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Posts Tagged ‘remake’

Not for the first time recently, we went on holiday only to find our arrival coincided with regrettably unseasonal weather conditions: ‘WINTER STORM EXPECTED SUNDAY PM/MONDAY AM’ flashed every roadside information board all the way from JFK into Manhattan. Probably just a coincidence, and I suppose it could have been worse: it was only the first day or so of the trip, when we were taking it fairly easy and trying to get over the jet lag.

The prospect of spending the evening in the hotel room was brightened a bit when Travelling Companion spotted that the movie on BBC America was King Kong. This seemed (potentially, at least) a very appropriate film for the situation – it’s one of the great, iconic New York movies, and we were staying just round the corner from the Empire State Building. The only slight cause for uncertainty was that there was no way of finding out which version of King Kong we were going to be treated to, because personally I find that my mileage differs radically (I have written in the past about my very unfashionable fondness for the reviled 1976 version). Well, we settled down in front of the TV, and I have to confess that my heart sank a bit when it became clear we would be going through the experience that is Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of this classic tale.

Surely everybody knows the basic plot of this archetypal fable: it is the early 1930s, and many Americans are struggling with the consequences of the Great Depression. Amongst them is vaudevillian Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), who is out of work and struggling to even eat. Hope glimmers when she encounters maverick film-maker Carl Denham (Jack Black, playing the part as Orson Welles at his most Machiavellian), who whisks her off to star in his new movie, to be filmed on location on an uncharted island. Also shanghaied for the trip is earnest young playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody). Soon enough (well, maybe not, but we shall return to this) everyone sets sail for Skull Island, little anticipating the unusual ecosystem that has survived there: arthropods of unusual size, relict dinosaurs, and a large gorilla population (there’s actually only one gorilla, but it is very large).

Well, the natives take a fancy to Ann and end up sacrificing her to the ape, known to them as Kong (Andy Serkis does the mocapping essentials). Even as her colleagues mount a desperate attempt to rescue her, Ann finds herself realising that Kong is not quite the savage beast he first appears to be, while Carl reaches the conclusion that the ape could be just what he needs to make his career – all he needs to do is get Kong back to New York. What could possibly go wrong with an idea like that…?

Peter Jackson is quite open about the fact that the original King Kong is his favourite film of all time – well, there’s nothing wrong with that, it is an essential classic and one of the foundation texts of the fantasy and monster movie genres. He initially wanted to make it in the late 1990s, when I seem to recall it had acquired the title The Legend of King Kong, but for various reasons the project got put on hold while he pushed ahead with his noted jewellery-related triptych.

Personally I would quite like to look into that parallel dimension where Jackson made King Kong before Lord of the Rings, as I think the version they have there would be very interesting and quite possibly better. For me the extant version feels very much like the movie equivalent of one of those brick-sized mid-to-late Harry Potter novels written when J.K. Rowling had become so successful she could do anything she wanted and nobody, it seems, was brave enough to suggest that more is sometimes less.

It’s hard to imagine that the pre-Rings Jackson would have been indulged in making a version of Kong that runs for over three hours, nearly twice the length of the original film. Certainly, the 1933 film moves along at a brisk clip and skimps a little bit when it comes to things like characterisation, but it’s a pulp monster movie and that is the source of most of its charm. Blowing the movie up to proportions even vaster than that of the title character changes it entirely, making it ponderous and a source more of bathos than genuine pathos.

It is, for example, an hour into the movie before they even arrive at Skull Island, and obviously more than that before we see any monsters: Jackson has cast a trio of hot young stars (Brody was relatively fresh from his Oscar win, making this a curious inversion of that phenomenon where successful young actresses are almost instantly cast in fantasy and superhero movies – cf. Halle Berry, Charlize Theron, Brie Larson, etc), but they struggle with a script that simply feels bloated – Peter Jackson and his collaborators clearly have their hearts set on making an epic movie, perhaps rather in the same vein as Titanic, but they struggle to find anything appropriately profound to say, and the film feels like it’s taking itself very seriously considering it is essentially about an island full of dinosaurs and a giant gorilla rampaging through Manhattan. It also feels like there’s an awful lot of filler (a subplot about Jamie Bell and Evan Parke’s characters doesn’t contribute much of anything and could easily be snipped entirely).

Despite being essentially a homage, the movie seems to have a curious and by no means uncritical attitude towards the 1933 film. There are, of course, a number of in-jokes and references scattered throughout it, but one gets a general sense of Jackson and his writers attempting to update and ‘fix’ the original story. This is fair enough: the 1933 Kong‘s presentation of the islanders is horribly awkward and dated, which the newer film acknowledges by modelling Denham’s ugly and garish stage extravaganza on these scenes. But again, this is hardly done with the lightest of touches.

