Sunday, June 26, 2011

13 Assassins

"13 Assassins" shouldn't be the first film of its kind that you see. Remaking a film from the early '60s, director Takashi Miike strives to mix the motifs of the samurai film with some J-horror flourishes. What results is technically sound, thematically competent, and pretty involving. However, it's not as strong as the hype may have lead you to believe, and, if you're a newcomer, there are some other movies you should watch before you elect to view this one. But there's something to be said for a filmmaker who wants to entertain audiences by both respecting and altering the genre, even though in this case Miike is being more reverent than subversive, and "13 Assassins" is, if not transcendent among the ranks of its samurai predecessors, at least better than a lot of movies in current release.

The film has a heavy-handed, melodramatic story typical to this sort of film: the half-brother of the Shogun, Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki, channeling a privileged menace) is destroying the area's long-held peace with his horrific nature. To give an example, after one samurai commits hara-kiri (read: suicide) in protest, Naritsugu tortures and kills his family. At the core of his misdeeds is his perverted notion of what it means to be a samurai and also a misunderstanding of what it's like to be anyone else other than him. He actually admits that he wants to "bring back the age of war," which would be catastrophic.

Something must be done, posits Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira), the advisor to the Shogun (who's never shown). He sends for Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho), who's enjoying a retirement fishing. Sir Doi wants him to kill Naritsugu, because if Doi himself did it the system of honor would be disrupted. Thus, Shinzaemon (renowned for being determined) recruits a few extremely capable fighters, including his trainee (who brings a long his trainees), his gambler nephew, and towards the end, a guy who lives in the forest (who uses a rock in a sling rather than a sword). He needs all the help he can get, since Naritsugu's army (comprised of roughly 200 guys) brings strength in numbers, and they're led by Shinzaemon's rival Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura). But, as you will come to see, the assassins, though outnumbered, have some tricks up their sleeves.

"13 Assassins," (supposedly) like Miike's "Audition," is a film that practices restraint and then unleashes all of its pent-up energy. Although dreadful things happen towards the beginning, they are isolated and only slowly do they build up the film's momentum. This limitation of action makes the moments that come later on much more stimulating. However, once we get to final part, when things happen in quick succession, the combat becomes a bit duller. I've heard the climax of the film, which depicts the long battle between the assassins and the lord's clan for 45 minutes, both praised and criticized for its technique. It's pretty standard stuff, and it can be (as I noted above) a bit monotonous at times, as it shows many henchmen killed in exactly the same way. But, since we relate somewhat to the main characters, and since they have personality, it manages to be entertaining nonetheless. Speaking of the camera, there are some remarkable images captured by Nobuyasu Kita, who manages (successfully) to make the cinematography both salient and secondary to the action.

Making Naritsugu a bratty pushover may have emphasized his strength only derived from power, but it also makes the film look like it went through too much for such a simple objective (that's actually kind of overcomplicated at the start). All the same, "13 Assassins" is an absorbing diversion, one that offers a bit of variety for people looking for something interesting and exciting to see in theaters. Plus, it has the pedigree of being nominated for the Golden Lion at last year's Venice Film Festival, if that means anything to you. B

Saturday, June 25, 2011

On Tour (Tournée) (BAMcinemaFest)

Despite some dodgy notes hit by a cast of first-time-acting burlesque dancers and a script that at its worst gives itself over to bouts of corny humor and worn out situations, "On Tour" ends up working in the end. It is anchored by the beautifully grainy and composition/focus attentive 35mm photography by Christophe Beacaume and a solid performance on both sides of the camera by Mathieu Amalric, not to mention a clutch acting job by the most prominently featured dancer Miranda Colclasure (better known as Mimi Le Meaux). The film's angle on its main subject is hardly philosophical, but that's no matter. It finds other things to look into, and all-in-all ends up an enjoyable film, at times more blissful and at others more plodding.

