Monday, October 24, 2016

Classics: Three Halloween Treats For the Young and Young at Heart By Lauren Ennis

Halloween is the one day out of each year in which the rules of polite society cease to apply. It is a day in which clothes are meant to be outrageous, balanced meals are exchanged for sugary gluttony, and a good scare at a friend’s expense is not only accepted but expected. In short, it is a holiday that is tailor-made for children. This week I’ll be celebrating the cinematic thrills and chills that made so many children wonder what might be lurking under the bed and what it is that goes bump in the night.
You say 'witch' like its a bad thing...

Hocus Pocus: This 1993 comedy drama successfully blends the best of the supernatural and the whimsical to create a film that is at once a horror spoof, an apt warning, and a paranormal thrill ride. The film focuses upon the efforts of a modern teen, his sultry classmate, and his quirky younger sister to stop a trio of seventeenth century witches from wreaking havoc upon the city that condemned them to hanging centuries earlier. The film takes a classic Halloween premise of ancient evil returning to haunt the present and successfully adapts it with a gen-x attitude. It is through its distinctly 1990’s setting that the film adds a comic dimension with its three witches, the Sanderson sisters, embarking upon a hilariously inept journey to adapt to life in 1990’s Massachusetts as its hero, Max, simultaneously engages in his own fish out of water antics as he struggles to fit in at his new school. Through its two comic subplots the film offers biting social commentary for teen and adult viewers as it highlights the absurdities of both modern life and the adolescent experience in ways that continue to resonate even if it’s, “tubular” slang and feels as outdated as the Sanderson sisters’ fashion choices.  Despite the shenanigans that populate the characters’ adventures, the film’s premise is a surprisingly dark one for a children’s film, even by Halloween standards, as its central struggle serves as an apt allegory for the threat of child abduction. The film immediately launches into its central metaphor by beginning with the witches luring and abducting a young girl who they proceed to, “drain the life from” as part of a spell to preserve their own youth. While the scene avoids any graphic violence, it is all too obvious that the girl was a victim of both kidnapping and murder. The film continues with its emphasis upon ‘stranger danger’ as it shows Max complaining when he is charged with chaperoning his little sister during trick-or-treating, only for him to later realize just how frighteningly real the dangers his parents warned them both about really are. The special effects are by turns comically grotesque and visually dazzling, ensuring that viewers will remain engaged in the fantastic plot without leaving younger viewers too scared. The acting is uniformly excellent with a young Thora Birch particularly standing out as Max’s precocious younger sister, Danny and Sean Murray bringing depth and pathos to the otherwise outlandish plot as the guilt wracked Thackery Binx, and Omri Katz imbuing Max with the equal parts charm and restlessness that make him an entirely relatable protagonist. Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy nearly steal the film in their by turns comical and chilling performances that make the Sanderson sisters villains that viewers love to watch as much as they love to hate. It just isn’t Halloween without a little Hocus Pocus.
Christina Ricci ain't afraid of no ghost!

Casper: Like Hocus Pocus, Casper focuses upon a teen grappling with adolescence, but unlike its counterpart includes the fascinating twist that the ghosts are in many ways more human than their mortal counterparts. The film follows the adventures of friendly ghost Casper as he befriends a lonely girl struggling with moving to a new town following the death of her mother. Kat arrives at the eerie Whipstaff Manor after her professional ghost hunter father is hired to ferret out the spirits residing there by the greedy heiress who inherited the house. Father and daughter quickly learn that there’s more truth to the rumors of paranormal activity than they expected when they realize that they are sharing the house with an entire family of ghosts made up of Casper and his three ghastly uncles known as the ‘ghostly trio’. Although initially frightened by his uncles’ antics, Kat quickly befriends the welcoming Casper whom she learns is the ghost of a boy her own age who is struggling to recapture his lost memories of his mortal life. Over the course of the film the unlikely pair learn crucial lessons from one another as the deceased Casper inspires the grieving Kat to embrace life, and she in turn helps him to come to terms with his past and prepare to move forward to the afterlife. It is these universal lessons that sets the film apart from typical Halloween fare aimed at either children or adults. The performances are uniformly engaging with the ghostly trio (Joe Nipoty, Joe Alaskey, and Brad Garrett ) lending plenty of comic diversion while Christina Ricci and Bill Pullman keep the film firmly grounded despite its fantastic plot, and Malchi Pearson provides the film with its emotional core as Casper. The effects are more designed for entertainment than traditional fear with the ghosts more closely resembling living cartoons than actual spirits and their adventures containing more comic gags than chills, but it is this very same light-handed approach that ensures the film will draw younger viewers into Casper’s world without scaring them off. Comedy, supernatural adventure, and coming of age story, all of these elements come together to make a film that is truly friendly to the whole family in Casper.
No stranger than believing that Charlie Brown might actually kick that football
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown: No holiday film list would be complete without an entry from the Peanuts gang, and It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown is one of the best of the franchise. In the tradition of the best of Peanuts, the film remains engaging for children across generations, even while it remains permeated with a dry wit and mature sensibility that viewers will gain an even deeper appreciation for as they grow older. The film focuses upon Linus and Charlie Brown each pursuing what they anticipate to be the greatest Halloween of their young lives. Like so many of us, however the pair each face their fair share of disappointments as Charlie Brown goes trick-or treating, only to be given rocks at not just one but every house that he stops at, and Linus spends his night waiting in vain for a visit from ‘the great pumpkin’ (a Halloween twist on Santa in which a magical giant pumpkin appears in pumpkin patches to visit children who truly believe in it). While this melancholy tale familiar to the franchise could have easily lent the film a jaded edge, the story instead takes an uplifting turn as both Charlie Brown and Linus remain hopeful that they will have a better Halloween next year if they persevere. The film’s climax in which Linus vows that he will see the great pumpkin next year by becoming even more dedicated and believing even harder is a testament to the power of faith and the resilience of youth that becomes more inspirational as viewers reach adulthood. The film includes the original writing and directing team of Charles Schultz and Bill Melendez and features all of the original voice actors making it a true Peanuts classic. The film is also notable for its introduction of Snoopy’s first fantasy sequence as he dons his WWI flying ace costume and assumes his alter ego for the first time. Whether its kicking that elusive ball or waiting for the great pumpkin It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown reminds us all of the fundamental importance of believing in our dreams regardless of how impossible they might seem and remains a symbol of the magic and mischief of Halloween.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Classics: Three Remakes that are Arguably Better than the Original By Lauren Ennis