The really successful element of the 2005 film, at the heart of the sequences where it genuinely feels as if it’s coming to life, is its handling of Skull Island itself: what’s a fairly generic ‘Lost World’ backdrop in the original has obviously been the source of much (maybe even too much) thought and imagination, with new species of dinosaur and creepy-crawly developed to populate it. The bits of the film where Jackson genuinely feels like he’s enjoying himself all derive from this, and diverge considerably from the source: the sauropod stampede, the nightmarish chasm scene, and the fight between Kong and the vastatosaurs.

The special effects are, of course, state of the art, but again one has to wonder about some of the creative decisions involved – it’s shorthand to describe King Kong as a gorilla movie, but the makers of most films involving this character have played it a little fast and loose when it comes to presenting the giant ape – the most recent Kong movie, for instance, opted to make him more bipedal and humanoid, simply because this suited the feel they were going for. The Jackson-Serkis Kong, on the other hand, is the most authentically gorilla-ish Kong in movie history, but it’s not really clear what dividend this pays.

What does feel like a definite misstep, motivated perhaps by that decision to go for a Titanic kind of vibe, is the choice to make Kong an almost entirely sympathetic character from much earlier in the film. It’s only comparatively late in the 1933 version, when it becomes obvious he is doomed, that Kong becomes the icon of pathos and tragedy he is best remembered as – prior to this, he is an ambiguous and often frightening figure. Jackson and company clearly want us on his side all the way through, one of their main tactics being to get Naomi Watts to do her sad-open-mouth face whenever Kong is in trouble (which she ends up doing a lot). The problem is that by trying to solicit pathos rather than thrills, the film usually ends up generating neither.

Despite all of this negative talk, I would still have to agree that King Kong is a case of a great director producing a magnificent folly more than an outright failure. There is all the material here for a potentially great fantasy film, but there’s just too much of it, along with plenty of other stuff which wouldn’t ever normally appear in a conventional monster movie. In the end, this is a lavish, impressively-assembled film, but it’s saddled with an inappropriate tone and a misconceived sense of its own significance that makes it a tough slog to get through.

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The thing about a movie like A Star is Born is that, when it comes to doing a properly pithy review, all the best lines have probably been taken already. The new version (directed by Bradley Cooper) is, after all, the fourth iteration of this particular story, which has a strong claim to be the most remade film in history – I know there have been 27 versions of The Three Musketeers, or whatever, but here we are talking about something originated for the screen, not an adaptation of a novel or a play. I will be honest and admit I have not been able to come up with anything as good as the Village Voice‘s verdict on the 1976 version with Barbra Streisand, ‘A bore is starred.’

The long gap between the most recent A Star is Borns does not preclude a tiny bit of behind-the-scenes continuity between the two – presumably for obscure contractual reasons, hairdresser-turned-producer Jon Peters is credited for both despite having no career worth mentioning these days – but otherwise the new film is its own thing – or at least as much of its own thing as one can reasonably expect, given that it credits both the Streisand and Judy Garland versions as contributing to the story.

Cooper plays hard-living country rocker Jackson Maine, a successful musician who is beginning to have serious trouble with various personal demons. One night, after a gig in New York, he drops into a drag bar while desperately searching for something to drink (hey, we’ve all been there). His mind is taken off the booze when he sees a performance by an unknown singer named Ally (played by Lady Gaga, who is played by Stefani Germanotta as usual). He is much taken by her incredible vocal stylings, and soon after the rest of her, even the nose which she claims has been such a brake on her career: shallow and worthless music industry professionals are only interested in superficial appearance, not real talent.

Well, they have a lovely evening together and then part, and Ally assumes that’s the end of it. But what’s this? Jackson sends a car to whisk her off to his next gig, which she of course ends up going to. He drags her on stage for an unplanned duet, and the rest is, well, not quite history, but certainly very late-stage prehistory. (Well, this is one way of picking up girls, I suppose.) Stardom soon beckons for Ally (as you might have anticipated if you were paying attention to the title of the film) – but will Jackson be able to deal with his girlfriend’s fame and talent threatening to eclipse his own?

As I say, all the best lines about A Star is Born have already been taken, and it was Mark Kermode who observed with typical sagacity that the film has two main challenges as a piece of drama: it has to convince you that Bradley Cooper is a famous rock star and Lady Gaga isn’t. Well, I would say it manages to pull this off – Cooper has a decent voice (not sure if he’s doing his own guitar-playing though) and does the business when his character is on stage, while – and I didn’t know this – apparently Germanotta spent ten years taking method acting lessons at the Lee Strasberg Institute in New York. So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that there is really nothing much wrong with her performance at all.

