RIORI Vol 3, Installment 54: Joel Hopkins’ “Last Chance Harvey” (2008)


Last Chance Harvey


The Players…

Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson, with Kathy Baker, James Brolin, Eileen Atkins, Liane Balaban and Richard Schiff.


The Story…

Harvey Shine’s a struggling musician. Okay, a jingle writer for commercials. Ignoring the mundanity of his work, he presently risks losing his plebeian gig to attend his daughter’s London wedding. Like with his winnowing relevance in the digital age, Harvey discovers that he’s not exactly welcome at the festivities. Looks like Harvey isn’t wanted on either side of the Pond.

While in the airport bar (as do where many a magic moment may happen), he meets a lonely lady and finds himself some unexpected romance. Amazing how a nice cuppa tea works wonders.


The Rant…

It’s not easy being alone. Takes a lot of energy. Takes its toll. It’s a full time job in a way.

The roughest thing about being alone is the slow descent. One does not all of a sudden find themselves cut off from their friends and loved ones, like falling into some Cambodian tiger trap. Nope. Loneliness is slow and sneaky, and all too often the lonely one’s fault.

Being alone is akin to a contagion. You get some sort of depressed stink on you, and your support system of friends, co-workers and family slowly catch a whiff and begin to turn their heads away lest they become infected. You friends think you’re just down and need some space. Your business partners take note of your productivity and an intervention may be needed…someday. You stop being invited to special family occasions like Thanksgiving or your nephew’s bris. People begin to claim the sad old saw: he probably wants to be alone. And therefore completing a circle.

Denial sets in. Who needs other people? They don’t want me around anyway, so screw ’em. I have personal matters to attend to. Here in my room I reign supreme. You’re a Simon & Garfunkel lyric waiting to be written. It’s a delicious, vicious circle. I am alone, therefore I want to be alone. I choose it so. I want to ignore all the bulls*it and drudgery that others might impose upon me. The job. The family. I want to escape. Into myself and my own little sphere of value…which was once richer with other people involved. Too bad I’m alone.

Humans are social creatures. We need to interact with others for intellectual stimulus, open dialogue and argue differing opinions. Even some antisocial twit who f*cks with people needs others to bounce their demented issues off of. And consider the hermit who decidedly shuns people for solitude; they balance their cloistered existence against the bullsh*t that chafed them so. People—of all stripes—need other people, for within and without.

But when you’re lonely—and lonely by yourself—all you have to lean on is you, and that can take a psychic toll.

Ahem. Sorry. Been listening to too much early Cure as of late. Let’s lighten it up a shade, for a little at least.

One of my favorite writers Harlan Ellison once wrote in a collection of essays of the difference between being alone and the idea of aloneness. Since I understand that Mr Ellison is a rather contentious individual let me take a moment to say that I am paraphrasing the man’s observations to meet my own ends here, and in no way am attempting to co-opt any observations I read in his essay. It is just that I figured his musings felt relevant to my rant. If any of you out there in the blogosphere find my little shout-out a tad odd let me go on record saying I would never, ever wish to be James Cameron. Or Aaron Spelling either, for that matter. But then again, who would be?

*90210 riff*

Anyway, Ellison once wrote about the differences between aloneness and being lonely. Aloneness is a choice; we all need some time to ourselves to either tackle personal business or just dick around with sh*t that don’t invite other people to come along and muck up your works. Working on your car, writing in a journal (or blog, hey!), making a small meal just for yourself with as much ketchup as you could stand or a Breaking Bad binge watch. Go away, bolt the door and don’t make me throw this heavy, metal bowl of cheesy poofs at your head! I want to be alone!

want to be alone. Garbo notwithstanding when you’re lonely there’s no one to throw the bowl at. Let alone bolt any doors.

That being said, leaving any doors open within your loneliness echoes an actual Simon & Garfunkel song. Well, maybe just a Paul Simon lyric:

“She said losing love is like a window in your heart/everyone sees you’re blown apart/everyone sees the wind blow.”

For Harvey Shine his loneliness, lowliness and isolation really blows, with or without the cheesy poofs and a frustrating bowl to throw…


Harvey (Hoffman) is at an impasse. With his career, with his family, with his very late mid-life crisis. Everything that was once so secure has been unraveling for years and it’s finally caught up to him.

Harvey’s a musician, in a matter of speaking. In his salad days he fancied himself a jazz pianist. But aspiring to be the next Bill Evans wasn’t going to support a wife and daughter so concessions were made. Advertising contracts came beckoning, therefore solid paychecks. But Harvey’s dreams kept needling him, and his wife Jean (Baker) soon felt the sting. They separated, and Harvey carved out his niche in advertising. Writing jingles rather than movements. More things began to slip away.

Like his daughter Susan (Balaban). It’s been years since Harvey was anything approaching vital in her life. So when Harvey gets an invite to her wedding he views it as an opportunity to stand up again and be dad. Something he could hold onto as a person could ever could, especially as a father.

