Oldboy (2003)

*. I’ll start off with a confession. The first time I saw Oldboy I didn’t like it much. In fact, I disliked it. I think this was mainly due to my not understanding what was going on, especially at the end. I’m not referring to Dae-su Oh’s enigmatic or ambiguous facial expression, but a more general sense that I must have missed something.
*. After getting the plot straight I still found it preposterous. Not only has the villain infinite resources and a long memory, he has a scheme for revenge so ridiculously elaborate and contrived it is hard to credit. Other questions also popped up. Do facilities like the prison hotel exist? Can we credit Dae-su’s mastery of the martial arts through fifteen years of shadow boxing and watching infomercials? And what of the use of hypnosis as a rather strained plot device? They might as well have made it a love potion, borrowed from some medieval fairy tale.

*. But after living with Oldboy for several years, and giving it some second chances, I’ve come around. I still think it’s a fantasy, but I’m more sympathetic toward where it’s coming from.
*. Like most fantasies, it’s meant to point a simple moral. As I see it, the moral here, and I think it’s a profound and important one, is that things that we personally experience as trivial and inconsequential may in fact have enormous impact on the lives of others. It takes Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi) so long to figure out what he did to Woo-jin Lee precisely because it didn’t mean anything to him at the time. As Woo-jin tells him at the end, he didn’t have to be hypnotized to forget. “You just forgot because it wasn’t important to you.” For Dae-su, it was only Tuesday.
*. If you keep that moral in mind then I think a lot of the rest of the film’s highly questionable morality can be got around, leaving it to provide a garish backdrop that matches the horrific wallpaper. Speaking of which, is Korea the land of ugly wallpaper and even uglier bathrooms? I’m not talking about the prison hotel here but also Mi-do’s apartment, which is even worse in both regards. This was clearly a deliberate style choice (Oldboy is a very designed film) but I wonder why they wanted the sets to look so bad. Perhaps just to add to the sense of a hellish, dystopic world.

*. Returning to my main point, when I refer to the film’s “highly questionable morality” what I’m talking about are things like (1) how Dae-su is punished far beyond the nature of his crime (though this fits with the disproportionality between cause and effect that is the movie’s theme); (2) how Woo-jin basically gets away with his entire scheme, despite being a wicked man; and (3) how Dae-su’s friend is, if anything, even more culpable than he is, since he is the one who apparently starts the ball of gossip rolling. But Woo-jin only kills him in a momentary pique of anger.
*. To an audience raised on Hollywood fare, which is nothing if not conventional in its morality, I think all of this must come across as very strange. At least that’s how it struck me. But shouldn’t movies from other countries be different? I think they should. The puzzling question is why so many people in Hollywood wanted to remake Oldboy. Couldn’t they see that there was something here that was never going to translate? And before Spike Lee finally signed on Spielberg was going to take it on. I can’t think of two directors less naturally inclined to handle such material.
*. I won’t say anything more about the remake here aside from noting that it was ill-advised and turned out badly. In addition to flubbing the basic moral message, it had none of the artistry of what is a remarkably well made film.

*. What impresses me the most is the way the look and design of the film is used to evoke the variety of psychological and emotional states we travel through, and how this is done in such a way as to be both obvious and subtle. On the DVD commentary director Chan-wook Park and cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung spent almost all their time talking about technical matters, and mention how they used a lot of different techniques but that they didn’t want them to show. They wanted to hide the art of the film as much as possible. How did they manage to do this, in such an almost flamboyantly artistic film?
*. I think they did it by ramping up the extremity of the psychological and emotional states I mentioned, to the point where the audience is more interested in what is happening to the characters than in how they are being presented.

