Tag Archive for film review

Oldboy’s Failed Cultural Imagination

Writing a bad review of Spike Lee’s Oldboy is, at this point, rather redundant, as the film is already failing by all the usual critical and financial metrics.

OldboyPosterHowever, I felt the film was doomed by those metrics from the start given the canonical–and downright holy in some quarters–status of Park Chan-Wook’s earlier film, which is certainly a masterpiece. And as for controversy, Mr. Lee may be experiencing some reverse anxiety of influence, as points of comparison between Lee’s own further-past masterworks and Park’s show that both directors have stirred similar furies. No, I was ready to laugh in the faces of all those who told me that Park’s Oldboy shouldn’t or perhaps couldn’t be remade, and I was ready for the genius that helped Lee define a generation to reassert itself and…

Okay, you get it. I wanted to like this movie because it was going to succeed by a different metric. The metric in question is cultural. Even if you think the main source of genius in Park’s Oldboy is its beautiful orchestration of violence (I disagree), at once evoking second-gen video game aesthetics and transcendental philosophy, those aesthetics still have a cultural specificity, call it a refraction of the East Asian imaginary, that relates them to the spine of the film, the ultimate answers to the character Oh-Dae-Su’s questions about imprisonment. I will try to stay away from spoilers–consider yourself alerted anyway–but the bottom line is that even if you’ve seen Lee’s version, you do not understand what’s really going on in Park’s film. The answers in that film involve revelations about rumor and family honor that again are powerfully tied to specific cultural values.

For Lee’s version to pass my cultural metric, he’d need to do more than just cast a bunch of Americans–read white and black people–and have them speak English instead of Korean. His film would need to recognize the very Asian things about Park’s version and, to be a remake relevant to its context and therefore worth making, translate it to reflect that context’s own cultural values. And who but Spike Lee–whose early work captured America’s ambivalent values better than all but a few artists in history–might be able to accomplish such translation?

He took tiny steps, but that’s it. He ramps up the villain’s motive to make it more traditionally Western, adds some extra sex and murder, too, all of which has the effect of providing a Western-movie verisimilitude in place of Park’s layers of twisted psychology and culturally specific traditions and values. But the plot-line in Park’s version involving dumplings, that ubiquitous fast food in East Asian cuisine? Is there no American cultural equivalent for that? Samuel L. Jackson, Royale with What? The only food Lee’s team could find was… dumplings… which of course are everywhere because, uh, part of the film is in New York’s Chinatown.

OldboyDumplingsLee did make some other changes, some of them interesting, but none of them gives his film the same cultural power and specificity as Park’s, and overall, the film’s narrative _sameness_ in many respects just seems lazy. Is “as lazy as a dumpling” a saying? If so, that would have been really clever.

What’s really irksome about the film is that it offers no innovation, nothing cinematographically exciting, no bold editing, no striking color schemes… no real style beyond the unquestionably hot leads, which in Josh Brolin’s case is really inappropriate, because I see no reason to make the American Oh-Dae-Su so beautiful, but I will say that Brolin’s average-for-him, good-for-anybody performance and Elizabeth Olsen’s really impressive turn are probably the movie’s best features.

Badass, and kinda undeniably sexy.

Brolin: badass, and kinda undeniably sexy.


Olsen has the looks, talent, and professionalism to rise from the shadows of child stars to the throne of industry queen.














[Really, the following paragraph vaguely contains spoilers.] Lee’s version also tones down the violence. It also tones down the Oh-Dae-Su character’s guilt by having him critically misled in a way Park’s film omits. As an extension, it also tones down the severity of the plot twist the ads are touting. And then–OMFG–it tacks on a Hollywood coda that makes me want to puke.

And then there’s this crap about Spike Lee being a jerk to this guy who claims his art was stolen to promote the movie?

Cultural metric lands down with the critical and financial metrics, folks. May the talented Ms. Olsen and Mr. Brolin do better next time. May Mr. Lee reawaken his sense of cultural relevance. May you see Mr. Park’s film if you haven’t already, and then, go see Catching Fire, which, if you haven’t heard, is totally awesome.

Funny Purge: The Stranger Invasion

Dramatic sieges against the home, mounted by villains of various stripes, have been cinematic mainstays at least since hunters have had nights and fears have had capes. In fact, horror/thriller sieges waged by monsters and killers are echoes of the sieges waged by dastardly Injuns and others who would thwart the white man’s destiny. Therefore, giving in to the temptation to start this blog by mentioning the “recent” turn toward home invasion in mainstream horror films seems to have way too high a cost in credibility.

