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Horror Movies Reviews

Oldboy and I Saw the Devil: Double Review

Oldboy. Released in 2003.
I Saw the Devil. Released in 2010

The Summer of Spook 

An old Klingon proverb says “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” In Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, released in 2003, Oh Dae-su (played by Choi Min-sik), a man who has been imprisoned for fifteen years by an unknown person, goes to a sushi restaurant and asks to eat something alive. He has a conversation with the chef, Mi-do (played by Kang Hye-jung), about how the best sushi is made with cold hands. He then proceeds to shove a live squid in his mouth and bites the head off. Its tentacles wrap around his face, but he ignores this and keeps eating. Oh Dae-su’s imprisonment has changed him; he goes from being a man who talks too much to someone cold and seeking violence. He wants to be served something cold and alive. 

I Saw the Devil, released in 2010 and directed by Kim Jee-woon, explores revenge similarly, although it engages with the horror genre much more directly. After losing his fiancee to a demented serial killer, Jang Kyung-chul (played by Choi Min-sik), Special Agent Kim Soo-hyun (played by Lee Byung-hun) begins routinely torturing the serial killer to get his revenge. As he executes this process the characters and the audience start wondering if Kim Soo-hyun is losing his soul and becoming a monster. Both Oldboy and I Saw the Devil feature the antagonist calling the protagonist a monster, or mention how they created a monster. This concept of monster creation has been present in horror fiction since the beginning. Books like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein deal with the literal creation of a monster; whereas, Oldboy and I Saw the Devil use the monster creation as a metaphor. 

Neither one of these movies is for the faint of heart, and both feature traumatic endings (which I will not spoil here. Seriously, watch these movies). They deal with the subject of revenge in a dark and nuanced way. How much would someone be willing to lose for revenge? Both films explore the cyclical cycle of revenge and violence and how once someone starts getting vengeance, everything resets, and bloodlust and revenge reemerge. Western movies–I talking regionally not the genre–such as Death Wish, released in 1974 and remade in 2018, along with its subsequent sequels, and John Wick use the revenge narrative as a vehicle for an action film. I’m not saying this is a bad thing. John Wick is one of my all-time favorite action films, but what I Saw the Devil and Oldboy offer is much more poignant and shows just how much is sacrificed in the name of revenge. Also, even though Oldboy and I Saw the Devil use the revenge narrative in a much more visceral and intense way they are still very satisfying action movies with Oldboy featuring one of the most well executed fight scenes of all-time. 

Both I Saw the Devil and Oldboy also bridge the horror genre, which is why I’m looking at them under The Summer of Spook banner. I Saw the Devil engages with the horror genre in a much more direct way, some moments reminded me of films like Silence of the Lambs, and I should add that Choi Min-sik gives a performance in I Saw the Devil that is equal to the intensity and power of Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter. I classify Oldboy as bridging the horror genre only because some revelations and moments are horrific to watch; the film is much more in line with the thriller or neo-noir genre. These are two excellent films that explore the theme of revenge intensely and profoundly, making the audience question the morality of vengeance and violence. 

Both Movies Receive 5/5

Categories
Movies Noir

Noirvember Review: Brick 2005

Brick. Released in 2005. Directed by Rian Johnson. Starring Joseph Gordon Levitt, Nora Zehetner, and Lukas Haas

Brick is a hard-boiled neo-noir set in John Hughes’s favorite setting, an American high school. Joseph Gordon Levitt plays Brendan, a high schooler who is investigating the disappearance and later murder of ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin). The dialogue is straight out of a Bogart movie, but Rian Johnson somehow makes it work without it coming across comical or ironic; instead, it is a sincere recreation of a classic genre that holds up very well.

Brendan, like most hard-boiled PI’s, is a cynic and a loner. He doesn’t have friends but, instead, associates who help him or he forces to help him. He is willing to get violent when necessary, beating the information he needs out of low-life Dode (Noah Segan), a stoner and Em’s friend. The setting of the movie sets it apart from other film noirs and makes the audience examine characters in a different light. I find this particularly apparent in Brendan, Dode, Emily, and the Pin (Lukas Haas). Brendan’s willingness to get violent, as well as manipulate others to further his agenda, shrouds his supposed heroism in shadow. His violence towards women is noticeable and seems to be an extension of classic film noir tropes. I see Dode in a different light; although he is a low-life stoner, he has sympathy for Emily, and unlike Brendan, seems to legitimately care about her. Brendan wants to have her and control her; we see and hear that in flashbacks and voice-overs after he turned over another student to prove his love for Emily.

