Monday, January 04, 2010

Making Lists is Stupid 2009: Sequels and Remakes

I don't really hate lists. Heck, if I did, my life would be a sort of living hell, since my job is querying a database to get treatment information for oncology companies: The generation of lists. I love the list of incoming comics that the Million Year Picnic sends out every Sunday, and love sharing the ones I plan to buy on Newsarama every Monday. I even spent a few months last year collating the lists of everyone who posted them to that site and reporting which were the most popular. This blog's one regular feature is a substantially prettied-up list of the movies I saw during the past week.

Ranked "Best Of" lists, though? Very frequently stupid. At their worst, they're more notable for what they exclude than what they include, and they reduce everything a person thinks about a movie down to a number that manages to be even less informative than a star rating. They are frequently terribly incomplete, either because people rush to get them out or because it's simply not possible to see enough to be able to make a list without doubts about leaving something out (if the list-maker is honest). Or they get dismissed entirely because someone takes offense at the position or absence of some particular movie. And I don't know why half of them are written; does the average critic really think that many people cut their annual top ten list out, carry it with them, and check movies off because they've taken the recommendations to heart?

This pair is being written solely because I spent a bunch of time haggling over what constituted a sequel and remake on the Chlotrudis mailing list, only to see no consensus emerge and have the remakes lists posted, especially, feature some pretty bizarre inclusions.

(Plus, since Chlotrudis is an indie movie club, the postings have been full of "there just haven't been twenty-five good sequels or remakes, so here's the list of the 13 I can stand". Seriously? In over a century of cinema, you claim only a dozen or so are list-worthy, and one of them is friggin' Russian Dolls? That right there is going on my list of "ways to identify a poser", buddy.)

(I kid because I love. But, seriously, Russian Dolls was an inferior sequel to a mediocre movie that, if you're an American, you only know existed because Audrey Tautou had a tiny supporting role. Don't take it personally, but there are about four reasons to keep it off any best-of list in that sentence.)

So, here we have what I submitted to Chlotrudis just before the midnight deadline:

Toy Story 2 - Seeing the double feature back-to-back solidified just how much Pixar had grown between the first and second movies; not only had the technoloy improved, but Pixar had truly developed their own voice at this point. Where Toy Story, though wonderful, was clearly pulled in opposite directions by Disney's musical formula on one side and outside screenwriters like Joss Whedon on the other, the sequel feels much more like how we now think of a Pixar film. And, as much as I like Randy Newman and the songs in the first, there have been few musical moments as good as "When She Loved Me" in any movie.

Babe - Pig in the City - Gene Siskel called it his best film of the year, and though there may be room for argument (I think that was the same year Ebert gave the nod to Dark City), it's one that takes the story to entirely new places while still remaining connected to its predecessor. I love that the city, in Babe's world, is a busy, mashed-together conglomeration of things even as the farm is perfectly pastoral. It's a shame Miller never got to do his planned third Babe movie, as Babe in the Woods would have been much less expensive than this one (a box office disappointment because of its high cost).

The Empire Strikes Back - Unless I'm mistaken, aside from being proof that Star Wars wasn't a fluke (and neither was George Lucas), that this is the first sequel I can remember where the filmmakers had such confidence in the series that they were able to leave it open-ended for a part three. Now that's spread to first episodes (fine if you're Batman Begins, not so much if you're The Golden Compass), but at the time, it was a stunning display of just how grand Lucas's vision was. And, there's great action, plus Harrison Ford kicks butt here - it's seldom mentioned in the list of great Star Wars moments, but the scene where the door opens on Bespin to reveal Vader, and Han Solo immediately pulls out his blaster and fires away, is one of my favorites in the series.

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly - The other "Man with no Name" movies are good, no question, but this third one has Sergio Leone firing on all cylinders, with a great story full of double-crosses, dark humor, and action. Plus, of course, Ennio Morricone's memorable score and some of the best cinematography in any western ever.