In Birth of a Nation (1915), evil blacks (or whites in evil blackface) breach the cabin, almost close enough, at last, to breach the white women. Did George A. Romero see this scene before making a certain 1968 zombie film...?

In Birth of a Nation (1915), evil blacks (or whites in evil blackface) breach the cabin, almost close enough to breach the white women. Did George A. Romero see this scene before making a certain 1968 zombie film…?

So the home invasion thing isn’t recent, but we have had a recent hybridization of classic home invasion with torture porn, a kind of pseudopod of horror’s post-millennial flirtation with decadent extremism.   Consider it a logical mutation: instead of you going to a trap (Saw 2004, Hostel 2005), the trap comes to you. The Collector (2009) is the best connector film here for both on- and off-screen reasons, but somehow the most iconic popular home invasion film is The Strangers (2008), which is arguably indebted to and certainly similar to the French film Them (2004). On the side of the universe more acceptable to the art circuit are Michael Haneke’s two versions of Funny Games (1997, 2007). These films (among others) deal with people coming to the protagonists’ home and wreaking outrageously violent havoc.

Polite young men who don't look at all out of place in the wealthy vacation neighborhood are the invaders. For Haneke, in a Haneke film, violence is not accurately measured in blood and gore.

Polite young men who don’t look at all out of place in the wealthy vacation neighborhood are the invaders. In a Haneke film, violence is not accurately measured in blood and gore.

On June 7, the film The Purge (2012) entered this filmic pseudopod with a well-advertised twist: instead of being randomly kidnapped (Saw and Hostel) or randomly invaded at home (Strangers and Funny Games), these people must deliberately, preparedly defend themselves because it’s the one special night of the year when murder and every other crime are legal. So the haves better have some bulwarks against the have nots.

Movie poster as fictional public service announcement: the premise normalizes the threat, making its very normality a source and subject for the horror.

Movie poster as fictional public service announcement: the premise normalizes the threat, making its very normality a source and subject for the horror.

The Purge‘s focus on the reason, the causal context (“The Purge” is the event, the night, when law is suspended and the narrative conditions are possible) is what makes the movie stand among the best of this pod. Nevermind Ethan Hawke’s good performance–after this one and Sinister (2012), I’m hoping the Genre Has Him–the writing, production values, and cinematography are all interesting enough to rate words like “skilled” and “above average.” Costume design and make-up get serious thumbs up, too.

But the film’s slick goodness alone wouldn’t earn it many bytes in the brain if that slickness didn’t deliver, loud and clear, a message that the other films have been mumbling all along. In Funny Games, people hunt people because excess of privilege devalues life… if we read the ambiguous bad guys in a certain way. In The Strangers, the anonymity of wealthy ranches spaced out along large plots of land makes people isolated and interchangeable (in the near future, you will all be reading brilliant things by Katherine A. Wagner on this topic)… but the film gives no frame of reference for protagonists, antagonists, or locations, so pinning it to particular politics is challenging. With The Purge, no more ifs, and no more hunting for frames of reference [INDIRECT SPOILER ALERT]: it’s about inter- and intra-class warfare projected forward from variables with which we are very familiar. It very carefully lays out issues of race, gender, economics, generational value shifts, freedom vs. security, and so on, and diegetically, it lets people fight them out for a little while.

Ultimately, I think I prefer the crazy ambiguities of Funny Games (not to mention other unmentionables), but that film… those films… also trade a lot on style, whereas The Purge trades on fusing levels of emotional and political catharsis and is, on the whole, very successful. It also uses fairly painless references to its podmates–masks that evoke The Strangers and a lead bad guy who could be one of the young gents from Funny Games–to tell viewers paying attention that it is continuing a conversation about violence, a violence arguably reducible to the fundamental structure of society, begun in the earlier films. And The Purge is not afraid to be un-subtle about structure-of-society stuff while still thrilling us with a delightful violence of its own. That earns my respect.

10 Film Villains Who Scare Me

You’d think that after Scream people wouldn’t ask me what my favorite scary movie is, but they do. I have no real answer, but I like to play with lists of answers. “Favorite” is a bit too general, though, so today I want to challenge myself not just with favorite horrors, of which I have many, but with scary horrors, of which, nowadays, I have few. Can I come up with 10 horror movie villains that actually, as Buffy would say, give me the wiggins?

Before the official list begins, an important note:


This is God,” says Freddy Krueger, and, alas, this man is disqualified. As an adult, I cannot possibly pass any objective judgment on Freddy’s scariness. To know why, see the intro to my book Gothic Realities.

Now, on with the show.

