Rank and File finds us sorting through an exhaustive, comprehensive body of work or collection of pop-culture artifacts. This time, we go down through the years and handpick the movie remakes that actually got it right.
Thirty years ago this month, David Cronenberg’s bleak reimagining of The Fly hit theaters and set a gold standard for what the movie remake can be. After all, it seems that these days more and more people are becoming exhausted with remakes. They’re endless. They’re for movies that hardly require it (‘sup, Robocop). They try to reinterpret films so iconic that it seems like a fool’s errand from the jump to even try. And yet, there’s a thirst for them; movies are all about the economics as much as the art, and if audiences didn’t come, Hollywood wouldn’t build it.
Although it’s easy to run through the litany of poorly executed remakes, recently and throughout the past few decades as the practice has become more and more common, we decided that if The Fly is worth celebrating, then certainly there have been other remakes that matched, reinterpreted, or even exceeded the success of their predecessors. And so we took on the task of finding one worthwhile remake from each of the past 30 years since The Fly hit theaters.
Some are of substantial quality. Some, we took a liberal approach to the interpretation of “quality.” At least one prominently involves Nicolas Cage in a leather jacket. But these are all films that managed to overcome, to one degree or another, the stigma of having come from well-regarded or beloved source material. That’s no easy feat. Some you may debate. But all brought something to the table, and none are that second stab at Point Break. And that might be the most important truth of them all.
The Fly (1986)
Source Material: The Fly (1958)
Be impressed. Be very impressed.
The inspiration for our list is also easily one of the best films on it. Hell, it’s one of the best science-fiction films ever made, one of the best horror films ever made, and one of the best Goldblum films ever made. David Cronenberg’s massive hit provides as many, if not more, of the thrills and chills of the original. The Oscar-winning makeup effects hold up surprisingly well, and coupled with Cronenberg’s direction and Howard Shore’s eerie, epic score, those elements alone would make The Fly a classic of body horror.
But to see The Fly as a mere mad scientist’s story is to do it a disservice. It’s also, thanks to the script and to the performances of stars Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis, a startlingly poignant romance. How on earth did they pull that one off? Good actors do a lot of the work, of course, but it’s Cronenberg’s willingness to embrace humor and humanity alongside the horror that sets such a remarkable tone. Goldblum’s ear falls off, and you’re as likely to laugh as cry, but it never strays into camp territory. It’s almost absurdly easy to identify with Seth Brundle and Veronica Quaife. The film even has empathy for villain-turned-hero Stathis Borans (John Getz) and the transformed Brundlefly. We’re all human, even when we’re not.
All that would be more than enough to ask of a film. It’s more than most films could ever achieve. But a monster is always a metaphor, and Cronenberg draws a line from Brundle’s folly and misfortune to our own mortality. Little wonder that when it was released in 1986, some saw connections to the ongoing AIDS crisis. Still, The Fly strikes notes of fear that go well beyond those linked to disease, though those are frightening enough. Instead, Brundle’s mortality is that which crumbles, as it does for all of us. Everyone encounters love, heartbreak, fear, pain, joy, and sorrow on the road to death. Put more plainly, life’s short, and then you’re a fly. —Allison Shoemaker
Fatal Attraction (1987)
Source Material: Diversion (1980)
This one barely counts. Diversion, a short British telefilm that hardly anyone remembers, made a big impression on director Adrian Lyne — and later, the moviegoing public. James Dearden, who wrote Diversion for television, adapted the script to become Fatal Attraction, which would make Glenn Close a star and also synonymous with the term “Bunny Boiler.”
Rumor has it that more than a dozen directors passed on Dearden’s script before Lyne signed on; at this stage, Lyne was a relative unknown who was about to blow up with the release of his erotic game-changer 9 1/2 Weeks in 1986. He subsequently cast Michael Douglas as “I’m not going to be IGNORED, Dan” Gallagher, a wealthy businessman, family man, and cheater; Close as Dan’s homicidal mistress; and Anne Archer as Dan’s wife. The collaboration worked out well for all involved, as Fatal Attraction was a monster hit — likely because of the way in which the film epitomized Reagan-era glitz and irresponsibility masking a nasty undercurrent of dread. Fatal Attraction raked in more than $150 million at the box office and was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay (You go, Dearden!). –Leah Pickett
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)
Source Material: Bedtime Story (1964)
When it comes to remakes that outmatch the films from which they’re sourced, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels has to be high on the list. It’s directed with sly wit by Frank Oz, laced through with an effervescent soundtrack that keeps the pace every bit as lively as the jokes, and filmed at a series of locations so lovely it could drive a vacation-starved person mad. But as winning as those qualities are, in this case it’s all about the main event. Martin and Caine are perfect foils, with the latter playing the role of the smooth, cultured confidence man Lawrence Jamieson and the former as the shameless huckster Freddy Benson. The two out-think, outflank, and out-funny each other at nearly every turn, with Martin pitting his world-class pratfalls against Caine’s unmatchable timing. They’re a total delight, filling each scene with so much wit that it outpaces many other such comedies by about the 40-minute mark.
