Movie Reviews - 2013 postsWednesday December 11, 2013
Movie Review: American Hustle (2013)
David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” is a movie that earns the “American” in its title. It’s big, brassy, energetic, corrupt, and has great cleavage. It’s fascinating and fun. It’s a movie that never sits still. It’s about all the little scams everyone plays every day along with the big scams they get caught up in. It’s about how no one’s clean but some people are smart. At one point, maybe two-thirds of the way through, I thought, “After all these years of making movies for us, how nice that someone finally made a movie for Martin Scorsese.”
“American Hustle” is also a movie that earns the “Hustle” in its title, since it’s about people hustling/striving to get ahead and people just hustling/conning everyone else. Usually the two go together.
If you can't tell, I loved the hell out of this movie.
1979 is getting its closeup
It’s the 1970s. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), fat, from the Bronx, and with the worst combover in the world, is involved in his little scams in and around Long Island and New Jersey—shady loans, counterfeit art, plus a few legitimate dry cleaning stores—when he meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) at a party. Boom. She’s from New Mexico, works at Cosmopolitan magazine, but jumps into his scams with both feet. Puts on a British accent and displays leg and that great braless cleavage of the era as they schnooker anyone they can find. Then they schnooker the wrong guy, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), a low-level field agent for the FBI. Since only Sydney puts her hands on the money, only she goes to jail. Freaks her out. Richie uses this, not to mention Irving’s love for her, as leverage to get both of them to help with an operation involving Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the popular, populist mayor of Camden, N.J.
Polito, the father in New Jersey’s version of “The Brady Bunch,” including a black kid he adopted, has helped make gambling legal in the state, and he wants to help reopen Atlantic City, too. So the FBI creates an Arab buyer who will bankroll refurbishing the run-down seaside town for a little something under-the-table. I supposed I should’ve known going in that this was about Abscam. The Iran hostage crisis last year and Abscam this year. 1979 is finally gets its closeup.
What was the deal with Abscam again? Wasn’t it viewed as entrapment? It wanted to be Watergate. It wanted to prove big-time corruption but proved—just barely—small-time corruptibility. Which is like proving nothing at all.
The operation is mostly internecine battles: between Richie, who wants to make it as big as possible, and Irving, who wants to keep the operation small and controlled; between Richie and his immediate superior, Stoddard Thorsen (a hilarious Louis C.K.), a careful stump of a bureaucrat, who refuses to OK any of Richie’s extravagant operational needs (an airplane, a hotel suite, $2 million in wire transfers) without a push from his boss, Anthony Amado (Alessandro Nivola, channeling in looks a young Harvey Keitel, and in voice a young Christopher Walken), who has Richie’s lust for fame. It’s also a battle for Sydney, between Richie and Irving, but who she’s scamming, if she is scamming anyone, we don’t know. She might not know.
The greater battle is probably internal. Irving is being forced to help someone he doesn’t like (Richie) to ruin the life of someone he does (Carmine). He’s doing it for Sydney but in the process he’s losing Sydney. Plus his crazy wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), threatens to ruin the whole operation. Plus the thing he wants small and controlled keeps getting bigger and crazier.
The movie reached a crescendo for me—a testament to the outsized craziness of American life and storytelling—in Atlantic City, when the mob shows up, smiling and hanging at the bar up front, and being whisked in for high-powered meetings in the back room. The face at the bar belongs to Pete Musane (Jack Huston, “Boardwalk Empire”), polite, mustachioed, making eyes at Rosalyn. The face in the back room, and it’s a shock, a wonderful shock, belongs to Victor Tellegio, an uncredited Robert De Niro, doing some of his best acting in years. He suggests speeding up citizenship papers for Sheik Abdullah (Michael Pena), and Carmine, somewhat uncomfortable, agrees to set up meetings with U.S. representatives and senators he knows. The helpless look in Irving’s eyes at all of these moving piece is beautifully contrasted with the greedy gleam in Richie’s. Richie sees greatness coming out of this; Irving merely sees his own death. You can scam the mayor of Camden, N.J., but you can’t scam the mob. The FBI maybe but not him. With every step, it seems, he has more to lose: first Sydney, then Rosalyn, then his life.
