Monday, July 11, 2011

Movie News

I'll Be Blunt: Hollywood Smokes Everything

      Let's face the facts. The last time we puffed a Spike Lee rolled joint, our lungs overflowed with toxins. Instead of smoking, you know, genuine marijuana, we were duped into K2 (for those not savvy with teenager's ways of getting high, it's a potent mixture of herbal and spice plant products, which is sprayed with a psychotropic drug and contaminated with a toxic substance). The end result of smoking K2, which is not unlike watching Spike Lee's last film: a horrid mutation comprised of equal parts streaking Will Ferrell from Old School and drug-riddled Jared Leto from Requiem for a Dream. Not healthy. Not pretty. And oh so reckless.
      Well, not to hone in on such a brutal metaphor, but I think we can all agree: any dosage of Miracle at St. Anna, Spike Lee's latest fatty (by latest, I mean 2008), ain't good for your health, namely your eyesight. Beyond similar side effects—sleepiness, increased agitation, delusions—K2 and Miracle at St. Anna have another thing in common: they are a disservice to humanity. Ouch (harsh, I know). But it is not my intention to pander to vehement Spike haters who bemoan the existence of race relations and the role of media in his films. The man may be politically motivated, but Spike Lee ain't all that bad. In fact, he's mostly good. Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X, 4 Little Girls, He Got Game, 25th Hour and Inside Man are all fine examples of a proficient filmmaker's grasp of the powers of storytelling. And now, the vociferous, omnipresent, diehard New York Knicks fan is taking his talents to Oldboy.  Lee's instincts are not always mainstream, but they are, almost always, fascinating.
      According to Slashfilm, (from a press release from Mandate Pictures), Spike Lee is set to direct the remake of Park Chan-wook's amazing tale of vengeance (presumably, after he finishes filming on his newest joint, Red Hook Summer). This development inspires an interesting discussion. After Matt Damon famously opined in you-know-what that he's "holdin' out for somethin' better" (why he shouldn't work for the N.S.A in Good Will Hunting), I'm confronted by a similar, humanity-based question: is an American remake of a highly revered foreign film, spearheaded by the man behind the godawful, aforementioned Miracle at St. Anna, good for moviegoer's health?. Unlike Will Hunting, who remarked in GWH (a totally different context, but I liked his conviction): "what did I think...I figure fu-- it," I'm amenable to a remake, so long as said filmmaker is beholden to creativity, ingenuity, authenticity and, wait for it (this is the toughest stipulation to uphold given the whole 'remake' concept), originality.
      Remake madness or more specifically, America's affinity for remaking everything, is symptomatic of Hollywood hoariness; an ancient reliance upon money gained, not money earned. This madness adversely impacts America's reputation abroad. Every dreadful foreign remake is an arrow in the quiver for opponents of American cinema who denounce our country's artistic motives. They question, within the particular rubric of a remake, whether America is capable of creating authentic, inspiring work, the type of work that justifies its creation from an artistic standpoint, not a monetary one. True or not, deserved or undeserved, these pandemic cries gain traction and legitimacy because of Hollywood hysteria; an expression I describe as a de facto allegiance to the creation of bottom line profit, not the creation of art. Staunch opponents decry Hollywood's materialistic proclivity towards regeneration, which aligns itself quite conveniently with, what I'll term, simultaneous, insensitive profitization; the idea that studio executives can both tinker with and dilute the vast reservoir of venerable foreign films while compromising the sanctity of the original work. Their sole purpose is antithetical to creative enterprise: generate massive bundles of cash by inflaming an existing foreign property. Consequently, a harsh reality clouds America's tendency for remaking foreign films. Godzilla, Taxi, The Vanishing, Vanilla Sky, The Italian Job, Pulse, Dark Water and Death at a Funeral are a few examples of failed remakes. As a corollary, The Magnificent Seven, 12 Monkeys, Insomnia and The Departed are prime examples of compelling remakes. Spike Lee's first order of business; therefore, is to overcome or supersede the stigma of the American remake. For they are, more often than not, uninspired, excessively derivative, and share more in common with flam than HOT DAMN!
      Generally, U.S. remakes are suppressed by three pivotal factors: fear of offensive persuasion, directorial delusion (the vainglorious idea that one can improve another's work), and commercialization. One can be aware of the stain of a moribund remake, but they don't have to be swayed by it. If a director has enough clout to dictate key decisions and operate freely from the encumbrances of the studio system, they can lay the groundwork for a meaningful remake. Spike Lee, I suspect, has earned the right to control the direction of his films (if not final cut, some semblance of it). The question is whether Lee's vision is substantial, genuine and compelling. We don't want a film that strives to outdo The Hangover Part II as the most egregious carbon copy of a film ever committed to celluloid.
      Oldboy, the film in question, is exceptional. If you have not seen it, stop reading and watch it right now. It's a remarkable tale of revenge that is neither traditional nor abnormal. It is pitch-perfect in design, pace, tone and narration; an operatic blend of brash visuals and imaginative ideas. It is unblemished, and so my hope is that Spike will not diminish or dismantle the cogency of Park Chan-wook's film. Rather, my hope is that Lee can strive to elevate the impact of his masterpiece. It is a mountainous expectation, but the current state of paltry American remakes demands such fervor. 

