Monthly Archives: November 2013

Oldboy — 7/10

OLDBOY (2013, Spike Lee)

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” — Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, 1849

[spoilers below, even for those who have seen Park’s original]

Though Spike Lee doesn’t really care to do much make-up wise to make Josh Brolin look 20 years older when his character gets released from his captivity, he does enough to show how the world is 20 years older. Seconds after emerging from his box in the field, Brolin finds himself examining an iPhone like Kubrick’s apes examined the monolith. Later in the film, right after questioning Elizabeth Olsen about where all the pay phones are (he still thinks you need to look up restaurants in the yellow pages), there’s a cut to the two of them walking down a street Brolin was on 20 years ago when he purchased a toy duck for his daughter for $5. The same tchotchke stand is there and the toys are still… five dollars.

In Lee’s 2013, Brolin is essentially the same man — haunted by the choices he made decades earlier, fueled by violence and revenge, and easily infuriated. He may not drink anymore and his beer gut has been replaced by a six-pack, but he’s still Joe Doucett, and his daughter Mia is still his daughter, even though she now goes by the name Marie. His best friend Chucky runs the same bar with the same vertical beige blinds on the door, and while 9/11 has happened and there’s a black man in the white house, the sins of the fathers are still passed on to their children. You can trace this message back to several of Lee’s best films — from ancient slavery to modern minstrel shows in BAMBOOZLED, the criminal past of Edward Norton in 25TH HOUR, and even in the cruel father-son relationship on the outskirts of the plot in JUNGLE FEVER.

And it’s this haunting guilt and somber fatalism that makes Lee’s version of this story stand a little apart from Park Chan-wook’s stylish, brilliant work of superficial sadism (aside from some poetic touches about cold and warm hands, Park stayed away from profundity and leaned on visual dynamics). While I think Park’s style was better suited to this material — Lee isn’t quite as comfortable with the near-unbearable graphic violence and queasy stories of mass incest — Spike still has got some game to bring to the party. Along with sharp-eyed DP Sean Bobbitt (12 YEARS A SLAVE) and his long-time editor Barry Brown, Lee has made a nicely-paced and slick-looking thriller; but as usual, there’s more under the hood if you want to look. Sure, a sequence where Brolin single-handedly takes out 40 bad guys with a hammer, or one where he sees his pet mouse and her litter of babies served to him on a sizzling dinner plate would make it tough to see past the pulp. But those familiar with Park’s version will notice the changes here: Joe doesn’t cut his tongue out and get hypnotized into amnesia; he lives with his guilt, goes back into captivity, and spies on his daughter with a conveniently planted camera in her dashboard duck. And no longer is the bad guy the incest-committing brother of the dead schoolgirl from 30 years ago. Now he’s a victim, just like his dead sister, of their monstrous molesting father. The cycle of violence, perpetuated when unchecked. Somebody needs to throw a garbage can through this pizza shop’s window to stop it.

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Blue Jasmine — 5/10

BLUE JASMINE (2013, Woody Allen)

Pretty disappointing — every scene hits the same note, so the brief running time feels twice as long; hammering Jasmine’s sad desperation over and over while contrasting it with blue collar plebes. Blanchett is quite good, though she’s essentially reprising her role as Meredith Lowe from THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY — just making her older and more broken down. Same voice, same cadence, same attitudes. Unfortunately Allen can’t find any ways to tell his story visually; the dialogue just spells everything out just as clumsily as in MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. Hurts that in the past few months I’ve rewatched MANHATTAN and ANNIE HALL. That’s back when he knew how to sing. Now he just talks.

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Blue Is the Warmest Color — 9/10

BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR (2013, Abdellatif Kechiche)

Early on in 2013’s Cannes winner for Palm d’Or (and what a roll the Jury’s been on, after TREE OF LIFE and AMOUR and now this), a student in a literature class is talking about regret. The teacher asks, “So regret is something missing in your heart?” and the student replies, “No, regret is not being able to fill what’s missing in your heart.” It’s a powerful distinction — the notion that it’s a fact of life that we are going to feel this void; the question is whether or not we can do anything about it. For the next three hours, Kechiche and his phenomenal cast use every trick in the book to explore this search, and ultimately fulfill what another teacher later in the movie will say about tragedy — “it concerns what can’t be stopped, what must happen. It’s the essence of being human.”

We learn quickly and directly the kind of girl Adele is. When we’re first introduced to her she’s missing the bus. Her standard of handsomeness is Brad Pitt. She has a photo of pre-9/11 New York City on her wall, along with photos of Muhammed Ali. She likes American films and learns English so she can watch them without subtitles. Adele isn’t where she belongs; she isn’t when she belongs, and she desperately wants to change that — a hope that we will slowly learn is merely a dream. For she’s destined to be an outsider: alone, sad, and yearning.

