Saturday, November 21, 2015

Dead Man Down, Spike Lee's Oldboy: DVD patrol

Two recent-ish thrillers consumed this evening that in no way got their due. Both are well worth a look.
Dead Man Down is an ambitious neo-noir oddity that doesn't quite work, but is more interesting than a lot of commercial thrillers that go off without a hitch. First off, and maybe most interestingly, it approaches the most noirish and most recognizable of movie cities, New York, with a highly European eye, almost to the extent - the odd skyline shot notwithstanding - of effacing it, which is no mean feat. Visually, it reminded me of, say, Revanche, though without being quite as chilly. The cinematographer was actually Paul Cameron, who lensed Collateral and Man on Fire; he's from Montreal, which surely is one of the most European cities in North America, while the director, Niels Arden Oplev (of the original version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) is Danish, both of which no doubt explain the eye of the movie to some extent. Oplev, tho', seems to deliberately push the European aspect of the film well beyond its look, setting many scenes on tree-lined streets and in suburban residential areas that don't jibe with the usual signifiers of the city, and filling the story with immigrants, turning New York into a staging ground for conflicts between Brits, French, Hungarians, Albanians, and Jamaicans (the list gets longer if you consider that the stars, Colin Farrell and Noomi Rapace, are respectively Irish and Swedish). Foreign accents even become a plot point. The film is so playful and wilful in its "Europeanization" of New York that I confess that at about the fifteen minute mark I had to pause it to make sure I knew where it was set, as a black American gangster (Terence Howard), a British cohort, and Colin Farrell (who, with no dialogue early on, could very well have BEEN playing an Irish) go to war with a black English rival and his Jamaican crew. I don't THINK I was just being dense, not knowing where all this was happening.
The action of the film, meanwhile, is very aware of the history of noir and plays with familiar figures - the man who must steel his emotions in order to see a complex revenge plot through; the wounded woman who needs his help, and in attempting to use him, falls in love; the loyal friend whom the hero must betray, who has to ultimately be reckoned with... It's a sort of hazard of post-modern cinema; if the codes you play with feel too familiar, if you don't do enough with them, the movie runs the risk of seeming formulaic, by the book. Cinephiles might be able to rise above that to some extent by being able to contextualize, to see the film as deliberately playing with the codes, but self-awareness can only take you so far. Plus the film isn't THOROUGHLY European; unlike the chilliness of a film like Revanche, it opts for a climactic Hollywood shoot-em-up complete with automatic weapons, explosions, and a truck being driven through a wall. Add this to the fact that it already feels a bit formulaic and you can see why the film wasn't exactly a critical success (38% on RT). A final problem with it is that as good as the cast is - I mean, there's a supporitng role for Isabelle Huppert, ferchrissake, and tiny spaces for F. Murray Abraham and Armand Assante - they aren't really given anything to do, seem to exist in the movie not to fill a role that needed casting but rather to have had roles created for them because they were available. It's a bit of a waste of talent, though on another level, is kind of sweet and sympathetic: I mean, if I were a filmmaker, I'd write a character for Isabelle Huppert too, if I knew I could get her in my movie. I think I'd try to give her something to do more interesting than making cookies, though.

All the same, I rather enjoyed Dead Man Down. It's beautifully shot, well-acted - Rapace is particularly good - and has an enjoyably old-fashioned quality and unhurried, generous pace. It's maybe a film more for film lovers than casual viewers.

To my surprise, I entirely enjoyed Spike Lee's re-telling of Oldboy. It's a shame that whole Juan Luis Garcia thing went down like it did, actually (if you recall, Lee very casually and flippantly rebuffed a graphic artist whose work was ripped off to give the film its poster art; the resulting lawsuit has since been settled out of court, with few details having been made public). I remember, back in 2013, being excited to see the movie, despite some misgivings that I already had about Lee (who wore out his welcome with me as an actor as early as Do the Right Thing, though I enjoyed several of his subsequent films as director). Then the Juan Luis Garcia thing broke, and I was completely put off, had a definite fuck-this-guy reaction. Besides, I'm generally against the whole white-facing of Asian cinema; even if it sometimes produces worthwhile films - the American version of Ring, say -  there's something kind of insulting about taking a hit Asian film, and changing nothing but the language the characters speak and the colour of their skin. Why the hell does anyone need to remake Oldboy, when they can just go see the original? It's not like it's some obscure, unheard-of film over here.
But guess what? Oldboy - now available for $5 on London Drugs discount DVD racks, which is where I got it - is just flippin' great. It's very, very smart. There are some playful nods to the original, including a brief (but painless!) acknowledgment of octopi, but there's also a structural elegance that the original, as I recall, lacked; I can't go into too much detail without ruining the film's surprises, but in many ways it doesn't just copy the original, but improves upon it. I mean, I like Park Chan Wook just fine, but he's an excessive filmmaker, and some of the stuff he throws into his films is as distracting as it is surprising, creating moments that are powerful - the octopus, say, or the cutting off of the tongue, or the weird cut to the guy about to be thrown off the roof - but they also threaten to overpower, undermine, or redirect the film as a whole. There are still plenty of startling and memorable moments in the 2013 Oldboy, but there's also less distraction, less confusion; the underlying structural elegance is more apparent, without these individual bravura moments confusing the issue. This in turn makes the film's themes more interesting to think about, makes the meaning a bit easier to access (or so it seems; I am not of a mind to think deeply on it, but it seems less like an exercise in existential-masochism-for-its-own-sake than the original, seems like there's actually something worth contemplating there). I like the final shot a lot better, too.

Sorry to be a bit vague there, but I'm guessing a lot of people have seen the Korean film, and I want to intrigue them as to what Lee has done with it without giving anything away. (I'm even more curious to see Da Sweet Blood of Jesus now!).

Anyhow, it was a pretty great day scrounging the pawn shops, thrift stores, dollar stores and discount bins of Maple Ridge. These were both in today's haul. Over twenty DVDs and Blu's purchased for around $50, total. It's weird to me that so many DVDs and Blu's still get priced at $25 and upwards, when there's so much cheap entertainment available out there... but that's another matter. Tomorrow Mom and I will try Warrior, with Tom Hardy... And maybe Birdman, as part of my homework for The Revenant...

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