Still a conman’s nothing without a mark, and the secret weapon of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels can be found in the person of Glenne Headly. To say too much about her top-notch work would spoil the film for the uninitiated, but let’s just put it this way: Bedtime Story had Shirley Jones, and she’s a fine love interest, but Headly is a force to be reckoned with. Freddy and Lawrence learn that in a hurry. Martin and Caine do, too. — Allison Shoemaker
Source Material: Cousin, cousine (1975)
Now, listen, the whole notion of distant cousins, eloping … Well, one doesn’t have to stretch the mind too far to start conjuring up images of single-toothed yokels and shotgun wedding material. Jug music. Hyuks. You get it. But Joel Schumacher’s Cousins isn’t like that at all! That’s why it’s called Cousins, not Kissin’ Cousins.
Before being branded a Hollywood phony in the wake of a million Batman & Robin barbs, Schumacher was something of a nimble genre-hopper capable of directing the very biggest stars. The Client, A Time to Kill, Flatliners, Falling Down, The Lost Boys — all passing to classic fare (especially impressive, or perhaps curious, when you factor in that Schumacher came to film after starting in fashion). Schumacher once had a certain touch, a flair for the theatrical, and Cousins hints at a wilier, warmer director than many might remember.
Cousins was an update of Jean-Charles Taccchella’s popular 1975 comedy, with marquee names like Ted Danson, Isabella Rossellini, Sean Young, and William Peterson. There’s little plot beyond the various romantic romps and messing around between consenting adults over the course of several weddings, but the mood, the humor, and the acting are all welcoming. While Cousins lacks the French wit and bawdiness of the original, Schumacher still has a great handle on the tone of his remake that’s light and festive and often very sweet. And again, not to put too fine a point on this: The premise just doesn’t feel creepy in the end. –Blake Goble
Narrow Margin (1990)
Source Material: The Narrow Margin (1952)
Before we compliment this loose remake of the 1952 Charles McGraw noir, let’s take a moment to remember the thrillers of Peter Hyams. Oh, he’s not dead, no. But the guy was an ace at shimmering, middle-of-the-road movies in the ‘80s and ‘90s, derivative actioners that always felt two or three years late to the bigger parties. His Running Scared with Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines somehow missed the buddy cop boom (in 1986!), and his Sudden Death was too little, too late in the post-Die Hard action subgenre about cops in the wrong place at the wrong times. Look at the filmography: Capricorn One, Timecop, The Presidio. Where have all the decent adult films with modest budgets and big stars gone? Come back, Hyams, your knock-offs were solid.
And to exemplify this, look no further than this 1990 Carolco rehash starring Gene Hackman and Anne Archer. The story’s classic and been done to death: mob witness must receive protection from a gruff legal/police type, and eventually the witness and the protector must unite, whether through action or love scenes. Hey, it’s the genre’s norms, not mine. But the most important thing? Narrow Margin is a solid B, three stars, the definition of “good, yeah.” Hackman bristles, Archer smolders, and Hyams shoots and directs like a guy trying his best to get into the Bruckheimer club, knowing full well that they’ll never let him in. Suffice it so say, Narrow Margin may be lost to time, but as a remake, it’s a fast-paced actioner that lifts the best elements from the original and gives it a glossy do-over that’s worth a second glance. –Blake Goble
Cape Fear (1991)
Source Material: Cape Fear (1962)
In lesser hands, the remake of Cape Fear might have been a pretty run-of-the-mill movie, a Hitchcock send-up designed to thrill viewers then flit swiftly out of their minds. But they’re not just any hands. They’re Martin Scorsese’s hands, and like Max Cady, the man came ready to play.
In some ways, this is a film that feels like it’s proving a point. Scorsese for the masses! As our own Collin Brennan put it earlier this year, “If Cape Fear proves anything, it’s that Scorsese’s style can be transferred across genres and still retain its key charms. The film’s impressive box-office returns solidified the notion that the director has real mainstream appeal — something that even Goodfellas had failed to accomplish upon its initial release.” But it’s more than that .This is Scorsese by way of Hitchcock, a dazzling thriller with all the guilt, fear, and unsettling sexual tension that served both filmmakers so well.
That first Cape Fear is a damn fine film. Anything that features both Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum can’t be denied. Hell, they both pop up in the remake, as well. But Scorsese blended the elements of the thriller with his capacity for violence, his gift for bringing the best out of actors — particularly Juliette Lewis and Robert De Niro, who earned a set of matching Oscar nominations — and his unbelievable knack for adding layer upon layer to even the most familiar stories. Sure, this is a thriller. But peel back a few layers and it’s what Cape Fear has to say about our own sins that will have you jumping in your seat. —Allison Shoemaker
Scent of a Woman (1992)
Source Material: Scent of a Woman (1974)
The original Scent of a Woman, which translates to “Profumo di donna” in Italian, exemplifies a cinematic period in Italy from the early 1950s to late 1970s called Commedia all’Italiana or “Comedy in the Italian way” (i.e. spicy social criticism with a dash of morbid farce). The Americanized remake is decidedly not a comedy, though it has its moments (“Hoo-ah!”).
