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47 Ronin

Despite a 14% on the tomatometer, 47 Ronin features excellent costume design

It’s movies like this, that made me want to start this blog.  47 Ronin, is a 2013 would be blockbuster that had the bad sense to release about a week after Desolation of Smaug in December.  I’m not saying you absolutely need to watch this movie, or even that it is a good film.  In this piece, I mean to make two points.  #1, making a movie is extremely hard, and anyone who has tried their hand at it can attest to this — and #2, While filled with lots of negative energy, there is merit worthy film-making to be salvaged from 47 Ronin.

For one thing, this movie stars Keanu Reeves who, when given the right environment, can enliven a film a great bit.  The thing about Reeves is that at this point in his career, he is more or less a stuntman with some acting under his belt.  His problem I think, is that he doesn’t seem to make distinction between good and bad films.  Reeves has been in John Wick, a very good film; as well as in Man of Tai Chi, a movie that was quite horrible.

His dedication to making an action sequence look and feel intense does more for the production than you might imagine.  He fights with a distinct energy, adhering to choreography, but throwing in an unscripted drive to his combat.  The movie does employ some CGI in the later fight scenes, and while this is a bump in the road, Reeves’ performance manages to make even those sequences enjoyable.

The main dilemma plaguing this film is that it represents an odd marriage between a sacred Japanese legend, and a fantastical adventure.  This strange combination is the movie’s biggest downfall.  When a witch with occult arachnian and lupine powers uses magic to manipulate a samurai lord into attacking another man, he is found out and stripped of his honor.  However, for his years of service, he is granted the chance to reclaim his dignity, by committing “seppuku”, or ritual suicide.  He does, and his disciples become “Ronin”, samurai with no master.  They seek to reclaim their master’s good name by avenging the evil Kira, who was indirectly responsible for his death.

They do, in a drawn out, but effective and entertaining action sequence.  Afterwards is where the movie begins to lose me.  The men are seen as guilty by the shogun, and sentenced to death or ritual suicide.  They obviously pick ritual suicide.  They were technically at fault, as they did in fact disobey orders not to avenge their leader.  But isn’t it just good common sense, that when a spider-witch gets involved, all bets are off?  The otherwise somber but momentous scene, in which 47 warriors run themselves through at once is sullied by one’s internal dialogue; “Couldn’t they just talk about it?”  Clearly there was no witch involved, in the real story.  However, the witch is integral to the film’s fantastical element.  Quite simply, 47 Ronin tries to have its cake, while eating it, and makes a crummy mess of things.

As I write this review, I am currently working on a film — a small 10-minute affair that while I’ve enjoyed, has been the hardest creative venture I’ve ever undertaken.  Realizing a vision as a series of images onto a screen is extremely difficult, and I’ve gained a lot of respect for anyone who can do it with even the slightest degree of cohesion.  Again, I’m not saying 47 Ronin is a must see.  It is very flawed, and by no means am I saying that every bad movie deserves a free pass because someone worked hard on it; But, I advise that you who view cinema, think about the movies you watch as I have thought about this one and open your eyes to what a film — especially a feature production — represents; hours upon hours of rehearsal, practice, and editing.  Even when it doesn’t pan out, the most pungent heap of cinematic garbage still possesses effort worthy of your respect and consideration.

 

MCU Under Review: The Avengers

It was May Fourth, 2012.  I was sitting in my last mod class, watching the clock.  Avengers came out that day, so that’s what I was thinking about.  Suddenly the office secretary called me down to the office.  My dad picked me up early and we drove away from school.  I became suspicious, when we missed the turn to go home, and knew something was definitely up when we pulled into the parking lot by the cinema.  I didn’t say anything as we waited in line at the box office, and walked down the hall to go to our seats.

As the film started, I was still in slight disbelief.  I had not been a comic fan for long, but what I lacked in experience, I made up for with passionate fascination.  I had seen these characters together in graphic novels, animated tv shows, and even trailers, but even then, the idea of an Avengers movie, seemed hopelessly out of reach.  This film delivered in spades, proving that what once was a fanboy fantasy, was now the future of commercial moviemaking.

