Here’s my hasty explanation for this gargantuan post: I had originally meant to write quick capsule reviews of a few films that stood out this year, but the words, the words they kept coming, you see, and I couldn’t stop them, no matter how hard I tried. This is why I should blog more often. It’s a boil I should lance, a radiator I should bleed, but instead I just save it all up for the end of the year like an idiot who doesn’t understand his audience. I’m so sorry for using up all of the words. I had to, though, because these two movies prompted a lot of pondering, for good reasons and really really really bad ones. As a result, this part of Listmania, which has been a two-parter in years past, will now be a three-parter. Blame Rod Lurie.
Best Remake: Footloose
It was sad to see Craig Brewer’s Twitter timeline in the weeks before his remake of Footloose was released. For the majority of that period, he just retweeted people aiming baffling levels of rage at him for daring to remake what must, if they were to be believed, have been a modern classic of American cinema on a par with The Godfather and The Last Picture Show. “Another remake?” they asked en masse. “Hollywood has run out of ideas. Fuck this movie.” And yet Mr. Brewer continued to RT these negative opinions, interspersing them with the one or two tweets of praise from folks who saw preview screenings and enjoyed his work.
At this point I still hadn’t seen all of Footloose, but I knew that Chris Penn danced in it, Kevin Bacon looked like a 40-year old high school student, and the final scene in which the teenagers of Bomont danced at their prom was bafflingly directed by Herbert Ross so that you could barely see what was going on. I probably wouldn’t have ever watched it if it wasn’t for a strange confluence of events; namely the presence of Craig Brewer as director and co-writer (SoC is a fan of Mr. Brewer’s previous movies and TV work), and Daisyhellcakes’ enthusiasm for dancing.
The return of So You Think You Can Dance (US, not the miserable UK version) is a cause for celebration in one half of this household, but I’ve started to be pulled into watching it due to the obvious expertise of the contestants and the fair-minded assessments of the judging panel; a rarity in most reality TV, which has less interest in actual talent and a greater focus on spectacle and entertainment. Also a key factor were numerous rewatches of Step Up 3; 25th on last year’s Listmania: Worst Films list and yet I’ve seen it more times than about 90% of the Best Films entries.
So I watched the original Footloose as preparation, and was mostly unimpressed. The cast were game, with special mention to Penn, Dianne Wiest and the simply amazing John Lithgow, but it was flabbily-paced, and the relationship between Lithgow’s preacher and his daughter (Lori Singer) was overblown, not helped by the gulf in acting ability between the two of them. If it wasn’t for the wonderfully empathic work of Lithgow — who often seems to have wandered in from a different, better movie — I don’t think it would have any spark at all, and would only be remembered for the kitsch elements.
Thankfully Brewer gets that. Ross’ movie could have done with some subtlety, as shown by this far superior remake, which manages to amp up the energy of the original while dialling back the melodrama. A lot of its success is down to Brewer’s feel for Southern life, as shown in Hustle and Flow and Black Snake Moan. A New Yorker like Ross would never really be able to understand that kind of life in the bone-deep way that Brewer does, though he makes a good fist of it. Footloose ’11 feels more honest and raw even while it has a glossier sheen, thanks to the vibrant photography of Amelia Vincent.
Brewer’s movie is also raunchier, but then what do you expect from the man who filmed this brazenly filthy musical moment? The preacher character in both versions wants drinking and dancing and general carousing banned in Bomont in order to prevent another tragedy like the car crash that killed his son, but the dancing ban also “prevents” the sexualisation of teenagers so feared by parents. However, in Ross’ version the dancing is so tame and sexless that it makes the argument completely one-sided. When you see nerds frugging ineptly (though admittedly realistically) the message from Rev. Shaw Moore seems out-of-place. When you see Kenny Wormald bumping up against Julianne Hough in the remake, you know Moore is onto something, and that makes the fight to rescind the dancing ban more interesting, and the eventual victory fully earned.
It’s not Brewer trying to amp up the sexuality of the original in order to appeal to a modern palate, though. He gets what made the original work, and keeps those shining moments while fixing the stuff that misfired. In Footloose ’84 Ren (Bacon) relocates with his mother to Bomont to live with his aunt and uncle, who don’t really understand him or treat him well. Brewer changes this subtly; Ren is orphaned after his single mother dies, and finds a happier home with aunt and uncle (a Deadwood reunion for Kim Dickens and Ray McKinnon). Lessening the familial drama here paradoxically makes the rest of the drama work better. The effect of Ren’s rebellion on his now-sympathetic relatives — who find themselves treated as complicit in his campaign — heightens the stakes.
