Bay Weekly’s Annual Groundhog’s Movie Guidetesttest
Everything old is new again. In a world that has come to appreciate recycling as a life essential, is it any wonder that the film industry has adopted the reduce, recycle, reuse philosophy?
Sometimes the story needs an update, a modern lens. Other times, a movie made so much money originally that there may be more cash to come. Then again, some studios would rather remake a foreign film than chance subtitles at the box office.
This year, to brighten your burrow until spring, Bay Weekly’s cinephiles focued on Hollywood remakes.
Stage to Screen
The Bard’s works will be adapted until the end of time.
Henry V (1946, 1989)
On October 25, 1415, British and French armies fought at Agincourt. In about 1599, William Shakespeare commemorated the battle. In Henry V, the king’s pre-battle exhortation inspires his troops to defeat overwhelming French forces. The Speech is the focus of Shakespeare’s play and of the two movies that followed.
The 1946 version stars Sir Lawrence Olivier in the title role. As usual, he does a creditable job, especially with The Speech, but the movie itself has little substance. Olivier can’t carry the film by himself, and since he was the director, the blame falls on him. The soldiers in the movie look like me, which is to say they look like refugees from the Old Folks’ Home. I suspect the producers of capitalizing on the patriotic fervor of the British public following World War II.
Much better is the 1989 version directed by Kenneth Branagh, who, just like Olivier, also plays the title role. Branagh’s Henry V features fine acting and a superb supporting cast; even the bit players are believable. When Branagh makes The Speech, the troops are roused, as is the audience. Grab your longbow. Let’s go!
Where’s the Action
Sometimes big screen action is so good it has to be told again, in all its muscle-bound glory
Conan the Barbarian (1982, 2011)
Who would have thought that a sci-fi flick would launch an Austrian-born former Mr. Olympia to stardom and the governorship of California? Two years before his breakout role as The Terminator, Arnold Schwarzeneger cut his pre-cosmetic-surgery teeth on the role of Conan the Barbarian, created by sci-fi writer Robert E. Howard.
Few actors at the time could have filled the loincloth of this indomitable warrior. But Schwarzeneger, with his straining thews and his sharp wit, brought Conan to life on the silver screen. Captured as a boy by slavers who ravaged his village and killed his parents, Conan survives to avenge the dead.
In this case that’s shape-shifting sorcerer James Earl Jones, who most memorably transforms into a monstrous serpent. Equal parts action and camp, the Barbarian (1982) was followed in 1984 by Conan the Defender.
In the recent adaptation, Jason Momoa plays the title role. From his season in Game of Thrones, Momoa has some experience as a barbarian. Yet even with makeup and costuming, he does not have the physical stature of Schwarzeneger’s Conan.
Fortunately, these two films are no Mr. Olympia contest. Where Schwarzeneger looks more the part of Conan, the recent version by director Marcus Nispel plays true to the original swords-and-sorcery source, creating a far darker movie.
–J. Alex Knoll
They say never tell the same joke twice, so a remade comedy classic has to have a fresh spin
Father of the Bride (1950, 1991)
“I used to think marriage was a simple affair … but I was wrong.” So begin both films, as each father, Spencer Tracy in 1950 and Steve Martin in the 1991 remake, sits stunned amongst the remnants of his daughter’s wedding.
Parallels of dialogue and setting abound: Both fathers agonize over wedding costs, distrust the fiancé and bemoan the loss of their little girl. The mothers, Joan Bennett then Diane Keaton, exude equal delight at all the planning.
Forced or dated scenes in the original were remade in the second: Tracy’s alcohol-induced long-windedness at the in-laws was replaced with Martin’s sneaking a peek at his in-laws’ bank book, leading to a series of madcap moments. As a bonus treat in the remake, Martin Short plays a wildly funny unintelligible wedding coordinator.
The original’s overdone rehearsal mayhem was correctly dropped in the remake. Yet the 1950 version deserves its accolades as a comedy classic. Even funny-man Martin could not top Tracy as chief curmudgeon. The remake reveals a closer father-daughter connection between Martin and Kimberly Williams as they shoot hoops together. But for sheer elegance, original daughter, Elizabeth Taylor, is impossible to beat.
Bottom line: Watch both.
Since the dawn of oral history, we’ve retold legends to keep tales alive, so it stands to reason that these figures need updating with every generation
Robin Hood (1938, 1991, 1993, 2010)
Since the release of the silent Robin Hood and His Merry Men in 1908, the outlaw of Sherwood Forest has made Hollywood rich.