10.George W. Bush, from Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)


Okay, a stunt to get your attention… or is it? The film does masterfully villainize a then-sitting president. It heightened my existing fears.


9. Jason Voorhees, Friday the 13th PART TWO (1981)


Jason was initially just a kinda big guy wearing a bag on his head that had one hole cut for an eye. He stalked after people quickly, hacking with whatever was handy. And his cheesy immortality wasn’t yet clear. He was just a scary, crazy dude intent on killing you if you crossed his path.


8. The mobs, from M (1931)


Yep, I think the people who come after the child murderer are scarier than the child murderer (although Peter Lorre’s performance is creepy as hell).


7. Pyramid Head, from Silent Hill (2006)


I chose Pyramid Head because he’s the most iconic, but really, all the beasties in the Silent Hill franchise that I’ve seen–both films and bits of several games–are genuinely nightmarish in a rare way.


6. Ju-On, from Ju-On (2002)


Not the scariest Japanese horror film by a long shot, but the curse may be the scariest villain both because of its inevitable operations and because of the tragic way it plays out IN THE JAPANESE VERSION ONLY. The American version makes no sense.


5.Vukmir, from A Serbian Film (2010)


The incarnation of the need to add the word “mass” to the exploitation and consumption of everything.


4. Mademoiselle, from Martyrs (2008)


Like Vukmir, a limit-seeker, but civilized… and asking bigger questions. How far she’ll go to get answers, how much she cares about those answers, is what makes her scary. Am I capable of wanting to know that much?


3. Klaus, from In a Glass Cage (1987)


Nazis asked questions, too. And raped, tortured, and murdered people. Old people. Middle-aged people. Children. Klaus preferred children. And now he’s a victim’s victim. The potential to feel sorry for him makes him even scarier.


2. Hill House, from The Haunting (1963)


It preys on loneliness and the need to belong, a person’s most intimate vulnerabilities. It makes people doubt you. It makes you doubt yourself. You feel stupid. You hate yourself at times like that. You know that feeling. That’s how it gets you.


1. Sharks, from Open Water (2003)


Horror doesn’t have to stem from elaborate themes and psychological sophistication. The movie doesn’t even have to be particularly good. I had a rare, tight-muscle-and-skin, fast-breathing, elevated-heart-rate experience seeing Open Water in the theater. Its simplicity allows the fear:

  1. Trapped in the water. As our bodies are built to survive only short times in water and then only in certain circumstances, this situation is not one we are programmed to seek.
  2. Predators nearby. We make kids laugh by threatening to gobble them up. But the threat of kids getting eaten is central in fairy tales for a reason. Fighting to keep beasts from eating us, if not fighting cannibalism, is part of our evolutionary memory. Again, we are programmed for wariness in such a situation.
  3. Sharks. Stephen Colbert makes a similar point about bears. Some have said cats have an attitude toward dogs similar to my own feeling about sharks. I’m not wary of sharks. Sure, I’ll pet a little one at an aquarium or something, but the very idea of meeting a big one in the ocean–it’s just not an option. I’m not wary. I’m REPELLED. Open Water ain’t makin’ my top ten favorites list, but sharks… are… scary. Period.

Angry Birds versus White People

Since Stoker, about which I am appropriately stoked, has not yet come to Louisville, the horror movie this weekend was The Last Exorcism II.


Ashley Bell struggles with monstrous talents in The Last Exorcism II.

It’s a pretty by-the-numbers white-girl-under-demonic-threat sort of thing, but delightfully cheesy developments toward the end, especially with awkward use of digitally-generated fires, yield a distinct type of pleasure. The film’s greatest pleasure, however, is the masterful performance by Ashley Bell. While I’m pleased when real acting talent gets involved in my genre, horror’s tendency to reduce the living to the soon-dead does not usually allow an actor to develop reasonable emotional depth. The depth of most horror is in the body, not the soul, and we gain access to that depth through cutting implements, not talented expression. The Last Exorcism II doesn’t really need good acting talent, but it has it in Bell; I hope the film will do well enough to get Bell gigs in situations where her gifts will be more fully realized.

dark-skies-new-posterWhite house, white family–singled out by the terrifying bird threat from non-white skies.

Last Exorcism II connects in surprising ways to the horror film of last weekend, Dark Skies. In each film, persecuted protagonists are inside either a church (Exorcism) or a suburban family home (Dark Skieswhen some birds, either through brain damage or insidious supernatural control, kamikaze the building. In each film, it is the first, clearest sign: we are fucked, ladies and gentlemen.


Hitchcock’s birds get in line to terrorize privileged white people.

