Thursday, June 30, 2011

13 Assassins

Alternate Title:  (2xSeven)-1 Samurai

One sentence synopsis:  A picked band of samurai attempt to assassinate an evil Shogunate Lord in 19th century Japan.

Things Havoc liked:  I am not a fan of Takashi Miike. I recognize that's not easy to say, given the sheer volume of the man's work, but I will say it regardless. Ichi the Killer was one of the worst pieces of crap I've ever seen, and Audition was a gruesome gorefest that I felt lacked artistry in favor of raw shock value (yes, there is artistry even in horror, see the Exorcist or Alien). I grant that these two films represent about 1% of Miike's overall film output, and some of his films such as Zebraman and Agitator have garnered great praise from people whose opinions I respect. Nevertheless I have to call them as I see them overall, and to-date I have not liked what I've seen from Miike.

Until last week at least.

13 Assassins is a classical Samurai movie in the genre (and more) of Akira Kurasawa's epic masterpiece Seven Samurai, which I maintain is one of the greatest movies ever made. This film is more than just similar to Kurasawa's film, but borders on a remake of it, albeit with some significant alterations. Normally I'd object to such a thing, but this is not the first (nor the fifth) time Seven Samurai has been remade, and the remakes have occasionally been spectacular (The Magnificent Seven, for instance, which was much closer to this movie than 13 Assassins is). Miike is known for over-the-top gruesome body horror, and while there's a single scene in this film that seems reminiscent of that, it is at least appropriate given the subject matter, and isn't dwelt upon for long.

That's not to say that there aren't some alterations done, and by and large, these alterations are to the film's credit. The core of the film is around two middle-aged Samurai, Shinzaemon Shimada, played by Kôji Yakusho, and Hanbei Kito, played by Masachika Ichimura. These two men are former sparring-mates and rivals from dojos decades ago, now minor Samurai lords in their own right. Shinzaemon largely plays the role taken in the original by the great Takashi Shimura (and Yul Brenner in the western), an old, wise, war-weary soldier who is hired to perform a seemingly-suicidal job and recruit a team of Samurai to do it. While Yakusho doesn't quite have the stage presence of Shimura, he brings a presence to the role that does the job. Hanbei however, is a new character, not present in the original film, and plays the head Samurai of the assassination target, a man of honor who recognizes the corruption and decadence of his Lord but has sworn to defend him to the death regardless. Ichimura plays the role perfectly, easily stealing the show in every scene he is in, as a tired but indomitable samurai who regrets the necessities of his position but will do his duty to the last. Samurai movies are usually about honorable death and performing duty in the face of tremendous hardship, and Ichimura captures it perfectly.

The other great role from the original film was that of Kikuchiyo, a bandit farmer who pretends to be a Samurai and serves as a foil for the noble pretensions of the other six. In this movie, that role is taken by Yūsuke Iseya playing Kiga Koyata, a poacher who joins the Samurai largely out of boredom and revulsion with the Samurai class in general. Here too, some alterations are made, ones I will not spoil here, but elements of his character are infused with classical Japanese mythology, left open for those who know what they are looking for. It's a nice touch.

The villain in the original film was forgettable (I think he had two lines). In this movie, the villain is a major character in his own right. Gorô Inagaki plays Lord Naritsugu like a complete sociopath, a man who literally does not feel remorse or empathy, almost to the point of solipsism. Naritsugu is a complete monster, but is given enough facetime that he doesn't just feel like a "designated bad guy" (which he is), but more like a mad dog who simply needs to be destroyed. His reactions in the second half of the movie, when the fighting breaks out and men are dying on all sides, is almost one of reverential joy, as he is finally able to experience sensations of any sort, even physical pain. It's unsettling, but it works.

Finally, this movie was famous in some circles for "the battle sequence". The entire second half of the movie is an unbroken, 45-minute battle in which hundreds of people fight and die. There are things both wrong and right with this approach, but while I frankly enjoyed the first half of the movie more than most of the second, the battle was invigorating, well-shot, and choreographed very nicely. In an age of Shaky-cam, one can ask for little more.

