I once had the idea of doing a weekly movie review. This would have been unlike standard reviews, because I would not write about the movies in question. I would start with the name and premise of the new movie, but then let myself become distracted by the larger theme. The subtle and comedic idea (these words are relative) would be that the movie must be so bad it wasn’t worth seeing.
But I couldn’t bring myself to it, because the idea required me to pay attention to new movies. After one or two failed attempts, the realization that most new movies were worse than I had imagined discouraged me.
I was reminded of this when I saw the trailer for the remake of Going In Style. If one had to use one word to describe it, that word would be awful. But it was awful in an instructive way.
The original (spoiler alert!) had George Burns at his magnificent best, Art Carney underplaying with intent, and Lee Strasberg looking like he never could have been young. The trio share a (real!) apartment in Astoria, Queens. Except for Carney, they are without family. They spend the endless summers sitting on a park bench waiting for the inevitable. The highlights of the day see Carney crossing his leg to find ease and brushing a speck of dust from his jacket.
Burns, for the sole reason of excitement and the realization that if they were caught their lives could not worsen, proposes robbing a bank. Strasberg warns that they could get shot. Burns answers, “What’s the difference?”, and Carney somewhat exasperated echoes, “Yeah, Willie. What’s the difference?”
After a brief reconnoitre in the city (all New Yorkers call lower Manhattan “The city”) and the purchase of Groucho-glasses for disguise, the sounding furrows are smited and the robbery, which is somewhat sloppy, occurs. The men come alive again. Strasberg sheds forty years; he even giggles.
But the next day, after hiding their moderate haul (about thirty-five thousand) with Carney’s nephew (who knows nothing of the heist), Strasberg dies of a heart attack sitting on that same park bench. Burns and Carney agree to pretend Strasberg left a twenty-five thousand life insurance policy and to give it to Carney’s nephew, who with his family, including an adorable little girl who acts as real little girls act and who is only on screen for a few minutes, is struggling.
On a lark, Burns and Carney head to Vegas, to live it up just once more. They hit a lucky streak, winning more than double what they stole. Worried they might themselves be robbed, they head back to New York on a late night flight. Back in their apartment, Carney, exhausted, goes to sleep. Burns dozes in a chair, but awakens early to hear on the radio the police are closing in on the daring bank robbers. Burns tries to wake Carney, but he has passed away in the night.
Burns brings the Vegas winnings to Carney’s nephew and takes him into his confidence, telling him of his uncle’s death. Burns returns home and in the movie’s most poignant moment, takes down some old photographs, which include one of his real-life wife Gracie Allen who was then deceased. Brought to tears over the memories, Burns becomes incontinent. While in the bathroom to clean himself, he realizes he has become in old age what he was in young age.
As Burns prepares for the funeral next morning, he is arrested. He admits the robbery, but claims to have buried the money and refuses to say where.
The closing scene has Carney’s nephew visiting Burns in prison, advising him that things would be easier if he were to return the loot. Burns refuses, knowing life outside could not be worse than inside. As the guard escorts him away, Burns tells the nephew not to worry, tips him a wink and says, “Besides, no tinhorn joint like this could ever hold me.” The screen fades as Burns walks beyond the sunset.
My description has not done the movie justice; it would be better to watch it yourself. Do so before watching the trailer for the remake.
The remake has done us one service: everything that is wrong with modern movies is in that trailer. Old movies had to, or were forced to, or anyway did focus on story, requiring a narrative to drive the film forward. Most modern movies rely on “sequences” that are stitched together. (Too many more are “message” or purposely depressing movies, which bore with certainty.)
Much modern movie making must happen like the following. The producers and directors sit around spitballing and say things like, “Wouldn’t it be cool,” or funny or sad or whatever, “if this happened?” “Yes, that would be cool/funny/sad,” comes the reply. These cool-funny-sad sequences are gathered, the costs of simulating them on a computer or filming them are calculated, the affordable ones are kept and the rest discarded.
Then the big question: “Now that that’s done, how do we put them together?” That’s when the writers must be brought in, to do the thankless and forlorn task of making an edible stew from incongruous ingredients.
If the movie is an “action” movie, a.k.a. cartoon (live action or animated), the sequences are filled with impossible reactions, strings of impossible escapes, and impossible physics. Not one or two impossibilities, but many in rapid-fire succession piled atop one another so there is no time to think about what you just saw was impossible. The result is less gripping than watching somebody play a video game. You never care about anybody, and all you can recall is if this or that sequence was cool.
If the movie is a comedy, as is the Going in Style remake, sight gags and punchlines go in search of situations that might make sense in the loose plot. If a joke is thought funny, the plot is stretched, even past the snapping point. No matter what, the movie is juiced, cramming in as many laughs-per-minute and silly elements as possible.
I admit I am only going by the trailer, but it is clear the remake is a modern movie.
The three old men now live in what Hollywood imagines a Queens apartment looks like: clean and bright, and in reality beyond the means of Social Security. There is no sense three old men, or indeed anybody, actually lives there. The park bench has been replaced by three comfortable seats in front of a huge television (a worse slow death).
In a George Lucas-type move where Han no longer shoots first, the new director has the bank ripping off one of the old men, Michael Caine, giving Caine motive for revenge. As he is in the bank learning of his plight, three men wearing cool masks and cool guns and with ninja cool moves (what a sequence!) rob the bank, giving Caine inspiration. Caine is heard to say, “These banks have practically destroyed this country, and nothing ever happens to them” (a true enough line).
That Caine was cheated on his mortgage is not sufficient motive, however. An evil corporation next tells Morgan Freeman his pension has dissolved. The description of the plot issued by the studio suggests the men are reduced to eating dog food, which is surely no less expensive than people food, yet they are always shown spending money in diners. Alan Arkin at last says “I wanna rob that bank” that ripped us off.
Next comes the cool sequence of the old men using their smart phones to surreptitiously film the bank’s security systems. There is a suggestion the families of the old men play a much larger part in this movie, adding the schmaltz and precociousness that is de rigueur when kids are shown.
Does the robbery come next? No. Who wants to jump right in to a bank robbery when we can instead have the cool and hilarious sequence of the men having a practice robbery of a grocery store? Ann Margret shows up to spill a few sex jokes, because sex jokes from a wrinkled old lady are always hilarious. The grocery store heist goes hilariously awry, and it allows for the hilarious sequence of two men escaping on an electric wheel chair.
Does the robbery come next? No. Who wants to jump right in to a bank robbery with old men, when we can instead have the hilarious sequence and comedic elements of the old men enlisting real hardened criminals to lay out a cool bank-robbing plan? Incidentally, the bank being robbed is not in the city, but is now in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which is hipper and cooler.
I have no inside information, but I’d bet good money that none of the old men croaks, unless it is to mimic a frog in some hilarious sequence, that the bank managers get their comeuppance in a hilarious way, that the hardened criminals are blamed for the heist in a hilarious and action-packed sequence, that there are adorable and precocious kids romping through money given to their cool charity by the old men, and that the three men ride off into the sunset in some way which bespeaks of vast amounts of money being spent on their conveyance. (After the movie is released, and if you see it, check back here to verify these predictions.)
Since all three men are (it’s true) great actors, there are bound to be some funny lines (especially from Arkin), but a few laughs will be all that anybody remembers.
And that is what makes a modern movie.