DID YOU READ

This Movie Makes No Sense: “The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan”

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There are good movies and bad movies.  And then there are those movies that defy easy categorizations.  The inexplicable, the incomprehensible, the indecipherable: these are the movies that make no sense.  And that’s why we love them.

From its opening title card, “The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan” makes no sense. It reads: “Chapter 1: Not All Things Are Tricks” but guess what: the not-particularly well-buried secret of “The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan” is that the whole thing is a trick. The film purports to be an unauthorized look at the life of the “notoriously secretive director” of “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable” — but it’s actually an authorized piece of propaganda designed to promote not only a movie, but also its egomaniacal author. “Secretive?” Really? Do secretive directors commission three hour documentaries about themselves? The whole thing makes no sense, but the whole thing is also one of the most fascinating media texts I have ever watched in my entire life. Like Joaquin Phoenix’s “I’m Still Here,” the actor’s — and frequent Shyamalan collaborator’s — ficto-docu-portrait of his (apparently staged) descent into alcohol and drug-fueled madness, “The Buried Secret” lies in the service of a buried truth about its subject.

Here is the story behind it: the film, directed by and starring real-life documentarian Nathaniel Kahn (“My Architect”), was produced for the Sci-Fi Channel in 2004 as guerilla marketing for Shyamalan’s then upcoming feature “The Village.” Within the narrative of the film, Sci-Fi hires Kahn to make a puff piece, Shyamalan avoids the cameras, Kahn starts digging, and finds all kinds of skeletons in his closet. It could be a goofy, winking joke, but rather than air it as a goofy, winking joke, Sci-Fi actually tried to pass the film off as a legitimate documentary. They even convinced the Associated Press that it was true and that Shyamalan was fighting to keep the film from airing; the AP, in turn, published this article detailing the way “Buried Secret,” intended as a “benign profile,” “went sour” until “Shyamalan quit on-screen.” Days before the three-hour doc (about two hours and ten minutes plus TV commercials) was set to air, though, Sci-Fi was forced to admit it had lied about the film and their battle with Shyamalan in another AP story. “We created a fictional special that was part-fact and part-fiction, and Night was part of the creation from the beginning,” said network president Bonnie Hammer.

Let’s get right to the part-fiction stuff. As hard as hard as it might be to believe — especially when you realize that someone thought the public might actually accept this thing as gospel truth — the Shyamalan of “Buried Secret” is a man who has touched the beyond. The secret he’s tried so hard to bury — SPOILER ALERT; READ NO FURTHER IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN’S MADE-UP SEVEN-YEAR-OLD LIFE-ALTERING SECRET — is that at the age of 11, he died for thirty-five minutes, drowning at the bottom of a pond. After they fished Shyamalan out and undied him (the movie does not explain how), young Night found that he could communicate with dead people, a la Haley Joel Osment’s character in “The Sixth Sense.” Thus, as Kahn says to Shyamalan in the confrontation that supposedly pissed him off, “Your movies aren’t fiction, Night. They’re autobiography!”

This is interesting on a few levels. One, because a director is trying to suggest that he can actually communicate with the dead. Two, because it suggests that if it were true, Shyamalan apparently wouldn’t want to use that as marketing tool when, clearly, Shyamalan is a guy who will use anything as a marketing tool (see: “The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan”). Three, in a weird way, Shyamalan is thinking like a film critic. What Kahn does in “Buried Secret” is basically what scholars who subscribe to the auteur theory of film do. They look for recurring themes and motifs throughout a director’s body of work, and try to connect them to their lives and beliefs. For example, Alfred Hitchcock’s father had him thrown in jail for a few hours when he was a boy, in order to teach him a lesson. Some critics cite this as the origin of Hitchcock’s career-long paranoia about the police and the government, which manifests itself over and over in films like “The 39 Steps” and “North by Northwest.”