Things Havoc disliked:   The problem with changing the movie from 7 to 13 samurai and then halving the time of the film (and taking up half of that with a single fight) is that your characters get lost. Every one of the other Samurai has a name and some gesture towards a character, but only just. I absolutely could not tell one from the other once the armor was put on and the swords began to sing, and so apart from the characters I mentioned above, everyone else is basically an extra with a flag on their arm to indicate "good" or "bad" guy.

Even the characters that are given time and characterization are somewhat problematic though, particularly Yūsuke the poacher. The original character of Kikuchiro was played by the unparalleled Toshiro Mifune, arguably the greatest Japanese film actor ever. Kikuchiro was one of the most memorable characters in all of my years of movie watching, animated, boisterous, slightly crazy, driven by deep anger and resentments, comic and serious and tragic all at the same time. Kiga Koyata does his best, but has neither the acting chops (which is no shame, honestly) nor the screen time that Mifune had, and is therefore reduced in my mind to a pastiche of Mifune's performance.

The great battle scene, meanwhile, has its own set of issues. For one thing, 45 minutes of ceaseless combat gets very repetitive if you don't spice it up with variation. There is some, don't get me wrong, the transition from ranged weapons to swords to duels is done well, and the end of the battle is by far the best segment, but the ceaseless slicing and dicing beforehand does get a little old. Don't get me wrong, I love long, involved battles, but I love them precisely because of the "awesome!" moments you find within them. There were not enough of those here. Instead we get drawn out death scenes as the heroic samurai die one by one, overwhelmed by a tide of foes. After the eighth of those, one gets restless for something different.

There's also a minor issue in that it is very hard to film 13 people killing 200 people with swords without looking completely ridiculous. Yes, this is a Samurai movie, wherein skilled warriors can defeat many opponents with nothing but their awesome skill. But at the same time, no Samurai, no matter how badass, can take on thirty-six sword-wielding maniacs at once and survive, and we know it, which makes scenes where they do this look cartoonish. Yes, there's a great history in Martial Arts movies in particular of heroic badasses taking down entire armies by themselves. But this movie purports a very realistic feel for the entire run, and to suddenly see everyone turn into Superman for a mook fight is disappointing. Once more, the original film made all the Samurai into badasses without need for this.

Final thoughts:  Perhaps it is unfair of me to judge this film so harshly in the light of Seven Samurai, but this is a personal review, and Kurosawa's film colonized my memory so effectively in terms of what Samurai films ought to be that it's very hard for me to separate out this film, particularly when it takes such pains to emulate Seven Samurai in so many ways. That said, I don't want to give the wrong impression here. 13 Assassins does many things right, especially when it breaks from the Kurosawa format and adds new elements to an already established genre. This film wasn't a masterpiece by any means, but it was a damn good flick, proving once again that even a Flawed remake of Seven Samurai is still quite a thing.

Final Score:  7/10

Friday, June 17, 2011

Green Lantern

Alternate Title:  An Actor's Day, A Writer's Night, A Decent Film, but not too Bright

One sentence synopsis:  A test pilot is chosen by an intergalactic corps of superhero defenders to protect Earth from the living embodiment of Fear.

Things Havoc liked:  Green Lantern is a high concept, in almost every way. The comic is about a semi-omnipotent superbeing who can conjure anything he can imagine into reality in order to fight evil. Though I'm hardly an expert on the Green Lantern mythos, the notion has always been one of high concept space opera mated to superhero comics. The hero is incredibly powerful, the villains are cosmic-scale, the battles world-devouring in their scope. Much of the reason for this is that the comic, moreso than many of the contemporary ones, is hammy as all hell, and needs to cover for it by going all the way. Green Lantern has a magic poem he has to recite after all, and if you're going to sell magic poems, you really have to sell them absolutely. No sly winking to the audience, no holding back. The key to movies like this (as evidenced by Thor, among others) is absolute sincerity.

