Posts Tagged ‘Roddy McDowall’


 

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Fright Night (1985). Directed by Tom Holland. Screenplay by Tom Holland.  Starring William Ragsdale, Christopher Sarandon, Amanda Bearse, Roddy McDowall. 106 minutes. ** 1/2

Fright Night (2011). Directed by Craig Gillespie. Screenplay by Marti Noxon, from the prior screenplay by Tom Holland. Starring Alton Yelchin, Colin Farrell, David Tennant, Imogen Poots, Toni Collette. 106 minutes (one of the rare sequels the same length as the original, to the minute).  * 1/2

Related Films Not Covered Here: Fright Night Part Two (1988)

PeterVincent

You are a rather unremarkable and not very interesting suburban teen with a loving girlfriend, an outcast friend and a single Mom. Your life is unexamined, though it’s safe to say that there’s not really all that much worth examining. You’re not exactly Holden Caulfield. But then one day the vacant house next door sells to a new owner: a fellow who, it turns out, is a vampire intent on making your neighborhood his new feeding grounds. You can’t get anybody to believe you. Your only hope is a local celebrity named Peter Vincent, who incorporates vampire mythology as part of his act and who might be induced to see you as something more than a fanboy who needs to get out more.

This is the premise of two teen horror comedies made 26 years apart, and the first thing we need to say here is that we’re not about to overstate the quality of either one of them. The first one featured a fine late-career performance by Roddy McDowall as the vampire hunter and a smoldering performance by Chris Sarandon as the vampire, but is otherwise not tremendously overflowing with wit, interesting variations on vampire tropes or genuine scares. It’s just a dopey, time-killing, amusing and frequently very fun but ultimately wholly forgettable piece of multiplex fodder. It would only be remade in a remake-mad cinematic climate where vague title recognition is considered more important than, you know, a fresh story. Similarly, the second plays many of the same notes – albeit to lesser effect – and is not wholly devoid of entertainment value, but otherwise doesn’t provide much for audiences who want to remember their movies longer than it takes to drive home afterward.

Both movies have a regrettable void at their center: the character of Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale in the original, Anton Yelchin in the remake), a kid who is just a generically good-looking teen played by somebody not in his teens, whose character is never at any point any deeper than what’s happening to him at any given moment. In the first film, his major issue is trying to get his girlfriend to put out for him; in the second, it’s a desire for popularity so overwhelming that he’s re-invented himself to be one of the cool kids and completely forsaken his nerdy old friend, “Evil” Ed (Christopher Mintz=Plasse). It’s a minor point, even so, sped past for the benefit of an audience that would rather get to the so-called “good stuff;” it certainly doesn’t make him at all interesting. He doesn’t grow in any particular way, he doesn’t discover himself in any particular way, and though he must act as a hero by the time the action is over, there’s no real sense of him rising to the occasion, as the most satisfying heroes must.

Both Charleys are also intensely stupid, in their way. Here’s an intelligence test: if you find out that your next-door neighbor is a vampire, who has murdered at least one local hooker, do you blurt out “he’s a vampire!” to anybody who can help you, thus making them see you as a delusional crank? Or do you employ more subtlety, showing instead of telling? In the first film, Charley first becomes suspicious of his neighbor when the beautiful young woman who arrives in a cab to visit his next-door neighbor is recognizably the murdered hooker the TV newscast references the next morning. Okay, so this is not the kind of thing you want taking place next door, and Charley does (after waffling about it) call the police. However, blurting out in the presence of a skeptical detective that he search the basement for the vampire’s coffin is clearly not nearly as promising a tactic as what Charley doesn’t do, namely advise the detective that the hooker arrived in a cab and suggest that the cab driver might be able to corroborate her arrival at this particular address on this particular day, mere hours before her body was found. Also, both Charleys, seeking help from their respective versions of Peter Vincent, are adorably certain that the two show-biz figures actually do believe in vampires and actually have experience in fighting them. These are boys who have reached their late teens and still haven’t absorbed the elemental lesson that the people they see on television, playing parts, may not be exactly like the people they play. Their naivete might have made more sense had the two Charleys been about five or six years younger, media-saturated kids who actually believed the shit they watched, but the Charleys we get seem too too old to be  so inept at distinguishing fact from fiction, artifice from reality, in the case of Peter Vincent,  that they seem almost mentally ill.

The 26 year interval between the two films does present us with some interesting contrasts. For instance, watching the old film after an exposure to the new, one realizes that we’ve completely lost what used to be a vital device in cinematic shorthand, to wit: am abandoned  television set showing nothing but static in the wee hours of the morning, thus establishing that nobody was paying attention when the station ended its broadcasting day. Yes, once upon a time, you could really turn on TV at 3 AM and find nothing but snow, rendering literal the standard complaint that nothing was on. This is no longer the state of affairs in a world of 500 channels of 24/7 programming, so this oft-used cinematic shorthand has gone the way of the dodo.

More to the point, the character type McDowall played in the 1985 film no longer existed by 2011. In 1985 Peter Vincent was an old-time horror movie actor, of the Peter Cushing / Vincent Price / Christopher Lee type, who has fallen on hard times and is now employed as a local-TV “horror host” – a personality of the sort who was once used to introduce a station’s horror movies, with some kind of witty in-character banter. There used to be a dozen of these guys (and some girls), up and down the dial – when there were dials – and some of them had followings so loyal that fans tuned in to see the shtick more than the show it introduced. No less a personage than Alfred Hitchcock did a version of the horror host, a cartoonishly macabre version of himself, for every episode of his anthology program, though most of the people we’re talking about were introducing mostly-bad old movies and not original productions like Hitchcock’s. In 1985, Peter Vincent reduced to horror host was an effective, if only barely-explored, exercise in presenting us with the plight of a once-famous man now reduced to cannibalizing what was left of his notoriety. He was such an instantly sympathetic secondary protagonist that many of this viewer’s complaints about the movie would be negated if viewpoint character Charley were removed or given less time, and Vincent rendered the main figure.

But a quarter of a century later, there were no horror hosts, really; some of the older members of the remake’s target audience might have remembered Elvira, but that was about it. So Vincent’s character had to be re-invented completely, and here became a big-time Las Vegas magician, who uses vampire lore as part of his shtick. This was a clever bit of story surgery, and was probably necessary given that the earlier model of the character no longer worked, but…really. In terms of sheer likeability, the difference between a broken-down old actor holding on to the memorabilia of past accomplishments, who has been fired from his TV-host job and is about to be evicted from his home, and a wealthy Vegas entertainer living in a luxurious penthouse along with a super-model girlfriend he treats like crap, is night and day. One is a poor fellow who becomes what he once pretended to be;  the other is a rich asshole who doesn’t even have enough heart to grieve for thirty seconds when the girlfriend he had just been screaming at is gorily murdered.

One would almost forgive that last touch if the second Peter Vincent was supposed to be, not just a rich prick, but an outright sociopath. But no. It’s just unforgivably bad story construction. The movie simply fails to notice that Peter Vincent should feel more over the death of a woman he lived with, even if he didn’t like her much. (Perhaps especially if he hadn’t liked her much.)

The screenplay was written by Marti Noxon, who as a major contributor to TV’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer should have done better; we can only guess if what was on-screen reflects her work or if it was mangled afterward. But it’s not the screenplay’s only violation of basic human nature. What follows is a pet peeve of mine. Any thriller where a character’s loved one – or even somebody they just sorta kinda like — dies in horrific circumstances, where those circumstances are later overcome at great personal risk, and where the person who should now finally have time to mourn his loss makes light-hearted jokes with his fellow survivors, just to provide an undiscerning audience with the fake comfort of a supposedly happy ending, is absolute bullshit. Give the ending of the remake more than five seconds of thought and it’s not just bad; it’s downright revolting. (For an example of a movie that gets it right, see the somber mood of the survivors even as they wait to be rescued at the end of the original The Poseidon Adventure.  Ernest Borgnine looks back at the disaster that claimed his wife, and weeps.)