Here Shyamalan — a man who frequently invites comparisons to Hitchcock — is inventing his own directorial mythology. Even if he didn’t expect people to buy that he could commune with the dead, I suspect he did want them to buy that he’s carried the idea as a lifelong obsession, which, in turn, makes his movies about that idea feel far weightier than they might otherwise. It turns a canny and cleverly manipulative piece of pop entertainment into the deeply felt expression of a tortured artist.

When you look through the layers of mystical bullcrap and puffed-up narcissism, what you really see in “The Buried Secret” is a man desperately trying to build and control his own mystique. Because Shyamalan is supposedly so secretive about his filmmaking methods and so nervous about giving Kahn access to his set and his personal life, a lot of “The Buried Secret” takes place far from the production of “The Village.” This might be the single most hubristic element of one of the most hubristic films ever made: it’s a three hour profile of a filmmaker in which the filmmaker himself rarely appears. Apparently, Shyamalan thought his fans were so interested in his life that they’d sit through a three hour film about a guy waiting to talk to him.

While Kahn waits for access he travels around Philadelphia, interviewing Shyamalan’s family, friends, and co-workers. Though these look like authentic interviews, we need to bear in mind that most, if not all, were staged. What’s being said is therefore a lot less interesting than why it’s being said in the context of the mythic portrait that’s being created. For example, when Kahn interviews one of Shyamalan’s “childhood friends” and the friend says he stopped trying to get in touch with Night because he was starting to feel like he was stalking him, the implication is that Night has become too cool to hang out with his childhood friends. When Shyamalan’s “former neighbor” Georgine says that people drive through his old Philly neighborhood looking for him “often,” the implication is that Shyamalan is such a huge celebrity that people actually do kind of stalk him.

Kahn’s interviews with Shyamalan are fascinating as well. The director blows off most of his scheduled sit-downs; Kahn includes the footage of him and the crew waiting around for hours on end because, I guess, that’s what documentarians do — they just keep their cameras running at all times even when absolutely nothing is going on. When Shyamalan does show up, his mere presence creates havoc for Kahn’s microphones, which hiss, putter, and short circuit repeatedly whenever he speaks. This, I guess, is supposed to be another facet of Shyamalan’s supernatural mystique, though the obvious question — if Shyamalan’s otherworldly mojo screws with microphones, how the hell does he record clean sound on his movies? — is not addressed.

Kahn’s questions reveal more of Shyamalan’s self-obsession. He asks what it feels like to be so successful so fast (which reminds the audience how successful Shyamalan is), and whether he feels pressure to make huge movies (which reminds the audience that all his movies are huge movies). When Shyamalan takes Kahn on a tour of Philadelphia, two different people recognize him and ask to have their picture taken with him. At several points, various random strangers turn to the camera and point out how incredibly handsome Shyamalan is. After all the adulation, it’s kind of surprising Shyamalan doesn’t put down his Philly Cheesesteak and turn his fountain soda into wine.

In other words: for all the manufactured hullabaloo about the rift between Kahn and Shyamalan, “The Buried Secret” is about as fawning a portrait of a man as has ever been created (in one hilarious and pointless scene, Kahn sits in his hotel room and watches “Signs,” frequently complimenting how good it looks). If this were a real documentary — if Kahn had decided to make a fanboy celebration of Shyamalan entirely on his own — that would be one thing. But this is really Shyamalan making a fanboy celebration of himself. It’s like “This is Spinal Tap,” if “Spinal Tap” was about how awesome Christopher Guest looked when he played guitar.

The portrait being painted here is so cartoonishly egocentric that one has to at least consider the possibility that Shyamalan is making fun of himself. It’s certainly possible. For example, the first time Kahn is taken to “The Village” set by Shyamalan’s publicist, she lays out rules he has to follow, including the fact that he’s not allowed to make eye contact with Shyamalan while he’s directing, or even speak to him until they’re properly introduced. The rules are so extreme, you want to read them as a joke — but what is the joke, exactly? The joke could be that the publicist is overly and excessively protective — only she’s not; in “Buried Secret,” Night is exactly the kind of ultra-sensitve Hollywood neurotic who needs coddling handlers. The joke could be that Night is the exact opposite of the guy he’s playing here — but why play that part in a movie you wanted people to think was real? Again: this film makes no sense.