It also serves to create a connection between Ren and Rev. Moore, who have both suffered bereavement. One of the best things about Ross’ movie — and Lithgow’s performance — is that the conflict between the two main characters is so low-key, and the same thing happens here, but this little enhancement by Brewer really makes that muted antagonism, which morphs into respect, so much more affecting. It also makes up for the less compelling performance from Dennis Quaid. No knock on the guy; he’s very good here, and it’s great to see him cast in a real movie instead of guff like Legion and G.I. Joe, but he’s following in some pretty big footsteps.
One dramatic change in the remake paid unexpected dividends that I didn’t fully realise when I first saw it. Footloose ’84 features a scene in which Moore finds out the principal of the local school is burning books that he feels have a corruptive influence. This comes just as his daughter Ariel’s rejection of him reaches its sad zenith. Realising his attempts to protect the children of Bomont have gone too far, Moore’s enthusiasm for his ban is dented, and though Ren’s campaign to change the law’s of Bomont fails, the reverend “blesses” the prom and its dancing.
In the remake the book-burning is removed, and it’s more clearly shown that Moore’s endorsement of the prom is a sign of his recovery from his grief — a moment that is enhanced by Brewer’s choice to show the crash that inspires the ban. Moore’s sadness is a big element of the original, but the catharsis of his final speech doesn’t hit as hard when diluted by the bookburning. Though an atheist such as myself might appreciate a popular movie depicting a rejection of fundamentalism by a moderate preacher, this change is definitely for the best, narratively speaking. Moore grows past his loss, and his acceptance of Ariel is more meaningful.
I could go on listing all of the things Brewer does right. It’s easier just to say this; remakes don’t have to be cynical cash-ins. With the right filmmaker onboard, you can turn something familiar and underpowered into something fresh, something relevant, something that purrs like an engine. By tinkering with the plot, giving the story more focus, adding elements such as the different racial make-up of the new town — thus adding a new source of tension without distorting or overwhelming the plot — and polishing everything else until it really shines, you have a remake that renders the original surplus to requirements.
The leads are terrific, the dancing is thrilling, the music is eclectic but apt, and the cast is filled with dependable character actors and soon-to-be-stars — here I’m thinking of Miles Teller, who takes over from Chris Penn and delivers one of the year’s most entertaining performances. Footloose ’11 seemed to be ignored by most filmgoers, which is a crying shame. Even if you think a remake is an insult to the original, it’s worth giving this hugely entertaining crowdpleaser a try. It’s the definitive Footloose. Sorry, Kevin Bacon.
Worst Remake: Straw Dogs
Sam Peckinpah’s controversial thriller exploring the curse of masculine urges and the darkest consequences of territoriality might be the most profound and disturbing film of his short career. A very recent rewatch confirmed my feelings from my first experience of it, that it gets at the worst things about being a man in a patriarchal society; the relentless one-upmanship, the victimisation and dismissal of women and distrust of femininity in general, the malevolent urge to escalate conflict.
Straw Dogs is one of the very few movies that honestly portrays the cruel consequences of machismo, that distortion of masculine energy that ruins everything, turning normal people into psychopaths. Peckinpah was obviously troubled by his own impulses, if the excellent biography by ST:DS9 / Battlestar Galactica writer David Weddle is anything to go by. Straw Dogs was his best attempt at working through his heart of darkness, and spoke to me more about the effect of Alpha males on their fellow men more than any other work, except maybe Fight Club or A History of Violence.
I feared Rod Lurie’s remake would break completely that, but he keeps more of Peckinpah’s clever original than I thought he would. Co-protagonist David still exercises with an “effeminate” skipping rope, his relationship with wife Amy is still fractious (though less so, and with less childish acting-out by Amy), and the politics of small-town life is still dramatised well. However its the incomplete aping of Peckinpah’s original that sinks the remake as much as the differences, betraying that personal vision and eventually turning it into what the original version was described as by many critics; a celebration of violence as a way to resolve conflict.
Lurie’s version keeps the idea of the wimpy intellectual coming into conflict with the macho Alpha males of a new town, but transposes this to the US, meaning this David (played by SoC favourite James Marsden, and hereby referred to as MarsDavid) is still aware of the customs of the Southern town his wife comes from. The original David (played by Dustin Hoffman; let’s call him DustDavid) is a total stranger in a strange land, which contributes to his unease. MarsDavid doesn’t feel the same disconnect; the strife between a city boy and a country dweller in the modern US doesn’t have the same oomph as DustDavid being in a land as alien to an American as Cornwall in the 70s.