That said, it’s when Cooper is acting and Germanotta is singing that the film feels like it’s operating at full power. Cooper as director seems fully aware that, as a musical (even a diegetic one, which is strictly speaking what this is), having a singer of her range and technical ability in the lead role is the film’s trump card. Where most trailers for forthcoming attractions build up to a big dramatic moment or special-effects money shot, the one for A Star is Born is based around the moment when Gaga lets rip with a (let me just check with a popular lyric-transcribing website) ‘Oooooaahaaaooouoooouooooohaaaa’ and practically lifts the roof off any cinema where it is showing. It is a properly spine-tingling moment and I expect the musical number it accompanies to be inescapably ubiquitous from now until next year’s awards season concludes.

It’s a bit which comes fairly early on in the film, which until this point has been skimming along almost irresistibly, with a very well-judged mixture of grit, warmth, and romance. The opening section is certainly the film’s best – not because the rest of it is actually bad as such, but it’s just not quite to the same standard.

There’s just a bit too much of it, for one thing – the movie feels like it could comfortably absorb ten or fifteen minutes of cuts from its middle section – as it is, it occasionally feels like it’s laying everything on a bit thick. Then again, this is a chunky, crowd-pleasing, manipulative musical melodrama, so maybe that’s kind of the point.

Even so, I did find myself wondering what this story is supposed to be about – is it trying to make a point about the brutal nature of the fame game, or is it really just about the stresses and strains on this particular relationship? The story is obviously trying to tick all the bases, by showing Ally’s rise to stardom while depicting Jackson’s decline and fall, but it almost feels as if these things are happening in isolation from each other – the film makes it clear from its opening moments that Maine is a man with serious issues, which only get worse as the story continues. It’s not difficult to imagine his story following a vaguely similar trajectory even had he never met Ally – as a result, they almost feel like ships passing one another, the ups and downs of their actual relationship incidental, and this inevitably impacts on how affecting and moving the drama of the film is.

Nevertheless, this is the kind of big, sentimental movie that audiences often take to their hearts in a very big way, and I can imagine A Star is Born becoming a major success, both critically and commercially. Is it too soon to talk about next year’s awards? Possibly, but the Academy in particular has a distinct weakness for this kind of new-take-on-an-old-favourite offering. And while I don’t think this is a particularly great film, it’s a substantial one with some wonderful individual moments.

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In an unprecedented development, the blog finds itself reviewing two westerns on the spin. Once upon a time (in the west), this might not have seemed so notable, for the cowboy movie was a Hollywood staple for decades, with literally thousands of films being produced. Not so many these days, of course – and the films that do get made are usually reinventions, or low-budget deconstructions, or remakes, or films that creep into western territory without genuinely being truly of the genre (is The Revenant a western? Is Cold Mountain?).

So it should come as relatively little surprise that the movie under review is Antoine Fuqua’s new version of The Magnificent Seven, as this is one of the very few westerns with any name recognition these days that wasn’t made by either Sergio Leone or Clint Eastwood. This would usually be the place for me to complain about Hollywood’s habit of doing pointless remakes of brilliant extant movies, but (possibly annoyingly) the new movie has a ready-made defence: the 1960 John Sturges version of The Magnificent Seven was, of course, already a remake, of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film Seven Samurai. (Neither Sturges nor Kurosawa gets a credit on the new film, by the way.)

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The thing is that Seven Samurai is, not to put too fine a point on it, one of the greatest movies ever made, and the 1960 Magnificent Seven is also a classic in its own right, an almost-perfect film. (The story has been pastiched many times since, too, and some of those were also pretty good – I really should look again properly at Battle Beyond The Stars one of these days.) Surely the new film is just asking for a critical drubbing up by going upĀ against this sort of competition?

The story is more or less recognisable. The year is 1879 and the inhabitants of the small town of Rose Creek are being driven from their homes by ruthless businessman Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), but being a tidy-minded sort of villain he sets a convenient three-week deadline for them to pack up and get out. Feisty young widow Emma (Haley Bennett, who is a perfectly acceptable actress but whom I suspect will mainly succeed in her career due to her resemblance to Jennifer Lawrence), whose husband has been killed by Bogue’s men, refuses to be cowed and sets out to find help in resisting him.

And, well, she ends up with seven gunmen, as you might expect. Denzel Washington plays Yul Brynner, Chris Pratt plays Steve McQueen, Ethan Hawke plays Robert Vaughn and Byung-Hun Lee plays James Coburn. (The film is trading off the popularity of the Sturges version, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to make this sort of comparison – though I should mention that character fates from the 1960 version aren’t necessarily repeated in the new one.) Vincent D’Onofrio, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Martin Sensmeier complete the septet, though their characters are essentially original.