 No image of birds gone amok can evade evocations of Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). But while Hitchcock’s haunting imagery–one of the best apocalypses in the history of film–shows the birds turning on humanity tout court, the angry birds in these films target only certain embodiments of cultural privilege and assumption, namely, white suburban families.

This targeting is clearer in Dark Skies: it’s fundamentally about upper-middle-class people threatened by an inexplicable Other that wants to knock them out of their proper place in the natural order.The film takes a quite boring turn when it resorts to aliens a-la Whitley Streiber’s Communion,but it is nevertheless relentless in its political representation of normative bourgeois family life. A successful architect father-of-two feels the pain of the crashed economy and has to look for a job, which he finds with relative ease–at least it’s an acknowledgment of joblessness, but architect-level privilege hardly represents the struggles of most people in the post-2008 financial miasma. This well-to-do family still thinks it is downtrodden, though; they feel victimized by cultural circumstances, and they are more victimized as their son shows too much interest in video games and pornography and not enough interest in the values of developing the family unit. Without giving too much away, I’ll say that the son’s deviant (heterosexual) interests become, somewhat inexplicably, a central feature of the film’s climax. Within this depiction of an alien threat coming from dark, godless skies, a larger threat associated with challenges to family values beams through clearly. Narrative logic flies out the window, but a right-wing logic that uses, for political purposes, images of the white heterosexual nuclear family under threat… that logic is remarkably coherent. Dark Skies is a nightmare about the normative white, heterosexual family unit being destroyed by outside forces that are just too different to fight or even understand. It is the same nightmare that repeatedly turns right-leaning straight white Americans against Muslims, gays, African Americans, and other minority groups who might look funny in the cul-de-sac.

Readings of Last Exorcism II in relation to similar white bourgeois values and prejudices are necessarily weaker because Ashley Bell’s character, Nell, comes from poor country folk, and the halfway house she ends up joining in New Orleans, shown still resenting FEMA’s (or perhaps Katrina’s) destructive visit, is hardly a site of privilege. Yet Bell plays her character as reserved and demure, a stark contrast to her fellow lower-class orphans–she’s a good little virgin, ready for the proper marriage market. Her white female body is, in a quite standard way, the site on which social contests, here figured as demon versus man, play out and lead to social elevation. And again I don’t want to spoil too much, but it’s worth pointing out that while Dark Skies focuses on the nightmare of suburban white folks losing their claim to power, The Last Exorcism II focuses on the nightmare of the contested figure, the white girl blooming into a sexuality exceeding social norms, crossing over into non-normative ranks. Both films, then, center their horrors on the loss of white privilege and white control of the suburbs, the churches, and bourgeois white folks’ ability to reproduce their own social standing. White flight into the suburbs hasn’t worked. White gentrification of poor urban areas hasn’t worked. The demons of otherness follow our white heroes everywhere, and horror of horrors, the white have to keep moving to maintain the illusion of supremacy.

So, then, what of the birds? Why do the imperiled whities in both films have to confront a bunch of birds dive-bombing places that should be their refuges? As with Hitchcock’s birds, these birds can be manifestations of psychosexual repression, the revenge of nature on the unnatural ways of humanity, eruptions of the unconscious that assert the primacy of irrationality and thereby destroy all assumptions of the Age of Reason. All these things, yes, but more–angry birds, so popular in our techno-culture right now, are Others, figures of the threat now faced by traditionally hegemonic functions of whiteness and heteronormativity, but they’re Others not as obviously equatable to a specific demographic group. In that sense, angry birds are politically correct bad-guy stand-ins for the scary things nice white people don’t talk about anymore.


Birds are angry. And they’re coming for us.

Black people are not the problem here. Gay people are not the problem. The usual scapegoats, if they appear, appear to do more good than harm. Instead, we have nature itself, birdiness, attacking our white supremes. Nature itself rejects white power and heteronormativity. I’m not saying that in these films the rejection of the oppressors appears to be a good thing. On the contrary, the oppressors’ rejection seems quite scary. These films are the nightmares of what’s happening now, of an economy that dares to touch even our highly talented upper middle-class architects, of growing racial and ethnic populations that turn city after city into pluralities gradually learning to challenge white majority rule with darker-skinned horizons. The birds are politically correct in being no particular Other, but they become all otherness. Privileged white people recognize that the humans who oppose them might have good reason to contest the country’s unfair distribution of resources. They don’t want to do anything about it, of course, so they just have nightmares of the masses–of birds threatening their homes and churches. No one in particular is after them. White people face a generalized badness, Angry Birds, as they face their hegemony’s decline. And these by-the-numbers horror films allow us to see just how horrific social progress can be to those who have the most to lose.