I Am DB

October 25, 2013

Grappling with the Remake 2: Grappling Harder

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 3:45 pm
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A couple of months ago I wrote about Hollywood’s bad habit of making unnecessary sequels. Not long after, I wrote about another bad Hollywood habit: its obsession with remakes. Now I’m writing a Part II to the remake piece, and perhaps some of you, after reading/skimming/skipping the initial post, will deem this an unnecessary sequel. But with all the remakes in the works, I thought it worthwhile to take a closer look at some of them, and it seemed like that would be better suited to its own post. So here is my sequel to my post about remakes. I might have officially become the thing I loathe. Oh, the humanity.

First, I want to mention last week’s release of Carrie, a remake I discussed in Part I. Despite a robust marketing campaign that included heavy promotion during thematically appropriate shows like The Walking Dead, and despite the proximity to Halloween, the new version of Brian De Palma’s horror classic (based on Stephen King’s novel) didn’t make much of an impression. Reviews were mostly negative and the box office was disappointing. I suspect that will be the case with many of these if they see the light of day, as it has been with so many before. But Hollywood doesn’t seem to get the message. So what follows is a rundown of several remakes currently in development. More than a mere list of projects though, you also get my thoughts on whether the remake is a good idea or a bad. That’s the sort of thoughtful, expert analysis you’re paying for as a subscriber to this blog.

What do you mean you’re not paying for this?

To properly rate the “remakability” of these movies, I’ve created a system of measurement. In another recent post, Movie Mixtape #1, the 1985 Richard Pryor movie Brewster’s Millions was discussed, and my friend Brantley pointed out that it had been made seven times prior to Pryor. With that in mind, the following remakes in development are rated on The Brewster Scale, with one Brewster indicating that the remake is a terrible idea, and five Brewsters meaning the movie is a prime candidate for another try.

Let’s see what we’ve got…

ALL OF ME (1984, Director: Carl Reiner)
Steve Martin’s work as a lawyer who loses control of the right side of his body to the consciousness of a wealthy, dying woman (Lily Tomlin) is often referenced as one of the greatest performances of physical comedy ever. The proposed twist for the remake is to switch the genders, with a woman becoming partly overtaken by a man’s soul. Enough reason for a re-do? Not really. It might provide a nice showcase for a comedic actress, but how refreshing it would be if Hollywood studios and screenwriters took up the challenge of writing an original piece that offers such a showcase, instead of lazily adapting an existing property that stars two comedy icons.

Remakability:

X

BEN-HUR (1959, Director: William Wyler)
One of the greatest cinematic epics of all time. Winner of 11 Academy Awards. An undisputed Hollywood classic. So let’s take another crack at it, shall we? I mentioned in Part I that the Charlton Heston film was not the first adaptation of the 1880 novel about the Christ figure Judah Ben-Hur; it was previously filmed in 1925 and 1907 (the latter being a 15 minute short focusing mainly on the chariot race). But Wyler’s version is certainly the definitive take, and I’m not sure why anybody would try to out-do it. Remember the 2010 TV miniseries adaptation that aired on ABC? No, of course you don’t. A similar fate likely awaits whatever new version attempts to top Wyler’s. But plans are moving forward. Just yesterday, it was announced that John Ridley, who wrote the script for the rapturously reviewed new movie 12 Years a Slave, will handle scripting duties on Ben-Hur, which will be more faithful to the original book than Wyler’s movie. Yeah…we hear that justification all the time. Rarely does it prove true. To really put the absurdity of this remake in perspective though, look at who’s been hired to direct it. Timur Bekmambetov, whose hyperkinetic classics include the Angelina Jolie action flick Wanted, and last year’s Oscar winning biopic Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Do yourself a favor: read the first paragraph of New Yorker critic Anthony Lane’s review of Wanted. In one short paragraph, he brilliantly encapsulates Bekmambetov’s bombastic style. This is the guy that MGM has chosen to take on William Wyler. Facepalm.

Remakability:

X

THE BLACK HOLE (1979, Director: Gary Nelson)
After Star Wars exploded, every producer and studio in Hollywood wanted a slice of the sci-fi pie, and Disney’s contribution was this cheesy but effectively creepy tale about a scientist aboard a vessel thought to be missing, who plans to conduct an experiment by taking the ship into a black hole. The cast included Maximilian Schell, Anthony Perkins, Robert Forster and Ernest Borgnine, but what I remember most from seeing the movie as a kid are the robots: the R2-D2-esque V.I.N.CENT and the foreboding Maximilian. The Black Hole was an interesting venture for Walt Disney Pictures. No other film they’d produced had depicted human deaths or any sort of profanity, and because this featured both, it became the studio’s first PG movie. Yet it was still a Disney film, so it couldn’t push the darker elements of the story as far as they might have gone. Joseph Kosinski, the director of Tron: Legacy and Oblivion, is attached to the remake, which is being written by Prometheus co-writer Jon Spaihts. Kosinski’s impressive visual sensibility, combined with the freedom to explore and indulge the sinister side of the original, makes The Black Hole a rare specimen that could benefit from a new version.

Remakability:

X

THE BODYGUARD (1992, Director: Mick Jackson)
The original film has a firm place in popular culture, though probably due more to Whitney Houston’s soundtrack — powered by the chart-topping phenomenon “I Will Always Love You” — than to the movie itself, which was poorly reviewed. It was a big hit, earning $121 million in the U.S., but much of that was likely due to timing. Kevin Costner was still such a huge star at the time that even the haircut everyone hated couldn’t trim their enthusiasm, and Houston hadn’t yet begun her decline into drugs and bad behavior. The movie surely has a lot of fans who remember it fondly from their teenage years, but a remake could potentially improve on the story. Apparently the protector in this version will be an Iraq war veteran, and the plot will involve internet stalking. Put Channing Tatum in this thing and you might just have something.

Remakability:

X

THE CANNONBALL RUN (1981, Director: Hal Needham)
While it absolutely holds a special place in my memories of childhood, this comedy about a cross-country car race isn’t exactly hallowed ground. However I’m fervently opposed to this remake as it was originally conceived back in 2011 because it was essentially intended as a feature-length commercial for General Motors. There hasn’t been any news about the project since then, and if it is still in development, it’s possible that the parameters of the deal have evolved and that GM is no longer financing it. Still, the original film has such a great, fun cast — Burt Reynolds, Dom DeLuise, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Jackie Chan, Roger Moore, Farrah Fawcett, Jack Elam…can the movie’s charm be reproduced? It’s been a long time since we’ve had a star-packed, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World type of film. It would be nice to see a new one that does its job well, but it better be more than a prolonged advertisement.

Remakability:

X

CLUE (1985, Director: Jonathan Lynn)
A cult comedy classic based on the Parker Brothers board game (my personal favorite of all the boarded games, sorry Sorry!), the original is a dumb comedy, but a hilarious dumb comedy. Its sensational cast remains impressive, with Christopher Lloyd, Tim Curry, Martin Mull, Lesley Ann Warren, Michael McKean and the dear departed Eileen Brennan and Madeline Kahn all clicking superbly. C’mon, do you really think you can compete with this?

Efforts to develop this remake are headed up by Gore Verbinski, the director of Pirates of the Caribbean, Rango and The Lone Ranger. And despite the whole premise of Clue involving a murder mystery in a large mansion, one of Verbinski’s producing partners seems to envision it as “a global thriller and transmedia event that uses deductive reasoning as its storytelling engine.” I don’t even know what that means, but I know it’s not Clue. File this one under the Battleship Syndrome: exploiting a familiar property for name recognition but doing something that in fact has nothing to do with that property or what people enjoy about it. If someone wants to bring Clue back to the screen, they should try adapting the Steven Millhauser short story “A Game of Clue”, which moves between a family playing the game and the characters inside the game, with each group experiencing tension and conflict (including Col. Mustard’s attempted seduction of Miss Scarlet). I didn’t actually love the details of that story, but I like the idea. Why not use that as a loose springboard for a new movie that is a little more unconventional, but at least original? Well…original aside from the whole “based on a short story” part. I’d enjoy seeing that. But anyone attempting a straight-up remake deserves to be killed with the lead pipe in the billiard room by me.

