Posts Tagged ‘The Godfather’

A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro

(This one comes from February 2009, shortly after Slumdog Millionaire defeated Milk in the Oscar Race for Best Picture. It’s a highly political piece, which has relevance, I think, far beyond its critical comparison of the two movies.  – A-TC)

It is fundamentally unfair to compare one piece of art with another piece of art. They must both exist in their own universes, and at their own levels. Comparing GREAT EXPECTATIONS with THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS is an act of tremendous injustice; they are both masterpieces of their kind, and the immortality of the first does not preclude the smashing entertainment value of the other, or of (naming another work at random) “The Music Box” by Laurel and Hardy. We know this. We know this well.

And yet there are times when the comparison is so instructive that it must be made anyway.

To wit: I finally caught up with MILK yesterday. And about a week before it I caught up with SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, which just won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The films are both riveting, and so different in their assumptions that they are practically different species. It would be spectacularly unfair to criticize one for not being the other. And yet this is one of those times that one must.

You see, everybody’s talking about how beautiful and magical and classic SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE was. Everybody’s dropping dead with love for that movie.

I liked it very much. It is at heart an old-fashioned movie movie, visually sumptuous and deeply involving. But I was also disturbingly dissatisfied with it, so dissatisfied that I ended up resenting it, a little.

You know what it’s about. Three children are orphaned in the hellish slums of Mumbai, and endure the horrors this world reserves only for the most destitute. Years later, one appears on the Indian version of the TV game show “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire,” where he’s mocked for his slumdog background, and is expected to do poorly. To the nation’s astonishment, he knows all the answers. It turns out (and this is not a spoiler, since the movie begins with this), that his experiences taught him exactly the answers he needed to answer these particular questions. The central question is whether he is reunited with the love of his life, who has fallen under the control of some bad people.

Now, this is what SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE did well. It had some searing scenes of poverty. It nailed the dilemma of a young boy who remained more or less unspoiled while his brother became a corrupt thug. It made us care about that standard movie trope, an unspoiled love that begins in deepest childhood and remains pure and chaste until the final clinch. I firmly confess that it worked its spell on me, and I even liked the post-narrative ending, which is straight out of Bollywood.

But I walked away unsatisfied, and I think this is why.

The protagonist did nothing.

Life happened to him. He was battered by poverty, bullied by his brother, and limited by his circumstances. He finally went to the modern equivalent of a fairy godmother, the game show, and was rewarded for just, you know, deserving it. Much was made of this being his “destiny,” and I realized upon seeing the movie that if I never hear that word again, in a storytelling context, it will be too soon.

I realized I first decided I hated that word when Crispin Glover in BACK TO THE FUTURE kept saying, “I am your density.”

Because it’s a slave’s word.

In debt? Working for a boss you can’t stand? In danger of being thrown out of your house? Working two jobs and barely a nodding acquaintance to your kids? Keep buying that lottery ticket. Someday you’ll win. It’s your destiny, or at least you’re supposed to believe it’s your destiny. As long as you have that, you might as well not work to change anything else.

The teeming masses of Mumbai, cheering our hero’s game show successes throughout SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, represent a triumph for him. But, guess what. He got out of poverty because it was his density – er, destiny. He had a million-to-one shot on a game show, and he gets a romantic clinch as well. But them? They’re still fucked. Whether he moves to the suburbs or goes out in the streets and starts handing out his rupees, he can’t help them all. The corruption is systemic. He’s just lucky he got out.

The movie has other flaws. I did not believe for one instance that the sociopathic shit of a brother, who has always been about serving his own immediate needs, would ever extend himself to help the protagonist he has used and brutalized. He only does because the movie needs him to. And that’s “density” talking again.

Now, take MILK.

And I need to establish, first, that it’s not just subject matter and approach that makes this a better movie. MILK is brilliantly performed by a fine cast, central among them Sean Penn, who has always been brilliant but who has rarely conveyed the warmth he shows here; he’s often been cast as pricks and thugs, but rarely as a guy whose smile could persuasively make others want to do anything for him. The same could be said for supporting players Emile Hirsch, James Franco, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber and others; and for the staging of real historical events, and for the direction by Gus Van Sant (who, I should say, has here firmly earned his way out of the critical perdition some of us condemned him to, for his temerity in remaking Hitchcock’s PSYCHO; that move was asinine and corrupt, but MILK more than earns him his artistic pardon).

