Next to a decent video game adaptation, the most elusive movie in Hollywood is a great remake. Which is sort of an oxymoron. How can remakes be great?
Well, they can. Some. And here’s the few that are worth your precious time.
6) TRUE GRIT (2010)
Any remake is risky, but a remake of classic John Wayne western is playing with fire. Of course, Joel and Ethan Coen aren’t afraid to get burned. They touted their version as a closer adaptation of the novel. It very well may be, but it is certainly more entertaining than the original.
For proof, look no further than how both movies start. The original is a dragging, glacial set up that goes into unnecessary detail of how the girl’s father was killed. The remake opts to show that same girl (Hailee Steinfeld), only now she’s a spitfire more hellbent than any male gunslinger, already deep in a revenge mission.
5) THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (2003)
One beef with the original is it lacks character development. We only see a bunch of innocent young Texans brutally slaughtered in a hellish nightmare scenario for no reason other than “shit happens”.
It’s visual torture made more grotesque by the inclusion of a paraplegic who we know has no chance of survival. But that’s the point of the original: instill disgust.
The remake, directed by Marcus Nispel from a script by Scott Kosar, allows us to know the characters, to see them as identifiable friends as opposed to strangers from a news reel. That, compounded with the revelation that every who should help Jessica Biel and company is in league with Leatherface, adds a sense of hopelessness and suspense. Biel just might have a shot at life.
4) YOU’VE GOT MAIL (1998)
Directed by Nora Ephron, from a screenplay she co-wrote with her sister Delia Ephron, this movie modernizes a classic while still keeping the original’s heart and whimsy. That classic is The Shop Around the Corner, starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as feuding co-workers who are secretly pen pals in love.
Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan star in the remake. Because it’s 1990s, snail mail is out and e-mail is in. One of the best improvements is the location change from Budapest to New York City. You’ve Got Mail is more than a romantic comedy. It’s a lesson in love, loss, (and what was worn); story structure, character development, and wordsmithy dialogue.
And it’s a pretty great love letter to New York City.
3) THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956)
Alfred Hitchcock directed this remake of… an Alfred Hitchcock film? Yes, indeed he did! The story is essentially the same: a the child of a vacationing couple is kidnapped, forcing them to keep quiet about a plot to assassinate a diplomat.
The original is from Hitchcock’s British period, while the remake, written by John Michael Hayes, is from his Golden Age in 1950’s Hollywood. Every penny is on screen. The minutes-long assassination attempt built around a symphony performance is one of the director’s best suspense sequences.
What stands out most are the performances by James Stewart and Doris Day. Especially Day. She plays against type as a suspicious, slightly cynical former singer desperate to get her son back. And while Stewart is our hero, he’s even a little sinister when he extorts Day into taking sedatives before dropping the news that their son has been kidnapped.
2) FATHER OF THE BRIDE (1991)
The original, directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Spencer Tracy, Joan Bennett, and Elizabeth Taylor, is perfection. So why remake it?
Because it’s a timeless story for any parent who’s walked their daughter down the aisle.
In the remake, directed by Charles Shyer from a script he co-wrote with Nancy Meyers, Steve Martin plays George Banks, a father who doesn’t want to see his daughter (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) get married. What he REALLY doesn’t want is his life to change. Hilarity ensues from Martin’s resistance to the inevitable. And Martin Short as Franck, the wedding planner from God knows where is insanity brought to life. Filmmakers take note, if you want an example of effective use of voice over, look no further.
1) CAPE FEAR (1991)
Martin Scorsese is the only director who could have successfully remade this classic, which was already perfect. Again, why remake it? To add more depth.
The original plays it safe. It’s clear who’s good and bad. Gregory Peck plays Sam Bowden, a souther lawyer stalked by Max Cady (Robert Mitchum), a psychopath who believes Bowden didn’t do his job as his defense attorney. As a result, Cady spent a few years in the gray bar hotel.
In the remake, written by Wesley Strick, Scorsese blurs the lines between good and bad. Now, Nick Nolte plays Sam Bowden, still a southern lawyer, but one who cheats on his wife played by Jessica Lange. Again, Bowden defended Max Cady (Robert De Niro), who’s even more psychotic than Mitchum.
The twist: Bowden was so disgusted by Cady’s crime that he threw the trial, ensuring a conviction.
When released, Cady begins a systematic psychological and physical assault on Bowden, his wife Leigh, and their daughter (Juliette Lewis).
Is Nolte’s Bowden more noble than Peck’s, or is he just as evil as Cady? It’s a gray area, and Scorsese wants us to fester in making a decision.
What’s not gray is De Niro’s Cady. He’s infinitely more evil than Mitchum’s version. In one scene, he seduces the woman Bowden had an affair with, proclaims “I got you now, bitch!”, and beats the shit out of her. It’s one’s of De Niro’s best performances.
Being a fan of cinema, Scorsese offers nods to the original. Both Peck and Mitchum show up in the remake. This time, Mitchum plays a detective investigating the attacks on the Bowdens; while Peck plays a slithery, conniving defense attorney. The white three-piece suit Peck wears in court is a deranged reference to another lawyer he played: Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird. Scorsese even uses Bernard Herrmann’s original score. There was no way to improve upon that.