Remakability:

X

THE CROW (1994, Director: Alex Proyas)
James McAvoy has been connected to this remake of the supernatural thriller that gained notoriety when star Brandon Lee — son of Bruce — died in an accident on set. It’s got a pretty cool, dark fantasy/thriller premise, but the original was generally well received and has retained some cult classic status. The tragic death of its star lends it some additional weight as an object of modern movie lore. What’s the point of going back to the well?

Remakability:

X

DeathWish DEATH WISH (1974, Director: Michael Winner)
Charles Bronson starred in this movie (and its four sequels) about a man who turns vigilante, hunting down the criminals who attacked his family. The premise is pretty straightforward, and we’ve seen it many times, including such recent films as The Brave One, with Jodie Foster in the Bronson role, and Liam Neeson’s Taken. There is a certain satisfaction audiences seem to take in watching a good person who has been wronged exact violent revenge, so the idea has ongoing merit. But it’s for exactly that reason that a remake is unnecessary. What value does the Death Wish title hold for anyone? If we have to see yet another story like this one, there’s no need to invoke an old title. This one ranks low on the Brewster Scale not because the original is sacred, but because a remake feels moot. And if there’s any truth to the report that producers want Bruce Willis to star, that’s all the more reason for me to wish death on this whole idea. Willis would sleepwalk his way through a by-the-numbers movie like this.

Remakability:

X

DIRTY DANCING (1987, Director: Emile Ardolino)
The original was a huge sleeper hit whose popularity endures to this day. Which is why remaking it is a fool’s errand. The movie clicked with audiences at the time and has become something that one generation of fans hands down to the next. It captured something magical, and that’s not going to happen again. It was already remade once, and failed to connect. Okay, Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights was technically a sequel, with Patrick Swayze cameoing, but it was basically the same plot in a different location with new characters. If it didn’t work then, why does anyone think it will work now? People’s love for the original is all about the music and the chemistry between Swayze and Jennifer Grey. Even with the original film’s choreographer Kenny Ortega now in the director’s chair, this is a bad idea. Let’s keep this one in the corner.

Remakability:

X

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981, Director: John Carpenter)
I led off Part I with news that the longtime effort to reboot this cult classic was given new life earlier this year. Producer Joel Silver wants to do a reboot trilogy, with at least the first chapter taking place before the events of the original, perhaps depicting how New York fell in the first place. This article likens the approach to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which was a surprisingly impressive addition to that long-running series. It’s not necessarily a bad idea, and let’s be honest: Escape from New York is not as good as its cult status might have you believe. On the other hand, Kurt Russell is rightfully iconic as Snake Plissken, and I have no interest in seeing another actor play that part…especially when we don’t see enough of Russell himself these days. Here’s a crazy idea: instead of remaking yet another John Carpenter movie, why not give that money to Carpenter himself and let him make something new?

Remakability:

X

FLATLINERS (1990, Director: Joel Schumacher)
This thriller had a decent premise, but despite that and an impressive cast — Julia Roberts (fresh off Pretty Woman), Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt and William Baldwin — the movie hasn’t retained a strong pulse. The five stars play medical students who attempt to bring each other to the brink of death in order to glimpse the great beyond, then revive each other before they actually cross over. Turns out there are some pretty intense side effects. Director Niels Aren Oplev, who helmed the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, might be directing. Is there a better movie to be made from this concept? Possibly. Can I see audiences caring? Not really.

Remakability:

X

FLIGHT OF THE NAVIGATOR (1986, Director: Randal Kleiser)
This somewhat forgotten sci-fi adventure from Walt Disney Pictures had a pretty cool story. The short version: a 12 year-old boy falls down a ravine in the woods near his house and is knocked unconscious. When he wakes up a few hours later and goes home, he discovers that it’s not a few hours later at all. Eight years have passed, and he hasn’t aged a day. Meanwhile, NASA scientists are attempting to investigate a crashed spaceship, and it soon becomes apparent that the boy’s fate is tied to that of the mysterious ship. Soon, he finds his way to the craft and must team up with its robot pilot so they can both get home. I liked the movie, but even as a kid I thought there were some hokey things about it. While I have friends who remember it fondly, it doesn’t appear to have retained the wider nostalgia factor of similar 80’s movies like The Last Starfighter, Young Sherlock Holmes or Explorers. But the story is intriguing enough to deserve a second shot. As of last fall, the team of director Colin Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly, who made the indie hit Safety Not Guaranteed starring Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass and Jake Johnson, were set to provide the script, with Trevorrow possibly directing. I don’t know if the project is still on their plate now that they are working on the new Jurassic Park movie, but based on Safety Not Guaranteed, they seem like a good fit for an updated Navigator.

Remakability:

X

GREMLINS (1984, Director: Joe Dante)
Now someone is pissing me off. This is early enough in development that it might never come to pass, so I’m crossing my fingers that it fails to come together. The Steven Spielberg-produced original requires no updating or fresh approach, and the fact that somebody would waste money on a remake that no one wants or needs while the great Joe Dante, director of the original, can’t seem to get funding to make a new movie of his own, is maddening. The potential remake is currently in the hands of producers Seth Grahame-Smith and David Katzenberg (son of Jeffrey), though Frank Marshall, who co-produced the original, says the project could most likely not move forward without Spielberg’s approval. So far, there’s no indication that Spielberg has given his blessing, (or that he’s even been asked for it). I can only hope he has the good sense to put the kibosh on any such requests.

Remakability:

X

HEAT (1986, Director: Dick Richards)
I knew almost nothing about the original film when this news came up, and all I know now is that it starred Burt Reynolds and was written by the great William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, The Princess Bride), based on his novel. Brian De Palma was initially set to direct the update, in which Jason Statham will play a recovering gambling addict who works as a bodyguard. Now De Palma is out and Simon West (Con Air, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) is in. The original film doesn’t seem to be all that well-known, which maybe makes it a respectable candidate for remaking. Then again, the plot description doesn’t sound unique or compelling, and to emphasize the pointlessness of it all, Goldman is once again writing the screenplay. A remake could make sense given the low profile of the original, but the formulaic set-up leaves me cold.

Remakability:

X

HIGHLANDER (1986, Director: Russell Mulcahy)
Why are people still trying to squeeze life out of this franchise? The first film has respectable cult classic standing, but only diehards were interested in the four subsequent films, the last of which went straight to a TV premiere. The syndicated TV series that aired from 1992-1998 occupies a place of honor in that world of Xena and Hercules fans, but why the insistence on trying to revive something that time has treated with indifference? Already, this remake has had a troubled history. Two directors have dropped out (Justin Lin and Juan Carlos Fresnadillo), and Ryan Reynolds — attached to play Connor MacLeod — has departed as well. Of the immortal highlanders, it is famously said, “there can be only one.” That should have gone for the series too.

Remakability:

X

JACOB’S LADDER (1990, Director: Adrian Lyne)
Why do we need a new version of this? The original, in which Tim Robbins plays a Vietnam veteran suffering hallucinations that threaten to consume him in 1970’s New York, has a respectable reputation as a psychological horror film. It wasn’t a huge hit, so the desire to remake it can’t be attributed to exploiting a brand name property, but neither was it poorly reviewed enough to suggest that a new version could improve upon a promising but poorly executed concept. It may not have lit up the box office, but it developed a following on home video. So…why? According to this article, the remake would “examine the themes of the original against a contemporary backdrop” Translation: 1990 was a really long time ago, so we’re going to make this movie again and even though it will be pretty much the same, it will be more relatable because we’ll set it in the present day. It will feel really different because this time Jacob will be a veteran from Iraq or Afghanistan! What a crazy twist!!