Terminator 2 - My first encounter with the term now called the "spoiler", as I thought that everyone had seen the previews and read in various magazines that Arnold Schwarzeneggar was playing the good guy this time around. Oops. I remain sorry, Jason Browne. James Cameron's skill as a director means the movie holds up despite the fact that what was utterly revolutionary in this one has become part of the special effects technicians standard bag of tricks.

Evil Dead 2 & Army of Darkness - I kick myself that I didn't see Army of Darkness in the theater; I was in college, easy walking distance, it got a decent review in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, but, no, my friends and I didn't discover it until after we'd become Bruce Campbell fans watching The Adventures of Brisco County Junior. It's amazing how far Sam Raimi wound up getting from the original The Evil Dead in tone by the end of the series; I can't think of any other director who has pulled that off and had all three parts remain beloved for what they are - a straight-on horror movie, a horror/comedy hybrid that works without being self-referential, and a goofy parody of Ray Harryhausen-style adventures. Honorable mentions for being near the top of my list of most repurchased films - I've owned each on VHS, DVD (twice apiece, between initial releases and special editions), and HD-DVD (for Army of Darkness) or Blu-ray (for Evil Dead 2). And, no, I'm not buying the new AOD BD. Today, at least.

Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom - Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is the sequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark that tends to get the most love, while Temple is just sort of dismissed. Still, where Last Crusade is a little too much an attempt to recreate Raiders exactly, Temple of Doom is Spielberg in his all-too-rare loopy, "let's scare the hell out of some kids" mode. It's frantic, frequently demented, and if it goes too far in the direction of gleeful anarchy, that's at least close to its Saturday-serial origins.

Before Sunset - The rare sequel made entirely because the people involved felt they had another story to tell, versus as a cash-in. For a film that, like Before Sunrise, is all walk-and-talk, it is legitimately exciting to see the two characters together again. The use of real time is nifty without becoming a gimmick, and the last couple lines are perfect.

Back to the Future 2 & 3 - I only included #3 on the list sent out, because #2, despite being conceptually ambitious in its storytelling (to the point of needing Christopher Lloyd to sketch out the plot on his chalkboard), is a little too dark and kind of hollow. #3 isn't deep, but it is fun, and unlike #2, it can be watched on its own.

Star Trek '09 - Interesting in that it doesn't initially feel like a sequel, and only reveals itself as something other than a completely clean slate halfway through, when Leonard Nimoy pops up and we see that, from the perspective of Spock Prime and Nero, this film takes place after the other ten (and first four TV series), kind-of-sort-of following Nimoy's appearances on Star Trek: The Next Generation. That makes it a sequel, technically; it earns its rep as the best of them by being the first film in the series to not only have this much money thrown at it, but to capture the excitement and feeling of not being tied down that the original series had. I said it in my review, but Star Trek shouldn't be about becoming old and obsolete, but adventure in an uncharted world.

A Shot in the Dark/The Pink Panther - Which is the original and which is the sequel? The Pink Panther was released first, but A Shot in the Dark was filmed first, but Inspector Clouseau was added to that after the character had been created for The Pink Panther... It doesn't really matter, of course - they're both hilarious movies and serve as parents to the later sequels, each contributing some bit of DNA to the identity of the bumbling Inspector Clouseau.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country - Okay, don't exactly throw out what I said about how Star Trek shouldn't be about death and obsolescence, because these two movies are good enough that it took seeing J.J. Abrams's new one to make me realize that there was something a little wrong-headed about their conception. Even with that, though, they are exciting adventure movies, leveraging what we know about Kirk, Spock. and McCoy to give us emotional resonance that other movies just can't create from whole cloth. Also, I'm delighted to finally be able to buy The Undiscovered Country on home video, now that it's free of the Scooby Doo ending.

Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith - That's right... I like the Star Wars prequels. Not every minute of them, no, but I strongly believe that if you come out of those movies and the first thing on your mind is that the dialogue sucks, you are doing something wrong. I won't deny that certain skills (writing dialogue, directing actors) have atrophied, which is kind of alarming considering that they weren't that great to begin with. But nobody creates a massive action sequence like Lucas does, there's never been a fantasy world so realized visually, and, perhaps, in detail, and in the end, I think the way that Lucas de-mythologizes everything that he and fans had built up about the franchise over decades is kind of daring; even though we know how this ends, it is good enough to make us reconsider every line about the Jedi in the orginal trilogy.