Another bad innovation of the 2011 version: the revelation that its Peter Vincent actually has a vampire-related tragedy in his past (a bloodsucker killed his parents), and has thus spent his life collecting artifacts that include the very same artifacts vital to killing this movie’s bloodsucking fiend.

The major problem with this is that it’s profoundly shitty storytelling.

Why is it profoundly shitty storytelling?

Let us summarize.

What’s more satisfying?

1) A naïve kid who, upon discovering that his new next-door neighbor is a vampire, goes to a vampire-shtick celebrity who happens to live within commuting distance, but who doesn’t have the answers he needs, and who therefore has to overcome his very real limitations to become the hero anyway.

OR,

2) That very same naïve kid making the same unsettling discovery and going to another vampire-shtick celebrity who also happens to live within commuting distance… and who  by sheer convenient coincidence actually does own the artifacts necessary for killing this particular vampire, because he secretly knows vampires exist and is in fact motivated by the childhood loss of his parents and who ultimately finds out that his parents were killed by that very same vampire? Man! That is known as wrapping too much up in a bow. It is known as being fortunate that you have the screenwriter on your side!

David Tennant, who played the 2011 Peter Vincent, has shown in another venue I won’t insult you by naming that he excels at playing flamboyant characters who fight monsters. But this film gives him precious little to do except scream insults at his girlfriend before joining Charley’s fight. He certainly gets nothing to do as satisfying as the seesaw of mingled horror and pity that McDowall so splendidly emotes while watching one recently-turned vampire writhe in its lengthy death throes.  (It’s one of the best performances of McDowall’s late career, though for absolute best you need to check out  a suspenseful little film called Dead Of Winter.)

For some reason, I wrote off Christopher Sarandon as male-model bland in 1985, but seeing the movie for the first time in a quarter-century  appreciate the nuances in his performance now; I especially like a lengthy nightclub scene, detailing the seduction of Charley’s girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse), which really is nicely put together. And he shows a significant sense of humor, throughout. I find it oddly interesting that, when first revealed as a vampire, he gives Charley  a chance to just mind his own business before declaring war; I can only wonder why (maybe as a courtesy to a neighbor?), but it is an interesting bit of character nuance. (And I wonder where the story would have gone if Charley had said yes; would we have had scenes of him earning extra money by mowing the vampire’s lawn, while nodding at the latest prostitute to be dropped off by cab?)  Sarandon is certainly a highlight of the first film, almost as important as McDowall is. Colin Farrell’s vampire is by contrast just a smirking asshole, even if he does get at least one somewhat-suspenseful early scene, in which Charley tries to escape the house with a girl who’s stayed to be dinner. The two movies have different bumpy routes to the finale, and each boast effective set-pieces not duplicated by the other – the pathetic apparent death of the vampirized Evil Ed in 1985, a fine attempt to get away from the vampire by car in 2011, a superior nightclub scene in 1985, the sad fate of a victim Charley manages to free in 2011– but, to this viewer, neither really congeal as movies worth falling in permanent love with. It’s simply not worth a scene-by-scene comparison. The stories are not strong enough, not memorable enough, to render the exercise worth the effort.

One thing’s for sure. Remakes can be most confidently dismissed as gratuitous when the first movie isn’t all that great and the remake isn’t either – indeed, when the remake has so few notes of its own to play that it makes a point of ticking off the bad guy’s fondness for apples. Talk about sad.

I do, however, love the name of the 2011 leading lady, Imogen Poots.

*

David Tennant

And now, the wife creeps in through an unguarded door, carrying a stake and a crossbow…

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Fright Night (1985). Directed by Tom Holland. Screenplay by Tom Holland. Starring William Ragsdale, Christopher Sarandon, Amanda Bearse, Roddy McDowall. 106 minutes. ** 1/2

Fright Night (2011). Directed by Craig Gillespie. Screenplay by Marti Noxon, from the prior screenplay by Tom Holland. Starring Alton Yelchin, Colin Farrel, David Tennant, Imogen Poots, Toni Collette. 106 minutes (one of the rare sequels the same length as the original, to the minute). *1/2

Related Films Not Covered Here: Fright Night Part Two (1988)

 

I was so darn excited to get into these films.

I remembered the first film with great fondness.  Not for its greatness in and of itself mind you, but for the sheer fun I had watching it all those years ago.  I remember seeing Chris Sarandon at a Horror convention and thinking not about his truly fun Humperdinck, but only his sexy vampire.  This was how I felt a modern vampire story should play out, and I held that memory as a cherished possession all this time.

Then that memory was soiled by the horrid, poorly understood remake made by folks who DEFINITELY should know better!

Yes, I know, vampires are evil, nasty ratlike creatures, who go for the easy pickings and low hanging fruit, but come on guys!  Where the Sarandon vamp is suave and smooth, the Colin Farrel  one is sleaze personified. Sure they are both great looking, but Farrel doesn’t even bother with seduction, just calling hookers and having his meals delivered.  His threats are clear and unveiled, no trying to just scare the kid off, just let him know that he and his are on the list.  Sarandon’s vampire tries everything to avoid killing the kid, well until the virgin girlfriend comes into his sights.  Even then he still seems to prefer seduction to killing in the overall scheme of things.

And, maybe today’s audiences don’t have the wherewithal to sit through a bit of storytelling, since the new film eschews most of the creepy atmosphere and build up to get right to the attacks and effects. 

Now, let’s compare our Peter Vincents.

Roddy McDowall, aging child/adult star, playing aging former horror movie dude, now relegated to late night horror host.  Got it!  When I was a kid, these hosts were pretty common, not so much now.  I asked a twenty something that I work with about Elvira and she only “kinda thought” she had heard of the character, couldn’t describe her or place her in any way.  I get the need for an update, but unfortunately, as much as I ADORE David Tennant (yes, I am a Whovian), the character given to him is too damn successful to care about the story these kids bring to him.  Come on again writers!  The vampire is the same one that killed his family and so he gets to play vengeance chicken.  Nuuh  Uhh!  No how!  No way!  Too stupid even for the youngest teens.  Did that idea come from the 7-11 school of screenwriting, because my teachers would have blown cannon holes through it all.

Now, this doesn’t mean that the new film has no redeeming values.  David Tennant is still great (blinders are removed from my eyes here, I loved his Hamlet too!), despite the limitations of the character.  Colin Farrel seems to enjoy phoning in his vampire thug.  I always enjoy watching Toni Collette play American.  And the kids honestly try real hard to get across the fears.  But again, the original, for all the flawed deliveries and dated material (G-d I hate the look of early eighties hair/clothing), still produces more punch per minute, than the 2011 film can muster in any thirty.


Are we not all apes, in the bigger scheme of things?

 

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes (1972). Directed by J. Lee Thompson. Written by Paul Dehn, from characters created by Pierre Boulle. Starring Roddy McDowall, Don Murray, Ricardo Montalban, others. 88 minutes. * 1/2

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (2011). Directed by Rupert Wyatt. Written by Rick Jaffa and Pamela Silver, from characters created by Pierre Boulle. Starring James Franco, Frieda Pinto, John Lithgow, Tom Felton, and Andy Serkis. 105 minutes. ***

Related Films: A host of Planet Of The Apes movies, from both incarnations. Plus a TV-show, and, ummm, Spartacus, I guess.

*

Of all the films that play the remake game, Conquest and Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes probably have the most reflexive, Moebius-Strip geneology. Consider:

1) Because time travel (in both directions) informs the backstory of the first set of movies, the first version of this particular story is simultaneously both sequel (as it details the adventures of a chimp whose genes originated in a post-apocalyptic future) and prequel (as it details how he makes a version of that future come to pass).

2)  Because the first Planet Of The Apes was remade, badly by Tim Burton, in a version that failed to make a lick of sense, this latest incarnation is not really billed as either sequel or prequel to that film but shows signs of being aware of the first Planet’s backstory.

3) It can also be seen as a stand-alone film, and probably should be.

So what you have here is ipso facto, a stand-alone film that is also a remake of a film that is both prequel and sequel. (And then, the makers deny that it is a remake, which only complicates this; but then some of us have memories that extend back as far as earlier in the year, when the makers were less shy about trumpeting its connections to the earlier Conquest).

