Tag Archives: Oldboy

Sci-fi and ScarJo: A winning combo

I’ve been impressed with Scarlett Johansson’s choice of science fiction roles, namely her starring turns in 2013’s Under the Skin and 2014’s Lucy. Not only is Johansson good in two solid films, the movies and Johansson’s roles couldn’t be more different.

I’ve gone into detail about my adoration for Under the Skin elsewhere, so I won’t focus much on it. I will note that Under the Skin is quiet, allowing the action and acting to lead, moving at a deliberate pace. Between straightforward, largely quiet scenes are dark, murky, abstract moments, all eventually leading to one helluva mind-fuck ending. It’s not a commercial flick by any means, with the exception of its star being part of the biggest comic book movie series on the planet.

In Lucy, from writer-director Luc Besson (director of La Femme Nikita and Leon: The Professional, as well as the producer behind the Taken flicks), Johannson plays the title character, a young woman looking to have a little fun in the Far East until she gets in over her head, carrying drugs for hardcore gangster, Mr. Chang (Min-Sik Choi of Oldboy and Lady Vengeance), who has killed her boyfriend and is threatening to kill others near and dear to her. The drugs, implanted in her body, leak, and said chemicals push her mind and body through about 5,000 years of evolution in 24 hours.

My guess is the science in this science fiction may not be so solid, as Lucy goes from your average human using about 10 percent of her brain to a superhuman pushing 100 percent capacity. But Besson does what Besson does: He pushes the action, whether that means interspersing lectures by expert Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) with shots from nature and the universe, or the attack by Chang’s men against French police that is a hail of lead tearing apart a hallway, or Lucy literally trying to hold herself together as the effects of the drug wear off during a plane ride (see the video above). In defense of the science component, as Lucy evolves from bubbly blonde to being of pure data and energy, I began to think of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 series. Only Lucy manages to do in a couple of days what evolution took (hundreds of) millions of years to do in Clarke’s imagining. I’m not saying it’s accurate or likely, but Lucy fleetingly dwells on similar ideas about evolution and immortality, in between car chases and gunshots.

Johansson excels in two dissimilar roles. In Under the Skin, she is a predator, silently stalking her prey, focused solely on the hunt, until that unfortunate moment when she realizes she is just as vulnerable as the men she consuming. From that point, she goes from offense to defense, searching for a place to hide in a world she is unfamiliar with. In Lucy, Johansson goes from a happy-go-lucky young woman to an entity that is solely concerned with devouring information and processing that data to find an answer that might not even exist.

Lucy and Under the Skin are an interesting mix, and my hope is Johansson continues to look for science fiction roles. She certainly seems to have a knack for picking them.

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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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Olsen’s lead performance raises ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’

Elizabeth Olsen is captivating as a confused, impressionable young woman who escapes a cult in Martha Marcy May Marlene.

Elizabeth Olsen is captivating as a confused, impressionable young woman who escapes a cult in Martha Marcy May Marlene.

In the lead-up to this fall’s release of Spike Lee’s re-make of one of my favorite films – Oldboy, a movie I mention on this blog with some frequency (such as here and here) – I’ve been pretty excited with what I’ve seen. Josh Brolin is the lead, Sharlto Copley is the man pulling Brolin’s strings and Sam Jackson who, well, let’s face it, pretty much makes everything better.

The only question mark on the cast, as far as I was concerned, was the younger sister of the Olsen twins, Elizabeth. Other than knowing she has a sterling reputation for her performances in Martha Marcy May Marlene and Silent House, I knew nothing about her. So to get a feeling for Olsen, I recently watched Martha Marcy May Marlene.

I was duly impressed.

Olsen is Martha, a girl whose mother is dead, father is … no longer in the picture, and an older sister who was off at college while all of this was family upheaval was happening. Martha is left in the care of her aunt, but ends up leaving to live with a cult for more than two years, which is where we meet her. Martha escapes the cult and calls her older sister to come get her.

Olsen has two roles to play. Marcy May is the name given to her by the cult leader, a charismatic young man named Patrick (John Hawkes). Patrick explains to her that family and society have let her down, that she’s special, a teacher, ready to help the world. He singles her out for favor, even writing and playing a song for her. Fairly idyllic … until the initiation, where Marcy May is drugged by one of her fellow female cult members, then awakened with the jostling of Patrick’s rape, dubbed a rebirth. Later, a new girl enters the picture, and Marcy May is pushed to the side, becoming one of the Marlenes, the name that all of the female cult members use when answering the phone. Abandoned again and a witness to a murder committed by one of the cult members with the blessing and aid of Patrick, that is when Martha is moved to call her sister and leave the group.

