The Steve Carell/Paul Rudd comedy "Dinner for Schmucks" hits theaters this weekend, and like many films since the dawn of Hollywood, it's an attempt to Anglicize a film which proved to be a hit abroad, but perhaps had too many of those tricky words at the bottom of the screen to cross over to mainstream audiences — in this case, the 1998 smash hit "Le dîner de cons." And while by most accounts, Jay Roach's film is something of a wash-out, the process has occasionally seen some victories, or at least some fascinating films.
It's also seen some disasters and some timid reworking of great films. Below is a fairly random selection of all of the above; the good, the bad and the "Diabolique." It should prove that, while the translation process isn't necessarily something to be feared, it's also not one to be welcomed with open arms either.
"The Departed" (2006) from "Infernal Affairs" (2002)
Post-handover Hong Kong cinema, having been through an extraordinary period in the late '80s and early '90s and bringing the world the likes of Wong Kar-Wai, Clara Law, Tsui Hark, John Woo, Jackie Chan and Stephen Chow, went into the doldrums. Box office receipts and the amount of films being produced both dropped by half, and with a handful of exceptions, the quality of films dropped significantly. Fortunately, along came “Infernal Affairs,” a crime epic with a brilliant conceit — a cop undercover as a criminal and a criminal undercover as a cop, who are both tasked with finding the moles in their respective organizations. While the two sequels led to diminishing returns, the original is relentlessly tense and brilliantly directed with great performances from Andy Lau and Tony Leung. Of course, it also famously led to Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited return to the gangster picture when the helmer remade it in 2006. Debate still rages as to which is superior, but the remake edges it for this writer; William Monahan’s script matches the original beat-for-beat, but adds texture and character missing from the original, while the performances are uniformly excellent (we’d still like to see a spin-off with Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg’s characters...). Di Caprio’s great in his part, but on rewatch it’s Matt Damon who stands out; America’s golden boy transformed into a sniveling sneak; by the end, you can see the deception and disgust eating him from the inside. [Original: B+ / Remake: A-]
"The Vanishing" (1993) from "Spoorloos" (1988)
“The Vanishing” is not without strong, even recommendable elements. With a driven lead performance by Kiefer Sutherland, a memorably spooky, evil turn from Jeff Bridges and a few genuinely thrilling action sequences, it works as a satisfying suspense thriller that, admittedly peters out at the conclusion. It’s only when seeing the source material from the same director George Sluizer, a quiet, understated study in mystery and the origins of evil that you realize how American producers truly violated a very pure movie, a masterclass in suspense turned into a clownhouse of cheap thrills. The original is an enthralling work from start to finish but wouldn’t have its reputation had it not been for one of the most genuinely horrifying endings in film history. The remake keeps that ending, but the story continues almost as if were a parody of how an American studio would change that climax. It’s worth seeing both versions just to see the crimes against cinema that some producers can inflict on their source material. [Original: A / Remake: C]
"Breathless" (1983) from "À bout de souffle" (1960)
One was the lightning bolt heard round the world of cinema and one was a botched clunker. Jean-Luc Godard's pulsating and dazzlingly alive "Breathless" really needs no introduction, it's a cinematic touchstone that kicked off the French New Wave and a revolution in the head. As for the ill-conceived and rather empty-headed Jim McBride/Richard Gere ‘83 version, it’s perhaps better known as the version that Quentin Tarantino (ludicrously) prefers — mostly because of its comic book references and rockabilly music — and its choice soundtrack (Brian Eno, Jack Nietzche, Philip Glass) more than anything else. About the only vaguely inspired touch in the film is the protagonist flip; In Godard’s original, Jean-Paul Belmondo is French (obviously) and the pixie-cute Jean Seberg is American, while that dynamic is reversed in McBride’s L.A.-set (now-dated) style-over-substance reckless youth pic.
