Brian Collins April 9, 2021 - 10:39am
Like most people who have seen it, I didn’t know what to make of Southland Tales the first time I watched it, which was on home video as I wasn’t quick enough to be part of its very limited theatrical release in the fall of 2007. There were certainly parts of it I really enjoyed (Dwayne “no longer The Rock” Johnson’s performance chief among them) but there was just SO MUCH going on at all times I just couldn’t connect to it. It was like getting every reveal from the entire run of Lost condensed into 140 minutes.
Or, I guess, every reveal from the back half of Lost, without the primer of the information we learned in the first few seasons. While multimedia projects are a little more common now (see: Wandavision - preferably before Doctor Strange 2), Richard Kelly’s idea to present the first three chapters of his sprawling epic as graphic novels (with the film offering chapters 4-6) was radical in 2007, not to mention confusing and even somewhat expensive. It’s one thing to go see a movie and come out wanting more, but it’s another to ask audiences to buy three graphic novels at 15 bucks a piece so they can follow along with a movie that’ll cost them even more money.
But even if you read them the movie is something that will likely take a few viewings (and perhaps a detailed synopsis or two) to get a firm grasp on. For the sake of brevity I’ll say that it’s about an actor (Johnson) who is suffering from amnesia and finds himself involved in a complicated blackmail plot involving a porn star/entrepeneur (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a group of Neo-Marxist rebels led by Cheri Oteri, a government surveillance group called US-IDENT, and a pair of twin brothers (Sean William Scott) who also have amnesia and may hold the key to the end of the world. Did I mention Kevin Smith in old man makeup, or Jon Lovitz as a murderous LA cop, or Christopher Lambert as an arms dealer who operates out of an ice cream truck?
Like I said, it’s a lot. Too much, as it turns out, because, as much as we loved Donnie Darko and wanted to see what its creator had cooked up next, the project was a failure (Darko actually grossed more, despite playing on fewer screens and lacking the same upfront interest). But like all flops it found a cult following, and after fifteen (!) years of curiosity, the film has been given a proper special edition release in the US from Arrow Video, with some new retrospective features, the old commentary Kelly recorded in 2008, and - most alluringly - the fabled “Cannes Cut” of the film that screened at the festival in 2006 and was met with nearly universal disdain (it remains one of the lowest scoring films that competed there, ever).
For those unaware, this cut ran about 20 minutes longer, featured different voiceover from narrator Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake), and - for those who only saw the theatrical cut - finally explained why Janeane Garofalo appeared for a second in a crowd scene (her character Teena was otherwise completely removed in the edit). I wouldn’t say their reinstatement will make much of a difference to those who hated the film, but for those like me who have grown to kind of love the damn thing, it was great to finally get a few more slivers of this ambitious, incomplete world.
(If you’re wondering if there’s more to Timberlake’s bravura lip-synch to “All These Things That I’ve Done”, alas, there is not. He apparently always only sang the last third of it. It’s still a perfect scene as is though, and the behind the scenes info about it is not only fascinating but might make you love it even more.)
And then a lot of those ideas came true, too.
For example, a major subplot involves video of a racist cop committing murder, inspiring citizen riots “for the first time since 1992”. In 2007 when the film came out, that bit landed much differently than it does now, and it’s hardly the only instance of the film feeling like a response to what’s happening NOW as opposed to what was happening fifteen years ago. Hell, it’s mostly played for laughs and barely even counts as a subplot, but the fact that part of the storyline involves voter fraud (severed thumbs are used to create duplicate votes) feels like a cruel joke about the 2020 election. And the less said about Kelly’s once-insane idea of a porn star trying to bring down the evil politician, the better.