Joachim Zand (Mathieu Amalric), we come to learn, is alienated from his father, brother, and wife, and not entirely favored by his kids either. He's pissed off a lot of people, and it's not hard to see why: he desires to be in control at all times, constantly and perhaps arbitrarily telling bartenders and hotel managers to turn down the music or the television. He's put together an act in America consisting of stripteasers such as Kitten on the Keys (Suzanne Ramsey), Julie Atlas Muz (Julie Ann Muz), and Dirty Martini (Linda Marraccini), to add to the aforementioned Mimi Le Meaux, for whom he has a greater amount of affection. Now he's taking them on tour (hence the title) in France. This trip is ostensibly just to conduct performances, but when he has a hard time holding down event spaces, he gets around to seeing his family, as well as an estranged dancer whom he mistreated some time back. A lot of the film's strength comes from its examination of Joachim, who's trying to manage a lot and just barely keeping things together.

The film spends a lot of time also with the dancers, lingering on their stripteases (though with skilled camera placement, perhaps for a bit too long) and showing their off-time. Of the girls, it spends the most time following Mimi. She's lonely, both a part of the crew and somewhat isolated, having disappointing trysts and perhaps loving Joachim a little bit. We see her often in close-ups, sometimes of her numerous tattoos, sometimes of her (theoretically) masked face. Though she's notably histrionic at times, this is strong work by Cloclasure, a product of the direction that won Amalric the Prix de la mise en scéne at Cannes last year.

"On Tour" I don't think has the makings of a great film. However, judging from the audience I saw it with, for more than a few people it will have the makings for a great time. Though some parts of the movie are trite, some scenes are actually pretty funny. And you'd have to be allergic to fun to not be overjoyed by the film's final shot. Concluding the last passage of the film (which has an amiable, mellow vibe), it provides a fitting end to both the section and also the motif of which it is a part. This ending (apparently not the only great closer in Amalric's career), most likely among the strongest this year will have to offer, deserves to be seen by audiences, and I hope that a distributor takes heed and purchases it, along with the solid film that came before. B

Thursday, June 23, 2011


Appealing and profound simultaneously, "Beginners" finds a way to navigate through its story that makes it feel much realer and much more involving than most recent "whimsical" comedies (viz. "500 Days of Summer," "Away We Go"). It is about the pursuit of happiness, elusive at every moment in time due to far different repressing circumstances. Hal (Christopher Plummer), a museum director, went through married life a closeted gay man, and finally, after his wife died and the times changed to allow homosexuality, came out to salvage the final years of his life. He doesn't live much longer, but he gets to experience a timeless thing, which one can have even in the face of death: love. His son Oliver (Ewan McGregor), not very successful romantically, comes to find a source of joy after his father dies in Anna (Melanie Laurent), whom he meets at a party. This is after periods of isolation where no one finds his stoicism and seriousness all too enjoyable.

In both instances, death unlocks love and death bears hardship. Even though Oliver narrates history in a linear, practical way, his memories come to haunt him in random moments and in random order. The film often repeats itself and delves back into Oliver's childhood and time with his dying father to show what he's relating to his girlfriend. He often thinks of his zany mother (Mary Page Keller), with whom he had one of those more strange relationships; there are moments from his early life that he brings in perhaps to have some touchstone to operate with. He's so tied to his past that the ending, which I've seen before in other films of which this one is reminiscent, makes sense and nicely concludes the film's thesis.

"Beginners" for the most part has a subversive sensibility that strays towards Noah Baumbach's "Greenberg" and Richard Linklater's Jesse and Celine diptych (the latter at certain points perhaps a little too much). It knows how to be actually sweet and funny, utilizing the supporting cast (Kai Lennox and China Shavers as Oliver's friends; Goran Visnjic as Hal's newfound lover) well and supplying old Woody Allen/newly repurposed cliches (eccentric subtitles, old music) with not only new life but a tangibility to the plot. Mike Mills, who has written and directed this film based on his life, both allots time to both blissfully meandering and thoughtfully meditating on deep themes (some subtly introduced).

The film's key asset, though, is its lead performers. McGregor drives the film with his pensiveness and quiet humor and pleasure. It's his finest performance by a good measure. Laurent, with her glorious smile and incredible charisma, is exactly what the film needs: its embodiment of delight. But the film really shines under the control of Plummer, who knows how to play the newly emerged father: open to new things, accepting (sadly but wholeheartedly) of his fate, amazedly discovering things that are supposedly obvious. With this complex and radiant performance, Plummer alongside McGregor marks his career high.