In the original, a blind Italian captain and his army-assigned aide travel to Naples so the captain and his old friend who also was disfigured in action can — unbeknownst to the aide — fulfill a suicide pact. In the remake, Al Pacino’s retired US Army Ranger Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade is a blind, belligerent alcoholic who accepts the holiday help of Chris O’Donnell’s sweet New England prep school student just so he can whisk the poor kid off to New York City for a few days and end the trip by killing himself in his hotel room, alone. Both of these suicide plans are foiled — by the captain’s former girlfriend in the original, by the student in the remake — and the similarities end there. Scent of a Woman was schmaltzed up for American audiences and thus stripped of much of the original’s incisiveness, but it made the most of what it did have: Pacino at the arguable peak of his hammy-shouty phase; Phillip Seymour Hoffman, before he was Philip Seymour Hoffman; and a sensual tango between Pacino and Gabrielle Anwar that is deservedly iconic. –Leah Pickett
Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (1993)
Source Material: The Incredible Journey (1963)
If you were a child during the early-to-mid 1990s, you probably watched this film on VHS, and you probably cried. No, not the 1963 Disney film starring Bodger the Bull Terrier, Luath the Labrador Retriever, and Tao the Siamese cat, but the remake, starring Chance the American Bulldog (Michael J. Fox), Shadow the Golden Retriever (Don Ameche), and Sassy the Himalayan cat (Sally Field). The latter improved upon the former in several ways, including cuter animals (sorry), pitch-perfect voice casting for animals (the original had none), and a touching subplot involving the three kids to whom the animals belong struggling to adjust to a new step family when their pets go missing.
Both films are based on the novel of same name by Sheila Burnford and structurally analogous; however, the remake considerably ups the emotional ante with a finale that, if you’ve seen it, is no doubt seared into your memory for the rest of your life. That is to say, if you didn’t shed at least one tear at the sight of ol’ Shadow hobbling over the hill in the end (“Peter, my boy!”), you might be dead inside. –Leah Pickett
True Lies (1994)
Source Material: La Totale! (1991)
It’s a little-known fact that True Lies is a remake, probably because it’s a pretty loose one. Sure, the protagonist of the French comedy La Totale! is a secret agent pretending to be a milquetoast nine-to-fiver, but that film’s raison d’etre is simply a subplot of James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s macho action-comedy. See, La Totale! circles almost entirely around the slimy, lying used car salesman played by Bill Paxton in Cameron’s version, which honestly spends a bit too much time on that particular storyline.
That said, Paxton’s goofy-ass Simon is pretty important in establishing True Lies as the comedy that it is. Because if True Lies weren’t a comedy, it would probably be pretty dire, what with its light racism and weird misogyny (poor Jamie Lee Curtis — at least she won a Golden Globe). It’s best viewed as a celebration (not a satire) of over-the-top action; anyone who watches True Lies complaining about how “that could never happen” is the most boring person on the planet. How dare you not revel in Arnold’s delivery of “You’re Fired” right before firing a missile that just so happens to have a bad guy hanging on to it? –Randall Colburn
A Little Princess (1995)
Source Material: A Little Princess (1939)
Splashed across the top of the theatrical poster for Alfonso Cuarón’s A Little Princess is this darling hook: “Warner Bros. proudly offers America a second chance to discover a one-of-a-kind masterpiece.” A mediocre offering would have rendered this statement hyperbolic, but luckily for Warner Bros., their Little Princess is in fact a one-of-a-kind masterpiece. Unluckily for Warner Bros., the film underperformed at the box office, barely making back half of its budget, and remains — after the initially warm critical reception faded into Rotten Tomatoes backlog obscurity — underseen and underappreciated.
The first film to be based on the 1905 novella by Frances Hodgson Burnett (she also penned The Secret Garden, which was also adapted into a gorgeous film in the ’90s) starred Shirley Temple in the title role and was as cloying as all of the other films in Temple’s jam-packed Depression Era oeuvre — her Heidi and Poor Little Rich Girl indistinguishable from her Sara Crewe. The beauty of the remake lies in Cuarón’s singular vision — colors so rich you can almost taste them, fantasy so transcendental it borders on the religious — and a trio of actors who merit special distinction: Liesel Matthews as Sara, delivering an extraordinary performance for an eleven-year-old that is refreshingly devoid of pretension; the late Eleanor Bron as Miss Minchin, a potentially cartoonish antagonist whom Bron and Cuarón make simultaneously loathsome and pitiable; and sexy Liam Cunningham in the dual roles of Papa and Prince Rama. Fun fact: Cunningham currently plays Ser Davos on a little show called Game of Thrones. Maybe you’ve heard of it. –Leah Pickett
The Birdcage (1996)
Source Material: La Cage aux Folles (1979)
Not to perpetuate the myth that Inside the Actor’s Studio actually matters, but that show had an amusing affinity for The Birdcage. Like, James Lipton has repeatedly pointed out, when cast and crew of the 1996 comedy come on, that the film sounds like it was an absolute blast to work on, because Nichols, Williams, Hackman, and Lane have all sung the comedy’s praises.
