Top Five….Worst Remakes

The competent but underwhelming The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) is unsurprisingly not the last we have seen of remakes this year. Total Recall (1990) has just been released in the states to a largely muted response and Robocop (1987), Carrie (1976) and Oldboy (2003) are all in the works. Here is my run down of the worst remakes, in no particular order.

 

Psycho (1998)

Gus Van Sant has a fine back catalogue to his name encompassing media satire To Die For (1995) and the polarising Columbine inspired Elephant (2003). After awards success with Good Will Hunting (1997) his decision to embark on a shot for shot remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) was severely misguided. The exercise is simply pointless. Other than the inclusion of a few shots Hitch couldn’t pull off due to technical constraints of the day we get an anodyne remake which, aside from William H Macy as Detective Arbogast, is badly cast. A post Swingers (1996) Vince Vaughan as Norman Bates? Baffling indeed. The centre piece of the film, an intrinsic part of film and cultural history, is edited within an inch of its life with rolling clouds etc. trashing the memory of the original in the process.


The Wicker Man (2006)

Transplanted to an island off the coast of Washington rather than the Scottish Summerisle, this bastardisation of Robin Hardy’s 1973 cult horror forgoes the quaint, sinister edge of it’s pagan original, bowdlerising itself in the process. Nicholas Cage is the cop sent to track down an ex fiancée’s missing daughter, a task he embarks on with the same level of acting prowess he has happily maintained for the last two decades as the pay cheques roll in i.e. generally disengaged but shouty and over the top when necessary to show some vague level of involvement. I’m not sure what is scarier, the thought of sitting through this film again or the fact that Neil Labute produced, wrote and directed it. Regrettably we are a long way from molasses black comedy In the Company of Men (1997).


Scarface (1983)

A controversial selection maybe but I have never understood the love for Brian De Palma’s remake of Howard Hawks depression era gangster flick. Here it is not a case of a remake being unnecessary, the Cuban refugee angle is an astute move on paper, more the whole gaudy, eighties bombast of the enterprise. Some people say this is the whole point, the emptiness beneath Tony Montana’s pursuit of the American dream. All this equates to for me is Pacino at his worst, not so much chewing scenery as eviscerating anything and anyone he gets near, a man in dire need of some valium. Giorgio Moroder’s awful, tinny score is another black mark. Even the infamous set pieces, the chainsaw scene and the final shootout, are not as sublime as equivalents in The Untouchables (1987) and Carlito’s Way (1993).


Alfie (2004)

Arguably Michael Caine’s defining role. The cheeky, cockney womanisers conquests through swinging sixties London are the core of the film but I think it is often forgotten how he also learns the consequences of his actions in a scene near the end, featuring Denhom Elliot as a backstreet abortionist. No such arc exists in the Jude Law remake making Alfie irredeemable. Law also lacks the old school appeal of Caine’s creation coming over as vain, slimy and incredibly loathsome, a rogue not a charmer. To add insult to injury this remake is based in New York for no particular reason whatsoever. Caine seems to have no luck with revisits of his past films, Get Carter (2000) and The Italian Job (2003) also getting the same treatment.


The Haunting (1993)

Robert Wise’s 1963 original may have a gimmicky plot, paranormal investigators staying overnight in a haunted house, but it also has style in spades. Although not on a par with the Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961), Wise makes clever use of shadows and sound to generate atmosphere. The remake substitute’s clever film making technique, established through many genres over many years,  for that most modern of cruxes, CGI. Unsurprisingly proceedings take a more telegraphed vein and any sense of dread is only felt at what ridiculous renderings the viewer will be subjected to next.

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The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Dir Christopher Nolan, USA, 165 mins

Starring: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Marion Cotillard

Christopher Nolan’s reputation for producing classy, complex mainstream genre pictures has remained intact since breakthrough Memento (2000). This sophomore effort, the ultra low budget Following (1998) was his debut, starred Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby, an amateur sleuth hunting for his wife’s murderer. Leonard suffers from anterograde amnesia (an inability to retain short term memory) and tattoos his body with clues as he delves deeper into a murky world whose characters motivations are never concrete. The increasingly fragmented plot replicates his state of mind and pushes the audience to re evaluate every scene as we skip back and forth surveying what was or maybe wasn’t. It is a film that after many viewings can be perceived differently each time and a unique, tragic twist on film noir.

