Wednesday, April 13, 2011

THE PROBLEM WITH REMAKES


I had so hoped that the remake of ARTHUR would be better than it is. I like Russell Brand a lot, and still believe he can be a movie star, but this misbegotten remake does him few favors. As I sat watching it, mostly looked at my watch hoping that it would soon be over, I actually started to get very angry. This woefully unfunny romp makes so many mistakes, from keeping Arthur an alcoholic, unbelievable in this day and age, to making manservant Hobson now Arthur’s nanny, that it made my head spin. Remakes are always a crapshoot, but why did this get shot and end up so crappy?

Remakes are always a mixed bag. For every OCEAN’S ELEVEN (2001) or THE FLY (1986) that is infinitely superior to the original, you get a god-awful re-do like THE STEPFORD WIVES (2004) or THE PLANET OF THE APES (2001) that makes the originals seem like masterpieces. Of course so many remakes are made because it’s easier for Hollywood to sell an audience on a title that they’re familiar with. But therein lies the problem. A movie that most people have heard of was probably a hit, and more than likely a movie that is a hit is also a pretty good one. To remake something that has a good reputation already is just asking for trouble. 

The original ARTHUR (1981) was a big commercial success and even netted a couple of Academy Awards, so why remake it? Is alcoholism funnier today than it was thirty years ago? The answer to that is obvious. Is there any part of Russell Brand’s persona that is analogous to the idealistic naiveté of Dudley Moore’s? Quite the contrary, Brand looks like he could give the devil himself a few pointers on debauchery. (I think Brand should play a Bond villain. Now that I’d believe him in!) And is the story of a spoiled billionaire sure to resonate in a down economy? Hell no! This remake was made without proper consideration of the components at play. And it fails utterly.

For my money, I think there is only one reason to greenlight a remake. It’s not to introduce a new audience to the material. And it’s not to cash in on a known property. It should only be done if the original wasn’t particularly good.

When I think of the best remakes, they are invariably the ones that had rather cheesy predecessors. Or movies that at best rated a “Meh.” The production values and cast of the original INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956) were strictly those of a cheapie B movie. The 1978 remake was a sprawling and expensive production with an A list cast headed by Donald Sutherland. 1951’s THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD was another B movie that could only be sharpened by an A+ remake. The original had terribly cheap special effects and an embarrassed looking James Arness (a few years before he’d become Marshall Dillon in GUNSMOKE) portraying the alien in giant head make-up and a shiny tunic. So when John Carpenter remade it in 1982 as THE THING, not only was he able to bring expensive state-of-the-art make-up and special effects to the production, he chose a superb cast of character actors to make it believable, including Kurt Russell, Richard Dysart, Keith David, Wilford Brimley and Richard Masur.

It’s easy to remake a cheesy horror movie. It’s also a lot easier to make a superior remake when the original just didn’t mesh with the public. Bad casting can often be blamed for an audience not responding to the story being told. If you don’t believe the people saying the words, you’re not going to buy any facet of it, no matter how much time and money was spent. Steve McQueen was no one’s idea of a businessman in a three-piece suit when he played the elegant thief in THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR in 1968. But an actor like Pierce Brosnan looked like he was born on Savile Row and therefore helped make that 1999 remake of CROWN so much more believable. 

There has yet to be a definitive screen rendering of the classic novel THE GREAT GATSBY mostly due to the fact that previous film versions, starring Alan Ladd and Robert Redford respectively, suffered from their leading men being wrong for the role of Gatsby. Both were far too patrician to play the dark and desperate outsider, and also way too old. Let’s hope that Baz Luhrman, in his remake scheduled to start shooting this year, gets the casting right. With Leonardo DiCaprio set to play Gatsby it appears to already be a step in the right direction.

The next two calendar years will supposedly see releases of over two dozen remakes including: AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, CHILD’S PLAY, FOOTLOOSE, EXCALIBUR, FRANKENSTEIN, FRIGHT NIGHT, THE THREE MUSKETEERS, THE WARRIORS, TOTAL RECALL, and TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY. All of those originals were pretty darn good, so the odds are against them. Let’s hope Hollywood gets lucky and makes the gamble worth everyone’s time. Particularly the audience.

I’d love to hear what you thought was a good remake and why, so please share your picks with all of us here and keep the discussion going!

11 comments:

  1. Ha! And thanks for the warning!

    I thought the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with Donald Sutherland was mesmerizing, although I never saw the original. I doubt the original could have been better than the remake. And the 1991 remake of Cape Fear was much better than the original in my opinion.

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  2. "Heaven Can Wait" was wonderful....Remake of "Here Comes Mr Jordan".

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  3. Well said, the both of you! I've already discussed BODY SNATCHERS up top. CAPE FEAR was a definite improvement over the rather staid original. And HEAVEN CAN WAIT, well, we know how you feel about Mr. Beatty, Christine, and I wholeheartedly agree with you. His remake was one of the best ever!

    Anyone else?

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  4. One exception to the rule might be the remake of THE SHINING. A great original, to be sure. But Stephen King did not think the film reflected his novel.

    Published material on his thinking, though, is sketchy. It seems that when he started speaking out, his attorneys reminded him that his contract did not allow him to say anything negative about the movie.

    He did, however, facilitate a remake of his own via an ABC mini series that got mixed reviews. One thing was certain: The original novel was way too long to tell in a single feature. It needed a six hour mini series to cover all the bases.

