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Watching ‘Oldboy’ anew, and the best movies to see in L.A. this week

A man in shades sits in a restaurant.
Choi Min-sik in the movie “Oldboy.”
(Neon)
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Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

You may have noticed that for the last few weeks we’ve been shifting our (indie) focus here a bit, moving toward spotlighting what’s happening on the local Los Angeles repertory scene. But never fear, that does not mean we have forsaken new releases. Far from it: For me, part of the real joy of a life of dedicated movie-watching is the mix of old and new, art house and mainstream, all of it. And we’re not giving that up.

One of this week’s new releases is “The Adults,” the latest from writer-director Dustin Guy Defa. I‘ve been a fan since his 2012 debut, “Bad Fever,” plus his charming 2017 film “Person to Person” has been popping up on HBO lately. (Both of those features and a number of Defa’s shorts are currently streaming on the Criterion Channel.) The new film stars Michael Cera, Hannah Gross and Sophia Lillis as three siblings reluctantly reuniting. Nicolas Rapold recently spoke to Defa for us.

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As I noted in my Times review of the film, “With filmmakers such as Greta Gerwig, Chloé Zhao and Barry Jenkins moving from the margins of the industry into mainstream success, one can hope there is a place for someone like Defa to reach a wider audience as well. He has long been in the one-to-watch ranks of rising filmmakers — the Criterion Channel is currently streaming his distinctive two earlier features and numerous shorts — and his quiet, sensitive storytelling, economical visual sense and keen facility with actors have only continued to develop. In Defa’s exploration of family with “The Adults,” a restless soul seems to have found a home at last.”

And here‘s the best of what’s playing in L.A. over the next week.

20 years of ‘Oldboy’

A man with a hammer glowers intensely.
Choi Min-sik in the movie “Oldboy.”
(Neon)

Originally released in Korea in 2003, Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy” would go on to win the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004 (from a Quentin Tarantino-chaired jury). Now, to celebrate its 20th anniversary, Neon is releasing a restored and remastered version of the film nationwide.

“Oldboy” was a key title in breaking out Korean cinema to an international audience. It is no exaggeration to say that it set in motion the series of events that would eventually culminate in Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” winning the Oscar for best picture in 2020.

Not that people would have necessarily predicted such an outcome at the time of “Oldboy.” A phantasmagoria of psychosexual violence, it concerns a man (Choi Min-sik) who is trapped for 15 years in a strange hotel room against his will. Once he is released, he has to find his way in the world anew, seeking revenge for what has been done to him for reasons unknown.

Carlos Aguilar wrote a fantastic overview on the movie and its legacy, speaking not only to Park but also to Hamish McAlpine, who first distributed the film in the U.S., as well as Korean cinema scholar Sangjoon Lee and Seoul-based American journalist Darcy Paquet.

As to why this film in particular caught on with international audiences, Park told us, “Despite the shocking story, it clearly had the grammar of a typical genre film. It wasn’t too different for Western audiences. Also, this theme of revenge and incest is familiar in both the East and the West from older classics, for instance the Bible or Greek mythology.”

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Writing about the film in 2005 for The Times, Carina Chocano called it “a violent, surreal inquiry into morality, causality and the zero-sum nature of revenge.”

In an interview with Chocano, Park said, “If I had to choose one phrase common to my films it would be ‘moral dilemma.’ We are destined to make a lot of choices every day in life. And you always have to consider ethical consequences. I find this very hard, so it’s an issue I want to deal with in my films.”

In many ways, “Oldboy” has remained the defining film of Park’s career. Even when I spoke to the filmmaker in 2016 for the period drama “The Handmaiden,” he still used “Oldboy” as a point of reference. As he said, “Including ‘Oldboy,’ if you look at all of my films, at the core of it, there is this idea of romance and love. But because violence is such a scintillating element, it hides everything else in its shadow.”

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Cormac McCarthy and ‘The Counselor’

Three men discuss a scene on a movie set.
Director Ridley Scott, left, with Michael Fassbender and Javier Bardem on the set of the movie “The Counselor.”
(Kerry Brown / 20th Century Fox)

As part of the American Cinematheque’s ongoing tribute to late writer Cormac McCarthy, who died in June at age 89, there will be a 35 mm screening tonight of “The Counselor.” Directed by Ridley Scott, the movie was the first original screenplay by the celebrated author to be produced. It was also a notorious flop, despite a cast that included Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt.

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Fassbender plays a slick Texas lawyer who gets in way over his head when he tries to profit from a drug deal. Everyone he meets tries to talk him out of it, but he thinks he knows better and the results are disastrous in ways he could never imagine. The film has a bold visual style, an air of existential dread and a flair for the outrageous, such as the perversely memorable scene in which Diaz seduces Bardem by writhing on the windshield of a Ferrari. (This is also the movie in which Diaz supposedly had to rerecord all her dialogue after she sounded like Rihanna.)