The nuptials are in London. It’s where the betrothed met. A bit out of the egg for Harvey, but it’s for Susan, dammit! Insecurities be damned. Right, until Harvey finds himself plunked into a hotel a lifetime away from the posh, private guest house. Pariah.

The reception is a disaster. Harvey bails, telling Susan that the reception can wait. He has to get back to New York to handle some business anyway. He understands he’s not wanted and wants to get back to his egg ASAP.

They key to being lonely? It can make you productive under the proper circumstances. Harvey’s proper circumstances is waiting for a belated flight back to JFK and getting wrecked at the airport bar. Another circumstance that falls into play is chatting up statistician Kate (Thompson) on a lark. A final circumstance is that mousy Kate could use a way out of her own loneliness, too. Maybe Harvey could be of help, and in turn help himself?

Maybe. For now, a few shots and a cuppa will work. For now…


How come legacy actors don’t get much respect these days (unless their latest effort has stunk to high Heaven)?

The phrase “legacy actor” is one I made up (I think) in referring to certain actors whose careers have been long, eclectic and often lauded. Maybe an award or two’s been tossed their way to boot. Some of their work can even become the gold standard by which other aspiring thespians try and measure up to. Namely certain actors have a legacy, and their names have vital weight in the Hollywood and/or Broadway community.

Like Dustin Hoffman, of course. Who else would I be talking about here? James Spader? C’mon.

*The James Spader Fan Club are winding up for the beer can pitches*

Folks, please. That’s getting old. And Jon Cryer found work so, huh?

Right. Hoffman. Pretty esteemed legacy actor wouldn’t you say? Oh, and if you’re of the YouTube ADD demographic—which means you like watching things, or at least looking at things—you might wanna check out some of Hoff’s work. You know, to see how it’s done. Myriad actors have looked up to Hoffman’s style and delivery for aeons. His work has mostly been steeped in playing the anti-hero. As Ben Braddock in The Graduate to a divorced single dad in Kramer vs Kramer to out of work tranny in Tootsie to idiot savant in Rain Man to…um…a sensei red panda in Kung Fu Panda, the guy’s been around. And to say versatile would be an understatement and a half. A red panda, I tell you!

But for all his anti-heroics, Hoffman has been self-effacing and compelling. Compelling first and foremost for the whole anti-hero bit. His characters are hard to get behind. Even in his big roles he can come across as annoying or downright ugly. C’mon, Raymond Babbit might’ve been autistic, but it made him no less…pesky. And when he experienced some seriously demented Nazi dental torture in  Marathon Man, a small part of you (admit it) kind of felt he deserved it.

Well, regardless of his irksome roles one cannot deny Hoffman’s legacy. There are but a handful of actors that fall under my umbrella whom have had/still have a legacy. John Wayne, Toshiro Mifune, Katherine Hepburn, Bogey, Jack, DeNiro, Meryl Streep, Mickey Mouse; just to name a few. All have or had carved out a niche in movies that is both wide and enduring, and often a high water mark that other actors try to reach.

*applause*

Thanks. What precious lines of bullsh*t were those.

So here we reach our quandary. Why don’t legacy actors get their props much anymore? Like I said, a lot of aging actors slow down, make less than compelling films, maybe choose a role (or multiple roles) to just f*ck around a bit and have some fun, grasp at laurels long fallen from the wreath or what appears to be just lost the plot (Pacino, I’m looking at you).

A lot could be argued that most movie attendees have indeed been warped by media saturation—both online and off—and have no patience for work of (gasp) older actors. Nowadays if you’re a successful actor you may at best have ten years in the pocket as relevant or (more accurately) quite bankable. A lot of that has to do with the glammy notions about how Hollywood packages their output. Face facts: one ceases to be “sexy” post 30 years old. We ain’t got the Studio System anymore, where basically a core audience got built up. Nope. Nowadays it’s all flash in the pan. Here’s yer 15 minutes, don’t waste it on saving the whales. Sequel’s be a-callin’.

Cynical? Did you forget where you were? But it is true. Everything has a shelf life, just as everything has a saturation point. These days the latter holds more truth than the former, which in turn directs the former. Legacy stars don’t stand a chance these days. They are old, their Oscars are tarnished, their breasts start to droop and their hair falls out. To wit, the Millenials all let out a collective “Eeyeew.” Then plunk down 12 bucks to watch Scarlett Johannson wink at them. Again. Hey, at least her boobies are still perky and ignore the CV after Lost In Translation.

I figure that’s it with our TMZ, tech gobbling culture. If it ain’t new, it’s through. If you’re old enough to remember Maytag appliances (clothes washers, dryers, digital vibrators, etc) and their “lonesome repairman” commercial campaign then you may get it. The subtext of those ads was Maytag didn’t necessarily have planned obsolescence built into their gizmos; sh*t didn’t go expensive kerboom after five years. Nowadays everything in Hollywood goes splat within ten years. Moreover three. No time to give a nod to the esteemed, older, uglier actors who could act their way out of a Turkish prison. Nope, more money for less art. That may have how it’s been all along.