MarsDavid and his wife Amy (Kate Bosworth; BosAmy) are depicted as being in love, with tensions between them growing as the movie progresses. DustDavid and Amy (Susan George; GeorgeAmy) are almost immediately at odds with each other, passive-aggressively sniping at each other in scenes that are sometimes taken word for word from Peckinpah’s movie but with the tetchy subtext removed. That snippiness in Peckinpah’s original is necessary to power GeorgeAmy’s attraction to her former lover Charlie. She’s still drawn to the man even though she loves DustDavid, and her feelings only strengthen as her relationship with DustDavid deteriorates.
This leads to the controversial rape scene, where she is seen to be torn between understandable horror and unexpected acceptance of the act. Charlie is, of course, 100% in the wrong, and it’s obvious that GeorgeAmy is upset by the event, but she is conflicted due to her feelings about the man. It’s a difficult scene to watch, and even more difficult (if not impossible) to defend, but at least in this dreadful moment there is something going on in her head. I’m not sure it counts as agency, but she’s more than a victim, is a complicated human being, until Charlie’s friend Norman appears and takes the scene into even darker territory, which also serves to alter the relationship between the two guilty men.
In the remake, we see BosAmy rejecting Charlie from the very beginning. She doesn’t warm to him at all, which means the fracturing of her relationship with MarsDavid serves no real purpose. When the rape happens it looks as if there will be no ambiguity there, that she is utterly opposed to the violent act, but then Charlie — here depicted as a shirtless buff hottie, bringing new variables about objectification into the equation — asks if she wants him to stop and she hesitates.
With no real set-up or build to that moment, the effect is to be far more offensive than Peckinpah’s original, if that’s possible. Without the obvious chemistry between the two, and no previous shading to the character, BosAmy’s moment of doubt legitimises the “women secretly want to be raped” argument. I just can’t imagine what Lurie thought he was doing. Did he think this choice made the scene less problematic? He then holds back from depicting the second rape in as graphic a way as Peckinpah did, compounding the problem by leaving us a mental image of the earlier, less violent act. It’s a monstrous miscalculation.
The end of the movie shows where Lurie was probably heading. In Peckinpah’s original, GeorgeAmy is traumatised by this act but never tells DustDavid about it. This means the final siege takes on a different meaning. Charlie, Norman, and the rest of the vile gang accidentally shoot the magistrate of the town before attempting to kill our protagonists to get at simpleton Henry, and DustDavid — who has fled America to avoid having to take a moral stand over the Vietnam war — becomes a killing machine to defend his house.
He’s not defending his wife’s honour, and it has been argued that his motivation in protecting Henry is to provoke his tormentors, allowing him to finally strike back. All he wants to do is kill, and there’s no glory in this, no higher purpose. Peckinpah, through his surrogate David, is expressing his fear of losing control, of becoming a murderous agent. It’s a critique of that male impulse for destruction and dominance; Hoffman plays David as a man who has turned a terrible corner, deriving a ghoulish glee from his actions. This is not a celebration of violence, and those who think it is have missed the point.
Lurie instead escalates the threat to MarsDavid and his home in a much shorter time, removing any hope of debate or escape. The gang become dangerous very quickly, with James Woods’ Coach Hadden intentionally killing the Sheriff in front of MarsDavid. This triggers a descent into violent retribution that’s sudden and borne as much out of necessity as male impulse. It might have worked if Lurie had been as interested as Peckinpah in exploring the subject, but the almost comical framing of MarsDavid — small in the frame with his face surrounded by either male torsos, arms, and groins with phallic beer bottles pointing out — is all we get.
Peckinpah’s film was soaked in machismo and commentary on male insecurities. Almost every shot and line strengthens the feeling that DustDavid feels emasculated by the power of the Alpha males, but Lurie has less time for this, and the finale is thus blunted. Even worse, BosAmy is an active participant in the finale, which turns a treatise on male violence into a mere revenge story. Don’t get me wrong, the sight of Kate Bosworth blasting her assailant with a shotgun has some power, some kind of basic balancing of the narrative scale, but for the first time ever in the history of storytelling, giving the female protagonist more to do makes a story less interesting and more conventional than a story in which the female character is sidelined.
The complexity of GeorgeAmy in the original remains until the end, when she calls out to Charlie and not Dust David for help, and later hesitates before saving DustDavid from a final attack. This can be read a number of different ways. BosAmy is just out to kill her attacker; she (and her husband, who then finds out about the rape) has nothing on her mind except revenge. It pains me to say it as I’m thoroughly sick and tired of seeing female characters shortchanged by not being given enough to do; this is a timely point considering the release of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (which regrettably depicts the abhorrent rape of Lisbeth Salander, a character otherwise wonderfully pro-active and dynamic) and Steven Moffat’s recent controversial imagining of the character of Irene Adler in Sherlock.
