Make/Remake: Deaths at a Funeral

In 2007, Frank Oz directed a gaggle of British thesps (plus Peter Dinklage) in a darkly comic farce set during an English funeral.

Just three short years later, director Neil LaBute and a gaggle of American comedians (plus Peter Dinklage) remade it in the US.

Why did they so speedily re-do an English-language film in English? Goodness only knows. But I watched both versions almost back to back, so here are my thoughts…

Death at a Funeral
(2007)

2018 #44
Frank Oz | 91 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK, USA, Germany & Netherlands / English | 15 / R

Death at a Funeral (2007)

The plot of both versions is identical: a group of family and friends gather at the home of the family’s patriarch for his funeral. A variety of subplots unfold from there, but the main one revolves around the appearance of a guest that no one knows, and what he wants.

The thing that surprised me most about Death at a Funeral is how well-liked it is online. I vaguely remember it coming out but thought it had been mostly ignored, but it has a fair amount of ratings on IMDb (a similar number to films like All About Eve or Dumbo), and relatively high user scores on sites like Letterboxd too. I thought maybe people (well, Americans) had come to it via the remake and it seemed a lot better by comparison, but that has less than half as many ratings on IMDb, so…

I was mulling on this a lot because often I like films a bit more than the online consensus, but I wasn’t feeling it with this one. I certainly enjoyed it, but it takes a while to warm up, the laugh rate isn’t quite high enough, and some of the storylines feel overly familiar (how many times have we seen someone accidentally take drugs and try to hide it? I don’t know, but it feels like I’ve seen it a lot). Nonetheless, it develops into a decent little farce. I suppose it’s a black comedy too, what with it being set at a funeral and some of the events that unfurl, but other people have pushed the boundaries of “black comedy” so far in the past couple of decades that it didn’t feel that dark to me.

Peter Dinklage with one of the few British actors who hasn't been in Game of Thrones

The cast is a quality array of recognisable British faces, many of them not known for comedy (Matthew Macfadyen, Keeley Hawes, Rupert Graves), which lends some surprising strength to a couple of scenes. Others that are more familiar from the genre (Andy Nyman, Ewen Bremner, Kris Marshall) keep the guffawing in check. And there are some Americans too, including an exposed performance from Alan Tudyk (who’s doing a British accent) and a pre-Thrones Peter Dinklage (who isn’t), but they both fit in well.

The film’s best gag, in my estimation, comes courtesy of the entire cast, in a way; an in-joke that I wasn’t 100% sure was deliberate: the end credits begin with each cast member’s name accompanied by a brief shot of them corpsing. Corpsing, during a film called Death at a Funeral. Well, I do like an in-joke.

Anyway. Although this original British version of Death at a Funeral wasn’t quite as hilarious as I’d hoped for, it’s worth a watch as a well-performed and amusing farce. And it does improve somewhat when compared to to its remake…

3 out of 5

Death at a Funeral
(2010)

2018 #46
Neil LaBute | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Death at a Funeral (2010)

Where the original was a little underwhelming, this is just kinda shit. It’s the most pointless remake since Gus Van Sant’s Psycho.

That comparison isn’t a bad one, because this is a scene-for-scene remake — sometimes shot-for-shot, line-for-line. Even the title sequence is an inferior riff on the original. Not only that, but some bits aren’t even done as well. If it worked the first time, why are you changing it? Maybe the original cast and crew made it look more effortless than it was. Some of it doesn’t even translate very well. For example, there’s a joke in the original about how “tea may solve many things”. Here, that’s translated to be about coffee. Yes, it’s been adapted to suit the different culture, but in the process has lost the cultural significance (to Brits, tea is more than just a popular beverage).

I guess he's showing him the screenplay

There are some new gags, most likely the result of the cast improvising (this version is more populated by comedians than the British one). Some of them are even funny. Unfortunately, more often the cast don’t hold up. Most of the performances are like an under-rehearsed am-dram version of the same screenplay. They certainly don’t have the acting chops to sell the more emotional moments. James Marsden is quite good in the Alan Tudyk role, though. Peter Dinklage plays the same part, but not as well — it’s less nuanced, less believable.

Director Neil LaBute previously found notoriety as writer-director of the Nic Cage Wicker Man remake. This does nothing to rehabilitate his reputation (what is this guy’s obsession with re-doing and ruining British films?) Again like Van Sant’s Psycho, it’s more interesting as a cinematic exercise than as a film in its own right.

2 out of 5

Pixels (2015)

2016 #88
Chris Columbus | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, China & Canada / English | 12 / PG-13

PixelsAdam Sandler, eh? He has his fans, though apparently not among people who can write because you rarely see a good word penned about him. The one exception is Punch Drunk Love, and that’s because it’s a Paul Thomas Anderson film, and that’s why it’s the only Adam Sandler film I can remember seeing. I didn’t like it.