Move over Julie Christie...
Remakes are often derided as unoriginal and unnecessary efforts that undermine the very qualities that made an original film a classic. With the plethora of films that remake everything from sitcoms, to children’s shows, to video games which are regularly released to reviews that are mixed at best, it is easy to see how remakes have been stereotyped as shorthand for ‘not worth your ticket’. In some cases, however, a remake can provide a fresh look at material in a way that makes an old story relevant for a whole new generation. In such instances, a remake can provide additional insight that enriches the viewing experience for fans of the original film, while still holding resonance for new viewers. This week’s review will explore three films that will have you rethinking the reputation of the remake.
Don't look now, but we just got outdone

Doctor Zhivago: Like its predecessor, this 2002 BBC miniseries follows the tumultuous romance of poet and doctor, Yuri Zhivago, and his tormented nurse and muse, Lara Antipova, amidst the upheaval and turmoil of the Russian Revolution. While the 1965 adaptation of the Boris Pasternak novel is rightly regarded as a classic, the more recent adaptation brings the novel to life with a grittiness and realism that highlights the tragedy of the lovers’ doomed affair as well as that of the world that is crumbling all around them. For example, the miniseries utilizes actual newsreel footage from World War I and the early days of the Soviet Union to place the events portrayed on screen within the context of Russian history. The miniseries also utilizes location shots, as well as authentic Russian music and historically accurate costumes that bring the distant world of the characters to vibrant life. Beyond the aesthetics, the film also utilizes a miniseries length script that allows the characters time to evolve and adds additional insight into each character's backstory. For example, while the 1965 film portrayed Lara’s (Julie Christie in the 1965 film and Keira Knightley in the miniseries) affair with her mother’s lover, Victor Komarovsky (Rod Steiger and Sam Neill ), as a mercenary attempt to escape her impoverished existence, the miniseries accurately portrays the relationship to be one of sexual abuse. The miniseries adds further insight into Lara’s mentality by portraying her relationship with her mother (Adrienne Corri  and Maryam d'Abo), who encourages Komarovsky’s abuse in an effort to ensure he continues providing them financial support. Through this emphasis upon her formative years, the film offers a more complex perspective of its heroine that portrays her as a resilient woman struggling with the guilt and shame commonly experienced by abuse victims, rather than an opportunistic femme fatale. Similarly, the film contains several flashbacks to Yuri’s (Omar Sharif and Hans Matheson) childhood that highlight Komarovsky’s role in his father’s suicide. These flashbacks further emphasize Komarovsky's cunning and lend credibility to Yuri’s otherwise confounding refusal to accept Komarovsky’s help in escaping the Soviet Union in the film’s tragic final act. The film also successfully imbues Lara’s boy next door boyfriend turned ruthless commissar husband, Pasha (Tom Courtenay and Kris Marshall), and Yuri’s adopted sister turned wife, Tonia (Geraldine Chaplin and Alexandra Maria Lara), with much needed depth by portraying them as three dimensional people worthy of the audience’s sympathy. In this way, the audience remains fully aware of the ramifications of Yuri and Lara’s affair, even while rooting for the pair to find happiness. Thus, while less glamorous than its predecessor, the BBC miniseries of Doctor Zhivago relays all the romance and tragedy of the original novel with a truly epic scope.
Damn that Bergman and Boyer!

