Tag Archives: Mystery

BORDERLINE WEIRD: OLDBOY (2003)

Must See

DIRECTED BY

FEATURINGMin-sik Choi, Ji-tae Yu, Hye-jeong Kang

PLOT:  A drunk Dae-su Oh is seized off the streets and imprisoned for years in a private apartment without any explanation; when he is just as mysteriously released, his former captor toys with him, giving him clues to help Dae-su track him down and, more importantly, discover why he was imprisoned in the first place.

Still from Oldboy (2003)


WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: Oldboy is certainly extreme, certainly stylized, certainly cultish, but it may be a stretch to call it “weird.” What gives it some weird cred is the high implausibility of the fabulous plot, which is more concerned with intriguing us through its psychological truth than its believability. Watching Oldboy leads to the same punched-in-the-psychic-gut feeling as the best weird movies do. It’s that effect that keeps it on the borderline.

COMMENTS: Oldboy spins its improbable yarn with stylized realism. There are a few weirdish digressions: when a stir-crazy Dae-su hallucinates that ants are crawling under his skin (an ant also briefly appears to Mi-do in a mirror image phantasm); a scene where, instead of showing the avenger graphically bashing in his adversary’s head, the director freezes frame and draws a dotted line on the screen from Dae-su’s claw hammer to the villain’s noggin; and a brilliantly impossible kung fu battle in a narrow corridor that seems imported from a completely different movie. Part of what makes this Chan-wook’s most successful work is that neither these cinematic stylistic touches, nor the improbably convoluted plot, cause our brows to permanently freeze in a skeptical furrow, or totally overwhelm the sense that this fantastic story could have happened essentially the way he tells it. There are maybe a dozen points in the film where if Dae-su chooses to follow path X rather than path Y, the entire plot collapses; there are another half-dozen plot contrivances that could only be accomplished by a cartoon supervillain with unlimited resources. But our logical objections never rise to the fore while we’re watching the film. Oldboy seems “real” because the actors are able to convey an emotional realism, because Chan-wook creates legitimate suspense that makes us want to believe so we’re fully invested when we discover what happens next, and because, like a Shakespearean tragedy, the story rings psychologically true. On one level, Oldboy is a simple and elegant dramatization of the self-annihilating power of revenge, inflicted with unflinching emotional brutality on the poor hero. What gives the film extra intensity is that we sense it’s not the villain, but the dread hand of Fate manipulating and battering Dae-su. The force that torments him is too relentless and omnipotent to be human, to cruel and senseless to be karma.

Every successful foreign film is the subject of a Hollywood remake rumor, and Oldboy is no exception. What is just as bizarre as Oldboy‘s plot contrivances are the names linked to the remake (actually an adaptation of the same source material, to avoid quibbles): Steven Speilberg and Will Smith. If even Hollywood’s most daring talent would inevitably chicken out and make Oldboy pointless by sanitizing its unflinching psychic brutality, what will these two squeaky-clean icons of normality do to it?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“At once real and completely unreal, familiar and deeply strange, violent and comically absurd… It says something when you come out of a film as weird and fantastical as ‘Oldboy’ and feel that you’ve experienced something truly authentic. I just don’t know what. I can’t think of anything to compare it to.”–Carina Chocano, Los Angeles Times (contemporary)

21. THE WICKER MAN (1973)

“I think it is a film fantastique in a way… a film fantastique can have almost anything in it, it’s based on facts but it can take flights of fancy which are still rooted to the truth, to the reality of the story, so the imagination can roam.”–Robin Hardy

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Robin Hardy

FEATURING:  Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, Britt Ekland,

PLOT:  A devout Christian policeman flies to the isolated island of Summerisle off the coast of Scotland to investigate a report of a missing girl.  When he gets there, everyone denies knowledge of the girl, but he notices with increasing disgust that the entire island is practicing old pagan rituals and licentious sex.  As his investigation continues, he uncovers evidence suggesting that the missing girl was a resident of the island, and may have met a horrible fate.

the_wicker_man_1973

BACKGROUND:

  • Screenwriter Anthony Shaffer was a hot property in 1973 after adapting his own successful mystery play Sleuth into a 1972 hit movie with Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, and penning the screenplay for Frenzy (1972) for Alfred Hitchcock.  His clout was so great that this film was released under the official title Anthony Shaffer’s The Wicker Man.  He later adapted Agatha Christie novels such as Murder on the Orient Express (1974) for the big screen.
  • Director Robin Hardy, despite doing an excellent job on this film, did not direct a feature film again until 1986’s Wicker Man variation, The Fantasist.
  • Christopher Lee, who had just come to the end of his run as Hammer’s Dracula, donated his acting services to the production.  He was quoted in 1977 as saying, “It’s the best part I’ve ever had.  Unquestionably.”
  • The “wicker man” was a historically accurate feature of Druidic religions that was first described to the world by Julius Caesar in his “Commentary on the Gallic Wars.”
  • In Britain the film was released on the bottom half of a double bill with Don’t Look Now, perhaps the most impressive psychological horror double feature in history.
  • Shaffer and Hardy published a novelization of the film in 1976.
  • “Cinefastique” devoted an entire 1977 issue to the film, calling it “the Citizen Kane of horror movies.”
  • In 2001, an additional 12 minutes of deleted scenes were added to create a “Director’s Cut” version.
  • Some of the original footage is believed to be lost forever, including part of the scene where Sgt. Howie first meets Lord Summerisle.  The original negative was accidentally thrown away when original producer British Lion Films went under and cleaned out its vaults.
  • The climax was voted #45 in Bravo’s list of the “100 Scariest Movie Moments.”
  • The 2006 Neil LaBute remake starring Nicolas Cage had as little as possible to do with the original story, was universally reviled, and was even accused of being misogynistic.  Some argue that it is so poorly conceived and made that it has significant camp value.
  • Hardy released a “spiritual sequel,” The Wicker Tree, in 2011.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The wicker man itself (although, for those of a certain gender, Britt Ekland’s nude dance may be even harder to forget).

