Friday, 2 May 2008

[20] The Oxford Murders (dir. Alex de la Iglesia, 2008)



This week I went to see The Oxford Murders with a couple of friends. My interest was originally piqued by a small feature in a recent issue of Sight and Sound, which described the film as 'the thinking person's Da Vinci Code'. Corny, certainly, but what gave this film an edge is its basis in 20th century Mathematics. A friend of mine who lives/studies Maths was more than up for seeing this film, and Wednesday came around and we thought we'd check it out as part of our Cinedicate (Cinema Syndicate). It was easily the worst film I've seen for a long while.

Admittedly, the last film I saw was Persepolis last week, which in its own way was nearly perfect, but I have to be reaching as far back as Lions for Lambs last Autumn for something that had me shaking my head and muttering under my breath with comparable frequency. The script was heavy-handed and unpolished, and the production values were maddeningly inconsistent. It seemed that in the post-production, enthusiasm for the film had stilted, so that certain important processes, such as dubbing one character's dialogue, was botched beyond salvation. It finishes up as feeling more like a TV Movie, not unlike an Agatha Christie adaptation, or a Midsomer Murders or an Inspector Morse episode. Nevertheless, it was an entertaining film - it was laughably bad. I would still recommend giving it a watch, if you found yourself with nothing better to do one evening and it was on television. I think there are 5 aspects that saved it from utter failure. After my more traditional and straightforward review of Shine a Light, I'll go for a more interesting approach here:

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5 Reasons Why The Oxford Murders Did Not Completely Suck

1: John Hurt




John Hurt is one of my favourite actors. I have only seen him in a few films, although he has always stood out. He is part of my 'Northern English Shakespearean Actor' trinity, along with Ian Mckellen and Patrick Stewart, that I harbour a great respect for. Strangely, The Elephant Man aside, I have only seen him in supporting or cameo roles, but he always stands out in his respective roles - V for Vendetta, Alien, Dead Man, Midnight Express. He even manages to shine in films which I personally find quite dull on the whole, such as Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and Contact. In The Oxford Murders, he eclipses Elijah Wood's limp turn as what is supposed to be the leading man, and manages to bring some energy into the turgid dialogue. His scenes as Arthur Seldom, Mathematician and Oxford Lecturer, are performed with gravitas, but with a sense of over-the-top glee.

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2: Flashes of Brilliant Directing

Even though I stated that the script was horrible and elements of the production were botched, there were flashes of brilliance in the direction. Some of the camerawork infused the whole proceedings with an intensity that the story itself lacked. One distinct highlight is the discovery of the first murder, told in extreme close-ups of Hurt and Wood. Recent Hollywood Thriller / Action films would dictate a shaky handicam feel (see M.I.3); however, director Alex de la Iglesia keeps these shots mostly static, letting Hurt and Wood move in and out of shot. This creates a sense of claustrophobic urgency, as opposed to rollercoaster dizziness. Another key moment is an elaborate tracking shot through Oxford, following the main characters, which is skilfully and artfully executed.

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3: Unprecedented access to Oxford

On the topic of Oxford, one of the real strengths of the film is the fact that it was mostly filmed on location in its titular University City. Lesser productions would have shot a few key exteriors before shipping the actors to somewhere cheaper. Here, however, we're given a real sense of the city, and those viewers familiar with Oxford will spot familiar interiors, such as the Blackwells book shop.

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4: Math(s)

I'm not a Mathematics student; but I'm intrigued by the more radical, theoretical and abstract end of it all. It starts becoming philosophy, just with mostly incomprehensible (to the uninitiated) equations. The Oxford Murders strives to reference, and to a certain extent explain, some of the more complicated examples of Mathematical thought from the 20th century. Although I think that for any of the non-math-minded audience members, it will come off as the usual 'history / philosophy / religion / language' gibberish that we've seen in films from The Mummy and The Matrix, to the Da Vinci Code and Seven. Nevertheless, it feels fresh, well-read and comfortable; the references to Wittgenstein, Godel and Alan Turing are welcome. Some of the best moments of the film are involved with explaining or side-glancing at Mathematical Thought, usually tied to distinct personalities or even written texts. I doubt it will spurn a renewed interest in this area, a la existentialism and The Matrix, but it is good that the screenwriters retained this, along with cinematic asides, such as Wittgenstein scribbling away a draft of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in a WW1 trench. Another digression involved Arthur Seldom's old colleague (Alex Cox in a stand-out cameo), who was driven to madness and near-death by his obsession with the mind.

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5:
Leonor Watling

What? She's hot.



This film has eye-candy through the roof, which is surprising given that there are only 2 young female cast members. Both Watling and Julie Cox are given stereotypical, 'stock' female roles (passionate Latin and English Rose respectively), who almost merely serve the purpose of sexing up the narrative to an almost soap-opera extremity (both characters are introduced, and attempt to hump Elijah Wood within their first scene). It is obvious that these characters were added to warm collars, just see this Spanish television report on the film (disclaimer: this clip includes almost all of the romantic scenes in the film - The Oxford Murders is not the fuck-fest it suggests). Nevertheless, both actresses are beautiful and manage to work their often over-the-top roles into something that resembles convincing performances.

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The night after watching The Oxford Murders, I went to see Iron Man, a wholly more satisfying film. Expect a review soon.

1 comment:

Jason said...

Hey Mike - too bad this film sucks, it looks so exciting! Not only has it been filmed on location in Oxford (such a cinematic place to film, and under exposed on the silver screen) but it features the independent film director Alex Cox in an acting role. He's the wierdo checking out a skull (?) in the trailer, Kalman I think his name is. Alex directed the cult movies 'Repo Man' and 'Sid and Nancy', I interviewed him in 2004 and he was a really nice guy, although he did talk about his pet dog for longer than I would have liked.

Let's have more film related posts on your blog, you're good at articulating your thoughts in a suitably journalistic style. Don't be afraid to be a little less formal in your reviews though, a conversational note in the right place can greatly accentuate your impact on the reader. Look at the writings of William Goldman and Joe Queenan, I think you'd enjoy their books.

Look forward to your review of IRON MAN. The main thing that stuck out for me with Iron Man was that it is the first superhero film in an age that is MASCULINE. Spider Man has his web slinging and X-Men has Wolverine panting around with his claws out, but it seems every superhero film now has to compromise and dampen the delirious action at it's heart, bog down the narrative with some trite and undercooked "ROMANCE" with one eye on an imaginary, cooing female demographic that will walk out of the cinema if someone doesn't get gooey eyed every ten minutes precisely. Have Spider-Man cry webbing all over his suit if the script DEMANDS it, but don't just shove one of those scenes in every ten fucking minutes for the sake of calming down an imaginary demographic.

Having "MATURE" and "GROWN UP" and "ADULT" and "CREDIBLE" navel-gazing unconvincing romantic subplots pushed centre stage at the expense of IMAGINATION, this is what is holding back 'Doctor Who', which turned 'Spider Man 3' into a grim live action Live Journal, and which had Wolverine skulking around crying and blowing snot on his sleeve in 'X Men 3'. I was hoping that he'd accidentally set off his claws when he was blubbing into his little black gloves, and perhaps lacerate his brain and lobotomise the part of it that was turning him into a pussy.

Thank God for IRON MAN with it's imagination, and respect for men, and worthy theme of reshaping the world to your own designs. Hey, it even managed to be "realistic" in the right way - by harnessing the deepest fears of the audience in a way that built up it's central hero.