A Losing Proposition
Spike Lee and Korea Don’t Mix
Korean director/co-screenwriter Chan-wook Park’s haunting 2003 revenge drama “Oldboy” is one of the most unbearably intense films ever made. Based loosely on a Japanese graphic novel, the movie is the second installment in Park’s “Vengeance Trilogy” — see “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” (2002) and “Lady Vengeance” (2005). However, there are elements that make “Oldboy” a much rougher ride for the audience than Park’s other two violence-fuelled crime thrillers in the trio. “Oldboy” is a more disturbing and rewarding experience due to the nature of the terrible reversals suffered by its forever-tormented protagonist of the film’s title. “Oldboy” refers to a fraternal term of endearment for the alum of a private high school.
The original film’s complex themes revolve around social commentary regarding Asian nationalism, politics, incest, private prisons, as well as taboo cultural mores and motivations. It is a richly multifaceted film that addresses a wide range of deeply personal and political issues in a simultaneously direct and metaphorical manner. Chan-wook Park’s “Oldboy” is an outrageously original cinematic vision that only a fool would attempt to revise without paying acute attention to elevating the source material — if not at least playing the song as written.
Why then would Hollywood choose to remake an extraordinary (and recent) film whose fingerprint is so specific? Stephen Spielberg takes the blame for stepping up to the plate to remake “Oldboy,” initially with plans to cast Will Smith in the leading role that Choi Min-sik made his own as Oh Dae-su in Park’s original. A screenplay adaptation by Mark Protosevich (“I Am Legend”) was passed around Los Angeles. Put Protosevich’s tone-deaf adaptation into the hands of Spike Lee, and what you come up with is a flavorless revenge movie robbed of every ounce of cultural identity, nuance, and emotional power of the original. Lee’s version of “Oldboy” isn’t so much transposed, as it is a gutting of all the best aspects of the original. I’m certain there are qualified screenwriters and directors that could have transposed Park’s film into a Western-culture harmonization and kept its narrative intact — especially the original film’s divine ending.
Chan-wook Park’s formidable protagonist eats a live octopus after escaping 15 years of kidnapped captivity inside a private incarceration facility. No such scene of primal expression exists in Lee’s version.
The octopus scene’s elimination is a representative example of the kind of heavy-handed editorial alterations the filmmakers repeatedly commit in reducing a great film to a mediocre one.
The original scene is more than a little upsetting; it cuts right through to the viewer’s heart and stomach in a way that Spike Lee’s version never approaches. The visceral connections are missing.
There is no redeeming value to Spike Lee’s remake of a Chan-wook Park’s instant classic “Oldboy” — a cinematic experience that is irrefutably unlike any other you have ever had.
The beginning, middle, and ending of Lee’s “Oldboy” are all different from Chan-wook Park’s film. To expose the differences between the two versions would only serve to dignify Spike Lee’s abomination, or give away any more jolts or surprises from the prototype version.
The only usefulness of Lee’s travesty is to alert would-be audiences that they should see, or revisit, Chan-wook Park’s incredible film. But by no means should anyone squander the time they would spend watching Chan-wook Park’s “Oldboy” on Spike Lee’s deflated rendering.
Rated R. 104 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Great Beauty
A virtuosic cinematic achievement of epic proportions, Paolo Sorrentino’s formalized comment on modern-day Rome is a visual and satirical feast. Taking cues from Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” the gloriously expansive film establishes Sorrentino-regular Toni Servillo as Jep Gambardella, a veteran dilettante journalist of Rome’s celebrity and arts culture who has successfully insinuated himself as a member of the city’s elites. His claim to fame derives from a still-celebrated novelette [“The Human Apparatus”] he wrote as a young man. Jep is a sycophant through and though. His eye for style is cheapened by his worship of the false promise such affectations hold. As an updated version of the breezy character that Marcello Mastroianni played in “La Dolce Vita,” Jep is older and therefore wiser. The occasion of his 65th birthday gives cause for reflection. The nubile girl who first stole Jep’s heart when he was a virile young man haunts him as an object of desire and emotional motivation whose “great beauty” resonates with that of Rome’s ancient architecture and pretentious culture — even if much of that floats over abyss of abject corruption.