Now getting back to my original point (I think I may have had one), consider Dustin Hoffman’s legacy. Taking into consideration of the man’s storied and varied career in cinema: he has never been in any of his roles straightforward and not a left-of-center anti-hero. I’m pretty certain in that observation. That’s been his bread and butter since the 60s. It’s his thing, his signature. It’s what makes (most) people want to see his movies. They wanna see Hoffman the passive-aggressive d*ckhole with a few chuckles to feather his cap. That’s been his cachet.

With Last Chance Harvey, I’m sure regarding the above, a little turnabout won’t do much to harm the guy’s vaunted career. In fact, it might help it, sagging as it’s been lately. Red panda, I tell you!

Back to the real, un-pixelated world. In Harvey it’s good to see that even in his twilight years Hoffman has lost none of the awkward intensity that has made many of his roles great. The guy’s style has almost always been twitchy, sometimes odious and barely likable. Of course, that’s what makes for a good anti-hero, a type of character that Hoffman more or less pioneered. His characters often find themselves tripping over their own feet. We watch, we cringe, we snicker. But for all his gangly characters with their hang-ups, issues and occasional, outright histrionic blithering, none of them have ever come across as a serious loser. Teetering on failure maybe, but never a klutzy, grade-A nimbob.

Until now.

Harvey has Hoffman playing against type. Way against type. His dejected husband/father/maker of Tide seem wondrous is unlike any role I’ve seen from the guy. His Harvey’s also very vulnerable, like a raw nerve. Everything in his world has fallen apart, gradually, like a stream’s flow wearing down the rocks. And it’s all his fault through insecurity, anxiety and a trap of loneliness and isolation by his own design. Not your typical hero. Not quite an anti-hero either. With an anti-hero he is either outright unlikeable or toeing the line between principled and nihilistic (think Mad Max or Travis Bickle. Or just read the Observe And Report installment. Again, hopefully).

Not Harvey. He’s dejected and not quite a victim of circumstance. He’s not pleasant. Mostly a basset hound in an ill-fitting suit. Uncomfortable in his own skin. How the hell are we supposed to rally around such a drudge when he’s the Academy Award winning version of Lt Barclay from Star Trek: TNG?

(If any of you out there got that reference bless you and get out of Mom’s basement more often.)

But seriously, how? That’s where the acting comes in. For all of Harvey’s flaws, he’s clumsily self-conscious, sympathetic despite his hell by design, trying to do what (he believes) is the right thing. He jaunts off to London as a second-class citizen to his daughter’s wedding, whose step-family receives better than he ever did. He needs a hug.

The vulnerability is the key. Of course we’ll all felt like Harvey once in a while. We don’t want to admit to that, feeling all lonely and all at sea with ourselves, but it’s a reality. Face it, fess up and go along with the story. Harvey is fifth wheel syndrome run rampant, and all the better for it.

Since we’ve established that Harvey is a film about juxtapositioning an actor known for less than traditionally vulnerable roles/a lonely schlub who needs a break character study it might be prudent to  point out that Harvey‘s plot is terribly derivative. Wait, what? Yep. It’s your typical redemption story. Loser makes good, finds love, revamps his ailing family life and career. That’s not a spoiler; watching the movie you know that’s gonna happen. Sure, Harvey is a bit predictable, but it’s excellently staged. Credit the acting. In the endgame, it’s the only thing that’s holding this trifle together.

To paraphrase Bill Hicks: there’s snarky jibes on the way. Relax. Don’t want to lose any (more) of you.

Right. Character study. Hoffman is our avatar about the lovelorn and lonely. But this ain’t just about Harvey. We have Kate, too, don’t forget. Thompson is an esteemed actress in her own right, and much more than Kenneth Branagh’s former squeeze. Think she nabbed a few of them superfluous Awards too for her screen time. Seen a bit of her sh*t. Her stock in trade has been in histrionics (at least by what I’ve seen). Sure, she can be reserved, but it’s usually tempered by letting edginess sneak out from the corners of her mouth, like spitting out a chew.

For Harvey, that cutting is still present but is now tempered by fragility. Wait, that’s not quite it. Brittleness is a more apt term. Her Kate is lonely like Harvey. She’s frazzled and awkward and loveless and looking down the barrel of middle age…wait, that shot went off years ago. And she’s feeling all of it, from her dead end job, crapping out on the dating scene and her codependent mother who is practically gaffer-taped to her mobile phone’s speed dial (or whatever they call it these days. Last I checked cell phones didn’t have dials, even back in 2008). Kate’s on the fast track to becoming what lesser PC-philes used to call an “old maid.” Like Donna Reed in It’s A Wonderful Life‘s alternate reality. She needs a hug.

So of course both the twain shall meet. For a film like Harvey it’s not only inevitable, it’s essential.

