Monthly Archives: March 2014

Original vs. Re-make: ‘Oldboy’

Josh Brolin gets grim in Spike Lee's Oldboy.

Josh Brolin gets grim in Spike Lee’s Oldboy.

(Tons of spoilers for both Oldboy flicks. Don’t say I didn’t warn ya.)

I REMEMBER WHEN TWILIGHT: NEW MOON CAME OUT IN THEATERS. My wife is a bit of a fan, so we went on a date to see it.

The big buildup in the film is for the introduction of the Volturi, the powerful, super, ultra-badass scary group of vampires that are sort of their world’s royal family/mafioso overlords. You wait the whole movie to see them, the tension building. And then … it’s like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, if the titular homosexuals actually didn’t know how to dress. The Volturi aren’t scary, intimidating, nothing. Really, they’re laughable, especially considering the little girl from War of the Worlds comes off as the only hardcore killer in the room.

Sharlto Copley is the Volturi of Spike Lee’s 2013 Oldboy remake. You watch almost two hours of interpersonal terror, murder, revenge and more, only to be served up Copley’s Adrian, a whining, ineffectual freak with daddy issues. In the 2003 original, Ji-Tae Yu brings a restrained, insane sadness to the role of the villain, Wu-Jin Lee. His confrontation with the main character, Dae-su Oh (an Oscar-worthy performance by Min-sik Choi) is the cherry on top of the disturbing, darkly hilarious cake that was the original film.

But Copley’s Adrian is … a caricature. Where Yu’s Wu-Jin Lee is truly heartfelt and grief-stricken (and undeniably twisted), you’re practically waiting for Copley to grow horns and a tail during his confrontation of Brolin’s vengeance-seeking Joe. Joe’s reaction to the Big Reveal (I won’t spoil it for potential viewers of either film) brought to mind Darth Vader’s operatic “Noooooooooooooooo!” at the end of Episode III. Just awful.

THE NEW OLDBOY HAS SOME THINGS GOING FOR IT. The dark secret is changed just a wee bit and it works. In the original, the main love interest is a counter girl at a restaurant and the connection, at least initially, feels a bit forced. Here, the love interest (played ably by the criminally under-used Elizabeth Olsen, who has shown she is capable of so much more) is a social worker who initially believes Joe might be a homeless, mentally disturbed man. The connection made between Olsen’s Marie and Brolin’s Joe is made smoother by this alteration.

Hit is the face of a truly disturbed dude.

This is the face of a truly disturbed dude.

But Spike Lee never manages to find the delicate tonal balance of Korean Chan-wook Park’s original. Park manages to infuse some black humor into the thick, unrelenting darkness of the Oldboy world. That really saves Oldboy from becoming a grim, unwatchable sadfest like Nicholas Cage’s 8MM, and that dark humor is the bow on the present at the end of the original.

And in key spots, Lee’s version just falls short. When Joe finds the place he has been held for decades, he arms himself with hammer, finds the man responsible for his time in solitary, then fights his way out. Spike sort of half-asses an ode to Far East martial arts flicks with the fight scene. It’s got the dim-witted villains blowing the attack in some of the worst fight choreography ever, as well as a Josh Brolin that is so stiff that the effect is comical in a way it’s not meant to be.

In Park’s original, when Dae-su fights his way out, it isn’t against 10 or so guys in a big, open garage. When the elevator door opens, Dae-su finds a narrow hallway full of armed thugs. The fight is brutal on a physical level, one man hammering his way through a tight space full of hired brutes trying to kill him. On the metaphorical level, this is the price of vengeance. Vengeance is not easy, it is not clean, it is not glamorous. It hurts, it screams, it bleeds. Vengeance demands all and offers little in return.

That is where Park’s 2003 Oldboy succeeds, finding that darkness, that hopelessness, and soaking in it, running toward it, plunging into its depths. And that is where Lee’s 2013 Oldboy fails, a movie that skirts across the void, trying to avoid the black depths that lie below.

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‘100’? I’d give it a 79

Don't eat the radioactive animals, kids.

Don’t eat the radioactive animals, kids.

There will be a shit-ton of spoilers about the new CW show, The 100, in this post, so don’t come crying to me if I ruin it for you.

