If almost every movie nowadays is based on an existing property of some sort–and if this particular summer is any indication, Hollywood is trying to eliminate the “original screenplay” awards category by March–then it should come as no surprise to see even the good directors hopping on the gravy train. After all, filmmakers gotta eat too, and doing something that’s been done before is better than doing nothing at all, I suppose. A consequence of this new influx of talent, though, is that some of these remakes are actually turning out to be much better than they deserve to be. Key word: "some."
First let’s rehash this season’s rehashes. Summer of 2005 is, I believe, the least original summer of all time. With pitifully few exceptions, the majority of major releases this season are derived from existing properties, including comic books (Fantastic Four, Sin City, Batman Begins), old television shows (Dukes of Hazzard, Bewitched, Mr. and Mrs. Smith (sort of)), sequels (Star Wars 3, Land of the Dead, Deuce Bigelow: European Gigolo), regular old books without pictures in them (War of the Worlds, The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants), and, finally, the least-justifiable of all, the remake (The Honeymooners, Herbie: Fully Loaded, The Longest Yard). We even have some multiple-award winners here: Batman Begins is both a sequel AND a comic book movie, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is both a book AND a remake, War of the Worlds has already been a book, a movie, AND a radio show, and Lords of Dogtown breaks new ground by being the dramatized version of a documentary. Does this last film open with the title “Based on a True Story,” or does it say, “Based on the Documentary You Saw on Cable, Like, Last Month”? In an ideal world–no, not even in an ideal world, just a slightly more proactive and intelligent one–it would have been the producer’s job to discover the story of the invention of skateboarding on his or her own, and recognize it as a compelling story worth telling in feature film form. Well in the case of Lords of Dogtown apparently the producer was proactive enough to GO SEE Dogtown and Z-Boys (maybe even in the theater!) and afterwards, on his or her own accord, thought, “gee, that would make a good movie.” Jackass, it ALREADY WAS.
Is this the downside of the newfound popularity of documentaries–that we have to be saddled with “The Hollywood Version”? Dogtown and Z-Boys came out in 2001 and Lords of Dogtown (note the subtle title change) was released in 2005. Spellbound came out in 2001, and now 2005 will see the release of Akeelah and the Bee (which narrows the focus of Spellbound down to only one of its characters: the inner-city slam-speller, who is of course more interesting than the oh-so-typical hardworking Indian prodigy). Apparently the timeframe for remaking a true movie into a fake one is 3-4 years; I figure this means we can expect the fictionalized version of Super Size Me to hit theaters in the summer of 2007, starring Johnny Knoxville. Actually, you know what? New Lows will be reached here–they won’t have someone “play” Morgan Spurlock, they’ll just get Morgan Spurlock–that is the kind of active imaginations we’re dealing with. Because Spurlock will be acting this time, he’ll eat veggie burgers disguised as Big Macs, and they’ll slap on progressively fatter fat suits as shooting progresses. But wouldn’t faking Super Size Me sort of defeat the whole point of…? Anyway, this new kind of meta-lowness has already been achieved in Lords of Dogtown. In another stunning example of thinking outside the box, the producers hired Dogtown and Z-Boys’ writer and director, skateboarding pioneer Stacy Peralta, as the screenwriter for Lords of Dogtown (but not as its director–note to Stacy: do not leave intentional mistakes in the final cut anymore, the suits don’t get it).
So what else is there to “draw inspiration” from? Hollywood has already turned to every other existing property for ideas, including its most recent gold mine (if you can call it that–“lead mine” would be more appropriate): the video game (Wing Commander, Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, Final Fantasy, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Super Mario Bros.). Walt Disney reversed the usual order and based 2003's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl on its 1967 theme park ride. 2001 saw the release of the movie Me and Mrs. Jones, which was inspired by the 70’s infidelity anthem of the same name. In the same soul-sucking (hah, hah) vein, Martin Lawrence’s 1996 film A Thin Line Between Love and Hate stole its title from The Persuaders’ 1971 chart-topper–and the group H-town (of esteemed "Knockin’ Da Boots" fame) re-recorded it, quite sacrilegiously, for the soundtrack. So after you’ve based feature films on 4-minute songs, what’s next? Movies based on 30-second ad spots? How about Got Milk?, in which aliens invade earth (again), except this time for our dairy supply? Gatorade’s Is it in you, the movie? Actually that sounds like a porn. Well, why not remake existing porn flicks? Debbie Does Dallas, the PG-13 summer blockbuster starring Jessica Simpson? Market research is giving me a big thumbs-up on that one. How about blogs? Can we get No Film School, the feature film?
Anyway despite pulling out all the stops, running up the flagpole, trumpeting their loudest fanfare, and using other clichéd phrases, box-office receipts are down for Hollywood. Or maybe it’s all the clichés IN THE MOVIES that have the theaters selling less tickets, despite reports of stronger-than-average air-conditioning. Could Hollywood’s “reduce, reuse, recycle” approach be behind the box office decline?
Nope–that would be giving the public too much credit, because we all know that these days, no one appreciates origininality. It's so rare that I can’t even spell the word. Even if the art form were being reinvented this summer–the Taxi Driver of this generation could come out next week–I don’t think it would do anything to stop the bleeding, box-office wise.
While I can work my ass off and stay up late at night trying to figure out what that film will be, I’m not sure what the execs can do besides putting digital projectors in the multiplexes: it costs like $37.50 to see a movie at the theater with a beverage, whereas you can rent it for $4 and watch it with 8 friends, Netflix it and copy it before sending it back, TiVo it off satellite or cable, download it off of Kazaa, or even just get the bootleg down the street for less. As a kid I didn’t know of a single way to watch a movie for free because we only had network TV, there was no internet, and DVDs didn’t exist yet. But now people with money who have Hi-def at home can watch their movies on a screen that’s nicer than the one at the sticky-floored theater a drive away. This is where digital comes in–but even with a fancy new projector in the theater, you can’t pause the movie, make some popcorn, and have sex in the middle of it.
What’s that, you’ve done it? Oh, really? You made popcorn right there in the theater?
Well, in the title of this much-longer-than-anticipated post, I made the claim that Batman Begins and Sin City are the best comic book movies of all time, and yet I have barely mentioned either. Well, don’t expect any backing-up to that claim, except for me to say–albeit in the annoying manner in which reviewers claim one movie/album/book to be “superior” to another, as if there is some objective way of measuring these things–that I do think Batman Begins is “better” than all the other Batmans, which is basically saying that it’s better than the first one since the others don’t even qualify. But this could also be because it was very psychological and grounded in reality (so much so that some of the comic book parts of it were jarring–his first appearance in the batsuit, for instance), and my tastes tend towards the explainable rather than the supernatural. I have less to say about Sin City because it’s been longer since I saw it and need to watch it again (if you can “need” to watch a film), and my expectations were rock-bottom after seeing Once Upon a Time in Mexico (having no expectations going in to a movie is often the easiest way to enjoy it… and to not trust your initial impressions). I will say this about Sin City–while there were times I thought the acting was very stiff, there were others when I felt that the full potential of virtual sets was finally being realized, with some subjective reality and German expressionism taking advantage of the technology.
Walking out of Batman Begins the other day (when it was over, I mean), I was left with a feeling that the film was as good as it could have been, and better than it should have. I can’t remember thinking that in a long time. Maybe that’s because what’s going on is that a very, very intelligent director did the best he could with what he had to work with, and it was pretty damn good. But until “what he had to work” with gets better, film is not growing as an art form–and what he had to work with was an existing franchise.