The movie does feature a typical femme fatale in the form of Laura (Nora Zehetner), but with Emily, all we see is a tragedy. We see at the beginning of the film her fate is sealed in death. Everyone is out to use or control Emily. When we see her talking to Brendan, we can tell that she is just a lost person who needs help, but everyone is using her to meet their own goals. Brendan claims he cares about her but, his care for her is driven by his desire and ego. He is not trying to do what is right for her but rather what is desirable for himself.

The Pin is also an interesting character; he is a nerdy, goth, Tolkien-nerd exploiting the drug dependency of the high school youth. He is not a muscle that comes in the form of his sidekick/henchman Tugger, played by Noah Fleiss, who does an excellent job playing an unhinged guy driven by anger and testosterone. The Pin is a small, intelligent, and crippled man who uses his smarts to control and manipulate people. There is a moment between him and Brendan that stands out to me. They are walking down the beach talking about business, and they stop to sit down. The Pin randomly asks if Brendan likes J.R.R. Tolkien, Brendan is confused by the question. It is a rare moment where the dialogue and style seem to break from the tropes that Rian Johnson is playing with, and it makes The Pin a more human and relatable character who seems to want a real friend.

Brick is an excellent high school neo-noir. Johnson likes subverting and playing with the audience’s idea of genre and style, but this movie is never corny and the setting contrasted with the style makes the movie almost surreal.

Rating 4.5/5

Categories
Movies Noir

Noirvember Review: The Number 23 (2007)

The Number 23. Released in 2007. Directed by Joel Schumacher and starring Jim Carrey and Virginia Madsen.

The Number 23, released in 2007 and directed by Joel Schumacher, is a confusing and strange movie. I remember watching it for the first time not long after it came out on DVD. I was, and still am, a big fan of Jim Carrey; he has played some iconic comedic roles and is a great dramatic actor given the right material. I rented this from Movie Gallery when that was still a thing, and I watched it twice before I had to return it. I don’t know why I was compelled to watch it multiple times because it is not a very good movie, but there is something about the neo-noir style and early 2000s rock music video vibe that draws my attention and glues me to the screen.

Walter Sparrow is an animal control worker. Through a series of convoluted events involving a jilted woman, a birthday, and a dog, Walter gets his hands on a book titled The Number 23. The book is eerily similar to Walter’s own life, and he begins to go crazy as he notices the bizarre similarities to his past and present life. His wife, Agatha, played by Virginia Madsen, initially ignores his obsession but begins to get worried as he loses sleep and becomes obsessed with the number.

The performances here are strange; Jim Carrey seems confused with what kind of role he is playing. There are moments when he does a decent job portraying the obsessive Walter, and there are other moments where he is almost laughably bad. I will slightly commend him for his dual role performance. The movie also has fictional segments from the book portrayed by the actors in the reality of the film. The two primary characters in the book world are the laughably named Fingerling and Fabrizia. When these segments aren’t filmed like an alt-rock music video from 2002 they are visually interesting. I may be in the minority, but I like the heavenly lit white room where Fingerling talks to the Suicide Blonde, played by Lynn Collins. I like the over the top hard-boiled nature of this story, and there is a surreal tone that the movie sometimes has that I wished and I wished it went further. Elements of the film reminded me of the much more competent Lost Highway, directed by David Lynch. They both deal with the murder of someone close to the protagonist, and mistaken or lost identity plays a huge role. I feel like The Number 23 wants to be both a surreal, almost metafictional, neo-noir and a blockbuster thriller, and it is unfortunate that it can’t nail either tone correctly. I do believe that Joel Schumacher is a talented filmmaker, and the actors that are in the movie are typically really good in other films in which they appear. 

One scene that I found enjoyable was when Walter goes to visit Agatha’s friend Issac French, a local professor played by Danny Huston. They have a conversation about the number 23 and how it can be applied to multiple conspiracy theories, and how meaning is found when there is no scientific evidence to back it up. I feel like that is where the movie messes up; a neo-noir movie about conspiracies and how they can drive you mad is an interesting idea, but the script for this movie is far too convoluted and confusing for it to work.

Unfortunately, this is not a very good movie, but I will say that it is memorable. Joel Schumacher is a stylish director, and he proved with films like The Lost Boys and even Batman Forever that he is skilled behind the camera. This conspiracy neo-noir has some interesting ideas, and the book within the movie is a cool idea, but the screenplay is far too messy, and it completed crumbles in the third act during the twist. Weirdly enough, even though I don’t think this is a good film I will probably revisit it in the future. Maybe it is secret brilliant, drawing you into the convoluted nature of the movie in the same way Walter is drawn into the number 23 conspiracy.