*. I’ll give one example, which is the brilliant bit of filmmaking that has Dae-su remembering what he saw at his private school. The first part of this is wonderful, using the various staircases with characters running in and out of frame to mirror the mental work that Dae-su is doing in trying to get back to the moment in the classroom. The Piranesi-like setting makes us feel like we’re inside the architecture of his brain, and while it’s very flashy, because we’re caught up in the same mental process, hot on the trail of the answer the puzzle the movie has set us right from the beginning, it’s not a flashiness that seems obtrusive.
*. This is followed by the scene where Dae-su sees the tryst in the classroom, which involves a complete change in style. Now we’re stuck with a long take shot from a single fixed camera position. It’s a real change of gear, but again you don’t notice the style so much (at least on a first viewing) because we’re stuck in the same position as Dae-su, as a voyeur to something that’s revealing on a couple of different levels. We’re just as obsessed as he is.
*. Now this is what I call filmmaking: when you can change up styles so smoothly, be so inventive, and yet perfectly match the direction to the exigencies of plot and character. And I think it’s something I didn’t appreciate enough the first time I saw the movie.

*. There are a lot of other great moments along the way. There’s some of the best use of a split screen I’ve ever seen, for one thing. Then there’s some great set design (I love the stained carpets in the prison hotel). But I think what I liked the most was the physicality of how Min-sik Choi plays Dae-su. The way he feels and tastes the rain outside his prison. The way he rubs himself over the suicidal man on the roof and tries to smell him. And perhaps best of all I like how tired he gets in the long fight scene. He’s not a superhero. He goes down a few times, gets hurt, and has to rest for a bit to get his breath back. Josh Brolin doesn’t do any of these things in the remake. He is a superman.

*. But even while coming around to Oldboy I have to say that I still find it a little too weird to fully get on board with. A really great movie shouldn’t have this crazy a plot. That is, however, the same problem I have with Vertigo. It’s just a matter of taste.

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Call of Cuteness (2017)

*. Cuteness is in the eye of the beholder, which necessarily makes it exploitative. Those cute cats on the Internet aren’t playing piano or dressing up as little people for our benefit. Their cuteness is something that has to be manufactured for mass consumption.
*. Cute cats have long been accepted as shorthand for all that is mindless and trivial about online culture, but their popularity is not without significance. A sick culture can cause real harm, to ourselves and others. In the first place we may only be amusing ourselves to death: cute cats being weapons of mass distraction from more pressing concerns. In the second they are representative of a system of production and consumption that swallows up resources (including other sentient creatures) and pollutes the dominant cultural ecosystem.
*. All of which stands as my introduction to this very short (4 minute) animated film about the cost of cuteness. As noted, that cost isn’t only paid by us, but by the cats. If cuteness is only skin deep then here that skin is pulled back, dissected. Like so many aspects of modern life (a close analogy would be to our own beauty industry) it’s something that doesn’t stand much looking into. Cuteness (like beauty) gets ugly when viewed under a microscope.
*. The visual style fits the film’s theme. The cats are presented as jigsaw or paint-by-numbers mosaics that are then disassembled kaleidoscope-style before our eyes (and the eye of the camera, which is itself a kind of surgical tool). The fact that these are living creatures being so destroyed is underlined by the bookends of birth and death, crammed into a brief span that might be a reference to the viral fame of a YouTube video. And once that fame is achieved it doesn’t last in any eternal form but suffers a reverse apotheosis, with the dead cat now so much biomedical waste or chop-shop jetsam sinking into the waters of a darker sky. Such fame is trash. The cute content of the Internet is crap.
*. You’ll have guessed that I was impressed by Call of Cuteness. I think it’s a powerful and provocative concept piece, skilfully produced by German filmmaker Brenda Lien. Almost every image (and there are a lot, as the film moves quickly) is packed with layers of meaning that open up on repeated viewings. Added to this is a soundtrack accompaniment combining fragmented shards of discordant voices and noises. It’s a very effective mix.
*. The title plays a trick on me. Whenever I see it I think of Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu.” I’m sure no connection was intended, but I feel like there’s another level of resonance there, with the cats appearing as so many sacrificial victims, or ancient gods, set against a blank black background that hints at stygian depths. In short, I find this to be a profoundly pagan film, and one well matched to the corruption of our digital dispensation.

