Thursday, 28 February 2013

The Old Blog

In case you are interested in reading older movie reviews, I have a blog from February 2009 to November 2010 that contains a much larger selection of films. Feel free to visit the website:

13 Assassins (2010)

A depraved warlord in feudal Japan has taken to causing wanton mayhem through indulgence of his own, selfish desires. Those around him are reticent to take action due to his relationship with the current shogun. Fed up, a man named Shinzaemon is hired to assemble a team of assassins and mortally depose the warlord from his office.

13 Assassins (十三人の刺客) is a 2010 film by director Takashi Miike, based on the original 1963 version by Eiichi Kudo. Like most films set in this time period, referred to as jidai-geki (period dramas) or chambara (sword-fighting movies), 13 Assassins maintains many of the motifs that represented samurai while struggling to incorporate them into our modern-day sensibilities.

One theme of the film is the oft-touted samurai ethic of "dying for your master." Hanbei, the warlord's bodyguard, is well aware of how cruel his master is. Still, he puts his life on the line time and time again to uphold his pride as a samurai. Another theme is the concept of bushido (the way of the warrior). The thirteen assassins face overwhelming odds, but they are prepared to put their lives on the line and refuse to rely on trickery to defeat their enemies.

Both of these themes are challenged in the film. The idea of the shogun's retainers hiring assassins flies in the face of their loyalty, and many of them are forced to commit ritual suicide to atone for their betrayals. Even as the assassins nobly clash blade-to-blade with their enemies, they do in fact rely on a large number of sneak attacks such as bombs, arrows, and traps. These subversions of the accepted social order make the film more relatable to a modern audience that may not emphasize with the idea of total loyalty to an evil man, or sacrificing superior position in favor of preserving honor. Perhaps it is a commentary on the changing aesthetics of Japanese culture.

Finally, I'd like to mention how pleased I was to see Kōji Yakusho in the lead role as Shinzaemon. I've enjoyed his previous works, such as Shall We Dance? and Cure. He is a well-known Japanese actor and it is evident from his library of works that he has not been type-cast. His portrayal of the emotionally conflicted leader of the assassins helped make what would normally have been an average jidai-geki piece into something more.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The Muppets (2011)

I guess I should apologize for not updating in, what, twenty days?! Sorry about that. Job-hunting and the like. Not much new to report. I am still actively looking for jobs, but in this cash-strapped period I have not gone out to see many movies. Actually, I think The Hunger Games and The Avengers are the only movies I saw in theaters since I returned.

I caught The Muppets onboard Singapore Airlines during my flight back to America. I was swept up by a wave of nostalgia that compelled me to press “enter” on my remote control and select the movie. It ate up a good fifth or so of my flight, and I enjoyed most of the experience.

I imagine there are many more qualified people who could be reviewing this film. While I grew up watching Kermit and Miss Piggy on the Muppets Tonight television series, I never really followed their work after that, except for a cameo in the Keep Fishin’ music video by Weezer. Most of the time I spent watching The Muppets was spent re-acquainting myself with the cast of characters, Fozzie and Gonzo and all the rest.

The Muppets’ movies were coming out during a period between 1976, the premier of The Muppets Movie, and Muppets From Space, which came out in 1999. The new film plays out as a reunion of sorts, using Jason Segel’s everyman character (Gary) to reintroduce the audience to all of our childhood favorites. The human element to this story comes in the form of Walter, Gary’s brother, born a Muppet but not one of the Muppets. He struggles to come to terms with his identity and is inspired to visit the Muppet Studio for guidance.

The brothers work with Kermit the Frog to reunite the Muppets and put on a show that will allow them to buy their studio back from the trope-tacular evil business tycoon who has purchased it. The film is littered with throwbacks to the original series and movies, as well as a handful of fresh humor that almost seems out of place in terms of modern-day relevance. For every call-back to my childhood, there was also a new chuckle to be had.