"Beginners" may be about 10 minutes too long, wasting some time in repeating things and sometimes frustratingly moving away from the scene at hand. But it gets at and portrays emotions palpably enough to produce a state of euphoria for a viewer receptive to the film's carefully developed wavelength. B+

The Trip (Theatrical Version)

I was going to do some sort of food review gimmick for my take on Michael Winterbottom's "The Trip," but I feared that I wouldn't be able to fully address the copious problems with it. The reformatting from the roughly 3-hour BBC miniseries shows in that the film is abrupt and choppy throughout, never providing any backstory for the main characters or letting any of the comic situations build to their full potential. Seeing as I didn't get a chance to view the TV version, I'm unsure whether its this cut or the whole venture that deserves blame. I'm not necessarily the right audience for this film, since I always feel like I'm forcing laughs at this sort of British humor (which seems funnier to me when read).

Ultimately, "The Trip" is just another opportunity for comedic actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, most famously paired in Winterbottom's "Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story," to screw around. The joke, both times, is that the two are playing themselves, and that Coogan is a womanizing asshole while Brydon is a charismatic family man. This schtick wore thin even before the end of "Tristam Shandy," and here it really started to get on my nerves. However, even Brydon comes off as annoying and generally intolerable, with his incessant impressions and jokey, overly agreeable nature.

Much of the film seems to have been developed via the aid of illegal substances. I can't say I understand why Coogan, who is apparently struggling but still very affluent and getting parts (in "In the Loop" and "The Other Guys," recently), is suddenly writing food criticism for a British magazine. This is the foundation for the film, and it already involves a suspension of belief. Anyways, Coogan has to go on a trip through the UK to eat various bits of fancy food and write about them (though we never actually see what he thinks or hear what he's going to write, rendering this facet of the film pretty useless). He gets to bring along a guest, and he elects for Brydon, after his girlfriend Mischa (Margo Stilley) heads off for America instead of coming along.

Even though it's patently ridiculous, this is a set-up that could work. But it doesn't. The biggest reason is that Winterbottom ignores the fact that comedy needs to build to work. I'm not a huge fan of comedy derived from awkward situations, but I can see that this film could have cashed in many times. There are only a couple of extended bits, and they are the wrong ones to be continued on. The only really uncomfortable thing in the film ends up being the way that Winterbottom startlingly cuts away from the action and expects us to find the last thing that was said (whether it be a genuine punch-line or not) to be funny. It rarely if ever pays off, and he does it many times.

Another massive failure of the film is that it often neglects to incorporate the surroundings into the humor. Sure, there's that bizarre moment with the guy on the mountain, but this is a movie that takes place in public spaces, and it feels like for the most part everyone around is oblivious to the antics of Coogan and Brydon. Never does either one of the two interact with the waiter except to politely thank them for the food. Think of how hilarious it could have been if one of them had insulted the staff and/or restaurant patrons and trouble had ensued. The camera often lingers on the food and the terrain around, and since the film never really puts them to use, I think it's fair to assume that they function mostly as food/location porn.

Finally, if the film had been more probing than it is, success may have resulted. We see inside Coogan's head, like the psychedelic passages in "Tristam Shandy," this time with a totally unexpected celebrity cameo which hasn't been mentioned anywhere. But does this really say that much about Coogan? Maybe it does, I don't know. There are moments where the film seems to be trying to get at what it's like to be an entertainer or a critic, and the whole negotiation between the kitchen and the dining hall, but Winterbottom is far too surface-deep for that. (Now that I look more carefully at it's page on IMDb, the film apparently doesn't have a script, which does clearly explain the film's lack of a focus.)

