Skip to main content

I'm stuck in a motel room!

Oldboy
(2013)

(SPOILERS) I’m not averse to remakes so long someone has a good reason for going there. Generally, I wouldn’t regard “It was in a foreign language” as a valid motive. Just occasionally however, even a straight retelling can provide the lazy distraction of a different-but-the-same iteration, although one invariably ends up reaching the same conclusion; why did they bother? Most of non-English language films picked by Hollywood for a remake fail at the box office, and yet the lesson is never learned. If there’s a whiff of a name property, even from a somewhat insular bean counter standpoint, something with any chance of audience recognition, that’s enough. I seem to be in the minority with regard to the original Oldboy, as it didn’t do very much for me. Some bravura sequences and a compelling premise aside, I was became increasingly disenchanted as it became progressively more ridiculous and hysterical (and not as in funny) during the final act. It doesn’t surprise it took the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, as it’s just the sort of material an excitable Quentin Tarantino would fall for hook, line, and sinker. Consequently, my lack of veneration probably left me at least vaguely open to someone else’s take; perhaps the issues I had would be approached differently? That someone, after many fall starts, turned out to be Spike Lee. He makes a few cosmetic changes, but ironically (given how wired Park Chan-wook’s movie is) the sombre, disengaged, tone proves to be OIdboy 2013’s undoing, further underlining just how unlikely and far-fetched the scenario is. And with that, the fundamental intention, the emotional punch line, is swept away.


Lee at least warrants the benefit of the doubt. The released movie is not his preferred version, as producers lopped off 35 minutes against his wishes. It’s possible that in its unexpurgated form it’s a really good movie, and that the pacing really clicks. But his Oldboy seems long and listless as it is, unable to find its groove. Additionally, a longer edit wouldn’t fix core problems with the narrative. I suppose there might be an element where it’s explained that hypnosis has been used used to ensure Joe (Josh Brolin) and Marie (Elizabeth Olsen) fall in love… But that’s a wholly unpersuasive element of the original movie; I suppose it at lease evidences the makers were aware of the disconnect in their plot, but mostly it shows they had no idea how to make sense of it. Here, Joe and Marie fall for each other through an engineered coincidence, and we’re asked to swallow the idea that the rampantly affected Adrian (Sharlto Copley, whose performance kicks and strains against the dour tone while being simultaneously quite uncompelling) brought his plan to fruition by cajoling her through a troubled foster environment.


We don’t believe it for a second, and it makes the climax all the more misconceived and dismissable. If, rather than breaking down and begging for death/Adrian not to tell Marie, Joe had been dumbfounded that such a cockamamie plan had actually worked, the makers might have at least shown self-awareness.  This version is based directly on the 2003 film, rather than the Manga (as originally intended when Spielberg and Will Smith briefly flirted with the property). The thrust in both film versions is that something meaning nothing to one person, a youthful foolishness, leads to irrevocable consequences for another. But the alterations made by Lee and writer Mark Protosevich (something of a remake man; with Poseidon and I Am Legend behind him, inspiration is clearly not his forte) serve to cast an even harsher light on the original’s shortcomings.


Changing the relationship that leads to Adrian’s actions adds symmetry and ick factor, but it is correspondingly less believable that young Joe never heard about the consequences. The rise of Adrian, a billionaire no one has ever heard of, including Joe’s school chum Chucky (Michael Imperioli), who hasn’t spend 20 years locked in a room, is also difficult to countenance. Luminous and lovely as she is, Olsen’s acting talent can’t overcome the problem with Marie any more that she could sell Elle Brody in Godzilla. Olsen is stuck with a character of incoherent and unbelievable motivation, a cypher created to fulfil a plot point.


Whatever my opinion of Park’s film as a whole, the filmmaking skill is undeniable. On the most surface level, the corridor fight scene has justifiably become a legend in its own right. Lee refits it here and, while there is some excitement from seeing this kind of one shot (well, a few more, since its split level) choreography, it’s diffused by the weakness of opponents who only ever pull their punches in order to make the sequence flow. Better is the savage beat down of a football squad just after Joe is released. And the exit from solitary itself, via a trunk in the middle of a field, retains a surreal splendour unfortunately lacking elsewhere. Joe’s incarceration has its moments, such as hallucinating the bellhop picture on the wall come to life (played by Cinque Lee, Spike’s brother, this is surely a nod to his role in Mystery Train 25 years ago). Samuel L Jackson works with Lee for the first time since Jungle Fever, and his performance as Chaney, Mohawk aside, would blend in seamlessly with pretty much all his shouty roles of late. Joe’s torture of Chaney is wince inducing, but reflects the movie as a whole; impersonal, functional, efficient filmmaking that looks accomplished and has the occasional flourish but fails to make the viewer care about what happens.


The final scene also departs from Park’s original. Lacking the hypnosis angle, Joe sees justice for what he has done as re-interment in his motel room. At which point he smiles. Conceptually, it’s a neat and effective choice, but to have resonance Lee and Brolin need to translate the horror at Joe learning of what he has done. And they can’t pull it off. Perhaps that’s why Park opted for such insane excess. Brolin is fine; moody and taciturn, he lacks iconic presence of Min-sik Choi; perhaps he needs roles with more differentiation or flair to make an impression, as he isn’t sufficiently commanding on his own.