And why not brag about it? It’s superior to the 1978 French-Italian original, La Cage aux Folles (or the sequel to La Cage aux Folles, or the 1973 play, or the 1978 musical, for that matter). The joke success rate is something like 150%, and everyone involved seems to be having a wonderful time on screen. It’s a treasure trove of sublime comedy. Like, “Fosse! Fosse! Fosse!” Or Nathan Lane’s amazing John Wayne impersonation (“I didn’t know he walked like that…”). Or Gene Hackman’s pitch-perfect embodiment of a bloviating Republican congressman. Throw in the delectably tongue-in-cheek use of “We Are Family”. Dianne Weist in full doting. Robin Williams with a full mustache. Gene Hackman in glorious drag. And Hank Azaria giving his best Simpsons character voice that was never a Simpsons character in Agadore, the flamboyant foreign cleaner. And everything’s given care and attention under the guidance of a laid-back Mike Nichols working off a circus-like script from Elaine May.
You feel how funny it is to be in The Birdcage. This is one of the great comedies of manners, of screwball dinners, or of whatever you want to label it. The Birdcage is just goddamn funny. –Blake Goble
12 Angry Men (1997)
Source Material: 12 Angry Men (1957)
Who would dare to remake Sidney Lumet’s masterpiece theater of morality and the law? Who would be conceited enough to think they could augment, let alone top, the perfect 1957 drama? Who thought they could get better performances than Henry Fonda’s or Lee J. Cobb’s among the many other actors striking lightning as they decide the fate of one unlucky kid?
The original author, that’s who.
And besides, it’s not like 12 Angry Men, the great Lumet one, was the first iteration of the story anyway. Reginald Rose wrote 12 Angry Men for a 1954 CBS special before adapting it to the big screen for MGM several years later. (Take note, folks — the Lumet is perhaps the greatest argument ever for remaking something.) Rose was a longtime TV man, with 75 writing credits under his belt before he passed away in 2002. Yet he kept on coming back to his 12 Angry Men script time and again.
For 1997, he got the chance to reflect some of the natural differences 40 years might make in the judicial system. William Friedkin’s version featured men of color, acknowledged new forms of capital punishment, and featured an edgier, even angrier tone. Whereas Lumet nails staging, Friedkin was right in the faces of his men, and you know what? It works. Under Friedkin’s hot-button directing, the 1997 holds its own as a provocation first, a meditation last. But underneath all the heat and hemming and hawing is the righteous heart of moral concern that’s always made Rose’s script an ace witness of the law. It’s a great case: “Don’t mess with success.” –Blake Goble
You’ve Got Mail (1998)
Source Material: The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
You’ve Got Mail is sort of like the last round in a game of Telephone. The first film version of this central story is Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner, which itself was adapted from a Hungarian play called Parfumerie. And Lubitsch’s film? It was remade nine years after its release as a movie musical starring Judy Garland and then again as the Broadway musical She Loves Me. But though the story’s been told in myriad formats, its central story remains the same: two people who can’t stand each other in real life fall in love through a series of anonymous written correspondences.
You’ve Got Mail makes one crucial update: Instead of anonymous letters, sworn enemies Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are communicating through e-mail! It’s sort of an adorable rewatch, honestly, a portrait of a time when the modern internet was still new and exciting, a time when smartphones were still a twinkle in some dork’s four eyes. It’s also fascinating in how it shows a small, local bookstore being forced out of business by national chains, the same kind of national chains that are now closing in this era of e-readers.
You’ve Got Mail also holds up as a breezy, heart-melting comedy, yet another example of the resilience of its central premise. Even if you’re not one for the saccharine, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are charming enough to elevate the supermarket cheese to a gourmet level. We’re basically due for a Kik-centered remake, yeah? –Randall Colburn
The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)
Source Material: The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)
The 1999 remake of Norman Jewison’s classic caper The Thomas Crown Affair is arguably superior, in the way that one would characterize their middle age as being superior to their youth. It has money to burn and flaunts it. Not to give off a Ralph Lauren vibe, but this movie is simultaneously swanky and bougie, and Pierce Brosnan gives folks a Baby Boomer blast of rich-kid reverie. (Think of Crown as Donald Trump, with actual money and some wit and panache.) In other words, John McTiernan’s The Thomas Crown Affair is a good time for grown-ups in the style of late ‘90s heist action.
You’ve got the dashing Brosnan as the eccentric billionaire Thomas Crown, strutting about in polos and three-piece suits and indulging in excesses that would break the average man’s credit card into bits. He’s ostentatious yet unassuming. Mysterious and enigmatic, yet cool and in control of any situation. All that money has led to boredom, and that breeds Brosnan’s inner cat burglar. Crown’s hobbies run the gamut from eating croissants to crashing catamarans to stealing fine art from the New York Met. Throw in Bill Conti’s piano themes, a game Rene Russo as Brosnan’s foil, and fleet-footed action scenes (be on the lookout for the Nina Simone-tracked finale) from the once-great McTiernan, and well, this is like the world’s greatest midlife crisis on film. –Blake Goble
Gone in 60 Seconds (2000)
Source Material: Gone in 60 Seconds (1974)
OK, so this movie isn’t going to move minds, break hearts, or inspire a generation of artists. It’s not a world-class action movie or a gritty thriller. It’s not even Nicolas Cage at his Cage-iest (see fellow Bruckheimer films Con Air and The Rock for much better examples, or better yet, just watch Face/Off). But here’s a challenge: Try to watch Gone in 60 Seconds and not have a good time.