Even within the large tapestry of madness, there are individual moments of amazing weirdness. One of the supporting characters in the film is a pizza delivery man, who repeatedly brings Kahn and the crew food in their hotel room, and begins to critique their work and even teaches them about Latino supernatural myths because, hey, that’s what pizza guys usually do when they bring you pizza, right? In one scene, Kahn follows a lead to the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles where he interviews Johnny Depp. Like, the real Johnny Depp, who was apparently considered for the lead in “Signs,” but turned the part down because he found Shyamalan too weird (can you imagine?!?). “I don’t know what he’s up to,” Depp tells Kahn about Shyamalan. “I don’t think anybody does. But it’s not worth it. It’s only cinema. It’s only movies, man. Just have a good time. Step outside once in a while. Go get a donut.”

Depp’s offhand quip cuts to the core, not just of Shyamalan but also his “Buried Secret.” This movie’s constructed, artificial reality attains a deeper truth than it even aspired to. In creating this absurd and wholly artificial portrait of Shyamalan, it reveals the depths to which the man is genuinely obsessed with crafting his own image as a supernaturally powerful, wildly intelligent, devilishly handsome filmmaker. His movies may not be autobiography. But “The Buried Secret” is.

What movie do you love that makes no sense? Tell us in the comments below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.

Soap tv show

As the Spoof Turns

15 Hilarious Soap Opera Parodies

Catch the classic sitcom Soap Saturday mornings on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures Television

The soap opera is the indestructible core of television fandom. We celebrate modern series like The Wire and Breaking Bad with their ongoing storylines, but soap operas have been tangling more plot threads than a quilt for decades. Which is why pop culture enjoys parodying them so much.

Check out some of the funniest soap opera parodies below, and be sure to catch Soap Saturday mornings on IFC.

1. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman

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Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was a cult hit soap parody from the mind of Norman Lear that poked daily fun at the genre with epic twists and WTF moments. The first season culminated in a perfect satire of ratings stunts, with Mary being both confined to a psychiatric facility and chosen to be part of a Nielsen ratings family.


2. IKEA Heights

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IKEA Heights proves that the soap opera is alive and well, even if it has to be filmed undercover at a ready-to-assemble furniture store totally unaware of what’s happening. This unique webseries brought the classic formula to a new medium. Even IKEA saw the funny side — but has asked that future filmmakers apply through proper channels.


3. Fresno

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When you’re parodying ’80s nighttime soaps like Dallas and Dynasty , everything about your show has to equally sumptuous. The 1986 CBS miniseries Fresno delivered with a high-powered cast (Carol Burnett, Teri Garr and more in haute couture clothes!) locked in the struggle for the survival of a raisin cartel.


4. Soap

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Soap was the nighttime response to daytime soap operas: a primetime skewering of everything both silly and satisfying about the source material. Plots including demonic possession and alien abduction made it a cult favorite, and necessitated the first televised “viewer discretion” disclaimer. It also broke ground for featuring one of the first gay characters on television in the form of Billy Crystal’s Jodie Dallas. Revisit (or discover for the first time) this classic sitcom every Saturday morning on IFC.


5. Too Many Cooks

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Possibly the most perfect viral video ever made, Too Many Cooks distilled almost every style of television in a single intro sequence. The soap opera elements are maybe the most hilarious, with more characters and sudden shocking twists in an intro than most TV scribes manage in an entire season.


6. Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace

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Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace was more mockery than any one medium could handle. The endless complications of Darkplace Hospital are presented as an ongoing horror soap opera with behind-the-scenes anecdotes from writer, director, star, and self-described “dreamweaver visionary” Garth Marenghi and astoundingly incompetent actor/producer Dean Learner.


7. “Attitudes and Feelings, Both Desirable and Sometimes Secretive,” MadTV

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Soap opera connoisseurs know that the most melodramatic plots are found in Korea. MADtv‘s parody Tae Do  (translation: Attitudes and Feelings, Both Desirable and Sometimes Secretive) features the struggles of mild-mannered characters with far more feelings than their souls, or subtitles, could ever cope with.


