Uncredited Remakes

Icons Of Fright has a fun post up called “Ted’s” top ten uncredited remakes. “Uncredited remake” is a bit of a canard, because it implies that the “remake” knows about the original. For about 30 years, I’d heard that Alien was an uncredited remake of It! The Terror From Beyond Space!

Well, it was on recently so I finally had a chance to see it and, yeah, there are some similarities. But it’s really a thematic similarity with some superficial resemblances that might reasonably be expected to occur in any random “alien monsters kills crew of spaceship” story—which itself is basically a variant of the “Old, Dark House”.

If it’s debatable whether or not Dan O’Bannon (Alien’s screenwriter) saw It! it’s even more dubious that Predator screenwriters Jim and John Thomas derived much, if anything, from the low-budget flick Without Warning.

Now, I noted immediately that Predator had the same story as Warning, but of course nobody knew what the hell I was talking about because nobody had seen the older movie. (According to the linked article, it was never released on DVD or VHS, which boggles the mind but seems to be true.) And my observation was tongue in cheek, because it’s just a casual story similarity: Alien comes to earth to hunt humans, is stopped by a particularly feisty human. Despite the capsule at the article, there isn’t a group of hired mercenaries in the older, cheaper flick, just…Jack Palance!

Without Warning itself seems to have been inspired, visually, by “Star Trek”. The alien looks like the big-brained guys in “The Menagerie” and it throws little Frisbee-esque parasitic creatures that look like they’re from “Operation: Annihilate”.

And when I say “look like,” I mean it looks like the crew busted into the prop warehouses at Paramount and stole the FX from the mothballed “Star Trek” show.

Both movies are sort of cornucopias of cheese, though. (Cornucopias of cheese?) Without Warning features Larry Storch as a scoutmaster and may be the feature debut of none other than David Caruso.

The triple-threat of WW, though is: Cameron Mitchell, Martin Landau and Jack Palance, all of whom probably figured they were on the downward sides of their careers. Cameron Mitchell would have been right but both Landau and Palance would go on to win Oscars well after this movie. Landau for his role as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood, and Palance for his role as Curly in City Slickers.

And Ted thought he didn’t have a life.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

The Flower demanded to be taken to a movie, having decided last week that this week was going to be the very best of her life. (To date, people. Don’t get morbid on me.) She wanted to see Planet 51, which her girlfriend had seen and liked, while I was trying to steer her to the Uncanny Valley that isthe new A Christmas Carol retelling. I didn’t really want to see either, but I had somewhat higher hopes for the latter.

But then The Fantastic Mr. Fox came out.

Roald Dahl is extremely popular around here, owing to my love of him as a child. Danny, The Champion of the World was and remains one of my favorite stories of all time. I’ve read all of Dahl’s children’s works out loud to the kids (in succession) and so far all have been hits.

I’m fairly confident Dahl would have absolutely hated this movie.Which isn’t to say it’s a bad movie or that one won’t or shouldn’t enjoy it. (He hated the original Wonka movie, too, and while I totally understand, I still like that movie. I’m pretty sure he would’ve hated the remake even more.)

But this isn’t a Roald Dahl movie, it’s a Wes Anderson movie. Now, I’m not sure where this trend of quirky, arty directors making children’s movies started, nor why, but the one thing that is for certain is that you can’t really get a good read on how good or bad such a movie is going to be from the reviews. Auteurs have rabid fans and adoring critics.

So, just as I’m unlikely to consider Where The Wild Things Are an 8/10, as IMDB would have it because of my general uneasiness about Spike Jonze, you should be aware that this is, first and foremost a Wes Anderson movie. If you don’t like Anderson, you won’t like this movie.

Because this is exactly like his other movies, only filmed in stop-motion animation. Same cast. Same blocking. Same shots. Same character conflicts. Same characters. Same music. Same pacing.

I kind of like Wes Anderson. I like the quirkiness of Rushmore, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited. At the same time, I’m having a hard time imagining someone saying, “Yeah, this guy would be perfect for making a children’s movie.”

