Category Archives: 2000s

1408 (2007)

*. It’s not called Stephen King’s 1408, as movies based on his writings often are. It certainly applies here, because even though there were some significant changes made to his story (in particular the removal of Mike’s brother and the greater significance given to his daughter), this is so recognizably King territory it probably should have carried the brand label.
*. I say that not because of elements like the ledge walk from Cat’s Eye or the way Room 1408 at the Dolphin echoes Room 237 at the Overlook. These are just part of King’s stock-in-trade, and given that the story started out as a sort of finger exercise that he couldn’t let go of they’re not surprising.
*. Instead of that I’d point to more basic stuff. There are, for example, what are King essentials: the burnt-out writer battling personal demons, the inadequate defence of the threatened family, and the denigration of religion while insisting upon a sort of providential force in the universe that makes sure things never turn out all bad. With all of these you know you’re in King territory.
*. I thought there would be more of the Ghostbusters angle to it, as part of the inspiration was apparently a real-life paranormal investigator. We see author Mike Enslin (John Cusack) with a couple of gadgets for detecting spooks, and when he first enters 1408 he declares an intention to “Encylopedia Brown this bitch,” but in the end he doesn’t do much with his toys. Instead he falls apart with the first manifestations of evil and reaches for his bottle of 57 Deaths.
*. I also thought that they were going to play up the limitations of shooting most of the film in a single confined space, but since Room 1408 has the supernatural ability to change dimensions this goes out the window along with the lamps and jumping ghosts.
*. Nice to see Samuel L. Jackson, in what is little more than a cameo, taking a more restrained approach. I’ve gotten so used to seeing him playing crazy caricatures that I was taken aback, in a good way. Even if I don’t really understand his character.
*. I guess whatever you think of Mr. Olin is going to be coloured by which ending you get. I believe there were four: a theatrical version and three alternate endings. I think I’ve seen two. But it doesn’t make much difference because (as I’ve said before) if you have two, or three, or four endings then you really don’t have any ending at all.
*. 1408 is what I call a good little picture. It’s not violent or even all that scary but tries to be more of a character study. There’s not enough information for this to work (what was Mike’s relationship with his father?) and John Cusack seems a bit overwhelmed at times, but I think that overall it does what it sets out to do pretty well. If it never rises above that modest level then that’s no big thing. Most films don’t achieve so much.

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The Strangers (2008)

*. “Inspired by true events.” Well, if you think about it, what isn’t? Even the Iliad and Odyssey could make such a claim, not to mention every fiction since.
*. The Strangers suggests something more, telling us by way of a pre-credit voiceover that “there are an estimated 1.4 million violent crimes in America each year” and that this is one of them. Don’t think about that too hard.
*. As far as I’ve been able to determine, it’s just the usual come-on. In other words, it’s total bullshit. The voice doing the voiceover actually sounds a bit like John Larroquette at the beginning of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, making his similarly bogus declaration in tones just as earnest. Texas Chain Saw Massacre was, perhaps, based on the totally unrelated story of Ed Gein, the same source crime as for Psycho. In this case writer-director Brian Bertino may have been thinking of the Manson murders, or, as he has claimed, some childhood incident, but really it could have been “inspired” by just about anything.
*. Critics also compared The Strangers to the French film Them, which was another movie inspired by true events, only in that case I think there was a bit more of a connection. The bottom line however is that this is just another home invasion thriller and it isn’t based on anything at all aside from the genre formula.
*. It’s not my favourite horror sub-genre. Even when they’re well done I don’t really like any of these movies, and they’re rarely well done. Funny Games was disturbing but at least it tried to do something a little different with the basic concept of the psychos knocking on the door of a happy, well-off family staying in a semi-remote home or cottage. Haneke’s film gave you something to talk about after. The Strangers . . . not so much.
*. There is literally nothing at all new here. There are things that go bump in the night. Kristen is left alone and then relieved when James returns, who at first doesn’t believe her about the people in masks. Then they are both terrorized. He tries to go for help, without her, telling her that “I’ll be fine.” Yeah. He isn’t. There is a failed rescue attempt by a friend of James that you know is going to fail, and exactly how it is going to fail, five minutes before it plays itself out. How many times do we have to see this Stephen King staple? I think it’s a plot element that can safely be retired now.