Set-up: A-. I don’t know the book The 100 is based on, so I can’t say if the show is faithful to it or not. Ninety-seven years before the show’s kick-off, nuclear war made the Earth unlivable. Eleven nations had space stations that some of their citizenry were able to retreat to for safety. Now, all 11 space stations have been combined into one large space station. It’s estimated that it will take up to 200 years after the war for Earth to be safe for human inhabitants. Meanwhile, the space station is getting crowded. Lawbreakers are automatically shot out the airlock. Juvenile offenders are jailed until they turn 18, then they get the airlock. Everyone’s clothes are ragged, and nothing seems as if it’s in very good condition. But the powers that be have a plan: Launch all 100 incarcerated youthful offenders to Earth. They get the opportunity to live – maybe not very long, depending on how conditions on Earth end up being – and, via wrist monitors the 100 wear, the space station will be able to get an idea if it’s feasible to start inhabiting Earth again. Pretty awesome, eh?

Characters: D. It’s the Sleepy Hollow syndrome all over again. Why do writers and execs think you have to know everything about everything by the end of the damn pilot? For example, we pretty much immediately find out that our heroine, Clarke, has been imprisoned for rebelling after the death of her father, who discovered that the space station’s calculations for how quickly its resources will run out are way off, and that the whole space livin’ crew will be screwed soon. IT’S TOO MUCH INFORMATION. We don’t need to know that. It’s pretty obvious that the situation in the space station is pretty tight, both on space and resources, just from the set-dressing and the plan to launch the juvies to Earth. Plus, we find out that one of the other main characters, Octavia, has been jailed simply for being born. There’s population control on the space station, and she’s the second child, and – therefore – an unnecessary drain on the collective’s food, air and space. The imminent end for the space folks could have been a guarded secret to find out down the line. Even the fact that Clarke’s father’s death had been set into action when he defied the station’s leaders and shared the dreaded information, that could have been held back. Clarke is also too much of a cardboard cutout from the jump off, and this sort of indelicate plotting doesn’t help. Her mother tells her to take care of herself and not to try to save everyone like her father. What does she do in every scene after that? Try to save everyone like her father. It’s very ham-handed. Another other issue with the characters are that they are supposed to represent 11 different nations. Yes, there’s an ethnic/racial mix among the actors, but they all have American accents. Really? So far, no other character has really distinguished himself or herself other than Clarke, and to be fair, that’s hard to do with a large cast and having just an hour to get stuff established. There’s promise, which is what saves The 100 from a dreaded F in this category.

Acting: C+. Eliza Taylor, who stars as Clarke, is so earnest that it’s almost stifling. Most of the young actors are pretty under-cooked and awkward, but that could improve. The best performance by a younger actor comes from Devin Bostick (Diary of a Wimpy Kid), and his character is dead by the end of the pilot. The only other young actor who sets himself apart is Richard Harmon (Percy Jackson). The adults – all on the space station – are fine, a solid mix of character actors such as Paige Turco (Party of Five), Isaiah Washington (Romeo Must Die, Out of Sight), Kelly Hu (Scorpion King) and Henry Ian Cusick (Lost).

Writing: B-. TV is a writer’s medium. I realize this is the CW and not HBO or AMC, so there’s a curve. But the aforementioned issues with sharing too much hurt, and too much of the dialogue is spot on and tepid. I’d probably normally go lower, but the overall story idea really saves it, and in a pilot, you’re going to get more exposition than probably any other time in the series. Plus, it’s the first episode. This is a feeling-out process, and the craftsmanship could improve.

Recommendation: If you’re a sci-fi fan with an opening in your TV watching schedule, give it a shot. It’s the CW, so if you’ve been fans of shows such as Smallville, Green Arrow, Supernatural, etc., odds are good you’ll have an affinity for The 100. If science fiction isn’t your thing, look elsewhere. The 100 is not the kind of show that will change your mind about the genre.

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Sometimes, it’s hard to move on with an author

I recently read W.A.R.P.: The Reluctant Assassin by Eoin Colfer. It was a bit of a disappointment. It’s not that it’s not a nice piece of Y.A. fiction. The story is unique and interesting, the villain Albert Garrick is a powerful and nasty mix of Michael Myers and Fagin, and the story displays Colfer’s trademark humor.

And yet … I love me some Artemis Fowl. I’ll take Artemis over Harry Potter any day of the week, and twice on Tuesday. The characters of Artemis’s world – LeP Captain Holly Short, the massive Butler, Foaly the centaur, Julius Root, the most awesome thief ever in Mulch Duggums and the titular sociopath himself – are immediately fully realized and adapt and change throughout the series in realistic, thoughtful ways. The villains are crafty and crazy, the adventures are a hoot and Colfer isn’t afraid to go dark.