And who is Harvey Milk? An affable little gay guy from New York, living in closeted fear, who moves to San Francisco and gradually gets involved in local politics, running for office multiple times until he finally makes history by getting elected. Facing down the gay-bashers, defying those who tell him he’s wasting his time, he is instrumental in raising public awareness and defeating a truly noxious piece of anti-gay legislation. It’s a great personal triumph that is the culmination of his life, and that starts a legacy of change still continuing decades later; a legacy that he does not get in share in, as he and mayor George Moscone are assassinated by fellow city supervisor Dan White.

(Nor are these spoilers. It’s history, people.)

MILK has humor, it has passion, it has dialogue and performances capable of making the receptive viewer weep, it has a great performance by Penn and one very much on the same level by Josh Brolin, whose Dan White is a study in stewing resentments. (It was incidentally the real Milk’s theory, mentioned in the film, that the conservative White was a closeted “one of us,” but that diagnosis is not strictly necessary to what happens; what White really is, and what Josh Brolin captures, is a kind of uber-Nixon, driven by self-loathing without any of Nixon’s compensating talent. Nixon was bad enough as a political genius. Dan White was Nixon as mediocrity: Nixon the guy who remained certain that everybody was laughing at him and was pretty much right about that, Nixon the guy who was such a nonentity he could only achieve something by bringing others down with him. Brolin played Dan White and George W. Bush in the same year, and I’m sorry to say that it wasn’t a display of his versatility as an actor; the parts required the same chops.)

It’s a brilliant film, and possibly the best of the year on its own merits. I would like it more than SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE in any event. But what happens when you compare it to the film that beat it for the Oscar?

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE gives us a character who remains more or less helpless, who gets on a game show, who hasn’t even made himself the kind of person who might win there, who is instead handed a golden ticket by the happenstance of the right questions being asked. Chance rescues him, and he is cheered by a crowd that is still in the circumstances he left.

MILK gives us a character who refuses to be helpless, who head-butts that same wall time and time again and finally breaks through it, who accomplishes great things and plants the seeds of change, who does not get to share in it, and is left by a crowd whose lives he was able to change because he lived.

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is about trusting the phenomenon of the happy ending. MILK is about making that happy ending happen even if it’s for other people.

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is about “and then he won the lottery.” MILK is about “Don’t wait for it to be given to you. Demand what’s yours.”

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is about wish-fulfillment. So is MILK, but it doesn’t absolve its protagonist of the responsibility to make it happen.

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is about “density.” MILK is about depth.

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is a fairy tale. MILK is….well, that’s where the contrasts fail. (I apologize.)

Cinderella stories are crowd-pleasing. But Cinderella, the character, does nothing. She’s harassed and rewarded by powers greater than herself. People respond to that because it’s how everybody feels, sometimes. But how much satisfying is a story when the character stands up and acts?

Even Buttercup, in THE PRINCESS BRIDE, gets to tell off the Prince.

The difference, I think, is the one between a movie that provides a balm to slaves, and the one that instructs free men. Trust SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE and you’re deeper in your rut. But MILK, like the beverage, is good for you.

It is, as I began this little rant by saying, fundamentally unfair to compare one work of art with another. The two movies had different aims, and that’s fine. Fantasy’s fine. After all, I’m the guy salivating to see WATCHMEN in a couple of weeks.

But there was a period in film history, beginning in the mid-seventies but strongest in the eighties and the nineties, when every hit film had to end with the protagonists getting handed everything they wanted: they had to get a great job, get famous, and end up being cheered by a huge crowd, so that the audience had that image imprinted on their eyeballs. Coming after the complexity films had in the early 1970s, which was one of the greatest periods for American film at least, was like being forced to eat pablum when we’d become used to steak. I can give MILK no higher compliment than saying that it belongs to the era of DOG DAY AFTERNOON and SERPICO and THE GODFATHER. And I can say nothing more revealing about SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE in contrast than saying it belongs more to the era of ROCKY or STAR WARS, except that it uses true human suffering as a romantic backdrop, and thus (I think) betrays its subject matter.

MILK wuz robbed.