Let me dissect the experience for you a bit. The movie is stop-motion animation, as mentioned. But it reminds less of slick productions like Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline, and a little more of Aardman productions like Night of the Were-Rabbitand Chicken Run. But the animation doesn’t rise to that level of warmth, even of the fake-stop-motion of Flushed Away.

We’re not talking Rankin-Bass holiday special cheap, or anything like that. But it’s a little jarring at first. I got used to it fairly quickly, but even at the end found Mr. Fox’s full body shots ugly and lacking in mass. (Bad CGI makes everything look weightless. But almost all stop-motion has the same issue of looking like very light dolls being moved around. Which of course is what’s going on.)

But, okay. Low budget’s never been a problem here.

So, right off the bat you have George Clooney as Mr. Fox, which is how I would’ve cast it. Except I would have liked to see him do a little voice instead of just using the same voice he always uses. Something more Cary Grant, as Mr. Fox is a dashing rogue.

I liked Mrs. Fox’s voice but never picked it out as Meryl Streep. Of course I recognized Bill Murray, too. But when I realized the son was Jason Schwarzman, I knew that all I had to do was figure out who Owen Wilson, Roman Coppola and Adrien Brody were playing.

Still, the voice acting is fine.

The music reminded me greatly of Darjeeling and it works very well here.

Anderson’s blocking and camera style are hit-and-miss for a children’s movie. The shot where he has one character far in front, and another behind you can’t see until the one behind leans out to say something—that’s a cute shot that works well. And his habit of running the camera over a large set with many rooms that show what various characters are doing at the same time is as effective here as it ever is.

But one of his most characteristic shots is just a tight close-up on a face. Often with a character looking forlorn. The animation isn’t quite up to it and it’s such an odd, static shot for a kids’ movie anyway.

All of this is sort of movie-geek stuff. As is noting all the influences of other movies (besides Anderson’s own). Most people aren’t going to notice or care much.

Less geeky, however, is noting that the Wes Anderson-ification of the story basically turns it around 180 degrees from the original. Anderson loves difficult parental figures who are more obsessed with their own grandeur than their progeny. But with the exception of Matilda, where parents are found in Dahl’s stories, they are doting, and generally do what they can to help their children build their self-esteem (through actual actions, of course).

So this story concerns the son’s inability to live up to his father’s ideals, while his father dotes on a visiting cousin.

No, really. That’s the emotional center of the movie. The movie’s Mr. Fox is far more neurotic and far less charming than the book’s Mr. Fox. Fox’s son takes out his frustration on the visiting cousin, also something Dahl would not have approved of. His good characters were good, and I’m sure the scene in the ’70s Wonka movie where Charlie and Grandpa Joe cheat is what pissed him off.

As much as it felt inappropriate to me, I’m sure this kind of nuance is responsible for some people gushing over the movie.

The other thing Dahl would’ve hated by the way, was the adult humor. I don’t mean sexual humor, but humor that was aimed squarely at the adults and designed to leave the kids scratching their heads. I don’t think this is Anderson trying to market his movie or anything, it’s just the way he works.

But Dahl insisted the secret to a good kid’s book was to enlist the children in a conspiracy against adults. That’s what he did. And the better adults in his books were the ones who could join in.

This might sound like I hated the movie myself, but I really didn’t. I thought it was okay. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a director imposing himself on a story; that’s what they do. (Although I would have preferred Burton not bring his daddy issues to Wonka.)

The kids? The Flower liked it okay, as did The Boy. The laughs were light but not infrequent. They weren’t enamored of the animation but they weren’t turned off by it either. If they were bugged at all by the mature-themed plot points, they didn’t mention it.

But they weren’t blown away by a long shot. For some reason, I’m thinking of the ultimate reviewer’s line “People who like this sort of thing will find that this is the sort of thing they’ll like.”

The thing about a movie like this, if you do go see it and you don’t know where you stand vis-a-vis wes Anderson, is to remember to ignore the gushing. Reviews have been ridiculously positive for this movie. Families are going to love it! It’s better than Pixar!