How he gets out of it, and the comeuppance of Richie, is a joy to watch. Early on, Irving says this: “As far as I see, people are always conning each other to get what they want.” Irving began the movie conning others, then Richie conned him, and together they began conning Carmine. But the con got too big. So Irving scales it back by conning Richie again.
God, it’s fun.
The first and final con
I flashed on a few other movies watching this one: “Goodfellas” for its energy and narration and camera movement and made guys; “Atlantic City” for the attempt to resurrect the boardwalk; “Argo,” for the era, and for this thought: Can the Academy award its best picture to back-to-back 1979 movies? Probably not. Shame. This one deserves it more.
You’ll hear a lot about the acting, but it’s not in the weight Bale gained nor in his elaborate combover nor in Bradley Cooper’s perm—all of which are fun. It’s in the eyes. The con, and then the concern, in Irving’s, the need in Richie’s, and the fear, the dizzying fear, in Sydney’s. It’s the death stare of Victor Tellegio, delivered as only De Niro can deliver it. It’s in the officious blankness in Stoddard Thorsen’s eyes. A small favorite moment: After all that Richie puts him through, there’s no vindictiveness in Stoddard’s eyes in the end. His eyes remain blank and officious. Like he’s simply wondering when he can go home.
Are there mistakes? Sure. Is Carmine too decent? We don’t really get why Richie targets him in the first place. We barely understand his crime. To him, the graft seems a necessary byproduct of what he really wants to do, which is creating working class jobs for the people of New Jersey. And in the backroom staredown between Victor, who, oops, knows Arabic, and the fake Sheik, who doesn’t, well, isn’t the jig up right there? Yet it isn’t. Plus how does Pena’s FBI agent suddenly know entire sentences in Arabic? Has he been studying?
No matter. Go. Most movies of this type begin with the disclaimer “Based on a true story,” but “American Hustle”’s disclaimer is a little looser, a little more American. It says: “Some of this actually happened.” Meaning most of it didn’t. The movie’s our first and final con. A joyful one.
Movie Review: Philomena (2013)
The power of Stephen Frear’s “Philomena” lies in the performance and in the message.
A simple woman searches for her long-lost son with the help of an erudite former BBC reporter. Early on, you think the movie is merely an odd-couple road-trip—him, with all his Oxford smarts, learning her simple wisdom—and that’s certainly part of it. You also think the movie is about the journey (them together) more than the destination (what happened to her son), but halfway through we wind up at that destination, and it dead-ends, and we wonder where the story can possibly go. Is there a path? There is. Through there. Then another dead-end and another path. And we keep squeezing through onto these smaller paths, wondering if we’re going to make it out, until suddenly everything opens up into a field, and we stand there for a second, happy, even as we recognize we’ve been there before. It’s Roscrea, the convent in Ireland where we started. At this point the former BBC reporter, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), recites the following stanza to the woman, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench):
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
She’s effusive, and asks if he came up with it just then.
Martin (slightly embarrassed): It’s T.S. Eliot.
Philomena (unembarrassed): Oh. Well, it’s still very nice.
It’s the “still” that gets me. It’s the way Dench says it. It’s the way Dench says everything. She reminds me of my mother and Sixsmith reminds me of me. I don’t see me in many movies, and I see my mother less often, so it’s nice to see us up there for a change.
The greater sin
In 1951 Philomena Lee (Sophie Kennedy Clark) met a young boy at a carnival, and after a candied apple knew sin. Her family, ashamed of the out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sends her to Roscrea, where the nuns grill her. “Did you take your knickers down?” they ask. “Did you enjoy your sin?” She signs a document giving the convent the right to put her child up for adoption; then she and other unwed mothers work off what they owe in the laundry room. They’re allowed an hour a day with their child. Philomena’s is named Anthony. At age 3 he’s taken away. She hasn’t seen him since.
