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Nov 29 2005

Hollywood remakes

I don’t think that I will ever understand the logic by which some films get made in Hollywood, especially the decision on which older films to remake.

Over the holiday weekend, we watched two films that happened to be remakes of films that I had seen in their original versions. One was The Manchurian Candidate starring Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep (the 1962 version of the film with same name starred Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury). The other was The Truth About Charlie starring Mark Wahlberg, Thandie Newton, and Tim Robbins, which was a remake of Charade (1963) starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. Coincidentally, both remakes were produced and directed by acclaimed director Jonathan Demme, who made Silence of the Lambs.

Another common feature they shared is that both new versions were simply terrible, which prompted me to wonder why these remakes were ever even contemplated. It seems to me that the main reason to remake a film is because the story is interesting and had promise but the original version was somehow botched and the new director feels that he or she could do a much better job with it. But that did not apply in these two cases, so my question is what were Demme and the other people who backed these productions thinking?

The original Manchurian Candidate was a taut cold-war thriller in which a soldier is captured and brainwashed by Communists during the Korean war in order to make him into someone who would unthinkingly follow instructions so that he could serve a political purpose back in the US. The basic brainwashing plot of the original, as in the sequel, was somewhat far-fetched, but the original film worked as a political satire as well..

As for the original Charade, that was perhaps the best romantic comedy-thriller ever made, with a superb musical score by Henry Mancini as a bonus. I have seen it more than once and have never failed to be captivated by it, even though I know all the plot twists.

In remaking films like this that were so good in their original forms, it was clear that the new films could only fare badly by comparison. What surprised me was how awful they were, especially The Truth About Charlie.

Both remakes kept the basic story lines intact, but updated them and added new wrinkles to make them more topical. In The Manchurian Candidate, for example, the soldier son was now brainwashed during the first Gulf war by a huge business conglomerate. The plot often made no sense at all, with huge gaps in logic and character motivation. The filmmakers seemed to try and overwhelm the viewer by making the story very complicated and high-tech, but all that these devices achieved was to irritate me. The only redeeming feature of the new version was an excellent performance by Meryl Streep, matching in her steely ambition the original performance by Angela Lansbury.

Remaking Charade is even harder to understand. Cary Grant set the standard in playing the suave leading man and no one does the wide-eyed innocent better than Audrey Hepburn. “Classy” is the word that always comes to mind when thinking of either of these two actors. The dialogue was clever and the on-screen chemistry between them was almost magical, despite their age difference of twenty five years. The supporting cast of Walter Matthau, James Coburn, George Kennedy, and Jacques Marin (who played the French detective), was also first-rate.

In the remake, Mark Wahlberg and Thandie Newton are nowhere in the same league as Grant and Hepburn, either as actors or on-screen personalities. It actually felt kind of cruel to put them in a situation where they would inevitably be compared unfavorably to those two greats who were at the top of their game. In addition, although sticking to the same basic story line, Demme introduced plot twists and characters and scenes that simply made no sense, with obscure minor characters reappearing for no apparent reason. What the original had in witty dialogue, the remake tried to make up for in gimmicks. It was as if the director was trying for an absurdist effect and failed miserably.

An example of a good remake is Ocean’s Eleven. The 1960 original in that case was just so-so, an excuse for the Rat Pack to hang out together on screen, while the 2001 Steven Soderbergh remake was what a remake should be, taking a poorly executed first attempt and showing how it could be done well.

Doing a remake of a good first effort makes no sense to me. Updating the plot to make it topical does not seem like a good enough reason to do the film over. After all, we can still enjoy classic films the Dr. Strangelove even though the political context that gave it its edge is no more.

But The Truth About Charlie was an absolute travesty, making me want to watch the original Charade again just to rid my mind of the pollution created by the remake.

I am curious as to what readers of this blog who have seen both the original and remake of any film think about this question.

And if you have never seen Charade, try and get hold of a copy. It is a film everyone should see. I am going to see it yet again.

POST SCRIPT: What on earth is going on?