A movie with a sequel with a remake that had a sequel remake



First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

 Father Of the Bride (1950). Directed by Vincente Minelli. Written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, from the novel by Edward Streeter. Starring Spencer Tracy, Elizabeth Taylor, and Joan Bennett. 92 minutes. ***

Father’s Little Dividend. (1951). Directed by Vincente Minelli.  Written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, from the characters created by Edward Streeter. Starring Spencer Tracy, Elizabeth Taylor, and Joan Bennett. 82 minutes. ***.

Father of the Bride (1991). Directed by Charles Shyer. Written by Nancy Myers and Charles Shyer, from the screenplay by Frances Goodrich and  Albert Hackett and novel by Edward Streeter. Starring Steve Martin, Diane Keaton, Martin Short. 105 minutes. ** 1/2

Father Of the Bride Part Two (1995). Directed by Charles Shyer. Written by Nancy Myers and Charles Shyer, from the screenplay by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hacker and novel by Edward Streeter. Starring Steve Martin, Diane Keaton, Martin Short. 106 minutes. ** 1/2

This one’s a bit convoluted, we’re afraid. A movie with a sequel that was remade that had a sequel that was itself a remake of the first movie’s sequel, although by then fidelity to the original story was limited to the sheer phenomenon of human reproduction. It is also an interesting cultural phenomenon for its own sake, as it presents snapshots of the American family – or at least the way the American family wanted to see itself – at two different points in history, forty years apart.

The originals came from a time where it was polite to pretend on screen that all married couples slept in twin beds, and where suits and ties were so much the official uniform of the American male that Spencer Tracy’s character even bothers to get dressed up while rushing to the hospital in the middle of the night, to attend his first grandchild’s birth. (Imagine a modern grandfather donning more than a comfortable pullover and a pair of jeans for the same occasion, and it’s likely that you’d consider him ridiculously anal.)

The 1990s versions presented a different kind of froth entirely, of the sort all-too-common in its particular era of moviemaking: in that its family seems not just comfortable but ridiculously well-off, and money isn’t even a problem for the young couple, since the future groom and son-in-law is a “consultant” whose services command such a high price that, we’re told, no company can possibly afford his services on a permanent basis.  (And Steve Martin’s character still grumps that he’s not good enough for his daughter.) Indeed, it is hard to watch the scenes where he appears, and not remember another Spencer Tracy uncomfortable-engagement movie, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1968),  which brought race into the equation and where the black man who wants to marry Tracy’s daughter is not just a thoroughly respectable fella but a doctor and a world-class  philantropist and an important man and possibly a great one and in all ways so perfect and iconic and perfect and Poitier that, race aside, there is absolutely no remaining room to object to him. Just as that movie would have been a little bit better, a little less like a gift-wrapped sermon, had there been some aspect of the Poitier character  that rendered him a little less of a sterling catch, the Steve Martin Father Of The Bride would have been better if the young man had possessed some attribute, aside from a penis and designs on Daddy’s little girl, that gave Martin’s character some greater reason to be ambivalent about him. Or maybe that’s part of the joke.

Beyond that, there is little in any of these four films worth waxing eloquent about at any real length. They are sitcoms; fun sitcoms and for the most part resonant sitcoms, in that they deal with life’s most important passages and for the most part do so honestly, inserting complications whenever the story needs to be prolonged. In all four films the chief dramatic concern is not how the daughter feels about any of these tremendous changes in her life, but about how her father George deals with them; how he resents the alteration in the universe he knows and comes only slowly to the realization that it’s a good thing. All four films benefit from the presence of a leading man with a special talent for a slow burn.

Father Of the Bride (1950), Father’s Little Dividend (1951)

The chief treasure of this one is Spencer Tracy, long regarded one of the all-time great American film actors, here ably supported by the luminous Elizabeth Taylor as his daughter.  She, however, is not so much playing a character as a MacGuffin: the reason for her father to go so crazy, and to wax rhapsodic with voice-over speeches like, “Who giveth this woman? “This woman.” But she’s not a woman. She’s still a child. And she’s leaving us. What’s it going to be like to come home and not find her? Not to hear her voice calling “Hi, Pops” as I come in? I suddenly realized what I was doing. I was giving up Kay. Something inside me began to hurt. “ It is that, the kernel of human truth, that gives the emotions their weight, and the comedy the resonance of human truth, even when the screenplay is contorting itself into knots to keep the story going; i.e. the rather bloodless crises in the relationship of Kay and her beau, that arrive at key moments in both the first and second films.