Why does Philomena tell her daughter, Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin), about the half-brother she never knew on the 50th anniversary of his birth? She still considers herself a good Catholic and for years thought that what she’d done was a sin, a great sin, so she’d kept it hidden. But wasn’t keeping it hidden a sin as well? Which was the greater sin? She didn’t know. So her gut decided.
Later, Jane is serving wine at a party when she overhears Sixsmith talking to friends, rather uncomfortably, about his plans for the future. He’d worked for the Blair government but left under a cloud. The cloud actually surrounded the Blair administration but most people just remember the cloud. Sixsmith is thinking about writing a book on Russian history—everyone’s lack of interest is a running gag in the film—so Jane tells him about her mother. He’s dismissive at first. Human interest stories, he says, are for “weak-minded, vulnerable and ignorant people.” Then he realizes the insult.
There’s a lot of this: Sixsmith acting slightly rude and/or academic in that Steve Coogan manner, then slightly abashed in that Steve Coogan manner. Philomena is his opposite. She’s sweet but slightly daft. Mostly it works. As here:
Jane [to her mother]: What they did to you was evil.
Philomena: No no no. I don’t like that word.
Martin [taking notes]: No, it’s good: Evil. [Looks up.] Storywise.
Philomena: Do you believe in God, Martin?
Martin: [Exhales] Where do you start? I always thought that was a very difficult question to give a simple answer to. ... Do you?
Or the scene on the back of the airport cart when she goes on and on about the trashy book she’s just finished despite his complete lack of interest. But he’s polite. He says it sounds interesting and she pushes the book on him. He scans the back cover. “I feel like I’ve already read it,” he says dryly. Beat. “Oh, there’s a series.”
The even greater sin
In scenes reminiscent of Coogan’s mockumentary, “The Trip,” Sixsmith and Philomena drive to Roscrea to find of what they can. The nuns there are distant and unhelpful. The records of what happened to Anthony are gone, too, destroyed in the fire in the 1970s. He later learns the fire wasn’t a fire-fire but a burning of records.
Back in the 1950s, most Irish children were adopted by wealthy Americans, some of the few people in the postwar world who could afford the £100 pricetag; and while the British government isn’t helpful with its records, Sixsmith, who once reported from Washington, D.C., thinks they’ll have better luck with the Yanks. That’s the rationale for flying to the states. It feels unnecessary, but it furthers the road trip and the comedy of manners. In a D.C. hotel buffet, for example, Philomena is overfriendly with the Mexican staff (“I’ve never been to Mexico but I hear it’s lovely.” Beat. “Apart from the kidnappings.”), while Sixsmith isn’t friendly enough. But it’s there he finds the answer to her question. A friend emails an old newspaper photo from 1955 showing a Dr. and Mrs. Hess returning from Ireland with two adopted children, Michael and Mary. A quick internet search turns up Michael Hess, senior counsel in the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations, who died of AIDS in 1995. Philomena has found her son only to lose him again.
That’s the dead-end. So where do you go?
To these questions: Did he miss me? Did he think about me? Did he try to find me as I tried to find him? That’s when the trip to the U.S. makes sense. They meet the sister, Mary (Mare Winningham, in a great, thankless performance), who seems to know little about the inner life of her brother, along with a few of Michael’s friends; but in Michael’s lover, Pete Olsson (Peter Hermann), they run into another dead-end. He refuses to talk to them, even after Sixsmith “doorsteps” him. It’s Philomena and her moral authority that wins the day.
She learns that not only did Michael try to find her, he visited Ireland and the convent. He met with the nuns, including Sister Hildegarde (Kate Fleetwood/Barbara Jefford), severe in manner and cat’s-eye glasses. He’s buried there. But they told her they didn’t know where he was, just as they’d told him they didn’t know where she was. They kept mother and child apart. Most movies are about absolutes, good guys and bad guys, so I took all of this with a grain of salt. “I’m sure it’s exaggerated for the movie,” I thought.