In reality, it’s a modest, quirky film made on a modest quirky budget. I suspect it won’t do very well at all, frankly. But it can be enjoyable—if you like this sort of thing.

Ahoy, Mate! Pirate Radio!

I avoided the ‘60s love-fest Pirate Radio for its first few weeks because, well, it’s a ’60s love-fest. It’s not that love-notes to bygone eras are bad. Hollywood’s love affair with the Gilded Age lasted into the ’60s and produced some of my favorite movies. (That’s 30 years of nostalgia!)

Rather than compare and contrast turn-of-the-century nostalgia in the ’40s to ’60s nostalgia today, though, I’ll just stay focused on this particular movie, the Richard Curtis (writer/director of Love Actually) pic The Boat That Rocked. Or, as it’s known here in the States, Pirate Radio, with distributors perhaps hoping for a Disney tie-in. (Pirate Radio of the Carribean, anyone?)

Pirate Radio is sort of an Almost Famous on the high seas. (If even has Philip Seymour Hoffman!) Basically, a teenage boy is sent by his mom to live on a ship that’s anchored off of England in order to supply Britain with desperately needed rock music. (Government-controlled radio won’t play any of it. To paraphrase one character, “That’s the point of being the government. If you don’t like something, you can pass a law to make it illegal.”)

So, there’s your story: coming age plus the renegade cool cats versus the squares in government. Neither of these stories is done very well. No, strike that. It’s not that they’re done poorly at all, it’s that they’re barely done.

But you know, I’ve never seen Almost Live—a generally highly regarded movie—a second time, and yet I might watch this again.

The very thing that kept me away from this movie was a fear that it might be self-important. A rock-saves-the-world motif. And of course, not really the rock ‘n’ roll that my dad’s generation dug, but that high ’60s stuff which some people earnestly maintain was the Best Music In The History Of The World. And all, like, socially relevant ‘n’ stuff. And that this would be contrasted with social repression, brought down by titans of social change who set themselves against…well, you get the idea.

To hearken back briefly to Hollywood’s love of the Gilded Age, as if the great things of that era were the result of Ragtime.

This movie does none of that. It’s really just a series of vignettes and character interactions punctuated with brief montages of people listening to the radio.

What a relief.

The guys on the boat are half-defiant, half-loser, whose defining characteristic is their love of music. This seems reasonable. Musicians aren’t really revolutionaries—and these guys wouldn’t have been crossing swords with the government had the government not created (let’s be honest) a black market for rock.

It’s kind of interesting to watch the twisting of the movie’s villain as he comes up with various ways to make pirate radio illegal. It reminds one that governments claim all sort of “reasonable” power which they then used to stamp out things they just plain don’t like.

But it’s not exactly historical. Even the sampling of music is probably a bit ahistorical. (The opening of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is part of the soundtrack—but not as a record, only to punctuate a dramatic scene. What would we do without Pete Townsend?) This may have been to avoid a lot of the seriously overused tracks. Also, no Beatles. (Beatles songs almost never seem to be in movies that aren’t Beatle-centric.)

Again, though, this is really at the level of your average low-budget coming-of-age tale with good music. It’s better than most because it’s consistently funny. Also, acting. We have Kenneth Branagh as the evil minister of musical correctness, or whatever the hell his position is, with his ex-wife Emma Thompson as the mom of Carl (played by Tom Sturridge). I didn’t recognize either of them.

Fans of the BBC show “Spaced” will recognize Nick Frost, in a (once again) completely different character. This time he’s a rock ‘n’ roll Lothario. Really! I marvel over Frost because he doesn’t consider himself a real actor. Which tells you something about the English versus Americans. Here, a guy who gets to be famous repeating a catchphrase in a sitcom thinks he’s ready for Hamlet next. There, the guy probably has done Hamlet, and still considers himself not quite legit.

