Midday Movies: Remakes
April 30, 2013 11:08 a.m.
Beth Accomando, author of the blog Cinema Junkie
Ian Forbes, founder and senior editor for Sobering Conclusion
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CAVANAUGH: Next week, the third big-screen remake of the Great Gatsby opens in San Diego. This one stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby. It's more than three decades since Robert Redford took on the role, so maybe we're due for a new version. But for some film-goers, Hollywood's consistent return to familiar material is simply a sign that they've run out of idea. Beth decided to take on the topic of film remakes with two other film buffs. Her guests are Ian Forbes, founder and senior editor of Sobering Conclusion, and Miguel Rodriguez, host of Monster Island Record.
ACCOMANDO: Remake, sequel, prequel, reimagining. What makes a good remake? Is it really a bad thing to remake an old film? Is this a new trend? Our news department used to have the editors' Roundtable, so I thought it would be fitting to dub this the Geek Roundtable. Miguel, one of the points you wanted to make is that remakes are nothing new.
RODRIGUEZ: Lately from film fans, there's a lot of anger about the remake thing. But it's very cyclical, and it's very much nothing new. At any time there's a huge jump in film technology there, is a remake boom. When the talkies happened, any number of silent films were remade, whether it's the ten commandments or Hunchback. In the 70, we had remakes of films like king Kong. So it is a cycle whenever there's a major jump in film invasion, we want to see what we can do with old films with new technology. And top of that, if we look at film as a story telling medium, remakes are a very natural and healthy part of story telling. As part of our culture and civilization, it's an interesting thing to revisit familiar territory and see what spin we can put on it with new values, new morays and judgment systems.
ACCOMANDO: If we think about remakes in those terms how does it color the definition? Why should someone be remaking a film?
FORBES: It's tricky. The important thing is that you either want to be saying something new or presenting it in a way that it's fresh for an entirely new audience which is why I'm not all that angry when you've got something being remade 30 or 40 years later. You've got an entirely new generation and technology to set the stage in. But when it comes to just making it for the sake of remaking it, it doesn't make a lot of sense.
ACCOMANDO: You have an ax to grind in term was remakes, when American studios remake a foreign film, and part of it is you feel a little bit that it's just remaking it so you don't have to read the subtitles. So what is it about this kind of particular genre of remakes that bothers you?
FORBES: Well, it seems to be that case. And recently it seems to be more a case of almost immediately remaking that remake. We're not even waiting 10 years. A great foreign film came out, I bit we can get it out in two years in English. And whether they're trying to provide shelter for the illiterate, it's insulting because you want to do something new with it. The girl with the dragon tattoo, David Fincher remade that film, I don't know why because he didn't even set it in a different location. If he had decided to move it too to America, you would have some different morals, ethics going on that would have made the story interesting. But to just redo it with a new score and without better production value, what's the point? So it gets a little insulting to see them take those films and present the same story all over again but only for those people who said I don't really want to read those subtitles.
ACCOMANDO: Do you think what drives Hollywood to do that, they see something that's successful and feel safe going to it?
FORBES: Sure. They've got a story that clearly resonated. All they need to do is translate the script, give it to a bunch of new actors, get some big names into it, and drop it out. It's a safe money move. It just doesn't make any sense artistically. So it's surprising when you see a director like Fincher take on a project like that.
ACCOMANDO: Then we have the recent Swedish film, let the right one in. Remade as the not cleverly titled "let me in."
NEW SPEAKER: Are you a vampire? I need blood to live. How old are you? Really.
NEW SPEAKER: 12. I've been 12 for a very long time.
FORBES: The new Let Me In didn't do it shot by shot, but there were plenty of scenes that felt completely lifted from the original. It's just retreading on the original, not doing anything new, and missing especially in that case, missing that nuance, the subtleties that played between the two kids in the Swedish original. And those two films aren't bad films on their own. If the originals didn't exist, they would be decent enough films. There's just no point to remaking them.
ACCOMANDO: Now the notion of taking a foreign film and remaking it into an English language film has been done for many decades. One of my favorite remakes, the magnificent 7, take the seven samurai, and translate it to the old west. And this is an instance of taking a foreign film, making it into English and working. And this is one of the films that you like as a remake.
RODRIGUEZ: It's one of my favorite films to begin with. And one of the reasons it works, they took a film that is genuinely fantastic, placed it in a different setting. It shows we're able to take the trials the characters go through, and the conflict they go through and give it a different cultural spin, while at the same time we can see how those powerful themes in the seven samurai are universal. When you have that element of being able to take a story from another culture and giving it your own culture's spin while showing the differences and the similarities between the two, you can get something very interesting.
ACCOMANDO: Let's talk about a film, a remake that does work well and kind of look at why it does that. This is John carpenter's The Thing. This is a remake of a 1950s Sci-fi film. A good amount of time passed by, technology changed significantly, but the key thing that worked here too is the social climate and the culture that we lived in changed. So talk a little bit about what the change was from Howard Hawk's to John Carpenter's.
