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Old is new again

Rehashing the ghosts of summers past

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A recent list of this summer’s 10 top-grossing films includes just three original pictures (Madagascar, Cinderella Man and Mr. & Mrs. Smith). The rest of the list is comprised of titles riding the coattails of long-established franchises: either outright remakes of classics (War of the Worlds, The Longest Yard), recasts of television sitcoms (Bewitched), yet another sequel (Herbie: Fully Loaded, Land of the Dead) or prequel (Revenge of the Sith, Batman Begins) to ideas initially hatched in prior generations. And this is only the beginning—the list will no doubt welcome this week’s opening of the new Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (reviewed in this issue), as well as next month’s Dukes of Hazzard and Bad News Bears.

To see this trend as the continuing demise of Hollywood’s creativity is too easy. Maybe the problem is us—the audience. These movies are, after all, making enough money to justify more of the same. Older moviegoers are apparently content to see their glory days retold; younger audiences are apparently smitten with mass-marketed introductions to the subjects of their retro t-shirts. But what’s to be said of the originals? Here’s a review of some of what’s already been re-made this summer.

War of the Worlds (1953)
The setup is Independence Day meets Signs (but better), with a small town in California fascinated by “meteors” that have landed in their fields. The locals talk of selling tickets and families take pictures in front of the fallen objects (really Martian spaceships) as if burning hunks of metal are roadside attractions. The social commentaries (on capitalism, Cold War America) are prevalent and there is a prominent religious bent—the town priest is vaporized while trying to introduce the visitors to salvation, and the film’s last line, with God-like narration from Vittorio Cramer, is Billy Graham-esque.

The special effects aren’t terrible, especially for the time. Sure, the alien death rays look like heat lamps for human french fries, but the overriding sense of paranoia and doom are well conveyed with hysterical human reactions, real military footage and iconic images such as a mangled Eiffel Tower. It’s a worthy visual follow-up to Orson Welles’ infamous radio broadcast, also based on H. G. Wells 1898 novel. If you ask to rent the original War, just be sure you don’t get pointed to the recent straight-to-video release starring Jake Busey and C. Thomas Howell.

Bell, Book and Candle (1958)
This film was the inspiration for the popular ’60s sitcom “Bewitched,” with Kim Novak playing the role of the seductive witch and James Stewart the bumbling love interest. Novak is cold and sexy and calculating as she reluctantly uses her powers to entrance Stewart, who is typical Stewart—Oh, gosh, gee, a witch, eh? You don’t say?

Aside from the star power (Jack Lemmon also appears), it’s the crisp dialogue that allows the film to stand the test of time. Like, when Stewart’s character Shepherd explains to his jilted ex-fiancé that his new squeeze is a witch. “Shep, you just never learned to spell,” she says, tongue firmly in cheek.

If you’re wondering about the title, a drunken author (played by Ernie Kovacs) reveals that the way to exorcise a witch is to “Ring the bell, close the book and quench the candle.” We also learn that witches don’t cry or blush. Rest assured, sources tell me this is all bunk.

The Love Bug (1969)
It’s all about Buddy Hackett and the hippies in this original Herbie flick. Set in San Francisco in the late ’60s, a downtrodden racecar driver (Dean Jones) conveniently meets a leggy brunette (Michele Lee) and finds his new car (Herbie) in the same dealership owned by the bad guy (David Tomlinson). The car has a heart and a mind of its own, but it takes Hackett’s character, a deliriously kooky mechanic named Tennessee Steinmetz, to convince the others that Herbie is special. Eventually, the car wins his new owner over and then wins some races, including a drag race against a bunch of hippies (with Jones pulling double-duty as Van Hippy) driving a hot rod. This scene provides Van Hippy’s wonderful line to Lee’s character as she’s locked inside Herbie for the race: “We all prisoners, chickee-baby. We all locked in.”

The Longest Yard (1974)
I never really understood how some people categorized this film as a comedy, especially considering the fact that it begins with drunken Paul Crewe (Burt Reynolds), a washed-up football star, going all Mike Tyson on his girlfriend. It’s not particularly ha-ha funny when he chokes her and tosses her to the ground. And then there’s the larger fact that the premise of the film sets you up to root for mass murderers and otherwise seedy criminals (few of whom seem reformed), led by an incarcerated Crewe, against a batch of ignorant, know-no-better prison guards in a football game.

Part of the reason the original reached “classic” status is the fact that it balanced dark themes with locker-room humor, and combined a multitude of genres. At its core, Yard is a sports film (ragtag underdogs rally together for moral and literal victory) mixed with a jailhouse flick (bonding among inmates, the search for freedom and self). But it also presents a platform for mid-’70s racial commentary and provides a long character study of Crewe as he charismatically faces his demons. It’s the latter, with Reynolds oozing a sleazy, smart-alecky style, that makes the film worth the rental fee.

The biggest problem with Yard is the fact the football game takes up 47 minutes of the film. It’s entirely too long and dull, despite the fact that Reynolds, unlike updater Adam Sandler, was once a college quarterback and looks his part. Back then, I suppose, they cared more about authenticity.

arts@missoulanews.com

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