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THE OXFORD MURDERS (2008)
In The Oxford Murders, the universe seems to have presented an excellent opportunity to a young American man, who has a thirst for knowledge, for cracking the numbers game, decoding Life itself. Except that the stakes are very high, and the count is done in human bodies. The young man is Martin (Elijah Wood), the setting is the wilds of Oxford, and the don who is supposed to help him walk the magic road of numbers is Professor Arthur Seldom (John Hurt).
The first murder occurs in the very house Martin is staying in and in a macabre way serves to bring Martin closer to Seldom, who had humiliated him in the first place and had refused to take him on as a student. Conveniently, the murder takes place before a disappointed Martin was preparing to go back to his native America, and just as Prof. Seldom arrived on a visit at the door of Martin's landlady, Mrs. Eagleton (Anna Massey). Fate orchestrated them to meet at her door-step, immediately after the murder. What's more, they receive a hint that there would be more.
The game is on, to catch the killer before the body pile becomes a mountain. Of course, the police are all at sea, as Martin and Prof. Seldom speak in a code language that only mathematicians seem to understand. But is life as simple or as well organized as mathematical formulas? Martin becomes entangled in more than just spaghetti with a local nurse, Lorna (Leonore Watling). The dead woman's daughter, Beth (Julie Cox), seems to have her own ideas, as to the missing ingredients in Martin's love life. The fast-paced plot takes us hurtling through various scenarios and suppositions, with every major character joining the suspects line, while the spectators lean forward eagerly to decode the film, forgetting to dutifully munch on their popcorn and their drinks go warm.
Basing the film on Argentinean writer, Guillermo Martinez's book, The Oxford Murders, director, Alex de la Iglesia takes the audience on a whirlwind tour of the labyrinth of the university town, using the minds of Seldom and Martin as jumping pads. The plot twists and turns as much as the narrow streets of Oxford. The walls start to close in on Martin in the shape of the tight little University community. Can this modern Theseus get out of the labyrinth, without the proverbial ball of thread?
The film marks a new phase in the talented director's career, who encourages audiences as much to laugh with him, as at him. Some of his long camera pans with sudden turns to capture an interesting moment are a spoof on badly done thrillers. However, just like The Da Vinci Code or Zodiac, psychological thrillers are very difficult to adapt for the screen, as most of the action is cerebral. Nevertheless, di la Igelsia and Jorge Guerricaechevarrí a, have done quite a good job, as the script is very tight with never a dull moment. Flashes of humour keep the whole subject light, so that it doesn't sink under the weight of its own seriousness.
Mysterious codes, and deep philosophical questions are explored in the context of our modern, very mobile, everyday life. Actually shot in Oxford, the director succeeds in keeping the background realistic, and does not polish or plasticize it. This could be due to the fact that it is an independent film, funded mainly by European companies.
The only American, Elijah Wood, an internationally recognizable face, has once again chosen an indie film, with a meaningful story. He has tended to steer away from mindless romantic comedies and seems to have refused to capitalize on his good looks alone. He gives a convincing performance as the bright, young student, grappling with a lot of life issues at once. There is always a risk in playing this kind of character. Done in a sweeping, over the top manner, it becomes too loud and unconvincing. Too much understatement can make it sink. Elijah walks a fine line in keeping his performance realistic in a lively way, so as to keep audiences hooked.
John Hurt seems to be born to play the arrogant university don. His intelligence is surpassed only by his ego. He plays Seldom with a judicious mixture of outward confidence and hidden insecurities. Leonore Watling is well cast, as a bait to distract the attention of male audiences. Julie Cox plays her role very well as a bitter young woman. Anne Massey is singular in her performance, so much so, that one wishes to know more about Mrs Eagleton, her character.
The film is a case in point that it is not an inflated budget that makes for a high-quality film, but well cast, talented actors, pooled effectively by a creative director lead to good film-making. More audiences deserve to see the film.
