Thursday, September 10, 2020

Top Ten Things: Unnecessary Movie Remakes

Welcome to another edition of Top Ten Things!  I am your host, Justin, and I'll be bitching about something most would consider trivial.  But ya know, that's my thing.  So stick it.

Today I'll be talking about an issue that's plagued Hollywood for many years - particularly this century - the unnecessary remake.  Remakes are nothing new; the early decades of cinema saw countless movies done over, to take advantage of ever-improving technology and greater budget availability (just like now).  Plus it was a way for the studios to make easy money with a known title and not have to come up with original ideas (just like now).  Sadly these remakes often failed to live up to the artistry and craftsmanship of the original versions (just like now) and many of them fell by the wayside.  In the last fifteen years or so it seems just about every film churned out is either a remake, a sequel, a reboot, a prequel, a requel, a threequel, a squeakuel (okay that one just applies to the Chipmunks), and any new ideas get squeezed out of the mix except at Oscar season.  Some of the remakes in recent years have been downright baffling, in many cases at the expense of original films that absolutely got it right the first time.  So let's take a look at some of those....

10. The Karate Kid

Directed by John G. Avildsen of Rocky fame, The Karate Kid tells a similar story of an unlikely underdog's one chance at redemption.  Danny Larusso is the new kid in a California suburban school, who immediately runs afoul of some local bullies who also happen to be martial arts students.  After taking a few beatings from these kids, Danny enlists the help of the superintendent of his apartment building, an old Okinawan by the name of Mr. Miyagi.  The film follows Danny's unorthodox training and builds to the karate competition where Danny overcomes the odds and wins the whole thing.  This was a truly inspirational 80s film that has aged fairly well despite some cheesy moments and its similarity to Rocky.  But in 2010 Will Smith co-produced an "update" starring his son Jaden as the titular "Kid" and Jackie Chan as the Miyagi character.  While it got mostly positive reviews, it just struck me as cheap exploitation of a known brand (Lots of that going on in Hollywood), and I can't imagine anyone deeming it the definitive version, nor do I recall anyone clamoring to see it remade.  Makes one wonder when an ill-advised Rocky remake will see the light of day.

9. Psycho

Speaking of remakes no one asked for, in 1998 Gus Van Sant released his homage/shot-for-shot recreation of Alfred Hitchcock's iconic thriller.  This version would be in color, thus robbing the film of the original's distinctive look, and aside from a few shots now made possible by updated technology (the opening crane shot into the hotel room window for example), Van Sant offered literally nothing new.  He used the original shooting script and didn't make any changes to the story, nor did he try to make it his own.  This was nothing more than a vanity project, akin to a contemporary band covering a classic old song note-for-note, resulting in a banal sound-alike.  This doesn't even cover the senselessly inappropriate casting of Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates in a performance that can't hold a candle to Anthony Perkins' original.  If I ever said "Let's watch Psycho" and the person I was hangin' out with popped in the 1998 version I'd punch them square in the face.

8. Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Another classic horror movie pillaged by new millennium Hollywood, TCM broke new ground in 1974 as a realistic, gritty slasher film, before such a thing even existed.  Despite hardly showing any explicit violence, the film succeeded in being a psychologically disturbing, visceral experience that gave birth to the legendary character of Leatherface.  After several terrible sequels the franchise got a reboot in 2003 when Michael Bay's Platinum Dunes company tackled the material, creating a slickly overproduced, run-of-the-mill gorefest with no sense of realism.  This went against the spirit of the original, which relied on mood and guerrilla-style filmmaking to plunge the viewer into palpable terror.  The '03 version was simply another geek show in an already overfarmed genre, and it seemed Platinum Dunes was transparently cashing in on the name recognition.  Worse, it prompted remakes of every popular slasher movie from the 70s and 80s.  Which brings us to....

7. A Nightmare on Elm Street

Ugh.  In 2010 Platinum Dunes, having churned out remakes of TCM, Halloween and Friday the 13th, finally undertook the most stylish of the 80s slasher franchises, A Nightmare on Elm Street.  Things actually got off to a promising start when the always-creepy Jackie Earl Haley was cast as Freddy Krueger.  And, well, that's it.  Everything else about this remake stunk.  From the paint-by-numbers look of the film to the overuse of CG animation to the unimaginative dream sequences, to the explicitly revealed "Freddy is a child molester" twist, this film was devoid of the fun and ingenuity of the original.  It was so poorly received the studio abandoned the planned sequel and left us only with this disposable retread.

6. Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1941)

Probably my favorite (ok, definitely) of the classic 1930s monster movies was the Reuben Mamoulian-helmed Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, released in 1931 and starring the great Frederic March in an Oscar-winning performance.  That film was stylish, visually inventive, and featured wonderful acting and innovative makeup.  The film was also well ahead of its time, dealing frankly with the concepts of sexuality and primal human instincts.  But once the Hays Code was implemented such candor was no longer allowed in American films, and MGM set about remaking Jekyll & Hyde for the 1940s.  The studio recruited Gone With the Wind/The Wizard of Oz auteur Victor Fleming to direct, and promised a much more lush production starring Spencer Tracy and Ingrid Bergman.  Problem was, this version lacked all the urgency of its predecessor and the two leads seemed like they didn't even want to be there (Tracy even tried to back out of the film at one point).  Also the filmmakers went with a minimalist approach to Hyde's makeup, which felt like a letdown after the monstrous, ape-like look of March's Hyde (Ironic since the trailers kept Hyde's look a secret).  This version was actually intended to replace the previous one, and MGM even attempted to confiscate all existing prints (What are they, George Lucas?).  The film was not well-liked and failed to electrify audiences like the 1931 version, which has fortunately survived and is still considered the definitive adaptation of the novel.

5. King Kong (1976 & 2005)

This one's a two-fer.  Another classic 30s monster movie, King Kong was a thrilling adventure that boasted staggering special effects and spawned one of the all-time great film beasts.  The stop-motion animation may seem quaint to us now, but in 1933 nothing like it had ever been seen, and it allowed the filmmakers to create impossibly lifelike creatures and action sequences.  Forty years later King Kong was given a more cynical 1970s treatment, the protagonists' sea voyage having been changed from a film shoot to an oil expedition.  Stop-motion was no longer in fashion and so the effects team unfortunately resorted to the less convincing "man in a suit" approach.  This sadly made Kong's fakeness more transparent and the action scenes took on a stagnant, unexciting quality.  Even the capable Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange failed to save this ill-conceived update.  Then in 2005 Peter Jackson, a die-hard fan of the original, set out to make a CG-enhanced epic Kong, setting the story back in the 30s and going for strict authenticity.  Three things got in the way though.  1) Two of the three leads were horribly miscast - Adrien Brody was wholly unconvincing as Jack Driscoll, changed from the ship's burly first mate to a waifish playwright; and Jack Black played filmmaker Carl Denham as an utter buffoon who I never once believed as a capable movie director.  2) The action sequences were so outlandish they became comical.  Every time one of the island monsters attacked someone the sequence would veer into Warner Brothers cartoon territory and the weight and size of the giant monsters would be totally undermined.  The CG actually ruined the effects, Jackson having let the magic of digital imagery get away from him, and the results were laughable at times (I watched parts of this movie recently and the CG looks fucking terrible a decade later).  3) The goddamn film was three hours long.  THREE.  Look Pete, I know Lord of the Rings was an epic saga, but King Kong should never, EVER be three hours.  Visit an editing room once in a while.  Both of these remakes were godawful and neither of them remotely compares to the original.  Fact is, the creature effects were actually more believable in 1933, when Kong was just an 18-inch rod puppet.

4. Clash of the Titans

More stop-motion animation for ya.  Clash of the Titans was a swashbuckling 1981 adventure film based on Greek mythology and focusing on the epic tale of Perseus, son of Zeus and slayer of the gorgon Medusa and the gigantic Kraken.  The film's delightful special effects were provided by Ray Harryhausen, who took what had been pioneered in King Kong to the next level.  This film's creatures were varied and fantastic-looking, and while stop-motion was still less than totally realistic, there was a charming modesty to the technique.  Today CG animation has taken its place; we're still fully aware we aren't looking at something real, but the difference is the stop-motion models at least occupied three-dimensional space, so there was a tangibility in the original film that's lacking in the 2010 remake.  Louis Leterrier's version boasted noisy, cluttered effects, sullen performances, and some of the worst looking 3-D in cinema history.  Today's Hollywood adventure films aren't allowed to be understated; everything has to be BIGGER, LOUDER, FASTER!  And as a result far too many of these films seem to be born of cynicism rather than genuine affection.  Christ, they even changed Pegasus's fur to black rather than white, I guess because he needed to look like a badass?  I bet his poetry is super dark too.  Just go watch the original version, it's a perfectly excellent fantasy film.