Ryan Reynolds is not a name I would normally have associated with Hal Jordan. Until this film, I don't know that I've ever seen him before. However, in this film, he manifests the proper sincerity that is necessary for someone to be a convincing Green Lantern. Not knowing the comic terribly well, I can't speak to the "fidelity" of the portrayal, but he did manage to convince me that he could be both a test pilot, and ultimately, even a superhero. Known mostly for romantic comedy roles (which I avoid like the plague), Reynolds is able to successfully turn what I must assume to be natural charm on in this film, and manifests the proper sense of wonder, awe, and eagerness that makes the film breathe. It is not an easy feat to recite the Green Lantern oath on film and make it sound credible. Reynolds has to do it twice.

We live in an age where good special effects are not even remarkable anymore, but even by those standards, those in Green Lantern are top notch. They do not commit the terrible sin of simply piling image upon image, and even give us a pretty memorable vision of a villain in the form of Parallax the World Destroyer. The Green Lantern suit seems real, and the conjurations that he and the other Lanterns produce have heft and weight to them.

The supporting cast in this film is very high caliber, which works to the film's advantage. Peter Sarsgaard, an excellent actor, plays Hector Hammond, one of the antagonists of the film, and brings creepy life to a fairly pedestrian character. Sinestro, not yet evil, is played by the always-dependable Mark Strong, who seems to be channeling David Niven (not a bad thing). Smaller roles are given to veteran, excellent actors such as Tim Robbins, Angela Bassett, and the voices of none other than Geoffrey Rush and Michael Clarke Duncan. As a result, some of the scenes and lines that would not normally work are able to garner a pass due to the caliber of actor delivering them.

Things Havoc disliked:   Some of the scenes that don't work get a pass. Not all. Not even most.

This film's screenplay needed another six months in the oven. Some of the individual lines, and even a couple of scenes, are actually pretty good, but overall the plot, while coherent (not as easy as it sounds with a Green Lantern movie), is lackadaisical at best. The exposition, while not the worst I've ever seen, is very clunky. Thor had no less of a fantastical setting to establish, but did so effortlessly, while in this movie we clearly encounter the dreaded "Designated Exposition Scene" more than once, and not even Geoffrey Rush's narration can carry us over it.

Worse yet, the entire movie is comprised of one long set of Daddy Issues, which are established ham-handedly and without skill in a series of jarring flashback scenes and awkward Villain-Exposition-Moments. Hal Jordan misses his dead father. Hector Hammond resents his successful one. Green Lantern is about imagination and awe, and the one thing a film version should not be is formulaic and predictable. The tired old cliches of "Why doesn't my father love me?" and "How do I overcome my fear" have not only been done to death, but more importantly, have been done much better and with more wit and care than this. I don't mind if a character doesn't know his true potential for courage or resents his father. There's a reason these concepts keep getting re-used, after all. But give me something interesting and worth caring about when they do these things, characters who are smart enough to retain my interest and written well enough to make me pay attention. Don't just go through the motions, especially in a film like this.

The lack of originality unfortunately spills over into the Lantern's powers. Green Lantern can literally create anything he can think of out of pure force of will. Not only is this a tremendous power, but it allows the screenwriters to completely go to town. Unfortunately, they don't go very far. One or two moments of conjuration were inventive enough to make me smirk (I kind of liked him getting sick of Sinestro's bullshit in the sparring session and pulling out a minigun), but the majority of Hal's conjurations are exactly what you'd expect him to use. Someone fights you? Get a big fist. Someone shoots at you? Make a shield. Green Lantern is about flights of wild imagination and fantasy. Give us something truly breathtaking, not springs and toy catapults.

Finally, in a movie with excellent actors, someone who just isn't up to par is gonna stand out all the worse. Blake Lively, who plays the most obvious "designated damsel in distress" I've seen in a while, is one such sub-par actress. She's not terrible, but unlike the rest of the cast, she doesn't have the chops to surpass the mediocre writing that's fed to her.

