Friday, June 4, 2010

What's wrong with contemporary Hollywood, Part 2

"The Problem of Remakes and Sequels"

Shrek Forever After. Sex and the City 2. Iron Man 2. Robin Hood. The A-Team. The Karate Kid. Toy Story 3. Is it just me, or do this summer's movie offerings carry a distinct whiff of "been-there-done-that"? Is it getting harder to find a movie potentially worth seeing, that is neither a sequel to an earlier film nor a remake, "re-envisioning," or "reboot" of an older movie or TV show?

I should point out, before I go too far, that remakes and sequels are not necessarily bad in and of themselves, nor are they unique to contemporary Hollywood. Remakes, for instance: in the 1930s and early 1940s, studios looked back at their output in the very early '30s, the dawn of the Talkies, wrinkled their noses at the primitive technology of just a few years before, and said to themselves, "I'll bet if we made it again now, with our superior sound technology, we could make it better." In some cases, they weren't far wrong. I haven't seen the 1930 version of The Dawn Patrol, but I can say that the 1938 remake, starring Errol Flynn and David Niven, is a fine film. Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon was adapted for film three times in ten years -- first in 1930, then in 1936, and once again in 1940; it's generally acknowledged that the 1940 version, starring Humphrey Bogart and Sydney Greenstreet, is the definitive adaptation, the undisputed classic. Even after the craze of "let's-remake-those-primitive-early-talkies" passed, some remakes continued to be high-quality. Alfred Hitchcock remade his own 1934 film, The Man Who Knew Too Much, in 1956; while I'm partial to the earlier film (largely because Peter Lorre stars in it), many film buffs prefer the '56 version. A Star is Born was first filmed in 1937 but got its definitive version in 1954 (though the less said about the 1970s remake, the better). A fair number of film fans like 1957's An Affair to Remember at least as well as the original 1939 Love Affair. So remakes don't have to be bad. What makes the difference between a remake that equals or even surpasses its original, and one we'd rather forget?

It is not, as many think, the remake's closeness to the original in terms of dialogue and setting. Gus Van Sant attempted a scene-for-scene remake of 1960's Psycho, and despite (or perhaps because of) the duplication, this remake has gone down in recent film history as an unqualified disaster. What was the remake missing? What are so many of these revamps of classics often missing?

Attempts to be faithful to the letter of the original are likely to fail. But it helps if those remaking an older film, particularly a classic, can at least wrap their minds around the spirit, the soul of the original, and understand what made it a memorable film. Remakes can't duplicate the spirit of an earlier film any more than the letter, but if the writers and directors are guided by an understanding of that spirit, they're more likely to put their finger on how to make the story work for a contemporary audience. Recent remakes of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and The Day the Earth Stood Still conspicuously lacked this understanding; accordingly, they tanked. Honestly, who got the idea that Adam Sandler was the modern era's Gary Cooper, or that Keanu Reeves could make an adequate substitute for Michael Rennie? In the 1936 Frank Capra film, Longfellow Deeds is naive but wise, and emerges as a hero; Sandler's Deeds is a fool throughout. Michael Rennie is stalwart and strong as the alien Klaatu; Reeves is a mere mannequin. Similarly, I don't hold out much hope for the upcoming remake of The Karate Kid, because in the teasers I've seen, Jaden Smith exudes 'tude, whereas in the original, the underdog Ralph Macchio has a sweetness about him, and we root unreservedly for this nice guy to finish first.

If Hollywood must remake, revamp, re-envision, or reboot older material, it's better off doing what it's doing this summer: sticking with material from the 1980s. Today's filmmakers are more likely to understand the spirit and soul of something like The A-Team than something like Casablanca; after all, these filmmakers actually lived through the '80s. However, the problem remains: we've seen it before. Classic Hollywood could get away with remakes because more films were made per year; we got more remakes, but we also got more original material. In contemporary Hollywood, where we see far fewer films per year, we can't afford so many remakes. I know I can't be the only one getting impatient for something new.

Like remakes, sequels aren't necessarily bad. Some sequels manage to surpass their originals. 1935's The Bride of Frankenstein is more admired by today's cinephiles than 1930's Frankenstein, though both are good films. Most fans of the Star Wars films name the second film, The Empire Strikes Back, as the best. More recently, Toy Story 2 and The Dark Knight proved at least as good as their originals; some fans like them even better. X-Men United, the second of three films in the series, is lauded as superior to both its original and its sequel. I'm not a fan of Iron Man 2, but plenty of reputable critics liked it.

So where's the problem with sequels? For me, it's a simple matter of understanding the components of a good story. Good stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. When a movie strikes box-office gold, the powers in Hollywood deny that movie's plot the right to an ending. Like American television shows (and often to the same bad effect), they have to keep going and going. Even the best studios are falling prey to sequel fever. Proverbial and literal wild horses could not stop me from going to see Toy Story 3, and The Incredibles cries out for a sequel, but with plans for sequels to Cars and Monsters, Inc. (two stories that came to suitable ends) in the works, Pixar Studios may destroy its own reputation as the one studio in Hollywood that has never released a bad film. Its rival animation studio, Dreamworks, has long since succumbed to sequel fever. The first Shrek film offered a funny, moving tale that managed to parody and salute fairy tales at the same time, not an easy feat. But with each successive sequel the charm has diminished. The first sequel had its moments, but the third was disastrous, killing my taste for a fourth. And all the sequels forgot the most important thing: the story had finished! Dreamworks's Spring 2010 release, How to Train Your Dragon, is actually better than even the first Shrek, and it comes to an enormously satisfying conclusion. Now, thanks to high box-office returns, the studio plans to blast that conclusion with a sequel.

Unlike remakes, sequels to popular films are almost sure-fire box-office successes, and, of course, this is, and has always been, Hollywood's bottom line. Is the proliferation of remakes and sequels a sign that the studios are fresh out of original ideas, or are those studios simply giving the public what it wants? (I suspect it may be a combination of both.) If we're going to see any change in the picture, then we, the moviegoing public, have to demand more of Hollywood. As Charlotte Bronte asserts, "It is vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility"; we want action, in fiction as in life. We have to let them know, with our box-office dollars, that we're hungry for something new and different. We want to be taken to new worlds; we want the thrill of discovery, and we should not be forced to settle for the comfort of familiarity.

Enough already with the "been-there-done-that."

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