Oldboy

Josh Brolin in Oldboy

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

29 June

 

iPhone launched, 2007

On this day in 2007, Apple launched the first version of the iPhone. Until then, mobile or cell phones had been phones first, with a range of other capabilities – camera, email, mp3 player, internet access – tagging along behind. Apple’s creative breakthrough was to design the iPhone as a very small computer which also had phone functionality. This might look like a “six and two threes” explanation but what the iPhone did, which no phone had done before, was deliver a more integrated service, so the phone became in effect a Swiss army knife of the digital era: a mobile office with added leisure features which meant you could leave the house and work out where you were going, who you were meeting, how to get there and what you needed to know, all of this while en route, listening to Lana Del Rey as you went. The phone was an instant success and continued Apple’s return from the dead which had been signalled by the iMac, was continued by the iPod/iTunes, and finally completed by the iPhone. In fact the iPhone has become the tail that wags the dog, the operating system of Apple’s computers now looking like, and functioning like, the OS on the phone. To call the iPhone a success is to severely under-estimate what it has done – not only putting the two world leaders, Nokia and Blackberry, onto the critical list (Nokia phones sold off to Microsoft in 2013, Blackberry worth $82.4bn in 2008, $3.4bn at end 2013), but also creating the benchmark by which all other phones are judged, as well as the template for rivals (eg Android) to copy. When I say “copy”, I obviously mean “aspire towards”.

 

 

 

Oldboy (2013, dir: Spike Lee)

What a strangely negative reception Spike Lee’s remake of Park Chan-wook’s 2003 original, manga-based thriller got. A classic case of reviewers assessing a film for what it’s not, rather than what it is, Lee’s film certainly is not as powerful as the original – not as gothically badass in any direction – but it’s still a very good, expertly delivered, well told and periodically thrilling story that’s well worth your groats, shekels or dollars. The story – if you don’t know it from the original – is the same: a total asshole (here played by Josh Brolin) is imprisoned in one small room for 20 years. He has no idea why. He’s in solitary. Is fed, watered, taken care of, has TV access, but otherwise it’s him, the four walls and that’s it. And then, suddenly, he’s free again. And being a badass kinda guy, he heads off on a revenge jag to find the guy who imprisoned him, not for one second pausing to ask a simple question – is this sudden release all part of some wider, dastardly plan aimed specifically at punishing me further?
It is, of course, and it’s this tease of a plot that gives the film its dramatic drive. Helping it along are all manner of powerful little nuggets. Like that classic “fight in a very small space” sequence from the original. Lee chooses to reference it rather than recreate it – he’s smart, and knows that the original has been re-purposed so many times since the film debuted in 2003 that its original impact just isn’t there any more. Talking of impact, the hammer fight – I’ll just say “yes!”, with an extra exclamation mark! Modern brutalist gothic is Lee’s intention, and the cast stays on message – Samuel L Jackson in a kilt (again) and looking like some mad medieval pope, Sharlto Copley over-enunciating very amusingly as the extremely bad man whom Brolin (raw, animal, intense) eventually comes across, Elizabeth Olsen as the wafty wavery love interest who’s not what she appears. And notice that silent Chinese woman acting as Copley’s concubine (anyone know her name?), a racial stereotype lifted straight out of a penny dreadful or shilling shocker – or early James Bond films.
And on the subject of pastiche, it is often overlooked – because Spike Lee is so well known for his message films – just how in control he is as a journeyman director. And he is definitely giving us touches of Bond in among the other thriller references. Hitchcock too in his beautifully staged set pieces. As for the frequent use of the iPhone, which repeatedly bemuses the technically prehistoric Brolin – Satnav? Yellow Pages? A camera? – though it’s clearly a product placement buy-in (Apple possibly responding to Google’s slightly backfiring free ad of a film The Internship) it does at least locate us in the here and now, and confirms Brolin as the film’s ignorant underdog hero. Something the film does need, because it’s never that clear. No, it’s not as pure as the original, but Lee’s Oldboy is still a tense and intense thriller.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Who better than Josh Brolin to play a vengeful badass?
  • Copley’s excellent villain
  • The clothes (costumes: Ruth E Carter) really match the film’s mood
  • Cinematography by Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave)

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Oldboy – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Olsen It’s Cool to Like

Elizabeth Olsen, younger sister of those squeaky Olsen twins, is going into the family business. Is the business ready for her? Is our interviewer?

 

 

One of the hazards of this journalism game, particularly if you’re a middle aged man, is meeting attractive young female actors in the interview situation. They’re likely to look at you intently, laugh at your feeble stabs at humour, lean towards you confidentially, look interested. And of course they’re in the acting game, so being plausible is a large part of what they do. It’s unbelievably easy to believe these bundles of talent and hotness fancy you. It’s a frequent occurrence to leave the interview completely smitten.

Take Elizabeth Olsen. She’s the younger sister of the Olsen twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley, the semi-anorexic tween moppets who defied expectation by NOT ending up in some internet sex tape scandal. Instead, now they’re heading towards fashion/fragrance billionairedom. Yes, take 23-year-old Elizabeth Olsen, fresh, bright-eyed, talented, giggly, intelligent, cool, offbeat…

Olsen, suddenly, is everywhere, harvesting awards for her remarkable work in the odd almost-thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene, in which she plays the multi-monickered lead, a young woman whose tangle with a weird religious cult has left her dazed and bruised. And it’s just one of four films she’s made in the last year.

