Posts Tagged ‘Science Fiction’


First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Total Recall (1990). Directed by Paul Verhoeven. Screenplay by Ronald Shusett, Dan O’ Bannon, and Gary Goldman, from a story by Shusett, O’Bannon and Jon Povill, itself based on the story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale by Philip K. Dick. Starring Arnold Shwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, Ronny Cox, Rachel Ticotin, Michael Ironside. 113 minutes.** 1/2

Total Recall (2012). Directed by Len Wiseman. Screenplay by  Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback, from the 1990 screenplay and Philip K. Dick story. Starring Colin Farrell, Bryan Cranston, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, and Bill Nighy. (Produced by an outfit called “Original Film,” which got a huge laugh all by itself at the showing we saw). 121 minutes. ** 1/2

Total_Recall_41-300x475

 

Okay. Let’s get this much out of the way, first.

The general disdain many people have for the very phenomenon of remakes is often centered on the movie made so perfectly the first time that it is unthinkable to imagine such perceived perfection ever being sullied by an inferior imitation.

And there’s something to be said for this: after all, we have the remake of PSYCHO, a failed attempt to catch lightning in a bottle a second time.

The reflexive disdain is so automatic that it has, in the past, condemned films that had something to go for them. We’ve discussed how one great movie, The Wages Of Fear, was remade as a pretty damn good one, Sorcerer, and how many critics of the time assaulted it just for the unwelcome presumption.

We have seen some rhetoric of the kind directed at the latest big remake to hit the multiplex, a second film called Total Recall.

The implication is that the original was such an unparalleled classic that just to even attempt to remake it was blasphemy.

But let’s be honest here. The original was not a capital-g great movie. Like the remake, it’s a rather dopey one, enjoyably kinetic in its setpieces and resonantly paranoid in its premise, but nevertheless a dopey one, driven by machine-guns and explosions and a McGuffin that fails to pass the bullshit test of anybody with even a passing familiarity with science. The remake is also a rather dopey film, also enjoyably kinetic in its setpieces and resonantly paranoid in its premise, but driven by machine-guns and explosions and…well, the rest of the sentence continues on as before, even though the McGuffin here is entirely different than the one in the original film and therefore requires an entirely different species of bullshit.

The films have many of the same strengths and many of the same flaws. It is possible to consider both absolute crap and it is possible to consider both enjoyable thrill rides. It really depends on how “hard” you prefer your science fiction. In either film, if you require your physics to obey the laws ogf the real world, you might as well not pay the price of admission.

In broad strokes, the setups are identical. Both films open in a near-future metropolis, where a happily-married menial worker named Quaid (Arnold Shwarzenegger in the first film, Colin Farrell in the second), who feels stifled by the same old grind of to-work-and-back, has been having dream-flashbacks of an adventurous life not his own. The dreams come complete with a woman not his wife, which disturbs that wife (Sharon Stone in the first film, Kate Beckinsale in the second), who is remarkably understanding about her man having erotic dreams about someone else.

Still driven by the sense that something in missing, Quaid goes to Rekall, a corporation that sells false memories of grand times the customer has never lived. He is talked into a dream involving himself as an unstoppable secret agent. But midway through the procedure, something seems to go wrong; it seems that he might actually be a secret agent named Hauser, who was only weeks ago mind-wiped and installed in his current life by the forces of a villain named Cohaagen (Ronny Cox in the first film, Bryan Cranston in the second). Now Hauser must flee ruthless assassins who include his own loving wife, while seeking out the answers to the mysteries behind his origins.

The films share a number of other dramatic beats in common, among them the major revelation regarding Hauser’s real agenda. But they are otherwise so different that neither really spoils the other. Let’s take a look at the differences.

The Futures

The key difference is in the science-fictional background.

The 1990 film presents us with a future where Mankind has started to colonize the solar system, where people on Earth live pretty much the same way they do today except with more gadgets and where people on Mars live under the heel of a corrupt local administrator whose pocket-lining ways has created a permanent oppressed underclass of mutants and other 99 percenters. Questions of harmful radiation, of life support, and of the stupidity of firing machine guns around glass in a pressurized environment – which is stupid, but clearly a joke the movie is aware of, given that Michael Ironside’s rather dim manhunter makes or tries to make that same mistake multiple times – all factor into it, but the overall impression given is that mankind’s horizons have expanded and that there are enough wonders to go along, if not for the few selfish and brutal people who insist on ruining it for anybody. It’s hard to imagine minding a life in this future, as long as you’re one of the privileged and all the shooting is safely in the past. It’s all rather familiar, really – it even has many of the same corporations.

Some of the new gadgets are particularly fun; I like the bored airhead receptionist, amusing herself by instantaneously changing the color of her sculpted fingernails. And some have actually entered our lives; i.e., the wall-sized television sets.

The 2012 film, more in line with the tone of author Philip K. Dick, presents us with a firmly Earthbound humanity, on a ruined planet that possesses only two habitable regions, one in what used to be Great Britain and one in what used to be Australia. Both regions, beset by wild overcrowding, have built their urban centers up vertically, in a form of architecture that involves laying one city entirely over another, and then another over that, for as high up as the superstructure will support.  Workers commute from Australia to Great Britain on a daily basis, via a kind of skyscraper commuter train that plummets through the core of the Earth, and somehow builds up enough momentum to make it all the way to the surface on the other side.  So it is, in a very real sense, a world that has lost all hope, and where all the machine gun battles and running around amount to a form of fighting over the crumbs. There are gadgets here, as well – Colin Farrell’s Quaid has a refrigerator that also functions as an I-Pad, and there’s a wondrous chase through a network of crisscrossing high-speed elevators, traveling both vertically and horizontally. But again, the impression given is that one world is a hopeful one, marred by corruption; the other is a terrible place where people can live their lives, but where their horizons are strictly proscribed.

The differences between these two milieus is further underlined by the visual palate. The 1990 world has some dark and/or undeveloped places, but is mostly a brightly-lit and colorful place, where even the sleazy hooker bar looks about as threatening as a McDonald’s at lunch hour. For the most part, the 2012 world is grimy, grungy, dimly-lit, often rainy, and in the Australian scenes populated by people who look like they’ve managed to eke out a few precious square meters for themselves and dress to let us know it. This extends to the look of the false-memory shop, Rekall. In 1990, it has stone walls, but is clearly an upscale business, with techs in white coats, a smiling high-pressure salesman, audio-visual presentations for the slower folks among the clientele. The model is a travel agency. The 2012 version is tucked away in an alley in the midst of a skeevy hooker neighborhood, is dimly lit, and is decorated for mood  – the impression given being that it’s more of a vice-driven enterprise.

(Both places have a three-breasted hooker, but 1990’s three-breasted hooker is implicitly one of the area’s mutants, and the 2012 specimen is a one-of-a-kind anomaly, possibly a new form of deliberate body-mod.)

Claims that the 2012 version is “just” a ripoff of the original are defeated by the change in design. Clearly, a lot of thought went into making the new version look different. The competition between them is frankly a wash. 1990 is brighter, more colorful, larger, more filled with visual humor; 2012 is more eye-popping, more dazzling visually, less hopeful and certainly more a world that anybody would mess with his mind to escape. 

