Monday, January 24, 2011

Lethal Weapon, Bad Santa, and Jerry Lewis remakes?

Hey, remember that movie, "Rounders?" That low-key, slow, really boring poker film from 1998? Did you ever want to go back to that world of senseless, failed NYC law students and secret gambling dens? Me neither, but Miramax is looking to make a sequel anyway.

Wasn't that riveting?

Re-makes? I know - I've written about this before; just look at the Remake-itis label. Sometimes I even write in favor of remakes. Every studio and exec is on this bandwagon, really, and they've been on it for a while. Still, I have to wonder just how far it's going to go.

I say that, in the end, creating a good movie - much less a re-make or sequel - comes down to stories and characters. You flirt with disaster when you do otherwise. Or when you mistake audiences' familiarity with a re-used name and story as a way to succeed...

Getting to it: Over the past week, there's been a bit of re-make news. Starting with the most recent, we have Thursday's announcement that Warner Bros. is looking to remake "The Dirty Dozen," "The Wild Bunch," "Tarzan," and "Lethal Weapon." Maybe they should just call it "re-monetizing."

Starring Rob Pattinson and Will Smith? In 3-D?

Clearly, there are "stories" and "characters" among those titles. But there's no guarantee that either will really appear in the new pictures. It's all packaging. It's all demographics.

 You can see it in the first two selections. Decision-makers are aware that "big-cast combat" movies like "The Expendables" and "Inglorious Basterds" are in right now. "Tarzan" is a timeless story and character - enough, really, that it's been recently used for popular kids' cartoons and British dramas.

This summer, Josh Brolin is Pike?

"Lethal Weapon" is even less sensible. It was a funny-but-brutally hardcore action ride, with two extremely charismatic actors as do-gooder opposites. It was a "buddy cop" freak twist on "The Defiant Ones," really; they just replaced racism with insanity.  What does a "Lethal Weapon" re-make mean?

It means that studios have lost faith in getting Mel Gibson and/or Danny Glover to do this again. It almost certainly means Warner Bros. will make the laughable mistake of going "younger" with this. Look at many of the film ads out there - the studios generally aim low in age, low in standards.

Here, the result may turn the "LW" story into something with 24-30 year-old leads. Does that sound like fun? A 26 year-old vet who's widowed and suicidal? Getting along with a different-race, older partner who sees him as a potential time-bomb? While in extreme danger that threatens their dearest?

I don't want to see that again; the first time was easily good enough. What would be the age of Danny Glover's replacement here? 36? And I guess Riggs would've fought in Iraq?

Warner, don't you have the common sense to know: that story worked at the time, and might not work now? I wouldn't blame you for making a whole new story that might be similar to "LW." If you make it unique and high quality, it might even be the start of its own franchise. Y'know, like "Lethal Weapon" was.

I almost forgot the funniest part - they might also reboot the "Oh God" movies. Yes, the flix that starred George Burns. Even though most any religious movie is controversial now. Who could fill Burns' considerable shoes? Is Morgan Freeman a gimme here or a joke?...

The hits keep on coming, however. They get a little more silly each time. This Tuesday, Variety reported that Jerry Lewis' back-catalog is going to be re-made. The idea is even more absurd - not just because few people can replicate Lewis' unique appeal. We all know the "annoying" versus "funny" debate is endless...

The problem lies in the companies that bought the rights from Paramount. The buyers want to make a franchise out of each movie - The Bellboy, Cinderfella, and The Family Jewels. They aren't thinking about 3 films that have to re-capture the slapstick, wit, and silliness of Jerry Lewis comedies. They're talking about at least 6.

It's just stupid. Those three titles are all "story properties;" given the business approach, it's the only good name for them. As with "LW," the whole idea is that you, the viewing audience have seen or heard of the original. That vague (or fanatical) awareness of the name means that the revenue will automatically go up by X%. Ridley Scott is working on a "Monopoly" movie!

It seems unwise and cheap to assume solid profits from name brand alone. Same goes for planning a franchise from the start (without e.g., Peter Jackson). The different expectations make it much harder to find success. Now the first picture's reception will have to justify the second film's creation.

Financially, that seems both greedy and short-sighted. Assuming a sequel means you're certain that box office results might reach the "sequel-worthy" level. Nothing is guaranteed, even with the most popular names. I don't need to cite examples of studio misfires, do I? Odds are you've seen at least a few of them.