Final thoughts:  Green Lantern, at it's heart, is a mediocre movie elevated somewhat by the sincerity of the lead actor and the skill of the supporting cast. It's not a bad film, but it is a very forgettable film, which given the subject matter, is almost worse. Reynolds tries to evoke the epic, sweeping scale of the material with his acting, and does a legitimately credible job, but he is hamstrung by bad screenplay decisions, ugly exposition, and pace-grinding "introspective" moments accompanied by terrible show-don't-tell violations. Some lines, and even some scenes in this movie seem to hint at a far better film than this one was, but overall, the movie never manages to rise above decency. If they ever made a sequel to this movie, it might well be significantly better than this one, as the backstory and exposition would not be necessary. Unfortunately, given the overall quality of this movie, I would not rate that as a strong likelihood.

Final Score:  5.5/10

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

X-men: First Class

Alternate Title:  Why I Love Comics

One sentence synopsis:  A group of mutants headed by Charles Xavier and Magneto must stop an evil mastermind from starting World War Three.

Things Havoc liked:  One thing I like about this new policy of a weekly movie is that I am forced to see films I would not otherwise have seen. Some movies are simply obscure or regarding a subject matter I have no interest in, but others are ones for which I have made a snap judgment based on the trailers. Trailers exist for such things after all, so I usually feel confident in pre-judging a film based upon it. This movie, like others I have reviewed here, had terrible trailers, and given that both X-men 3 and Wolverine were terrible, I had some confidence in predicting that this thing was going to blow. Hard. Yet in order to see a film a week, sometimes, I am forced to see movies I would otherwise skip. There are times when the movie turns out to be just as bad as I expected, or even worse, and I hate that I invented this policy. Once in a while though, a movie will surprise me, and on such days, I like this policy.

Today, I like this policy.

This movie was fantastic, from start to finish. It helps of course that the X-men were my childhood favorites growing up, but even independently of this, it tells a story that is compelling and rich and brilliantly well acted and faithful in the extreme to the comics and the (good) movies that came before it. It integrates the origins of the X-men into history superbly well, founds the characters in reality, and gives them weight and depth and likability. I love these characters, and I loved seeing them brought to life on the screen.

The story is, essentially, that of two people. Charles Xavier, and Erik Lenscher, known by the end of the film as Professor X and Magneto (the way they get their names is a hoot, by the way). Xavier, played by James McAvoy is spellbinding. He's arrogant, in his own weird way, a young man who thinks he knows what's best for everyone partly because he actually does. He's genteel and clever and wickedly insightful (as one might expect from a telepath), someone who knows exactly how to talk to someone else and get them to like him and trust him, yet also someone whose sense of morality is simultaneously unbending and flexible enough for compassion. A mentor and a friend to everyone, and yet human enough to drink and to hit on women by describing how their genetic code is beautiful (it's actually less pathetic than it sounds). A true, classical hero, and I'm astonished to say that McAvoy does a better job with the character than even Stewart did (partly because he's permitted to be much more active than Stewart).

And if McAvoy nails Xavier, then Michael Fassbender, who is always excellent even in bad movies, nails Magneto equally. Magneto is one of my favorite characters ever and this, THIS RIGHT HERE, this is why. Fassbender's Magneto is tormented, yes, but he's not an emotional wreck, and neither is he a stone, unfeeling killer. Magneto is a driven man who has suffered outrages and will not see them committed again against "his" people. He's one of those strange people who gets scarier the less angry he is, and yet the movie takes great pains to paint him, not as a villain, nor even really as a designated villain-in-training, but as a man, complicated and sometimes confused, who acts as he thinks is best, and has real compassion and capacity for greatness that he does not simply cast aside when it comes time to become the bad guy. Indeed, I wouldn't even call him "the bad guy". He's a character, whole and complete, and one may take him as one finds him.

Those two I expected, but what I did not expect, was a third character, scarcely any less important, specifically Mystique, played by Academy Award nominee Jennifer Lawrence. Mystique is an important character in the comics, but I've never been a fan of hers. This movie changed my mind. In this, Mystique is Xavier's quasi-adopted sister, a homeless orphan taken in by Charles and his family when she was a child. As such, Mystique goes from being a devious villain (not interesting) to being Xavier's more grounded sibling (very interesting). Her nature as a visible, obvious mutant who must hide her identity is explored in depth, and she serves as an interesting vehicle to explore Xavier's and Magneto's contrasting philosophies concerning what Mutants' place in society ought to be, thus eliminating the need for the characters to actually stand around and tiresomely scream at one another.

