Monday, October 7, 2013

Things Americans Do Badly: Remakes and Re-Imaginings of Films and TV Series

Last night I was up past my bedtime watching Let The Right One In on SBS2. It's a Swedish film about the friendship between two twelve-year-olds, one a bullying victim and the other a vampire. (It's a silly premise, but a surprisingly good film.) My main reason for watching it was because the previous night SBSONE had screened Let Me In, the American remake. Apart from relocating the setting from the suburbs of Stockholm to Los Alamos in northern New Mexico, the plot was pretty-much identical.

At the end I returned my TV to its default setting, ABC1. They were showing The Magnificent Seven, which is a remake of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. Again, apart from relocating the setting from 16th-century Japan to the 19th-century Wild West (with the necessary technological adjustments, of course), they're essentially the same film.

So the question arose: why does the American film and television industry do so many remakes?

You could make the case that where a story is so good it deserves to be retold every decade or so. There's Leo Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina. So many film adaptations of it have been done that "she throws herself under a train" doesn't need to be prefaced with "spoiler alert". Over the years Greta Garbo, Vivien Leigh, Tatiana Samoilova, Jacqueline Bisset, Sophie Marceau and Keira Knightley have starred in the title role. But it's a literary classic, not some hack screenplay.

One possible explanation proposed by Sofie Gråbøl, star of the Danish TV series Forbrydelsen, is that the American audience won’t read subtitles. Which is why her show had to be relocated from Denmark to the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. and remade as The Killing. And why Stephen Soderbergh felt the need to do a pale imitation of Andrei Tarkovsky's masterpiece Solaris, I guess. ("But it's got George Clooney in it!", I hear you whine.) And I'll throw in the remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which apart from Daniel Craig's star-power and a couple of minor plot variations added nothing to the original.

Another possible explanation, related but worse, is that Americans can't cope with stories that don't involve their own culture. Moving more into re-imagining territory now, there's the Australian man-in-a-dog-suit yarn Wilfred. The American version starred Elijah Wood and had much higher production values, but it completely lost the charm of the original.

Hollywood wasn't finished with Australia there. No, they had to do re-imaginings of Rake and The Slap. These are, respectively, such archetypal Sydney and Melbourne stories that it's hard to envisage them not losing almost everything in translation. But that hasn't stopped Hollywood before. Two words (and an ampersand): Kath & Kim.

The Brits have been subjected to the same indignity. The accents, slang and customs of a Manchester housing estate were apparently so hard for Americans to deal with that Shameless had to be relocated to Chicago. I haven't seen the U.S. version and hold some hope for it because of the presence of William H. Macy as the central character Frank Gallagher. He's good at playing men in hopeless situations, such as Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo and Donnie Smith in Magnolia. (Now there are a couple of well-made, original American films. More, please!)

Then there was the U.S. version of the British series Skins, which got canned after one season because it included sex scenes involving under-18s and was thus, by American standards, child pornography. Geezus, Yanks: teenagers root - like rabbits, given half a chance. Get over it!

But the Americans saved the very worst for the Germans. In what can only be interpreted as an act of revenge for the Battle of the Bulge, they took the Wim Wenders classic Wings Of Desire and re-imagined it, possibly with the aid of strong illegal drugs, into City Of Angels. (And by "re-imagined" I mean "utterly and irreparably mangled".) Visually it's spectacular - bright, sunny L.A. ("City of the Angels" - get it?) versus the grey, overcast Berlin of the original - but, like the city in which it's set, it tries to compensate for what it lacks in soul with tear-jerking fake emotion.

Finally: one thing at which Americans are particularly poor, is pretending to be non-Americans. Witness Steve Martin's attempt at "rebooting" the Pink Panther "franchise". (I'm quoting from the Wikipedia page.) By the time he'd made the same mistake twice it was more like a kicking-to-death than a "rebooting". Or maybe an act of stamping on Peter Sellers's grave.

Speaking of whom:

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Fact-Checking The Fact-Checkers, Part 2

There's a popular saying in the poultry industry (and elsewhere): "don't count your chickens before they're hatched". Andrew Robb, shadow Finance spokesman, and PolitiFact didn't follow that advice, with the inevitable result: egg all over their counting fingers.