You're making a picture - a story told with images. You start by making a good story and filming it well; then you see if you can make more just like the first one. Don't put the cart in front of the horse; you won't get anywhere.

Even worse, there's no public outcry for these tales - no one "needs" or "wants" these stories. I refused to watch any September 11th movie, because I knew they had nothing to say to me. I still accepted that a film of those events may actually have "helped some people heal." I think it's silly, but I can look at the bandwagon and not hate it.

So why do so many of these re-make selections lack even a bandwagon? Why go for what nobody wanted? Because it's incrementally cheaper to buy? Because "forgotten" popular stories lower the standards for your success? Because you think you'll make a mint from "Godzilla?"

If you want to read about this same terrible excess, only applied to sequels, we can go back to the end of last year. As of December 16, 2010, the word went out: Miramax is looking to add numbers to some unexpected titles. No really, get this: Sequels for "Shakespeare in Love," "Bad Santa," and "Rounders." If you know anything about any of those movies, you know how bad an idea this is.

"Shakespeare Still in Love?" "Shakespeare In Lov-ier?" "Shak3sp3ar3 2: 3D?"

Let's start with "SiL." What's supposed to happen in the sequel? Is it gonna star Fiennes and Paltrow? Is William S. gonna fall in love again? Are we going to get another trip through 1600s London as random moments and events inspire "The Merry Wives of Windsor?" Or "The Tempest?" Where do you go after the end of that first movie?

The same problem applies to "Bad Santa," even though I'd love more demented fun like that pic. The story of Billy Bob Thornton's self-hating con-man was handled in a uniquely-nasty way that came to a good and natural (and actually a little touching) close. So would BBT go back to being a con-man? One who dresses like Santa to commit crimes? Would they simply get another actor to play an angry drunk who robs like BBT's role did?

Will he rob the White House at X-Mas? Is Peter Dinklage his new partner?

Let's finish where we started - with "Rounders." It was filmed when the poker craze started to really hit the US. It featured two great young actors, Tim Norton and Matt Damon. Like I said above, it was a slow and boring movie. And creating a sequel to this story is obviously pointless.

I didn't like this flick at all. The character arc involved a former poker con (Damon) now turned into a top 1% law student. When an old gambling partner (Norton) comes back, our card shark gets sucked in again by his crooked, screw-up pal. The message? Our hero learns that all that law stuff was him being fake and he should stick to poker. No, for real - don't better yourself, don't go legit, don't go to grad school.

Damon never(?) acts badly, but he was an unconvincing law student. The set-up to his story - that whole "my new/old life" thing - felt thin and insubstantial. The "development" of that story doesn't show thematic sensibilities, so it's just a series of forced plot moments. I'm talking about how our hard-working legal genius is turned around and makes compromising choices.

But we don't really see how hard-working this student is (aren't movies awful about that?). And as for "legal genius?" We only know this because people praising Matt's role. I guess we're also supposed to believe this because Damon reads his lines with conviction. That didn't cut it, either. So him being a law student really meant nothing to the narrative. I guess law students were popular in '98?

Wow, that conversation was so intense. I'm tingling.

The whole picture, really, was just drawn out, tired. Maybe they all had dental surgery? John Malkovich sure didn't - he turned out one of his worst, horribly-hammy performances as a Russian mobster/poker-star who, as usual for John, can't stop talking. Norton looks like he came out of a manatee. Ugh.

Just look at my description of this movie - does it sound like something that should be done again? It's easy to sit back and criticize, perhaps. Yet, it's also really easy to criticize bad ideas. All the potential sequels and re-makes that I've outlined here lack signs of artistic sentiment. It sucks.

I guess I'd feel differently, too, if I didn't have a great counter-example. Here goes: Brad Bird has said (for years now) that there'll probably be no "The Incredibles 2." The reason isn't a lack of interest - it's that Brad Bird won't consider it unless he comes up with another good story for those characters.

This movie showed some inspiration.

Some people, at least, know restraint. I invite you to compare Brad Bird's record to that any of the folks involved in the news I've discussed today. I think you'll see that one acclaimed artist's principle is rooted in restraint, competence and dedication.

I think you might also see the other decisions seem/tend to lack exactly those things. At this rate, too much money and interest is being funneled into the mere cinematic recycling projects. I start to wonder whether, in 2011, "Bad Santa" or "Shakespeare in Love" would've been made in the first place. Why bother making anything that isn't banking off of an "established" name?


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