Here's the plot of the original (From Slashfilm)

OLDBOY tells the story of a man who is kidnapped and imprisoned on his daughter’s birthday. For fifteen years, he is held captive, and, upon his release, must begin his journey to find the reason for his imprisonment. He soon finds out that his kidnapper has plans for him more tortuous than his solitary confinement. The original film, released in 2003, directed by Chan-wook Park won the Grand Prize Jury Award at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival.

      Mark Protosevich (screenwriter for I Am Legend, Thor) adapted the script. According to Slashfilm, he worked closely with the script of Chan-wook's movie, as opposed to focusing on the original manga. Roy Lee and Doug Davison (The Departed, The Grudge; clearly, these two guys are familiar with remakes) will produce. If the movie winds up being a piece of shit, like the aforementioned Miracle at St. Anna, then so be it. In my eyes, it does not tarnish the legacy of the original. It only tarnishes the legacy of Spike Lee. The two films must be evaluated separately. The brilliance of Park Chan-wook's film will remain firmly intact regardless of Lee's interpretation. The problem of remakes, after all, is not one of retro-criticism, but the idea of effecting new and interesting work. If you want to correct the opinions of foreign detractors, then focus on creating something indicative of art, not the almighty dollar. A director shall rely on the original for inspiration and innovation, not reproduction. With Spike Lee's famed edginess and audacious sensibility, I think the remake can work. Some moviegoers, who feel Lee overtly politicizes his movies, may question his vision or his approach (it's too early to discern how Lee envisions this remake), but I believe in Shelton Jackson "Spike" Lee. Only time will tell if my belief is founded.
      Remakes can be tremendously successful. As a vital resource for creative inspiration, foreign films can establish new techniques and identify new standards. While emboldened by the original work, the director is charged with new responsibilities. They can alter the root of a story (like Gore Verbinski did with his version of Hideo Nakata's Ring) and still maintain elements of the original. They can tweak aspects of the entire story and craft something unique, something refreshing (like John Sturges The Magnificent Seven, which was closely modeled after Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai). Or they can upend the original work and design something measurably distinctive like Scorsese did with Andrew Lau's Infernal Affairs (I don't know one person who disliked The Departed. If I did, they'd probably faithfully depart). Who knows what approach Spike Lee will take. But given his track record, it will be a daring advance. He may not shift the tides of Hollywood's hysteria with remakes or change the minds of foreign detractors. He may not motivate moviegoers to traverse the mighty map of foreign films. He may not even inspire you to ferret out Park Chan-wook's original. But hopefully, at the very least, he'll provide us with an entertaining, interesting, and refreshing experience at the theater; no one (I'm looking squarely at you Mr. 3-D) can diminish the inherent fun of the movie theater experience. Ultimately, my point is this: an American remake does not have to be synonymous with drivel. On the contrary, they can be moving, enormously successful, and wholly artistic. Remakes need not be redundant.

*A pretty nifty fan-edited trailer of Park Chan-wook's Oldboy


  1. The Departed and Magnificent Seven are rare exceptions with American remakes. I respectfully disagree about Verbinski's Ring. It was one of the most atrocious things ever put to film. He made a sanitized, Walt Disney pretty girl version in which the lifeless Naomi Watts and her creepy kid set a new level for horror film stupid. He proved he had a talent for comedy, though. I laughed my ass off the entire way through the film.

    I will wholeheartedly agree about Miracle. That was a terrible film and really shocking considering Spike's talent. If he can take Oldboy and do a Departed-level film then I'm all for it. However, I do not merely want to see the American version of the exact same story. Just go rent Oldboy then.