Remakability:

X

LEPRECHAUN (1993, Director: Mark Jones)
Yes, you’re reading this right. The low budget horror-comedy about a leprechaun leaving a trail of bodies in his wake as he searches for his stolen pot of gold, has been targeted for a remake. It’s planned as a co-production between the movie studio Lionsgate and World Wrestling Entertainment, who plan to cast WWE star Dylan “Hornswoggle” Postl in the title role, originated by Warwick Davis (best known as the star of George Lucas’ Willow, and for playing Return of the Jedi‘s Wicket the Ewok and Professor Flitwick in the Harry Potter films). It could be argued that B-movies like Leprechaun are exactly the kind that should be remade, since they can almost certainly be improved upon. But how much better can a movie about a homicidal Irish fairie be? The existing film is exactly what it should be, and anyone aspiring to do something more legitimate with it is chasing a pot of fool’s gold. Think they’ll be able to convince Jennifer Aniston, who starred in the original, to do a cameo?

Remakability:

X

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1986, Director: Frank Oz)
This would seem like a one-Brewster no-brainer, but it’s a little trickier than that. I love this adaptation of the 1982 off-Broadway production written by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, the brilliant duo who would go on to success and multiple Oscars with Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin before Ashman’s untimely death. The idea of a remake — especially by a smart, talented guy like Joseph Gordon-Levitt — initially made me as bloodthirsty as the plant at the story’s center. But there are two reasons why it might be acceptable. First, the movie omitted several songs from the play, making it a somewhat incomplete version. Second, the original ending was famously rejected by test audiences, prompting an entirely new finale which made dumbass viewers happy but which completely removed the Faustian element from the story…which kinda defeats the purpose. The movie was released on Blu-Ray last year with the original ending included among the special features. It’s nice to finally have that officially available. There was a rough, black and white version floating around for a while on an earlier DVD that was recalled by producer David Geffen because the inclusion of the original ending had not been authorized.

So…if a remake included the songs that never made it to the screen, and if the movie retained the play’s darker ending, then there might be good enough reason to give it a shot. I don’t know if it could be better in the end (I mean, how are they gonna top Steve Martin’s version of “Dentist!”), but it would have enough new material to justify the endeavor.

My Brewster Scale rating is based on these two changes. But without both of them, the new filmmakers are just trampling on a classic for no reason. Oh, and one other deal breaker: if they use CGI to create Audrey II instead of going with a puppet, all bets are off.

Remakability:

X

THE MUMMY (1932, Director: Karl Freund; 1959, Director: Terence Fisher; 1999, Director: Stephen Sommers)
That’s right. A fourth reboot of The Mummy. The first was an Old Hollywood classic starring Boris Karloff. The second, from Britain’s famed horror film factory Hammer Studios, starred house stalwarts Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. The third was a tongue-in-cheek, CGI-fueled adventure starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. There have been sequels, spinoffs…can we give it a rest already? Universal Pictures announced last fall that the latest version would be directed by Len Wiseman, whose utterly mediocre directing career — in addition to being practically interchangeable with Sommers’ — boasts two Underworld movies, Live Free or Die Hard and the instantly forgettable Total Recall remake mentioned in Part I. His only impressive accomplishment in show business has been marrying Kate Beckinsale. The new Mummy he has been placed in charge of will attempt to distinguish itself from earlier versions by being set in the present day. Well, I’m sold. (Maybe they can combine it with Jacob’s Ladder. ) A new location or time period is not going to prevent this from being just another hollow exercise doused in numbing visual effects. Oh, but here’s the best part: Universal is apparently so impatient to get this thing going that they have hired two writers to work simultaneously on their own versions of the script, with an eye toward taking the best of both and mashing them together. Isn’t that how The Wizard of Oz was written? No no, it was Jaws. Wait, no, it was no decent movie, ever.

Remakability:

X

POINT BREAK (1991, Director: Kathryn Bigelow)
Yes, before she became the Oscar-winning director of prestige films like The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow worked on genre flicks and actioners like Near Dark, Strange Days and this cult classic about surfing, skydiving bank robbers and the FBI agents trying to catch them. You could argue that this is a good candidate for remaking, since the original is kind of cheesy. Thing is though, it’s because Point Break is cheesy that anyone still remembers it affectionately. The movie’s entire cultural relevancy lies in the fact that it’s so silly it’s awesome. If the remake’s producers are aiming to legitimize it a bit, then they’re missing the point. But maybe their problem is that they don’t see the movie for the half-joke that it is. “Point Break wasn’t just a film,” enthuses producer Michael DeLuca. “It was a Zen meditation on testosterone fueled action and manhood in the late 20th century and we hope to create the same for the young 21st!” Good grief. Meanwhile, producer Andrew Kosove wants to be clear that the new movie will not be a mere carbon copy of Bigelow’s. “This is the thing — surfing is a part of it, but I will tell you that we believe firmly, in terms of remaking a film like this, we’ve got to make it fresh. [Our Point Break] has got elements of the original and it’s not just surfing, it’s other kinds of extreme sports, but surfing is very, very prominent in the story.” Ohhhhh, it’s not just surfing! They’re incorporating other extreme sports! Well, with such a wildly original take on the material, I’m sure this will be money well spent.

Remakability:

X

POLICE ACADEMY (1984, Director: Hugh Wilson)
Like a lot of these movies, it can be hard to make a call. On one hand, my own nostalgic feeling for the movie (and Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment, the first of six sequels) prompts me to reject any notions of a remake. On the other hand, it’s not like we’re talking about a revered classic that couldn’t possibly be undertaken. But also like a lot of these movies, there doesn’t seem to be much point. Directing reins have been handed to a guy named Scott Zabielski, a producer and director on Comedy Central’s popular Tosh 2.0. I have no reason to think he’ll make a movie that is notably better than the still funny original with Steve Guttenberg. The only way I can see a remake having strong commercial prospects is if the ensemble were headed by a star with a strong following. If Adam Sandler or Zach Galifianakis came onboard, a remake might generate interest. Without the presence of a star who can pop, I’d say commercial prospects are iffy. And even with the right star, it still strikes me as a waste of money. I mean, Jesus…there were seven of these movies already. Does the world really need more Police Academy?

Remakability:

X

REBECCA (1940, Director: Alfred Hitchcock)
Steven Knight, the writer of such terrific films as Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises, would probably do a bang-up job adapting Daphne du Maurier’s novel about a young woman who moves to Manderley, her new husband’s estate, where she finds herself haunted by the memory of his deceased first wife. But remaking an old movie just to attract a new audience can’t be automatically permissible. The movie itself has to be considered. If it’s little known or almost entirely forgotten, then a remake might be understandable. On the other hand, if it’s one of the best films by one of the all-time best directors (and a Best Picture winner at the Oscars to boot), then not so much. The Hitchcockiness of Rebecca outweighs the old-timey, black-and-whiteness of Rebecca, making it a sacred text that should be left alone. If you’ve never seen the original, starring Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, George Sanders and Judith Anderson as Manderley’s formidable housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, it’s well worth your time just as it is.

Remakability:

X

THE ROCKETEER (1991, Director: Joe Johnston)
Sure, this old-fashioned adventure didn’t become the hit Disney hoped it would be, but it’s terrific fun with style to spare and a spot-on cast that includes Timothy Dalton, Jennifer Connelly, Alan Arkin and Terry O’Quinn. It has plenty of devoted fans, and I can’t imagine it being done much better than it already was. This article points out its similarities to Iron Man, which I would wager are more likely to hurt a new version than help it (there’s also a valid Captain America comparison to be made). Sometimes, good movies fail to connect with a broad audience. That doesn’t mean you should pour millions of dollars into remaking them. If anybody can sell a product, it’s Disney. How about a re-release backed by an aggressive marketing campaign?

