Dept. of Excess: The Top Five Things I Forgot to Say While Presenting My Top Five Remakes List on Filmspotting This Week
I've written at least 150 concert reviews like this one for the Washington Post in the last five years. The format is very short: 250 to 300 words is your usual allotment; sometimes more, but usually not. I'm not crazy about the level of compression that requires, but it does keep you in the happy position of having more opinions than space. I was thinking about this for the last couple of weeks as I prepared for one of the most exciting jobs that's ever come my way: the chance to guest-cohost my favorite podcast, Filmspotting, which I've praised here before. (You can listen to the episode here or get it from iTunes here. The co-hosts of the episodes immediately prior to mine were two of the sharpest film critics in the game, my friend Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune and Dana Stevens from Slate, whose writing I've long admired. So, you know, no pressure!) I don't have much on-air experience yet, so I haven't developed an awareness of how many seconds I need to express an idea verbally. But I do know broad/podcast media is very unforgiving of contemplative pauses and of digression, both of which are characteristic of the way I talk in real life.
Because I am, like Steve McQueen, a man of action, I made an effort to counter this troubling predilection of mine. For the part of the show where host Adam Kempenaar and his sidekick rank their Top Five films in the theme or genre under consideration that week -- mine was the remakes episode; the Top Five segment starts about 63 minutes into the 89-minute show -- I prepared index cards for each of the movies I'd chosen to discuss. Insurance against long-windedness, I figured: If I couldn't fit what I wanted to say on a card it was too much. [caption id="attachment_7559" align="alignright" width="300" caption="trade secret"][/caption]
Well. Perhaps I should've stuck to one side of a notecard. At any rate, here're some things I'd written down to say about each of my Top Five Remakes, but didn't have time. I think I prioritized my points more or less appropriately, meaning I got to the meat of what I like about these films on-air. The leftovers are mostly just trivia, but what the hell, the show is called Filmspotting. Join me if you dare, or care.
No. 5 True Lies: Fury vs. Fury!
Filmspotting Nation is a scholarly, supercilious lot, so I was wary of letting this James Cameron-Arnold Schwarzenegger action comedy anywhere near my list. What would Dana Stevens say about my lack of refinement? But Adam, besides being a devoted father of nine, is a leader of men. When I confessed my perturbation to him, he encouraged me to Be Not Ashamed.
I wanted to point out that the James Bond franchise had been dormant for half a decade when True Lies hit in the summer of 1994 -- it would come roaring back to life with Pierce Brosnan as Bond the following year -- and this film paid homage to that venerable spy franchise. After all, its premise is essentially, "What if James Bond had a wife and a kid?" Cameron seals the connection via a couple of visual jokes.
I'll never finish this if I keep fishing around for images to demonstrate my point, so just take my word for it: A shot in the film's opening sequence wherein Arnold swims ashore in a wetsuit, then whips it off to reveal an impossibly unruffled tuxedo underneath echoes the opening of Goldfinger, probably the most famous Bond flick, from 30 years earlier. The scene later in the film wherein Jamie Lee Curtis is made to perform a striptease for a man she does not know is actually her husband (Arnold, again) references several Bond film posters from over the decades.
It's also one of the bits that leads some observers to protest that True Lies is more horrible to women than Lars von Trier's Antichrist, among its other alleged insensitivities. Personally, I think the part where Curtis's character is called upon to pick up a gun and rescue Arnold, but she panics and fumbles the weapon, which goes off anyway and ricochets the bad guys to death without harming anyone else, is much more offensive and just, you know, dumber. Cameron defended the scene by saying he didn't want to turn her character into a killer, which is goofy considering the picture ends with a coda wherein it's presented as a lark that Arnold and Jamie Lee now ply the bloody espionage trade together as husband and wife. Cameron wrote and directed Aliens and the first two Terminator pictures between 1984 and 1991, so he was out there promoting the idea of tough, capable, and, when necessary, violent female action film leads long before Buffy or Lara Croft.
I think I boiled all this down for the radio by saying something staggeringly insightful along the lines of, "There are a few cringe-inducing moments in this film."
Another fun element for nerds is Charlton Heston's extended cameo as the director of the spy agency -- Arnold's boss. The credits list his character name as Spencer Trilby, but just look at him. That eye! That eyepatch! That fool-not-suffering attitude!
Why, he's clearly meant to be Nick Fury, director of S.H.I.E.L.D., the high-tech spy agency that has policed the Marvel Universe since the 1960s. That organization has been a a background element in the Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America films that've come marching out of Marvel Studios since 2008, and if the trailer for Joss Whedon's upcoming The Avengers is to be believed, Samuel L. Jackson, the bad motherfucker who has appeared as Fury in all those movies, will have a substantial role.
I recall some Cameron interview from the time of True Lies's release wherein he said that in casting that part he simply wanted someone who could credibly intimidate Arnold. Done and done.
Oh, for some reason I was also going to mention that despite growing up on Schwarzenegger films, I voted for Cruz Bustamante in the 2003 recall election that made Arnold the governor of California. Now you know!
No. 4 Insomnia: Dog Daze
Corruption in the Los Angeles Police Department was in the zeitgeist in a big way in 2002. Compromised cops have always been good drama, but the Rampart scandal provided a rich new vein of inspiration: Shawn Ryan's F/X series The Shield might've been the most compelling cop show ever, and Training Day was two-thirds of a great, morally complex thriller, until it got lobotomized in the last couple of reels.
