Weekly Movie Diary – “I Saw the Devil,” “Battle Los Angeles,” “Red Riding Hood,” “Hall Pass”

Byung-hun Lee out for revenge in "I Saw the Devil"

I Saw the Devil

Movies tend to get it wrong with revenge stories. I’ve never understood why killing the object of one’s hate would be satisfactory payback. They’re dead, feeling nothing, while the seeker of revenge goes on with life probably still struggling with the grief they deferred. It seems like it would be a bit anti-climatic. In I Saw the Devil Kim Soo-hyeon (played by Byung-hun Lee) gets it right in the stylish ultra-violent revenge fantasy from Korea. He doesn’t want to kill the man who abducted, murdered, and chopped up his fiancée. No, he sets in motion a plan to torment the sadistic killer, Kyung-Chul (Min-sik Choi), to beat him and torture him to the point of death and then let him go, again and again. His wants to make Kyung’s life a living hell before taking his life, which sounds like a proper, more fulfilling form of retribution than just killing him.

Despite the graphic violence, which more than once felt pointless and gratuitous, I did like the movie. I do wonder, however, what we’re supposed to take away from a movie like this. As one character tells Kim, revenge is something from the movies and she’s right. Kim’s plan may torment his fiancée’s killer (until Kyung turns the tables on him), but in the process he has to reach dark places within himself that match Kyung’s evil. The devil referred to in the title is both the serial killer and Kim as he becomes more and more vicious in his torture. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t really tell us much we didn’t already know. Still the movie is well made, relatively gripping (though there’s probably one too many fight scenes), and Byung-hun Lee is an attractive lead, proving he can be more than just the window dressing that he was in the horrible G.I. Joe. He turns in a haunting performance as a man so focused on revenge that he doesn’t see – or doesn’t care – what it is doing to his own soul. (Rating ****)

Aaron Eckhart in “Battle Los Angeles”

Battle Los Angeles

Battle Los Angeles is about as uninspired as they come. I haven’t been so bored while watching gun fights, explosions, screaming, running, and all other types of so-called action since I watched neighborhood kids put on their own production of War of the Worlds. There is nothing fresh, original, or witty going on here. Aliens invade the world and Marines are deployed to defend the City of Angeles. (Well, technically Santa Monica, but I guess it’s all the same.) There are no characters worth speaking of so I don’t know why the movie bothered to give many of the soldiers stock, one-dimensional back stories, like Aaron Eckhart’s character on the verge of retirement, another marine on the eve of his wedding, the rookie, the hot dog, the inexperienced young officer, etc. We’ve seen all these cardboard cutouts before and this movie adds nothing, to them or the genre. Director Jonathan Liebesman tries to get cute, but even that falls flat. One of the many, many battles has our group of Marines and civilians trapped on the Santa Monica freeway. Get it? Because it’s Los Angeles, they’re stuck on a freeway! – as if traffic doesn’t infest every major city in the world. But that is the depth of this movie’s comment. The rest is uninspired action. The only thing you will root for is the end credits. (Rating *1/2)

Amanda Seyfried in "Red Riding Hood"

Red Riding Hood

Narratively this is a movie we’ve seen before. It’s a glossy, stylized version of Neil Jordan’s 1984 riff on the Little Red Riding Hood fable The Company of Wolves. She omits the anthology of werewolf stories and substitutes the more traditional granny-like Angela Lansbury for Julie Christie as sexy granny. (Is no one allowed to just be plain old in movies anymore? Even Granny in Little Red Riding Hood? And where did she get that face lift in this isolated village?) In Red Riding Hood Amanda Seyfried plays Valerie, a young woman in a remote village that has been terrorized by a vicious werewolf. The villagers came to a sort of understanding with the wolf by leaving offerings of livestock every full moon. But when Valerie’s sister is murdered, the peace is broken and the villagers demand vengeance. They call in famed werewolf hunter Solomon (Gary Oldman) and, being convinced that the wolf is a villager, he goes on proverbial and literal witch hunt to find the wolf. Naturally Valerie is in love. She pines for her childhood friend Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), but has been promised to a wealthy man’s son, Henry (Max Irons). Suspicion naturally falls intermittently on both, so we know it can’t be either.