This is almost as impressive as though not nearly as elegant a feedback loop as  a sequel to a remake which is itself a remake of a sequel.

Either way, both stories detail the lonely struggle of a super-intelligent chimp named Caesar, freeing his less evolved brethren from bondage to human beings, in the first of a series of events that will, we’re meant to understand, culminate with those apes in charge of the Planet Earth. But both deal with that story germ in significantly different ways; the first is shackled to a torturous backstory and a minimal budget and really doesn’t work all that well, and the second has the benefit of advanced technology as well as the performance of a guy who, by now, really does deserve to be a household name. Let us now take a look at both.

Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes (1972)

The lower budgets and more limited technical capabilities of some past films sometimes required its viewers to fill in some blanks, a responsibility that was sometimes good for our collective imaginations but which also sometimes smacked us in our faces when we were faced with circumstances where those imaginations had to fail.

For instance, take the various species of ape in the original Charlton Heston Planet Of The. The makeup that permitted McDowell, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans and divers others to hobble about as hyper-evolved chimps, orangs and gorillas was a marvel, in that it both evoked the desired level of otherness while still permitting the thespians to act. It also left the actors recognizable to some small degree, even if, in one famous incident, Heston later encountered Hunter at a party and had absolutely no idea who she was even though the movie they’d just made together had included a scene where they’d kissed goodbye. Hunter was reportedly very amused. She must have enjoyed watching Ben-Hur wrack his brains as he wondered how the hell he knew her.

In the context of a science-fictional universe, subject to lord alone knew how many millennia of evolution, it was acceptable that the creatures evoked but didn’t actually look all that much like the species of ape we know from the real world. They were apelike but humanoid; animalistic, but civilized. It wasn’t anything anybody saw reason to remark upon, except insofar as the story remarked upon it already.
 
But this became somewhat more problematic as the arc of what had become an extended movie series sent two apes back in time and obliged them to set a hyper-evolved chimp, the future Caesar, loose in that famous science-fictional realm, “the near-future.” By Conquest, a plague established in Escape From has killed all cats and dogs and set humans to seek animal companionship somewhat further up the evolutionary scale, a development that has eventually led to chimps, orangs and gorillas doing menial work in our cities as a kind of downtrodden slave race.

Here, the same makeup that worked in Planet Of The  now fails miserably. Even if the viewer refrains from analyzing the images on screen to the degree a science fiction writer would, he can see that the apes shuffling about on the city streets are not the apes we know from our world, but a kind of strange hybrid, half-man, half-ape, that is for some reason being treated by fascistic human beings as all ape. The proximity to our time wrecks the illusion and adds a layer of cheese thick enough to make a dietician blanch. Especially to our modern eyes, accepting it requires active forgiveness on the part of the audience – which may have been possible in 1972 when this was the fourth film in a blockbuster franchise, but is pretty damn difficult when the movie is watched as a stand-alone artifact.

Second problem, which may be almost impossible for people of our era to comprehend: in 1972, sequels to hit movies were not given larger budgets than the originals. They were asked to get by on less. This was in part because sequels were  not widely respected (Heston, for one, played his role in the first Ape sequel, Beneath The Planet Of The Apes, reluctantly and with a clear sense of sheepish embarrassment), but also because it was felt that the name was enough to get asses into theatre seats and that larger budgets were therefore unnecessary. Conquest did not have the money to build a futuristic city, so it staged all the action around a number of ugly concrete-and-steel municipal plazas, often in closeups designed to hide any revealing contemporary details that might have been invisible around corners or over the tops of buildings. It is difficult to escape the impression that the action involves no more than about six city blocks. The scale seems tiny, cramped, and ugly.

The third problem is that this future society sure likes public address systems. Cops don’t have dispatchers; they have loudspeakers telling them exactly where they need to go to break up riots. Guys at control panels don’t tell their co-workers to do something; they broadcast it to the entire building so everybody within ten blocks knows what orders are being given. This is the opposite of fascism, which usually tends to be a little more secretive. This is just being pushy.

Fourth, the story has many moments that are just plain stupid. Take the fate of Armando (Ricardo Montalban), the kindly circus owner who was entrusted with the infant Caesar at the end of the prior film. Now Caesar’s surrogate Dad, he takes the evolved chimpanzee, the only one in the world who can reason and speak, for a visit to the big city where the future liberator ape will receive his first glimpse of the slavery to which others of his kind are subjected. Caesar is warned at length that the authorities have never given up on finding the offspring of his deceased parents, who is regarded as a clear threat to humanity’s survival. The chimp nods and says that he understands and naturally reveals himself by shouting an angry epithet at some fascistic cops in the first few minutes of the film (an act that proves he may be sentient, but is not necessarily intelligent, if you can get the difference). Write that off as a moment of youthful passion on Caesar’s part and you still arrive at the next logical development, Caesar on the run pretending to be another uncomprehending ape, while Armando falls into the hands of the police and is interrogated at length over his charge’s whereabouts.

Interrogated at length, Armando tells the cops at length, I don’t know about any talking ape.  This, if you believe the film, goes on for days. The cops say that they’ve decided to believe him, then bring out a magic futuristic device which forces people to tell the truth. This, in turn, obliges Armando to leap out a nearby, conveniently breakable window to avoid narking. Which is great when it comes to providing this film with a taste of tragedy, but really: if the fascist cops of this posited era have such a device on hand, and believed all along that Armando was lying and that finding Caesar was high priority, why keep that device locked up and only haul it out when their prisoner believes that he’s pulled a fast one? How much time have they wasted, by their lights, just to keep the past and future Khan Noonian Singh in suspense all those hours while they sweated him? That’s dumb. Or mean: the kind of thing Dick Cheney would do, just to prove he can be sufficiently cruel to suspected terrorists.

More clumsy plotting manifests when Caesar is placed on the auction block. The villain of the piece, Governor Breck (Don Murray), who seems to have few government duties other than snarling, spots him from a distance and says, there, that ape, THAT’S the one I want as slave. Since Breck has been ranting about the missing Caesar at length, it is easy to believe at this moment that Caesar has in some way betrayed himself, or that Breck has in some way spotted him as the super-ape he’s hunting. But, no: the purchase is totally random, Breck just happening to have the impulse to buy the one ape he’s looking for. This would be forgivable were there an important narrative reason for it, but no; in fact, it serves the story only so Caesar can find himself in the same room with Breck and hear some of Breck’s vicious ranting about the threat posed by the apes. After which, Breck just as quickly decides, no, I don’t want this ape as my bartender after all.

Deep Racial Sensitivity

The other major purpose in inviting the chimp up to job interview as bartender is introducing him to MacDonald (Hari Rhodes), who, as a black guy, is sympathetic to the plight of lower-evolved simians being used in slaves. (This is not my characterization, but, inherently, and wincingly, the film’s; a side-effect of the recent developments of the Civil Rights Movement being that some cinematic allusions to it were not only strident and obvious but, as in this case, tone-deaf.) MacDonald must endure a number of moralistic sentences about the indignities suffered by the apes that begin with phrases like, “You, of all people…”  He takes this with the expected level of stoic nobility. Today we wish we could peel away that actor’s skull and see what was going on inside his brain: perhaps a number of sentences that began with, “Fine, so I’m the human face of the chimps, now. Thanks a fuckload, whitey.”

Anyway, Caesar rallies his fellow apes via a series of secret meetings (arranged via methods that are swiftly glossed over in this society where two or more apes congregating in a public place can be met, on sheer principle, by riot police). He is captured but freed in part because MacDonald intervenes. Violence ensues, and after the titular “conquest” (actually, a street riot, which the movie acknowledges will soon be put down), Caesar rants some inspirational words about how word of his act of defiance will soon spread throughout the world, and reach every place where apes are held in bondage.

“Where there is fire,” he says, “ there is smoke. And in that smoke, from this day forward, my people will crouch, and conspire, and plot, and plan for the inevitable day of Man’s downfall. The day when he finally and self-destructively turns his weapons against his own kind. The day of the writing in the sky, when your cities lie buried under radioactive rubble! When the sea is a dead sea, and the land is a wasteland out of which I will lead my people from their captivity! And we will build our own cities, in which there will be no place for humans except to serve our ends! And we shall found our own armies, our own religion, our own dynasty! And that day is upon you NOW!”