Spider-Man 2 - In the first Spider-Man, Sam Raimi served as both a fandom seal of approval and a technicial who could handle visual effects and create striking visuals without being too showy about it. In the follow-up, he puts his own stamp on the movie, zipping the camera around like he's no longer afraid to break it, getting the actors to put a little more snap in their words, and gleefully showing off his horror-movie roots in a hospital operating-room scene that cribs shamelessly from the Evil Dead movies but establishes Dr. Octopus as a threat to be reckoned with.

The Dark Knight - Is this perceived as quite so great a movie if Heath Ledger had not died, giving us a reason to build it up a bit as the last great performance by an actor finally coming into his own? It's impossible to tell. It threatened to overshadow a lot of the other things that made this movie great, such as Aaron Eckhart's wonderful turn as Harvey Dent; there's an argument to be made that Two-Face is the best villain in Batman's rogue's gallery, better even than the Joker, and the character was ill-used in previous Batmovies. Or the eye-popping use of genuine IMAX photography which made some scenes pop in ways that nothing else does. Or how, buried underneath, there's a disquieting idea about how a response that erodes the personal liberties of everybody to counter the terrorism of a few is something we should think long and hard about.

2046 - I actually saw this a couple weeks before In the Mood for Love - most of Wong Kar-Wai's filmography played Cambridge in 2005, though in an odd order - but was able to follow it pretty well. I was particularly charmed by Faye Wong's Jing Wen, who loved her pulps, and what was probably my first real encounter with the team of Wong and Christopher Doyle, who do beautiful things with rain-slicked streets and mirrors. As of now, it's the culmination of the style of movie that Wong has spent decades making, and seems to sum them up nicely.

From Russia With Love - Extend the list much farther than 25 entries, and there'd likely be a lot of James Bond on there (On Her Majesty's Secret Service is high enough to potentially make the list as an alternate). For a long time, Bond was the place to go for high-quality action in exotic locales. As much fun as the spy-fi entries in the series are, and how they've come to represent Bond to many moviegoers, I've always had a soft spart for the harder-edged version of the character - Craig and Dalton are my favorites. From Russia with Love, the first after Dr. No, was about as vicious and non-jokey as James Bond movies got until Casino Royale, a murky and violent flick true to the character's literary roots, the sort of thing Michael Caine's Harry Palmer could have slipped into without much trouble.

Bride of Frankenstein - A bit of a reputation pick, to be sure, but every time I think along those lines, a new chance to see it comes up and I remember, yes, it actually is somewhere close to as good as its reputation. It's a continuation of the first movie that mines unused material from the original novel, contributed an image in Elsa Lancaster's bride that is nearly as iconic as Karloff's original monster, and proved memorable enough for Mel Brooks to spoof one sequence memorably in Young Frankenstein

Alien3 - Aliens is the usual entry from this series that people choose as a great sequel, and it's a good movie... on its own. As a sequel, though, I think it does one of the worst things that can be done, in that it undercuts the movie that spawned it. The first Alien introduced a nigh-indestructible creature with a truly bizarre life-cycle; Aliens reduced it to little more than a giant, fairly tough insect. To a certain extent, Alien3 does the same thing, eliminating characters that the audience had bonded with during the opening credits, but it gets back to the series' gritty roots, rebuilding the Alien as monstrous enough that one is more than can be handled, and building up a great sense of impending doom.

Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monster All Out Attack and Godzilla: Final Wars - Two Gojira movies from near the end of the big guy's forty-odd-year run, which I love for entirely different reasons. GMK is Shusuke Kaneko's run at the franchise, and he's decidedly no-nonsense about it: No annoying kids, no reason for us to consider Gojira the hero of the piece. It calls back to the monster's original conception, the personification of unreasoning atomic destruction, which threatens to overrun even the mightiest spirits of the land like Mothra, Baragon, and Ghidorah. There's even a slightly sadistic side to it, when the perspective shifts to the inhabitants of a hospital, who watch in fear as Godzilla goes by, relieved to be spared - and then get taken out by the tail. Final Wars, meanwhile, is Ryuhei Kitamura being given a big budget and permission to go nuts in closing out the franchise, and he makes a loopy, high-energy movie where releasing Godzilla from his icy grave is humanity's best hope - and he gets to destroy the abomination from the American remake. It's a blast, and the rare injection of personal style into the franchise.