Catherine Hardwicke shows she has some skill constructing an intriguing world and appealing aesthetic (I especially appreciated the use of real snow falling and dissipating on the characters’ clothes – a nice touch that is missing even from many superior movies), but she also illustrates her fumbling inability to coax good performances out of her young actors. Only the veteran actors like Gary Oldman and Julie Christie squeeze any juice out of the script, while the young actors at the center of the story are pale and wooden. Fernandez and Irons glare and glower at each other and everyone else while their characters nurse an unrequited love for Valerie, but rarely get anywhere near a plausible human emotion. Even Amanda Seyfried, who has been good in past movies, stumbles and fails to connect to her character.

 

Max Irons and Shiloh Fernandez glare at each other.

The story, however, did have me guessing. There are about 20 charactersthat could have been the wolf and the mystery did have me stumped. Everytime I settled on the person it had to be, I had to switch it up. And, as I said,the visuals are striking. If only I cared more about the romance(s) and the acting was better I would have really enjoyed this one. (Rating **1/2)

Too much wasted talent in "Hall Pass."

Hall Pass

I finally caught up with the Farrelly Brothers’ latest movie Hall Pass and I am sad to say I’m sorry I did. I’ve never been a major fan of the Farrelly Brothers’ movies. The only one I’ve ever had any affection for is Kingpin; even There’s Something about Mary is so uneven that I can’t muster any goodwill toward it. Hall Pass represents the distasteful and unfortunate spiral that movie comedy is in today. Generally gross-out humor is terribly unfunny and is evidence of lazy uncreative writing, but they even resort to a so-called gag that is blatantly homophobic and racist at the same time. Owen Wilson falls asleep and almost drowns in a gym jacuzzi. He is saved by two naked men from the steam room, one of whom is black and has a large penis. The Farrelly’s relish showing off his penis, their camera lingers so we don’t miss the fact that they want us to see it. After pulling Wilson out of the jacuzzi, they plant his face as close to the massive member as they can, eliciting uncomfortable groans from straight men and appreciate snickers from their girlfriends. The only message to take away, the only reason they would even think this works as a gag, is they believe there is something repulsive, abhorrent, and comical  about big black penises and comedy today is all about repulsing audiences. This racially insensitive and homophobic joke is indicative of the rest of the movie. Using an unlikely gimmick about wives fed up with their husbands juvenile flirting with other women, they give them a week off from marriage where they can do whatever they want. This could have been a sly parody of modern matrimonial and casual relationships, but they have nothing of consequence to say or satirize about marriage, sex, or anything else. They just repeat the same tired routine about women being mature while their husbands are big kids lost in the world without womanly guidance. It’s a desperate attempt to re-establish their relevance in the world of comedy that has moved past them. (Though I would argue it was past them when they were relevant.) The best comedy is still on television: Modern Family, The Simpsons, Community, 30 Rock, South Park. What sets them apart from so much movie comedy is topical humor told through sharp writing and great performances. Their writers don’t need to resort to easy scatological humor; they’ve got intelligence and, thankfully, something to say. (Rating ½ star)

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Weekly Movie Diary – “I Saw the Devil,” “Battle Los Angeles,” “Red Riding Hood,” “Hall Pass”

  1. I love revenge cinema as much as anyone, but I Saw the Devil failed to satisfy. As you say, there’s really not much to take away from the film. Everything beyond the graphical violence the film tries to impart on the viewer is old news. I’m a fan of Kim’s versatility (and especially love A Bittersweet Life), but this was simply a hollow experience.

    • I liked the movie more than you did, though I did have problems with it. I really liked Byung-hun Lee in the lead and, as I said, I thought the drawn out revenge made more sense. I found it entertaining in spite of the gore, entertaining enough to recommend, but it isn’t a particularly insightful movie, so I can see why you wouldn’t like it. I do need to check out A Bittersweet Life though.

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