[Original: A+ / Remake: C]
"Wages of Fear" (1953) and "Sorcerer" (1997)
Say what you will about William Friedkin, his tinted-glasses hubris, the possibly very-deserved late '70s comeuppance and his spotty remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot's "The Wages of Fear" (an intense thriller about a group of disparate, desperate men hauling unstable nitroglycerine into the perilous jungles of South America to put out an oil fire that threatens to decimate an entire town's economy) — the man at least knew his music. The throbbing electronics of Tangerine Dream's near-psychedelic score make for some viscerally intense sequences (Roy Scheider's performance here is vastly underrated). The original, a pins-and-needles journey into madness courtesy of the French master of suspense (Clouzot was dubbed the French Hitchcock), is from a different era and therefore is a completely different film with a much slower, simmering pace (which is potentially far too slow for modern audiences). Still, its genius ability to melodramatically sustain suspense sequences to nailbiting levels of duress is admirable, and one that made Hitch blush with envy. While we don't entirely buy Yves Montand as a sweaty tough guy in this (at least this iteration of tough guy; Jean-Pierre Melville always made it work), this tense psychological thriller is relentless, especially in its much tighter and tenser second half. It's not our favorite Clouzot film (we love the poison-penned "Le Corbeau," itself remade by Otto Preminger as "The 13th Letter" in 1951), but this fearful, suicide-mission drama is still a classic, and Criterion-approved to boot. [Original: A- / Remake: B]
"Twelve Monkeys" (1995) from "La Jetée" (1962)
Make no mistake, we love “Twelve Monkeys.” It features Terry Gilliam at his best (his visual flourishes embellish rather than distract, and the forceful narrative momentum prevents him being swept into whimsical detours), Bruce Willis brilliantly cast against type, criminally-underused actress Madeleine Stowe with a chance to shine, and, unfortunately, Brad Pitt. Don’t protest, it’s not even that his performance (Oscar nominated because he’s pretty and sane and plays ugly and crazy) is bad, it’s just that if you’ve seen Chris Marker’s 28-minute-long photomontage “La Jetée,” it's so unnecessary. Pitt’s whole subplot (*SPOILER* it may relate to the title of the film but it’s a red herring) is really surplus to requirements for the most compelling parts of the dizzyingly brilliant time travel tale. And when you have been equally moved and thrilled by the economical storytelling Marker achieves with a series of black-and-white still photographs and a voiceover, it is hard to fall in love with the non-essential additions Gilliam and writers David and Janet Peoples made, while finessing their version into a feature. So while “Twelve Monkeys” undoubtedly represents something of a career high for most people involved, a word of advice: if you’ve seen neither, see it first, and enjoy the ride, Brad Pitt and all, marvel at the complexity of the storytelling, and the sheer kinetic excitement of watching it build to one of the most extraordinary climaxes in film. Then spend under half an hour watching “La Jetée” and be amazed at how, while there’s no colour, practically no motion, no movie stars, and no dialogue, you somehow don’t feel like anything’s missing. [Original: A / Remake: A-]
"Funny Games" (2008) from "Funny Games" (1997)
Already given a bad wrap from regular filmgoers for being "too slow" or "too silly" and from cinema enthusiasts for being "too moralist" or "too condescending," buzz was bad for the American remake of "Funny Games," which was not only being helmed by the original director Michael Haneke, but was going to be an identically shot film with a different cast. Haneke thought that the film, an anti-thriller art piece that was a response to shamelessly violent Hollywood horrors, would make more sense in English and set in America than it did in Germany. If you hated one, you'll hate the other; the movie is essentially the same and those who find it offensive for any reason are likely to get just as pissed as they were the first time around. That being said, the shots in the remake are improved (the infamous 10 minute static shot of the Mother after the killers leave has much more to it) and fans will be pleased with the new take on the film by the updated cast. Naomi Watts is much stronger than her German counterpart Susanne Lothar, Frank Giering is frightening as Peter (especially in the uncomfortable kitchen scene towards the beginning) but Brady Corbet is more sensitive, adding a different layer to his menace. Both are equally picked on by leads Arno Frisch (German) and Michael Pitt (American), who carry each of their respected films with confident skill. One is not really better than the other, and its brutal Brechtian style isn't for everyone, but its fanbase (which this writer is part of, however small it actually is) has the unique option of watching a film in two different ways, similar to how a successful theater piece would play year after year. [Original: A / Remake: A]
"A Fistful of Dollars" (1964) from "Yojimbo" (1961)