Sorrentino lays the foundation for his boldly extravagant film with a quote from Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s “Journey to the End of the Night.”
“Travel is useful, it exercises the imagination. All the rest is disappointment and fatigue.
Our journey is entirely imaginary. That is its strength.
It goes from life to death. People, animals, cities, things, all are imagined.
It’s a novel, just a fictitious narrative. Littré says so, and he’s never wrong.
And besides, in the first place, anyone can do as much. You just have to close your eyes.
It’s on the other side of life.”
Cinematographer Luca Bigazzi’s shifting camera unceasingly frames decorous compositions to simultaneously celebrate, provoke, and reveal layers of a dynamic culture unlike anywhere else in the world.
At once glamorous and impure, every social setting — be it a lavish party, a strip club, or a dinner with the Catholic Church’s 104-year-old patron Saint of poverty — every scene breathes with a painterly attention to detail toward capturing Rome’s beautiful and ethereal qualities.
Paolo Sorrentino is one of the few truly visionary filmmakers working today who utilizes the power of cinema to embrace and elevate an overflowing wealth of ideas, attitudes, and realities. I promise, you will be stuffed after seeing “The Great Beauty.”
Not Rated. 142 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
A Balm For America’s Wounds
Alexander Payne Finds What He’s Been Looking For
Alexander Payne’s films have been a series of peaks and valleys. His first two movies “Citizen Ruth” (1996) and “Election” (1999) set such a high standard of socio-political satire that there was no place left to go but down. “About Schmidt” fulfilled that inevitable lull with an aging small-minded character whose greatest legacy was the years he squandered for a thankless company. Then came “Sideways” (2004), a movie soared as a masterstroke of nuanced comedy about male-midlife-crisis that gave Thomas Haden Church a chance to shine like never before. “The Descendants” (2011) was a flawed precursor to the themes of America’s cultural, economic, and political demise that Alexander Payne nails on every level in “Nebraska.”
The film’s majestic title evokes the Midwestern badlands where man is dwarfed by a big sky and a rugged terrain that simultaneously dwarf and glorify his existence. Payne appropriately shoots in black and white to lend a nostalgic quality that filters the satirical nature of the drama, and contextualizes its comedic elements. The monochromic presentation clarifies “Nebraska’s” somber atmosphere to measure the symptoms of a country sinking in a darker economic crisis than that of the Great Depression. Still, neither context nor subtext is ever telegraphed. Every scene and line of dialogue presents new revelations of purpose and place.
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is an aging alcoholic family man suffering from the onslaught of dementia. He can’t drive anymore, but dreams of buying a new truck. He views himself as a failed patriarch, and by the look of things he’s not wrong.
The film opens with Woody distractedly walking along a Montana highway like a close cousin to Harry Dean Stanton’s character at the beginning of “Paris, Texas.” The 76-year-old Bruce Dern inhabits Woody so thoroughly that you genuinely worry about his well-being. Like Robert Redford’s career-topping performance in this year’s “All is Lost,” Bruce Dern’s portrayal here is astonishing for its unadorned directness. Nothing is wasted. Nothing is lost. Everything flows. Everything matters.
David (Will Forte), one of Woody’s two sons, is a loser. He sells electronic equipment in a retail store. He recently broke up with his former live-in girlfriend over commitment issues. Forte — famous for his run on “Saturday Nigh Live” — is a revelation for his concealed comic delivery. Forte carves his character’s initials with evermore-determined incisions toward a sincere crisis decision of emotionally cathartic consequence. This is a movie that will live on in your heart forever.
Woody’s wife Kate (June Squibb) can curse like a sailor, and frequently does when her salty demeanor veers into ribald territory. A graveyard visit proves a guffaw inducing event when Kate lets loose. Payne knows exactly where to let humor pounce, and pounce it does with a precision that stings.