So why did I watch Pixels, which was as poorly received as Sandler films always are? Good question. It had a good deal to do with the short being good (I reviewed it back in 2010), and being intrigued how that concept — which makes a neat three-minute visual idea but doesn’t have any plausible narrative potential — could be converted into a full-length feature. Of course, a daft idea for a film, plus Adam Sandler, plus bad reviews — plus weak trailers — doesn’t add up to a recipe for success. To my surprise, then, I largely enjoyed it.

The plot sees aliens intercept signals from classic arcade games and believe they are a declaration of war, and so attack Earth in the form of said games made real. The best person to stop them is cable guy Adam Sandler, who used to be a video game wunderkind, and is fit for the job mainly because the President of the United States is his best mate — that would be Kevin James, as the unlikeliest US President in history. They also rope in Sandler’s old gaming rival, Peter Dinklage, and are chaperoned by Michelle Monaghan’s Lieutenant Colonel, who doubles up as a love interest for Sandler (of course). Later, Sean Bean and Brian Cox slum it in inexplicably small roles.

Arcade heroesPixels is the virtual definition of brain-off entertainment. The story has the plausibility of a kids’ daydream, the humour is frequently unimaginative, and the action sequences mostly coast on their basic concept rather than trying to elevate them. And Peter Dinklage is going to get a reputation for having terrible taste. I mean, I liked Knights of Badassdom, but hardly anyone else did, and now this… “Stick to TV, Peter Dinklage,” people are going to say. Assuming they’re not already.

But for all that mediocrity, I spent 100 minutes feeling gently entertained. I laughed a few times; the action was, as I say, passable; and there’s a bit in the Donkey Kong-themed climax with a remix of We Will Rock You that I rather liked. I don’t imagine I’d ever look to watch it again, but for a completely undemanding time-filler, well… (Nothing like damning with faint praise, eh?)

3 out of 5

Knights of Badassdom (2013)

2014 #135
Joe Lynch | 86 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Knights of BadassdomAfter being dumped by his long-time girlfriend, Joe (True Blood’s Ryan Kwanten) is persuaded to join his friends Eric (Treme’s Steve Zahn) and Hung (Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage) for a weekend of fantasy LARPing — that’s Live-Action Role-Playing to you and me. But things soon go south when it turns out Eric has accidentally released a real demon onto the world, and it’s up to these wannabe-warriors — along with gamemaster Ronnie (serial guest star Jimmi Simpson), ‘warlock’ Landon (Community’s Danny Pudi), believes-it’s-real Gunther (Brett Gipson), and his cousin Gwen (Firefly’s Summer Glau) — to save everyone.

Knights of Badassdom is perhaps best known for its behind-the-scenes wrangles, which saw it taken out of director Joe Lynch’s hands and re-edited in a way he wasn’t happy with. Having been shot in 2010, and gaining some anticipation in certain circles online thanks to funny clips/trailers and general hype, by the time the edited version was released Stateside in early 2014, reception was poor. A lot of this was put down to it still not being Lynch’s cut, but I disagree for two reasons: one, I thought this version was good fun; and two, based on what I’ve read, I’m not convinced Lynch’s preferred cut would help any of the elements that might need helping.

The film as it stands is primarily a comedy. I mean, of course it is — it’s about a bunch of people who spend their weekends dressed up as knights, wizards, orcs and the like, running around in the woods pretending to fight each other with rubber swords and ‘magic’. Whether the film is respectful to this group or taking the piss out of them is a matter of perspective, as I’ve read reviews that firmly assert both sides. Generally, it seems to be people involved in LARPing who think it’s fine, and those who aren’t who think it’s being insulting, which suggests they do have a sense of humour about their inherently daft pastime. En garde!It’s a fine line to tread, and it seems to me that Knights of Badassdom manages it well. You get a sense of why people choose to do this and the fun that it can be — indeed, the final epic battle between the two factions of LARPers, complete with grand pre-fight speeches from each army’s general, and an awesome surprise, is kinda cool. Equally, the film doesn’t hold back from riffing off the sillier aspects of LARPing, including the rules of combat.

