Oldboy (2003)

Oldboy PosterRating: ★★★★★

Under the pouring rain, a troubled man is abruptly kidnapped after his drunken outburst at a police station. He wakes up in a secured room that resembles the look of a cheap apartment, where he would spend every single second of his next fifteen years in life. His abduction is a mystery to him; he does not know who took him, nor does he have any idea why he’s there. The opening minutes is riddled with puzzling obscurity both for the man and the audience. We know that the captive’s name is Oh Dae-Su, but nothing more.

Oh Dae-Su’s condition presents a different, crueler form of imprisonment. Unlike jailed inmates, the reason behind the punishment he endures is not explained unto him. He fears that he will be caged in that room ‘til he dies.  He is denied communication from any other person. In our country, it is common for fifty men to be squeezed into prison cells that were made for twenty. In the long run, this might prove to be a better option for Dae-Su, for it is not good for man to spend a seemingly interminable amount of time in complete isolation. As the years stack, the television across Dae-Su’s bed turn into something more than just a source of entertainment- It becomes his only window to the outside world.

Dae-su Oh and Mido in Oldboy

Dae-su Oh and Mido in Oldboy

At the edge of hopelessness and insanity, he devises an escape plan that is doubtful in its probability. A bizarre transition occurs. We arrive at the moment of Dae-Su’s freedom. No one is sure how he got there, including Dae-Su himself, but he wastes no time in his pursuit for vengeance. He is soon informed that his mission is time-bound, that somehow he only has five days to remember what has long been forgotten.  Not according to plan, he enters the life of a sweet, curious girl named Mido, but I shall stop there. Further discussions regarding major plot points would ruin the overall impact of the movie.

“Oldboy”, one of the most popular Asian films of the last decade, is an unconventional revenge tale that imagines, and executes, the unexpected. Such things are observed in Dae-Su’s weapon of choice: a hammer. This particular hammer will strike the heads of many, but the scene that will live on in our memories is the part where the hammer is used as a dental instrument. I have reason to believe that no brand of toothpaste out there can strengthen your teeth well enough to withstand a darn hammer. But anyway, the movie’s obsession with outlandish moments comes to a high point when Dae-Su consumes a live octopus in the most literal sense you can think of. I would post a picture here, just for you, but I don’t think I could come up with an appropriate caption.

Min-sik Choi as Dae-Su Oh in Oldboy

Min-sik Choi as Dae-Su Oh in Oldboy

There is much unsettling material going on here, but it is not the images that disturbs us, but the ideas they represent. The Dae-Su character is not merely a perpetrator of bloodshed. His pains, regrets and confusions dig deep into his soul, and when we look back to his introduction, we realize that much has been done to develop his humanity. I won’t tell you how, but like in many stories, his character is built up in preparation for the movie’s harrowing climax.  Physical carnage is present, yet it is the psychological and emotional assault that inflicts the most damage. The final blows will hit the audience almost as hard as it will affect the hero.

“Oldboy” is a film that is brave and ruthless- a film that grabs its genre by the throat and drags it to dark and perilous territories recent American moviemakers are afraid to explore. This is a movie that is more compelling than the ones that occupy the same category, but the subject matter, sexuality, and violence will narrow down its audience. Human beings of young age should stay far away. Octopuses of any age should stay even farther.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo PosterRating: ★★★★★

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is an exceptional thriller that supplies just about everything you can expect from its genre: an unsolved crime, a devious villain, a collection of clues, a determined investigator, and a climactic sequence where they all come together. These elements are all aptly done, but our attention is captured by an enigmatic woman whose own vague life can be considered a puzzle that’s more perplexing than the one she occupies.

Her name is Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace). She is a skilled surveillance agent and an ingenious computer hacker. Her face, firm and pierced, rarely reveals any form of emotion. Her dark, gothic look attracts our immediate interest, but even the most analytical of audience members cannot observe beyond her physical appearance. The dragon tattooed on her back, which we get to see once, is open to our interpretations, but that’s about as far our theories can go. She prefers to keep her secrets to herself. Conversations with Lisbeth occur only when necessary, and they usually end quickly. Moments where she secures her isolation are often “celebrated” with a lighting of a cigarette.

Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander

Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander

Lisbeth is a complex character whose present life is silenced by the scars of her past. Earlier scenes depict her encounters with depraved men; their harassment seems to carve further into an already existing wound. We get this impression because she responds to these offenses not as a weak and helpless victim, but as an audacious and adamant fighter. People who take a closer look at Lisbeth should recognize a subtle beauty. Perhaps she only uses her piercings and make-up as tools to conceal her looks from lustful eyes.