Hard Revenge, Milly: Bloody Battle - You know how on every list, thre's one entry that's recent and would probably drop off once there's been time to throttle the excitment back? This one is probably it. It is still an extremely enjoyable post-apocalyptic action story, though, which picks up from a completely contained featurette and builds a larger world without minimizing its heroine. I saw it back-to-back with the first and definitely thought that I wanted to see more.

Ju-On: The Grudge 2 - Takashi Shimizu and company made so many of these movies in such a relatively short period of time - and the basic aesthetic became so commonplace as to deserve the mockery it received - that it's easy to forget that when they first appeared, they were bloody disturbing and unsettling in ways that Western horror movies had seldom managed. Shimizu did a good job of milking the franchise before it burned out, even getting some self-referential laughs at the phenomenon in this entry. All told, it does what the first did just as well, adds some new wrinkles, and ends with a gasp-worthy scene, which is what a horror sequel is supposed to do.

12 Monkeys - I admit it. I've never seen "La Jetté", the short film that inspired 12 Monkeys (and the pretty funny spoof, "Le Puppé"). Its provenance is unimportant, though - the important thing is that it gave Terry Gilliam a chance to make something that was right in his wheelhouse, weird and scary and darkly funny. I submit that it also made Brad Pitt cool - before, he was mostly known for his long hair in Legends of the Fall - and served as exhibit A that when Bruce Willis chooses a good role, he tends to be good enough to forgive a half-dozen paycheck action movies.

The Thing - I hemmed and hawed about leaving this off the list, as I really don't think that later adaptations of the same source material should really be called "remakes" (the dozens of Hound of the Baskervilles adaptations aren't remakes of early-twentieth century German silents). I'll use this arbitrary justification: John Carpenter didn't call his movie "Who Goes There?", so he's likely using The Thing from Another World as his primary source, not the John W. Campbell short story. Whichever way it works, it's one of the best second runs at an idea ever made, tense and atmospheric and, unlike almost every other remake ever made, going the opposite route of trying to sex things up.

The Fly - Another great horror movie from a master of the genre (this time, David Cronenberg) that manages to improve upon something widely considered a classic, with plenty of good body-horror, Jeff Goldblum working his persona as both quirky and sinister, and Geena Davis is pretty darn good in an early role, too.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels - A remake that has managed to more or less completely obliterate any memory of the film which it was based on (something by the name of "Bedtime Story"). It is a hugely funny film, from a period where Frank Oz was really on a roll, as was Steve Martin, and vast swaths of people will laugh out loud at the mere mention of the name "Ruprect". Michael Caine is exactly what the other role needs, and it's a crying shame that there's not more room in Hollywood for ladies like Glenn Headley, who fill a funny niche really well but don't seem to get people writing roles with them in mind the way male character actors do. Also, from what I've read, this has a better ending than the original, keeping much more true to the spirit of the thing.

King Kong (2005) - I haven't yet watched the extended cut of Peter Jackson's King Kong yet, because I am a little afraid that adding another fifteen minutes will make the various accusations of excess made against it something close to legitimate. Certainly, when Jackson's version was released, I could understand the complaints that it was over twice as long as the original, but I couldn't think of anything in there I wanted to lose. None of the loving tributes to the '33 version, none of Jack Black in a role that is wonderful and perfect for him, none of the amazing spectacle. Yes, there was a lot of it, but it was some of the greatest CGI character animation ever done, and this is a movie that needed to be huge to be as big an event in the twenty-first century as the original was during the Depression. Plus, I love the (possibly apocryphal) story behind it - how Jackson was contacted; refused, as King Kong was the movie that made him want to be a filmmaker and what kind of hubris would remaking it be; relented after realizing that if he didn't do it, the movie would likely be done by someone who loved the source material less; saw Universal shelve it after Sony's Americanized Godzilla lost money, only to have it come back in play once Uni realize they still had him under contract after Lord of the Rings absolutely blew up. It's a cool intersection between "totally commercial" and "labor-of-love".