It is Nolan’s willingness to develop his own screenplays (generally in collaboration with brother Jonathan) that has enabled a quality control resulting in thriller Insomnia (2002), in this one case a remake of a 1997 Norwegian original, and sleight of hand mystery The Prestige (2006). Inception (2010), literally a subconscious heist film, is perhaps his greatest achievement alongside Memento.

Resuscitating the Batman franchise potentially seemed an ill fit but with Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008) Nolan tailored the superhero genre for his own purposes. His Gotham City is set in a realistic social context and as each film has progressed he has built in an epic tale.  At its core these films deconstruct what the superhero represents as an entity and query ethical conundrums on a political level. We have come a long way, thankfully, since Batman and Robin (1997).

The Dark Knight Rises is the concluding part of this cycle and is set eight years after its predecessor. After taking the rap for the death of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has hung up his cowl and is now a recluse. Crime has significantly lowered in the city due to the introduction of the Dent act. A break in by cat burglar Selina Kyle, aka Cat Women, (Anne Hathaway) revives Wayne’s interest and sets forth a wave of conspiracy taking in board room machinations at Wayne Enterprises and the introduction of the gargantuan Bane, who has his own agenda on a grander scale.

After a cracking, Bond esque opening as a plane is hijacked mid air, Nolan quickly settles into spinning multiple plot intrigues that have characterised this set of films. It is the merger of these strands as a whole that never makes the mammoth running time seem a chore, a breakneck pace ensures that this remains absorbing. The weight of decisions made in The Dark Knight also loom over this film, white lies made for best purposes at the time are exposed and questioned in the public arena adding weight and depth to the plot. Set pieces are expertly orchestrated with panache, a highlight being Bane’s takeover of Gotham’s stock exchange and the torment he dishes out to the bankers. By the stage where Bane’s plan is fully in action a way back seems implausible.

Bale holds the various elements together at centre stage. Here we find Wayne a broken man, physically and mentally, whose self sacrifice for a greater whole has brought personal loss and isolation, a contrast to his youthful endeavour in the original. It is great to see him finish off the arc of this character in a genre where such talk is usually redundant.

Hardy’s Bane is not as wickedly appealing as Heath Ledger’s Joker but a fitting adversary. If the Joker possessed a mental rivalry with Batman, Bane’s is physical. Hardy relies on his hulking physique to emote (his mouth is obscured by a contraption throughout the film) and he works wonders with so little. The voice, which caused some concern on an early release of footage, is decipherable although at times distracting (think a more fluid Stephen Hawking crossed with Merchant Ivory gent).

Bane’s reason for his “reckoning” upon Gotham does provide the one murky aspect of the film. In this post 9/11 world, fear and terrorism, in turn, each formed topical subtext for Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. The Dark Knight Rises equivalent would be revolt; the Occupy protests an obvious influence. Bane’s rebellion has more fascistic overtones, turning Gotham into a police state with ghettos and kangaroo courts. He uses capitalism against the consumers to achieve this goal so maybe this can be viewed as the ultimate in revenge fantasy, taking matters to their natural extent of implosion. This is entirely open to interpretation, just an intriguing footnote in what is of course pure entertainment.

There are minor quibbles. A major twist during the finale feels entirely unnecessary and there are other plot points which are simply implausible, one cruncher especially. Out of the supporting cast Hathaway is fine as Cat Women, although her character does flitter in and out of the film, more attractive addition with cursory function. Caine, as faithful servant Alfred, and Joseph Gordon Levitt as cop John Blake are standouts. Blake unexpectedly occupies a lot of screen time, particularly once the people of Gotham take responsibility on to their own shoulders.