 

The Performances

1990 star Arnold Shwarzenegger has often been accused of being utterly without acting talent. That is a canard. He is no grand thespian, and was indeed at his best in the first Terminator film where he was employed less as character than as living special effect, but any close examination to his accomplishments on screen reveals than he’s actually pretty good at expressing rage, fear, terror, pain, amusement, amiability, charm, uncertainty – not quite a full spectrum of human emotion, and certainly not enough to completely overcome his easily-parodied line readings, but certainly enough to function within the scenarios usually provided for him. He is a larger than life figure, and viewers never wanted him to be anything other than his usual screen persona, anyway. (Hence the frequent, jocular repetitions of “I’ll be back.”)

2012 star Colin Farrell is an actor of harder-to-deny talents, who has been very good indeed in character-based movies (two capital-g Great ones: The Way Back, In Bruges),  but one odd result of casting him in big-budget action films is that he tends to disappear in them even when he’s supposed to be the focus (see: Miami Vice, Daredevil).   In his Total Recall, he’s very good indeed as a hero who imagined himself an ordinary man and now finds out he’s not (or, in the other interpretation, as an ordinary man who is merely being made to imagine that he’s a hero), but much of his acting is subtle, inward, as far from over-the-top as possible. It’s a better performance, technically, but is it a better one for the material? This reviewer is honestly not sure. Call it a wash.

Bryan Cranston has recently made his bones playing a good guy who becomes a bad guy in Breaking Bad, which is why it’s so disappointing that his 2012 evil mastermind is not nearly as memorable as Ronny Cox’s 1990; he’s just not given the same level of emotion to play. On the other hand, Sharon Stone’s vicious undercover wife from 1990 is just a little bit more than competent and Kate Beckinsale’s equivalent in 2012 is a wonderment; she is an unstoppable force of nature, a frightening figure even when she just frowns with determination, from a distance. It is grand theft movie, first class, by far the best reason to see the remake.

Beckinsale’s character, Lori, is actually the combination of two characters from the 1990 film, Lori and Richter. The loss of Richter (played in 1990 by Michael Ironside) is a major one, in that his character has more than one pressing reason to break orders and want Quaid dead. There’s a great exchange between him and another of Cohaagen’s men, regarding Lori’s undercover role as Quaid’s wife: “Are you saying she enjoyed it?” “No, I’m sure she hated every minute of it.” Ironside played him as a guy who adored his wife but wanted to erase her transgression by any means possible, to the point that it rendered him reckless and stupid. It was a performance that made it possible to feel sorry for him. As great as Beckinsale is in her performance as Lori, a female terminator, it’s a shame that the streamlining of the story deprived us of a subsidiary villain who could have had some equivalent fun with this dynamic. 

The Competing Species of Bullshit

In Total Recall 1990, the big secret is the discovery of a massive alien machine designed to melt a glacier in the core of Mars, and thus provide the planet with a breathable atmosphere.

This is a terrifically cosmic science fictional concept called “terraforming,” and it renders Cohaagen an even greater villain in that he refuses to turn it on, preferring to profit from a Mars where every citizen has to pay for every breath of air. (Oh, he provides some lip-service to fears over whether the machine is safe…but really, it’s clear; he just doesn’t want to destroy the Mars that enriches him.) In the climax, the erupting plumes of vapor shatter all external glass in the colony, but renders Mars a blue-skied paradise within minutes.

Umm. Sorry. The first bad news is that it can’t possibly work that way. Even if that much gas is created, all over Mars, it’s impossible to believe that the air would dissipate all over that globe in mere minutes, unless it creates a worldwide windstorm far stronger than the most violent terrestrial hurricane. And, frankly, just providing Mars with an atmosphere is not the problem. Finding a way for Mars to keep an atmosphere is the problem. There’s a reason why it barely has an atmosphere now; it simply doesn’t have the gravity to retain one. Even if the colonists could enjoy a few minutes of balmy weather in the aftermath of the machine’s activation, the same problem would face them a week or a month or a year later, after all that atmosphere was gone. It’s like giving money to a derelict with holes instead of pockets. He can’t hold on to it, that’s all.

There’s also the issue that Quaid and Melina are exposed to near-vacuum for long minutes as the atmosphere is created, and suffer explosive decompression, complete with eyes popping out of their heads. That they survive, to face a delightful blue sky and a happy ending, without any medical aftereffects, is unlikely in the extreme…but, hey, if we take the position that the entire adventure just survived is Quaid’s psychotic delusion, thanks to the malpractice of Rekall, then it’s fine in that it really doesn’t have to make sense. If it’s not part of Quaid’s real world, it’s dopey. If it’s part of his dream, it’s sneakily brilliant.

One major problem with Total Recall 2012 is that the nonsensical elements are part of Quaid’s waking world. It really is impossible to believe in the Fall, a skyscraper falling through the Earth’s core (and back up again), as the most practical form of mass transit in an nearly uninhabitable world. The physics of it don’t work and logic of it doesn’t work, and beyond that it’s downright ridiculous to posit one transport full of robot soldiers being enough to conquer a teeming city, when we’ve seen that those soldiers can pretty much be taken apart by anybody sufficiently good at martial arts. It can’t be written off as a dream because the same technology exists when Quaid is awake. It’s pretty enough…but fails to beat the common sense test.

Alas, so does the entire justification behind the amnesia storyline in the first place. Assuming you take the interpretation that everything that happens to Quaid is real and not a fantasy implanted at Rekall, it makes perfect retroactive sense, in the 1990 film, for his character to be working undercover with his memory erased. After all, he’s going after a rebel organization run by a telepath. He needs to believe in his own sincerity. There are no telepaths in the 2012 version. Hauser doesn’t have to believe a damn thing; he could accomplish the same thing by just believing real hard. There is no reason to place him in a position where he can run amuck, wholly out of the control of the people who hired him, killing their own men…except to obey the general plot outline that was such a hit in 1990. It doesn’t make sense, not even if you consider Quaid’s adventures a fantasy.

Another element of the 2012 version that makes less sense than the 1990 version: the robotic cops. In 1990, there are none; there’s just a bunch of thugs and a very powerful alien machine with the ability to change the world. 2012 presents us with a bunch of “invincible wimps” – an ultimate weapon killing machine so flawed that it is possible for an unarmed martial artist to take one down. This would not be a serious problem if they were just scenery. But we are made to believe that the plan is for one commuter-car of robot soldiers, to completely exterminate the entire population of the Australian zone. Not based on what we see. I think they’re in for a fight.

The 2012 version is also so fixated on propelling its story that it omits many of 1990’s grace notes. For instance, in 1990, when Quaid and Malena are captured, Cohaagen puts her in a reprogramming chair too, to make her a “respectful” and “obedient” bride for Hauser. It’s just a little terrifying. Not in 2012; she’s simply arrested.

The Action

Both films have wild over-the-top action sequences, with stunning explosions of violence. The ones from 1990 are funnier, and confidently give some of the best bits to people other than the titular hero. For instance, there are precious few moments of junk-movie bliss more transcendent than the moment in that film when the dwarf hooker grabs a machine gun and starts mowing down thugs. She was a bit player, and people still cheered her. It was, I think, the loudest cheer the movie got, which is saying a lot in a film where Arnold Shwarzenegger gets to shoot or beat up dozens of people. The 2012 version is pretty much a four-character show. It’s a loss.