This link takes you to a video that seems to show people in a moving vehicle in Iraq firing machine guns randomly at cars behind them, causing them to swerve and crash and possibly killing the occupants. The bizarre and unbelievably callous nature of these acts is accentuated by the fact that the whole video is accompanied by Elvis Presley singing.

It is alleged by the British newspaper The Telegraph that the shots were fired by members of private foreign security forces working in Iraq. These companies are a law unto themselves, immune from prosecution from either Iraqi or British or American authorities and are said to have caused numerous civilian deaths. This video has sparked calls for an inquiry into the shootings and a British security company Aegis Defence Services says it is also carrying out an internal inquiry, since the video was first posted on its own website, creating suggestions that it was put on the server as a “trophy.”

9 comments

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  1. 1
    catherine

    Mano, I’m going to ignore your postscript, since it’s too ghastly to deal with right now.

    Re remakes, was there ever a film that shows political and personal evil to match “The Manchurian Candidate”? And Lawrence Harvey’s incredible performance as a man destroyed, literally, by despair. And much as I hate to admit it because of his terrible treatment of women and others, Sinatra is a great actor. Yes, great.

    The problem is that many filmgoers don’t see the differences and will probably flock to see both films. I loved the remake of Oceans 11, too, but I recommend, from what I’ve heard, that you not see Oceans 12. Really, don’t.

  2. 2
    Barry

    Ocean’s 12 wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t all that good either, but if you liked the first, you’ll enjoy the second. Maybe not $9 worth in a theater, but certainly $3 worth from the rental place.

    If you Google “movie remakes” you’ll discover a bunch of popular movies are remakes that you probably never had any idea about (The Ring, The Mummy?)

    I would guess a good case for remakes is special effects. I assume whatever original version of The Mummy there was, it couldn’t have looked as good as the remake. Same goes for the upcoming King Kong and Superman remakes.

    As for taking classics and redoing them for no foreseeable reason? No clue. But I bet is has something to do with money and lack of originality.

    Oh yeah, you left out the Psycho remake in that “What were they thinking?” category.

  3. 3
    Mano Singham

    Yes, I can where the possibility of introducing modern special effects can play a role in the decision.

    At a recent film I went to, I saw previews for both King Kong and Superman. I had had no idea that they were being remade but I suppose the special effects were a major factor. But I am getting quite jaded with special effects and I am not sure if they can carry a film anymore.

  4. 4
    Tom Trelvik

    I’m going to disagree, and say that remakes have nothing to do with updating a classic for modern times (either in content or effects). I’m going to take the cynical approach that it’s purely driven by marketing, and that’s why you see so many remakes of movies that are unlikely to ever be improved upon. They made a bunch of money the first time, and now enough time has passed that most people have forgotten or never knew about the original, let’s revive this one for some extra money, and save on the writing costs.

    You see it all the time, in plenty of industries. Great movies get remade into bad ones. Software manufacturers do their best to force the purchase of upgrades for nominal improvements. Razor companies try to get you to buy their knew razor and blades because it has an “extra blade” or “sonic vibrations” or some other nonsense supposed to convince you it’s worth the switch.

    Heck, there’s a great example in video games called Katamari Damacy. It’s this utterly bizzarre game whose plot is basically that the King of the Cosmos partied too hard the night before, and knocked all the stars out of the sky, and you, his nephew have to go to Earth to pick up lots of stuff to make new stars with. You pick stuff up by rolling around your “katamari”, which is basically just a ball that picks up everything it touches if it’s big enough to pick that up, and as you pick up more things it gets bigger, and so can pick up bigger things. After each level, the King of Cosmos takes your ball of stuff and makes a star out of it. Well, believe it or not, that game grew hugely popular in large part because of how weird and unique it was. So what was the manufacturer’s respnose? Why, a sequel of course! The original designer of the game refused to sign on with that, saying that game wasn’t meant to have a sequel, it’s supposed to be unique. But they didn’t care if he was involved or not, so they started making it without him, and it was only when he saw what they were doing to his brainchild that he reluctantly agreed to direct the production of the game, simply to minimize the damage. (Incidentally, there’s at least one more, already in the works, for the PSP (a portable platform).)