Joss Whedon’s and Zak Penn’s screenplay is light on plot, delivering a simple villian, doomsday scenario, and means of stopping it.  The film builds, and builds, counting on its excellent cast of actors to ratchet up the tension.  The real gem of this film is being able to see these different personalities bounce off one another, and clash together.  Bruce Banner’s reluctance to be involved vs. Tony Stark’s eagerness to be involved in everything; Steve Rogers’ selflessness vs. Stark’s casual narccisism.  Each member of the team does a perfect job, not just delivering their lines well, but broadcasting personality.  Look at the way Mark Ruffalo fidgets with his hands and the way Tony constantly looks around the SHEILD helicarrrier as if he owns the place.

Plus, there is a certain magic, to seeing a unity of superhumans like this unfold from the very beginning.  Unused to other beings of their caliber, they do what anyone embodied with their abilities might.  They fight, often to hilarious result (Iron Man’s duels with Thor still makes me laugh after five years).  They each are their own powerful beam of energy, and when they are pushed together by a common cause, they become stronger.  (That last sentence sounded like it might be a quote from one of the scientists in the movie).

The miniscule criticism that exists points out that the Avengers sacrifices a lot of character development for a 40 minute plus battle royale around Manhattan; Spectacle is placed over substance.  This may be true, but Joss Whedon makes an art out of spectacle. Just watch this clip, and Marvel in its excellence.

This probably the most stunning shot in the movie, and quite possibly, my favorite shot in a movie ever.  The camera movement is fantastic, as it swoops here and there, following our heroes through the battle.  More importantly however, it communicates the idea that even as they whiz along propelled by jet boots or hitching a ride on a Chitauri speeder, sometimes separated by entire city blocks, The Avengers are still fighting together.

Walking out of the theater, I figured, after that post-credit scene we were getting ready for a secret invasion movie.  It wasn’t until later that I learned that the smiling figure who wanted to court death  was not the super skrull, but the Mad Titan Thanos.  Immediately, my friends and I began theorizing.  Would there be a Civil War film?  Might we get a Black Widow solo movie?  Some of these wishes have been granted, others replaced by bigger and better things.  This movie opened up a world of Infinite possibilities…possibilities that are still coming into fruition today.

Plot- 2/2
Characters/Loyalty- 1/1
Score/soundtrack- 1/1
Cinematography- 1/1
Special Effects- 1/1
Action/tension- 1/1
Tone/Aesthetic- 1/1
Overall Enjoyment Factor-2/2

Final Score: 10/10

District 9

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District 9 is a film from 2009 directed by Neill Blomkamp and starring Sharlto Copeley.  The film has recieved various recognitions, including four academy awards.  Something like this is a bit curious to the cinematic outsider, which I was when the film was released.  Everything I saw indicated that it was another alien invasion flick, which is fine.  But really, that isn’t what  District 9 is a clever, intentional movie about alien/human relations, that bears clear parallel to the way that we treat members of our own species.

The first thirty minutes of the movie could, to the unknowing viewer, easily be mistaken for an actual documentary.  News snippets, interviews, and shakily filmed footage of alien tenements lend it an air of reality, that I’ve never seen a sci-fi flick inhabit before.  Though the interviews cease, and the news footage cease in frequency, cease as the film begins to be shot like an actual movie with things like multiple camera angles, the camera work lends it a certain fidelity that never fades in intensity throughout the story progression.

The use of computer and special effects is minimal, even though the aliens appear to be all CG.  The fictitious elements of the story like the aliens, weapons, and ships don’t clash with the tangible elements because of how real the camera makes the locations feel.  Deep in your mind you know that the alien running around isn’t really there, but it is real enough to immerse you in the story.

Even once the camera emerges from its documentary style cinematography, we still feel sometimes like the camera man is an actual person within the scene.  The action is reminiscent of war footage, albiet with more lasers.  There are even a few gopro shots from a gunbarrel.  Everything feels very genuine and very dangerous.

Also, without spoiling too much for those who have yet to see the movie, Sharlto Copely is an excellent actor.  Wickus van de Merwe starts the film as a clueless government worker, and developes into a very changed character by the film’s end.  It is Copely’s excellent acting prowess that makes this ‘ahem’ transformation so powerful.

This is a film that draws some not-so-subtle connections to South Africa’s history with apartheid.  The way that the aliens are sequestered and abused mirrors the way many black South Africans were treated.  The script does a great job of humanizing the aliens despite their outlandish appearance, making their plight a sympathetic one, showing that, barring difference of appearance, they are not that different from their homo sapien oppressors.

A sci-fi flick that isn’t too foreign, a documentarian vehicle that doesn’t bore, and a story of morals that refrains from becoming too preachy, District 9 is well worth the watch.