The Comeback (1978)

*. I wonder how bad a director of horror films has to be, to ever be truly forgotten. In 2014 exploitation director Pete Walker was given a retrospective at London’s prestigious Barbican Centre where five of his movies (including The Comeback) were screened. In 2012 Kino bundled together five films (not the same five, but also including The Comeback) as a “Pete Walker Collection” DVD box set. So I guess this means that he’s been accepted as an auteur of sorts. But let’s be honest: these movies are terrible.
*. You can give Walker credit for being independent and even, in some respects, ahead of his time with his grimy proto-slasher flicks, but how independent is any exploitation filmmaker, really? I mean, they’re nakedly just in it for the money. They’re not pursuing any kind of original or personal artistic vision.
*. Yes, there are some consistent themes that inform most of Walker’s work, but it would be hard to avoid all fingerprints. Meanwhile, stylistically he is very dull and his plots are so silly they actually make one yearn for the modern “American” version of the psycho killer. That is to say, a predator with little if any motivation.
*. In short, I found The Comeback to be boring and stupid and silly. The silliness is the only fun to be had. Apparently Walker’s idea of a pop singer in the late ’70s was a lounge-act fellow who takes girls out on dates wearing three-piece pin-stripe suits. The whole feel of the movie is off. I had the feeling that Walker really wanted to do a Hammer film set in an old mansion or country estate, but was stuck making a nod toward swinging London with a pop-music storyline that he had no interest in or affinity for.
*. Also silly is the transvestite angle, which I suppose is meant to operate as a red herring but which in the end turns out to be otherwise gratuitous. Why does the killer get all dressed up anyway?
*. Finally, the motivation behind the murders is priceless. It seems all of Nick Cooper’s “foul contortions” and “lewd, suggestive songs” were receiving their comeuppance. A lot of horror movies from this period were actually quite conservative, or at least had a conservative strain to them. In some respects they’re like the English village mysteries, where murder disrupts a natural, peaceful, aristocratic order that is ultimately reasserted. But The Comeback dials this up to a whole new level.
*. Of course it’s a bit more complicated than that, but like I say, we do often find a conservative, moralistic strain at work in the Brit horror of this time. Think of the cop’s speech against hippies in The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue: “You’re all the same, the lot of you with your long hair and your faggot clothes, drugs, sex, and every sort of filth.” It’s very similar to what the killer says here. The longhaired young man in Manchester Morgue was the hero and the cop a jerk, but the point of view expressed is not discredited in the film. This then led to all those American slasher films in the ’80s where promiscuity would be made a capital crime.
*. Aside from this I don’t think there’s much to comment on here. It’s not a well made movie, and even the gore is pretty dull. As an interesting footnote, the blood doesn’t have that almost acrylic orange look that a lot of horror movie blood had at the time because apparently it was real (outdated donated blood from a hospital). That couldn’t have been fun to work with. It’s also kind of weird that we keep cutting back to Gail’s rotting corpse in lieu of anything else going on. But even the maggots and rats and real blood didn’t do much to change the impression I had that I was, basically, watching paint dry.

Schizo (1976)

*. “When the left hand doesn’t know who the right hand is killing!!” That’s a great ad line.
*. As far as the film goes, I can’t be quite as complimentary. But I think the time and place matter.
*. The year is 1976, which is a couple of years before the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween officially launched the slasher film genre. Horror aficionadoes may point further back, to Black Christmas or even Psycho, but I think it was the success of Carpenter’s film that really established the formula. In any event, all I want to say here is that Schizo wasn’t just a rip-off of Carpenter. It’s not a dead teenager movie, for one thing.
*. The place is England, which might also come as a surprise. The grimy urban texture looks like the New York City of Abel Ferrara in such films as The Driller Killer and Ms. 45, and shares the same interest as those films in tortured psyches gone murderous. But again, Schizo was several years earlier.
*. All of which is to say that, despite being a crude exploitation flick, Schizo was actually somewhat ahead of the curve. Something we might have guessed from director Pete Walker, a cult figure who independently financed his movies and tended to use them to pursue his own idiosyncratic vision of terror.
*. Schizo isn’t what I would call a typical Walker movie, as it doesn’t work any of his core themes, like the tyranny of corrupt authority figures. Which I guess makes it even more of a curiosity. Not a very good movie, but an odd one.
*. It’s a decent script that keeps you guessing, at least for the first half. After that it starts to get pretty clear as to what’s going on. Still, the various alternative possibilities are kept open as long as possible.
*. I don’t know if it was a conscious connection, but Schizo also reminds me of Cat People. There’s the newlywed couple, with the neurotic wife pursued by shadows and troubled by fears of going crazy. In distress she turns to a friendly (nudge, nudge) shrink, while becoming jealous of her husband’s old gal pal. Does that seem too big a stretch? I really do sense a resemblance.
*. I wouldn’t want to make Schizo into something more than it is. Walker was an interesting albeit minor director who says he mainly just wanted to “create a bit of mischief” (and, of course, make some money). I believe he stopped making movies entirely at the age of 41 and turned to the business of buying and restoring cinemas.
*. The suspense is handled reasonably well, and there are a few nice flourishes, like the scribbles on the newspaper turning into the circles Samantha’s skates cut into the ice, but aside from the dark ending (one of Walker’s trademarks) there’s not much to recommend.