Give the 2012 version credit, though: it has three lengthy action set pieces that outgun and outclass anything in the original film, among them Quaid’s flight through the shadow streets of the Australian zone, a multi-level chase that runs on for miles and takes him through all strata of his society. That’s neat. So’s the hovercar chase, a scene that would have blown my mind, as a youngster. And so’s the wildest innovation of the whole film, an action scene unlike anything I’ve ever seen in any movie, an extended chase through vertical and horizontal elevators that is eye-popping, original, and downright thrilling. It’s great stuff, the main reason the 2012 version receives a grade equal to 1990’s.

The Memory Vault

1990 version: a campy thrill ride, that is science-fictionally richer, and happens to make just a little more sense,  than the 2012 follow-up. The 2012 version: darker and more despairing, better acted albeit (aside from Beckinsale) to lesser effect, and set in a future that makes no sense whatsoever, but with visuals and action sequences better than anything in the original film.

Life circumstances intruding, there will be no Remake Chronicles essay in September. We hope to be back in October, but those “life circumstances” will be continuing well into that month, so it might well be a 60-day break. We shall see you when we see you.

*

And now, the wife remembers it for you wholesale…

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Total Recall (1990). Directed by Paul Verhoeven. Screenplay by Ronald Shusett, Dan O’ Bannon, and Gary Goldman, from a story by Shusett, O’Bannon and Jon Povill, itself based on the story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale by Philip K. Dick. Starring Arnold Shwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, Ronny Cox, Rachel Ticotin, Michael Ironside. 113 minutes.**

Total Recall (2012). Directed by Len Wiseman. Screenplay by Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback, from the 1990 screenplay and Philip K. Dick story. Starring Colin Farrell, Bryan Cranston, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, and Bill Nighy. (Produced by an outfit called “Original Film,” which got a huge laugh all by itself at the showing we saw). 121 minutes. ** *

 

One of these two films is better than the other, and its not the one the critics think.

I had fond memories of the 1990 Total Recall.  I mean the images of Mars were amazing and the mutant population was wonderfully varied.  The story had love, hate, war, rebellion, greedy land barons and sympathetic prossies, everything you need for a fun time in the old west right?  Only this wasn’t the old west, it was the future and having bulgy AHNOLD slinging throw away punch lines just doesn’t hold up.

In 1990, I believed a person could survive in a non atmosphere by holding their breath reallllllly long.  Ummm…chalk up one for the gullible.  But guess what?  The filmmakers wanted us to believe not only that, but no permanent damage would occur after  the incident.  Boy, is there egg on my face.

I could go on picking apart the pseudoscience in the original but why bother, its been done ad infinitum by those much better /knowledgeable than I.

Well, to prepare for the remake I decided to read the source material.  Boy, was I ever taken aback.  Where was all this Mars rebellion stuff? This story is all about a guy trying to search for his true identity and then deciding, he really doesn’t like himself too much.  That’s the film that I saw a few weeks ago.  That’s the story that I read.  That’s the reason so few folks liked it in comparison to the first take. 

Colin Farrell plays most of the film as a poor confused sap finding himself involved in things he doesn’t understand or care about.  Audiences don’t like their hunky leading men to play second fiddle to strong capable women. Audiences don’t like plots with more twists than their poor struggling minds can follow. Audiences today want the story spooned up and fed to them so they can run out to get another big gulp and still catch up in one sentence or less.  This is why the majority of folks prefer the first version. You don’t need to think, just cheer on the bruiser.

The remake has an infinitely better cast, better script , special effects and most importantly a set to make any Blade Runner fan drool in envy. 

To compare, Arnold does a quick bit of surgery and recovers pronto, Colin staggers with each bash and bruise.  Sharon Stone as wife in original is a B**ch, but not unstoppable, Kate Beckinsale as wife in remake is a force to reckon with.  Wife two made a more plausible baby sitter for the “dangerous spy/good guy/bad guy/ummm you name it.  Compare Ronny Cox to Bryan Cranston as the money grubbing baddy and it’s a close one.  Cox oozed menace, but couldn’t fight worth a bean.  Cranston oozed menace and proved a bit formidable too. 

So, throw it all into a pot and stir well and you get a tight SF film nearly true to the source material versus one that took the name and a few plot points and then decided to make an action comedy SF film.  You can choose for yourself. I already have.


 

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

{The} Seven Samurai (1954). Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni. Starring Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura. Various Cuts from 160 minutes to 207 minutes exist. ****

The Magnificent Seven (1960). Directed by John Sturges. Screenplay by William Roberts, Walter Newman, and Walter Bernstien (latter two uncredited), from the earlier screenplay by Kurosawa, et.al.  Starring Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, Brad Dexter, Eli Wallach, others.  128 minutes. ***

Battle Beyond The Stars (1980). Not an official remake of Seven Samurai. Directed by Jimmy T. Murakami. Screenplay by John Sayles (!), from a story by Anne Dyer. Starring Richard Thomas, George Peppard, Robert Vaughn, others. 105 minutes, *

Three Amigos (1986). Not an official remake of Seven Samurai.  Directed by John Landis. Screenplay by Lorne Michaels, Steve Martin and Randy Newman. Starring Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, and Martin Short. 104 minutes. **

A Bug’s Life (1995). Not an official remake of Seven Samurai. Directed by John Lasseter. Screenplay by Andrew Stanton, Donald McEnery, and Bob Shaw, from a story by Lasseter, Stanton, and Joe Ranft. Starring Dave Foley, Kevin Spacey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, others. 95 minutes. ***

Other Related Films: Multiple sequels and a TV series for The Magnificent Seven; too many homages and tributes and outright ripoffs to list.

*

The citizens of a tiny, isolated village eking out a living from the land suddenly find themselves threatened by bandits who plan to swoop in, just a few short months from now, and take everything they have. The villagers are bereft. They are outgunned, outnumbered, and not used to fighting. But perhaps it is possible to mount an effective defense. Perhaps they can send representatives abroad, in search of warriors willing to fight for them – warriors who will fight for little pay other than their own subsistence and a chance for a meaningful death. Hungry warriors, who just might also be great warriors, able to defend a largely ungrateful village against a far superior force.

This is the germ of what many, including myself, consider the single greatest motion picture ever made by the single greatest movie director of all time, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. (It is sometimes referred to as The Seven Samurai, but the vagaries of translation and the absence of a Japanese equivalent for the word The render both titles equally accurate for English speakers. I usually include The because it’s a more natural way to say it, but omit the article when I have a second or two to think about it.)