Gaslight: Originally adapted from the stage hit Angel Street, Gaslight is unique example in which each adaptation only seems to make the story that much more thrilling. While the 1940 British adaptation and the 1944 Hollywood adaptation both follow the basic plot of Angel Street, the Hollywood treatment made this beloved thriller a genre staple that has since entered the realm of popular vernacular. In both stories, a na├»ve newlywed is systematically driven insane by her manipulative husband as part of his scheme to cover up his past crimes and regain a lost fortune. In the original film, Bella (Diana Wynyard) is a starry-eyed bride who blindly follows her husband’s orders in accordance with the norms of Edwardian London. In the 1944 film, Paula (Ingrid Bergman) is a vivacious, but haunted woman whose past is marked by tragedy following the death of her parents and later the gruesome murder of her aunt. While Paula does play a secondary role in her relationship with her husband, her submissiveness is due the fact that unlike Bella she is entering her marriage in a foreign country whose customs she is unfamiliar with, and is married to a much older man who in many ways fills the void of her lost family. As a result, Paula is a heroine audiences empathize with, and eventually root for as she finally takes steps to reclaim her life. Bella, by contrast, is unreasonably meek to the point of appearing childlike and offers virtually no resistance against her husband’s machinations, leaving audiences wondering if there really might be some merit to her husband’s accusations of mental illness after all. Similarly, in the 1940 film Paul (Anton Walbrook) is a volatile man who continuously belittles Bella when he isn’t engaging in adulterous affairs with both prostitutes and the household maid. Paul’s one-dimensional villainy leaves viewers baffled as to what made Bella fall in love with him and what it is that maintains her blind faith in both him and their marriage. In the 1944 film, however, viewers follow Paula and Gregory (Charles Boyer) on their whirlwind courtship and witness the passion and charm that first draws her to him. Even after the couple settle into their new home and Gregory sets his malicious plans in motion, Charles Boyer continues to infuse the role with a sly humor and smooth charm that provide viewers with necessary insight into Paula’s continued trust in and attraction to him. The role of the persevering police officer (Frank Pettingrell in the 1940 film and Joseph Cotton in the 1944 remake) who solves the central mystery is also given greater weight and a backstory in the 1944 version, making him more than merely a necessary plot device. Finally, the final reveal contains greater shock value in the 1944 version by tying Paula’s tortured present directly to her troubled past in a way that is never forced and remains satisfying. In short, as both a mystery and a psychological study of an abusive relationship, the 1940 adaptation does not hold a candle to its 1944 successor.
The days before divorce was an option...

Say hello...
Scarface: The image of Al Pacino as Tony Montana brandishing a tommy-gun and shouting “Say hello to my little friend” is so ingrained in popular culture that many viewers have forgotten that the 1983 gangland classic is actually a remake. Written as a combination of a 1930’s take on the Borgia’s and a thinly veiled portrait of notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone, Scarface was first released in 1932. In the first version, Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) is a brutish rising gangster in 1930’s Chicago who makes his way to the top of the illegal liquor trade, leaving chaos in his wake. The 1983 film updates the well-worn mafia angle to 1980’s Miami amidst the backdrop of the Cuban immigration wave. The 1983 film, remains surprisingly faithful to its predecessor by incorporating both Tony’s pursuit of his boss’ haughty mob moll (Karen Morely in the 1932 film and Michelle Pfeiffer in the 1983 update) and his protective relationship with his younger sister (Anne Dvorak and Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio), which borders on incestuous, into his bloody rise to power. The ways in which the remake bests the original are almost entirely due to its updated setting. While numerous films and television series have been set in the treacherous world of prohibition era organized crime, films about the emerging drug trade were cutting edge at the time of the 1983 film’s release, which ensured that the remake would carry all of the shock and cautionary warnings of the original, while still drawing in a new generation. This updated setting also provided an excellent opportunity for the thriller to serve double duty as social commentary with Tony arriving in America only to fall fast and hard for all of the excesses of the 1980’s high life. The inclusion of Tony’s backstory as a Cuban refugee was a particularly inspired addition as it provided viewers with insight into the oppression and trauma that made Tony the ruthless man that he is, while his efforts to embrace American capitalism provide an apt motive for his eventual entrance into the drug trade. This added dimension to Tony’s history makes him more than just another screen criminal and instead reveals him to be, much like Michael Corleone and Jay Gatsby before him, an American Dreamer led brutally and tragically astray. While both versions of the lurid tale offer their own thrills, for a modern take on the classic gangster genre look no further than 1983’s Scarface.
To my little friend!