The problem is nothing else I’ve read from Colfer – W.A.N.D.,  The Supernaturalist, The Wish List, Half Moon Investigations – has that same … spark, for a lack of a better word. The books are well-plotted, the characters are unique, and Colfer’s a funny dude. But there’s something about Artemis that separates that series from the rest of Colfer’s work.

Does that mean I’ll stop reading Colfer? No, because even an under-cooked book from Colfer is 75% better than anything else out there. It’s just frustrating to not make the same connection to his other work that I made immediately to Artemis Fowl and his cohorts.

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That’s My Jam #14: Mariah Carey, ‘Touch My Body’

Here’s the That’s My Jam manifesto.

I have very little patience for modern, mainstream R&B. The words “trite” (Trey Songz),”boring” (John Legend) and “gross” (R. Kelley) often spring to mind. The rare single will catch my ear, and in this instance, the single is Mariah Carey’s Touch My Body.

“Mixed feelings” categorize my attitude toward Mariah. On the one hand, there’s no denying the power of her voice. On the other hand, a great voice does not make great songs, and I generally believe that Mariah’s music is about showcasing her voice and less about actual song craft. Mariah too often brings a cannon to a knife fight. It’s all about hitting or holding extreme notes, less about the little touches that really make a song.

And that’s why I find myself liking Touch My Body. Yes, it’s sexy and easy, almost too smooth to be real. But the amazing thing that is happening is that Mariah herself is easy and smooth, riding the seductive bounce of the production and not forcing it. There’s no great highs or lows, no held note skittering up and up, no great blasts of power. Reeled-in Mariah is Mariah at her best, and Touch My Body is an argument for craftsmanship over explosive emoting.

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Following Gaiman to the ‘End of the Lane’

There are plenty of things to like about Neil Gaiman. His inventiveness, his willingness to go to dark places (even in his books for children), his grasp of myth and lore, his humor.

I think what I appreciate most is how Gaiman trusts his readers. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, his latest novel, is a prime example of that. The narrator relates the tale of how the Hempstocks save him from an unimaginable fate at the hands of dark, mystical creatures. The Hempstocks themselves, while appearing to be somewhat simple farm folk, have their own power and wield it prudently and cautiously.

But while the narrator gives us a full accounting, the Hempstocks don’t. Young Lettie and her kin are more than happy to show what is on the face of things and ramble on about their actions, but never let our young man get an in-depth feel for who they are, how they do what they do, or what is really going on.

Gaiman did this effectively in American Gods and masters it in Ocean at the End of the Lane. Give the details of the story, but leave some surrounding, mystical aspects more fuzzy. Trust the reader to make the connections, fill in the gaps, engage with the text. It’s an enormous amount of trust Gaiman is showing, and for the reader, it makes the novel that much more rewarding.

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That’s My Jam #13: DMX double-shot Tuesday

My That’s My Jam manifesto here.

“Y’all gonna make me lose my mind, up in here, up in here!” DMX broke through to the mainstream with Party Up, a club banger for a guy who was never exactly known for that. But it’s unique in the sense that, while it’s a party anthem, lyrically it’s true to the tough talk, tough times themes that DMX favors. No Whoomp There It Is here. It’s damn near impossible to not turn this song up and scream along with the chorus every single time.

Who We Be, on the other hand, is probably the most thoughtful track in the DMX catalog. This is DMX’s plea to God for guidance, for an explanation of how His creation has fallen to such lows, an accounting of grievances unanswered from on high. DMX barks in rage at the unfairness, poverty and bigotry he sees around him and howls in pain with the thought that he can do nothing to affect change. Brilliant, and maybe his best single, which for a man with DMX’s catalog (Party Up, Where the Hood At, Ruff Ryders Anthem, etc.), is high praise indeed.

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‘Downton’ fans, why so serious?

Downton Abbey's recently widowed and their children.

Downton Abbey’s recently widowed and their children.

Oh, Downton Abbey lovers, why can’t you make up your minds?

Season 3 saw the deaths of Lady Sybil and Matthew, as actors Dan Stevens and Jessica Brown Findlay sought to capitalize on their Downton fame and move on to new projects.