The story involves Lisbeth’s current surveillance of Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a journalist who’s six months away from a three-month sentence in jail.  Blomkvist intents are pure and righteous, but consequences can be great if you lose a legal battle against a powerful tycoon. In his remaining time of freedom, Blomkvist agrees to work for a retired, wealthy businessman named Henrik Vanger. This provides the plot for the movie, which follows Blomkvist’s investigation of Vanger’s missing niece, who first disappeared almost forty years ago.

Clues emerge. The case becomes broader and clearer as it points to a brutal massacre of innocent and unsuspecting women. And right there is when we fully identify the movie’s theme: Violence against women. We saw it first through Lisbeth’s suffering, and we see it again in the rape, murder, and mutilation of the women we come across in Blomkvist’s investigation. When Lisbeth herself learns about this tragedy, she teams up with Blomkvist in a mission to apprehend the killer.

Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander

Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander

Director Niels Arden Oplev is not hesitant to portray disturbing images where women are savagely abused. But the movie is entirely feminist. The late Stieg Larsson, who wrote the novel from which this movie is based upon, empowers Lisbeth as a woman who is brave, intelligent and independent. He views her as a survivor, destined to burst into a silent rage of furious anger once she encounters a monster guilty of the sins that broke her humanity.

This is a thriller that is more than what it’s about. The plot provides a gripping story, but its principal purpose is to accentuate the character of Lisbeth Salander. By the film’s end, we feel grateful to have been granted a mild access to her life. And though she retains her impenetrable persona, at least we can now look at Lisbeth and see that she’s more than just a girl with a dragon tattoo.

Drive

Drive Poster Rating: ★★★★½

One scene that defines the stylish and disciplined vigor of “Drive” transpires inside a slim, narrow elevator. Our heroes enter the elevator; the doors slam shut. By the time they open again, we have been taken through a hint of suspense, a moment of intimacy, and finally, a burst of ultra-violence. That the movie was able to depict and contain three different moods in a limited space and time astounds me.  This is the rare kind of movie that fully values its existence, using every second of its running time for its benefit.

“Drive” stars Ryan Gosling, the Oscar-nominated actor who was given more international appreciation in his previous work as Jacob Palmer in “Crazy, Stupid, Love”. Here, a name eludes him as promotions only refer to his character as “Driver”. The inquisitive effect of a screen name like Driver reminds us of Edward Norton’s character in Fight Club, who was only identified in the credits as “Narrator”. Both evoke the same aura of ambiguity, although the Gosling character is more subtle and composed.

Carey Mulligan and Ryan GoslingDriver’s professional and personal life is centered around cars. He occupies the role of a stunt driver for the movies. He also works as a mechanic, fixing cars when he’s not flipping them on set. Beyond that, he also participates in robberies by agreeing to be the getaway driver. Driving seems to keep Driver occupied. He hardly ever speaks. Ask him a question, and his words halt after the answer is given. There are not more than two instances in the entire film where he speaks three sentences in a row. His quiet nature strays away from conventional personalities and takes us to a person so perplexing, even his fellow characters join the audience in trying to understand him.

Driver doesn’t fit the profile of the commercial action hero. He doesn’t have a sense of humor, nor does he fancy fashion and attention. He isn’t decorated like The Transporter or every other Dwayne Johnson character ever. He has his own issues with the law. Sure, the movie features a pretty girl for him to fall in love with, but this is not to give him a love interest, but a motivation.  He doesn’t try to be a hero, but the circumstances give him the opportunity to act like one.

The physical intensity that may seem to be hiding within the Gosling character is made up for by the exceedingly elegant style of Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn. The brilliant opening sequence tells us that Refn is uninfluenced by the works of the majority. We see Driver in a car chase with the cops, but Refn treats the dark streets as a puzzle for suspense rather than a playground of destruction. Driver makes use of streetlights, blind spots and empty corners as a way to outsmart his opponents. Michael Bay will be disappointed by the absence of explosions.

Ryan Gosling as DriverCarey Mulligan also stars as Irene, a lonely mother waiting for her husband to return home from prison. Driver, who shares the same apartment building, feels her solitude. He keeps her company, but conversations are occasional. The movie invests in their relationship in a way that the plot doesn’t set in until the half hour mark. Driver’s secret life results into serious trouble with some powerful, cruel men. He intends to keep Irene as safe as possible.

To call “Drive” an action movie would not do it justice. It’s not just about cars getting smashed. Not a lot of action movies are praised for its moments of silence. I like it when emotions and stories are told through stares, moods, and music. When Driver realizes that he might not be able to return, he calls Irene, and tells her how he feels. Simple words, but we sense its weight because those words came from a guy who hardly ever speaks three sentences in a row.

