Remakes

Every so often, someone complains about remakes. Not only are they sacrilege–“How dare they fiddle with that masterpiece?”–but they’re proof of Hollywood’s decline: “No one is capable of an original idea.”

A lack of original ideas has nothing to do with it. It’s far cheaper to rip off an old plot than to buy it and make an honest remake. Hollywood dusts off those old properties because name recognition helps sell movies.

Thirty years ago, there was good reason to hate remakes: When the new version came out, the original classic was indefinitely shelved. Of course you’d hate the remake that robbed you of an old favorite. But today, the original classic is viewed as a marketing tool. Or better yet, an extra for the DVD.

Great stories are told over and over again–that’s the nature of culture. If a remake is a pale shadow of the original, it will fade and be forgotten. Have you seen the 1951 version of M? I didn’t think so. But you’ve probably seen the 1959 version of Ben-Hur.

We think of Ben-Hur as a classic, not a remake. The same is true with The Maltese Falcon, Some Like It Hot, The Wizard of Oz, and My Darling Clementine. But all of these were based on previous films or on books that had been filmed before.

Here are some recent remakes compared with their originals. I’ve only included examples where I’ve seen both films.

Psycho (1960 & 1998): Gus Van Sant’s remake is an interesting experiment–it used the same screenplay and, it appears, the same storyboards as the original–but not a particularly good film. Compare the two, and you can see how much acting (the only real difference between the films beside color) changes a movie. In this case, despite an excellent cast, it didn’t change it for the better. Winner: The original.

The Ten Commandments (1956) and The Prince of Egypt (1998): Is Prince of Egypt really a remake? There are enough similarities to justify that claim, certainly more than between DeMille’s 1923 and 1956 versions. The Ten Commandments (1956) is a four-hour mix of wonderful spectacle and unintentionally hilarious piety, washed down with the silliest of melodrama. I love it. But Prince of Egypt, by taking the story seriously and treating the characters as complex human beings, creates true drama and, for this Jew at least, a spiritual experience. Winner: The remake.

The Music Man (1962 & 2003): The original film was a big, widescreen roadshow presentation, the Disney remake a TV movie. That’s almost two different mediums. The TV version has some nice touches, including choreography more appropriate for the small screen and a script that sticks closer to the real original–the stage play. But The Music Man doesn’t work without a charismatic star. I’ve liked Matthew Broderick in almost everything I’ve seen him in, but here, he’s lifeless. Winner: The original.

Doctor Zhivago (1965 & 2002): Once again, a 60’s roadshow film remade for the small screen, but this time by the BBC, a classier act than Disney. They’re both good, but the remake, being a miniseries, has more time to build the complex story and simulate the sweep of history. Hans Matheson makes a more believable and sympathetic Zhivago than Omar Sharif. As a product of the modern BBC, it’s sexier. Not that it matters, but I also suspect it’s closer to the book. Winner: The remake.

Ocean’s Eleven (1960 & 2001): The original was probably quite entertaining when it was made, but the fun stopped when the picture got to theaters and audiences were left with a dull and lifeless picture. The remake is no masterpiece, but it’s a fun romp. Winner: The remake.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962 & 2004): The original is a masterpiece, while the remake is merely very good. But aren’t two movies, one great and the other very good, better than one great movie? Besides, there’s something very cool about the remake: Its plot twists play on the expectations of those who’ve seen the original, adding something new and exciting to a well-loved classic. Winner: The audience.

So much for my rant. On to this week’s line-up:

Recommendation: Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Rafael, The biggest financial scandal ever becomes the Great American tragedy in this highly entertaining documentary. Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, and the rest of the scoundrels are so filled with optimism and faith in their own narrowly-created worldview that their fall becomes inevitable. But the filmmakers never lose sight of the real tragedy: the innocent victims that these hubris-filled businessmen took down with them.

Recommendation: Downfall, Balboa, through Thursday (at least). Yes, it humanizes Hitler, but as human beings go, he doesn’t come off as someone you’d want to hang with, let alone run your country. A frightening and fascinating study of the collapse of a society that never should have existed in the first place, and a meditation on the danger of unquestioning faith.

Recommendation: Millions, Balboa, through June 2. Okay, I confess: My kids weren’t too impressed with this kids’ film–but I loved it. When a bag of stolen cash seemingly drops from the sky into the life of a sweetly spiritual and religious young boy, everyone’s life turns upside down. This was directed by Danny Boyle; think Trainspotting for children. On a double-bill with Downfall–two great movies but a very strange combination.

Noteworthy: Grizzly Man, Castro, Friday night. Werner Herzog’s latest documentary examines Timothy Treadwell, a naturalist who took his love of grizzly bears too far. After years of studying them up close and living with them as a member of the species, he was eventually eaten by one. Part of the Green Screen Environmental Film Festival. Herzog might appear, but it’s not confirmed.

Recommendation: Taxi Driver, Red Vic, Friday and Saturday. Martin Scorsese’s first real masterpiece, and one of the great American films. Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle is probably the creepiest protagonist ever to light up the screen.

Noteworthy: (Yet) Another Hole In the Head Film Festival, Roxie, Friday through Thursday. The folks at IndieFest are following up their documentary festival with something a little less serious (whether it’s less scary depends on the documentary). This week-long orgy of mostly low-budget horror and fantasy includes, according to its producers, “Egyptian Gods, bloodsucking parasitic monsters, clones, maniacs, Satanists, zombies, aliens, beavers, Godzilla, assassins, angry ghosts, hungry cows, spider women, wrestling seafood, samurai werewolves and more macabre mayhem.”

Recommendation: Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers, Castro, Saturday afternoon. Les Blank’s documentary is simply a celebration of the “stinking rose” we all love so much. It will be presented, as it usually is, in “Aromaround.” Part of the Green Screen Environmental Film Festival.

Recommendation: The Gold Rush, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday night. Many consider this Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece. I prefer City Lights, but still place The Gold Rush among the greatest comedies ever made. If you’ve never seen it, or never seen it with live music and a real audience, or (worst of all) have only seen Chaplin’s dreadful 1942 sound reworking, you owe it to yourself to see it properly.

Recommendation: Princess Mononoke, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday. Hayao Miyazaki weaves eastern mythology and modern environmental concerns into an amazing fantasy about humans’ relationships with animals. This is the original Japanese version, not the dubbed one that played in first run theaters a few years ago. The DVD contained the original Japanese soundtrack, but with English subtitles based on the dubbing–resulting in some odd gender confusion among the non-human characters. Let’s hope that this time, they get the subtitles right.