Seven Samurai casts an enormous shadow, and not just because it was imitated by many of the action movies that followed it. It is, among other things, the first movie where a disparate team of fighting men are gathered one at a time for an impossible mission, and – given that we first see the lead samurai  helping a village rescue a hungry child from a kidnapper  – quite possibly the first film ever to introduce an action hero by first showing us how effective he is in an unrelated adventure. It was a key film in the careers of director Kurosawa, whose collaborations with his frequent leading man Toshiro Mifune encompass many of the greatest movies ever made; and for international star Mifune, whose performance as the clownish but effective warrior known only by the clear alias Kikuchiyo is quite possibly the best of his own career. It was the most expensive Japanese movie made up to that point, made by a studio that was also filming Godzilla at the same time and almost went under due to spiraling costs. It is so terrific a film that its first remake, the western, isn’t even half as good and still emerges as a classic; so memorable that it has been remade, unofficially or otherwise, in multiple  media ranging from comic books (a two-part Justice League story taking place on an Earth menaced by alien invaders, and featuring the various DC superheroes as the titular superheroes), to the Stephen King novel Wolves Of the Calla (very much a Samurai homage), episodes of Kung Fu and Star Trek (an episode of Deep Space Nine entitled “The Magnificent Ferengi”). Yet another remake, set in a backwater region of Thailand and featuring a motley crew of unemployed military contractors in the roles of the Samurai, has been announced for 2014, and the sheer awe people feel for the original film can be measured by how many people, temporarily forgetting the number of different eras and backgrounds to which the essential plot has been transplanted, angrily label the very idea as blasphemous. Seriously. C’mon. That ship has sailed, and I suspect the 2014 version might not entirely suck.

Seven Samurai (1954)
The most important thing any non-Japanese viewer need to know about the original Kurosawa film is that not all of it translates.
 
Oh, it’s very easy to understand in its broad strokes. A village is threatened by bandits who intend to arrive at harvest time and take all their food, leaving them to starve. The villagers can muster no defense by themselves. The old man who serves as the local repository of wisdom tells a delegation of citizens that they need to find samurai warriors to protect them. The villagers protest that they don’t have any money to pay samurai, except possibly in food. The old man says, simply, “Find Hungry Samurai.” This the villagers do, in large part because Kambei (Takashi Shimura), a respected but impoverished samurai of many years experience, puts his own persuasive skills to the task. Counting Kambei, six samurai are varying skills agree to go; as does a mysterious, filthy, and downright clownish derelict, Kikuchiyo (Mifune), who is no samurai but claims to be one. As the battle begins, Kikuchiyo turns out to be something the others never suspected: not just an able killer and useful comrade, but also a fine leader of men and a pivotal bridge between the samurai and the villagers who fear them.

These are some of the things that don’t translate.

For example, we first  see Kambei, having his head shaved so he can pass for a monk and therefore get close enough to a cornered thief to kill the man and rescue the child he has taken hostage. Much is made of the shaving of his head. Westerners may not understand that this is not just an aesthetic cost but also a social one; samurai of his rank traditionally wore their hair in top knots, and Kambei’s temporary sacrifice of his demonstrates among other things his willingness to descend to lower social strata if the need is urgent and the cause just. For the farmers who have traveled to the city to recruit samurai but been rebuffed by many, this is no small consideration in their decision to approach him with their life-and-death problem.


 
Secondly, westerners may fail to realize that samurai is not just a profession, but a social class; people were born to that exalted rank, and took deep pride in having a master to serve (one reason why being a ronin, a “masterless samurai,” is considered such a despicable fate). Understand this and Mifune’s character, Kikuchiyo, makes a lot more sense. Not only has he never been a samurai, but he will never be an samurai, and never could be a samurai, despite his evident skill with a sword. It is significant that he takes his name from a birth certificate that the others clearly recognize as stolen; it is also significant that – in a touch few westerners will understand – the name Kikuchiyo is mispronounced and misunderstood by him, and according to some sources might even obviously be a girl’s. It is also not just splendid slapstick but a very sensible point of character that he proves hopeless when it comes to handling horses; as peasant stock, he certainly would not have had any experience as a rider. Kikuchiyo picks at lice and scratches his unclean body and both worships and disdains the samurai simultaneously, all acts of a man eager to be accepted by the class that didn’t just oppress his own, but – as is revealed in one powerful scene – orphaned him.

(Kikuchiyo steals the movie outright, which here qualifies as grand theft.)
 
Thirdly, there’s the matter of the four samurai who die in the course of the mission to save the village. None die from arrows or swords. They’re all shot with one of the small handful of muskets possessed by the bandits, each one of them falling to what is – in a very real sense – the future. Even the most skilled samurai, Kyuzo, dies from a musket wound; it is profoundly powerful that when Kikuchiyo is shot and mortally wounded in the last few minutes of the film, he survives just long to stagger toward his murderer, a look of infinite rage on his face, and return the favor with a sword-thrust. There’s more going on, in that moment, more resonant history than a good guy killing a bad guy, a character we love killing one we have reason to hate. It’s the samurai code holding off the future for a few minutes longer, and Kikuchiyo becoming every bit what he pretended to be.

None of this is a hundred percent necessary to understand; certainly the same character notes (Kambei’s compassion, Kikuchiyo’s ambivalence toward his companions) are established in broad and subtle strokes, throughout. It is all so much of a piece that the 160-minute international version, for years the only one available in the United States, doesn’t seem to be missing all that much from the 207-minute restoration. (It certainly moves faster, one thing to keep in mind when introducing the film to skeptical friends who’ve never seen it, as I recently discovered when I brought the two-disk Criterion version over to show my friends with the home theatre.)

The movie manages to juggle a great number of character threads, including among them the journey of the young Katsushiro (Isao Kimura), who comes to Kambei as an inexperienced student and is distracted during the preparations for battle by, shall we say, the concerns of the young; villager Rikichi  (Yoshio Tsuchiya), who for deeply personal reasons of his own becomes angry whenever his own matrimonial status is mentioned; the timid villager Yohei, who is frightened of everything; and the supremely talented samurai Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), who is the only one of the bunch who you could really call a superhero of swordsmanship. It deals with the very real fear the villagers have for the samurai who have put their own lives on hold to save them, the very real reasons the samurai should fear them back, a love story, low comedy, great battle scenes, and deep sad reflections on the warrior’s lot. It starts slowly but builds in suspense and power throughout, until we get to the final hour, which races like wildfire as the last remaining bandits – evidently a band of slow learners – continue to charge the village that has been slaughtering them. It is beautifully filmed, like all Kurosawa films, and like most of the best Kurosawa films doesn’t permit depth or entertainment to rob from each other. It is considered, by many, the single greatest movie ever made. I happen to concur. Lawrence Of Arabia comes second, Casablanca third, Citizen Kane fourth. Or so goes my math. On other days I’d switch the order of numbers two through three. Nothing ever dislodges Samurai.
 

 
The Magnificent Seven (1960) 

When first released in the United States, Seven Samurai went by the name The Magnificent Seven, which was cribbed for a western remake starring a bunch of then-famous or soon-to-be-famous actors whose full roll call would someday fuel any number of trivia challenges. For the record, I post the full list of gunfighters without resorting to notes: Yul Brynner (who came pre-bald, but played the Kambei part, here named “Chris”), Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Horst Bucholz, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, and (the one nobody can name) Brad Dexter.

The bandits of the original film were a bunch of faceless outsiders who were for the most part only glimpsed when they came close, but westerns of the time required a sneering villain, and so the first major alteration in the storyline is the addition of one, who styles himself the “friend” of the luckless village he loots every year and shows up in the first scene to kindly announce that he will be back in a few months, to take everything. (He also kills the one guy foolish enough to attack him, thus rendering it clear to even the stupidest member of the audience just what the stakes are.) This stretches common sense a little, as the bandits of the first film aren’t aware that they’ve inadvertently given their group of terrified farmers advance warning and these guys all but dare theirs to get guns and shoot back, but hey: in doing so, it fulfills many of the requirements of the western, and gives us an absolutely dandy villain in the person of Eli Wallach, who gets great lines like – again, typed here without recourse to notes – “If God hadn’t wanted them sheared, he wouldn’t have made them sheep!” What a nice guy.