RODRIGUEZ: Ian said something key about remakes air quick way to make some money. So from a producer's point of view, you can take something familiar, but the other side to a film is the creative team. And it's up to the creative team to give you something special. And with someone like John Carpenter, particularly in the '80s, he did have something he wanted to say with that. And the original thing, Howard Hawk's, it was in the 50s, the red scare, McCarthyism, very much an America afraid of the outside. So in that group you have a group of scientists in Antarctica, very isolated, banding together to battle an alien force. John Carpenter gives us something completely different, we're in Reganism, in the '80s, and a group of scientists isolated in Antarctica, certainly an alien force, but our paranoia turns us against each other. It's such a dramatically different message, and it's done so are. How document about carpenter's remake?
FORBES: It stands for me as probably one of the best remakes. I can appreciate it on so many level, and just the practical effects and the fact that you do have this completely different social climate going on. I think both filmmakers really understood that climate so they were able to take advantage of that. And that's kind of the difference when you get to some of the newer remakes, they're not really understanding what made the message part of the original film important. So they're not correctly translating it.
ACCOMANDO: Film making in Hollywood is a business and an art form. The business side sees remakes as I way to cash in on popular properties, then you have artists working on them that want to make them good. Then you have conundrums like the Psycho remake. Gus Van Sant decided to tackle remaking Psychowith the only difference really being he made it in color. Why?
RODRIGUEZ: I do remember a Gus Van Sant interview where, I'm paraphrasing, he said that he was doing that because he's a huge fan of the original film, which I believe, and that he wants to introduce it to a generation of people who will not watch a black and white film. Again, I guess it's well-intentioned, but it was just ill-advised.
FORBES: And it's kind of the same idea as, well, people won't read subtitles. So let's remake those for people show they can experience that same joy!
ACCOMANDO: Film illiterates, people who don't want to watch a black and white film.
RODRIGUEZ: Why do we want to appeal to the lowest common denominator? But that is the business end.
ACCOMANDO: Let me bring up one bad remake that's sure to cause Miguel some pain. As a huge fan of godzilla, there was an ill-fated American remake of godzilla. What went wrong!
RODRIGUEZ: Everything was wrong. Essentially we have a creative team who didn't understand the original franchise and didn't respect it either. And of course in some of the early marketing when they're talking about what it's going to be, they would say things like these are going to be great special effects! It's not going to be people in rubber suits knocking down Legos. Right there it sos you there is no reverence for the source material. It became Jurassic park in the city. For anyone who likes the original Japanese films, the Japanese KAIJU in those films are forces of nature, and humans can't control forces of nature. They try and they fail every time. But in the remake, one of the things that most of us have exception to is godzilla is just a big iguana lizard and they kill him with missiles and it upset us.
FORBES: I think Emerick just enjoyed the idea, well, I can smash New York City. He just likes to knock a few buildings down. It was clear they did I understand or make reverence of the original.
ACCOMANDO: It's only fair to pick up a sore point for you, Ian. You grew up in the '80s with some films and some TV shows that you hold close to your heart. And some of those have been the source of Hollywood remakes recently. Which of these has caused you the most pain?
FORBES: I'm so glad we're in that cycle where I can just watch my childhood be destroyed over and over again every couple months. The worst has been Red Dawn. That one just absolutely missed the mark. It was obvious it had been sitting on the shelf for a couple of years. You have no integrity in it because you decided, well, we got to change the villains. Can't be the Chinese anymore so we got to go to North Korea. And the original Red Dawn had the cold war and this really deep paranoia in America that Russians were going to launch something on us, nuclear, an invasion, there was a real fear out there. And with this new one, it's almost sad they didn't hold this remake another year. Because maybe now the North Korea thing would make some sense. But last year it didn't make as much.
ACCOMANDO: The best and worst, I'll start with scarface. This is one of the better remakes I think, they turned it into this grand operatic film with al-Pacino going way over the top to play this Cuban gangster. And one of the worst ones, Scorsese's the Departed, which is based on a Hong Kong film. What would you like to go out with?
RODRIGUEZ: Because I'm feeling positive today, and we haven't mentioned it, The Fly by David Cronenberg. It took everything about it, all the key points were hitting, the technology was better, the match-up effects were at their peek, and Cronenberg took that story, which was essentially Vincent price, a little goofy fly-head story, and turned it into a disturbing body-horror story. He didn't leave out the humor, but he said something very different with it and gave us a very memorable film.
FORBES: I'm going to say one in a positive light that may sound a little weird, it's something I didn't think I would come around to. But when I watched it, I enjoyed the way they treated it. The a-team. I think they really understood the chemistry between the characters so at least it felt like the a-team. They could have done a little more building scenes. But I thought had made sense. And they had some cameos from some of the originals in there in good spots.