Here’s a short list of Hollywood’s shortest lists:
1. Male stars who think the age gap between them and their onscreen partner is “problematic.”
2. The number of Disney execs invited to Scarlett Johansson’s next Hanukkah party.
3. Directors who are returning Kevin Spacey’s calls.
4. Black people who are involved in running the Golden Globes.
5. Remakes that are better than the original.
While all of the above merit further discussion, I’m focusing here on the final category – and a couple of new releases that can be added to that flimsiest of lists.
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It’s a Tinseltown axiom that remakes invariably suck. Indeed, it is one of Hollywood’s greatest ironies that Martin Scorsese – arguably America’s greatest living auteur – won his only Best Director Oscar for a bloated remake, “The Departed,” that felt twice as long and was only half as compelling as “Infernal Affairs,” the Hong Kong actioner it was based on.
Scorsese isn’t the only brilliant filmmaker who couldn’t top the original. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1934 British version of “The Man Who Knew Too Much” is vastly superior to his own 1956 U.S. remake with James Stewart and Doris Day. Mind you, the latter is a classic in comparison to Gus van Sant’s 1998 “Psycho” remake, which must be one of the most ill-conceived art projects ever (that didn’t have Damien Hirst’s name attached to it, anyway).
Even the Coen Brothers botched their remake of the Ealing comedy classic “The Ladykillers” in 2004. That film earned them the stinging rebuke from Richard Roeper that “most of this stuff isn’t worthy of the Farrelly brothers, let alone the Coen brothers.” Still, they partially redeemed themselves a few years later with their excellent remake of “True Grit.”
Name any great director and there’s probably a woeful remake lurking somewhere on their résumé: Sidney Lumet (“Gloria”), Steven Soderbergh (“Solaris”), Richard Linklater (“Bad News Bears”), David Fincher (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”), Spike Lee (“Oldboy”), Jonathan Demme (“The Truth about Charlie”) and Steven Spielberg (“The Terminal”) all failed to improve on the original. Soderbergh is one of the few directors who have both desecrated earlier works and improved others (“Ocean’s Eleven,” “Traffic”). Spielberg may yet do likewise with his upcoming remake of “West Side Story,” though he may want to ensure there are no feline buttholes on display before calling it a wrap.
I’m both obsessed with tracking down the original versions of upcoming remakes and, conversely, watching the remakes so I can compare them to the originals. This habit reached its nadir when I dragged my kids to see the 2012 Miley Cyrus remake “LOL” – a film they themselves had zero interest in seeing, despite being tween-aged girls at the time.
It also explains why my DVD collection is sullied by the likes of Mark Wahlberg’s “Italian Job” and “Contraband,” a shelf’s worth of Nicolas Cage movies (“Kiss of Death,” “City of Angels,” “Gone in 60 Seconds” and “The Wicker Man,” to name but four), and Tim Burton’s “Planet of the Apes” – which would have been improved if they’d allowed monkeys to write and direct it.
However, this obsession hasn’t been a complete waste of time – or at least that’s what I tell myself on sleepless nights. For instance, “The Tourist,” starring Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, was such a massive turkey that it warranted a presidential pardon. Turns out it’s based on a really enjoyable 2005 French thriller called “Anthony Zimmer.” And that miserable Josh Hartnett-Diane Kruger thriller “Wicker Park” from 2004? That’s lifted from a wonderful 1996 French thriller called “L’Appartement.”
I’ve discovered other gems over the years, but the film that has become my holy grail is Greg Glienna’s low-budget version of “Meet the Parents” from 1992, which would eventually spawn the Ben Stiller comedy of the same name almost a decade later. I’ll track it down one day.
‘The Suicide Squad’
Is James Gunn’s “The Suicide Squad” a remake or do-over of David Ayer’s disastrous 2016 comic-book adaptation “Suicide Squad”? Whatever it is, it successfully rehabilitates the would-be franchise and makes you wonder how the initial version managed to get pretty much everything so wrong. It also makes you wonder what they would have called a third attempt to launch the franchise if this one had sucked too.
To be honest, Gunn could have delivered two hours and 12 minutes of static and it would have been a more pleasurable experience than the Will Smith-Margot Robbie flop that made the D.C. Universe a particularly undesirable place to be. Thankfully, the “Guardians of the Galaxy” director delivers a rambunctious piece of entertainment here that revels in its own bloody violence and innate silliness.
There’s a strange blurring of lines between the 2016 and 2021 movies, with some squad members returning for duty – including Robbie as Harley Quinn, Jai Courtney as Boomerang and Joel Kinnaman as Rick Flag, all part of a “dirty dozen” marshalled once again by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, dialing the “ruthless” up to 11 this time around).
It’s the new characters who make the biggest impression, though: Idris Elba leads the way as Bloodsport, showing Will Smith how he should have played his Deadshot character in “Suicide Squad”; Portuguese actress Daniela Melchior offers some welcome quiet amid all the mayhem as Ratcatcher 2; and, despite playing a walking, talking chondrichthyan, Sylvester Stallone’s King Shark is one of his more believable characters of recent decades.