This is not one of those films that needs to secretly work in a bunch of covert dirty humor to appeal to the parents that wind up sitting through it with their children. The nostalgia factor will keep parents in their seats as their kids gain an appreciation for these classic characters. The film did well at the box office, so hopefully this is the start of a new series of Muppet movies.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

The King's Speech (2010)

Just wanted to take this chance to apologize for taking so long to update the page. I was in California over the weekend and neglected to prepare a post in advance. Then, when I came home, I simply got caught up in the usual chaos that envelops my life.

Like Black Swan, this is another Oscar winner. I must apologize for erroneously saying last time that Black Swan won the award for Best Picture. In fact, The King’s Speech won that award. Natalie Portman won Best Actress and Colin Firth won Best Actor. It’s unfortunate that two films can’t win the award, though—I would have selected these two in a heartbeat. Oh well, no changing the past I suppose.

The King’s Speech chronicles a period in the life of King George VI of England leading up to the onset of World War 2. Played by Colin Firth (remember I mentioned that Oscar for Best Actor?), King George VI struggles to cope with a socially debilitating stutter that makes it nearly impossible for him to speak in front of audiences.

He eventually finds his way to a speech therapist, Lionel Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush who makes the most progress in teaching the king how to speak clearly. If you don’t know the history, I won’t spoil it for you, but later in the film Firth is called upon to make a very important speech, meaning that his work with Rush is of dire importance.

The film does a very good job of painting two pictures. The first is of a country on the brink of war, searching for a leader to guide it. The second is of a man torn between duty and fear, unable to overcome a hurdle that has plagued him since birth and rise to a station he never expected nor desired. Here is where Colin Firth shines. If I didn’t know better, I would say he actually has a stutter.

Beyond those points, though, the film is lacking in historical accuracy. Though honestly, if it’s a feature film you shouldn’t be surprised. I recommend you critically examine every feature film after you have seen it, to sort out the truth from the lies. In this case, most of the errors deal with inconsistent dates, people, and places. Second-hand accounts also claim that King George VI was never as casual around Logue as the film suggests. I argue that this is an instance of necessary artistic license; our protagonist needs to be down-to-earth and relatable if he is to garner empathy from the audience.

It is another Oscar winner, so I definitely suggest catching it sometime. The beginning might seem a little slow, but once you bite into the meat of the plot it manages to remain engaging and believable until the end.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Black Swan (2010)

I’m going to California for a short vacation, so I won’t be updating again until Tuesday or Wednesday. Make due with this review of the 2011 Oscars’ Best Picture, Black Swan.

I reviewed Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain a while back. This film came out about four years after that, and was far more successful both critically and financially. The film centers around a young ballet starlet named Nina (Natalie Portman) who wins the starring role in the classic ballet Swan Lake. What follows is a tumultuous journey into Nina’s psyche as she struggles to cope with the physical and mental demands that accompany such a prestigious role.

Like many of Aronofsky’s films, this one blurs the line between reality and fantasy, offering scenarios that the audience must judge for themselves. Do these events take place in Nina’s head, or in real life? Which events? Who is real, and when are they real? Probably the most fun I had was after the film, sitting on my couch, trying to decide what actually happened.

Aronofsky and Portman both stated that they were inspired or reminded of Roman Polanski’s works, such as The Tenant and Rosemary’s Baby. Those films also made very broad strokes when it came to nailing down whether the action on screen should be taken at face-value or not. The film also bears passing similarities to 1997’s Perfect Blue, a film in which an actress falls into a dream world to escape problems associated with her changing career.

I guess the point I’m trying to make here is that you shouldn’t take the events in this movie too seriously at first glance. Watch it once if you want a dark, dramatic psychological thriller. Give yourself some time to think and then watch it again. Look for what you missed, and try to associate everything you saw before. There’s a reason this film won Best Picture. It’s worth watching at least twice.