That is all seen in flashback. In the now, Martha is clearly in shock, possibly suffering from PTSD. She simultaneously fears the cult yet is drawn to return to the familiarity of her former life and the comfort of her relationships with fellow cult members. Martha has been stripped of her innocence, yes, but also of her social knowledge. She is blunt and occasionally rude with her comments to her sister, Lucy, and her sister’s new husband. When she goes to take a swim, she strips completely and dives in, returning to shore when Lucy chastises her for her nudity. Unable to sleep, she lays down in her sister’s bed … while Lucy and her husband are in the middle of making love.

Olsen handles it all with the aplomb of a much older actor. Her sincerity and uncertainty as a young cult member seeking acceptance, her fear as she realizes she is in over her head, her inability to connect with her achiever sister and brother-in-law, the guilt her memories bring her, the paranoia that the cult may come for her by force because of what she knows. A lesser actress would have been tempted to go over the top with it. Olsen’s performance is one of subtlety and nuance. (And kudos to the writer/director Sean Durkin and editor Zac Stuart-Pontier, who both do a brilliant job behind the scenes.)

I look forward to seeing what Olsen brings to Oldboy. I might not even wait, and check her out in Silent House, as well.

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A taste of Hitchcock, via South Korea

One, big happy Stoker family

One, big happy Stoker family

I remember how excited I was when it was announced that John Woo would direct Mission Impossible II. I’m a huge fan of his pre-U.S. work, such as Hard Boiled, and I thought Face Off was diabolically trashy. The first Mission Impossible was criticized as being too confusing (a charge I still don’t understand), and Woo was to bring his guns-blazing brilliance to the franchise.

That didn’t work so well. Yes, it made a ton of money, as anything with the words “Tom Cruise” and “Mission Impossible” stamped on it will. But the movie itself was horrible. It was like a collection of over-stylized John Woo clichés (can the man have people shoot each other without doves appearing amid the bullets?) resulting in a big dumb mess of a movie. As one of my pals likes to point out, how can you have a movie where the heroes face a set deadline yet you NEVER SHOW A CLOCK?

So on the one hand, when I heard Park Chan-wook, director of Oldboy, one of my favorite films, was going to make his first English-language flick, I was excited. On the other hand, I met the news with some trepidation, worried that I might be Woo-ed once again.

Fortunately, that was not the case. The word “Hitchcock” got thrown around a lot of reviews for this film, and I can see why. The deliberate pacing, the tightly wound characters, the sudden bursts of madness and violence. It’s not hard to make connections between Stoker and Hitchcock, particularly Psycho. Chan-wook’s brilliance is that Stoker does a satisfactory job of being an homage without becoming derivative, maintaining its own unique vision with dribs and drabs of the horror master’s classic thrown in.

The story is about the Stoker family and starts the day of India’s (Mia Wasikowska) 16th birthday, which coincides with the day of her father’s death. India is a favorite of her father, who gives her a pair of saddle shoes for every birthday, his attempt to preserve her youth and innocence. The innocence of his youth was shattered when his middle brother, Charlie, killed their youngest brother, then only a toddler, and he is determined nothing like that will happen to India.

India and her mother know nothing of Charlie’s (Matthew Goode aka Ozymandias of Watchmen) violent history and have never met him until the day of her father’s funeral, when he shows up at her home and starts to make nice with India’s mom, the repressed, delusional and bitter Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). Charlie starts to worm his way into Evelyn’s heart and bed, becoming a younger, more attentive version of his brother. At the same time, Charlie begins to stalk India, attempting to become her confidante. The madness spirals downward from there.

The movie does occasionally suffer from over-stylization, which, admittedly, is Chan-wook’s weakness (see his Three Extremes contribution, Cut). But those are brief moments. Overall, Chan-wook’s vision – which involves plenty of unique framing techniques that emphasize small details which reveal much – works well.

The performances elevate Stoker, even in its weaker moments. We never really know if India’s murderous feelings have developed because of her relationship with Uncle Charlie, or if Uncle Charlie’s tutelage merely helped reveal the killer within. India’s coming of age is awkward and uneasy, but most importantly, believable. Goode’s restrained performance almost seems too pat until it comes time to unmask the predator under the surface. The glint in Charlie’s eyes when he starts to realize that India is blossoming under his guidance is disturbing and dead on. And how Kidman wasn’t at least nominated for a best supporting actress Academy Award shows just how foolish – and commerce-driven – the Academy is. Kidman is the ultimate wealthy elitist, literally living in a world of her own creation on the top floor of her home, drinking pricey wine and joyful in the fact that her inattentive husband has been replaced by a younger, more virile version of himself. When she starts to lose her grip on Charlie, losing him to her daughter, the resentment and jealousy reveal just how poisoned Evelyn’s soul really is.

Step into Stoker, and enjoy the madness.

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I need a hero

The face of a man truly wronged.