McDowall, bless him, actually manages to sell this. As he also manages to sell an immediate pull-back, when the apes seem about to beat the captive Brock to death.

“But now… now we will put away our hatred. Now we will put down our weapons. We have passed through the night of the fires, and those who were our masters are now our servants. And we, who are not human, can afford to be humane. Destiny is the will of God, and if it is Man’s destiny to be dominated, it is God’s will that he be dominated with compassion, and understanding.”

Way to be mushy, Caesar.

As it happens, this was not even close to a sufficient bridge to the final film in the series, Battle For The Planet Of The Apes, so the makers of that one had to provide a flashback which establish that a convenient nuclear war erupted almost immediately after the events of this film. It was a nuclear war that had nothing to do with any of Caesar’s actions; it just happened, and left the apes on top. So what we have here, really, is a movie about an incident that doesn’t amount to much, that doesn’t have any resounding effects, and is rendered wholly irrelevant by events that took place off-screen not long afterward. Nice going.
  
Incidentally, the less than impressive direction was, believe it or not, by a pro responsible for at least one genuine, pulse-pounding classic: J. Lee Thompson, who had about a decade earlier made The Guns Of Navarone. See what difference a budget, a script and enthusiasm for the source material makes?

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (2011)

In between the 1972 and 2011 versions we had a much-derided Planet remake by Tim Burton that didn’t do much to advance the fortunes of the franchise, and which may have come to naught had not somebody skipped forward several sequels and alighted on Conquest as the one with the germ of a story that might be revisiting all by itself.

Early publicity actually had it called Rise Of The Apes, which might have been preferable, as it’s not only a decent film with some actual resonance to the way we treat our fellow creatures, but one good enough to deserve to stand apart from a now-hackneyed franchise.

Which is, really, not saying that it fires on all cylinders. Its main problem, really, is that it comes alive only when the apes, led by this film’s Caesar (a wondrous motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis,  the unheralded human face behind Lord Of The Rings’s Smeagol and Peter Jackson’s King Kong), are on-screen. The film makes Caesar a sympathetic, flawed three-dimensional being, and accomplishes much the same for many of his  fellow apes, but neglects to do the same for any, repeat any, of the human characters. They all speak in declarative sentences that propel the plot, and sometimes in villainous utterances that propel our hatred for them, but none of them have fully-rounded personalities, not even Will Rodman (James Franco), the dedicated Alzheimer’s researcher whose formula makes the infant Caesar smarter than the average ape. Sure, we know that he’s driven by love for his ailing, demented father Charles (John Lithgow, best of all the hairless apes on display), and he’s far as we can see a nice guy who means well, but it would be nice if he was actually memorable in some way, if he was a person whose fate we cared about and whose presence on screen was more than an interruption in the fateful saga of Caesar. As it is, his romance with pretty young veterinarian Caroline Arinha (Frieda Pinto) is about as bloodless a pairing as anything we’ve seen in movies for years.

Most human beings in the film don’t make out even that well. Tom Felton, who played a snotty, cruel twerp in the Harry Potter series, plays a snotty and cruel twerp here; way to enlarge your range, Tommy. (And, yes, I know that he’s a working actor, at the mercy of whatever role comes next; I’m just saying.) There’s a next-door neighbor named Hunsinger (David Hewlett), who out of some misplaced understanding of the rule of conservation of characters must be the story’s designated abrasive asshole and the guy who makes things worse every single time he appears; thus, he not only wields  excessive force against Caesar when the baby ape gets loose, but also assaults the clearly confused Charles for getting behind the wheel and damaging his car and is cast as the human face of the deadly plague that, we’re meant to understand, goes worldwide and wipes out human civilization within days of the final fade to black. To call treatment of his character, and of Felton’s, and of a number of others, unforgivably primitive on the face of it is to understate the case. It’s rubber-stamp writing, which is dumbfounding in a film that has such a fully-realized, fully-imagined character at its center.

Because Caesar himself is a wonderment, maybe the most fully realized movie ape since any version of King Kong. A character who, unlike the predecessor played by Roddy McDowall, pretty much doesn’t speak except via the sign language he’s been taught (and eventually via the few words he eventually manages to vocalize), he inhabits the center of a movie that is, pretty much, the arc of his life: from the brutal trapping of his pregnant mother in Africa, to his adoption as pet by the ill-advised Rodman, to his carefree and adorable childhood to his gradual realization as he reaches adulthood that he’s not like the humans who have raised him and not at all like his fellow apes either.  It is as expressive and as silently articulate an animated character as any that have ever been put on film, and much of the credit accrues to Serkis, who was actually on a set wearing a motion-capture suit and providing the film with the body language that went into making this put-upon chimp such an engaging and sympathetic presence.

The film is superb in those scenes where he is banished to an ape sanctuary that is not nearly as benevolent as it seems when Rodman first brings him there, and must find out a way to survive among his fellow apes (and eventually, lead them to freedom). Caesar is a sentient creature among largely non-sentient ones, and though initially overpowered, is constantly watching and learning. He woos allies, makes plans, becomes radicalized. It is hard not to root for him over the stupid, arrogant, lord-of-creation people who keep him down. The audience cheers his every incremental victory and is driven to cheer him and his fellow apes in what amounts to a huge, brutal prison breakout, even when human beings are hurt. Why not? In the universe of this film, and generally, human beings suck.

It helps, too, that the movie exercises what is sometimes a remarkable visual imagination. There’s a splendid scene set on a quiet tree-lined suburban street where humans are minding their own business, which suddenly becomes a green blizzard as thousands of leaves plummet from their branches and fall all around them, courtesy of the mob of apes passing by in the upper branches. It is gorgeous, in its way; a last moment of beauty before an epic battle on the Golden Gate Bridge, which the apes must traverse if they’re to get to their sanctuary among the Redwoods. (This would of course no permanent solution, if humanity remains intact, but some people are already spitting up blood, so that’ll be a moot issue within days.) The final battle is thrilling. Audiences are moved to passionately root against their own species. I don’t recommend putting the DVD on the players at any sanctuaries where apes interact with modern technology.

In the end, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes misses greatness because the human elements are so undercooked, but the simian elements are divine. Another pass at the screenplay and it might have been truly something else.

The Plaque On The Wall Of The Monkey House

Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes, a now largely embarrassing entry in a series struggling to keep the wheels spinning for one more installment. Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes,  a film where the apes get all the best moments and where humans should have been a little better developed.

And now, the wife falls to her knees in front of the shattered Statue Of Liberty and cries, “You maniacs!”

 

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes (1972). Directed by J. Lee Thompson. Written by Paul Dehn, from characters created by Pierre Boulle. Starring Roddy McDowall, Don Murray, Ricardo Montalban, others. 88 minutes. *** (9 year old self);  * (adult me)

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (2011). Directed by Rupert Wyatt. Written by Rick Jaffa and Pamela Silver, from characters created by Pierre Boulle. Starring James Franco, Frieda Pinto, John Lithgow, Tom Felton, and Andy Serkis. 105 minutes. ***

Related Films: A host of Planet Of The Apes movies, from both incarnations. Plus a TV-show, and, ummm, Spartacus, I guess.

I was such a happy me when I heard about the remake of one of the apes films.  Then I watched the remade Planet of the Apes and all my hopes were dashed. 

Zip ahead a few more years.  Here I sit , supposedly older and wiser, but again I let my hopes rise.  Another Apes film is being redone.  Will they get it right this time?  After all, my nine year old self LOVED the first version. It had a talking circus chimp that looked like a guy in a suit, but who cared.  There was action and apes beating up humans.  Who needed more at nine?

Well at this age, I need more.  What a painful hour and a half that recent rewatch was.  I squirmed and found reasons to run to the kitchen, bathroom, computer etc.  What had my nine year old self been watching?  This 1972 film was as preachy as they could make it without losing commerciality.  The speeches were overblown and the sets minimal.  They obviously had major budget cuts from the earlier films, but some contractual need to make this one. 

