Some New Tricks, Same 'Oldboy'

The best way to describe this Oldboy is to say it's a new interpretation of the same source.

Oldboy (2013)

Director: Spike Lee
Cast: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Imperioli
Rated: R
Studio: FilmDistrict
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-11-27 (General release)

When you think about it, we dodged a bullet here. Originally, when it was rumored that Park Chan-wook's epic tale of revenge, Oldboy, was being remade by Hollywood, the star and director attached to the proposed project indicated a level of creative cluelessness that was stunning in its sheltered stupidity. While he's definitely one of our greatest living filmmakers, Steven Spielberg would have had to significantly alter his game to give us anything remotely close to that 2003 classic, and with the stated star, Will Smith, in front of the camera, the King of the Blockbuster would have really had his work cut out for him. There's just no way to conceive of this duo making anything remotely watchable, the dark and dour source material acting as an impediment to their usual audience-friendly focus.

Thankfully, someone with the audacity of Spike Lee stepped in and wrestled this remake into shape. Hiring Josh Brolin helped, as did bringing on Sharlto Copley and Elizabeth Olsen. As the main trio in this tale of secrets and sadism, they help turn what could have been a misguided mess into a well meaning and quite effective update. This isn't a massive reimagining -- most of the main narrative beats and "twists" are still intact, but Lee finds a way to make the material his own. From the moments that mimic what Park Chan-wook accomplished (including an amazing take on the hammer fight) to a finale which finds an equally meaningful way to deal with a character's crude choices, we get a similar experience seen through fresh eyes.

Indeed, the best way to describe this Oldboy is to say it's a new interpretation of the same source. Granted, Park took major liberties with the manga that provided the main plotline, so there's really no room to argue. It's as if both filmmakers found the common ground within Nobuaki Minegishi and Garon Tsuchiyava's work, each one adding to it what they do best. For Park, it's a sense of spiritual brutality, each action and moral/immoral reaction playing a part in his hero's (and his villain's) desire to regain his lost life. For Lee, it's about humanity and its eventual loss, of how one man can go from a drunken womanizer to a hardened warrior of the course of 20 long years being locked up. The set-up is the same: businessman Joe Doucett (Brolin) is seemingly kidnapped by an unknown power and held in a hotel like prison for two decades. There he learns that his ex-wife has been killed, that he is the prime suspect in the crime, and that his baby daughter has been given up for adoption.

When he's finally released, he goes on a rampage trying to figure out who did this to him. With the help of a couple of friends, childhood buddy Chucky (Michael Imperioli) and a caring social worker named Marie (Olsen), Joe journeys back through the months, remembering specifics about his captivity. This leads him to a Chinese restaurant, and the location of his own personal Hell. After torturing the Warden (Samuel L. Jackson) for information, Joe is approach by a mysterious man (Copley) who makes a proposal. If our hero can figure out why he was confined, and better still, why he was released, he will be rewarded handsomely. If he can't, this enigmatic individual will have his now-adult daughter killed. All paths lead to a private school that Joe attended in his youth, and a scandal that supposedly happened there.

If you've never seen Park's film, you should. It's a masterpiece of misery. If you really haven't however, you are probably the primary target for this remake. Indeed, without the burden of direct comparison, Oldboy would seem like a solid, almost Hitchcockian thriller. It contains elements that are easily accessible, as well as artistic accents which make the movie all Lee's. Oddly enough, this is the first time that the filmmaker has dropped the "Joint" from his above-title credit. Perhaps it in acknowledgement that, within of his creative canon, Oldboy is not wholly his. It could also be a bow to the mainstream, to remind them that, as with efforts like Inside Man, Lee can pander to the pedestrian.

Nothing about Oldboy is ordinary, however. Instead, Lee stokes his sequences with a quiet rage that you just know will result in bloodshed and a high body count. Joe is not necessarily a violent man, but 20 years being treated like an animal has turned him into one. At the drop of an insinuation, he's all fists and fury. As we learn more about this man, we discover that such savagery was always part of his personality. Previously, it was youth and a lack of psychological need that kept his cruelty in check. Now unleashed, Joe is the very definition of a brute. Even his supposedly "love" scenes with Marie turn into rough, primitive expressions. The script by Mark Protosevich gives this gal her own complicated backstory, so we can see why she is draw to Joe's strength, and his secrets.

As for the movie's many surprises, Lee handles them well. Copley's reveal ushers in his cultured villainy, and from that moment on, the movie moves like a Western giallo. The whodunit, or why-dunit, may be at the fore, but the complicated character interactions and the determining denouements are what sell this cinematic statement. Lee legitimizing the narrative turns, never once allowing them to become too big for the people populating them. Indeed, the performances are uniformly excellent, each actor finding the right note to make the machinery of this movie work. Olsen is particularly good as a lonely woman lost, while Copley provides the kind of hissable vileness that never ceases to satisfy. About the only flaw here is familiarity. For those who know and adore Park's picture, this will all seem like Oldboy old hat. Luckily, Lee brings enough of his individuality to the process to warrant a revisit.

Let's face facts, no remake of Oldboy was going to be 100% successful. The original was so enigmatic and so beloved that the battle was more than uphill: it was near impossible. In this case, we were fortunate. Spike Lee stepped in and kept this update from being a sanitized slight. With Spielberg and Smith in charge, Oldboy would have been awful. With Lee and Brolin, it stands on its own.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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