Happiness of the Katakuris - Someday, I'm going to have to see The Quiet Family, not just because I want to know where the inspiration for this bit of Takashi Miike insanity came from, but because I legitimately love Kim Ji-woon. In the meantime, though, there's Miike, delivering all the strange you'd expect in a low-fi way, but making it kind of charming. After this, it was easier to believe that the director of Audition and Dead or Alive could have big-budget kids' movies in his future.

Vanilla Sky - I actually do really like Open Your Eyes, but I think Vanilla Sky finds ways to improve on it. Not big, game-changing ways, but little ones - injecting the idea of building our life out of pop culture, for instance, or subtly tweaked characters. Cameron Crowe sort of petered out after this (and I'm kind of afraid to watch Almost Famous again to see if it's not as great as I remember), but he made a couple good movies while he was his day's hip indie music director.

True Lies - There's something more than a little creepy about the relationship between the Arnold Schwarzeneggar and Jamie Lee Curtis characters here, especially in that scene where Arnold is in shadow, asking his wife to dance sexy for him. But Cameron goes big on the action like few others can (and isn't that kind of a good reason to remake something, because you can make it grander than was previously dreamed of?), and Charlton Heston in an eyepatch added plenty of cool. Plus, there's Tom Arnold, in the role that inspired some wag to correctly state that he is utterly out of his depth as a leading man, but makes a truly gifted second banana.

The Mummy - I like Stephen Sommers far more than I ought to, probably, and there's no doubt that this movie was where his career made a turn for the worse, when higher budgets made it possible for him to cram all the effects he wanted into a scene without moderation, and the fact that he'd made snappy adventure movies that pleased wide audiences and were breezy fun. Here, he's got Brendan Fraser, John Hannah, and Rachel Weisz as perfect fits, a chance to snazzily update a classic, and has not yet forgot how to make that fun.

The Parent Trap - Before she accumulated a ton of baggage, a good measure of Lindsay Lohan's potential was just how many people thought that the twins in this movie were played by sisters. This is a lightweight updating of a movie that wasn't great stuff in the first place, but it makes a silly premise work, probably much better than it has any right to.

The Quiet American - A grimy retelling of Graham Greene's novel...

Ah, crud, I broke my own rule there. --sigh-- Still a great movie, though. I really wish Brendan Fraser's dramatic roles would get half of the attention of his sillier stuff, because he holds his own with Michael Caine here.

3:10 to Yuma - Crud, this is a second adaptation too, isn't it? In my defense, it was close to midnight on the tail end of a long weekend when I was doing this.

Nosferatu the Vampyre - As with The Thing, I give this the benefit of the doubt as to being a remake versus a 5,000th adapation because, otherwise, it would have been called Dracula. I can't say I love this as much as the original - I can't; I believe that the original Murnau Nosferatu is the best vampire film ever made - but Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski can get a movie a long way in the right direction, and as with Jackson's King Kong, they do a teriffic job of paying tribute while making the film distinctly their own.

Brothers - Too soon? Maybe. This one has some real problems toward the end, but Jake Gyllenhaal is just excellent here, and along with the rest of the cast and crew do an excellent job of making the film engrossing despite having very little of the obvious melodrama that the trailer promised. And, let me repeat in case I wasn't clear enough in my earlier review, Sheridan should make "two adorable little girls" a condition of every contract he signs.

Insomnia - It's been a while since I've seen this one, so I'm a bit hazy on the details, but I do remember Christopher Nolan doing a better job of getting an excellent performance out of late-career Al Pacino than just about anyone else (especially in a major studio film). It's got Robin Williams in creepy dramatic mode, too, and wrings fantastic tension out of it's long polar nights.

