Five 2013 indie remakes

This year has seen the release of what feels like an unusually large number of remakes of indie/foreign films, and this week sees another—Brian de Palma's "Passion" (read our review here) which is a remake of French film "Love Crime" ("Crime D'Amour"). While traditionally remakes of lower-budget efforts have given cause for much forehead-scratching and eye-rolling among cinephiles—usually bemoaning the lack of originality in taking a pre-made concept rather than tackling a fresh creation and often then repackaging that concept in as bland a way a possible for sale to a U.S. audience—in recent years there's been cause for some hope. The phenomenon may not be going away, in fact it might be becoming more prevalent, but the standard of some of those remakes seems to be inching incrementally higher—a recent high watermark being Matt Reeves' "Let Me In," a terrific remake of the terrific Swedish original "Let the Right One In."

It's not to suggest that cheapie K-horror knock-offs starring Joshua Jackson or Sarah Michelle Geller are going to disappear completely, or that Hollywood will stop pitching new versions of "Total Recall or "Karate Kid" any time soon. But with big names like Martin Scorsese ('The Departed") and the Coens ("True Grit," "The Ladykillers") lending remakes an auteurist air of respectability, and this year's crop of smaller, independent titles largely stacking up surprisingly well against their originals, perhaps we don't have quite so much to fear from the term "remake" any more. Here are five of this year's remakes (with a couple more still slated to come) and how they compare to the films they're based on.

“Either Way” (2011) vs “Prince Avalanche” (2013)

Either Way” (2011) vs “Prince Avalanche” (2013)
The Gist: Two odd couple road crew workers spend their summer away from lives and suffer the pains and joys of being stuck with one another.
Similarities and Differences: The original, directed by Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson is set in Iceland in the ‘80s and the remake, David Gordon Green’s “Prince Avalanche” is set in a burned down forest in Texas in the 1980s, so the backdrops and milieus are different and yet very similar: both landscapes are sparse, bombed-out looking yet beautiful, and disconnected from the outside world. The dynamics between the two pals is exactly the same too. Sveinn Ólafur Gunnarsson/Paul Rudd both play the stern, meditative and uptight older boss, Finnbogi/Alvin, who loves the solitude of the outdoors. And Hilmar Guðjónsson/Emile Hirsch both play the dopey, insecure younger jackass co-worker, Alfred/Lance, who can’t wait to get back to the city on the weekend so he can get laid. And both Finnbogi/Alvin are dating Alfred/Lance’s older sister (hence him getting the job in the first place). So narratively and spiritually, the films are very similar and Green’s version is a faithful adaptation that hews closely to the original. But there are differences. While “Either Way” boasts a great ‘80s pop soundtrack, including homegrown Icelandic pop hits you’ve never heard that are actually quite good, they’re no match for the gorgeous “Prince Avalanche” score by David Wingo & Explosions In The Sky (easily one of the best scores of the year). Similarly, while “Either Way” is beautiful in its own way, the glorious cinematography of “Prince Avalanche” by Green’s longtime cinematographer Tim Orr really stands out.
Which is Better and Why: It’s difficult to say which is better since the remake is so indebted to the original, but as an adaptation, “Prince Avalanche” is terrific and as a stand-alone film, we’d recommend it over the original. Heresy? Possibly, and some of it might just be a lost in translation cultural/language thing. But to our ears at least, while Gunnarsson and Guðjónsson have a good dynamic, Rudd and Hirsch have crazy off-kilter/oddball chemistry and their delivery is laugh-out-loud funny. There’s also a sublimely felt emotional current in “Prince Avalanche” imbued both in the surrounding devastated-but-beautiful terrain and in Paul Rudd who can turn from perturbed to despondent on an organic and completely believable dime. Also there’s simply no comparison with the unnamed truck driver in the latter. Played by mostly unknown TV character actor Lance LeGault, he steals every single scene he’s in with a hilariously puckish performance. Sadly, the 77-year-old LeGault passed last year, but you can rest be assured if he was still kicking, his phone would be now ringing off the hook.

"Maniac" (1980) vs. "Maniac" (2012)

"Maniac" (1980) vs. "Maniac" (2012)
The Gist: Titular madman violently murders young girls in urban environments.
Similarities and Differences: The biggest differences between the two "Maniac" films come down to aesthetics, really. The original "Maniac," directed by grindhouse auteur William Lustig and starring the genuinely unnerving Joe Spinelli (who also co-wrote the screenplay), was set in New York City and features an unhinged madman stalking and killing young women. The remake replaces scummy New York City with downtown Los Angeles, which gives things an even eerier, end-of-the-world quality, due to that part of town's desolation and economic depression (it also makes the movie seem like an even-more-violent riff on "Drive"). The killers in both movies are son-of-Norman Bates psychopaths who live in abandoned mannequin factories and scalp young women, although in the new film you rarely see the killer (now played by Elijah Wood), since the movie is almost completely visualized from his point of view. There is also less variety to the slayings in the new movie. The original acted as a kind of art gallery exhibition of gruesome prosthetic and technical effects, created by make-up wizard Tom Savini, including the unforgettable, biologically precise murder by shotgun blast (filmed in slow motion, so you can trace the trajectory of every atomized bone fragment). In the new "Maniac," it's exclusively a slasher situation. However both films are unafraid of delving deep into the psychology of a very disturbed man, and both have their own distinctively low rent charm.
Which Is Better and Why: It's hard to say which is better, exactly, since they're both kind of grossly glorious in their own unique way. The original probably has the edge because it's so skuzzy and low budget that it really makes you feel like you're going along on one of these predatory stalkings. The remake might have elaborate POV shots designed to lodge you, literally, inside the killer's head, but nothing puts you into the day-to-day workings of a diseased mind like the scenes of crime-ridden New York from that period. Plus there is the handmade quality of the original film, and the sense of lawlessness (many of the shots, especially on location, were stolen, and the shotgun blast effect was achieved by firing an actual shotgun). The new film offers some perversely pleasurable kicks (including some genuine shocks), but between the gooey synth score by Rob (a member of French pop band Phoenix), elegant camerawork, and lead performance by the more classically trained Wood (Spinelli was uncomfortably realistic), it is altogether more mannered and, in a weird way, polite. The uproar that the original film caused, with advocacy groups and critics labeling it horribly misogynistic, didn't accompany the remake, either because its limited release cut down the outrage, or because it really was more quaint. Still, we're fans of the remake (you can read our early review here) and while we'll plump for the original right now, there's very little in it.