The original Japanese trailer for “Yojimbo” calls it “A Juggernaut Of A Film!” and frankly, it’s hard to disagree. Returning to the Samurai genre for which he was best known after the terrific and underseen “The Bad Sleep Well,” Akira Kurosawa gave star Toshiro Mifune his most unforgettable role. As the nameless samurai facing off against two rival crime lords, Mifune stands up to any badass in the history of cinema. Kurosawa may have made more profound films, but it’s perhaps his most perfectly crafted and purely entertaining work. Interestingly, though, for a film that’s proven so influential, it was itself heavily influenced by the work of American pulp writer Dashiell Hammett, and that influence continues to shine through in the unofficial remake “A Fistful of Dollars,” the first of Sergio Leone’s The Man With No Name Trilogy. Clint Eastwood couldn’t have been a better choice to take over from Mifune, creating an unforgettable screen persona that survived for close to 50 years. Leone and Eastwood would go on to better work together — this one’s a little rough around the edges in places — but it’s still one of the better remakes around. A further official remake of “Yojimbo” came from Walter Hill in 1996 with “Last Man Standing” and, while some Playlist writers have fought in its corner, it struggles to escape from the shadow of its predecessors. [Original: A / Remake: A-]
"The Magnificent Seven" (1960) from "Seven Samurai" (1954)
The basis of basically every men-on-a-mission action movie ever from "The Dirty Dozen" to "The Expendables," Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" remains a raucously entertaining film, able to match, and frankly exceed, any contemporary summer blockbuster for thrills and spills. Not that's it's artless, far from it -- it regularly places in the upper regions of any “greatest ever film” list, and while not the director's best film by some stretch, its influence is unmatched; films from "Battle Beyond the Stars" to "A Bug's Life" have pinched its structure. But of course, the one of the first to blatantly do so was John Sturges' 1960 Western "The Magnificent Seven," which is pretty much a straight remake of the Kurosawa classic only transposed into the realm of the American West so as not to alienate Stateside audiences who’d never seen a Samurai, much less a foreign film. Starring Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and Robert Vaughn, it’s a fairly enjoyable, if non-essential film, but can’t help but pale in comparison to the Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune-lead 'Samurai.’ [Original: A+ / Remake: B]
"Solaris" (2002) from "Solyaris" (1972)
With even a respected director like Steven Soderbergh at the helm and James Cameron emerging from hiding to produce it, many were horrified at the announcement that the pair would be remaking the seminal Russian science-fiction film “Solyaris” (and for our more pedantic readers, yes it was described as a new adaptation of Polish author Stanislaw Lem’s novel, rather than a remake, but it’s still closer to Tarkovsky’s film than the source material). But actually, while it’s not a terribly popular opinion, the Soderbergh version is more than a match for it. Not that the original isn’t wonderful; while many find the pace of Tarkovsky’s film a struggle, it’s part of the point — he slowly drags you in and absorbs you, something particularly important for a film as interior as this one. And the protagonist’s wife Khari is better drawn in the original, partly because she has more room to breath. But the Russian director developed many of the same ideas more fully in the superior “Stalker,” and watching the Soderbergh version, you find yourself not missing a great deal from the original (except for perhaps the lyrical zero-gravity sequence). The helmer covers much the same ground in half the time, and despite his chilly reputation, it’s perhaps Soderbergh’s rawest film emotionally. And one could certainly argue that the performances are better; Natasha McElhone as the Khari surrogate is a revelation, never as good before or since, while we naively like to think that Viola Davis’ Oscar nomination for “Doubt” was a tacit admission of guilt for not honoring her outstanding work in this film. It’s also the most atypical performance that George Clooney’s ever given, and perhaps as a result his best; the charming head-nodder of the past is nowhere to be seen, and for the first time he sheds his baggage, creating a deeply wounded, flawed human being. Cliff Martinez’s score is top-notch, too. [Original: A / Remake: A]
"Insomnia" (2002) from "Insomnia" (1997)
With Christopher Nolan now an untouchable blockbuster god, it’s interesting to go back and examine what many consider to be his only major misstep (although we’d contend that the third act of “Batman Begins” is easily his weakest hour); his Hollywood debut, the 2002 “Insomnia.” It’s actually a solid thriller, but certainly pales in comparison to the Norwegian original, which starred Stellan Skarsgård in the central role of a cop in an Arctic town in mid-summer investigating a murder who accidentally kills his partner while chasing a suspect. Nolan’s film has stunning cinematography as ever from Wally Pfister, and makes some smart changes (making Al Pacino’s equivalent protagonist the subject of an internal affairs investigation raises the stakes), but it feels far more like a conventional procedural thriller, especially against the Dostoyefskyan angst of the original. This is most evident in the central performances; it’s probably Pacino’s best, least shouty role since “Donnie Brasco,” but the script can’t help from making him sympathetic and redeeming him in the end. Against Skarsgård’s ambiguous magnificence, drifting around the film gaunt and self-loathing, Pacino comes off second best. But despite never escaping its genre trappings, it’s well worth a watch. Just make sure you pick up the original at the same time.