The shorter running time means that the team is collected a lot faster, which is a good thing, even a great deal of psychological acuity is sacrificed. Here, as in the first film, we get two of the gunfighters, actually two-and-a-half, introduced at once: here by the simple expedient of having the two played by Brynner and McQueen, previously unknown to one another, voluntarily team up to fight a cause no reasonable person could possibly object to – in this case, agreeing to deliver the body of an indian who dropped dead in the street to Boot Hill over the objections of local racists who believe it more proper to let the corpse continue to lie in the street and attract flies. (More nice guys.) The third member of the future band of brothers, Horst Bochner – an amalgam of the Katsushiro and Kikuchiyo characters from the prior film, in that he’s BOTH the callow youth and the ex-farmer, wannabe gunfighter with the reason to hate gunfighters –  follows them on their journey with a big grin on his face,  enjoying the show. (There’s a great exchange during this interval as well. following an exchange of lead: McQueen asks Brynner, “You elected?” Brynner examines the bullethole in his hat and says, “No, but I’ve been nominated real good.”) The subsequent introductions of the Coburn and Bronson characters pretty much echo the introductions of their counterparts in the original film, but Robert Vaughn’s Lee is a fine innovation: an icy-cold killer who has made so many enemies in so many places that a suicide mission to save a bunch of a strangers actually sounds like a form of escape, to him.
  
It’s terrific Hollywood entertainment even at this point, but some of the changes from the original are already evident. To wit: the seven samurai included a number of guys who qualified as the best Kambei could get; these guys, even Bochner, are all prodigies, deeply dangerous men and dead shots. (Even Vaughn’s Lee, who it turns out has lost his nerve, pulls it together to prove himself an extraordinary talented gunman.)

Other changes: unlike the Japanese villagers, who always knew they needed samurai, the Mexicans only go out in search of weapons and acquire their gunfighters almost by accident; the love story ends happily as the youngest of the gunfighters voluntarily gives up on his life of violence and goes to join the girl; and, most notably, a twist that has never made any sense to this viewer. In this film, the bandits actually succeed in taking over the town, taking the gunfighters hostage; and Wallach’s bandit, believing that the gunfighters have learned their lesson, has them escorted out of town and released. Oh, sure, he says it’s because he thinks they’ll take word of his victory up north…but in that case, a guy this ruthless would simply kill most of them. Here, he lets them all go…and thus gets all his men killed stupidly when Brynner and company return for revenge. There is only one reason for this: namely, that this is a two-hour movie as opposed to a more than three-hour one, and John Sturges does not have the time to have it come down to the last few bandits, as Kurosawa did. So the screenplay gives us an unreasonable shortcut, and hopes we buy it.

It’s overall just about half as good a movie as the Kurosawa one is, but that’s still good enough to render it a classic of its kind, helped along by star power and some terrific dialogue I happily quote now. This is Charles Bronson’s O’Reilly to some local boys who idolize him:

”Don’t you ever say that again about your fathers, because they are not cowards. You think I am brave because I carry a gun; well, your fathers are much braver because they carry responsibility, for you, your brothers, your sisters, and your mothers. And this responsibility is like a big rock that weighs a ton. It bends and it twists them until finally it buries them under the ground. And there’s nobody says they have to do this. They do it because they love you, and because they want to. I have never had this kind of courage. Running a farm, working like a mule every day with no guarantee anything will ever come of it. This is bravery. That’s why I never even started anything like that… that’s why I never will.”
  
A dialogue between villain Calvera (Wallach) and captured hero Vin (McQueen):
  
Calvera: What I don’t understand is why a man like you took the job in the first place, hmm? Why, huh?

Chris: I wonder myself.

Calvera: No, come on, come on, tell me why.

Vin: It’s like a fellow I once knew in El Paso. One day, he just took all his clothes off and jumped in a mess of cactus. I asked him that same question, “Why?”

Calvera And?

Vin: He said, “It seemed to be a good idea at the time.

(And, finally, there’s this exchange, which I cheerfully count as the best gunfighter dialogue in the history of the movies.)

Chico: Villages like this they make up a song about every big thing that happens. Sing them for years.

Chris Adams: You think it’s worth it?

Chico: Don’t you?

Chris Adams: It’s only a matter of knowing how to shoot a gun. Nothing big about that.

Chico: Hey. How can you talk like this? Your gun has got you everything you have. Isn’t that true? Hmm? Well, isn’t that true?

Vin: Yeah, sure. Everything. After awhile you can call bartenders and faro dealers by their first name – maybe two hundred of ‘em! Rented rooms you live in – five hundred! Meals you eat in hash houses – a thousand! Home – none! Wife – none! Kids… none! Prospects – zero. Suppose I left anything out?

Chris Adams: Yeah. Places you’re tied down to – none. People with a hold on you – none. Men you step aside for – none.

Lee: Insults swallowed – none. Enemies – none.

Chris Adams: No enemies?

 Lee: Alive.

Chico: Well. This is the kind of arithmetic I like.

Chris Adams: Yeah. So did I at your age.

 

Battle Beyond The Stars (1980)

It’s embarrassing to note this, but this – not officially a remake, but come on — is the first version of the basic story that I ever saw; and back then I kind of liked it, though it has aged horribly (or I have), and it is in its 105 minutes far more interminable than the 207-minute Samurai.

It was produced by Roger Corman, who did occasionally make some commendable contributions to cinema but much more frequently – I hate to say this to his many fans, but it is true – seemed less interested in making good movies than in making movie-shaped objects that people could somehow be fooled into buying tickets for. This, a knockoff of Star Wars, is one of them: a film in which one representative of peaceful planet beset by angry world-conquering types led by a megalomaniac named Sador (b-movie fixture John Saxon) recruits warriors to fight for it.
 
The special effects are awful, by today’s standards, but it’s a given that they would be. More to the point, the screenplay (by John Sayles, of all people), is largely a collection of colorless declarative sentences. It’s the kind of science fiction that uses the word “galaxy” to describe every possible unit of interplanetary distances, even when they’re really only talking about solar systems. And the performances are almost all terrible, even when they come from people like Richard Thomas and George Peppard who normally can be expected to deliver better. Darlanne Fluegel, as the female lead, is particularly awful, but Sybil Danning is even worse. She wasn’t always. But she was terrible, here.

We need not take up much space with it, except to note that a key scene from both prior films – in which the hired mercenaries show up in the village they’ve agreed to defend, only to discover everybody hiding from them – here ends pointlessly as the villagers just pop up and say, hi, whoops, we didn’t realize you were the good guys. This is ludicrous. In both prior movies, the antipathy of the villagers is part of the point; here, it’s a scene included only to provide the narrative parallel. We’ll also give the movie reasonable credit for its few good ideas, among them representatives of a race that communicates in degrees of heat and which is seen, at one point, acting as the “campfire” the humans utilize to cook weiners. That’s pretty funny. But alas, so is the alien makeup used by several others, worst of a bad lot being the pancake makeup and forehead-eyes worn by one race, of which it needs to be said that whoever thought this stuff would survive a close-up should have been shot.