Nope. From Sixsmith’s 2009 Guardian article:
Separated by fate, mother and child spent decades looking for each other, repeatedly thwarted by the refusal of the nuns to reveal information, each of them unaware that the other was also yearning and searching.
On the return to Roscrea, Sixsmith is full of righteous anger and condemnation. That’s what the movies are often about, too: revenge. Philomena takes another path, and it’s her path that gives the entire movie meaning.
“Philomena” isn’t perfect. Coogan, who wrote the screenplay with Jeff Pope, pushes the differences between the two characters to an unnecessary comic degree. He turns Sixsmith into too much of a Steve Coogan character and makes Philomena more daft than she probably is.
But Dench is perfect. We get several scenes from the 1950s to demonstrate what Philomena lost, but these, to me, are almost unnecessary. We know what Philomena lost. You just need to watch Judi Dench act.
Movie Review: Before Midnight (2013)
September 4, 2012
First, it was great meeting you and your family in Greece this summer. I was only there a week but I had a blast. Your boy Henry is very sweet and the twins are adorable.
Second, it’s a little intimidating writing a letter to a famous novelist such as yourself. I know, I know, there’s Gore Vidal’s line: “To speak today of a famous novelist is like speaking of a famous cabinetmaker or speedboat designer. Adjective is inappropriate to noun.” Even so, it’s intimidating. I never read your books (sorry!) but I did see the movies based upon them (sorry again!). “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset,” right? With Ethan Hawke as you and Julie Delpy as Celine? Don’t remember much about them, unfortunately. I remember conversations on a train and walking about in Paris and a reading at ... was it Shakespeare & Co.? Those movies were mostly dialogue about everyday matters. Maybe that’s why I don’t remember them. The everyday goes away.
Anyway, apologies about all that, and apologies for this massive presumption, but it’s the reason for this letter. I wish I’d told you this earlier but now this will have to do. Here it is.
Your wife is crazy.
I didn’t think so at first. I thought, “Ah, another couple dealing with the doodads and crises of parenting in the early 21st century.” I even had a little trouble with you at first. I thought you were too delicate around your son. Like you were seeking his approval when it should be the other way around. Then I remembered you were divorced and he lived with his mother, and it made sense. You’re trying to make up for lost time. In this manner, divorce makes children of parents and parents of children.
It was at dinner that I began to see the pattern. Those dinners were a little odd, weren’t they? A little too Woody Allen during his stilted, pretentious period. I liked the kids enough. And I loved Patrick and Natalia. Her line about how we’re just passing through? And you raised a toast “to passing through”? That was nice. Sure, Stefano couldn’t get away from the topic of sex while Ariadni played her usual game of self-satisfied gender politics, but at least you felt the rules in their relationship. No one ever went out of bounds.
Your wife, Celine, kept going out of bounds.
Someone would say how the meeting story of you and Celine was romantic and you agreed and Celine immediately disagreed. Someone would say how your girls were beautiful and you thanked them and Celine immediately disagreed. Remember when Henry was out and about on the island and he called Celine’s phone and she wouldn’t put you on? I’d never seen that before. Another time she asked you some theoretical question—if you’d met on the train today, would you still talk to her?—and dissed your answer. She said, “I wanted you to say something romantic and you blew it.” But whenever you did say something romantic she dismissed it, so I didn’t see how you could win.
She kept cutting into you with these little cuts, about little things: the amount of housework you did, the attention you paid, how self-obsessed you were. Then she’d take out the cleaver and try to lop off your head. Sorry, but it was brutal to watch.
There was such hate in her eyes. That’s the thing. I couldn’t see the love there. Nowhere. You kept trying to make it work and she would come back at you with hate.
She kept reading two or three steps ahead into everything you said. Does she always do this? And is she right? I’m curious. Because you’d say something and she’d make this assumption about what it really meant, and she’d wind up objecting to something that wasn’t even there. Like after Henry left. You were talking about missing him, and missing his years growing up, and how he threw a baseball like a girl because you weren’t around to teach him—which he totally does—but how there was no solution. Henry wouldn’t be allowed to live with you in Paris and you couldn’t move to Chicago to be with him every other weekend because it would disrupt the lives of Celine and the girls. But that’s what she assumed you meant. And the daggers came out.