Much of the comedy in the first film comes from Tracy’s realization that the wedding he’s expected to pay for has spiraled out of control and the 140-guest relatively intimate occasion he’s hoped for has become a 240-guest extravaganza. But this is not a mere “Money Pit” situation. The increasing size of the occasion is not only an insult to his pocketbook but also an external manifestation of his realization that he’s no longer in control, period. Much of the comedy in the second film comes from his determination to treat the birth of his grandchild as not such a big deal, even as the other grandparents and his wife twist his world out of all recognition in preparation for its arrival.

The one scene we’ll point to in the original is the hidden gem of a dream sequence, which afflicts Tracy on the night before the wedding and which the apotheosis of all anxiety dreams centered on social occasions. In it, Tracy cannot seem to get down the aisle to join his daughter. The floor rebels under his feet, the clothes fall to pieces on his body, and the assembled guests all stare at him with aghast mortification, while he struggles in vain. Who has not experienced a phantasm like this, on the night before a big day? And how perfect is it, that upon waking, he has to be the source of comfort and confidence for his daughter, who is also suffering the pre wedding day jitters?

The one scene we’ll point to in the somewhat more awkward sequel is the climactic crisis, in which the less-than-doting grandfather misplaces the baby and after a suitable interval of panic finds him, and finally bonds with him as a result. Need it be said that the disappearance of a child, due to a grandfather’s momentary negligence, does not play exactly the same way today?

Father Of the Bride (1991), Father Of the Bride Part Two (1995)

Respect for what came before led this viewer to scorn the first of these films in 1991, but let’s be honest: it plays the same notes, and it plays them in pretty much the same way. See, for instance, this voice-over quote from the first film of this incarnation, where Steve Martin expresses the same thoughts Spencer Tracy had forty years before. “Who presents this woman? This woman? But she’s not a woman. She’s just a kid. And she’s leaving us. I realized at that moment that I was never going to come home again and see Annie at the top of the stairs. Never going to see her again at our breakfast table in her nightgown and socks. I suddenly realized what was happening. Annie was all grown up and was leaving us, and something inside began to hurt.”

Steve Martin is as good at a slow burn as Spencer Tracy ever was, and while, as we said before,  the film bends excessively backward to make the prospective and then actual son-in-law the absolute best catch in the history of the universe, it’s nice that some lip service is given to daughter Kay also being an accomplished professional herself. As much as she is expected to support her husband in his career, he will also be expected to support her, in hers. It may be lip service, but it’s also a clear illustration of the changes this sorry old world has seen since 1950, and is not at all a bad thing. In this spirit, I actually like the first film’s pre-marital crisis, which has to do with the “uneasy sexual politics” of buying your bride-to-be a blender as present; after all, anybody who’s ever been in a relationship has also had the well-meaning gesture given the worst possible interpretation at the worst possible moment, and it’s more antidote to any narrative subtext presenting Kay as just a commodity to be given away.

Regarding Father Of the Bride Part Two, we must say: Part Two? Really? You couldn’t do any better than Part Two? You couldn’t figure out some other way to let your audience know that this was a sequel to a remake and a remake of the sequel? Do you really think the audience is that stupid? Granted that Diane Keaton’s first major role in the Godfather movies also involved a “Part Two,” we must express, and express again, our growing disdain with sequels that cannot even be bothered to provide the audience with some form of new title.

The innovation of Part Two, such as it is,  is contriving for Diane Keaton’s fifty-year-old Nina Banks to get pregnant at pretty much exactly the same time that her daughter Kay does. This pushes biological plausibility, but is not outside the realm of human experience, and doubles down on George’s anxiety as the twin blessed occasions approach.

Three things need to be noted about this. First, there is a law, pretty much inviolable, in movie comedies where more than one woman is pregnant: they must always go into labor at the same time, and if possible give birth mere minutes part. That’s a given. and anybody watching this movie who fails to expect it has never seen a movie before.

Second, the movie goes to extravagant and downright embarrassing lengths explaining just how George and  Nina came to conceive the child, treating their lovemaking session as an unusual and surprising development so remarkable that they experience jaw-dropping epiphany of the “you mean, that night…” sort,  when Nina’s pregnancy comes to light, weeks later. Really. The movie comes within a gnat’s eyelash of actively apologizing for any implication that a couple this old might regularly have sex; it certainly treats the occasion as a somewhat embarrassing fluke.