Remakability:

X

SCARFACE (1932, Director: Howard Hawks; 1983, Director: Brian De Palma)
Really, Universal? You’re planning a third version of the classic story about a gangster’s rise to power? Talk about a pointless endeavor. De Palma’s version with Al Pacino as Tony “Say Hello to My Little Friend” Montana has lost none of its swagger, and remains enthusiastically celebrated to this day. In what world does anyone shepherding this project think they’re going to replace or even duplicate the cultural significance and popularity of the De Palma/Pacino collaboration? The undertaking itself is stupid enough, but it was recently announced that soft-spoken British director David Yates is likely to direct. Yates is a fine filmmaker who, for the most part, impressively handled the last four Harry Potter films, but he could not be more wrong for material like Scarface. Nothing he’s done has displayed evidence of the revved-up energy a movie about an ascending drug kingpin calls for; on the contrary, his style has been known to sap the energy out of scenes that really needed it. The script is in better hands, having been initially written by David Ayer (Training Day, End of Watch) and re-written by Paul Attanasio (Donnie Brasco, Quiz Show, TV’s Homicide: Life on the Street), but with all due respect to David Yates, he’s not the guy to tackle this material…which shouldn’t be tackled in the first place.

Remakability:

X

SHORT CIRCUIT (1985, Director: John Badham)
This one has been in development for a while, and the intention is to make the new Johnny 5 (if that’s what they even call him) more threatening than the kindly original that befriended Ally Sheedy. But if they stick with their plan to redraw Sheedy’s character as a teen or younger child, there’s only so much threat the robot can pose. No surprise, they also want to root the movie in a more contemporary view of warfare technology, where drones are employed to do our dirty work for us. If they can strike the right balance between commentary and fantasy, it might be okay. But as with many of these remakes, the question is not just whether or not the original merits a new approach, but also whether audiences can be expected to show up. I have a hard time imagining that a new Short Circuit would do much business.

Remakability:

X

SOAPDISH (1991, Director: Michael Hoffman)
Paramount execs should have their mouths washed out for even discussing something as offensive as remaking this superb, underrated comedy. Even with a funny guy like actor/writer Ben Schwartz (Parks and Recreation‘s Jean-Ralphio) given the script assignment, there’s no way they’ll come up with a funnier movie than what Hoffman and writer Robert Harling achieved with this little nugget of hilarity, featuring great work from Sally Field, Kevin Kline, Robert Downey Jr., Whoopi Goldberg, Elisabeth Shue, Cathy Moriarty, and Teri Hatcher. Sure, there might be additional jokes to mine from the story, which goes behind the scenes of a daytime soap opera and reveals the lives of the cast and crew to be more melodramatic than anything on the show. But this will just wind up being a watered down retread at worst, and at best a funny but derivative waste of millions of dollars. Do yourself a favor and just watch the still sparkling original.

Remakability:

X

STARSHIP TROOPERS (1997, Director: Paul Verhoeven)
C’mon people, the movie isn’t even 20 years old! It stars Neil Patrick Harris, for God’s sake! This one is another brilliant idea from fucking Neal Moritz, who I discussed in Part I (and even further back than that) and who also gifted us with that lousy remake of Verhoeven’s Total Recall last year. There have been no updates about Troopers since that Recall tanked last summer, so we can only hope that maybe the project has been shelved. If it’s still in development, the intention, according to co-producer Toby Jaffe, is to make the movie a more faithful adaptation of the Robert A. Heinlein novel on which the original was based. Again, this is a common refrain among people who remake movies that were based on books in the first place. I find it rare, however, that initial adaptations deviate so drastically from their source material that a new film interpretation feels fresh or different. Basically, everything Jaffe says suggests all that was fun in Verhoeven’s film will be removed from the remake. Sounds like a blast. I’d love to drop Neal Moritz and Toby Jaffe into the middle of the planet inhabited by Troopers‘ giant killer bugs, so they could meet horrible, slimy deaths.

Remakability:

X

SUMMER SCHOOL (1987, Director: Carl Reiner)
Mark Harmon starred in this breezy comedy as a high school gym teacher whose vacation plans go up in smoke when he gets roped into teaching remedial English over the summer to a group of generally sweet but failing students. The original is still an enjoyable lark, so I don’t see the point in a new version. Surely all the complex themes found in this movie can be explored via a new, original story. Maybe there’s a reason the remake has been stuck in development hell for eight years. Besides, the premise would now be completely implausible; what public school in the country could afford to keep its doors open in the summer these days? As it is, the movie was ahead of its time: it got a PG-13 even with Chainsaw and Dave’s staged classroom massacre.

Any effort to top that would surely land the movie an R, making it off-limits to all those teenagers who can’t wait to see a remake of the movie with that guy their dad watches on NCIS. So much lost revenue…

Remakability:

X

THE TOXIC AVENGER (1984, Directors: Michael Herz, Lloyd Kaufman)
Leprechaun isn’t the only B-movie title being prepped for a remake. This cult classic about a weak, nerdy janitor who falls into a vat of toxic waste while fleeing tormenters, only to transform into a grotesque but powerful creature who protects the innocent against criminals, is also coming back around. The remake of this over-the-top comedy has some surprisingly A-list talent attached. Steve Pink, director of Hot Tub Time Machine and co-writer (with John Cusack) of Grosse Point Blank and High Fidelity is writing and directing. Akiva Goldsman, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of A Beautiful Mind and Razzie nominated screenwriter of Batman and Robin, is listed among the producers. And Arnold Schwarzenegger may come aboard to play The Exterminator (get it?!?), who helps the title character harness his newfound powers for good. I’ve never seen the original, so I can’t really say much, but I have to think that the Leprechaun logic applies here too: this is campy, B-movie stuff. Trying to bring actual, respectable resources to it defeats the purpose. Plus, the detailed plot synopsis on Wikipedia describes a lot of giddily extreme violence that the remake would likely eschew, removing yet more of what probably lends the original its cult appeal.

Remakability:

X

VIDEODROME (1983, Director: David Cronenberg)
Let me explain something to the execs at Universal: there are certain directors who have a unique style and cinematic voice. You might have heard them described as “auteurs.” When they make a movie, that movie bears their stamp, and becomes an extension of their own personality and concerns. In other words, there are certain directors whose work you don’t remake. David Cronenberg is one of those directors. Jesus, do you really think some unknown commercials director and the writer of Scream 3 and the last two Transformers movies are going to make a better movie than David Cronenberg? What the fuck is wrong with you?

Remakability:

X

WARGAMES (1983, Director: John Badham)
With a title like WarGames, you can imagine a couple of junior studio executives drooling over the possibilities to remake the movie with the protagonist using modern computers. Thing is though, the only way in which the original version from 1983 doesn’t hold up is in the technology. Dramatically, WarGames holds up remarkably well. Giving the technology a facelift is not a good enough reason to justify a remake. Of course, the entire way warfare is conducted these days is a long way from the missile tracking tension of the Cold War era that the original film depicts. It’s possible that a remake could find an entirely new way to frame the general premise of a skilled, computer hacking teen who unwittingly breaks into a government computer program and triggers a potentially catastrophic international incident. In that case, the remake would, like many, really be in name only, trading on the title while delivering a relatively new plot. I’m wary, but I can’t deny there’s some potential there, depending on how the filmmakers approach it. Still, the original is so good. Just let it be. Seth Gordon, director of the Donkey Kong documentary King of Kong and Horrible Bosses, is the latest name attached.