The Revenant (2015)

*. The Revenant was greeted with nearly universal praise when it came out, though several reviewers mentioned how close some of it came to comedy. In that spirit, I’ll admit that it’s the first movie that I laughed out loud at for a long time. I don’t mean that in a bad way. What I laughed at was the dead bear rolling down the hill after Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass kills it, ending up landing right on top of him. That was funny. Good luck getting that big fella off!
*. As with a lot of these big movies (big budget, historical subject matter, lots of awards), I think The Revenant has trouble living up to its reputation. In fact, I’d say it has trouble living up to its scenery. It’s not a bad film, but it’s a very simple story that gives the cast little to do except look at the trees for over two-and-a-half hours.
*. Sticking with the scenery, Emmanuel Lubezki got a lot of praise for the photography but as I’ve said many times before, great photography should be about more than making things that are already beautiful look beautiful. Here we’re given lovely mountain landscapes that were, I think, mostly shot in Canadian national parks. How can you go wrong shooting snow-covered mountains? It’s postcard stuff and it looks like a collection of postcards. I also wondered why there were so many shots pointing up at the tops of trees in the forest. Was there some kind of point they were trying to make with that? Because they do it a lot.
*. I liked it better when Lubezki got dirty and moved things around a bit, especially in a number of complicated long takes that include lots of 360s. The opening attack on the trappers’ base was terrific, and the bear attack wasn’t bad either. But those are both early on and nothing in the rest of the movie measures up to those two scenes. I also thought the dirty could be overdone. If snow or blood or bear slobber gets on the camera, he just lets it sit there. Is that realistic, or an alienation effect?

*. What certainly isn’t realistic are all the dips Hugh takes in icy mountain streams. As I said in my notes on The Grey, if you don’t get out of your clothes and close to a fire or some other heat source within minutes of such exposure you’ll die. But maybe mountain men in the 1800s were tougher than we are today.
*. Oscars were won by Lubezki, director Alejandro González Iñárritu, and Leonardo DiCaprio. They (the Academy) do like this sort of thing.
*. I think DiCaprio’s award was the biggest stretch. It is not a challenging part. I don’t mean because he doesn’t have many lines (since his character spends much of the film recovering from a grievous throat wound), but because his character doesn’t develop very much. He’s a simple man on a simple mission: survival, then revenge.
*. The actor I did like watching was Tom Hardy. I enjoyed Fitzgerald’s laconic dopiness, and the fact that his character does have an arc. I don’t think he’s a bad man but just someone who keeps finding himself in bad situations and failing moral tests. One can empathize with him, at least somewhat, in almost all of his worst moments.
*. In sum, I found The Revenant overblown. This isn’t calling out the critical response; I’m only referring to the movie itself. It’s a slight, conventional story, without any interesting twists or challenges, and it’s stretched out at great length and over vast empty spaces. You can call such a treatment “epic” if you want, and I’ll admit it does have a certain awesomeness about it, but I don’t think there’s enough here to qualify The Revenant as a great movie.