The Echo - I'm not sure how many others saw this, but it was one of the more pleasant surprises from 2008's Fantasia Festival for me. It's an atmospheric, forboding horror movie, built along similar lines to the Ju-on/Grudge series, but even further encumbered by the main character's sense of guilt. From what I gather, this is an element that was added for the remake (though both versions are directed by Filipino Yam Laranas), one which I suspect makes it a better movie than its predecessor.

Narrow Margin - Nothing fancy here, just a lean, quiet thriller that has ex-Marine D.A. escorting a witness back home to testify in a murder trial while the mob tries to kill them, and there's little room to manouver because they're on a train. Still, you've got a restrained Gene Hackman as the D.A. and J.T. Walsh as one of the villains, and there's something cool about their sit-down in the middle that a thousand cocky one-liners will seldom equal.

The Grudge - See above, to a certain extent. Sam Raimi sent a bunch of likeable American actors (including his kid brother) over to Japan and let Takashi Shimizu reshoot his movie. At one point, it was allegedly going to be not going to be a remake, but a sequel, though American audiences who hadn't seen the originals would probably not recognize it as such. By all accounts, the Ju-on/Grudge franchise went seriously downhill from here, with none of the later sequels getting close to as good as the originals.

Zatoichi - An enjoyable and affectionate tribute, although one that threatened to be much more interesting: Though Takeshi Kitano both starred and directed, the original plan was to have Takashi Miike direct this remake and update. I'll bet they would have used gallons of "real fake blood" in that case! Also took a little flack in Japan for revealing that this version of Zatoichi was, perhaps, not actually blind.

The Departed - It's very tough to judge this one fairly, because I love love love Infernal Affairs, and Scorcese and company seem to bulk up side stories that aren't nearly as interesting as the central premise: We wind up with too much Jack Nicholson, too many different representatives of various law enforcement agencies, and a silly subplot involving the girl who connects both the hood pretending to be a cop and the cop pretending to be a hood. There's also something almost Monty Python-ish, to me, about all the blood at the end. Still, when I saw it in theaters and the entire audience gasped at something that I knew was coming from the original, I knew they'd gotten a large part of it right.

Sabrina - Here's what the remake of Sabrina amounts to: Greg Kinnear is in William Holden's league. Harrison Ford is one of the very few actors that you can plug into a part played by Humphrey Bogart and hope for something other than disaster. But, as good as she is, Julia Ormond is not Audrey Hepburn. It's not crippling - it becomes a fairly entertaining movie - but if you know the movie's lineage, it is really difficult not to wish for Audrey Hepburn.

The Man Who Knew Too Much - Hitchcock remaking Hitchcock, which is a pretty darn decent pedigree. HItchcock himself would admit to preferring the earlier version, as it was less polished, but lesser Hitchcock is still generally a very entertaining movie indeed.

Trapped by the Mormons ('05) - I have no idea if either version of this movie is available, but I got a real kick out of the 2005 version at that year's Boston Fantastic Film Festival (oh, how I miss that event). I suspect that even though the Mormons in this silent version were evil vampire hypnotists, the adaptation isn't too far off the original 1922 propoganda film. It's a very amusing end result, at the very least, and probably one of the more entertaining fingers in the eye of religious persecution. Maybe that makes Trapped by the Mormons more "very specific parody" than standard remake, but nothing in the rules says that the remake had to come from a reverant or respectful place.

Final Thoughts
Seeing how much more fun the sequel list was to write than the remake one, and how we never seemed to come to a real consensus about what constitutes a remake and what doesn't, I kind of hope the powers that be scrap the remake list and just go with sequels. Nothing against remakes - there have been some good ones, and if I went out looking to consider works in other media that were adapted multiple times, I'd probably find a lot more. There's probably a lesson in here about defining terms well and authoritatively.


buy movies dvd said...

Really nice work done in organizing the movies in the post and the previously released movie in the same series is also listed really nicely. I hopes that these movies bring in some nice sales for you from Amazon.

The Boy said...

You can actually get both versions of "Trapped by the Mormons" on one DVD: