Akira Kurosawa is Open for Business: A Look at the Rape of Cinema by Hollywood’s New Remake Code

Remakes bother me terribly, no matter how great they are. I’m all for putting a fresh coat of paint on something that’s the original (thank you, Criterion), but without originality in filmmaking where is this business going to ever find its way back to becoming the Golden Age of movies? Sadly, the last decade has almost felt like Hollywood doesn’t care or have the creative know-how to blossom into a Golden Age of movies again. Hollywood has gobs of talent to go around, but no one wants to do anything original or outside the box anymore. I understand the concern to make money on your product; it’s not the just the artistry of the whole thing, in today’s tough film-going market, and for the price it cost to make big budget now, you have to ensure you’re audience will give you a return on it.

So maybe that explains why a large percentage of everything that comes out now are remakes. Simple, outlined story to work from, cost-effective, and “kicked up a notch” by today’s standards, you may even get someone who saw the original to say, “yeah, I’m curious to see what they did to it.” Some terrible films maybe would benefit from a remake now, but really what’s the point even then? The problem is though, it’s never the poor films that get the remakes, it’s the ones that were great, and many times the ones that have collected a sort of following or classic status. Take for example the Kate Bosworth-Americanized version of Peckinpah’s 70s triumph, Straw Dogs. This is a film that should never have been touched by another director or reflected a different cast. The original is truly a slice of the times it was made in, and is close to perfect. Remaking this movie is just blatant exploitation and a simple way to cash-in with sex, violence and pretty girls.

Taking inspiration from other filmmakers and building off that inspiration, that’s the beauty of great filmmaking. No art is truly original, everything has to come from somewhere – some catalyst. Most filmmakers, I’d wager, are consumed by media around them; saturated with it. So it’s fair to say not everything they come up with in their work is going to be original. It’s just human nature.

Take George Lucas for example, most film buffs know that Star Wars was inspired by (if not based upon) Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. But Star Wars is not The Hidden Fortress and is not trying to be, and that’s the beauty of falling in love with both films. When Gus Van Sant remade (shot-for-shot no less) Psycho, did it feel like an amazing, revelatory film experience? No. Yet when he made Elephant (inspired by Alan Clarke’s amazing film of the same name), it was critically acclaimed and made its mark in contemporary film history. Maybe most contentiously, there’s Quentin Tarantino, a filmmaker people sometimes blaspheme for his heavy-handed homages and wink-wink’s, but Tarantino again creates films using only inspiration from others, and at the very most, is only derivative of another filmmaker’s work in something he does, akin to a DJ sampling a beat from an obscure 1960s blues record. The best art is art that both builds on something familiar and at the same time seems amazing all on it’s own.

Variety reports that a company called Splendent Media is now selling remake rights to nearly every Akira Kurosawa film in existence, which I’ve identified below (sans the four ones crossed out, which ironically all already have remakes in the works). So, now you know, if you see one of these titles coming soon at a theater near you – it’s not new. The part of this story that leaves me sitting on the fence is, the fact that Splendent is also offering up the rights to make films from the 19* screenplays which Kurosawa never produced. I’m interested to check these out, if they ever get made, but I fear I’ll never look at them the same as I would if they were made by the master of emotional manipulation himself.

EDITORIAL: Weinstein Company is apparently remaking The Seven Samurai (much to my dismay, as well), and as of last reports it looks to be directed by upstart-action-rookie Scott Mann. Fantastic.

As Director:

1943    Sanshiro Sugata
1944    The Most Beautiful
1945    Sanshiro Sugata Part II
1945    The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail
1946    No Regrets for Our Youth
1947    One Wonderful Sunday
1948    Drunken Angel
1949    The Quiet Duel
1949    Stray Dog
1950    Scandal
1950    Rashomon
1951    The Idiot
1952    Ikiru
1954    The Seven Samurai
1955    I Live in Fear
1957    Throne of Blood
1957    The Lower Depths
1958    The Hidden Fortress
1960    The Bad Sleep Well
1961    Yojimbo
1962    Sanjuro
1963    High and Low
1965    Red Beard
1970    Dodesukaden
1975    Dersu Uzala
1980    Kagemusha
1985    Ran
1990    Dreams
1991    Rhapsody in August
1993    Madadayo

As Writer Only:

1941    Uma (Horse) [uncredited as writer]
1942    Seishun no kiryu (Wind Currents of Youth)
1942    Tsubasa no gaika (The Triumphant Song of the Wings)
1944    Dohyosai (Wrestling-Ring Festival)
1945    Tenbare Ishin tasuke (Bravo! Tenbare Ishin)
1947    Yotsu no koi no monogatari (Four Love Stories) [one segment]
1947    Ginrei no hate (To the End of the Snow-Capped Mountains; aka Snow Trail)
1948    Shozo (The Portrait)
1949    Jigoku no kifujin (The Lady from Hell)
1949    Jyakoman to Tetsu (Jakoman and Tetsu)
1950    Akatsuki no dasso (Escape at Dawn)
1950    Jiruba no Tetsu (Tetsu of Jilba)
1950    Tateshi danpei (Fencing Master)
1951    Ai to nikushimi no kanata e (Beyond Love and Hate)
1951    Kedamono no yado (The Den of Beasts)
1952    Araki Sauemon – Ketto kagiya no tsuji (Sauemon Araki – Duel at Key-Maker’s Corner; aka Vendetta for a Samurai)
1952    Sengoku burai (Vagabonds in a Country at War; aka Sword for Hire)
1953    Fukeyo harukaze (Blow! Spring Wind; aka My Wonderful Yellow Car)
1955    Kieta chutai (Vanished Enlisted Man)
1955    Asunaro monogatari (Hiba Arborvitae Story; aka Tomorrow I’ll Be a Fire Tree)
1957    Nichiro senso shori no hishi – Tekichu odan sanbyaku ri (Three Hundred Miles Through Enemy Lines; aka Advance Patrol)
1959    Sengoku gunto-den (The Story of Robbers of the Civil Wars; aka Saga of the Vagabonds)
1985    Runaway Train
2000    Ame Agaru (After the Rain)
2000    Dora-Heita (Alley Cat)
2002    Umi wa miteita (The Sea is Watching)

Unproduced Screenplays*

Deruma-dera no doitsujin (A German at Daruma Temple)
Shizukanari (All is Quiet)
Yuki (Snow)
Mori no senichia (A Thousand and One Nights in the Forest)
Jajuma monogatari (The Story of a Bad Horse)
Dokkoi kono yari (The Lifted Spear)
San Paguita no hana (The San Pajuito Flower)
Utsukishiki koyomi (Beautiful Calendar)
Daisan hatoba (The Third Harbor)

*There are apparently 19 in total which Splendent Media now owns the rights to, but I have not been able to track them all down as of yet as Splendent has – conveniently – taken down their page as of late. Hence, this part of the list above is incomplete.

What to Watch in September

It’s a tough cinematic world out there, but I care about the readers of this blog and only want them to spend their hard earned dollars on the good films, so here’s a (sorta) completist’s guide to the 2011 Fall Season of films – starting with September. My plan is, around the middle of each month, to post the next month’s domestic (limited and wide) film releases – while of course providing my own two cents on it. The indicators should be pretty clear: if it’s got a line through it, it does not have my recommendation. That said, give it a chance if it comes on cable someday.

September 2

  • Apollo 18 by Gonzalo López-Gallego. Watch it and think about how we’ll never get to go to space again. Which is ok I guess since there’s monsters up there.
  • Seven Days in Utopia by Matt Russell. Looks like a cross between Doc Hollywood and Tin Cup.
  • Shark Night 3D by who cares. It’s sharks in 3D.

September 9

  • Bucky Larson: Born to Be A Star by Tom Brady. Nick Swardson plays the socially-outcasted son of two adult pornstars.
  • Contagion by Steven Soderbergh. Eh. Pretty sure I saw this almost 10 years ago, but it was called Outbreak.
  • Warrior by Gavin O’Connor. Looks like a possibly edgier, indier version of The Fighter, although the MMA thing is getting old.

September 16

  • Drive by Nicolas Winding Refn and starring Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan – there’s no way I’m missing this.
  • I Don’t Know How She Does It by Douglas McGrath. A classier comedy for the SITC set?
  • The Lion King 3D by Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff. So The Lion King is getting not only a Blu-ray upgrade, but a limited theatrical release in 3D!? Oh Disney, your vaults are so leaky!
  • Restless by Gus Van Sant. The story of a terminally ill teenage girl who falls for a boy who likes to attend funerals and their encounters with the ghost of a Japanese kamikaze pilot from WWII.
  • Straw Dogs by Rod Lurie. This is one of the most painful films for me to list here. In general, I loathe most remakes of anything, but especially a remake of a film that was absolutely perfect to begin with. Peckinpah would roll over in his grave if he knew someone bastardized his (possibly) best – and most controversial – work to make an easy sale to the teenage torture-porn audiences who should just be left to their Final Destinations and $5 popcorn. Haven’t seen the 1971 version of this film with Dustin Hoffman? Try and get your hands on that first and check out my review of it here.
  • The Whale by Suzanne Chisholm. Endearing doc which looks like a cross between Free Willy and The Cove.

September 20

  • Pearl Jam Twenty by Cameron Crowe. A cineaste’s favorite rock ‘n’ roll filmmaker (ok, along with maybe Pennebaker and Scorsese) pulls together a new rock doc on the 90s other Top 40 grunge band, Pearl Jam. You know, the ones who instead of making kids want to do drugs and commit suicide, made them want to surf and stand up to bullies? Apparently, they’ve been around for 20 years now. Problem is, if I go see this, I’m just going to feel fucking old. PS. The soundtrack is released on this day as well, and it includes 30 pages of liner notes from Crowe himself.

September 23

  • Abduction by John Singleton. Decent looking action suspense flick which fits neatly into the fringes of the summer blockbusters. Nothing you haven’t seen before story-wise, but a chance to see Team Jacob’s (Lautner’s) acting ability in something other than stilted-werewolf-lover-boy for once.
  • Dolphin Tale by Charles Martin Smith. Another Free Willy in September comes you (and your children’s way)! This one looks more like a good tearjerker for the adolescents and their moms than The Whale, but at least this one will probably have the prospect of ending on a high note.
  • The Double by Michael Brandt. Political intrigue and the usual pairing of a retired CIA Operative and a younger FBI agent to help heighten the tension and provide something mid-life crisis moviegoers can sink their teeth into. Think Hollywood Homicide in… Detroit?
  • Killer Elite by Gary McKendry. Standard issue action flick, but one with a cast that I admit I’m intrigued to see play off each other: Statham, De Niro and Clive Owen (with a ridiculous Magnum P.I. throwback mustache). The updated version of “Rock You Like a Hurricane” in the trailer is not adding any points though.
  • Machine Gun Preacher by Marc Forster. First of all, I’ll watch anything by Marc Forster. He has a sensibility to rooting out the most unique films which appeal to both the marketing people and the critics. It’s a beautiful thing. This one stars Gerard Butler as a (I think) a real life reformed drug addict/biker who finds religion and makes it his life’s devotion to help the children of impoverished and brutalized Africa. The poster, however, looks a little goofy.
  • Moneyball by Bennett Miller. Hollywood takes a shot at revitalizing the sport of baseball by bringing in Brad Pitt and the only character Jonah Hill seems to ever play anymore – the bright, young, employee with fresh ideas on an old line of work. Looks a little too Any Given Sunday via Jerry Maguire for me though.
  • Red State by Kevin Smith. Holy crap. I’ve been waiting for this movie since 2008. What else can I say?
  • Weekend by Andrew Haigh. British indie romance about a gay couple who do pretty much nothing exciting looking for an entire weekend. Touted as an “Audience Winner” at SXSW this year – don’t let that get your hopes up. A good percentage of what they program is geared towards one specific type of hipster audience and most of the films are either pretentious or ridiculous or both. Example: MacGruber. This one looks a bit like Medicine for Melancholy only not with a black, hetero couple in the States.

September 30

  • 50/50 by Jonathan Levine. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of my favorite young male leads and playing off another of my favorites – Anna Kendrick – makes this made-for-hipsters dramedy all that much more enticing. 
  • Courageous by Alex Kendrick. Overwrought drama about four law enforcement officers.
  • Dream House by Jim Sheridan. Rock solid lineup of actors, with the always-solid directing of Sheridan (ok ok, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ was a joke) makes this a no-brainer. Additionally, this will be Sheridan’s first stab at helming a horror flick!
  • Margaret by Kenneth Lonergan. Anna Paquin plays a woman who witnesses a bus accident which turns out to change her life. Honestly, this could be hit or miss. I’ve grown used to Paquin as a mind-reading vampire lover, so it may be a hard transition for me in this real-world-rooted drama, but then a film produced by the trio of Minghella, Pollack and Scott Rudin can’t be all bad.
  • Take Shelter by Jeff Nichols. This film looks just plain awesome. Michael Shannon is always great as the tight-lipped, emotionally-repressed characters he exudes, but the austerity and manipulation of the dramatic elements in this film make it no question as to why it garnered praise at Cannes, Sundance and other fests. Be sure to give it a shot if you see anything in September.
  • What’s Your Number? by Mark Mylod. Anna Faris churns out another romantic comedy where she gets to trip, fall and look goofy. 

Did I miss anything? Let me know and I’ll add it to the list.

Straw Dogs

The first film I’d ever seen by Sam Peckinpah was 1971’s Straw Dogs. I chose to view no other Peckinpah films before it because the director (who’s notorious for violent, allegedly misogynistic films) seemed to receive the most negative feedback on this particular picture. As a result, I didn’t want to taint my eyes with the other “violent” films in Peckinpah’s oeuvre, until I’d had the visceral initiation without any prior knowledge of his style. I now know that I probably should have started with The Wild Bunch or at least Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia.

Actually, I say that last bit in jest more than with sincerity, since I’d wager that Straw Dogs, while maybe not as obviously blood splatteringly violent, is likely the cruelest look at gender, marriage and small town society ever burned into celluloid.

What came of this initial viewing was the subsequent scraping of my lower jaw from off the floor. The exhausting film stars a post-Graduate Dustin Hoffman as David, a seemingly brilliant mathematician (who I speculate suffered from A.D.D. before it was so easily diagnosed). David moves to rural England with his gorgeous wife Amy (Susan George). This presents an immediate feeling of foreignness for him and his Einstein mind cannot deal with both the social ramifications of the move and the next Nobel prizing winning problem he is computing. What stood out about this movie above many other things, is how it basically built on the premise of a horror film (or thriller even), yet was thematically structured and filmed like a Western.

Self-assurance is a defining character trait for all the characters in the story, and it is reflected in various degrees; this is what makes the plot fit the horror genre so well. No one thinks twice before they act. The “monsters” are inherently confident and are seen as reacting to both social unacceptability and foreignness. Their “victims” exhibit the two most genre specific emotional traits in horror films: superficiality and carelessness, while the “hero/heroine” displays two more: discontent and (one or more) redeemable qualities of which they are ashamed.

Most impressive? The fact that every main character on screen is monster and victim and hero or heroine.