Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Pirates and Samurai: 2 Reviews!!! (13 Assassins, Pirates 4)

The new “Pirates of the Caribbean” was due out this weekend and I’d already promised to take the family. So when I flipped open the “Coast Weekly” for movie times, my eyes bugged out of my skull and my heart skipped a happy beat when I saw an ad for “13 Assassins” at the Osio Cinema. Takashi Miike’s latest film was already making the rounds On-Demand, but this was a chance to catch the film on the big screen and bask in the glory of samurai goodness. How? How could I manage this one? I can normally maybe see a single movie if I try, but 2 movies in one weekend? I had rehearsal on Saturday so I would be in town. I had a friend with me who shared my appreciation for Asian Cinema and was familiar with Miike. I needed to check with my wife, make certain that things were alright and I could take a little longer in Monterey than I normally. She said “yes”!!!! So we set out for an afternoon viewing and wound up running into my buddy Shane and his dad on their way out of the theatre. Remo D. had a smile on his face after the film so I was pretty certain I would, too.

“13 Assassins”

This is pure Miike, the man who brought us “Audition”, “Sukiyaki Western: Django” and “Ichi: The Killer”. The mans’ body of work includes family films, samurai epics, horror films, and on and on. He’s a visceral director and goes for shocking imagery, scenes specifically intended to haunt and disturb the viewer. Some reviewers are mistakenly referring to this film as a “Seven Samurai” retread, but the two films actually share very little in common. It is a small number of Samurai against a larger force, we do take time to introduce to thirteen warriors, and some of the characters share traits with the seven archetypes from Kurosawa’s masterpiece. That is where the similarities end, because this is an entirely different story with very different thematic elements. There’s no gang of bandits, there’s no helpless villagers looking for help.

The Shoguns’ half brother is a psychopathic bully whose rapes and murders have driven one retainer to commit Hari-kiri in the films opening scene. The minister of Justice has a dilemma… he cannot ignore the crimes and he cannot pass judgment on the bloodline of the Shogun without condemning the family by extension. With his very existence threatening the peace, the brother must be dealt with quietly and the Chief Justice is forced to call upon the aid of an aging samurai in the twilight of his life. Assassinate the Shoguns half brother as he travels from point A to point B while surrounded by his guard, including their well-trained leader; a classmate and rival to the films’ primary antagonist. And to complete his task, he gathers several men and informs them that going along on this mission means that their lives are his to do with as he pleases.

The preparations from both sides commence as each is very aware of the others final goal, all of this leading up to a brutal and visceral 45 minute battle sequence that pulls no punches and delivers the grue like we all know Miike can. The true horror, however, comes from the personal reactions from the Samurai, their screams and their breakdowns captured in stunning detail. We are given the sights of war, the horrors and the terrors of a battlefield and we’re asked to endure this trial with the characters we’ve become accustomed to. We see some change before our eyes, rising to courage and falling to madness as they endure absolute hell.

I asked a friend of mine we ran into when he came to the theatre what his thoughts were after the film ended. He told me he needed some time to absorb the film and I felt the same way… I was shocked, stunned, thrilled, and horrified by the film. I did not walk out of the theater feeling “good” about life and I didn’t know if a smile was appropriate. The smile wasn’t quite there, but this wasn’t exactly a happy little film. We were dealing with some heavy material throughout this film, including honor, loyalty, responsibility, defiance, and acceptance. But there are two images that continue to haunt me: In one scene there is a woman who has been tortured, used, and discarded by the Shoguns’ brother. When the pull her robe from her we see she’s had all four limbs cut off, we find her tongue has been cut from her mouth, and she takes a brush between her teeth as bloody tears flow from her eyes. “What happened to the rest of your family?” she is asked. She writes and the kanji translates “TOTAL MASSACRE”. Her screams echo in my head now. The opposing image is one where the Shoguns’ brother is surrounded by make-shift walls, having fallen into the Samurai’s trap. The lead Samurai reaches into his armor and draws out a scroll, reveals the rough kanji and bloody-tear soaked words from that same woman and the sub-titles translate “Total Massacre” once again.

5 out of 5.

And now I have to completely change pace… the odd thing is that my two favorite roleplaying games follow this exact same trend. I love Legend of the Five Rings, a roleplaying game set in a mythic world based on Feudal Japan and China. But I go from that game to “7th Sea”, a game based on swashbuckling adventures with pirates and treasures. These are totally different mindsets yet two of my favorite genres. Go figure?

“Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”

Based on a novel with no ties to the original series, “On Stranger Tides” feels a little jumbled together and doesn’t quite hit the same notes as the original series. Johnny Depp reprises the iconic role of “Captain Jack Sparrow” for another outing and hits the seas opposite Penelope Cruz. Geoffrey Rush returns as Barbosa (minus a leg), and Mr. Gibbs returns for a few colorful exchanges but the films story seems centered on peripheral characters that never seem to be given the focus they should. As the Spanish and English Navies race to lay claim to the fabled “Fountain of Youth”, Blackbeards’ daughter helps her father to gather a crew and set sail to outpace both nations. We meet a young missionary who has been tied to Blackbeards mast for no greater crime than having faith, he is saved from a death sentence by Blackbeards daughter for no greater reason than a desire to save her fathers’ soul, and Blackbeard is played by Ian McShane for far too little time to develop a truly enthralling villain. Jack’s only real purpose in the story is that he may or may not have already been to the fountain and would, therefore, be capable of leading Blackbeard and his crew to the site.

It’s not a bad movie. It’s chain-food pizza; not quite the best in town but it’ll do in a pinch. I would have preferred to see a story centered more specifically on the character of Sparrow or to have seen some more screen time given to some of the periphery characters; but the film does manage to scratch that “Swashbuckling” itch. Penelope Cruz is great in her role, though she seems to lack any romantic chemistry with Depp. She could make a great addition as foil to Jack if that sub-plot was ignored for future installments but that remains to be seen. So it’s not the next big thing, it’s not the greatest story ever told, and the plot has a lot of holes left over from the butchering of what had been a promising novel by many accounts (I haven’t read it myself, but think I may now). It is, however, a fun little romp with plenty of gags and plenty of action. Depp doesn’t slow down and continues to have fun with his most endearing character to date while Geoffrey Rush adds just enough pomp to Barbosa to provide a few different laughs.

3 out of 5.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Birdemic: Shock and Terror review?? Spoiler alert.

Birdemic: Shock And Terror

I once saw a dead bird lying to the side of a nearly desolate road getting picked apart by maggots and other insects. I was riding my bike on a hot day and the smell twisted my gut and forced me to stop, forced me to glance in that direction and I was absolutely awed by the wretchedness of the sight. Drying blood had become brown on the asphalt, little squirming maggots feasted on the moistest parts, and the poor avian creatures’ beak was partly open to reveal more things squirming inside. Flies were buzzing around its body. It was horrible and ghastly, but an oddly compelling image that has stayed with me throughout the years. I don’t really want it in my head but it will always be there. And so will Birdemic. I was enthralled with the ineptitude of this cinematic debacle. This film manages to get every aspect of the medium wrong. From plot to visuals to acting and even the sound, the film is an absolute tragedy to the art and an irredeemable mess in every way possible.

I think about that bird on the road, a desiccated and rotting thing devoured by maggots and how it’s been seared in my minds’ eye. The theme music begins and it’s very loud… and then very soft… and then very loud and the credits roll over a video montage of a small coastal town along the California coast. The wind blows across the camera’s mic constantly and we finally focus on a slowly moving car driven by our films protagonist. Vacantly staring into the abyss, our hero somehow manages to suck any possible emotion from each and every word he speaks with all the qualities of a nervous robot. He awkwardly walks, slowly, from one place to another without daring to swing his arms in fear that too much action might just wear him out. He meets the films other protagonist, a girl who sat in front of him in High School and who is now a fashion model and who he has somehow found the courage to finally ask out on a date. She never stops smiling. Her lips seem to be constantly peeled back from her gleaming white teeth and her eyes are pulled open by invisible fish-hooks. Maggots were eating the eyes of that dead bird on the road.

After offering various concessions and a fifty percent discount on a product, our “hero” eventually makes a big million dollar sale and spends the next first third of the film showcasing the writers absolute ignorance regarding economics in the market place. He follows this up with a brutally awkward first date that includes immediate talk about marriage and starting a family. I never talked about that dead bird on a single date I’ve been on. I think it might be wrong. And when our Hero decides to start up his own business, selling solar panels that use nano-technology, he’s a huge success who rounds up his next big sale in the range of one billion dollars. This entire first act of the film continually builds on our heroes budding relationship with the back-drop of looming environmental catastrophe.

The birds attack.

I stared in open mouthed “shock and terror.” I don’t want to tell you why right now. I can’t tell you why. Please don’t make me remember this?!?!!! Fine… FINE!!! GIF level CGI… we are talking card board cutouts digitally inserted into the film at random points and slowly flapping their wings while floating in place around the characters forced to interact with the lamest special effect EVER put on film. A trip to the dollar store for fake birds and fishing line would have created a better effect, good god! But that first shot is a thing of special beauty… video footage of a town with superimposed images of these birds attacking, dive bombing, exploding, and otherwise creating mayhem. None of these buildings actually explode, mind you… the image of an explosion is simply super-imposed over the building.