To claim that the movie is star-crossed is and an understatement. Actually, it’s more like…well…I’m not sure what to call it. Two lonely people finding each other, and in turn finding themselves? It’s the stuff of a billion rom-coms, even one as bittersweet as this. Harvey‘s protags aren’t star-crossed. They’re destined to find each other. It’s along the movie’s inevitable curves.

What makes this usual schlock work so well—if at all, incredibly—is due to one thing, and for the first time in this blogger’s grumbling it’s not the pacing (although pretty good. A tiger cannot change its Fruit Stripe gum wads). It’s the editing. Took me a bit to pick up on it, kinda like an “icebox moment” in a Hitchcock flick.

Movie sign! Time for a little annoying film trivia courtesy of yours only! Oh, shut up. Been pretty sober (at least in print) in analyzing Harvey. Time to shake off the fleas.

Hitch coined the term based on his hopes that after a person got home after the movie one would suddenly recall an inconsistency in his movie that would be the antithesis of Kafka’s third act gun rule (look that one up on your own time, buster), maybe when the viewer was reaching for some chicken out of the icebox. There’d be a pause, a head scratching and a general malaise of “wait a minute…”

Harvey‘s icebox moment is a bit more accessible. And you don’t have to pay that much attention, but you should because the film’s editing is the pinion upon which the whole story spins. Harvey is excellently staged, yes, but also excellently edited. Never before in my immediate memory have I ever seen such a film that was cut so well (beyond the technical aspect sh*t) that it was a story element in and of itself. Let’s face facts, no one really cares about good editing until Oscar season, and even then the honor usually falls under Best Picture. Harvey won zero awards in the red carpet sense, but its trimmings were f*cking vital in how the story played out. And not in an overt, pandering way, either. Even I, your ever diligent OCD movie dork missed the cues at first, but in simpler terms Harvey’s editing is smart. Amazing even.

Every scene is framed according to the troubles our protags are wrestling with, balanced against one another revealing their personal hells. We have Harvey. He is alone, he is a drudge, he is ostracized by his family. We have Kate. She is alone, she’s put upon, she is rapidly hurdling towards in an aforementioned less-PC world could consider “old maid” territory. And back and forth and back again we go for the better part of the first act. These cuts show and never tell what’s afoot here. We know these kids are unlucky in love (the bar scene is heartbreaking, as well as it’s reflection at the reception scene), but director Hopkins never takes that frozen chicken’s ire out on a right cross to the temple. Like I said, took me a bit to catch the drift, but when I did, whoa daddy here’s where drama happens. Like a cherry blossom, and no I ain’t being overly poetic, ya dips.

All the rapture I’ve slathered over Harvey for the past nine years doesn’t mean nothing stank in Denmark. Of course not. Even the greatest of movies (which this nugget is far from) has a few rats in the cellar. What? You’ve read this blog enough before. Unless the movie under the ‘scope that week is either truly deplorable, gets my socio-commentary dander up into overdrive or is just a non-stop 100 minute facepalm I only bitch and moan with such aplomb such as Londoners didn’t do during the Blitz. The flipside is me trying to be polite—equitable even—and point out, “Hey, wait a minute…” even with a decent movie. And decent Harvey is, but there’s stuff there that made my eyes roll. Minor, but there. So here they were.

Harvey’s eager desperation seemed a might pathetic. We get the fact the guy’s a failure by his own design, and we are well aware of the magic movie laws dictating that deep sh*t will ultimately yield fallow compost. However keeping them cards too close to the director’s chest might result in his hand being forced. Hoffman’s a gifted actor, and his CV might exceed Hopkins’. Hell, it might even exceed Hopkins’ life, but he’s the director and maybe well-acquianted with his lead’s delicate past and reluctance for going after the jugular.

Maybe not. For after considering Harvey’s sea change in life by the third act, one gets the impression that Hoff’s iron will regarding character acting got willingly rusty. We got plenty of a taste of Harvey’s dire straits from the get go. Do we need a reaffirmation of his insecurities—albeit in a sunnier light—later on after he woos the girl? Right. It should be about trepidation, reluctance to take a plunge no matter how desperate the need is. We don’t need sniveling, no matter how sweet-natured.

Um. That’s about it for the bitch department. Huh. You’re welcome? Who’s up for golf?

After all I said and what was watched this film made me smile in spite of me. Yeah, it’s derivative, but please refer back to my “predictable” comment. Almost all rom-coms are connect the dots, regardless of the skills delivered by the cast, the director, the writers and/or the scouts. Sometimes though, all the essential pieces fall into place. I’ve learned that with a rom-com this can be a very dodgy undertaking. Thanks to (or more often no thanks) established gimmickry solid with the genre most cast and crew play it all fast and loose for maximum laughs, minimal pathos and an inevitable butt shot, gender regardless. Hopkins’ was a nice tonic to all that soap opera folderol. Harvey was thoughtful, clever and overall satisfying entertainment. By the way legacy, actor Dustin Hoffman was our awkward lead. That means something in these days of Channing Tatum and Scarlett Johannson.

One more thing: of course everything works out. That’s not a spoiler. That how all rom-coms end.