Well, that’s one way of putting it. As you may have noticed if you’ve seen the trailer, one of the seven is now a native American, one is a sort of Korean ninja, and various other ethnicities are in the mix too. Some have gone so far as to describe the new film as a ‘diversity western’ (as opposed to what, I wonder), and there’s a slightly laboured scene drawing attention to just what a mixed crew they’ve ended up with. Still, at least this film hasn’t drawn the tsunami of abuse directed at the all-female Ghostbusters remake, possibly because there’s at least a tiny element of historical accuracy here, and the original film and its sequels took a few steps in this direction, too, featuring black, disabled, and Russian gunfighters.

It’s perhaps illuminating to consider just what has been changed in the new movie: well, first off, the whole film is set in the US, rather than the seven going off to Mexico to defend some villagers – but this is hardly a surprise, given the Mexican government objected to its citizens being presented as so weedy 56 years ago, before we even get onto present-day US-Mexican relations. On perhaps a related note, the villain is no longer a simple bandido but a super-rich industrialist intent on despoiling the landscape for his own betterment, but I think suggestions that the bad guy is a thinly veiled caricature of the current Republican presidential nomineeĀ are probably pushing a point. Perhaps most significantly, in story terms, this is no longer just a story about a bunch of guys going off to do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing: there’s some Questing For Vengeance going on here, because being virtuous for its own sake is apparently not a proper motivation any more.

I’m not sure I agree with this: one of the things I like about the 1960 movie is that it’s such a simple story of good guys pitted against bad guys, without a great deal in the way of moral ambiguity. Then again, this is very much a post-Unforgiven western, with the west presented as a hard, somewhat squalid place: nearly everyone has a beard and looks like they probably smell quite bad. At least the good guys are still pretty good, although what were subtle touches in 1960 have become hammer blows here – the knife-throwing member of the seven is festooned with blades, the one whose nerve has gone is afflicted with the screaming ab-dabs, and so on. The bad guy is, regrettably, fairly terrible: he’s an absurdly underwritten cartoon villain and it’s very jarring when he eventually starts coming out with some of Eli Wallach’s dialogue from the original script.

This doesn’t happen too much: only a few lines and a couple of bits of business are retained, but I can’t decide whether this is for the best or not. These moments are fun, but do you really want to be reminded of another, better movie? Where the film really struggles is in its soundtrack, which was one of the final projects worked on by James Horner before his death. Writing a completely original Magnificent Seven soundtrack would challenge the greatest composer who ever lived, for Elmer Bernstein’s music is surely one of the most famous and best-loved scores ever written – it’d be like trying to write a new Star Wars soundtrack without being able to utilise any of the elements written by John Williams. Sure enough, the music spends most of the film trying as hard as it can to surreptitiously suggest Bernstein, before the movie caves in and plays the main theme of the 1960 movie over the closing credits. Of course, by this point it just feels rather incongruous, almost like a contractual obligation.

In a sense this extends to much of the film – it’s really compelled by its very nature to reference the Sturges movie, because that movie’s continuing popularity and fame are the main reasons why this one exists at all. But it never really feels comfortable doing so – it wants to be dark and gritty and psychologically complex where the 1960 film was breezy and light and entertaining (The Magnificent Seven is itself a very 1960 sort of title – no-one gives their movies such on-the-nose names these days).

In the end the new Magnificent Seven isn’t a particularly bad film, but it isn’t going to rock anyone’s world either, I suspect. I think part of the problem is that Hollywood studios stopped making westerns on a regular basis so long ago that they’ve kind of lost the knack. It does feel oddly self-conscious about the classic genre elements, and much more comfortable with its modern-style action sequences (suffice to say much stuff blows up amidst automatic gunfire). The cast are pretty good (Ethan Hawke probably makes the biggest impression) but most of them still look more like grown men dressing up as cowboys than authentic western heroes. Perhaps the classic western is truly dead and it is time to stop interfering with the corpse; this movie passes the time fairly agreeably but if you want to watch this story, you have other, far superior options available to you.

 

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Every family has its own little traditions; that’s part of what it means to be a family, I suppose. One of ours was that, every Christmas, someone would pore over the TV guide until we had located what time they were showing the 1959 version of Ben-Hur (they invariably were). Then, having made a careful note of exactly when it was on, we equally carefully didn’t switch on until a couple of hours later, because we were only really interested in the bit with the chariot race. I strongly get the impression that there was a similar tradition in the house of the makers of the new version of Ben-Hur, because in some ways this whole film feels like the work of people who are only really interested in the bit with the chariots.