    But basically, I believe it just boils down to finding something profitable, and repackaging it to try to squeeze more money out of it.

  5. 5
    catherine

    And for heaven’s sake, don’t ignore the terrible remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” one of the best McCarthy-era horror films ever made.

  6. 6
    Brooke

    The film society seems to be dealing with the issue of re-makes pretty well. If something new is coming up, they will typically try to show the original AND the new version in a certain time period.

    For example, the film society will be showing the original 1933 King Kong during its scifi marathon, and it will be showing the new version of kong when it becomes available to them next fall.

    This way, at least the audience has a chance to see how teh film has changed, and can see the new film as a different interpretation, rather then something to cover up the old film.

  7. 7
    DanM

    Unfortunately War of the worlds fits into this category of horrible remakes as well.
    Sure sure, the special effects are insane and ILM deserves an Oscar or two.
    As for plot, the original had it, the update murders it.
    Where did this fairy tale ending come from? The son dies in a fireball! And comes back to life! Somehow beating his dad to boston where the whole family reunites in suburbia! So that’s what he “had to see”.
    The aliens went through the trouble of burying war machines “long before people were here”? Why not just land with the war machines and take the planet back then? Way too many holes in the plot “twists” and then the same bacterial ending (shoulda put a twist there). At least they couldn’t f-up Morgan Freeman’s voice.
    The first half is great and you can follow it (minus dakota fanning’s screaming) The son (who never listens) just makes you wonder why the father hansn’t beaten him this whole time. And he stole his dad’s 65 stang? Which somehow, without a circuit board in the car, is affected by the EMP, yet the minivan “solenoid” change works wonders. The aliens have baskets for people whom apparently they need to eat for their blood, after first zapping half their food-supply in the first part of the movie? The grenade in the alien sphincter-thingy is just too convenient. And the most melodramatic part where Ray has to kill a man, is left up to our imagination (which would be better used by reading the original book).
    Clouds supposedly cover the alien invasion. Which begs the question, why can’t we see them coming light-years away with the Hubble or a sattelite? Clouds in space too I guess.
    Apparently when the aliens get sick, the first thing to do is turn off the shiels, there now I feel better without defenses! And such an intelligent race without medicine? C’mon Spielberg! You could have done alot better. Most people I know say they just didn’t get the ending especially but felt like they missed something. I say there’s nothing to miss, it’s just not there.
    It’s gone from Sci-fi to Spi-fi (spielberg financing)
    I guess the explosions and gore will have to do for entertainment. Forget plot, logic, sci-fi and so much for a “homage” to the original. It’s more like a rape done by a eunich director!!!
    So much for ever seeing another Spielberg flick! Hollywood has gone further down the drain yet again!!!

    As for your post-script video of IRAQ:
    All muslims believe in the Koran.
    The Koran says to “destroy the non-believer”
    These guys are just returning the favor.
    What do you think would happen to them if they ran out of gas and bullets?
    Thos same “civilians” would cut off their heads.
    There are no non-combatants in Islam. All muslims are suspect if they truly believe in the teaching of mohamad (who had innocents killed himself when they didn’t agree with his new religion)
    There is no honor in Islam.
    Try looking up “honor” killings,
    Female genital mutilation,
    Muslim “women’s rights” etc…

    But now I am arguing about religion (I mean ancient man’s fairy tales told in a cave thousands of years ago) on a modern computer network. Reason and Science hopefully will overcome legends and bed-time-stories.
    Yes, I believe in a God (just not in man or religious institutions)

  8. 8
    Mano Singham's Web Journal

    Revisiting The Manchurian Candidate

    Some time ago, after watching awful remakes of The Manchurian Candidate and Charade, I went on a rant against Hollywood…

  9. 9
    monster psp

    I just love all movies. I have been downloading lots of classic movies and now I watch them on my psp

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