On the flipside, for all its “ahead of its time” elements, there’s something that makes it feel like an ancient relic: the fact that it’s a hugely ambitious, original tale featuring A-list talent. This film was made for south of 20 million dollars, which is a budget the studios won’t even really consider anymore unless it’s for a horror movie. And for that relatively small sum they got an incredibly diverse cast (Dwayne Johnson, Wallace Shawn, Bai Ling, Mandy Moore, and a half dozen SNL vets alone is already eclectic as hell and there are plenty of others) and a production set mostly in LA exteriors, something we rarely see these days as most shoots are swayed by better tax incentives elsewhere. Every time I found myself kind of blown away that Kelly’s nightmares came true, I also had the recurring thought that “they don’t make em like this anymore.”
It’s worth noting that this film’s theatrical release was at the end of 2007, when 2008 is the year movies kind of changed forever thanks to the one-two punch of The Dark Knight and Iron Man. Comic book movies became the driving force of the industry; even those that weren’t actually based on comics were inspired by those film’s success, with “cinematic universes” popping up (pour one out for the Dark Universe!) and, in turn, a notable decrease of original, ambitious movies. Sure, filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and the Wachowskis still get to pull out things like Tenet and Jupiter Ascending thanks to the studio wanting to keep them happy, but a time when a guy like Kelly (whose previous film wasn’t a financial success, either) can get an eight digit budget and a top notch cast for something as baffling as this is long behind us. Anyone pitching this to Sony or Universal today probably wouldn’t even get their parking validated. Maybe he should have published the comics a few years earlier; he’d be primed for blank checks.
Kelly has recently teased that there is interest in reviving this world for more projects, perhaps for a streaming service, and I’m all for it. Even if he just makes some kind of animated version of the first three chapters (since it’s been sixteen years, even by this film’s standards it’d be hard to buy into Johnson, Gellar, etc playing the same age, as the entire story unfolds over a few days), it’d be great to be able to have easier access to their stories, as the graphic novels are long out of print and unavailable digitally (through legitimate means anyway).
But if nothing comes of it, I’m glad we at least got this more or less definitive release of the film, which - for all its kookiness and occasionally impenetrable plot - is ultimately a kind of sweet and moving tale of people trying to create a little bit of peace and happiness for themselves in a world that has stopped making any sense, and it all comes down to someone learning to forgive themselves for screwing up. In a world ravaged by unending political fighting and a pandemic, there’s something quite uplifting about watching it now that didn’t quite register fifteen years ago. You don’t have to be able to follow every plot point (I certainly can’t), but after the past few years, I think we’re all better equipped to enjoy the relatively simple message it offers underneath all the nuttiness.
Brian Collins April 21, 2021 - 11:39am
NOTE: This article contains spoilers for all films mentioned within, including Memories of Murder and the recent The Little Things. Read at your own risk!
Serial killer movies tend to more or less follow a template: an opening murder, the introduction of our heroes, the discovery that this murder is actually the ___th in a series, the breakthrough clue (perhaps from another would-be victim managing to escape), etc, etc. And then our heroes catch the culprit (or, on occasion, he’ll turn himself in) and justice is served in some way. The sub-genre is popular for a reason: it gives horror fans something akin to an “elevated” slasher film, but also tends to rope in the very same people who scoff at slashers because, well, serial killer films usually have A-list casts. Some even win Oscars.
But these films, while usually inspired in some way by this or that true crime case (Ed Gein managed to inspire Psycho, Texas Chain Saw Massacre, AND Silence of the Lambs), tend to be otherwise fictional tales, allowing a bit of guilt-free escapism that might be lacking in a docudrama about these actual psychopaths. There’s little doubt that Clarice will capture Buffalo Bill, or that Cary Elwes can escape the combined powers of Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman, so audiences are free to munch their popcorn and not think too much about any potential ickiness that might arise when you consider how these movies were dreamed up in the first place.
However, every now and then there is a movie that splits the bill and attempts to make traditional entertainment out of a real life case that remains unsolved. This week the good folks at Criterion have added Bong Joon Ho’s classic Memories of Murder to their esteemed collection, presenting the film on Blu-ray for the first time in the US, backed by a terrific transfer and several hours of bonus features; you’d need to take the day off if you wanted to go through it all in one go. It’s been a long time coming for the Oscar winning filmmaker’s second and, according to some (including me) best film, though in a weird way it was worth the wait due to updates to the actual crimes that inspired it.