In his review at the time, Kenneth Turan described the film quite clearly when he wrote, “As cold, precise and soulless as the diamonds that figure briefly in its plot, ‘The Counselor’ is an extremely unpleasant piece of business. You could call it ‘Three Beheadings and No Funeral,’ but even that doesn’t give an accurate idea of what you’re in for.”

In part thanks to the home video release of a director’s cut that runs longer but plays more smoothly, the prevailing opinion on the film has changed over time and its punishing bleakness is now a thing to be celebrated, arguably a pure distillation of McCarthy’s own worldview.

The Cinematheque will be showing the theatrical cut, which is a bit more discombobulated, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing considering that one of the film’s strengths in both versions is how destabilizing it is to a viewer, plunging one headlong into a pitiless universe.

Though the film has had its ups and downs, as Ridley Scott said on the DVD commentary, “It’s nice after all that effort to think somebody likes it.”

On the 25th, the Cinematheque will also be screening “No Country for Old Men,” Joel and Ethan Coen’s Oscar-winning adaptation of McCarthy’s novel of the same name that also features Bardem — with a wild hairstyle.

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Other points of interest

“Masc” at UCLA Co-curated by writer-archivist-filmmaker Jenni Olson and critic Caden Mark Gardner, the UCLA Film and Television Archive is launching a new series with the relatively self-explanatory title “Masc: Trans Men, Butch Dykes and Gender-Nonconforming Heroes in Cinema.” As program notes explain, you can expect “six decades of cinema history in search of authentic, complex representations of masculine identity that exist outside the realm of cisheteronormative masculinity.”

The series opens with a pair of documentaries: “No Ordinary Man,” about trans jazz musician Billy Tipton; and “Chavela,” about the lesbian Mexican singer Chavela Vargas. Other titles in the program include the documentary “Southern Comfort,” Cary Cronenwett’s “Maggots and Men,” and Dee Rees’ “Pariah.” A screening of the rare 2001 documentary “Lifetime Guarantee: Phranc’s Adventures in Plastic,” about musician Phranc’s time selling Tupperware, will include a live performance by the singer-songwriter.

The series runs Aug 19–25.

“Superstar” at Zebulon Zebulon will have a free screening of Todd Haynes’ notorious 1988 short film “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” on Friday night. The film does indeed tell the story of musician Karen Carpenter, who died at age 32 in 1983, but does so by ingeniously using Barbie dolls. (The evening is being advertised as “The original Barbie movie.”) While many people have seen the film for years on bootleg copies because of legal complications involving the rights to the Carpenters’ music, the opportunity to see it on a big screen in any resolution is a real joy, as the doll-scale production design and storytelling really benefit. The screening is the first in what is promised to be an ongoing series programmed by local musician Taylor E. Burch.

Jean-Luc Godard/Anna Karina double bill As part of their ongoing tribute to reissue label Rialto Pictures, the New Beverly is showing a fantastic double-bill on Wednesday and Thursday of two films directed by Jean-Luc Godard and starring Anna Karina that, taken together, capture the rise and fall of a relationship. “A Woman Is a Woman” from 1961 is among the most charming films ever made: a pastiche of American musicals, with a palpable romantic energy transmitting from Karina through the camera to Godard, as the film was released the same year they got married. “Made in U.S.A.” from 1966, a neo-noir thriller based on a novel by Richard Westlake, was finished around the time the couple divorced and captures a sense of despair and emotional free-fall. (Karina died in 2019 at age 79; Godard died last year at age 91.)

I had the distinct honor to interview Karina when she was in Los Angeles for a series of public appearances in 2016. As she said of the enduring appeal of her collaborations with Godard, “I don’t think we thought at the time that the films would still be [popular for] so many years afterwards. It’s a kind of surprise every year, and the audiences are young people all over again. It means it’s still very modern after so many years.”

A young Comanche woman goes head to head with an alien creature.
Amber Midthunder in the movie “Prey.”
(David Bukach / 20th Century Studios)
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“Prey” and “Predator” Because of how it was released, “Prey” was nominated for six Emmys, but we’re going to claim it here in the film department all the same. It will be screening at the American Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre on Sunday. (The free event is already at capacity, but there will be a standby line.) Directed by Dan Trachtenberg from a screenplay by Patrick Aison, “Prey” is a sneaky addition to the “Predator” franchise, starring Amber Midthunder as a Comanche woman on the Great Plains in the early 1700s who finds herself tracking an otherworldly creature.

Speaking to Michael Ordoña, Midthunder said she was “excited to see an Indigenous female hero that lives within a period piece, and she is so a whole and real person.”

There will be a Q&A with the production team of Trachtenberg, producer Jhane Myers, editor Angela Catanzaro and co-supervising sound editors William Files and Chris Terhune. The event will also include a screening of John McTiernan’s 1987 original “Predator,” with a cast that includes Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Jesse Venura, Bill Duke and Shane Black.

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