I wondered, briefly, if a bird might mistakenly believe I had been responsible for the death of this lone crow and fly at my head. I was twelve at the time. I vividly remember wondering if I would be able to fend it off from me. I never once considered the use of a coat-hanger. And yet our heroes immediately set forth armed with coat hangers and leap into a van where the local Iraqi veteran has stashed a fully automatic rifle and his side-arm. And they drive off for the next act, a wandering and rambling mess of narrative that includes scene after scene of bird carnage and environment catastrophe. And we wander… and we wander… and we pick up two children along the edge of a deserted highway where several cars just kept driving across the edge of the picture frame and the microphone picked up various engine roars. We follow the characters as they dare to enter a small market, get some lunch, and then go on a FREAKIN’ PICNIC ON THE BEACH!!!!! THIS MOVIE IS STUPID!!! STUPID!!!! KILL ME!!! KILL THE MEMORY!!!!

Finally, our heroes face great hardship when they start to lose members of their party. The soldiers’ girlfriend is killed while squatting on the side of the road and the soldier is killed after he attempts to rescue several people stranded on a tour bus. Do you want to know what kills him? This is spoiler territory here… SCREW YOU MOVIE!!!! The birds piss acid on him and the other trapped people! THEY PISS ACID ON THEM!!!!

No, I’m not going to spoil any more of this film for you. I’m done. I’m done with this review. I’m just flat out done. I don’t know if it can ever get much worse than this film… I don’t know if I can handle a film worse than this gadawful monstrosity and I don’t know if I ever want to challenge myself again on this. So, despite the fact that this is the worst film I’ve ever seen… I’m staring at the images in my head and I realize that there is an absolute ugliness to this work and it has to be seen. I can’t dissuade you from putting the DVD in your own player, I can’t keep you from pressing the button, and I don’t want to. I want you to understand what this film is, I want you to understand what I see and what I feel. I recommend that you sit back and watch Birdemic: Shock and Terror in all its wretched glory.

0 out of 5.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mighty Thor!!! (review)

The new Comic book adaptation of "The Mighty Thor" is a fairly loose adaptation of the source material. As much as it thrills me to see the God of Thunder brought to life, I've never really been that big of a fan of the comic itself. The whole Donald Blake persona never really hit a spot with me, the romance with his nurse never meant anything to me, and the series was always at it's best when he was just the visiting God of Thunder. So a fair majority of the back story from source material is either ignored or thrown out with nod and a wink to the fans. For the typical fan boy, this is either going to be a great adaptation of some fairly difficult material... or they're going to feel cheated and insulted by the smallness of Thor's scale. Most of the film takes place in the desert or on a sound stage with plenty of green screen CGI effects. It's loud like a summer blockbuster should be, it's action packed, and it caters to the absolute lowest denominator with a constant barrage of low-brow humor and "ass-kicking awesomeness." With that said... I was roughly three steps away from hating the shit storm when I saw the flicker of hope. More on that soon enough.

Anthony Hopkins headlines this film along with Natalie Portman, both of whom chew their dialogue into mulch. Not since Liam Neesons' portrayal of Zeus has an actor given more to his craft. Hopkins is tired... you can tell because he hunches his shoulders, winces with each step, and staggers through every scene with the look of a man who seriously needs to take a crap. I figured that Odin would eventually fall into his deep sleep, but the first third of the film pretty much revolves around him berating the God of Thunder in front of Loki. But as far as Hopkins took the ridiculousness of his role, Natalie Portman seemed intent on making the All Father seem "subtle" by comparison. Portman's blistering smile peels away from her teeth with "awkward pretty nerd goodness" with all the regularity of a John Hughes virgin. She's accompanied by a wisecracking college freshmen hoping to earn some credits for her work with Portmans' scientist character. The sole purpose of this character is to make pop-culture referenced jokes at every opportunity. The heroic science team is rounded up with the presence of a surly professor overseeing the younger Portman's bizarre project of studying... does it fucking matter?!?!?!! Seriously??? It was typical Star Trek gibberish and it doesn't actually MEAN anything... except that the myth and magic surrounding Thor is utterly decimated and replaced with "Alien Technology" on Earth. THE FUCK?!?!?!?!!

Deep breath... because the shining light is on the horizon. Kenneth Branagh takes a shitty script with rotten dialogue and he actually polishes this turd up and creates a thrilling story of his own. Chris Hemsworth is absolutely FANTASTIC as Thor, and Tom Hiddleston chooses a much more subtle and extremely humble approach to playing Loki. And the film is at its best when the focus is on these two characters, and Branagh seems to make certain that editing put the attention on these two characters throughout the course of the film. So while the first third of the film seems destined for a brutal assault on our senses, the project comes together in the second and final acts. The annoying characters fall to the wayside and we're watching Loki fall from grace as Thor struggles to redeem himself.

So, look... this isn't going to be a faithful adaptation of the source material. It sort of feels more like a precursor to The Avengers, reducing the mythology of Thor to some extent in order to preserve the super science of Marvels other signature characters. But it's a fun ride and Hemsworth is fantastic in the lead, so it's definitely worth a watch.

4 out of 5.