Do I need to even mention the uneven acting?  I felt I was watching soap opera at its worst. 

So, I was ready for anything when we went to see Rise .

Oh happy day!  Rise of the Planet of the Apes is well thought out (for the most part), well acted and most importantly perfectly paced.

I’m sure Adam has done his usual stellar breakdown of both films, but I have to say Wow!  Andy Serkis more than deserves a lifetime achievement Oscar by now.  He brings life to a character that could have been nothing more than another CGI Yoda.  Caesar lives and breathes.  This is a chimp whose thoughts are there for humanity to see and misinterpret.  All of that is Serkis, the CGI interpreters did a bang up job of covering the human with chimp, but its still the human actor who makes the ape.

Now the storyline is plausible, though if I wanted to a could drive a few cars through the holes in logic.  And, the use of the timeworn science gone horribly wrong actually works here.  However I noticed too many audience members leaving the theater before the apparent effects are shown.  They won’t realize why this is called Rise instead of Creation or some such.  Foolish mortals!

Also, I was taken aback by the cheering audience.  Didn’t these folks know that these apes were about to become humanity’s oppressors?  I guess I needed less perspective to get past all of that nonsense.

All in all, a hell of a good ride for this remake.  Another one to prove that sometimes they can get it right the second time around.

 

 

 

 

 

 


“Why we didn’t fly, I’ll never know.”

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

The Poseidon Adventure  (1972). Directed by Ronald Neame and Irwin Allen. Written by Wendell Mayes and Stirling Silliphant, from the novel by Paul Gallico. Starring Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters, Red Buttons, others. 117 minutes. ***

The Poseidon Adventure (2005). 2-part TV-movie. Directed by John Putch. Written by Mary Church, from the novel by Paul Gallico. Starring Adam Baldwin, Rutger Hauer, Steve Guttenberg, Peter Weller, C. Thomas Howell, others.  Extended version, god help us, 173 minutes. *

Poseidon (2006). Directed by Wolfgang Petersen.  Screenplay by Mark Protosevich, from the novel by Paul Gallico. Starring Kurt Russell, Richard Dreyfuss, Josh Lucas, Kevin Dillon, Andre Braugher, Emily Rossum, Mia Maestro, others. 98 minutes. * 1/2

Other Related Films: Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979), sequel, starring Sally Field and Michael Caine, a critical and box-office bomb about salvage crews who discover more peril and more survivors after entering the capsized ship minutes after the survivors of the first movie are airlifted out; and, believe it or not, Sylvester Stallone’s flooded-tunnel movie Daylight (1996), which strands its cast in a situation Irwin Allen originally intended, many years earlier, to befall the various unlucky survivors of the first film, while they’re reunited on a train on their way to testify in court about the disaster. (You don’t wanna travel with those people any more than you wanna share a holiday with John McClain.) There was also an off-off Broadway musical, where an actor playing Mrs. Rosen in drag sings about how, in water, she’s a very skinny lady.

*

So there you are, chilling aboard a luxury liner on New Year’s Eve, singing your Auld Lang Synes, when all of a sudden, a whopper of a disaster hits, and the freaking ship turns upside down. Everything that was above you is now below you, everything that is below you is now above you, conversations about what was where now become comically and horrifically convoluted, and the ocean – motivated, perhaps, by an angry God – starts whipping up bigger and faster ways to kill you and the few others who happen to be left. Your only hope is a desperate climb to the hull, where there might, repeat might, be a way out. But the ship is not cooperating. The ship wants you dead.

This was the premise of The Poseidon Adventure, a bestselling novel by Paul Gallico that has some elements in common with,  but is otherwise very different from, any of the movies derived from its initial premise. It introduces characters like the tough cop Mike Rogo, his sexy but troubled wife Linda, the crusading preacher Reverend Scott, the crowd-pleasing old Jewish lady Belle Rosen, and the Shelby family, whose daughter Susan is here raped by a young crew member driven to temporary insanity by the trauma of the disaster. (She forgives his trespass immediately, tries to stop his subsequent self-loathing suicide, and upon surviving, hopes to keep his child; seriously, yuck.)  In this original version the ship capsizes due to a massive displacement of water caused by an undersea earthquake, and sinks much more slowly, allowing a much larger complement of survivors. It certainly has its degree of religious allegory, complete with a Christmas tree reconfigured as ladder to salvation, an angry Reverend so intent on his activist version of Christianity that he self-righteously knocks the tree over again, after all the people who helped raise it have already climbed, to prevent it from being used by those who hadn’t helped. (Nice guy.)  It, too, builds to a climax in an engine room that has become a vision of Hell, and subsequently to Reverend Scott’s death after angrily denouncing God.

The biggest surprise for the remaining survivors of Reverend Scott’s band is that after they emerge from the hull in tattered clothing, reeking of grease and oil and mourning their various dead, they see a much larger group (the ballroom passengers?) being rescued from the other end of the ship, where it seems not listening to Reverend Scott afforded them a much less troublesome disaster. But there are others. Among other things, Scott turns out to have had a secret sweetheart, who had looked forward to marrying him.

Clergy. Whattaya  gonna do.

This plot, somewhat altered for disaster-movie formula and dramatic license, became the 1972 film, which was such a monster hit it made twice as money as the year’s next biggest contender, Deliverance. Still one of the best films of its type, it was remade thirty years later, not once but twice in rapid succession,  less than a year apart, once as a two-part TV-movie, and once as a special effects extravaganza, both times (spoiler alert), poorly. None of them are high art. All three have capsizing sequences of equivalent effectiveness, within their respective resources and levels of technology. All three have cheesy characterizations and that gremlin of survival-under-impossible-odds stories, the sometimes too-easy-to-predict next person to die. All three present us with a pop song, sung by a contemporary chanteuse, just before the ship turns over on New Year’s Eve. All three have good actors who do everything they can with the material along with others who do everything in their ability to try to sink it.

You will certainly find any number of people willing to present even the original as, at best, a guilty pleasure, and at worst as an icon of monumental awfulness. But the truth is, it tells its story and largely tells it well. It is instructive to examine exactly why the remakes fail to rise to its standard.

The first movie: The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

Few films illustrate the general decline in the quality of popular filmmaking since 1972 more than the quality of the original Poseidon Adventure, in large part because it was never intended to be great. Granted, it’s got broadly-drawn characters, scenes staged for the highest possible level of melodrama, a couple of impressive non-performances mixed in with the genuinely good ones, and dialogue that occasionally lowers itself to the level of the ludicrous.  But precisely because it was never intended as a great film, but rather as an entertaining potboiler, its strengths stand out in sharp relief opposed to the deficiencies of so many high-concept blockbusters released today. To wit: it takes time to introduce its players, making sure we have reason to care about what happens to them; it pauses regularly during the action, to make the drama about more than outrunning explosions and great walls of water while shouting simplistic catch-phrases; it stages its action scenes with enough clarity to ensure that we know where the people stand in relation to the dangers facing them, and how their actions affect how they survive (or don’t); it has enough respect for issues of life and death to make sure that its people are touched by the tragedies they overcome, and are still affected by them at the end; and it bothers, really bothers, to try to be about something, even if that subtext is calibrated to such a level that many, if not all, of its viewers will fail to consciously register it.

Contrast this to a modern-day blockbuster of similar disposability, where all too often something must be exploding on screen at every available moment, and action scenes are all too often spastically-edited sequences with shots of one second or less where even frequent recourse to a DVD remote’s pause button may not be enough to clarify what’s happening to anybody.  And the level of its achievement, compared to the general decay of the art, becomes frighteningly clear.

We’re not old fogies saying that they haven’t made a good movie in forty years. They have. But most throwaway popcorn movies have certainly gotten worse since the S.S. Poseidon first turned upside down, and there are few better ways to illustrate that than with the various things this throwaway popcorn film bothers to get right.

