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#8 BEST AND WORST REMAKES

BEST AND WORST REMAKES: BEST #8 – THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE

Much like RoboCop, the Manchurian Candidate is about dark forces turning people into soulless machines, only to have the annoyance of humanity and free will fight their way back to the surface.

The original Manchurian Candidate was a tale of cold war diabolism: the villain was the Communist Bloc, the heroes were civilian war heroes — banged up a bit, but confident they’re still on the right side. Nothing less than the fabric of a transparent democracy is at stake. It’s a great, taut picture, and one of few where I actually like Frank Sinatra.

But, if truth be told, I do prefer Jonathan Demme’s 2004 remake. The battlefield and the cabal behind it are different, but the end goal remains the same. Here, the multi-national corporation Manchurian Global is sinking its claws into soldiers with experimental nanotechnology, making them puppets. One such puppet is on the verge of winning the candidacy for vice-president, and, well, you get the drift of where it’s headed.

Transparency in government has been a huge topic for decades. Those who give the king the crown can take the crown away. It’s terrifying to see candidates from both sides of the aisle beg for campaign dollars from invisible billionaires and faceless corporations. What’s the will of the people really mean when someone asks you to make good on their loan?

Everyone’s at the top of their game here: Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Liev Schreiber, Jeffrey Wright, Kimberly Elise, Vera Farmiga, Jon Voight. Wright’s paranoid psychotic is hypnotic, as much as the mentally broken son Schreiber plays. Denzel can never do any wrong in my eyes: no one else can play a man holding onto his sanity with chewed fingernails like him.

Maybe my favorite part is its end, where the conspirators of Manchurian Global realize, in their almost naive megalomania, that the true face of government is something not to fuck with. They confused free will, openness, and freedom for weakness. In my hopeful days, I hope that’s as true in real life as it is in the movies.

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 review

The best thing the filmmakers of JOHN WICK CHAPTER TWO did was in one of its opening images. Over a mind-numbingly loud street-race, we see a projection on the side of a building. It’s of a movie in the long-gone black and white Silent Film era, showing cars crashing all over the place. It was a mission statement, and a brilliant one at that: this is a Hollywood action movie, one of thousands made; we’ve been entertaining you with this kind of violence for over a hundred years, so just park your reality outside and enjoy the next couple of hours. And that’s all I needed to not overanalyze what was to come afterward.

I really liked the first John Wick flick and I really enjoyed the second one. It’s simplicity in story execution: no one’s out to save the world, there’s no one’s kidnapped girlfriend or kid at stake — and whatever mulling these characters have in their life choices, no one’s trading up for their better angels anytime soon. There’s a lot of wrestling moves, followed by shooting (specifically in people’s legs and heads). Cars get wrecked left and right. People get run over by cars left and right. Characters talk to one another briefly and politely before resuming their carnage. And there’s no deep relationship quota (other than a dead wife and new dog).

I love the world-building of this world, the secret sub-culture of assassins built on the shoulders of the last movie. I can’t fathom what it’d be like to actually live in this world, where hit-men engage in all-out war in public with nary a cop batting an eye. At times it felt the public didn’t even notice the constant homicide erupting around them (maybe, like in super-hero worlds, this kind of thing is just a routine experience for them). And holy god in heaven there is a ton of assassins walking around. Like 75% of Manhattan is made up of them. I imagine high school guidance counselors telling thick-necked kids in Grade 12 “you know, Frank, you are bald — have you considered a career with Murder, Incorporated?”

So, yeah, you could do a lot worse for a Valentine’s Day movie.

#9 BEST AND WORST REMAKES

BEST AND WORST REMAKES: #9 – INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS

There’s a moment when Donald Sutherland’s car window gets smashed by an irate restaurant employee. Sutherland, who plays a food inspector, happens upon some questionable matter in the guy’s kitchen, and well, emotions get the best of him.

Like Chinatown, when Nicholson’s nose gets slashed, we have to watch the rest of the movie with an annoying visual imperfection.  In this case, it’s a spider web of glass that obstructs Sutherland’s (and our) line of sight. But that’s the brilliance of Invasion of the Body Snatcher 1978. That cracked glass is a metaphor (a cracked view of reality) and a symbolic visual (a forewarning to the creeping tendrils of the pods to come). That’s the kind of detail — deliberate or happenstance — I wish more films had.

Body Snatchers has been remade three times now. The Abel Ferrara one is really good, too, using an angle of militarization and its disconnection of emotions (even Meg Tilly’s “where you going to go” speech percolates from the deep of my memories every so often). The next stab was 2007’s The Invasion, but it didn’t hit any marks for me (Nicole Kidman wasn’t doing so well with remakes — 2004‘s Stepford Wives was unclear on its own identity, bouncing like Tigger between horror and comedy, and settling for neither). I’d say from living a year into the era of Trump, it’s a ripe time for another Body Snatcher reboot.  But I’m most likely confusing it with They Live.

