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Streaming: where to find the best film remakes

Cinema’s recycling trend continues with Disney’s imminent reprise of The Lion King. But then some remakes are better than others…

With next week’s mainstream cinema calendar largely cleared for the presumed box-office colossus that is the “live-action” The Lion King remake, film critics once more have an opportunity to grumble about Hollywood’s over-dependence on do-overs at the expense of original material. It is, after all, Disney’s third remake of one of its own properties this year – following flashy but instantly disposable spins on Dumbo and Aladdin – and not the last, either.

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But as we tut and sigh, it’s worth remembering that the cinematic remake is not an inherently bad idea: many a great film-maker has revisited earlier work for inspiration, and the streaming realm is peppered with good examples. Some are obvious – we needn’t trace the timeline of all A Star Is Born’s versions once more – while some are built on such obscure foundations that they are hardly remembered as remakes at all. How many people know that Billy Wilder’s immortally hilarious Some Like It Hot (now streaming on Netflix – go on, delight yourself again) is actually the second reworking of the 1935 French farce Fanfare of Love? Perhaps the latter is every bit Wilder’s equal, but good luck sourcing a copy to find out.

Martin Scorsese, of course, is a dab hand at this game. His richly menacing, psychosexually layered Cape Fear runs slithery rings around J Lee Thompson’s more squarely suspenseful original – both are at Amazon if you’re in the mood to compare. And Scorsese finally won his Oscar for The Departed (streaming on Amazon), a rollicking riff of Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s steelier Hong Kong cop saga Infernal Affairs (Netflix). Both films, tonally disparate, are very fine, though I admit a guilty preference for the broadly Boston-ised remake.

While I’m committing such English-biased heresy, I think Steven Soderbergh, ever partial to a remake, can claim the superior version of Solaris (Amazon). His mournfully romantic sci-fi dream may lack the frosty, expansive grandeur of Andrei Tarkovsky’s pristine Stanislaw Lem adaptation (Google Play), but I connect more to its lonesome, wounded soul. Meanwhile, William Friedkin’s tremendous Sorcerer – a literally dynamite-packing road thriller riding roughshod across South America – is, if not necessarily better, a bit more ripely entertaining than Henri-Georges Clouzot’s longer, more philosophical, Palme d’Or-winning original The Wages of Fear. Either way, it’s a mighty double feature: again, Amazon has the goods.

Of course, this exchange between Hollywood and world cinema cuts both ways. I couldn’t do without Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s more grittily heartsore German spin on Douglas Sirk’s ravishing cross-class melodrama All That Heaven Allows, with its added racial and cultural divisions – a rare instance of both versions of a film being so complementary that it’s now hard to treasure one without the other. (The BFI Player has both.) Sirk himself could hardly object: his own 1959 version of Imitation of Life may well be golden-age Hollywood’s greatest and most essential remake, deepening the black characters and racial politics of John M Stahl’s fascinating but more reserved 1934 original. (Find them on Google Play.) Even then, it’s marked by certain pre-civil rights restrictions. If any classic film is ripe for 21st-century treatment, it’s this one.

These films hardly need defending, though I differ from most of my colleagues in my appreciation of Gus van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho (Amazon). Viewed as an avant-garde installation honouring Hitchcock’s peerless original (a 90p steal at Chili) rather than as an update, it’s brazen, audacious and oddly beautiful.

Still, the safest course of action is always to make over an original with ample room for improvement, as David Lowery did in his inspired, empathetic Disney remake of Pete’s Dragon (available only to buy at Amazon, per Disney regulations) – finding a spark of human feeling in it’s child’s-eye fantasy that the stiff, lumbering, song-laden 1977 original (streaming at DisneyLife, if you’re curious) never managed. Why the Mouse House doesn’t take this course of action more often, instead of endlessly replicating perfectly imagined animated classics, is something critics and fans alike can justly grouse about.

New to streaming & DVD this week

Border
(Mubi/Modern Films, 15)
Ali Abbasi’s wholly unique contemporary fairytale freely blends folklore, Scandi noir and social realism for a thrilling examination of outsider identity.

Captain Marvel
(Disney, 12)
The first female-led adventure in the Marvel Cinematic Universe benefits from Brie Larson’s doughty presence in the lead, but its haphazard storytelling is disappointingly shopworn.

Mirai
(Anime Ltd, PG)
Mamoru Hosoda’s enchanting, Oscar-nominated anime elegantly blends everyday detail with time-bending whimsy to explore the psyche of a young boy threatened by his baby sister’s arrival.

Buy Me a Gun
(Mubi)
Streaming exclusively at Mubi, Julio Hernández Cordón’s eccentric Mexican fable bears the influence of both Huckleberry Finn and Mad Max in its story of a tomboy surviving a cartel-run dystopia.

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