Peckinpah’s critical examination of the crimes of men is something that has very rarely been done with such anger, and to do that he had to give his female characters less to do or to treat them in a dismissive way that gave him room to make his argument that masculinity is a destructive force. It’s regrettable, but in its most vital moments, Straw Dogs ’71 feels like the raging Tasmanian-Devil-whirl of a man flagellating himself, and a consequence of that raging introspection is that women are sidelined or presented as a baffling threat to his masculinity. We may not like it, and for good reason, but Peckinpah is at least honest enough to present that for us to accept or reject as we see fit. Michael Bay — whose female characters are mere lust objects — would never look into himself long enough to realise that he’s part of the problem.
Lurie’s remake goes in a more conventional direction than Peckinpah’s, diluting that story into little more than another I Spit On Your Grave. I’m glad BosAmy gets to exorcise herself of the trauma she endured, but her cathartic destruction of her assailant is nothing we haven’t seen before, and represents another example of that miserable trope Rape And Revenge, where a woman becomes an agent only once she has been horribly violated. This is something that Drew McWeeny was railing against recently, and prompted a discussion about the overuse of this most awful of plots. It’s as if no one can imagine a woman being prompted to take drastic action unless she’s sexually assaulted first; anything less than that and she’s just being “ambitious” and we don’t like that, eh? ::Insert angry emoticon here::
Lurie has removed enough character detail from Peckinpah’s version to make a hollow facsimile, a rote action movie that sees violence as the answer to our problems, not the cause of our psychic pain. I could accept this as the consequence of hesitancy on his part, but I suspect he doesn’t understand the original, and has no interest in giving the story any dimension other than to provide rousing violent moments for us and the characters and then to cheekily pretend that this has damaged their souls in some way.
There are numerous details in the original that enrich or strengthen Peckinpah’s personal vision; his distrust of women is revealed in the fact that GeorgeAmy buys a man-trap for their home (geddit?), whereas in Lurie’s film the trap — now referred to throughout as a bear-trap — is just sitting around to be used as a mere weapon, stripped of its allegorical weight. He might have removed a clumsy and unpleasant metaphor, but he also loses the point of including the trap in the first place. He’s using the iconography of the first without wanting to bring in any themes that would complicate his vision.
And what about MarsDavid’s vocation? DustDavid is a mathematician, someone who lives in the mind and is thus perceived as feminine by the Alpha males, which obviously bothers him to the point that he happily abandons his anger at them when they suggest they go hunting, as it allows him to feel like part of the pack. MarsDavid is a screenwriter from LA who is writing a movie about the WWII battle in Stalingrad, and who is so repulsed by the pack that he resists the call to hunt until he thinks it will allow him to find out if they killed BosAmy’s cat.
Peckinpah’s David is a man of the mind who cannot resist the pull of macho pursuits; a perfect depiction of the war that raged within the filmmaker. Did Lurie make David a screenwriter as an autobiographical touch? If so then the co-opting of Peckinpah’s (and co-writer David Zelag Goodman’s) dialogue, plotting and imagery is especially cheeky. This is not a personal movie for Lurie. He’s living someone else’s life. Of course it might be that Lurie thought that this was a clever way to set up conflict between MarsDavid and the pack, by modernising the intellectual /macho man divide (because apparently there are no mathematicians any more, only Hollywood writers), which is the generous interpretation.
The less generous interpretation is that he thinks he’s making a movie that satirises the violence in modern movies, like he’s suddenly Michael Haneke. If so, the alterations to Peckinpah’s original are doubly stupid, considering the catharsis of the finale. It’s especially galling as he could have made a timely movie about the Red State / Blue State divide in America, which is alluded to in the movie without ever going too far. All he had to do was make David a screenwriter (or playwright, as Daisyhellcakes cleverly pointed out; that’s perceived as being even less masculine a profession than screenwriter) from New York making a movie about the American Civil War.
Instantly the movie is transformed, but Lurie is obviously not interested in making something that works on a number of levels, as Peckinpah did with a movie that used the Vietnam war and the US protests as basis for so much of his movie’s drama. And this is the most damning thing I can say about this misguided remake; this year Kevin Smith managed to make a movie about the Red State / Blue State divide, but Rod Lurie didn’t. Outdone by Kevin Smith. That’s gotta hurt.
Yet more to come. Not about remakes, though. You can relax.