  2. Terrific insights, as usual, Matty. I am not a huge Spike Lee fan, though I don't think anyone can argue he's made some good and some terrific films. But a remake? Wow, guess even Spike Lee's feeling the pressure when he's preparing a joint built on another architect's floorplan. I also enjoyed your thoughts on Hollywood's current remake frenzy. It's intriguing though, that as bad as this spate of rehashes is - and it is epic in scale right now - it's really not anything Hollywood hasn't been doing for 100 years. It's a bit cyclic, I think. Whenever anyone complains about one of their favorites being remade - I'll sometimes play devil's advocate and say "Under that way of thinking no one would ever stage a new version of a popular play or musical theater piece," and "There were TWO versions of The Maltese Falcon made in the decade before the one we regard as the classic was released." De Mille remade his own The Ten Commandments. Hitchcock remade his own The Man Who Knew Too Much. British remakes of Universal Studios' monster movies of the 30's and 40's are the now much beloved Hammer Horror Series. And just as you indicated - when they're good, the remakes are out of this world. And when they aren't, they make everyone lament the sad state the film industry has come to, putting all the angst on the back of whichever poor remake had the bad luck of sucking just a bit too much. US moviemaking today has become a weird cousin to Italian filmmaking of decades past: where the Italians would for a long time latch on to any popular Hollywood film and rip it off with wild abandon for years on end, we now latch onto anything that has the tiniest speck of audience recognition and try to cobble a film out of it. And when it doesn't work, or it does but the second or third doesn't - we don't move on to a new idea - we REBOOT THE DAMN THING. The Hulk. Jack Ryan. Bourne. And all within just a few years, thanks to the success of Batman Begins and Casino Royale. I find the rebooting even more troubling than the remaking, quite actually. The one piece of solace I take from the rampant remaking - even if the new version is lackluster at best and crap at worst - at least it usually means a brand spanking new (or first time) release of the original in a spruced up new DVD or Blu-Ray edition! Fantastic post, Mr. V!

  3. The darker elements of Oldboy are the ones I can't see finding their way into the remake. Don't see much incest in mainstream American cinema. I wonder if he'll get Denzel to play the lead?


  4. Not a big fan of Spike Lee, but I'm curious if he will be able to pull this remake off. The original was very unique and often disturbing, but also a bit hard to watch and a bit too slow moving. Anyway, I'm embracing the idea of this remake, and I can't wait to see what Mr. Lee will deliver.

  5. Plain wrong to remake this classic as it will never be better than the original.
    IMHO Hollywood can't top the craziness and surreality of the original "Old Boy" film, so what will come out is another straight forward revenge flick.

  6. I'm also not a fan of Spike Lee, but it's always lovely seeing you excited about a film, Matty!

  7. I am a big Spike Lee fan, even of some of his less great moments. I think hiring Lee is a solid choice. He's edgy but relatable.

    The original Manga version of OLDBOY didn't have the incest sub-plot, therefore, if the H'wood version omits that aspect of the story then I'm cool with that.

  8. @ Melissa

    The Departed resulted in Scorsese's 1st LONG-overdue Best Director Academy Award, so it will always hold a special place in my heart.

    Haha, I love reading your rants and, to a degree, Ring deserves to be eviscerated. I thought the film was meh, so there's really no disagreement. What I was stating above was that Verbinski's interpretation of Hideo Nakata's version was an example of altering the root of a story while maintaining its core aspects. I was not, in any way, saying it was a GOOD film. Just an example of a certain KIND of film.

    And I'm so glad you agree with me about Miracle. Such a waste of celluloid. I really admire Spike Lee, so that film really shocked me. It was almost as if Shyamalan posed as Spike and threw Spike's name on it. I'll never get those two & 1/2 hours back :(

    And you're right about Oldboy. If it's going to be a note-for-note remake, just watch the original. But from what I gather, Lee intends to go the way of Scorsese's The Departed, which needless to say, has me overwhelmingly optimistic.

  9. @ Craig

    Thanks, buddy! I respect your honesty. Spike Lee is not for everybody. Some of my closest friends find him utterly detestable. I know, of course, you're indifference is much more cautious.

    LMAO! I love your take on the remake. Maybe he is grasping for straws because Miracle at St. Anna was such a trainwreck.

    Your analysis of "remakes, reboots" is insightful. They are "cyclical," and I could have elaborated on that in my post, but it was already running long. Rebooting is a dangerous concept for a Hollywood hellbent on exhausting every conceivable capitalist opportunity. Well-said, Sir!

    And yes, a "brand spanking new release of the original" is always a welcome consequence of the "rampant remaking."

  10. @ mooderino

    Thanks for the interesting thoughts! If Spike Lee is in total control, I expect to see the darker elements realized in their truest form. But if his control is tenuous (meaning the studio dictates the direction), then you are absolutely right. It will be a mainstream bore-fest.

