Aggressively stylish and gleefully brutal, Chanwook Park’s florid revenge melodrama which won the Grand Jury Prize (basically second place) from a corps headed by Quentin Tarantino at last year’s Cannes Film Festival doesn’t divulge the meaning of its unusual title until the final reel. Well before that point, however, you’ll be thinking Park should have just cut to the chase and called his movie Fanboy.
Granted, the initial premise packs enough of a Kafkaesque wallop to intrigue almost anybody: Awakening after a bender, a no-account middle-class husband and father (Choi Min-sik) finds himself imprisoned, without explanation or apparent provocation, in what appears to be a shabby motel room — for fifteen years. When he’s suddenly and inexplicably released, we can’t help but empathize as he sets out to discover who plopped him into purgatory, and why, even as we instinctively recoil from the dude’s post-incarceration makeover: wild eyes, unruly shock of hair, lunging schizophrenic movements. But only the most ardent genre hounds will truly appreciate the maelstrom of sick violence and horrifying revelations that follow.
So, should you bother to see it if your bedroom isn’t littered with graphic novels and Boba Fett action figures? By all means — just dial your expectations down a notch. Park’s visual flamboyance is guaranteed to hold your attention; what’s missing is the pointed subtext that informed his earlier films, Joint Security Area and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (both as yet unreleased in the U.S.). And the plot, grab-tastic though is, becomes increasingly and ridiculosly baroque — I didn’t really imagine the rest of the film would match that knockout prologue, but neither was I prepared for the endless series of “ho ho ho!”s that make up the expository third act.
Ultimately, Oldboy adds up to less than the sum of its set pieces; the most memorable finds our vengeful hero battling his way through an endless corridor of thugs armed only with a hammer. It’s not the fight choreography that impresses so much as the sheer attenuation, which makes both the Matrix‘s Burly Brawl and Kill Bill‘s House of Blue Leaves look like massage-with-release by comparison. — Mike D’Angelo
| No, thankfully, it’s not the Titanic sequel that the title forebodes, but the story of another doomed vessel. As the last two inhabitants of an island commune, father Jack (Daniel Day-Lewis) and teenage daughter Rose (Camilla Belle) share a bond so intimate they finish each other’s sentences and seem at first to be lovers. Dying of heart disease and threatened by an encroaching developer (Beau Bridges), the stubbornly idealistic Jack reluctantly invites his mainland girlfriend and her two sons into his utopia, hoping they will stick around to care for Rose after his death. “It’s just an experiment,” Jack reassures his jealous daughter, who promptly retaliates for this deceit by awarding her virginity to one of the sons, then hanging the bloody sheet where her father can see it. Scrawled beside the stain are his words: “Just an experiment.”
Director and writer Rebecca Miller has an embarrassment of natural performances on her hands, especially from the dark-eyed, dangerously innocent Belle. Rose can’t seem to do wrong in her father’s eyes, even when she fires at shotgun at his lover. Shot in saturated aquamarine hues, much of it by hand-held camera, the movie occasionally abuses its license, stalling as we wait for Jack to realize the selfishness that motivates his fatherly indulgence. Still, the love these two marooned souls display for one another will compel romantic viewers to go down with the ship. — Justin Clark
| For those who can’t get beyond images of Sable and Chyna at the mention of girl wrestlers, Lipstick & Dynamite will pin you to the mat and teach you a thing for two. Focusing on six wrestling veterans, it’s as much about the sport as it is about womanhood post-WWII.
Think of it as A League of Their Own featuring a tougher set of grannies. What began as a carnival sideshow in 1939 developed into a main attraction in the ’50s and ’60s. As with today, the sport has been as much about showbiz as it has been about athletics: matches were manipulated so that titles were easily defended; promoters were expected to sleep with the girls and claim fifty percent of their take.
Many of the women featured were mistreated at home and learned at an early age to defend themselves. Penny Banner started lifting weights to fend off a would-be rapist. Abused by her family, Ida May Martinez grew accustomed to punching and slapping back. When presented with a chance to earn some money and see the country, they gravitated into the ring.
