Saturday, January 6, 2018

Movie Reviews: Oldboy, The Dark Corner

Oldboy
directed by Spike Lee
This is a remake of the classic South Korean movie of the same name. Sadly I hadn't seen the original in full because of an unfortunate chain of events with a now defunct video rental store. I was thus only slightly familiar with the story. I had no idea of any plot twists or turns, which of course won't be discussed here. I had heard mostly negative things about the Spike Lee remake. I was still willing to give this movie a chance because in some circles it's become popular to bash Spike Lee regardless of whether the film he directs is actually any good. I wanted to make up my own mind. Although there were certainly a few directorial choices I didn't care for, this remake of Oldboy wasn't anywhere near as bad as many people claimed. This film was a box office failure. I think that some people want Lee to only stick to a certain kind of movie. I think because the original is so iconic that some people wouldn't have cared for any American remake regardless of the producer or director. I might well feel the same way about a remake of the South Korean movie Train to Busan

But people probably shouldn't be so snobbish about remakes. People always like seeing movies in languages they understand with actors they already know. It's just human nature. And some important American movies like The Magnificent Seven are remakes. So just because it's a remake doesn't mean it's a bad movie. Just because it's a Spike Lee film doesn't mean it's a bad movie. There are just a few points in this movie where it's obvious to the casual viewer such as myself (not a film student or professional) that this is a Spike Lee film.

Let's get this out of the way. This is a violent film. Period. Full stop. I've heard that Lee's Oldboy was slightly toned down from the original. Maybe I will see the original myself and make up my mind. But in this movie people are beaten, raped, shot and stabbed. There are scenes of psychological and physical torture. I wouldn't say that Lee lingers on those scenes in the same way that someone like Tarantino would but don't watch this film expecting that things won't get messy. Because they get very messy indeed. Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is a flabby lecherous New Orleans ad exec with an alcohol problem. Joe's behind on child support to his ex-wife. Joe can't make his daughter Mia's three year old birthday party because Joe has to close a deal with an important client. Joe's boss genially explains to Joe that if Joe can't close the deal then not only is the agency in big trouble but that Joe shouldn't even bother coming back to work. Joe is talented at his job. Joe closes the deal with the client (Lance Reddick from The Wire). 

Unfortunately Joe is also, as mentioned horny. Joe is self-destructive when he has alcohol and sex on the brain. When the client goes to the restroom a buzzed Joe makes a pass at the client's wife and puts his hands on her upper thigh. This last is witnessed by the returning client who reacts as any red blooded husband would react. A humiliated Joe goes on a drinking binge. He sees his old school friend Chucky (Michael Imperioli). 


Just before Joe passes out on the street he sees a woman with a yellow umbrella. When Joe wakes up he's locked in a windowless hotel room. And it's there that Joe will stay for the next twenty years. Joe sees on the news that someone has raped and murdered his wife. Joe's been framed for the crime. His daughter Mia has been adopted by another couple. And there's nothing that Joe can do about it. What he does decide to do is get in shape, write undelivered letters to his daughter, and quit drinking. After 20 years and a few failed attempts to escape, Joe is sedated via gas. He wakes up in a field. He has money and the letters he wrote to his daughter. Joe sees the woman with the yellow umbrella and tries unsuccessfully to follow her. Joe wants revenge. Joe wants to find his daughter. It soon becomes apparent that Joe won't be able to reach either of those goals unless he can figure out who put him in prison and why they released him. But God help anyone who gets in his way. Sharlto Copley, Elizabeth Olsen, and Samuel Jackson all have roles.

This film was originally over two hours and twenty minutes but the producers cut it down to just over one hundred minutes. Both Lee and Brolin expressed dismay at this decision. Perhaps the missing footage would redeem the movie for some. Hard to say. If you can't stomach realistic looking violence then skip this movie. The film does have a few things to say about revenge, redemption, forgiveness and sacrifice. It was easier for me to engage with this film because I hadn't seen the original. This was not incoherent like Spike Lee's other remake Da Sweet Blood of Jesus. Judged on its own merits this was a passable film. Not Lee's best but not his worst. 
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The Dark Corner
directed by Henry Hathaway
I am always interested in seeing people I've always associated with one type of genre working in a different genre. I was only familiar with legendary actress Lucille Ball from reruns of the I Love Lucy show or some of her other comedy/dance specials when she was much older. I always thought of Ball as a comedic actress with muted or non-existent sex appeal. Lucy and her husband Ricky slept in separate beds for goodness sakes!  I knew William Bendix from the old time radio show "The Life of Riley" where he played a good natured not too bright blue collar worker whose signature line "What a revoltin' development this is!!" was delivered in perfect New York cadence of the 1940s time period. That line was later used by Ben Grimm of the Fantastic Four. 

So it was something of a surprise to watch this 1946 noir film and see Lucille Ball as a sexy dame who prefers tight clothing, high heels, and diaphanous blouses. Ball's character thinks that it's important that her boss knows the size and types of nylons she wants. To make sure he gets the picture she'll run her hands up and down her legs to illustrate. And in this movie, Bendix is hardly a helpful everyman. He's a thug for hire. And his Nu Yawk accent is a lot more menacing. 
Bradford Galt (Mark Stevens) is a formerly California now NY private investigator with a past. He's not a bad guy but he's rubbed shoulders with a few in his time. He's hired a new secretary Kathleen (Lucille Ball). By today's unforgiving standards both of them sexually harass each other. In this film their repartee is considered playful banter. Neither person means any harm. Galt and Kathleen have mutual interest. The street smart Galt notices a man in a white linen suit following him. Using Kathleen as misdirection, Galt turns the tables on the man and gets the drop on him. He asks the man a few questions. And he's not too nice about how he interrogates. 

The man Foss (William Bendix) claims that he was hired to follow Galt by one of Galt's old enemies Tony Jardine (Kurt Krueger). Jardine and Galt used to be business partners until Jardine framed Galt for manslaughter. None of this makes sense to Galt, but he lets Foss off with a warning and five across the face. Galt and Kathleen try to figure out who Foss really is and why Jardine hired him. An attempt on Galt's life gives some added urgency to the couple's detective work.


Meanwhile an older, androgynous, effete (apparently this was art imitating life) wealthy art dealer named Hardy Cathcart (Clifton Webb) is suspicious and jealous of his younger trophy wife Mari (Cathy Downs) who has become too close with Tony Jardine. I thought that Webb didn't really convince the viewer that he was interested in women. The actor did everything but hold up a sign saying "Eew girls!!".

But his character is a selfish greedy sort. Just because he's not playing with something he thinks incorrectly he "owns" doesn't mean he wants anyone else to do so. Frank Reeves (Reed Hadley) is the tall detective with a deep bass voice who keeps an eye on people-especially Galt. Lt. Reeves promised friends in California  that he'd make sure Galt stays out of trouble.

As noir movies go this wasn't the best or worst of the bunch. I enjoyed seeing how things have changed since the forties. Everybody smokes in this movie. And just about everyone was as slender as can be, except for Bendix. The growing partnership between Galt and Kathleen seems real. It's fun. Galt tries to be tougher than he is. Kathleen sees through this. Like most noir films there is an existential dread. Galt doesn't know who's trying to set him up or why bad things keep happening to him. Galt walks up to but doesn't cross the thin line between complaining and whining. The film uses light and shadow to frame Galt's isolation and also to show Kathleen's growing love for him. The snappy dialogue is a lot of fun. Everyone gets some memorable one liners.
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