*. Kristen screams out “Why are you doing this to us?” Not once, not twice, but three times. Maybe more. I think James says it at one point too. I lost count. Once, I hardly need to say, would have been more than enough. We get the point. The masked killers are psychos. None of this makes any sense or has any purpose. That’s life.
*. One can only take so much cliché. Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman) aren’t total morons but they’re pretty darn close. But it was when Kristen fell and twisted her ankle and had to crawl through the woods that I went from being bored with The Strangers to actively hating it.
*. Early on, Kristen decides to don the modern uniform of the last girl: jeans and a tank-top, with a flannel shirt to stay warm. But for some reason she feels that, despite the cold, shoes are unnecessary, even when running around outside. Which is when she falls and of course twists her ankle so she can’t run but can only limp and crawl away from the bad guys. You know the drill.
*. How was this even sold as a screenplay? It runs just 86 minutes and it’s well padded at that. I honestly don’t see where there’s anything to the script beyond an 8-10 page treatment. Indeed, you could pitch this movie in a single sentence — a young couple is terrorized by a trio of masked home invaders — and aside from that what would you add? Even the action/suspense sequences where there is no dialogue are very simple. As I’ve already laid out, it’s pure formula without a single twist to the set-up or any part of the plot.
*. Every now and then you get the sense of an actor who just doesn’t want to be in a movie. Boy did I get that feeling with Scott Speedman here.
*. As you would expect in this enlightened age of horror the ending is nihilistic and cruel. It is also, however, dull and anticlimactic. There’s no horror or tension or drama to it at all. And the final jump scare is both another cliché and stupid to boot. If the film’s “brutal events . . . are still not entirely known,” then how could there be a survivor? Or maybe Kristen is just giving us the twitch of the death nerve. I didn’t care. This movie is garbage and is too lazy to even try to be anything else.

The Tell-Tale Heart (2006)

*. There’s always been something a bit cartoonish about Edgar Allan Poe. You hear his stories in your head being read by Vincent Price and illustrated by Edward Gorey. And it’s fair to ask in a lot of cases just how seriously he intended them to be taken. He was a master of the spoof, and even sent up genres that he invented, at the same time as he was inventing them!
*. So in this version of “The Tell-Tale Heart” there’s nothing surprising about the humour. The art is Gorey-esque, but brightened with a lot of vibrant colour and vibrating animation. The narrator’s hair makes him look like he’s receiving electroshock while certain motifs, like the fly (perhaps borrowed from the moth in the 1953 version) and the giant eyes play up the sense of exaggerated, grotesque decay.
*. The jumping from different styles of animation and colour schemes gives the film even more energy to add to its already fierce pace, which tells the story in under 7 minutes (there are over a minute of end credits to fill out the rest of the running time).
*. There have been a number of film versions of “The Tell-Tale Heart” but this one by Annette Jung is perhaps the liveliest and most inventive. I like the attention to detail in things like the headboard of the old man’s bed being a spiderweb. And I don’t recall ever seeing it suggested before that the narrator is actually the old man’s son, though I guess it’s a fair enough reading.
*. As many different times as I’ve seen it done, however, there always seem to me to be avenues or possibilities in the story that remain unexplored. Credit to Poe. But credit to Jung for giving us this little bit of crazy fun.

Black Hawk Down (2001)

