe and Tom Wilkinson)

Watch for The new bat cape, made from a special blend of kite and police-helmet fabrics

War of the Worlds

Based on The 1898 novel by H.G. Wells, as well as the 1953 movie in which whistling, stingray-shaped alien ships attack Los Angeles

Updating technique Starring Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning and set in New Jersey today, it has all the standard Spielbergian elements: high production values and children in peril

Stunt casting Ann Robinson has now appeared in three War of the Worlds: the first movie, the TV show and Spielberg’s version

Investment Cecil B. DeMille bought the rights from Wells in 1925. Paramount has owned them since

Bewitched

Based on The long-running ’60s TV show starring Elizabeth Montgomery and Dick York

Updating technique It’s a comedy of Hollywood manners. The premise is that they’re remaking the old show (Will Ferrell plays an actor playing Darrin) and they cast a real witch (played by Nicole Kidman) as Samantha

Stunt casting The film’s crew doubled as the TV show’s crew members in the movie, making them possibly the most qualified extras ever

Watch for Michael Caine (Nigel) and Shirley MacLaine (Endora), who are reunited as lovers for the first time since Gambit (1966), Caine’s first American film. For Gambit MacLaine, who starred, specifically requested him as her leading man

The Longest Yard

Based on The 1974 movie about a jailbird football team that plays against its guards

Stunt casting Lots. Burt Reynolds, right and above left, was the quarterback in the original; now he’s the coach. Also rap star Nelly (a former high school player) and lots of ex-NFL biggies

Updating technique Adam Sandler and Chris Rock, top center, got to ad-lib a lot, so, yes, it’s funnier. Plus there’s a modern-day media circus surrounding the big prisoners-vs.-guards game

Watch for The former pro players wearing their old NFL numbers

Hey, Haven’t We Met?

When working with preloved material, moviemakers try to spruce it up and make it bigger. Here are some of the freshening techniques used on this season’s reruns.

The Dukes of Hazzard

Based on The 1979-85 TV series

Refreshed by Casting two noted pranksters, Johnny Knoxville and Seann William Scott, as the brothers

Numbers Thirty General Lee muscle cars were made for the movie; 24 of them were totaled

Fantastic Four

Based on The comic and TV series

Refreshed by It’s the first live-action Four. And comic-book creator Stan Lee plays one of his creations

It’s a look It took Michael Chiklis three hours a day to put on makeup and his 25-kg latex suit

Herbie:Fully Loaded

Based on The four 1969-80 movies

Refreshed by Well, mostly by Lindsay Lohan

Repeat performance The film uses the 1963 VW Bug from the original movie. The car had retired to Ohio and been given a new engine

Bad News Bears

Based on The 1976 movie

Refreshed by Making the antics of Billy Bob Thornton even more outrageous than Walter Matthau’s were

Coulda been Thornton tried out for the Kansas City Royals, but a pitch broke his collarbone

The Pink Panther

Based on The six Peter Sellers movies

Refreshed by Gussying it up as a prequel like this summer’s Star Wars or Batman installments

A fall movie Steve Martin, who co-wrote, goes heavy on the physical comedy

The Honeymooners

Based on The 1955-56 TV series

Refreshed by Changing the race of the two couples

Not funny anymore Wife-beating gags. Ralph (Cedric the Entertainer) no longer threatens to send Alice (Gabrielle Union) “to the moon”


  09/05/2005. Time Magazine.


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