Let’s Tell That Story Again: Great Remakes

The Magnificent Seven might just be the best Hollywood remake ever.

Every year there’s a slew of new remakes, often times in the form of bloodying up some old slasher film, like Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th. But 2010 is ripe with more stylish remakes, attempts to tell a good story all over again. And who doesn’t like to hear a great story again and again?

Sometimes it works, and often times it does not. My gripe about remakes is when a team of Hollywood suits gets it into their head to redo a foreign film just because the original was so striking, but of course Americans don’t want to read subtitles. Case in point: Let Me In. Now Let Me In is not a terrible movie, but it so close, so unbelievably close to the original Swedish thriller Let the Right One In that it demands comparison. And when you compare the two, it fails, and fails pretty miserably. Let Me In doesn’t have the acting, the direction, or the sheer creepiness and mounting tension of the original. Why watch Let Me In when you can see Let the Right One In? It doesn’t make any sense to me.

Let’s look now at Zhang Yimou’s A Woman, A Gun, and a Noodle Shop, the Chinese remake of the Coen’s Blood Simple. Now, WGNS is actually a worse movie than Let Me In, and yet I give it more credit because Yimou is at least trying something new. What he fails to do, in my opinion, is make a good movie. WGNS is no Blood Simple, but that’s an unfair comparison–Yimou, in fact, is doing his level best to make his movie strikingly different, not just by moving it in time and place, but by making it a very broad comedy. It’s been battered around critically, but most critics I’ve read dislike WGNS because it’s no Blood Simple. I disliked it because I thought the humor was silly.

December sees the Coen’s doing their own remake of True Grit (and let’s not forget that they’re the ones who made a mess of The Ladykillers. Ouch.) I haven’t seen the new one yet, but I’ve read the book by Charles Portis (which is brilliant, by the way) and watched the John Wayne version. I honestly can’t tell if the Coen’s take is just more brutal, a straight-up remake, or what. The original True Grit is pedantic, but it has its moments, and I can’t fault any movie that has Strother Martin in it. But I can fault a movie that puts up with Glen Campbell’s horrible acting.

I’ve heard tales that the Coen’s wanted to make a film much closer to the original source novel, a noble enough pursuit. Until I read the book, that is, and realized that, despite the leaden direction, the original True Grit is very close to the book indeed. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

So here’s a list: these are some great remakes in my mind, works that are significant because their makers saw a great story and thought to do it again their own way, and do it well (I say “do it well” because that’s why I’m not including The Departed, which is one of Scorsese’s worst movies… and the original’s not much better.)

The Magnificent Seven (1960). Unjustly criticized for not being The Seven Samurai (1954). That’s right, Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai is one of the greatest films of all time (don’t you dare miss it), but Magnificent Seven is a wonderful idea (samurai to western!), and a hell of a lot of fun. (Check out the cool Magnificent Seven trailer. It had a great score, too, by Elmer Bernstein.)

Sergio Leone must’ve thought it was a good idea, too, so he took Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) and turned it into A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Both are great movies… again, I choose Toshiro Mifune over Clint Eastwood.

I hate Zack Snyder with a loathing as deep and consistent as the Mississippi River. But the director of 300 and Watchmen threw together the hugely entertaining Dawn of the Dead remake (2004). The prologue and credit sequence is one of the greatest short horror films ever made, and the rest of the film doesn’t match that audacious beginning. But I will say that it’s a far cry better than Romero’s original (1978). Critics love the original because of its anti-materialism message, but that seems to me to be Romero’s problem with all of his zombie movies outside the original Night of the Living Dead (1968)–dull films with leaden direction, lighting, editing, flat performances… but a political parable that’s as subtle as a zombie pulling brains out of a human.

Ocean’s 11 (2001) benefitted from a great cast and a top notch director in Steven Soderbergh, and I still say it’s a lot of fun. As much as I love Sinatra, the original (1960) could be the most tedious comedy I’ve ever seen.

Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986) is another example of a good director (Paul Mazursky) taking a great original, Renoir’s Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932) and making it entirely his own. Beverly Hills is softened, and Nick Nolte’s no Michel Simon (who could be?) but the modern take is a great examination of suburban wealth and angst. And it’s damn funny.

The Fly (1986), on the other hand, is so far superior to the original Fly (1958) they beggar comparison. The remake is a perfect example of a director, David Cronenberg, taking an idea and making it entirely his own. At once a parable of decay, a tantalizing love story, and a cautionary tale about the limits of scientific curiosity, the new Fly is a masterpiece. The original? Despite Vincent Price, it’s dull, Sunday-afternoon creature-feature fare. Nice work, Cronenberg.

Philip Kaufman’s 1978 take on Invasion of the Body Snatchers is another example of taking a great original (the iconic 1956 version), casting great actors, nimble direction, and making it reflect mores and attitudes of its time–the 70s and the 50s. While not quite as good as the first one, Kaufman’s Invasion is still worth watching.

Don Siegel’s The Killers (1964) is just as good as Robert Siodmak’s 1946 version, perhaps even cooler. One’s in black and white, the other in startling 60s Kodachrome. One has Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner, the other John Cassavettes and Angie Dickinson (and Ronald Reagan and Lee Marvin.) See ’em both, just as you might see a couple of productions of Macbeth. Nothing wrong with letting other people take a crack at a good story, is there?

Other notables: the Little Shop of Horrors musical (1986) v. Corman original (1960); No Way Out (1987) an effective, political thriller based on The Big Clock (1948); Howard Hawks’ Rio Lobo (1970) is a slow, meandering, and damn fun remake of Rio Bravo (1959), and both have John Wayne to boot; Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) is less a remake of the French film Purple Noon (1960), than it is an equally effective riff on Patricia Highsmith’s chilling antihero Tom Ripley; if you ask me, John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) is a bazillion times more terrifying (and well-made) than Howard Hawks’ Thing From Another World (1951).

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3 Responses to Let’s Tell That Story Again: Great Remakes

  1. thstarkweather says:

    I am in complete agreement about “The Departed” and Mifune.

  2. F.T. Rea says:

    Saw “Departed” about a year ago and hated it. It was so bad it was stunning, but I haven’t liked much of what Scorsese has directed made for a long time (although I love “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull”).

    What’s worse, sitting through features like “Departed” or “Bringing Out the Dead,” or watching yet another made-for-TV documentary featuring Scorsese talking about what a bloody genius he is?

    • Peter Schilling says:

      Terry, I don’t know, but even setting aside those two, Scorsese hasn’t thrown together a good movie in, what, nearly forty years? A lot of people I know loved “Shutter Island” and compared it to Hitchcock, but Hitch would never have made a movie that convoluted and boring.

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