*. There’s a scene near the beginning of Black Hawk Down where one of the vets (played by Eric Bana) has to explain to the idealistic Sergeant Eversmann (Josh Hartnett) how war (and, incidentally, war movies) work. “Y’know what I think?” he says when Eversmann tries to draw him out on the U.S. mission in Somalia. “Don’t really matter what I think. Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that shit just goes right out the window.”
*. This is an important, and telling, act of elision. The swerve it indicates is typical of how Hollywood handled the War on Terror and America’s adventures abroad during this period. And by “handled” I’m referring to their attempts to avoid being political. Black Hawk Down is not an anti-war movie, or even a movie that is critical of war. Once the bullets start to fly that shit just goes right out the window. The reasons for this are obvious but may be worth going over.
*. To begin with there is the line, usually attributed to François Truffaut, that there is no such thing as an anti-war film because war is by its very nature an exciting experience highlighted by individual moments of heroism and comradeship. Actually, I think a lot of military service is very dull, but movies cut those parts out. Politics is dull too, and complicated. In cases like Somalia or Yugoslavia or Libya or Syria I doubt any movie could hope to sort the various American missions out.
*. Hollywood is in the business of putting bums in seats, and you don’t fill theatres by making people think too much about where these soldiers are or what they’re doing there. Indeed, aside from Eversmann the characters in the film don’t seem that interested in such matters themselves.
*. Then there is the business of actually making the movie. At least since Top Gun (1986) the U.S. military has played a major role in such productions, and you don’t get the kind of logistical support they can deliver without surrendering some editorial control. These have to be stories the military wants told, in the way they want them told. For Top Gun the U.S. Navy played a crucial role in producing the film and had input on the script throughout. They later claimed it had been an extremely effective recruiting tool. For Black Hawk Down all the materiel was supplied by the U.S. Army, which also provided helicopter pilots and helped with the training of the actors. You couldn’t imagine a movie like this being made today without such assistance. So there was no way this was going to be an anti-war movie.
*. And finally there was the whole shift in the media after the Gulf War of 1991, which was seen as kicking what had been dubbed the Vietnam Syndrome. Part of the Vietnam Syndrome was the representation of that conflict in the media, so it was a Vietnam War Movie Syndrome too. Hollywood was expected to get in line, and in order to do this without compromising themselves too much they avoided politics like the plague. Instead they went with the tide, which meant creating action films drawing heavily on the look of comic books and video games.
*. Ten years after the Gulf War there was 9/11, which made things even simpler. American involvement abroad, anywhere, was seen through the lens of a response to Islamic terrorism. It didn’t matter that the events of Black Hawk Down didn’t have anything to do with 9/11, but then neither did the invasion of Iraq (despite the efforts of American Sniper to draw a direct link), and even less Libya in 13 Hours. Each of these films could be absorbed into the narrative of “America fighting back.”

*. All of this is just setting the scene, and isn’t meant as a fierce criticism of these films (which can be criticized on other grounds). Over the last hundred years most war movies, indeed the vast majority, have been openly propagandistic if not downright war-porn. The Vietnam-era war films (which would include movies like Patton) were the exception, and they tended to peter out around the time Top Gun took off (Platoon came out in 1986, and the anti-imperialist biopic Walker in 1987). I just want to underline that these were very political movies, and very effectively political, despite on their surface eschewing politics altogether.
*. Now on to the film itself.

*. I had a curious and telling experience watching it recently on DVD. I couldn’t watch it all at once and so I made a note of the chapter I was on and came back and watched the rest of it the next day. It seemed I had written the wrong chapter number down as I was a bit lost as to what was going on. But then I scanned around and figured I probably had it right. The thing is, I couldn’t be completely sure. The reason I couldn’t be sure is because “once that first bullet goes past your head” this movie is all the same. We see men running through streets or driving through streets being shot at by faceless natives from rooftops or doorways. After a while I even started to wonder if the streets themselves were different or if they were just being filmed from different directions or with different lighting. And it goes on for two-and-half hours!
*. Still, given how much of it is all the same I was surprised at how lively it all played. The action is chaotic and lots of times I had no idea where we were or what was going on, but such is the fog of war. You do feel caught up in the excitement of the events. None of the terror or pain, mind you, but plenty of excitement.
*. It’s also very beautiful to look at. The helicopters flying over the beach are lovingly photographed in a way that recalls the ride of the air cavalry in Apocalypse Now, albeit without any of that film’s operatic sense of parody. War never looked so good.