Pursuit to Algiers (1945)

*. In the excellent DVD collection of Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films, Pursuit to Algiers doesn’t have a commentary track, but Holmes scholar David Stuart Davies does say a bit about it during his commentary on the previous film in the series, The Woman in Green. Specifically, he says that it is “certainly . . . the weakest of the whole twelve films.”
*. I can’t disagree. Pursuit to Algiers is a half-hearted effort with none of the interest of any of the previous instalments. The story is just a sketch combining a pair of plots on board a cruise ship. One has Holmes escorting the heir to some Ruritanian throne to his homeland and the other features an unwilling jewel smuggler.
*. Neither storyline is very interesting. The main one basically consists of a trio of hapless assassins who are consecutively foiled by Holmes. We are always a couple of steps ahead of them, and we know Holmes is too. By now the devices that Holmes uses are pretty stale, including the familiar one where he pretends to be dead, fooling everyone, including poor Watson.
*. Only just over 70 minutes and there are three musical numbers, including one by Nigel Bruce.
*. You have to be a huge fan of the series to want to bother with this one. Even so, I think it really is a disappointment. But if you keep your expectations low it may provide enough entertainment to fill a lazy hour.

The Woman in Green (1945)

*. I really like this series, but let’s be honest: The Woman in Green marks a significant downward turn.
*. A lot of it just seems slightly off. Let me give some examples.
*. First: As David Stuart Davies says on his DVD commentary, it’s a “rather dull title, bland and innocuous.” It’s also unexplained, since the only reference made to the colour of Hillary Brooke’s clothes is in her first scene where she’s said to be wearing purple. Also, why give her character the title? She’s very good, but she’s not the chief villain. She’s just one of Moriarty’s henchmen. The original title, Invitation to Murder, was better.
*. Second: We begin on an odd note. There have been a series of Jack the Ripper-style killings that seem a little grisly for a Holmes film. In fact, they had to tone the plot down because as originally written they were to be child murders. Then we note that Dennis Hoey’s Inspector Lestrade is missing, replaced by Inspector Gregson. And where is Watson? He puts in a very late appearance.
*. Davies says that they dropped Lestrade because they need a more sensible and sober policeman to introduce these violent crimes, and that Nigel Bruce’s Watson was kept back from these scenes for the same reason. I wonder if Hoey just wasn’t available. But then, I guess such a reading does make sense with regard to Watson. But I have trouble seeing anyone at the studio being this sensitive to such things in what was an assembly-line production.
*. Third: Moriarty’s plot is, as Davies notes, “unnecessarily fussy and complicated.” Such a criminal mastermind should have been able to come up with a far easier blackmail scheme than this hypnosis-and-mutilation business, which involves too much blood and too many extras. Even his plot to kill Holmes at the end, whatever pleasure he takes in it, is so contrived as to be silly. Almost as silly, I have to add, as how it is undone.
*. Fourth: the story, like Moriarty’s plot, is full of odds and ends that don’t fit together or that seem otherwise out of character. Holmes, for example, must have seen through the subterfuge of Moriarty’s prank call to get Watson out of the building, so why wasn’t he better prepared? He tells Moriarty later that he assumed that Watson was being put in danger, so what was his plan?
*. Another example is the scene where Watson is hypnotized. This is just “comic padding” (Davies) and again seems out of character for Holmes, who later has to disavow it. And as originally scripted it was supposed to be even worse, with Watson taking off his pants.
*. I like Henry Daniell well enough, but he doesn’t really have the panache I associate with Moriarty. He always looks so dour and glum.
*. Bruce liked playing Watson, and apparently wanted to keep the series going after Rathbone got sick of it, but I get the feeling he’s tired here, which is almost as bad as being bored. And the jokes are labored too.
*. I’m always impressed by actors who can hold their eyes open for long stretches without blinking. This may be because I’m a blinker myself. In any event, hats off to Coulter Irwin (credited as Tom Bryson) who plays the hypnotized Williams. I couldn’t stare open-eyed for half as long as he does in his big scene.
*. In the end I can’t agree with the opinion that this had the potential to be one of the best of the Holmes films. The original script, which only has a couple of borrowings from canonical stories, is a mess and I just got the feeling that the string had been played out. But the series still had three films to go.