Woody recently received a Publishers Clearing House-type document in the mail that he is convinced means he’s won a million-dollars. He is determined to travel to Nebraska to collect his winnings in person. He doesn’t trust institutions like the post office, but he is all-too-trusting of people. Sympathetic to his father’s fragile mental and physical state, David elects to take time off from his job to drive his dad to Nebraska as an excuse to spend some quality time with the old man. The father-and-son road trip through Wyoming and South Dakota allows for a stop-over in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska where family and “friends” come out of the woodwork after hearing about Woody’s windfall. Woody’s ex-business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) is an especially prickly customer.
Written by debut screenwriter Bob Nelson, “Nebraska” strikes at a distinctly American mindset of jealousy, greed, and betrayal that undermines its citizens’ equally persistent sense of optimism, integrity, and familial connection. It’s an adult family film worthy of repeated viewings over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, when families join together in living rooms to share personal experiences, ideas, and hopes for the future. The elusive new value that America seeks is right under its nose; it’s also in the underlying theme of this truly wonderful picture.
Rated R. 115 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
GO FOR SISTERS
Even a genius can have a dumb day. I'm sad – and somewhat surprised to report – that John Sayles’s latest effort is a dud. Still, even if the legendary independent filmmaker never made another great movie, the auteur responsible for such instant classics as “The Return of the Secaucus Seven,” “The Brother From Another Planet” and “Matewan” will go down in history as an innovator of politically and culturally important films. Don’t forget “The Secret of Roan Inish,” his mythology-charged ode to children’s cinema and a significant addition of the magical realism movement.
Anyone fortunate enough to have seen “Lianna” (1983) or “City of Hope” (1991) at the time of their release understands Sayles’s remarkable skill at creating films seemingly ahead of their time.
“Go for Sisters” is another matter. Obviously, the title is a nonstarter. It comes from a line of dialogue between two African-American women — Bernice is a Los Angeles probation officer and Fontayne is an ex-con under her supervision. Bernice (LisaGay Hamilton) and Fontayne (Yolonda Ross) also happen to have been best friends in high school, at a time when they could pass for sisters — or in slang-speak, “go for sisters.” The strained simile is a microcosm of the labored dialogue and plotting that plague this misfire.
As in all of Sayles’s movies, the balance of inertia falls more on character than plot to drive the story. Except that here, the balance tips so far on fuzzy character objectives that the movie comes to a standstill on more occasions than you can comfortably count.
With her masculine bearing, LisaGay Hamilton’s Bernice seems a natural romantic object for Yolonda Ross’s Fontayne, a woman in touch with her animal needs. The movie flirts with such an emotional trajectory, however, nothing much comes of it.
Bernice’s young adult son Rodney goes missing after returning from military service. Bernice has been out of touch with Rodney for some time when she learns that one of his associates — a man called “Fuzzy” — has been brutally murdered, and the cops are looking for her son in connection to the crime. Bernice seeks out Fontayne’s assistance to connect with Freddy Suarez (Edward James Olmos), an ex-LAPD investigator commonly referred to as “the Terminator,” to track down Rodney. A trip to Tijuana is required. A Chinese mob trafficking Mexicans across the border might hold the answers to Rodney’s disappearance.
Edward James Olmos — a producer on the film — delivers a grounding performance that compensates somewhat for the film’s lackluster dialogue and stilted performances from some of its less-than-experienced actors.
However flawed, “Go for Sisters” is worth seeing for diehard John Sayles fans. Sadly, it is not likely to win over any new members to that community of filmgoers.
Rated. mins. () ( Stars - out of five/no halves)
Dallas Buyers Club
Matthew McConaughey delivers his best performance to date in director Jean-Marc Vallée's workmanlike adaptation of the true story of Texas HIV-infected Ron Woodroof’s struggle to stay alive against the negligent, if not malicious, policies of Big Pharma. The period is the mid ‘80s when the FDA advanced the death sentence of scores of HIV-infected patients by prescribing toxic doses of a drug called “AZT.”
