Oldboy (2013)

Oldboy (2013)

Raiding Asian cinema is nothing new for Hollywood. Some of the most famous examples are clearly the likes of The Ring and The Grudge. Indeed, these films introduced many to the wonders of Asian horror and Asian storytelling. Now we regularly see adaptations of Far Eastern cinema being adapted for us. No, we’re not going to count 47 Ronin. There’s a difference between aping an Asian style and straight-up translating it for Western audiences. So, on to Hollywood’s latest attempt to steal some of Asia’s thunder with a remake of 2003’s Oldboy – the tale about a guy that gets locked in a room for numerous years (15 if you’re into the Korean version, 20 if you’re into the US version), before being released. Vengeance is his for the taking as he tries to piece together why the hell he was imprisoned… but should Oldboy have remained locked in the room indefinitely? Let’s have a peek through the keyhole…

Oldboy (2013)

To be honest, the plot’s already summed up for you there. There’s not much more to Spike Lee‘s reimagining of Chan-wook Park‘s original. This time, the focus is squarely on “Joe Ducett”, played by Josh Brolin. A drunkard, no-hope father who’s more concerned with getting drunk and womanising than he is with looking after his little girl. So, Joe’s a little perplexed when he wakes up in a sealed room and is plied with vodka and dumplings on a daily basis. Oh, add into that the fact that he’s framed perfectly for the rape and murder of his estranged wife. So, some 20 years later, Joe is released back into the public with a lot of questions and an urgent need to clear his name… Which leads him to a variety of nefarious ne’er do wells, including characters (I won’t spoil anything) portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson and Sharlto Copley.

I’ll make a confession: I’ve not seen the original Oldboy. I know, I know: “it’s a classic”, “how can you review this if you haven’t seen the original”, “your verdict is USELESS you HACK”… some of those criticisms are valid, and I am indeed a hack. Nor have I read the graphic novel it’s based on either… But I’m now able to judge this version of Oldboy purely on its merits and not some sentimental view of a 10 year old film. I therefore can’t comment on what’s missing / what’s included. I can just comment on what works… and what really, really doesn’t.

Oldboy (2013)

Let’s start with the good shall we? The plot. The plot is an interesting concept and is clearly Asian in origin. It did remind me a little of Stephen King’s 1408 insofar that there’s a sense of desperation at being locked inside a room. It also had that torture edge to it that we’ve all become so accustomed to at the cinema in recent years. But then it swirls in the whole revenge angle. This is the type of role that Josh Brolin excels at. He just LOOKS mean and moody all the time in the same way that Ron Perlman looks like he’d break your teeth with a baseball bat. Or play a pirate monkey in Ice Age 4 (we still can’t believe he wasn’t that character!). Physically, Brolin is imposing and does the role justice in our opinion. Similarly, Samuel L. Jackson is bankable and clearly loves lapping it up as a villain. Though thankfully, he doesn’t do it to the same abominable degree that he does in The Spirit.

Similarly, the pacing is frantic and keeps you intrigued. It doesn’t slow down and constantly swirls and lashes at you as the film progresses. We liked this. What we didn’t like though were some of the hammy choreography in those fight scenes.

Oldboy (2013)

Oldboy is a suitably violent film. The body count is high and there’s a good deal of gore / torture to be seen here. Not quite Ichi The Killer levels of gore, but enough of it. Therefore there’s an urgent need for fighting and violence. Some of this works and has the shock value… but some is just so out-of-place and forced. Notably the moments after Joe is released from his confines – the first fight with the football jocks. Why? Why that level of violence? It’s uncharacteristic. Add to that some of the single-framed fights that looked more like a Broadway musical / Benny Hill sketch than anything else. It’s admirable to lock the camera in one place for us to watch what unfolds as opposed to the horrid use of shakey-handicam footage that plagues cinematic fights nowadays. But it felt too rehearsed / video game esque. It just didn’t work.

Now, what was the biggest flaw with this film is actually down to personal preference / favouritism. We’re massive fans of Sharlto Copley at Film Phage. We loved him in District 9, Elysium and even The A Team. No doubt he’ll also be fantastic in Chappie next year. But what’s with that accent Sharlto? You’re South African… why does your villain need to be hammy and English? As a Brit, the accent just grated with me somewhat. Why Spike Lee felt it necessary to have Copley‘s character be British is beyond me. Oh, is it because he’s “posh”? Or is it because of… what… unfolds? I have no idea. Copley himself acts well and had me captivated, so it’s no slight against his acting capabilities. It’s just that damn accent!

Oldboy (2013)

That sounds rather shallow of me doesn’t it? To say that an accent is the reason that the film doesn’t hit the giddy high notes? It’s actually symptomatic of the main problem with this film: it’s unnatural and forced. Some things don’t make sense: love interests developing so rapidly, random violence, THAT accent… the list goes on. It might make sense in Asian cinema, but it didn’t really fit here.