Finally, there’s Bill Nighy. Ever see the second two Pirates of the Caribbean movies? Nighy played Davy Jones. Those movies would’ve been ten times better with more Nighy. In the Underworld movies? He was King of the Vampires or somesuch. Those movies aren’t very good, but they’d have been a millions times better with more Nighy. Love, Actually features him in the washed-up rock ‘n’ roll star role, singing his old song naked.

Good movie. Needed more Nighy.

You know that movie Precious, about the black girl with the poor self-esteem and crappy home life? Bill Nighy isn’t in that, I don’t think. I haven’t seen it. But it’d have been better with more Bill Nighy.

The Boy was pleased. The movie kept him laughing, and that was quite welcome.

Go in understanding what it is, and what it isn’t, and you can have yourself a good time.

Saw VI: This Time It’s Political

At this point, we must concede that the Jigsaw Killer, Jonathan Kramer, must certainly have spent more of his life setting up his murderous little games than any other activity. And that the amounts of money involved to play them are staggering.

Which makes one wonder if he might have done something more productive with his time and money.

Anyway, we have here the sixth entry in the notorious movie franchise.

And while I defend these movies as not being torture porn, I have to admit, when this one started I thought, “Well, that’s a bit much.”


Now, Saw suffers from the the same problem every successful horror movie does: The demand for sequels far exceeds the planning of the people who wrote the original. Sort of queerly in the case of the Saw series—which uniquely (I think) has had one release every year for six years—each entry has to do some retconning. I say “queer” because I think movies 2-5 were a done deal after the first one, and #7 seems to be guaranteed. In other words, you could do some planning.

And, in fairness, the Saws’ retconning has been rather mild up till this movie.

In case you’re not familiar with the premise, John Kramer is an engineer who entraps people he feels are wasting their lives by constructing elaborate and horrific traps they must escape, in an attempt to give them a new appreciation for life. (Oh, and he’s been dead for half the series, and lives only through the elaborate plans he set up in advance.)

Well, that’s the original premise. Jigsaw’s mission has drifted away from that pure idea to where he’s been trying to teach forgiveness, cooperation, anger management, and so on.

The other drift that has occurred is that the original motivation for Jigsaw was anger over his own life. He had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and so felt it unfair that others didn’t appreciate what they had—what had been taken from him.

Now, to me, the thing that sets the series apart from the typical slashers (besides the generally above par suspense and plotting), is empathy. The characterizations in most slashers are weak: They’re just fodder. Their personalities are largely irrelevant.

In this series, the victims’ personalities are the killer’s prime motivation. (And not stupid things like having premarital sex and smoking pot.) Infidelity, violence, depression, selfishness and so on, are the flaws that Jigsaw tries to correct with his unique brand of therapy.

In the third installment, for example, the morose father gets the option of killing or saving the people he holds responsible for the death of his child and the subsequent injustices. To add injury to insult, he can only save them by enduring considerable duress. It’s a sort of high drama, compressed into a very determinate, short time period.

This is a huge part (in my mind) as to why the movies work, when they do work.

Saw VI has the unfortunate added burden of a political message. And this message completely struggles against the established precedent of the previous movies.

You see, in Saw VI, John Kramer targets insurance company employees!

Even if you accept the premise (which cheerfully skips around the general success of the insurance industry by noting offhand the millions of people insurance works for) that these guys (and everyone who works for them) are pure evil, the movie undermines itself and the entire series in two big ways.

First of all, there’s a scene where John goes to Insurance Guy because he’s found an exotic treatment for his cancer. Naturally, he’s refused, and on top of that threatened with having his coverage dropped if he goes and does it himself.

Well, on the one hand, how would they know? But more importantly, we know John has tons of money. In fact, they even point that out, by saying the treatment he’s getting now could wipe him out financially, to which he says “Money is not the issue.”

Y’see, it’s a matter of principle. So the guy who’s gone around for five movies putting people in horrendous situations to gauge their love of life doesn’t bother to take a mild risk to save his own life? Really?

Second of all, there is a “test” in this movie completely different from every other in the series’ history: An innocent character is given the chance to kill someone.