This is one of Lee’s few overtly studio-minded movies, following Inside Man seven years ago.  It’s ironic then that it’s proved to be one of the biggest stinkers of his career (up there with Miracle at St. Anna in terms of budget far exceeding box office).  It’s difficult to see how anyone thought a picture with such a grim twist would ever be more than a cult property in the US to begin with, and therefore probably not a smart idea to throw big (-ish) bucks its way. All the handsome production values in the world can’t justify this movie’s existence any more than the similarly pointless Let Me In a few years ago. That, at least, retained many of the original’s strengths. Oldboy only goes to confirm its predecessor’s weaknesses.


**

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Well, we took a vote. Predator’s cooler, right?

The Predator (2018)
(SPOILERS) Is The Predator everything you’d want from a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator (or Yautja, or Hish-Qu-Ten, apparently)? Emphatically not. We've already had a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator – or the other way around, at least – and that was on another level. The problem – aside from the enforced reshoots, and the not-altogether-there casting, and the possibility that full-on action extravaganzas, while delivered competently, may not be his best foot forward – is that I don't think Black's really a science-fiction guy, game as he clearly was to take on the permanently beleaguered franchise. He makes The Predator very funny, quite goofy, very gory, often entertaining, but ultimately lacking a coherent sense of what it is, something you couldn't say of his three prior directorial efforts.

Right! Let’s restore some bloody logic!

It Couldn't Happen Here (1987)
(SPOILERS) "I think our film is arguably better than Spiceworld" said Neil Tennant of his and Chris Lowe's much-maligned It Couldn't Happen Here, a quasi-musical, quasi-surrealist journey through the English landscape via the Pet shop Boys' "own" history as envisaged by co-writer-director Jack Bond. Of course, Spiceworld could boast the presence of the illustrious Richard E Grant, while It Couldn't Happen Here had to settle for Gareth Hunt. Is its reputation deserved? It's arguably not very successful at being a coherent film (even thematically), but I have to admit that I rather like it, ramshackle and studiously aloof though it is.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

My pectorals may leave much to be desired, Mrs Peel, but I’m the most powerful man you’ve ever run into.

The Avengers 2.23: The Positive-Negative Man
If there was a lesson to be learned from Season Five, it was not to include "man" in your title, unless it involves his treasure. The See-Through Man may be the season's stinker, but The Positive-Negative Man isn't far behind, a bog-standard "guy with a magical science device uses it to kill" plot. A bit like The Cybernauts, but with Michael Latimer painted green and a conspicuous absence of a cool hat.

The possibilities are gigantic. In a very small way, of course.

The Avengers 5.24: Mission… Highly Improbable
With a title riffing on a then-riding-high US spy show, just as the previous season's The Girl from Auntie riffed on a then-riding-high US spy show, it's to their credit that neither have even the remotest connection to their "inspirations" besides the cheap gags (in this case, the episode was based on a teleplay submitted back in 1964). Mission… Highly Improbable follows in the increasing tradition (certainly with the advent of Season Five and colour) of SF plotlines, but is also, in its particular problem with shrinkage, informed by other recent adventurers into that area.

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

Bring home the mother lode, Barry.

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)

If Panos Cosmatos’ debut had continued with the slow-paced, tripped-out psychedelia of the first hour or so I would probably have been fully on board with it, but the decision to devolve into an ‘80s slasher flick in the final act lost me.

The director is the son of George Pan Cosmatos (he of The Cassandra Crossing and Cobra, and in name alone of Tombstone, apparently) and it appears that his inspiration was what happened to the baby boomers in the ‘80s, his parents’ generation. That element translates effectively, expressed through the extreme of having a science institute engaging in Crowley/Jack Parsons/Leary occult quests for enlightenment in the ‘60s and the survivors having become burnt out refugees or psychotics by the ‘80s. Depending upon your sensibilities, the torturously slow pace and the synth soundtrack are positives, while the cinematography managed to evoke both lurid early ‘80s cinema and ‘60s experimental fare. 

Ultimately the film takes a …

What a truly revolting sight.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (aka Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) (2017)
(SPOILERS) The biggest mistake the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels have made is embracing continuity. It ought to have been just Jack Sparrow with an entirely new cast of characters each time (well, maybe keep Kevin McNally). Even On Stranger Tides had Geoffrey Rush obligatorily returning as Barbossa. Although, that picture’s biggest problem was its director; Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge has a pair of solid helmers in Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, which is a relief at least. But alas, the continuity is back with a vengeance. And then some. Why, there’s even an origin-of-Jack Sparrow vignette, to supply us with prerequisite, unwanted and distracting uncanny valley (or uncanny Johnny) de-aging. The movie as a whole is an agreeable time passer, by no means the dodo its critical keelhauling would suggest, albeit it isn’t even pretending to try hard to come up with …

Believe me, Mr Bond, I could shoot you from Stuttgart und still create ze proper effect.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
(SPOILERS) Some of the reactions to Spectre would have you believe it undoes all the “good” work cementing Daniel Craig’s incarnation of Bond in Skyfall. If you didn’t see that picture as the second coming of the franchise (I didn’t) your response to the latest may not be so harsh, despite its less successful choices (Blofeld among them). And it isn’t as if one step, forward two steps back are anything new in perceptions of the series (or indeed hugely divisive views on what even constitutes a decent Bond movie). After the raves greeting Goldeneye, Pierce Brosnan suffered a decidedly tepid response to his second outing, Tomorrow Never Dies, albeit it was less eviscerated than Craig’s sophomore Quantum of Solace. Tomorrow’s reputation disguises many strong points, although it has to be admitted that a Moore-era style finale and a floundering attempt to package in a halcyon villain aren’t among them.

The Bond series’ flirtations with contemporary relevance have a…