Of the six, the most entertaining is the Fabulous Moolah, who lives up to her name. She wears a gold dollar sign around her neck, and much of her footage seems to be filled in the back of a stretch limo tooling around Vegas. A vicious wrestler who found second wind as a promoter exploiting a new generation of girls, she’s still active in WWE events.
Besides obligatory archival photos, the documentary also includes clips of guest appearances on old time shows like What’s My Line and To Tell the Truth. Even more fun are excerpts from a campy 1951 girl wrestling film called Racket Girls.
The topic is an obscure bit of Americana, but don’t expect a bunch of Golden Girls waxing poetic in the kitchen — these women were fierce in and out of the ring; some still harbor old resentments. See it and you’ll understand why the film’s full title is Lipstick & Dynamite, Piss & Vinegar: the First Ladies of Wrestling. — Lily Oei
| Man. Woman. Scissors. With a tagline like that, a filmmaker telegraphs his intentions pretty clearly — a primordial tale of rage and revenge, fired with liberal hits of Bobbitt and Freud gone pop.
Director Tim McCann clearly wants to roil the waters; Nowhere Man‘s MO suggests he studied at the Neil Labute School of Hate Your Characters, Hate Your Audience. The protagonists are queasily unlikeable. Conrad (Michael Rodrick) embarks upon an Odyssean search for his penis, which was cut off by his shrieky former fiancée Jennifer (the rather good Debbie Rochon). But he’s no innocent Bo Peep looking for his lost lamb — the castration came about after he dished out his own bit of abuse.
The film flirts with issues of race, emasculation, and flip-flopping power relations between the sexes — a potentially interesting movie is buried beneath the screechy hysteria over a thirteen-inch penis or no penis at all. But Nowhere Man trades insight for provocation as it drags itself to a gruesome conclusion. By the end, the audience may want to take their own pair of scissors to the film reel. — Noy Thrupkaew
| Despite its derivative title, Guess Who plays more like a funked-up Meet the Parents than the 1967 Sidney Poitier vehicle about interracial romance that is its inspiration. For all its provocative racial posturing, Guess Who can’t amp up enough tension — a testament to the ways in which interracial love has lost its taboo.
Bernie Mac puts his best menace on as the black dad fuming over his daughter’s milquetoasty boyfriend. No one can nurse along a disgruntled low boil better than the bulgy-eyed comedian, who cuts his Angry Black Man schtick with enough sweetness to keep from frightening the white folks in the audience. Ashton Kutcher is his sidekick/punching bag, and the two make an endearing pair — too endearing, perhaps, to give the film the uncomfortable, intriguing edge it could have had.
The film does flirt with squirmy discomfort in one scene: Mac’s character goads the boyfriend into telling racist jokes at the dinner table. But the film ultimately trades racial tension in for sexual anxiety when Mac and Kutcher face down a sexually ambiguous party planner and a gaggle of furious mm-hmming black women. In the end, Guess Who is a love story — a buddy film gone ebony and ivory. — Noy Thrupkaew
| When I was in high school, there was nothing hotter than Dances With Wolves — not because of wild man Kevin Costner, but because it was very, very long. If you had strict parents (and I did) you could make out for exactly 180 minutes, plus trailers. Even better, the film was so unobtrusively soothing that you never once got distracted from tongue-wrestling.
Similarly, Finding Neverland, the fine-but-bland J.M. Barrie biopic starring Johnny Depp, may turn out to be the best Date DVD of 2005. Like Wolves, it has one of those overblown symphonic scores that really make you feel classy with your tongue down someone’s throat. With that sweeping soundtrack, you’ll never notice when young Peter’s mom dies of, oh, something or another. (Don’t worry, they skipped over Barrie’s reputed child-porn proclivities, so you can make out with a clean conscience.)
Smooth and substanceless, the movie just flows by. Think of the scenes as waves, gently crashing onto the beach, as you and your date cuddle on the veranda of your couch, getting all handsy. Even if you’re some purist who cares about things like plot, well, it’s easy enough to keep up: Barrie befriends a widow and her kids. Their Mum dies. Barrie writes Peter Pan. Everyone cries. That’s it. There’s no action and no sex. That, you have to take care of yourself. — Logan Hill