Third, while the sentiment in a sitcom this contrived is certainly easy for someone of sufficiently cynical bent to mock, this viewer falls apart, absolutely falls apart, when both Nina and Kay have been taken away to have their babies, and George bares his heart to the obstetrician, saying, “These women are my life.” There is no apologizing for this.

As for Martin Short’s flamboyant, english-mangling wedding planner, Franck Eggelhoffer, who gets all the outrageous moments in both films: you might find him painful, or you might find him hilarious. I ‘m staying out of it.

The Vows

The originals: dated classics, with a splendid lead performance by Spencer Tracy. The remakes: not quite as good, but not as inferior to the Tracy version as many seem to think.

And now, the wife submits her catering budget…


Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

 Father Of the Bride (1950). Directed by Vincente Minelli. Written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, from the novel by Edward Streeter. Starring Spencer Tracy, Elizabeth Taylor, and Joan Bennett. 92 minutes. ***

Father’s Little Dividend. (1951). Directed by Vincente Minelli.  Written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, from the characters created by Edward Streeter. Starring Spencer Tracy, Elizabeth Taylor, and Joan Bennett. 82 minutes. ***.

Father of the Bride (1991). Directed by Charles Shyer. Written by Nancy Myers and Charles Shyer, from the screenplay by Frances Goodrich and  Albert Hackett and novel by Edward Streeter. Starring Steve Martin, Diane Keaton, Martin Short. 105 minutes. ** 1/2

Father Of the Bride Part Two (1995). Directed by Charles Shyer. Written by Nancy Myers and Charles Shyer, from the screenplay by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hacker and novel by Edward Streeter. Starring Steve Martin, Diane Keaton, Martin Short. 106 minutes. ** 1/2

The greatest compliment I can lend to any film is that I can see a reflection of my life in in its situations and characters. 

This having been said I was not even a wisp of a dream to either of my parents in 1950/1951 and by 1991 they were resigned that I would never marry(oops fooled them). Yet somehow, Father of the Bride (both versions) seemed to play on an unending mindloop throughout 2002 and the year of wedding over-planning. (I challenge all of you to plan a traditional Jewish wedding, outdoors on Christmas Day with a Science Fiction theme that stays under budget!)  Oh: and did I include the fact that I was recovering from major surgery and am highly allergic to many foods and inhalants, especially flowers?  Compare that to the challenges faced in the films and you may begin to see why I hold both films close.

While the earlier films are charming but dated, they reflected much of my parents’s views of life, parenting and the responsibilities of the poor bride’s parents.  The 90’s era films were more frenetic.  The runabout pacing giving less chance for character, but more for Steve Martin fumbling at being dad.  Both Fathers are there for the traditional role of open wallet/shut mouth.  My question, if the 90’s film were such an update, why didn’t daddy’s little angel just move in with the guy?  Why the need for the overwrought garden wedding?  I guess much like my case, it was someone’s dream. (Let Adam tell you my original plans for our marriage).

In the sequels we see the difference in attitudes towards pregnancy over a 40 year span.  In the 1951 film mommy to be is pushed into a larger home, help is volunteered and parties are thrown.  She is not to get overworked, stressed or upset, all of which she does so daddy can come to her rescue.  In the 90’s ,both mother and daughter are going through the joys together.  We see them shopping, comparing notes and harassing their husbands into submission.  The old guy (Martin) nearly collapses under it all and the young father to be heads out assured that all will be taken care of.  Huh?  Of course both must deliver within minutes of each other or the “comedy” falls short.  Huh? again.  What was wrong with the grandparents becoming grandparents?  When my sister had her children, we all crowded out the waiting room.  2 sets of prospective grands, one set of great aunt/uncle, 2 aunts and 2 uncles all to be.  Wouldn’t that scene have been enough fodder for the film?

And of course, they had to add the teary ending to remind you how funny everything was before this point.  PUHLEEZE!

That being said.  I actually enjoy watching the Martin films.  He and Diane Keaton are fun even in the implausible sequel.  But no one can replace ultra father(even without the priest collar) Spencer Tracy.  He made me believe that he was Elizabeth Taylor’s dad  for both films, His rough gruff 50’s guy is just like my own Pop: loud when warranted and soft when needed, just like these films.