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Yeah, they’ve actually gone and done a remake of Ben-Hur, bemusing though the decision is. Has the well of inspiration really run so dry? Is nothing safe from the curse of the pointless reimagining? What next, a remake of Jaws? A remake of West Side Story? A remake of Back to the Future? A remake of The Magnificent Seven? (Oh, hang on a minute.) Showing a rather sweet naivety, everyone involved insists this is a new adaptation of the Lew Wallace novel and has nothing to do with the other film versions (there have been several) whatsoever, in the apparent belief this means their movie will not be compared to death with the 1959 film, one of the most famous and successful films of all time. Good luck with that, guys.

The plot is, obviously, rather familiar: Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is a privileged Jewish prince in the first century AD, no particular friend to the occupying Romans, but not intent on driving them out either: he just wants a quiet life. Things are complicated by the fact his adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) is an ambitious Roman officer, and the time eventually comes when Ben-Hur must make a choice between loyalty to his brother and his people. He opts for the latter, and as a result finds himself framed for an attack on the Roman governor. His mother and sister are imprisoned and he is packed off to become a galley slave.

Still, you can’t keep a good Hur down, and one nightmarish sea battle later he is loose and working as a vet for charioteering impressario Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), all the while pondering how to exact vengeance against Messala, despite his wife’s pleas for him to move on (Mrs Ben-Hur is played by Nazanin Boniadi). Then Ilderim comes up with an idea for a way for Ben-Hur to safely take on Messala – and wouldn’t you know, it involves a chariot race…

I’m sure that many people outside my family also basically think that the chariot race sequence is the sine qua non of the 1959 version of Ben-Hur – well, whether it is or not, you could argue that in some ways it definitely is of this new film. The chariot race is in the poster, the film opens with a taster of the climactic race sequence, which is heavily foreshadowed throughout the first two acts of the film, and the closing credits are animated so the names of cast and crew gallop around the circus amidst clouds of dust. The problem is that if you’re going to pitch your movie so much on the strength of one set-piece sequence, it’s really got to be something special – and while the race here is good, it’s not great, not least because it’s so clearly been achieved with CGI where the 1959 race was staged ‘for real’.

Then again, doing stuff with CGI is the speciality of director Timur Bekmambetov, who is in charge on this occasion. Bekmambetov is the guy who gave the world Wanted, a demented thriller about superpowered assassins acting at the behest of precognitive knitting, along with Abraham Lincoln – Vampire Hunter, a film which is every bit as strange as it sounds. Unfortunately something about this project seems to have cowed Bekmambetov a bit, for his usual irrepressible insanity is nowhere to be seen and, apart from during the sea battle and the chariot race, his style is rather anonymous and pedestrian.

But the overall impression one takes away from the new Ben-Hur is of a small film with aspirations to be a big one. Morgan Freeman is the only cast member most people will have heard of, and he goes all-out to provide some gravitas. Jack Huston is clearly trying his socks off too but there is no avoiding the fact that he is in the shadow of a colossus with no chance of escape. Whatever you think of Charlton Heston’s politics, he was one of the most charismatic film stars of all time, and he had more screen presence in one of his earlobes than Huston has in his entire body.

Nobody else makes much of an impression either, except, perhaps, Toby Kebbell. Kebbell has made something of a career out of doing bad guy roles where his face is never seen – he was an evil chimp in the last Planet of the Apes film and Dr Doom in the calamitous version of Fantastic Four last year – and actually appearing on screen must have been a nice change for him. Good though he is, his slight resemblance to a Vernon Kay who’s worried that Tess has been checking his SMS history again was rather distracting for me.

Messala is a rather more sympathetic and less malevolent character in this version of the film, which has had various nips and tucks performed on the plot, removing some elements of the plot entirely and building others up. This isn’t truly a grandiose epic of the old school, but something clearly aspiring to be grounded and emotionally real, with a predictably hard modern edge.

And perhaps something more too… In many ways the new Ben-Hur reminded me of Risen, a fairly obscure film I saw earlier this year which purported to be another sword-and-sandal drama, but actually turned out to be some sort of evangelical tract. There’s money in the Christian movie-going audience, provided you can get them on side. Hence we have a message about the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation rather than vengeance, a conclusion I can only describe as sappy, and – perhaps most significantly – a rather bigger role for Jesus in the story. Jesus is played by Rodrigo Santoro, an interesting choice given he is probably best known for playing the huge-and-jingly-and-rather-suspect god-king-villain in the 300 movies. Still, he does a perfectly fine job, and if we can have a Maori Jesus, why not a Brazilian one?

Unfortunately, it’s quite hard to get people to accept your film is about a Christian message of redemption and forgiveness when it’s being marketed almost entirely on the strength of one balls-to-the-wall CGI action sequence, and this may explain why this new version of Ben-Hur just hasn’t been doing the business at the box office. I’m not really surprised, because this is one of those films where virtually everyone’s first reaction to learning it exists is ‘Really?!? What’s the point?’

