Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A remake by any other name . . .

might give you an idea how much it's going to suck. An article in today's Salon discusses upcoming remakes of The Gambler and Oldboy by Martin Scorcese and Spike Lee respectively. Though I agree with the article's argument, (basically that remakes aren't always disasters so we should all just relax), I do have problems with the terminology. The piece puts any movie that substantially relies on earlier material into one big category, but I think the sheer number and variety of "remakes" over the past decade or so have sorted themselves into smaller sub-genres, some better than others. For example . . .

Gritty reboots. These films share a lot with prequels, but in telling an origin story, they also invent new rules for the film's universe that may or may not coincide with the earlier movie(s). The king of the gritty reboot mountain is, to my mind, Batman Begins, but I think J.J.'s Star Trek and this summer's The Rise of the Planet of the Apes also qualify. They have a pretty good track record.

Faithful reshoots. These films take a prior film and pretty much just make it again, sometimes with better effects or nods to a new time period, but not always. The paradigmatic example is Van Sant's shot-for-shot remake of Psycho, but Scorcese's Cape Fear and Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate also come to mind. For me, these kinds of remakes have the least potential for being interesting, and usually beg the question " and why does this movie exist?" I'm afraid the upcoming Red Dawn and Footloose remakes are going to fall victim to the perils of this category.

Covers. This is a category of my own devising, but the Salon article inspired it by including YouTube footage of Sinatra's and Sid Vicious's versions of "My Way." It's the same song, but performed by two wildly different artistic sensibilities. I think when remakes put the remakey-ness front and center in this way, there's a good chance for some fun and fascinating intertextuality. So in this camp, we've got the Swedish Let the Right One In and the American version Let Me In. The latter plays up the new setting, and includes some Reagan-era paranoia that complements the earlier film's story of vampires living and walking amongst us. Last year's Bad Lieutenant also makes a location change from the earlier film (New York to New Orleans), but more importantly puts the character through the macabre existential freak show that is the mind of Werner Herzog.

Scorcese and Lee have the kind of strong aesthetic identity that could put their new projects in the "Cover" category. I'm particularly excited to see Oldboy, an an epically intense South Korean revenge story, as a Spike Lee Joint starring always-better-than-he-has-to-be Josh Brolin.


  1. Personally I prefer the gritty reboot. Faithful reshoots annoy me unless the effects in the original are really out of date. They colorized old movies, can't they just go in and replace the CGI without harming the original?

    A perfect example of the unnecessary but faithful reshoot is the upcoming travesty, Footloose. They even seem to have the exact same dialog. {Shudder}

    I love your "covers" category. The American version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo should have been a cover (easily set in the Pacific Northwest-they have tons of little islands on which a retired industrialist could live). But no, they're going for the faithful reshoot which is ridculous when the original version is so great.

  2. I agree about Dragon. I'm just hoping Fincher can salvage it with his special brand of cold, calculating, beautifully-shot misanthropy!