Have you talked to her about this? This tendency to read three steps ahead? To assume this much? Because it’s not even a good strategy. To attack someone where they aren’t? Every battle that does that, loses. Or does she do this to prevent you from getting there? She attacks where you aren’t to prevent you from going to that place?
Remember that conversation we had about how men always compare themselves to other famous men? Fitzgerald did this by age X and Balzac by age Y and why aren’t I doing that? That felt true. But then she said something like, “Women don't think that way as much.” WTF? That’s the main neuroses, isn’t it? I’m fat, I’m ugly, my hair is too straight. Or too curly. I’m not wearing the right shoes. I’m not Beyoncé or Angelina or Kate. But she probably meant, you know, women outside of show business, because then she said something like, “The women who achieve anything in life, you first hear about them in their 50s, because they were raising kids before then.” So obviously not Beyoncé. She’s talking about someone like Ruth Bader Ginsberg ... who was arguing cases before the U.S. Supreme Court in her thirties. Or Flannery O’Connor ... who wrote “Wise Blood” in her twenties.
No, I know. She was talking about herself. Because that’s what she does. She was laying out the hope that her achievement in life is not being wife to you, or mother to two girls, but something else. Now to me—and I tried to tell her this—but to me the most important thing men and women can do in this life is raise children, and raise them well, but I’m still a fan of maintaining hope for other achievements, too. It keeps us going. In a way, you and Celine regret opposites: You, who have published three novels, regret not parenting enough, and she, mother of two girls, regrets not “achieving” enough. So there’s conflict. That’s inevitable. But you seem to blame you for not parenting more while she seems to blame you for why she hasn’t achieved more. And she blames you without mercy.
I haven’t even told you the worst part yet.
Celine and Patricia and I went on a hike one day. Celine, again, wouldn’t shut up, just went on and on about herself. At some point she talked about some quote someone put on the refrigerator at work with those poet/magnet thingees. Something like, “Women explore for eternity in the vast garden of sacrifice.” Crap, right? She thought it was meaningful. More, she thought it related to her. Not just her mother or grandmother, or any of the women who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago—but her: a pretty French girl born in Paris in 1970. She thinks she’s spent her pampered life in “a vast garden of sacrifice.” She sees herself, despite all evidence to the contrary, as a symbol of oppressed women everywhere. And she sees you—and this was the really weird part—as a symbol of tyrannical men everywhere. She compared you to Dick Cheney and George W. Bush! She said you were a proponent of “rational thinking” but then so were the Nazis during the Final Solution. I mean, holy fuck. I had to walk away at that point.
I probably shouldn’t even have written this letter. I probably won’t send it. I just had to let it out. In the past, you’ve written about your relationship with Celine, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you write about this summer: How you and Celine were in this beautiful place but stuck in this awful situation, which she kept trying to destroy and you kept trying to repair. Maybe they’ll make another movie about it. “Before Dinner”? “Before Dusk”? “Before the Final Solution”?
Anyway, I hope to see you again. Maybe in another nine years? If so, I hope—and this is a bad thing to hope—but I hope you’re on your own. I hope you’re finally free of Celine and that awful, awful decision you made to talk with her on the train to Paris in 1994. Because no man deserves the amount of grief you’re putting up with. To be honest, it’s a little embarrassing.
Movie Review: Oldboy (2013)
Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy” (2003), starring Choi Min-sik and Kang Hye-jeong, is the one of the greatest revenge movies ever made. Spike Lee’s “Oldboy,” starring Josh Brolin and Elizabeth Olsen, is not.