Does anybody survive this mess unscathed? Well, yes…and here we get to one of the neatest bits of movie-geekery, ever. Robert Vaughn plays Gelt, a killer who we first encounter hiding in darkness, from the price on his head.

Gelt: I could buy your planet ten times over with what I’ve gathered in this room: plutonium, cadmium, quanine crystals… I’ve been very well paid for my work.

Shad: I’m sorry; I’ve wasted your time…

Gelt: NO… WAIT… Listen to the rest of it. I sleep with my back to the wall, when I CAN sleep. I EAT SERPENTS, seven times a week. There’s not a major city in this galaxy where I can show my face, or spend my wealth. Right now, your offer looks very attractive to me… A meal, and a place to hide. Agreed?

If any of this sounds familiar at all, it is because this is the same motivation professed by his character from The Magnificent Seven, twenty years earlier.  He had only sixteen lines in that first film and probably fewer here, but was memorable in both – and it started a cycle of self-reference that continued with a 1993 episode of Kung Fu: The Adventure Continues where he played a version of the same character, a third time. Nor is Vaughn finished with this. He’s wrapped a UK film set for release in 2012, The Magnificent Eleven, which turns the samurai into a neighborhood soccer team and casts him as the head of the “bandit” team they are gathered to defeat. Vaughn’s riffs on this one story now span more than fifty years, and counting. Impressive.

Three Amigos (1986), A Bug’s Life (1995)

Neither of these films are “official” Samurai remakes either, but it’s worth noting that the resemblance between their plots and the plots of the original film are very much deliberate. In the first, a Mexican village beset by a bandit called El Guapo seeks mercenaries to fight him off, and winds up with the titular idiot silent-movie stars; in the second, an animated Pixar film,  a colony of ants recruits makes the same request of the seven members of a flea circus, to protect their own harvest from a swarm of predatory grasshoppers. Three Amigos is a comedy grab bag, that doesn’t bother much with narrative consistency once it sets up its premise (and is funny only fitfully), but A Bug’s Life owes a lot to Samurai, especially in this speech from the lead villain, Hopper: “You let one ant stand up to us, then they all might stand up! Those puny little ants outnumber us a hundred to one and if they ever figure that out there goes our way of life! It’s not about food, it’s about keeping those ants in line.”

The Warrior’s Code

Seven Samurai, a world classic and one of the greatest films ever made. The Magnificent Seven, one of the top twenty westerns. Battle Beyond The Stars, a reeking embarrassment. Three Amigos: Fitfully Amusing.A Bug’s Life: Also a classic of its own kind.

And now, the wife sounds the alarm.

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

{The} Seven Samurai (1954). Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni. Starring Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura. Various Cuts from 160 minutes to 207 minutes exist. ***1/2

The Magnificent Seven (1960). Directed by John Sturges. Screenplay by William Roberts, Walter Newman, and Walter Bernstien (latter two uncredited), from the earlier screenplay by Kurosawa, et.al. Starring Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, Brad Dexter, Eli Wallach, others. 128 minutes. ***1/2

Battle Beyond The Stars (1980). Not an official remake of Seven Samurai. Directed by Jimmy T. Murakami. Screenplay by John Sayles (!), from a story by Anne Dyer. Starring Richard Thomas, George Peppard, Robert Vaughn, others. 105 minutes, 1/2

Three Amigos (1986). Not an official remake of Seven Samurai. Directed by John Landis. Screenplay by Lorne Michaels, Steve Martin and Randy Newman. Starring Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, and Martin Short. 104 minutes. (can’t rate as I’ve never forced myself to watch)

A Bug’s Life (1995). Not an official remake of Seven Samurai. Directed by John Lasseter. Screenplay by Andrew Stanton, Donald McEnery, and Bob Shaw, from a story by Lasseter, Stanton, and Joe Ranft. Starring Dave Foley, Kevin Spacey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, others. 95 minutes. ***

Other Related Films: Multiple sequels and a TV series for The Magnificent Seven; too many homages and tributes and outright ripoffs to list.

I’m probably going to anger a few purists, but I happen to like both Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven about equally.  Both films carry the same energy and tell the same basic tale.  The transposition in time and place doesn’t affect the basic story or moral codes.  And, while the story presumes to play off the good versus evil, neither absolutely states that the lesser evil is better (only safer).

So, since this was so good twice, someone figured let’s do it again.  Only this time let’s set it in outer space, and use our new special effects to make It REALLY good!  (Small pause for sarcasm snarfs!)  OK, breathe easy.  Battle Beyond the Stars, 105 minutes of my life lost to one of the most poorly written, directed and conceived remakes ever!  Were any of the actors really even trying, or was this just a quick (I know Corman schedules) paycheck?  George Peppard pretty much meandered through his part, and Richard Thomas just attempted to un John-Boy himself and lost that fight. Robert Vaughn just hit replay, and I’m still not sure what the hell Sybil Danning was attempting, but porn acting is as close as she got.  Seriously, this could have been so much more, but it was just pieces and ideas stuck together with dry bubble gum.  No look or feel, just unending boredom, where even my bathroom break couldn’t have come fast enough.

Now, back to the good stuff.

( I’m skipping Three Amigos because I haven’t watched it, and recently having seen Martin Short perform live, really have no desire to see that movie.)

The achievements of Akira Kurosawa have made me a lifelong admirer.  Not a fan, but I do enjoy almost all of his work that I’ve seen.  For Seven Samurai, his clear vision is seen in every nuanced detail.  From casting to sets and locations, each decision is that of a master artisan molding his clay.  And, he has never gotten more out of his leading man, Toshiro Mifune, than in this film.  The matching brilliance of man, part and direction proves that no film is just the actors in it.  Maybe, current filmmakers could take note and try to remember how a good film will last well beyond its meager shelf life. My only problem with this classic, is that in its full length, it’s a tailbone buster. The pacing of the longest version tended to slow a bit much and left me time to think of other things.  The shorter lengths always kept me rapt.

As to The Magnificent Seven.  Wow, what can I say.  I Hate Westerns, but this is one of the group that I say isn’t just a Western.  This isn’t a cowboys and injuns shoot out at the ranch.  This film has bad men, searching for anything, worse men looking for a free ride, and good men, caught in the middle of a pincer trap.  The best compliment that I can pay to any  Western genre film, is to say that it really isn’t one.  This film is about people and good films of this type are few and far between.  The characters  here have become recognized as hero archetypes rather than caricatures.  The Magnificent Seven paid perfect homage to its revered predecessor.

Finally, I’ll touch on A Bug’s Life.  We included this one at my insistence.  I love this film.  It’s a perfect introduction for anyone to the Seven Samurai mythos.  The crew who worked on this are known as film buffs, and Stanton’s script and Lasseter’s shot direction clearly show their love of the earlier films. Both films have scenes adapted to this lighter version of a hard tale.

If there’s a tween film lover in your life, get them to watch A Bug’s Life, then a few days later, hit ‘em with The Magnificent Seven, and a week or so later, finish the education with Seven Samurai.  The discussions should prove fun.


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.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Feed me, Seymour. Feed Me All Night Long.