Brydon is a far stronger performer than Coogan, despite the fact that Coogan's Sean Connery impression is better. Maybe it would be sort of kind of interesting if we got to know him a little better? All we see him doing is talking on the phone with his wife. Maybe that's all there is to his life, but still, more exposition would be nice. I'm well aware of the fact that people will think I was expecting way too much out of this venture. Well, doesn't Winterbottom need to make reputable films to keep his position as a regarded director? Or else isn't it all just meaningless hype? No matter. "The Trip" would have been served much better by a) keeping the same scenario and aiming for more of a faux-documentary style, b) relegating Coogan and Brydon to having lunch at one of their pads and filming, or c) someone realizing having this pairing together on the screen isn't worth that much trouble. D+

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Ledge

"The Ledge," in its basic plot and structure, stands as both convoluted and banal, but until about the final ten minutes I was pretty sure that it had a saving grace: it dealt with religion in a way outside of the norm. However, after having seen how the whole film plays out, I'm not sure exactly what the film's stance on faith is, and I think that's a problem. Even when it seems like it's achieving some degree of clarity, "The Ledge" is really dancing around the issue. There are a couple moments in the film where this is obviously happening (where writer/director Matthew Chapman tries to supply levity about it by conflating it with vulgarity), but I thought that ultimately the film had really worked things out. Such was not the case.

The way the film unfolds imitates many other recent films and fails to achieve success. Gavin (Charlie Hunnam, a goofy romantic presence with bad haircut and voice not unlike the kid in this) seems to be one of those routine cases, a jumper on the ledge of a building who can be coaxed off with much pleading from a cop, in this case Hollis (Terrence Howard). Nope, he's not normal, as you probably guessed. He's a hotel manager or something who has gotten into an affair with Shauna (Liv Tyler), who's married to an ultra-strict Born Again Christian named Joe (an extremely corny Patrick Wilson). Gavin gets to know Shauna through her position as a maid at the hotel, and also because she lives across the hall from him. This proximity leads to much "temptation," as Joe would look at it. Not to mention much intramural tension, as Joe, when the two meet at dinner and a "philosophy discussion," comes to get pissed about Gavin's very pronounced lack of faith and apparent homosexuality. Each thinks the other is "cold-hearted," though, while Joe would suggest conversion to Evangelical Christianity and being "saved," Gavin's way of solving that turns out to be trying to help out Shauna. This comes to bear disastrous consequences.

I'm not really sure what Chapman is trying to prove here, other than that different people have different views of faith, which couldn't be more clear. He doesn't seem to understand that you can't really make a movie about a subject like this and avoid the responsibility of having to say something about it. The vacant conclusiveness of the end scene, which is part of a subplot to further the idea that really everybody has problems (except for gay secondary characters), really reveals that the film has no particular thesis; that's a big problem. To add to that, despite its somewhat out-of-the-ordinary dialogue about doctrine, "The Ledge" doesn't have original ways of presenting information, and we are subject to the usual confessional stories about what sins these people committed in the past that defined their lives. I have to admit, "The Ledge" has more value than I thought it was possible for it to have. That being said, I'm still disappointed that it came up short, as it realizes some but (importantly) not all of its opportunities. C+

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Super 8

There are a variety of different responses that people will have to a film like J.J. Abrams' "Super 8." Some will not read into it at all and call it your run-of-the-mill summer movie. Others will give it the benefit of the doubt and say that it puts on display a remarkable self-critique (though I would be more inclined to go with this take if the film was directed by Abbas Kiarostami or Charlie Kaufman). Truly, "Super 8" falls somewhere in between these poles, having enough quick wit to transcend the crop of blockbusters in which it sits, but not enough gall to overturn the system altogether.

When the film opens, it seems to be the rare Hollywood release to leave developments up to implication rather than spelling them out. We see a steel mill changing its "days since accident" sign to one, and come to piece together that the mother of Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) has died. His father Jackson (Kyle Chandler), a policeman, doesn't handle it well at all, and suggests Joe take measures to to alleviate the grief (i.e. re-planning his summer). Joe, though, wants to do makeup for his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths), who's attempting to make a short for a film festival/contest. He's making it along with a team of other kids, including a pyromaniac and a couple of nerds.