This film isn’t a disaster and it does have things of merit in it – but its general aura of redundancy, and the fact it clearly can’t decide whether it’s aimed at mainstream action movie fans or the Christian audience, result in something that’s a fairly lacklustre and colourless experience. Or, to put it another way: liked Ben, not so keen on Hur.

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Most producers of major Hollywood summer blockbusters would probably react with dismay, to put it mildly, upon learning that their movie was not going to get a release in one of the world’s biggest and most lucrative markets. For the people behind Paul Feig’s new version of Ghostbusters, however, I suspect China’s decision not to allow the film to show in their country will come as something of a relief: it will at least give people something else to talk about, for this is a project which has attracted a higher-than-usual level of chatter since it was announced.

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The film is set in present day New York. Kristen Wiig plays Erin Gilbert, a physicist who reluctantly finds herself drawn back to her one-time interest in parapsychology, and also her former friend Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy). A spate of ghost sightings across the city lead the duo to go into business with semi-unhinged engineer Holtzman (Kate McKinnon) and former metro worker Patty (Leslie Jones) as professional psychic investigators. But things seem to be quickly getting out of control, as someone seems intent on unleashing a supernatural disaster on the city. The citizens and government desperately need help, but (and I’m aware you’re probably ahead of me on this) who are they gonna call?

Yes, this is the All-Female Ghostbusters Remake which you may or may not have become aware of in recent months. If you’re going to talk about it with any degree of credibility, I suspect you are required not just to have an opinion on the film but also on its gender politics – I saw one internet comment, following the Chinese decision (apparently because the 1984 Ivan Reitman original never got shown in China there is no demand for it, but rumour suggests an arcane anti-superstition regulation in the censor’s code may also have played a part), along the lines of ‘Men, please take just two hours out of your life to watch this movie and show your support for women’ – which is not the sort of thing people usually say when recommending a Melissa McCarthy movie. It’s almost as if normal debate has been shut off and any suggestion that you don’t like this film means you are basically this century’s answer to Bobby Riggs.

This is just one of a spate of recent films, most of them remakes, which have been drawing flak for their diversity, or lack of it, while this remains a hot-button topic in many areas of popular culture. I must confess to being left bemused, at best, by a world in which the fact that a 15-year-old girl can be a character named Iron Man even makes sense, let alone gets acclaimed as a great progressive victory: attempts to retool long-standing characters with new genders, orientations, and even sometimes ethnicities strikes me as a rather cynical means of cashing in on existing name-recognition while disregarding the work of the original creators. The All-Female Ghostbusters Remake at least opts to include a completely new set of characters, rather than regendering the originals – but I still think it’s a little disingenuous of the film-makers to express surprise at all the attention their decision has drawn. Making a blockbuster VFX-heavy comedy with an ensemble female cast would be a bold move and perhaps a risky one, but not especially controversial – remaking such a well-known and indeed classic film in such an ostentatiously radical and arguably odd way was always going to get a strong response. (The film itself has a couple of somewhat through-clenched-teeth gags about internet trolls, which at least shows a good degree of self-awareness.)

One wonders if there is anything more to this decision than a cheery willingness to exploit the goodwill surrounding the 1984 film, not to mention its familiarity to audiences, because this is by any standards an extremely loose remake, not just in terms of plot and characters but also in style. Ghostbusters sort of hearkens back to the original horror-comedy films like Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, in which there was a strict delineation between the two genres – the monsters are played straight and people really do get killed; the threat is taken seriously. The new film is much more broadly and consistently comic, with plenty of slapstick and jokes about orifices, much as you’d expect from this particular set of artistes. It is also more emotionally articulate and character-driven, with an essentially human antagonist rather than an unearthly pseudo-Lovecraftian menace. That said, it also works hard to keep fans of the original on-side: all the main stars who are still alive and active in the film business get cameos, and one of them even gets the last word before the closing credits – it is (spoiler alert) ‘flapjacks’.

Well, hie me down to my reinforced bunker as the Diversity Enforcement Squad head for my garret with flaming torches in hand, but I think I’ll be sticking with the 1984 film, which I saw on the big screen again not that long ago and still found to be tremendous entertainment. The All-Female Ghostbusters Remake is stuffed with un-engaging neon-hued CGI and has the same kind of deadpan, ironic, mock-bathetic sensibility as the other Paul Feig films I’ve seen, but I have to say neither of these things really draw me in any more, simply because after a while they both get a bit predictable. Wiig and McCarthy carry the film pretty well, but I suspect it’s Kate McKinnon who is going to get the best notices of the main quartet – she can probably look forward to becoming a dressing-up icon very soon, and, who knows, maybe another sort of icon too. There is also a somewhat revelatory performance from Chris Hemsworth as the new Ghostbusters’ epically dim receptionist, which I thought was one of the funniest things in the film (Hemsworth is cheerily objectified as an object of lust in a way that neither Sigourney Weaver nor Annie Potts were back in 1984 – just saying).

