Saturday 7 March 2015

Letterboxd: BIRDMAN • LUCY • OLDBOY (2013)

Saturday 7 March 2015
★★★ (out of five)

I saw BIRDMAN the day after it won the Oscar for Best Picture, knowing that initially ecstatic reviews eventually gave way to more moderated ones. I think my own opinion falls somewhere in the middle, but I'll try not to fence-sit.

This movie has a technical prowess you can't ignore, because it's been filmed in a sequence of long takes, cleverly edited to appear like just one, so the camera floats through locations as time "magically" passes around us. It's impressive filmmaking (I don't begrudge Alejandro G. Iñárritu also winning Best Director), and the film deftly captures the feeling of being in and around a busy Broadway theatre. The atmosphere, buzz, and that indefinable gloomy oppressiveness of a live seated audience is captured brilliantly.

I also enjoyed the meta-commentary on Michael Keaton, playing an erstwhile movie actor (famous for playing the eponymous superhero), who is now trying to revive his flagging career by writing, directing and starring in a stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver story. It echoes Keaton's own post-Batman career, slightly, and was a fun ingredient to stir into this film's melting pot. The way Riggan (Keaton) is clearly being driven insane by the artistic challenges of the play, hallucinating the ability to move objects with his mind, or imagining his onetime alter-ego Birdman talking to him, was also a lot of fun.

The big problem with BIRDMAN is its very pretentious and elitist at times, and a bit mean-spirited about modern movies. And beyond a few memorable scenes (mainly involving Ed Norton as a unbalanced genius, hired last-minute to replace an injured actor), it's clear BIRDMAN doesn't really have much substance—which is perhaps why it hides behind its filming technique and dalliance with "magical realism" (which sure helps sell the trailer). There's also the fact it ends on a brilliantly shocking moment, then decides to continue for awhile longer, before actually ending with a weird final scene that's less satisfying and just deliberately silly. I can see why the Academy and many critics loved it, but it has problems.

★★ (out of five)

Sexy Scarlett Johansson becomes an unwilling drug mule for a nasty Japanese gangster, but the super-drug gives her access to more than 10% of her brain—which, as we know, means you're instantly proficient in martial arts, can control your own metabolism, and soon develop telekinesis, before becoming a gelatinous time-travelling super-computer.

Yeah, Luc Besson's latest movie is bizarre and idiotic—but dopey enough in an entertaining way, mainly because the visuals are fun and it's a pleasure to watch Johansson emasculate tough-guys without batting an eyelid. Morgan Freeman's on hand to narrate about the ridiculous premise, in an effort to make it sound faintly plausible.

In the end, a weird crossbreed of THE LAWNMOWER MAN and TRANSCENDENCE (also starring Freeman, so maybe he's an ambassador for this shit?), that doesn't have the brains to stage a fight where super-Lucy's faced with an opponent of equal abilities. There's never any doubt Lucy's going to win, when she can send people to sleep just by thinking about it, so farewell any tension LUCY may have had.


The Korean original from 2003 was amongst the millennial films that made me appreciate Asian cinema, during the J-Horror boom that resulted in U.S remakes like THE RING, DARK WATER and THE GRUDGE. The U.S remake of OLDBOY took a frustratingly long time to come into being, so perhaps missed its chance to coast on whatever subcultural buzz Park Chan-wook's movie generated, because I don't see why this wasn't a bigger hit for Spike Lee. Although the theatrical cut felt fine to me, Lee was apparently against the studio-enforced edit, and therefore the film's coldly credited as a "Spike Lee Film" instead of his usual "Spike Lee Joint". I'm not saying the director's cut can't possibly be better, or improve on its one big failing, but this version of OLDBOY was perfectly acceptable.

A lot of people seem to have problems with the fact Lee's remake doesn't really bring anything new to the table—as if he should perhaps have tried to one-up the original's notorious twist. I really don't see how that could be possible, and daresay people would be moaning if the remake had ended in a different way. What I appreciated about the remake is how the storyline felt more comprehensible, and I was pleased by how long the story kept us with Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) after he was imprisoned in a single room for two decades. It always annoyed me how quickly the first OLDBOY flew past that first act sequence, as you never had enough time to share in the nightmare of the protagonist's situation. For me, that really helped keep a lot of the film on-track, as it arguably became something slightly more conventional (again, maybe if this remake had come out sooner, some of its ultra-violence and one-take tracking shots would have felt fresher).

My biggest problem with OLDBOY, and probably the only thing that stopped me considering it an undeniably great film that everyone overlooked, is simple: the central romance between Joe and Marie (Elizabeth Olsen) just didn't connect as deeply as it should have, and that unfortunately takes away from the twist-ending quite a bit. If Olsen and Brolin's scenes had soared with undeniable and rich chemistry, I could have really loved what Lee's done here, but it was fumbled. (Or maybe Lee's unreleased version amps up that element of the story? If so, I demand a release this instant.)

Ultimately, as a fan of OLDBOY '03, I thought OLDBOY '13 did a largely excellent job with tricky material, without neutering it. It's now one of those box-office flops few people have even heard about, but which I know will earn me some kudos when I recommend it to friends. And if you hated OLDBOY '03, I think Spike Lee's version is more palatable and entertaining in some ways, as it's slightly less nauseating. Still can't believe it only made $4.7m back on a $30m budget, as that's a financial humiliation it doesn't deserve.

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