Teeth (Quick Review)

Teeth PosterRating: ★★★☆☆

“Teeth” is a movie about a set of teeth that is not located inside a mouth. It is also a movie where an exploitive gynecologist finds four of his severed fingers on the floor after they are brutally bitten off of his hand. And if you know what a gynecologist does, then you may have already discovered that the preceding occurrence is the work of a vagina with teeth.  This will be identified as shocking for most of its viewers, but even more so for the stubborn men who try to take advantage of a pretty, slightly-mutated girl named Dawn.

Multiple castrations are performed to strip men of their masculinity, but we must understand that this particular crime is passive in context. Do we ever see Dawn’s genitals creep through the night and mutilate men while they’re alone in peace? No. We realize that Dawn’s “additional teeth” only attacks when it is first attacked, that it only causes violence when it is first violated.

“Teeth” is a movie that’s bloody from the waist down. It targets men with impure and selfish motives against women. Those with methods more vicious than others are suggested to abstain not in respect, but in fear. In a scene where a man cries in pain in exchange for his perversity, the least he could hope for, with thoughts of reconstructive surgery in the future, is that Dawn’s additional teeth is only there to bite, and not swallow.

Black Swan

Rating: ★★★★½ Black Swan Poster

Nina Sayers wakes up in the morning and shares the marvelous dream she had with her single mother, Erica. She was on stage, performing the lead role in Tchaikovsky’s ballet masterpiece, “Swan Lake.” Other hard-working female ballet dancers also dream of this role, and with great reason. To star in an event of this magnitude is not only to share your love for this art. It also provides an opportunity on the grandest scale to finally show the world the passion that you, for so long, spent years to perfect.

The ballet company that Nina occupies is starting a new season, and its director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), is looking for a new star. Nina is eventually chosen, but the preparations will not be easy. She is required to play two characters of opposite nature, the White Swan and the Black Swan. Disciplined, controlled, and performing according to technique, Nina is a candidate who is more than ideal for the White Swan. But she lacks the qualities that are essential to embody the Black Swan, which demands her to follow feelings, and not methods.

Nina’s responsibility indeed asks much of her, but ballet in itself is a grueling practice. It’s ironic how the graceful gestures and elegant movements that ballet creates are achieved through continuous punishment of the body. Those who master this craft withstand tremendous pain until they adapt to actions the human body was never designed to do. Such training could damage the mind as much as it could hurt the limbs, and we slowly and fearfully learn how badly this has affected Nina herself. Things are only about to get worse.

“Black Swan” evolves to a horrifying account of a woman’s obsessive quest for perfection that is punctuated with a psychological thrust. One could be perfect from his or her own eyes but cannot feel absolute satisfaction until recognized by the perception of others. And the few people that surround Nina are ones of high standards. Her mother, Erica, was a ballerina herself, and did not make it far when she became pregnant with Nina. Erica’s career was ended, and now she sees Nina’s life as a continuation of it. The tension that Nina encounters at home erupts with a sexual connotation stimulated by Thomas. The Black Swan needs to be seductive, which is a characteristic that was never called for in Nina’s ballet-centered life.

Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers

Earlier, we meet a newcomer on the company named Lily (Mila Kunis). Lily, at first, wanders in the background. When she approaches the center of the story, we discover that Lily has everything Tomas is missing in Nina: a natural gift of reflecting her sexual persona into her dancing. Already suffering from the pain and pressure, Nina is faced with a threat. Her health and sanity starts to tremble, and ignores it.

Surely, we arrive at the premier of the “Swan Lake”, which is a climax that is all at the same time harrowing, twisted, wonderful, unforgettable. Audiences are treated with a final act of resounding beauty and hidden insanity. This is where Natalie Portman, as Nina, establishes herself as an actress with capabilities far above the reach of others. When she sets foot on that stage, just like the one in her dream, we remember where her character started, and what it had become, and what caused it to be that way. What happens in this event is not my job to tell, but for yours to experience.

Director Darren Aronofsky took us to a disturbed mind, and for a significant, unsettling amount of time, he left us there. He trapped us inside of Nina’s collapsing psyche.  He used elements of horror and combined it with great artistry. He succeeded.

We begin to confuse reality with insanity when Nina begins to confuse reality with insanity. It’s a frightful and invigorating test. We sit and we wait in the midst of this nightmare, hoping that Nina takes us with her when she wakes up in the morning.

High Tension (Haute Tension)

Rating: ★★½☆☆

It’s also high on fear, suspense, blood, blades, severed heads, dead bodies, and scratches. The actors hired for this production were paid not to memorize scripts. No. Though you will hear screams like, “Aaaahhh!” a few times, I doubt those lines needed much effort to remember. I’m imagining probable outtakes in the DVD extra where the cast rehearses moments of massacre while the crew waits for the third bucket of blood to be delivered.