For those unfamiliar with the film, it is set in the 1980s and based on real life serial killings that occurred in the South Korean city of Hwaseong, which is largely farmland and had never dealt with anything like that before (and thankfully hasn’t since). The killer murdered ten women (ranging in age from 14 to 71) over a period of just under five years, and despite millions of man hours spent on the case (with a reported 21,000 suspects questioned) he was never caught or identified by the time Bong made his film in 2003. Bong researched the case for six months before he even began writing his screenplay, which speaks to how entrenched he was in its details.
Rather than make up a solution (which fictionalizes some elements but keeps others almost to the letter, including the dates/locations of some of the murders) the Memories of Murder screenplay reflects its real life ambiguity. Throughout the film, protagonist Detective Park (Kang-ho Song, in the first of his many collaborations with director Bong) is seen resorting to outlandish and illegal practices in order to find the killer, including planting evidence and beating confessions out of anyone who fits the bill as a suspect, only for the level-headed Detective Seo (Kim Sang-kyung) to clear the suspect on this or that bit of legitimate police work. When they finally get a suspect they both agree on, he is cleared via DNA evidence at the last minute, prompting Seo to snap and Park to quit the force altogether. With no other suspects, they’re no closer to solving the case than they were at the beginning.
The film’s haunting final scene takes place several years later, as Park has become a salesman and is living a normal life with a family. When a sales job takes him near the location of the first body, he walks to the spot and it’s clear the case still haunts him, something that isn’t helped when a young girl informs him that another man had been looking at that same spot earlier. Park realizes the killer is still out there, and then turns to look directly at the camera, as if he spotted his nemesis in the theater watching the recreation of his crimes. Bong has explained that he felt the real killer probably would have seen the film, and that he wanted him to feel like he was locking eyes with his pursuer.
Turns out that the filmmaker’s instincts were spot on, because while he was enjoying the festival tour for Parasite in 2019, the case was finally solved. A man named Lee Chun-jae - already in jail for another, unrelated murder - confessed to all of the killings, and reportedly said he saw the film three times but felt nothing as he watched simulated versions of his horrible actions. Bong’s thoughts on this “better late than never” news found their way into the supplements for this disc, so while the film may end ambiguously, the bonus features offer up closure for those who are interested.
It’s the rare sort of (for lack of a better word) happy ending for one of these notorious “unsolved” serial killer cases, many of which have also been turned into films with endings that mirror the real life frustration the police and the victims’ families have felt since the events occurred. David Fincher’s Zodiac, which mirrors Memories of Murder in many ways (including their surprising bits of humor), stays true to the real life case, leaving its trio of heroes (Jake Gylenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr) without resolution to the murders that terrorized San Francisco in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The success of Fincher’s Seven loomed heavily over the film at the time of its release, with some expecting the director to deliver the same kind of dark thrills. But that’s not really what the filmmaker was going for this time, and that is perhaps why the film unfortunately flopped at the box office (in fact it’s the lowest grossing film of his career). Over time it has been discovered by more and more fans, many of whom now consider it to be one of his best films. But even if the film was a giant smash, it doesn’t change the fact that the renewed interest in the case failed to yield any new viable suspects, let alone a positive identification for the murderer, who is probably dead by now given how much time has passed.
Though at least that’s a “probably”. The Texarkana “Moonlight Murders”, a case that mirrors the Zodiac in several ways, can almost certainly move into “definitely” territory, as the murders occurred in the 1940s and witness descriptions placed the perpetrator in his late 30s or 40s. A suspect named Youell Swinney has long been touted as the most likely culprit, though he was never charged nor was his guilt ever proven, so it doesn’t quite cut it as closure. The 1976 film The Town That Dreaded Sundown, which was heavily inspired by (but, like Memories of Murder, did not strictly adhere to) the facts of the case, ended with an unnerving meta scene of the still-unidentified killer standing in line to see the film, without the subtlety that Bong Hoon So offered with his own chilling suggestion that he could be in the audience with the rest of us.