Rating 2/5

Categories
Movies Noir

Noirvember Review: Variety (1983)

Variety. Released in 1983. Directed by Bette Gordon and starring Sandy McLeod, Will Patton, Richard M. Davidson, and Luis Guzman.

Variety, released in 1983, focuses on Catherine (Sandy McLeod), a young, attractive woman struggling to make ends meet in New York City. Her friend, hesitantly, helps her retain a job at an adult movie theater named Variety. She works there as a ticket taker. The only other employee we see there is Jose (Luis Guzman), who promotes and manages the place. Men come in and out of the theater, but one man named Louie (Richard M. Davidson) takes a liking to Catherine and buys her a Coke one day while she is on break. This mysterious man has an ominous air about him, inspiring the audience to mistrust and be wary of him. When he hands her the coke, my first thought was she shouldn’t accept it because she didn’t watch him make it.

The men in the film are uncomfortable with female sexuality. We see men consuming porn and desiring women, but the moment a woman shows initiative, they are hesitant and scared. This audience sees this personified in Mark (Will Patton), Catherine’s boyfriend, who is uncomfortable with her embracing her sexuality and being around sexual material by working at a porno theater. There are multiple standout scenes where Catherine is describing her work to her boyfriend. She describes in graphic detail sexual and profane materials. Every time she describes these things, Mark gets visibly uncomfortable, usually leaving the room or asking her to stop. This character represents the theme of the movie and how men get uncomfortable with women expressing their sexualities and desires. When he discovers that she works in a porno theater, he looks revolted and leaves her at the diner where they are eating. Mark spends most of his time talking about his work. Mark is an investigative reporter. He seems to be investigating organized crime in unions. Mark consistently talks about this with Catherine, but anytime she begins talking about her day, he gets visibly disgusted and uncomfortable. The audience can tell he does not approve of the sexual nature of her job or the effect it is having on their relationship.

Mark and Catherine sit in a diner eating. We can see from his face he is uncomfortable.

The rest of the men in Catherine’s life are not much better. Jose, who seems to be a nice guy looking out for her, comes onto her near the end of the movie, propositioning her to have sex with him. The men in the film all seem to want to fulfill their desires but have no interest in what Catherine desires or wants. The other man, Louie, seems to be connected to what Mark is investigating. He participates in shady deals in back alleys and appears to work for a union doing obvious criminal things, but the movie is not interested in this aspect of the character; instead, we see Catherine following him living out a voyeuristic desire. The film doesn’t focus on his criminal activity; that employed as a device for the noirish genre elements. Louie likes to leave vulgar messages on Catherine’s answering machine and eventually takes her out to a baseball game, intending to have sex with her. Louie is called away due to business leaving Catherine at the game alone, seemingly with no intention of ever calling her back. He ignores her advances, only worried about his desires and sexual gain; this is what leads Catherine to follow and stalk him around the city. Rather than getting exposition of Louie’s criminal activity, we instead see the inner desires of Catherine who gets a thrill and pleasure out of stalking Louie. 

Variety is a great feminist neo-noir. Its exploration of female sexuality using a primarily dominant male-centric genre is an interesting subversion from the norm. Director Bette Gordon and screenwriter Kathy Acker create an interesting character study that explores female sexuality and desire without using exploitative or misogynistic plot devices. This unique movie is great to watch for Noirvember and offers the audience a unique perspective on a familiar genre.

Rating 3.5/5

Categories
Movies Noir

Noirvember Review: Blue Velvet

Blue Velvet. Released in 1986. Directed by David Lynch. Starring Isabella Rossellini, Kyle MacLachlan, Dennis Hopper, and Laura Dern

Towards the beginning of Blue Velvet, the camera zooms in on a severed ear that protagonist Jeffery Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) found while walking near his house. With this shot, we enter a dark, subconscious world, a world that lives beneath the surface of the suburban white picket fence houses that line the streets of Lumberton. We also see this idea of darkness lurking beneath during the opening of the movie. After Jeffery’s father collapses in his yard, we see insects crawling beneath the beautifully cultivated yard where he is working. David Lynch is not only telling us that there is darkness living on the other side of town, but that there is also darkness in our subconscious.