Hellboy

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I will say this about Hellboy.  It is unflinchingly bizarre.  Guillermo Del Toro’s style is visible more visible here, than any other director’s style in any other superhero flick.  This is the tale of a young demon, brought into the world by nazi scientists and raised by humans, eternally set apart by his appearance, but always wanting to fit in.  Hellboy does things like grinding down his horns to appear less demonic that make his character more compelling and less relatable.  Also interesting are the fish-like creature Abe Sapien, and the mysterious nazi assassin Kroenen.  The interactions between these characters, and the showcasing of their odd idiosyncracies is probably the films most entertaining factor.

The action however leaves a lot to be desired.  This is not necessarily the fault of the director or production crew, as much as it is that of the era’s limited special effects.  I just saw a movie a few days ago where I saw a kid in a spider suit climb to the top of the Washington monument, leap off over a helicopter, and swing by its undercarriage into a window below.  In a world where seeing that sort of thing in a movie is about as regular as a red light on the way to work, these primitive action scenes can hardly be expected to engage.

With all that said, Hellboy is a worthwhile watch, if only because it hearkens back to an era where superhero flicks were less of a financial risk, and were allowed to breathe a little.  A film like this, in its final form, would almost certainly never get greenlight — at least without heavy changes by the studio — today, and that is a sad thing.  However, it does make Hellboy that much more of a monumental watch, because it is unlikely that we will ever withness a superhero film this outré again.

It Might Get Loud

It Might Get Loud is an excellent documentary by Davis Guggenheim, released in 2009.  It charts the musical history and style of Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White.  The three meet up in a soundstage to share techniques, stories, and songs.  While these are some admittedly awkward moments, the film is an excellent example of what a musical documentary should be.  Incorporation of plenty of musical samples, vintage and current musical footage, and personal interviews make it an incredibly immersive and fascinating experience.  It is as fascinating for guitarists as it is for those who prefer merely to listen because it focuses not just on how the songs are played, but their history.  the most touching example of this is the Edge, expounding upon the crisis in Ireland that inspired Sunday Bloody Sunday.  Whether or not you are a fan of the guitar, this is still something you should check out if you care about music at all.  It Might Get loud is an excellent documentation of rock’s past, its present, and its future.

That is about all that can be said about the film without merely regurgitating the ideas found within.  However, as a fan of all three of these musician’s, I’ll never pass up the opportunity to write about them.  Coming soon, are profiles of Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White; touching upon their music up to the point of this films release, and what they have done creatively since then.

Django Unchained

Django Unchained, starring Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz has been — like most Quentin Tarantino vehicles — extremely well recieved.  However, at this point in my moviewatching experience, I am positively Quentin Tarantinoed out.  It isn’t that I’ve tired of his style, I still think he’s a genius, but it seems that he is perfectly aware that most of the movie community sees him as a genius.

I fully expect a Tarantino movie to contain ample blood spattering and various over the top elements of cinema.  My qualm with Django Unchained is that it pushes the envelope of each of these elements.  The signature extended dialogue scene lasts for what must be about half an hour this time around, and is one of the most lethargically unneccesary scenes in the film.

I’m sure many people reading this are probably fans of Django Unchained, which is perfectly understandable.  It is certainly a well crafted film, with little to critique in the area of technical prowess; it is however, the philosophy behind this movie that I cannot quite stomach.  Tarantino has long been known for his excessive violence.  In his own words:

“Violence is one of the most fun things to watch.
This is where the problems (for me) really begin.  Like I mentioned before, Tarantino glorifies all things violent; I get it, its his thing.  What made me uncomfortable was the way he depicted slavery, particularly violence towards slaves.  He treats the violent mistreatment of coerced laborers the same way he treats a gunshot — leering unflinchingly at the despicable act.  I’m not of the camp that beleives Tarantino is a racist, but the neccesary divide between violent depiction and outright worship of torture is unpresent here.
This excerpt from one of my favorite critics Bob Hoose pretty much says it all
” …watching Django Unchained for this review, I was not much informed, edified or challenged in my thinking on the subject of slavery. I was beaten, battered and bludgeoned”
Quentin Tarantino remains a skilled filmmaker in my mind, and I have great respect for him.  However, his pretentiousness, and lack of sensitivity to delicate historical subject matter took away from what had the potential to be a great movie.