    I read a rumor that Josh Brolin is Spike's first choice. And might I say: Brolin would be AWESOME! Let's hope so.

  11. @ Nebular

    It's all good. Like I wrote to Craig, Spike Lee is not for everyone. He's a controversial and polarizing figure. You either love 'em or hate 'em; really no in-between.

    I loved the original, but I see what you mean by "slow moving," particularly the second act.

    Thanks for the wisdom, buddy!

  12. @ Jaccstev

    Interesting point. I pretty much agree with you because I don't think you can elevate the raw greatness of the original, especially if the studio interferes. The film will lose its hear and soul, so to speak. Hopefully, it is not a "straight forward revenge flick." Spike Lee as director leads me to believe it won't be. We'll see.

    Thanks for the key insight!

  13. @ Dezmond

    Haha, of course! You know you can count on me for enthusiasm just like I can count on you for sincerity, kindness and humor. You're a great friend, Dezz!

    @ MOMY

    Awesome to hear! So far, you and Melissa are the only two to really convey your appreciation for his craft. As I'm also one of his big fans, I appreciate the fan support. Spike is a great filmmaker. He deserves the adulation.

    And great point. I didn't read the original Manga, but I'll take your word for it.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  14. My bad. ;) You're right Verbinski did keep core elements, it's too bad he didn't know what to do with them. Kind of like Oren Peli with Paranormal Activity and the elements of demonic possession.

    Happy to hear Spike is going The Departed route, I look forward to seeing what he can do. I want my Malcolm X, Jungle Fever Spike back. LMAO! I'm so with you on those lost 2 1/2 hours.

  15. @ Melissa

    No need to apologize, but thanks for the gesture. You are always so kind and insightful :)

    "it's too bad he didn't know what to do with them." LMAO-He should stick to the Pirates films. At least we know he could do a better job than Rob Marshall did On Stranger Tides.

    I hear ya loud and clear. Old Spike was a paragon of controversy, in the coolest way possible. I admire his tenacious, but subtle-ideological (subtle being the pivotal term there) approach. 25th Hour, Malcolm X and Do The Right Thing captured this spirit splendidly. Unsurprisingly, both films were exceptional. Hopefully, Oldboy will be a return to his masterful old form.

  16. Personally, I was skeptical the studio (Mandate) picked Spike Lee to direct one of my all-favorites, OLDBOY. I mean OLDBOY is a true class of its own -- a unique revenge thriller with one of the most shocking twists I've ever seen. Frankly, Spike Lee hasn't been in good form these days. Even his so-called "comeback" with Denzel Washington-Clive Owen's heist thriller INSIDE MAN was terribly overrated. Lee's career remained the best during his DO THE RIGHT THING / SUMMER OF SAM heydays.

  17. @ Casey

    I understand your skepticism. Spike's last movie, especially, does not exactly inspire confidence. But I believe he is capable of handling this type of dark, surrealistic tale. Though, who knows what will happen with the twist.

    And you are quite correct. Spike's best movies came earlier in his career with the notable exception being 25th Hour. That movie came in the last ten years and it was exceptional. I am hoping he gets back on the track of making provocative, earnest films of that high caliber.
    Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

  18. People make films because they have an idea. Therefore they create.

    I think for Hollywood, it works the other way round. People make films because others have the idea (thus all the remakes). I think this year, The Tree of Life may be one of the rare examples of ignoring the audience and adamantly focuses on what the Director intends to relay through his film.

    As for Oldboy, I presume the general audience in the West prefers this highly-acclaimed film to be narrated in American. If not, I don't see much to the justification of a remake. I've no qualms about Lee's capabilities, just thought that if he's good he should be better off creating films of his own.

    Directors love to create through inspirations either of their own or from other auteurs. I hope I'm right about this. You provided a lot of food for thought Matty, thanks for the share! :)

  19. @ J-Son

    Awesome thoughts!

    You are 100% correct, my friend. Film, like any other form of art, is about creation. Whether derived from the inspiring works of another filmmaker or one's own personal faculties, creation remains the binding thread. Hopefully, Spike, a director I admire, is able to blend his own signature touch with Park Chan-wook's original work, thus, creating something distinct. I am hoping-against-hope that it is not some cheesy money grab. If that's the case, I'll pass.

    And I'm glad you are a mature enough critic to realize the merits of personalized creation and inspired creation. Guys like Tarantino, who's works are often branded as pastiche, are no different than guys like Malick, who's work is wholly original. They both create. They merely employ different methods. Coincidentally, I respect the both of them deeply. Their tasks may differ in scope and design, but they are both capable of inspiring.

    Again, thanks for the wisdom!