Although Ron Woodroof’s slippery transition from ignorant — read homophobic — redneck sex-and-gambling-addict to cunning humanist medical activist occurs without the necessary beats to be convincing, McConaughey’s versatility in the role masks the screenplay’s evident failings. With his Texas twang intact, McConaughey’s casting is the film’s greatest coup.
Notable too is Jared Leto’s persuasive portrayal as Rayon, a drug-addicted transvestite suffering from HIV, who meets Ron while both are sequestered in adjacent hospital beds. Rayon eventually partners with Woodroof — for a 25% cut of the profits — to create a mutually beneficial buyers club, supplying local HIV patients with a life-extending cocktail of vitamins and protein supplements smuggled by Woodruff into Dallas from other countries. Naturally, the feds want to shut the operation down at all cost.
Leto and McConaughey each lost considerable weight in order to meet the demands of playing their physically ravaged characters. The results are shockingly effective. The actors are so emaciated that it hurts to watch them in scenes where their characters expose their frail bodies. McConaughey’s signature throwaway charm only rarely peeks out from the gaunt face of a complex individual whose instinct for survival matches his desire to help others suffering from the same diagnosis that initially gave him only 30 days to live.
Jean-Marc Vallée’s low-budget filmmaking techniques creak at the seams but are serviceable in light of the praiseworthy talent on the screen. Griffin Dunne shows up in an exquisite supporting role as an expat doctor working in Mexico. With shaggy gray hair and spectacles, the ever-nuanced Dunne is spot-on. Jennifer Garner gives an ideally understated performance as Dr. Eve Saks, the Dallas physician who initially sees Ron Woodroof for his condition before becoming one of his strongest allies in his battle against the medical industry she represents. Garner’s unglamorous character walks a fine line between meeting the professional demands of her job, while gradually coming around to recognizing the terrible damage that her hospital, and the pharmaceutical industry, is having on the HIV community in Dallas.
“Dallas Buyers Club” is a much-belated piece of activist cinema that leans on nostalgia for a time when passionately motivated citizens such as Woodroof could puncture America’s political system and make a tangible difference to society with nothing more than an inspired DIY approach and a daring willingness to take chances. The film is a sad reminder of how far from such freedoms America has come, in favor of a thoroughly monitored military state that inspires public shootings more than humanist actions. You can intuit how far the weak have fallen.
Rated R. 117 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
ALL IS LOST
Robert Redford gives the finest performance of his career in writer-director J.C. Chandor’s literal and metaphorical tale of one man’s attempts to survive on the high seas. Redford carries Chandor’s one-man showcase with a depth of character and emotion that speaks volumes in spite of the film’s nearly complete lack of dialogue. Like a fine wine, Robert Redford’s gifts as an actor have grown into an effortless complexity that is transparent as it is rich. An Oscar nomination is surely forthcoming.
Water pours into Redford’s unnamed character’s 39-foot yacht — a “1978 Cal 39 sailboat” — waking him from his sleep. His punctured vessel — the “Virginia Jean” — is lodged on the puncturing corner of a giant red cargo bin that floats in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Children’s tennis shoes float out from the broken container — an ugly reminder of how far capitalism’s nature-dissolving effect has reached.
Decisions and repairs must be made. For the next 100 minutes our unnamed embodiment of brawny adaptability will meet every escalating challenge that nature throws at him with a stoic resolve that is fascinating and inspiring to witness.
Sharing single-person survival elements with last year’s “The Life of Pi,” and this year’s sci-fi nail-biter “Gravity,” “All is Lost” carries greater implications pertaining to the fragile state of a planet in free-fall. This is in part due to a bevvy of unanswered questions regarding our protagonist’s backstory and purpose for sailing alone in the open ocean on a boat barely fit for such a voyage. J.C. Chandor wants the audience to struggle right along with his daring protagonist. A single mistake could mean the end.