3. Night of the Living Dead

George Romero's low-budget zombie film spawned an entire sub-genre and still holds up as an atmospheric, uncompromising masterpiece of horror.  This simple tale of seven ordinary people holed up in a farmhouse while dead people try to break in and eat them contained brutally honest subtext about the civil rights movement in the 60s, lending the film depth and a timeless relevance.  The guerrilla-style filmmaking gives the movie a total sense of believability, aided by the natural performances and understated-but-graphic makeup effects.  The fact that it was shot in black & white also allowed Romero to create a film noirish tone, adding to the ambience.  In 1990 Romero decided this legendary film needed an upgrade, and makeup artist Tom Savini opted to try his hand at directing.  The result was a completely banal full-color retread without any of the abject terror or realism of the original.  Aside from giving the Barbara character more to do than be catatonic, the remake tells the exact same story but not nearly as skillfully.  The original simply didn't need improving upon, and aside from being a money grab I'm not sure what the purpose of this remake was.

2. Point Break

Alright, now we're just gettin' ridiculous.  I actually find some of the recent remakes of 80s and 90s films offensive, and this is one of those cases.  1991's Point Break was a thrilling, superior action film that introduced some great, perfectly-cast characters and featured spectacular stunts.  To this day I can't go to the beach without thinking of this movie or its rock soundtrack.  Kathryn Bigelow created something of a social commentary about testosterone-driven thrill junkies and dressed it up as an exciting popcorn movie.  This is still one of my favorite pure action films.  And since it has a cult following even today, Hollywood of course plundered it for their 2015 remake, resulting in a big, loud action movie with no charisma whatsoever.  The stunts were bigger and more dangerous-looking, but nothing about it was any fun.  In the 1991 film Keanu Reeves and especially Patrick Swayze played likable, relatable characters with some swagger.  The remake inexplicably leaves out any sense of the characters' charm, instead trying to substitute expensively produced flash.  Hollywood seems to have forgotten that action movies are supposed to be fun to watch.  I legit can't imagine anyone who derives any meaning from the title Point Break ever watching this turd of a remake.

1. Robocop

Yup, this is the remake that pisses me off the most.  Paul Verhoeven's satirical, cartoonishly violent dark comedy remains one of my favorite sci-fi/action films of all time.  This is a film that literally got everything right on the first try.  Peter Weller was flawlessly cast as the tortured cyborg hero, Ronnie Cox was brilliant as the heartless corporate puppetmaster, and Kurtwood Smith was downright terrifying as the sadistic cop-killer.  Rob Bottin's hideously graphic makeup effects made the action sequences uncomfortable and sometimes even funny because of how over-the-top they were.  From the direction to the acting to the fully realized futuristic society, Robocop is an absolute gem.  The 2014 remake is not.  Rated PG-13 and therefore devoid of the original's operatic volatility, the remake removed most of the humor and turned the volume way up on the political subtext to the point that it's now simply "text."  The filmmakers handle this material with all the dexterity of a clumsy teenager; we wouldn't want the themes presented in 1987 to be too subtle for Johnny Q. Popcorn, would we?  And as with most of today's action fare, everyone behind and in front of the camera takes themselves way too seriously.  I will never understand why popcorn movies have become so cheerless; it's like these fools think that if no one's having any fun watching this tripe, that somehow means the film has substance.  Nope, this movie doesn't.  Robocop 2014 is the very definition of an unnecessary remake.  Verhoeven and company were spot-on when they made the original, and it should've been left alone.

Well that's enough bitching and moaning from this old fart.  Comment below with some remakes you deem redundant.  Thanks for reading!

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