The Entire Movie

      

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Little Shop Of Horrors (1960). Directed by Roger Corman. Written by Charles B. Griffith. Starring Jonathan Haze, Jackie Joseph, Mel Welles, Dick Miller, and Jack Nicholson. 70 minutes. **

Little Shop Of Horrors (1986). Directed by Frank Oz. Written by Howard Ashman, based on the musical by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, itself based on the original screenplay by Charles B. Griffith. Starring Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, Vincent Gardenia, Steve Martin, Bill Murray. 94 minutes. ***

*

Your name is Seymour Krelboyne. You are a born nudnik working a dead-end job in the worst part of town, in an florist’s shop about to go under from lack of customers. But you believe you have the solution: a strange, sickly potted plant with an egg-shaped gourd that somewhat resembles a head. You’ve named it Audrey II, in tribute to your co-worker, a sweet airhead with a knack for mangling the English language. Surely, you tell your abusive boss Gravis Mushnick, putting this discovery on display must be a great way to attract new customers. He is dubious, to say the least. But within minutes of your big unveiling, customers start swarming in, and the future employment seems assured. The only problem is that the plant is carnivorous, malevolent, and so hungry that your gardening hobby soon acquires its own body count.

The original Little Shop Of Horrors, imbedded in its entirety above, was made on a lark, by folks who never expected it to be anything, and who were in fact daring themselves just on general principle to come up with a movie that could be shot on sets built for another movie, on a two-day filming schedule. (It actually took three weeks, if you count the two it took to write the screenplay, the three days the cast spent on rehearsal, and the final two-day frenzied production.)   It was such a surprise success, and object of cult adoration for over the years that followed, that Howard Ashman and Alan Menken used it as the basis for a hit off-Broadway musical, that inevitably brought the story back to Hollywood. 

The 1986 version, made at a budget of approximately 750 times the budget of the original — literally, on such a scale that the moviemakers could have made the original all over again on about the same amount the money the new movie spent on any particular shooting day, before breaking for lunch — is the one that most casual moviemakers know now. Close examination reveals that the new version is, songs and all,  if anything, a smaller-scaled story. But is it a more focused one?

Little Shop of Horrors (1960): Dedicated Weirdness

As often occurs with remakes, the partisans of this version regard the remake with open contempt, treating it as a bastardization of the original work of genius. They call the 1986 version overblown, obvious, and spendthrift of the original’s charms.

One can only wonder if they’ve seen the original lately.

It’s not a bad film (though the wife is – spoiler warning – about to take violent exception to that assertion). In fact, considering the conditions under which is made, it is a surprisingly good film, with clever dialogue, and some remarkably witty character bits. It certainly serves up a lot more incidental weirdness than the 1986 version, providing us in addition to the sadistic dentist and masochistic patient a number of eccentrics that don’t make it to the 1986 film at all. They include Siddie Shiva (Leola Wendorff), a perennial customer who arrives every single day to announce the death of yet another of her poor relatives; Seymour’s crazy hypochondriac mother Winifred (Myrtle Vail), whose mania includes a revolting form of down-home cooking that utilizes patent medicines as food staples; and Burson Fouch (invaluable b-movie veteran Dick Miller), an awfully nice guy who buys up flowers so he can snack on them in the store. There are also a pair of deadpan Homicide detectives, who between them offer an outrageous parody of Jack Webb’s Dragnet that could have been, and in fact eventually was under other hands, a workable premise of a full-length movie all by itself.

”How’s the wife, Frank?”

“Not bad, Joe.”

“Glad to hear it. The kids?”

“Lost one yesterday.”

Lost one, huh? How’d that happen?”

“Playing with matches.”

Well, those’re the breaks.”

“I guess so.”

This is funny stuff now. Audiences in 1960, with Jack Webb’s intonations still in recent memory, would have found it even funnier.

The constant malaprops uttered by both Audrey and Mushnick – neither of whom seem to have ever met a sentence they didn’t have serious trouble crossing intact — are another fine element. And so’s the brief visit from the masochistic dental patient (played by a young pre-stardom Jack Nicholson, who is of course given star billing on every public-domain VHS and DVD pressing of the film). Nicholson had yet to learn most of what he eventually knew about acting, and he was still a hoot and a half as a pervert experiencing heights of sexual arousal while reading a medical journal:   “The patient came to me with a large hole in his abdomen, caused by a fire poker used on him by his wife. He almost bled to death and gangrene had set in. I didn’t give him much of a chance. There were other complications. The man had cancer, tuberculosis, leprosy, and a touch of the grippe. I decided to operate.” Hee hee!

So this is all good. What’s not? Well, to be frank, Jonathan Haze as Seymour, attempting to channel Jerry Lewis and failing miserably. (It’s not funny as intended, in either film, when Seymour trips while running into the store and smashes a bunch of flowerpots while Mushnick rages at his incompetence, but the difference between the first film and the second is that when Rick Moranis gets up, he goes back to being funny, and Haze seems to leave his comic timing in the debris.) The encounter with an insistent prostitute is just plain embarrassing. The plant itself is not nearly as interesting, in that it’s not the voluble chatterbox of the remake but instead a vegetable of few words beyond the insistent, “Feed me!” The plot doesn’t manage to achieve any real comic velocity but instead comes down to a series of strange things happening, until a dull final chase scene that consists of Mushnick and the two cops chasing Seymour around a tire yard. And, finally, there’s ending: a tragic death for Seymour that consists of him deliberately climbing into the plant’s mouth and ends as a bud with his face cries, “I didn’t mean it!”  Today, it gives the impression of being what it likely: a hasty wrap-up by moviemakers who never thought their two-day production would form the basis of an ongoing franchise, and who just did whatever would get them to the title card THE END as soon as possible.

The first film is in short the product of a generous posterity. Its best moments are remembered with fondness, and its worst forgotten or forgiven.

 

Little Shop of Horrors (1986): A Stage-Bound Epic

According to producer David Geffen, the first director approached for this remake was Martin Scorcese. Think on that a bit. What he might have made of it!

It’s actually fortunate that he didn’t, as the team put together by Frank Oz, in adapting the stage hit, made about as good as movie as anyone could have made from the material.

Part of it involves what novelists call “killing your darlings,” the fine art of jettisoning those favorite bits of business that we might recall with affection but which really don’t do all that much in terms of servicing the story. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, the writers of the musical, had every reason to do this, because any Off-Broadway production lives and dies by narrative economy and therefore can’t survive much in the way of incidental characters who add nothing but oddness. So farewell, alas, to Burson Fouch; we’ll miss you, but you distracted from the stuff we needed to heed. Farewell, Siddie Shiva; we enjoyed your perpetual state of mourning, but it was really only one-joke and you can serve the same purpose as an unseen presence on the other side of a phone.

Most importantly, farewell, Winifred Krelboyne: getting rid of you, and making Seymour an orphan who has lived all his life as Mushnick’s virtual slave, serves several purposes. First, it means we lose that interval when Seymour has to travel across town to get the plant, and return with it; Second, it makes him even more put-upon and therefore sympathetic than he was before; third, it increases the stakes, from Seymour losing a job that wasn’t any good anyway to losing the only home he’s ever had, and then to finding a happiness he’s never known

All of this leaves more room for the character of the sadistic dentist, who is here positioned closer to the concerns of the plot. In the original, he’s just another odd element, incidental to Seymour’s life until Seymour needs a tooth looked at. In the musical, and subsequently in this film, he’s the human Audrey’s ridiculously abusive boyfriend, a guy who really does look to the far from murderous Seymour like one of those people who (as both Seymour and the plant declare in song) might as well become plant food.