The face of a man truly wronged.

I recently had a conversation with a high school-aged acquaintance who hopes to someday write and produce anime. He has an idea he’s been working on, and he occasionally runs his schemes by me. The other day he asked this: What makes people identify with a hero? As the elder statesmen, I felt like I couldn’t just say, “Good question. That’s what every writer is trying to figure out.” Thinking quickly, I came up with this example.


I gave my young friend two examples from cinema: 1997’s Con Air, directed by Hollywood action maven Simon West and starring Nic Cage, as well as 2003’s Oldboy, directed by Korea’s Chan-wook Park (not the current version in production as directed by Spike Lee).

In Con Air, decorated military veteran Cameron Poe (Cage) is unfairly jailed after defending his wife from a bunch of predatory hoods. Scene after scene, we are reminded of how much Poe loves his wife and daughter, who was born after he was sent to prison. Poe, when not trying to reign in a plane full of violent sociopaths or find his best diabetic bud some insulin, spends the bulk of the movie attempting to keep track of a teddy bear he has purchased to give his daughter upon his release.

It’s simple … simple enough for simpletons, in fact. The wrongly convicted champion Poe loves his wife and baby. The wrongly convicted champion Poe loves his wife and baby. The wrongly convicted champion Poe loves his wife and baby. It’s classic Hollywood, an underdog and family man trying to right the wrongs and return to the loving arms of his family. West drives this into each viewer’s skull over and over again. A big-budget action flick like Con Air doesn’t have time for a vast plot or characters with depth. The idea of being separated from the ones you love and having no power to change that, that’s a concept anyone can understand. No explanation needed. You just need a teddy bear as a symbol and you’re ready for an hour and a half of shit blowing up.

Then there’s Oldboy. Our “hero,” Dae-su Oh, is a mess. Here’s a middle-aged man arrested for public drunkenness who handles his arrest with all the aplomb of a two-year-old who has had his favorite toy taken away. A friend bails him out, but Dae-su shows no gratitude. The friend abandons him in the street outside the police station. Then, with no warning, Dae-su disappears.

When we see Dae-su again, he is a prisoner in an odd hotel room. He has no idea where he is. The first thing he sees: A TV news report about the mysterious death of his wife and daughter, and the fact that he’s nowhere to be found. Dae-su is drowned in grief and rage, but has no outlet. In fact, for the next 15 years, Dae-su is trapped in the room, never seeing another human being, food handed to him through a slot in the door, occasionally gassed so faceless men can enter and clean the room (and, on occasion, Dae-su himself).

Then, as suddenly as he is imprisoned, Dae-su is released, a pocketful of cash and no explanation as his only parting prizes. His desire to find those who imprisoned him and seek revenge is all that remains for Dae-Su. He has nothing else.

Yes, it’s essentially the same idea as Con Air: A wrongly imprisoned man loves his absent wife and daughter and wants nothing more to return to them. The difference: Con Air spells out everything. There is no mystery, no gray areas, no room for interpretation on the part of the viewer. There is no doubt that Poe is the triumphant hero and will return to his wife and child and that, in the end, everything will be OK.

Oldboy … nothing is spelled out. We don’t know who imprisoned Dae-su. We don’t know why. And it’s hard to imagine what would compel someone to take such drastic action, especially against such a waste-of-space meat puppet like Dae-su. He hardly seems worthy of the attention.

We also don’t know how Dae-su will react. He is fractured, no longer human in the way most of us are. Will he seek the people who are responsible for his imprisonment? Will he become the drunken loser he once was? Will he lose his mind, alone in the wide world for the first time in more than a decade? Here, the connection isn’t as simple. You must be able to identify with Dae-su’s sense of impotent rage and total confusion. Chan-wook Park is asking for a much deeper investment on the part of the viewer. Not all viewers are going to be able to make the commitment – some of that comes from the fact that incest becomes a key part of this puzzle – but those who do will be rewarded with a tale that is Biblical in its sense of honor and vengeance. It also contains the most shocking final scene I’ve ever scene, in the sense that Park manages to create a happy ending out of a horrific tale … or, at least, the happiest ending that could possibly come from this situation. I consider Oldboy to be the best film I’ve ever seen (suck it Citizen Kane, which will surely be an “Overrated Shit” topic somewhere down the road).

In the end, did my explanation help my young friend? I’d say yes. Because one of the most important ideas to come from our talk was that, as the writer, you control the world. You don’t have to give the viewer/reader any information you don’t want to until you want to. Con Air chooses to put that all out front because it’s appeal must be broad. Oldboy gives away nothing, slowly unfolding until the final piece of the mysterious puzzle is revealed. One is about an immediate, broad connection. The other is about commitment by the filmmakers and the viewer to a complex, rewarding story.

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