The new “Oldboy” is both more grounded and less believable. It’s less dreamlike, less cartoonish, less comic, and packs less of an emotional wallop. It give us more of Joe Doucett (Brolin) acting like a drunk asshole, more of Joe imprisoned in the room, and a greater subterfuge about the love interest (Olsen), but it’s not as good, not as clever, and obviously not as original. It corrects some of the mistakes of the Korean version but makes its own. It shortens the length of the movie by 16 minutes but hardly to its advantage. As the climax looms, we think, “Already?”
Admittedly remaking a classic is a tough gig.
Joe Doucett is an ad executive and alcoholic, who, as the movie begins, blows a deal by coming onto his client’s wife. Afterwards, he gets massively drunk, roams Chinatown, buys a cheap Buddha gift for his 3-year-old daughter, throws up on himself, and knocks on the door of the bar of his friend Chucky (Michael Imperioli). Then a beautiful woman with an umbrella appears, beckons him, and Joe disappears. All that’s left behind is the Buddha.
He wakes in a hotel room with the shower running. He assumes it’s the umbrella woman but nobody’s there. His clothes are gone, there’s no phone, no room service. At first he thinks he’s simply locked in; then, as food and vodka appear, he realizes he’s being kept prisoner in the room. We realize, meanwhile, that the Korean version didn’t give us this. It went right to being imprisoned for two months, as its main character, Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), veers between rage and catatonia. Both responses come off as comic. That’s part of the tension in watching: not laughing at this man in his horrible predicament. Spike Lee doesn’t give us this. So there’s less tension.
What does Joe do in his imprisoned hotel room? He drinks, he cries, he jacks off. After this last, gas fills the room, and some time later he finds out via the TV news that his ex-wife has been raped and murdered and the irrefutable evidence points to ... him. He’s now a wanted fugitive.
After a few years he gets serious. He stops drinking, gets in shape, readies himself for revenge. He’s tunneling his way out, a la Andy Dusfrene, but at the last moment gas fills the room again. Except when he awakes, he’s out, he’s free. Where? Korean version: on a rooftop. U.S. version: in a coffin in the middle of a field. OK. And there’s the woman with the umbrella again. OK. It’s amazing how she hasn’t aged. Or maybe this is a different woman.
It’s amazing how he hasn’t aged. Joe actually looks better now than when he went in. He also seems saner. Every one of these points is at odds with the Korean version; every one seems wrong.
He follows the umbrella girl until ... well, now it’s a homeless man, standing in line for free health care, and the volunteer nurse on staff is Marie Sebastian (Olsen), who gets caught up in Joe’s life and story. As does Chucky. As does Adrian (Sharlto Copley of “District 9”), the man who imprisoned him, who sets him on a 48-hour mission to find out the answer to these two questions: who is he and why did he imprison Joe for 20 years? If he can answer these, his daughter, now 23, and a cellist somewhere, will live, he’ll be given evidence to clear his name, he’ll be given, what is it, $20 million in diamonds? Plus he’ll get to watch Adrian put a bullet through his own head. Nice deal. He takes it.
The larger prison
So how else does the U.S. version differ from the Korean version? Well, the owner of the private jail, Park there and Chaney here (Samuel L. Jackson), isn’t tortured by teeth extraction; instead, Joe cuts out bits of his neck and literally pours salt in the wounds. There’s less back-and-forth with him, too. Park and his men keep turning up, Chaney less so.
The backstory of the villain (Adrian/Lee Woo-jin) is also different. Korean version: Lee had sex with his sister at school, Ou Dae-su saw it, told his friend, who told others, and on and on until there was scandal and suicide. So Ou Dae-su, a despicable man, suffers for a crime he didn’t commit. U.S. version: Joe witnesses sex, yes, but between the sister and an older man, who turned out to be the father. Joe didn’t know that then, but he still spread the story, and the girl was still hounded, and eventually the entire family, happily engaging in incest with the father, was forced to flee to Luxemburg, where Daddy finally lost it and killed them all. Adrian was only wounded.
Now before I go on to other changes, let me say, emphatically, to anyone who hasn’t seen the Korean version: Go watch it. Now. It’s streaming on Netflix. If you keep reading this, you will discover one of the great twist endings in movie history. It will be like knowing what Rosebud was. So please, if you haven’t seen the movie yet, leave.