Precious few deserve to though.

Now if you’ll excuse me I am lonely and I need to hit up the nearest airport bar. Maybe Emma Thompson will be there. Or Dustin Hoffman. Or Heather Graham circa 1997. I ain’t picky.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Smart, stinging and sweet. Funny too. It’s flicks like this one that reassure/justify my scribblings here at RIORI. That and I’ve been hard up for a non sh*t-bag movie here in ages, so I’ll take what the queue sends.


Stray Observations…

  • “Enjoy London.”
  • The wedding bartender’s looks are priceless.
  • “I’ve always enjoyed stationary.” Wink wink.
  • God, Thompson was looking cute here. Not bad for 51.
  • “If that’s for me I’m in the shower.”
  • Beware of Poles bearing smoked gifts.
  • “Carry your books?” Too goddam sweet.
  • Never realized before how short Hoffman was. Or how tall Thompson was rather.
  • “You do know this is the children’s table?”

Next Installment…

I can’t think of a clever teaser for a movie titled The Last Mimzy.


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 41: Rod Lurie’s “Straw Dogs” (2011)

 


Straw Dogs


The Players…

James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgärd and James Woods, with Dominic Purcell, Rhys Coiro, Billy Lush, Drew Powell and Laz Alonso.


The Story…

Who says you can’t go home again? Well, that’s exactly what David and Amy aim to do.

After her father’s passing, Amy inherited his house in rural Mississippi. So she and David uprooted themselves from LA to start a new life away from the trappings of crowded, urban blight. It should prove to be an idyllic life, hopefully mending a rift in their tenuous marriage.

It’s unfortunate that the locals don’t cotton well to city slickers. It’s also unfortunate that Amy’s old high school sweetheart Charlie’s been bitten by the green-eyed monster. It’s really unfortunate that David isn’t a football fan.

Sometimes it’s a good idea to leave home behind. Far, far behind.


The Rant…

Okay, sorry it took so long to get around to this week’s mashup. For reasons I will explain later, the gap in time between Red Dragon and Straw Dogs is due to my cinematic ignorance.

*gasps*

Yeah, despite all my charms, trivia and thousands of hours wasted watching movies instead of doing something really productive (like finding the cure for rectal cancer and/or Rob Schneider), even I fall out of the loop once in a while. Hey, you can’t be expected to see everything, especially since movies have been around for, what, at least 30 years? That’s a lotta VHS to unfurl. Besides, my NES ain’t gonna play itself and Yoshi’s getting hungry.

What?

So, no. I haven’t seen everything. Working on it, but it’s a long road to walk. It takes patience, undying curiosity and some moronic drive to keep at a blog like this. Lots of potholes. Sometimes there are a few setbacks. Like what, you may ask? For the first time I ain’t talking ’bout a movie you should not view near an open flame holding a Molotov cocktail. Worse.

I’m talking about remakes.

*screaming, rending of garments, passive urination*

Yeah, I feel the same way. See, Hollywood’s gone remake happy over the past decade. With greater and greater diminishing returns, BTW. Don’t misunderstand me; remakes of classic films have their place, even not so classic films. But as I pointed on in my I Am Legend installment, things can get out of hand. I cited with that remake review that in 2004 alone (you know, over a f*cking decade ago), there were about 40 remakes, sequels or prequels churned out. Even the Coen brothers got in on the act back then.

*screaming, rending of garments, passive urination*

Who had the asparagus? Anyway, I ask myself: what gives? What’s with all these unoriginal films? Was there really a demand for Total Recall ver 2.0? What about that Spider-Man reboot a mere three years after the last one? The new RoboCop anyone? Surprise, surprise, I have a few theories. Pull up a chair.

*screaming, rending of okay you get it*

For one, I think remakes are somewhat cheaper to produce than original movies. Not in budget per se, but I’m willing to wager a silk pyjama that it’s quicker to churn out an adaptation of a previously penned, established storyline. I highly doubt we had a scenarist burning lean tissue into the night pumping out the script for the fresher, shinier The Fog or Halloween (sorry, Mr Zombie). There was already an outline. Color by numbers and fill in the blanks, and pray the audience is either curious enough to see the train wreck or ignorant of the original.

That leads to my second premise. Never in the history of the human race have we been so blessed with so much immediate, instant access to info as we have now. And people are dumber than ever for it. The number one Internet search in 2015? Funny animal pictures. Screw mapping the human genome, Angry Cat needs its own movie! On Lifetime, for f*ck’s sake! We have the history of the world at our fingertips, and the butt end of Gen X into the Millenials don’t know jack.

It makes for good business. Hollywood is doubtless aware of this social learning curve (or gap, as it were), and lately have hedged their bets on the public’s willful ignorance to drop slop done before—some sh*t that was only middling the first time out—and wait for the dollars to ooze in. And cross their fingers anyone between the ages of 15 and 50 do not have Netflix streaming, YouTube or any of Leonard Maltin’s film guides. Can’t be many with those kicking around, right?

