In 2010’s Get Him to the Greek wiry British funnyman Russell Brand played a spoiled lush whose immature antics threatened his rock-star comeback. In the 2011’s Arthur Brand plays a spoiled lush whose immature antics threaten his billion-dollar inheritance. Greek turned out to be one of last year’s underrated comic gems; Arthur not so much. Why? The two films are wildly different to be sure but I submit that the biggest reason for the disparity in quality can be traced to one crucial distinction: Arthur is a remake and as such carries with it the acknowledged lack of creativity inherent in just about every remake not directed by the Coen Brothers.
And Arthur does what most bad remakes seem to do dropping what’s essential about the original film keeping what isn’t and wrapping it all up in a glossy generic heavily-promoted package. The storyline is essentially unchanged – to retain access to his family’s vast fortune perpetually inebriated playboy Arthur Bach (Brand) is arranged to marry a respectable woman he disdains (Jennifer Garner) but he jeopardizes his inheritance by falling for a girl of humble means (Greta Gerwig). Much of the soul and charm of the original film are gone however sacrificed for a succession of canned comic scenarios that probably seemed funny in brainstorming sessions (Russell Brand in a Batman costume? Hilarious!) but are considerably less so when rendered on-screen.
But hey – all the characters’ names are the same! And they’ve all been updated with contrived tweaks that these days passes for invention! Arthur’s acerbic English butler Hobson is now an acerbic English nanny (Helen Mirren); his African-American chauffer Bitterman is now a Puerto Rican-American (Luis Guzman); his betrothed Susan Johnson (Garner) formerly a dainty debutante is now a pugnacious high-powered executive; etc. Brand for his part has little hope of measuring up to Dudley Moore who scored an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the title character in the original. He does get a few choice lines and he manages to conjure a respectable romantic spark with the luminous Gerwig (trying her best with a character conceived as little more than an assortment of manufactured quirks) but his talents appear severely constrained by a script that can do little more than dress him up in zany outfits and hope for the best.
Writer/director John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck) adapts his Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winning play Doubt for the big screen keeping all the themes that made the original work such a hit on stage. Set in 1964 the film version opens up much of the talky proceedings and sets the action in a wind-swept Brooklyn Catholic school where Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is trying to shake up the status quo and introduce a little more free thinking. These actions cause instant friction with the stern Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) who immediately butts heads with Flynn. Significant change already is taking place as the school has admitted its first black student Donald Miller (Joseph Foster). When mild-mannered Sister James (Amy Adams) suggests that perhaps Father Flynn is spending too much personal time with Donald it sets Sister Aloysius off on an ill-considered crusade to get rid of Flynn triggering a battle of morals will and yes doubt in the minds of both the characters and the audience. Rather than casting some of his Tony-winning actors from the play Shanley decided he wanted a blank slate bringing in a new interpretation to the material. Obvious choice for the taciturn Sister Aloysius is Meryl Streep who using a slight Brooklyn accent convincingly tears into the role that won acclaimed actress Cherry Jones a Tony. Streep plays it broadly and the onscreen fireworks between her and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Flynn are indeed spectacular. Acting just doesn’t get much better than this particularly for Hoffman who is amazing as the charismatic priest walking the thin line between personal conviction and guilt. Adams doesn’t really get the big scenes but portrays Sister James’ hopeful innocence and naiveté with just the right amount of sugar -- not too sweet not too dark. Top honors in the cast go to Viola Davis as Donald Miller’s mother. Taking what is essentially a 10 minute role Davis will tear your heart out as she desperately pleads with Streep to let Donald stay in school. John Patrick Shanley clearly has a personal stake in this material and returns to directing for the first time since his ill-fated Joe vs. the Volcano in the early ‘90s. He seems much more at home with this more intimate piece casting it smartly and using the weather --including the use of a haunting rustling wind -- as a key part of the background ambience. Doubt is exactly the kind of traditional Broadway adaptation Hollywood used to do so well particularly in the ‘50s and ‘60s and Shanley smartly doesn’t try to muck it up with any flashy filmmaking tricks. He lets his quartet of superior actors do most of the work turning Doubt into one of the best stage adaptations in many many years.
Based on the popular children’s book by Jeanne DuPrau City of Ember is really a cautionary tale: Don’t build an underground city as a refuge for humanity against the threat of a world gone mad and forget to tell its denizens that their city will fall apart after 200 years. To be fair the original “Builders” of Ember tried to set up an exit strategy but didn’t account for the possibility of human error. Thus when the deadline comes the current Ember-ites have no idea why their giant generator powering the whole city is failing. Although he is supposed to know The Mayor (Bill Murray) has no clue--and frankly doesn’t care that much since he has his own exit strategy. The only ones extremely concerned are teens Doon (Harry Treadaway) and Lina (Saoirse Ronan) who discover an ancient document and end up racing against the clock following the clues they hope will lead them--and the rest of the people of Ember--to safety beyond their doomed city. Irish actress Saoirse Ronan best known for her amazingly sophisticated Oscar-nominated performance in Atonement has a face the camera loves. With wide expressive eyes and deep concentration she makes City of Ember that much more compelling simply by the way her face registers a moment. You can tell what she’s thinking without her ever saying a word. She’s quite something. Treadaway (Control) isn’t nearly as effective but he fits the action-hero shoes well. Murray seems to be up to his I-hate-kids tricks (shades of W.C. Fields) but has fun with his vain Mayor. But most of the other adults are somewhat wasted including Toby Jones as the Mayor’s henchman; Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Lina’s ally; Martin Landau as an old laborer who works in the city’s pipes; and finally Tim Robbins as Doon’s inventor dad. They all have the makings to be interesting characters but there’s just not enough about them on screen. I suppose reading the book would help. Director Gil Kenan is a still a kid at heart it’s easy to see. Having made his directorial debut with the visually stunning Monster House he moves into familiar territory with City of Ember tackling the live-action milieu this time around. The city itself is fantastic to look at from the millions of overhead street lights illuminating Ember to Lina’s yarn-filled apartment where she lives to even the smallest details such as a door knob. Kenan takes you down deep into this underground mecca to the point you almost feel claustrophobic. City of Ember certainly isn’t a flick for the younger audiences either with dark scary things lurking in the Pipeworks of the city. Kenan however isn’t quite savvy enough yet to elicit good performances from his actors which is where City of Ember falters a bit--save for Ronan; Kenan just lucked out with her. No matter this adaptation is about the visuals and the thrill of escaping from City of Ember and it delivers the goods on all accounts.