The Cinematic Brilliance of Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth

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Justin Kurzel’s name as of late, has become famous for all the wrong reasons.   Director of the egregious failure Assassins Creed, his most recent production and most promising so far.  Kurzel’s gathering of Marion Cotillard and Michael Fassbender got me excited, I knew they could do great work together.  Sadly, a generous critic would deem five minutes at the most of this movie to be watchable, and every second of those is derivative because it is essentially based on the fighting concepts of Assassin’s Creed games.

So, this is not a conventional review.  You don’t necessarily have to watch this film.  Even I’ll admit that it contains some pretty hard to get through moments.  This is essentially, my contribution to the clearance of an excellent director’s name, and a recognition of one of the most profound works of art ever committed to film.

This movie sort of defies what Shakespeare plays have become.  Most adaptations, like their original performances contain a lot of overblown acting, and emphasis upon the words of the play.  This makes perfect sense, after all, a Shakespeare manuscript is only words, with a few minor stage directions here and there, and they were written to be performed in an overblown fashion since — in the days before PA systems and megascreens — the back of the audience still needed to see what was going on somehow.  Kurzel’s actors consummately overturn this trend by dissecting their lines, decreasing their poetry, but increasing their authenticity tenfold.  Macbeth says “come wind, come wrack”, but Fassbender says “Come wind, come…wrack” as if he is pausing to think about just what else he is inviting.

Shakespeare shouldn’t always be realistic, and some of his work is (unavoidably) downright fantastical; but for Macbeth, a play that is exceedingly tense, brutal, and emotional, Kurzel’s added verisimilitude is a perfect match.  The famous banquet scene, as compared to the version directed by Roman Polanski is a perfect example.

Polanski is a great director, but I think Kurzel’s approach is just a tad superior.  Do you notice how one version of “the Scottish play” is exceedingly un-scottish?  In Kurzel’s Macbeth, the Tyrant King wears no shining golden diadem, but a faded circlet instead.  Banquo’s appearance is more subtle as well, casually staring into Macbeth’s soul without everything halting, allowing Macbeth’s madness to be seen from the outside.

This iteration’s defining moment — the scene I’ve been ecstatically anticipating writing about — is doubtlessly the final confrontation between Macbeth and Macduff.  Unlike the films first hour or so, which will probably only capture the interest of devout Shakesperian aficionados, the story’s climax is visually subduing regardless of one’s enjoyment for iambic pentameter.

Macduff and company rally against the tyrant Macbeth, bringing trees from Birnham Wood to Dunsinanane hill, fulfilling part of the witches’ damning prophecy.  As the trees catch fire, the smoke, the fading light, and the orange glow of the flames mix, creating an apocalyptic backdrop for a clash of titans.  The two exchange biting words, and clash blades.  As the weapons connect, they produce a low thunking sound.  Far from the tinny steel clashing one expects.  They fight simply, but with such emotion, that the battle become fascinatingly engaging.

When Maccbeth realizes that Macduff can in fact, end his life, a stark realization creeps onto his face.  Fassbender again proves the elasticity of his emotional range.  His visage shifts from the anger of battle, to confusion, to defeat.  Macbeth fights no longer.  He moves towards Macduff, once one of his closest friends, and embraces him, even as Macduff, wounds him, mortally.

Overcome, Macbeth collapses to the ground.  Coming to grips again with his own mortality.  Macduff and his cohorts respectfully leave him there.  Several of my classmates, when I studioed this book in high school english lamented Kurzel’ omission of a severed head, which is included in practically every other Macbeth Media.  What I pick up from this is that Macduff has a lot of respect for a man who was like a brother to him.

With no lines, Fassbender kneels on the battlefield as the camera switches to a wide shot, showing us the futility of his existence.  The shot is beautiful.  The enormous frame contains only Macbeth, and a sword. The sword driven into the ground symbolizes his refusal to continue fighting.  The barely visible mountains make the perfect foreground, and the aforementioned orange color pallette is positively wondrous.  Fassbender’s Macbeth is left to reflect upon his actions, where it all went wrong.

When Assassin’s Creed was released, I heard it called, “A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, symbolizing nothing.”  I chuckled; Shakespeare jokes are always the best jokes, and what’s more, this diagnosis was undoubtedly true.  By that standard, Kurzel’s Macbeth is “a tale shown by a master, full of rage, and humanity, signifying everything a Shakespeare movie aught.”