Most moviegoers have attention spans of gnats with ADHD. With so much media saturation, surely Tinsel Town can get away with slipping us a mickey now and again. Like every summer. And winter. Sometimes fall, too. Only spring before Daylight Savings take effect. Folks got so much stimulus bombarding their brainpans—I repeat, Hollywood is keenly aware of this—that a virus uploaded into the palsied minds of casual movie fans is a safe bet for some fast cash. Hollywood Trojan horses these needless remakes to empty the uninformed pockets. And the hell of it, this wouldn’t be an issue of most of these remakes were actually ripe for revision, let alone good. The many my idiot self has seen over the past decade have been neither.

Of course there have been exceptions. But before I get to my limited, hopelessly biased list permit me to enlighten you further about the nature of remakes. Here, put on this pair of Depends. Right. My take is this: if a director/writer gets a wild hair up their ass and feel the need to boldly go where someone has gone before, they sure as sh*t better have something new to add to the mix. You can’t just do boilerplate. You can’t just connect the dots. And you not to have any delusions of homage ricocheting about your vodka and blow addled imagination (I’m not saying such directors are addicts. I’m not saying they’re not, either. If the spoon fits use it).

A director and/or scenarist must give their unique spin to the original product. Either enhance the storyline, rely on an impeccable casting director or simply put a signature stamp on the final product, wrapped up in a nice, neat, tasteful package that actually brings something fresh to the table. It’s been done before, and maybe can be done again. Lately though? I have my doubts.

Some cool remakes over the past few years? Glad you asked. Here, let me loosen those restraints a bit. Okay, let’s play compare and contrast. You learned math in elementary school, right? Same rules.

Scorsese’s The Departed (which won Best Picture in 2006. Marty’s apology Oscar, BTW) was lifted from a Chinese gangland flick called Infernal Affairs. Besides Scorsese’s signature stamp, the film worked well thanks to the tight performances from DiCaprio and Nicholson (Jack’s best sh*t in years if you ask me). We also had Ocean’s 11, also under the helm of solid director Soderbergh and the charms of Clooney and Co. Hell, even the 1996 take on The Birdcage was wild, wooly and witty. These are but a scattered few winners.

But despite my focus on recent remakes, there are quite a few notable flicks remade well prior to the Internet generation. I mean, hey, did you know The Wizard Of Oz was done four times? It’s true. The first was a silent version. The next was a talkie, but sans the high tunage and technicolor extravaganza that we got with Judy Garland and her amazing pipes for the third, definitive version (and let’s not forget The Wiz, awash in R&B and overtones of urban blight).

Casablanca was done three times. Not including the iconic classic, the source material was the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s, which was done twice before Elsa got on that plane. Michael Curtiz’ masterpiece almost didn’t get made, BTW. Something about lousy casting or something. What do I know?

We had The Front Page against His Girl FridayThe Man Who Knew Too Much was done by Hitch twice (three times if you remember Billy Bob Thorton’s effort). Seven Samurai got morphed into The Magnificent SevenThe Hidden Fortess borne Star Wars: A New HopeThe Good, The Bad And The Ugly wrought Yojimbo. The list goes on.

Another aspect of the remake hangs on the wobbly pretense of basing films on pre-exisiting texts. I’ve seen three interpretations of Hamlet on the silver screen (two with casting mistakes of Mel Gibson and Kenneth Branagh portraying the titular tragic hero. Hamlet was a teen. Gibson was straight off the Lethal Weapon train. He was way too old for that sh*t). Speaking of Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet has numerous incarnations. Not just Shakespeare but a lot of great films were lifted from great literature. Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness was adapted for Apocalypse Now. Bloch’s Psycho became flesh by Hitchcock (and we’re gonna ignore the frame by f*cking frame remake with a miscast Vince Vaughn). And the last time we were out, we were introduced to Hannibal Lecter’s salad days via Manhunter and Red Dragon, both based on Thomas Harris’ novel.

It’s fortitudinous really that Red Dragon was the previous whipping boy at RIORI. It makes a good companion piece to this week’s beauty and ruin, this Straw Dogs remake. Remember eons back when I said I haven’t watched everything? Before I watched Red Dragon I had already seen Manhunter many years prior. If you read the installment, I felt compelled to compare the older version with the new one. Directors Mann and Ratner brought different meals to the table, their own visions. Both were good, but markedly different. I had read Red Dragon miles before I saw the films, and dug each version’s unique take.