    More of the story is told on this salon.com article:

    http://www.salon.com/april97/shining970425.html

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  5. Welcome back, Mr. Mullen. We've missed you. I am a fan of the book and the movie version of THE SHINING. Kubrick certainly took liberties with the text, much to King's displeasure. But I thought the TV mini-series he endorsed mostly paled in comparison to the theatrical release he took issue with. Thanks for the link, too. It's a fascinating story.

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  6. I went to see the 2010 film LET ME IN fully prepared not to like this American remake of the 2008 Swedish film LET THE RIGHT ONE IN about a bullied 12-year-old boy who befriends, and comes to love, a vampire girl. I already loved the restrained and thoughtful original, and thought I could not possibly like any over-the-top remake amplified for American tastes. As you said above, “To remake something that has a good reputation already is just asking for trouble.”

    How shocked was I when I found I liked this film as much as the original! LET ME IN does three things extremely well:

    1) It pays loving homage to the original. Most scenes (which are not in exact sequence) can easily be traced to the original, so you can truly appreciate how it was redone. Sometimes the dialogue is spot-on from the original, other times not. Many of the lines are quite recognizable to those familiar with the first version.

    2) Almost every scene has just enough of a twist or a change from the original that fans will marvel at the creative ways found to alter the foreign version. Most of the remake was filmed just as thoughtfully as the first, but with enough (minor) differences to avoid feeling like you are watching a complete re-tread. It is still similar enough that as a fan, you can easily follow the original plot.

    3) The casting of the two leads was perfect, even the second time around. The innocent, inwardly tortured faces of Oskar/Owen were paired with the quiet, haunted faces of Eli/Abby perfectly in both versions. Their blossoming relationship handled just as lovingly here too.

    The two main characters’ names change, the snowy New Mexico terrain replaced the original Swedish landscape, but both films remain firmly rooted in the 1980’s.

    I was pleased that in many of the new scenes they usually held back from over-aggressive action or excessive noise, and let it be as subtle as the original. LET ME IN was often just as gentle and tender and reflective as the foreign version. But not entirely, which leads to my very few criticisms:

    1) The Linda Blair/Exorcist-style facial makeover when you briefly saw Abby chomping away in close-up wasn't needed, the original handled it much better. Eli’s bloodied face and clothes were more than enough in the original to make the point.

    2) For such an intelligent horror film, several times there was simply a little too much blood, guts and gore when the victims were getting attacked. The stilted special effects when Abby was leaping into the air were peculiar. The original film handled it with just enough blood and muted action to get the point across. Fortunately these missteps were very brief.

    I can't truly say whether I liked LET THE RIGHT ONE IN or LET ME IN better; I emotionally connected with both of them. With and without subtitles. That’s a successful remake!

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  7. Wow, Fan With No Name! What a thorough and persuasive case you make. I too liked LET ME IN as well and thought it was a very well-done remake of the best horror movie of the last decade. (In my opinion, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN was not only the best of the last decade, but also one of the greatest horror movies of all time. It's just extraordinary.) Great points across the board, Fan. One of the best posts ever. But then your posts are always the most considered and detailed. Thanks so much for following.

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  8. I thought surely a remake of North by Northwest would be a cool plot to bring to the modern era. But then I realized, wait a minute...it's been done already with the "Bourne" franchise. Even when there isn't a direct re-make of a film, there's a lot of plot-borrowing and plot blending going on. Didn't somebody once say there are only 7 basic plots in storytelling?

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  9. Adam, thanks for posting! And it sure is true how much influence that the film NORTH BY NORTHWEST has had in the movies. It was really the first non-stop breathless adventure Hollywood ever did, and Ernest Lehman's script, along with Alfred Hitchcock's brilliant production of it, has influenced countless screenwriters and filmmakers since then. Everyone from the likes of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas with their movie RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK to the intrepid BOURNE series. They all owe a huge debt to that 1959 classic with the non-sense title.

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  10. The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Thing From Another World are masterpieces recognized as such by respected critics and true fans of the genre. The remakes only improve upon them on strictly cosmetic basis; on every other level, they are woefully inferior. I frankly doubt, based on his comments, that York has actually bothered to watch the original films

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  11. Anonymous, thanks for sharing your comment. All opinions are welcome, even those that disagree with me. Even those that call me by my last name in an attempt to belittle. But you don't know your film history if you think that the remakes of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS or THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD are regarded as woefully inferior to their predecessors. Look up any list online by any critics group or collection of sci-fi experts and you'll likely find Philip Kaufman's 1978 remake and John Carpenter's 1982 take on THE THING included in the discussion and ranked high in the ratings. For example, SciFi Online rates Carpenter's film #23 amongst its picks for the 100 greatest sci-fi movies of all time and Kaufman's film is rated #26 there. That same poll puts your preferred BODY SNATCHERS at #56 and the original THE THING FROM ANOTHER PLANET doesn't even make the cut. In the UK's Total Film list of the 50 greatest sci-fi movies of all time, Carpenter's THE THING rates at #16 while Kaufman's BODY SNATCHERS is #21. True, both of the originals you adore make it on many lists too. But to dismiss the modern versions as merely improving upon them cosmetically is simply not true. Check out their scores on Rotten Tomatoes or IMDB and you'll see that most fans of horror and sci-fi rate these remakes highly. And they are regarded so not only because of their superior production values.

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