The flipside to this is the ‘real’ supernatural element: the unleashed demon that wreaks havoc, murdering innocent LARPers and eventually intruding on the aforementioned battle. This, it would seem, is where most of the cuts to Lynch’s vision have occurred. He’s a horror director, by both form and intent, and while some incredibly gruesome sights remain (a jaw is ripped off in unexpected and graphic fashion) this is apparently the element most reduced from the director’s cut. Personally, I’m fine with that. As my previous comment should imply, there’s already more than enough of it — literally, because much time in the middle of the film is wasted on the physical manifestation of the demon wandering around the woods and killing people. There’s no plot to that bit, just multiple setups for gory demises. Maybe Lynch’s version linked these better, but the impression I’ve got from interviews with him is he wants to put more gore back in.

Gorehounds are, naturally, excited for this; but as I see it, Knights of Badassdom is a comedy horror, a genre in which the emphasis falls firmly on the comedy side. There’s room for blood and guts in there, especially when used to humorous effect, but it’s not about the visceral thrills of seeing someone eviscerated — Furry D16if that’s your bag, there are plenty of films to cater for it; is a comedy about role-players really the occasion? There are elements of the film that could do with tightening up — the beginning is a little slow, as well as the issues with the middle, and towards the climax it’s sporadically jumpy in a way that makes it clear something has been excised — but just adding gore is not what this film needs to improve it.

On the bright side, the gore is at least well-realised, with a commitment to using physical effects. I’ve read several reviews that criticise this side of the film, and I just can’t understand it. There is some weak CGI, but considering the budget of the movie it’s not too bad, and it’s barely featured anyway. Besides, it’s mostly used to depict a portal to hell — how do you know a real-life portal to hell doesn’t look like cheap CGI? The practical effects are all very good, including a final form for the demon that’s a man in a suit. OK, it doesn’t look real… because it’s a bloody hell demon and those things aren’t bloody real, are they! Honestly, I don’t know what people expect from special effects sometimes — it’s not like most of the effects in $250m movies actually look real, they just look better. But I digress.

According to the most recent interview with Lynch that I’ve found, this version of Badassdom has actually sold and rented pretty well, and the distributors (who aren’t the same people who messed with his cut — it got sold on at some point) have been in touch about possibly releasing his cut. At some point we may get to find out the truth of the matter, then, but I rather suspect those who were expecting a tighter, funnier movie may be disappointed, even if those who just want more blood may be satiated.

Knights at nightAs it stands, Knights of Badassdom is an entertaining way to spend just under 90 minutes. A more restrained approach might yield a tighter movie, one that could be funnier by percentage (the trailer remains popular, and you don’t get more condensed than that), but I think it’s still well enough constructed to keep genre-minded viewers entertained.

4 out of 5

The current cut of Knights of Badassdom finally makes its way to UK DVD today, and will be on Sky Movies from Friday 27th February.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

2014 #113
Bryan Singer | 132 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13

X-Men: Days of Future PastI think I’ve previously discussed my life-long love of the X-Men franchise, so I shan’t go into detail again, but suffice to say Days of Future Past has been one of my most-anticipated movies ever since the title (which is that of a classic and influential story from the comics) was announced. Thank goodness, then, that the final result doesn’t disappoint.

After two Wolverine-focused spin-offs and a ’60s-set prequel, Days of Future Past returns us to the world of the original X-Men movie cast — Sirs Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen and all the rest. Only now it’s a future dystopia, where mutants are killed or imprisoned by giant robots called Sentinels. A gang of former X-Men led by Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) think they’ve worked out a way to send someone back in time to before the incident that incited this terrible future, so that they can stop it. The man chosen is — of course — Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). Transported back into his 1970s body, Wolverine must find the younger Professor Xavier (James McAvoy), reunite him with an imprisoned younger Magneto (Michael Fassbender), and stop younger Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating the inventor of the Sentinels, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). Throw in almost every other mutant who’s ever appeared in the extensive ensemble casts of the four previous X-Men movies, and you’ve got yourself an epic — reportedly the second-most-expensive film ever made by 20th Century Fox (after Avatar).

There’s an awful lot going on in Days of Future Past, which, if you want to dig into it, makes for quite a rich film. There’s the obvious need to balance major storylines taking place in both the past and the future, though the latter has been sacrificed to focus on the former — quite literally, in the sense that a subplot centred around Anna Paquin’s Rogue was famously deleted (leaving Paquin with high billing for a three-second cameo). There’s also the inevitable complexity of time travel stories — how do changes in the past impact on the future, etc. Men of Future PastBeyond that, there’s the characters: the younger versions are having to deal with the fall-out from First Class, which tore apart friendships and families; meanwhile, Wolverine is having to deal with a new level of responsibility and maturity — he is, almost literally, having to do for Charles what the professor did for him back in the first X-Men movie.