8. Twin Peaks

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Twin Peaks, the twisted parody of small town soaps like Peyton Place whose own creator repeatedly insists is not a parody, has endured through pop culture since it changed television forever when it debuted in 1990. The show even had it’s own soap within in a soap called…


9. “Invitation to Love,” Twin Peaks

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Twin Peaks didn’t just parody soap operas — it parodied itself parodying soap operas with the in-universe show Invitation to Love. That’s more layers of deceit and drama than most televised love triangles.


10. “As The Stomach Turns,” The Carol Burnett Show

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The Carol Burnett Show poked fun at soaps with this enduring take on As The World Turns. In a case of life imitating art, one story involving demonic possession would go on to happen for “real” on Days of Our Lives.


11. Days of our Lives (Friends Edition)

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Still airing today, Days of Our Lives is one of the most famous soap operas of all time. They’re also excellent sports, as they allowed Friends star Joey Tribbiani to star as Dr Drake Ramoray, the only doctor to date his own stalker (while pretending to be his own evil twin). And then return after a brain-transplant.

And let’s not forget the greatest soap opera parody line ever written: “Come on Joey, you’re going up against a guy who survived his own cremation!”


12. Acorn Antiques

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First appearing on the BBC sketch comedy series Victoria Wood As Seen on TV, Acorn Antiques combines almost every low-budget soap opera trope into one amazing whole. The staff of a small town antique store suffer a disproportional number of amnesiac love-triangles, while entire storylines suddenly appear and disappear without warning or resolution. Acorn Antiques was so popular, it went on to become a hit West End musical.


13. “Point Place,” That 70s Show

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In a memorable That ’70s Show episode, an unemployed Red is reduced to watching soaps all day. He becomes obsessed despite the usual Red common-sense objections (like complaining that it’s impossible to fall in love with someone in a coma). His dreams render his own life as Point Place, a melodramatic nightmare where Kitty leaves him because he’s unemployed. (Click here to see all airings of That ’70s Show on IFC.)


14. The Spoils of Babylon

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Bursting from the minds of Will Ferrell and creators Andrew Steele and Matt Piedmont, The Spoils of Babylon was a spectacular parody of soap operas and epic mini-series like The Thorn Birds. Taking the parody even further, Ferrell himself played Eric Jonrosh, the author of the book on which the series was based. Jonrosh returned in The Spoils Before Dying, a jazzy murder mystery with its own share of soapy twists and turns.

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15. All My Children Finale, SNL

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SNL‘s final celebration of one of the biggest soaps of all time is interrupted by a relentless series of revelations from stage managers, lighting designers, make-up artists, and more. All of whom seem to have been married to or murdered by (or both) each other.

Serkis Circus: Performance capture and the Oscars

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The Oscar nominations are just one week away, and the studios are promoting their wares right down to the wire. One of the biggest online campaigns this week has come on behalf of Andy Serkis, the performance capture wizard who portrayed the hyper-intelligent ape Caesar in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” Fox is pushing Serkis as a Best Supporting Actor candidate with industry screenings and Q&As and promotional videos that compare Serkis’ live performance on set with the finished product. Serkis’ co-star (and last year’s Oscar co-host) James Franco even chimed in with a piece, originally published on Deadline, advocating on behalf of his co-star.

If any performance capture to date deserved an Oscar nomination, it’s Serkis’ in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” The character of Caesar is about as fully realized, visually and emotionally, as any digital movie creation has ever been. I don’t know anyone who would dispute that Serkis’ work as a performance capture artist — in films like “King Kong,” “The Adventures of Tintin,” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy — is the best in the industry. To me the question isn’t so much “Does Serkis’ deserves an Oscar?” as “Does any motion captured performance deserve an Oscar?” Is that really and truly acting?