“Yeh,” she laughs throatily when I ask about the twins, “I’m the curvy one.” As you might expect from a young woman who reels off her favourite TV without a blink – “Masterchef, Iron Chef, Top Chef, The Food Network.” And she laughs again.

This is refreshing. A young woman who eats normally, looks normal, doesn’t seem to be obsessed about her weight, her looks, seems well adjusted, very normal. Normal? That’s odd, isn’t it? Considering the showbiz family background, Olsen ought to be at least 50 per cent straitjacket. Instead she comes over as some sorted, feisty goddess, a bundle of optimistic can-do.

She wears a beat-up bomber jacket, a pair of old loafers, is cool to the point of knowing that Facebook is a gigantic pain, “but I need it.” Loves a bit of old school – “I’ve really got a bit of a Van Morrison thing going on right now.” She’s that rare thing – a rounded individual.

So she followed her sisters into acting? “I didn’t, actually. The people I grew up with and went to school with ever since I was five… we would make movies and do plays together. We made The Wizard of Oz when we were in kindergarten. It was awful”.

The way Elizabeth tells it she actually resisted the easy option. “Even when I was ten, people would say, ‘Do you want to do this straight-to-DVD, interactive kid’s book thing?’ I just decided to keep training, and along the way started understudying for Broadway and off-Broadway plays.”

She got the Martha Marcy May Marlene gig how? “I auditioned. They chose to go with an unknown. That was so cool.”

Do I believe this totally connected, biz-attuned sibling of twin-pack famousness did it entirely unaided? Cynic that I am, I do. Maybe I’m being snowed by a total professional.

Bolstering this “I did it my way” claim is her performance in MMMM. Olsen doesn’t just create an entire character with very little – this is real “less is more” stuff – she also manages to suggest what her character might have been like before the whole cult business even happened. It’s remarkable, unnerving even.

Ask her how she did that and the answer is straight – “There are good things about her – you can actually have empathy for this person because she’s fully realized, as opposed to just being an off-balance, naïve girl.”

Agreed, this doesn’t really answer the question, but that’s actors for you. Considering what normally happens when you invite an actor to talk about the internal process it’s remarkable enough that there’s still oxygen in the room.

So I ask her again, in a slightly different way. Is she a Method girl – staying up for nights on end to “understand” exhaustion, putting on or losing weight, trying to connect personally to the character’s psyche. Brando, De Niro, Pacino etc etc.

It turns out that New York University, where Olsen has been studying acting, has an affiliate programme with the Atlantic Theater Company. And she’s been on it. “It’s David Mamet and William H. Macy’s company. A playwright created it, so the script is your bible. You follow the script and you try not to mess it up.”

So no Method madness? No Daniel Day-Lewis stuff (training for two years with Barry McGuigan for the film The Boxer for instance). “You’re not the same person as the person in the script. Working with Cillian Murphy on [supernatural drama] Red Lights was really interesting. We’d be in conversation about something really random and the director would say, ‘Okay, rolling.’ We’d do the scene and then Cillian would say, ‘So, as I was saying…’ And he’d pick up exactly where he’d left off. I think that’s kind of a healthy way of working… ”

At last year’s Sundance, Olsen was there with Martha Marcy May Marlene and The Silent House, one of those genre horrors where a nice young girl is stalked by an older guy with a cleaver. She was the It girl of the festival. “To find out that the two movies I’d worked on had got into Sundance… that is so awesome,” she said at the time. Now, looking back, she admits that beneath that buzzy, gregarious exterior – “cool… awesome… amazing” – she was in fact “terrified”.

Well, she’s going to have to get used to it. This easy-going kinda hipster – loves the music of Bon Iver, Sharon Von Atten and Ani DiFranco (“always”) – is going straight into the big league. Red Lights, with Cillian Murphy, also features De Niro and Sigourney Weaver (“a great, funny woman”), as well as touchstone of excellence Toby Jones. And because of the weird time frames of the movie business we’ve also still not seen the first film she made, Peace, Love & Misunderstanding, starring Catherine Keener (“amazing”) and Jane Fonda (“she was a riot… the craziest stories”).

Bruce Beresford, who directed it (along with Driving Miss Daisy), reckons she’s the new Kate Winslet – “She’s going to get every role she goes for,” he said. And being the new Kate Winslet, in the first flush of her career, means she’s going to be taking her clothes off a fair bit, right, as she does in Martha Marcy May Marlene? Olsen’s ready for this one. “I heard recently that America has the biggest porn industry – yet everyone hates seeing nudity in American films. It’s a funny paradox. But in this film I always knew that it was to serve a purpose. A woman’s body can be very beautiful.”

Indeed it can, Ms Olsen. “It’s so odd to watch myself, sitting in an audience, especially in Martha cos I’m naked, and now everybody knows what I look like.” She laughs lustily, not least at her own pronunciation of the word “naked” – elongating the “a” throatily, coquettishly, girlishly, innocently.

Yes, smitten. It’s happened again.

 

Martha Marcy May Marlene opens Fri 3 Feb

 

The Silent House opens in April

 

© Steve Morrissey 2012