Oldboy is far from a bad film, but it’s also far from a great film. The plot and narrative is its strongest suit. It ably works as a mystery / thriller that has you guessing up until the final beats, but this was already going to be the case based on its source material. Indeed, if you’re familiar with Oldboy‘s plotting, I’m unsure of what pleasure you’ll derive from this, spare an update to 2013 technology (they use iPhones) and the obvious benefit of no need for subtitles…

Whilst not the finest adaptation of Asian cinema, Oldboy is serviceable and will satisfy a moviegoing audience seeking an 18 rated film at a time when animation and family films are King at the box office. Oldboy isn’t a Christmas film; that much is for sure. Unless Santa’d been the one subjected to imprisonment. Then you could have the title as “Oldboy Santa: He Knows If You’ve Been Naughty or Nice”, then have a photo of him covered in tattoos, or like the cover of Bronson, but meaner. Actually, I really want to see that film… someone go write it! He’s coming for you Easter Bunny; he knows it was you, you little bitch…

Phage Factor:

3 Star

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Stoker (2013)

Stoker (2013)

There are dark films… and there are dark films. For some, a straight-up horror movie with a somewhat glib ending constitutes a truly “dark” film, whilst some will consider the ending of The Empire Strikes Back as dark. Me? Well, you’ve got to do something pretty darn subversive for me to label a film as “dark”. Take the darling of controversy, The Human Centipede, as an example. For some, the material was considered so offensive that the film was labelled as filth. But me? I just thought it was a lazily constructed, terribly acted film. Nothing more, nothing less. But every so often, a film crawls along that makes me think “wow… this is a dark slice of cinema”. Stoker is that film.

Dark

Dark

Stoker primarily focuses on India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) following the death of her father. All she’s left with is her emotionally-detached and disturbed mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), and the staff that work at their home. This all changes when her estranged uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) turns up at the funeral and stays for an extended period of time. She’s not alone any more, but the token of family solidarity isn’t what it initially seems to be either. Who is Charlie? Why hasn’t she heard of him before? And just why is he so weird?

To go into any more depth would destroy the film entirely. Chan-wook Park‘s Stoker is teed up as a psychological thriller that’s meant to harken back to Hitchcock films of yesteryear. The film oozes style in the way that it’s shot and it truly does harken back to that period… if only I really enjoyed that period of cinema. I’m much more of a modern cinema junkie than I am into the “classics” that people rave about. For some that’s blasphemy, but I couldn’t give a damn. I’m The Phage!

Stoker (2013)

The aping of the “classics” style makes the initial 45 minutes excruciatingly hard to sit through, as the momentum is somewhat absent. There’s no immediate set up, nor a big hook to latch on to. The film is entirely character driven and no mystery really appears until about 30 minutes in. It’s only then that the film truly gets going. As you can probably tell, I wasn’t a fan of that initial period. I didn’t really know what was going on and so I started to piece together my own plot in my head. My own plot was exciting and to be honest, wasn’t far off the mark come the conclusion of the film. OK, so I didn’t predict just how bonkers it would get towards the end, but I at least knew something was awry.

While we’re on the topic of “bonkers”, let’s return back to the “dark” theme I talked about. Now, annoyingly, I can’t really tell you why I found the film so dark or crazy towards its conclusion lest I spoil the plot for you. Let’s just say that some of the scenes are quite peculiar to watch. To some they’ll actually be quite uncomfortable. Those initial 45 minutes made me question just why this film had received an 18 rating from the British Film Council… but it became apparent later on. Let’s just say that India gets a lot of “pleasure” from some of the more perverse events that unwind. And they really are perverse.

Stoker (2013)

So what of the acting? After all, the film doesn’t help itself by rolling out the plot as slow as is humanly possible. Well, it’s… it’s… it’s OK. Mia Wasikowsa is great as India, but she’s somewhat limited by the fact that India is an incredibly sour-faced girl whose emotions range from “I’m really sad” to “I’m petulant and sad”. Well, except for that “pleasure” scene! Similarly, Nicole Kidman plays the emotionally-disturbed mother to a tee too. But there’s just no range in the role. I understand that it’s not actually possible to show off all your range in a film like this, so it’s probably more a short-coming of the film, or my lack-of-appreciation for this style, that is to blame.

Thankfully, the final build-up has lots of pay-offs and really redeems the film for me, but it still ends on a somewhat odd note that doesn’t really stack up. You’ll find yourself asking “why did he/she do X, Y and Z?”. Whether this was the idea that Park had in mind when he cooked this up, I don’t know, but ultimately I didn’t care enough about the film to make me think this for long.

Stoker is an interesting piece of cinema in 2013. Its nods to the past will either thoroughly ignite your interest in it, or it’ll entirely put you off. If the trailers left you somewhat cold and perplexed, the film itself will do little to correct these opinions. However, if you love Hitchcock-era suspense classics, then you can pretty much disregard what I said in the past few paragraphs and thump another star onto the below score. I didn’t think the film was bad, far from it, but it just didn’t have enough pace or momentum to really engage me over its (relatively short) run time.

Whilst I actually found last week’s reviewed film, This Is 40, to be dark, it was for a completely different reason. This Is 40 painted a very realistic view of what life is like once you’ve “achieved” what you wanted to. But Stoker? Well, Stoker‘s an entirely different kettle of fish. A kettle of fish swimming in crude oil that’s being sucked into a black hole that ends in the negative zone ruled over by King Negative and his dark dominions. Yes, it’s that dark. And also slightly disturbing. If you’re curious, then head out and catch this film while you can. I can’t guarantee you’ll like what you see, but you’ll definitely have an opinion on the closing half of the film.

Phage Factor:

2.5 Stars