Franco claims that it is. In his piece on Deadline, Franco compares the art of performance capture to prosthetic makeup. Here’s what he says:

“In acting school I was taught to work off my co-stars, not to act but react and that was how I would achieve unexpected results, not by planning a performance, but by allowing it to arise from the dynamic between actors, and on ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ that’s exactly what I was able to do opposite Andy as Caesar. And Andy got to do the same because every gesture, every facial expression, every sound he made was captured, his performance was captured.  Then, what the Weta effects team did was to essentially ‘paint’ the look of Caesar over Andy’s performance.  This is not animation as much as it’s digital  ‘make-up.’  There are plenty of Oscar winning performances that depended on prosthetic make-up to help create the characters.”

As an example, Franco cites the performance of John Hurt as the title character in “The Elephant Man,” which was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award in 1981. In a public Q&A hosted by and reported on by HitFix‘s Gregory Ellwood, Serkis made a similar argument, asking “Is there any less acting than John Hurt’s performance as ‘The Elephant Man’ who was completely unrecognizable or any kind of performance captured role where the actor is altered?”

There might not be less acting, but there’s still a clear difference between Serkis’ Caesar and Hurt’s John Merrick. When I see Hurt as Merrick in “The Elephant Man,” I’m still looking at Hurt. He’s buried beneath a mountain of Christopher Tucker’s incredible makeup, but he’s still there. When I see Serkis as Caesar, I’m not really looking at Serkis. I’m looking at Serkis’ movements and expressions as recorded and interpolated by computers and then tweaked and refined by animators. Hurt’s performance on set was his performance. Serkis’ performance on set was just one ingredient — the key ingredient, but one ingredient nonetheless — of his performance.

The counter-argument here is that digital effects, most of which go completely undetected by our untrained eyes, are constantly used to enhance performances. Directors like David Fincher are such technical wizards they can splice together an actor’s best moments from different takes into one seamless shot, or make Brad Pitt look like a 100-year-old baby, or graft the performance from one actor’s face onto the performance of another actor’s body. These special effects look so good, we sometimes forget we’re seeing special effects at all (until, of course, someone makes a promo real highlighting their work around Oscar time). Is that great acting? Or is that great technical wizardry? The answer, I suspect, lies somewhere in the middle.

See what you think. Here is the video from HitFix’s report on the “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” screening. You’ll see the scene first with Serkis’ on-set performance as Caesar, followed by the finished scene with the digital Caesar in his place.

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Honestly, looking at that clip makes me think it’s Franco, Freida Pinto, and Brian Cox who deserve Oscar nominations, not Serkis. They’re the ones who had to act opposite a man dressed like a futuristic custodian while he grunted like the ape. Doing that without cracking a smile — that’s a real acting challenge.

But seriously: the video does show how integral Serkis was to Caesar’s performance and to his co-stars’ performances (just a few years ago, motion capture was done entirely on green screen stages). But I don’t know that it conclusively proves that Serkis is Caesar in the way that Hurt is Merrick. The layer I’d really like to see, the one that would probably shed even more light on who did what, would be an earlier pass of the effects that shows a Caesar drawn purely from Serkis’ performance captured data, without any of Weta’s post-production sweetening. That would give us a better sense of how far from the finished product Serkis’ contribution really is.

Without that, I’m still left feeling like Caesar is the work of many people rather than one (admittedly remarkable) performer. Recognizing Serkis’ acting by itself feels a bit like a slight on all the technicians who turned that wacky looking futuristic custodian into the leader of the ape revolution. Does Serkis deserve an Oscar nomination for “Rise of the Planet of the Apes?” As a member of the visual effects team, absolutely. As an actor, I’m still on the fence.

Do you think Andy Serkis deserves an Oscar nomination for “Rise of the Planet of the Apes?” Tell us your thoughts in the comments below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.

Why no film should be considered unremakable

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The Telegraph has a slideshow this week entitled “Films that shouldn’t have been remade.” The list, inspired by the news of an impending remake of the ’80s comedy “Police Academy” (because the brilliance of the original “Police Academy” cannot be improved upon, I guess?), includes such inessential cinema as Jan de Bont’s “The Haunting,” Brett Ratner’s “Red Dragon,” and Wolfgang Petersen’s “Poseidon.” There’s one or two films on the list I don’t mind — F. Gary Gray’s “The Italian Job” strikes me as innocuous, well-crafted fun — but on the whole, it’s hard to argue than any of these films are better than, or even equal to, their original texts. If any of them were erased from existence, very few people would care. Hell, nobody would (except maybe Jan de Bont, Brett Ratner, and Wolfgang Petersen).

