Thursday, April 21, 2005

Thoroughly unpleasant people: Raging Bull and Oldboy

As you might be able to guess from the month between these two movies, I've been procrastinating on writing my review for Raging Bull. They're tough enough to write when I really just don't like a movie that has a bunch of praise. When it's a current movie, you can at least feel like you're one of the smart ones, saying the emperor has no clothes (like when I really rather disliked The Aviator). When it's something that's been acquiring praise for 25 years, though, I start second guessing myself, especially when I can't really say there's anything wrong with the movie.

Similarly, all five current reviews for Oldboy on HBS are five stars, and my 3.5 on a four star scale ranking translates to "only" four stars. And it lost that half star basically because the end grossed me out. I mean, why does Dae-su pull out the scissors? It's the moment when the movie jumps from "edgy" to "over the edge", just being shocking without adding much.

So, I guess on both of these, I'm knocking them down for my personal taste - especially Raging Bull, which couldn't overcome my antipathy for boxing the same way that, say, Million Dollar Baby did. But, hey, truly great movies should be able to.

Raging Bull

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 March 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagment)

I don't like boxing. I can admire the dedication and effort it takes to be a good boxer, but it takes dedication and effort to do anything well, so why not expend it on learning how to do something nobler than beating another person unconscious? Although I'm certain that there are many big-hearted boxers, the sport comes across as a thug's activity, with the rampant corruption doing little to make things look better. So I guess it's fitting that Raging Bull is basically a movie about a thug.

It's a polished movie about a thug, no question. The black and white photography is unwaveringly excellent, the actors deliver fine performances, and everything that happens rings true, which isn't always a given even for a biography. But when you get right down to it, Jake La Motta is a big, dumb, petty, violent bruiser of a man, and as such men are wont to do, he squanders his success and winds up making those around him miserable. Where's the interest in that almost inevitable progression, other than the formidable craft of Martin Scorsese and his cast and crew? That's not trivial by any means, but they bring it to a story and a character that is interesting for little other than confirming a pessimistic view of human nature.

Read the rest at HBS.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 April 2005 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (first-run)

Oldboy is nasty, but for the most part, it's compelling-nasty as opposed to gratuitous-nasty. Everything about it, from its plot to its performances to its violence, is over-the-top, and if there's an idea that can make the average member of an audience uncomfortable, Oldboy probably hits it at some point. Still, the shocks don't really become repulsive until the last act - acclaimed Korean director Park Chan-wook fills his garish movie with as much intrigue as grotesquerie.

The movie opens with credits suggesting clocks, and then a wild-haired man holding another off the side of the building. We flash back to see him some time earlier, drunk and disorderly in a police station waiting for a friend to pick him up, and learn that his name, "Oh Dae-su", means "easy to get along with". As his friend calls Dae-su's wife, though, we find out that someone doesn't find him so agreeable, as Dae-su disappears. We next see him in a tiny apartment whose door has an opening in the bottom for his jailors to pass him food but no explanations. After a year locked in the apartment, there's a report on TV about his wife being murdered, with Dae-su the prime suspect. He'll stay there much longer, the television his only contact with the outside world, slowly trying to dig his way out, training himself to be at least fit enough to handle himself in a fight, even if he has no sparring partners. Bare days before his escape is complete, though, he is released. He tells this story to a man he finds ready to jump off a roof, and then begins the grim business of finding out who imprisoned him - and perhaps more importantly, why.

Read the rest at HBS.

Next up: The Independent Film Festival of Boston, and some packages of shorter films.

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