Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Oldboy (2004)

Readers of our blog know about my taste for films from Asia: Japanese cinema I'm particularly fond of but new films from China and Korea hold great appeal for me as well. Two years ago, three Korean films, Memories of Murder, A Tale of Two Sisters and Oldboy, were released in the UK among claims that they heralded a renaissance of Korean cinema. Whatever you thought about their individual merits, these films had a clear distinctive style and made people notice. Of the three, a police procedural, a horror film and a thriller, I liked Memories best and could relate to Oldboy the least though I appreciated the conviction and craftsmanship with which it was made. Last weekend I sat down with a friend to watch the film for a second time. It's the middle part in a trilogy that includes Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002) and Lady Vengeance (2005); loosely connected by the theme of revenge and sharing a narrative style that combines sadism with bizarre humour, the three films have different plots and protagonists and don't require you to see them in chronological order.

Oldboy takes place in
Korea in the late 1980s. On his daughter's birthday, Oh Dae-Su is kidnapped and locked up in a cell seemingly for no apparent reason. He fails several suicide attempts and learns from the television news that he is suspected of the murder of his wife. After fifteen years, his kidnappers release him and he falls in love with Mido, a young woman working in a sushi bar as he begins to search for his tormentors.

When Oldboy came out two years ago, I remember thinking how neatly it fitted into the larger picture that the films in 2004 were painting: many characters were taking revenge for the ordeals they had suffered or avenged the killing of a loved one. There was Quentin Tarantino's two-parter Kill Bill and the British film Dead Man's Shoes but Oldboy felt like the most radical and nightmarish. It echoes Tarantino's style in the way it blends wacky comedy and extreme brutality but Park Chanwook is even more rigorous than the American director in putting his tragic hero through the mangler before he finds redemption. The man's readiness to punish himself is intrinsically linked to the incest that plays a vital part in the film, hence the reading by many critics of Oldboy as a modern parable that places the Oedipus tale in the context of the gangster film and Korean society at large.

It's a melange of thriller and love story with shocking since abrupt mood changes in which moments of tenderness and compassion follow on acts of cruelty. It works and yet my feelings about the film remained the same after the second viewing: I still find myself more admiring it for its technical expertise and inventiveness than truly liking it. Oldboy is an acquired taste and I guess the reason why I much prefer the stylistically identical Lady Vengeance is that the later film manages to be more restrained, tender and yet more sinister (come to think of it, the black comedy is better integrated in Lady Vengeance, too: the humour is more to the point and less jarringly wacky). At least you are left to admire the flair and craftsmanship which Oldboy has in abundance: when Oh Dae-Su faces Park's gang who have equipped themselves with baseball bats, Chanwook films it in a long take and uninterrupted tracking shot. He also shows that he is as literate as his idol: an early hallucination sequence pays homage to Bunuel and Dali's Un Chien Andalou while two scenes of dental torture recall Laurence Olivier's treatment of Dustin Hoffman in Schlesinger's The Marathon Man. **1/2 (out of five)

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Salute to Robert Altman

Robert Altman, we salute you.

It was sad yesterday to hear about the death of the great director; although he was 81, he never seemed that old to me. I'm no conoisseur of Altman's pictures, but I've seen enough that I know he was a master, adept at subverting the conventions of cinema to furnish stories full of drama and fleshy characters.

My first encounter with Altman was at the age of about four, when this young Popeye fan was allowed to rent Popeye (1980) as a treat. I remember the lump in my throat when Swee'Pea was kidnapped, and I got the same feeling on subsequent viewings as an adult. This was just one of many occasions on which Altman played with genres: Here he toyed with the movie musical; in M*A*S*H he subverted the war film; in McCabe and Mrs Miller it was the western; and in the brilliant Gosford Park he took on the English murder mystery.

Of all those, Gosford Park is my favourite. I loved Altman's roving camera, that never stopped weaving in and out of the characters. The central murder mystery never seemed to matter so much as the intrigue surrounding the characters and their hidden depths.

RIP Robert Altman, 1925-2006

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Casino Royale (2006)

Attended a screening of Casino Royale yesterday and am glad to say that after more than ten years they've managed to reinvigorate the Bond series: this twenty-first entry goes to great lengths to involve and respect its audience (the second half of Die Another Day was will-breaking) and is bound to leave everyone who can accept the picture on its terms eagerly anticipating future films, and I suspect that many people haven't really felt that way about the franchise since 1995. Although I grew up with the Connery and Moore films (have yet to see Lazenby in On Her Majesty's Secret Service), I've enjoyed watching Bond but never particularly cared about most films, the exceptions being From Russia With Love and the first Dalton, the two of which are more grounded in reality than most other entries and which had more recognisably human characters (having recently gotten and rewatched Russia and Goldfinger, I still regard the former as the much stronger film, with the latter already getting too enamoured with the gadgetry and self-deprecating humour).