Existentialism prevails. “Our Man’s” constant struggle for existence takes on a macro-micro vision of cool-headed logic used to battle increasing odds against him. Terrible storms toss the sailboat like a child’s toy. The captain is forced to improvise and learn on the fly. Navigating his way into a shipping lane seems to offer hope for rescue. Redford’s stoic character perseveres with grace and determination in spite of the fierce conditions he faces.
Chandor’s pitch-perfect use of special effects never overshadows the nuances of Redford’s seamless performance that marks every dramatic beat as a virtuoso of his instrument. Likewise, Alex Ebert’s evocative musical score never draws attention away from the highly energized escape story at hand.
At 77 Robert Redford represents a Hollywood icon whose career of unforgettable performances stretches back farther than the eye can see. Not only does Redford do nearly all of his own stunts in the movie, he weaves narrative wool with his every gesture and facial expression. It is a pure cinematic delight to watch Robert Redford acting, alone, beside such an organic and dynamic backdrop as J.C. Chandor (“Margin Call”) creates. It really doesn’t get any better than this.
Rated PG-13. 105 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Fifth Estate
Character Assassination Made Fun
WikiLeaks Movie Cheats With Style
Pre-panned — after reading the script — by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, “The Fifth Estate” is a visually stunning introduction to the origins of a news organization that revolutionized journalism. As much as the film’s dramatic liberties play with the real life nitty-gritty aspects of its elusive subject, it will provide food for discussion for years to come.
Juicy tidbits abound. Julian Assange dyes his famously white hair white. In the early days of WikiLeaks, Assange ran the organization practically by himself while pretending he had “hundreds” of volunteer hackers helping him. Whether accurate or not, this is sexy stuff. Director Bill Condon (“Kinsey”) knows exactly how to place dramatic emphasis on the context of such details surrounding the globetrotting days of the now-exiled publisher of classified documents — namely those brought to light by Bradley Manning in 2010.
Based on two books [“Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website” and “WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy”] that Assange decries as “discredited,” the movie plays like a spy thriller on steroids. With its quick-cutting of headline topics and splashy shots of foreign locales, the opening credit sequence is enough to make politically savvy audiences salivate. Condon’s evocative use of impressionistic imagery — such as a “Brazil”-inspired vision of rows of endless office desks adds to the film’s dynamic sense of bureaucracies collapsing via their own greed-fuelled mechanisms of economic skullduggery.
The film calls attention to its purpose by framing Julian Assange as an “antisocial megalomaniac” — something Benedict Cumberbatch worried about in an interview with “Vogue” magazine. The fact that the story is witnessed through the eyes of WikiLeaks volunteer Daniel Domscheit-Berg (wonderfully played by Daniel Brühl), a person who was “not significantly involved” with WikiLeaks after 2009, points to an inherent fictionalization of events, possibly at the behest of corporate interests. “The Fifth Estate” is a Disney [Dreamworks] production.
It is telling that Daniel Domscheit-Berg profited significantly from the sale of the film rights based on a book he contributed to via ghostwriter Tina Klopp. The film falsely states that Assange has been “charged with rape” in Sweden. Assange would not have been granted political asylum if that were the case. Most confusing is a repeated bit of obfuscating subtext that claims that Julian Assange and his family were members of a cult when he was a child — something he has staunchly denied.
Here is a very entertaining Hollywood movie packed with propaganda attempts to tarnish Julian Assange in an inherently personal way. Like the majority of bogus or slanted information disseminated by the American media, “The Fifth Estate” leans more on fiction than on fact. However, that’s not to say audiences won’t get their money’s worth from it. Benedict Cumberbatch delivers an Oscar-worthy performance, as does the always-intriguing Daniel Brühl. You owe it to yourself to see the movie if only to see what a Hollywood hatchet job looks like. It’s pretty, seductive, and very effective if you aren’t comfortably predisposed to reading between the lines.
Rated R. 124 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)