The characters are themselves very strongly portrayed, written, and acted, but the brilliant part is not the characters themselves but how they interact. This movie gets it right. We see and believe Xavier and Magneto becoming friends, real friends, not because the plot requires pathos but because they simply are. Mystique's interactions with Xavier are so right I can't even do them justice. They act like siblings, argue like siblings, know one another the way siblings do, and care obviously for one another deeply Her connection with Magneto is equally interesting. We see why she is attracted to what he represents (and perhaps to him himself, though the movie doesn't force a "relationship" on us in any way). We see why he takes interest in her, what he sees in her both in terms of potential and in terms of a fellow member of his oppressed group. NONE of these relationships seem forced, NONE of them seem one-sided or even particularly unhealthy. These people genuinely love each another. That their characters force them to act differently to one another is simply the way of things. At the end of the film, I would not say they part as friends, but neither do they part as enemies. It is this intriguing element that made these characters my favorites as a child, and it made them so here again.

I've spoken endlessly, and not even gotten to other amazing things, from Kevin Bacon's turn as Sebastian Shaw, to Nicholas Hoult as Beast, to January Jones as Emma Frost, to Rose Byrne as Moira McTaggart. All four do justice to their characters, particularly Hoult. I've not talked about the great character actors like Oliver Platt, Rade Šerbedžija, Michael Ironside, or Matt Craven, who all bring great fun to their relatively small roles. I've not talked about the wickedly fun cameos (which I shall not spoil here), nor the superb writing, nor the effects, nor anything else. Suffice to say that the movie as a whole is acted, directed, scored, and written tremendously well across the board, and you will get the picture.

Things Havoc disliked:   Some of the minor X-men, particularly Havok and Angel, were not up to par with the rest of the cast. Not that they were terrible, but the caliber of acting is simply not there to compete with the main characters in the story. A few lines, particularly a couple given to Beast, ring false, which shows up more prominently because of the overall high quality of the writing. The subtitles on the exterior establishing shots are often laughable ("Secret CIA training facility!"). Finally, the movie (vaguely) implies that the Americans provoked the Cuban Missile Crisis deliberately, which is, needless to say, a view of history I find laughable.

Final thoughts:  This movie was just great, from start to finish. So much so that I doubt my own opinion on it and wonder if it might just be rampant fanboyishness talking. It gave me characters I cared about and had them interact with one another in interesting ways, and that, honestly, is all I can ask any movie to do. Comic book films have had such successes in the last decade or so that the bar is set ridiculously high for them, yet this movie vaulted over it effortlessly. It was faithful in detail and extreme to the comic, it was interesting and varied, it took its time when necessary and most of all it gave me the Xavier and the Magneto (and the Mystique!) I wanted to see.

Not long ago, I saw Thor in West Virginia. I thought it was the best movie I had seen all year. And here, for the second time in as many weeks, I have a new champion for that title, from another comic book film. I cannot guarantee that everyone will see it the same way as I did, but I loved this movie, and everything it stood for. Once again, the trailers lied to me.

But this time, I don't mind so much.

Final Score:  9/10

Thursday, June 2, 2011


Alternate Title:  To be a Viking, or not to be a Viking

One sentence synopsis:  The God of Thunder is exiled to Earth by his father and must redeem himself and oppose his brother's machinations.

Things Havoc liked:  There's been a lot of comic book movies around recently, many of them surprisingly good. As such, my expectations with this movie were very high. Thor as a character is not a tremendously Hollywood-appropriate figure, being neither "conflicted" nor "conventional". I am happy to report that Chris Hemsworth was Thor, the same way that Robert Downey Jr. was Iron Man. He was boisterous, he was badass, he was arrogant and he was, most of all, Viking. Being Viking is a quality that is very difficult to explain, but one knows it when one sees it. This guy was Thor to his bones.