Are we good? Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
Another difference is the way the new “Oldboy” presents what happened to Joe/Ou’s 3-year-old daughter. Korea: He gets a slip of paper saying she was adopted by a couple in .... was it Switzerland? She’s out of the picture. In the U.S. version, we see her on television over and over again. She keeps showing up on one of those crappy “unsolved crime” shows, which Joe keeps watching while imprisoned. She grows to be a beautiful 23-year-old cellist. Why this change? One: American children don’t get adopted abroad. Two: the greater subterfuge—and it is subterfuge—is there less to fool Joe than to fool us.
Except ... One of the things I liked about the Korean version is that I suspected briefly who Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong) was. “He should be careful,” I said to Patricia. “That girl is his daughter’s age. She could be his daughter.” I’m careful this way. I’m good with math. But the thought went away. It flashed in my head, and the story picked up, and I stopped thinking about it.
This has happened to me a couple of times watching movies: flashing on the answer, losing it in the story, and then—boom—there it is. When I first saw “The Crying Game,” I thought maybe the dude was a lady; then it went away; then there it was. With Robert Altman’s “Nashville,” I felt a vibe of assassination. I don’t know why. But then it went away. Then boom. It’s almost a kind of subconscious foreshadowing. It’s one of those mysteries of movies, and if you have it you don’t want to mess with it—it’s actually more effective, more resonant, than completely fooling your audience—but in the new “Oldboy” they mess with it. Since the subterfuge is greater, I can’t imagine anyone new to the story engaging in this kind of subconscious foreshadowing.
In both versions, by the way, the villain tells the hero he asked the wrong question: Not why did I imprison you but why did I let you go? But here’s a better question: Why did I let you go after 15/20 years? The length of time, it turns out, is the whole point.
Park’s “Oldboy” is a great revenge fantasy because the revenge isn’t extracted by the man who was imprisoned but by the man who imprisoned him. And the 15 years isn’t the revenge, it simply sets up the revenge. The 15 years is prelude. Enough time has to pass to allow the revenge to happen: to make Ou guilty of the crime that sent Lee Woo-jin’s sister to her death: incest. That’s brilliant. Equally brilliant, equally painful, is Ou’s reaction. He grovels and acts the dog. He literally cuts out his own tongue to please the man who imprisoned him so he won’t tell the daughter what really happened. The dream has become a nightmare; and unlike Ou’s imprisonment, it won’t ever end.
The U.S. version screws this up, too. Josh Brolin is a good actor but he can’t grovel. And Joe certainly doesn’t cut out his own tongue. Instead, even as Adrian kills himself, Joe takes the diamonds, gives most to Marie along with a carefully worded farewell note, and the rest goes to Chaney so he’ll lock up Joe for the rest of his life. Joe is now his own imprisoner. And he smiles at the camera.
It’s not a bad end. It recalls long-held prisoners who want the comfort of the jail cell again. But it doesn’t resonate the way the Korean version resonates.
I think the biggest mistake in Spike’s version was losing the dream/nightmare quality of the Korean film, the horror/comic fable of it all. This version takes itself a little too seriously. Which I guess is what you do when you remake a classic. But it doesn’t serve the final product.
Or maybe it does. We still have the original version, after all, and the U.S. version, despite the talent involved, is no competition. It will fade, disappear from view, leaving only the Korean classic. That’s the one people should see anyway.
Movie Review: The Internship (2013)
Here’s a conversation between Patricia and I during the last five minutes of “The Internship,” starring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson:
Me: Why is everyone else cheering? They just lost. They won’t get jobs now.
Patricia: And what’s the stripper doing there?
That pretty much sums up the movie. The few choice jobs in the digital age are gone ... and what’s the stripper doing there?
Has there been a worse year for comedies? Hollywood keeps trying to make us laugh from situations that cause massive social anxiety: identity theft, college admission, Burt Wonderstone. In “The Internship,” it’s obsolescence in the digital age. Wucka wucka.