The Dark Knight Rises does lack the finesse and clever plot turns of The Dark Knight. Having said that it wraps the series up in style, some may say with a bow on top, but there is enough ambiguity in the conclusion to deter accusations of implicitly selling out. After the disappointment of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus it is reassuring to see summer fare that is epic in scope but more substantial than its expensive parts. Let’s just hope the same can be said for the inevitable, unnecessary reboot.

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

The-Amazing-Spider-Man

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)   

Dir: Marc Webb, USA, 136mins

Cast: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Martin Sheen, Sally Field

After The Avengers (2012) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) Marc Webb’s reboot of the Spider-Man franchise always seemed destined to be the poor relation in this oversubscribed superhero summer. Both counterparts at least offered something fresh, or, at least, as fresh as this fare gets. Marvel orchestrated the hype, preparing an audience with Iron Man (2008/2010), Thor (2011) and Captain America (2011) before the unveiling of their trademark team. The much anticipated latter saw the conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, an abject example in how to reboot a franchise successfully, smuggling onboard topical subtext to probe deeper questions and adding a layer of realism.

Rebooting the Batman franchise was understandable, particularly after Tim Burton left and Joel Schumacher took over, hideously substituting gothic for camp. Nolan also built from the ground up tackling character origins in more depth. The question with Spider-Man is a little more difficult to comprehend as Sam Raimi has already tackled the origins story. Admittedly this came with mixed success; the first was serviceable if overly preachy, the second a highpoint, darker with Alfred Molina excelling as villain Doc Ock, and the third an overblown mess with too many villains spoiling the broth. Although The Amazing Spider-Man works, and at times surpasses, in its own right an overwhelming feeling of déjà vu is all too apparent.

In this version Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is a high school student in the care of Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field) after his parents mysteriously go on the run (an issue never tackled but surely to be elaborated on in further instalments). Peter discovers that his father worked with Dr Curtis Connors (Rhys Ifans). On a covert visit to Oscorp labs to see Connors he slips away to a high security area and is bitten by a genetically modified spider producing obvious results. Meanwhile Connors is working on a serum (with lizard DNA) to regenerate limbs, an affliction he himself has dealt with since birth, and after some self experimentation begins to undergo his own extreme transformation.

Other than minor plot tweaks this stays close to Raimi’s 1997 original, one part origins tale, one part hero-villain face off. We still go through the same beats but without the heavy handed “with great power comes great responsibility” sermonising that proved so irritating. This sentiment is still included but toned down considerably. Early action scenes are small scale, witty and decidedly old school in their execution with a vibe not dissimilar from the 1970’s TV series. Webb has a lighter touch overall even if we have seen it all before.

Garfield is also superior to Maguire in the pivotal role. Parker here is re-imagined as a cool, skater boy outsider with smarts in contrast to Maguire’s weedy, photographer, geek. This may well be a cop out to pander to mainstream crowds but nevertheless character trajectory remains the same. The exception is that Garfield can mine more emotional depth out of the material, particularly in scenes after the shooting of Uncle Ben. By contrast he also displays some arch humour as Peter adapts to his new abilities. The chemistry between Garfield and Emma Stone as Gwen Stacey actually manages to create much more out of something that is all too frequently mundane and is surely the reason Webb was brought on board after indie relationship dramedy 500 Days of Summer (2009).

The second half doesn’t so much fall off the wheels, just follows the blueprint religiously which makes proceedings a little drab. Rhys Ifans Connors feels like an uninspired villain and the CGI creation of The Lizard, a major issue in post production, is clumsy in rendition. Connors is a walking tick list for comic book villains. Afflicted genius who wants to do good for others? Check. Becomes a guinea pig and hatch a crackpot plan? Check. Crackpot plan equates to heavy CGI and the final scenes are nothing we have not seen before time and time again. Other than some first person shots from Spider-Mans perspective swinging through the streets of New York there is little invention in the grand finale.

As an origins tale The Amazing Spider-Man provides the set-up required in an easy going fashion, entertaining if uninspired and instantly forgettable. If a sequel is to be developed the two leads will be essential to maintain a modicum of dramatic spark.  Technically it is difficult to criticise. It does what it say’s on the tin so to term it, or rather creates a shiny new label for the tin.