Donning the green tights has been a notch in the belt for leading men, among them Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, Frank Sinatra, Sean Connery, George Segal, Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe and many others.
The story of Robin Hood dates back nearly 1,000 years, yet every so often, another director decides to take a stab at it. Most recently, Ridley Scott cast Crowe in 2010’s yawner Robin Hood.
If anyone can show less emotion than Crowe, it’s Costner. He starred in 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Both men are trying so hard to act you’d think they were chronically constipated.
That’s not the case in 1993’s Robin Hood: Men In Tights, Mel Brooks’ zany spoof on the legend. Despite the bad jokes and corny puns, Cary Elwes plays Robin with a smiling ease that harkens back to Errol Flynn.
More than 75 years later, Flynn’s role in The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1938, remains the standard by which others are judged. While still a champion for justice, Flynn’s Robin Hood is foremost a leader. With his infectious goodwill and charm, it is no wonder his men are merry.
–J. Alex Knoll
From Space to Sequel
Sci-fi films have long been excellent fodder for remakes. Changing technology still doesn’t prepare us for invasion.
War of the Worlds (1953, 2005)
Four incarnations of War of the Worlds have invaded our culture. In 1938, Orson Welles read part of H.G. Wells’ book during a radio broadcast, impersonating a newscaster reporting live on an alien invasion. Terrified listeners believed him, causing widespread panic. No movie will ever top that.
On film in 1953, moviegoers saw state-of-the-art (and Oscar-winning) special effects. As the aliens’ hostile intent and their technological superiority advanced, civilization fell into chaos. The military and scientists, led by Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), join to battle a common foe. As frightening as the alien is the behavior of humankind faced with extinction.
Steven Spielberg re-released War of the Worlds in 2005 with the promise of 21st century special effects and Tom Cruise.
Instead of a scientist, Cruise plays a deadbeat dad whose son (Justin Chatwin) and daughter (Dakota Fanning) are visiting for the weekend just as aliens attack. We follow his family as they bicker, dodging disintegration and abduction.
Both movies succeed in portraying the best and worst in humanity, but Spielberg illustrates acts of heroism and cowardice in beautiful and horrific ways.
This winter, watch both movies. If it’s one or the other for you, go with Spielberg. 2005 special effects blow away 1953 efforts.
Say What? Foreign Remakes
Just recently, a group of movie-goers in England demanded a refund when they realized The Artist was a silent film. So it’s understandable for studios to think that audiences don’t want to be bothered with subtitles.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009, 2011)
In short order, Stieg Larsson’s best-selling novel has been made into two movies. Both cover the same territory: a disgraced journalist and a brilliant but damaged hacker team up to discover which member of a rich family murdered one of their own 40 years ago.
Really it’s a Battle of the Lisbeths, pitting Swedish Noomi Rapace, above, against American Rooney Mara, below. Both give great performances, but as entirely different versions of Lisbeth. Mara is more vulnerable, her aggressive moments reminiscent of a trapped animal forced to attack. Rapace is an enraged Lisbeth whose traumas and life have made her hard and violent.
Swedish director Niels Arden Oplev makes a straightforward adaptation, with no fancy angles or frills. It’s okay, but David Fincher knows how to make a snowy driveway seem like the gateway to hell.
The American version wins by a hair for the excellent Nine Inch Nails opening credits sequence.
Second verse, same as the first. Sometimes adding a little song and dance is enough to spruce up a favorite love story.
The Philadelphia Story (1940) vs. High Society (1956)
In 1940, Katharine Hepburn brought her starring vehicle, The Philadelphia Story, from Broadway to Hollywood. Her handpicked cast included Cary Grant as the romantic lead, backed by James Stewart and Ruth Hussey.
That film was remade as 1956’s High Society, a musical starring Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby, with Frank Sinatra and Celeste Holm as second bananas.
The story was virtually unchanged over the 16 years: Heiress Tracy Lord, having shed her drunken first husband, is about to take a more stolid consort.
Among the guests assembled for the wedding are Tracy’s father, whose past affairs are the target of two society reporters, and husband No. 1, running interference for the reporters but actually trying to quash the story for his still-beloved Tracy.
The Philadelphia Story is among the best examples of its period’s Depression-era escapism, featuring rich characters and well-timed comebacks.
High Society, made in the post-war years, still romanticizes wealthy lives but in an almost gauzy way as the reconciled couple sail away to the strains of True Love.