Take, for instance, the character of Mike Rogo, the tough cop and general antagonist played by Ernest Borgnine in this film. He is very much a “type;” loud, blustering, often wrong, always negative. His courtship of his much-beloved and difficult wife Linda (Stella Stevens), changed from the novel’s Broadway performer to an ex-prostitute who he says he kept arresting until she finally agreed to marry him, is revealed in a few lines of clumsily-delivered exposition, of the sort that has two characters with a shared past discuss facts that are known to both of them just so the audience can keep up. It is not great dialogue. But by the time it’s over, we know the kind of guy he is and we know that he’s not just the story’s designated asshole. Sure, he’s got his rough edges, and he’s uncouth in the way that only a character played by Borgnine (let alone Borgnine lit from below), can be uncouth, but he’s also an emotionally vulnerable guy, a genuinely well-meaning man, and the loving husband to a woman who rides him mercilessly because (we have no problem seeing) that’s the only way she knows how to express love. How much more satisfying is this, than a one-note shithead of the sort we will come to meet in Wolfgang Petersen’s Poseidon?

Now examine the dramatic pacing. In this film, the rogue wave that capsizes the Poseidon arrives at the best possible time, dramatically: a little less than half an hour in. By then, we have spent a few minutes with each of the important players and have a functional picture of who they are. We know that Reverend Scott (Hackman) is in trouble with the Church for preaching about a God who generally doesn’t get involved with human affairs and who wants us all to solve our own problems. We know about the raucous state of the marriage Rogo, and about Linda Rogo’s self-consciousness over her criminal past. We know that the Rosens are a nice couple headed for Israel to see their young grandson for the first time, and that Mrs. Rosen is a genuinely compassionate woman. We know that the Shelby kids, here traveling on their own for reasons that are never satisfactorily explained, bicker in the manner of any infuriating kid and long-suffering older sister. We know that James Martin (Red Buttons) is an affable lonely guy. These are not deep characterizations – and much rests on the shoulders of those performers gifted enough to invest these characters with their own vivid personalities, as opposed to a few like Carol Lynley who are definitely not. But it’s an adequate amount of time.

We also know, in that half hour, that the Poseidon is dangerously top-heavy, thanks to a tyrant from the cruise line’s front office, a stand-in for the Titanic’s real life J. Bruce Ismay, who refuses to let the put-upon Captain (Leslie Neilsen) take on additional ballast.

As audience members, we already know that the ship’s gonna be turning over sooner or later, and may resent the time spent on what we consider soap-operatics. But all of this is very necessary, so the characters on screen take on the appearance of people instead of actors getting out of the way as soon as possible so the stunt men and special effects wranglers can take over.

Then, once the ship turns upside down a few minutes after the coming of the New Year, and the dazed partygoers in the ballroom start to dig out from under the wreckage, the movie takes even more time,  almost half an hour, before the major players complete the process of figuring out what has happened to them, processing the tragedy, discussing what to do, figuring out that climbing to the engine room just might be a good idea, and finally climbing the Christmas tree to begin their fight for life.

Think of that. By this point the movie is almost half over. But nobody’s been running around like chickens with their heads cut off. Everybody has acted, if not exactly like people act, then at least close enough to how people act to wring recognizable drama out of the proceedings.

And even in the hour that remains, an hour marked by rising water, cliffhangers, explosions, death scenes, conflict between Scott and Rogo, and – as we’re about to see – more religious allegory than you can shake a stick at, the action frequently pauses long enough to allow everybody to interact, to contemplate everything that’s happening to them, to show their personalities and to agonize over whether what they’re doing is the right thing.

It’s flawless pacing, really. Seen for the first time or for the tenth, enjoyed on its own level or as an icon fit for mockery, it has almost no dead spots; everything is there for a reason. Even the water stops rising at the engine room, to accommodate the much-more-important impersonal dramatics at the end.

And then there’s the other element, the one that lifts this film above its follow-up The Towering Inferno and the  increasingly gamey disaster films of the 1970s: a religious subtext that energizes everything in it even for those viewers who choose not to notice it.

Reverend Scott Dies For Our Sins

Stirling Silliphant, who co-wrote the screenplay (and who also worked on The Towering Inferno, to larger but much lesser effect), was no slouch; he had written a genuinely great film, In The Heat Of the Night. He saw the levels of religious symbolism already at play in Gallico’s novel and reconfigured them, to very deliberate effect.

So what we get here is a Reverend Scott who lays out the general thesis with a multidenominational sermon on the ship’s deck: “Let God know that you have the guts and the will to do it alone. Resolve to fight for yourselves, and for others, for those you love. And that part of God within you will be fighting with you all the way. “

After the disaster – itself a literal act of God — we have the debate over the best route to survival couched in terms of doubt versus belief. The complacent purser thinks help must be coming. The Reverend, prompted by lonely bachelor James Martin, passionately argues that everybody needs to climb out – specifically, toward a spot near the propeller shaft where the hull is only one inch thick, as opposed to two inches. Pinning all their hopes on this slender chance of survival is, for Scott’s followers, an exercise in faith that some other force will provide deliverance once they travel most of the way. 

The first step, which could not possibly be more symbolic: climbing the Christmas tree.

The various adventures along the way include constant arguing between the doubting Rogo and the crusading Reverend, and at one point an encounter with other passengers who are “headed the wrong way.”

Mrs. Rosen dies saving the Reverend’s life, but without getting to the promised land –  not just the engine room, but her intended destination, Israel – herself. Her last bequest, which she begs Scott to bring to her grandson, is her Chai necklace.

The engine room is, as in Gallico, a vision of Hell, complete with leaping flames.

Linda Rogo, the reformed sinner, falls at the last minute to her death in the fires.

Mike Rogo, who has been the voice of doubt all along, cries out in rage at the religious figure who had briefly infected him with faith.  “You! Preacher! Murderer! I started to believe in your promises, that we had a chance. What chance?”

A sudden explosion sends a jet of scalding steam against the wheel valve that is the last barrier between the survivors and the engine room.  Outraged, the Reverend confronts God directly, leaping to the wheel and turning it by hand in an act of personal sacrifice that, given the temperature of the steam involved, must mean burning the shit out of his hands. 

He shouts: “What more do you want of us? We’ve come all this way, no thanks to you. We did it on our own, no help from you. We did ask you to fight for us but damn it, don’t fight against us! Leave us alone! How many more sacrifices? How much more blood?  How many more lives? Belle wasn’t enough. Acres wasn’t. Now this girl! You want another life? Then take me!”

Tell me that this scene, shown below, is not a crucifixion.

He offers his life as a sacrifice while dangling from something with wounded hands. And, just in case you fail to get the point, the red wheel that closes the steam valve is also hanging there, right above his head, like a cartoon halo. Sound at all familiar?

Rogo, backlit by flames, is lost in his own personal hell until James Martin challenges him to “do something constructive for once.” He turns his back on the fire and rejoins the others in their fight for life.

It is then, and only then, that everybody gets to the room with the propeller shaft, where they are heard by a helicopter crew that has landed on the hull, and who cut through the steel, admitting the light from above. (And finally, the helicopter takes them to safety, which amounts to ascending into the heavens.)

None of this is at all subtle. It is, once pointed  out to someone who has failed to consciously notice it, almost painfully obvious. But it is there. It is perceived on a subconscious level if not necessarily a conscious one by the audience who came to see Shelley Winters and Ernest Borgnine interact with rising water and explosions. It gives weight to everything here, and gives the story a psychological impact that most disaster films miss utterly.

(Incidentally, if you want to see great acting that you’ve likely never noticed, go back to the moment where Rogo curses the good Reverend, and FORCE yourself to look away from Ernest Borgnine long enough to check out Jack Albertson (“Manny Rosen”) who’s standing right behind him. Remember that, only about ten minutes earlier in the film, Mr. Rosen had lost his own wife; that they haven’t traveled far from the spot where her body fell; and that he can likely see her from where he’s standing. Now it’s just happened to another guy, in front of his eyes…and Albertson brilliantly acts Manny Rosen, desperately wishing there were something adequate to say. Because what Borgnine is doing is so compelling, NOBODY who sees the movie is looking at Jack Albertson at that moment. His performance hearkens back to the time where movies were not just a series of extreme close-ups, unconnected to anything any other actor is doing…but performers reacting to one another even when they were not themselves the center of attention.)