I get it. Our heroes dream and persevere. They overcome and work as a team and win. But the anxiety is too real while the victory too fake. The filmmakers (director Shawn Levy; screenwriters Jared Stern and Vince Vaughn) have taken the American nightmare, shoved it through the Hollywood dream factory, and this is what came out the other end.
Selling watches in 2012
Billy McMahon (Vaughn) and Nick Campbell (Wilson) are mid-40s watch salesmen who don’t know what time it is. They don’t even know their company has folded. It takes a former customer to tell them that.
Immediate thought. Sales? That’s a transferable skill. They should do well. Hell, if they can sell watches in 2012, they can sell anything.
Except for the movie to work, they can’t get jobs; and because they can’t get jobs, they’re forced to roll the dice as interns at Google, where they join a team of misfits and compete, for a job, against a bunch of other teams, including a team led by a true douchebag, Graham Hautrey (Max Minghella), who has it in for our team of sad-sack misfits. And while our team starts poorly, eventually, in the Hollywood tradition of misfit teams, they come together and begin to win and have a chance. Ah, but team leader Billy lets them down and gives up and walks away. But then he’s called back! At the last second! And they finally win! And there’s the stripper!
So it’s like “Monsters University” but more cartoony. And with a stripper.
Who are these other misfits? There’s the ostensible leader, Lyle (Josh Brener), a nerd who uses hip-hop slang and has the hots for the part-time Google dance instructor Marielena (Jessica Szohr); Stuart (Dylan O’Brien), who can’t bother to look up from his smartphone; Neha (Tia Sircar), a supercute girl who likes nerdy things (cosplay, etc.) but somehow still can’t get a date; and Yo-Yo (Tobit Raphael), the home-schooled son of a Tiger Mother, who pulls at his eyebrow when he feels like he’s done something bad.
I liked Yo-Yo. He felt new.
How do they come together as a team? Do I have to say? Actually, see if you can pick out the most absurd element on their road to victory.
They go partying. Yep. They wind up in a Chinatown restaurant, where Billy orders their meal in Mandarin, and then at a high-end strip club, where they do shots, and get lap dances, and where Neha takes a shower with her clothes on and Lyle hooks up with Marielena, who, oops (she’s so embarrassed!), is a high-end stripper and lap dancer as well as being the part-time Google dance instructor. So if Google paid her more, would she not have to strip? No one raises that point. But of course she’s interested in Lyle! What high-end lap-dancer doesn’t want a serious relationship with Dilton Doiley? Then there’s a fight (over Marielena), and afterwards, as dawn breaks beautifully over the Golden Gate Bridge, our team, recounting its crazy night, comes up with an app that wins the next event.
So: What’s the most absurd element from this crazy night? The Lyle/Marielena relationship? The fight? The fact that Neha was totally cool being in a high-end strip club where women walked around in lingerie sucking on men’s fingers?
For me it’s the Mandarin. It means that Billy is in sales, and he speaks Mandarin, and somehow he still can’t get a job.
Does Hollywood know what year it is?
Cheering for losing
There are cameos by Will Ferrell and Rob Riggle, both playing major assholes, and Nick winds up romancing a beautiful Google executive, Dana (Rose Byrne), who just never had time for a relationship but now suddenly does with a half-hearted Owen Wilson. I could barely watch their scenes together. They were so awful, I just wanted to crawl away.
Sales turns out to be the final event, which is perfect for our team. And at the last minute they nail the sale, the douche is shown up, and everyone at Google, including the other intern teams who have just lost, and thus lost the chance at their dream job, stand and cheer for our team, because that’s what always happens in the real world. Then everything else falls into place. Nick winds up with Dana, Stuart with Neha, and Yo-Yo tells off his tiger mom, who looks proud that he does so. Oh, and Lyle winds up with the stripper. Because that’s what she’s doing there. Because that relationship has no chance of not failing.
Google “shitty movie.”
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