It’s rare to see the “non ending” in wholly fictional movies. One of the few exceptions is this year’s The Little Things, in which Denzel Washington and Rami Malek hunt a killer in Los Angeles in the early 1990s (it definitely makes me feel very old that period pieces are established with posters for movies I saw theatrically or video games I vividly recall pumping quarters into). The film only really offers one suspect for the killings, played by Jared Leto, but in the final reel we learn that despite him “fitting” as a suspect, there’s really nothing to prove he was the culprit. This forces Denzel to create some closure for Malek’s character just to ease his mind, knowing that while maybe Leto WAS the killer and simply that good at covering up his tracks, there’s still a chance the actual criminal was still out there.
The movie is a decent enough time killer, but the ending was unsurprisingly hated by many folks who saw it, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s because the plot was entirely fictional. With the films about the Zodiac or Hwaseong murders, ending ambiguously might frustrate some viewers, but it was the correct way to go, because at the time of the films’ productions, their respective real world cases had no answers either. However, when everything is made up, as it was in this film, there is no apparent/easy excuse for the lack of resolution.
Ultimately there’s no right or wrong way to do these things; it might seem crass to fictionalize cases that are still open (and have grieving family members still seeking answers), but on the flipside these films inspire more interest in the real stories, which in turn might help them get solved. While the actual murderer has yet to be caught or identified, the films about the West Memphis Three resulted in both the interest and monetary funds (for lawyers) that at least set the innocent men free. Likewise, I can’t help but think that Bong Soon Ho’s meteoric career path helped keep the story of the Hwaseong murders from fading into memory, as every time he gains new fans (as he did with the likes of The Host and Snowpiercer) it led to more people discovering Memories of Murder and subsequently googling “who was the real killer?” These films might feel a bit more terrifying when they end on a question mark, but if it inadvertently helps lead to a real answer thanks to amateur sleuths or detectives from other areas who saw the film and decided to lend a hand, then I say let’s keep them coming, and save the Hollywood endings for the ones that were wholly dreamed up by their screenwriters.
Brian Collins November 25, 2020 - 3:09pm
No one expects much out of a movie based on a video game, and even fewer would expect any such film to become a major franchise with almost as many entries as the game series that inspired it. But the Resident Evil films did just that; Paul WS Anderson and Milla Jovovich joined forces six times from 2002 to 2017, presenting an ever-escalating story about Alice (Jovovich) and her endless battles with zombies and other monsters that were spawned by the evil Umbrella corporation. Paul WS Anderson wrote and produced all six entries, directing four himself, and since they often pick up where the previous one left off (albeit with some nagging retcons, more on those soon) they make for a fairly consistent experience if you opt to marathon them, unlike some other major horror franchises that will give you whiplash from all of the changed directions.
Sony agrees, and has boxed together the films in a new set, presenting most of them on 4K UHD disc for the first time and housing them all in a fancy box. Each film is given a digipak type case with both the 4K UHD disc and a standard Blu-ray, the latter of which contains all of the bonus features from previous releases, while the fancier 4K discs only have a handful of brief featurettes and/or trailers (if that), presumably to use every bit of disc space on the film itself. That said, given the plethora of audio options on the films, it's strange that the accompanying audio commentaries aren't included on the 4K versions; I'm the type who likes to listen to the track right after watching the movie, so it's a bit obnoxious to have to switch discs to do that, when it seems like one more audio track to join the dozen it already has wouldn't have been too draining on the "bit budget".
But the films themselves are the real draw, of course, and it was fun to go back and revisit them all in fairly quick succession (it took me a little over a week to get through them all). It had been a while since I watched the 2002 original; so long that I actually forgot it does not contain a single major character from any of the games. While Umbrella is still the big bad and it uses a few recognizable monsters (the dogs!) and locations from the games, all of the human protagonists are original creations from Anderson, which makes sense when you consider the script was an unrelated one he wrote earlier and refashioned into a Resident Evil film. At the time this bugged me, I knew Milla's character was new beforehand, but as a fan of the games* I was hoping to see Jill, Chris, etc represented somewhere in the film, even if briefly. But over the years I've come around to what it *has* instead of what it lacks, and can appreciate that it was a big budget zombie film at a time when no one was making such things. The success of this film (and 28 Days Later the following year) helped revive the sub-genre, and for that I give it thanks.