It’s no coincidence then that one of her first conversations with the love of her life, Emma, is about Sartre — where Emma recommends “Existentialism Is a Humanism” to her.  In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, discussions like this would feel didactic. But here, the dialogues about philosophy, art, and literature are organic to how these women think and act, so the conversations feel lived in and necessary. Kechiche’s camera never flinches in close-up: it bores into Adele’s face ceaselessly, and finds a never-ending series of expressions and emotions, thanks to an unbelievably rich performance by Adele Exarchopoulos. The film’s theme of art and its representation (Adele poses for Emma’s paintings; a struggling actor complains that film directors are assholes; each family dinner is a performance) is never more beautifully realized than the moment when Adele is dancing at a party which has a movie projected on the wall behind them and the camera quickly racks focus to the starlet on screen and back to Adele with the grace of a ballet. And whoever mixed the sound is a master — the audio track blends every breath, whisper, gulp, and sniffle as if the mics were even closer than the lens.

When things get heated, so does the direction — check out how jagged the editing becomes during the film’s major domestic blow-up; 180-lines are crossed and rhythms are disrupted. Rarely does a scene go on too long or end too soon; the snippets we get of The Life of Adele (the movie’s original title) are enough to tell the story with unparalleled respect for the character — a character with as voracious an appetite for food as for sex (two things often united metaphorically on screen but never directly). The way Adele slurps pasta, devours a gyro, gulps wine, or licks cigarette smoke is matched by the hunger with which she kisses the fingers and bites the knuckles of a lover she fears losing forever. This is a movie built on delicate touches and a mountain of passion, and — amazingly — never once threatens to crumble.

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The Counselor — 6/10

THE COUNSELOR (2013, Ridley Scott)

Ridley Scott’s atypically slow and talky thriller is about as dark, morose, and humorless as they come — humorless even though it contains a scene where a punk-haired, peacock-dressed Javier Bardem recounts a story where his girlfriend (played by Cameron Diaz strongly channeling Ellen Barkin circa 1991) humps a car windshield — and most of that is due to Cormac McCarthy, a writer with great acclaim for his prose but whose best work (e.g. BLOOD MERIDIAN) has been considered unfilmable. The Coen Brothers did a number with NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, but the script here works overtime to dominate everything else on screen.

And in that domination, we get scene after scene where characters talk like each other — nobody has an individual voice; they just sound like what McCarthy wants the singular Voice to be. This is the main reason it’s hard to get invested in this story — we’re watching from such a distance because the world and its people are unrealistic. Despite all this, I still found the film sticky as glue. I’m wrestling with it 24 hours later, its ellipses rattling around in my head and nagging at my subconscious. I had a violent dream last night inspired by it, and it was pretty damn unsettling. So I can’t say it isn’t effective, I’m just saying it’s not immersive or easy to bond with. I guess in other words, it’s better than my 6/10 rating, just as CAPTAIN PHILLIPS is worse than my 7/10 rating. Such are the drawbacks of assigning numbers to art. [And as I said leaving the theater, “I’m sure my opinion of this would go up if I watched it again; but I don’t really feel like watching it again.”]

The film is so detailed, though, that I did get taken out of it by things that usually don’t bother me. For example, continuity errors are usually the dumbest things to get annoyed by — as such complaints usually display a lack of understanding of what becomes of actions and things during a film production — but here there’s an absurd example: Fassbender’s watch flips upside down a few times during a particularly emotional phone call. And in another scene, Barkin Diaz’s character isn’t wearing sunglasses solely because Scott wants us to see her maneating-cougar eyeliner.

McCarthy’s worlds are often similar — death looming, characters tiny ants in a hostile world over which silly humans have so little control — and he makes sure every monologue underscores this nihilistic philosophy. But when that message is delivered at the expense of individuality, it’s so difficult to find things to identify with. The movie becomes a glass sculpture to be reckoned with rather than a fluid story to unpack and live inside. I will say of the two films this fall where Pitt plays a supporting role as a Canadian, this is the far better performance. And Penelope Cruz isn’t on screen nearly often enough — in this film or in movies in general.

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Captain Phillips – 7/10

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013, Paul Greengrass)

Let’s be clear — without Tom Hanks, this is a 5/10 at best. The opening sequence is dreadful — a drive to the airport with Captain Phillips’s wife, Captain Exposition (played by a wasted Catherine Keener) — and it doesn’t get much better when Phillips converses with his first mate about All the Things Aboard the Ship, then looks at a map that might as well say “In This Zone You Will Be Attacked By Somali Pirates, Right Here, See Where This X Is, That’s Dangerous, Look Out!”

But Tom Hanks IS in the film, and he’s fantastic. Most of the power of his performance comes in the last five minutes, and boy is it a doozy. It knocked me for such a loop that I’m basically setting aside all my reservations and recommending the film. It’s hard for me to ignore just how effective that last scene is, not just for Hanks’s performance but Greengrass’s laser-focused style. That style also comes through in a couple sequences earlier in the film — when the pirates first start approaching the boat and during the extended intensity of the raid. During these moments, the movie is all detail and action, free of political context or bad Billy Ray dialogue (he also co-wrote THE HUNGER GAMES, FLIGHTPLAN, COLOR OF NIGHT, and VOLCANO), and it’s pretty damn good.

But alas, live by the sword and die by it — the lack of political context in the good parts spills over into the lame ones, and because Greengrass isn’t concerned with much of a message (which is fine by itself), we’re left with a sagging second half that involves just watching things that happened. Editorializing would have at least given me something to do.

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