#9 BEST AND WORST REMAKES

BEST AND WORST REMAKES: WORST #9 – DINNER FOR SCHMUCKS

I once had an L5/S1 spinal protrusion for a year and a half. In layman’s terms, it was a teeny-tiny piece of bone dry-humping a nice healthy nerve in my lower back. It was painful and debilitating; walking became an excruciating trial and I thought “this was it”: this was how I was going to spend the rest of my life. If personal demons come during one’s physical low point, there was an open bar in my soul and double dipping was a-ok. I got food poisoning once during this period. 3 am in the morning, heaving from my stomach up, keeping myself propped in a pretzel position next to the crapper: that was as bad as it could get. Dinner for Schmucks was the cinematic equivalent to that.

#10 BEST AND WORST REMAKES

BEST AND WORST REMAKES: BEST #10 – THE BLOB

THE BLOB came out thirty years after the original and is a hell of a fun film. It was directed by Chuck Russell, who shared writing credits with Frank Darabont. As a horror fan, I always wanted Russell to do more — ELM STREET 3 was always one of my favorite sequels and added an extremely cool angle to the Freddy Krueger myths. And besides the compiled suits at AMC, who doesn’t love Frank Darabont? He’s one of those filmmakers I put high on a shelf, successfully balancing love for the genre with sympathetic characters and grounded humanity.

THE BLOB does an amazing job of fusing the time of the original film with the present it’s set in. There’s a drive-in quality to it, serving not only as a homage to the 1950s, but a climax to the last throes of 1980s horror. The effects are gruesome, ingenious and over-the-top. People’s faces are melted off, bloodstained bones are exposed and kids are digested whole (proving nothing is sacred). Its characters may be stock (the delinquent bad boy; the cheerleader; the small town sheriff) but the script doesn’t pander just to those cliches. I love Shawnee Smith’s character, who finds her inner Ripley to save her brother, and eventually the town itself.

THE BLOB also does a great job of segueing into the 1990s conspiratorial government boogeyman era. The reveal/twist of the Blob’s origin was an introduction (for me at least) to shows like THE X-FILES and THE ARRIVAL. It’s been almost thirty years after the Blob came back to the theater and I wonder how they can bring it back. What can the Molten Meteor say about us today?

#10 BEST AND WORST REMAKES

BEST AND WORST REMAKES: WORST #10 – PSYCHO

It’s a disastrous experiment, but I guess someone had to try it. PSYCHO (1998) is about as close to a shot-for-shot remake of the original as anyone’s ever going to get. There are additions to modernize it (Lila Crane is a more prickly character who can’t go anywhere without her walkman; Norman Bates likes to furiously masturbate while watching women undress; shots of lightning and women in bondage are instrumental to Norman’s murder orgies) but for the overwhelming majority of the picture it’s exactly the same, down to the camera angles.

For me, the film fails beyond reproach because PSYCHO is a product of its time. The world had changed immeasurably since 1960. The script’s structure, dialogue, and movement are completely anachronistic if you place it in a post SILENCE OF THE LAMBS/TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE world. What shock does dressing like your dead mom have when we’ve become accustomed to villains dressing in their victims’ skins?

Hitchcock’s PSYCHO is a masterpiece in its lighting and mood, its music and unraveling layers. It crossed barriers in a film no one thought of before. Subsequent horror filmmakers grabbed that ball and ran like hell with it. Nothing like it had been dumped on a mass audience before. Hitchcock’s involvement with such a grubby little tale could be viewed the same way if Steven Spielberg had signed on to direct SAW or HOSTEL in the early ‘00s.

If anything, PSYCHO 1998 proves scripts, actors, camera angles, editing, music, and sound are just tools for a movie. The mark of a really great movie is the soul that moves between the frames of it. And unfortunately, Van Sant was able to capture everything in the photograph but that.

#11 BEST & WORST REMAKES

BEST REMAKES: #11 – RoboCop

The RoboCop remake is a perfect example of the “trashing something before you see it” mentality, a mentality I am as guilty of as the next guy. RoboCop (1987) is without a doubt my favorite science fiction film. Its humanistic theme, action, characters and satire make the movie (at least in my opinion) perfect, and perfect for its time of release. When I heard talk of a remake, I immediately met it with derision.

But here’s the crazy thing about the original 1987 RoboCop: it should’t work on any level. It is loaded to the hilt with too many ingredients. It’s science fiction, it’s action, it’s revenge and redemption; it’s satire, it’s spoof; it’s cartoonish but carries deep messages about the soul of one’s self and the corporate state we live in. It’s a retelling of the Christ story filtered through the tale of Frankenstein. There is no way in hell this thing should work. But it did. It succeeded so much, it spawned sequels, TV movies, books, novels, comics, toys and a Saturday morning cartoon (!)

So with the announcement of a remake, it was hard for me to wrap my head around it. How could the current Hollywood corporate machine (similar to the parent company of the Robo-verse) was capable of seeing the forest for the trees with the property.