Some critics bemoan the loss of sharpness in High Society. True, the dialog lacks crackle, but the Cole Porter musical numbers offer plenty. Why choose when you can enjoy both?
We Need a Hero
Nothing brings audiences to a theater faster than a super-hero movie.
Batman (1989, 2005, 2008)
The Dark Knight has put on many personas. The 1989 film adaptation directed by Tim Burton paired the dark personality of Batman (Michael Keaton) and the dinginess of Gotham City. Even darker was the Joker.
Christopher Nolan’s series, featuring Christian Bale as Batman and Heath Ledger as the Joker, are haled as the best. With no absurd animated personas, Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008), were portrayals of a tumultuous city peopled by troubled anti-heroes and villains.
Every generation deserves a great kids’ movie, but will the parents like it?
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) vs. Charlie & the Chocolate Factory (2005)
When the original was released in 1971, the story was mesmerizing. What kid wouldn’t want to find a golden ticket and win a tour through a mysterious candy factory — closed for years, no less — and a lifetime supply of sugary treats?
Equal parts charm and affection, mystery and danger, Gene Wilder was magical as the candy man Willie Wonka, guiding the five golden ticket winners through his factory while whittling down their number, instilling lessons of virtue along the way.
Learning of the 2005 re-make directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp as Wonka, I was appalled. How could this re-tread stand up to the classic?
Turns out it stands up pretty well.
While the storyline remains the same, Burton and Depp have given this upstart telling a life of its own. Burton provides far more background to the chocolate factory and its mysterious owner than the original, and Depp carves out a role of his own as Wonka.
Best of all is the chocolate factory, rebuilt in a symphony of colors and alive with infectious magic — as well as reinvented Oompa-Loompas. Turning each corner or entering any room was like touring a familiar but remodeled amusement park, leaving me anticipating what was to come next.
–J. Alex Knoll
Page to Screen
Classics may need an update to find modern audiences.
A Tale of Two Emmas (1995, 1996)
In 1996, Gwyneth Paltrow glided through a true adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic Emma, the story of a spoiled matchmaker who finds love and a bit of common sense.
In 1995’s Clueless, Austen’s Emma is re-imagined as Cher (Alicia Silverstone), who struts across the screen with shorter skirts and more confidence than her Regency counterpart. The wardrobe, the vernacular and the names have been changed to fit the times.
Director Amy Heckerling’s Clueless features the same plot as the original. Cher, like Emma, is the only daughter of a wealthy widower and fancies herself a gifted matchmaker after one success.
Our modern matchmaker lives not in England but in Beverly Hills. Cher is at first glance superficial, a rich kid obsessed with clothes. She amuses herself by taking timid friend Tai (Brittany Murphy) under her wing and into one bad match after another. Cher’s good nature, intelligence and wit slowly appear as her best intentions go bad.
Clueless alters Emma’s relationships to reflect cultural changes. Paul Rudd plays Cher’s collegiate Josh, replacing Emma’s middle-aged Mr. Knightly, Jeremy Northam. Expected in Emma’s era, it would be creepy in our times for a man 16 years her senior to pursue teen Cher.
Emma is lovely to watch with its pastoral scenes, but Clueless takes first place with its thoroughly modern retelling of an Austen classic.
The Horror! The Horror!
Vampires, zombies, psychos and other creepy creatures are ageless, so it stands to reason that they need a movie remake every now and then
Fright Night (1985, 2011)
A teen’s life starts to suck when he realizes his neighbor is a vampire. That’s the premise for both versions of Fright Night, a darkly comic 1985 thriller that transformed into a darker neck-chomper in 2011.
In both movies, the vampire is the star of the show. Chris Sarandon’s original version of Jerry the Vampire is self-aware, seductive and funny. He’s a monster in a world where nobody believes in monsters. In the remake, Jerry is Colin Farrell, a killing machine likened to the shark from Jaws. This Jerry doesn’t care if you find him funny. He just wants your blood.
The remake tries for realism. Teen Charlie lives in suburban Las Vegas, where people work long nights and sleep during the day: a perfect place for a vampire to blend in. In the original, you wonder why no one else in the neighborhood notices that the gothic mansion on the corner starts spewing fog after a new guy moved in.
In a battle between the original and the remake, it’s a tie. Both boast entertaining monsters and fantastic supporting work — Roddy McDowell in 1985 and David Tennant in 2011. Watch both; then keep a sharp eye on your neighbors. You never know ...