The TV-Movie: The Poseidon Adventure (2005)

Three decades later, the vagaries of rights and permissions resulted in not one but two separate and competing remakes coming out only a year apart.

Both fail miserably, but for different reasons, indeed diametrically opposed reasons.

The first remake, a two-part TV movie, suffered all the sins often endemic to creatures of that kind, among them woefully pedestrian direction, of the sort that will never stage anything in an interesting way if the obvious way is available first.

The dialogue is also substantially weaker, and the performers, who include types like C. Thomas Howell as the ship’s doctor and Peter Weller as Captain Paul Gallico (ha, ha, ha), are not up to fleshing out a pale teleplay with the mere force of their personalities.

The pacing is also a problem. The two-part network TV format requires that the film take a pause for commercial interruption every twelve minutes or so, all in service of a story that must delay the actual disaster until as late in Part One as possible, to make sure that there’s plenty of stuff worth tuning in for during Part Two. So the flipping of the ship doesn’t take place until about the fifty-minute mark, and the decision to try to climb out doesn’t take place until about twenty minutes later.

It is, we suppose, more than possible for the show to have filled that long wait with stuff an audience would have wanted to watch (see James Cameron’s Titanic, for a film many hated that nevertheless pulled off the trick at even greater length), but that’s not exactly what’s happening when the chief interpersonal story we have to sit through on the way involves the marital problems of Richard Clarke, a philandering novelist played by Steve Guttenberg. (If you have to lead with Guttenberg, you’ve already lost.)

The rest of the lead-up to the disaster comes from a fundamental misunderstanding by the filmmakers, who had read somewhere that tsunamis are only a couple of inches high out at sea and therefore jumped to the conclusion that the setup of the 1972 version was literally impossible. (They were wrong, in that what capsized the original Poseidon was not a tsunami, which indeed would have been impossible that far out, but a rogue wave…which can easily achieve the heights posited by the first film.)

What results from their flailing-about for another mechanism of capsizing the ship is a series of jaw-dropping, self-destructive story decisions.

They resorted to a terrorism subplot, which of course leads to many scenes of swarthy third-world types in the Poseidon kitchen exchanging meaningful looks as they plan to set their charges.

Yes. The makers of this film thought their version would work a lot better if the disaster was a terrorist plot.

The film’s Mike Rogo (Adam Baldwin) becomes a Sea Marshall working undercover to guard against such a plot. There are intimations of a troubled marriage, but his wife is back home and he is all business, just another steely-eyed, grimly determined hero of no particular distinction.  In place of Reverend Scott we get Rutger Hauer as Bishop August Schmidt, an affable and easy-going man of God who, when the disaster happens and the desperate climb to survival begins, is just another guy working alongside Rogo who is never really at odds with Rogo at any time.

Yes. The makers of this film thought their version would work a lot better if Rogo and their replacement for Reverend Scott were substantially duller people, who never argued. 

Even as the survivors strive to climb up through the decks, the focus shifts to land-based authorities striving to figure out what’s happened to the Poseidon, to locate it via satellite camera, to dispatch a nearby fishing trawler to its location, and to get a team of Navy SEALS to the site of the wreck in order to rescue people.

Yes. The makers of this film thought their version would work a lot better if we weren’t trapped alongside the people in a claustrophobic sinking ship, and were regularly reminded that the authorities were bending heaven and earth to send help.

There are uncounted other dumbnesses. This version’s Acre, a replacement for the doomed steward Roddy McDowall played in 1972, has time to indulge Richard Clarke’s aspiring-filmmaker son, a kid who’s attached to his camcorder and is here not only permitted to film his cheesy vampire film in restricted areas of the ship, but who is able to enlist Acre and other busy crewmembers as cast members. Somebody is able to send an e-mail to authorities from the capsized ship’s internet lounge, even though the broadcast towers are now underwater. Wonky shipboard geography leads to badly flooded areas of the ship several decks above areas that still remain dry…not just as the oddity that permits the last act of the original, but as an inexplicable regular thing. Suspense is torpedoed by the crowd in the ballroom not meeting their fates until very late in Part Two, and by a second group of characters leaving that room much after the first and still managing to catch up, thus underlining this movie’s criminal lack of urgency. (The ballroom doesn’t go under until the last few minutes. More bleeding urgency.)

Many of the original film’s set pieces are duplicated here, to much lesser effect because everything around them is so lame. We get the swim through the underwater corridor, the brave sacrifice of Mrs. Rosen, and Acre’s death in the shaft, which are here all unforgivably dull. And the death of Clarke’s mistress in the engine room, under circumstances that echo the prior film’s death of Linda Rogo, here acquires an ugly subtext as Mrs. Clarke seems downright satisfied by it.  (The implication is supposed to be that the marriage is saved, but seriously, if I were a philandering husband and saw that look on my estranged wife’s face immediately after my mistress’s horrific death…I would change my name and move to another state. That bitch is cold, and I wouldn’t be able to sleep in the same bed with her again without endless sweaty worrying about where I put the garden shears.)

The biggest problem, though, is that the makers of this miniseries completely misunderstood why characters with personal problems are included in this kind of story in the first place.

Here is an elementary lesson.  Stories illuminate character; character is put in sharp relief by stories. Even in action scenarios, you must have that or you don’t have a story.

In the original Poseidon Adventure, all that stuff with upside-down staircases and flooding compartments was there, in dramatic terms, to illustrate a movie-length argument between Gene Hackman and Ernest Borgnine. It is why the water seems to stop rising after Mrs. Rosen’s fateful underwater swim – because the argument is about to come to a head with the death of Mrs. Rogo, and more scenes of incoming water would only muddy the issue. That movie wanted a dramatic climax, not an action one…and in large part that’s what remains so memorable about it today. Please understand that we’re not saying it qualified as great drama, by any stretch of the imagination – but it was a story, dammit. It fulfilled the basic requirements of a story.

By contrast, this movie presents us with, naming one character at random, the reality-television producer played by Bryan Brown, who is so determined to have the little kid capture everything on his camcorder, for a possible future documentary. It presents us with that character and then does nothing of note with him. He is not tested. He is not revealed. He is just there. The same thing with the Bishop. He is not tested. He is not revealed. He is just there. And Rogo. He is not tested. He is not revealed. He is just there. And so on.

The only real dramatic arc is the one involving the marital woes of schmucky Steve Guttenberg…and, frankly, we know nothing more about his character at the end than we knew at the beginning.  Except that, you know, he had better spend the rest of his life hiding the Krazy-Glue.

There is one good moment, which deserves mention largely because it is the only good moment: a line or two spoken by Belle Rosen to the terrorist personally responsible for bombing the ship. Rogo goes to incredible lengths dragging this one-dimensional, sneering piece of shit up through the various levels of the ship, with an eye to making sure he lives to be interrogated about his backers. In the only words she ever speaks to the man, Mrs. Rosen says, I paraphrase, that her late husband had always told her that there were no evil people, only people in terrible pain. What, she earnestly asks him, hurt you so badly that you would want to do such a thing? He doesn’t answer; just stares back at her with hatred in his eyes. 

It would be nice if he took the bait,  even if his answer turned out to be a load of crap, because her question is the first time anybody in this entire movie comes close to having an interesting conversation. (See, for instance, the self-justifications of Gary Oldman’s evil terrorist in Air Force One. That’s what stopped him from being a one-dimensional villain, and made him a recognizable character, even if he was still so hateful that we cheered when he got thrown off the plane.)

 

The Attention-Deficit Summer Movie: Poseidon (2006)

There’s very little that needs to be said about the final version, except that if the middle one failed in large part because it was ponderously slow, this one failed because it never wanted to slow down.

It should have been much better. Wolfgang Petersen, who directed, is an accomplished maker of intelligent action films whose Hollywood work includes In The Line Of Fire and the aforementioned Air Force One. And he made one of the best underwater films of all time, a genuine world classic, Das Boot.