Just embrace it, man! Pretend that someone said you have to watch all 118 minutes in a hurry, or they’ll kill Giovanni Ribisi. Better yet, call an ex and tell them that you’ve got to watch the movie, but you’ll never be able to get through the whole thing without them, and someone’s got to save Giovanni, and it just has to be you. Make detailed plans that don’t make much sense. Make sure at least one of them involves UV light and/or a car code-named Eleanor.
In our own Blake Goble’s exhaustive and highly scientific dissection of Cage’s work, he classified the Oscar-winner’s work in 60 Seconds as bad. True? Yep, pretty true. Doesn’t matter. This is a piece of ridiculous action-packed schlock, but damn is it fun and fast and, yes, furious. Don’t over-think it, man. Just buckle up and turn off your brain for a bit. —Allison Shoemaker
Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
Source Material: Ocean’s Eleven (1960)
Steven Soderbergh’s modern update on the Rat Pack heist flick of same name is the one most people under the age of 40 remember best, even though both films boast star-studded ensembles engaged in high-stakes crimes that in the waggish way they’re played could be reasonably referred to as “shenanigans.” The Swinging Sixties crew involved
Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Peter Lawford, plus Angie Dickinson. The aughties squad includes George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Don Cheadle, and Matt Damon, plus Julia Roberts.
Clooney, a contemporary Cary Grant in look and tenor, smolders in the ringleader role originated by Ol’ Blue Eyes, while Pitt is a well-matched wit in the Dino role, with the notable bonus of Pitt’s character eating something in almost every scene. Clooney and Roberts too have a teasing, rat-a-tat banter that leapfrogs Sinatra and Dickinson’s to recall Bogart and Bacall’s, minus the steam. Yet the most memorable addition — besides the tighter, slinkier action sequences and sharper plot — is Andy Garcia as the fantastically named Terry Benedict. Garcia imbues his Mr. Benedict with just the right amount of glibness to portray him as cool and even a tiny bit likable, while at the same time providing the viewer with plenty of reasons to experience the schadenfreude of seeing this guy be duped. –Leah Pickett
The Ring (2002)
Source Material: Ringu (1998)
“Before you die, you see The Ring.” Out of context, this line sounds dumb, like something a first-year film school student would write in an attempt to sound haunting. But in actuality, The Ring mythology is derived from Ring, or Ringu in Japanese, a 1991 horror novel by Koji Suzuki turned into a wildly popular film of the same name in 1998.
The American remake that followed four years later is comparable to its precursor in almost every way, aside from swapping an unnamed Japanese town for Seattle and Japanese actors for white ones. The inky black imagery is lifted straight from the source material, as are almost all of the major plot points, characters, and the characters’ names, to an extent. “Sadako,” the evil girl who psionically created the tape in the original, is “Samara” (Daveigh Chase) in the remake; the intrepid protagonist “Reiko” is “Rachel” (Naomi Watts). Two American sequels followed: The Ring Two (2005), which zeroed in on Rachel’s creepy son who almost ruined the first film and certainly ruined its sequel, and the upcoming Rings (2016), with a new cast of dewy iGen teenagers (sorry, Naomi). But the first film in the franchise, though essentially a carbon copy of the Japanese original, mines some genuine scares from its PG-13 rating that made many a Gen Y teen thankful for the concurrent technological switch from VHS to DVD. —Leah Pickett
Freaky Friday (2003)
Source Material: Freaky Friday (1976 and 1995)
Hardly anyone expected the third Freaky Friday film to be as good as it turned out to be. The original, with Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster, was fine. The 1995 TV movie, with Shelley Long and Gaby Hoffmann, was fine as well. So why tell the story of an uptight mother and her recalcitrant daughter switching bodies yet again when the body-swap-to-learn-more-about-each-other storytelling device had already become commonplace (Vice Versa, Once Upon a Star,The Hot Chick)?
Enter Jaime Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan — the clashing fortyish mother and teenage daughter, respectively — who are equally charming in their separate, somewhat surprising career revivals. Curtis’ last hit had been True Lies in 1994, while Lohan’s last was her big-screen debut in 1998’s The Parent Trap. Fortunately, future Mean Girls director Mark Waters’ loose adaptation of Mary Rodgers’ 1972 novel sets itself apart from the book and other film versions with a screenplay as sincere as it is zany, and with two leads who are trussed, mentally and emotionally, to a level of comedic timing only a few other female duos over the past decade of feature films have been given the equal opportunity to achieve. Whatever one’s opinions of the individual actors may be, the fact remains that in this latest and by far best iteration of Freaky Friday, Curtis and Lohan share something that the majority of onscreen mother-and-daughter pairs do not: actual chemistry. —Leah Pickett
Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Source Material: Dawn of the Dead (1978)
George Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead is more than a horror movie. It’s scary as hell, but it’s also deeply, nihilistically satirical. Should Americans lose their autonomy, Romero argues, they’ll retreat to what feels safe, and what’s safe in the world of Dawn of the Dead is a shopping mall, ergo the bastions of capitalist culture.
Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead is … well, not more than a horror movie. But that’s okay! It’s good! Because it’s scary, and because it doesn’t really posit itself as having larger ambitions. It more or less disregards the plot of the original, swapping out Romero’s central foursome for a larger, more diverse group of survivors led by a game Sarah Polley, Mekhi Phifer, and Ving Rhames. As is the case with most of Snyder’s material, it’s a fast-paced affair, all guts and testosterone, with the zombies now sprinting instead of slumping and also manifesting in different forms, such as the revolting zombie baby that’s essentially become the remake’s mascot.