On a final note, to address some of the criticisms people have with the film. I agree that it does not realistically portray the lives of ballet dancers. It seems to be more like the fictionalized lives of ballet dancers, lives that are often described as tormented and painful. The latter seems to be the one people are more familiar with whenever the “dark side” of ballet is brought up. In a way, leaning away from the reality of ballet seems to make the film even better, as it further twists and perverts Nina’s life and the way we see her world. It’s something to consider when viewing the film.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows (2011)

I had the opportunity to catch the Sherlock Holmes sequel approximately three months after it premiered in America, thanks to the long wait that people living in Japan must endure while films go through the tumultuous process required to prepare them for foreign markets. Wow, that was a long sentence!

The sequel takes place a short time after the original. Not much has changed, really: Holmes is still chasing after Moriarty, Irene Adler is still acting as Moriarty’s agent, and Watson is still planning on marrying Mary Morstan. However, this film is the cumulative battle of wits between the famed detective and his arch-nemesis, so things kick into high gear and Holmes and Watson are reunited.

What follows is an enigmatic tour across Europe, where Holmes tries to uncover what sort of insidious plan Moriarty’s recent atrocities have been leading up to. I won’t spoil it for you, but like the first film some leaps of faith are required in order to tie everything together. In addition to seeing Moriarty’s face for the first time, Holmes works with a new female co-star, Noomi Rapace as a gypsy named Simza. Her destiny is intertwined with that of the protagonists.

Director Guy Ritchie follows up on the cinematic conventions from the first film, including Holmes’ special style of pre-planning his battles, by adding some interesting techniques to the mix. There is a very powerful scene that takes place in a forest, Holmes fleeing bullets and bombs, that I doubt you have seen the like of before. Intermingled slow-motion, exaggerated sound effects, and a variety of other features made each fight something unique and memorable. It’s only a shame that the story has to suffer as a result.

It’s true, the action starts almost immediately and most of the film turns into a giant chase scene, Holmes employing any and all means of transportation to follow his foe across country borders. Between gunfights and fistfights, there is little time to develop a rapport between the classic rivals. Actor Jared Harris gives Moriarty a strong performance that makes his lack of screen time seem inconsequential, though.

This film stands out as a blockbuster with strong, if shoehorned, action scenes and a narrative that shows the proper way to build a sequel upon the fountain of a successful origin film. If you’ve seen the first one, you won’t be disappointed by the second. If you haven’t seen the first one, you may be in over your head.

Friday, 20 April 2012

In Time (2011)

Let us start with an outlandish premise: What would you do if you stopped aging at 25, and you were paid in seconds instead of cents? That’s the background of “In Time,” starring Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, and Cillian Murphy.

In the not-so-distant future, humans are genetically engineered to stop aging at 25. From that point on, they are dependent on earning increments of time to survive. Oh, and did I mention that when you run out of “time,” you die? That’s also important. Justin Timberlake works in a factory, earning just enough time to live day-to-day. His mother, played by “House” actress Olivia Wilde, is worse off than he is. One day, she runs out of time and dies. From that moment on, Timberlake vows to change the system somehow.

I think I watched this on the airplane, mostly out of sheer boredom. The number of plot holes in the film are astounding, and I cannot believe that a society like the one presented in this film could ever function properly. The dichotomy of this society uses time as a replacement for money, the only difference being that having no time will literally kill you. Rich people have millions of years at their disposal, while slum dwellers like Timberlake have 48 hours or so until their next paycheck.

Somehow, Timberlake stumbles onto a windfall of time and ends up in high society, where he flirts with Amanda Seyfried and makes enemies with the Timekeepers, led by Cillian Murphy. The movie slowly turns into a Bonny and Clyde-type film, full of futuristic bank robberies and action-packed chases. Neither side comes off as particularly savvy to the ways of this make-believe world; Timberlake’s character doesn’t seem to have any plans beyond the next heist, and Murphy’s law enforcement henchmen come off as entirely inept.

There are some interesting concepts in this film but, like most sci-fi films set in near-future scenarios, they are underdeveloped and ultimately sacrificed for that quick rush of adrenaline that audiences seem to adore. I’d recommend this movie to people who don’t like to think too hard when they’re watching science fiction flicks.