I was wrong. The goal of any remake can’t be to wholly replicate its predecessor. First and foremost, it has to be its own animal — while still emulating some of the soul of the original. RoboCop (the remake) holds up as its own film, with its own structure, villains and motives. It has its own tone of satire, fit for our post 9/11 world. Fox style news editorials, corporate manipulation of politics and Big Brother spying are all up for scrutiny in the film. I particularly like that the corporation wants Robo to be more human at first (for demographic purposes), then quickly realize free will gets in the way of the bottom line. It’s got some great action, doesn’t rely too crazy on computer effects, and (most important) has a heart at the center of it. It had a feel to it that it wasn’t just a crass cash grab. It felt that the machine behind it actually had a conscious soul putting the pieces together.

#11 BEST & WORST REMAKES

WORST REMAKES: #11 – POLTERGEIST

It all comes down to the fucking clown. In the original Poltergeist, the clown doll was a normal childhood toy (most likely Carol Anne’s) that happened to be a source of anxiety for the young boy (Robbie). The ghosts use the kid’s fears against him and manipulate the doll to attack him. It goes from being just everyday creepy to disturbingly grotesque — and I was never sure if it was actually becoming demonic, or if it’s Robbie’s perception of it at that moment. It’s a great visual, and set a high bar for kids in danger as well as the use of clowns in horror movies.

In the remake, the clown doll is discovered in the house’s walls, in a box filled with other clown dolls. All them look like they were built in the same factory Annabelle from The Conjuring came from. Why these things are hidden behind the gyprock is never answered. No one cares to bring up they were modeled after demonic-pedophiles. There’s no reason to keep these fucked up things around, and we the audience aren’t surprised at all when they attack because, of course, THERE IS NOTHING NORMAL ABOUT THEM.

The clowns represent everything that’s wrong with Poltergeist 2015. It has no real purpose, or thought behind it, or strategy to say something new or innovating. It exists solely to prey on nostalgia. It’s only strategy to scare you is by regurgitating imagery and emotions that have no context other than your own memories. Metaphorically speaking, it’s paying a hooker to dress and act like your first true love: no matter how good her cosplay can get, it’s a hollow and desperate act, and ultimately depressing for everyone involved.

12 BEST & WORST REMAKES

12 BEST & WORST REMAKES: #12

Best #12: Fatal Attraction

I come from a pretty solid home. My parents have been married for nearly 50 years (I’m sure my mom could give an exact number, but this post doesn’t have pictures of her grandkids in them, so it’s a safe bet she isn’t reading this), and I never saw any crazy-ass drama unfold under the roof I called home. Now, being exposed to marriage through stability is great and all, but seeing the worse case scenario of infidelity play out while you’re eating popcorn is another — especially if it involves child abduction, property vandalism and an extremely disturbing recipe for rabbit stew. Fatal Attraction caused me to make a personal vow to never “wander” in a relationship — not that I was anywhere near that being a problem when I was 16. Or 20. Or 30. Jesus, what a lonely life I’ve led. But little did 1988-Me know that a vow like that does come with perks: there’s no reason whatsoever for me to SnapChat a picture of my dick to anyone.

Fatal Attraction was based on James Deardan’s 50 minute short entitled Diversion. The story, a normal, everyday family man who strays from the sanctity of his marriage, grabbed the zeitgeist by the throat (and balls) in the same fashion Jaws hit beachgoers and Psycho turned off people who enjoy sharing sandwiches with amateur taxidermists.

It may not have invented the stranger-danger category, but it sure as hell gave it legs to sprint (the genre is still alive and well with films like The Gift still making bank). It also has the dubious achievement of being the first in the Chronicles of Michael Douglas’ Strange Sexcapades, segueing into Basic Instinct and Disclosure. And maybe Behind the Candelabra, if you’re a purist.

12 BEST & WORST REMAKES

12 BEST & WORST REMAKES

WORST #12 – THE JAZZ SINGER

The Jazz Singer is a horribly embarrassing movie. In probably the most bait-and-switch titles to troll cinema, it doesn’t even feature a singer who sings jazz. That’s the equivalent of watching Batman v Superman and discovering the main characters are actually Charlie Brown and Optimus Prime (yeah, I don’t want to see that movie either).

There’s nothing in the film that’s not an exercise in failure: the dialogue, the performances, the melodramatic tone. I can only assume Laurence Olivier was knee-deep in gambling debts or had to pay off a swimming pool — he clearly had no truck with the product either, stating “this piss is shit”. And boy was he right. I’m as much a fan of Neil Diamond songs as anyone (show me someone who doesn’t like Desiree and I’ll show you a future member of ISIL), but good lord, any actor who finds himself in a scene wearing black face past 1950 has to seriously consider firing his management.

The original Jazz Singer carries the special honor of being the first feature film that synched sound to picture; the 1980 remake carries the special honor of killing Neil Diamond’s acting career before it even started.