Remakability:

X

WEIRD SCIENCE (1985, Director: John Hughes)
Umm…no. Don’t even go there. This sci-fi comedy is pure 80’s magic that can not be recaptured. Anthony Michael Hall at his smart-alecky best; Bill Paxton in his breakthrough as Chet, the most obnoxious older brother ever; Kelly LeBrock as the sexy, exotic dream girl created by two nerds on their computer; Robert Downey, Jr. in one of his earliest roles…this John Hughes comedy is as enjoyable today as ever. Universal and Joel Silver (who produced the original) want screenwriter Michael Bacall, who scored with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, 21 Jump Street and sleeper hit Project X (high school party Project X, not test pilot chimps Project X), to draft an “edgier” take on the material, going for an R rather than the original’s PG-13. While I support making more R-rated comedies, Weird Science doesn’t need to be edgy, and the promise of a little gratuitous nudity — a staple of R-rated 80’s comedy — is hardly reason to mess with a good thing.

Remakability:

X

WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962, Director: Robert Aldrich)
Walter Hill, the director whose credits include The Warriors, 48 Hrs. and — what do you know? — Brewster’s Millions, is onboard to write and direct this remake of the classic psychological drama that paired divas Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as sisters who had been movie stars in their youth, now aging and confined to their mansion, one serving as poisonous caretaker to her wheelchair-bound sibling. Davis and Crawford had a contentious relationship off-screen that informed their relationship in the movie, and both had fallen out of popularity in Hollywood by the time this project came around. It was a huge hit that boosted their careers, and their pairing remains one for the ages. Maybe a remake could be well handled (there was a TV movie in 1991 starring Redgrave sisters Vanessa and Lynn), but like so many other on this list, there doesn’t seem to be much point. The original is well worth seeing, and is bolstered by the combination of its two feuding stars.

Remakability:

X

THE WILD BUNCH (1969, Director: Sam Peckinpah)
Seriously? You’re gonna remake Peckinpah’s landmark western about a bunch of badasses in the dying days of the Wild West? Yeah, good luck with that. Will Smith is developing this as a vehicle for himself, with a modern-day setting that involves the drug war in Mexico. I like Will Smith and all, but he’s not a straight-up tough guy. The Wild Bunch is about straight-up tough guys. Absolute hardcore motherfuckers. That’s kinda the whole point. They’re the wild bunch. The movie was a product of its time, arriving when Hollywood was in the midst of a sea change and a new style of grit and violence was taking over. It was two years after Bonnie & Clyde and three years before The Godfather. If Will Smith wants to make a movie about some tough guys engaged in the Mexico-U.S. drug trade, fine. But don’t call it The Wild Bunch. Critics, film historians and fans will massacre you…which might be an ironic tribute to the original’s finale, but won’t do your reputations any good.

Remakability:

X

There we have it. And in case you weren’t keeping track, there were a lot of lone Brewsters on that list.

There are a couple of others that I mentioned in enough detail in Part I that I didn’t include them here. One is Poltergeist, which is unfortunately going ahead. The other is the 1970’s James Caan movie The Gambler, which Paramount Pictures was developing without even bothering to tell the writer of the original, James Toback. As I said, the movie was initially set up with The Departed trio of screenwriter William Monahan, director Martin Scorsese and star Leonardo DiCaprio. That version fell apart, but a remake is still going forward, with Rise of the Planet of the Apes director Rupert Wyatt tackling Monahan’s script, Mark Wahlberg in the Caan role and Brie Larson as the female lead. Jessica Lange is also being sought.

I have no doubt there are plenty of other remakes in development as you read this, and plenty more will come along as time goes on. I’ve heard rumors over the past few years about new versions of Three Men and a Baby, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, The Neverending Story, Romancing the Stone, Overboard, Logan’s Run, Commando, American Psycho, Porky’s, Timecop, Cliffhanger, The Butterfly Effect and more. Whether or not any of these are still happening, I don’t know. Among those we’ll definitely be seeing next year are new versions of Robocop (sans Edward Norton, thankfully) and Endless Love, as well as two remakes that feature African-American casts in place of previously white ones: About Last Night… and Annie. I’m sure there will be others too. Few will be good ideas, and just as few will be hits, but Hollywood will keep shoving them down our throats anyway. Yet maybe, if audiences have the good sense to seek out original films when they go to the movies (and seek out older films when they’re staying in), studios and producers like Neal fucking Moritz will eventually get the message and stop the madness. In an appearance at Comic-Con this past summer, Joss Whedon said the following when asked what franchise he’d like to work on after The Avengers:

The reason I don’t really have an answer to that question is — and I realize the hilarious irony of the man who’s making a sequel to The Avengers and just made a Much Ado movie saying this — but I do feel like we’re in desperate need of new content. Pop Culture is eating itself at a rate that is going to become very dangerous. I’m seeing too many narratives built on the resonance of recognition. It’s not even nostalgia. It’s: ‘I remember that from yesterday.’ That’s gonna become really problematic. Although it’s enormous fun to work on something I enjoyed as a child, I think it’s really important for all of us to step back from that. Create new universes, new messages, new icons. So that ten years from now, we can reboot those!

Well said, Mr. Whedon. In the meantime, we’ll keep grappling.

Now do me a favor, so I don’t feel like I’m raging against the machine all by myself here. I know some of you more avid movie watchers have some thoughts of your own on this, whether about specific remakes that you like/don’t like, or think should be made or shouldn’t be made, or about the whole remake machine in general. Chime in below and grapple with me.

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August 30, 2013

Grappling with the Remake

Back in 2007, when this blog wasn’t yet a blog, but just a small mailing list of friends I would occasionally pester with movie-themed rants or punishingly detailed Oscar commentary, I vented a frustration about Hollywood’s unending parade of remakes. It’s a common enough complaint among movie geeks, to the point that ranting about it has grown a tad boring. Well…get ready to be bored.

That 2007 piece, which was eventually transferred to this blog for the reading pleasure of future generations, was inspired by news that John Carpenter’s Escape from New York was about to go under the remake knife. I had little good to say about the man sloppily wielding the blade: producer Neal Moritz, a stain on the landscape of contemporary cinema. Six years later, the remake train rolls ever on, and although Moritz’s planned Escape from New York hackjob never came to pass, the 1981 cult classic was on Hollywood’s lips again earlier this year, newly targeted for remaking…or to use a term that has gained credence since my initial piece, rebooting. Well, I’ve wanted to reboot this topic for a while, and recently there was a piece of news that prompted me to get on with it. But I’ll come back to that.

CONFESSIONS
I concede that I have a knee-jerk reaction every time I hear about the latest remake plan, regardless of whether I’ve even seen the original film or have any affection for it. My immediate response is to get annoyed and defensive, bemoan Hollywood’s lack of originality, blah blah blah. But if I move past that initial irritation, I would admit a few truths. First, remakes — like sequels, comic books, popular novels, TV shows, etc. — enable studios to traffic in recognizable properties that have built-in fan bases. Hollywood is increasingly wary of rolling the dice on original ideas, especially big budget original ideas like Pacific Rim or Elysium, so with each passing year the studios cling more desperately to known quantities that feel safe and seem more likely to pay off. I’m not saying I like it, but that’s the reality of the business, and it’s a reality that is entirely indifferent to how people like me feel about it. Second, each project should be considered on its own merits. Hating the idea on principle doesn’t change the fact that some movies are good candidates for remaking. Third — and admitting this makes me feel dirty because of that whole principle thing — there are obviously a lot of remakes that are pretty goddamn great. The more exceptions you can make for an argument, the weaker that argument becomes, so it’s hard to completely rail against remakes when they include some of the great movies of all time. The Wizard of Oz was originally made as a silent movie in 1925. Charlton Heston’s Ben-Hur was also remade from a 1925 original. The Maltese Falcon was made as a low-budget picture ten years before the Humphrey Bogart version came along. And I only learned about a year ago that Some Like it Hot was a remake of a 1935 French film called Fanfare of Love. Contemporary classics like The Thing, Scarface, The Fly and Cape Fear are all worthy remakes. So the trend can’t be dismissed outright.