But in the end, as an even vaguely horror-themed film this just isn’t very spooky, and as a comedy there seemed to me to be quite long gaps between laughs. It just about functions and stays watchable as a fantasy-action movie, but then this is by far the least demanding of the three disciplines it attempts. It’ll be interesting, in the light of the Chinese decision, to see what kind of money this film makes, not least because it has clearly been set up as the start of a new franchise (Dan Aykroyd, who exec produces in addition to his cameo, has suggested a Marvel-style series of connected-but-separate series of films is in the offing, which to me sounds wildly optimistic, but we’ll see). I will be surprised if it does super well – not because I think audiences are sexist and reactionary, not because I think films with a mainly female ensemble cast are a bad idea, but simply because this isn’t a particularly accomplished film, for all that it retains one of the catchiest theme tunes in history. Not a comprehensive sliming of the classic original, by any means, but it still feels curiously lightweight and non-essential.

 

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‘I don’t think vampires are frightening any more… we know the rules so well.’ Sir Christopher Frayling

Or, if you prefer a pithier quote from someone less respectable, how about ‘Vampires have become Horror’s equivalent of Star Trek,’ from Kim Newman? These days I think a better comparison would be with McDonalds, and not on the grounds that both are questionable on dietary grounds. But they’ve both become vaguely disreputable, while remaining very popular and continuing to dish up more-or-less exactly the same fare.

Nevertheless, when launching a new vampire story into a fairly unforgiving marketplace, it helps to have an edge, even if that edge solely consists of being a remake. Which brings us to Craig Gillespie’s version of Fright Night, the original of which hit our screens in 1985.

Former Buffy scribe Marti Noxon has relocated the story to Las Vegas, a smart move given it’s a city where everyone’s up all night as a matter of course and abnormal behaviour is, er, normal. Our protagonist is Charlie (Anton Yelchin, possibly best known for playing Chekov in the Star Trek re-do), a recovering geek living with his mum (Toni Collette, possibly best known for Muriel’s Wedding) and doing improbably well with his beautiful girlfriend (Imogen Poots, possibly best known for 28 Weeks Later). However, his old friend Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, possibly best known for Kick-Ass) breaks surprising news to him – his new neighbour Jerry (Colin Farrell, possibly best known for his remarkable ubiquity over the last decade) is a bloodsucking undead predator!

As you’d expect, Charlie is initially very dubious about this but events convince him otherwise (one of his other neighbours goes on a date with Jerry then explodes when the sun comes up the next day, for one thing). Jerry does not take kindly to having his secret exposed and soon Charlie’s loved ones are also in peril. In desperation, Charlie resorts to asking for help from Goth-styled stage magician Peter Vincent (David Tennant, possibly best known for… um… er… I expect it’ll come to me), little suspecting that he is really about as much use in this situation as a rubber stake…

The original Fright Night was part of a slew of vampire movies that came out in the mid Eighties, appearing just after The Hunger but before The Lost Boys and Near Dark. I don’t think it’s as accomplished as any of those, but it did make a pile of money which is probably why it’s been given the remake treatment. That said, elements from some of those movies make an appearance here, and the new film is tonally fairly different too. You could argue that this refers to Eighties horror in the same way the Eighties version was a homage to a still earlier era, I suppose – although the way the rewrite changes Peter Vincent from a fading movie actor to a magician sort of disconnects the gag that he’s named in honour of two legends of horror. Hey ho.

Things get off to a slightly wobbly start due to the plot’s demands that Charlie be simultaneously best friends with an enormous geek and possessor of an amazingly hot girlfriend, and the script does not negotiate around this issue with tremendous deftness. It also seems for a while as if everything will degenerate into knowing self-referentiality and wearisome irony – though there are also some very neat moments, such as a scene where Charlie desperately tries to avoid inviting Jerry into his house without making it too obvious.

However, once the story picks up pace the film stops trying to be clever and actually becomes a rather engaging piece of knockabout schlock. Some showing-off from the director doesn’t help, and the rather naturalistic atmosphere is slightly at odds with some of the excesses involved. But the performances are very good throughout – David Tennant resists the temptation to steal the entire movie (it was clearly a close thing) but is clearly having a lot of fun, while Colin Farrell manages to find a way of playing a vampire that isn’t obviously influenced by anyone else.