You wouldn’t think of an X-Men feature being an actors’ movie, and at the end of the day it’s not really, but there’s enough material for a quality actor like McAvoy to sink his teeth into. When we meet him Charles is a disillusioned drug addict, entirely different to the man we know from First Class and his future as Patrick Stewart. He’s forced to face his demons in every way possible: stopping his drugs, accepting his mutant superpowers, facing up to the man who did this to him, and the woman he raised as a sister but who turned on him… None of this is necessary to serve the blockbuster spectacle that the film also excels in, but it makes for deeper viewing than your average 2010s tentpole.

If McAvoy is the star, many of the rest of the cast do alright. As mentioned, Jackman has a bit on his plate as a one-time loner trying to become a teacher. Jennifer Lawrence is best served, the depth of her role no doubt bolstered by her Oscar-winning success elsewhere in the acting world. Although the original story also features Mystique as the antagonist, she’s far less conflicted: it’s a straight-up assassination attempt. The dilemmas that leave her torn between Xavier and Magneto are entirely an invention of the film franchise, but they make for a much more interesting story — it’s genuinely unpredictable what she’ll do and who she’ll side with.

Villain of Future PastNot everyone gets to shine in a cast this big, although pretty much everyone gets a moment. The future-set cast have the least to do, people like Halle Berry turning up to do little more than show their face, though Stewart and McKellen get a moment or two worthy of their talents. After he was the focus of the last film, Fassbender is slightly shortchanged here; but after McAvoy gave him essential support in First Class, Fassbender plays the same service here, informing Charles’ journey. Of the new additions, Evan Peters as Quicksilver (that’s the one who’ll also be played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson in Avengers: Age of Ultron) gets both laughs and the film’s stand-out action sequence, as he races around a room, literally faster than a speeding bullet, to save our heroes. Dinklage, on the other hand, is underused. As with Stewart and McKellen, the fact he’s an excellent actor brings extra layers to the little he does have to do, but if you want to see what he can really do you’ll need to get your Game of Thrones box sets back out.

For those that like their blockbusters explosive and adrenaline-pumping rather than character-driven, Days of Future Past doesn’t drop the ball. It kicks off with a mutant vs. Sentinel sequence that innovates with an X-Woman who can create portals. I’m sure this looked grand in 3D, with all that depth disappearing through the other side of the aforementioned gateways. The side effect for us 2D viewers is that Singer is a skilled filmmaker: he does the sensible thing and holds his shots longer, reigning in the fast cutting style of most modern action sequences. That’s essential in 3D, for viewers’ brains to get their bearings, but is a nice change of pace in 2D too.

Quick as a flash...Later, there’s the aforementioned ‘slow-mo’ sequence, and the grand climax, which offers more “fly something big around” antics a la First Class’ submarine, only considerably grander. Yet for all the spectacle, the final moments once again come down to character: what is Magneto prepared to do? What is Mystique prepared to do? Will anyone listen to Charles? And so on. Even the much-vaunted Marvel Studios movies tend to base their climaxes in slabs of ‘epic’ CGI crashing into each other; Days of Future Past does that for a bit, then brings the characters back into focus for the real final beats.

By all rights, Days of Future Past should be a mess. There’s too many characters, too many storylines, too many time periods, too much inconsistency in the continuity of the previous films to allow for a time travel-focused story. Actually, in the case of the latter, it’s used to straighten things out a bit: events we saw in The Last Stand are barely acknowledged and, by the end, are completely eradicated. As for the rest, well, turns out everyone involved actually knew what they were doing, in spite of the fears of some fanboys. Those who number certain characters among their favourites may feel ill-served by some cameo-level appearances, but for less wedded viewers, all the roles are well balanced.

Despite the all-franchise team-up, this is First Class 2 as much as it’s X-Men 5, and that’s only right — although it leaves the door open for more adventures featuring the future X-Men, their stories are probably all told. It’s already been confirmed that the next film, X-Men: Apocalypse, will be First Class 3, taking the younger cast into the ’80s and centred on MystiqueWoman of Future Past (Jennifer Lawrence being the third pillar of the past triumvirate, as they’ve already focused on Xavier and Magneto). While Days of Future Past does wrap up the majority of its threads (the open-ended ones are answered by previous films, if you want them to be), there’s plenty there to play with in the next film (and, perhaps, ones beyond that) if they want to… which they do.

But that’s for the future. For now, debate can rage over which is the best X-Men film. Personally, I’m just glad that we’re in a situation where there are three or four X-Men movies that are contenders for the crown of, not only the best in the series, but to be among the best comic book movies ever made. And as that’s the genre du jour, it’s an important title to hold. Whether Days of Future Past’s all-eras team-up can best X2 or First Class, I don’t know, but it stands alongside them.

5 out of 5

X-Men: Days of Future Past placed 9th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.