But his attention span, or his understanding of his target audience’s failing attention span, badly betrayed him here.

Check out the timeline. In this one the ship turns over (from another rogue wave) at approximately the fifteen-minute point, and the team of would-be survivors has started to climb out within the first half hour.

It thus only gives itself only about fifteen minutes to set up its characters, who are here largely defined not by their problems, but by their labels: a completely new set for this film, the beautiful stowaway, the ex-Mayor of New York, the suicidal gay guy, the young lovers, the dashing gambler, and the Designated Asshole.

It is possible for good actors to lend heft to such roles, but they need a certain minimum to worth with, and nobody here (not even Richard Dreyfuss, for pete’s sake), is more than a placeholder, here to shout urgent lines while dodging various dangers.

This is especially true of Andre Braugher, who plays the Captain. He dies early, of course, as the Captain in this story is supposed to, but the gap between a performer’s talent and the thinness of the character he’s been appointed to play has never been so vast. Is this what it’s come to, since Homicide? Doesn’t anybody have anything better for Braugher to do?

The Designated Asshole, played by Kevin Dillon, is a case that deserves special scrutiny. He is not an abrasive but essentially decent guy like Rogo, who causes problems because he has his own opinions. He is just a Designated Asshole. He acts like an Asshole, he dresses like an Asshole, he demonstrates he’s an Asshole, and – after demanding to be the first to cross a rickety structure – he dies, on cue and unmourned, an Asshole. The film doesn’t have any interest in characterizing him, or even the more important characters, any better than that.

There are some impressive set pieces. The struggle to cross a flaming scenic elevator atrium is more elaborate, in staging and in visual verve, than anything in either of the prior films. And the Dashing Gambler saves the day with a stunt that might have been considered over-the-top even in a superhero movie. But so what? With nobody to care about, and dialogue that from this point to almost the end of the film has been reduced to shouts of “Look out!” and “This way!”, it emerges as loud, colorful, fast-paced, and just as dull as the TV-movie.

There are some interesting, original situations. The only scene from this version that emerges as both new to this take and as great as anything in the original film is a period spent trapped in a vertical air shaft, as the people crammed near the top struggle with the grating that keeps everybody trapped in rising water. That’s a killer suspense sequence, and yes, fans of the original will be delighted to notice that they escape that trap by using a cross as a screwdriver.

There’s this, too. Unlike the folks from the 1972 version, these people actually start out with a plan for getting out once they reach the propeller assembly, one that makes sense within the context of the film. That’s good thinking, and in its own limited way an improvement on the original story. (It also, unfortunately, eliminates the faith angle, but hey, it’s a legitimately innovative plot point.)

It is of course woefully convenient for them that the disaster has conveniently left an inflated life raft floating a short swim from where they finally get out, one that indeed even has a working flare gun for their convenience. This is painful even though nothing that takes place before that point is even remotely convenient and it’s arguably just as convenient in the first film for Borgnine and company to reach the bottom of the ship just in time to hear the people walking around on the hull.)

But again: aside from the revelation that fireman-turned-mayor Kurt Russell is willing to die to save his daughter, and a suicidal subplot for the Richard Dreyfuss character that goes away as soon as the ship turns over, there are no character arcs here. These people are not tested. They are not revealed. They are just there.

By forsaking human drama, by failing to give its characters personalities, by eliminating subtext and by reducing almost the last hour and especially the last half-hour to shouting and yelling, with only scattered moments of identifiable human interaction, this version underlines exactly what has gone wrong with popular film since 1972. In 1972, Irwin Allen sank a ship with people on board. In 2006, Petersen sank a ship populated with stand-ins for people. In 1972, there was something going on behind the story. And in 2006, there were explosions going on instead of it.

The Captain’s Log

1972 version, a fine entertainment that looks better every year. 2005 version, three hours of made-for-TV lameness. 2006 version, a headache-inducing mess.

And now, the wife comes edging along the upside-down catwalk…

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

The Poseidon Adventure  (1972). Directed by Ronald Neame and Irwin Allen. Written by Wendell Mayes and Stirling Silliphant, from the novel by Paul Gallico. Starring Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters, Red Buttons, others. 117 minutes. ***

The Poseidon Adventure (2005). 2-part TV-movie. Directed by John Putch. Written by Mary Church, from the novel by Paul Gallico. Starring Adam Baldwin, Rutger Hauer, Steve Guttenberg, Peter Weller, C. Thomas Howell, others.  Extended version, god help us, 173 minutes. *1/2

Poseidon (2006). Directed by Wolfgang Petersen.  Screenplay by Mark Protosevich, from the novel by Paul Gallico. Starring Kurt Russell, Richard Dreyfuss, Josh Lucas, Kevin Dillon, Andre Braugher, Emily Rossum, Mia Maestro, Alex Kingston, others. 98 minutes. 1/2

In 1972 I was 9 years old and wasn’t allowed to go to movies by myself quite yet.  My mother, at the same time, needed someone to go see movies that my Dad just wouldn’t stir himself to see.  Bingo!  The weekend and days off school movie duo was formed. Thanks to this mother/daughter bonding,  I got taken to see such amazing fare as “The Bad News Bears” and The Towering Inferno.  But the one that makes this retelling of childhood interdependency important was The Poseidon Adventure.

Now, I can’t remember what day of the week this happened, but I can remember the theater, the snacks and the sound system fritzing in and out during the previews.  My mom threatened to walk out if the sound wasn’t fixed PRONTO! (Actually said from her seat as loudly as possible).  That can really make a film outing memorable.

Well, the sound got fixed, the movie rolled and my nine year old’s brain swore off ship travel for the everlovin’ future.

This film was my Jaws.  I thought that every Ocean liner was going to roll over in the next high wave.  I cried when my grandparents took their next cruise.  That year was absolute water hell for me.

So, did the original film make any kind of impression on me? Naah, not at all.  Just because I didn’t want to get on Disney’s 20,000 Leagues  ride for fear of drowning, had nothing whatsoever to do with The Poseidon Adventure.  Right?

Jump ahead to 2010.  Adam and I are discussing the prospective films to cover in this blog and up jumps good ole Poseidon.  I knew about the film remake, but had never heard (or had completely blocked from my mind) the TV mini.  So, we agreed they were ample fodder for our cannon of comparison.  Then, I won a free cruise.  Boy, can childhood trauma jump back and bite one’s butt.  Adam was ready to cover these early this year, but I begged off the watching until long after we returned from our trip. Did it make any difference?  Not really, but I may have actually enjoyed the cruise a bit more, not having the reminder looming in wait. (And yes, I fear being trapped in high rise fires too)!

OK  Garbage reminisces out of the way on to the work at hand.

Poseidon (1972):  Still a great adventure.  Fully developed characters, great effects and a story that says something about the constant struggle within each of us to balance survival with our humanity.  With the recent rewatch the Wesley effect of the child shall lead is a bit too thick, but I loved it back then.  The film also reminds everyone to never trust the guy wearing the uniform he’s always wrong and will die soon enough. (Show me a surviving crew member here).

Poseidon (2005):  Great idea in theory.  Make a 2-part miniseries (or maxi movie) using the source material.  Great, but what happened to the novel?  Somewhere in developmentland, some brainiac said “ditch the story, blow stuff up and make it less preachy”.  So they did.  They also slowed the action down to less than a turtle trot and added crap that was pure distraction.  Why steal from the original film’s key scenes, if they no longer tie the story together?  Nobody really took the time to read this script front to back.

Poseidon (2006):  Wow.  What can go wrong here?  Everything!  Lose the characters, dive into the emergency and never give your actors a chance to perform.  Here its all stunts and special effects.  Is anybody looking for story anymore?

Its fantastic that we live in an age where computers can seemingly generate anything we can dream up, but letting the effects run ramshod over the story, the settings, the very characters that make up any film is probably the main reason why I prefer the films from  the 30’s and 40’s.  Sure, the whole group of disaster films from the 70’s still fill my heart with nostalgia, but to me now they signal the beginning of the end.  This is when the MEGA movie began to take over and I began to lose interest in much of Hollywood’s output.