Category Archives: Film

Remakes. Why?

Have you ever seen a remake that was better than the original? Or at least as good as the original? Neither have I. So why do they continue to go down this road? Has Hollywood run out of new ideas?

The entertainment business is a land of superlatives. So, let’s get this out of the way. Steven Spielberg is one of the greatest film directors of all time. Stephen Sondheim is one of the greatest composers/lyricists of all time. West Side Story, in its various incarnations, the book of the 1957 Broadway musical the work of Arthur Laurents, is a modern implementation of the outline drawn by William Shakespeare in his drama Romeo and Juliet and as such, one of the greatest romance stories of all time. Leonard Bernstein wrote the music. Jerome Robbins was the choreographer along with Peter Cennaro. More of the greatest.

The Broadway musical shocked audiences and drew mixed reviews. But it went on to run for 732 performances, was nominated for six Tonys and won for best choreography and best scenic design and has been revived many times in venues around the world.

The 1961 film brought Robert Wise, another of the greatest American film directors, into the creative mix as he and Jerome Robbins, who shared the director’s credit, opened the staging to fill a wide Super Panavision 70 movie screen. It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won ten, including best picture. Yes, it is regarded as one of the greatest musical films of all time. It is number ten on Scott’s 100 favorite films.

Despite the film’s success, there has always been lingering dissatisfaction with the finished product. Much of the singing was dubbed, sometimes without the knowledge of the performer. Natalie Wood, “Maria,” for example, knew her contract gave the producers the right to replace her singing voice, but wasn’t informed they were planning from the start to do so.

And as America moved into the new millennium, criticism of the entertainment industry for using white actors to play roles of various colors arose. In that light, the casting of Wood as a Puerto Ricans particularly rankled. It didn’t help that Maria’s brother, Bernardo, was played by George Chakiris, the son of Greek immigrants.

I get the message here. People of color are underrepresented in many fields, including entertainment. The casting of Wood and Chakiris as characters who are Puerto Ricans can be seen as offensive. But these casting criticisms miss the point. These are actors. They are playing roles. They adopt the characteristics of other, often fictitious people. It is their ability to lose themselves in the characters they play that is a mark of their excellence. How can we tie their hands with constraints that they be the character in real life? That’s not acting.

Do you want a rule that only a Puerto Rican can play Maria? Are you willing to limit Denzel Washington and James Earl Jones to Othello, the one Shakespearian role written for a black man? Must a gay actor only play a gay character? And vice versa? I thought not. And our new Maria, Rachel Kegler, is a 20-year-old actor from Clifton, New Jersy. Her family roots are Columbian.

So, let’s forget all this political correctness stuff and head back to the original question. Why? I haven’t been able to answer that one. It is true that New York City, the setting for West Side Story, is much more a character in this Spielberg version than in the original. It is dirtier, grittier, and truer to the Lincoln Square neighborhood of the 1950s. So what? It doesn’t add a thing to the story line.

And the more natural location shots, contrasted with the original film shot on sets built on sound stages, lose the high contrast, stylized, artistic feel of the original. Here movement is realistic to be sure. Every movement is just a movement. In the original, the motion feels like the ballet choreographer Jerome Robbins staged it to be. Here every movement is a work of art.

It was nice to have Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for playing Anita in the original film, return as a new character, Valentina, widow of the original’s “Doc,” owner of the corner candy store and hang out. But to assign her the iconic “Somewhere,” originally consigned to Tony and Maria as an expression of their forbidden love? “There’s a place for us. Somewhere, a place for us.” This was most definitely not the place for Somewhere.

I’ve always believed West Side Story is a great American opera, and that the original film is the truest telling of that vision. From the opening dance scene through the dance at the gym to the rumble under the highway to the closing “mad scene” with Maria, standing over Tony’s body and breaking into spoken prose, a cappella. And that moment, in my option, is where Wood’s skill as a dramatic actress is worth the price of your ticket. I heard an interview with Bernstein once arguing that this stylistic change at the end is what takes the work out of the opera category. I have always wished I had been able to meet him and point out that Carmen, which I saw him conduct at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, ends the same way.

Spielberg has directed a decent film. Writer Tony Kushner has delivered a more colloquial script. New York has shown itself off in all its gritty details. But they haven’t produced a work of art. For that, see the original.

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If He Builds It, We Will Come

August 13, 2021 Update

I don’t mean to brag but, well, yes I do. My hometown Chicago White Sox beat the New York Yankees 9-8 in the Field of Dreams game with a dramatic bottom of the ninth inning walk off home run by Tim Anderson. The lead had changed hands several times. There is no hiding the fact that baseball faces some big challenges in the years a ahead. Perhaps this event will help. It was a great game.

August 12, 2021

Tonight the Chicago White Sox and the New York Yankees will play the first major league baseball game ever in the state of Iowa. There will be eight thousand people in the stands. They will have paid from $1,500 to $5,000 for the privilege. The town of Dyersville, Iowa, the game’s location, has a total population of about four thousand. The game will be telecast on Fox at 7:15 Eastern Time.

The special game commemorates the thirtieth anniversary of one of my all time favorite films, Field of Dreams, which stars Kevin Costner, Amy Madigan, James Earl Jones, Ray Liotta, Timothy Busfield, and in his last film role, Burt Lancaster. The anniversary was actually last year but the tribute game, originally scheduled for 2020, was delayed by the Covid shutdown.

This is the story of a man named Ray Kinsella who came of age in the turbulent 1960s and has decided to head for Iowa with his wife and young daughter and take up farming in search of something he is not quite sure of. There, while out tending his corn crop he hears a mysterious voice saying, “If you build it, he will come.” And he sees a vision of a baseball field in the middle of the corn. He plows under his corn and builds the field. Eventually, a group of “ghost” players from the disgraced Chicago Black Sox team of 1919 show up to play.

