Film reviews: Oldboy (18) | Fill the Void (U)

Josh Brolin gives an anguished performance as a buff killing machine seeking vengeance. Picture: Contributed
Josh Brolin gives an anguished performance as a buff killing machine seeking vengeance. Picture: Contributed
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This rehashed dumpling sticks in the throat, finds Siobhan Synnot while Fill the Void is rare but ‘lacks a point of view’

I LIKE Josh Brolin: he combines the wryness of Tommy Lee Jones, the rugged looks of a leading man, and the perplexed air of a recently woken grizzly bear. Brolin has played a lot of tormented characters to date, from the homophobe in Milk to the president of the United States in W, but it never gets old. This is just as well because in this remake of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, he spends most of the picture brooding and suffering.

Spike Lee takes over the reins of the Hollywood version, and apart from relocating from South Korea to New Orleans, he hews pretty closely to the original’s plot. Joe Doucett is a workaholic ad executive, who ditches his daughter’s third birthday party in favour of a boozy business dinner. After some heroic misbehaviour, he passes out and wakes up in a sealed motel room with a bathroom and a bed.

For the next 20 years, his only entertainment is a TV screen and a selection of kung fu videos with rations of Chinese dumplings and vodka delivered at regular intervals. He has no idea who kidnapped him or why, but he learns from a reality TV show that he’s been framed for his wife’s murder in 1993. His first instinct is despair, but then he turns to revenge and spends the rest of his captivity getting in shape, learning to fight by studying the chop-socky videos, and watching the world roll through 9/11 and towards the present day on the news channel. When he is suddenly freed, he is a buff killing machine, able to search for his daughter and whoever imprisoned him.

On hand to help is a young social worker (Elizabeth Olsen) and, in a larger sense, karmic destiny. But just as Joe is a man 20 years out of time (“where are all the payphones?” he wonders as he gets to grips with his first smartphone), it’s a little baffling why director Lee is revisiting Oldboy a decade after the original. At the time, Chan-wook’s violence was gruesome and transgressive. Now, after a few more Quentin Tarantino movies, Oldboy 2013 feels contrived and exploitative. Oldboy’s preposterous pulp probably still works if you haven’t seen the original, but it lacks the original’s relish for moral disruption. This is the skimmed-milk version, which truncates some of the bigger shocks, and also some of its most memorable eccentricities. New viewers might be baffled by the lingering look Brolin gives to an octopus at one point, but it’s a little in-joke nod to the first meal enjoyed by his Korean predecessor – a cephalopod so fresh that it tries to crawl back out of his gullet. Chan-wook’s film also included a hammer fight that was an extended marvel of choreography and bone crunching at the time. The Lee version is even longer and more extravagant – but that also seems to be its main purpose for staging it here.

At best Lee’s Oldboy benefits from Brolin’s anguished performance, and isn’t unduly damaged by Sharlto Copley playing a villain with the elan of a Pirate King at panto time. It’s a Chinese dumpling of a film – quite greasily and guiltily tasty, but not the sort of meal you’ll remember much about the following day.

Rating: * * *

On general release

Fill The Void (U)

Rating: * * *

ISRAELI director Rama Burshtein’s delicate drama of faith, ritual and tradition begins with matchmaking in a supermarket. Eighteen-year-old Shira is checking out a potential husband from a distance: she’s with her mother, he’s in the dairy products aisle.

Fortunately, she likes him on first skim, because Shira is part of an ultra-Orthodox enclave in Tel Aviv, where a secure and obligated match is the goal, rather than passionate attachment.

It’s a fascinating setup in a modern world, but Burshtein adds another twist. In the middle of a Purim celebration, Shira’s older sister Esther (Renana Raz) dies, leaving a spouse and baby. Shira’s mother (Irit Sheleg) can’t bear the probability that Esther’s husband Yochai (Yiftach Klein) will move abroad with her only grandchild, so she proposes a change to the previous plan; Shira should marry her brother-in-law.

This subs bench attitude to matrimony draws out varying responses from other female characters; Shira’s spinster aunt Hanna (Razia Israeli) who long ago took to wearing the married woman’s head scarf “to stop the embarrassing questions” objects to the surrogacy, while her single friend Frieda (Hila Feldman) feels she should get first shot at Yochai. And Yochai seems cool with the arrangement.

The main strength of Burshtein’s film lies in its rarity: few movies have ever been made about life behind the scenes of an Orthodox religious society. The main weakness is that, in its anxiety not to be judgmental, Fill The Void lacks a point of view.

Selected release: GFT and Edinburgh Filmhouse

Films in brief

Marius (12A)

Rating: * *

Fanny (PG)

Rating: * * *

A chance to catch the first two parts of Marcel Pagnol’s linked stories about Marseille bartender Marius (Raphael Personnaz), who dreams of sailing off to far away countries, and Fanny (Victoire Belezy) who simply dreams of Marius. Daniel Auteuil’s adaptation is pretty, stagey heritage drama, but if you can get past the clunky setup of Marius, Auteuil’s Fanny has a bit more dramatic punch.

Selected release: GFT and Edinburgh Filmhouse

The Broken Circle Breakdown (15)

Rating: * * *

Two country musicians fall in love, have a child, then have their faith in god and each other tested when she develops leukaemia. With its Flemish actors essaying songs like Wayfaring Stranger down to the Appalachian twang, a fractured narrative, and a rant about stem cell research, this is a distinctive oddity that is as hokey as a country ballad, but sometimes as plangent too.

Selected release: GFT

Black Nativity (PG)

Rating: * *

Jennifer Hudson , Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett and R&B star Jacob Latimore star in a Christmas movie musical about a surly teen (Latimore) sent to stay with his uptight religious grandparents. Based on Langston Hughes’ gospel pageant, this melodramatic update relies heavily on portentous plotting and ungainly coincidences. So, not the greatest story ever told, but the familiar spiritual standards are stirringly rendered and Mary J Blige soulfully decks the halls as a blonde, afroed angel.

On general release

The Christmas Candle (U)

Rating: * *

Period sermon about a sceptical parish minister (Hans Matheson) who ignores talk of a miraculous candle and installs electric lighting in his church. Chiefly notable for the unsubtle acting debut of Susan Boyle as one of the villagers, the rest of this fable plays like an especially slowburning episode of Lark Rise To Candleford.

Selected release: Cineworlds Edinburgh and Glasgow