It’s Snyder at his finest, before his hyperactive muscularity got out of control and began to eclipse character and nuance. It’s a popcorn flick, not a statement, and there’s nothing wrong with that. –Randall Colburn
House of Wax (2005)
Source Material: House of Wax (1953)
Wait, House of Wax? “That” House of Wax? The one with Paris Hilton? But Peter Jackson’s King Kong came out that year! And Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory! And, uh, Bewitched?
Here’s the thing: House of Wax got a bad rap. Sure, the cast is absurdly, alienatingly hot, the runtime bloated, and the soundtrack choked with nu-metal slop, but it’s also handsomely directed, deliciously gruesome, and entertaining throughout. Credit debuting director Jaume Collet-Serra, who here married his eye for fine detail with practical gore effects, a technique he’d go on to hone with films like Orphan and this year’s The Shallows. He also exploits the film’s namesake goo for all it’s worth, giving us stomach-churning sequences where characters relentlessly pick, poke, and sink into crusty, viscous wax. Who needs jump scares when you have this much grossness on your hands?
Also, Paris Hilton? She’s not bad at all, and, better yet, if she annoys you just wait, as she gets gored through the head in a particularly effective sequence. Isn’t that a win-win? Ah, but now, more than a decade later, we’ve forgotten both Ms. Hilton and this film, haven’t we? That’s too bad, because at least one deserves to be remembered. –Randall Colburn
The Departed (2006)
Source Material: Infernal Affairs (2002)
Check it. Scorsese’s Boston crime saga is still the one and only remake to ever win Best Picture at the Oscars. Now that’s something. Sure, there’s precedent for a remake landing a nod for the big one, (True Grit in 2010, Disraeli in 1929/1930), but it’s still unfathomable to think that one could win. That’s the power, and the thrill, of Scorsese’s opus of crooks and cops.
In the tradition of Warner crime classics, The Departed is a moving work of deception, faith, and pushing the boundaries and meaning of doing what is just in this world. When cops are undercover and the crooks are hiding within the police department, Jack Nicholson’s Costello simplifies that world’s overall philosophy: “When you’re facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference?” Martin Scorsese just did what he’s been doing for years and elevated B-movie material — gangster flicks, to be exact — with perfect storytelling, outrageous characters, and the verve for cinematic flair for which Scorsese’s long been known. While The Departed may not hit the highs and pulp quality of Goodfellas or the freaky nastiness of Mean Streets, this is still an act of virtuoso filmmaking and a riveting classic nearly 10 years on. –Blake Goble
3:10 to Yuma (2007)
Source Material: 3:10 to Yuma (1957)
1957’s 3:10 to Yuma plays like a pretty classic Western: sweeping black-and-white cinematography, suspenseful chases and gun battles, a compelling villain, a flawed but honest hero. The 3:10 to Yuma of 2007 is much the same, with one big difference. It’s a bit like the movie took a big mouthful of meanness, tucked it in its cheek, and forgot to spit it out. That nastiness flows through its bloodstream non-stop.
That’s not to say that the new Yuma, which accurately captures the spirit (if not the exact plot) of its predecessor, is utterly without heart. If nothing else, it’s full to the brim with reverence for its actors, who do uniformly fine work. Russell Crowe’s as good here as in nearly any film on his resumé, and Christian Bale’s no slouch, either. But wander a bit further down the cast page and there are still plenty of highlights. Peter Fonda? Good god, that guy can act. Ben Foster, never better. Dallas Roberts, underrated here as nearly everywhere. Gretchen Mol. Logan Lerman. These people know their business.
No, the cynical spirit of the film can be found in its plot, both in the ways it adheres to the original and, more importantly, the ways in which it does not. In westerns, the terrains of both life and land can be plenty hard to cross. In director James Mangold’s Yuma, things go well beyond rocky and dry. This life is one of merciless disappointment, shame, disillusionment, loss, and regret. Crowe’s villainous Ben Wade has a bit of a twinkle in his eye, and it’s a lucky thing. If not, there’d be very little in the way of fun at all. –Allison Shoemaker
Funny Games (2008)
Funny Games might be the only film that was remade for ideological reasons. Michael Haneke, who wrote and directed both the German original and its American remake, fervently believed that Funny Games needed a bigger audience, or, more specifically, an American audience, them being the film’s main satirical target. And since remakes were all the rage in the mid-aughts, he dug up the script and set blueprints and made a shot-by-shot recreation in English with respected actors (Tim Roth, Naomi Watts, Michael Pitt, and Brady Corbet).
The result is every bit as effective as the original, at least in terms of conveying its message, which essentially probes the enjoyment so many seem to seek in and derive from violent entertainment. That’s why the aggressors, a pair of angelic-looking boys in tennis whites, need no reason to invade the home of Roth, Watts, and their son, nor an explanation for why they spend the rest of the movie torturing them. Haneke’s approach is deliberately heavy-handed, with the villains routinely breaking the fourth wall to prod and chastise the audience for its enjoyment of their actions. The finger-wagging continues as Pitt and Corbet deny the audience money shots, opting instead to kill their marks offscreen or with minimal fanfare. It’s designed to deflate.