Analyzing and reviewing Blue Velvet is difficult; the plot is easy to discern, but there are layers of subtext that live within the movie. Blue Velvet, like other David Lynch projects, explores dark, subconscious desires and fears. Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) is a manifestation of this darkness. Frank Booth acts as an interesting foil to Jeffery Beaumont because he represents Jeffery’s dark desires. Frank even says to Jeffery, “You are me.” This dark revelation shakes Jeffery, causing him to weep in his room, lamenting the darkness that he has witnessed in himself.

Sandy Williams (Laura Dern) and Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) contrast each other. Sandy is pure and young; she is untainted by the world, protected from the darkness by her suburban home and detective father. Dorothy Vallens is a tragic figure, and unlike Sandy she is alone forced to face the darkness of the world and her darkness alone. Frank’s dark and violent desires have created a world of darkness for her. She is a victim of sexual violence and Frank’s depravity. When Jeffery enters her world, Dorothy has been broken by Frank. He has kidnapped her husband and son, cutting off her husband’s ear with scissors and regularly torturing her with his insanity and sexual violence. Dorothy, along with Frank, awakens something dark within Jeffrey. She engages him and inspires him to act on his dark impulses, something which haunts him later. On the surface, Jeffery looks innocent, but Dorothy shows him he isn’t truly innocent.

It is interesting how David Lynch blends multiple genres, creating a film that is equal parts horror, noir, and psychological thriller. Angelo Badalamenti’s score even calls back to classic film noir scores. He does this with his imagery too; the opening of the film shows an Americana landscape before he descends deeper into the world, showing urban decay and immorality. Lynch’s work consistently evokes the idea of the industrial and urban world encroaching on the idyllic lifestyle of suburban America. There is also a voyeuristic approach to his filmmaking, and that features heavily in this movie. People witness and recognize ever-growing darkness but turn a blind eye or succumb.

Dream-like and nightmarish David Lynch uses Blue Velvet to examine the dark recess of our subconscious. It is interesting to watch alongside his oeuvre because you can watch how his ideas evolve and adapt over time. Blue Velvet is an excellent and challenging neo-noir that I highly recommend everyone watching.

Rating 5/5

Categories
Movies Noir

Noirvember Review: The Nice Guys

The Nice Guys, released in 2016 and directed by Shane Black, is a vibrant, psychedelic, and hilariously dark buddy cop neo-noir. It stars Ryan Gosling and Russel Crowe as Holland March and Jackson Healy, respectively, who along with March’s pre-teen daughter, played excellently by Angourie Rice, begin investigating the death of pornstar Misty Mountains, played briefly by Murielle Telio, and the disappearance of Amelia, played by Margaret Qualley. The entire cast of the film play their role excellently. Russel Crowe and Ryan Gosling have amazing chemistry with each other; their dynamic is what creates most of the comedy of the movie. Ryan Gosling is uniquely hilarious in this film giving–in my opinion–one of the best performances in a comedy in the past 5 to 10 years.

The aesthetic of the movie is absolutely wonderful, making L.A. look like both a magical and depraved place. There is a surreal and dreamlike tone that pervades the movie that gives it a psychedelic feel, this style feels at home in the 1970’s setting. The characters that occupy the movie are either exploitative or morally gray in how they handle situations. Both Gosling and Crowe have dark sides to their characters; Gosling’s March is a defeated widowed single father who is looking for a quick buck and is willing to exploit people to gain that and Crowe’s Healy is a violent, but protective, enforcer who is willing to take a life to protect those around him. One would think this darker atmosphere around the characters would confuse the tone but Shane Black is able to blend the darkness and the comedy together magnificently.

The movie also explores the darker side of the film industry by looking at the seedy underbelly of the porn scene of the 1970s. Like Boogie Nights, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and released in 1997, the film takes a slightly critical eye toward the exploitation of the porn industry while also looking at how sex sells, even when it comes to politics. The combination of sex and death is interesting to look at as well; we see in the opening of the movie a young boy look at a centerfold picture of Misty Mountains, she then crashes through his house and wrecking her car and landing in his back yard. The boy goes to check and sees Misty in the same pose that is shown in the magazine, but instead this time she is bloodied up and dying. The boy modestly covers up the dead porn star’s exposed body and then the movie starts. This linking of sex and death is explored throughout the film; however, I don’t want to spoil any plot points in this review so I won’t go into much more detail regarding that subject.

This is a funny, dark, and all-around entertaining buddy neo-noir that I would highly suggest watching during Noirvember. 

Rating 5/5