In every previous case where someone playing a game has had the opportunity to kill, doing so meant their own death. (Y’see, Jigsaw teaches tolerance and forgiveness with all his hacksaws and barbed wires.) But in this movie, it’s fairly clear that killing is just peachy! One presumes that not-killing would be okay, too, but it’s not entirely clear.

Worst of all, this otherwise well plotted movie struggles because you’re obviously meant to hate the insurance exec, but the formula requires us to empathize with the victims at some level. As a result, the exec comes off very human and really, very decent. (His employees, to a man, are completely one dimensional monsters, which is rather weak, too.) Actor Peter Outerbridge, while capable of seeming like an unctuous sleaze, is a little too deep and human to make us feel like he deserves his torture.

So, the whole thing ends up ass-over-tea cart.

There was much swearing from The Boy who liked the movie except for the weird imposition of politics onto it.

And it’s a shame, because it’s otherwise the strongest entry since #3. Good pacing, good characterization (with the noted exceptions), clever and interesting “games"—notably bad lighting, however, and maybe a slightly cheaper feel over all.

Costas Mandylor (of the perpetual trout pout) is back in this movie, doing Jigsaw’s dirty work, with an especially brutal flair, and providing one of the movie’s two big twists (setting up the sequel).

Shawnee Smith (who died several movies back) re-appears in flashbacks, as of course does the Jigsaw himself, Tobin Bell. Weirdly, Athena Karkaris, who took a face full of death a movie or two ago ends up having gotten better, though not for any reason I can figure out. (The series’ tendency to kill everyone makes it hard to establish much continuity, so they keep resurrecting minor characters.)

Happily, the wonderful Betsy Russell is back. Though it seems to me her character has drifted over the movies, again I think due to the fact that not many characters survive from one film to the next. She seemed to be pretty appalled by her ex-husband’s behavior when we first met her, but gradually seems to have warmed to the whole serial murder thing.

I’m not sure if this soured us to the next one. This one we waited till it was only $3/ticket. I’m guessing the next one won’t have any political agenda, however.

The Maid

I never feel so quintessentially American as when the topic of “help” comes up. The whole concept of hired live-in help feels wrong to me, at least as a separate class. I’m not even all that comfortable with hiring someone to come in to clean the house.

At least, I think that’s American. Maybe it’s Western. In any event, it’s very me.

And this newish Chilean import La Nana (The Maid) brings up all the uncomfortable-ness and throws it into sharp relief.

Catalina Saavedra plays Raquel, who’s been in service to a family for over 20 years, cleaning the house and raising the children. Also, she seems to be increasingly recalcitrant, though we’re not entirely positive of this since we don’t see any past stuff. Maybe she was always way?

When the story opens, we see the family throwing a birthday party for Raquel, which she doesn’t want to attend. But the oldest boy (Lucas) drags her in and she shares in the cake. But the awkwardness is palpable. The father (Mundo) excuses himself to go work (build a model ship), and Raquel barely tastes the cake before deciding she should do the dishes. The mother (Pilar) tries to insist that she not do them now but she points out that she’d only have to do them later.

The catalyst that moves the story along is a condition that causes Raquel to have bad headaches, and to occasionally swoon. Pilar has been toying with the idea of getting help for Raquel, because the house is so big anyway—an idea that Raquel hates—and soon there’s a new maid helping out.

Along the way, we discover all the strange family dynamics that Raquel is in the middle of. Though interestingly, most of the strangeness seems to emanate from Raquel herself.

I never really knew how this movie was going to play out. It’s supposed to be a “black comedy” but I don’t get why, really. It’s not a comedy at all, from what I experienced, but a quirky drama. It’s got funny parts, most of which stem from this awkward intimacy—the covert ways that Raquel makes her displeasure known and gets her way against the wishes of the rest of the family.

I liked it. It’s a bit slow, but it’s also curiously upbeat, and you do come to have a strange affection for the character. I’m not sure if there’s something uniquely Chilean that makes it resonate particularly for them; I’d just call it an interesting little movie.

The Boy liked it as well, but he didn’t think it was very funny and a little slow.