At the risk of descending too deep down the rabbit hole, a few of the movies I just named raise additional points that should be mentioned, and the first requires dialing the discussion back a century. In two recent posts — Movie Mixtape #1 and A New Breed of Sequel — I referenced a book called The Genius of the System, by UT Austin film professor Thomas Schatz. This is a book about the rise and fall of the Hollywood Studio System, which I read for a film class in college. I read it again recently because I knew I wanted to write some posts about sequels, remakes and other Hollywood habits that we tend to treat as current or recent developments, but are in fact practices that have been a part of Hollywood from the beginning. So drawing on Schatz’s book, here are a few facts. Even during the silent film era, studios remade their earlier films. And once sound was introduced, there was yet another opportunity to cash in on familiar titles by making versions with sound. Not only were such 1930’s classics as The Prisoner of Zenda and Gold Diggers of 1933 examples of talkies that were remade from silent films, but they were remakes of silent films that had already been remade at least once before the 30’s versions that are considered definitive. In fact, Gold Diggers was based on a play to begin with, making it not only a third remake, but an adaptation of previously existing material. The version preceding the 1933 release came out four years earlier. Anyone who rolled their eyes about last year’s The Amazing Spider-Man rebooting that franchise a mere five years after Spider-Man 3 (and that includes me) might be strangely comforted to know that this has been going on for nearly 100 years. Remember Gus Van Sant’s head-scratching 1998 remake of Psycho, in which he recreated Hitchcock’s original classic shot for shot? Also not a first. When David O. Selznick put Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman under contract, he introduced her to American audiences with the film Intermezzo, a remake of her Swedish film from a few years earlier. But not just a remake. Selznick’s Intermezzo retained the original film’s lighting, camera angles, framing, blocking…everything. It was as close to an exact reproduction as director Gregory Ratoff could manage.

Whoever said lack of originality was exclusive to today’s studio executives?

The other point to mention, stemming from my examples of good remakes, is my personal allowance that I’m generally okay with American (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say “English language”) remakes of foreign language films. Yes, I would prefer that more Americans would see movies in their native language, but we know that’s not happening anytime soon. Even I could do much better on that front. Most American audiences appear to live in mortal fear of subtitles, and will not expose themselves to foreign films. Given that reality, a well-mounted English-language remake seems like fair game to me in order to get a good story across. If the translation doesn’t work, then yes, you wind up with something that is not only a bad or mediocre movie on its own, but a bastardization of a more successful original (for example, the Nicolas Cage-Meg Ryan romantic drama City of Angels, adapted from Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire…although that film is partially in English). But you might wind up with a second classic, like The Magnificent Seven (based on Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai), or if not a classic exactly, then a respectable interpretation, like Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris, Mike Nichols’ The Birdcage or Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia.

(Full disclosure: my American-remake-of-foreign-film exception could well be nothing more than a way to justify my deep and intense love for The Departed — based on the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs — which absolutely goes in the contemporary classic category.)

LET THE RIGHT ONES IN
So whether I like it or not, I need to adjust my attitude somewhat about the whole remake machine. Like with sequels, the solution is not to abandon remakes altogether, but for the studios to consider more carefully what movies to remake and what movies to leave the hell alone. Which brings me to the recent news that prompted me to return to this topic. A long-in-development remake of Poltergeist is moving forward, likely shooting this fall, and actors Rosemarie DeWitt and Sam Rockwell have signed on to play the lead roles originated by JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson. It’s salt on the wound when actors I love agree to take part in these examples of cinematic sacrilege. I know, I know; actors gotta eat too. DeWitt is an in-demand working actress, but she probably lacks the clout to pick and choose any project she wants. I’m sure that sometimes she has to take what fits her schedule at any given time in order to keep working. On the other hand, I’d be surprised if Rockwell doesn’t have the freedom to be more choosy, so his involvement is especially bothersome. In my perfect world, good actors would refuse to participate in remakes that are bad ideas, and so the projects would flame out.

And remaking Poltergeist is a bad idea. The 1982 original, produced and co-written by Steven Spielberg, remains perfectly effective – scary, creepy, exciting and emotionally rich. Even the visual effects still look great. The remake is being produced by Sam Raimi, written by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire and directed by Gil Kenan, an Oscar nominee for the 2006 animated feature Monster House. Do any of them actually think they can make a better movie than the original? Lindsay-Abaire says he loves the film and hopes to pay it tribute. That’s nice and all, but movies aren’t cheap. Millions of dollars will be spent to make this movie that has already been made and doesn’t stand to gain from being made again. So why bother? Among the many reasons to let the original stand is that it featured actors who had a specific presence that can’t be duplicated. Heather O’Rourke’s Carol Anne isn’t just a generic movie kid; she is the vocal and physical embodiment of some of modern cinema’s most iconic imagery and dialogue. And then there’s Zelda Rubenstein, the diminutive actress who played the psychic Tangina. Rubenstein was a one-of-a-kind personality who added immeasurably to the tone and mood of the film. Who’s going to compete with her? No attempt at a new version of Poltergeist can be anything more than a nostalgia grab and perhaps an excuse to push the envelope of frightening imagery. Even if I’m wrong, and they can make a good movie that has some value, can they make a better one than the 1982 version? I seriously doubt it. And that should be the launching point for any attempt at a remake. Can we do this better than it was done before?

My previous write-up included a list of 70’s and 80’s movies that I feared were in danger of being remade, and Poltergeist was one of them. In the six years since writing that piece, several of those titles have indeed been revisited, or at least targeted. The Karate Kid and Footloose have made it to the screen so far, while Carrie is due out in October. Police Academy, WarGames, and The Cannonball Run are in various stages of development. A Vacation remake/reboot was all set to go earlier this year, with Ed Helms as a grown Rusty Griswold, taking his own brood on a trip. (Because who wouldn’t want to expose their family to the kind of disastrous misadventures that forever scarred their childhood?) Christina Applegate was set to play Rusty’s wife, but the movie was put on hold due to creative differences between the studio and the filmmakers over whether to maintain the R-rated tone of the original or aim for a more inclusive PG-13. But again, here’s a case where the original should be left alone. Vacation remains a classic comedy that is no less funny for anyone watching today than it was for audiences in 1983. A new version would probably be a little more PC and, depending on which way the rating goes, a little more tame in the language and nudity departments. But I’ll bet it won’t be funnier.

The Carrie remake is a tougher call. On one hand, Brian De Palma’s 1976 original is a classic, and with its chilling third act, Oscar-nominated performances by Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, and rich subtext that has provided film theory classes with fodder for over three decades, many probably consider it untouchable. On the other hand, I watched it recently for the first time in years, and it does feel dated in some ways. Much of it is shot through a sort of soft-lens, dreamy haze – a deliberate aesthetic that De Palma was going for to serve his vision for the material, but one that runs the risk of feeling cheesy to newcomers looking at the movie for pure entertainment value. The style might not be an issue for budding film enthusiasts who are open-minded enough to appreciate films as artifacts of the time in which they were made (in other words, the kind of people who might first see Carrie in a college film class). But new generations of viewers who just want the pleasure of a good horror movie might have a hard time connecting with it, even though there is still plenty about it that holds up (Laurie’s performance as Carrie’s fanatical mother, for example, remains potent.) With Chloe Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore, the remake has two strong actresses to fill Spacek and Laurie’s shoes, plus Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Pierce could potentially bring an interesting new gender perspective to this female-centric story. So while my early thoughts were, “How dare they remake Carrie!,” the truth is that as remakes go, this one is arguably ripe for a new approach.