I never read Straw Dogs‘ source material, Gordon Williams’ The Seige Of Treacher’s Farm. Didn’t have immediate access to it. F*ck, never knew the film(s) were based on it until the end credits. More importantly, regarding the viewing of Rod Lurie’s remake of Straw Dogs—

(here it comes)

—I never saw Sam Peckinpah’s original. I can’t see everything. I heard about the original with the Director’s Cut reissue in Entertainment Weekly back in the mid-90s (when I still read that rag), and the plot intrigued me. But I lived in a cultural armpit of Pennsylvania, and Netfilx didn’t exist and the local Blockbuster was stocked to the rafters with endless copies of Ghost, so I missed that bus. But like I said at the beginning of this screed, know that Lurie’s version was a remake, and me never seeing the original, and me being well-versed with Manhunter serving as a tonic to my Red Dragon review, I decided I’d be remiss in my duties to take apart Lurie’s version without being acquainted with Peckinpah’s film. So I took the time to sit down and watch the original. A copy of Williams’ Siege wasn’t to be found at the library as a control, either. Which explains the delay in churning out this installment regarding Lurie’s “vision.”

Despite patience being a virtue, I think I might’ve made a big mistake…


City life isn’t for everyone. David and Amy Sumner (Marsden and Bosworth, respectively) quietly fled crowded, polluted LA to Amy’s family home in rural Mississippi. They want an idyll life, far from the stress and strain of the West Coast.

Speaking of strain, their marriage is an uneasy relationship. It’s reflected in their move, as well as a change in direction. David’s a screenwriter, tired of playing the Hollywood game. He throws himself into a new, personal project: a historical documentary, miles away from the glitz he tiredly has churned out. Amy focuses on the restoration of her late dad’s homestead, as well as rediscovering her roots.

Speaking of roots, the locals don’t take kindly to outsiders. David’s viewed as some Calfornia “cream puff” and Amy is little more than eye candy. Especially to Charlie (Skarsgärd), her old flame from their high school days. As more or less a favor, Charlie and his crew have been hired to help Amy achieve her dream by restoring the barn adjacent to the antebellum mansion. This permits Charlie and his cronies ample time to ogle Amy and intimidate David.

Speaking of intimidation, what starts out as an tenuous relationship with Charlie and the locals slowly escalate into psychological warfare. They don’t like wussy David. They want Amy on a platter. They want them gone. Who needs some f*ggoty Hollywood sh*t mucking about town? He don’t even like football. And how the f*ck did he score that blonde cupcake? Charlie and his buds have malice on their minds, and the Sumners need to be taught a lesson and chased out of the f*cking county as fast as f*ck as possible. Or else.

Speaking of else—

The Sumners don’t wanna know what else…


After watching this version of Straw Dogs, I performed an about face and checked out the original. I told you all that. I’m telling you this again for a good reason. About halfway through Peckinpah’s version, I paused it. I was mad. I was mad not about the quality of the 1971 version, which was intriguing. And outright I’ll say Dustin Hoffman made for a much more interesting David than Cyclops did (big shocker there), as well as rural Cornwall as setting. No. I was mad because Lurie’s version was identical to Peckinpah’s. Not slightly. Not passingly. Completely.

Like I said earlier, if you’re gonna do a remake of a classic film you sure as sh*t better bring some twists and turns to story. Otherwise, you have a Gus van Zant travesty on your hands, and a lot of dissatisfied (thinking) movie fans. Rage and ruin. Overturned popcorn buckets. Bitching like mine. Screaming. Rending of garments. Passive pee covering the theatre floor. You thought it was sticky already? Boy, howdy.

Sorry.

Lurie’s Dogs was less of an homage and more like a rip-off, but it wasn’t a total loss. Quite the contrary, at least until the second act (more on that later). At the outset though, the film had nice rising action. There was some good, icky tension between Charlie and company with the Sumners. The whole feeling of unwelcome was palpable, and made me cringe in the best way possible. The menace was there, with Skarsgärd operating with smarm and disdain disguised as Southern Hospitality. Upping that ante was a signature, over-the-top performance of James Woods as redneck ringleader Coach Hadden (with my takedown of White House Down, Woods always makes for an exceptional villain with his shuck and jive, interspersing humor within his odious shenanigans).

The tech stuff was in there where it mattered, too. The editing was smooth, almost seamless along with steady camera work. The soundtrack was great, really highlighting the tension. The landscape was beautiful; give that location scout a hug. All these things worked well.

But only so far.

I fast learned by watching Peckinpah’s film that Lurie’s version was missing the point. 2011’s Dogs was ostensibly meant to be an extension of Peckinpah’s meditation on violence and how the kindest of people could resort to desperate measures. Instead, we get violence for its own sake here. There’s too much of a Hollywood stamp: shock and awe as a substitute for substance. Days of the true psychothriller are gone. If one happens to pop up unexpectedly, the media practically lunges at it like a starving tiger. In the meantime we get a lot of flash, dash and viscera to keep the masses entertained. Truth be told, Lurie’s Dogs didn’t quite follow that line, but the movie felt as if scene upon scene was staged for some sort of explosion later on. There was no slow build after act two. The delivery was halting, and began to lose steam. There’s a difference between foreshadowing and Kafka’s Gun theory and setting up your marks. Like I said, a remake like this hung its bets on an audience not in the know to sell tickets.

That and the help of a very pretty cast.