However the film does feel rather small in retrospect, given how much more expansive the followups were. 2004's Apocalypse is my favorite of the series, upping the ante on the action and the scale while also bringing in a few game characters, namely Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory). Anderson left direction duties to Alexander Witt, and it's a mostly successful switch; Witt does this weird choppy slo-mo thing whenever the zombies are running around, and it looks awful, but the rest of his action is well staged. And there's a good variety to it; this is probably the most action packed entry (or tied with Retribution) as the characters are constantly on the move, so you get interior and exterior battles across Raccoon City, some more monsters (Lickers! The Nemesis!), and a sense of how much havoc Umbrella has wreaked in just a short time. I know it's often on the lower end of fans' rankings (presumably for the aforementioned zombie-cam) but I enjoyed it just as much now as I did on opening night; even if it’s not directly related to the games’ plots, it takes what works and makes it bigger, same as the 2nd game did for the original “Biohazard” that started it all in 1996. This release actually presents an uncut version of the film that runs a few minutes longer, though none of the additions are all that significant - mostly just a few extra jokes and other bits of dialogue here and there, not a lot of action-related content. Most of it comes in the church scene, which is when Alice joins the group, so I suspect most of it was just cut for pacing in order to speed up her arrival.
Russell Mulcahy directed the third entry, 2007's Extinction, a curious one in retrospect since it was mostly ignored in subsequent films. In this one, which picks up several years after Apocalypse, the world is said to be completely overrun and essentially a Mad Max-ian wasteland, but that element gets dropped for the next three films. And it also suffers from Jill Valentine's absence; Guillory was unavailable for shooting and so they simply did a quick "Ctrl+R" replacement on the script, swapping out Jill for Claire Redfield (Ali Larter), another game character. There is no explanation for where Jill went and Claire is given almost no introduction whatsoever (in fact the other Apocalypse survivors are following her around), so it's a very lazy and frustrating switch, as both characters and their respective actresses deserve better. That said, it also brings Iain Glen's Dr Isaacs into the forefront after a quick appearance in Apocalypse, so that along with the novel fact that it's set almost entirely in daylight gives it a boost. And even though he wasn’t directing, I like that Anderson brought Linden “Johnny Cage” Ashby into the fold as a survivor named Chase, a little nod to his previous video game success.
Extinction also ramped up the fact that there are Alice clones (in fact, our Alice might just be a clone herself!), something that takes center stage in 2010's Afterlife, which was also the series' first 3D entry and brought Anderson back to the director's chair (where he'd remain for the rest of the franchise). It's also the weakest one in my opinion, as the story is weightless even by this series' not-high storytelling standards. The entire plot is Alice looks around for a place named Arcadia only to find it after crash landing her plane on the roof of a building that is basically next door. So she heads there, and that's pretty much it. As usual, along the way she meets up with a group of survivors, half of which die as they make their way on this latest A to B journey, but (more lazy scripting ahead!) this time they bring in Chris Redfield, the first game's hero and Claire's brother, a plot point that has no bearing on anything as the two share almost no time together and the amnesia-ravaged Claire doesn't remember him anyway. But still, what luck for Alice and Claire to crash their plane on the building where he was located!
It's also a slower paced entry compared to the others, which doesn't help when it's the least interesting story of the lot (on that note, it’s worth noting that it’s the only entry to not have a tie-in novelization, as if there wasn’t enough material to embellish). It seems like Anderson was simply more excited about playing with the 3D cameras (the same ones used for Avatar) than making "Resident Evil 4", so despite some fun casting choices (the great Kim Coates as a slimy movie producer is clearly having fun) and a series' best score (from tomandandy) its main attraction was seeing the various 3D effects... in theaters. The disc is 2D only (Sony's VR headset can play 3D movies even if your TV is not equipped, so like the commentaries I see this as a rather silly omission given how much they tout the Playstation on the package), so now you can just laugh at all the "COMIN AT YA!" type shots that are left in the film despite the absence of their reason for being.