It’s actually a bit of a pleasure to find a vampire movie that’s so resolutely old-school in its treatment of the beasts – as someone says, Jerry isn’t lonely or tragic or heartbroken, he’s the shark in Jaws! On the other hand, the movie’s reading of the vampire myth isn’t especially profound – apparently the vampire symbolises a cooler and richer older guy out to steal your girlfriend. Not a lot of material there for Freud to work with.

Anyway, while the new Fright Night isn’t anything very special, I would say the same was arguably true of the first one too. Nevertheless, it’s a nicely put-together movie with lots of good performances and a solid understanding of the conventions of vampire movies. It’s not actually scary in any but the most mechanical of ways, but it’s frequently amusing and often very nearly thrilling. A good bet for a fun trip out, always assuming you like this sort of thing.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published April 1st 2004:

‘History repeats itself – the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.’ – Karl Marx

Another week, another unnecessary big-name remake. On this occasion the donor is George Romero’s 1978 classic (and I use the term with precision, folks) Dawn of the Dead. This is one of those films that is so perfect and special that it really deserves listing or ring-fencing or otherwise putting beyond the greedy reach of creatively bankrupt modern studios (see also The Ladykillers). As you can imagine I turned up to Zack Snyder’s new take on this masterpiece with a good deal of apprehension.

Rather pleasantly, it’s not that bad at all (especially, I would guess, if you haven’t seen the original). The film starts off with overworked nurse Ana (Sarah Polley) coming home from a hard day at the hospital, watching Pop Idol with her boyfriend, and then missing an emergency news report through being in the shower at the time. This proves to be a serious mistake as when she awakes the next morning she has overslept and missed the start of a zombie apocalypse. Her boyfriend has his throat torn out by the cute little girl next door (now deceased), and comes after Ana himself. Jumping into the car and heading out of town, she quickly realises civilisation is collapsing around her…

And all this even before the credits! Soon enough Ana hooks up with Ving Rhames’ tough cop Ken (his name doubtless a reference to Ken Foree’s memorable performance in a similar role in the 1978 film) and together with a few other refugees they take cover in a huge shopping mall, much to the dislike of the redneck security guards already in control of the place. More survivors arrive, and as Ana, Ken and their friends (of whom Mekhi Phifer and Matt Frewer are about the best known) fortify the mall against the vast undead hordes swelling outside, they realise that help is not coming, and it’s up to them to find a way to survive…

Snyder’s film keeps the mall setting of the original, but otherwise this is a very free adaptation, heavily influenced by 28 Days Later – the zombies in this film (never actually referred to as such, of course) go in for a spot of Romero-style shambling and putrefying when they’ve nothing better to do, but at the first whiff of live flesh they’re sprinting around like puppies on amphetamines. Purists may object, but it fits in rather well with Snyder’s reimagining of the story as a kinetic rollercoaster of an action movie, punctuated by lavishly gory set-pieces at frequent intervals.

All this comes at the expense of some of the characterisation (quite a few of the characters trapped in the mall remain cardboard cutouts) and nearly all the satire and intelligence that defined Romero’s zombie films. In those movies the zombie apocalypse was only ever a backdrop to the conflicts and problems arising between the human characters – the original Dawn opens and closes with acts of violence committed by the living against the living. While the new film remains as bleak and dark as its forebears, this element is toned down. In its favour, though, Snyder’s film is often tense and is unafraid to retain Romero’s very black sense of humour.

The digital effects are never less than adequate to tell the story, and most of the splatter and makeup work is top-notch, even if it lacks the novelty and visceral yuck-factor of Tom Savini’s original make-up. As usual, this is a bigger (well, sort of – it’s nearly an hour shorter, for all that it has a vastly greater budget) telling of the tale, but by no means a better one.

Polley and Rhames make charismatic leads, and at least some of the supporting cast are very effective – f’rinstance, Jake Weber as a resourceful everyman, Phifer as an overzealous husband and father, and Ty Burrell as the sort of wretched yuppy-scum no crisis situation should be without. As is customary in this sort of undertaking, stars of the original get cameos – Savini lands a plum role, basically as the sheriff from the original Night of the Living Dead (‘That one’s still twitching – somebody shoot her in the head!’), while Ken Foree and Scott Reiniger also pop up briefly.

The new Dawn of the Dead is really stuck between a rock and a hard place – comparisons with the original are bound to be unfavourable, simply because the original is one of the greatest horror movies ever made. And it’s true that Snyder panders to the audience in a way Romero never did, and that this is in nearly every way a much more conventional piece of storytelling (particularly at either end). But for all that, this is still an extremely proficient and effective horror film, certainly the best I’ve seen in quite some time. Bloody good fun, and well worth a look if you like that sort of thing.

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