[Original: A- / Remake: B]
"The Good Thief" (2002) from "Bob le flambeur" (1956)
With his fourth feature film, French crime genre-ist Jean-Pierre Melville found the niche where he would create some of the finest work of his career, and in the process, crafted one of the finest noirs of all time. “Bob le flambeur,” about the last big heist by an aging, lifetime criminal found its moody perfection in its gritty underworld setting and highly mannered characters, but most of all, in an unforgettable and commanding performance by Roger Duchesne. It seemed like folly to even attempt to recreate it more than 40 years later, but Neil Jordan does in what is easily one of his most underrated and overlooked efforts. While the story and setting is appropriately updated, Jordan realizes that for the film to work he needs to retain the original film’s smoky atmosphere and get a lead actor who is up the task. And he delivers both in spades. Jordan’s modern French underworld sizzles in electric blue, but if Duchesne’s Bob was aging, Nick Nolte’s Bob is practically crumbling. With a guttural growl, a constantly crumpled wardrobe and emanating an enigmatically compelling figure, Nolte’s Bob assembles a capable squad and dangerously sexy femme fatale (or is she?) to pull off the biggest job of his career. Battling a needle, dodging the cops and trying to keep things straight long enough so he can do his work and get out of town, Jordan’s “The Good Thief” isn’t just an homage to “Bob le flambeur,” it might just be the film Melville himself would’ve made if you dropped him into the new millennium. [Original: A /Remake: B+]
"Dark Water" (2005) from "Dark Water" (2002)
Hideo Nakata’s J-horror staple, one of the earliest of the genre, is a subtly chilling horror film that doesn’t necessarily plumb the depths of its loaded concept. Walter Salles, a filmmaker who’s dabbled in every genre, knew it wouldn’t be enough to just replicate a series of scares, which is why he enriched the world of Koji Suzuki’s original novel by bringing the action to Roosevelt Island and gave star Jennifer Connelly a haunting backstory to work through, making “Dark Water” something more like Roman Polanski’s early career chillers. Salles’ film is also an intense meditation on the decay of families in the shadow of their predecessors, as well as a surprisingly potent black comedy about the horrors of New York City apartment hunting, personified by John C. Reilly’s oily, obnoxious broker. [Original: B- / Remake: B+]
"Vanilla Sky" (2001) from "Abre los ojos" (1997)
While it did achieve international attention (hence the remake) Alejandro Amenábar's "Abre los ojos" isn’t exactly a masterpiece — it’s difficult to get past the characters who show up near the film’s close to rattle off exposition as an effective storytelling technique. But as a feature-length “Twilight Zone” episode, it has a certain charge, bursting with metaphysical ideas of transformation and the permanence of mental scars. It’s hard not to walk out of the film without the same visceral intellectual charge caused by the very best in sci-fi. The American remake, which predictably dumbs down the material to allow for less grays and more blacks and whites, benefits not only from a stronger showcase for performances (Kurt Russell is especially good as Tom Cruise’s sympathetic therapist), but also for writer-director Cameron Crowe’s pop culture fetish, which gives the dream layering of the film an added dimension (Penelope Cruz reprises her role from the Spanish-language original). Crowe’s always brought about a strong soundtrack with him (this may be his weakest effort in this respect, though still not shrug-worthy) but here, his overlaying and often-suffocating use of pop songs (and iconography) creates a stronger image of the unawake eye. [Original: B- /Remake: B]
"Diabolique" (1996) from "Les Diaboliques" (1955)
There can be no more persuasive illustration of just what a small part "story" really plays in making a film great than comparing the distinctly un-great American “Diabolique” to its brilliant French original, “Les Diaboliques.” The story, after all, is practically identical (except for some dumb changes at the end), with certain scenes seemingly lifted wholesale from Henri-Georges Clouzot’s '50s France and plonked down into mid-90s America; they do not weather the transatlantic time-travel well. Though updated, so computers take the place of typewriters, video replaces photography and the subtle lesbian subtext of the original is writ garishly large in the remake, the central premise of a woman so friendly with her husband’s mistress that they conspire to bump the bastard off, is just too damn French to translate easily to the outskirts of Pittsburgh. The performances don’t help: Sharon Stone, styled frequently in animal print to show she’s bad, hisses her venomous lines like a caricature crossbreed of Jessica Rabbit and, er, Sharon Stone; with much less, just sunglasses and a scowl, Simone Signoret did much more. Chazz Palminteri doesn’t come off much better, his one-note sadist has more graphic sex, but none of the charisma or menace of Paul Meurisse, while Isabelle Adjani is OK in the Vera Clouzot part, but waaaay too gorgeous to be playing the mousy, downtrodden wife. Nope, 1996’s version has little to recommend it, except maybe that after watching it you appreciate even more the seemingly effortless alchemy between direction, acting, photography and story that makes the original so creepily compelling. J.J. Abrams turns up in the remake, so there’s that. [Original: A / Remake: F]