And you Downton-ites were furious. Livid! Especially at the surprising death of Matthew in an auto accident at the end of the season.

So you say, well, Adam, you seem to know a lot about this. Aren’t you a fan? Weren’t you upset?

It would be a stretch to call me a fan. Maybe “interested observer” better encapsulates my relationship with Downton Abbey. My wife is an avid fan, so I usually watch with her, sometimes engrossed in what’s happening, sometimes reading a book and half paying attention.

As to the deaths of Lady Sybil and Matthew, I say this: Best thing to happen to the show.

Not that I’m big on racking up body counts just to be racking up body counts. It doesn’t make horror or action dramas more interesting, and it sure won’t work in a period soap opera like Downtown Abbey. I am of the Joss Whedon school of tragedy. When you kill a character and you do it with thoughtful deliberation – think Fred in the final season of Angel – you open the floodgates of guilt, fear, sadness, anxiety and more from those who survive. Wesley Windham Price became a better, deeper, darker character with the loss of his love. Even Lorne, maybe the lightest of light characters in all of the Whedon-verse, gained depth and profoundness from the loss of the beloved Birkle.

In the case of Downton, I thought the deaths of these two characters helped make their spouses, Lady Mary and Tom, much, much more interesting. Lady Mary has always been grating and snobby, and that’s both intentional and a tribute to the writing and the performance of Michelle Dockery. But I was really never interested in the character, not like I was invested in Lady Mary’s parents or a significant part of the servant staff. The opening of season 4 changed that, with Lady Mary clearly in shock and unable to shake it off. And while I thought the pursuit of Lady Mary by a number of suitors in Season 4 often bordered on Bachelorette parody, the way she handled it, admitting her feelings while simultaneously admitting she wasn’t ready to move on from Matthew, really elevated the character. The same for Tom Branson, the chauffeur-turned-aristocrat. I found his relationship with Sybil to be one of the most annoying aspects of the show and would often tune out. But post-Sybil Tom is a terrific character, a man who has reluctantly yet easily become part of his dead spouse’s aristocratic family, still grappling with how his socialist beliefs apply as this evolution happens. The show and two of its most important characters are stronger in the wake of the passing of Lady Sybil and Matthew. Go team Downton!

But the minds behind Downton heard the kvetching after season 3, so season 4 they gave you Downton-ites your happy ending. The hand-in-hand walk through the sea by Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes was a moment of serenity in a season of upheavel, a peaceful coda. I thought it was one of the nicer scenes in the series’ history.

And how did you respond? Folks weren’t happy with that either. Why, I don’t understand. Damned if you, damned if you don’t, I guess.

There is something every Downton-ite should be upset with from season 4, but other than my wife, I haven’t heard much about it. The issue: The resolution of the storyline about Anna’s sexual assault.

Anna’s rape was a horrifying moment in Downtown history, and led to some of the best drama the show has seen. Her taking Mrs. Hughes into her confidence, and Mrs. Hughes struggling to help Anna and not give away anything to Mr. Bates, Ann’s proud and strong-willed hubby. Anna’s reduced fondness for the butler (valet? All of these positions confuse me) of one of Lady Mary’s would-be boyfriends that tips Bates as to who the real villain is. It was really well handled, and again, tragedy took key characters to interesting places, as it should.

And then Julian Fellowes, series creator and the man who wrote the season finale, plays us for fools. Is there anyone who as ever watched an episode of Downton who honestly believes Bates is stupid enough to have left the train ticket for the fateful trip when he killed his wife’s rapist in his frigging coat pocket? We spent the bulk of the two-hour finale watching Bates commit acts of fraud and theft, subtly and deftly defending the Crawley family, sometimes unbeknownst to anyone. Then we’re supposed to believe that same man was dumb enough not to toss his ticket stub, evidence that could result in his hanging, in one of the 72 fireplaces inside Downton the second he returned home?

What an awful, lazy piece of writing, all done seemingly in an effort to get us to the point where Lady Mary decides to burn the ticket rather than turn Bates in to the police. Mr. Fellowes, you could have just had a stage hand stand behind Lady Mary with an enormous sign that says “She’s no longer the cold, aristocratic gal you once knew” because, quite frankly, that would have been just as subtle and more respectful of your audience’s intelligence

Of course, in the end, Mr. Fellowes, you win. Because you know that no matter what you do, we’ll be back for next season. Yes, this interested observer as well.

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