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Hardy and Shaffer create an atmosphere like no other; it’s an encounter of civilized man with strange, primeval beliefs.  Select scenes are subtly surreal—observe how the villagers break into an impossibly well-choreographed bawdy song about the innkeeper’s daughter preternaturally designed to discomfit their sexually repressed guest.  Other weird incidents are more outrageously in the viewer’s face: the vision of a woman breastfeeding a child in a graveyard while delicately holding an egg in her outstretched hand.  Almost invisible details such as the children’s lessons scribbled on the classroom blackboard (“the toadstone protects the newly born from the weird woman”) saturate the film and reveal how painstakingly its makers constructed a haunting alternate world of simultaneously fascinating and repulsive pagan beliefs.  The rituals Sergeant Howie witnesses don’t always make sense (and when they do, their significance is repulsive to him), but they tap into a deep, buried vein of myth.  The viewer himself undergoes a dread confrontation with Old Gods who are at the same time familiar and terrifyingly strange.

Original trailer for The Wicker Man

COMMENTS: CONFESSION: The version reviewed here–horrors!–is the 88 minute theatrical Continue reading 21. THE WICKER MAN (1973)

CAPSULE: WATCHMEN (2009)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Zach Snyder

FEATURING:, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffery Dean Morgan

PLOT: As the film opens in an alternate past in 1985, Richard Nixon has been re-elected to a fifth presidential term as the Cold War rages on, costumed superheroes are integrated into the national security defense framework, the nuclear Doomsday Clock has ticked forward to five minutes to midnight, and ex-Watchman “the Comedian” has just been thrown through the window of his Manhattan high rise.

watchmen

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Not weird enough.  Watchmen is about as weird as big-budget major studio releases will ever be allowed to get, which weirdness explains why Watchmen was released as a Spring rather than a Summer blockbuster.  All the oddness, however, resides in the scenario.  Once the rules of this alternate universe are laid out—superheroes are real, they have tawdry affairs and abuse their power in bursts of sociopathic violence—Watchmen goes about its business with strict action-movie realism.

COMMENTS: The brilliant montage over the opening credits is a distillation of “all-too-human” vignettes in which we see four decades of masked avengers interact on a fictionalized American history stage, to the strains of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a Changin’.” A costumed moth-man is dragged off to an insane asylum, and a glowing blue man in a three piece suit shakes hands with a grateful JFK, and Andy Warhol paints pop portraits of caped crusaders. The opening captures what is good about Watchmen: the setting is so original that the film relocates you into its own peculiar universe, which is what escapist entertainment is supposed to do.  And this one has just enough of a veneer of philosophical and political depth (“who watches the Watchmen?”) to give adults an intellectual justification to sit back and enjoy a comic book on film.  The flawed superheroes are briefly sketched, but their slightly twisted archetypes capture our interest.  The noirish Rorschach has an inflexible vigilante code of justice and ever-shifting inkblot mask; atomic superman Dr. Manhattan deploys his colossal blue CGI penis as unashamedly as he does his godlike power to create special effects, all the while suffering existential detachment as his contemplation of quantum realities alienates him from human ones. The script weights the amount of time devoted to each of the intertwining stories and backstories well, supplying a rich context without becoming confusing.  The film’s nihilism ultimately appears as little more than a tonal choice, much like a decision to film in black and white instead of Technicolor. The setting is absorbing enough to make most overlook the films more than occasional gaffes, from the excessively visceral, bone-cracking and blood-spurting violence meant to deglamorize the heroes to a laughably glamorous moonlight lovemaking scene in a hovering owlcraft.

From the standpoint of someone who hasn’t read the beloved comic book graphic novel from which the movie was adapted, it’s amusing to observe Internet kvetching over the movie’s supposedly superhuman power to drain the source work of it’s magic.  Even reviews by professional critics often devolve into column-length comparisons of the literate merits of the original to the relatively pedestrian film version.   But, coming to the film not expecting it to have the intellectual depth and characterization of a novel, I found the movie Watchmen to be an excellent advertisement for the source material.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘Watchmen’ is… going to be the ultimate tough sell: there will be those who view the film as a bewildering mishmash of underexplored themes, thinly sketched characters and noisy, excessive violence… And yet, there’s something admirable about the entire enterprise: its ungainly size, its unrelenting weirdness, its willful, challenging intensity.”–Tom Huddleston, Time Out London (contemporaneous)