"The Talented Mr. Ripley" (1999) from "Plein Soleil" (1960)
The last decade saw a surprising number of big-screen takes on Patricia Highsmith's character Tom Ripley, a sociopathic chameleon who appeared in five of the author's novels. While "Ripley Under Ground," which featured Barry Pepper in the central role, and "Ripley's Game" (which itself had previously been filmed by Wim Wenders, as "The American Friend" with Dennis Hopper in 1977) with John Malkovich both sunk without a trace, "The Talented Mr. Ripley," Anthony Minghella's follow-up to the Oscar-winning "The English Patient," proved a success, critically and commercially. But only the biggest film buffs were aware that the novel had been filmed once before, under the title "Plein Soleil" ("Purple Noon") by Oscar-winning director René Clément. Despite marking Alain Delon's first lead role, the film had drifted into obscurity before being championed by Martin Scorsese in the mid-90s and given a re-release by Miramax. The original is terrific, and mostly faithful to the text, although it's hobbled by a moralistic ending where Ripley is caught, and an avoidance of the novel's gay subtext (although, considering the time, both are understandable). But, while Minghella's film is enjoyably nasty, especially coming from a director often incorrectly stereotyped as making lush, unchallenging period pieces, and it includes what's still a career-best performance from Jude Law, Matt Damon's central performance can't hold a candle to the scorching, star-making one from Delon. [Original: B+ / Remake: B]
Extra Credit: "Dinner With Schmucks" is only the latest attempt to make a French rib-tickler work in English; the likes of "The Birdcage," "The Mirror Has Two Faces," "Taxi" and "Nine Months" were all adapted from French comedies, while in the thriller world, "Point Of No Return" made a complete mess of Luc Besson's excellent female-driven spy film, "La Femme Nikita." By all accounts Guy Ritchie's "Swept Away" is one of the worst translations, but no one on staff had actually bothered to see it, although Lina Wertmuller's 1974 original "Travolti da un insolito destino nell'azzurro mare d'agosto," came in for praise for those who had caught it. Gore Verbinski's remake of "The Ring," like "Dark Water," arguably exceeds its predecessor, which is more than can be said for every other Asian horror remake from "The Grudge" to "The Uninvited." While not official remakes, "Reservoir Dogs" and "About Schmidt" both pay serious homage to a pair of classics, respectively Ringo Lam's "City Of Fire" and Ingmar Bergman's "Wild Strawberries." Another loose remake: James Gray's "Two Lovers" which is a kinda remake of Luchino Visconti's "Le Notti Bianche" about an ineffectual wuss torn between two women (Marcello Mastroianni at his most unmanliness).
Neither Adrian Lyne's "Unfaithful" nor Jim Sheridan's "Brothers" are disgraces, but don't deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Claude Chabrol or Susanne Bier's originals. One of our more obscure discoveries was the 1964 Western "The Outrage", which stars Paul Newman, Claire Bloom, Edward G. Robinson and William Shatner, and sees Akira Kurosawa (who already appears twice on our list) credited with inspiring the film through "Rashomon" (which has seen its central conceit pinched by lesser films like "Vantage Point," "Courage Under Fire" and "Basic"). Oh, and if you like Brad Silberling's "City Of Angels" more than Wim Wenders' "Wings Of Desire," you should probably go for a bike ride with your eyes closed down a busy freeway.
There's no sign of the trend ending anytime soon; the latter part of this year will see Americanized remakes of "Let The Right One In," "13 Tzameti," "Pour Elle" and "Anthony Zimmerman," in the shape of "Let Me In," "13," Russell Crowe vehicle "The Next Three Days" (directed by Paul Haggis) and Angelina Jolie/Johnny Depp starrer "The Tourist." Let's not forget the foreign-film remake obsessed Chris Rock -- no, really, he's made them twice and one an Eric Rohmer remake for christ's sake. He's rewriting a remake of Akira Kurosawa's blackmail masterpiece "High And Low," for Mike Nichols. He also took over that writing gig from David Mamet. No, we're not making any of that up. -- Oliver Lyttelton, Gabe Toro, Jessica Kiang, Kevin Jagernauth, RP, Christopher Bell