Mathematics and murder... sounds like a typical pairing for those who struggle in math. But for Martin (Elijah Wood), he's in a web of crimes that seem to have be following a mathematical pattern.
Interlude: I caught this movie as part of the Pelicula, Pelikula Spanish Film Festival, which is kinda weird because the movie is in English, but since the movie was written, directed, and produced by Spanish folks, then I guess I'll have to thank the Instituto Cervantes for getting this film to our local theaters. As of the moment, this film has been in Europe and South America.
Going back to The Oxford Murders, the movie dabbles in a lot of academic stuff, from mathematics, physics and philosophy, and the first third of the movie suffers from the set-up of the academic motivations of the characters. But once the crimes start and the leads (Elijah Wood and John Hurt) go on a chase to solve the murders, things become very interesting. I liked the sound mathematics was integrated into the story, and the big twist was very satisfying and smartly implemented.
One piece of advice: don't leave your brain as you watch this movie because it contains a lot of pretty academic babble, similar to a class session. But The Oxford Murders is a smart, albeit bland on the sides, thriller. A final thought: This film reminded me of Dan Brown's Angels and Demons.
Math and murder combine to time-honored effect in "The Oxford Murders," a polished but tedious whodunit that's surprisingly buttoned-down given helmer Alex de la Inglesia's rep for comicbook wackiness. The decision to play it straight, a la Guillermo Martinez's original novel, leaves pic looking as solid and old-fashioned as the city of its title. Some auds will enjoy its plentiful, philosophy-lite bantering and games-playing; others may feel it gets in the way of the entertaining if unusual plot. Spanish box office for de la Iglesia's second stab at an English-language movie has been excellent since Jan. 18 release.
The presence of John Hurt and Elijah Wood as the squabbling professor-student tandem has generated sales in several territories, with more likely to follow. Arthur Seldom (Hurt) is a high-flying Wittgensteinian who proposes the notion that there's no way of knowing the truth. American grad student Martin (Wood) arrives in Oxford hoping that Seldom will oversee his thesis. But their first meeting is inauspicious: Martin is publicly humiliated for questioning the prof during a lecture.
Martin lodges with elderly, ailing Mrs. Eagleton (Anna Massey) and her insecure musician daughter, Beth (Julie Cox), who cares for her. Both Beth and local nurse Lorna (Leonor Watling, whose accent hovers between American and Irish) fall for him.
Following an impressively lengthy tracking shot -- one of several look-at-me moments of high craft -- Martin bumps into Seldom at the gate of Mrs. Eagleton's house, and they enter to find the old woman dead. Seldom reveals to the police that he received a note containing a circle and a mathematical message: "The first of the series."
Several Philosophy 101 debates between Seldom and Martin ensue, the latter claiming the killer will be found if they apply logic, Seldom believing otherwise. When it becomes clear Mrs. Eagleton was going to die anyway, the notion of the perfect murder comes in: Perhaps the killer is trying to show Seldom that there is, after all, a predictable, underlying pattern to things. The philosophical opponents work together as detectives, with the help of a bluff, mustachioed inspector (Jim Carter), chucked in for comic relief. Beth is the main suspect, but so, too, is Martin's fellow student, eccentric Russian mathematician Podorov (Burn Gorman). More murders follow, and the final payoff is well done in an Agatha Christie kind of way, if unoriginal.
Turing, Heisenberg and Godel are all name-checked to make the audience feel smart, and the pic smartly raises the question of whether its solution can actually be found. But non-philosophical viewers will be bored by the debates, and philosophical ones will also be bored, as they're probably familiar with the ideas. Pic in general could have benefited from more of the elegant narrative compression and stirring images displayed in two murder sequences. Such setpieces aside, Oxford here is the one of popular imagination -- hazily sunny lecture halls, dark, impressive libraries and cluttered lodgings.
Movie buffs will enjoy references to Hitchcock, "Sleuth" and "The Usual Suspects," among others.