This change moves the love story closer to center stage,  increasing our empathy for everybody involved (and making way for one of the funniest Ashman / Menken songs, “Be A Dentist”). Even the appearance of Bill Murray in the masochistic-patient part once played by Jack Nicholson is rendered material; sure, it pops in out of nowhere and leaves just as quickly, but in context it serves as the unsatisfying office visit that stokes the dentist’s rage and prompts him to seize on Seymour as a patient who will react properly to the agony he inflicts.

The increased attention to the Seymour / Audrey I dynamic gave the musical something the original didn’t have: narrative momentum. The original  doesn’t so much build in tension as stagger its way through a series of incidents. The musical makes it a comic race between Seymour getting everything he’s ever wanted, and damning himself beyond redemption. (The fact that in the stage musical and in the original cut of this film, he loses the race, as both he and his girlfriend are eaten, and leave the carnivorous plant to further threaten the world, is immaterial; a disastrous test of that apocalyptic ending led to the happier resolution it enjoys now; and it would be true in either case that it’s the tension being played with.)
  
Your friendly analysts have seen the stage musical – not the original, but a subsequent revival – and must report that the movie accomplishes things it does not. It is perfectly acceptable, on stage, for a soloist to just stand in one place, and belt out the entirety of a song – that is, assuming that it’s a good song, that it advances the story and illuminates character, and that the performer can sing it. A movie musical where most of the story is conveyed via the songs must do a little bit more, and we happily report that the imaginative staging of the songs in the film give them all significant visual power. “Skid Row,” for instance, is here an epic production number detailing exactly why Seymour’s life sucks and how much he’s aware of it; it places him in a milieu where everybody feels the same way, and motivates him about a hundred times better than anything seen in the original film.

“Be A Dentist” not only tells us that Orin Scrivello is a dirtbag who deserves to die, as the play does, but here shows us (with one eye-popping within-the-mouth shot).Giving the plant the power of song as well as the power of speech (both Levi Stubbs) underlines just how Mephistophelean the deal offered by that mulch-fed maniac is, and why Seymour responds to it as he does. Hell, despite the silliness of the proceedings, this viewer always mists up, badly, during the declaration-of-love song, “Suddenly Seymour.” He honestly cannot help it.

(It helps, of course, that they’re for the most part great songs, and that the greek-chorus narrators have a presence that restores much of the strangeness the removal of so many incidental characters has taken out.)

The set is a marvel: one of the largest New York City sets ever built, taking up much of London’s Pinewood studios, it is clearly not a real place but a fine stylized approximation of one. And the plant is terrific. Just the statistics are impressive: for the various incarnations of Audrey II, fifty thousand fake leaves, eleven miles of cable, design assistance from the Atomic Energy Commission, and fifty puppeteers operating it during the finale. None of this would be even remotely enough if it didn’t actually come off as a living thing, but Audrey II does; he’s malicious, cajoling, self-satisfied, evil AND charming, all at once. If you want to be absolutely terrified, reflect that today, he would almost certainly be rendered by CGI…and imagine just how lame that would inevitably be. 

Some enthusiasts believe it a betrayal of the source material (both prior film and stage show), that Seymour and the human Audrey go on to live their happily-ever-afters, and I’m afraid that’s an argument that can’t be won. It degenerates into, “Yes, It is! No, it’s not!” I can only suggest that if the preview audiences were outraged at the original ending where Seymour and Audrey died, it must be because that by then the couple at the center of the proceedings had such genuine chemistry…and that, by itself, speaks volumes.

Neither Rick Moranis nor Ellen Greene went on to the lasting screen stardom they deserved – in Moranis’s case by choice, as he eventually took some personal time off from acting and realized over time that he didn’t miss it at all; and in Greene’s case because the couple of headlining roles she received on screen afterward didn’t achieve anywhere near the same impact. (Unlike Moranis, she’s still performing, and was prominent as an eccentric aunt in the cult TV series Pushing Daisies.) It remains the best film either one has ever been involved with.
 
There have been some vague noises about yet another remake, including from one guy who says he wants to go back to the source material and make a straight horror movie. We are not eager to see the result.

The Leaf-Cutting

1960 version, a remarkable achievement on a shoe-string, but one with dead spots that weaken its flashes of genius. 1986 version, a terrific movie musical, that manages human feeling despite the campiness of its story.

*

And now, the wife plants her own seeds.

Second Commentary by Judi B Castro

Little Shop Of Horrors (1960). Directed by Roger Corman. Written by Charles B. Griffith. Starring Jonathan Haze, Jackie Joseph, Mel Welles, Dick Miller, and Jack Nicholson. 70 minutes. *

Little Shop Of Horrors (1986). Directed by Frank Oz. Written by Howard Ashman, based on the musical by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, itself based on the original screenplay by Charles B. Griffith. Starring Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, Vincent Gardenia, Steve Martin, Bill Murray. 94 minutes. ***

I was eager to see the 1960 Little Shop of Horrors.  I had heard how this cult classic was completed in a few days, on borrowed sets and less than a full shoestring of a budget.  It was a horror/sci-fi/love story supposedly filled with just the right amount of “black humor” to at least get a chuckle or two.  Supposedly.

Then I watched it.  While I can admire the accomplishment I can not tolerate the horrible anti-semitism throughout.  If was just the caricatured characters, I could shrug it off, but no!  This hatred permeates every moment of film.  The language, the mannerisms the set decorations!  They took one really bad Jewish joke and stretched it to a full hour of pain. Do only Jews populate this particular part of skid row?  I did find myself horrified, but not by the sf/horror alien plant taking over the world, that could have been fun!

Move ahead to 1986.  I’m already a fan of this musical and I can’t wait to see what the film brings out.

This film is fun.  The music is catchy, the characters are mostly likeable, and  Audrey II is amazing!   This film never slows down.  It’s a cannon ball shot towards a heavy magnet.  Even by the CG driven films that can wow me today, these effects still play well.  Audrey II’s movement and lip synch are near perfection, but I expect that from a crew run by Frank Oz(whose puppet Yoda still far excels the CG one)!

Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene are the dufus couple you can cheer for.   The chemistry seems natural and even the singing fits the character moments.  This movie had me on the lookout for both these actors for quite some time after.

Steve Martin’s leather clad, sleaze ball, sadistic dentist is so much fun especially when played off of Bill Murray’s masochistic patient.  And, while Jack Nicholson in the same basic part was one of the few bright spots of the earlier attempt, Mr. Murray’s turn just tweaks it up a notch.

Gone from this version is the yidenglish signage, the spinster jewess with the constantly dying relatives (mass murderer???) and the over eager flower muncher.  None of these are a loss felt deeply and the changes actually lighten the entire tone.

As to the SF/Horror elements.  Well they are played out here as before.  Not actually central but not secondary either.  At its heart this remake is a love story, plain and simple.  Who really needs more than that?