Still, if the new Carrie works, it will be among a minority of remakes that do. Other movies that weren’t on my 2007 list but have been remade in recent years include Fright Night, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Clash of the Titans, Red Dawn, Arthur and Conan the Barbarian – none of which needed to be remade. We’ve even entered the era of 90’s reboots with last year’s Total Recall (another Neal Moritz prize, another unnecessary revisitation). Of these movies, Clash of the Titans is the only one that did decent box office, but how many people really loved it? Or even liked it enough to keep it in their personal home viewing rotation? How many of these have taken root in the soil of pop culture? Nothing in the CGI-heavy Titans remake is as memorable or affecting as Ray Harryhausen’s frightening Medusa from the cheesy but charming original. When people talk about Arthur, they’ll be talking about the Dudley Moore version, not Russell Brand’s. When they think of Conan, they think of Arnold Schwarzenegger, not Jason Momoa. When they think of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Freddy Krueger, they think of Robert Englund, not Jackie Earle Haley (another actor who, like Rosemarie DeWitt and Sam Rockwell, should know better). When they think of Fright Night…well, I’m not sure anybody really ever thinks of Fright Night, but I bet those who do are children of the 80’s, and therefore think of the original.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?
In fact, Fright Night represents another problem with the remake machine. If the idea is that studios remake older movies from their back catalogs because there is built-in recognition, why do they remake so many movies that have so little relevance to contemporary audiences? A title like Fright Night probably meant nothing to most young viewers who would be the typical audience for that kind of movie. As for older audiences who remember the original with affection, are there enough of them to justify the investment of time and money in doing a remake that offers few differences from the original other than better production values? It’s a bit of a Catch-22. Studios target remakes to exploit recognizable properties, yet if the property remains recognizable, it’s likely because the original stands the test of time, thereby making the remake a pointless corruption. If the title isn’t recognizable to newer audiences, then where is the value in remaking it to begin with?

We see this over and over again. Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 thriller Straw Dogs, starring Dustin Hoffman, is considered an important work within the director’s oeuvre, but it was not particularly successful at the box office. So who exactly was the target audience for the 2011 remake starring James Marsden, Kate Bosworth and Alexander Skarsgard? What was to be gained by remaking that movie? It had no resonance with today’s audience, and apparently made little effort to distinguish itself or bring something new to the concept. Gavin Polone, producer of such fare as Gilmore Girls and Zombieland, penned an anti-remake article for Vulture in which he pointed out that the 2011 Straw Dogs did not credit the novel on which Peckinpah’s film was based, but instead credited the original film as the basis for the new screenplay, suggesting there were minimal differences between the two. He also cites the 2006 remake of the classic horror film The Omen, which gave screenplay credit to the original’s writer, David Seltzer…even though he didn’t work on the new film at all. When the 2011 remake of Arthur opened to lousy box office, Entertainment Weekly‘s critic Owen Gleiberman wrote a piece questioning the attempt to make a movie star out of Russell Brand. Near the beginning of that essay, he says, “It’s not just that the $12.5 million it made was significantly below the $18 million that had been predicted. It’s that the $18 million ‘expectation’ was itself a rather pathetic lowball figure, at least for a project that had the nostalgic pedigree, the built-in audience affection, and the ’80s-update curiosity factor that Arthur did.”

The whole idea of Hollywood’s obsession with remakes is that they are an easy and reliable source of income. But Gleiberman is right. If the best a studio could expect for an opening weekend gross was $18 million, then the obsession needs to be seriously reconsidered. Surely the projection was based on how the finished film was tracking; perhaps the studio had higher expectations when they greenlit the project months earlier. Still…how high could their expectations for a remake of Arthur (or of Fright Night or Straw Dogs) really have been? If the hopes are that the title will appeal more to fans of the original than to a new audience, then the insistence on remakes seems even more misguided. Columbia Pictures president Doug Belgrad told The Hollywood Reporter last year in regards to remakes that “…young people don’t know the original, older people have a nostalgia for it….” Yes. Young people don’t know the original, so where is the value in the title? And older people’s nostalgia is for the original, so why would they want to see a remake?  Maybe if a piece of material has truly outstanding potential to both connect with modern audiences and be superior to the original, it would make sense to proceed. But it doesn’t seem like the executives making these decisions are lending any serious thought to why a given movie should be revisited. They just see an old title and say, “Hey, it’s been 20 years since that came out. Let’s make it again!

PASSION AND PAYCHECKS
Not that the entire remake machine is driven by the studios. Plenty of remakes come to pass because a producer, director or actor has an attachment to an older film and wants to bring it to a new audience (and has the clout to do it). I’m generally leery of this argument, as I think that anyone who has that much affection for a certain piece of work should respect it enough to leave it be. When Peter Jackson remade King Kong, I let it slide because he was coming off Lord of the Rings; if he wanted to make a snuff film, I probably would have been cool with it. Plus, I agreed with his argument that contemporary audiences and young viewers don’t want to watch old black and white movies – another fact that I’m not saying I like; just that it’s largely true. It’s kind of the same exception as the one for foreign films, though I’m less inclined to support remaking great old movies just because they’re old. The original King Kong still packs a punch today. I watched it for the first time on the big screen a couple of years before Jackson’s remake, and I was shocked, for example, at how violent the fights between Kong and the dinosaurs were. At one point, the giant ape kills an attacking beast by gruesomely prying back its jaws. And while the creature effects are primitive by today’s standards, there’s still something magical about them. Part of the joy of watching the movie was imagining how shocking and exciting it must have been to audiences in 1933.

Still, Jackson’s drive to remake King Kong was motivated by genuine passion and love, as opposed to cashing in on a title. I wish the same could be said for Neal Moritz, who I mentioned at the beginning…and at length in my previous post on this topic. Fucking Neal Moritz. When he renewed his production company’s deal with Columbia Pictures in 2011, Sony Pictures co-chairman Amy Pascal said, “He has a terrific taste for stories that excite the imagination of audiences everywhere,” while Columbia’s Belgrad said, “He knows what audiences want.” That must explain the complete lack of interest audiences everywhere had in his 2013 films Jack the Giant Slayer and R.I.P.D., as well as last year’s Total Recall remake that nobody gave a shit about (and which lacked all the fun and personality of the Schwarzenegger original). Luckily for him, his commitment to churning out Fast and the Furious sequels keeps his bank account full and his industry standing intact. But really, the only respectable projects he’s been connected to in the last couple of years are the surprisingly enjoyable Jonah Hill/Channing Tatum TV adaptation 21 Jump Street (which is getting a sequel, of course) and the recently wrapped Showtime series The Big C, with Laura Linney. Those titles go on a short list of quality pieces Moritz has delivered over the years…a list that should be much longer when you take into account how much work he’s put out. (His company is called Original Film, which I would assume has to be a deliberate use of irony considering that nearly everything he does is a shitty, bland interpretation of existing material, except that I don’t think Moritz is clever enough to name his company ironically.)