The central characters in “High Tension” are college friends, Marie and Alex, who plan to stay in the house of Alex’s parents to study for their exams. When they arrive, we learn that the place is an Isolated Home, so when a serial killer invades, there will be no neighbours to hear them go, “Aaaahhh!” No time is wasted, and in the first night, the serial killer arrives, who is polite enough to knock on the door before he starts butchering everybody.

Marie is the first to notice that something is not right, so before she hides Under the Bed, she tries to Call for Help. Little does she know that in horror movies, phones will find a way to not work when you most need them. Marie stays hidden, but the killer kidnaps Alex, and locks her away in his truck as he drives away. Now Marie is left alone and forced to try to rescue Alex herself. The plot then leads up to a gas station and a forest, where more hiding and killings take place.

“High Tension” is also high on Horror Movie Clichés, and I enjoyed every one of them. They are done with an evidence of technical supremacy and discipline. Yes, the death scenes are vicious, brutal, and lengthened. (When a throat is slit, the killer keeps cutting deeper off-screen. We get to see the results.) But I was surprised to see this slasher flick devote many of its minutes to quiet, bloodless, gripping suspense. These are the parts where Marie sneaks and creeps her way past the killer, keeping her head.

For most hardcore horror fans, “High Tension” will be the slasher event most of them have been waiting for. Trim down the violence, and it might even earn appreciation for the less bloodthirsty. Three fourths into the movie, I was just about ready to give it a recommendation, and then…

And then.

And then we become witnesses to a plot twist, so impossible, so unnecessary, that it ruins everything in “High Tension”. Everything. The whole movie. All of it. We know that it is unnecessary because we know that it can’t be done. And we know that it can’t be done because the filmmakers themselves didn’t even attempt to explain anything about it.

To have the killer turn out to be Ronald McDonald himself would be a more satisfying twist, because we’d know that it’s only a joke. The plot twist in “High Tension” is proud of itself, and screams, “A-ha! We got you!”, to the audience. And we can’t help but go, “Aaaahhh!”

Trick ‘r Treat (Quick Review)

Trick 'r Treat Movie Review Rating: ★★★★★

Not many of them are made, but here it is, the best Halloween movie of its decade. An achievement in storytelling, filmmaking, and entertainment, Trick ‘r Treat will forever be cherished by the lovers of the holiday it celebrates. But you don’t have to be a Halloween fanatic (like me) to recognize its brilliance. You just have to know brilliance when you see it.

It was released straight-to-DVD, which is something I shall never understand. Michael Dougherty, the movie’s writer and director, deserves more. That is why I write this. If you have not seen “Trick ‘r Treat”, you know what to do.

Buried

Buried Movie Poster Rating: ★★★½☆

I always knew Ryan Reynolds is a better actor than most of his movies allow him to be, and if you didn’t notice it here then you won’t notice it anywhere else. Here is a movie that features Reynolds trapped inside a box underground, which is almost as depressing as being trapped in a film directed by M. Night Shyamalan.

“Buried” takes us right into that box and shows the audience how claustrophobic, uncomfortable, and most importantly, how insanely boring it would be like to be in the situation of Paul Conroy (Reynolds).

Being a thriller, interesting things must happen within that coffin. But imagine if it were to happen to you in real life, a realm where no editing can instantly take you to the interesting parts. What a sad death it would be, to literally lie there and wait for death itself. If I where to die in a box, an iPad would greatly suppress that death.

The events that do happen in Buried are not absurd, and though technical errors are present, they are only there to aid the viewing experience. Such an error would be the constant use of the lighter inside the box. No human being who has made it all the way to the 6th grade would use that lighter when not necessary, because fire burns oxygen. Paul uses that thing many times. And a lot of times he equips it for no apparent reason. He uses it not because he’s scared of the dark, but because there is an audience watching him.

Along with Paul’s lighter, is a cellphone, which serves as his lifeline. He tries to make contact with people that could save him. And during those calls, we remain in the perspective of Paul. Director Robert Cortes wants us to relate with the situation of our hero. We are forced to stay in that box with him, and we are never given anything beyond Paul’s knowledge and senses.  We speculate, think, and imagine as much as Paul does.

“Buried” is a fine thriller, and it demonstrates human instinct in Paul Conroy’s fight for survival. Throughout the movie, Paul shifts between emotions of anger, desperation, doubt, hope, acceptance, loneliness, confusion, frustration, and the possible actions that enforce them in such a “limited” movie. Of course, they are not in order. If they are, then I just spoiled the entire movie.