Yes, this is a fantasy. If you can’t get your mind around that you may as well stop here and wait for my next blog on public affairs. It is also an ode to the sport of baseball, perhaps not as popular as it once was but still the great American pastime. It is a romance guys can shed a tear over without embarrassment, for it is the story of a man’s love for his family, his sport, and his father. And it is a teacher of life’s great lessons. Don’t put off telling people what they mean to you. If you wait too long you may never get the chance. And don’t search too hard for what is important, it is probably right in front of you.

I still remember seeing my first professional baseball game. My father took the nine year old me to watch the Chicago White Sox at Comiskey Park. The Yankees were playing. I was already playing baseball at school and summer camp and I was never much of an athlete. But baseball was a game you could play at all skill levels, and later in life I still enjoyed playing whether is was an intermural game at college or a game of mixed softball between other newsroom teams in Chicago’s summer soft ball leagues.

The wonderful actor Kevin Costner, on the other hand, is a serious athlete with a special love for baseball. He is often involved with professional teams and might have been good enough to play in the majors if a little thing like his film career didn’t get in the way. He starred in three of the greatest base ball films of all time, Bull Durham and For Love of the Game as well as Field of Dreams. He played a retired baseball player in The Upside of Anger and narrated the documentary, Fastball. Costner has said he was reluctant to do Field of Dreams because he had just finished Bull Durham but changed his mind once he read the script by Phil Alden Robinson, who also directed, and W.P. Kinsella, author of the book, “Shoeless Joe” on which it is based.

But beyond Costner’s wonderful performance and the great script, there are great moments for all of the supporting players.

There is Amy Madigan, who plays Kinsella’s wife, Annie. Also a child of the sixties, as am I, she stands by Ray even as their financial situation gets more and more dire because of the baseball field occupying space needed to grow enough corn to keep the farm in business. Even as Ray reacts to a second message from the mysterious voice, “Ease His Pain.”

Little needs to be said about the presence of James Earl Jones in any film. Here the great actor plays a J. D. Salinger like character, a reclusive author, the real Salinger whose name was used in the novel reportedly objected. Jones’s “Terence Mann” acts as an expository partner for Costner’s Kinsella until the end when he delivers a monologue, that ode to baseball I talked about earlier, as worthy as any Shakespeare performance you might see. “People will come” to see the mysterious “ghost” players from years gone by to play the game they love in Ray’s field, he tells his friend.

Ray Liotta plays “Shoeless Joe Jackson,” the player from the days of the Chicago Black Sox scandal who arrives at the field first. Timothy Busfield , who plays Annie’s pain-in-the-rear brother Mark who is allied with a group of investors who want to buy the mortgage note on the farm which Ray cannot pay. Mark can’t see the players on the field of course, because Mark does not believe. There is the child actor Gaby Hoffman, who plays Ray and Annie’s daughter, Karin and tells Ray that the people who come to watch the game will gladly pay enough money to save the farm.

And then there is the legend Burt Lancaster, in what was to be his last performance. Lancaster plays a doctor loved by the people of his small town. But Dr. Archibald Graham has a secret. He once played baseball in the minor leagues and was called up to the majors on the last day of a season. He played one inning. The ball was never hit in his direction. He never got to bat and never got another chance. “Moonlight” was the nickname they gave him. He regrets never having batted, and Ray commiserates after somehow being transported back in time to meet Graham, that it was a tragedy. (Skip over the time travel thing please, I told you this is fantasy). “No,” says Moonlight, “it would have been a tragedy if I had never had a chance to become a doctor.”

These lessons are all here to be learned. And at the end, Ray realizes that his father, John, played by Dwier Brown, is the catcher on the ghost team. “He” has come. Father and son have a catch, the catch Ray never had with his father when he was still alive. The “pain” was Ray’s. And it has now been eased. There isn’t a dry eye in the house.

So watch tonight’s game. Go see the movie. Appreciate what you have. Don’t regret what you have not. Be good to your parents. And to yourselves. And to everyone you love.

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Issac Asimov at 100

I must have been eight years old. My Uncle Alan, my Dad’s older brother, had already established his expertise at “uncling” by introducing me to the Museum of Science and Industry buying me my first model train set, a Lionel Steamer, and showing me where he stashed his bottomless supply of Hershey chocolate bars.

Now he was to open up my world another notch by leading me to his stack of science fiction. The 25¢ pulp magazines of short stories, and the 50¢ paperbacks. On the top of the paperback stack was I Robot by Isaac Asimov. Right then and there began my decades long love for science fiction. Read more

Post Oscars

So. Its over. What did you think?

It wasn’t as long as some. And frankly, I didn’t miss the host. Besides, any show that begins with a trialog featuring Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph is an instant hit in my book. Why can’t we have these three host every event from this day forward? TV Shows, shareholder meetings, weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, etc. You get the idea.

Special recognition must be given to  Randy Thomas. “Never seen her,” you say? Probably not. But you’ve heard her. Ms. Thomas is the voice-over talent and announcer who for the last ten years has introduced presenters and vocally escorted winners to the stage with information about previous nominations and wins. For this hostless Oscar ceremony, Ms. Thomas was a star.

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Favorite Movies

Oscar season brings out the annual comparison of favorite movie lists and I figure we may as well play the game together. I’ve become so compulsive on this subject that when asked about my top ten I can quickly produce a list of a couple of hundred films and about fifty television series. The secret is that I’ve built a home server system to hold files from my DVD collection so I don’t have to search through boxes of discs to find a favorite when I’m in the mood.

So click the more button to see my list. This game only works if you play along.

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