Full disclosure: I meant to see “The Suicide Squad” at my local movie theater. Unfortunately, it’s a toss-up where I’d less like to be right now: on an Israeli-owned ship in the Gulf of Oman or at a cinema. I happily returned to movie theaters a couple of months ago, but as the delta variant spikes and those winter vaccine shots become a distant memory, I’d prefer it if “The Suicide Squad” weren’t listed as my cause of death. James Gunn, I promise to buy the DVD.
‘CODA’ (Apple TV+)
Another remake was the star turn at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. “CODA” won four prizes at the Park City shindig, including the audience award. This prompted Apple TV to hand over a $25-million check after a bidding war involving all of the usual suspects. (In fairness, $25 million is just Apple’s usual valet-parking tip in Utah.)
For me, the audience award is the most significant prize doled out at any festival, and it’s easy to see how “CODA” picked up this year’s honor. This is one of those uplifting, unabashedly crowd-pleasing movies that’s just a joy to experience.
It’s based, very faithfully, on a 2014 French comedy called “La Famille Bélier,” which is also an absolute delight (and is available to rent or buy on Apple TV).
However, the French version has one fatal flaw that hands-down makes the American version superior: It cast hearing actors to play the roles of a deaf mother and father.
The irony is that the parental characters in “CODA” are remarkably similar to their counterparts in “Bélier,” even down to the father’s scraggly beard, the mother’s prissiness and their healthy sexual appetite. But whereas the two performers in the original – Karin Viard and François Damiens, both fine actors – look like they’re performing some of the worst mugging ever seen outside of a tough Marseille neighborhood, it’s far easier to accept Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur doing pretty much the same shtick in “CODA.”
Written and directed by Siân Heder, “CODA” is in many ways a textbook example of how to remake a movie: Recognize the things that worked really well in the original and don’t be ashamed to utilize them to your own ends. All of the major set-pieces in Heder’s film are lifted wholesale from “Bélier” – as they should be, since they are wonderful, tear-jerking scenes. (You’ll know them the moment you see and hear them.)
Second, things that didn’t work in the French version are either ditched or tweaked: So, a silly subplot about the patriarch running for mayor (his election slogan: “I hear you”) is wisely cut, while the ages of all the kids are bumped up by a couple of years.
The family profession is neatly switched from farming in bucolic northwestern France to fishing in rural Massachusetts, but what’s striking is that, otherwise, almost all of the leading characters are like transatlantic cousins of their French counterparts (the family’s son gets the only do-over).
Neither film would have had a hope of succeeding, however, without the luminous work of the actresses at their hearts: Emilia Jones as Ruby, the eponymous Child of Deaf Adults; and Louane Emera as Paula in “Bélier.” Both deliver beautifully sensitive performances as young women who carry the extra burden of being their families’ voice and ears, all while trying to balance a grueling work schedule, school studies and a passion for singing.
If you only see one of the films, go for “CODA” due to its smart script, delightful music selection and authentic casting choices. But if you want to collect the set and see “Bélier” too, you won’t regret it. Vive la différence, as they say.
‘Not Going Quietly’
Funnily enough, the word “coda” comes up in the most powerful movie of the week – a documentary about activist Ady Barkan, whose life was ripped apart at age 32 after he was diagnosed with ALS, a neurodegenerative disease that wipes out the nerve cells that control voluntary muscle movement.
“Not Going Quietly” is both a moving tribute to Barkan’s incredible drive to fight for the causes he so passionately believes in, and a shocking depiction of how quickly a perfectly healthy man can be ravaged by such a horrendous, incurable disease.
Swiftly overcoming his initial devastation at the news, Barkan uses it to propel him forward in his fight for his numerous causes, including a health care system that’s not just for the wealthy. In the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections, he takes his message on the road with a punishing 40-day tour through 30 congressional districts.
It’s the kind of itinerary that would test a fit and healthy person, let alone someone who is wasting away before our eyes. But as he puts it in one of many moving asides to the documentary crew chronicling his journey, “I feel like this trip is a coda and an important milestone for me.”
“Not Going Quietly” serves as a wonderful, inspiring testimony to a one-of-a-kind person. As well as charting Barkan’s fearless activism as he takes the fight to Washington alongside his #BeAHero campaign PR guru Liz Jaff, the film also shows us his tender side when he’s hanging out with his 2-year-old son, Carl, and wife Rachael.
If you weren’t aware that Barkan is a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen, Carl’s constant references to his “abba” may provide a big clue. I would have liked to find out more about Barkan’s extended family – his Israeli father and Romanian-Israeli mother, say, and how they’re coping with their son’s deteriorating condition. Otherwise, no complaints.
You’ll doubtlessly recognize some of the characters appearing in the Capitol Building as the wheelchair-bound Barkan pursues senators and stages protests during the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearing (including American-Palestinian activist Linda Sarsour, who is a good friend of Barkan’s). You’ll also feel humbled by the efforts of a dying man to make the world a better place.
Most importantly, though, you should watch “Not Going Quietly” before Hollywood no doubt remakes and completely ruins this remarkable story a couple of years hence.
“The Suicide Squad” is out now in cinemas and on HBO Max in America; “CODA” is on Apple TV+ from Friday; and “Not Going Quietly” opens in select U.S. cinemas from Friday.