While Moritz may be one of Hollywood’s most egregious examples of creative bankruptcy, he’s far from alone. Michael Bay has a production company called Platinum Dunes which is dedicated to making low-budget horror movies, but which prefers to remake existing ones rather than exert the effort to develop new ideas. Of the ten films Platinum Dunes has released since its first in 2003, seven have been based on previous movies, including genre classics Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Amityville Horror and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Only three have managed to gross over $100 million worldwide, and just barely at that. But because they were made so inexpensively, they all turned a tidy profit, so I guess there’s no incentive to create something new. At one point, they were developing a remake of Rosemary’s Baby, about which company partner Brad Fuller said, “We certainly come to [the project] with trepidation because of how important [the original] film is. But we’re going to see if there’s a great way to tell that story.” At the time, I suspected the quote continued, “Once we realize there isn’t, we’re going to go ahead and do it anyway.” But for whatever reason, it doesn’t appear to be on their development slate any longer. Don’t worry, though…NBC recently announced they’re going to remake it as a primetime miniseries. I’m sure that will manage to erase all memories of Roman Polanski’s 1968 classic. Platinum Dunes, meanwhile, seems to be branching out to produce non-horror projects, but not necessarily more original ones. Their relaunch of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is coming next year.

It’s easy to dump on Michael Bay and Neal Moritz, but even great filmmakers aren’t immune to the forgettable or inferior remake. The Coen Brothers struck gold with True Grit, but they struck out when they tried to redo The Ladykillers. Among the less heralded work on Steven Spielberg’s filmography is 1989’s Always, a remake of the Spencer Tracy drama A Guy Named Joe. Sydney Pollack dared to mess with Billy Wilder’s Sabrina (sorry, but Julia Ormand is no Audrey Hepburn), while Sidney Lumet had a late career misfire with his take on John Cassavetes’ Gloria. I recall being outraged when Jonathan Demme remade The Manchurian Candidate in 2004, but I’m not sure what was worse: the offense of remaking such a brilliant movie, or the fact that the remake was apparently pretty good, earning favorable reviews and even BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations for Meryl Streep. Despite the positive reaction and presence of actors like Streep, Denzel Washington and Liev Schrieber, I still refuse to watch it. However the results turn out, I’m not quite sure why smart and talented directors like these would choose to spend their time mucking with someone else’s movie. Demme’s Manchurian Candidate seems to be the only one that actually tried to adapt its predecessor in an interesting way, yet with such a sensational original, it may also be the most blasphemous of these examples. So if it sounds like I’m saying that a filmmaker’s passion justifies a remake, I’m not. I don’t know whether the movies mentioned here were initiated by the directors or by the studios, but just because a good director loves an older film and wants to remake it for a new audience doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Even excellent filmmakers can easily get lost in their own nostalgic notions of paying tribute, too blinded by their reverence to see that they are suffocating the thing they purport to love.

NO RESPECT, I TELL YA
Another problem with the culture of remakes, especially when the original movies are fairly recent, is the lack of respect to the filmmakers — usually still alive, and often still actively working — who made the movie in the first place. Maybe they find it flattering that someone would want to take their movie and try it again, and indeed, some even actively encourage it. Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, for example, produced this year’s remake of their influential cult classic Evil Dead. Go ahead and argue that Raimi’s barely budgeted original stood to benefit from better makeup and special effects. I counter that the whole reason Evil Dead remains popular is because it was marked by Raimi’s ingenuity as a director. He used the lack of funds to his advantage, and that prowling, trampling camera and the cheesy effects are exactly what lifted the movie above its simple premise and lent it a sense of fun and even charm, of which the remake seems entirely bereft. In fact, last year’s The Cabin in the Woods was almost an Evil Dead remake in spirit, following the same basic premise but then doing something incredibly fun and original with it. The new Evil Dead had no such creativity up its sleeve, serving no purpose other than delivering its scares in a slicker package and increasing the gore factor tenfold.

But who cares about a creative purpose when there’s money to be made.

Not all filmmakers share Raimi’s attitude toward their material being rebooted, but few have any power to prevent it, as the rights belong with the studios. (Though I’d bet that if Steven Spielberg wanted to stop Poltergeist from being remade, one phone call is all it would take.) Two years ago, there was an announcement that Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio and their Departed screenwriter William Monahan were remaking a 1974 James Caan movie called The Gambler. The original was written by James Toback, who learned about the new version along with the rest of the world, when the news was published on Deadline. He had not been approached by any of the principal filmmakers or by anyone at Paramount, and though legally none of them had any reason to discuss the remake with Toback, he was surprised and offended that no one had bothered to ask for his blessing. In a lengthy reaction piece which Deadline published a couple of days after the announcement, Toback — an old school Hollywood Man’s Man — recounted how the original movie came together, explaining that it was a highly personal and autobiographical story. He writes that although the movie was widely acclaimed, it is largely forgotten, having been released with little attention during a period of leadership transition at the studio. Who knows if this remake will even happen. Movies gets announced all the time and then never materialize. There hasn’t been any news on the project in a year, and those latest reports stated that Scorsese was no longer involved and that Todd Phillips might direct. (That sounds smart. The guy who directed Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and GoodFellas has moved on, so let’s get the guy who directed The Hangover, Road Trip and Due Date.) I wonder how Toback would have felt about his movie being remade even if the players had courted his blessing. In the end he would have no say one way or other, but considering how personal the movie is for him, and how mishandled it was in the first place, I can’t imagine he’d have been pleased with the idea.

But who cares about respecting artists when there’s money to be made.

SUGGESTION BOX
I’m not remotely foolish enough to think Hollywood’s reliance on existing titles is going to change, but a little wishful thinking can be the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. My wish is that studios could find a way of getting audiences to see older movies instead of spending millions of dollars remaking them, less successfully in most cases. What if popular directors or actors — people like Christopher Nolan or Robert Downey Jr. — could be enticed to make a short film, which would be shown in front of an older movie, along with a brief interview in which they discuss the movie and why they love it? If the movie is old enough that it feels too far removed in tone, mood or style from what today’s audiences are used to, then someone like Nolan (or Scorsese or Fincher or Spielberg or Paul Thomas Anderson or so many others) could help illuminate its place in film history, its significance, and how it paved the way for contemporary movies that are more in an audience’s comfort zone.

Why not ask Disney, Pixar, Warner Brothers, and other animation companies to produce new shorts that could also be shown in advance of the feature presentation? Or acquire existing shorts from independent animators whose work is never seen by wide audiences? (Those Oscar nominated Best Animated Shorts that no one has ever heard of are coming from somewhere.) The studios could re-release deserving movies surrounded by all of this new content that, taken together, would create a fresh experience (not to mention providing more bang for your buck, considering how expensive it has become to have a night out at the movies). The returns would be smaller, but the investment would be too, and there will still be plenty of money to make from other tent-pole movies that have become the studios’ bread and butter.

Even if older movies could actually get this kind of lavish treatment, it wouldn’t mean the end of remakes, but it might mean that studios could start being more selective with the targeted titles. I said earlier that the guiding question when considering a remake should be, “Can we do this better than it was done before?” But maybe I should amend that to say that it’s not a matter of better, but of whether a new version can genuinely offer something interesting that the original didn’t have. The problem is that in most cases, the filmmakers convince themselves — and then try to convince audiences — that they can. But rarely is that the case. One reason that Scorsese’s Cape Fear stands out as a success is that he gave the victimized family a more fractured and complex dynamic than societal norms allowed in 1962, the year of the original film. By placing flawed, complicated characters into the situation which the original film presented, Scorsese added a moral ambiguity to the story that justified revisting it, and distinguished itself successfully. If more remakes were approached with the same thoughtfulness, perhaps there would be a weeding out process resulting in fewer of them, and those that we got would be better. Remakes shouldn’t be made because studios see dollar signs in an older title, or merely because an old title is sitting around. They should be made because a filmmaker with a vision sees a genuinely creative opportunity to deliver a fresh take on a familiar story. And even then it should be done sparingly. Remakes, like sequels, have always been part of the Hollywood tradition, and that’s not going to change. What needs to change is the lack of thought, care and artistic integrity that results in an ever-growing pile of rotten reboots, reimaginings, and revamps.

Coming Soon: A look at some remakes currently in development, with an assessment of how bad an idea each one is.

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