And does that sound enjoyable? No, nor is it all that enjoyable, aside from the crackerjack performances of Pitt and Corbet. But it is resonant, even if it’s not likely to curb the bloodlust of horror and action fans. It asks captivating questions and basically encourages both audiences and filmmakers to be responsible about their enjoyment of violence, lest it cultivate unsavory actions or emotions. It’s a lesson we’d all be better off for learning. –Randall Colburn
Source Material: Brødre (2004)
This is the movie to show to anyone who doesn’t think Tobey Maguire can act. A faithful, if perhaps overly glossy, remake of Danish director Susanne Bier’s Brødre, Brothers puts three reliable Hollywood heavy hitters into an intimate, often harrowing drama of war and family. Maguire is joined by Natalie Portman and Jake Gyllenhal, and all are in fine form, but the once-and-former Spider-man is really something to behold. As Roger Ebert put it: “This becomes Tobey Maguire’s film to dominate, and I’ve never seen these dark depths in him before. Actors possess a great gift to surprise us, if they find the right material in their hands.”
The material’s certainly outstanding, with Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen’s story serving as the base for David Benioff’s solid screenplay (Game of Thrones, The 25th Hour). But Maguire and company had another indispensable advantage: director Jim Sheridan. Like his films In America and My Left Foot, Brothers takes an unflinching but compassionate look at all the beautiful and ugly aspects of being human and, particularly, of having a family.
Why didn’t Brothers make a bigger splash? Well, as mentioned above, it’s a little lacking in the grit department. It also, from an awards perspective, had the misfortune of going toe-to-toe with heavy hitters like Up, Inglorious Basterds, and, erm, Avatar. But it’s that other war movie that loomed the largest. Both Brothers and Brødre are well worth watching, but it’s little wonder that the former crept past us when it was so hurt by The Hurt Locker. It’s too bad. Like the two men at the center of Brothers, there’s room and love enough for both. —Allison Shoemaker
True Grit (2010)
Source Material: True Grit (1969)
Where the hell are the rip-roaring Westerns?
No, this isn’t your grandfather talking, but Westerns today are … well, not like they used to be. They’re all more or less recognized for their coarseness (Deadwood) or their flash (Jane Got a Gun) or their violence (Deadwood again) or their sex and gunplay (seriously, Deadwood). Or if they are like they used to be, they’re done with a wink and a nod (the game Red Dead Redemption, portions of Hail, Caesar!). There’s little room for being earnest.
And that’s what so invigorating about the Coens’ 2010 remake of True Grit. It’s a breathing, boisterous work of Western revisionism, about an old codger teaming up with a steely teenage girl for a journey way out West. The Coens loaded their take on Charles Portis’ classic novel with piss and vinegar, layering on the requisite grit the title might suggest, but without much else in the way of contemporary shake-ups. True Grit is a damn fine Western, a glory-days update featuring mighty landscapes and bold characters, all in the service of a ridiculously exciting story. True Grit succeeds in capturing a certain vintage, while not compromising its modern nuances, and audiences took to the film. It’s still the Coens’ highest-grossing effort and netted the film Best Picture and Best Actor (Jeff Bridges’ incredible, wobbly take on Rooster Cogburn) nominations at the Oscars. —Blake Goble
Fright Night (2011)
Source Material: Fright Night (1985)
There were a lot of remakes in 2011—Footloose, Straw Dogs, and Arthur among them—and pretty much all of them were lousy. The year’s Fright Night isn’t great, either, but it shines at least a little brighter than its contemporaries. Sure, it’s not particularly scary, the dialogue is gross, and and the original’s best character, “Evil Ed” Thompson, is tarnished by Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s lifeless performance, but it has its merits.
First and foremost are the memorable turns by Colin Farrell and David Tennant, who play a vampire and a TV horror host, respectively. Farrell provides a sharp, subdued take on the film’s central bloodsucker, while Tennant devours the scenery with his signature aplomb. Also, director Craig Gillespie, who also helmed the memorable 2007 indie Lars and the Real Girl, combines moments of flash—the opening title card sets a suitable tone—with patient scenes that cultivate palpable tension. While his approach doesn’t result in scares, necessarily, it does give us some gripping exchanges, especially between Farrell and lead Anton Yelchin (R.I.P.).
Ultimately, the 2011 Fright Night is Hollywood’s attempt to transform a cult classic into a mainstream affair, and in doing so it abandons much of what made the original such a haven for ‘80s horror nerds. Still, there’s talent here, both on camera and behind the scenes, and that’s worth something. — Randall Colburn
Source Material: Sparkle (1976)
The 1976 Sparkle has become a bit of a cult classic, thanks to its heady blend of camp, melodrama, Curtis Mayfield tunes, and Irene Cara. It’s not a good movie, but it’s entertaining as hell, the kind of thing you’d want to see at a midnight screening. The 2012 Sparkle isn’t that, to be sure, but it’s also not an outstanding piece of filmmaking. It’s just a movie that knows exactly what it is and what it wants. What it wants is to entertain you.