*. As for the enemy, I’ve referred to them as faceless. There are a couple of actors who get lines but for the most part they may as well be the Zulu hoards launching themselves in human waves against the frontier outposts of Western Civ. Despite the fact that the actual event being portrayed was a raid, it quickly turns into the familiar siege paradigm. That is to say, the Americans are on the defensive against the barbarians. If only the natives would leave them alone! This is another motif that is returned to time and again in the films of this period, presumably representing the idea of America being surrounded by enemies. I don’t think this is an accurate reflection of reality, but it obviously expresses some kind of widely-held perception.
*. The enemy also seem to be very poor shots. Given that they’re firing down on the grunts from the rooftops shouldn’t that be like shooting fish in a barrel? Instead everybody just seems to be ripping off rounds without even aiming.
*. The battle scenes are done in such a way that we’re meant to cheer when the bad guys get shot or blown up. This is cathartic if nothing else but it also made me think more of a narrative that was following a certain entertainment paradigm rather than attempting to do anything new.
*. Given that this is a movie that doesn’t really want to say anything I had a hard time relating to it or extracting any kind of a point. Eversmann ends up a sadder but I don’t think a wiser man. Poor Sam Shepard is left to suffer vicariously watching the events on TV but there is no sense of his character traveling any kind of arc or coming to a fuller understanding about what has happened. Perhaps no such understanding is possible. Perhaps he’s never quite sure whether he is an actor in the film or part of the audience. Or is there a difference? In this world we’re either shooters or targets. Once it gets going nearly every “shot” in the movie is composed in this way. But the roles are finally interchangeable. That may be the most apolitical thing about Black Hawk Down: its reduction of everything to a line of sight that goes both ways. Who needs politics in such a world? It’s all very simple.

Colour from the Dark (2008)

*. Colour from the Dark is another kick at the classic H. P. Lovecraft story “The Colour Out of Space,” and in my estimation it’s the worst of them all.
*. Why this particular story has been adapted so many times, when (as in this film) it is so loosely adhered to, is a mystery to me. Leaving that mystery aside, what we have here is the story of a small rural Italian homestead during the Second World War that awakens an evil force from the bottom of a well.
*. Two significant changes to the source story will have been noticed in just this brief description. In the first place there is no meteorite bringing the “colour” to Earth from “out of space.” Second: this is an evil force. Not just unhealthy, like the apparently radioactive glow in Lovecraft, but corrupt in a spiritual sense. The force doesn’t make humans sick, it possesses them and makes them spit on crucifixes and attack priests.
*. Just to expand a bit on this second point, I’ve written before about the almost comical inefficacy of religious officers in the battle against evil in recent films concerned with demonic possession. But the priest who comes to peform an exorcism in Colour from the Dark really outdoes himself, turning tail and running away as soon as he determines that “the devil is here.” Not a good showing for the Church, padre. Unfortunately, for him, he comes back and, despite being better prepared for his battle with the devil, gets stabbed in the head with his own crucifix. So much for God! In Italy even!
*. I can’t say much good about this one. It had no budget and tries too hard. I’ve read some people praising the photography but to me it looked like a telenovela. The script is a mess, full of people behaving in incredibly stupid ways and cluttered with extraneous plot elements that just distract us from the main story. The acting, espcecially by the male lead, is terrible. There’s far too heavy a reliance on dream sequences, to the point where you give up trying to figure out if something is “really” happening until you’re absolutely sure they’re not going to cut to the character involved jumping up in bed covered in sweat.
*. But I think the real problem is the one I mentioned about trying too hard. Director Ivan Zuccon is firing in too many different directions at once. Why make Alice a mental case? Why bother with the doll? Why have so many dream sequences? Why include all that stuff about the corpse in the forest? Indeed, why set this story during wartime at all?
*. Well, it’s not totally without interest. Not totally. The transformation of the farm into a dessicated wasteland looks OK, and the ending, though a downer, isn’t bad. But honestly, I think you really need to have some time to kill to want to waste any of it on this one.