Still, I’m having a really hard time with the title of this piece: the films that shouldn’t have been remade. Yes, anecdotally, these movies turned out pretty poorly. But hindsight is always 20/20. Just because the results were bad doesn’t mean the idea was bad. And remaking a film — even a classic — isn’t necessarily a bad idea.

I realize that most remakes are symptomatic of creative bankruptcy in the studio system. I realize that most exist purely to cash-in on the name recognition of a popular cinematic brand. I believe that film lovers should fight for more originality in their movies. But putting up arbitrary limitations is the wrong way to foster creativity. Movies have enough rules already. The best movies are the ones that break all the rules. Even, sometimes, the rules about what should or shouldn’t be remade.

We could very easily make a list of movies that shouldn’t have been remade but were, and turned out pretty well regardless. There was no reason to remake “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” but Philip Kaufman’s version from 1978 is just as or maybe more vital than Don Siegel’s original from 1956. By 1978, the McCarthyism that fueled the allegory at the heart of the ’56 version was long gone, which is why on some level you could say it shouldn’t have been remade. But Kaufman found new subtext to graft onto the pod people motif and he made the pod people themselves way scarier than they were in the first film. That’s two “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” both of them excellent.

In explaining why Nicolas Cage’s version of “The Wicker Man” shouldn’t have been made, The Telegraph‘s Mark Monahan says the 1973 “Wicker Man” was “too strange, too original, too of its time ever to brook a remake.” We could probably say the same of Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo,” which became such a good remake — 1964’s “A Fistful of Dollars” by Sergio Leone — it practically invented an entire genre, the spaghetti Western. F.W. Murnau invented the vampire movie with 1922’s “Nosferatu.” Does that mean Tod Browning’s “Dracula” from 1931 — which is essentially a remake — shouldn’t have been made, too? If it hadn’t, that would leave us without Bela Lugosi’s magnificent and iconic Dracula — to say nothing about Christopher Lee’s Count in the Hammer films of the 1950s and ’60s, or Klaus Kinski’s in Werner Herzog’s incredible “Nosferatu” remake from 1979.

Do the bad remakes outweigh the good ones? Absolutely. But the bad sci-fi movies outweigh the good ones, and the bad legal thrillers outweight the good ones, and the bad of any artistic medium outweighs the good of any artistic medium. Remakes aren’t necessarily the best place for cinematic invention — but that doesn’t mean they render cinematic invention impossible. One of Monahan’s “shouldn’t have been remade” titles is the 2011 version of “The Thing.” But the 1982 “The Thing” by John Carpenter was itself a remake of a pretty damn good 1951 thiller called “The Thing From Another World.” The story’s the same, the setting’s the same, even the title card is basically identical. Nevertheless, Carpenter remade it into what some, including this author, consider one of the best horror films of all time. So why should the 1982 “The Thing” exist and the 2011 “The Thing” not exist? The same motivations — i.e. the desire to make a good movie and the desire to make money — drove both productions. One turned out great, one turned out not so great. That’s the gamble of moviemaking. And, to my mind, the brilliance of Carpenter’s “The Thing” is all the proof I need why it’s a gamble worth taking.

“But Matt,” you’re saying, “there’s got to be some movies that are so perfect that they should be untouchable.” “Citizen Kane.” “The Godfather.” “Seven Samurai.” Oh wait, they already remade that one.

And that’s my point. I wouldn’t be dumb enough to remake any of those masterpieces myself, but I’d be mighty interested to see the results of the crazy person who would. Some films shouldn’t be remade? No. What we really shouldn’t do is restrict what filmmakers should or shouldn’t do.


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Do you think certain films should never be remade? Which ones? Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

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