The movie's overall quality is just excellent. Branaugh's direction and Straczynski's writing combine perfectly. The writing is sharp and crisp and wickedly funny. The acting is brilliant uniformly, from Anthony Hopkins (breaking a chain of terrible roles) to Stellan Skarsgard (whom I love in everything he's ever been in) to Idris Elba (more on him below) to all of the warriors three (particularly Ray Stevenson, making up somewhat for his absurd performance in Kill the Irishman) to Clark Gregg as the SHIELD agent (whom I like more and more every time I see him). A particular accolade should go to Tom Hiddleston, whose Loki is given great depth and almost Shakesperian character arcs, something we do not often see in villains, particularly (literal) comic book ones. He goes on something of a journey of self-discovery of his own, becoming Thor's enemy through a tragic flaw more than through being an evil bastard. Loki was never one of my favorite characters, but I grew to like him along the way.

All the little touches in this movie are right, from the cameos (Hawkeye's few short scenes were a riot), to the references (to Iron Man and other Marvel films), to the minor character touches that make the characters real. The direction is crisp and tight, as befits a great director, and the movie never loses cohesion or stops short for exposition. With the exception of a short opening narration, we are told about the world of Asgard and the characters through seeing the world and the deeds of the characters that inhabit it. We never get lost, nor do we ever get bored.

Finally, a note on Black Heimdal. Much ink has been spilled over the fact that Idris Elba is black (which is true), while his character Heimdal, both in the comics and the mythology itself, is white (which is essentially though not literally true). Racists have objected to this as "political correctness" and other such idiocy. Others who are sane have countered that this is an element of setting the balance straight, that there are very few roles for black men relative to white men, and one supporting character being changed over is not going to end the world, and might just do some good, particularly given Kenneth Branaugh's well-known reputation for color-blind casting. While this argument is valid, it is, with respect, irrelevant. Indeed, by allowing the argument to be framed by the racists into one of "Black Heimdal" vs "White Heimdal", those who are arguing in favor of Elba's casting are doing themselves a disservice. To my mind, the question of this casting is not about race. It is not important to me that Heimdal be White. It is far more important to me that Heimdal be Viking. The quality of being Viking is a subtle one (ironically), difficult to describe in words, perhaps even ineffable. Ultimately though Elba's Heimdal is unquestionably Viking in act and word throughout the movie. He is badass, imposing, gets several awesome lines, and the fact that he is black is actually played up (not overtly) along with makeup and CG to give him a somewhat different feel to the rest of the Asgardians, which is mythologically consistent with the Heimdal of the Norse Sagas and of the comics. As such, his casting to me is perfect, and his race unimportant, either as a symbol of political correctness or of affirmative action. Idris Elba was Heimdal. Nothing else is important.

Things Havoc disliked:   This movie needed ten more minutes.

There's a lot going on in this film. There's the humans' plot, Thor's plot, Loki's plot, the Warriors' Three/Lady Sif's plot, it gets complicated. The movie never loses us, but with so much going on, the runtime necessarily compacts some of these plotlines. There were many complaints that the romance between Portman and Hemsworth was unconvincing. Some people on this very board made that argument. I sort of see what they mean, and while I don't precisely agree, I think that the romance did need about five more minutes of screentime, both for Portman's character (who comes off flat by comparison to the others), and to sell the changes in Thor's character and what brought them on.

Similarly, though Loki and his plots are portrayed very very well, a character like Loki needs time to establish, to make rich and interesting. By and large, they do give him time, but a little more would have helped, particularly with some of the plots he was hatching concerning the Warrior's Three and Sif. Were they to give him just a couple more minutes of obfuscation and work, I would have no objections.

Final thoughts:  A glorious film, big and boistrous and bold of action and effect, with amazing vistas and excellent storytelling and writing. I had my doubts about this movie, but I should have expected no less. All in all, this film took one of the Marvel characters I was never all that into, and made him properly awesome. Having seen this, I look forward to Captain America.

Final Score:  8.5/10

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