Evil — In a Time of Heroes (2009)

*. There was some potential here. Not much, but some.
*. A zombie movie set in Athens (Greece, not Georgia) in the wake of the global financial crisis, with echoes of the classical past playing in the background. It might have worked.
*. Well, it sure doesn’t. This is one of the worst zombie movies ever made, and that’s not a very high bar being set.
*. It seems to have no story at all. There’s a countdown to a bombardment that inter-titles pop up to remind us of, but we don’t know what that’s referring to and nobody in the film seems aware of or at least concerned about it until near the end. What’s even more annoying, however, is the fact that none of the characters has anything to do, or anything they want to do. Nothing happens for a reason. This makes the action (a word I’ll use instead of story) completely incoherent.
*. Unforunately, the only way to really appreciate how scattered and confused a film this is, is to watch the whole thing, which is something I strongly advise against. It starts off bad and doesn’t get any better.
*. Actually, it starts off where Evil (2005) left off. Yes, this terrible movie is a sequel! But don’t think that having seen Evil will help you out very much with this one.
*. Apparently all the actors were unpaid volunteers, and in this case the filmmakers got what they paid for. None of the characters are memorable, or even distinguishable aside from their different uniforms (the well-dressed cook, the hero in the soccer jersey, the soldiers, Billy Zane as a Jedi cowboy). They also have an annoying habit of dying and coming back to life, and I don’t mean as zombies. This is all part of the incoherence I mentioned earlier, the sense that from one scene to the next there is no dramatic continuity, or really connection of any kind.
*. There’s a lot of blood splashed on faces and walls. This seems to be the film’s only purpose, or justification. I wouldn’t call the gore anything special though, as it’s mainly delivered by way of rapid editing with some CGI assists. In other words, the usual fare.
*. Maybe if they’d climbed up the Acropolis and had a battle royale among the ruins it might have been more interesting . . . but not by much. Really, you don’t want to waste your time with this.

High Maintenance (2006)

*. Everyone knows the famous montage in Citizen Kane as the table keeps lengthening between Kane and his wife, signaling the breakdown of their marriage. Dining at a distance, especially when it seems wildly impractical, has become a visual cliché for describing marital dysfunction, but I wonder if Welles was the first to make the connection.
*. In any event, it’s a motif that’s again being used in this short film, as a couple supposedly celebrating their anniversary are separated by a long candlelit table. We know right away that things aren’t working out. What we don’t know right away is that this dinner is even more of an empty, formal ritual than it seems. I mean, if Nicolette Krebitz is going to come on to you with that line about an aphrodisiac, how can you be so cold?
*. Part of the reason is that her partner is a robot lover, and one who isn’t even delivering on the “short, mechanical sex” part. Time to order up a new model online. A hunkier type who’s in to rock climbing and massage.
*. If that’s all there were going on here it would be a one joke quickie, even with the twist we get at the end. But I think there’s a more interesting point being made.
*. I don’t think the issue is how we relate to technology, at least directly. High Maintenance isn’t a nine-minute version of Her. Instead, the lovers one orders are more like pets. They have basic personality programming, but can’t be counted on to behave in the way you would like all the time.
*. And, just as with our relationships with our pets, they change us as much as we change them. We may even start to look like them.
*. So I guess in the end it is a story about how we relate to technology, and how in making it better at serving us we co-evolve so that we are better at serving it. Note, however, that evolution is not synonymous with progress. We may lock ourselves into a downward spiral. Our real anniversary may not end with even short, mechanical sex but rather in watching TV alone while drinking a beer.

The Ring Two (2005)

*. Wow. What a way to (almost?) kill a franchise. I liked The Ring and even thought it in some ways the equal to Ringu. To go from that to this . . .
*. What the hell were they thinking? This is one of those sequels that’s so bad it made me reconsider my feelings toward the first film. Was it really as good as I remembered it?
*. Is there any point even getting into a deeper discussion of a movie that fails at absolutely everything? Probably not, but here we go.
*. The story makes no sense at all, and just follows the same basic structure as the first movie. In their defence, they seem to have been hamstrung by the character of Samara. Exactly who or what she is has never been all that clear. She’s a demon in the first film, an abused child with mommy issues here, and a dark avenger in the subsequent Rings. But what do we really know about her? What are the limits of her powers and what does she want?
*. We start off with one of those terrible intro kills that are meant to set the tone. Some asshole wants to trick his girlfriend — who, by the way, looks way out of his league — into watching the haunted videotape. The usual mayhem ensues. This has been a fairly standard opening line in horror films for the last ten or twenty years now, and indeed it’s how The Ring starts as well. But they could have at least had some fun with it here, as they would in Rings.
*. The CGI is terrible. That deer attack? You have to laugh.
*. I don’t like calling out actors, but Naomi Watts clearly isn’t feeling this awful script and David Dorfman (who plays Aidan) doesn’t up his game to what is a leading role.
*. I didn’t even recognize Sissy Spacek. It’s been so long since I’ve seen her in anything. I wonder whatever . . . well. I guess stuff like this is what happened.
*. How and why does Max (a woefully underused Simon Baker) die? What does it have to do with his wanting to take Aidan’s picture? And most of all, why is his body sitting out in his truck?
*. There’s another point about this sequence: It isn’t scary. Nothing in it, from Max’s arrival at the house to Rachel’s discovery of his body, even attempts to be scary. There is no building of suspense. There aren’t even any jump scares. And this sequence follows on the heels of the earlier scene in the hospital when Aidan/Samara gets the psychologist to kill herself. What was scary about that? What did anyone think might have been scary about it? Was anyone involved with this project aware that they were making a horror movie?
*. There’s no point saying much more. There are no scares, and there’s no suspense, no atmosphere, no point to any of it. It’s actually one of the worst horror movies I’ve seen in a long time. Things could only get better. Right?

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.

Saw VI (2009)

*. The sixth time round and it should have been the last. For two reasons: (1) they were obviously running out of ideas (or had run out a while ago); and (2) this is actually one of the best films in the series and they could have ended on a high note. Alas, the “final chapter” was still to be written, and may not be written yet.
*. What makes it better than the franchise average? Well, for starters the traps (or “gags” are they are affectionately known in the industry) are better. From the Merchant of Venice opening, through the jaws-of-breath chest vice, shotgun carousel, acid rack, and final return to the reverse bear trap (which we actually see work), I would rate them all pretty high. Not because I think they’re great, but because I’ve always felt that the traps in the other films were overrated by fans. Most of them are just some variation on a victim in chains having to beat the clock or be torn apart.

*. I also liked that the plot, though complicated (or incomprehensible to anyone who missed the first five instalments), does a respectable job tying up as many loose threads as possible without trying to be gratuitously tricky. There’s a twist at the end, but it really doesn’t have much to do with the main story. They could have wrapped the series up here in a way that at least made sense.
*. It’s a more sedate film. They only break out the crazy editing a few times, and the colour scheme, especially the green torture chambers, is muted somewhat. This is a movie that has a job to do.
*. Another thing going for it is the political angle. None of the other Saw films even suggested a political subtext, preferring to hang their hat on a really dubious philosophical proposition about proving the value of your life by making a choice to live. Here, however, we’re punishing the number-crunchers who screwed people out of their health insurance or who primed the sub-prime mortgage meltdown. I was actually looking forward to seeing these guys get theirs more than the druggies and criminals of the earlier films. White-collar crime is crime too! Jigsaw has his own justice system, and who’s to say it isn’t more equitable?

*. That said, there are a number of victims who appear to be nothing more than meat in some of the gags. What did the poor custodian do to deserve his place on the rack? Smoke?
*. It’s also weird how the police have been targeted by the series. This is something you don’t really notice in the first film, though Danny Glover and Ken Leung both get killed trying to hunt Jigsaw down. It’s just that in their case they were playing their own game of cops and robbers and they lost. It happens. But in Saw IV I was troubled by what crime Rigg was being punished for. Caring too much? Doing his job? And why did Strahm have to suffer such a horrible fate in Saw V?
*. In this film Erickson and Perez are slaughtered almost as an afterthought. Of course, like all the police in the Saw films they were working totally alone. That certainly helps clear up any loose ends, but how realistic is it?
*. Looking at all of this together, you get the feeling that somebody just doesn’t like cops very much. That may be making a political point as well, but I’m not sure what it is. Is Jigsaw trying to show them how they should be doing their jobs?
*. No, I don’t think this is a good movie except in a relative sense. But since this franchise is really a serial that’s the way you have to judge them. If I were to do a ranking I might put this second on my list of favourites. It should have been the last. However, even though the box office was starting to tail off the title was still making money. The carousel would continue to spin.