I said on the air that I liked the way Christopher Nolan's remake of the 1997 Norwegian Insomnia interpolated the police corruption angle: In the original film, the detective shoots and kills his partner by mistake while pursuing a murder suspect, then implicates himself by attempting to cover up his fatal error. In Nolan's reworking (with screenwriter Hillary Seitz), the detective (now played by Al Pacino) actually has a powerful motive to want his partner out of the way, which makes the events that follow more intriguing to parse.
What I didn't have time to talk about was a minor but telling detail that distinguishes the two films. In order to pin his partner's death on the murderer he's pursuing, the detective needs to procure a bullet that bears the kind of deformities a bullet acquires in its gnarly flight through flesh and bone.
In the original Norwegian version, he solves this problem by finding a stray dog in an alley and Old Yeller-ing the poor 'lil pup. In the American remake, Pacino's character finds a dog that's already dead, and shoots the corpse to fabricate the evidence he requires. Murder and phony evidence is one thing, but it would seem someone at Warner Bros. thought that an act of premeditated canine-icide would be a bridge too far for American audiences to forgive.
No. 3 The Thomas Crown Affair: Speak English!
The name of the Claude Monet painting Thomas Crown (Pierce Brosnan) swipes off the wall of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in this 1999 caper flick is San Girogio Maggiore at Dusk. I had it in my notes but was afraid to try to say it on the radio.
Okay, the rest of this is going to be really trivial, inside-baseball shit.
Though his ratio of winners to stinkers is only about 50-50, and a criminal prosecution for lying to the FBI has prevented him from making a film in almost a decade, the irreducible fact is that John McTiernan made Die Hard and the only one of its sequels I'm inclined to defend. (That would be 1995's delightfully wack-ass weird Die Hard with a Vengenace, which sports the coolest sequel title ever. I think we can all agree that The Godfather, Part II, arguably the cinema's greatest follow-up, would have been better had it been christened The Godfather, with a Vengeance.)
Well. There's a little Easter egg for us Johnny Mickey-Tee fans in his lighter, brighter Thomas Crown Affair, in the form of an exchange of dialogue that's reprised verbatim from Die Hard with a Vengeance, made four years earlier. In both films, there's a German-speaking henchman trying to pass as a yankee who absently blurts out something in his native tongue. "Speak English!" one of the other baddies yells at him. "Otto doesn't speak English," answers a third. "Do you, Otto?"
It's in both films. Meaningless, aye, but kinda fun.
More trivia: Norman Jewison made the original Thomas Crown Affair with Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway in 1968. McTiernan followed his Crown with a remake of another Jewison joint, the futuristic bloodsport flick Rollerball. The original is not very good. McTiernan's 2002 update? By all accounts so wretched that I've never bothered to seek it out.
No. 2 The Fly: Drink deep, or taste not the plasma spring!
Adam has a habit of introducing the listener voicemails he occasionally plays on the show by saying, "This person expressed this idea more eloquently than I ever could, so . . ." It's self-deprecating but also slightly silly: Adam is extremely articulate, as anyone who's listened to more than two minutes of any one of Filmspotting's 369-and-counting episodes knows.
But you know what they say about habits: They're habit-forming!
We had a voicemail about The Fly, my No. 2 pick, that Adam wanted to play, and when he cued me to set it up, I found myself saying what he says: This person is more articulate than me. The key difference, of course, is that I was right. I failed to mention what to me is perhaps the most important aspect of how Cronenberg's Reagan-in-the-White-House-era Fly improves upon its Reagan-in-Hollywood-era precursor.
Jeff Goldblum is much more like a real scientist in this film than David Hedison was in the original, by which I mean, he's fascinated by what's happening to him. (Hedison, of course, lost his powers of speech when he swapped heads and a hand with a fly, so our understanding of his inner life as a man-bug was limited to what he could type with his remaining hand.) Goldblum plays his fascination and even exhilaration, along with the fear of what he's becoming that he's working throughout the film to keep at bay.
This exchange between Brundle (Goldblum) and his girlfriend Ronnie (Geena Davis) illustrates all that.
Seth Brundle: The disease has just revealed its purpose. We don't have to worry about contagion anymore. I know what the disease wants.
Ronnie: What does the disease want?
Seth Brundle: It wants to... turn me into something else. That's not too terrible is it? Most people would give anything to be turned into something else.
Ronnie: Turned into what?
Seth Brundle: Whaddaya think? A fly. Am I becoming a hundred-and-eighty-five-pound fly? No, I'm becoming something that never existed before. I'm becoming... Brundlefly. Don't you think that's worth a Nobel Prize or two?
He is becoming something unprecedented. Insects, after all, have industriousness but no ambition. What do they want with Nobel prizes?
I also like the part early on where Brundle tells Ronnie that even he doesn't quite understand how his teleportation system works; he's simply combining existing technologies in a way no else had thought of before. Even in a scenario as gruesome and operatic as this, the film seems to get that at a certain level of innovation, science is more of an art than it is a... well, you know.
No. 1 The Magnificent Seven: . . .
You know, I think I actually did get to everything I wanted to say about this 1960 John Struges remake of Akira Kurosawa's darker, longer, and yes, better The Seven Samurai from 1954.
Maybe I was just going to point out that the casting of Yul Brenner as an American cowboy is no less ridiculous than getting Arnold to play a schlubby American salesman.
Here, enjoy a law-abiding excerpt of Elmer Bernstein's iconic main title theme on me, Filmspotter. You've earned it.