PolitiFact bravely asserts: Government revenues are "up 7 per cent" despite the budget deficit. This refers to an email newsletter sent by Robb on 7th May 2013, a week before the Budget. The figures in the email were based on the data contained in the 2012-13 Budget Papers, specifically Statement 10: Historical Australian Government Data (Table 2).

This stated that taxation receipts were estimated to be $309.7 billion in 2011-12 and $343.1 billion in 2012-13, in other words an increase of 10.8%. (Or "around 11%", according to their decimal-place-hating calculator.) PolitiFact then adjusted the latter figure downward by $12 billion to take into account the then-current guesstimate of the revenue shortfall.

So they got a revised figure $331.1 billion, which represents a 6.9% increase. (Near enough to 7%, I guess. What's 0.1% here or there? About $300 million in this context, but hey - it's not real money!)

The problem was that as of 7th May 2013, the date of Robb's newsletter, he was working with old figures: the estimates from the 2012-13 Budget delivered on 8th May 2012. And some plucked-from-whichever-orifice guess at how much the revenue shortfall had been in the meantime.

So... fast-forward a week to yer actual 2013-14 Budget delivered last night, 14th May 2013. This year's model of Statement 10: Historical Australian Government Data (Table 2) is presented. It shows that actual taxation receipts in 2011-12 were $309.9 billion, and they were estimated to be $326.3 billion in 2012-13.

That's a 5.3% increase - and a shortfall of $16.8 billion compared to the 2012-13 Budget estimate. In other words, 40% more than the $12 billion pick-a-number-any-number.

When you're a week out from the Budget, why not just wait until the actual numbers are right in front of you? It saves cleaning up all that messy yolk afterwards.

5.3/7.0 = 75.7%, so I rate PolitiFact's article "75.7% true".

Monday, May 13, 2013

Who Fact-Checks The Fact-Checkers?

So now there is an Australian version of the PolitiFact website. Unfortunately they seem to have gotten off to a shaky start.

Here's their first article. It questions a claim made on a page on the Labor Party's website that
Labor has delivered strong protections for conditions like overtime and penalty rates that can’t be stripped away.

The claim that those conditions "can't be stripped away" is false. Laws can and do get created, modified and repealed all the time. It's what Parliaments do for a living. So, for stating a bald fact at least, PolitiFact gets one point.

That was the first of three links on PolitiFact's page. The second links to a media release from August 2011 by Senator Chris Evans, the then-Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations. From it, they quote the following:
The Labor Government introduced National Employment Standards and modern awards that can’t be stripped away, including penalty rates for working weekends, late nights, public holidays and overtime pay.
So far, so good. Now we know where the "can't be stripped away" claim comes from. However, in the next paragraph Evans says:
Tony Abbott has a simple choice: he must either immediately rule out any changes to National Employment Standards and modern awards or admit that the Coalition’s policy is in fact to allow basic entitlements like penalty rates to be cut.
That paragraph contradicts the preceding one. It implies that the entitlements can be stripped away by, for example, a suitably villainous conservative government.

So which is worse: Evans' contradiction, or PolitiFact quoting him out of context by omitting the second paragraph? Weighing up the former against the latter, I'm awarding them half a point.

Then it gets worse. The third and last link is to a speech made by Dave Oliver to the National Press Club on 6th February 2013. PolitiFact reports him as saying:
The Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary, Dave Oliver, declared weekend penalty rates were locked in "forever".
Err, nooo, he didn't say that at all. What he said was:
That’s why we’ll be asking the government to enshrine penalty rates for weekend work - in legislation, to protect it forever.
That is flat-out misrepresentation. Deliberate or accidental, I don't know - but it was either ignored or missed by whatever internal fact-checking system PolitiFact have in place.

Giving them the benefit of a doubt and assuming it wasn't intentional, I'll deduct just half a point. With a bonus stern wag of the finger and an admonishment for not checking, well, their facts.

So, with a final score of 1/3 I'm awarding them a 'Whooops!'.