The film, like the work of nearly all amateur videographers (including my own from years past), is full of horrible acting and strange effects (done without digital here, it being the late 1970's). It has that wonder of the product of children, though. (This is one of the many much remarked-upon ways Abrams tips his hat to Steven Spielberg, a huge shadow over this work.) Charles obsesses over lending the film better "production value" and tries to get shots with trains and military personnel. He's much more worried about style than substance, and cobbles together the plot as he goes along, getting a girl he and many others have a crush on, Alice (Elle Fanning), to join the team as an actress. (She ends up hitting it off better with Joe, as you knew she would.) When they are shooting a scene with her by the train tracks, a train smashes into a car and sets off a long series of explosions, leaving behind cubes as detritus.

This event, the first of many similar ones to happen in the film, is the beginning of what really becomes the main plot of the film. It renders the part on moviemaking to the category of "incident" and thus really throws aside its best hope at setting itself apart from the rest. The film goes on to juggle an impressive but ultimately unmanageable number of plots, and ends up just throwing together tropes to get to the finish line. It puts an emphasis on being tidy (everything HAS to work out in the end), but at the same time, it opens up so many cans of worms it shouldn't even dream of actually making sense. And don't even get me started on how heavy-handed the film eventually becomes, which even the least cynical viewer will groan about.

But the film does have strengths that, had they been expanded on, could have been the building blocks for a stellar film. The most prominent attribute is the humor, which is brilliantly timed. Abrams, who wrote the screenplay, has a sharp eye for engaging conversational dialogue. He directs the (mostly no-name) actors also in a way that will ensure that each morsel of comedy will be realized by the audience. The film also has a way of stringing things together that it gets marginally close to pulling off, though the imperfection is definitely pronounced.

The biggest problem here, one that compromises things in the end, is that Abrams doesn't seem to have that much of an overall imagination, and even though he sprinkles moments of genius throughout (a certain set piece reminded me of Fritz Lang), the whole that results at times falls into the doldrums. Save his directorial debut "Mission Impossible III," I've seen all of Abrams' feature-length efforts. Not one of them has exceeded my expectations. Until he makes a truly wondrous movie, I'm going to conclude all further reviews of his films by speaking directly to the man, saying the same thing I have twice before. Here goes: Better luck next time, J.J. C+

Friday, June 3, 2011

Midnight in Paris

Juggling wonder for the City of Lights and spite for those who can't take the time to enjoy it, Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" is too clumsy to be great but strong in enough areas to be a worthwhile entertainment. Reminiscent of one of Allen's comic short stories, the film presents a clever if cliched idea in a delectable way. However, the work as a whole leaves something to be desired. Allen seems to have lost his touch navigating satire, and only does the straight comedy and romance well.

Owen Wilson, whose surprised face hugely aids the film's impact, plays Gil, an unsatisfied writer of vacuous films. Even though he apparently was a bad English student, he is still enraptured in the classics and wants to make a literary contribution. He goes with his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her ultra-conservative family to Paris to take in the marvels. Inez thinks Gil should stay "doing what he does best" and quit with the dreamy novel stuff, perhaps because she knows the difference in paychecks between a novelist and a screenwriter. She also wants to see Paris (a city she says she would never live in) by absorbing it without contemplation, way opposed to Gil's agenda, and when she encounters her former professor Paul (Michael Sheen), purveyor of pretentious knowledge and sex appeal, she can.

Gil wants out of things being planned for him, and so he gets lost wandering one night after a wine tasting. I hadn't read much about the film going in, so what happens next came as somewhat of a surprise to me. I'll leave it the same way for you, but I will say that with it Allen supplies the material for an engrossing film, one that speaks about how the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence and how people always think that their moment in history is the least interesting and the most screwed up. Admittedly, the film speechifies these points a little (subtlety is not one of Allen's strengths), and paints brushstrokes that go a little too wild at times, but certain setups and jokes (especially the one involving Surrealism and "The Exterminating Angel") are well executed.

Unfortunately, much of the film's writing is poor (characters say the same things over and over again) and the acting, save Wilson's, isn't able to salvage it. There is, however, sterling technical proficiency on display here. Several shots are startling in the way they unfold: the camera roams before the primary characters appear out of the side of the frame, and in one instance the camera does a 180* in a superbly controlled long take. In the present moment, I see the film as not working as well as it could have (given the cogency of the concept, it could have possibly been one of Allen's best films). But it does have some minor triumphs, and maybe it'll improve with age. B-