Yes, director Salim Akil and screenwriter Mara Brock Akil run headlong into the embrace of cliché. Yes, as the titular Sparkle, Jordin Sparks is a little dull. Yes, it basically feels like Dreamgirls minus “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” (though it should be said that Sparkle predates Dreamgirls, which opened on Broadway in 1981). But none of that really matters. Sparkle might be by-the-numbers, but what numbers they are! The Curtis Mayfield songs penned for the original are joined by tunes written by R. Kelly, all performed with guts and glory to spare by Sparks, Tika Sumpter, Carmen Ejogo, and the late Whitney Houston, whose last film performance comes, fittingly, in a remake of the movie she saw over and over again as a kid.
But none of the music would mean so much if it weren’t backed up by a solid story and some seriously good acting. Of particular note: Ejogo, as Sparkle’s sister Sister, and Mike Epps as Sister’s slick (and violent) husband Satin. Ejogo in particular sparkles (sorry), showing off the chops and star power she’d later display in Selma, and which we’ll be seeing again with the release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. And as always, Houston commands attention, particularly when it’s time for her to sing. So go ahead and roll your eyes, if you must. Just make sure you bring some Kleenex, too. —Allison Shoemaker
Evil Dead (2013)
Source Material: The Evil Dead (1981)
This one? This one sorta irks me. Not the movie, because the movie’s great, but rather that it had to be called Evil Dead. A lot of horror remakes, like House of Wax, are tied to films that are remembered more for their iconography or central gimmick than any kind of timeless story. The thing is The Evil Dead and its sequels, especially its second installment, aren’t like other horror movies since we recall them more for the singularity of their directorial vision, their leading man, and, especially, for the way they fused comedy and splatter filmmaking.
The 2013 Evil Dead is funny, sort of. Its ludicrously over-the-top rivers of blood, as well as Lou Taylor Pucci’s stubborn refusal to just die already offer some chuckles, but its traditional structure and sentimental redemption story have no place in a film that seeks to call itself Evil Dead. It’s more effective as a showcase for the ingenuity of director/co-writer Fede Alvarez, who, like Raimi before him, has a style all his own.
Horror remakes were a hot commodity in 2013, and while the Elijah Wood-starring Maniac and Jim Mickle’s We Are What We Are were solid interpretations of their source material, it’s Alvarez’s creation that showed the most promise, especially for horror fans. When he lets loose, there’s a lunacy to Evil Dead, a playfulness that’s undeniably thrilling. This year, he premieres Don’t Breathe, an original film. I’m excited and also glad he didn’t have to call it The Thing: Reborn or whatever to get it made. —Randall Colburn
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014)
Source Material: Ganja and Hess (1973)
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus was met with a quizzical response when it came out. It seemed that only the most die-hard fans of Spike Lee bothered to find his reimagining of Bill Gunn’s cult classic about black vampires, and even the most ardent supporters of the effort still couldn’t help but tilt their heads and wince in confusion. Vampires as modern myths and metaphors for addiction in America, sold with graphic sex, pointed/rigid/declarative dialogue, and nano-budget production quality? Hey, there are tons of remakes more inactive and less interesting than this one, and frankly, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus sticks its neck out in a way that can’t help but hypnotize and even haunt those who dare cross its path.
Lee goes film school, returning to his minimalist roots, experimenting with camera placement, music choices, and more. The general feel of the comedy/drama/horror/head trip is like watching an old great having fun while fucking around with expectations. Used to seeing a woman attacked and drained of her blood in vampire films? Wait until you see how poorly some of the women accept the prospect here. Seen vampires done to death as metaphors for sexuality and disease? Try looking at it as a slam against inbreeding and capitalist fetishism: The bloodsuckers seem to be creatures that belong in the Hamptons. No scene plays normally. No joke is taken lightly or settles for easy punchlines. No scare is obvious or cheaply discomforting. There’s no move too odd and interesting for Lee to try here.
Besides. You ever see a vampire film open with dancing set to Bruce Hornsby? Didn’t think so. —Blake Goble
Source Material: Cinderella (1950)
To some, the saying “Have courage and be kind” may ring trite. To others, it is perhaps the most fundamentally important message to impart, especially to young children. Apparently, director Kenneth Branagh believed in the latter, as this truism is uttered no less than three times over the course of his resplendent Cinderella reboot. Like the Disney animated classic upon which this live-action film is based, Branagh’s light reimagining of the narrative appears to be more aimed at kids than adults, sans the silly talking and singing mice from the original (whatever, I still love Gus-Gus).
Sure, the retread has its problems, the first being that it is one of many (The Glass Slipper, Ever After, A Cinderella Story, and now this). The second and perhaps most egregious issue is that Lily James’ Ella seemingly has the means to leave her terrible situation at her evil stepmother’s estate behind (friends on the outside, the freedom to roam about and run into handsome strangers) and her excuse — that her dead father would want her to stay in the family home — makes no sense (if he really loved you, girl, he’d want you to leave). However, her dead mother’s parting words, “Have courage and be kind,” form Ella into a principled and compassionate, if not quite feminist, heroine. And the film itself is stunning to behold, with bold, bright colors, sumptuous costumes, and extravagant set pieces providing endless eye candy. –Leah Pickett