What I look for in a Bond, is a lean, straight-faced spy thriller with real stakes and human emotion, and that Casino Royale is nearly all of these things is, considering how dull the franchise got in recent years, a considerable feat. The casting of Daniel Craig has been an inspired choice as he brings a physicality and ambiguity to the role which, prior to that, only Sean Connery and Timothy Dalton respectively possessed. He hasn't got the suave looks of Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan; instead, and much more importantly, he displays a brooding demeanour and a recklessness that surely makes him the first Bond who you'd suspect could also be the villain (it struck me that Craig's rugged features give him some resemblance to Robert Shaw, Bond's bulky nemesis in Russia). Craig is the closest we have yet to Ian Fleming's original vision, and his presence and performance is the film's greatest asset: he is instantly believable, whether it's in the big setpieces or in the quieter moments, bringing an emotional gravity to the character and the picture that gives Casino Royale greater longevity than most of its predecessors. At certain moments, the film even achieves a poignant quality: consider the haunted look on Craig's face after Bond's first killing or the simultaneously grim and tender scene in which Bond comforts the blood-stained Vesper in the aftermath of the first killing she has ever witnessed. This is a Bond film that is going to be effortlessly rewatchable, even if it's by no means perfect.

The action is almost always wonderfully choreographed and edited: it's fast and thrilling and yet with a real feeling for spatial clarity - look no further than the sloppily shot M:I3 and anything directed by Michael Bay to see how it it should not be done. As exemplary as the action is though, the chase of the bombmaker and the finale in Venice which bookmark the film, are in hindsight a bit too long and should have been trimmed (the airport sequence is perfectly judged however). Generally, the pic feels too long by 15-20 mins, especially the first quarter of an hour is entertaining but eventually slower than it has any right to be. Script and dialogue are alternately dense and even witty (consider Bond's banter with Vesper Lynd on the train, or his reaction to a waiter over martini) or forced (the homages to Ursula Andress are starting to grate) and sentimental (later scenes with Lynd). Altogether it's better than anyone who has sat through the last Bond and listened to the platitudes of Million Dollar Baby could have reasonably expected from Haggis and company. Casino Royale is a pleasant surprise and leaves you hoping all the more that the Broccolis build on the success this time after failing to seize the opportunity in the wake of the short-lived revival in 1995. * * * * (out of five)

Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Host (2006)

I finally had a chance to see The Host after missing it at the Edinburgh Film Festival in August: the film revolves around a South Korean family caught up in the chaos that unravels when an amphibian mutant (film suggests it's a result of chemicals dumped into the river six years ago by US & Korean scientists from the local US Army Base) emerges from the Han River and creates panic in Seoul. The hero is clumsy and slightly dim-witted Gang-du Park who runs a food stand with his elderly father and looks after his daughter Hyeon-su. The beast captures Hyeon-su and returns to the depths of the river. Gathering with other survivors at a funeral parlour, Gang-du and his father meet with his siblings, unemployed graduate Nam-il and Nam-ju, who is a celebrated archer. Believed to be infected by the virus which the government blames for the existence of the monster, the Parks are quarantined. When Gang-du receives a phone call from his daughter, they set out to find her and kill the creature.

Even at the danger of underestimating the film (much in the same way that I was far too generous in giving the dreadful Snow Cake three stars initially) I have to go out on a limb and say that while I really enjoyed the film on its own terms I still couldn't help but feeling a bit disappointed. How much you are going to get out of The Host depends very much on your willingness to accept the film's unusual and subversive blend of sometimes incongruous seeming humour and suspense (The Host shares this stylistic approach - and its' lead actor - with Joon-ho Bong's earlier film, Memories of Murder), and to have your expectations constantly undermined. I had expected something along the lines of Jaws or the original Godzilla, both of which chose to show their monster sparingly and fleetingly initially, building up slowly and deliberately to a big setpiece that shows the creature in full glory. The Host does the opposite and reveals its monster, an intriguing and impressively realised cross between an amphibian and mutant reptile, within its opening quarter in a fabulous destruction and chase sequence with echoes of Jurassic Park and its sequel, The Lost World. The scene that follows it is symptomatic of the film's pattern: when the three siblings grief with their father in front of Hyeon-su's picture, the film plays it straight at first but then makes it unexpectedly, almost incongrously comical when the brothers start brawling as Nam-il blames Gung-du for his daughter's death. The effect is extremely startling but it gives this and many other scenes greater weight and it provokes a more complex and wider-ranging response from us. If, in the end, I think of Memories of Murder as the superior picture, it's mainly because The Host's pacing feels too slack at times: the opening and final half hour are extremely good but the film's main bulk is not as tight and purposefully moving forward as it ought to be. The chaotic finale is a thrilling payoff (reminiscent of Moby Dick) and the pic's coda movingly reinforces what is at the heart of the story, the love of a father for his child and his touching willigness to selflessly risk himself for her. The film plays against expectations quite skilfully and successfully and yet it leaves me genuinely undecided about how good it ultimately is. So best regard the rating below as an initial rather than final and binding response as it could go up on later viewings. * * * (out of five)

Friday, November 10, 2006

Optimum's new Don't Look Now SE reviewed

Mike Sutton from DVDTimes has reviewed the new Special Edition of Nicholas Roeg's classic British horror film Don't Look Now (1973) here. Picture quality is identical to the old Warner disc but the sound has been cleaned up so that the Optimum is currently the best release of the film you can get anywhere.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Guardian on Christopher Nolan & Disney

Saw the following on Guardian Unlimited in the past few days:

David Thomson's critique of Christopher Nolan

Ryan Gilbey's interview with Hugh Jackman about Nolan's new film The Prestige

Jonathan Jones on the dark side of Walt Disney