Otherwise though, it's a blast, giving plenty of action variety (including a big car chase!), a fun detour into Alice's suburban life (allowing Jovovich to play an average housewife for a few minutes, a very odd sight), and the rarest image in the entire series: a group of men fighting monsters without any women around. There's a sequence where Leon, Barry, and a few other soldiers storm an Umbrella facility, and it's almost disorienting not to see any women in the scene. For all the talk about how Marvel and DC kept dropping the ball on female superheroes, it's interesting to note that this six-strong franchise put women front and center for every entry. And yes: women, plural. Milla may have gotten on all the posters, but every entry put at least one woman as the 2nd lead, with Rodriguez, Guillory, Larter, or this film's Bingbing Li (as Ada) kicking just as much ass along the way. The men in the series have largely filled one of two roles: quickly dispatched fodder (any male hero who survives an entry is either killed off in the next one or forgotten entirely) or bad guys. Wesker (Shawn Roberts) and Isaacs serve as the series' primary villains, and there are several evil dudes who popped up in a single entry along the way, without any female antagonists of note (the closest is Jill, but she's mind-controlled and is returned to "good" status) When it comes to the fighting and heroics, it's the women doing the lion's share of the work in all six films. Respect!
Alice also has a daughter in Retribution, but she is unfortunately one of the many survivors of this film who just disappear in the next one, as Anderson once again sets up a cliffhanger here (Alice and her friends teaming up with Wesker!) and then ignores it when it's time to make the followup. The Final Chapter picks up immediately following that one, but once again Alice is the only character we see; via voiceover she tells us that they were betrayed by Wesker (shocker!) and she was left for dead. So we have to assume that Wesker and his team killed the others (including the little girl) but none of them are mentioned by name, so it's unclear. But being unclear is kind of par for the course for this entry, as despite having a fairly solid script and some fun new characters, Anderson ditched longtime series editor Niven Howie for Neveldine/Taylor cohort Doobie White on this entry, and it's a painfully bad choice. White hyper-edits every single action sequence (and even some of the slower chatty moments) to the point of incomprehensibility; it's actually the longest entry in the series but at the same time feels edited down to (even a bit past) the bone, making every action beat a headache inducing nightmare.
Apart from the extended version of Apocalypse and a few featurettes, the only thing new here is the 4K transfers, so if you're not upgraded or don't see enough of a difference to warrant the double (triple?) dip, there's little reason to get this set if you already have the previous Blu-ray releases. But if you never dove into the series or perhaps are stuck with only a handful of entries on lowly DVD, treat yourself this holiday season. There are no flat out bad entries (even Retribution, for its weightlessness, has some solid action scenes), and the behind the scenes consistency makes it a fun ride to revisit. The transfers are all outstanding (perhaps a bit TOO good in Retribution's case - the 2D presentation of the original 3D imagery, in such resolution, makes some of it look a bit like Sin City) and the Blu-ray discs are jam-packed with bonus features, so if you're into the bells and whistles of such things you'll be living inside Raccoon City for quite a while. And even if you just want the movies - they were never the greatest things in the world, but seeing such B-movie fare on an A-list budget every couple years is the sort of thing we aren't likely to get much of anymore, so while they have their missteps I think time will be kind to the series as a whole. Might as well get on board now.
*I actually bought a Playstation 1 for the sole purpose of playing the first game, and likewise made Code Veronica the first game I played when I got a PS2 several years later. So it's a bit amusing to me that every one of these discs kicks off with a spot for the newly released/ impossible to find PS5, which is also heavily promoted on the packaging itself. Maybe by the time there’s a Resident Evil 8 to play I can finally find one.