That’s the major crime here in Dogs. Our dramatis personae. The acting is rather stiff, and our leads are horribly miscast (save Woods, who chews so much scenery it’s a wonder he’s not crapping out drywall). Dogs relies more on name recognition and face value than a coherent ensemble. This is especially true regarding True Blood‘s Skarsgärd. I have to admit—and I am straight as an arrow, regardless what the wifey believes—his Adonis-like looks and build are distracting, and doesn’t a country bumpkin make. Even when he’s being sinister Skarsgärd lacks menace, and that lack made for a very late-in-the-show unconvincing heavy, as well as the cheesiest REDACTED scene ever (the original’s scene made me want to puke, if that tells you anything). The final execution feels like a sick teen comedy. Minus the rococo angst.

Yes, I actually wrote that line. Back to the prettiness.

Marsden is totally out of his element here. In the original, Hoffman’s David is a nerd to be sure, but he’s also wary about his circumstances. He carried an air of suspicion. Marsden by contrast is just clueless. He keeps asking for it from the locals. Over and over and over again, as a square peg to a trapezoidal hole. It doesn’t take long until wanna smack him, over and over again more than the rednecks who’ve targeted him. Sure, his naiveté works with great humor in the first act, but the joke is old by the second. His innocence is ultimately not endearing. He doesn’t engender sympathy. He’s hollow and stereotypical. He didn’t even shoot lasers from his eyes. Gyp.

Even though I’m not a fan of Marsden’s and Skarsgärd’s acting, they weren’t dull. Stereotypes maybe, poor fits both, but even with their faults they did sh*t. Bosworth (of whom I am not a fan period) is so passive it’s almost as if she’s not there. Frankly, at this point in the game I felt any other actress would’ve fit the bill. Pick one. Anyone. Just make sure they have a little confidence and not screaming potential victim. I mean, it’s inevitable bad things are going to happen Amy. I just don’t want to see it coming a light-year away.

Okay. And now for something completely different. Ignoring its flaws, Lurie’s interpretation was, in all honesty, not that bad. Barring the whole second act thing I keep flogging, the movie as a whole was entertaining. It’s not like a “more than the sum of its parts” scenario. But everything hung together pretty well for the most part. Again like the dichotomy of Red Dragon was made to entertain while The Silence Of The Lambs was made to penetrate, both Dogs follow that mold. Peckinpah’s film was awash in social commentary. Lurie’s film simply hoped to thrill. I am loathe to admit it did, despite the poor cast and graphic violence for shock’s sake. The original film was far cleaner in its execution. Only by act three the fit hits the shan. Lurie’s aforementioned icky tension shows the movie’s hand too soon. It would’ve been better with a slower build up and less of that scene building.

In sum, the message of violence here in Dogs gets a bit too on the nose for Lurie’s interpretation. I hate to keep comparing apples to kumquats, but the original film was about “chronicling the beast within.” Lurie’s film just can’t wait to blood butter everything. Meaning breathe it in, punk. There’s an after school message here. A blood-soaked message to be sure, which in turn hides the true meaning of Dogs. What began with good, icky tension ends up with forced, cloying suspense. It’s like a timer went off, and stuff quits making sense. Sh*t descends into mediocrity. Even though there are (vague) motives for the locals to target the Sumners, said motives never really gel. Despite the obvious machinations put into motion, you walk away with “Huh?” Does this movie want to endear contempt for everyone involved? If you can’t get behind anyone then when the climax hits it lands with a fizzle, not a roar. Like I said, at least Hoffman was interesting. Marsden needs a spanking.

This movie ultimately made me feel scummy, like I needed a shower afterwards. It wasn’t the violent climax that upset me. It was the message, glorifying violence. Don’t misunderstand me. I like a decent splatter flick on occasion as well as the next idjit, but a little depth wouldn’t hurt neither. At the end of it all, Lurie’s Dogs remake initially had a lot going for it. Really. I dug it until…well, you know. Its undoing (besides the floundering cast) was reveling in sex and violence, with nary a whit of irony. Some films embrace this, sometimes with a modicum of success. Some of them even remakes, too. One out of three ain’t bad for this Dogs.

But hey, Lurie’s take had zydeco music. That’s sumpin’ different at the table.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A reluctant relent it, and it’s a real shame, too. Here was chance to make a remake about a vital topic. Instead we get Hollywood’s idea of depth. Lurie did an admirable job, just not a respectful one. If you gotta watch it, watch both.


Stray Observations…

  • “You know what? I’m gonna drive.”
  • Hipster music. What better way to alienate oneself from the Skynyrd lovin’ locals?
  • “Thought you was off duty.”
  • Marsden may be a nebbish, but Bosworth is a stick.
  • “Sorry ’bout Flutie.” Keep the change.
  • All of a sudden David becomes John McClane. Zydeco can do that to you.
  • “Shoot anyone that isn’t me.”
  • Stalingrad. I get it, I get it.

Next Installment…

I got a feeling that this film titled Project X has nothing to do with experimental, super smart chimps. Monkey business maybe, but no chimps. Broderick reference!